Casey wandered the Port Authority bus terminal, newly disembarked off her
bus from Memphis and feeling like midtown Manhattan had punched her in the
face. A guy approached. The man looked like a farmworker who’d wandered in
straight off a granja—his brown skin weathered and creased, his white straw
cowboy hat similarly battered by the elements. He was pushing sixty if he was a
“¿Cómo llego al Jota Efe Ca desde aquí?” he asked. How do you get to JFK
Casey was surprised to have the question come in Spanish, because she didn’t
think she looked particularly Spanish-speaking. But it felt like a welcome to New
York. She’d spent the last five years studying language and linguistics in Cholula,
Mexico, and maybe that showed in her choice of clothing, or the way she walked.
Or maybe the old fellow just couldn’t see.
Casey had noticed plenty of signs for JFK plastered high on the walls of the
Port Authority so she told him he could take the subway from there or walk to
Penn Station for a train, which was faster and the same price.
“No mires tanto hacia arriba.” He peered at her. “Te hace ver como una
turista. Es lo que alguien me dijo.” Someone had told him looking up makes you
seem like a tourist, he said. Fifteen minutes in New York City and already she was
He tipped his hat as he left, in the direction of Penn Station.
Looking up is how I know how to get to JFK, she wanted to call after him, but
the impulse wasn’t a strong one. No impulse was these days. She was grateful that
he had wanted to protect her, and she was wary of being easy prey. Even after her
years-long escape to the pulsing new experience of Cholula, part of her remained
in an implacable fog. She imagined herself walking the streets of Manhattan and
looking up at the skyscrapers. That kind of aw-shucks naïveté might be an
improvement over the fog; most days it was more than she could manage to
maintain eye contact.
Casey rolled her bag out of the station and onto Eighth Avenue, not knowing
where she was going, only that she had to get there. Car horns sounded, people
yelled. Video screens were garish red and hot pink. There had been a recent rain
and she could hear tires. Somewhere, jackhammers were going. I’m in a movie,
Crowds approached. Her chest felt tight.
The dirty concrete was a comfortable place to rest her eyes. She avoided
oncoming pedestrians by watching their feet. She’d become quite comfortable out
amongst human beings in Cholula, where people had accepted her as another
earnest language learner, but the distrust of strangers she’d fled Memphis to heal
had come back in force as soon as she returned to the banks of the muggy
Mississippi. Within a month she was on a bus out of there. But she felt the same in
Coming here was a mistake, she thought. All these miles between her and hell
and she didn’t feel one bit better.
People jostled her, banged into the bag she rolled behind her. One cursed her
as he spilled his coffee. A standing man wearing a sign advertising bus tours forced
her to a stop. Now she dodged a bicycle to step into a urine-scented alley where
she unspooled the shoulder strap of her bag. She moved the bag to her front, as she
might have done on a Cholula bus. The familiarity of the move helped her breathe.
She spotted a diner that looked unexceptional, far more so than the chain
coffeehouse next to it, whose jaunty, overly familiar logo promised some kind of
reassurance Casey knew it could not deliver. She pushed open the diner door.
The bell hanging from it rang. She took a seat at the counter and wedged the bag behind
her stool. She rested her feet on the bag.
An older woman, mid-forties perhaps, approached behind the counter, tossed
a menu in front of Casey and continued walking, turning a mop of thick red hair
back toward Casey just long enough to utter, “Coffee?”
“Yes ma’am,” Casey said. “Thank you.” A busboy slid a clattering, white,
ceramic saucer and cup in front of her.
“Light?” the waitress asked on the return leg of her vuelta.
“Cream, honey.” The waitress poured coffee into Casey’s cup. “Would you
like some cream?”
Pareces una turista, the waitress might as well have said.
Casey nodded. The woman added a splash of cream to the shimmering black
in the cup.
“I must seem like a tourist,” Casey said.
“Nah.” The woman pitched her voice low, in what sounded simultaneously
like scoffing and praise. “New in town, sure, but I saw your maneuver with the
bag. You seem like you’re here to stay.” The woman gave Casey a smile and patted
the countertop twice next to Casey’s menu. She moved on to another customer.
Casey’s chest muscles relaxed further, allowing her to draw the first deep
breath of her new life. A mild sort of terror had gripped her in Memphis, beneath
her fog. That terror was gone now.
Casey took a sip of coffee. The fog remained. She knew she was not okay.
But for the first time since she’d returned to the US, she thought maybe someday
she would be.