My first New York apartment was a nine-by-five-foot room on Twentieth Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. It was an all-female boarding house, or SRO (single room occupancy) as they were called before my time. The eight women on my floor all lived in cell-like rooms and shared the two tiny bathrooms in the hallway, one with nothing but a toilet, the other with a moldy shower.
My room was the smallest on the floor: just big enough for a twin bed, a mini-fridge, a small sink, and a few hundred books I’d lugged from Boston. I kept my clothes in garbage bags under the bed. If I’d gained ten pounds, I wouldn’t have been able to walk the narrow aisle that ran the length of the room. Luckily, that never happened; as a depressed nineteen-year-old heroin addict, food was not my first priority.
During the day, I attended college. After classes, I’d loiter around Tompkins Square Park until I found a junkie I could trust enough to buy for me, since I was too new to the city to have my own dealer. In the evenings I got high and wept into the phone to my best friend Ariel from back home, who hadn’t come with me.
I was miserable. And toward the end of my six months in that place, borderline suicidal. Still, I never thought of leaving. New York was the only place I had ever wanted to live. I’d finally made it here, and I wasn’t leaving except on a stretcher or in a straitjacket. Thankfully, those possibilities receded with each year I stayed.
Twelve years later, I couldn’t believe I was in perfect health, packing those same books, getting ready to say goodbye to the place I’d loved longer than anything else in my life.
When we were kids, Ariel and I would lie in the grass of her backyard in worn T-shirts, the cool earth pressed against our backs. We spent hours fantasizing about the future—a glittering mirage that was always changing but always better than the familiar world of rural Massachusetts. I imagined New York then as a blur of lights and sound. The only thing in perfect focus was the two of us together, grown tall and invincible.
In the late summer of 1987, I took my first trip to New York alone to visit my father’s mother. Technically, my abuela lived in New Jersey, where my father grew up, but she was a New Yorker to the bone—all four foot ten of her. In 1924, her parents had moved from Puerto Rico to Harlem, where she was born and raised. She met me at Penn Station, and as soon as we reached the sidewalk, I saw that she was different here; even her walk had changed, became faster, more confident.
On that first afternoon, we emerged into a rippling current of bodies. I froze, struck dumb by the summer heat, the smells of garbage, cigarette smoke, and roasting nuts. I looked up at the sliver of sky and ahead at the sea of faces, and experienced the only kind of love at first sight that I believe in. Abuela tugged me to the curb, and showed me how to tuck my money in my shoe.
In the fall of 2011, when I started applying for jobs outside New York, the idea was so abstract as to be unbelievable. Sure, I might leave the city someday, the same way I might become an astronaut or a lion tamer. But in the bedrock of my consciousness, formed back on that Massachusetts lawn, I’d settled on one future: I would live here, and I would be a writer.
And yet, New York City had never been this expensive before, and writing had never paid so badly. I had imagined my dreams coming true, but not what happened after that.
I first realized at twenty that an artist in New York needs two careers to stay afloat. By the time I was twenty-five, I’d exhausted the professions that only a brave and stupid twenty-year-old can sustain. Then I started teaching. To my great delight and relief, I found I loved it. All through graduate school and the publication of my first book, I watched my students grow more alive in telling their own stories. I kept pinching myself. How lucky, to get paid to talk about the thing I love most in the world! For years, I didn’t care about how little I was getting paid.
Until I started trying to write another book, and realized it was going to be pretty hard to get anything done while shuttling among four different campuses, teaching six classes a semester, and sleeping five hours a night.
So, in February 2011, in those melancholy doldrums of late winter, when it seems like nothing will ever change—for better or for worse—I rode a train into the deep middle of the state, and spent sixteen hours in interviews for a job I wasn’t sure I wanted.
It didn’t seem like it had anything to do with me—the scenery rushing past the train, the unfamiliar college town—so it didn’t quite seem real. The city, on the other hand, had everything to do with me. By 2005, every neighborhood in Manhattan and many in Brooklyn, too, had been engraved with one personal memory or another. I couldn’t use the bathroom in a certain diner on Sixth Avenue after having gotten violently sick there once. I couldn’t eat at a favorite vegan restaurant without reliving a Valentine’s Day breakup fight. For years, I couldn’t really handle Herald Square because the neighborhood made me remember my time working as a dominatrix there. The city was haunted in a way I hated and cherished at the same time.
But it had changed, too. The city I lived in was not the same one to which I’d come. No one smoked in bars anymore. Favorite cafés had been shuttered, and new condos had sprung up in the unlikeliest neighborhoods.
My abuela—who went alone to a Julio Iglesias concert at Madison Square Garden when she was seventy and once told me, “This is my city. I’ll never be too old for it”—became too ill with cancer to leave her New Jersey home and visit the city. She left this planet soon after.
Not long before that, Ariel died of an overdose. Our childhood fantasies died with her.
A few days after the interview upstate, the college called to offer me the job. My girlfriend and I drove up to look at places to live.
Then spring arrived. Overnight, it seemed, the trees burst into blossom, and I could smell that dirty, sweet perfume of the city stretching awake. On the first afternoon warm enough for bare arms, I was walking down East Tenth Street. I’d just run into a friend I hadn’t seen in years and was on my way to meet another. The stack of papers to grade in my bag was heavy, but made lighter by the sunshine.
I reached the corner of Avenue A, and in front of me sprawled Tompkins Square Park. Its trees hung heavy with new growth, pollen sifting dreamily over the benches and grass, the dogs and playing children. Buzzing with laughter and motion and birdsong, it seemed more alive than anything I’d ever seen. Smelling the spring that day, and in it my own unearthed history, I wanted to lift my face to the sky and howl.
Leaving things you love is easier when you’re younger. You make stupid decisions about the wrong people. You slam the apartment door, throw your lover’s clothes out the window onto the sidewalk. Leaving gets harder as you age. You don’t leave out of anger or from coming to your senses, but because your love is not as strong as your reasons for going.
When we pulled up behind the moving truck in front of our new home, my girlfriend and I looked at each other and grinned. I jumped out of the car and led our seventy-pound pit bull out of his nest in the back seat. For a moment, Red stood dazed in the brilliant light, ears lopsided, watching a bumblebee hover over the overgrown lawn.
Next door, our neighbor weeded her garden.
“Hi there!” I called out.
“Hi!” she called back, pulling off her gardening gloves. “I’m Patti.”
Patti introduced herself as a college professor and area native. I mentioned my new position and that we’d arrived from Brooklyn. I didn’t tell her that before joining the professorial ranks, I’d been a professional dominatrix and drug addict, or that I’d recently published a memoir about my days of spanking and shooting heroin. I wasn’t in the habit of hiding my recent success, but it just seemed impolite to mention.
But I had experience with hiding. In my early twenties, I had juggled the life of a junkie dominatrix with that of a successful college student. It almost killed me, so good was I at keeping that secret, at maintaining my manners and appearance. For my first three years of teaching college, I hid all my tattoos. I had been dating my then-boyfriend for three years, but in the months leading up to my book’s publication, I never even told his parents what it was about. Concealing parts of me that might upset other people was a way of life.
But the year before I moved upstate marked an end to all that. The book came out, exposing me completely. I broke up with my boyfriend. I stopped wearing long sleeves to class in the middle of summer. And I fell in love with someone who gently reminded me that I had nothing to hide. It was the most terrifying and liberating year of my life. After five minutes in the country, however, I remembered how much easier it is being the person you think other people want you to be.
That night, I lay in bed listening to the crickets outside the open window. No sirens, no yelling, no car alarms, no footsteps on the floor above. The breeze drifting in the open window was sweet, but it took me a long time to fall asleep.
My new dean had described the area around the college as a “red county in a blue state,” but it hadn’t sunk in until we were driving around looking for a home. In some of these towns, I didn’t want to get out of the car to pump gas. The people looked angry, and I spotted a Confederate flag flapping from one porch. It was difficult not to judge people based on superficialities, even as I was afraid of being judged myself.
Driving through Clinton, we knew it was the obvious choice. Clinton is “quaint.” It has bed-and-breakfasts, a health-food store, a population under two thousand, and the highest median income of the surrounding towns. It is the Park Slope of its county, minus any people of color and minus the (visible) lesbians. Until us.
We were pleased to find almond milk in the supermarket, but I started to feel the subtle double takes people made in the produce aisle. I wasn’t embarrassed, but something else. Something I hadn’t felt in a long time. The instinctive urge to hide myself, streaked with a defiant preening—let them stare.
On the way home, Sam and I saw a middle-aged man and woman strolling across the village green. “Can we hold hands here?” she asked.
“I think it’s safe,” I said hopefully.
At Home Depot, where I went, alone, to get materials for a backyard fence for Red, people still stared, but only because I was one of the few women in sight, and certainly the only one cruising post-drivers in three-inch wedges and mascara. I made a mental note to ditch my city heels, to avoid looking like an off-duty stripper.
Later that week, our dryer was leaking gas, so I called a local plumber, which turned out to be two men with the same name.
“We tried replacing the tubes,” I said, leading them to the basement door, “but it’s still not working.” They were friendly, but I found myself faintly hoping Sam wouldn’t emerge from her office. Being stared at in the supermarket was one thing, but having to witness that moment of recognition in our own house made me feel too exposed, too vulnerable. That snarl of contradictory feelings emerged again, protective and defiant at the same time. I wanted to spare Sam any discomfort, any regret in moving here for me, but I knew the answer was not to let people assume that the “we” I referred to included a husband somewhere out of sight.
In mid-June, I drove Sam to the city to work for a few weeks. As I crossed the George Washington Bridge, and sped down FDR Drive, I felt strangely heartbreaky. Seeing the East River beside us, so gorgeous and contaminated, was like bumping into an ex you’re still in love with. The city wasn’t mine anymore, and it hurt to see it looking so beautiful, and so familiar. Driving down Second Avenue, we saw the usuals: skater kids and college students, queens and models and junkies. My heart hurt more and more. The landmarks of my most troubled memories now filled my heart with longing. I even missed my ghosts.
To distract myself from my growing anxiety, I began obsessing over the fence. I pulled over on country roads to inspect strangers’ pickets, their welded wire and split-rails. I Googled and watched YouTube videos. I convinced my handy younger brother to drive out from Amherst to help me build it.
A few days before he arrived, I drove into town. Strolling around, reusable shopping bag dangling from my arm, I felt such a powerful surge of loneliness that it almost knocked me over. I fled back to my car and drove up and down the rolling hills outside town, smelling the lush twilit perfume of summer, the smell of my childhood. All of it: the beauty, the chirrup of crickets, even the homesickness was reminiscent of some past self. Change does that. The uncertainty of moving forward jostles the sleeping lions of childhood fears: that I am alone, that I am not seen or seen wrongly. That I have made some terrible mistake. That the loneliness will last forever. “I want to go home,” I whispered, not sure what that meant.
The next day, I invited our neighbor Patti over for dinner. At first it was awkward, as I’d feared. But Patti was funny and kind, and we bonded over our mutual love of Middle Eastern food and dictionaries.
“I make a pretty mean baba ghanoush,” she offered. “I’ll save you some next time.
As I walked her out, she paused by the refrigerator.
“Is this the cover of your book?” she asked. Indeed it was, an early copy of the paperback cover, magnetized to the fridge.
“Um, yeah,” I said. I took a deep breath. “Why don’t I give you a copy?”
I regretted it almost immediately, and worried about it all the next day as my brother and I struggled and failed to build a fence. Had I ruined the only alliance I had in town?
That night, I sat alone in my home office and watched the live Senate hearing on gay marriage. As it passed 33 to 29, a cheer rose up in the hushed Senate chamber, but our neighborhood was dark and silent. I imagined the celebration on the city streets. I picked up the phone.
“The gay marriage bill just passed,” I told Sam, wiping my nose with my sweatshirt sleeve.
“That’s amazing!” she said. “Why do you sound so upset?”
“What if we did the wrong thing?” I asked, and felt something crack in me. I’d wanted to say that for so long. “I’m so afraid I dragged us up here, so far away—” I deteriorated into sobs.
“You’re just scared,” she said. “Change is scary, but it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
The next day, as my brother and I came back from our last trip to the hardware store, Patti came running across her lawn, holding a Tupperware container. I pulled over and rolled down the window.
“Baba ghanoush!” she said. “I made it yesterday.”
“Thank you so much,” I said, accepting the Tupperware.
“I read your book,” she said.
“You did?” I fought to maintain eye contact.
“I loved it,” she said. “Will you stop by and sign it for me later?”
All I could do was nod.
My brother finished the fence that afternoon. Excited, I led Red out the back door, and unclipped his leash.
“You’re free!” I said, waiting for him to race around, commencing his freedom. Instead, he just lumbered to a sunny patch of grass a few yards away, and rolled onto his side, happily panting. I had to laugh. Sometimes, it’s enough just to know that we’re safe. We don’t necessarily have to do anything differently or be anyone but the person we’ve always been.
People who don’t love the city talk about the freedom of the country and its wide-open spaces; they marvel at how one could live in so cramped and crowded a space. But I always felt free in Brooklyn. I found safety in its enclosures. The city let me relax into being myself. Being who I am in New York didn’t feel like an action I took—it just felt like living.
When the pollen-soaked weeks of summer dwindled, however, so did my certainty that we had made the right decision. First, Sam got sick. Or rather, sicker. She’d been ill before we left the city, but things worsened that fall. With no diagnosis and a debilitating list of over sixty-five symptoms, a current of panic rushed beneath our daily life together, which grew increasingly unmanageable. Her diagnosis of late-stage Lyme disease came with some relief, until we realized that insurance would only cover a tiny portion of the extravagantly priced treatments.
In the cooling months of the fall semester, we settled into a routine. Red paced in the yard, Sam trembled on the couch, and I wept in the parking lot before class, panic and loneliness tearing through me in ragged gasps as I looked out at the balding lawn of the college. “I want to go home,” I whispered to myself, mantra-like. “I want to go home.”
We didn’t fight. Instead, I fought myself, and took comfort in knowing that I would never leave her in such a condition. There were tendernesses—many nights curled in our upstate-sized bed, the dog between us as we stroked his velvet ears and fantasized about the future. But I flinched under her hands and flung myself to the far edge of that great bed in sleep.
She needed me, and that terrified me. I needed help too, but could not accept it. If I gave into my own choking fear and loneliness, I feared it might crush me, as our life seemed to be crushing our love. I could not afford to fall apart.
After classes and interminable faculty meetings, I jogged for hours through the farmland, then sifted through bills and claim forms. On better weeks, Sam commuted back to the city to work. The house seemed vast without her, myself a swirling mote, carried by twin winds of relief at her absence and bitter loneliness.
A month later, I was on anti-depressants. Did it help? I couldn’t tell. My hands were drier, and I suddenly became a person who napped. But I still didn’t want to be touched. I still felt a caving pit in my chest when I thought about Sam’s health, about New York, and the possibility of going on as we were for an indeterminate future. Though my eyes stayed dry, I still found myself whispering under my breath when alone, “I want to go home.”
When, after a grueling series of treatments and astronomical costs, Sam’s health took a turn for the better at the end of the spring semester, I tendered my resignation, and we began looking for an apartment back in Brooklyn.
The new apartment was over our budget, and Sam balked at the size, but I insisted, preferring location over square footage, desperately needing to be close by the people I had missed upstate, to feel close to the pulse of my old life.
On moving day, Sam drove the truck while I led in the car full of plants and medical supplies, my new prescription rattling in my purse. For a few moments, crossing the Manhattan Bridge, the river preening below in the dazzling spring sunlight, I felt free again. It felt like coming home.
But before we’d finished unloading boxes, my purse was stolen out of the car. My wallet and medication were gone. My dismay felt tinged with some deeper hysteria. Throat dry and palms damp, I called the bank and canceled my credit cards, the cave in my chest yawning hungrily.
It was a Friday, and my doctor’s office was closed. For the next two days, I waited for some sign of breakage, for a panic greater than that I already felt to seep into my hands and heart. Nothing. Just the same old ache in my chest, the same aversion to my beloved’s touch. I waited a week, then two, and saw no difference in my mood. Again, relief and disappointment. Whatever my condition, it would not be cured with a pill. Perhaps it could still be cured by coming home.
For the next month, our apartment remained crammed with boxes, the walls bare. Something in me resisted opening those boxes, as if the muted despair of our upstate life might rise in fumes, poisoning our new home. I raced around with work and social engagements, breathing in my city, but then went numb when I arrived home.
“What is going on with you?” she finally demanded one afternoon, and I could barely meet her gaze.
“Nothing,” I said.
“What the hell are you feeling inside, Melissa?”
I didn’t know what I felt inside, only that I couldn’t stop moving, couldn’t stop trying to outrun the caving feeling inside me.
The next day, a cop pulled me over on Houston Street. When the officer walked away with my license and registration, I stared at the dirty windshield, the ceaseless flow of traffic heading toward the Manhattan Bridge, and burst into tears. Something opened in me, and from that cave came a scorching flood of tears. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. My body rocking with sobs, I leaned my forehead on the steering wheel and yielded to the surging waves of grief. I didn’t even raise my head when the police officer returned, and he flung the ticket through my open window and fled. Hands gripping my thighs, the steering wheel slick with tears, I wailed for the lost hope that we would emerge from our troubles closer and stronger. I sobbed for my beloved, who had had to suffer alone in so many ways, and I wept for myself, for all the ways I wanted to be more than I was.
There was more between that day and the day Sam moved out of our home. I wish I could say that I recognized the moment when it was over, when I had reached the limit of my love, and that I faced it with some dignity. But I didn’t. I could not face the decision to leave while we still loved each other. And we did. But sometimes, love needs more than love to survive. Were we still in love? I don’t know. I know that I had stepped far enough outside our love that, a few weeks after I got that ticket, I touched someone else’s mouth with mine. I know that the day she moved out, when I walked back into the empty apartment and surveyed the pile of dusty wires where her desk had been, the lone fork and mug she’d left me, my chest filled with a terrible sadness, and with relief.
This morning, I woke feeling lighter. Red lazed in a patch of sunlight near my desk chair as I sipped my coffee and wrote a little. I’ve got a new desk, new plants, and a few knives and spoons to accompany my fork. In the kitchen, light streams in, and through the cracked window I can smell autumn coming. There is more space in here, now, and I am beginning to fill it with words, with forgiveness, with a future that’s only beginning to sharpen into focus.
Though my heart is in pieces, I have not found myself whispering for home. Because home is here. Not only New York, but this heart that I’m learning to trust, however much it hurts. In these emptier days, I have come to know that my sadness is not a problem to be solved. It is simply my humanity. Sometimes pain is the call of a wound that needs tending, and sometimes it is the sting of its healing. And sometimes you have to break your own heart to be true, and you have to go home to do it.
Excerpted from Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, edited by Sari Botton. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.
Parts of this essay have appeared in Salon and the New York Times Opinionator blog “Townies.”
Photos courtesy of Melissa Febos.