Hi everyone, if it’s your first time here, you can read about the background of my story here. You can also find the previous chapters by clicking on the category « Memoire » located in the black band at the top of the page.
If you’d like to receive the weekly chapter installments, you can like my Facebook page, follow my RSS feed, or subscribe by e-mail (those buttons on the right-hand side). Thanks for reading!
“For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”
I don’t know how many tragedies I’ve been saved from – how many near-misses I have escaped from that I never even saw coming. I imagine it must be that way for each one of us, surrounded by that cloud of angels we cannot see, whose sole command is to guard us in all our ways, whose obedience to God is so absolute that they hedge us in and close their eyes to the foolishness of our ways. Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation? (Hebrews 1:14)
So I don’t know about the tragedies that I have escaped from, I only know about the tragedies that have tackled me, but have not consumed me. This, too, is a gift from God.
Upon leaving Taiwan, I needed to figure out where to go next, and I’m not entirely sure what prompted me to choose New York City. I suppose after having lived in Taiwan and traveled all around Asia, I felt I couldn’t go back to small city life. I thought, rather, that I might become an actress, thereby achieving fame, and (hopefully with it), self-worth. Or at the very least I’d climb another rung on that ladder of sophistication through any means that presented itself.
My friend Gillian from college was already living in Manhattan, subletting an apartment from relatives who were in Florida. It was huge and cheap for New York, located downtown on Grand Street outside of Chinatown. The catch was that it was completely furnished with overcrowded, outdated furniture, and there was no extra room to personalize the place with so much junk left behind. It was like paying to live in a storage facility – which, I suppose, anyone in their right mind will do in NYC if the deal is right.
Gillian grew up near the City and had that hard edge that I lacked. I was very grateful to have someone on my side who was so knowledgeable about life in general, and especially about City life. I was feeling so green – as unsettled as I had felt when I first moved to Taiwan. So I gratefully accepted her offer to stay, and slept on the foldout couch in the living room, but I had nowhere to put my things because every inch was crammed with her aunt’s knickknacks.
At the beginning, I spent a lot of time in Chinatown, more at ease in that world than I was in the fast pace of New York. But eventually, to try and put my own roots down, I left the Lower East Side and moved to 57th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues to what was once the Henry Hudson Hotel. This was a building of short-term rentals where people would pay, at the time, $350 a month to share a room with someone, with a communal kitchen on one of the floors. Each room had industrial carpeting and very old fixtures in the bathroom and windows, yet it was cozy, warm, and there was enough closet space to unpack.
At first, I wasn’t assigned a roommate at the hotel and I started to get accustomed to my independence. But then a timid Ethiopian student showed up as my first roommate. We got along really well and she introduced me to her food and her culture, told me stories about her crush at the university (which she was embarrassed about because he was very tall and she was very petite). Before long she started to get more and more tangled up with the older man who was a friend of her family back in Ethiopia, and who was supposed to be looking out for her. He wanted to take her as a second wife, and she was alone and far from home. I don’t think she saw much choice and I believe she ended up marrying him.
The first thing I did when I arrived was to call on a connection and get a job at the GAP, which was the largest one in the world at the time, located on Herald Square. I wasn’t making enough to live on, but I had money saved from my year in Taiwan so I wasn’t really worried. Most of the people who worked there were native New Yorkers, and I stuck out oddly next to them. They had a hardness to their language that I couldn’t relate to and a bond between them that I couldn’t break into. It was small comfort (and completely irrelevant) that I was better educated than most of them – I still felt inferior to them.
At work, I attempted to use my Chinese or French skills every chance I could get, and since it was located in a very touristy area, that was often. One day, I was at the cash register in the athletic department downstairs, and two girls came to the counter with their purchases, speaking to one another in French. I greeted them with a “Bonjour” to show that I also spoke the language, although my skills had become somewhat buried under the more recent acquisition of Mandarin. They were delighted to meet someone local, and invited me to go out with them and the French friends they were staying with. My social calendar was completely empty. Of course I agreed.
I met up with them that same night after work, and fell in step with the taller male student of the group, named Olivier. Our conversation was both in French and English and was rather shy on both ends. I asked him what he was studying (a Masters in Business at Baruch College), and told him a little about my stay in Taiwan and my move to New York. It didn’t take any effort for us to leap into a romantic relationship since both of us were interested, and both of us were alone.
Very soon after meeting Olivier, and probably at his encouragement, I quit my low-paying job at the GAP and started temping for Time Warner. I learned basic office skills there, but I wasn’t sure if I liked working in an office – I wasn’t sure if it was adventurous enough for me. And though security and routine should have been desirable to someone as unrooted as I was, when I went to be interviewed for a full-time Executive Assistant position, the interviewer and I could both see that I was not ready to settle down to something permanent.
I had spurned stability, but the other temp positions I had taken on – two restaurant jobs at night to make ends meet – left much to be desired. One restaurant was on the Upper West Side and was nearly always empty. I had to stand out in the cold and hand out fliers on the street to try and lure people in. Once, the owner scolded me for eating bread while working, even though there were no customers around, and this made me feel humiliated, like a chastised child. I later ran into her at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, which made for somewhat awkward conversation.
I was also a cashier for a French Bistro on 64th Street and Madison, and that experience opened my eyes to how empty life can be when everyone is scrambling to be somebody. Nearly all of the hostesses and bartenders were models and I felt short, stumpy, and uninteresting next to them. As a result, I would read classical literature at the bar when business was slow, as a way of standing out and showing that I was above such a scene.
The owner’s son was also there a lot, bar-tending and learning the business. He lived off his father’s success and expected everything to come easily to him. The waiters were actors or professional waiters from France who had taken up residence in NY. And the busboys were illegal immigrants from Mexico or Sri Lanka. I never saw such an accumulation of worldliness and glamor, of hanger-ons and under-world all in one place.
I met a man who claimed to know Robert Redford, and who bragged as he handed me his business card, that I need only mention his name in order to be received by this legendary figure. But I could see his insecurity as he stood there at the bar, not knowing what to do with his hands. His words spoke one truth, and his body spoke another.
The hostess would come in and open the locked cabinet under the stand near the door. She’d select a CD and put it on to set the mood – Andrea Bocelli for the lunch crowd and something with a pulsing base for the evening. She’d then skim the guest list and see who had a reservation before coming over to sit at the bar and talk. For some hostesses, New York was just a brief stop in their lives, and they didn’t take the whole scene very seriously. “Can you believe some guy just gave me $200 to sit on his lap for ten minutes? Whatever. I’m saving up to be a vet.”
But there were others who had nowhere else to go, and who were so clearly lacking in self-esteem it was painful to listen to them talk. Michelle unknowingly revealed her emptiness with every word, remained silent when the rest of the staff picked away at her shallow vulnerability, and acted as if she were still young enough to get by on her looks. But you could see the panic underneath, the desperation in her dark eyes. At least for the time being, life had tossed her a precarious place with them. She was good with the older patrons, happy to flirt with them and to feel wanted for a few moments, and that was all that was needed for the job.
The cash register was located at the bar so I spent most of my time talking to the two bartenders. There was the French model who buried kindness with sarcasm; she was hopelessly in love with an obese doctor who was addicted to prescription drugs. And there was also the owner’s son. One day he came in for his shift of bar-tending and I noticed he seemed unusually distracted and quiet. So I asked him, “What are you thinking about?”
He looked at me for a moment before going back to stocking glasses. Then he said in a sort of reflective voice, “I had my first menage à trois last night.”
I tried to beat back the shock while he continued, “The two women I was with were the ones who proposed it. And, to be honest, at first I was a little nervous, but it ended up being great! They were doing more to each other than they were to me,” he said with enthusiasm. I showed suitable interest with an impassive face before turning back to my book.
People stole from the cash register and it was blamed on me (that, or I really couldn’t count). So I eventually quit, most likely a day before I would have been fired. I had all these different jobs to make ends meet, but I didn’t belong anywhere. I had a boyfriend, but I was starting to suspect he didn’t feel as strongly about me as I did about him. I was surrounded by a whirling vortex of emptiness, or perhaps that was just what was inside.
At times I would walk home alone after midnight, going out of my way to avoid Central Park and all its rapists. But then as a member of a chic gym on 41st Street and Eleventh Avenue, I would walk down Tenth Avenue at six o’clock in the morning to go to swim team practice. That area of town was not at all what it is today, and was probably not the smartest thing I did. In general, I was insouciant about possible danger to the point of being foolhardy. I walked around New York as if I owned it and assumed that I was immune to all of its dangers, but it couldn’t have been further from the truth. In reality, I was just bobbing along with the tide, going wherever the undertow took me.
About halfway through my year in New York, and through my job at Time Warner, I got a full-time position as a receptionist with an up-and-coming wedding gown designer, whose husband was an executive with HBO. At the time, her loft and her warehouse were located on 39th street behind Port Authority – this was before Giuliani cleaned up Times Square. Across from the office there was a brothel, and the madams and their clients did not always bother to take their business indoors.
This street was filled with homeless people, drug addicts, whom you might see walking in front of you with a needle sticking out of their back pocket. It was much more lurid of an area than it is today.
Inside the office did not provide much respite. The salesman (who was to die from AIDS within two years, although we didn’t yet know he had been diagnosed) hated me and never failed to treat me to his cutting observations. I think I just represented everything he detested – innocence, blind enthusiasm, young love, a desire to have a family. Perhaps it was hard to see one life so full of possibilities when he was just coming to the end of his. He lost no occasion to tear me down.
I sometimes babysat for the daughter of the designer, but the loft was so unfriendly and austere, and I hated to leave there late at night. There was an office supply company in the building where we got our basic supplies. It was owned by an older couple who fought over absolutely everything. The tension was palpable every time we went into the room, and we could hear them screaming at each other from our office. One day we came to work to find an ambulance at the door of the service entrance. The husband had gotten sick of his wife’s ranting and threw a stapler at her head, causing her to go into convulsions. A few weeks later they were back at their dingy office, stacked high with boxes of office supplies, a cautious peace established between them.
Things were coming to a head with Olivier, as we fought about what would happen after our year together in New York. He had another semester of school to finish up and hoped to get a short internship before completing his mandatory year of military service. I wanted to move to Paris while he was there so we could continue to be together, but he didn’t want me to go.
“That’s too much of a commitment for me. I don’t know if I view you as wife material. I view you – more like a sister,” he finished clumsily. This precipitated my flight to West Virginia to stay with my mother, where I cried for a week straight and tried to figure out where to go next.
Finally he decided he missed me, relented, and agreed to take the necessary steps to continue the relationship. While he was finishing his studies and searching for that internship, I would return to Taiwan. That’s what we decided. I couldn’t bear staying in the City all alone, and hated the idea of being the one “left behind.” In addition to that, my year in New York lacked purpose, and far from having gained any sophistication, I ended up being more unrooted than ever. I figured that in Taiwan, at least I was teaching, and the kids and parents liked me. At least there I was earning a good salary, improving my Chinese and living a life of adventure.
And then, when my year in Taiwan was over, we would meet up in Paris while he completed his military service. So in this way we also established a cautious peace – a trial period. I insisted on Paris, afraid to end the most important relationship I had ever had. But looking back at all that effort, I could have saved my breath. I was tenaciously trying to make it work, like a lone plant growing out of a rock, conscious that I had nowhere else to put my roots.
In spite of living in this glamorous city, working for a designer, and having an exotic French boyfriend, I was still lost. I was surprised that achieving these things didn’t bring every blessing I imagined it would. I was still abusing sugar and alcohol (and now coffee, working across the street from Cupcake Bakery), and was generally trying to cope with anxiety and other emotions I didn’t fully understand.
Ten days after I went to West Virginia to see my mother get remarried in that blizzard of 1993 – climbing through the snow banks, up to her hips in a wedding dress – I called in to work sick. I had an appointment at Planned Parenthood that morning for more birth control pills, and felt lethargic, depressed and nauseous from having eaten too much sugar again the night before. I was in such a fog, I decided just to take the entire day off.
After the doctor’s visit, I began walking to my boyfriend’s apartment, which was not far. I couldn’t bear the idea of going back to my empty room all alone so I told him I was on my way. Lost in thought, I trudged across the street, barely noticing what was around me.
When I was about halfway across, a flash caught the corner of my eye, and I glanced up in time to see a yellow taxi whirling around the corner with the driver looking the other way. In that split second, my thoughts marshaled a stunned, “I’m going to be hit by a car!”
And in the next split second – out of the depth of my decaying soul, I thought, “Good.”
There was a nothingness – a void.
BANG! The doors to the Emergency Room slammed against the wall as the first responders threw them open to wheel me through, the noise shattering my unconscious – images flickering in the dark like a fluorescent light zapping and sparking to life.
Then there was black.
I felt the large scissors cutting through my jeans and my sweater, jarring me into consciousness again, and I felt my clothes removed from me as the doctors carefully placed a neck brace to immobilize my spine. I tried to make sense of the confusing sounds and distorted images around me.
There was a painful jab in my inner thigh and I heard them murmur, “We’re testing for internal bleeding.” And I was out again.
I came to as they placed a catheter, which also hurt, strangely, when the rest of my body felt so numb. And even though I was wrapped in blankets, I was still cold. I couldn’t feel the weight of the blankets against my skin, and my body felt naked and eerily exposed, floating in the sterile, cold air.
I know that I kept up a stream of chatter, even though I don’t remember what I said. I just remember being too frightened to stay quiet, so I talked. I gave them my boyfriend’s phone number, I told them not to call my father or he would worry. But they did call my family, of course, and reached my sister who then called my parents in tears. No one knew how bad it was.
I slipped into unconsciousness again. When I woke up some time later, my boyfriend was there next to me and I tried very hard to stay awake so he wouldn’t get bored and leave. The doctors shook their heads in wonder every time a new test or cat scan result revealed that there were no broken bones, no obvious damage.
“You are very, very lucky,” they said, to which announcement I gave a little cheer. I thought that if I were pleasant and upbeat, I wouldn’t be a burden to everyone, and then they wouldn’t leave me all alone.
Oh, but I was so tired. It was such an effort to be anything at all. When I forced my eyes open, the details of the room – everything – was far away, as if I was looking at it all through a long tunnel. When I woke up again from another bought of unconsciousness, Olivier was gone. Night had fallen and I was alone next to the beeping machines. I immediately slipped into darkness again.
DDDRRRING! The next morning, I was pulled reluctantly awake by the sound of the phone piercing through my deadened sleep. The noise was so loud it hurt. I tried to reach over to the bedside just to shut it off, but everything was painful and it was very difficult to move. My head felt ballooned to twice the size, and I could only feel half of it against the pillow; my limbs didn’t seem to obey me when I moved them.
Finally, I positioned myself slowly in a seated position on the side of the bed so that I would be able to answer the phone if it rang again. And it did ring, within a minute.
“Oh Jennie,” my mom said when I picked up the phone. She was crying.
“I’m okay mom. The doctors said everything is fine.”
They let me go that same morning because nothing was broken, and they hadn’t found anything that was obviously wrong. This decision seemed normal to me, and I was anxious to leave as soon as Olivier brought a spare set of clothes. But when I was checking out of the hospital, I kept wavering on my feet, staggering as if drunk.
“If you don’t stop doing that, the doctors aren’t going to let you leave,” the nurse said. So I forced myself to stay upright by holding onto the wall.
“I can’t – I can’t stay here,” I thought. “If I don’t take care of myself, no one else is going to take care of me. I have to pull it together.”
We made the slow climb up the five flights of stairs to Olivier’s apartment. I puttered around mechanically in his space, trying to reclaim my life in comforting, reassuring routine. And sometime that day, in another attempt at normalcy, we had sex – surreal, unpleasant and disjointed, with sensations on just one side of my head against the pillow.
On Monday, I went back to work. Everybody was surprised to see me back so soon, but it never occurred to me not to go. I was following all the usual motions, and had no idea I was suffering from post-traumatic stress.
“I thought I told you to stuff the envelops with the content facing out,” my boss’s husband said with annoyance.
“I did,” I responded.
“No look. Here. And here,” he said pulling out letter after letter that had been stuffed the wrong way. I grew hot with shame. How could that happen? I know I stuffed them the right way. Was I not concentrating hard enough?
It took about a week before Olivier started to get annoyed with me too. “Stop acting up,” he said. “You were able to stand up straight in the hospital when you set your mind to it. You weren’t complaining about being in pain before, so why are you starting now?” The swelling in my head had started to go down and I could feel my body again.
But he got a visible shock when I looked at the date and said, “Oh no – Olivier. I am so sorry. I forgot your birthday!” I had completely forgotten every detail of having organized a surprise party for him.
Eventually it became clear that I needed to follow the hospital’s advice and go see a neurologist about possible brain damage. I don’t remember the actual exam, but I do remember that he asked me to spell a word, which I was able to do. Then he asked me to spell it backwards. I just looked at him. I had no idea how to do that.
“Okay,” he said. “Now I want you to count backwards, starting at one-hundred.”
I started, “one-hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight …” I paused. I couldn’t remember what came next. And that was as far as I could get, although I remember thinking that if I started at ten I would be able to do it.
The doctor told me that there was nothing to be done for my convalescence, except wait. And although my mental faculties would return, some of my memories did not – both the memories surrounding the days before and after the accident, and also certain memories from my past. When my brother Jeff brought up the time we went to an island in Florida where we saw dolphins swimming off the side of the boat, I couldn’t remember anything about that day. And I was fifteen years old when we went.
The biggest change after the accident was that suddenly every childhood memory I had was now in black and white. The green grass of summer was grey, the walk to the public pool and the blue chlorinated water was all grey. Memories emerged of people looking down at me from a child’s vantage point with grey faces, black clothing and somber expressions. There was no longer any color to my childhood or anything else that gave substance to who I was. My depression became more pronounced and I was angry and defensive. People were starting to notice I had changed.
By now I had also gotten another roommate at the hotel, and I generously gave her my calling card number and lent her money, which came at a time when I could least afford it. She disappeared without paying me back. I also lived in my boyfriend’s apartment, while he was gone for the summer, to oversee the renters they had from France – renters who neglected to pay me because I said they could get to it when they wanted to and they saw weakness. Then they trashed the apartment. In all this, life seemed too fragmented and I couldn’t make the right decisions to protect my interests. I was too distracted.
Once I started to understand the extent of the trauma and to undergo physical therapy, I quit my job with the designer in order to rest and recover more fully from the accident. That’s when they told me they were going to let me go anyway because I wasn’t performing up to par.
So I finally had a respite from those dark months spent in New York, and the remainder of my stay drifted along pleasantly as I visited New York as a sort of resident tourist. I drank black hazelnut coffee and ate blueberry muffins from Todaro Bros, I walked around the steamy streets of New York. And I lived.
One morning, about a month before I left to go back to Taiwan, I got up early and went to Bryant Park. I probably had something to do in the area, I don’t remember. As I sat there on the park bench, I saw in front of me, a group of young people who were laughing and teasing each other with an enviable light-heartedness. After a bit, I looked again and saw that they were now praying together. I was shocked, and maybe a little impressed, because they all looked so normal to be doing something as singular as praying in public – in Manhattan.
Nevertheless, when the group broke up from their prayer, one of the girls rollerbladed straight up to me, and said, “Hi. I was wondering if you would be interested in coming to a church service?” She was nice, but seemed nervous to be talking to a stranger and her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. I felt . . . superior – condescending towards her. Perhaps I had some small degree of compassion for her because she was nervous.
“No, sorry.” I replied.
She insisted gently just a little bit. “Oh really? Are you sure? If you don’t like the idea of church, we also have other smaller get-togethers . . .”
I shook my head again, my compassion now gone. “Sorry. I’m really not interested.” I pressed my lips together and gave a polite smile, which effectively closed the discussion. I was thinking to myself, “What in the world? What kind of church is this where people actually invite you to go to it? They must want something from you.”
But now, in hindsight, I understand it. Years later my friend Marc would randomly pray one morning that God would show him just how fleeting life was, so that he wouldn’t waste his own. An hour later, as he sat in the window of a café in NY having his breakfast, he would see a woman get hit by a car just as I had been. But her head smashed open when she hit the pavement in front of him, killing her instantly.
I don’t know why, but I had been given another chance. And this was my second call from God.