When I first read Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That,” I was a junior in college and in the thick of my love for New York.
I always joke that living in New York City was like being in a cult–you were blinded by it’s flaws and never imagined how anyone would ever leave it. I didn’t understand that New York could be anything but full of wonder. Sure, I had tough times and often felt like the city was trying to crush me, but it was still New York. It was my home. It was magic. Even on a bad day, all I ever had to do was look up at the glittering buildings– they seemed infinite back then– and I felt better. I really and truly thought that I would live there forever.
I re-read Didion’s essay now and it makes sense. As she wrote, “I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended.”
It’s true. I can’t remember when the film dissolved from my eyes and my love was gone. I remember Brooklyn loft parties, dollar beers, and Sunday’s in Central Park. I remember sitting in darkly lit bars with my best friends, dumplings in Chinatown, and coffee by the river.
However, I can’t for the life of me remember the day I woke up and decided I had to leave. I suppose it was instantaneous. I looked up at the buildings and they weren’t glittering like they used to. Suddenly, the charm that kept me there for so long just disappeared and I whispered to the city, “I don’t love you like I loved you anymore.”
Or, maybe, it was because I realized that I had other dreams to fulfill. I dreamt of other cities far away. I dreamt of adventure, of love, of places I had never been. I felt stuck, annoyed with the people who said to me, “but, you can travel around the world just by living in New York.” I knew I could walk five blocks and find the best Indian food or take the subway 20 minutes and find authentic pierogies on a street corner. I knew I could order Chinese at 3 am if I wanted to or walk to Times Square and hear 10 different languages all at once. It wasn’t the same as really being there. I wanted to be everywhere and anywhere else.
I was born in NYC and when my mom moved us to Florida when I was ten, it became this mythical place that I longed to get back to. In many ways, despite having spent my childhood there, New York became my dream. I knew I had to live there and I worked and worked until I did. When I was a senior in high school, I didn’t apply to a single Florida college. I applied to ten, all in New York. New York is where the real writers were, where all my favorite writers spent their days. I had to be there. I had to be in it, be surrounded by all of it.
Then, a year later, I was eighteen and bright-eyed, moving into my dorm on 12th and 3rd. I waltzed into the Starbucks on Astor Place the day before and got myself a job as a barista. It was my first week of college and I was in New York. I remember thinking: “This is it. This is the American dream.” That’s when my love story began.
Five years later, it ended. So many unimaginable things happened to me in those five years– things I could have never planned or prepared for. Some were great and some were very, very bad. My friend once called my life a “magical hurricane” because sometimes it was magic but other times, it was just a hurricane.
I was tired and had lost the hopeful heart that I came there with. I never wanted to hate New York and I was so close, so I left. I left behind my life for Europe and I healed my broken heart.
It’s been a year since that day. I don’t regret any of it. My friends, who are still in the thick of their love story, don’t quite understand how I could leave. That’s okay, though, because I understand why they can’t. New York is a force to be reckoned with and when you fall in love with it, you fall hard. It’s a once in a lifetime kind of love.
I went back to New York City for the first time last month. I was nervous, expecting to hate it and for all of the ill feelings to come rushing back. They didn’t, though.
New York was still New York, in all of it’s beautiful, grimy glory. My boyfriend saw the city for the first time and I think he helped me remember why I loved it. Why I still love it.
It’s a wonderful, crazy place. It’ll always be that way, no matter how much I change. And I know that if I ever need to, New York will always welcome me back with open arms.
When I got on the plane to go back home, my new home in Zurich, I watched the skyline get smaller under my window and I felt whole again.
I made peace with the city that had my heart for so long.
I said goodbye- to all of it.
Suggested Listening For This Post: New York, New York – Frank Sinatra
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