One of my dearest childhood memories was watching Hocus Pocus for the first time. Having lived in the tropical Cuban heat for the earlier part of my life only to trade it for the scorching Miami sun, I couldn’t wait to live in a place where the seasons changed like they were supposed to. Sitting on my living room floor, sticky from sweat and melted popsicle sugar (typical for a South Florida kind of Halloween), my ten year old self dreamed of a place where, like Max Dennison, I could walk home in a light windbreaker and look up at the leaves in all shades of brown, red, and yellow. So when I was old enough, I moved up north— New York City north. It’s no wonder then that Autumn is my favorite time in Manhattan. Like any true October baby, I feel there’s something extra special about fall. Even when it bears, as late-night satirist John Oliver phrases it, a “keen awareness of [your] own mortality because that’s what foliage is.”
As the leaves began to turn, the Love (Asterisk) crew was in a fight against time to finish filming. On October 6th, after much maneuvering of the camera, we shot the last scene. The footage was in the can and ready for editing magic. My fictional character’s love life may have drawn to a close but my real-life story was beginning to unfold. I got over my apprehension toward my on-again/off-again OKCupid relationship and reactivated my account. Previous experience had taught me nothing good would come of it but ever the optimist, I decided not to let Previous Experience’s personal hang-ups keep me from trying.
I accept Mr. Darcy’s invitation to meet for a friendly drink because, if our flirty exchange of messages was any indication of chemistry, this would make for one hell of a connection. He quickly caught on to my dorky Shakespeare reference, replied by calling me Juliet, and his profile picture showed a mischievous smile that reached his boyish eyes. Apparently, I didn’t need much more convincing. That Saturday afternoon Vicky helps me pick out an outfit and blow dry my hair. It was a long time since I’d last been on a date and out of sheer anxiety, I stuck my head in the freezer to cool down my furiously blushing cheeks. It was the kind of flush described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Beautiful and Damned as the “illusion of young romantic love to which women look forever forward and forever back.”
We’d agreed to meet at a bar in Midtown and doubt crept in by the time I got off the train. Maybe this would be a colossal waste of time. Maybe he’d be the most boring individual on the face of the Earth. Maybe we’d hit it off, date for a month, and end up irrevocably broken-hearted. Or maybe, said a small voice, maybe you’ll have a nice time and he won’t turn out to be so predictable. I braved on, squeezing past the Times Square masses, passing under the giant Walgreen’s billboard advertising some drug prescription or other. In big, flashing letters it read “Heal”. It had also been a long time since I believed in signs from the Universe. Now seemed like a serendipitous time to start.
It was the kind of first date one could only wish for. There was witty banter, laughter, sexual tension, white wine, and genuine conversation. It was the perfect mix of strange familiarity and fascinating mystery, a heady concoction more bubbly than champagne. I couldn’t resist his candid charm or the way he grazed my bare knee under our small table. His touch was shy yet sure. I was a goner. Afterwards, he walked me to the train station and asked to kiss me goodnight. I said yes and for a few precious minutes the whole of Times Square stood still. Nothing else mattered but his mouth on mine, his hands on my hips, the fireworks exploding in my stomach. We stood there saying goodbye for forty minutes. When I walked away he chased after me for one last kiss. I like to think that humans are allowed rare glimpses of immortal divinity. I know no other explanation for the magic that happens when, one breezy autumn night, two strangers collide in the middle of a New York City street.
Late Thursday night at LaGuardia Airport. I sit at a deserted Cinnabon table while I wait for Mami to disembark the plane. It was her first time visiting me in New York and in my excitement I almost jump on top of her when she walks through the Arrivals sliding doors. That night we stay up till very late, chatting away like teenage besties. Friday afternoon we ride the Staten Island Ferry to visit Lady Liberty. We hold on to the outside rail and snap pictures of the statue. I look up and see a butterfly fluttering above our heads. Of all the winged creatures to be found near a river, a butterfly seemed random and unexpected. The strong winds kept violently pushing her to and fro. Higher and higher still she went. I read this as a sign too. I turn to Mami, her profile against the proud Manhattan skyline, and I click the shutter. I want to capture this moment— to forever remember this complete and utter happiness. We travel uptown to Central Park. She marvels at its majesty. I marvel at my luck in having her as my lot in life. I blow on a dandelion, its puffy seeds scattering off into the wind. Oftentimes the enlightenment I seek eludes me on the meditation cushion only to find me in the smallest of moments. It caresses my cheek in the form of a ray of sunset light. It takes my hand as my mother’s hand while we walk the city like curious tourists.
I wake up on the morning of my birthday to a barrage of phone calls, texts, messages, and a trail of tiny colorful Post-Its that lead to the dining room table where my roommates’ gifts await. Those two sure know how to make a gal feel special. Mami and I grab breakfast to go and I lead her down Fifth Avenue. I show her all the iconic landmarks— The Plaza Hotel, Columbus Circle, Tiffany’s— with the same unabashed pride of an owner showing a guest her extravagant mansion. As she takes more pictures of the billboards and skyscrapers, I sit on the ruby-red steps of Duffy Square. I sip my hot coffee and admire the view. I don’t own New York but still I call it mine.
We head home to get ready for my birthday dinner— reservations at Il Cantinori. The same restaurant where Carrie Bradshaw celebrates her 35th birthday. It wouldn’t be my New York birthday without a dash of pink Sex and the City glitter. I do my make-up while Sophie’s Choice plays in the background. The movie is, more than anything, a self-imposed distraction to keep from constantly checking my texts. All day long I’d been expecting a “Bon Anniversaire” message from Mr. Darcy that wouldn’t come. But the distraction works. I forget my phone long enough to be caught off-guard when it finally dings. The jolt of excitement quickly turns to one of exasperation. It’s from RobotBoy. A dry, impersonal email sending birthday greetings. An email that irreverently addressed me by the same nickname once used in intimacy, now turned into a weapon of mass destruction. An email that was too little, a year too damn late. I was having a “happier” day before the fucking email. And still no sign of life from Mr. Darcy. Sophie’s Choice was turning out to be quite the ironic title. I let his email go unanswered. I’d nothing left to say. I delete it from my inbox along with all of his contact information. I put away the phone and slip on the high heels. I have a fabulous (exclamation point!) party to get to.
We arrive at the restaurant and the maître d' tells me this is the same restaurant where that one show was filmed where the birthday girl gets stood up by her friends. I smile and say that yes, I do know. He leads us to a long table in the back where nine of my incredible friends greet me with incomparable warmth. Lucky for me, I don’t share the same fate as Ms. Bradshaw. I receive some pretty kick-ass gifts (Can I start bragging about my poppy Kate Spade satchel now or later? How about my Carrie-esque Swarovski necklace or my beautiful bouquet of white roses?) but the best gift was the one expressly shipped from Miami. Having my mom there was priceless. And so with a sweet rendition of “Moon River” and a wish made on a solitary candle, I welcomed my 29th year. It was perfect. At 11:59 PM I got a text from one Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. He feigned ignorance about some special event this day marked and although he couldn’t quite remember what it was (and one minute before it was too late to say) he was convinced that no matter how special the event might be, it didn’t compare to my smile. He was a charmer that one, but he understood my weakness for romantic albeit cheesy Victorian courtship.
Because all good things must come to an end, the day arrived to drop off Mami at the airport. From the M-60 bus we looked at the receding city behind us. I tightened my grip of her hand. Life is a sequence of cycles and nothing more. It’s a wheel that doesn’t stop turning, the great equalizer, and sometimes you’re at the top and sometimes you’re on the bottom. “I can see now why you’ll never move back home,” she says. I’m taken aback by her comment so I ask what she means. She speaks plainly, her voice carries no accusation, “You love this city too much. I get it now.” I guess I do too. We kiss goodbye and I see her walk past the glass gates. I don’t leave until she’s no longer visible in the distance. I know we’re always just a plane ride away but it’s never easy saying goodbye.
I walk home in a light jacket under the shade of the changing leaves. Just like Max Dennison, just like I pictured it. I hang the days old roses out to dry on the windowsill. It makes me keenly aware of my own mortality. Birthdays, like foliage, can do that too. I am reminded how transient it all is. As transient as a butterfly. The best we can do is accept our metamorphosis with grace, release all false hope of control, and grow from love in the process. We may not know where the transformation will lead but uncertainty can sometimes be the most wonderful part.