Fear and Loneliness in NYC – and a Crying Mother in Tel Aviv

I hope my daughter won't find herself, way too soon, alone at the top of the Empire State Building.

Mika Almog
Mika Almog
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Mika Almog
Mika Almog

It’s 5 A.M. on the morning of my daughter’s seventh birthday, and for some reason I can’t sleep. On the other hand, I’m too tired to cross anything off the week’s long to-do list. So I go to the kitchen and decorate her breakfast chair with balloons and ribbons. Then I go back to the study and look at the collage of her pictures we made yesterday, all taken in the past year, as family tradition has it. In one of them I suddenly catch a glimpse of the teenager she’ll become in just a few short years. At the bottom of the page is a blank strip, and I want to write a birthday greeting. And what would you like to wish? A schoolteacher’s voice sing-songs in my head − what would you like to wish your eldest daughter, born seven years and three children and ages upon ages ago?

I go to look at my sleeping children. I lay my hand on their chests and silently count three beating hearts: little one, middle one, big one. The birthday girl’s bed is full of dolls and stuffed animals, including Mickey, the oversized teddy bear I got for my own seventh birthday, whom I slept with every night, even when I was well into high school. I touch his worn fur, and suddenly I’m awash with the memory of another birthday altogether.

On the day of my 17th birthday, I stood on the terrace at the top of the Empire State Building, alone. I had gone to New York City with one suitcase and a big plastic bag in which I had packed Mickey-bear. For months I worked and saved money to realize my secret plan. I bought a guide called “New York on a Shoestring” or something of the sort, which taught me where I could sleep and eat inexpensively. I kept a suitcase under my bed and packed it gradually. Finally, I took a bus to a travel agency on the corner of Dizengoff and Ben-Gurion in Tel Aviv ‏(to this day when I pass there a wave of recollection hits me‏), and bought a round-trip ticket. I knew that the U.S. border authorities wouldn’t let me in with a one-way ticket and planned to sell the “return” half of it in New York.

After spending the money for the ticket, I was left with about $2,000 of my hard-earned savings. That should keep me afloat for the first six months or so, I guessed. I shared my plans with no one except my best friend, whom I also burdened with the horrible task of handing my parents the letter of apology I left behind. To this day, I’m not sure they fully forgave her. And off I went, to launch the life I had been dreaming of, brave and stupid as only a 17-year-old can be.

In Manhattan I went straight to the hostel my trustworthy guide-for-the-broke had told me about. For seven bucks a night I got the upper bunk of a rickety bunk bed, in a room with four such beds. I shared this humble abode with seven other women, all different ages and nationalities, each with her own reason for coming to the most famous city in the world. I positioned Mickey comfortably on the bed, against a wall, made sure my suitcase was locked, and went out to explore. It was about 7 A.M. and the streets were still fairly quiet. I picked up a bagel-and-cream-cheese breakfast at a nearby deli and sat down to dine on a bench in Central Park. Now what?

When I was done, I found a phone booth and called home. Collect. More than anger, I remember their voices were full of relief. And sadness. I climbed the Empire State Building and gazed at the city I planned to conquer within a few months, looking for a sign that would tell me what my next move should be. No sign presented itself. Over the next few days I explored New York City from corner to corner and fell in love with it. Nights were tougher. There was loneliness and fear, especially as all the things I hadn’t fully considered began to dawn on me: that $2,000 could keep me above water in NYC for about a month if I was lucky; that I didn’t have the right visa to work legally; and, mostly, that I had no clue about how to begin to realize my grandiose dreams ‏(I’d heard all the stories about people who came to New York with $5 in the back pocket of their torn jeans and went on to conquer the world. But what did they do in the first two weeks?‏)

Also, though I steadfastly refused to let it in, at the edge of my consciousness the understanding of just how much pain I had caused those I left behind was beginning to rise. Each time it got too close for comfort, I’d club it on the head and it would retreat, whining and bruised, but never entirely gone.

Then my grandmother got on the phone. “Come home,” she said, “your mother’s crying.” So I did. I flew back home after one week in New York, using the return half of my round trip ticket, which I ended up not selling immediately upon landing. My father came to pick me up from the airport. I was pushing a wobbly baggage cart with one hand and clutching Mickey-bear in the other.

I saw my dad and then, like the worst of cheesy soap opera scenes, the cart hit a crack in the sidewalk, my suitcase crashed to the ground and all my belongings went flying all over the sidewalk. My father hugged me, and I wept. We went home.

Two slender arms reach out and wrap themselves around my shoulders. “What day is it?” she asks. “It’s your birthday, darling,” I reply. “But it can’t be my birthday,” she mumbles sleepily, “because today’s Saturday and you told me I was born on a Thursday ...” I sink my nose into her soft hair and whisper soft explanations about the circular yet irregular nature of time. And yes, it’s been exactly seven years since you were born, despite the fact that today’s not the same day of the week, and yes, love, you’re right, it’s confusing.

How can I begin to explain that this confusion is among time’s smallest crimes? How do I explain its odd acceleration as the years go by? She asks me how old she is almost every day. And she’s at an age when it still takes forever to get from six-and-11-months to seven. Her desires are so fully invested in the advancement of time. She can’t wait to start losing her baby teeth; she can’t wait to go from first to second grade; can’t wait to reach the age when I’ll finally let her get her ears pierced ... she can’t wait for the future.

A light wind blows, fluttering the kite-adorned curtains we hung when she was born, and I remember the strong wind that blew at the top of that tall tower, in that big city, in the hair of that young girl who was in such a rush to catch up with her future.

“Please don’t go,” I whisper into my daughter’s warm shoulder blades. “What?” she asks. “Happy birthday, darling,” I answer. And at the bottom of the collage I write a birthday wish for my baby girl: I wish you patience.

Illustration by Adi Emanuel