It was my first time in New York. My first time in America, come to think of it – and the only time I have flown west over the Atlantic.
We arrived at JFK, having narrowly avoided missing the flight at Heathrow, tired and bewildered from watching too many films and fitful napping. We passed through customs, answered the aggressive questions and had our fingerprints pressed onto a smeared gel screen. We manouvered our luggage outside, into mid-afternoon sunlight at bedtime.
My friend’s apartment in Manhatten, where we were staying, was a half hour cab ride away and we were deposited on the pavement on the corner of 86th and Park. I remember thinking the city looked so small, the skyline a familiar, filmic backdrop. We paid our fifty dollars to the cab driver and grumbled about the anti-freeze in his boot which had leaked all over our luggage. Two weary English arrivals; he wished us a pleasant holiday and drove away. That night is a blur of exhausted drinking and eating huge slices of pizza standing up in a narrow cafe at 2 a.m., home-time, which was really only 9 p.m. in New York, but I hadn’t adjusted yet. I fell asleep in my friend’s apartment with the windows open, watching the lights of cars passing in the street below spiralling across the ceiling.
The week went by in a blur of brunches and lunches and cocktails and dinners. Peel’s, on Bowery, martinis and macaroni at Schillers, the finest Thai in Queen’s under the tracks, Swedish meatballs in Williamsberg, seaweed salad at Vanessa’s Dumplings, morning eggs at Le Pain Quotidien. We walked everywhere - Nolita, Tribeca, Brooklyn, Long Island City, the West Village, the Meatpacking District, the Financial District, Soho, Central Park, until our feet ached and my ballet pumps fell apart. We met friends in cafes and bars and coffee shops, went to a gig in a miniscule Irish bar, went shopping, sat on benches under the blossom in Williamsberg, sunbathed in Central Park, took the ferry to Staten Island. It was hot and intense and relentless. The pavements were warm under our feet, the streets smelled of garbage and melting asphalt. There were squares of giant lilac tulips along the sidewalk. Everything was faintly familiar, from the films, so that many streets I felt I had walked before, was already acquainted with, and then I would be lost again, a stranger in a foreign country squinting at a map.
We rented a car and drove out of the city. Surprisingly quickly, New York fell away behind us and we were on the Long Island Expressway heading east to the Hamptons. In Southampton we stopped for hotdogs and malt milkshakes (when in Rome, I said). I bought another pair of shoes at Collette’s, my friend bought shorts in varying shades of pastel colours. Then we went to the beach, which was empty, a white strip of unending dunes and clapboarded beach houses, and lay on the warm sand until early evening.
We drove until we couldn’t drive anymore and checked into a wooden motel on the beach in Montauk. Later, we drove down to the harbour. Everywhere was deserted, the restaurants still closed up before the start of the season. We found a rickety bar still serving food, a place called The Dock. There were groups of people sitting on the backs of their jeeps outside in tank tops and string vests, smoking and drinking bottles of beer, car stereo turned up loud – it was Blink 182 and Greenday. I drank dirty martinis and we ate salad and goats cheese and linguine with clams dripping in garlic butter.
On the drive back to the motel, I felt sad. The streets reminded me of paintings by Edward Hopper, so desolate and melancholy and empty. I was already hungover from the vodka and wanted to go home. We climbed into our twin Queen-sized beds and watched an episode of some new sitcom and I fell asleep listening to the waves crashing on the shore and thinking about the lighthouse on the cliff casting its lonely beam over the dark water.
Two days later in New York, I walked up Fifth Avenue to meet an expat friend and was caught in the middle of a bomb scare in Madison Square Garden. It was surreal being back in the city. Our quiet beach-days had left my skin burned and my head cloudy. I watched policemen to-ing and fro-ing with yellow tape, yelling into walkie-talkies, handguns at their hips, and suddenly felt tired. I took the elevator twenty floors to a rooftop bar and had a cocktail. The Empire State Building loomed overhead with its crass light display, the Chrysler glittering and elegant, the scaffold skeleton of the Freedom Tower. I had to pinch myself to feel anything at all, it was as though I had absorbed too much of New York already. I had inhaled her, tasted enough, and was now numb to her magic.
Our last night, we had Bloody Mary’s on the Upper East Side and took the subway out to the Bronx to bemusedly watch the Yankee game. Later we queued for dinner at Cafe Gitanes in Soho. I listened to my friends talking about art world politics and drank bottled Red Stripe beer.
It was late when we hailed a cab. Strangely, it was hailing. For the first time in weeks, I slept through the night. The next day we dozed in Sheep Meadow, Central Park and drank pink lemonade. And then, overnight, we took the red-eye flight, east, towards home, London rain.