All Things Go
Can you really leave New York without writing an essay about it?
Trigger warning: Eating disorders, suicide
I was born in Manhattan on a snowy day, or maybe it wasn’t snowy, but it was definitely probably cold because it was January, the point is that I don’t remember, I was a baby. The hospital was called Beekman then; it’s New York Presbyterian now. We moved to Florida before I turned one — not long enough to be a New Yorker.
We visited all the time when I was a kid. My grandparents lived here. My dad’s roots were here. I never stayed long enough to get to know any one place, only the walks to and from Grandma’s apartment in Battery Park City and the grocery store where we bought milk and fruit. Whenever we visited, we preferred walking to taking the bus, and the subway was out of the question. Too loud, too fast, too scary. I was afraid of public transit until I was 22.
I moved to Chicago for college, but Justin wanted us to live in New York. He planned for us to live together after undergrad, share a tiny apartment in Brooklyn, and grow into real journalists together. When things went bad — when his words turned vicious and jagged and I stopped wanting to try at anything anymore, spent my days avoiding the sharp knife of his anger — I wondered if New York might be a refuge someday. Would the city change him into someone kinder? Would it give me the space I needed away from him? At the very least, would it let me be my own person again? Justin and I disintegrated; you’re not supposed to crave time away from your boyfriend, I don’t think. I stopped caring about New York.
On a sunny boardwalk in Manhattan, Grandma told me it didn’t matter if you liked blackbirds or bluebirds, raspberries or strawberries, men or women, and I exhaled deeply and thought of the girl I’d kissed under my covers, the girl who’d flirted with me at a coffee shop, the girl sending me postcards from San Francisco. When Grandma found out about Anne and me, she didn’t call me for three months. Blackbirds and bluebirds be damned. I didn’t know if our relationship would ever recover. I didn’t visit New York for a while after that.
Two weeks before college graduation I kissed a girl with dark hair and a curvy waist and everything was over and just getting started at the same time. Kaitlyn and I fell in love as effortlessly as we’d fallen for Chicago, this city of possibility, of creation, of new beginnings, and suddenly going anywhere else felt wrong. Sharing a home in Chicago was our dream, our plan — we were so young to have a plan! — but New York offered me a job first. So I moved to Manhattan with two oversized suitcases, paid $825 a month to sleep on a twin bed in Erica’s living room, and told myself this was the new dream. Doesn’t everyone want to live in New York?
Kaitlyn stayed in Chicago, our dream deferred, so we flew back and forth to visit every month and I barely had enough money for pizza, but lo, I was rich in Southwest miles, and that’s got to be worth something. Erica and I stopped getting along, so I started going to work earlier and staying at the gym later. On weekends I went to visit Grandma, ate Mediterranean food with her, gave her choppy haircuts with kitchen scissors. I answered her questions about when I knew I liked girls and watched the wheels in her head turn, determined. On lonely days I sat in the dog park in Yorkville and played with other people’s pugs. There were three in that neighborhood, at least.
Nothing is ever enough in New York. One more drink, one more mile, one more email. Coworkers teased me when I brought dry lettuce and a handful of grapes to work for lunch. I exercised for two hours a night. I stopped getting periods and started breaking out but I loved how I looked and it was OK that my stomach hurt from hunger all the time because really, my stomach hurt all the time anyway. I missed Kaitlyn terribly. I ate less than 800 calories a day but drank every night. I got promoted twice in two years.
After something like ten months, being apart and miserable was unsustainable, and Erica and I had stopped talking completely and Kaitlyn’s roommate wasn’t great either. So we edited the dream: togetherness, no matter where. Kaitlyn rented a U-Haul — we’d been together a year, I promise! — and we moved into a little one-bedroom in Astoria down the street from a great barbecue place and a French bakery. She met Grandma, who was coming around on my affinity for blackbirds and bluebirds. (I just love birds, I’m sorry.) They developed a friendship. Grandma started calling her a granddaughter and held her hand tenderly on the couch while they talked, the sun setting over the Hudson out the apartment window. Slowly, I learned how to eat again.
Kaitlyn asked me to marry her one sun-drenched evening in May, and Grandma didn’t live to see the wedding but she lived to admire the ring. In a Manhattan hospital room on a Friday afternoon, I promised Grandma I’d see her on Monday and then I never did. On a big farm in Queens — they have farms in Queens! — I promised to be the best wife I could and then got champagne drunk with everyone I love.
We got a cat and then another one. We moved to Brooklyn, which felt bigger and greener and more full of possibilities than Queens ever had. My best friend fell in love and stopped talking to me. My job turned toxic so I left it. My new job turned toxic so I left it. My new job turned toxic so I left it. I joined the library. I joined a choir. I joined a book club. I fell deep in platonic love with two new friends and built my New York chosen family around them. I worked out a lot.
A queer young person I mentored died in a car accident. A year later another one took his life. I lost weight, gained weight, lost weight, gained weight. Lost control, lost energy, lost interest in my hobbies. Tried Lexapro. Tried Buspar. Tried Neurontin. Tried Latuda. Tried Abilify. Tried Lamictal. Tried Depakote. Tried therapy. Tried yoga. Tried running. Tried sleeping. It felt like I didn’t stop crying for a year, even though I’m sure I did. Some days it was better and some days never ended.
Chicago glimmered in the distance all the while. (The sidewalks actually glitter in Chicago, did you know that?) We went back maybe once a year, for a work conference or on the way to a wedding or to see Arthur and Rachel. Little weekends here and there added up to prove what we had suspected: Chicago was where we were happiest. Chicago was where we wanted to make our home and plant our roots and raise our babies. Did it feel that way because it’s where we went to college, where we were young and fell in love, where we had the whole world in front of us? Or can a city just be right for you, the best fit for what you need, like a spouse or a pet or a good pair of jeans? Maybe it’s both. Chicago became the dream again, a little more in focus this time.
Three to five more years, we told ourselves. (Have you noticed that I became a “we” in New York?) We’d live three to five more years here. We told ourselves that for three years. Or was it five?
You know what happened next. We fled indoors, all of us. We were terrified and lonely and cautious and bored and worried about our elders and our loved ones and our jobs and thank God for the cats because they kept us sane and we didn’t go to the grocery store for weeks didn’t see our friends for months didn’t see our parents for over a year.
A pandemic is always going to be hard, but especially when you’re not where you really want to be. Especially when you’re away from home.
Because I never learned how to take care of myself in New York, not really. They say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere, but did I really make it if I spent most of my time here in a haze of obnoxious sadness? Is the hustle worth surviving if it whittles you to nothing? I have found the most “success” in this city while actively harming myself and that’s not anyone’s fault but it’s more than a coincidence, and I’m trying not to tell myself that Chicago will cure my depression, because I know that’s not how it works. I’ve never been a particularly happy person and I don’t expect a change in scenery to change that. But there’s something to be said for a little more space, a little more light, a little closer to family. Wide, glittery sidewalks. A skyline that’s just as pretty up close.
After eight years in New York — still not long enough to be a New Yorker — I say goodbye in a week. Kaitlyn and I are deeply, deeply fortunate to be leaving on our own terms, not for lack of opportunity or community, but for a deep sense of knowing that home is somewhere else, and it’s calling us back.
There’s a lot about New York that is magical, I know, and there’s so much about it I will miss: Meghan’s baking and Nathan’s magic tricks, cheap beer at our favorite bar, Prospect Park on a sunny day, the view from our subway stop in Astoria, spending too much money at Greenlight, my therapist, my coworkers, my choir, bagels, Ruby the pit-lab mix who always kisses me on the mouth, Grand Army Plaza, the aisle of fans outside the stage door after a Broadway show. I met Lin-Manuel Miranda twice in this city, and became a known-by-name regular at two different bars. I wept with all of Queens that night in 2016 and danced with all of Brooklyn that better night in 2020. I walked down the Brooklyn Bridge in the rain hours after my wedding, happier than I’d ever been. I’m writing this days after learning about another friend’s death, a friendship that started in Florida but moved to New York, like so many of us do, and it feels a little like I’m leaving him here even though I want to carry him with me always. I miss Drew. I miss Casey. I miss Peter. I spent time with all of them in New York and I never will again.
But I have to be honest with myself about who I am and who I want to be and where that person belongs now. Because when it comes down to it, I feel a peace in Chicago that I’ve never felt in New York, whether I’m in the kitchen with my brother or at the park with my friends or kissing my wife in the snow (there will be snow this time, I’m sure of it). Chicago is the only place where I’ve ever felt OK with myself, my body, my brain and my queerness all at once, and I feel like that has to mean something, right? It’s important to feel like you can take care of yourself and the people you love; it’s important to go where you feel your best. That’s where I’m going, now. That’s why it’s time to go.
I promise we will visit all the time.