A New York State of Mind

Gazing onto East Seventh Street four stories below, people looked like figurines. Some walked their dogs, others carried packages. One couple, holding hands, stopped to steal a kiss. I watched as he drew her close, gently brushing a wisp of hair from her eyes. I couldn’t see her reaction but imagined her smile.

August in New York. Two proper nouns that never go well together. The haze and humidity swirled in a stifling blend that could lull anyone to sleep — if not for the intolerable heat. I had expected the city to be a ghost town, but people were out. Buying produce at Second and Seventh, stopping for a bagel, going places.

It was nearly 11 a.m. on Saturday. I was standing in Dennis’s new apartment. With the windows closed, walking in felt like entering a sauna. And yet it was easy to see what he saw in the place. 

Heavy on wood with a Beatnik mystique, the vacant studio was a study in contrasts, like Dennis himself. It was barely 500 square feet in size, but pull up a chair, you could draft a novel. It had the feel of a writer’s pad, or a musician’s. Big enough for friends to gather ’round a guitar. I could almost hear the strumming. 

Three narrow windows lined the far wall. Standing at one of them, my eyes found a young man in a plaid fedora. I watched him weave through the crowd until he was out of view and thought how easy it would be to kill an afternoon here. Dark brown window frames contrasted starkly with clean white walls. The sun streamed in just as white. That was my favorite part, the sun, the oak.

Back then, Dennis thrived on creating. He was good at it, too. Even in the new apartment, he envisioned a loft for his bed, green carpeting on the walls. He’d construct elevated bookshelves. Somehow, he’d make the place look like a forest. I had no doubt he’d pull it off. He promised to send pictures, I pretended to believe him. 

Peering onto the street, it crossed my mind how lonely it would feel to live in New York. Or maybe that was just me, right then. I’d arrived the day before. Already I could see that visiting was a mistake. Dennis was stressed about the move and probably my presence. I should have listened to my instincts and stayed home. I’d suggested as much on the phone a week earlier. Said maybe another time would be better. I’d heard the heaviness in his voice, so I said it.

But then he said don’t be silly, and the girl in me believed him. 

Besides, I really loved Dennis. Loved him in the way you accept someone for all they are. And though I had little proof, it felt like he cared about me. We were polar opposites. That was the fun of it. I strove for perfection, never measuring up to my own high standards. He wore his flaws like an extravagant fur coat, out in the open for all to see. 

Short in stature with a larger-than-life personality, Dennis had wild black hair to match his wild ways. He had this fiery charisma going on that I found magnetic (and at times, hilarious). On our second encounter, in November 2003, I met up with him in L.A. I was there on a girls’ weekend with Sue and Molly. At 10 p.m., Dennis careened into the drive. We watched from the living room as the huge Mercedes pulled onto the front lawn in dramatic fashion. I remember laughing incredulously, worrying that the tires would leave tread marks. 

When I stepped into the yard, Dennis leapt out of the car, wrapped me in a bear hug, spun me around. His every action was oversized, like that Mercedes. That was the appeal. Because just as he was oversized in his neuroses, he was oversized in his affection.

I’d always dreamed of sitting by the fire with him, talking about life. In his East Village apartment that hot August day, I sensed that would never happen. It made me sad. Something had been lost, and I didn’t know where.

I was standing where the coffee table would be when the dizziness struck for the last time. For a moment, I wanted to die. Behind me, Dennis rummaged. I turned just enough to glimpse him in the hall. He was about to bring a stack of boxes down four flights of stairs. I had the instinct to help. Then I was on the floor. 

With his back to me, Dennis didn’t see me lying there, and I didn’t want him to. I shouted the first thing that came to mind. “I’ll be right down!”

What a lie. 

I felt deeply ashamed about the whole thing. One month earlier, this had happened when Dennis visited Chicago. At the Lincoln Park Zoo that day, we were sitting on a park bench when the dizziness hit. I couldn’t even stand. We spent an ungodly amount of time on the bench, ogling baby wolves. 

Later, I went home to rest. Dennis went to Best Buy and surprised me with a stereo. He was generous like that. With his money. But more, with himself. He gave from his heart, and his passion was both an asset and a detriment. “Out there” the slightest injustice could set him off, like seeing someone litter. “In here” he could be tender enough to leave a honeysuckle on a pillow.

In New York, I wanted it to be that way again. Instead, stress dominated (his and mine). By August, it had been five consecutive months of dizzy spells. As I lay on my back, the wood floor glistening in the sun, I knew the dizziness would last for 30 minutes. I couldn’t exactly take a half-hour “bathroom break” could I?

I waited for Dennis to make the turn at the landing then started the slow crawl across the open floor. The apartment felt so much larger on my hands and knees, and it occurred to me how out of place my floral J. Crew skirt was in this moment. 

A short while earlier, Dennis had said he would get rid of the stove to make room in the kitchen. As I crawled, I tried to imagine a life without cooking. Sitting atop the staircase, my mind shifted to more pressing matters as I pondered how I’d get down. It felt stupid to try and just as dumb not to. My knees trembled like they did when I first skied Jackson Hole. I wanted to forget the whole thing. So what if I stayed up here? 

I guess I didn’t want a 30-minute episode to overshadow a three-day visit. When you’re used to being sick, you crave any chance to live like you’re not. So I tackled the stairs in the only way I knew how. On my butt, one narrow step at a time.

I wouldn’t do it again. But at 33, inaction always was the greater of the evils. Looking down upon those stairs, weighing my options, a lot crossed my mind. But only one thought broke through. “I have to try.”

It was harrowing, the getting down. I can’t fathom how I did it. The winding landings were anything but a shoo-in, and I had to navigate four flights of steep, wooden stairs barely wide enough to hold my rear end. The scent of turn-of-the-century cedar followed me down, and I remembered finding that old jewelry box in Grandma’s attic. For a split second, I smiled.

At the bottom, I could see Dennis on the street loading the car. When he was done, he spotted me sitting on the steps, pretending to be waiting. He must have thought I was lazy as hell. I didn’t care. I was too busy figuring how to stand. 

“You ready?” he asked.

“I’m hungry,” I lied. “Would you mind if we grabbed a bite?”

We ate at the South American restaurant next door. Empanadas at 11:30 a.m. I wasn’t the least bit hungry and neither was he. I’ll never forget that meal, though. I never had another aura again.