We became subterranean. Life wasn’t what happened to us while we were busy making other plans; it was what happened while we were waiting for trains. We clocked up countless subway hours. We ate there, hurriedly gulping down a street vendor’s falafel before a late shift, or grabbing Doritos from the closet-sized shops run by dark-skinned men. We overcame our fear of rats. The cheerful automated announcer’s voice, at first irritating, became a reassuring, maternal salve, and we mourned when she was replaced by a younger, sexier version. Sometimes when things got to be too much, we’d duck down a subway stairwell, just to escape the madness of the above-ground.
Every memory of that year in New York has the subway running through it, punctuating with its clank, smothering with its heat. It was there we met AJ. There was a magician on the train that night, performing out of a conjuring box that was really a baby carriage, and this thin redhead was heckling him in a good-natured way, suggesting he try pulling a hat out of a rabbit for a change. We were polite convent girls, and we giggled shyly, not sure if we should. The heckler smiled at us and introduced himself. Behold, a boy! Soon we were clustered around him, curved towards him like quotation marks.
We’d been warned about Brooklyn’s hipsters, about their too-tight pants and easy, inappropriate labels. If you had full-sleeve tattoos you were an artist. If you favoured Helvetica you were a graphic designer. But we made a space in our lives for AJ, who for some reason flooded us with tenderness, like the sluggish warmth when a hangover begins to break.
He dressed in thrift store clothing and American Apparel. He wore glasses and a moustache—he needed neither. He drank PBR and smoked skinny roll-ups and danced on tables, or park benches, or wherever he could be most conspicuous. He bounded up the subway steps three at a time. He played the banjo in a fifteen-piece collective called Emptiness Is Only the Beginning. Even this, we forgave.
He was wire-thin, and ate rarely but violently, so that you could hear the fork tines clashing off his teeth. We fed him Barry’s tea and Cadbury’s chocolate, watching for his quick thin smile, wanting him to approve of our little country with its little ways.
We’d come to the States because of Maeve: she was in her third year of study, which was to be spent on exchange in NYU. The rest of us, already graduated into an unfriendly jobs market, on an endless CV carousel, said we would go with her. To mind her, we joked—the baby of the group. We posed as pioneers, striking out on our own, but really it was just an excuse to hide from life a little while longer, to bask in our adolescent bond before its inevitable rupture.
But we weren’t the only ones. In our building off the Lorimer stop there were three other apartments full of Irish graduates, some of them pre-formed groups like ourselves, others just gravitating naturally towards fellow expats. We partied with them, of course. Dervla had a brief fling with a guy from Westmeath, an Eddie, who led us to furtive work, coat-checking and glass-collecting in a Lexington Avenue pub. She didn’t see him again—farmer’s tan, she murmured by way of explanation—but we were grateful for the work, tax-free and heavily tipped as it was.
We tried to unify our fledgling friendships. We brought AJ to what was supposed to be a rooftop barbecue for the whole building, but which in fact only involved the Irish contingent. He was the only American there, but with his red hair and pale sharp features he almost passed. He sat at the edge of the roof, politely picking at the charred burger he’d requested medium well. Around us, the meaty air and hum of conversation began to savour of desperation: where were we interning, had we hired immigration lawyers, did we want to go watch the match in Gaelic Park on Sunday? We weren’t, we hadn’t, we did not. Our compatriots asked the wrong questions; AJ, in asking nothing, seemed like the answer.
Caoimhe was the first of us to sleep with him. She said that sex with AJ made her think of corporate words, like out of a car advert—sleek, precision, drive. Then she felt embarrassed because AJ hated corporations and cars and advertising.
We loved him for things we would have considered posturing nonsense on anyone else. The hat he fashioned out of coffee filters, his habit of defacing subway ads, the way he once laughed so uncontrollably in the Community Bookstore the staff had to escort him outside—these naked displays of free-spiritedness were touching, somehow. We imagined we could see past his pretentious facade to someone substantial, great even, and we wanted to be the ones to summon forth his true nature. Alakazam!
Our wallets contained little besides a Metrocard, but being broke in New York wasn’t like being broke anywhere else. At weekends we Skyped our worried parents so they could have a look at us, admitting that yes, we were poor, but happy. Keep the wolf from the door, they’d say, their image onscreen a split second behind the words, adding to the unreality. The wolf could have been anything—penury, pregnancy, drugs, muggings, whatever new fear they had for us that week.
AJ would protest he was broke, but he was never actually without money. After dropping out of college he’d started doing odd jobs he found on Craigslist to tide him over, and now it had become a career of sorts. He did everything from helping people move to designing websites to—his one regular gig—cleaning some old man’s apartment, naked. When Dervla was worried about making rent, he offered to cut her in—the old dude’s not a creep, really, just lonely I think—but we managed to talk her out of it.
One evening we were in the kitchen of his Bushwick railroad—a long, narrow, windowless shoebox where privacy was an abstract notion—waiting for him to get home. On the table was a fat brown envelope addressed to him. Maeve was fiddling with it, flipping it over in her hands, joking that we should steam it open, then not joking. We boiled the kettle and held the envelope up to the spout, but only succeeded in singeing it. Maeve ran down to the bodega to get a new envelope while we marvelled over the contents—five hundred dollars in fifties with a note attached: It’s the least you deserve. Love, Hannah. When AJ came home, he just tossed it in a drawer. Caoimhe was by then drunk, which did something to her face, made it malleable and artless as a child’s. We were terrified she would ask him about the money, reveal our snooping, but when she eventually asked, Who’s Hannah?, AJ simply said he didn’t know any Hannahs. And because he didn’t press us further, we forgave the lie.
We found internships. We worked in the fashion departments of magazines, riding the subway all day with armfuls of editorial clothing. We worked in a publishing house where one of the daily chores was to walk the office Basset hound, Gatsby. We made allies and nemeses of the other interns and competed with each other to bring the boss her Starbucks. We were still broke.
We drugged ourselves from morning till night—first with coffee and painkillers, later with beer. AJ, though, was something else. He drank and popped and smoked all kinds of things and still could get up early, still could beat us all up the subway stairs.
But he began to change, becoming somehow both more solid-looking and a little sickly. If he was a girl, Maeve noted, I’d be saying he’s gone on the pill. His frame filled out but his eyes dulled, no longer in constant swivelling motion, greedily drinking in the world. And he was unpredictable, not in the silly joyous way we loved but in a way that occasionally made us nervous around him. Caoimhe was a wreck. She would start each night of revelling in tremulous hope, unsure of what she had done to get him into bed that one time but certain if she just kept in his vicinity, she would figure it out. When he inevitably disappeared, carried away by whatever drug he was on or appetite he was chasing, she’d transform; the face would harden, the mouth would tighten, the shot glasses would pile up. It made us want to look away.
We felt him slipping away from us, and so became more determinedly like him. The ambient electronica he favoured began to leak out from under Caoimhe’s door. Maeve began to quote the Beats. Dervla got her hair cut like him, and began to stay over in his bed: they would get dressed from the same pile of clothes, and show up looking like untidy twins, bearing angry, corresponding love bites. Caoimhe insisted she didn’t care, as long as they were happy—were they happy? she’d ask intently, wanting us to say no. Her face was always hard now.
Maeve began to show dissent. Sometimes he’s so volatile, I think he’s bipolar, she’d say. We dismissed her of course—one psychology class and she thinks she’s an expert—but oh, to hear her talk about it: Psych one-oh-one, carefully tasting the words, not wanting to spill any. She was already being cut off from us, this girl who lived in a dorm room, fitting in seamlessly with the skinny chestnut-haired WASPy students, hoovering up Daddy’s money, playing beer pong. She didn’t get how it was, out in Brooklyn, having to work crappy jobs and eat crappy food and struggle and make rent. I think she’s getting above herself, Caoimhe said on the L-train home one night, and once it was said out loud like that, Maeve was no longer one of us.
Eventually we found out he was not who he said he was. AJ stood for Alan James, not August Jacob as he’d told us. But the fraud of his name just tied us tighter to him: just another sweet little twist of vanity, that was all. He had a fascination for names and origins, loved our Irish names that he couldn’t spell. We let it go. We let so many things go.
But we couldn’t forget Hannah. We took bets on her identity—she was, variously, his estranged mother, his dealer, a wealthy benefactor, his stalker. It was Dervla who finally cracked it, looking through his phone as he slept. The messages between them were about sex and money; she was both his lover and his client. She called him August.
There was no way of making this charming. Dervla asked him how many; he wouldn’t say. She broke up with him and went to get tested. Actually, we all went to get tested—even Maeve. It was one time, ages ago, she told Caoimhe—first in reassurance, then defensively. Caoimhe, shattered, gave up the ghost. As for Dervla, she was ready to go home.
He tried to explain. He needed the money. His college loan was astronomical, and nobody in his family could help. The economy, he said. He was careful. He knew it was seedy, but the money….
It was over. In the end, it wasn’t what he’d done to Dervla, or to Caoimhe. It was the fact that when we tried to hang out with him again, there was nothing between us but politeness.
Our visas were up. A sort of inertia set in when we stopped seeing AJ—the city was no longer its roiling, rambunctious self—and we surrendered meekly to returning home. Except for Maeve. She’d found herself a solid guy with a lawyer for a dad, and had wrangled it so she could finish out her degree in NYU. We met her for dinner the week before we were due to fly out; she seemed very happy. The boyfriend was tall and blocky, with impeccable manners. We suspected he didn’t even own Converse.
We saw AJ once more, quite by accident. We went into Manhattan for one last hurrah, to sit on richly upholstered barstools and spend the last of our money on overpriced cocktails. This was the New York we would tell our friends about, the one they’d seen on television: neon and hard and vertical, each building named and purposeful.
We got an unfamiliar train uptown to Columbus Circle. The pavement was silvery and slick with rain, and close to the subway station homeless people were encasing themselves in cardboard coffins for the night. We looked at their faces a little too closely.
Then we saw AJ, his wiry limbs laden down with shopping bags. He was across the street, scurrying after an older, powdery woman on tottering heels. The rain was darkening and plastering his hair. He caught up with her, hailed a taxi, and she curled against him with relief before sitting into the cab. He put the bags in the boot, and paused briefly as he went to close it, looking across the street in our direction. We didn’t know if he could recognise us through the downpour, but we knew the shape of him too well. Distracted, he banged the boot shut and got into the cab.
We looked at each other, and said that we had better shelter from the rain. We clattered down the subway stairs.