Hello to All That
by JESSIE LOCHRIE
New York is strange in that it manages to be constantly changing and yet always exactly the same. The bodega next to my freshman dorm, where we used to send our only 21-year-old friend to buy beer, has been replaced with a tiny, mint-green coffee shop. The dorm's not a dorm anymore, it's been sold off. Offices, maybe. The wall outside where we used to smoke joints and eat pizza at 4 a.m. with our feet dangling towards the sidewalk is now studded with giant shrubberies to discourage those who would sit on it. There’s a massive CitiBike rack out front. What was once a parking lot across the street is becoming an apartment building.
It's like this everywhere – a heap of scaffolding is now a shiny condo, a bodega is now a bar, a bar is now a fro-yo joint. I once read that you’re a real New Yorker when you can point to a building and say what it was before its current incarnation, and what it was before that. It happens far more quickly than you’d think, boom and bust, favorite spots razed, new favorite spots created. There’s little mourning.
I'm coming up on my fifth year in New York. Five years is the longest I've lived anywhere except the hometown where I spent the first 18 years of my life. It seems impossible that I am even old enough to have lived anywhere but that suburb for five years, but I have. It seems even more impossible that the things that happened when I first moved here were five years ago, but they were. I can’t tell if it’s the city, or my own propensity for change, but each apartment I have lived in feels like a different lifetime. Maybe this is how people feel when they remember who they were when they moved to the place where they did their becoming.
Last weekend I went back to the apartment in Williamsburg where I lived for two years and where my friends still live. It's the tiling in the bathroom that always gets me, somehow. The furniture is different, my room unrecognizable, but that tiling is the same. The building has a new door – it used to have a workmanlike steel lower half and a glass upper, both covered in graffiti. Now it's one of those pretty doors you see on fancy new Brooklyn buildings: shiny black metal, glass panels.
I stood staring at it for a minute and remembered how in the summer of 2012 a boy and I sat on opposite sides of the grimy old door at four in the morning and I told him I couldn't date him because I still loved my ex. I ran into that same boy at a restaurant a few weeks ago. He asked if I was writing.
My boyfriend now doesn't love New York. That's fine. Not everyone does. At the end of the day it's just another place to live, a particularly crowded and dirty and expensive one. One night he asked me why I loved it so much and I told him that the summer I was 17, I came to the city with my parents. We had dinner with extended family at a fancy, tiny restaurant in the West Village and by the time the check was coming, they'd been talking about cancer and surgeries and hospitals for half the meal and I was on the verge of a panic attack. (I was a sensitive teenager who didn't like to be reminded of her own mortality. Who does?)
I slipped out for air and stood on the sidewalk. It was quiet the way certain blocks of the Village are quiet – people walking their dogs, exiting restaurants, occasional taxis coming down the avenue. The kind of quiet that makes rich people want to live there. I looked up the street and a summer breeze pushed my hair off my face and I felt something tight within my chest unknotting. I forgot about the great-uncle's extended battle with diabetes. I forgot my anxiety, my hatred of my little suburb, my profound boredom with my small life. The little voice that whispered you don't belong in every place I'd ever been to was suddenly gone.
Here. The word appeared in my mind unbidden. I could be happy here. New York was the first place I’d been that I didn’t want to leave. A year later, I moved to Manhattan.
The truth is that I wanted to write this story without the boy, but I can’t. The story of moving to New York and the story of the boy are inextricably tied together. Maybe I am foolish to think that they are different stories. I wanted to write the story without the boy because as a writer, I like to take things apart and put them back together neatly. I like structure. I like clean narrative arcs. There’s no arc to this one. I fell in love and got my heart broken like every sucker on the planet. And then that went on, the being in love and being heartbroken and also really goddamn angry, for a long time. There were apologies, and a lot of time passed, and we both fell in love with other people, and didn’t talk for a year, and talked again, and the world turned on its axis until I wasn’t angry or in love with him anymore. There’s no clear ending, no neat conclusion.
Would we have fallen in love anywhere, if we had met there at 18? Probably. But not in the same way. Before I moved to New York, I would always feel a flash of frustration when something I was reading mentioned a subway line. I didn’t know the A from the C from the E, and it annoyed me to have this piece of setting left blank. I didn’t understand why it even had to be mentioned. Now, I understand: it matters where things happen almost as much as what happened. Your memories are linked with subway lines, with street corners, with that one corner bodega. Crying on the downtown 6, getting bitten by a dog in a Brooklyn loft, the where of everything matters. It couldn’t have happened anywhere else. Not in the same way.
My first night in the city, I met this dark-haired, blue-eyed boy from an hour upstate. He walked into the room on the first night of college orientation and the hundred other people around us went out of focus and then froze completely, in a way that seems like bad special effects from a low-budget movie, but that I can remember clearer than almost anything. We sat in Tompkins Square Park one night early on when I saw something the size of a small dog appear from the bushes and then disappear again. “No,” I said. “No way.” He put his arm around me and said, “Aw, your first rat.”
I’ve fallen in love quickly and I’ve fallen in love slowly, but never with the all-consuming, almost scary intensity with which I fell for this boy. I am not saying that it was better, only that it was different. Faster, more total. I’d never fallen in love like that before and I never expect to again. That we were both young and new to the city certainly helped. Our misfiring, matching neurons helped too. It didn’t feel like “falling,” I wrote once. It felt more like being pushed off a cliff – sudden, irrevocable.
His middle name was Tristan, which seemed romantic at the time and now seems like a prophecy ignored. After a blissful few months, he decided that he couldn’t handle a new city and a new life and a new girlfriend and the depression that plagued him.
He disappeared, as much as you can disappear when you have class together twice a week. That fall was also when I realized that my own moodiness, which I’d attributed to typical suburban teenage ennui, was another animal entirely. It would take almost two years for a doctor to tell me that he and I shared the same disease, though I suspected it much sooner.
Now I think part of the reason we seized onto each other so fiercely, why it all happened so quickly, was that the sick parts of us recognized each other and they did not want to be alone. And part of why I loved him is that he understood me in a wordless, sometimes eerie way, in a way no one else had before. But two bipolar teenagers deposited in the middle of a churning city is not a recipe for stability. We split up, we got back together, we split up again, we dated other people. We fucked it all up in a way that should have been hopeless, but we never really disentangled ourselves. I called him during my ever-more-frequent panic attacks, pressing my back to the wall and focusing on his voice, the single sound that could calm me. He would text me at five in the morning as the blue light of dawn filled my dorm room, knowing I was awake too as the sun rose over the city.
It was all wildly dramatic. I was miserable. There is nowhere better to be performatively unhappy than New York, except maybe Paris. I walked to the newly-opened High Line after class and wrote in my journal. I walked down Bowery from the East Village to Chinatown and back up again at midnight when I couldn’t sleep. I drank a lot. I went to as many parties as possible. One of these parties was on the roof of a warehouse off the Halsey stop on the L. Half an hour after we arrived the cops came and broke it up, and as we waited on the sidewalk for our friends, people started throwing empty 40s from the fifth-story roof onto the cop cars below. One bottle shattered on the pavement a foot next to where I stood, and I froze so completely that a friend had to pick me up and carry me across the street. We still talk about it, wondering if it would have killed me or just knocked me out. I swore I’d never come back to Bushwick.
I went to a party in Alphabet City where we had to leave because a girl had fallen down the stairs. We thought it was a joke, an excuse to clear everyone out, until we saw the blood pooled in the stairwell. Outside a guy was sitting on the building’s stoop, cradling the girl in his lap like she was a doll. She was blond. She was wearing a blue dress with some kind of white pattern – polka dots, maybe tiny birds. She looked dead. At the house party we migrated to in a half-hearted effort to salvage the night, I locked myself in the bathroom and called the boy I was in love with, willing him to pick up. I was so sure if I could only see him, everything would be fine. He would fix it, like he always did. The girl would be alive. He texted me back: he was with his roommate, he was busy. Drunk and in shock, I slept with the host of the party. Afterwards he stroked my hair and said, very kindly, “So tell me about your ex.” I wondered if someone had tipped him off, explained why I had claimed the bathroom as my personal fiefdom of heartbreak. I wondered if he could just sense it, if misery and need were seeping out of me.
At the end of the year, the boy I was in love with moved to Hawaii. The city made his depression worse. I stayed in New York, because it made my depression better. That voice in my head that told me I could be happy there was right, eventually. A few weeks ago I was frustrated about something – the train, my landlord, I can’t remember, and idly texted him that I was thinking about moving. “What are you talking about?” he texted back. “You love New York. You’ve been there for five years. You’re not going to leave.” He was right. I wasn’t. I’m not very good at leaving, which might explain why I’m still friends with him after all these years.
He’s married now, about to move even farther away than Hawaii. I live in Bushwick with my boyfriend, firmly planted in the place I once promised I would never return to. Sometimes when I’m walking through Central Park I’ll take a picture and text it all the way to Hawaii, ask if he doesn’t miss it even a little bit: bagels, the leaves turning, the view of Manhattan when you’re coming over the Williamsburg Bridge. I never ask if he misses me. By now, we’ve lived 5,000 miles apart for four times as long as we ever spent in the same city. What I wouldn’t give to tell my grieving nineteen year old self that one day I wouldn’t love him, that sometimes it’s hard to remember he was even here at all. Still, there’s always pockets of the city that remind me of him. The Indian restaurant on 1st Ave where we went on our first real date. A certain street in the West Village, where he silently handed me a cigarette and I felt a gulf widening between us, and he didn’t say anything but somehow I knew it was over.
People always want us to justify our love for irrational things. You have to explain why you stay in the expensive city, why you Skype with the person who broke your heart five years ago. You must list off why you love the city or the boy: it’s diverse and exciting; he’s smart and kind. But those are platitudes, not real reasons.
I love New York because no matter where you are at whatever hour of the night, you can get home with two dollars and fifty cents. I loved the boy because he took me home to meet his mother, and because the last time we slept together he kissed me between my shoulderblades. I love him now for different, more platonic reasons: He gives good advice. He bought me my first slice of New York pizza. He inhabits my past and present comfortably, which few people can. I asked him once if it would bother him if I wrote about him. “Of course not,” he said. “We are at peace.” Even in the worst of it, I never thought we were at war.
"Groove Merchant" - James Morrison (mp3)
"I Fall In Love Too Easily" - James Morrison (mp3)