lately, this story.
by Michael King
That’s the thing about New York, she said, setting down her beer and shaking her head, the city spits you out three times before it lets you stay.
I nodded, accepting it immediately as truth. It was the summer of 2017, the muggy baton pass between late May and early June, and I was only visiting the city. A friend from college, then five years into his relationship with New York, had invited me to his Greenpoint apartment for dinner, where a mosaic of young people welcomed me in to exchange ideas and early-won bits of wisdom.
I was quiet, then, about the dream of moving to New York City, as though saying it out loud might somehow break it. Scare it away, just out of reach.
The city spits you out three times before it lets you stay, I thought to myself, grinning as the conversation turned to how many New York men use the word ‘deliverables’ when describing their jobs on first dates.
I think of my life in terms of semesters. I moved right to college after high school, then to graduate school, and then into a job whose first big hurdle was Fall move-in. It’s funny, sometimes, when people ask how long I’ve been in the city; I always catch myself before answering in semesters.
There is comfort to routine. Whenever my situation changes too much, I find myself willful in creating some new routine, a conductor glaring down a reluctant orchestra.
In March of this year, when I learned all our students would be moving home early, normalcy dissolved at my fingertips. Okay, I bargained with myself, we will get through this. I started each morning with a four-mile run, carving a path through the city, once-busy, now shuttered to silence.
Routine, normalcy, control. All of these were suddenly mirages, and I found myself wobbly on my feet. This is an excellent time to write, a friend suggested, and I exhausted at the thought.
How does one create in the midst of so much pretending?
I did my best to document what it was to survive this time. I mimicked my morning coffee in my own kitchen. I took photos of myself to remind myself that I’m real. I burst into tears listening to an upbeat dance song because I abruptly realized nobody I knew had seen my face in eight days.
In the Fall, some semblance of normalcy resumed. We had far fewer students than normal, but there was a move-in. The office was staffed sparsely, and plastic barriers were raised, but I had resumed leaving my apartment to ‘go to work.’
On the morning I learned I would be losing my job, after the floor stopped crumbling underfoot, after I steadied my hands, after I called my sister and stammered I lost my job before sobbing, I sat in the quiet and exhaled. I realized, then, that I’d been holding my breath for months, waiting for hard news.
I’m not good at saying goodbye before I’m ready. Each time, I am indignant, humiliated, furious, brokenhearted. So much of how I show up to my life revolves around the idea of writing these chapters well. Sometimes, I look at a paragraph and want to know just who the hell has the nerve to scribble like this.
I spend hours thinking of ways to turn the main character back on the path I imagined him walking.
Once, when a lover left, and I was sitting in fragments on the floor, I whispered to myself, you cannot write him back into your life. I wrote a Post-It note for my bedroom dresser: a person who wants to stay stays. But, months later, on a night run, my eyes broke like tired dams, and I stumbled into a cry on the sidewalk. Just come back, I stammered, fool me twice, fool me twice.
I fool myself with the notion that, when I leave a heartbreak, I do so having learned the lesson I needed. Now, I tell myself, I won’t have to fall apart that way anymore.
But here I am, in a year characterized by canceled plans and broken storylines, and I am again startled to find I’m not really at the helm.
When I close a chapter, I want that on my own terms. I want to walk the sidewalks I’ve been taking for granted, thank them for always guiding me home. I want to tuck love letters in the homes of everybody who’s kept me afloat, find just the words to impart, ensure no shred of meaning or sentiment is left beneath some unturned stone.
These past few weeks, I have wrestled myself, again and again, out of trying to right the story. Just let go, I whisper to my clenched fists, find gratitude for what was and get moving.
I don’t know that I believe New York City keeps any quotas for the times it will spit somebody out. I know it can seem monstrous and tall, cold and apathetic to whatever is devastating you. It can feel, to me, like the hardest place to find peace.
But there are times when the avenues and streets seem to line up just right, and I glance up and feel some kind of warming rightness. Remember when it was all just a dream, I remind myself, and now here you are, walking these sidewalks like you know them by name.
I’m letting go of the idea that there’s ever really a ‘right’ way forward. Over the past few weeks, I’ve held the pen in my fingertips, staring down the last paragraph with a furrowed brow, wondering where I want my story to go next. There’s probably joy and meaning and hope to be found in each of those ways forward; there is also always the strange grief of leaving the other paths unexplored.
Hands shaking, I am writing again. I’ve decided to build something new, to expand myself, to grow and fill a new space. My body is a plant repotted, roots acquainting tentatively with new soil, leaves shuddering in relief as they, again, discover there is light.