Summer Nights, New York | 3

Saturday, June 28

All I can do tonight is begrudgingly open the door for the delivery guy. Thank you for my vegetarian panini. In the dark, the delivery guy and I meet with our eyes. He knows I could’ve just as easily walked downstairs and turned the corner to grab the sandwich myself, using my own two legs, but he thanked me all the same, because the tradeoff between my laziness and his job is those two dollars of tip. I gladly give him the two dollars, if that meant the only words I’d have to speak to another human that night was, “Thank you.” 

I turned off my phone so that I wouldn’t have to speak to anyone else, but no one calls me anyway. Half the time my phone is out of commission, the other half, I just don’t answer, so my friends have adapted to my ways. They don’t call. Tonight I turned down three social invitations through the means of text message. These invitations to these parties promised the world. Friends and strangers, seizing the night, soaking up what the city could offer. But these invitations were transparent to me. Behind the formal type and font, I saw the ghosts. Ghosts of people out and about on the streets, searching amongst other ghosts in some weird purgatory. 

No, I’d rather not be there. My ghosts are all here, confined to these four white walls with me. Along with us we have roasted vegetables and melted mozzarella, pressed between this European flatbread, glazed in balsamic. The only words I’d hear uttered tonight would be from yet another romantic-comedy. They’re trite and predictable, but I love them all the same. At least I know the ending, and it’s always happy. 

In these four walls, I feel safe, instead of the itching and the twitching that I feel whenever I think about leaving my room. Social interaction makes me tense. My body feels like lead, and the bathroom might as well not even be in the same apartment. I feel sick. My reality here is sideways. Getting up gives me a headache. The moon is too bright. Turn off the light. It’s cold. Put on socks. Lie back down. The movie just ended. Press play again because I want to be in their world a little bit longer. 

In their world, I’m just an observer. In this world I can be whole, watching from the sidelines. Outside of these walls, in my world, I have to act. Other people would have to watch me act and they’ll assuredly see right through: I’m transparent. Behind the doors I am whole. Inside these walls it’s just me and my ghost, laughing and playing, so joyful because at least, we can be who we are. We finally feel like ourselves. When it’s just us, there’s no one else. We have the kind of relationship that, when it’s just us against the brutal city, we are beautiful, but in any other external circumstance, we are mangled. No relationship exists inside just four white walls, and this one most certainly cannot. We know this is not healthy, yet we just can’t get enough. We keep walking back into this room, locking the door. Every time we say it’s the last time. 

Tonight, my ghost and I are in bed, intertwined, looking out the window towards the flickering city lights. Tomorrow, she whispered, I’ll let you go.

Summer Nights, New York | 2

Sunday, June 22

Tonight was our dance party in your apartment. The iPhone was our disco light, the iPad our DJ. The four of us with our unrhythmic swaying and pumping and twirling. It didn’t matter though, we were dancing in the dark with our eyes closed. 

Our four-person dance party. I think you were dancing because you were drunk. Maybe you were dancing because it felt better than not moving at all. I couldn’t really tell. You? You never dance. I didn’t even think you were capable, much less wanted to. Me? I dance every day. I was dancing because I was shaking off all of my demons of the day.

The only way to get rid of them at the end of the night is to make it so hard for them to cling on. Hour after hour their claws dig in deeper, making their home on my shoulders. By the end of the night, my shoulders are so heavy with their weight, because they are not light creatures, I need to dance them out with all my might. I think you could have been doing the same. You were dancing with the same determination and vigor.

All four of us moved our feet and swayed our arms, bumping into one another. The music was fast, then slow, then so fast we could barely catch up. Years of friendship tangled in a sea of arms and legs moving together. Three childhood friends and me. I just met you a couple of years ago, but because I grew up in the same neighborhood, too, I was welcomed all the same. I shared the same boredom only those who grew up in suburban homes but dreamt of city streets knew.

And so we kept moving. We were no longer confined to strip malls or church on Sundays or high school proms. We shook those demons off. The ones that tied us down to a past that’s no longer relevant.

When we tired of dancing, we felt energized to stand. I could stand tall, then, because my shoulders were bare, though they were raw with claw marks. Doesn’t matter, though, let the blood run and the wound sting. 

The moment we stopped, the apartment became too small. On the fire escape, we shared stories and confessions as only cramped spaces designed for emergency situations could elicit. We talked of meaningless sex, but I don’t really think it’s ever meaningless, but maybe that’s a conversation for another night. We talked of past relationships, because what else do you talk about that’s of meaning? Relationships hurt and they leave you burdened by their existence and extinction. They’re the types of demons that never go away; they only become more kind.  

Tonight was the night of many confessions, whether we meant for it to be or not. The others went back inside and it was just us two. I could barely shake off my demons, I couldn’t handle yours, too. Not right now. We stood there together, still, and swallowed the silence until our bodies could move again. The demons took advantage of our hesitation and perched again on our shoulders, their weight somehow exponential to what it was before. They dragged again, heavy once again. 

The weight didn’t matter though, because tonight, this night, we danced!

Summer Nights, New York | 1

Thursday, June 19

It was a smoking-on-the-rooftop-’til-3 am kind of New York night. I had just gotten off the train, thereby rounding out my journey from Texas. I made the solitary walk back from the train to my apartment, thinking about how I had just spent a week sharing a bed with friends and family, sometimes 2 to a bed, sometimes as many as 6. The physical affection, touch from loved ones in the most innocent of acts as I’m slipping from conscious to unconscious is no longer a reality here in this city. My bed is for me, just me.

I stomped up the four flights into my apartment building, surprising my roommates whom I hadn’t seen in one week, and whom I had forgotten to inform I would be out of town. I often forget that slipping in and out of town like a vagabond isn’t the best way to maintain those relationships I’m so hesitant to truly build but crave. It’s okay, I had thought, I’d only met these two people three or four times prior. They didn’t need to know where I was.

But when I saw them, it was an odd sense of comfort. Strangers whom I’d interacted with only a handful of times were no longer strangers, not in this city of millions. We’re all strangers until we’re not anymore. And we weren’t.

We’re roommates, occupying the same space, if only for a few weeks. Something about breathing the same air in a confined space with people engenders trust. We’re all on the same side of the wall, we might as well stand side by side. So we poured ourselves a plastic cup of whiskey, grabbed our fireworks purchased in Virginia, and headed up one flight onto our rooftop. The alarm that forbade this secret hideaway no longer blinked red, the lock on the door broken, the hideaway ready for us on this night.

The air is crisp tonight. So crisp, with a slight breeze, the kind of perfect weather that if I were living in suburban America, I’d get in my car with the windows down and drive towards my teenage years. 2 am and we’re lighting fireworks, pointing the sparks to the northern lights, celebrating something. Anything. The night. 

There, five floors above the world, the entire borough sprawled before me. No skyscrapers, just windows peering into the lives of others trying to get by. Some left their kitchen lights on, others crumpled in bed next to lovers. The night was well into its slumber, the moon preparing to hide itself once again for the day. 

The city the same as I had left it the week before; it’d be the same when I leave it again next week. But tonight, tonight I was living above the lights, making my own fire. The air became crisper as morning began to sing. We puffed our last cigarette, we lit our last firework. We called this our night, tomorrow’s night would be the same as we’d left this one. Time for bed, the morning would claim us once again with responsibilities and conversations and all the things and people that didn’t belong up on this rooftop. The morning meant I’d be me in relation to you; this night I was anything but.

And really, it’s summer nights like these that make living anonymous and alone in New York City all the more seductive.

[Interlude] I Found Magic in Iceland, Part 2

Why the hell was I in Iceland?

I asked myself the same question. Over and over again. Every decision you make steers the course of your life in a different direction, and then you reflect back on those pivot points.

Where are they?

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I’ve been following The Case for Wanderlust for quite some time now, mostly through Facebook. I can’t really remember why we became friends on FB. I think we had met briefly once so many years ago, but I guess on social media these days, everyone you meet is your friend?

In either case, she is my friend on Facebook, and she is a solo female traveler. I follow her travels, photos, and writings, making the case for wanderlust, and I often think to myself, she doesn’t have to convince me, I already believe in this.

So if I believe in wanderlust, what am I doing here, sedentary? I was having one of those moments when I was yearning to travel again, and although those moments translate into almost a state of constant being, this moment of yearning was particularly strong when she posted that she will be going to Iceland. She’s inviting people along to travel with her for the first time through GUST, a platform she’s building.

GUST “believes in the magic of people experiencing something together, and [she] hopes GUST conveys that with every adventure.” Through GUST, you host an adventure and others can come along. It essentially is a way for people to pay to travel with you, and Iceland will be the first adventure.

I felt bold and immediately messaged her, she responded within minutes saying, “Ai! I’ve been hoping to hear from you. Let’s talk.” Pivot.

So we talked. We shared our stories, and why it is we yearn to travel so much. I think whenever you meet a fellow wanderer, a person whose soul calls her to explore and adventure simply to do so, there’s an unstated cosmic connection.

I told her, “My soul is calling me to go. This felt right.” She responded, “This might be the universe answering your call.”

Who talks like that? We do, because we believe in it.

Before our Skype call ended, I had booked my flight. This was a Monday in September.
Iceland 3

I tabled the trip, and didn’t think about it until October 31, the day of the departure flight. In less than two months, school, work, and life wore me down more than I let myself process. Emotionally and spiritually drained, I arrive to go an adventure with 4 other strangers. We all agreed to go experience something together, for whatever reason. Each of us has her reason.

What was mine?

The next day, I happened to turn 27. Usually, after something happens or the years go by, you reflect back and think, that was a turning point, that year was really important, or that was the moment my life changed. It’s always after the fact, hindsight. Can I do it before? Can I call it? This will be the year. Pivot.

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Whenever I go on a trip, I’ve recognized a pattern in which the trip is a transformational experience for someone. Sure, everyone gains something from every trip, but for someone, it’s a point in which he or she undresses the burden of the past, and without those heavy layers, the person can lightly step into the future. On this trip, this was it for J. On Sunday, the last day, in the tight confines of a jeep, with just us five girls and our tour guide, Birkir, J told us her story.

There’s an evolution in every trip where a group of strangers arrive at the same place and time to go somewhere, together. Whether the trip is one day or two weeks, at a steady pace or accelerated, the process of evolution from unattached strangers to connected spirits is always the same. That moment of transformation happens at a specific point when we as guarded individuals open that door slightly ajar and invite someone else in, independent of the location or activity of which initially attracted the strangers together. That particular day, we had ventured together through the enchanting, rolling landscapes of Iceland, and we’d seen it all. Nature at her most exquisite. Really, this is one of her masterpieces, and all the critiques agree. But for us, in the close quarters of the Super Jeep, with hours of driving left to go, this was our moment of transformation.

And it was for J. It takes an incredible amount of bravery to be vulnerable. She was brave because she needed to be.  The power of fucking vulnerability. Don’t underestimate it.

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As for me, my heart was still hard and my self still guarded. Why is nothing happening?

I was ready to be broken, but this wouldn’t be my trip.

On the last day, we all said our goodbyes, which are always hard when, not a day before, you just found your rhythm and connection as a we, and all of a sudden life will revert back to an I again.

Everyone left and I had a few hours before my departure, so I strolled the city. A couple of record shops, an Icelandic wool shop. About an hour before I was to leave for the airport, I walk into the Hallgrímskirkja Church, one of the sights to visit in Reykjavik because you can ascend the tower and view the entire cityscape, mountains and sea and all. I profess to be more spiritual than religious, but being in religious monuments evokes a certain stillness and reverence that is unique to its space.

This space calls you to its pews and sit. So I close my eyes, and ask, “Why am I here?” Within an instant, it’s as if all the seemingly disparate events, conferences, classes, projects, people, and paths over the course of my short 26 years synthesized for a moment of clarity. I had an idea. Ai, this is who you want to be, so this is what you are to do, and this is how you’re going to do it. Pivot.

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And this is why I’m here: to make the transition from the exploration phase of my life into the building phase. Of course, I will always be exploring, but now I need to build. Ái, who you want to be is a wanderer, a storyteller, and a developer. Ái, so then you will be location independent and thus you need to be your own entrepreneur. Ái, then, in order to accomplish that, you will build a platform capitalizing on the growing community of travelers + wanderers who are already master storytellers through their photos, writings, designs, to build a story and narrative for international non-profits or causes that need help developing, crafting, and disseminating their story.

First answer the question of who you want to be, and the answer to what you will do will come shortly thereafter.

Sometimes, transformations aren’t grand, visceral experiences. Sometimes, they’re discreet and stealthy. One or the other, or somewhere in between, that moment of clarity always shakes you.

I came to Iceland with no expectations, and left with an answer, so thank you, Iceland, for your majesty and beauty. But now, back in New York City in November, moving toward this newly self-titled phase, the hard part begins.

[Interlude] I Found Magic in Iceland, Part 1

Reykjivek Panorama

I was intrigued. I had absolutely no reason to go, and every reason not to, but I somehow found myself in the magical realm of Iceland.

I became enchanted. To breathe the air is to fall in love with the country – her lands, her people, and her music. They fill your lungs, your heart, and your body.

The land, the people, and the music are so inextricably woven, as if they are variant manifestations of each other. Threads weaved so tightly that they’re almost indistinguishable, their beings exist and flourish together.

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The land.

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So majestic, so regal, but so inviting. Breathless; catch me because I’m falling. In one day, we journeyed into five different terrains that made me feel as if I’ve entered into alternate realities. We stepped into the beginning of time, from the stretches of the black volcanic ash sand to the pillows of lava rock formations beneath verdant lush moss; then from the amber fields of grass glistening gold in the sunlight towards the mystical mountains grander than the mind can fathom, and finally we rested at the edge of the world: the Vatnajökull Glaciers. Here, time and space co-exists in a delicate balance, but the universe pressed pause and I am suspended in time and space and light and air.

Iceland dares you to not believe in magic.

You will lose.

The people. 

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I’ve never met a people with so much pride for their land. Everyone here exists in reverence and awe of the stunning world in which they live, and genuinely want you to experience beauty with them. They’re disappointed if you don’t. Icelandic people, so happy and welcoming, reflect their land. In a casual conversation with the Kex Hostel Manager, Gummi, I asked, “Why is everyone so happy here?” He responded, with a chuckle, “We just don’t know any better.” What better way to be?

Ah, by the way, Kex Hostel was an old cookie manufacturing factory, and “kex” is the Icelandic word for cookie. That alone brings a smile to my face.

 The music.

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This music envelops you like a gust of glacier air, as if it’s piercing your soul. There’s just something about it. A sound by a people who’re undeniably influenced by nature. I’m speaking as someone who naturally operates in the visual-spatial-linguistic realm, but I am moved by Icelandic music. It evokes all of the senses all at once with a dignified restraint. You feel the mountains, you smell the glaciers, you taste the winter. It is indeed a sensual experience.

We were serendipitously there during Iceland Airwaves ’13, which by far is one of the best music festivals I’ve ever known. The music is incredible. Just view this Rockumentary about Iceland Airwaves and let me know if you’re not yearning to be there immediately.

Listen to and fall in love with the following artists, just to name a few: Ásgeir TraustiÓlafur Arnalds, Low Roar, Mugison, Pascal Pinion, Kirayama Family, & one of my favorites beforehand, Retro Stefson.

Join me at Iceland Airwaves ’14?

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I am shaken. The land, the people, the music, I love it all. Deep breath, take.

Not even realizing how much I needed her, I came to her with no expectations, but, damn, Iceland, she enchanted me, and I was shaken.

To be continued, Part 2.