I land in New York at 6 am on a Sunday morning, and stand in the freezing cold waiting for the A train. I get off at 14th in Manhattan, as per my instructions, and wheel my little bag over the uneven streets to 17th and 7th and there it is, my destination: Cafeteria, otherwise known as an all-night diner whose owner seems to be oblivious to the fact that the main use of her linen napkins is customers polishing their shoes. The doorman lets me in and I tell him: “I’m here for Rijel.” He looks confused.
Rijel was named after a star called Rigel, but her parents changed the spelling because they thought j looked more feminine. A six-foot-tall redhead who in her alternate life sings Wagner comes sweeping in, bearing a plate of food, and she tells me, “Nobody knows me by that name here. I’m Linda.” She pours me a cup of coffee and sets me at the bar for the few remaining minutes of her shift, and then she takes me to breakfast and we talk enthusiastically through the haze of our respectively sleepless nights. I never sleep on planes, which is unfortunate. Then we go back to her apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, the poor-hipster capital of New York, and we both take long naps.
I did not like New York much the last time I came, but Rijel-Linda says it’s because I stayed on the Upper East Side. Before, the city stressed me out, but my friend makes New York seem friendly. Strangers say hello to her on the street. A grown man gets on the Subway with a tiny pink bike, and Rijel-Linda laughs and asks if she can take his photo. He says yes, and that the bike is for his daughter’s fourth birthday. Rij snaps the photo and says it’s for her friend who has cancer, that she’s sending him photos of strangers. The strangers offer encouraging words to him: to fight, that they send him good wishes. We pass over the Manhattan bridge and Rij stares and stares. “I never get tired of this,” she says of the skyline “it’s so beautiful.”
We go to dinner with one of our mutual friends from our mutual days in college: Asher, who goes by Nathan in New York. Asher-Nathan tells me over Thai food that he’s convinced his parents to move from Brooklyn to Indonesia for their retirement, and that they all lived together as he taught English there for awhile. With him is Lily, another person from our college days, although I don’t really know her. Lily has been teaching Montessori school in Beijing for years now, and so we have a giddy night of it, laughing over the things we did in college together, comparing notes from our travels. We end up at Rij’s favorite place in New York, Mezzrow, a jazz club where the music, Rij says, is always good.
The next day, Rij and I go to the Met, since Rij says it’s a bargain if you don’t pay their suggested donation and instead just fork over a couple of bucks. “It’s a Rockefeller endowment,” says Rij. We’re going to see the Victorian Mourning clothes, which Rij hasn’t seen yet. Tyler, her roommate, comes with us. Tyler is five feet tall and from Alabama, diminutive and cute in every way. Tyler leaves early to buy a new white shirt, since a customer at Cafeteria doused his work uniform with red wine the night before, and Rij and I go find the Dutch masters because they’re my favorite. We have similar ideas about the way to visit an art museum, which is to march purposefully through everything until we see something we like. We pause in front of a Rubens, classically portraying a voluptuous white-skinned female in the nude. “And there I am,” says Rij, gesturing to the painting. Indeed, I think, Rubenesque is the perfect word for her. A Rubenesque opera singer with a half-shaved head of red hair.
We walk through Central Park and I get a migraine from trying to take photographs of the sunlight coming through the trees. I have to rush back to Bushwick to pack for my flight, however, so we get on the train through the block splotches crowding my vision. I put my head on Rij’s shoulder and she pats it soothingly. “She has a migraine,” she tells the lady sitting next to us. The lady whips out a vial of peppermint oil and tells me to massage it into my temples and between my eyes. The oil feels cold against my skin and I wonder if it’s going to trick my brain into thinking its vessels should constrict. Just to make sure, I stick my head in the freezer when I get back to Bushwick and apply a bottle of frozen water to the base of my skull. Something works, because my migraine subsides just in time for me to catch the L and then the A to JFK. Goodbye, USA, at least for now. Total spent in New York: $50, much of it for subway fare.