Coney Island

Illustration by Matthew Wallenstein

By Matthew Wallenstein

We moved to New York so she could go to the hospital there.There were a lot of arguments that summer. It wore her down and me down. I went looking for her past midnight more than once after she had run out in a fit. I was learning I couldn’t fix things. I was learning it was better to listen. 

There were a few scares. She spent days in hospital beds and I spent days next to her. She would tell me she was worried about dying. I would tell her she wasn’t going to die, but I was worried too.

One night alone on Stuart Avenue I knocked myself unconscious by hitting my head against a brick wall as hard as I could. I woke up slurring her name. I had demons of my own. I wanted to carry hers for her too. I couldn’t figure out how. I was trying everything I could. I felt a stacking failure and felt selfish for feeling.

On her birthday we went to Coney Island. Neither of us had ever gone on any of the rides there. I had only been there in winter, late at night, when men built like stubble-faced bowling pins fished off the boardwalk, and Alex had offered me $20 if I would jump off into the ocean and swim to shore.

But this was during the day, and in July. She, Sandra, Chris and I took Chris’ van out there. Georgia may have been there too. 

We went swimming. She ran into the water and stepped on a diaper as soon as she got in. Chris and I kept swimming anyway.

On the Ferris Wheel, when we reached the top, she stood, lifted up her shirt, and pressed her bare chest against the cage. 

“Hey, Coney Island, look at my tits,” she said. “It’s my birthday.”

Chris took a picture of it with his camera. I can’t remember whether or not ended up in one of his photography shows but I think it did.

A month later she bought a 15 passenger van in New Hampshire. We were going to the country she was from. She said she could get medical attention cheaper there. I drove her and everything she owned to Mexico City. I brought a backpack and a book. Along the way we lost a wheel in Connecticut, picked up her brother in Texas, bribed the border guards, got pulled out of the van at gunpoint a few times by military police.

I collected dead butterflies at a truck stop in the desert where they covered the ground like some kind of old magic. We spent nights with friends of hers, and drove all day without a radio or air conditioning. 

The city was massive. There were places in it I loved. I managed to get a job teaching English classes to business executives. The bus ride to their office building was over an hour each way.  I would leave the house at 4:30 a.m. 

I learned to tattoo in Coyoacon. I worked out on our roof using buckets of plaster as weights. Our roommates were funny and kind. One of them, Paulina, had a mother who made the best salsa I had ever tasted. 

There were more trips to the hospital, to clinics, there were waiting rooms. Once outside of the hospital a woman started praying for her and she passed out. For a minute I thought she was playing a trick on the woman. She wasn’t. I carried her back over to the building and they rushed her inside. I did my best to tell the doctors what I could in my bad Spanish. I felt helpless. When she was stable she told me to tell her family. I went to the payphones. 

There was endurance. Gradually, there was climbing back. But she had a feeling of disappointment with the city. It was not the same for her as it was when she had left it years ago. I was ready to leave too. I was feeling isolation, I was separate from this place and the people in it.


Ten months after arriving in Mexico we were living in New Hampshire again, staying in the basement of a friend of mine from high school. 

We only planned to be there a month or so, and that wasn’t enough time to get a job at a tattoo shop. I got a job at a factory instead. 11p.m. – 8 a.m. The boss wore a clip-on tie and had bad breath. The place printed fliers and menus and calendars. Different nights I would have different tasks. Some nights it was hard work but mostly it was just boring. One shift I was paired with a guy and it was our job to build and stack boxes for another person to fill with bundles of menus. The machine printing them broke down. We wanted to look busy to avoid getting thrown onto another machine, so we just stacked boxes, knocked the stacks over, and stacked them again.

He told me about how when he was fifteen he broke into the elementary school that was just down the street from the factory we were working at. He tried to steal a computer. The cops caught him walking across the street with the thing in his arms and they tased him. Next thing he remembered was waking up in the back seat of the police car. He had pissed himself. I told him about the time I stole a computer from an office at a college. The mechanic came by to fix the menu printer and showed us where part of his skull had been caved in when he was a teenager. He said they used a bat on him, something about drugs. 

Then it was off to Braddock, Pennsylvania. We moved into a house down the road from Dave. A woman who had just won the McArthur Genius Grant for her photography had lived there as a child. I started tattooing again. Bills were in my name for the first time in my life.

The following year she was deported.

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