At first I didn’t understand why New York has been on my mind so much lately, even more than usual.
It’s been almost seven months since that awful weekend I spent there, packing up my stuff to leave for good. It’s been ten months since I left it to spend the summer in Ohio with my family, expecting at the time that I’d soon be back.
Things here have been as good as they’ve ever been, and truly, they’ve always been good. Not a day has gone by that I haven’t paused at some point to think about how lovely my life in Columbus is. It’s not just the individual components that make up a good life–my friends, my partners, my family, a decent job, a nice place to live, interesting things to do, and so on–it’s the way my entire mental structure seems to have shifted shortly after moving here. I became less cautious, more optimistic, more able to connect with people, more willing to give to them, more willing to accept what they have to give. I’m able to treat challenges as learning opportunities. I’m genuinely curious about the future. I think I will generally succeed at things and accomplish what I set out to accomplish, and those are all very new abilities for me.
I never expected that leaving what I love most could be so good for me.
I think I know why I keep thinking about it. It’s undeniably spring now, and the warmth and sunlight and flowers naturally remind me of the last time it was spring, and where I was at that time. In a way I think I will always remember New York by its spring, same way you remember your ex in the dress she wore on your last night together.
My city’s dress was all flowers, and her hair was sunshine on skyscrapers.
Nothing about my feelings made any sense until I started thinking of New York as an ex. You might love an ex but leave them anyway. You might miss your ex but know it’s best for you to stay away. You might regret leaving them, but, what’s done is done and you’re with someone else now and living your own life and that’s good enough for you. I left New York out of necessity, but I’m staying away–I think–because I want to.
Since coming to Columbus, I’ve started my first Real Adult Job and kicked ass at it. I’ve started dating people who actually live locally and it’s been amazing. I’ve started performing burlesque. I’ve started biking regularly again. I’ve started making my own ice cream and subjecting my friends to it. I’ve (re)started hosting big dinner parties like I used to, before New York with its tiny kitchens. I’ve started getting involved in all sorts of local groups. I’ve started playing in a community band–a queer community band. (I can’t even express how excited I am to be marching in a Pride parade for the first time this summer.) I’ve started making peace with my own weird form of queerness. I’ve gotten over my anxiety about driving and making phone calls and going to events where I don’t know anyone (but, unfortunately, not about dating). I’ve met more people and gone to more events and seen more cool things than I could even try to list. My family, to whom saying goodbye used to completely break me every time, is now a mere hour down the highway and I see them all the time, and the fact that my little siblings no longer cry when I leave at the end of a visit feels like it means more to me than a thousand New Yorks. And yet.
And yet, and yet, and yet.
“New York it is not,” I say to myself, biting into a bagel with lox, eating a bowl of ramen, entering a used bookstore, walking down High Street, shopping for clothes, watching the skyline grow on the horizon. It’s kind of like everyone knows you’re not supposed to compare your partners to your exes and everyone does it anyway. This is not a city you fall in love with and do desperate things for; this is a city you learn to love because it’s the city that’s there.
And yet it’s precisely in its not-New-Yorkness that Columbus comforts, delights, and ultimately captures me. It’s the ten-minute drive home from work to my comfortable apartment with a kitchen big enough to actually cook in. It’s reading on the couch and hearing the rain through the open window. It’s the long bike rides through woods waking up from winter as if from a dream. It’s the way people here bring you into their circle, a phrase my mom uses in Russian that seems to mean not just including someone in your social group but letting them into your life. It’s falling asleep to the whistling of trains and waking up to the singing of birds. It’s 5 PM on Friday and all the promise that it brings. It’s Saturday night at a bar with a partner, running into people we know and catching up. It’s having a calendar so overflowing with burlesque shows and dinner plans and comedy nights and yoga classes and happy hours and band rehearsals and activist meetings that I barely have time to think about what I’ve lost.
Yet think about it I do, in those spaces between one thing and another, in the car, in the shower, in bed, in line. I’ve thought about it every single day since I left. I’ve thought about it so yearningly, so painfully, so viscerally, like I’ve never thought about any person, or really any thing, before.
In those moments, it’s like I’m still there. The metallic smell of the subway tracks, the screech of the train, the rush of wind around a corner, the architecture of all my favorite places, the exact taste of a proper slice or bagel or bowl of ramen, the softness of the Central Park lawn beneath my bare feet. The way I felt when I showed the city to my best friend and fell in love with them both all over again. The way I felt on New Year’s Eve. The way I felt sipping too-hot tea in my aunt’s apartment on a cold night, more times than I can count. The way I felt on my last night in the city, taking a few steps into that same apartment before collapsing, sobbing, in my aunt’s arms. The way I felt coming up the subway stairs into the light. The way I felt when I was so connected to the city that it was like its pulse was my pulse. The way I felt when it seemed like the city was all I had. The way I felt when I drove over the bridge into Manhattan for the first time, to stay. The way I felt when the bus emerged from the tunnel in New Jersey, the sun setting over the city for the last time.
At their best these memories are a nice distraction from daily life, but at their worst they haunt me. I even had a dream a few nights ago that I was still there, in a subway station, trying to find the downtown C and failing. I woke up angry. I always knew how to find the right train. I am terrified of coming back and finding that my mental geography of the city has faded and frayed so that I can’t do something so simple as finding the downtown C, let alone remembering how to get to Broadway from any given point.
Sometimes I think that New York is the closest thing to a romance I’ve ever had. I’m not given to thinking about other human beings in those terms; while I’ve loved many people, I’m not sure I’m capable of being in love with anyone for longer than a few days. People are wonderful but they’re indecisive and undependable. A city will always be waiting for me, which is probably exactly why I can’t seem to move on. How do you move on from something that can’t move?
I’m not so simplistic in my thinking as to assume that any of this means that I’m unhappy here, that this isn’t “the right thing,” that I should definitely go back, that whatever. I know I’ve never, ever been as happy as I am now and I’m not about to fuck with that because of a weird obsession with a city I ultimately only got to stay in for two years.
And maybe it’ll get better once spring is over and merely stepping outside stops reminding me of my last days there. Summer was always for Ohio, and I think it’ll help me feel more grounded in where I am rather than floating around in memories of where I once was.
But right now it’s particularly hard. I close my eyes and all I see is the city in her flowers, the city in her sunshine.