What came first, the music or the misery?
– Nick Hornby, High Fidelity
Mixtape #4: Towa Tei, “Technova”
My 20-year-old self and my 80-year-old self are on the downtown C train. A black bra strap pokes out of my 20-year-old self’s white tank top. Her ass pops from her low-rise jeans. She doesn’t believe in exercise, make-up, combing her hair, or showering more than twice a week; she cuts her bangs with a dull pair of scissors while drunk in her bathtub late at night. Men follow her around the city, hiss and moan as they walk behind her, honk from the driver’s seats of cars and trucks. When she flips them off, they yell, Suck my dick.
She thinks she’s ugly. Her four main food groups are beer, pizza, bagels, and Camel Lights. Her preferred breakfast is coffee and a buttered roll from the cart outside the subway station. The only thing she knows how to cook is instant ramen with an egg cracked over it, bathed in hot sauce. She concocts this several nights a week, four AM, wasted, on the single burner stove in the sorry excuse of a kitchen in her studio on the Lower East Side.
My 80-year-old self waits resentfully for me to give her my seat. She has arthritis in her neck, shoulders, and knees. She wears large round glasses but sees everything; she sees me, even if I refuse to see her. She wears a loose linen blazer over a hot-pink sweatshirt with a hole in the elbow, black cotton pants with an elastic waist. Her hair is silver and pulled into a ponytail, and her sneakers are fastened with Velcro.
Every night, she wakes up at four AM. She takes her blanket and sits by the window, reads the newspaper from two Sundays ago, watches the street awake. Up rolls the bodega gate. Out come the dog walkers. Other old people emerge from their own high-rises for their own newspapers, and inside her studio on the Lower East Side, she cooks chicken soup and steams vegetables on her one-burner stove, takes long afternoon naps to the soothing low-volume murmur of daytime television.
My 20-year-old self is meeting her frenemies for drinks. One of them slept with the guy she was dating, and that night ended with a screaming fight outside a bar. The other one only calls for favors, like carrying a couch up a five-story walk-up. That night ended in puking, as my 20-year-old self accidentally drank too much whiskey before she helped move the couch. Sometimes, a little voice in her goes, Maybe I’m the frenemy. This makes her uncomfortable.
My 80-year-old self has lived alone for her entire adult life. The three flights of stairs in her apartment are hard on her knees, so she only goes out when she has to. But every Tuesday and Thursday she puts on lipstick and goes to meet her best friend for lunch. They have noodle soup, a side of greens, see a matinee movie. They talk about how the city is changing. Nothing is recognizable; everything is different. Have people always been unkind? Yes. We were like that, too.
At Canal Street, they both leave the train. I follow them up the subway stairs and hesitate, unsure where to turn. My 20-year-old self pushes past me as she lights a cigarette, and the sharp surprise of her elbow in my side makes me cry out loud. She doesn’t apologize, doesn’t notice me, and by the time I look up she’s already gone.
My 80-year-old self is easier to track. I follow her across intersections where cars gun their engines at red lights, inching across the crosswalk as she inches in front of them, myself just behind. I fight to keep my steps as slow as hers; my legs itch to overtake her.
She turns onto her block. She walks into a bakery and buys a nine-dollar sponge cake she can barely afford. That night, she will eat it with her hands, and when the first drunk couples begin to argue outside the bar across the street, she will not turn the radio up to drown out the sound. She will lick frosting from her fingers and listen and smile, because she has no one to answer to, because her time is hers alone.