Shades of heaven

“Can I come over?”

I’m sitting in my family’s dining room at night with the lights on bright, and I’m still crying. It’s my 28th birthday, and although I’ve had a birthday dinner over the weekend, at the end of this particular Tuesday, I’m sitting in an empty house in September, and it feels wide and dark and lonely.

The text message reply comes in within ten minutes: “Yeah, girl, come over.”

“You sure it’s not too late?” I reply in relief.

“No way, I just put brussel sprouts in the oven.”

I laugh and swing up off the chair where I had been sinking deep into an expansive emptiness. It’s a law school weeknight, late, and I have class in the morning, but I get into my car and drive from Queens to Hamilton Heights with my heart lightening over the Triboro Bridge.

In retrospect, when I think about it now, a year later, the memory reminds me of Carrie getting up from bed and rushing down in the snow to be with Miranda who feels alone on New Year’s Eve, rushing in the door at midnight to hug her and say simply, “You’re not alone.” Because sometimes even when the city has a million lives in it, the place you live in is empty, and it’s hard to remember you’re not alone unless someone is holding you and telling you that you’re not.

That night, I find a parking spot miraculously and climb the flights up to Christina’s apartment and walk into the smell of roasting vegetables. We stay up with her roommate, Emily, snacking and gossiping, and I sleep in her bed, like the hundred nights I did in college, which I did every time my dorm room felt too empty, or my heart too sad, or just when I needed to be close to someone and to feel safe.

 The difference from college was only that instead of walking through the dark shadows of Hillsborough Street from my dorm to the Townhouse apartment, I drove under the underpass in the Bronx and crossed the 145th Street Bridge and spent fifteen minutes crossing Amsterdam Avenue, back and forth along the one-ways, to find parking. Yet, once I walk up into the apartment, the feeling is the same: comfort. It just has moved from North Carolina to New York City.

In the morning, I leave for class, and drive back over the Triboro Bridge with a beautiful pink sky over Queens, and I feel connected again. Connected again through the simple generosity of another human sharing space with me over years and years, loving me, and accepting me into her home to dispel loneliness, no matter the hour.

This year, I am turning 29, and although the feeling of sitting in an empty house is recurrent, the friendships around me only deepen. There is my family, and there are city friends and law school friends and friends on both sides of the ocean. There are hearts across states and countries that have filled my heart a million times over.

So I know I am not alone. I have homes to crawl into when the silence of my own feels too large. On any birthday, that is all I could ever ask for and all I could ever need.

Last year, at a birthday dinner in a hole-in-the-wall Italian place in Queens, my best law school friends asked me what my wishes are for the new year of life. I said, then, “I think I’d like to be in a relationship.” It seemed only natural, that after all these years of figuring out what I want to do with my life that it would be time to figure out the rest of my life that (I imagined) I’d been neglecting: “the one.”

Little did I realize that I don’t need just one. There is not just one. Although society often tells people there is one relationship that matters most, I need all of them. I need the dozen that have thus far formed around me: the village that will tell me when I’m messing up or selling myself short, the friends that will open their doors and hug me when I’m on the verge of breaking down, the family that will love me through the stressful days and the successful ones.

When life feels unfinished, it is all the relationships I form that make it feel complete.

So on this year’s September birthday, I thank the many lives that have kept me going and gotten me here. Every year can be a battle, but if I can stay as alive and as loved as have been to date, I have no need for birthday wishes. I have only to say, “Thank you,” for all the generous hearts in my life that make my own happiness so lovely.

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