I remember the time I gave myself to New York, even more clearly than I remember losing my virginity. I was 17; it was a rainy Wednesday in July, the type where steam seems to rise from the pavement. I was bent over my leg on the barre at the old Broadway Dance Studios on West 57th Street, in a jazz class during a break from a pre-college summer program at Barnard. My eyes rested for a moment on a taxi gliding down the street. And I realised, with a jolt of electricity that shot down my back, that I wanted to stay here, forever.
It wasn’t the first time I’d felt that way. When I was little, I wanted to live at camp. New York, I realised, was like camp, but better — a place where I could work to become the person I wanted to be (or at least appear like that person). I took as many dance classes as I could that summer, using all of my lifeguarding money, even though each class confirmed what I already had known, deep down: My stage presence was suburban-high-school-drama-kid good, but I wasn’t cut out to be a professional. Not even close. It almost didn’t matter, because I found that what I liked best about going to the studio wasn’t really the class itself; it was looking like a New York City dancer as I swung my bag over my shoulder and bought a bottle of water from the guy at the corner newsstand.
Over a dozen years later, I’d played plenty of Manhattan characters. The 20-year-old student sitting on the Columbia steps, The Decameron open on her lap, not so much reading as enviously watching the couples surrounding her — the ones who looked so in love and comfortable in their own skins. I had been the 22-year-old post-grad teetering on the edge of an almost-disaster, glancing at her reflection in the window of the 1 train after a night of partying and realising there was blood trickling from her nose onto her white tank top. I'd been the 26-year-old sitting on the fire escape of an Upper East Side studio at midnight after a date, pretending I was Holly Golightly and that my life of parties and dates and occasionally waking up looking at a stranger’s ceiling was madcap and magical, not kind of depressing. I'd been the 28-year-old holding hands with strangers in a basement on Bank Street, hungover and shaky-sick, wondering what I could possibly have in common with the people surrounding me who were reciting The Lord’s Prayer, but desperate enough to find out. I'd been the 29-year-old senior editor, jaded and harsh and mastering the art of the two-second critical gaze in the corporate elevator before entering the offices, grabbing a green BluePrint Cleanse bottle from the communal refrigerator and Instagramming pictures of my view of the park from the 38th floor — as if to prove to myself that this was, in fact, what I’d always wanted.
I’d learned how to laugh with C-List celebrities on the Lower East Side as our elevator inched up to private loft parties hosted by some production company for some movie premiere; I’d learned how to navigate the city with a native aplomb and argue with taxi drivers that no, I did not want to take the FDR; I’d learned how to be just the right side of nasty when dealing with pushy PR account executives. I knew how to navigate sample sales, which psychiatrists easily prescribed Adderall, the best place to get a bikini wax for under $50, which downtown brunch spots offered unlimited mimosas, and how to act above-it-all when I’d heard that another friend had gotten engaged or gotten approved for a co-op.
What I didn’t know was anything about who I was — not really.
For 10 years, with every persona I tried on, I revealed my yearning to be anyone but me. I would do anything for a good story, and I would sacrifice everything for a big break. For awhile, I thought it was working. At age 23, I was tapped to ghostwrite a best-selling book series (soon to become a mega TV hit) about the scandalous lives of Upper East Side teenagers. While the ironclad contract prevents me from officially naming the book series outright, I will say I spent a lot of time wrangling characters named Blair, Serena, and Dan, and even more time trying to get just the right combination of sophistication and snark into the voice of the omniscient narrator. I spent nights and weekends typing, churning out book after book, even after the series stopped and I got switched from writing about socialites to writing about vampires. Every so often, I asked when I’d get my own book, under my name. Finally, my editor told me the truth.
You write well, but nothing really has heart.
Of course nothing did. Because New York had my heart. It had everything. For 12 years, I gave and gave and gave, even though the gifts New York gave back were never substantial. They were cheap moments that only seemed sublime because of the scenery.
Age 19, making out in a cab for the first time, as the first rays of sun rose over the Hudson. I didn’t really know who the guy was, and it didn’t matter; he was just someone I’d danced with at the sticky-floored Brit-pop club way over on West 14th that didn’t card. I’d never been the type to go home with a stranger. Now I was. If I were back in my New Jersey hometown, and if it had been his used car and a no-name road, it would have barely registered. But the combination of the cab, the Hudson River, and towering buildings sliding by the window made the situation seem almost epic, transforming me from a shy, suburban teenager into a worldly New York City woman.
That was part of the problem: New York made it far too easy to cast myself in cinematic situations, and it was impossible not to watch the scene unfold and wonder what I, as a character, would do next.
Age 20, drinking mojitos at Bungalow 8 with some I-Banker. Age 24, at Pastis, toasting a book contract with an editor. Getting a call on my 28th birthday, letting me know I’d gotten a job as an editor at Cosmo. They were the moments I lived for, a sign that I was doing something right — but they weren’t sustainable. And they didn’t sustain me.
I remember once, drunk and disoriented and 23, having a panic attack outside a bar in the East Village. I’d had a date that hadn’t worked out, there had been drugs involved, and I was a mess. A crowd of people gathered around me, and one man wondered whether I needed an ambulance. That broke through my haze. I wavered to my feet. "No ambulance," I said firmly.
A girl leaned down and helped me up.
“Where do you live?” She asked. “I’ll walk you home.”
She was 19, had just started college at NYU two weeks ago. How had she had the presence to help me, when I was older than her and should have known better?
Looking back, it wasn’t a very romantic worldview — and it wasn’t very fun. Sure, I could say that it was all part of my experience, or that I wasn’t afraid to push myself into the dark corners of the city and my psyche, but the bottom line was that I cried all the time. I cried in cabs, on the sidewalk, in the office, when I was passed over for a promotion, over nasty online comments on an article I was proud of, over a first date saying "it was nice meeting you" when everyone knows that means "I don’t want to see you again." That was the way it should be, I thought back then. I believed that New York demanded tears for transcendence.
But by the time I was 28, I’d stopped crying — and that was when I knew that it was really over between me and New York. It had been a horrible year: My mum had died, my grandmother had died, the book I had finally written under my own name came out and sucked, I barely spoke to any of my friends, and all I felt was emptiness and anger — I’d complain if my Starbucks order came out wrong, or snap at a cab driver when it was I who didn’t know where I was going.
One year passed, then another, and I celebrated my 30th birthday by charging an open-tab party to my credit card and sleeping with a friend-of-a-friend whom I was pretty sure already had a girlfriend. I was stuck in my depression or exhaustion or self-obsession or whatever it was that caused me to spend entire weekends in bed watching the light pattern play across the hardwood floors of my Brooklyn apartment, and I was too afraid to make the next move.
And then, fate intervened (at least according to the tarot card reader I’d begun seeing, because that’s what you do when you’re 30 and single and work in media and regularly experience panic attacks and a therapist and psychiatrist working in tandem just aren’t enough), and I got laid off. It was unexpected. Initially, I was indignant. Then I realised that it was time to get the hell out of New York. For the entire month before the move, I tried to make myself cry. At the Rite Aid one day, I picked up a box of garbage bags, realising with a start that this would be the last time I bought garbage bags in New York City. I managed to squeeze out a few tears, but they felt cheap, and I felt ridiculous as the salesperson rang me up, making no mention of my blotchy face. Later, as I packed, I found one of my journals from sophomore year, when I was 20, and a phrase I’d written stopped me: I don’t know if I’m down with NYC forever. I just want to move to the Southeast, buy a pick-up truck, wear flip-flops, and write.
I blinked at the page. It was as if this were predestined, as if the me before NYC had known exactly what I needed — that the city was never the right fit. It made me feel more confident about the decision. On the last day of January, I gave away my furniture, put most of my stuff in storage, and packed whatever was left in the back of a rental car, hoping I’d be coming back to the girl I’d been when I’d written that journal entry.
I got my nose pierced when I moved to Savannah, a delicate diamond stud in my right nostril. I wore cutoffs, cheap cotton tank tops from Urban Outfitters, and scarves to pull back my hair; the barista at the coffee shop on the corner assumed I was a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design and often gave me a discount. My apartment was tiny, with sloped floors and a ceiling that leaks, and I lived across a gravel courtyard from a bunch of 20-year-olds who offered me a PBR whenever they were outside. I went to yoga every day, and when I met potential friends, I reminded myself not to start every sentence — or any sentence — with "back in New York."
A week into my stay, I drove my new car around my new city, trying to get my bearings underneath the Spanish moss. I headed out toward the ocean, toward one of the many bridges that cross the marshy waterways separating Savannah from the islands next to it. And then I saw a sign — literally. "Moon River."
It was the name of the melancholy song Holly Golightly sings from her Upper East Side fire escape in Breakfast at Tiffany's; the river I was driving across, I later found, was the inspiration for the song. Even Holly had dreamed of being somewhere else — and it had taken awhile, but I’d finally made it there.