I stagger down the narrow corridor, my clothes soaked through with sweat. My bare feet slip on the warm wooden floors slick with humidity. Stretching out my arms, I graze the rough white walls on either side of me. I turn a sharp corner to be greeted by yet another yawning corridor identical to the last, seemingly endless. My heart starts to race. Despite the lack of any obvious evidence, I know I’m in New York City. The stifling heat suggests that the labyrinth is somewhere underground. I have no memory of how I ended up here, and I begin to grow frantic as turn after turn leads to yet more winding corridors.
I need to escape.
Now I’m running down the halls, gulps of hot air burning my throat and lungs. My vision blurs from the alcohol and dehydration. Left. Right. Right. Left. It’s useless. There’s no way out. With trembling legs I collapse to the ground, the world fading to black.
That’s when I wake up.
“It was a dream,” I wonder aloud, my voice small in the darkness. “Just a dream.”
I close my eyes and try to sleep, but a sinister thought gnaws at my mind. Was it a dream? Or was it a memory?
It was over 30 hours of flying and less than zero degrees outside. We were 22, with travel money cards filled with 7 weeks worth of currency. This was Day 1. And we were in New fucking York. Nothing was going to stop us.
We literally hit the ground running, jumping off the plane and dumping our luggage at Lucky’s cousin’s Manhattan apartment before barrelling straight onto the streets of NYC. Our entire day was spent gawking at a city that felt like the centre of the universe and eating dozens of $1 hotdogs (because $1). We later learned there’s actually a lot of things to see in New York, but at that age, tall buildings and hotdogs were more than enough to keep us entertained. By the time we caught a Broadway show and finished up dinner with friends, we hadn’t slept for almost two days.
It must have been after 11pm as we wandered down the bustling streets with our small group. Coming from a city where “winter clothes” meant “summer clothes + hoodie”, the icy night air was a cruel shock to our coastal sensibilities. In my shivering hands, I clutched a doggy bag containing precious leftovers of my meatloaf from dinner. It was the first meatloaf I’d ever eaten and I couldn’t wait to finish it at breakfast. The very thought warmed my freezing soul.
As we rambled home, the group decided to split up, with Lucky and I parting ways. This presented a dilemma. Neither of us had a key to his cousin’s apartment, so we were relying on her to let us in. It was almost midnight and neither one of us wanted to be the one to wake her. We resolved to rendezvous outside the apartment and go in together. This presented a second dilemma. Neither of us had a working phone.
“We’re being spoiled,” I laughed. “People used to meet up all the time without phones.”
“Exactly,” Lucky replied. “We’ll just pick a time, so keep an eye on your watch and meet me then.”
“My phone is my watch.”
“Same. Let’s just meet at sunrise.”
We marvelled at our own genius as we bid each other goodnight.
I’m running down the grimy stairs and pushing open the door beneath the neon lights. I pull up two seats at the bar, one for me and one for my meatloaf. Ordering a whiskey and coke, I’m greeted with the now familiar “It’s last call.”
“Make it two whiskey cokes.”
The bar is empty, save for me and my meatloaf. The air is heavy with the bartenders disappointment that there’s still a customer in the establishment. My group had disbanded within an hour of saying bye to Lucky, and I had been forced to resort to doing what I do best: kicking on. Leaving my friends to sleep, I’d burst into every closing bar I could find to drown a couple of drinks before moving on. Sunrise was a long way off, and I needed to soldier on.
The bartender glares at me with undisguised contempt. Oblivious, and aided by six previous whiskey cokes, I proceed to tell him of my Australian-ness, a surefire icebreaker especially because “it’s such a long way away.” I’ve barely begun my story about the girl who kept spilling orange juice on the flight, when he cuts me off.
Back in the freezing night, I wander down the now deserted Avenue B. Small icicles are forming on the road signs, but I feel cosy and warm in my whiskey jacket. I hug Meatloaf close. Through the haze of the Red Label coursing through my veins I suddenly find myself sitting at another bar, surrounded by a dozen New Yorkers plus a bartender all staring at me intently with a mixture of curiosity and concern.
“But this part will blow your mind!” (I’m slurring.)
“Bruce Willis was dead the whole time! BRUCE WILLBUS!” (Alright, inside voice.)
“You gotta see it, I think it’s called Six Stories. It might not be out in America yet.” (It’s been out for 12 years.)
“Hey, so are all you guys friends like in that TV show Friends?”
Everybody looks awkwardly at one another, until the guy next to me says “We’re all kind of regulars here but this is the first time we’ve actually spoken to each other.”
“Noo, you guys should all be buddies! Like Phoebe and Chandler and Dawson. Let’s go around the circle and introduce ourselves.”
Maybe it was my accent. Maybe it was my enthusiasm. Maybe it was the meatloaf. For whatever reason, those poor people in the bar that night listened to me. And we went around the room, each telling our story. The bartender’s tale stuck with me. She was in her mid-twenties from a small town, and had moved to New York City to find her big break as an actress. It had been a year.
“I know it’s a long shot,” she smiled sadly, “but you know what they say: if I can make it here, then I can make it anywhere.”
I nodded sagely. “Jay-Z.”
“It’s fucking Sinatra!” the guy next to me spat in disgust, before storming off.
“Anyway,” she continued, “it’s tough to get by here so I basically live off my tips.”
“Oh, you’re a waitress as well?” I asked, confused.
“No? But everybody knows you have to tip the bartender.”
My stomach dropped. I had never known that was a thing. And I’d been drinking all night. Was this why I kept getting thrown out? How many dreams of aspiring actors/actresses had I crushed in my path already? Springing out of my seat I tried to leap over the bar, but ended up impaling myself on the edge and crashed backwards onto the ground.
“Hey, what are you doing, are you okay?!”
“I HAVE TO TIP YOU!”
Staggering to my feet, I took out my wallet and found a $20 note. I asked the surly Sinatra-fan to take a picture of my first tip in America. We both posed with cheesy grins, shaking hands like we were presidents or recipients of a giant cheque, as the camera flashed. The bartenders grin was extra wide as I had actually handed her a $100 bill. I can understand not adopting the metric system, but surely having colour coded money is just a basic tenant of any civilised nation.
We drink on for what seems like hours, laughing, singing and occasionally retching, until suddenly the bar is closed. I find myself lurching into a yellow cab. The driver looks at me cradling my meatloaf and asks “Where to, slumdog?” I want to tell him that’s racist. Instead I shout “NORTH!”
A blinding light is hammering at my eyes, threatening to crack open my skull. I try to speak but my tongue is thick and bone dry, clinging to the roof of my mouth. The best I can manage is a phlegmy groan. Luxurious white sheets envelope my overheating body. A quick peek under the covers reveals I’m fully clothed, wearing the same clothes I left Sydney in 3 days ago. I stagger out of bed and open the bedroom door. I’m greeted by the immediate flash of my camera and Lucky smiling widely.
“He lives!” he exclaims loudly, shards of pain shooting through my head.
“How did I get here?” I croak.
“No idea, my cousin said you showed up around 6am. What the hell were you doing?”
I trawl my memory for an answer. There was whiskey. Neon lights. Someone quoted Jay-Z. But 6am? My mind draws a black void.
“Meatloaf” I reply stupidly.
“Not here, you must have lost it.”
I’m shattered. After everything we had been through together. It can’t be true. “But it barely left my side! Even when I was taking photos with the bartender.”
“Wait, you were taking photos?”
Lucky and I lock eyes as the same thought flashes across our minds. He hands me the camera. I take a deep breath, and hit PLAY.
Dash: Bathroom graffitti. 02:41am
Dash: Tipping the bartender. 02:55am
Dash: New York Man. Possibly surly-Sinatra fan. 03:50am
Dash: Another New York Man. Also possibly surly-Sinatra fan. 03:50am
Dash: Everybody becomes F.R.I.E.N.D.S. 03:50am
Dash: Random NYC street. Note that Meatloaf is still there. 04:10am
Dash: Times Square. 04:17am
Dash: Last photo. Presumably Times Square. Meatloaf status unknown. 04:17am
Dash: First thing next morning. Lost. Confused. Definitive lack of meatloaf.
Dash: Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that night. Piecing together a timeline from the photos, it seems pretty clear that I left the last bar at 4am, presumably when it closed. I then ended up at or near Times Square. What haunts me are the hours from then until 6am when I turned up at the apartment and, by all accounts, ran straight to my room and passed out. So many questions remain unanswered. How did I pass the time? Is my recurring dream of being trapped underground actually a memory? Did I force any other strangers to be friends? But most importantly:
Where is my meatloaf?