“Uptown & Queens” – this sign on the subway platform denoting the train’s direction, amuses me, or rather its counterpart – “Downtown & Brooklyn” – since pretty much everything is uptown from me. And that’s about the only thing that amuses me about New York’s MTA. Heading Uptown on the Q line, the train dips in and out of tunnels, sections of the outside world revealing themselves for brief moments until we dive back underground. Eight times out of ten, there’s a delay just after DeKalb Avenue that can run from just a few seconds to exasperating minutes that cumulate into a thick tension of loud sighs, long glances at the ceiling, necks flopping back in impatient agony. But in my opinion, what waits on the other side is well-worth the anticipation, no matter how rushed I’m feeling that day. Stuck in the darkness of that section of tunnel, I’ve come to think of it as the holding zone on a roller coaster before you’re shot up at a terrifying rate of speed and angle. Fine, maybe it’s the holding area of It’s a Small World, the gentle rocking motion of the train hardly a bullet of speed racing you anywhere at any efficient, much less breath-taking, speed. But it’s a ride that, whether timely or delayed, pulses with the city’s energy as it cuts through a wide cross-section of New York.
Since moving to Brooklyn two months ago and joining the masses that commute in and out of the city, this skyline has become a small delight that I relish. It emerges piece by piece as we move farther out of Brooklyn and across the bridge, sparkling like the blue of the East River below. From this vantage point, the Financial District, filled with all its classic images of New York, is on full display. Sometimes it disappears entirely into a cloud of bluish gray as rain or snow hit the windows and you just have to trust that it’s still there. We race with traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, running parallel to the south of us. There is something pleasing in the way the bridge is superimposed against the backdrop of the city, a balance of lines and energies – its tall archways and the curve of the suspension stretching as wide as the skyscrapers of Manhattan reach into the sky. An arm with a torch reaching far above what I know to be a crowned head, even if what I actually see is just a blurry dot, glimmers on the horizon, coming in and out of view in between the bridge’s cables. And then, when you get to the other side, you’re a part of it all, fire escapes and colorful mismatched shapes, bricks, stone, and glass, right in front of you. Early in the morning smooshed in among drowsy bodies and coffee mugs, late at night when sometimes my body feels so weary that it does not seem possible that I will make it to my bed in time to catch my collapse, and all the times in between, it’s this view that reminds me on a daily basis of why I’m here. It restores a sense of beauty and determination to the messy process of pursuing your dreams in a city already ballooning with them.
A year ago, New York was just beginning to come into view on my horizon, a thrilling idea that terrified me in its boldness and the dreams it fed in me. I was not ready, then, to say goodbye to Paris and the illusory promises I still wanted her to fulfill. A year ago, I slowly began to shift from waiting for other people to recognize something in me to walking through the doors that matter to me, the outcome becoming less important than the ways I fill up the minutes that add up into my life.
A year ago, I started to wake up from a haze, starting the process of letting go of a grief that I’d held onto for a long time as a way of preserving remnants of what was no longer. Until last year, I could not let go of the pain because of how it required an unraveling of all the stories I’d told myself to get through, and a fear of shattering the outer image of assuredness that I craved. Except that I was stuck, so incredibly dissatisfied with my life and myself, taking on all the guilt for being unable to do what I had truly wanted to do for so long, let alone say it out loud.
A year ago, I was sitting on a leather couch whose years had softened out the middle and into which I gratefully sank once a week, across from a fireplace that never worked but whose presence gave the high-ceilinged room the feeling of warmth. Suddenly in the most unexpected of ways, I found myself at the cusp of what I really needed to say.
“I spend all this energy on people and things that really don’t matter, instead of on what I really want to do.”
“And what is it that you really want to do?”
I halt. This is not how I expected us to come to this door. I did not plan on this moment happening today. I back-peddle
“I’m not sure if I can say it. But I know – have known – what it is for a long time.”
“You don’t have to say it today.”
“I want to say it today.”
Words stuck in my throat. Pressure on my chest. Wrestling with the desire itself, as if not saying it will somehow erase it all together.
“I want…to do…what my cousin does.”
“And what does your cousin do?”
“She is…an actress.”
The words hang in the air. I am waiting for the horrible consequences I have always imagined of bringing this secret into the light, and I try to shrink into that smooth worn leather. Except what I’m actually faced with is a big smile. He rearranges himself in his chair, leaning forward, almost excited. Two months in and we seem to have turned a new page.
I realize that from the outside, many parts of my life seem incongruous with this dream. I was the shy kid in school who would never have dared to audition for a school play. I never whispered a word about this desire to my parents, who, despite being great lovers and consumers of the arts, were more concerned with preserving other elements of my childhood amid difficult circumstances, and were just simply unaware of what was not spoken. And yet, the authenticity of childhood naturally infused the way I grew. I think of my mom gasping in disbelief and frustration when she discovered that I’d wet my pants at nine; I’d changed and tried to hide the evidence in my hamper but was discovered nonetheless. Mais franchement, Camille, tu exageres. Spoken with the calm coolness of hers that was always scarier than a raised voice, no exclamation point needed. I accepted her frustration and disappointment blankly, as I watched her wring out the underwear. I shrugged when she asked for an explanation – it seemed futile and counterproductive to explain that I’d been playing a game and my part had necessitated that I wet my pants – duh.
Or as I got older, our time at the dinner table as four, and my propensity for trying to enthrall with humorous stories and impressions of people at school, the usually strict code of conduct required of us at the table forgotten as their laughter egged me on. Tell it again, Camille. Do it again – the greatest encouragement I could have received from my father, the king of Sit-up-straight-hold-your-knife-and-fork-properly-and-don’t-act-like-a-child. Though they never knew about my desire to act, I was encouraged and given the space to use my imagination, to be the storyteller I am in all the forms that has encompassed. This matters to me more than anything else they ever failed to do.
As I stepped out of that office a year ago into the narrow winding streets of Paris that for months had started to feel like an impossible maze from which I could not escape, a flush of new energy bounced in my step and warmed my cheeks in the breezy half-promise of spring. The words of my secret, now spoken out loud for the first time, reverberated in my head and lingered on my tongue. The first hurdle cleared at last, the confident peace and eagerness it had borne began to resist the fear I’d carried for so long – of truly wanting something for myself, of daring to pursue a dream that was fully my own. I felt alive that night, for the first time in so long, and though it would take me several weeks to share those words and that dream with the people in my life, it was a step towards this life in Brooklyn, twelve months later. Crossing the Manhattan Bridge day in and day out, taking in the bold brightness of the Manhattan skyline, reminds me of that feeling that day, encouraging me to live into that dream as it presents itself each day. The start of making any dream always involves a little messiness, a little exhaustion, a little discouragement. I often feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. But I am figuring it out. I don’t know where all of this will take me and have little control of the outcome, which is easier to accept on some days than others. New York and I are still largely strangers to one another and I miss Paris dearly. But I feel alive, more than ever before.