Manhattan felt like a distant, shimmering dream on the waterfront, still foggy as it drifted nearer and nearer. It was my first time flying alone, and city fantasies dribbled down from the ceiling in shades of blue.
Cobalt umbras teased my eyelids down like blinds, but the engine’s rumbling refused to let me sleep. I glanced out the window, clouds suspended in the air like strings of pearls. Green patchwork unraveled alongside the silken rivers and satin cities below. The world was dressed up, and I was slumped in my seat.
Blinking away warm drowsiness, I opened my copy of “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” so people would know to avoid me. I hadn’t known the novel took place in Manhattan when I bought it just a few days prior, so discovering this while on the way to New York was a pleasant surprise.
“Sleeping, waking,” wrote Ottessa Moshfegh, “it all collided into one gray, monotonous plane ride through the clouds.” I loved to hate her nameless protagonist — a slumbering, rich woman who was beautiful and detached and insufferable. Reader pity and envy sculpted her into a disquieting escape artist. Her weapon was indifference.
The remainder of the flight dissolved into melted ice and blue shadows and popped ears, and then I was in a taxi, watching slivers of rain chip away at the glass. I pictured fingers combing through the skyscrapers and streetlights, lifting debris onto fingertips like scooped diamonds.
My eyes fluttered open in my friend’s 31st-floor apartment. A wide window slit the Upper West Side open, and my gaze struggled to adjust to the enveloping blackness. The city boiled with disquiet, dark shapes tossing and turning in the rain. I fell asleep again.
Milky rose light woke me six hours later, and I rode a vasectomy-ad-filled Metro-North Train to Tarrytown. My work conference slid by like a slick glass on a bar top, and then I was floating through sticky crowds in Times Square, friends’ laughter tumbling through Grand Central Station past midnight. My life was suddenly hurtling past like a train, yet in the early morning Uber back home, I thought back to Moshfegh’s dreamlike daze. It felt like I was moving closer to somewhere I wanted to be.
A crescent waned. A thick humidity sunk into the city’s sweltering streets, so I took refuge in the pink shade of Washington Square Park. French boys smoked and a woman chugged my ginger ale. There was a pile of fake red roses, a penny-filled fountain, $5 blunts. A man sold watermelon juice. I read another chapter. A stroller cruised by. Everything slowed down just for a while.
Stifling heat dwindled into clammy rain, and fuschia ink bled on picket signs. I flitted through the city’s wet edges and glossy streets and blurry passersby. It seemed like everyone knew where they were going, and where they needed to be. Rosy gray fog curled around the nightlife, cradling edifices and rocking the world to sleep.
I awoke in a red studio. Henri Matisse folded me into his rust-colored paint, into his Parisian suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux. “The Red Studio” pressed pause on the playfulness of New York, the city’s friction and momentum. I was now so used to people rushing around me, down in the subway or on the street, but meandering through the Museum of Modern Art felt strange and leisurely.
Red is far from my favorite color, but I found an affinity for this dusky ruby. Matisse’s rufous clutter soothed somehow, though I’m usually drawn to blue spaces. I had grown up in a bedroom of periwinkle. My room had always been my workspace first; I viewed sleep as not purposeful rest, but as an unfortunately obligatory interruption to work.
The ceaselessness of work had carried me for a long time, so much so that I considered work and life synonymous. New York, which I had expected would offer some rest and relaxation, still dragged me along with little relief. I had barely slept in the last few days. Everything was a mad dash to get to the next stop, next train, next taxi. Yet, while I found that forgetting about work simply proposed a different type of exhaustion, it also provided a thrill.
What I loved most about “The Red Studio” was that it included miniature versions of his real-life artwork, which an old gallery label noted makes it “almost a painting of himself.” Space reflects self; the painting glimmered with tranquility and timelessness. I stared at the grandfather clock with no hands until I had to catch my flight.
A blue terminal replaced the red studio. On the plane, I lifted the window cover, squinting at the prickly pink flaring at the earth’s edges. The world flushed red. Nearly everyone around me dozed off with closed windows, but I watched clouds bob like spoonfuls of meringue, cities flashing in the lilac dusk.
Pink red silhouettes waned, a cool violet settled over my eyelids. “If I kept going,” Moshfegh’s character thought, “I’d disappear completely, then reappear in some new form.” Though my book lay open in my lap, my eyes began to close. I dreamed of Matisse red.