The best nights in New York City feel a bit like a runaway train. The city is hard, brutal edges and corners, but it will give you story after story if you let it. You just have to loosen your grip, feel the breeze against your palms.
It’s 3 AM, I’m sitting on the floor of a Brooklyn train station, and I am reveling in how free and beautiful life feels. The night freshly lived is a series of images: six-pack of sour beers, black henley stolen from my brother nine years ago, crickets at Zona Rosa, stories swapped on a bus otherwise empty, bags of chips on a free-standing laundry, my friend’s face as we break free to talk about life yet again.
And now this: Me, 33 years old and suddenly at ease with everything that’s ever happened, singing into the cavernous space. Really can’t remember where I left my spine, carrying my body in a bag for dimes. I pause, the melody warm on my lips as I hear my voice reverberate. Hidden in the pages of the New York Times at home. Nearby, two women turn to smile at me, one giving me a thumbs-up. I laugh, shy, and hum to myself instead.
We’re raised on stories with satisfying arcs. Heroes face down villains, lovers face obstacles, people meet the moment and change for the better. In college, a fellow writer told me I’d probably always write ‘coming-of-age’ stories. Everything you write is about learning to meet this world for what it is. At the time, I resented his boiling down of my gift to something so simple.
But here, on this night and against this wall, I have to admit: The greatest coming-of-age lesson I’ve ever learned is that stories don’t really have endings. Human arcs are messy, layered, mundane, back and forth. Happiness isn’t just a quick mountain away; love isn’t the period at the end of some sentence.
But, sometimes, the story we want to live chimes in perfect unison with the moment we’re living. Peace is a cat wandering into the crook of our arm, purring for the moment. Try and grab it, hold it too close, and it runs away and skulks beneath the furniture.
And so we sing into subway stations.
My therapist apologized to me this week. Last time, she explained to me, when you were telling me about some of the changes in your life, I showed too much emotion. I laughed, told her it was all right, but she insisted. No, I’ve thought about it, and I shouldn’t be another person making you feel like I’ll be happiest when you get it right.
The hair on my arms raised, a lump pressing against my sternum. I accepted her apology. Our time together is always work, a long breath in and out, but it is also like looking into the mirror for a good long while. Eyes gentle, mind relaxed. Investigating.
Afterwards, I grabbed a coffee and stared out the window at a city in motion. Folks were buying Christmas trees, eating bites of pizza in between foggy exhales. I realized the hardest part isn’t the learning, isn’t the discovering the hard truths about ourselves, but it’s the unlearning, the letting go.
Maybe you realize you push people away. Maybe you even break through to realizing you do it because you’re afraid of being let down, and pushing people away at least keeps the control in your hands. The epiphany can feel clarifying, relieving, but the work comes days, weeks, months later, when you find yourself pushing someone away again. When you realize naming the monster didn’t free you of it, and now you need to forgive yourself, set the monster down, and try something new.
We are learners, always. We learn and learn and learn. Unlearning, letting go, is the good fight for something better. It’s swimming against our own currents and trying to reroute the story.
I brought my cat home at the dusk of July. I woke up, walked to my rental car with a cat carrier, and took the tunnel out of the city and into New Jersey. My destination, decided by his foster family, was a rest stop named for Jon Bon Jovi.
In the back seat, on his own for the first time, he was timid and quiet, then began to cry out. One hand on the wheel, I reached my right hand back toward his carrier’s net boundary. He pressed his tiny face against it and purred. We arrived back into the city that way, jumping over the page into a new chapter together.
Months later, it’s hard to imagine my apartment without him. At night, when I climb up the ladder to my lofted bed, I know he is going to playfully bat at my feet. On the mornings I linger in bed and play on my phone, I know he will eventually get tired of waiting on me and make an appearance to coax me into the day.
He’s changed so much in such a short time, grown more confident and restful. Some corners of the apartment feel like his, and he stands most proudly in those. We have rituals, and he knows how to communicate their beginning with me. He paws at my legs when he wants me to lift him, stretches his body back and away from me when he wants me to brush his paws against the walls and corners. He can open the bathroom door if it’s not fully shut.
As December begins to melt into a new year, I think of his 2022. Lanky kitten has given way to playful cat, a fuzzy beast that revels in his own rest for most hours of the day. He has grieved his siblings, moved on from the places he called home before this, come to trust me, flourished alongside me.
Sometimes it tickles me that he has no concept of New York City, of the busy and bustling world roaring just outside the perimeters of this apartment. I feel sorry for him, and then I realize I shouldn’t. He is so deeply content.