Four years ago, I got on a plane to New York. I'd always wanted to move to the city, ever since my grandmother took me there as a child. I can't have been older than 12 years old. On that trip, we stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel; I drowned in the crisp white bathrobe that hung in our closet from a dark-stained wood hanger. We ate chicken Kiev at the Russian Tea Room; tuxedo-clad waiters leaned in with sharp knives to slice open the beautifully crisp fried breast, clear, golden butter spilling onto the brittle china. We took in Show Boat at the Gershwin Theatre; the voice of the woman who sang "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" was clear as a bell, so I didn't need to know what the show was actually about. The clarity of those memories is no exaggeration.
I knew life wouldn't be quite like that if I moved there, but I had to take the chance. I'd seen Sex and the City (……all of it……); I'd majored in journalism and had the same big magazine dreams of every would-be editrix. So, blindly, I started applying in February. To job after job, on Monster and CareerBuilder and Craigslist. Until finally, I got an e-mail back. From a small group of newsstand-only gardening and home magazines at a small publisher I'd never heard of. I scheduled an interview for April 10; I booked a flight. I asked to crash with a girl I'd met only online, through LiveJournal. It crossed my mind only briefly that she might kill me in my sleep; the same went for her, apparently.
From the airport, I got into a cab that took me across the Triborough Bridge, through Harlem and down the tree-lined avenues of the Upper West Side until I reached her apartment at 72nd and West End. The doorman greeted me and handed me the key she'd left at the desk; I took the elevator to her floor and fumbled with the key for what seemed like forever. On the parquet floor, next to a long bank of windows overlooking a placid green park, there was an air mattress already inflated and made up for me. That night, we watched Grey's Anatomy side by side on her sofa — we'd obsessed over the show by comments, IMs and e-mails for months beforehand — and wolfed down Chinese food from her favorite takeout joint.
The next morning, I took the 1 train down to 23rd Street and walked through the outskirts of Chelsea and into the Flatiron District with the rest of the morning commuters, dressed to the nines in a grey suit with pink satin lining, teetering on city-girl heels. Seeing the Empire State Building up Fifth Avenue stopped my heart every day. The enormity of it all stole my breath. Still, I tried not to look like a tourist. I'd been to New York before. No big deal. I bought a coffee and walked across Broadway to Madison Square Park, where I sat on a bench and watched the people, the squirrels, the just-blooming flowers, the cabs, the stately buildings. Nannies pushed their strollers around the shady, curving paths; they liked to cluster around a fountain at the north side of the park, opposite from the Shake Shack, where one day I waited in line for my cheeseburger behind John Hodgman, the guy from the "I'm a Mac! I'm a PC!" commercials. I centered myself and walked back across Broadway, into the lobby of the squatty, dingy brick building that would become my second home for the next year and a half. The interview was the worst part of my visit, five hours long and filled mostly with agonizing waits for my soon-to-be boss to emerge from meetings, phone calls or personal business. That should have been a red flag to keep waiting for something better — but I was desperate for the dream. Maybe it's safe to say New York was the first bad boy I fell in love with.
I got the job offer hours after I left. My friend on the Upper West Side bought me a red velvet cupcake to celebrate. By the middle of May, I'd been back once to look at sublets with my mother, and weeks later I'd arrived for good. With two suitcases full of clothes and trinkets, plus a box shipped from Kansas, into my first room on the Upper East Side. It was little more than drywall wedged into right angles between the kitchen and the living room, but it was home. A new life. And it was harder than I ever imagined. That's grown-up life, I guess. But the TV shows always make it look so much easier. The bus that splashes dirty water all over Carrie's ridiculous dress at the end of the Sex and the City opening credits? That's just the beginning, and that. is. life. But for a year and a half, it was my life, and it all started four years ago. The awestruck "Ohhhhhh…" every time I say I came to Chicago from New York — seeing other people's faces light up with their own big-city dreams — makes me feel special. Like I made the right choice…like I was lucky to even have the choice at all.
I've always said I have the onetime love of my life, Bob, to thank for the direction my life has taken. I'd found out from mutual friends that January — months after we broke up for the second to last time — that he had followed his own pipe dream across the country to Los Angeles. In a jealous rage, I thought, "Well, if he can do it, God knows I can, too. And better." So I did.