One Sunday last spring, as I squeezed past my husband Al in our small Upper East Side kitchen, he asked, “Do you ever feel like you’re doing something wrong?” I was filling a glass with tap water, he was eating nuts in his underwear, and there was barely room for both events to happen simultaneously.
I had just returned from a run in Central Park and told him our neighbors were moving.
“This is so sad!” he said.
It wasn’t, really.
“They’re my friends!” he said.
In fact, they were not.
“They’re probably moving to the suburbs so Lucy can run in the yard!” he said, near tears as he referred to their Pug, the only family member whose name we knew. I tried to convince him they bought a bigger apartment down the block—maybe Park Avenue!—but I didn’t even believe that myself. Our nameless neighbors were us: 30-something lawyers with good jobs and a Carnegie Hill zip code. Unlike us, they had a baby, and another on the way. The real cause of Al’s pain was clear. He wanted a family and a comfortable place to put us. Another couple just confirmed his fear that even two attorneys can’t always make that work here. And, as a woman closer to 40 than 30, I needed to stop saying we have time to figure it out.
I had barely broken a sweat during my lackadaisical run, but I was sweating now.
That’s when he asked the question that weighed a thousand pounds, one with countless possible meanings, though I knew it had just one. Do you ever feel like you’re doing something wrong? He was talking about New York. Our city. Our lives. He wondered if we should leave, like everyone else. He wanted to know if we’re doing this wrong.
Of course we’re doing this wrong.
But I didn’t say that.
It’s the only time I’ve ever lied to him.
Two types of New Yorkers exist in our circle: those who are excited to move to Westchester/Long Island/New Jersey, and those who hope they never have to move to Westchester/Long Island/New Jersey.
In the early days of our relationship, Al had a saying. When the conversation got heavy and an awkward reveal loomed, he’d say, “Let’s get the chickens out of the road.”
I need to get the chickens out of the road.
Al and I are—technically—wealthy. We earn a substantial sum, one that comes with a hefty six-figure tax bill and a place near the bottom of the infamous “one percent.”
But despite the illusion of wealth on our pay stubs, I buy clothes on clearance with an additional Friends & Family discount code. I buy bourbon with a 10 percent-off coupon from the blue Valpak mailer addressed to “SMART SHOPPER.” And once, I cut a paper towel in half to make the roll last longer when the select-a-size roll I wanted wasn’t on sale. When that day comes—when you stand in your kitchen with scissors in your hand and turn one quicker picker-upper into two—even the most steadfast New Yorker starts to question what you’re doing here.
If you’re not a New Yorker you might wonder how a lawyer married to a lawyer can struggle with space and money. You might picture the Upper East Side of Gossip Girl with full-time maids, multi-story homes and black-car-driving chauffeurs. But that’s not my reality.
My reality involves ¾ of a bathroom without a tub. It involves a 2×3-foot shower stall with sliding glass doors that fall off their track—the heavy, dangerous kind likely to kill you if you slip or lean against them. Sometimes I share that space with the drain flies living in the pipes. Then I make room for Al, who squeezes in despite my protests as he grins and says, “But this makes us closer!” As I contort to shave my legs he takes the 90s-era shower-massage head from its holster, stealing my water along with my dignity.
My reality involves a cat-and-mouse game in my living room in which I am the cat and a mouse is the mouse. Like a cartoon character I chase it with a spaghetti pot—in front of a guest!—wishing I could put the kettle over my own head and hide there. As my human guest seeks refuge atop my couch, and my animal guest seeks refuge beneath my baby grand piano, I think, This sums up my life pretty well. My world straddles the space between a grand piano and a rodent.
My reality involves the cockroaches that scurry through our building’s basement in August, and the one that wanders under our apartment door on a scorching day and walks right back out when I meet him with a scream.
My reality involves holding onto a fantasy—the one in which the Upper East Side is still a fancy place for fancy people—when it’s now just “that place that’s cheaper than Brooklyn.”
I could go on indefinitely about my reality, but the point is this: we bought our apartment for $735,000 from an estate—a bargain, in fact!—and it’s worth closer to $1 million. The co-op rules required a 30 percent cash down payment, which was everything my late mother had left me and everything else we had saved on our own. We pay a sizable amount each year in mortgage payments and co-op fees. These are paralyzing sums for Al—an immigrant—and me, the daughter of a professor and a stay-at-home mom. Buying a home is supposed to be an achievement, a realized dream. But was it really?
We pretend it’s normal to spend an hour commuting 6.2 miles in the 106-degree subway as we straddle a puddle of human pee in our new discount sneakers.
Reality is pretending we’re not doing this wrong, when we know with certainty that we are.
Which is why that day in our kitchen, when Al stopped pretending and questioned our reality out loud, I felt like he confessed to a crime. Two types of New Yorkers exist in our circle: those who are excited to move to Westchester/Long Island/New Jersey, and those who hope they never have to move to Westchester/Long Island/New Jersey. Those of us in the latter camp never speak of our objectively senseless choices.
Instead we silently watch our paychecks turn to vapor as we pay for our high taxes and uncomfortable home. We pretend it’s normal to spend an hour commuting 6.2 miles in the 106-degree subway as we straddle a puddle of human pee in our new discount sneakers. We tell ourselves that the girl on the 4 train was just singing when she yelled “I’m going to cut you, white bitch!” when you were the only white bitch in sight.
We don’t think about the fact that the “cheap” nannies with green cards start at $35,000 a year, or that half the fifth graders at our public school fail their exams, or that the private school alternative runs $25,000 to $45,000 a year from age three. “Do you plan to stay in the city long term?” asks every non-New Yorker we know as pity lurks behind their question mark. We dodge their queries about when we’ll have kids and give vague answers about how we will totally make it work here. Even when the numbers don’t add up. Even if they never will. Even when we know we might not make it work here. We bury our heads in the concrete and keep trying, aspiring for the next promotion, hoping our future child tests into a better public school, wishing for admission to the exclusive club of lifetime New Yorkers who somehow make it work here. Membership is technically open to everyone, though few can survive the hazing. Hell Week lasts for the rest of your life.
Instead, we belong to a different club, the group of 30-something professionals who studied for 20 years, took out student loans, worked all-nighters and weekends and holidays, landed good jobs with big paychecks, earned the right to be part of this city, and now wonder, Is this really what we’ve been climbing for?
We wonder, if it’s this hard for us, how does anyone make it work here?
Two hours later I found Al at his computer perusing Zillow. “Look at this!” he said, ogling a listing for a generic suburban house, his face aglow like the home’s in-ground pool.
He was scoping out the other camp.
Though I would never admit it, occasionally I, too, craved life in the other camp. I know people dream of this life, that girls who watched Devil Wears Prada, Sex & the City, or Gossip Girl imagine an apartment in Manhattan, a job in a skyscraper and closet full of high heels. But they don’t know that even if you succeed here, even with a two-attorney income of more than a half million dollars per year, your shoes come from the clearance rack, your small home comes with small critters, your skyscraper comes with a mini-cubicle and two seedy hours underground to get there and back. While they dream of my life, I dream of their stackable washer and dryer. I fantasize about a king-size bed where my husband and dog won’t leave me dangling off the side. I wish for new electrical circuits so we can run air conditioners in the living room and bedroom at the same time. I imagine life with a car. I obsess over someday having a bathtub. I wonder if I will ever have a closet made to house more than four coats and a hat box. These don’t sound like the aspirations of the wealthy, yet I live in New York, we’re not wealthy enough, and so they are mine.
More important than anything I can put in a list is the simple fact that we’ve never really belonged anywhere else and we both belong here so completely.
But as Al considered following Lucy the dog to the suburbs, while looking at a house with all this and more, panic enveloped me. Show me a two-car garage in New Jersey and I’ll show you two car payments, two insurance bills, two parking garage fees, two commuter rail passes, and two hours two times each day lost in transit. Show me a good public school in Westchester and I’ll show you our friends’ $25,000 annual property tax bill. Show me the suburban paradise Al sees through his eyes, and I’ll show you the suburban problems that I see through mine.
That’s when I thought about a third option that neither of us had considered: giving this all up. The big jobs, the big lives, the big city where our options feel small. I imagined living in a quiet town far from New York and its suburbs, a place where life is cheap and a fraction of our salaries would buy everything we wanted. I pictured a place where families sit down for dinner at 7:00 in a kitchen that seats six, and a lifestyle where no one works weekends just to earn the big money to pay for it all. I wondered if I could still be me if I crossed the George Washington Bridge and never looked back. I wondered if we gave up trying to have it all in the place that has everything whether we might actually have more.
But I already knew the answer to that.
Six years ago, when I convinced Al to move to New York for bigger jobs, bigger opportunities and bigger lives, something even bigger drove me here. If I was going to have a traditional marriage and family, I needed to do it in a way that still felt like me. I needed us to build the right life in the right place first, then squeeze everything else in the tight spaces around it. I needed to ensure that I wouldn’t feel trapped, wouldn’t pull the eject handle like my sister did when she woke up in her suburban cul-de-sac with her Volvo station wagon in the garage and realized she needed a new life. Even the big walls of big houses can close in on you if you’re in the wrong place.
The suburbs and the towns and the other cities are all my wrong place.
I could tell you all the reasons why I need to be in New York, how I’m centered here, better here, happier here even when I’m not. But more important than anything I can put in a list is the simple fact that we’ve never really belonged anywhere else and we both belong here so completely. That, I believe, is worth more than all the things. And that is why we need to stay, even if it means I am wealthy yet broke, privileged yet embarrassingly unglamorous. Even when my clothes aren’t quite right. Even when there’s a mouse in our house.
In my best example of “doing this wrong” to date, I convinced Al that we should stay, and that we should go. I cut every last penny that remained in my budget—the gym, the taxis, the clearance rack—and we bought a weekend getaway cottage in a rustic town where I have yet to see a cul-de-sac or a Volvo station wagon. I decided that if I’m going to feel broke anyway, I should go all in—push my chips to the middle of the table and gamble on a life where we can pull the eject handle whenever we want, together. The week before the closing, our joint savings hit $0, and I had just $2.37 in my checking account. That’s how badly we needed to leave, and how badly we needed to stay. Then I exhaled for the first time since that spring day last year when we almost became suburbanites, knowing that this was the best bad decision we’ve ever made.
Al is elated each time we visit the country, playing outside with our beloved dog Tuck Noodle and using the big toolbox that languished in our New York closet. Tuck Noodle runs so fast through the yard that sometimes I swear he is flying. And I now have a stackable washer and dryer and two bathtubs of my very own. It might not be a permanent cure, but it’s a painkiller that can get us through a few more years in New York. I try not to think about the problems it doesn’t solve, like the schools and the nannies and slashings in the subway. But maybe, somehow, this fix will be enough to keep us in the right camp.
Last week our Upper East Side friends, a lawyer and a financial planner, cancelled a trip to our country house so they could house hunt in the suburbs. They just had a baby, and decided it’s time to cross the George Washington Bridge and never look back.
I held my breath as I broke the news to Al.
This time, he didn’t flinch.
And so we made it another year here, our sixth year in New York together doing this all wrong. Yet even as I bake a $2.50 Tony’s frozen pizza, which I will spread over three meals, I know we’re doing this right, for us. Because each time we leave for the country, we return again. We crawl back into our crowded New York bed where Al sleeps diagonally and Tuck Noodle sleeps sideways and I sleep in a ball in the corner with one arm and one leg hanging off the side. And I think, This life is perfect. This is home.
Jules Barrueco is a lawyer and a writer in New York City who is definitely doing this all wrong. She writes for the Observer about all that and more. Follow her on Twitter at @julesbarrueco.