It was April Fools' Day, 2013, and I was riding an energy high propped up by the cache of Focalin XR pills which I ingested directly from a plastic orange bottle which rattled around in the cupholder of my Mazda 3 as I drove crazy eights through Manhattan, zoom-zooming up, down and across avenue blocks until I reached the on-ramp to the parking garage of the MetLife building. Peering down over Park Avenue I weaved somewhere between ten and fifteen loops through the pillars of the building and then descended from my concrete lair, shifting from fifth gear down to first before each turn and then back up again as I accelerated towards the next bend, then down, up, down, up until I finally exited the MetLife garage, circled a few more blocks, narrowly avoided hitting a pedestrian on a longboard and then parked in the back corner of a dusty garage in Chelsea and handed my keys triumphantly over to the attendant with the startled look on his face. Later that night I would find myself lying handcuffed on a stretcher flanked by two police officers in the back of an ambulance, but first - hours before the red-and-white flashing lights and rumbler sirens signaled the start of the end of a very long, implausible day, I would break into a Manhattan apartment in a moment bursting with possibility, meaning and synchronicity.
My experiences had felt increasingly charged in the months leading up to that day: each waking moment was made up of secret layers of significance and unearthed purpose which it became my mission to excavate. Many things which happened around me felt like they were designed to happen in a way which I haven’t been able to emulate ever since. “Oh, look at that!” I would exclaim as I drove past a sign for a new take-out joint in my neighborhood, for instance. “I was just thinking about getting take-out for dinner tonight; they must be building this place just for me!”
I remember thinking somewhere in the back of my mind that this wasn't necessarily true - something felt unfeasible about the idea that new buildings could spring up immediately just because I wanted them to - but another part of me assured myself that all I had to do was believe it in order to make it true. That, I decided, was the secret to life: will yourself to believe anything you want and it will become true.
The scene is almost ten years old but I still vividly remember certain moments from that April Fools' Day. How I believed, for example, that I had an acting part in the off-Broadway immersive theater production “Sleep No More” in New York City. After handing my keys over to the parking attendant I walked around from building to building in the Chelsea neighborhood looking for the McKittrick Hotel, the name of the theater where the play was set. I have fleeting memories of carrying a violin with me, but these images flicker with uncertainty: maybe I had merely seen someone carrying a violin and imagined that their instrument belonged to me.
Eventually I entered the marble lobby of a building which could've belonged to either a hotel or fancy apartments. The receptionist seemed to be in a jokey mood. I told him I was a Very Important Person and asked him when Sleep No More rehearsals began. He giggled but didn’t answer my question, so I sat down on the floor in a corner by the entrance. After some time I heard elevator doors clink open from a distance. Still maintaining eye contact with the receptionist, who didn't stop me, I got up and shuffled over towards the sound. A man wearing a Mets baseball cap was exiting the elevator with his son or daughter.
In recent months my group of friends had been obsessed with a popular comedy sketch from Aziz Ansari in which he plays a fictional comedian called RAAAAAAAANDY spelled with 8 A’s. One of the running jokes is that Randy pronounces his name long, the way it's spelled, then proceeds to spell it out anyway to make sure his audience gets the number of A's right. Randy with 8 A’s was mainly funny to me because it was funny to my ex-husband and his friends. I did have a good chuckle the first time I watched the video, but the reason it stayed with me is because of all the remixes and iterations afterwards - we’d smoke pot and make references to Randy jokes, cracking each other up as we huffed smoke out of the sides of our mouths. I remember the way my ex used to laugh hysterically, scrunching up his nose and closing his eyes while he slapped his thighs as if in pain.
So it felt like a homecoming of sorts when, upon entering the elevator, I discovered a button in the elevator for apartment “8A” - an obvious reference to RAAAAAAAANDY, I thought. I felt my friends and ex-husband's laughter enveloping me like a familiar hug even though I was alone and nowhere near them, even though my ex had just told me that he was filing for divorce. I was sure that "8A" must be a symbol; it felt like an invitation to enter the apartment and meet its inhabitants, or to receive a meaningful message about my past or future, or both.
After exiting the elevator I peered down a long hallway with apartment 8A situated at one end of it. As I walked towards the door my steps generated a small breeze which appeared to nudge it wider open, and I saw that it was not only unlocked but had also been left ajar. I thought the man with the child which I had just seen on their way out must have willingly left the door open for me - was that a wink the man gave me as he left the elevator? - but in retrospect I am not sure. It could have been, like countless other moments on that day and every one I've lived after it, a pure coincidence.
The apartment I stepped into was a master class on understated luxury, the epitome of downtown Manhattan high society and wealth. It’s strange how much of my memory of that psychotic episode has vanished and yet I still remember fragments of the break-in so clearly: the glint of stainless steel appliances, the large capacity refrigerator, Viking range stovetop and hood fan over an island which opened towards a sunny, well-lit living room.
I can still taste the juicy crunch of seedless grapes in the bite of cold chicken salad I helped myself to from the fridge. I found a squirt bottle of wasabi mayo and added some to the salad and then, deciding I didn't like it, began to make myself a pot of Oolong tea using the cast iron kettle. I wandered towards the far wall and examined the apartment's circuit breaker, flipping switches on and off while I was waiting for the water to boil.
I stepped into the living room as I sipped my tea and looked out of the floor-to-ceiling glass windows which framed the Hudson River. On the opposite bank I saw the red glowing letter “Y” of the hotel facing the apartment and saw it as yet another sign: a calling, an honoring of my name. I looked around at the restrained chaos of the living room, a mess left behind by sophisticated people. A star wheel consisting of superimposed, rotating paper components with a tiny pinhole in the middle lay on their coffee table next to a wooden mannequin on a stand as well as a model of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. These were the type of toys you’d give a child for inspiration while simultaneously admonishing them not to play with them too much, for fear of breaking them. I picked up the star wheel and peered through it as I held it up towards the window. Not understanding how it was supposed to work, I posed questions to it as if it were an Ouija Board: "where, precisely, was Amy on the night she died?" I asked, referring to my friend who had been struck by a truck in Brooklyn less than 18 months earlier. Everything in my life pointed towards Amy back then.
An upright Steinway piano leaned against the wall and a few pages of sheet music were scattered on the piano bench. I didn't know how to play the piano - that had been my older sister’s instrument growing up, whereas mine had been the violin - but I could read some notes, and knew how to position my thumbs on middle C. I sat down and began to play. I can’t remember now exactly what piece was on the sheet music - I want to say it was Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, but it may have been even more elementary than that - and I hit the wrong notes often, so I had to stop and re-start again. I felt certain that I was solving a puzzle, that I would unlock some secret if I could hit all the notes of the first line of music correctly. I willed this belief into reality. After some time - perhaps fifteen minutes - I played the last note of the first line, correctly, a perfect diminuendo to end the phrase. And then I heard a light but distinct clicking sound behind me. I stood up and walked towards the door, opened it and stepped outside.
I was on a terrace outside the apartment. There were fixtures hanging on the sides of a stone wall which looked like shower heads or little steel waterfalls - it wasn’t clear to me if this was intended as form or function - and lush greenery, perhaps also bamboo, planted throughout. I thought I saw a shadowy figure in the distance moving in my direction through a labyrinth of glass and stone, so I began sneaking around like a ninja, my knees bent to absorb the shock from my jerky movements. I hurried back inside.
The apartment had a second floor and I made my way upstairs urgently, suddenly realizing that I needed to shit. I entered a bathroom which had a long mirror on one side and panels of glass on the other, the shower overlooking the green-and-stone area which I had just explored. I quickly relieved myself. It must've been days since I had passed a stool and it felt solid, substantial, victorious. As I washed my hands I skimmed the scattered bath products which lined the sink with gentle scents like Jasmine, Orange Blossom and Linen. I looked for a guest towel to dry my hands on. Even in that disorganized state of mind, it felt inappropriate to disturb someone else's personal bath towel.
Across from the bathroom was a door to a child’s bedroom. There were toys on the floor and a bunk bed or fortress on one side. But what immediately captured my attention was the slate wall which ran one length of the room and the large bucket of chalk standing on the floor. I felt a desperate longing to connect with this mystery child, so I fished out a piece of brightly colored chalk and wrote the first message which came to mind: “I play the violin too! How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!”
Practice, practice, practice - that was the punchline of a not-so-funny joke which was often recounted by teachers at the Preparatory Music School which I attended until I was fourteen. In fact there were no traces of a violin in the child’s room but the presence of the Steinway in the living room had reminded me of my sister, who also played on a Steinway growing up (though hers was a mammoth compared to the one which was squeezed into this Manhattan apartment). And I suppose the connection between what I assumed was the child’s piano, to my sister, to myself, gave me the impression that even though we played on different instruments and lived different childhoods, our basic experience of learning music must have been the same.
I still shudder to think how the family must've reacted upon seeing that message on the child's bedroom wall. Everything else I had done in the apartment up until that point might have gone unnoticed except to a scrupulous eye. That message, however, left no doubt that there had been a break-in.
I made my way slowly back downstairs - a spiral staircase, I believe - and found myself once again in the front hallway, where I suddenly realized that I had left the door to the apartment ajar when I came in. There was a vintage aluminium baseball bat perched to the side of the hallway behind the coat rack, which I interpreted as a rudimentary security measure in case someone - other than myself - were to break in. I picked up the baseball bat and held it in my hands, admiring how it was both hollow and heavy at the same time. I closed the door until it clicked, locked it and placed the baseball bat directly beside it, easily accessible to me in case I needed to use it.
The hallway was lined floor-to-ceiling with books, with the only gap appearing where a door led to an office room to the right. I entered the office and sat down at a wooden desk where a computer monitor and keyboard were arranged; the tower was perched underneath. The computer was unlocked, so I double-clicked on the Outlook icon and scrolled through a list of unread emails. There was one e-mail which appeared to come from the couple’s tax accountant or a financial broker of some kind which contained forms in addition to a description of tasks attached to the e-mail. I opened Notepad and began typing in comments, instructing the couple to reset their passwords and check for scams and possible fraud from their accountant - something about the e-mails led me to think they were being duped.
And then I logged into my Gmail account and began perusing my own e-mails. I didn’t like my background image - the stock, periwinkle-and-white scheme from Google - and sat fiddling with it until I landed on a new theme: a close-up image of the sun and one of its sun-spots. It reminded me of my friend the Astrologer, who had done a special reading for me after Amy died. He was the one who had first planted the idea in my mind, using stark but gentle terms, that perhaps her death at the hands of a garbage truck was an apt metaphor for that exact moment in her existence - she had been "taking out the trash" from her life in order to move on to another plane. I saved the theme as my Gmail background and it is still the one I use to this day.
I exited the couple's office and found myself back in the hallway leading up to the front door with the baseball bat leaning against it. I took a moment to examine the books which seemed to stretch on forever, spanning many topics across philosophy, literature, religion; the classics. I saw a photo in the corner of what I assumed were the apartment’s inhabitants: a black couple in their late 30s or early 40s, I thought, with a son of 6 or 7. I remember thinking that they looked genuinely happy.
I sat down on the hardwood floor and picked out a book about The Sagrada Familia, the epic modernist-surrealist cathedral by the architect Antonin Gaudí. I had been to Barcelona once, but The Sagrada Familia had been closed to visitors for renovations back then, so I had only seen glimpses of its basilica from behind walls of scaffolding. But I had been to several other Gaudí landmarks and remembered how mesmerized I had been by the almost psychedelic facades which waved to me as I walked beside them: Parc Güell, Casa Milà, and Casa Batlló. One of the final pages of the book described Gaudí’s death - I still remember the gist although I don’t remember what the book was called and can’t find any other references to this online: Gaudí had been walking along the street where the Sagrada Familia was undergoing construction and was looking at the building from various perspectives, stepping backwards to view it from a greater distance on the Gran Via when he was suddenly hit by a tram. A sudden, sharp wind stabbed my chest. “Oh Amy,” I sighed out loud, “is this what happened to you as well? Were you just trying to get a better view of your art on that horrible night?”
The rest of the story is easily searchable on various internet sources: after being struck Gaudí was initially mistaken for a beggar and therefore not given priority medical treatment. He died a few days later, on the day before my birthday. Another coincidence, another reason to believe that I was meant to discover this book, in this apartment, on this day, precisely where I stood.
What feels particularly uncanny as I sit here reflecting nearly a decade later is that I feel very similarly about my life circumstances today - that I was more or less meant to be where I am, right now, sitting in this sun-bleached cafe in Germany. What has changed? Is there anything that I believed during that psychotic episode that I would totally refute today? Do I view my past self as misguided or incorrect?
The truth is not really. Although I clearly recognize that I was emotionally unwell, I still believe many of the same things I believed back then but to a lesser, much more nuanced degree. I realize that in psychosis I was more prone to infuse a depth of meaning into moments which now, in retrospect, I am less likely to see. Of course I no longer believe that it is possible to construct an overnight take-out place, for instance, on the whim of one person - nor do I believe that my whims, or that of 99.9% of humans, make much of a dent in the grand scheme of things. But I also realize that in everyday activities and interactions I am always grasping for meaning, even if not overtly. I still believe in synchronicity and symbolism and encounters with magic and wonder and auspiciousness and the subconscious drive towards something bigger and larger-than-life, more beautiful and poignant and far-reaching than meets the eye. And, to some extent, I still believe that it is possible to will your own beliefs into becoming true. So is my present-day search for meaning itself an insane pursuit or is it a natural instinct which only spirals into madness when exaggerated to a certain degree?
People often refer to the mind as a storyteller. As someone whose mind has spun quite some tall tales I find myself wondering who that person was who broke into an apartment in a confused frenzy, and what the chances are that I will one day find myself doing something just as unrecognizable to a future version of "me." I'm not sure why my storyteller mind can't help but think of the break-in itself as a grand metaphor for some thread in my life: a stranger lost in somebody else's home, unsure of how I landed there but nonetheless attempting to navigate and leave behind chalkboard traces of my existence.
I managed to leave the apartment that day without ever running into the inhabitants of the apartment, and as far as I know the break-in was never reported. I specifically asked my attending psychiatrist at the hospital I was brought to later that night if she had heard anything about it - if the police had been called, for instance - and she only gave me a puzzled smile, as if she thought I had made the whole thing up.