“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”
That’s the first line of E.B. White’s essay “Here Is New York.” It’s his love letter to the city; I’ve never read it all the way through, but I picked it up while I was wandering the Strand Bookstore yesterday, and that opening sentence struck me.
I don’t need a lot of help feeling lonely or private lately. In the wake of this breakup, I haven’t turned to friends as much as I’ve turned inward. (I have a lot of thinking to do.) But here, in this city, those feelings are a choice, and the city embraces you for making them.
But I wasn’t ready for either when I got here.
When I arrived on Thursday morning, I dropped my suitcase off on the Upper West Side, where my friend Sara had left an air mattress, a set of worn floral sheets and some fresh towels for me. I brushed my teeth and set out into the near-unbearable heat, into the stifling heat of the 72nd Street subway station, all the way down to the Financial District. Perfectly coiffed men in suits crowded the narrow sidewalks; the buildings towered over me and further choked the city air already struggling to move. I spent the rest of the day bouncing from friend to friend, neighborhood to neighborhood. Lunch near Wall Street; a failed attempt to ride the Staten Island Ferry; coffee off Columbus Circle after a quick jaunt to Hearst Tower; a book release party in Chelsea; dinner back on the Upper West Side.
I told four or five different versions of the Dear John story, varying based on how well I knew each friend, lamenting my own rash choices, condemning the childish behavior of a grown man I thought I knew as well as I could anyone. Between visits, I let my thoughts swallow me whole. I thought of ways things could have been different, how I could have avoided all this pain. But the pain, of course, is what makes things real. What makes us human. So it goes.
So I shook it off.
Delirious from my 10 p.m. double cheeseburger at the Shake Shack, dripping with grease that soaked through its wax-paper wrapping, and the sundae Sara and I shared with vanilla custard, sour cherries, chocolate sauce and a three-inch bouffant of whipped cream, I collapsed into the awkward solid softness of the air bed, ready to wake up and be a new woman. I was back in the city that made me a badass in the first place.
But despite my best intentions of surrounding myself with more friends and revelry, yesterday I defaulted to loneliness and privacy. I woke up alone in the apartment and spent the day on my own. Quiet and calm. The clamor of the city, the crowds and the honking and the smells, didn’t overwhelm me like the used to. I didn’t clench my jaw or lock my shoulders at my ears; my heart rate barely climbed. At Broadway and Prince, I floated among the vendors and short-shorts fedora tourists, relished in the cool drops of water that splashed my arms and face. I couldn’t tell if it was a scattered shower or air-conditioner condensation. I wandered my favorite Asian market, bought sets of beautiful enamel chopsticks printed with owls and flowers for myself, picked out gifts for a few friends.
I saw a movie alone and sat weeping in the theatre as the credits rolled, half wishing I’d had someone to share it with but remembering how good it feels just to be on my own. I tried explaining the plot of the movie to a few friends later that night, but the thrill of the firsthand experience was lost in translation. So that goes, too.
I took comfort in the blast of hot air as the subway squealed to a stop in my station, delighted in the rush of artificial cool inside the car, the chill of the cold metal bars I clung to instead of sitting. I left my book at the apartment and watched people instead.
I revisited a restaurant where friends once took me for a birthday while I was living here; I ate steamed buns bursting with moist, fatty pork, hoisin sauce and fresh scallions; afterward, I lapped up with a wooden spoon a Dixie cup full of soft-serve ice cream the flavor of leftover cereal milk – complete with the disgusting aftertaste of the best part of a bowl of Lucky Charms or Cap’n Crunch – and enjoyed them in blissful solitude.
I didn’t even bring a camera with me. No more 3x5s.
I accept these gifts of loneliness and privacy, even if I hang on to them only while I’m here.
For all my insecurities and frustration that I don’t have life all figured out – that frustration will never pass, I don’t think – I’m more at peace with myself here in New York than ever before. Maybe ever, anywhere. That’s new. So it goes.