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

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.

Promise and Peril  Of Fleeing New York— And Coming Back