It’s New Year’s Eve, 2084. I hurry across Central Park, which is blanketed in six inches of snow, to get to the east side and downtown before the city becomes impassible. It’s cold, but I’m sweaty from my dance class. I should have changed at the studio, but in my rush to avoid the crowds that will be filling the city for several blocks, north, south, east, and west of Times Square in about an hour, I’ve decided to skip it. I regret that now. It’s not good to be in damp clothes in this cold air. Why is a Physics major taking dance classes, you ask? Good question. One that my parents would like an answer to as well, other than that I like staying in shape. I’ve gotten NYU to let me minor in Theatre, something they normally don’t allow, since their Drama program is so exclusive. But the school loved my audition, and decided to let me have this opportunity to make an educated choice about my Graduate focus: Physics or Theatre. I haven’t told my parents, both of them doctors, that I’m heavily leaning toward Theatre―hence, the dance classes. Singing classes too. They don’t even know about those. I’m not a big fan of musical theatre, but a good actor has to be versatile.
The park is a strange, quiet refuge on an evening of such high energy in this city. The snow lays clean and crisp on the ground. Very few people are walking here, and the streetlights have just come on, reproductions from the days long ago when this park was first built. I love these moments in this city: when you suddenly find yourself in a place that has been here for hundreds of years, a place like this park, or Grand Central, or the Natural History Museum, and you are transported back in time for just a moment. For that one moment you imagine life as it once was in New York City, when horse drawn carriages were the mode of transportation, when ladies wore gowns and men wore suits and hats, and, even in that cut-throat town, life had a more genteel air than it does now. In this instant, this serene instant in which all vestiges of the modern city have faded from my view, I imagine I’ve time traveled to that long ago era.
I glance at my palm-link. It’s five-forty five. I’ve got to keep moving. My parents are expecting me for dinner downtown. I’m almost at Fifth Avenue. I hurry out the south-east exit of the park and debate grabbing a car, but there surely won’t be any available tonight. I turn right to duck into the subway station when someone shouts. The revelers are at it already. I glance around and someone runs smack into me. I slip on the icy sidewalk and before I know it, I’m staring up into the face of a man about my age, a beautiful, light brown face, gazing into mine with great concern.
“Are you all right, miss?” he asks.
I shake my head to clear it. I sit up. “Yes, I think so.”
“Let me help you up.”
I give him my hand and dizzily get to my feet. “I think I hit my head.”
“Should we get you to a hospital?”
“No, I don’t think so. Give me a minute.” There are other people standing around me in a circle.
“Do you need help, Kevin?” a young woman asks.
“No. You guys go on. I’ll meet you at the club later.”
“You sure?” another guys asks.
“Yeah, I want to make sure she gets home okay.”
“Alright. See you later, Kev. Be well, miss,” one of them says to me.
I smile weakly.
“Where are you going?” this person named Kevin asks me.
“I was going downtown. To my parents’ place.”
“I’m going that direction too. We can share a cab.”
The street comes into focus. What are those yellow vehicles? There seem to be hundreds of them. Are those wheels they’re running on? And that sound…that persistent blaring sound.
“A taxi? Are you sure you don’t want to go to a hospital?”
“No, I should just get home. But, what’s going on? What are those vehicles?”
“Yeah, let’s get you home. Can you tell me your address?”
“One twenty-one East Twelfth Street.”
“Oh, you’re kidding me? I live on that same block. Okay. We’re getting a cab. Stay here. Don’t move,” he says.
I numbly nod. Is that the sound of horns honking? I’ve heard that sound in movies.
Kevin fairly leaps out into the street and whistles loudly. A huge, ancient, roundish-looking, smoke belching yellow car, with a light on top, screeches to a stop. What on earth?
“Hang on!” I hear Kevin yell. He runs back to me and gently takes my bag, then slips his arm through mine. “Come on.”
I carefully make my way with him into this contraption with an enormous back seat. Someone is actually driving it, sitting in front of a steering mechanism, behind a plastic partition. And he’s smoking. A cigarette? I’ve never seen one in real life.
“East Twelfth between Third and Fourth,” Kevin says to the driver who accelerates the car to break neck speed as I scream. “Oh my god, what’s the matter,” says Kevin, startled.
“He’s going to kill us!” I yell, watching other vehicles careen toward and away from us with no seeming order of any kind.
Kevin only laughs. “Are you sure you’re from here? I learned a long time ago not to look at the road when I’m in a cab. It’s the only way to avoid having a heart attack.”
But I can’t keep my eyes from the scene unfolding in the city around me. I don’t know this place. This is not New York. Except for the fact that we’ve just sped past the Plaza Hotel. I stare in amazement at the beautiful displays in a store’s windows. Bergdorf Goodman, its sign announces. Yes, wait a minute, I know that place, but it’s a restaurant, or at least, it should be. Then it dawns on me. “Oh, they’re shooting a movie!”
“What? Where?” says Kevin, craning around to look. “Do you see any celebrities?”
“No, I mean, all around us…”
“Honey, I really do think you hit your head too hard.”
I feel like I’m going to throw up. I sit back in the seat and take deep breaths but the nauseating cigarette smoke from the driver makes me even sicker. As if reading my mind, Kevin asks the driver to put out the cigarette and the man grudgingly throws it out the window. Throws it out the window! What’s the word for that? Littering? But Kevin seems to think nothing of it. I sit up suddenly. A song is coming from somewhere near the driver.
“I know that song!”
“Everybody knows that song, honey. It’s Prince. Let’s go crazy,” Kevin sings along, “let’s get nuts…”
It’s an old, old song. A song so old no one knows the words anymore like Kevin knows them, and he’s not only singing along, he’s dancing in his seat, following every nuance of the singer’s voice with complete precision.
“Is it from the funk era?”
“The funk era?” Kevin laughs. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He keeps singing with the song, in his own world now.
The driver has veered onto Park Avenue, still maneuvering so crazily I can barely contain my terror, but I’m fascinated by what I see outside the window. The cars, for one thing, driving on wheels, all controlled by people. Pedestrians wearing big, heavy coats with giant shoulders. Women in high heeled shoes and boots, with SO much make up on. The streets dirty with trash. I would continue to doubt we were in New York City, but ahead of us looms the Met Life Building, and we’re about to head through its underpass. As we come out the other side I spot Grand Central Terminal. We’re in New York, for sure, no doubt now, but it’s a city I barely recognize.
“You doin’ okay, honey?” Kevin says to me, and I wonder why he keeps calling me that, until I realize I haven’t told him my name.
“I’m Cassandra,” I say.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Kevin Butler, nice to meet you.”
We shake hands with mock formality. I realize it’s no use to keep asking Kevin what’s happening because it’s all perfectly normal to him. We pass Union Square which looks about like I expect it to except the buildings that surround it are completely different than they’re supposed to be. And one other thing, in the light of antiquated streetlamps, I see people sitting on benches around the park, terrible looking people, dirty and ragged. They hunch over plastic bags, huddled against the cold. Some sleep on the benches. “Why doesn’t anyone help them?” I say out loud.
“I know. It’s so sad,” says Kevin. “I give them a quarter whenever I can.”
A quarter of what? But it’s okay. I’m almost home. As soon as I get to my parents’ apartment it will be alright. They’ll help me figure out what’s happening. The cab turns onto Twelfth Street. We roll up to the address but the building is not there. My heart starts to pound. I flick my hand to activate my palm-link. Why didn’t I think to call them before? But nothing happens. My link lies dead like an old piece of skin, which is impossible. It recharges from body heat. This leads me to the only possible conclusion: I’m dead.
“Here we are, one twenty-one,” Kevin says.
“That’s not the building,” I say quietly.
“It’s the address, but not the building. The building is gone. That’s not it.”
“Are you sure it’s one twenty-one East Twelfth?”
“I think I should know where my parents live.”
Kevin now looks at me as if he’s thinking he has a genuine problem on his hands. “Okay, you’re coming home with me for now.” He directs the driver to stop a few buildings farther up the street and stuffs several pieces of green paper through a tiny door in the partition. The man snatches them up greedily, and Kevin helps me out of the cab, across the sidewalk and into his building. It’s quaint. Very old fashioned. We walk up a few flights of stairs that are dingy and worn. He opens the door with, as unbelievable as it seems, a key, and we go into a dark room. He reaches to the wall and does something which turns on the lights. The space looks like a re-creation from a museum: the light bulbs in fixtures, the furniture, the appliances in the tiny kitchen that’s pretty much a part of the main room, and a tub, yes I recognize this thing as a bathtub…practically in the middle of the room!
“I know, it’s a really old place. I like it though. It’s got character,” Kevin remarks.
At least it’s warm, so I take off my coat, gloves, etc.
“I can’t believe you were warm enough in that thin coat.” He stares at what I’m wearing for a minute. “But I like your outfit.”
I look down at my clothes: a dance leotard with a sweatshirt over it. I’ve cut the neck out so the sweatshirt falls down over one shoulder, and I’ve cut the bottom off so it ends at about my mid-drift―my own creation. I have slightly baggy warm up pants on with leg warmers that come up over my boots. “They’re just my dance clothes,” I say.
“You’re a dancer?”
“Not really. It’s complicated.” I sit on a worn sofa. “Could I have a glass of water? I’m not
feeling so good.”
He hurries to a cabinet to get a glass, fills it from a pipe, and brings it to me. It’s brownish in color and, in spite of my reservations, I drink it.
“Look, I’m worried about you, and, frankly, I don’t know what to do with you. I really think we should get you to a hospital.”
“No.” There’s no point in that if I’m already dead. I may be in some alternate reality, but whatever this version of heaven or hell is, I may as well go with it. “I feel better now.”
“Do you want to call your parents?” He picks up a chunk of plastic from a thin, flat device. An old fashioned telephone. He holds it out to me and I stare at the buttons on it.
“Um, no. I just remembered. They’re out for the evening. And I was confused. Their address is two twenty-one East Twelfth. They just moved and I forgot. I don’t have the key. I live in the dorm at NYU,” I continue, making up whatever pops into my head. “But they’re closed for the holidays, which is why I was staying with my parents.” In reality, I share a loft with a couple of roommates in Soho, but since I’m here with Kevin, there must be a reason for it, so I decide to play it out. Besides, I don’t even want to know what I might find if I try to go back to my apartment.
He sets the phone back down and it immediately makes a ringing sound, startling us. He grabs it up again and talks into one end. “Hey Michel…what? You’re kidding me! Where are you calling me from? Oh, come on, it’s too cold for that, you’re crazy. No, I’m still going to The Saint. Okay, well, have fun.” He puts the phone speaker down onto its holder. “Damn!”
“What’s the matter?”
“My friends have bailed on me.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re in Times Square. He was calling me from a pay phone.”
I nod as if I know what that is. “Are they going to stay there ‘til midnight?”
“That’s the plan.”
“I know. Now I’ll have to go by myself.” He looks at me, a light dawning in his dark brown eyes. “Unless you want to go with me.”
“It’s a private party at a club nearby. It’s an amazing place, so cool, but…it’s a gay club. I hope you don’t mind.”
“A gay club?”
“Um, you know, for men who like men?” He looks at me like I’m from outer space and right about now I feel like I am.
“Oh! I didn’t know you called it that.”
“What do you call it?”
“Nothing. I don’t have a name for it.”
“Oh, you mean you don’t like to give people labels. I respect that.” He nods his head.
“Yeah, I’m originally from San Francisco.” What does it matter what I say now?
“Well, what do you call a gay club?”
“And a lesbian club?”
“You mean women?”
“Yes!” he laughs.
“And for straight people? I suppose you call that ‘a club’ too?”
“I had no idea San Francisco was so advanced.”
“You’d be surprised.”
“Well, anyway, I think you’ll love The Saint. It’s like, four stories and the dance floor is under this big kind of planetarium-like dome where stars spin overhead. It’s beautiful. And the music is killer. Tonight is by invitation only, and my friend is the DJ, so it’s free for me and my friends. Free drinks, free food, everything.”
I may be dead but this sounds great, and what else have I got to do? “I’d love to go. But what am I going to wear?” I think of the clothes in my bag, but they don’t seem any more acceptable than what I have on.
“You look amazing already. We’ll just spiff you up with some make-up and earrings and stuff.”
“I don’t have any.”
“Oh, I do. Hang on a sec’.” He runs over to a machine that’s sitting on a low cabinet, picks up a colorful kind of sturdy, square envelope that’s lying next to it and extracts a round black thing. He places it carefully in the center of a circular platform on the machine and moves a small pole over it, then gently lowers the pole, which has some kind of attachment at the end, on to the black thing and suddenly my ears are assaulted by bells and drums. Kevin lets out a cry of joy and twirls around. Then instruments play and a woman starts to sing and Kevin sings along, dancing and spinning. “Ooh, give me two strong arms to protect myself,” they both croon, “give me so much love that I forget myself…” He moves beautifully, in perfect rhythm. His enthusiasm is contagious and I watch him, smiling.
“Come on, dancer, dance with me.” He pulls me to my feet and I find myself imitating his moves, giving myself up to the music, which is ecstatic. I’ve never heard anything like it. I’m laughing and dancing and Kevin takes me in his arms and spins me around. “You’re good!” he yells, and I realize I am. That song ends and another one begins and Kevin runs to a small refrigerator of sorts and flings it open. “Are you hungry? I’ve got some leftover Chinese.” He grabs some little white boxes and sets them on a table with chopsticks. These I know, and I realize, dead or not, I’m starving. We devour the food which tastes completely different than the Chinese food I’m used to but strangely delicious. When we’re finished, Kevin goes to the music machine again. “What do you want to hear?” he asks.
“The Thompson Twins!” He pulls out another square envelope and puts another black round thing on the machine.
The music is so simple compared to what I’m used to but I love it. It’s full of happiness…and longing.
“And now, let’s get ready.” He pulls containers from a closet and sets them on the table. “Do you mind?” he asks as he fluffs my curly red hair.
“Not at all.”
He pulls a can of something out of a box and sprays it over my head. I cough.
“Sorry,” he laughs.
He grabs some kind of hair implement and uses it to poof my hair into a veritable cloud around my face, assisted by the sticky spray he’s using. He shows me the results in a mirror―I never knew my hair could be that big. Then, while I’m holding the mirror, he starts to do my makeup, piling on the eyeshadow, mascara and lipstick. When he’s finished, I stare at myself, stunned. “Do people really wear this much makeup?”
“They don’t wear makeup in San Francisco?”
“I guess so, but I usually don’t.”
“It’s New Year’s Eve, time to go crazy!” He then drapes me with long sparkly earrings and strings of fake pearls, and even though I’m still wearing my dance clothes, I feel gorgeous all of a sudden.
He then changes into some loose-fitting trousers, and a big-shouldered jacket, with a t-shirt underneath. He adds a kind of gelatin to his short, wiry hair until it’s standing up high on his head, and then puts a dab of eye makeup on, and one long earring in his left ear.
“You’re beautiful,” I tell him.
“So are you,” he says, looking me in the eyes.
Something tugs at my heart and I realize that, if I didn’t know he preferred men, I’d be in danger of falling for him.
We put on our coats and leave the apartment. I leave my bag behind because I’ve got nowhere else to go but back to Kevin’s place. Without a palm-link, I have no access to my funds, but at least it doesn’t appear we’ll need any. As soon as we hit Third Avenue and turn south, I stop, transfixed. Over the tops of the low tenement buildings I see two towers in the distance, rising into the sky. The World Trade Towers. I’ve seen them in history books. Kevin stops too and gives me a quizzical look. But I cannot move, nor can I tell him why the sight of these buildings
moves me so much. My eyes fill with tears for a moment.
“What is it Cassandra?” Kevin gently puts an arm around my shoulders.
“Nothing. They are just so beautiful.” The moon shines between the soaring buildings, lit up with thousands and thousands of lights.
He glances at the towers. “Yeah, I guess they are. I kind of take them for granted.”
I force the tears away and we keep walking to St. Mark’s Place, over to Second and down a few more blocks. The area is far more recognizable to me than the other parts of New York I’ve seen tonight. The East Village is charming―a truly old-fashioned New York neighborhood. And the people are wild looking: boys in Mohawk haircuts, every color of the rainbow, wearing leather jackets and pants, army boots and safety pins in their ears. Girls wear short skirts and chunky earrings, short fur jackets and rows of thin rubber bracelets up their arms. A guys walks by carrying a huge music-playing box on his shoulder that blasts at a deafening volume.
“Hasn’t he ever heard of a Walkman?” Kevin mutters.
There’s no point in even asking what he means.
We arrive at the entrance of the club he calls “The Saint” though the fact that it is a nightclub is undetectable from the outside. It’s just a door in a large building that could have once been a school or a bank. Inside, there’s a guy checking names on a list. He marks us off and we sail into a cavernous room with an enormous bar in the middle, in the shape of a square. Lights shine up into the high ceiling from an island in the center of the bar, which is adorned with sprays of flowers. Handsome, shirtless bartenders slide back and forth filling orders, calm and sensual despite the crowd. Around the perimeters of the room, carpeted risers are the only seats, and mostly men, one as good-looking as the next, lounge about with drinks and plates of fruit, cheese, and other snacks. Despite the tower of light in the middle of the bar, the place is dark. The men are either dressed well like Kevin is, or they’re shirtless. There are a few women scattered about, all attractive, all with lots of makeup and big hair like me.
Kevin asks me if I want a drink, but I don’t like alcohol much, so I go for a mineral water―something at least recognizable. Kevin gets a drink that looks like mine but has vodka in it. We sit down on a riser and sip our beverages, dazzled by the many beautiful people around us.
“Do you come here very often?” I ask him.
“It’s only open on Saturday nights and special occasions like New Years. But I go to other clubs pretty often. I love to dance.”
“Me too, though I don’t go dancing at clubs too much. When I dance, it’s usually in class.”
“It’s pretty obvious you don’t go out much,” he says with a grin. “What kind of dance do you do?”
“I take a little of everything: ballet, jazz, afro-cuban.”
“I love it. It’s my favorite class.”
“I gotta try that sometime.”
“So you go to school the rest of the time? What do you study?”
“Physics? You study Physics?” He nearly chokes on his drink. “I would not have pegged you for a scientist. A scientist who dances…”
“Well, I’m not sure I’m going to continue with Physics at the graduate level. I’m minoring in Theatre.”
“Really? Theatre was my major at Hofstra.”
Hofstra University―this I’ve heard of. “Are you an actor?” My heart beats a little faster.
“No, I’m a flight attendant.”
I’m not exactly sure what this is, but I ask, “Do you like it?”
“Well, it’s kind of like being a glorified waiter in the sky,” he laughs, “but it pays the bills, and I love the travel. I also like the uniform, and the responsibility of being in charge of all those people’s welfare. I feel like it’s an important job.”
“Sounds like it is.”
“So you’re thinking of getting a master’s in Theatre, huh? You wanna be an actor?”
“Yeah, I do. I really think I do. My parents are not at all in favor of it though. They’re both doctors.”
“Oh, I hear you. My parents weren’t happy that I majored in Theatre either, but then, they’ve barely accepted the fact that I’m gay, so they’re not happy with much that I do.”
I take this in, trying to imagine a world where people are not accepted for who and what they are. Then I realize I don’t have to imagine it. I’m in it.
“Come on, let’s dance,” Kevin says, jumping up. I follow him up a flight of stairs into another enormous room where music thumps, filling my body with the sound. Kevin yelps with excitement. He grabs my drink from me and sets it on one of the risers that surround the dance floor. The room is dark except for the lights that flash in alternating colors. Looking up, I’m dazzled by the dome he described before, where stars indeed revolve in a fathomless universe. He leaps onto the dance floor, pulling me with him. The music is so enveloping I can’t help but move to it, and within seconds, I’ve let go of any inhibitions and I’m moving with complete abandon. I lose all sense of time. Kevin is sometimes in front of me, sometimes off dancing with someone else, though no one really seems to be dancing together. Everyone has been taken over by the music and nothing else matters. I’m aware, because a shout goes up, that it’s midnight. People kiss, and then go on dancing. Kevin slides over to me and softly presses his lips to mine.
“Happy New Year,” he whispers in my ear.
I don’t know if I expected to suddenly be whisked back home at the stroke of midnight like some kind of Cinderella, but nothing happens, other than my lips tingle from the sweetness of his kiss. He takes me in his arms and we dance. The words of the song say exactly what I’m thinking, ‘Why do you have to be a heart-break-er?’ Because, if I do stay in this strange world, I will be in grave danger of this man breaking my heart. He lets me go and whirls around, catching the attention of a young, blond man who smiles at him and they dance together. I throw my head back and open my arms and lose myself to the swirling sky of lights. I close my eyes and spin, around and around until I feel myself rising into the stars, into where I’m sure heaven must be.
Slowly, the music fades. I don’t want to open my eyes because, if I do, there will be a finality. I will have gone on to where death surely awaits me.
“Cassandra,” a familiar voice calls. I open my eyes to see the lovely face of my mother gazing down at me.
“Cassie.” My father’s face comes into view.
The lights that surround me now are white. Did my parents die too? Was there some kind of cataclysmic event? Are we all in heaven together?
“She’s going to be fine,” another voice says. I see a woman dressed in a white coat, a stethoscope around her neck.
My mother kisses my cheek. “You fell,” she says. “Slipped on the ice outside of Central Park. You’re in the hospital. You have a concussion, but you’re alright,” Her voice has the practicality of the medical professional that I’m used to hearing.
“How did I get here?”
“The EMT said a young man called them and stayed with you until they came. All we know is that his name was Kevin,” my dad says.
And in that moment, I know it’s not my destiny to be an actor. Somehow, I have time traveled, and it’s clear to me, I will spend the rest of my life trying to do it again.
Note: To the Dean of Admissions of the Chronology Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, please accept this as my admissions essay to the Graduate Program. Thank you,