My winter of love: I was homesick in New York. The quiet Danish poet was just what I was longing for
There was a strip of cafes and bars that ran alongside Tompkins Square park in the Lower East Side in New York and none of them minded if all you bought was a single coffee and sat all night long. So I did just that. It was the late 90s, I was 19 years old and I had never lived in a city before. I sat night after night in these cafes, reading books, watching people, drinking too much coffee. I didn’t really have anything else to do, I didn’t know anyone, so I’d sit and watch the East Village whirl around me.
I wasn’t the only lonely kid, though. After a while I noticed another sitting night after night in Café Pick Me Up, a studious young man feverishly filling up notebooks. Café Pick Me Up was a cosy little place with a low pressed-metal ceiling, crammed full of tiny tables, with French cafe chairs and mellow lighting. If you were to write a romcom featuring a meet cute, you’d set it there.
I can’t remember who sent the first note; I can only imagine it must have been him because I certainly wasn’t that bold back then. He wanted to know what I was reading that night. I read voraciously back then, a book a day, in part to fill the long hours of boredom. I think I might have been a bit standoffish in my reply, but it didn’t deter him. He sent more notes. Eventually I asked him what he was writing. Poetry – it was his true love.
He was Danish. It was nice to talk to someone, even nicer that he was European. I’d only been in New York for a couple of months but I missed home. I didn’t quite get these loud, mouthy New Yorkers. This quiet, thoughtful Danish poet was just what I was longing for.
He was there the next night, and so was I, and the night after that and the following one. We struck up an intense friendship and spent all our free hours together. We’d hop from Café Pick Me Up to Alt Cafe next door, or end up sitting late into the night eating steaming bowls of cabbage soup in Leshko’s.
It was winter, the coffee shops’ windows steamed up, the Christmas lights went up outside, it was bitterly cold, and when we were finally high on caffeine we’d walk it off. We were both penniless, but we were young and happy to stroll for hours, exploring Manhattan. One weekend we got up at the crack of dawn and walked the length of the island; it took all day.
Through all this I learned about his life in Denmark, the childhood sweetheart waiting for him back home, how he was reluctantly training to become a social worker, but mostly about his infectious love of poetry. That bit worked very well on me. I was falling.
His training placement in Manhattan was coming to an end, though. By Christmas he’d be home again. We had just weeks, we’d met too late and, anyway, he had a girlfriend. It was all very chaste, until it wasn’t.
He’d walk me back each night through Tompkins Square park, with its Christmas lights glowing. One night he kissed me on a park bench. I knew we shouldn’t but he would be gone so soon. The next night a homeless guy on a bench nearby hollered at us to get a room, but we couldn’t as we both had fierce landladies.
His flight left on 20 December, and we spent every available hour till then together, sitting up all night kissing on park benches, despite the bitter cold. On the morning of the 20th I left him to go to work at New York Botanical Garden, where I was employed in the labelling department. It was my job to make those plastic display labels you see on all the plants. I sat in an attic with a loud engraving machine and stacks of blank labels, meticulously spelling out Latin names, locations of origin and accession numbers. It was a pretty boring job but it had got me the ticket to New York and I only had to do it over the winter. Come spring I’d be gardening outside again.
As no one ever came to the attic to see what I was doing – as long as the machine was running – I could go to sleep without anyone noticing. And I did that a lot, making up for all those late nights talking. That morning, broken-hearted, I curled up to sleep the day away. But I didn’t get to: my boss, Margaret, came to tell me there was a telephone call for me. No one ever called me at work, not even my mother. She looked at me curiously.
I had to take the call at her desk. It was him calling from the airport. The cheapest way to fly back to Europe back then was via Iceland. He’d decided to make a trip of it, taking a three-day layover to explore the island before returning to his life in Denmark. He wanted to know if I would come.
He’d buy the ticket; he had a hotel room already paid for, and we could see the northern lights. We’d be alone with all that ice and snow for three whole days. Then we’d go our separate ways.
All I had to do was tell my boss I was suddenly very unwell, get back to Manhattan, pick up my passport, and a ticket would be waiting for me for the evening flight; he’d meet me at the other side. With Margaret looking on, and noting this was probably the case, he said: “Think about it, make your excuses, call me back in 30 minutes and I’ll book the flight.” I put the phone down.
I cannot now remember much about this man – not what he looked like, nor his name, nor where in Denmark he came from – but I can remember exactly how my heart felt in my chest, the way the office span around as I ached with sadness and lack of sleep.
I never called him back. I waited for the half-hour to pass and then I went back to making labels. I sobbed so loudly in my attic space, I don’t think the machine drowned it out. But if I had gone it would no longer have been so innocent. He had a girlfriend and a life to return to, whereas my time in New York was just beginning.
Still, I spent the next three days inconsolable. New York was twinkling with Christmas cheer and I was heartbroken and alone again. For a long time, I regretted my choice, wondering what might have happened if I’d gone to Iceland, how life might have spun differently. But New York moves at pace, and spring was coming, with many more adventures for me.
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