When I worked on Governors Island, I would wake early to commute from Queens to the ferry in lower Manhattan. At 7:05 the light was still misty, forming a veil over my eyes. But by 7:10 this light accelerated into a sharp glow, and by 7:20 this glow was full-bodied, no longer a suggestion. The transformation always made my body feel like it was experiencing time physically, like I was a leaf in a time-lapse video, transforming from lush green into a nutty brown. These were the rare mornings my body felt like a projectile missile speeding through the air: savage and controlled, wild and precise.
Working on the farm meant a relentless exposure to the sun. Our farm was only a modest acre in the middle of Governors Island, designed for public school students to come and connect with the food they ate. The inner garden contained wooden box structures filled with sinewy vines of sweet potatoes, tall beams of dino kale, and ellipticals of lettuce. The outer garden was larger, with longer crop rows filled with an assortment of Chinese eggplant, shishito peppers, cherry tomatoes, and Easter egg radishes.
In botany and horticulture, following a plant’s flowers and leaves is called heliotropism, or the study of seasonal movement of plant parts in response to the sun. Every part of the leaf has been elegantly crafted to harvest as much light as possible. Leaf blades adjust so that they stretch perpendicular to the sun’s rays: as the sun rises, they are completely vertical and face the east; close to noon, they flatten horizontally. It’s the flexibility of the petiole—the part of the leaf attached to the stem—that allows the leaf this controlled rotation. The leaf blade has to be thin and translucent in order for the light to penetrate their inner cells. The leaves are the vessels plants use to absorb and transform the light into energy. Their dedication and movement feel instructive. What ease and control they have: a translucent sail, arching towards the light.
When we moved a butterfly bush to a new soil bed, we would watch its leaves daily to see if they adjusted to the sun’s movement, an indication of whether or not it would survive.
Each time I took the ferry into the city and three trains back to Ridgewood, a nebulous feeling raced back into my purview:the feeling of ongoing emergency, not knowing what I was doing with my life, not having enough money to get by on my escapist job. Working on the island wasn’t sustainable. During those autumn nights, I would start thinking about how to hold my body to withstand this uncertainty.
It felt risky to move to a city without any job prospects lined up. This time, I was moving to be near friends. I’d already done the moving abroad for a job thing, all the way to China, the job I left after a year before moving to New York. I found a place with my friend Maya, a college friend, also a human version of a soft place to land. I was 22, living off of savings from my job in Beijing, penny pinching wherever possible, and I was happy. I could be a receptor for the joy, even mistake it as emerging from myself.
This didn’t change how tenuous all the joy felt, like it could all be taken away. A tentative joy. On the four days a week when I wasn’t working on the island, I was at home, applying for graduate school and cooking food with the vegetables I got from the farm. I had time to spare, a spaciousness that had me milling around the discount stores, buying one sleeve of digestive cookies to justify my loitering. When Maya would come home, I would throw the phone I was scrolling on across the room and pick up a book, just to be perceived as busy. Mondays became indiscernible from Fridays.
What does it feel like to have nowhere to be? It feels a bit like being unwanted. Invisible. Making appointments, scheduling meetings—these are all assertions that you exist, now and in the future. When I had nowhere to be, I was invisible to time, not in a way that felt like I had escaped, but in a way that filled me with unease.
Over New Year’s, I held a party in Carroll Gardens at the house where I was fish-sitting, a month after I stopped going to Governor’s Island. My coworker Lars ran the hydroponics system on Governors Island, the tilapia fish a source of fertilizer, most of which he gutted at the end of the season and gave to us to eat. But he kept a few and needed someone to watch them when he was on vacation. “You can stay at my house in Carroll Gardens,” he said, as though the fish would benefit from my company.
The trains were all down, the city was cold, emptied of people who were traveling for the holidays, reminding me of being in college and the many breaks I spent on campus. A fistful of people I cared about showed up with beers and popcorn, peering through Lars’s record collection and poking their heads over the tank full of fish.
As we stood there, talking about our jobs and our former college president, we innocently started talking about a former classmate we never liked. So be it: he wasn’t there and we hated his political leanings. But at an indiscernible point, the conversation began to change. “Oh, ever since he started smoking pot, he’s just gotten bigger and bigger.” Someone pulled out their phone to show pictures of him on Facebook. I felt uncomfortable, but washed over by the momentum of the social interaction, I indulged it and laughed along.
But in the morning of the new year, I woke up ashamed and angry, arrows pointing inward. I felt something like I had publicly humiliated myself. The fatphobia in the conversation last night was so easy, it was as though we were surfacing something latent. The feeling stuck with me enough that I went to my roommate Maya, teary-eyed with the question “am I a bad person?” on my lips.
These instances—I write them down as the mandate to “know thyself, so you can know exactly how you are your own worst enemy.” In the moral light of the morning, I hated that I had seen myself as briefly immune to being insensitive, and how that immunity lent itself to being careless. Why didn’t I say anything? Everything that emerges from me, including the unfamiliar, has an origin.
In Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the young girls Elena and Lila unleash a chain of unforeseen and irreversible events, leading to a crisis in their way of moving through the world. “The most important thing that morning was the discovery that a phrase we often used to avoid punishment contained something true, hence uncontrollable, hence dangerous,” Elena, the narrator, reflects. “The formula was: I didn’t do it on purpose.” The recognition that the internal moral eye is fallible does not make the consequences any less real; it only means that the consequences might catch you by surprise.
Ferrante’s girls come up with a solution that would prevent them from ever hurting others or hurting themselves ever again. “The conclusion we drew from this,” explains Elena, “convinced us that it was best to do everything on purpose, deliberately, so that you know what to expect.” There’s a comical simplicity and naive beauty in this logic; in how fearlessly they put out such a sacrosanct, almost illicit desire. Do they not yet know the emotional physics of being a person and relating with the rest of the people in this world? Puberty does turn cause-and-effect into something more and more mythical.
In ninth grade, I had my friends Diane and Mirtha over for a sleepover, and we lay there, belly side up like fish on the carpeted ground of my childhood bedroom. We mustered up nostalgia even back then, talking about other classmates we had known since middle school.
“Do you remember Evelyn? From Language class in seventh grade?” Mirtha asked, turning over and struggling to balance her elbows.
Diane doesn’t but I do. “She used to let me ride her horses but I haven’t seen her in years,” I said.
“What about Debbie?” asked Mirtha.
I used to be friends with her, but now only talked to her when we were getting books at our lockers. Mirtha was still friends with her.
“You know, Debbie thinks you don’t like her,” Mirtha said. “She says you’re not very nice to her.”
I was shocked. I never thought twice about how I talked to Debbie.
“I never meant to make her feel that way.”
“Well,” Mirtha shrugged. “She told me you just don’t really notice her anymore.”
I tried to continue this conversation but ended up excusing myself to go to the bathroom. I knew how absurd it was to cry at my own sleepover, but that thought made me cry even more.
Need I remind you of the properties of light? The way that it indiscriminately fills up any space that allows it in; how it does not hold back or intimidate; how it is simultaneously pragmatic and holy? Here is a real reminder that we, in Annie Dillard’s words, cannot cause light: we can only strive to align ourselves with the direction of light.
A friend spent several months searching for an apartment with the right amount of natural light at a reasonable price point. “I get a headache if I don’t have enough light in my apartment,” he said. He was searching for a southern exposure that would provide plentiful sunshine and ambient heating for him and his houseplants. I understand the challenge. Walking through New York can be like walking under a long shadow, and the light is a meek rival to skyscrapers at a certain height. Real estate resembles leafy vines climbing up trellises, each crane and each high-rise competing to get closer to the light.
Even as we strive to coerce light to work on our behalf, even to commodify it, our faculties ultimately fail us. We’re only able to see 30 percent of light, unable to see infrared light and a handful of ultraviolet light. The days I stayed later on Governor’s Island to turn and rake the soil beds, I would be the only one left, standing alone between eggplants and tomatoes and leaning against my shovel. Beyond a grassy hill littered with granite blocks, Manhattan’s tallest buildings glimmered seductively. In the open expanse of the farm, I thought about how exposed I feel.
How is it that the light can see me more honestly than I will ever see myself? As I mourn how little is revealed to me, how 70 percent of the world is afforded privacy from the human eye, I have also come to terms with being a subject of the light, seen honestly by it.
Weeks after the New Year’s party, I met up with my friend Lily. I had last seen her at the party, and she mentioned, almost in passing, “At the party, it was weird when everyone was talking about that guy and his body.” She said it without naming me, but I sensed the accusation.
“I wish I said something,” I said. “I thought about it a while after. I’m sorry that happened.”
It’s impossible to control how you are perceived, just as no one can control how you perceive them. Yet there seems to be something to the desire to know yourself well enough—perceive yourself well enough—that you will never be perceived as bad or unkind or fucked up.
In one scene from Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, the narrator is in a conversation with her crush Ivan. Ivan talks about how he hates giving up a seat to older women on the tram when he is reading. “It makes me mad that I have to give her my seat so she can just sit there and think nothing,” he says. Shocked, the narrator thinks to herself, “I wondered why he had told something so terrible about himself.” Not just “something terrible;” but rather “something terrible about himself.” Something fundamental that cannot be hidden.
Words carry a truthy residue, packaged together with who you really are. It is the worst version of yourself, lingering in the marginalia you write in that novel you will later lend to a friend.
I didn’t do it on purpose reads as I wasn’t purposeful in how I choose to be in the world. Hence the conclusion is: I must perceive myself before anyone else does.
Around March, I was seeing a boy named Rob in my neighborhood, almost a year after ending my first serious relationship. I had forgotten the places along which I could fracture, and seeing Rob reminded me of my own vulnerability. We spent handfuls of time in divey neighborhood bars, where I laughed at his jokes and he complimented my abrupt cadence. In one bar, we would collect little plastic dinosaurs handed out with each purchased drink.
Rob was my age but felt more grown and more established than I was, with a steady job and a steady creative hobby and a steady sense of self-worth. And while he never made me feel lesser, when we weren’t together, I found myself squeezing into the tight space of “I’m not interesting enough, I don’t look good enough on paper, he’s definitely going to ghost me.”
Much of my adult life has been hedging my desires and wants by anticipating heartbreak and hurt—and calculating my recovery time before I emerge, painless. It’s like building scaffolding around an unstable structure—until all I’m doing is scaffolding. The scaffolding is the structure unto itself.
This kind of hedging of risks comes with its own risk—the failure to be present and the failure to be available to my own body. I found myself, instead, already standing in the future, the future in which he ghosted me. “If Rob ghosts me,” I said to a friend, “it will take about two weeks of grief to recover.”
When I was a child in fifth grade, my favorite activity was walking among the honeysuckle bushes during recess and imagining myself being seen. I imagined having a camera trained on me, one that was curious about what I was doing and what I was thinking. It became a form of self-voyeurism that made me louder and clearer and more purposeful to myself. When I didn’t feel real to myself, the voyeur made me feel real; more than real—worthy of being watched.
This activity had the effect of a strong potion—potent enough to sustain me during the loneliest parts of my childhood. My family had just moved to the United States and I struggled to make friends in school. Even then I must have felt the ways that being perceived felt good, really fucking good.
As an adult, this potion has diluted. The fantasy has less sustaining power and instead, I long to be perceived by other people.
One of the more painful parts of being in a relationship that ends is all the ways you stop being perceived. Who else will see me as lovable, who else will choose me? It is asking your friends, Am I still cool even though I’m not loved by this person? If I am no longer under the spotlight of this person’s love, who am I?
By the time it was summer, I had worked as a Chinese-language interpreter at Bloomingdale’s for Chinese tourists; a canvasser for a Palestinian minister running for city council in southern Brooklyn; a paralegal to a lawyer who chugged muscle milk and abruptly fired someone in front of his entire staff. The job I finally landed on was as a contractor for the Department of Sanitation, working on community outreach for food waste collection.
This job often required sitting at an intersection or in front of a library, interacting with strangers for hours on end about food waste and compost. We dressed in traffic cone orange t-shirts while spewing information—“40% of your waste is food waste“ and “We’re turning your food waste into rich organic material that can be returned to the earth.”
On one of my first days working at this job, I was assigned with my coworker Joanne to table in the Key Foods’s lobby in Elmhurst. Joanne was the Cantonese speaker on our staff—a Chinese-American New Yorker who grew up in Sunset Park. She was effusive, ready to shit talk white people in a way that immediately put me at ease.
The stream of people in and out of Key Foods was slow. We watched as people pushed their grocery carts through the compliant sliding doors, some avoiding our eyes and others politely nodding before exiting to the parking lot.
An older white couple leaving the store walked past us toward the elevator to their car, briefly brushing eyes with us, and as they waited for the elevator doors to open, I heard the man say, “those Asians, they are always recycling.”
The woman bit out a “you can’t say things like that.” I wonder if what was implied was in public.
I remember the elevator taking far too long to arrive, waiting to turn to Joanne and together shore up an appropriate amount of moral indignation. I knew immediately that he was referring to the aunties who sorted through recycling in trash cans. They were New York institutions, like the churro vendors on subway platforms. I didn’t interact with them often, except to hand them an empty plastic bottle if I had one.
In Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Rankine talks about being in the room with Judith Butler when someone asks what makes language painful.“Our very being exposes us to the address of another,” Butler said. “We suffer from the condition of being addressable. Our emotional openness is carried by our addressability.”
On the drive back to the office that day, we joked about what had happened. “Behind every racist man is a woman who says, ‘you can’t say things like that!’” I said.
Joanne and I worked in these spaces that felt both hypervisible and invisible—we interacted with strangers all day, most of whom ignored us; and when we were acknowledged, it was never on our terms.
It just doesn’t feel fair, not having any way to control how I am seen. Some days it can feel like it is all so porous, and you fall asleep less able to articulate who you are to yourself. Not being a white man requires you to grasp tightly to your personhood, lest it slip through all of your fingers.
Just as I had anticipated, Rob did ghost me, just as New York summer had heat glimmering off of every square of sidewalk—and I’m not so sure preemptively mourning the end of the relationship softened the pain.
Being vulnerable to the world—to want to be wanted—this is an inevitability that can feel enlivening, like letting a tide pull you into the ocean.
But mostly, it can feel hellish.
At the end of my relationships, I have at times had one thought sail through my mind: I wish I never met them, and with that thought, what a horrible thing to wish for. It is a cowardly wish, one that has the effect of undermining a past version of you. And it also feels a bit pathetic to let someone else become so inextricable from myself that I would wish to reverse my enmeshment with them.
But I try not to mistake vulnerability—the vulnerability of meeting someone and letting them restructure your life—as the culprit for what is painful about the end of relationships. I wish I never met them is just one other way for me to wish away what was painful in the moment.
“I’ve been wanting to go to more comedy shows around New York but have never wanted to fork over money,” I said.
“A lot of shows are free, sometimes just a five-dollar cover,” he said, eyes shining.
“Okay, you’re right, I should.”
“Yeah, you owe it yourself.”
This is one of the last conversations Rob and I had, sitting side by side on a bar patio. I was close enough to smell him, a proximity that made me mischievous. Later, as we were walking together to the subway:
“I would love to try stage performance but I’m absolutely terrified of having an audience.”
“You should try! You owe it to yourself.”
For a while I couldn’t stop thinking about that, as if my brain narrowed into a single hallway where everything he and I said hung on the walls for me to stare at. Hung on one wall is “YOU OWE IT TO YOURSELF,” which he said at least four times over the course of the night. Why did he say that so often?
I hate the phrase “you deserve it,” to which I always say, “No one deserves anything!!” The implicit in “deserve” is that there are others who don’t deserve. But what about what we owe each other, and what we owe ourselves?
To want something, without a guarantee of satisfaction. Nothing is intrinsic to myself, nothing is a given, therefore I feel like the more I want, the more likely I am to hurt myself or hurt someone else. Nevertheless, there is so much I want.
Where there is and is not light, we advance and retreat; we disclose and we hide; we try our best to manage how and when we are seen. One day after the summer equinox, as the days began to shorten, I emerged out of the subway in Chinatown, at East Broadway and Rutgers, happening upon sunset. Light descends faster in the city; I stood at once in a decentered flood of light and at once in a growing shadow, frame by frame unflamed as the light was knocked out. I stepped into this shadow just as a woman on her phone, openly crying, walked by me. Her face, despite being washed with tears, was unflinching. I saw her once and as she passed, I turned my head to watch her walk away.