I have a talent for complicated affairs and ours was the most complicated of all.
It began in the summer of 2012. The city was hot, frantic and the perfect splinter for a heart that had been fractured the year before. But my bruised insides weren’t the only reason I’d got on the plane with $250 in one hand and a copy of American Psycho in the other. It had actually begun long before.
The desire had stirred within me well before I binned almost everything I’d gathered in over a decade in London, shoved the rest into one giant suitcase and pitched up at JFK. It’s a place I’d visited many times over the years and, with each thrilling encounter, I felt myself fall a little deeper. I loved the lights, the noise and the fever; I loved the energy and the sense that anything, everything was possible. New York didn’t care where you were from, where you’d been or even where you were going. All it really cared about was that, right now, you’d chosen to be there. Later, as our union became strained, I’d realise that it didn’t care that much – you needed it much more than it needed you – and that was a lesson all who dropped anchor in the city would learn. But I didn’t know that, not yet.
What I knew was that it felt familiar. Before I’d ever even stepped foot on the hot pavement, the city was burned on my brain. Not just what it looked like, but what it felt like. From the Brooklyn brownstones and the Manhattan rooftops to the steaming manholes and the glittering skyline: I’d seen it and experienced it thousands of times over in the books, movies and shows I’d devoured in dreary, same-old England. Whenever stress made my shoulders sag, or I shared sour words with a friend, I’d escape to that bit of my brain marked “New York” and wander the streets there, feeling free. I knew that the city was not only holding the life I’d been waiting to live, but the best version of me I was still set to be.
New York began to remind me of that boyfriend who knows he’s better than you and makes you work your arse off to keep him
In England, I was clumsy, awkward and perpetually stumbling over in a stained dress with deflated hair and eroded eyeliner. New York Me was poised, polished, together. I dated smart, funny, fuzzy-haired men who played records, while reading me the sleeve notes, and worked in a sunlight-flooded Fifth Avenue office populated by whipsmart women. The city was going to carve me out anew. So, when I turned up that May afternoon carrying this idealised notion of both New York and myself, I could feel optimism and hope blooming in my belly. It was time to start my real life in my dream city. At the time, I didn’t note the inherent contradiction.
I navigated those early months in a pitched state of terror and excitement. I danced until dawn downtown with strangers. I sang and swayed with drag queens in Chinatown. I met and fell in love with a woman who would became one the most important people in my life. And so every scrap of adversity seemed to me a completely acceptable part of the deal: laying down almost $3,000 per month to live in a West Village studio/shoebox with a broken loo and two windows facing a brick wall. Feeling the pair of baby-sized rats run over my tight-less foot as I walked home on the Lower East Side. The married banker in the bar telling me with a sneer that my tattoos rendered me “disgusting”. Yet another person spending our conversation talking three inches over my right shoulder in case someone else more important wandered by, which they invariably did.
Over time, the familiarity started to fade. I missed my family, my friends, standing close to those who would make me laugh until my ribs rubbed and cared to uncover the complexities of me. The city began to remind me of that boyfriend who knows he’s better than you and makes you work your arse off to keep him. He might be the love of your life, but you’re certainly not his. In fact, he doesn’t give a fuck. There’ll be others after you; there always is.
Still, there’d be moments. Moments when I’d be hurtling along in a yellow cab as the city lights flashed by; when I’d be watching a movie under the Brooklyn Bridge as the sun dipped slowly behind it; when I’d be walking through Times Square, all lit up like a Christmas tree, at 3am in July; when I’d be nursing a beer on a roof while the skyline danced in the distance. Then it would feel like pure magic. I’d rub my eyes and blink hard, convinced that, when I opened them again, it would have disappeared. And yet, in those moments, I’d feel unreal. The city felt unreal. What do you when life is a series of beautiful cinematic moments, but those moments aren’t enough to make up a life?
What do you do when life is a series of beautiful cinematic moments, but those moments aren’t enough to make up a life?
I became increasingly conscious of the bits in-between. The bits after someone I couldn’t see had shouted, “Cut!” The bits where I felt lonely and anxious and suffocated by the city. Breakfast became a coffee, two cigarettes and a Xanax. Lunch became two coffees, three cigarettes and another Xanax. People at home pictured me looking over the city with a cocktail in hand. And, sometimes, I was, but I was also lying in bed, watching EastEnders or Crimewatch or The Office, attempting to feel a connection to something that felt real. I wasn’t homesick so much as sick of missing my life at home. Nobody at home, however, wanted to hear that I wasn’t having the time of my life. They didn’t want me to shake their version of New York – the one they were living in the corner of their own brain. I wanted to tell them: everything you want is here. Don’t go thousands of miles to find that out for yourself.
That’s not to say choosing to leave was easy – it wasn’t. But, when I was offered my dream job back in London, choose I did. Fear snaked around my guts as the question flashed across my mind: who decides to leave New York? I sat on the kerb near my office, debating whether I should stay or go, and my friend posed the question that would cut through all of the noise. “Why do you want to stay?” he asked. “Well, what would people say if I didn’t?” I shot back. “They’d think I was mad.” The pause that bounced between us revealed that the real insanity was my response.
I was right, of course. Three months after returning to London, there are three questions I’m asked almost daily: why did you leave New York? What really happened? Do you miss it? And my answers are: I didn’t belong there. I chose life. Hell, no. Not yet. In truth, it feels like a dream now – sometimes more like a hallucination. Some memories appear vividly, others hang lightly in the air, disappearing completely when I try to clutch them in my fist for closer examination.
As I boarded the plane for my final exit from New York, I read Joan Didion’s farewell essay, Goodbye To All That, with tears in my eyes: “It was an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of ‘living’ there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not ‘live’ at Xanadu.”
Apparently not. I wanted more than a notion, more than an ideal. I wanted somewhere to live, something to love, and I wanted it be real.