I'll be the first to admit I didn’t spend much time as a New Yorker. Actually, I take that back because I’m sure there are plenty of stone-faced, power-walking, extra-hot-quad-soy-latte drinking Manhattanites who would go to blows with me over illegitimately adopting the sacred title. Regardless, it didn't take me long to realize that while New York took in a bright-eyed, overly-jaded vision of myself like a good-intentioned foster parent, it wasn’t meant to last. The decision to leave was made thirty-eight days exactly into my first lease. It took me a little longer to realize that all of the excuses I gave for leaving — traffic, rent, weather, the mouse who’d taken to a hole behind my stove, they were all band-aids. Leaving the city meant leaving behind a facade I had created and, in the process, molded myself to fit. I didn’t realize how desperate I was to escape a life I had willed for myself until I watched it crumble. I’m still not sure if that life actually eroded over time or if it shattered as I locked the deadbolt to a cold studio apartment on the fifteenth floor for the last time.
My diary entry dated three days after my tenth birthday details “We talked about college today. One day I will go to Duke College in North Carolina and major in Fashion so I can work at Vogue. Then when I’m old enough, I can go to Law School so I can be the First Woman President.” I can’t tell you at what age I first caught CNN or Sex and the City over my mother’s shoulder but I’m pretty sure the girl who wrote that entry saw her future self as a cross between Hillary Clinton and Carrie Bradshaw. As I grew up so did this mirage. In retrospect, I regret living my teenage years for the future. Any semblance of youth was beneath me because, hey, I had much bigger and better thing waiting. I had a life in New York City waiting. I had a pair of Manolo's waiting to walk me through Lincoln Tunnel and into everything I was meant for. Keg party? No thanks, I’m sure a Cosmopolitan is more my taste (I’ve since found it’s not, and that no one drinks Cosmos anymore). More than what I wanted to have, I knew who I wanted to be. Confident and cool, standing so strictly you’d easily mistake her for 5’11 instead of stretching to reach 5’8. Sleek and graceful, bounding across sidewalk storm grates in five inch heels without breaking stride, hair bouncing in rhythm. Independent and mysterious, men watched her from across the room only to be gazed over. Every characteristic of this woman seemed so distantly tangible, and they all rode on the coattails of a city greater than the woman herself. The more I developed that protagonist of a life I couldn’t quite grasp, the more I realized her intricacies and nuances as what they really were — my own pitfalls. Running from the town I’d long sworn off meant running from a girl who’s everything that dream woman isn’t. Clumsier than a toddler learning to walk, self-conscious of every move I made, and most importantly, independent to a fault. My teenage years were spent swearing off anything that looked or felt like emotional attachment, even friends and family members got pushed away as I fell more and more in love with a city that promised the life I wanted to lead.
Less than a month after I turned nineteen, my mother and best friend helped me fill a moving truck and waved as I pulled away from a driveway holding layers of childhood chalk drawings, scraped elbows, Saturday morning games of horse, and the person I thought I’d be leaving behind. I spent my first night alone sitting at the one window of my apartment trying to absorb every trace of life below. I can remember each scene. Midnight: an bus empties it’s contents to a corner bodega. Two a.m: a twenty-four hour delivery boy swings his bike wide around a group of teenagers cackling on the sidewalk. Four a.m. the train howls from a subway grate at the corner. I can’t remember, however, when the pit in my stomach formed. I know it was that first night, something I’d never felt before, not like that. The feeling ached all the way through my chest, unforgiving. “How could you be lonely here?” I’d retorted to every fleeting thought that pulled me home, to my simple friends content with a night spent listening to waves beat the sand, to a grocery store filled with people who recognize me as my mother’s daughter.
For months I spent Saturdays as I thought Meg Ryan as a Nora Ephron character would— picking flowers from corner carts, slinking around man made parks with a book tucked under my arm, always trying to remember that being held by rows and rows of concrete buildings couldn’t actually suffocate me...right? I spent nights in bars filled with people who all seemed to exist as individual planets, revolving independently instead of coexisting in space we were lucky enough to share. I went on dates that weren’t rooted in authenticity but instead could’ve been drawn out as identical plot lines. I came to not just look forward to genuine connection, but long for it. I felt myself becoming desensitized. The night I caught myself breezing past a woman holding a child in her lap, both asleep in a nest of ragged blankets, slumped into the corner of a Duance Reade, I stopped in my own tracks. How could I have ever looked forward to being so jaded I didn’t feel aching empathy at a scene that should’ve been so affecting? A numbness rooted in complacency had set in, and with that realization came one that the vision of a woman I thought I would become was not the woman I wanted to be. I don’t know, looking back, how I looked forward to being cold and jaded and numb. Maybe that’s what I thought it’d take to hold my own in the city, maybe that’s what it does take, maybe that’s why I couldn’t. But the striking remorse that comes with realizing you’re starting to become someone you don’t like is enough to make you realize it’s time for a change. Looking back, I saw things every day that should’ve struck emotion. Hilarious scenes like fully-dressed clowns boarding the subway, heartbreaking ones like a mother and child begging for their next meal, inspiring acts of activism like Black Lives Matter rallies risking everything to demand justice — and I felt nothing for all of it. All of that, it’s just commonplace. I was supposed to be a New Yorker, after all, not to care about anything, mind my own business, keep my head down.
I remember reading an article in The Atlantic about Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York before I’d left for the city and scoffing. I’d brushed off their brazen disregard and abandon of the place that had given them everything. Turns out I’d come to have the same realization they all did: a city, simple steel and concrete, can’t “chew you up and spit you out” like so many warn. It’s toll is something more intangible. A dull throb. A lingering tinge. It grinds until one day you don’t realize why you’re taking the abuse.
New York granted me something an answer to something I would’ve always wondered: if it held the key to a prophecy I’d dreamed for myself. The city ended up giving me a greater answer: that the vision I’d alway held for myself was not the way I wanted to end up. I don’t want to be numb. I want to feel too much, feel sadness for people I don’t know, feel minuscule as I stand at the foot of the ocean, feel the inexplicable joy of driving too fast in the middle of the night down an empty beach road. Being cool, jaded, confident — none of it holds a candle to the emotional high that comes with really conceptualizing that you share a unique connection with every other person you encounter. From the gas station cashier to the people who raised you. I’m sure I would’ve figured that out along the way, no matter where I was, but New York stood as a symbol of too many self-inflicted expectations.
Sometimes I still wonder where I’d be if I’d chased an image of myself as a briefcase- wielding woman in a perfectly ironed pantsuit, climbing a ladder with no end. Then I remember the things I’ve experienced that mean more than any city art show opening, or sample sale, or trendy restaurant reservation. I’ve found myself smiling for no reason as I walk my block filled with kids’ laughing from backyard trails, I’ve held a friend heaving with tears in my lap as he told his mom goodbye too soon, I’ve stood tall with pride among 800,000 people and held the hands of strangers as they inspire me to keep marching for what we believe in. I hold all of these typically overlooked encounters as a reminder that there’s nothing more grounding that humanity. People have told me I would’ve learned to be happy in the city had I stayed. I’m sure I would’ve. But I’m glad I wasn’t willing to let time take it’s toll and find out.