Written in Italy

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Keanna Peña '25, psoing in front of the greenlands in Italy.

1. There’s something about New York that requires mastering. Mastering the way you walk, mastering the subway, mastering the shortcuts and the roundabouts to avoid the homeless man down the block. After a while, it’s easy, it’s second nature to me now and everywhere I go, I think, “I need to master this.” I need to know where all the bathrooms are, I need to be the one leading the way, I need to be the one carrying the cash, the bus passes, the pepper spray.

Now whenever I go somewhere new, I think and decide which borough it is and act accordingly. For example, Allentown is Queens, New Jersey is Staten Island and Merano, Italy is Manhattan. And I love Manhattan. Manhattan brings out a kind of hyper independence in me and even though I’m from Brooklyn, the first place I have ever mastered was Manhattan.

And so when I went to Merano for the first time, all I saw was this beautiful, smaller, brighter, safer Manhattan and I was excited. So excited that I started to imagine what my life would look like if I lived in Merano.

I’d visit the farmers market every Friday and walk through its endless maze of clothes, leather belts and assorted spec, and buy shirts my dad would wear. I’d become family with the sweet couple who engraved my mothers name on a leather keychain. I’d speak so much Spanish it would eventually fuse into Italian. I’d probably never go to a Costco or BJ’s ever again.

I’d see movies at the local theater and forget what AMC’s greasy popcorn tasted like. My feet would get used to walking on cobblestone. I’d take the bus all the time instead of the subway, where I would steel every muscle in my body until that train arrived, which too was its own kind of mastering. I’d forget what a New York bagel tasted like. 

I’d grow to like red wine with every meal. I’d grow accustomed to Merano’s arched doorways and pretty salmon pink roofs, and their strange, middle of the day closing times. I’d grow to know the names of the euros I carry in my wallet. 

And then, maybe after all that growing, I’d stop comparing everything to New York. Manhattan would just be Manhattan and Merano and just be Merano. But that’s stupid. I was stupid.

2. Let me tell you about Brooklyn. In my brain it’s split into two. First there’s the gentrified areas, where there’s bike lanes, a Starbucks on every corner, brownstones in neat rows, and gyms with $100 a month memberships. 

And then there’s everywhere else, and everybody else too.

In these areas there are delis where you can still get a bacon egg and cheese for 3.75. In these areas, you can hear the smack and clack dominos and beer bottles from your seventh floor apartment. In these areas, the fire hydrants will flood the sewers in the summer. In these areas, the screech of the train is music, the trash on the floor is decoration, and the cat calls from the men around the corner are a symphony. 

3. I have not mastered Brooklyn because I have not been to all of Brooklyn. And I have not been to all of Brooklyn because I am afraid. Sometimes I am afraid of even my own neighborhood.

4. When I went to Merano the second time, I quickly began to realize that Merano wasn’t Manhattan. This beautiful, idyllic place that I built in my head began to burn when I felt the eyes, and then the laughter of a woman a few feet away from me in a clothing store. Her eyes were going from my face to my hair, and then her hands were going to her husband so that she could show him what was so funny. I watched her watch me and I burned.

And then in the next store, as I popped in and out of my dressing room to show my friends a dress, again, the eyes, the looks. And I remember going back into my dressing room, and looking at my face and my big curls in the mirror.

For one terrible moment I thought, maybe I should put my hair up.

5. In this way, Merano wasn’t Manhattan but Brooklyn, the parts of Brooklyn where, even in the summer, I carry an extra large sweater to hide my chest and legs. But even then, somehow, what I felt that day in Merano was worse. After I left the store and walked down the street, I felt terrified of people just looking at me. At least when it’s just men, I know it’s lustful, and I can control that. I can put on the big sweater, I can wear the big clothes, and I can put on a bitch face. 

But these people from Merano are looking because of my hair and my skin and my culture. 

And when I suddenly felt like crawling, quickly, outside of my body, I knew that Merano wasn’t Manhattan and it wasn’t Brooklyn. I also knew that I couldn’t master Merano because really, I didn’t want to anymore. Because in mastering there’s also sacrifice.

 In New York, I sacrifice the clothes I want to wear, the places I want to go, hell, I even sacrifice nighttime.

And so as I walked out of that store with my scrunchie still on my wrist and my hair in my face, I knew that I wouldn’t trade the sacrifices I make in New York for the ones I knew I would eventually make here in Merano.

6. I am, in New York.

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