Last year in the land of the free and the home of the brave – Chapter 2

New York City always gave me the fresh air and sense of escapade that I needed.

Those were the words about my imaginary second trip to the Big Apple in my fantasy story in 2008 as I was a dreamy 17-year-old. I had never thought that 4 years afterward, I would write that again in the story about my real life and actually mean it.

Like in the story, it was also the second time I’d been to NYC, excited to escape the monotony and rurality of Central PA, the stressful first week of classes, the boredom in my mind from the surrounding confinements, and excited to finally realize my long-time dream of watching a tennis Grand Slam at its very venue. As the train slowly left Syracuse, the skyline of NYC gradually revealed itself with the most glamorous skyscrapers reaching up tall and proud. Looking out of the train window at them, like Rachel Andrews – another character in my stories, I could almost feel the ambition, the desire to be part of this world. Almost.  The difference was I didn’t have the determination and bravery that I assigned her, the determination and bravery to escape from my past.

As I stepped out of Penn Station, a current of air and people swept through me. NYC never failed to overwhelm me with its unrelenting residents, towering buildings, and utmost urbaneness. The hustle and rustle of people of all races and looks, the endless lines of yellow taxis, the noise, the lined up shiny shops and stores, the colorful and trendy outfits, they were all parts of the liveliness, the energy, parts of this metropolitan. As I quickly moved along the sea of people on my short walk from Penn Station to Port Authority, an increasing sense of aliveness rushed through my veins. Back in Elizabethtown, where everything was slow, laid back and relaxing, I never felt the urge to do anything. Just walking fast in my best outfit, like I was doing now, gave me a meaning, a purpose, as if I had something important I had to hurry to finish, something so important that was worth dressing up for.

My phone rang. I checked the name, a funny “Phuong Hoang Pham Temp” and hastily answered. My steps quickened. Walking on NYC streets and talking on the phone made me feel like a true cosmopolitan.

–          Ok, is that you? – I answered the call with probably the most nonsense phrase ever. Somehow I thought that was a very cute phrase the first time I heard it and picked it up from no one else but the girl on the other side of the line right now.

–          Hey you. Where are you?

–          38th, still 3 more blocks. I’ll be there in 5 minutes.

–          Ok.

I hung up. Even phone conversations in NYC were shorter and more to the point. There were an ocean of people waiting outside of Port Authority but it didn’t take me long to spot Phuong, whom I had known for 5 years. She was one of my best friends in high school. We were both so similar in some aspects and different in others. I would love to think that we had impacted each other’s life in a somewhat profound way. I had always been secretly envious of her. She had beautiful hair, skin, and eyebrows. She was reserved and careful in everything she did or said. She never did something she would regret later. Her family always seemed happy. She lived and died with her passions and as a result, was almost always rewarded with what she wanted. She went to a hidden Ivy college in MA, a much better one than mine but that actually didn’t make me envy her at all.

–          You! – I jumped and patted on her shoulders from behind.

Phuong turned around and looked at me with rather tired eyes. I had expected a more cheerful union but then I remembered she had just flown half way around the world from Vietnam here, and then spent hours on the bus from South Hadley to NYC. She must have been exhausted, and awfully jetlagged. It was 3 am to her anyway.

–          Hi. – She replied simply. – Where are we going now?

–          Uhm, we need to go one block to 6th avenue to get to the F train, going Queens bound, staying in the train until the last stop. And then do as the host had instructed.

“The host” was a guy from Europe with a house for rent in Astoria that we found through a website and rented a room for the time we stayed in NYC. We thought with tennis matches at Flushing Meadow lasting well into the early hours of the day, we would be better off staying somewhere in Queens. I had booked a dorm room at a local YMCA but Phuong said the price was still too high and suggested this one. This place in Astoria was cheaper but after losing the deposit at YMCA, I ended up paying more than I would have.

Phuong followed me through the streets, totally trusting my knowledge of Manhattan blocks. More exactly, I thought she trusted my skills of getting around. I sounded like an expert. I walked like I knew exactly where to go, not stopping for a second to look around. I learned the lesson that in NYC, especially in restless Manhattan, even if you didn’t know where you were, just follow the flow and keep walking. The only thing you needed was the coordination of the destination – 43rd and 6th, 108th and Madison, something like that. Keep walking and the grid, the nondescript, boring street name system would eventually tell where you were. Then if you were walking in the wrong direction, turn around. I lived by that simple principle and somehow survived numerous solo trips in diverse cities of the U.S.

We got to the house around 5 pm – a 3-storey white house on Grand Central, located a good 20 minute walk from the last stop of the F train, so far from Manhattan that I doubted it was even on NYC map anymore. The host left the key in an envelope stuck to the front door. My name was written on it. Phuong secretly let out of sigh of relief.

The room was an unnecessarily furnished attic in which the only pieces of furniture that were useful to us were a Queen sized bed and a desk. The room was awfully hot, although it was late afternoon. We turned on the air conditioner and were unpacking, preparing to depart again for the first day at US Open when the host showed up at our door.

–          Hi, I’m Ivo. The host. Chi, right?

The young man shook my hand. I always hated this. I felt awfully tiny when a man’s hand squeezed mine, accentuating how baby-sized my hand was.

–          Do you find everything alright? Did you have any troubles finding your way here? – Ivo asked energetically as if he had ADHD.

–          Yeah, everything’s fine.

–          Alright, let me show you something.

Ivo showed me the username and password for the Wifi, written on a white board, the extremely small bathroom, the almost empty kitchen, and the public transit map of NYC hung on the wall. I listened to his guide, followed him around, and sometimes added an “ok” to signal my comprehension.

–          One last thing, – Ivo turned to me. – I keep a map of where my guests are from. It’s right here on the wall. Where are you two from?

–          Vietnam.

–          You guys are my first guests from there. Do you mind putting a push pin on my map?

–          Yeah, sure. – I said, fully aware of the grammatically wrong answer.

I took the pin from Ivo and walked toward the map. There were probably hundreds of them on it already, mostly on the area of Europe. I quickly located Vietnam on the map and pushed the pin down at the spot a quarter of a centimeter from the capital. Ivo was wrong. Phuong and I were not the first guests from Vietnam as I saw another pin showing someone from Ho Chi Minh City had been renting his room before us. “There’s no need to remember such a trivial country, isn’t it?” I talked to myself.

–          Alright, cool. Thank you very much. You girls have fun at the Open. The 2 guys renting that room – Ivo pointed at the room at the other end of the corridor – are here for the Open too.

–          Oh really? – I replied calmly, sounding disinterested but quick fantasy of Phuong and I hooking up with “the 2 guys renting that room” during our days here slipped through my mind.

–          If you have any questions, just call me on my cell. You’ve got my number.

I nodded ok and Ivo quickly disappeared behind the stairs.

Phuong and I started our journey to Flushing Meadow. After walking for 20 minutes back to the F train station, we got on the crowded car and changed to the 7 train at Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Ave. Looking at the subway map, the 103 St. – Corona Plaza station seemed to be the closest one to Flushing Meadow.

–          Should we get off the train here and walk to Flushing Meadow? We should be able to see the tennis complex even from this station. – I said to Phuong.

Phuong nodded, still trusting me completely. And thus began our longest wander ever through crappy neighborhoods of Queens to reach our destination. If either of us had read the pamphlet that came with our tickets, or if Phuong’s iPhone had been functional, we wouldn’t have had to waste hours trying to get to our destination. In the end, we had to rely on the DirectTV blimp that I saw for many times, on TV, to have floated freely above Billie Jean King Tennis Center. We aimed at that blimp, walking on whatever road we could walk on. My feet hurt. My hope gradually dimmed. My pride waned but Phuong just patiently and quietly followed me, for hours.

We finally arrived at the parking lot around 9 pm after walking for no less than 2 and a half hours. As we strode along the boardwalk leading inside the tennis center, a sign that read “7 Mets-Willets Point” almost killed me. If we had stayed on the 7 train for 2 more stops, or at least opened our mouth to ask someone on that train – there must have been hundreds of people going to watch the night session of the US Open on that train – we wouldn’t have got lost and suffered.

But finally we were there, inside Arthur Ashe stadium. Hardship and struggles only made the feeling of sitting in the largest outdoor tennis venue in the world sweeter. I almost cried. My eyelashes were wet with tears. Who would have thought one day I would be here? Two years ago, before I started college, I told my mom about my plan of watching the US Open. She simply scoffed at that dreamy idea. I lost all my hope just listening to her laugh. But here I was, everything was real in front of my eyes. Andy Roddick was hitting the ball a few hundred feet beneath me. American flags were flying proudly in the roaring wind. High voltage spotlights were shining on the court far below. Huge screens were showing the match. And people were sitting scattered around the stadium. My heart raced in my chest with a sweet, jubilant feeling. For years I had lived without many dreams. For years I had buried my dreams, telling myself they were impossible. Now I was here, living my first dream. I turned to Phuong. She looked indifferent, sleepy and tired. I wondered if she felt the same as I did behind those cold, emotionless eyes.

We couldn’t stay there for long. The wind and rather low temperature compared to our tropical Vietnam froze us off. The hunger also played a part – we didn’t eat dinner but came straight here. After hours of walking, we could only enjoy about half an hour of glory in Arthur Ashe. But I was there. All the way from a small town in Vietnam, I had seen, for today, Andy Roddick. Tomorrow would be a brand new day, a better day. And the happiness I felt was not at all lessened.

Since we had Twilight plan tickets, we could enter any court from 4 pm only. As a result, we spent the daytime exploring NYC. We went to Chinatown the next day for lunch. Every time I went to a big city, Chinatown was a must-visit. I loved walking around the town, lost in the food, the non-English speakers, the familiar items reminding me of my origin. If I went to a Vietnamese restaurant, they would always ask about my life and I would be more than happy to answer their every question without feeling annoyed. The warmth and intimacy among people coming from the same country made me smile.

We went to midtown Manhattan the next day – Times Square, Columbus Circle, Central Park. Central Park was Phuong’s most expected place in NYC – besides Flushing Meadow, I guessed – to visit during this trip. Hollywood had featured the famous park in its numerous movies, depicted it with the most care and love, accentuated its most beautiful parts and angles, and amplified its beauty with a professional touch. Central Park was indeed pretty, but I was never a big fan of man-made nature. We walked among the greenness, leisurely watching other people biking, running, jogging, and walking around. I wanted to take a bunch of pictures, showing how happy I was in this great city. It was not like anyone could have a chance to be where I was. But somehow there was something in the air, something that prevented us from enjoying these moments.

The last day, though, was totally different. I guessed to this point, it must have been Phuong’s best day. Novak Djokovic, her favorite player who she loved with most of her heart, played at Louis Armstrong stadium that day. When we got there, his match was going on and the line outside Louis Armstrong ran for about a mile. Seats in Louis Armstrong were at a first come, first served basis, no tickets required. The weather was extremely cloudy and windy, with great chance of rain. We waited in the line, half excited, half scared. A guard in US Open uniform came and told us that the stadium was filled to the last seat. Phuong frowned, looking hopeless for a split second but insisted on staying.

–          Please, don’t let it rain now. – I looked at the grey sky and said nervously.

–          If it rains now, – Phuong on the other hand was rather excited about this scenario – everyone inside the stadium will be gone and we can get seats.

I was surprised. So she wanted to wait in the rain inside the stadium. If the rain came, it would probably last for a few days. Phuong still looked so happy and excited, jumping on her spot like a care-free child, hugging her huge tennis ball. She bought that ball yesterday before she even knew there was a chance she could get Djokovic’s autograph. She had thought, a lot, about spending way more than it should have been, but in the end decided even if she couldn’t get anyone’s autograph on that ball, it would be her souvenir of the trip of her life. I would never do that. Even if I knew Roger Federer, my tennis idol, would stand in front of me 10 minutes from now, the best I would do was to buy a nice piece of paper. Actually, I would just ask him to sign on the ad from Wilson that Phuong gave me. I wondered if I would stay in the rain, waiting hopefully and patiently if it was not Djokovic playing on the other side of that wall but Roger. Phuong surprised me once when she bought a Hallmark card to send Djokovic for his birthday years ago. She amazed me again this time with her complete devotion.

We finally got in the stadium. The rain hadn’t come down yet. Phuong was like a little child lit with joy in her wildest dream. Her eyes sparkled with happiness. She took my camera and almost exhausted its memory. She clapped her hands, stomped her feet, pumped her fists, yelled, jumped, being so different from the one I usually saw. She lived every moment of that match with her most lively, enthusiastic self that I couldn’t help living the excitement and feeling happy with her, no matter how envious I was inside. I would probably never get close to Roger like she was to her beloved player now.

–          How about I wait for him at the exit and you behind the umpire’s chair? – I suggested a “strategy” to increase our chance of getting Djokovic’s signature. I didn’t have a huge tennis ball but instead a small handbook that Phuong offered to “buy the page” from me in case he signed on it.

–          I’d prefer the other way around, I at the exit and you behind the umpire.

–          Alright.

When the match ended, I rushed like an arrow to the other side of the court, to my agreed upon position and Phuong to hers. A few steps from me, Djokovic was signing for a few of his lucky fans before giving the post match interview. I got to the stairs behind the umpire’s chair just 2 seconds after he stopped taking balls, pieces of paper, match tickets, caps and all kinds of things that could be signed on. A guard pulled out the chain and hooked the ring at its end to a post.

–          He’s done. Come back, it’s no use. – A man in the crowd behind me shouted and surprisingly, I felt my heart sunk.

I stood there, with many others, staring at Djokovic and the reporter, my mind wandering somewhere else. I could see Phuong across the court from me, holding the ball that was almost as big as her whole upper body, jumping up and down as if begging Djokovic to pay attention to her. I knew she was just excited.

Djokovic finished his interview, collected his belongings and walked toward the exit. The sea of people surrounding me started to rush to the other side of the court. I followed them to get back to Phuong. It was chaotic. I didn’t see her. She wasn’t standing court-side, leaning against the ad fence anymore. I looked around, trying to spot her small figure in the crowd. When I saw her, she was standing at her seat, weeping.

–          You! – I yelled to her. It was easy to recognize since we were probably the only Vietnamese in the whole tennis center.

Phuong turned to the source of my voice and held out the ball, with black writing on it. She jumped, probably for the hundredth time in the day. I couldn’t figure out what the writing said, but it could only mean one thing. I gasped. A middle-aged lady looked at us, smiling. I jumped with Phuong and hopped to her side. And we celebrated in our good-old-day’s way – holding hands, jumping.

–          Now let’s go to the box office and ask for an upgrade. – I said, pulling Phuong’s arm after the joy I shared with her had slipped out of my mind.

The upgrade was my only slim hope of getting Roger’s signature. Every session, one lucky person, determined by random draw among those who signed up, would get a free upgrade to a court side seat in Arthur Ashe. Unlike other courts, Arthur Ashe was the most secured one. Seats there had to be reserved with tickets. With the 4-level design, each level entered through a different door carefully secured by uptight guards, people sitting court side were the only ones with the privilege of getting close to the players. While we could run from the very top row in Louis Armstrong down to the court, we couldn’t get out of our level to another in Arthur Ashe.

–          There are no courtside seats available for upgrade today. – A man announced to those waiting in the line.

–          No seats at all? – I asked.

–          No. – He shook his head.

Someone behind me left the line. I looked at the man sitting behind the glass, the man who said there were no seats left, thought about how much luck it took to be selected, and left the line as well.

Roger’s match was the second one of the night session on Arthur Ashe. The first one was between Wozniacki and Svetlana. I had never cared much about women’s tennis before. Now that it was the only thing in between me and seeing my idol in front of my own eyes, I could wish for nothing more but either Wozniacki or Svetlana defeat the other in the most lop-sided manner ever, with 2 bagels. Contrary to my wish, the match went on, for 3 sets, for the longest time in the world. When the match finally finished, specks of rain started to fall from the sky. On the empty court, the umpire and some of the organizers discussed something.

–          Come on, it’s playable. – Someone yelled loudly.

He was not the only one wishing for Roger’s match to start. A woman earlier, during Wozniacki’s match had overtly expressed her impatience. And I. I almost cried. All the way from Vietnam, I had come so close. This was my last year in the US, this was my last and only chance to ever see him in action. If the stupid rain cancelled his match…

The whole stadium roared when Roger finally stepped out around midnight, followed by Juan Monaco. I looked at the night sky, praying the rain would not come in the next few hours. I never believed in God or religion but when I desperately needed something, “Please God” were the first two words that came to my mind. This one time, my wish was granted. As I sat almost near the top of Arthur Ashe, staring at the two tiny figures a few hundred feet below, my heart barely beat. The unreal feeling as if everything was a dream came to me again. I relived in my mind all the memories, the first tennis match I watched, the ups and downs I took to share with Roger, the days searching every website, reading every article, every book about him until every fact of his public life was deeply carved in my brain, the nights I stayed up, sitting in front of the TV screen, staring at it, wishing in vain I was there. And now I was here, so close as if I could just reach out my hand and touch him, so close if I had the craziness enough to shout something, he would hear me.

It was a quick match, wrapped up under 1 hour and 30 minutes. Tiny flecks of rain started to fall as Roger raised his hands waving at the crowd. After the post-match interview, Roger signed three balls and hit them randomly to the stand. One of them was so close to where I stood. I looked at the ball in someone else’s hand, feeling like part of my soul was stolen. A quick thought of snapping that ball from him slid through my mind. Judging the feasibility of that idea again by considering his significantly bigger size, I thought of begging him to give me the ball. Phuong tugged at my arm as it was almost 2 am and I looked at the ball with Roger’s signature on it for the last time.

As we stepped down the outside stairs, passing through the door to courtside seats, no one was guarding it.

–          Hey, we could sneak in now. No one is there to stop us this time. – I hopefully told Phuong.

–          Your uncle (I’d love to refer to Roger as “uncle” although he was only 10 years older than me) might well be inside the locker room now.

I stood there, hesitated. The guards might not be seen from here, but could still be standing on the other side and would stop us. Phuong might be right. She was usually right in these situations. She was really rational, reasonable.

–          Let’s go. – Phuong gently pulled my arm again.

I looked at the unguarded door for the last time and turned around. We didn’t return to Astoria that night but went straight to Manhattan – me to Penn Station and Phuong to Port Authority. Rain fell more and more heavily as we left Queens, leaving old, dirty, disorganized buildings with numerous graffiti blurred in the lights behind.

The whole time in the subway train, I regretted not risking. I wanted to go back in time to that moment and do what I hadn’t done. What could I have lost trying to go through that door? I beat myself up to think that I had come this close, to think that if I had just walked through that door, running a few steps down the stairs, to think that I could have been standing in front of the man who had inspired my every aspect of life, the man who had given me the only reason to hope, to dream, to feel alive, to think that he was separated only by an unguarded door. Looking at Phuong with her signed ball, I secretly wept.

It did rain for the next couple of days. Matches were cancelled. Complaints from angry customers were posted on the website. Phuong told me we were still very lucky and I trusted her.

Roger and Djokovic met in the semi-final, in which Roger lost in five sets, after having 2 match points. Djokovic went on to win the tournament, his third grand slam title of the year to score the unarguably most successful year of his career so far.

Sometimes I still wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t wasted my opportunity as I stood in front of that unguarded door, just like what would have happened if Roger hadn’t wasted his 2 match points. Would I have met Roger in September 2011 instead of March 2012? Would Roger have gone on to win the 2011 US Open?

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