My grandmother lives in Queens. She lives in Queens in a pale brick one-bedroom apartment on the second floor with her shih-tzu Rusty and her "boyfriend" Tom—the man she has been with for 20 years after separating from my grandfather—who lives downstairs.
Queens has always had a special place in my heart. It was where my father grew up and it was my first experience with New York City. Since before I could remember, my mother, father, brother and I took 4-hour car rides down to Queens (over the Throgs Neck Bridge from which Peter always swore he could see the Statue of Liberty but I never could) where we stayed for a couple nights, the five of us in my grandmother's tiny flat. There'd be a pullout couch, some air mattresses, fresh sheets and cold glasses of water. New York City's best.
Now that I go to school in New York, sometimes I will take the train out to Queens to see my grandma and get away from the craziness of college and my daily life. I exit the Long Island Rail Road at the New Hyde Park station and step down from the platform, where Tom is waiting in his gray pressed slacks and white Ralph-Lauren quarter zip, his arms crossed and his eyes searching for me behind his darkened transition lenses. I go up to meet him and he kisses my cheek, taking my bag off my shoulder which makes me feel bad because he's 87 and I don't pack very light. Nonetheless, I follow him to my grandma's white Toyota Camry and hug her through the driver's seat window, patting Rusty, who's sitting squeamishly in her lap, on the head and climbing into the backseat.
We get to Gram's apartment and the familiar smell of clean laundry and used furniture fills my nose as I climb the steps behind Rusty. There are cookies from the Italian bakery down the street on the table and Gram offers me some, which I happily accept. We chat for a while, just small talk, about school and about Gram's neighbors, who always have some sort of drama going on. Menial things that distract me from the heaviness that is life sometimes. Then Gram mentions that her neighbors are having a Labor Day cookout, and would I like to go down and meet all of them? All of the people I have heard Gram gossip about, the teacher with the squeaky voice, the ex-dancer with a smoking problem? Of course I would like the go down and meet all of them.
So we go down for a while, and I meet all of them, and they're even better than gram made them out to be. They're funny, you know, all in their own little worlds in their little apartment complex in Queens. No two are the same. There's Johnny, from Greece, who insisted that I take a lot of food even though I had eaten, because it was rude in Greek culture to resist food when offered. There's Dorine, Tom's good friend, who brought me a sweater from her apartment because I was only wearing shorts. I don't know what it was about that gathering but I could really feel the spirit of New York there; all these people from different places gathering in the same space, interacting in the same space. The harsh but kind heart, the hospitality you can tell comes from not, at some point in their lives, feeling welcome.
After the cookout we went back upstairs and Tom made us two cups of tea before heading to bed for the night (it was only 8pm). Gram and I stayed up and talked for a while, as we do, hands wrapped around our tea cups, warm, quiet voices in the soft dim light above the kitchen table. She always talks about her neighbors, her brother, my cousins, my aunts and uncles. My parents. I tell her about my friends, school, boys. She always knows what to say and I can sometimes see myself in her, in the mistakes we both made and the lessons we both learned.
The next morning I wake up on the pullout, with Rusty sleeping by my side, taking up too much of the mattress. I smile as he turns over when I wake, smile when I see Gram and Tom already toasting my blueberry bagel from the deli down the road they must have picked up while I was sleeping. It's little things like tea from Tom and blueberry bagels that make me feel so spoiled, so loved and cared for, so at home even not at home.
We eat and then Gram and I take a ride out to Port Washington, just as it's starting to rain. I've always loved taking rides, especially in the rain. We're quiet most of the way; neither of us are huge talkers, except when someone asks us something and we tend to go off for hours without really answering the question. When we get there, we sit in her Camry for a while, looking out at the misty harbor and the lonely sailboats that sat quietly in the drizzle. "I love the water," Gram said, and I agreed. There's something comforting but sad about rainy rides, something inexplicably discomforting but peaceful about boats all alone. About the open ocean. As I sat, I felt sad.
But then we left, and put it behind us. I went back to gather my things and Gram and Tom drove me to the station, waiting until the last minute the train pulled away before pulling out. I waved as I went past, knowing that in a half hour I'd be back in the city, back alone in the whirlwind of my ordinary life. But I was okay, really. I was recharged. Something about Queens always makes me sad but happy. It's the sadness that comes with simplicity, of being removed but not totally removed from the city, from your life. It's the sadness that comes with the complexity of knowing that simplicity only exists there, in those moments, and the sadness that comes with knowing that it will be a long time before you live that simplicity.