Moving to NYC
I’d die a thousand deaths but still wake up.
I shoved my rolling suitcase and shoulder bag through a turnstile in Penn Station. I didn’t know the emergency exit door was available for this very purpose. I should have connected the dots when I saw mothers in strollers carting their babies through the terminal. But I was distracted, venturing into another unfamiliar place, looking up at signs announcing cardinal directions and street names that made little sense to me. I felt some pride though, thinking I was in keeping with the expeditionary tradition of the Marines, infiltrating the unknown battlespace with only what I could carry. Later I’d find this to be a common experience shared by most transplants. I am not special.
Now at street level, the cars screamed by in a rush to make it as fast as possible to the next red light, where they would stop in restless anticipation. Their horns were at the ready in case the car in front was microseconds late in accelerating after the green light. A fireteam of women chatted as they walked down the street in heels and tight dresses, taking up the entire width of the sidewalk. Armed with their clutches, they seemed jovial, yet vigilant. I watched as men followed them with their eyes, nodding in approval. A few years later, as I walked to a gala with my friends on the same street, I felt compelled to say something after they were cat-called. They told me not to waste my energy. I seethed knowing they were right, but I could feel myself itching for a fight.
The miasma of the street was overwhelming. Dirty diapers, beer cans, empty pizza boxes, and cigarettes came together as one—the ultimate melting pot—an odor that now seems so familiar, I barely notice it. But back then, this airborne ipecac reminded me of my first nauseating whiffs of burn pits, where we burned our trash and excrement.
The place I was staying at temporarily was eleven blocks away. The wheels of my suitcase struggled with the uneven pavement, reminding me of the million times I had to drag my kit bag across the tarmac, and then through the gravel and dirt on the FOBs on my first, second, and third deployments to Afghanistan. I was always annoyed that I had to abide by the packing list, carrying extra things we never used. In this move though, I was underprepared. January in the city was harsh and soon I was wearing the same things Marines made fun of civilians for: knit beanies, scarves, and mittens, rounded out with a tote bag from the local bookstore.
I made it to my temporary lodging in twice the time I would make it today, a law-abiding citizen and former Marine officer, obeying traffic lights and waiting patiently as annoyed pedestrians flowed past me. I walked towards Chelsea to a studio filled with thirteen different types of chairs. My friend lived there in the 90s, and its hallways were narrow enough for me to touch both walls with my arms outstretched. The interior walls loomed over me with pictures of her childhood: my friend as a teenager, looking at me with a wry glance; her and her sister staring as I readied my new business suit and hooked it on the front door handle. Just a few months ago in the hot Okinawan summer, I had done the same with my fatigues on the door of my bachelor officer’s quarters.
That night, as I lay on an unfamiliar futon, I listened to the din of the street, cars honking impatiently and a homeless man exorcising demons from the trash bins. Little dogs yelped. Frantic footsteps pattered in the apartment above. A low bass resonated through the walls. The heat warmed no one but the once and forever young people in the picture frames. I wore a whiskey blanket to sleep, slowly fading into my unconscious where I would reunite with my former anxieties. A weapon wouldn’t work. High school rivals would be chasing me in an armored HMMWV. I’d die a thousand deaths but still wake up.
Four years later, I am in a studio with floor to ceiling windows in a high rise in Downtown Brooklyn. People know me as an amicable, well-adjusted veteran, the type they want to put on a diversity panel. I’m able to tactfully respond to the question, ‘Did you kill anyone?’ with varied answers depending on the situation, though it still makes my ears hot every time. I’m comfortable moving around the city, and I know never to trust an empty train car. I plot my exit around tourists, knowing they will hesitate when they get off the train.
In the movies, I see the city now: Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge, East River ferries. I feel an affinity, like when I spot a stranger wearing the same pair of shoes as me. But, when watching war movies, I get incensed, finding inconsistencies and mistakes. Ribbons are on backwards, ranks and acronyms are butchered, and protocols and tactics are blatantly wrong. I cringe every time I don’t see a finger straight and off the trigger of a gun, as if everyone in the scene is in real danger because of it. I swear them off each time I watch them, yet I find myself searching for one I can see myself in.
The city is full of people and is still magically lonely. I imagine those I once shared a bed with, living their lives, visiting flower shops and cafes, hands interlaced with others, receiving that warmth. I feel it when I grab a subway pole, the heat still sitting there from the last straphanger. I sleep on one side of the bed and sometimes reach over to feel the coolness of the absence. I hear the cabs honking on the street below, most of them taking strangers to places I’ve never gone, and some to places I have. And when I close my eyes, I still dream of my weapon malfunctioning in a firefight, reminding me of where I’ve been, reminding me that I might always be there.
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Miko Yoshida is a Japanese-American Los Angeles native and is the eldest of seven. He deployed three times to Afghanistan as a Marine and has worked in consulting and financial services in New York. He is currently doing research and attending graduate school.