The Most Beautiful Day of My Life: A Long Island Ballade That Almost Didn’t Happen
What is the most beautiful day of your life?
Before last year, I had never answered this question. I could not have told you what the most beautiful day of my life was. I didn’t have one. I had experienced some wonderful days. I had lived some incredible adventures in many parts of the world. But I had never lived through a day that qualified as “the most beautiful day of my life.” Perhaps the concept is similar to love: You don’t know what it is until you’ve found it… And even one you did, it’s hard to compare it with other experiences.
Perhaps, too, I had been a slave to expectations. Surely to qualify as the most beautiful day of someone’s life, that day must have been amazing. But, as it turns out, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
I lived the first 24 years of my life without a “happiest day,” and I didn’t feel I was missing out. But there came a day, a day when New York City was calm and cold, with a clear sky and soft weather, that I’ve come to regard as the most beautiful day of my life. That day was February 15, 2020, it was a Saturday, and I’ve never been able to forget how peaceful and fulfilling it was. And this is why I am writing about it. I love this story because it mirrors exactly who I am—a man from a small town who loves large cities, a North American at heart but a European in spirit.
This story says it all, or almost.
It’s important to note this day came close to never happening. It came close to being a bitter day, which would have faded away from my memory. However, that day didn’t turn out to be this way because I followed my instinct. Had I not followed my intuition, I never would have been able to say, “I can tell you about the most beautiful day of my life.”
Today, I want to tell you about the most beautiful day of my life… and what made it come close to never happening.
From Williamsport, PA to the United Nations
It was February 2020. I came to New York City a day before “the day.” I was volunteering as a French interpreter at the United Nations, so I rented a small car in Williamsport, PA, where I was a Fulbright fellow, and drove to NYC listening to podcasts and audiobooks. Accompanying me to the UN were two French colleagues from the Fulbright program. They were both from other colleges in the state of Pennsylvania.
On conference day, my Fulbright colleagues and I met Robert, a young European man who worked for a German non-profit. One of them made plans to go to the Museum of Modern Arts with him and get dinner after. At first, I thought there may be some romance happening, but as I would later learn, Robert was rather trying to get with someone from another non-profit, also involved with the UN. (This does not disprove the hypothesis that my colleague was hitting on Robert. Who knows?)
Perhaps out of courtesy, my Fulbright colleague invited me to join her and Robert. The two of them were going to a small burger venue hidden inside a mysterious hotel in Midtown Manhattan. I had not talked too much to Robert and didn’t know my colleague very well either, but I happily accepted the invitation. After all, I love burgers and European minds. So I soon I found myself at dinner with my colleague, Robert, and Robert’s friend, Wesley, a recent M.A. graduate from Kenya who had studied at an Australian university.
Robert and Wesley fascinated me. I had always been a political science nerd with an interest in international relations (if you are an IR nerd reading this, do note that I am a stubborn realist), so their work in the non-profit sector made an impression on me. We talked about our work, our home countries, the United States, and what we wanted to see in New York City. At the table were four foreigners in one of the world’s most exciting cities—not an uncommon scene for the Big Apple.
I cannot recall who it was, but someone suggested we meet the next day to explore Brooklyn. We had some common ground: we liked coffee, we liked long walks, and we wanted to explore the city. What else could foreigners brought together by a global convention do in a big city on a Saturday except run out the day by taking it easy and exploring? (Fine, they could do many things, but that’s what we wanted to do.) My Fulbright colleague couldn’t make it, but Robert, Wesley, and I decided to meet still. We made plans to get coffee in Brooklyn—where I was staying—and go to Coney Island with the car I had rented.
The Beauty of Simplicity
The most striking thing about that day was its sheer simplicity. That day was simple, uncomplicated, and beautiful. Robert, Wesley, and I met at a café near the Brooklyn Bridge, we sipped our espresso drinks, and walked around the area. We strolled through the neighborhood, snapped pictures by the Brooklyn Bridge, and goofed around. We had no plan, no agenda, no intentions to structure our time—and it was perfect as it was. We enjoyed a minute at a time.
After strolling around in Brooklyn for a few hours, we returned to my car to leave for Coney Island. As I plugged my phone to the audio system, a call came in. It was from an acquaintance I was supposed to meet that day. My heart sank. I had “forgotten” we were supposed to meet. And, by that time, I was already glad I had done so. The acquaintance wanted me to help with a project, but I had my reasons for not wanting to meet.
I was supposed to meet with that acquaintance two days prior, when I arrived in New York City. He had known I was coming to town the day before, and I had asked to meet with him then. I was going to meet with him at his office in Downtown Manhattan. However, he had somehow forgotten about it and had left to go to God knows where in Pennsylvania, where I was living, to do God knows what. (If my memory isn’t falling me, he went to the casino with his dog. I know…) Even though I hadn’t known him for long, I could already see a pattern of being self-centered and unreliable. So I, too, “forgot” about his idea to meet that Saturday. I must have assumed he’d forget again.
Life sometimes has a way of pulling us in the right direction. I didn’t like the idea of not following through what I had said, even though the plan was informal; I don’t like being unreliable (even with someone who hasn’t proved reliable), but something deep inside myself told me it did not matter this time. Something told me I had to be there, with these people, on that day, or else I would miss out something profound. And to this day, I believe this to be true. I wouldn’t trade this day for any other day in the world, no matter how fancy or luxurious the alternative may have been. Something about this day reminds me of who I am and who I want to be.
As If a Scene from a Movie
Once in the car, we set the GPS and put “Coney Island Beach” as our destination. While I was driving, Robert took charge of the playlist. He played German electronic and rock songs I had never heard before. One song in particular—an instrumental song whose title I can’t recall—still inhabits my thoughts. The sky was clear on that Saturday afternoon; everything was calm. The road was easy through Brooklyn all the way to Coney Island Beach. When we arrived, we left the car somewhere around the beach and went for a walk, the timeless activity that seemed to have structured our day.
On this walk, we had strange, interesting conversations. We discussed everything from American culture, European politics, and how blessed and happy our souls were to be in the “land of the free.” We talked to each other as though we had known each other foreover, though we had only met the day before. It is uncanny how when we meet the right people in our lives, it feels as though we have always known them—when, in fact, we know nothing at all about them. We feel this way because as we get to know them, our assumptions prove right. We know the kind of people they are, which is why we connected. And as our conversations progress, as we realize they confirm more assumptions about who we think they are, we like them even better than we already did.
Later that afternoon, we stopped to eat at a pizzeria. We shared a large chicken pizza and had soft drinks. But more important than the food was the decor. It looked old and new at the same time. The decor was vintage, maybe a bit cliché, and for some reason, it made me feel at home. Perhaps the right adjective is “timeless.” It created a moment for us to share. My friends took a picture of me, and I always loved to look at it from time to time. Later that year, when I’d start my entrepreneurial journey, I’d publish that photo along with a post about writing. People unanimously loved the photo, agreeing that the decor, though imperfect, had something to it.
After eating our pizza, we walked to Steeplechase Pier, where a scene in Requiem for a Dream (2000) was shot. It felt as strange as ever to be here. Even though I had been to the United States many times before, I still felt like a “fanboy”—I couldn’t believe I was, in some way, in the center of American culture. Not many Americans can understand this feeling because they take the fact of American culture for granted. Neither can Canadians because they share the same language. But for a young man who had grown in up in Saguenay, Quebec, to be at Steeplechase Pier had a deeper significance. Silly though it might be, I played the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack on my phone—a song that had populated my life after I had watched the film for the first time as a child, alone one night in my bedroom.
It felt special to be there, there is no doubt about that. I could not help feeling emotional. For my whole life up until this point, it had been my goal to “make it to America.” The goal had been simple: make it to America somehow. Receiving a visa to the United States was how I was measuring my life’s success. I had grown up speaking French in a town where I felt I didn’t belonged. All I wanted to do was to get good at something and be successful. I had decided the U.S. Department of State would be the ultimate judge. “If you let me in,” I thought, “it means I’m doing something right.” And here I was on my J-1 visa teaching French in a Pennsylvania college. (How ironic is it that America let me in to teach the language I was seeking to escape?)
A Private Party?
We had no plans, no agenda. It was now around 4 or 5 PM, and we drove back to Brooklyn, unsure about what we were going to do for the rest of the day. The sky was getting darker. We parked the car on a street in Brooklyn, and all we knew was that we needed to use the restroom—and fast! So, we walked to the first coffee shop we saw, but, alas, the coffee shop was closing. The staff advised us of a bar located in the same building. There seemed to be a party going on. We asked security to use the restroom, and they let us in.
We entered a room full of people, men and women, mostly white, dancing and drinking as if there were no tomorrow. We came to use the restroom, but after we did, we felt we had no reason to leave. The place was rather bougie; the DJ was decent, too. We knew there must have been a cover fee to enter, so we figured we’d stay and enjoy the party. We ordered a few bottles of beer—Stella Artois, if I recall well—and took part in the party. It was a bit awkward, to tell you the truth. It seemed private, and we had no idea what this place was and who’d organized the party. These people all seemed to have something in common, but we couldn’t tell what it was. While we didn’t talk much to anyone, we did enjoy the beer and the music
It became clear this was a private party when I went outside to get some fresh air for a few minutes. When I came back inside, the security guard asked to see the stamp on my hand, which I didn’t have. He told me I couldn’t get in, and I explained my coat was inside—with my friends. He stared at me with a reprimanding look. “How’d you get in?” I explained someone let us in to use the restroom, and we stayed. He shook his head and opened the way for me to enter. When I told Robert and Wesley, we had a good laugh. It was far from the party of the century, but the simple fact we had no business being there made it better.
By 7 PM, the party was over. Everyone started leaving, and the place became dull and desolate. We left the bar before we were the last ones (that’s always good practice). Robert had parked his bike somewhere in Brooklyn, so we went to pick it up. I left my rented car in a parking lot, and we took the Brooklyn Bridge to walk back to Manhattan. On the way there, we gazed at the sky and the Hudson River. This beautiful day was coming to an end. The day would soon be over, I’d come to understand. Robert, Wesley, and I talked about planning a trip to Boston or Washington, D.C. We were clueless about the fact we all would be forced home by the COVID-19 pandemic. We were looking for ways to make the best out of the little time we had left in the United States.
Back in Manhattan, Robert called it a night. So did Wesley. I have always been prone to wanting to make things last forever, so I was a little disappointed they didn’t want to extend the day to get dinner and drinks. But Wesley was lodging in White Plains, an hour-long commute from where we were. Robert had plans to watch some movies. Plus, I believe the two of them were living on somewhat limited budgets. So, we all called it a night—except me. I had the night for myself and was determined to do something nice, something different.
I ended up at a Russian restaurant and bar, where I had Russian dumplings (I had no idea this existed), with a nice glass of wine. By then, it was 8 or 9 PM. A Russian band was playing, and I was charmed by the sound of their voice and their instruments. Their melodies were unknown to my ears, and I loved every second of it. I can’t say the same of the waiter’s humor, who pranked me by saying, in a very stern way, that taking a video was prohibited as I aimed my camera phone at the band. He burst into laughter saying he was joking, and I was left wondering, “is that Russian humor?”
I left the bar a few hours later and headed back to Brooklyn using the subway. The rest of the evening was uneventful. I returned to my Airbnb slightly around midnight and had a good night’s sleep. The next day, when I got up, I could hear the French couple in the next room having sex. Little did they know I could understand every single dirty word they were telling each other. When I left, about an hour later, I greeted them in their mother tongue, and an expression of uncomfortable surprise covered their faces. (Wink, wink!)
On my way to picking up my Fulbright colleague who needed a ride back to Susquehanna University, not far from the college where I worked, I accidentally bumped into the car in front of me at a red light. We pulled over, and I ended up giving the man over $80 for paint repair. even though the car was mostly fine. Sometime after I got back to Williamsport, I touched bases with the acquaintance I was supposed to meet. He took things the wrong way as I thought he would, but I didn’t care because that day turned out to be fantastic—much better than it otherwise would have been. And sometimes, even to this day, I can’t help wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t “ditched the plan “forgotten” about the plan. We may never have met (since the acquaintance wasn’t reliable). We also may have met, and it could have been a mediocre day.
Whatever may have happened, it never would have been the most beautiful day of my life.
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