Promise and Peril Of Fleeing New York— And Coming Back

I was leaving New York for good. At 22—less than a year after arriving in the city—I’d had enough. While many friends were settling into their lives—enjoying the bars and restaurants and new people—I spent that winter falling out of mine. I was in the middle of a painful and never-ending breakup. I was watching Law & Order marathons regularly. I was barely paying my rent. I didn’t want to go to the same bar again, or to that great Mexican place on First Street, or up the block to M—’s party. I didn’t like M—. Not anymore. And I had nothing to wear.

It was the late 90’s, and I was working at an Internet company. But every time I tried to take the subway to work—the thick crowd crushed together inside—I started hyperventilating. My “episodes” got so bad that I started walking the 45 minutes to and from work, even in the dead of winter.

I was a lot of fun.

So, that next summer, I hatched an escape plan. I headed to a picturesque town in western Massachusetts to attend a graduate writing program. I felt better immediately. I moved into a converted apartment in a grammar school. Kurt Vonnegut lived upstairs. He sat on the steps and smoked cigarettes and talked about melting snowcaps. I started writing my own stories. I planted a small garden. I registered to vote. I never had to wear my black pants for any reason.

A year later, I received an opportunity to continue my graduate work as a fellow in Virginia. This time, my drive was longer, winding its way through a countryside of vineyards and canons. I turned on the radio and listened to a broadcaster talk about the sickness of interracial marriage. I waited for the punch line.

But, even while adjusting to Southern living—which, thankfully, turned out to be less conservative than the radio guy suggested—never did I dream of New York. I missed Massachusetts. But I never thought: “New York. Yes. I want to go back there.”

Then Virginia, too, became home. I sat on porches and smoked my first cigar and went hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I discovered the joy of watching traffic court in Madison County. And when I had trouble with my work, I’d drive 20 miles outside of town to the wineries in White Hall. I began writing a novel in my head on these drives. And then started writing it for real.

When my fellowship ended, I had no intention of leaving. I remember so clearly, in fact, having ice cream with a friend on the downtown mall.

“Do you think about going back to New York?” she asked.

“Never,” I said.

Which was when life stepped in. A job opportunity at a small New York paper came out of nowhere. The job would give me time to work on my novel and a means to support myself. Retrospectively, this was only part of the story. The other part had to do with something else, something I wasn’t telling myself yet.

Three weeks later, I was answering the door for the local mover I’d hired. He was going to store my things until I was settled and then bring them to New York. So—with my computer, a few books and a backpack of summer clothes—I went back to Manhattan, to a small sublet on the Upper West Side. I left everything else with this man: two enormous handmade bookshelves, several hundred books, a bed, a sofa, a wood-carved kitchen table.

The next week, the mover closed up his shop and disappeared, along with everything I owned.

The day after that, my computer—complete with 219 pages of my novel—died. Or, more accurately, I killed it. In a race to answer a call from the Virginia detective who was investigating the mover’s disappearance, I knocked a glass of water onto the keyboard. I could hear the computer gasp before fading to black for the last time.

It was almost unbelievable. In a 48-hour period, I lost the sum total of everything I had managed to accumulate in the years since I’d left New York—I owned nothing, I lost all of my work.

The hardest part was that it had all become clear to me: I shouldn’t have come back. I was being punished for ignoring the reasons I’d left this city in the first place—my fears of being trapped here, or trapped in a life I didn’t want. It seemed obvious that I needed to revisit those reasons. And I was about to have no choice: The woman whose apartment I’d sublet announced via a note on the door that she was coming back that weekend, and I’d have to vacate. It was Wednesday.

How much clearer of a sign did I need? But I stayed put. I took my broken computer out of the closet and brought it to a computer expert, who extracted the 219 pages of the novel. He put it on a CD for me. I made an extra copy. I moved in with a friend on the Lower East Side. I kept doing my work and bought fresh flowers and purchased a Mac. I started taking the subway almost without thinking about it.

In New York, I was forced to keep going—and in that movement, I discovered that I could be happy here. That I could be happy, really, anywhere. I do my morning writing at this coffee shop a few blocks away from Gramercy Park. I visit with a tea maker on Columbus who swears he can see your future just by looking at you. He won’t tell what he sees, which leads me to believe him.

At 22, I had become convinced that I was running out of time—a conviction that the speed of New York seemed to confirm for me. For me, slowing it down meant leaving. I’m not sorry I did, but I’m even less sorry that I came back. I don’t have that same sense of time running away from me.

When I moved into my new apartment, I bought a bed for it, thinking that I’d slowly bank up the other necessities. Not too long after, I received a call from the Virginia detective, telling me she’d found my furniture. It was in a storage warehouse. She suspected that the mover left everything there on the way to wherever he is now.

Based on the photographs she sent, I could confirm that all of my furniture was accounted for. All of it was making its way to New York not so long after I did.

Maybe this is how it is. Things come back. But in the end, I let go of most of what had been lost anyway. The old bed and the mostly broken table. Dishes that had been cracked in the move. I even let go of 216 of the 219 pages of my novel. Just hit “erase,” like I knew what I was doing. Like I could try again. What can I say? Things had to go. There is just no room in New York apartments.

Laura Dave is the author of London Is the Best City in America, just out from Viking.