It happens this way: go away from the city — to a bigger city, even — and grow contemplative, think about what works and what doesn’t, become a different person or a better version of the same, walk the streets, sit on park benches, laugh with many strangers and a few friends, read successive chapters of the same book in a smattering of cafes, see a movie that gets you thinking. After a few days of stewing in the petri dish of distance from life, hop on a train to a plane that flies back to the first city, where all the thoughtfulness of the past five days wells up into tears, with the fears that what’s waiting for you isn’t exactly what you need and not quite what you want.
Realization: New York City for me isn’t the land of opportunity or excitement or cafes and bars and diners that stay open until 4am. And it’s not celebrities, tourists, the subway, Ground Zero, food from street carts, fresh lemonade in Union Square, the boardwalk on Coney Island, the Central Park lagoon, or the sound of garbage trucks and barking dogs through an open window at 2am. No. It’s the way it makes me feel as though I’ve just been born, before being beaten down and made to feel stupid, going to kindergarten with a black eye, feeling the sting of a belt buckle, lovers leaving bruises, eating out of garbage cans, doing mostly anything to stay alive, pushing everything else deep down to fit in a shell of survival I neither created nor want.
That shell is the one in which I live every second I’m in Chicago, and nearly everyone I’ve ever loved has a vested interest in keeping me stuck there, a hermit crab grown too large but lacking skill to escape with grace. And it isn’t as simple as leaving, making new friends, changing my habits, inhabiting new spaces. Escape isn’t really even what I want, though I’m hard pressed to find a lone word that encapsulates my desires: understanding? kismet? fate? frivolity? carelessness? glee? love?
Back to the movie that can get a girl thinking: an average film, a sometimes-depressing (but mostly realistic) portrait of a woman in her 30s, seeking love but finding disappointment, often in one-night stands lubricated by pills or wine. It’s garnered mixed reviews, mostly from older men who can’t understand that sort of desperation, which really isn’t desperation but, rather, the intensity that comes with realizing a profound lack of understanding, belonging, mattering to anyone else other than your mother and best friend. And I know the film was supposed to make me feel depressed and guilty for being single and alone with a string of failed relationships behind me, but it didn’t. It made me feel responsible for the future.
2:06pm (me) I have such a desire to explore this city and soak it up and have fun and enjoy it, and I fear if I brought anyone with me, they would squelch that.
2:07pm (me) It’s part of me that I think I don’t often show because it feels very vulnerable, and I’m able to express that when I’m here, and I don’t want to have anyone ruin that. I don’t know.
2:08pm (V) makes sense… the only living girl in New York…
I have returned, now, to the city which cradles and protects the shell I’ve outgrown, haunted by stilted love affairs and misplaced hopes and forgotten dreams. I fight the desire to delete contacts from my cell phone and email, burn my address book, erase phone numbers from my memory. If weeks ago, I experienced metanoia spurred on by love and forgiveness, it has happened again in the name of self-preservation, reclaiming innocence, repenting for mistakes and tragedies and bad judgment, leaving one essential thing: me, exposed and vulnerable, naked, alone.
When I go to the house to see the boys for the first time since my return, I think about A. and how he’s another one of those good-on-paper people, a seven-year experiment in which the sparks never quite caught. What’s wrong with me? I wonder.
Somewhere in the conversation he asks when I’m planning to move to New York. Is it five years or ten? I can’t tell if he wants me to be happy or simply go away or if he’s posturing. I remember the moments when I tried to be free with him, and something bad always happened: playing superhero, I broke a casserole dish; making snow angels, I cut myself on a hidden rock; lighting up at a favorite song on the radio, he mocked me. He was the one who always said I had a hidden inner child, but he was always — and still is — the first person to make me feel self-conscious and slightly ashamed for letting her show herself.
Back into the shell I go, then, calling V. to meet her for a drink, hoping to relieve some of the responsibility of making myself happy in a place that no longer feels like home. On the way to the Red Line Tap, I talk to D., who tells me I’m welcome at his place later. On my first (and only) beer, P. calls to see what I’m doing. On the drive home, K. calls to remind (convince?) me I don’t need anyone. I stop for bubble bath and razor blades, take a bath and shave, dry myself off, keep writing, realizing that perhaps leaving my shell means, also, being alone.
But that can’t be the case. I don’t want my life to be a tragedy, a sad sequence of missteps and half-mistakes mixed with unremarkable relationships that end badly, always. I won’t allow it.
What I know I will do, because this cannot be a tragedy which means I have to do something optimistic: Call D. to see him. Call P. to hang out. Call K. to make excuses for calling D. and P. I won’t know if these things help or hurt, but they are all I have right now. This is what this city does to me: it limits my options, restricts my range of motion, darkens my vision to the point where the same old things are the only things that seem possible. The hope I had upon my arrival here 17 years ago has been sucked out of me. I am bone dry.
What does New York have to do with any of this? What it comes down to: it’s a city in which that hope stirs again. I remember I wrote something relevant years ago, and it strikes me how apropos it is, again:
Lately there have tears without sadness. The emptiness is there, to be sure – losing a lover, choosing to move on, knowing I will doubt what I have known to be true: I must go. I was never meant to be here. I feel loss without pain, liberation without freedom. I am the girl wearing no panties under her dress, in fear and hope someone will glimpse what isn’t meant to be shared.
Tears come from hope, an almost kinesthetic awareness of beauty and optimism. I grow scared by my own power as powerlessness slips back into and onto the person I was before but am no longer. I am frightful of brightness and beauty and the hugeness of that hope. I become myself first seeing a naked erect man, terrified, relieved the world was as should be, glorious and full and unabashed, waiting for me to suck it in, until there was nothing left, and I slept.
This is how it is all these years after the first sex, the first time I grew wet in wanting to be more an afterthought, the small and bruised girl who lived in a place of ugliness. This is how it is as I walk among tall buildings and cry until I am spent, and I know I am headed toward something I can lick and suck and taste and swallow, and I feel the heady salty rush of knowing that I am good, I am here, there is no smallness left, the evil things they told me were a lie.