Home is a Trip You Can’t Ever Take Again
"These Golden Cities" by K. David Wade, recommended by Electric Literature
Introduction by Halimah Marcus
Writing a narrator on acid is a risky proposition. Not because they might experience a bad trip or even bodily harm, but because psychedelic trips are a bit like dreams. With few exceptions, you’re only interested in your own. “Dream logic” is associative, nothing is real and so the stakes are removed. But waking dreams are another story. What is more electrifying and vulnerable than someone’s private hopes and ambitions, laid bare?
K. David Wade’s “These Golden Cities” is the kind of small town odyssey Bruce Springsteen might sing about (except that Bruce Springsteen mostly sings about white people)—the prodigal son, the friends he left behind, the ruins of industry. Michael is home from NYU for spring break, and spends a night tripping acid with his best friend Dom. He’s an artist, discovering new avenues of possibility in New York. His hometown of Washington, PA has never felt further away, viewed as if from the top of the Empire State Building, his old friendships and romances receding along with it. “The mixture of nostalgia and alienation made me feel—unrequited?” Wade writes, and anyone who’s left home and found themselves searching for it knows exactly what he means.
Michael is determined to meet up with his ex-girlfriend Grace, and the project takes on a kind of do-or-die urgency: “Tonight, I decided, she’d either forgive or condemn me for good.” If dream logic lowers the stakes, tripping on acid has a way of raising them. Michael is a college freshman on psychedelic drugs, but he’s also a hero about to embark on a journey into adulthood, from which he may never return.
The locales of “These Golden Cities” are familiar: a convenience store, a house party, a late night McDonald’s run. But lined up end to end they are also symphonic, the way an ordinary night can open wide, when you’re young and hungry and poised to leave it all behind.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor of Recommended Reading
Home is a Trip You Can’t Ever Take Again
K. David Wade
“These Golden Cities” by K. David Wade
On the last night of my first spring break home from NYU, I dropped acid with my best friend, Dom. The week had largely been a bust: Grace wouldn’t get back with me; my mother was a ghost; and none of my niggas had changed. Still, the familiarity of walks to the gas station and old ladies calling my name and trees growing everywhere freely brought some comfort, some recollection of a home I’d once had, or would like to have had. The mixture of nostalgia and alienation made me feel—unrequited? And that feeling had been driving me crazy. I wanted to fuck all my exes and shake friends by the collar and get back on the bus a day early. Instead, I settled for LSD and a plan to watch the sun rise over the city, taking in the panorama—from projects to uptown—that pops up when you google Washington, Pennsylvania.
I’d done acid a couple times with the melting pot I fell into at college—a Russian, two Dominicans, a Pakistani, some Koreans—even a girl from Nigeria with an intense Boston accent. (Pretty different from Washington, where you were either Black, white, mixed, or ran a restaurant.) Dom had dropped acid before, too. He got super into psychedelics before abandoning his basketball scholarship at Slippery Rock and returning home. No one knew why he dropped out, but when he decided he was finished, that was it.
We headed to Dom’s house around sunset, after a long day of bullshitting, to pick up the tabs we paid his older brother Charles to get us from one of his white friends. I had white friends, too, but since college I stuck to the Black bodies in black hoodies I grew up with when I came home—I didn’t see enough of them on campus and when I did, they were usually serving me food. I tried Gentleman of Quality for a minute, NYU’s excuse for a Black frat, but those were the kind of dudes who taught themselves how to tie ties and discussed inclusivity. At college, I found myself quite lonesome.
Dom still lived on Houston Street, a potholed gray lick between the Advanced Auto parking lot and Catfish Creek, right where I’d left it. His mom was already at work, night shift at the mental hospital, and Eric—Dom’s younger brother and my other best friend—was out watching his kid because his baby mom had work. The house, which was eerily empty and dark, seemed to drink the dusk as we crept inside; even the family dogs, Rambo and Gunshot, did not rise to greet us.
“You hungry?” Dom asked, leading me through the narrow hallway and into the kitchen. Tile tore like Velcro beneath his feet.
“I’m good,” I said.
He poured a bowl of cereal, but only a small puddle remained at the base of the milk jug. Dom cursed, adding a bit of water from the faucet.
“Eric and Charles move back in, and don’t pay a goddamn cent in rent,” he said, mouth full of Reese’s Puffs. “But ole Dom been home ten minutes and there ain’t milk unless I buy it.” He shook his head. “Fucking fucks.”
He’d had his own apartment for a while, thanks to earning a decent wage down at the hardware store. Then the building that housed the shop got condemned and poof! Dom was back in his old room with Charles, who would never leave, while Eric slept across the hall in what could rightly be called a closet.
“Don’t bring that into the trip,” I said.
“I know,” Dom said. Then, “Don’t you start with me, too.”
We made our way upstairs, to Dom’s bedroom. Charles sat on a mattress on the floor, rolling a blunt and listening to Jadakiss’s “By Your Side.” It was my first time seeing Charles since being back. He looked skinny. He had gone to college, too, when I was still in elementary school. Dropped out halfway through and knew about all kinds of drugs.
“Here you go,” Charles said.
He handed us each a tiny square of white paper, thick as those perforated strips that seal mailed checks. We sat down on Dom’s bed and placed the tabs on our tongues straight away. They were flavorless. Mine dissolved into wet, soft bits I eventually swallowed.
We smoked with Charles to help the trip settle—it was like waiting for a game to load, pale ellipses flashing across a blank screen then disappearing, flashing again. Char could be stingy when the mood took him, or deeply generous. When I left Washington for New York the year before, he handed me a whole ounce of kill and said, “Good luck.”
The room had white stucco walls so rough they could make you bleed, dingy beige carpet, and plastic bins full of clothes in place of a dresser. Some posters had been replaced, but Nas and Spiderman remained on either side of Aaliyah (Dom still joked about jerking off to her). A tall shelf housed all types of oddities: an ashtray shaped like a naked woman; a magic eight-ball that told dirty jokes; stacks of fantasy novels, including my copy of Goblet of Fire that I never got back and now had a torn corner; a few knives; a deck of playing cards; and an old Ironman action figure that had also once belonged to me, before I traded it to Dom for his Captain America.
These were the kinds of kids we used to be. As we grew older, however, we kept all that soft shit to ourselves.
Charles, Dom and I watched Year One on Dom’s tiny TV. In the movie, God chooses Jack Black, who plays a fur-clad caveman, to bear witness to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah—which to me made total sense. Artist as prophet, you know? Time stretched thin across film. Jazz, baby, but for keeps.
I was tripping.
Instinctively, I turned to Dom. He grinned.
“Yep,” he said.
The first time I dropped acid, our whole gang of degenerates entered this hive, a sort of corporate mentality marked by synaptic suggestibility that made each of us agreeable to the simplest ideas. You want to smoke a cigarette? Sure! Want to listen to music? You bet! The second time, by myself, I tried my hand at a graphic rendition of Prometheus Bound which, upon discovering the next afternoon, I deleted, emptying my trash to obliterate any evidence it had existed. As the trip set in this time, however, I felt coolly subdued, like the universe owed me a favor and might finally pay. My phone read 9:52pm, which meant I’d just be coming down in time to catch the sunrise sober, or mostly so. Perfect.
“Let’s go get something to drink,” I said.
I waved goodbye to Jack Black, laughing at myself on my way out the door.
One night first semester, after a long call with Grace, I climbed the Empire State Building with my new friend, Gupta. He was a film student I’d met at this warehouse party and he needed a body for his black-and-white. He wanted me to walk through some alleys he’d passed where smoke billowed up through the sewage grates. Said he had this image of me in a black jacket, obscured by a plume, stuck in his head since the moment he read the assignment.
“Sewer smoke?” I said. “That’s some 9/11 shit.”
“Nah, bruv.” He fancied himself the next James Dean, but Bengali. “It’s ventilation shit. For the metro.”
We were somewhere near 29th and 5th, the Times Square neons just out of sight. I must admit I felt cool. I had arrived in this city on an art scholarship for my paintings, had dabbled in writing, but being on the front side of a camera was one of those quiet dreams I carried around like all vain creatures. Whatever. Gupta got good shots. And the smoke wasn’t the kind that made you cough, so no cancer. When I came out on the other side of the cloud, I saw the Empire State Building, one big fuck you to whoever knocked down Babel. I didn’t know it changed colors every now and then. Tonight, it burned opium blue.
“Want to go up?” Gupta asked.
“They let you do that?”
“Till the bars close.”
The lobby occupied its own plane: an empty, golden heaven. Blocky murals lined the corridor and ceiling, all gleaming, burnished by unseen hands. One in particular, a radiant image of the Empire State building itself, reminded me of this film Metropolis—both for the art deco influence and the pure decadence of having an image of yourself inside yourself. I stared at the mural a long time, the saint’s circle of sunrays crowning the tower all pointing up, up.
Eventually, we floated to the 86th floor and made our way out to the open-air observatory, where we were barred from suicide by thin steel crossbeams, yet remained unprotected from the savaging wind. The city looked like the inside of an infinite computer at this angle, an unending circuit board, each light connected to the next in some distinct but unseen way. This was before Grace found out I had cheated, but I knew then what our end would be. The distance in her voice during our call that evening told us both that she knew, too. I took a picture of the skyline and sent it to her.
“It’s mad,” Gupta said. The wind bullied his thick mop into a quaff. “You never really know a city till you see it like this.”
I spent the next several weeks trying to recreate the image with colors, only to discard a stipend’s worth of knockoff Basquiats at the end of term.
Back home, night settled thick, a pale gray sky full of shadows. As Dom and I made our way to the Unimart, an erratic bat stumbled drunk overhead. A homeless man watched us from an upturned bucket of paint; he coddled a silver-furred rabbit whose sleek coat made its handler appear the perfect gentleman, if a mangy one. I stared hard. They refused to disappear.
I texted Grace. It was important that I watched the sunrise with her for some reason. Tonight, I decided, she’d either forgive or condemn me for good. All I hoped was that she’d look me in the eyes while she did it. I needed to see for myself what she meant.
“Anyway,” Dom said, as we entered the store. I hadn’t realized he’d been talking. “My teeth are glowing.”
The linoleum did not ripple, and the lights did not swallow us whole. In fact, the store seemed extremely orderly, as if all the shelves had been recently stocked, all the coolers replenished. I did have a warm, cozy feeling in my chest, but my mental faculties were crisp.
“You figure out if y’all are coming?” I asked, settling on a pint of peach tea.
“Yeah,” Dom said. “Can’t.”
My first big art show was in April and I had invited Dom and Eric to New York on a whim. I knew money would be tight, what with Eric’s newborn and Dom saving up for a new place, but I figured one weekend would be good for all of us. We had slowly started to drift since I left for school, started to settle differently, like dust on opposite ends of the same windowsill. I figured them seeing some of the world that I saw might reconnect us.
Dom grabbed a small bottle of chocolate milk. On the label, a cow chewed her cud before daybreak—like, literally chewed. Beyond her, the sun hung low in unerring, eternal dawn.
“Sorry,” Dom said, finally. “Next time.”
Walking back to Dom’s house, I got a text about a party. But before I could ask if he wanted to go, a dark green Chrysler caught us in its headlights. I didn’t recognize the vehicle. They inched forward, flashing their high beams, and my chest went hot with the fear that precedes a fight. If you’re regular high and some shit goes down, you snap back to reality quick, willing and able. I didn’t know the protocol for hallucinogens. Could I even make a fist?
The car cut a sharp turn and pulled up beside us. My body froze, then erupted with praise.
“Bug?” I said, laughing.
Bug leaned out the window, a bleach white grin cut through the tar of his round face. On his head: a feathery auburn wig that you might find on a Supercuts’ manikin.
“Why you wearing a wig?” I asked.
“Warrants,” he said. “Want to ride?”
Bug and I went way back, to when we all used to rap in his cousin’s bedroom and record diss tracks on pirated versions of Cool Edit Pro we got off LimeWire. He’d been in and out of placement all growing up. From what I could tell, he was just trying to live his best life until he got that first big boy sentence to land him upstate for too long to count. Yet for a kid who sold heroin while everyone else was still stuck on crack, he was incredibly lighthearted. The kind of crook who would compliment your shoes before he took them.
We went on a smoke ride through the swollen hills and woody backroads that connect all those small towns outside Pittsburgh. Dom and I sat in the back, this white girl named Lily up front. Her and Bug went off and on since grade school, and she ran in the same circles as Grace. Her hair smelled like hairspray. Someone had scratched the word gypsy across the back of her neck in black ink.
“You still be rapping?” Bug asked, passing the blunt over his shoulder to Dom.
“Sometimes,” I said.
“That’s what’s up. I bet them New York niggas think you sound country.”
“Nah, but like, when you say yes ma’am to a lady at the grocery store, she’ll ask if you served in the Army.”
“Nuh-uh,” Bug said, eyebrows arching.
“Yeah. And instead of saying, that’s what’s up, they say, word.”
“What they call thirsty?” Bug asked.
“Thirsty? They just say thirsty,” I said.
Bug snorted, nodded his head all solemn.
We got quiet for a while, the syncopated rhyme scheme of “Juicy” carrying us till it didn’t. Out the window, the trees would cut away all of a sudden for a rolling farm or some ancient, antebellum house, then reappear for miles and miles.
“You seen Grace?” I asked.
Lily’s eyes avoided me in the passenger side mirror.
“I don’t even know,” she said. Then she clutched the grab handle above her door and shouted: “Don’t!”
The car lurched to a sudden halt near the top of a hill and Bug jumped out, some sort of thick black pipe in his hand. He cut a brief, hulking figure in the headlights, a gorilla in drag, then disappeared down the hill. A second later came one big boom, then another.
“Every fucking time,” Dom said.
Bug reemerged, wig askew. The pipe that he held was a sawn-off shotgun. He looked disappointed.
“Deer,” he said. He climbed back into the car, which groaned beneath his weight. “I been trying to get one.”
Bug dropped us off at the party. Eric would be here soon. Grace had yet to respond.
The house sat half an acre back from the road, a Wolfsdale mansion my friend Matty’s dad had built with his bare hands over the course of a decade. Cars lined the driveway, which stretched like a dog’s black tongue from road to garage. “Black and Yellow” emptied the speakers and filled the sky, but no neighbors lived near enough to complain. A golden glow emanated from the garage windows, which somehow transported me to the Empire State Building. Radiance was the word. Aurora, Zora, Dawn.
I leave tomorrow, I texted Grace right then. I fucking leave.
I had been accepted to study abroad at NYU’s Florence campus and for some reason the trip felt final. I had no plans to ever come back—at least, not to Washington. I didn’t know if I would ever see Grace again.
Inside, we found a bunch of white kids playing beer pong and talking loudly in tight circles. A few worn couches sat against the wall, liquor bottles lined the workbench, and the stench of old oil stung the air. I began to sweat.
These were all the kids to whom I once sold weed, from schools with only a handful of Black bodies among them. Sometimes we got their girls—the quiet nasty ones—but more often than not we were accoutrements, accidents. A friend of a friend. I wouldn’t say they were racist—at least, most weren’t. They just didn’t know how to explain us.
Matty shimmied his way through the tightly packed bodies and hugged me. He smelled like Pac Sun.
“You want a drink?” he said. “Come drink.”
I followed Matty into the kitchen. He pulled me a Yuengling from the fridge, knocked the top off on the edge of the butcherblock island. The windmill blades of the ceiling fan made me dizzy. It was midnight.
“I saw that little movie you made with the Indian dude,” Matty said. “That shit was dope.”
After the silent film, me, Gupta, and the Nigerian girl from Boston, Ifedi, teamed up for a forty-eight-hour short film competition in which you had two days to create art from a handful of nouns drawn out of a mason jar. We got tiger, shoestring, and baseball bat. I designed, Gupta directed, and Ifedi, who changed her voice like magic when the lights went on, was our leading lady. The whole affair had some real Wes Anderson vibes. We won second place.
“A paper tiger,” Matty said, smiling. “Who the fuck would keep that on a leash?”
After a while Matty disappeared, off to another conversation no one would remember. I wandered around the house in search of a bathroom.
“Oh, shit,” I said, upon opening a door down the end of the hall. This girl Megan, whom I once loved but had never fucked, was bent over the sink snorting a line.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. “I thought you were, like, in Hollywood.”
“New York,” I said.
“Oh.” She stared at me for a moment, as if deciding. She shrugged. “Close the door.”
Getting your dick sucked on acid is unreal. I came colors. Afterwards, however, a different kind of energy took over. A sad, squishy one that made me miss Grace. I wanted nothing more than to get out of the room, out of the house, into fresh air. I’d had a bad moment during one of my trips at school, where I thought too hard about Ma’s boyfriend and he transformed into King Kong and started eating everybody I loved—joints cracking between his teeth, marrow dribbling down his chin—until Ifedi, who was babysitting us, took my cheeks in her hands and said, “Just imagine a big stuffed monkey. Nobody should be scared of a beanie baby.” But Ifedi was not here with her soft palms and precious gap and I was starting to panic.
I left Megan to clean herself up and stumbled outside through the wobbling back door, so I didn’t have to see anybody. A porchlight came on and gave life to a family of moths. I pitched the rest of my beer, which I should never have drank, over the wooden bannister. The trees were dancing, attempting to seduce me, but I knew if I obeyed them, I would surely die. The sky began to arc and streak like a star-trail photo.
I took one deep breath, then another. I would never get Grace back. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to. There was something unexplainable inside of me, something tremendous, yet I knew it wasn’t far from Bug chasing that deer. I looked down at my hands, found them empty.
My eyes fluttered open at the soft slap of headlights. Dom’s truck pulled into the driveway, where I leaned against someone’s car with half a burned-out cigarette in my mouth. Eric stepped out, smile white as bones in the darkness, and said, “Bro.”
In New York, I read Kafka and discussed communism with bisexuals who wore gloves with cutout fingers. I drank espresso for the first time, smoked hookah, and tried sushi. I also called Grace some nights when I got drunk.
Usually, she wouldn’t answer. I’d leave voicemails, sometimes two or three. When I checked my phone in the morning, I’d text her, apologizing profusely, then take a hit from the Gatorade bong I kept bedside to calm my nerves. She understood: I was lonely, in an unfamiliar place, and needed some semblance of home. She knew this intuitively, even before I did. Said she forgave me. The first time I tripped acid, however, things changed.
We had all dropped tabs and sloshed around Gupta’s dorm like a roiling sea of youth, eating pizza in closets, blaring Arcade Fire, and hiding ourselves from ourselves. As the night dwindled, I wandered, wound up on the Red Steps beneath the neons, a few rows down from a bum belting showtunes and a few rows up from two dudes making out. Friends texted but I ignored them, too absorbed in the flashes and peals all around me, the promise of connection to everyone at once. I thought, in my stupor, that I could tap into all that energy, become one with it and thereby extend myself to Grace in such a way as to make her feel warm, like in the beginning.
I sat there a long time before I called her, the billboard directly above me a giant Coke can spinning slowly, slowly. That night, she answered.
“Grace,” I had said. “I figured it out.”
“What?” she responded, voice thick with sleep.
“All this! These golden cities! They mean nothing!”
“Michael,” she said.
I imagine she propped herself up on an elbow, rubbing rheum from her eyes. I imagined the molecules of her, perfect circles expanding and contrasting with each heartbeat, sparse then dense, dense then sparse.
“Michael. This needs to stop.”
Dom, Eric and I left the party a little after two. My trip was in full swing. One moment, I’d be totally chill, and the next, my thoughts unspooled themselves like a silk origami girih. (What does a city with no sun actually look like? Was the invention of gears an inevitable transmutation of the immaterial human mind expressed in physical metaphor? Who the fuck framed Roger Rabbit?) Eric was cool, though. He kept the trunk rattling and laughed at me and Dom’s alternating nonsense.
“White boy shit,” he said. “I told y’all: weed and liquor. Cocaine, if the bitch is lucky.”
We pulled into the McDonald’s drive thru on Jefferson, the only 24/7 game in town. Semis barreled down the overhead bridge across the way, whose pillars gleamed graffiti in the streetlights. We’d had our phase of that, too, but not like the skateboarders. Mostly we just tagged the empty lot we used to drink in behind the power plant.
“Welcome to McDonald’s,” a girl’s voice said over the static. “What can I get you?”
“A double Mc-Dick with two big Black balls,” Eric said, pronouncing that last word more like crying.
“The fuck?” the voice said. Then: “Eric?”
“Who else,” he said, laughing.
Giddily, we ordered more food than we could eat. Eric ensured the girl threw in a bagful of extra fries. He spent so long macking at the window that the car behind us beeped. We all flipped them the bird and cursed out the window, but we rarely got too rowdy when we were at fault.
“I’m a slide through when you get off,” Eric said.
The girl smiled, caramel cheeks tinting rose.
“Okay,” she said. “Now get out my line before these people make me cuss them out.”
We were just going to sit in the parking lot and destroy our food, but something about us three being all together and the silver moon and the sudden wild west wind so out of place in the spring made me billow, made a sail of me, and I just knew what we needed to do.
“Let’s go to the power plant,” I said.
“Yeah,” Dom said. “Let’s do that.”
The power plant was sacred. Home to laughs, fights, fucks, and everything in between: we grew up there. Or rather, we did grown-up things there as boys that shaped the kinds of men we’d become. Four green electrical towers overshadowed the trees behind Dom and Eric’s old house, connected by sagging wires and spaceship antennae. Left of the towers stood a few small generators and turbines, growing from the gravel like stout metal potatoes. To the right, a perfectly cubical redbrick building with boarded windows and one door that I’d never seen anyone enter or exit. To us, it was holier than Kaaba.
We staggered through the narrow footpath between the trees and the barbed-wire fence to the small fallow lot behind the building, mud squishing beneath our boots and jaggers sticking to the hems of our pants. You could see Dom and Eric’s old house over your shoulder, until you rounded the bend. Then it was just the old sitting stones, left there like Stonehenge, and a low-hanging moon above the towers.
I bought two spicy McChickens but ate only the fries, each granule of salt sliding itself across my tongue, down my throat. Eric sat smoking a cigarette, a Steel Reserve in his hand. Dom, having devoured his meal, lay flat on his back on the largest rock, staring up at the sky.
They looked alike, the Barnes brothers, with their father’s receding hairline and their mother’s strong chin. Only Eric was meatier and closer to my height, while Dom was tall and skinny. It was something to watch Dom play basketball, back in the day. Read the court like a book. Sure, Slippery Rock was Division II, but he had made it out this place despite un-great grades and a severe case of dysgraphia. Nobody understood why he left college after one year, especially when Charles had told him, in a rare moment of older brothering, that dropping out was his only regret. No one except me.
The summer before junior year. Ma and her latest man were at their worst and so were me and Eric, robbing whoever we found behind the Unimart and selling a pound or two of weed each week. Dom had returned from college different, eyes that carried a brightness through boyhood calcified at last. He often disappeared in the midst of a party, took solo trips to West Virginia or Pittsburgh chasing girls we’d never met. When he was around, he looked sad—in a day-drinker sort of way. I knew he’d broke up with his girlfriend, some white girl he met up there, but nigga smile.
Dom had always been less prone to violence than Eric, who popped off at the sound of a breath, but in the fights we got into that summer he went haywire, scraping dudes’ faces off concrete and ripping out teeth. One time, outside this house party gone wrong, he tried to run somebody over with his truck.
It was that night, long after everyone else went to bed or found lovers, that he told me. Why he had been breaking everything that could break without remorse: His girl got an abortion, and he had imagined being able to raise the child by himself.
I looked at Dom now, stretched out like a lemur in the shadow of the power plant, a silly little smile on his face, then up at the moon, which was always full, and got the sudden urge to howl. I climbed atop a rock and faced the sky, unleashing my most doleful cry. Silence followed, after the echo, so I tried it again. Dom joined me. Sat up as if out of a coffin and just yowled, yowled, yowled. I thought Eric would tell us both to shut the fuck up, that the cops might come, but he stood, too. His cry was the saddest of all.
When we were done, I was damn near stone sober. Out of breath. Throat raw. Dom pulled out the little journal that he kept to practice his writing and started scratching his awkward sigils. Eric sat next to me, clearly exhilarated, and lit another cigarette.
“You really gone to Italy?” he asked me.
“Yeah,” I said.
“If I was you, I wouldn’t never come back,” he said. “New York ain’t far enough. If I was you? I couldn’t get far enough away.”
5:00am. Eric had walked off to that McDonald’s girl’s house. Dom had gone through Char’s stuff while he slept and ingested another tab. I sat on their front porch, scrolling through old photos of me and Grace.
She was a beautiful girl. Honey butter skin, eyes like brown sugar. In every picture we took, I held her. She leaned against me as if I was some sound, sturdy structure, her curls tightly bound or overflowing, her smile in turns childish and unsure. Of all the girls since—and during—no one fit into my arms quite like her. And I had felt then that to fit properly into my arms was the only way to know me.
“What you doing?” Dom asked.
He sat on the bench beside me, a box of cereal in his hands.
“Being sad,” I said.
“I don’t want to be sad,” Dom said.
We sat there for a moment, staring out at the empty street.
“Do you remember everything we used to do here?” Dom asked. “Like when you married that fat girl with a rubber band ring? Or the time the cops set them two German shepherds loose on Rome over a handful of dime-bags? Do you remember how long it took for the smell of burning rubber to go away after the tire factory burnt down? Ain’t that shit take ages?”
I stood, tucked my phone in my pocket. “I’m gone go see Grace.”
“Mike-Mike,” he said, and we were boys again, children. “You ain’t the only one who gets sad.”
I never had a trip hold me longer than eight hours, and it had been nine or so since we dropped. I felt residue—certain trees looked the way an old song sounds in the back of your head, and the stars didn’t twinkle, they whorled—but walking through my city by myself, wearing a black hoody, fingertips brushing old bollards and bushes and buildings, I felt a certain freedom wash over me. A pure breeze. A staying presence.
That which we call home is simply that. It may change, as we all change, and may never even be named, yet it remains inescapably familiar. And in that recognition lies the hope that a piece of you is unchanged, too.
I arrived at Grace’s house unscathed. She lived, like almost everyone, in a cut between the road and some trees. I threw a pebble at her window, then another, until she answered. She appeared, long hair draped to one side, eyes more awake than asleep. I gathered every mote of softness I could find and said, “Want to watch the sunrise?”
Grace stared at me. A long time. Then she let out a breath I had not heard her hold.
“Wait there,” she said.
A couple minutes later she tiptoed down the rickety wooden steps of her second-floor apartment. She came around the corner in my old football hoody and sweatpants, hands stuffed in her pockets against the predawn chill.
“From the train tracks?” she asked.
“No,” I said, “but we can take them there.”
The soft wood of the ties bent beneath my feet, as old things do, and I eventually took to walking only on the gravel scattered between them. Grace walked along the rail, as she always did, with the ease of a gymnast. We were only a mile out from the hill that held the view.
We didn’t speak. Not with words, anyway. We brushed arms once, accidentally, and when our elbows touched again, I understood Grace was soothing me. My heartbeat boomed in the space between us. There was nothing really to say. She’d finish senior year and head off to college, somewhere far enough away to cut her hair and become someone new. I’d spend the semester in Italy, weekends in random European hostels, and then head back to New York, where some friends and I had just signed a lease on a Williamsburg loft. The next time we saw each other, Grace and I, we might not even notice. Only a feeling inside an airport, a vague second glance on passing trains.
Or maybe there’d be more. Grab a drink, try again. That would be okay, too.
We made it to the top of the hill overlooking the city. We sat down on the cold, wet grass. I couldn’t see everything from here, but what I did see—the handful of buildings that made up our skyline; my old bus stop by the bakery; a radio mast like a giant candy cane in the distance—was enough, once it caught the sunlight. A painter’s purple first, then nipple pink, then flagrant red.
I tried to map the scene onto New York, fit this entire city between the dingy side streets in Brooklyn. And Florence? How would the cracked cobble I once ran from cops on compare to stones preserved for centuries? How would words like terracotta and chiesa sound in my profane mouth?
“You know what a gypsy is?” I asked Grace.
“No,” I said.
“You know, tomorrow, daylight savings time ends,” she said.
“So, tomorrow, time speeds up. If you would’ve come then instead of now, my dad would’ve been awake, and he might’ve shot you. Or I could’ve fallen asleep, when they take that hour.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Whoever takes anything,” she said. She nodded to a stream of birds painting a black mass against the burgeoning sun. “Them.”
Eventually, the birds disappeared in the distance. Grace glanced at her phone, said she should probably go.