Sitting on the Acela train leaving New York City has become a painful experience. I should be quite comfortable: the seats are soft and roomy, the air conditioning prodigious on a steamy July morning, and the speed considerably greater than the Northeast Regional train, which crawls between local stops, if it runs at all.
The problem, you see, is that I am leaving my love behind. A year ago this month, I began (again) a relationship with a man I’d dated years earlier, during a very difficult time in my life. It was after I ended the relationship with the “Big Ex” and before I’d stopped drinking.
Back then, we only lasted 6 months, largely due to my considerable baggage and an inability to see him for who he was. I regret that, although I tell myself that the intervening years were a necessity – he needed to follow his professional goals from Boston to New York, I needed to exorcise some of my demons (or at least begin the process). Still it’s difficult not to wonder what would have happened with us and where we would be had we stuck it out. Perhaps I would have more clarity in a life that seems marked by endless uncertainties at present. Or perhaps there wouldn’t be an us to speak of.
During the past 12 months, he and I have traveled to and from Boston and New York, skyped, IMed, called, and texted countless times. He’s taught me how to make pizza margherita, pasta with broccoli, mushroom risotto, and linguini with mussels. I introduced him to bad horror movies and planned weekend getaways to the Berkshires, San Juan, and the Connecticut shoreline. We’ve bonded over books, movies, TV shows, music, artists, playwrights, and even one unique video game and spent hours together walking, eating, sleeping, chatting, or just doing our own thing.
Slowly and steadily we have approached the subtle and delicate art of discussing the relationship in 5- to 10-minute intervals while I’ve restrained my need to discuss every little detail to within an inch of its life. We have slowly gotten to know one another over several hundred miles, intense weekend visits, and short daily check ins despite the fact that neither of us feels particularly adept at this “relationship” thing.
Somewhere during this time – perhaps between episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and the 47th playing of Keith Jarrett and Charlie Hayden’s Jasmine – I fell in love. It’s a mysterious thing. Sometimes I wonder if we in fact have anything in common and I long for what seems like the perfect relationship standing next to us at the corner of 1st Avenue and gag me with a spoon. But then something happens – he looks at me a certain way, says something that cuts right through to my heart, or calls me on my bullshit – and I remember, while I can’t always explain it, I adore this person completely. (Mind you, all of this joy, intensity, awkwardness, and uncertainty were braved without the simultaneously confidence-boosting and numbing assistance of booze – more on this in a future post, working title: Amore Senza Vino).
Surprisingly, as our relationship deepened, I was also falling in love in New York City. It may seem a strange thing to be surprised about – how many millions of people have had a love affair with New York? How many have written songs, plays, and novels about it? But my relationship with this enormous, vibrating, incomparable city has been fraught since I was a child. Growing up on Long Island, my favorite things about visiting Manhattan were hot pretzels with mustard and leaving. The noise, the chaos, the crazy drivers, the impossibly gorgeous people – they were enough to make my poor head spin and I longed for the comfortable familiarity of the suburbs.
When I was 9, my parents took us to see the Broadway musical, Cats. It was May 10, 1984, a momentous day in my young life that I had fantasized about, memorizing the songs and studying a friend’s copy of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. But as we surfaced from the Midtown tunnel, I spied the same homeless man sitting on the same corner as on our last visit to the city. A stout Asian man, his dusty face swollen likely from drink, although I didn’t realize that at the time. At the stoplight, we sat in our comfortable car heading for Broadway, he atop a crushed cardboard box, taking a break from weaving in and out of the cars begging for change.
In high school, my friends donned their hottest early-90s fashions (oxymoron intended) and boarded the Long Island Railroad bound for Manhattan. More sophisticated than I, they knew their way around the city’s neighborhoods, whereas I became flustered by whether to turn right or left out of Penn station. The city was hopelessly disorienting and I was sure to be lost among the throngs of tourists – or worse, my embarrassing lack of direction would be revealed to the locals, forever diminishing my chances of ever becoming one of them.
On one of these trips, while buying a cheap bangle at a street vendor’s table, I fumbled openly with the cash in my purse. The loose bills attracted the attention of an enormous homeless man nearby, who socked me hard in the chest as everyone looked on. Rather than feeling scared or angry or defensive, though, I was confused and figured I deserved it because I didn’t how to act here.
Even as an adult, I found Manhattan overwhelming. Faced with my first adult decision, I deliberately chose to move to Boston, a kinder, gentler, and less intimidating city, where I’ve lived for 14 years.
Even when attending a friend’s wedding just a few years ago – one of the last events to take place at Tavern on the Green – I opted to walk the outside perimeter of Central Park rather than risk taking a wrong turn.
But during the past year, I began to embrace the city I feared. With my boyfriend, or friends, and often by myself, I’ve ventured outside my comfort zone. For the first time, I walked around the streets of Manhattan or wandered the trails of Central Park without the fear of getting lost or looking stupid. Each turn became an exercise in exploring my curiosity. I took the F train solo – a first – to attend a friend’s son’s birthday party in Queens. Don’t laugh! This was big!
Sitting on this train, moving farther away from New York with each moment, I am contemplating doing the opposite of what I’ve done as long as I can remember: to move towards the uncertainty – of a relationship, of a new work situation, and of a city that has long challenged me to face my fears.