While I was ordering basil fried rice — my go-to meal — one evening at a Thai restaurant in the East Village, the server hemmed and hawed. “Umm. We don’t have that as a summer special.”
“It’s on the menu,” I responded, more bluntly than I needed to, without couching my refrain in the umms, pleases, sorrys, and excuse mes of a typical Californian. The server frantically apologized and scurried off to place my order. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I admitted that I was becoming somewhat of a New Yorker after all.
Moving to New York for grad school ought to have been a homecoming. Before being whisked away to Connecticut, Tennessee and then California at the age of four, I was born in a hospital in Mount Vernon, New York — a mere twenty miles outside of Manhattan. Yet it never felt that way.
Joan Didion said much in Goodbye to All That, her infamous farewell to New York. But one line stood out: “I was in love with the city the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite that way again.” I understood the feeling.
California — specifically the San Francisco Bay Area — was my first love. The place where sunshine and drought and overly friendly people and rolling green hills and superb Mexican food thrived. The place where my heart thrummed every time the plane descended into San Francisco International Airport. The place where I called home.
New York, rather, was an arranged marriage. Being myself the product of such a union between my Indian parents, I was not disposed to welcome it. I didn’t take much stock in horoscopes, but as a Cancer, I was a born romantic. I wanted the kind of cosmic, all-consuming love that you’d find in a song by Florence and the Machine.
Instead, what I got from New York was gradual affection — not yet love, not yet home, but maybe, someday — arising from a mutual contract of fidelity to one another.
There were lonely nights, Netflix and Chill, and hour-long subway rides to uncertain destinations. I figured out the maze of J, Q, M, 2, 3, L, 4, 5, 7 (and the 7 express — only 5:30–9 pm to Queens on weekdays), Marcy Avenue, Bedford Avenue, the chaotic mess of Union Square, still never failing to ride the train uptown when I was going downtown, but never ceasing to be amazed at the crazy-ass places where I ended up, like an austere monastery north of Washington Heights or a wonderful concoction of bubble milk tea shops and 99 cent stores in Flushing.
Some things — like taking a deep breath to inhale clean air and instead choking on the scent of urine and cigarette butts — would be borne as a routine part of the relationship. Though never quite forgiven.
Other days, I would wander up and down First Avenue, feeling that I could walk to the ends of the Earth just trying to stave off the gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Not long after my arrival, a trio of college students wandered into the Thai restaurant. And as anyone would do when there was an entire restaurant of empty tables, the group took a seat right next to me. I cursed what should have been a pleasantly quiet evening, already preparing for a deluge of shrieks and recollections of weekend keg parties.
The group was made up of two young women — one blonde, one brunette — and a dark-haired man. The man wore blue pants, spotted with what seemed to be paint stains — or perhaps he bought them like that.
I stirred the orange dregs of my Thai iced tea with a straw and picked at my fried rice. The cooking wasn’t up to restaurant’s usual standards. The chicken wilted on my fork. I combed through the pages of Stephen King’s On Writing with my other hand.
I came upon a passage where he described how a doctor jabbed a needle into his eardrum, allowing the pus to flow onto a pillow while a young Stephen screeched in pain. I immediately regretted my choice of dinner reading. But a voice soon jolted me out of the page.
“She didn’t give me the courtesy of letting me know…I mean her mom and brother were there. I was pulling my pants up, and I was wearing a thong.”
Eyebrows raised, I lowered my copy of On Writing and looked on to the college group. The brunette woman was talking up a storm about her crazy roommate with apparent boundary issues. She spoke with vigorous gusto. Her friends laughed in the way that people do when presented with a funny party anecdote and you are expected to laugh.
The server brought out their meals. They nibbled for a bit in silence, but the dark-haired woman was on a roll.
“Most Thai places don’t give you spice on the side. This dish isn’t spicy at all,” she complained. Her male friend nodded in assent. She continued: “I was at Lotus the other day, and I said I wanted three stars. The woman was like, ‘no, two stars for you.’ She laughs. “That’s probably fair.”
Fork suspended in mid-air, I listened on. It wasn’t until afterwards, when I was walking home, shivering as the wind nipped at my throat and the to-go box containing the scraps of my dinner thumped against my thigh, that I realized why I had been so drawn to this seemingly banal conversation. Here I was, sitting alone on a Saturday night in the greatest city on the planet, feeling like a total failure, when in walked these college studs, beaming with youth, exuberance and a hint of arrogance. Everything that I lacked.
It was that word again. Loneliness.
I yearned for the camaraderie, the fuck-it-all, the ‘life is your oyster’ vibe of my college days at UC Berkeley. Maybe that was what I really missed most about California. When you were nineteen and felt like you could take anything the world could throw at you. When you could be a UN diplomat, a museum curator, a National Geographic photographer. When you had an ample supply of friends who would cheer you on, and maybe, the possibility of a lover not too far off in the distance.
At my ripe old age of twenty-five, with no lovers and fewer friends, I was finding it more difficult to throw caution to the wind — to greet every day with a can-do attitude. I cursed when old Facebook memories popped up on my feed, reminding me of the sunny optimism I once possessed but now lay dormant under a harsh dose of reality.
I had spent a few years wiling away in a nonprofit office — with no window — right after college, trying, but often failing to secure legislative victories for human rights in the partisan environment of Capitol Hill. Failures which had now been supplanted with a weekly onslaught of rejection emails — the bane of a writer’s existence. The natural trajectory of adult life had begun to subdue the winning attitude of the girl from California.
And it wasn’t just the professional malaise. When I moved first from Berkeley to Washington, DC and then finally to New York, I felt like each time, I left behind a piece of my heart in friendships that distance could not overcome.
While I stewed in this sort of quarter-life, existential crisis over my pathetic meal, the blonde college co-ed talked about her friend who racked up a hefty tab at some other restaurant and refused to pay. I didn’t even know restaurant tabs were still a thing; I thought that was called dine-and-dash.
After a few more minutes of banter, the chatty brunette threw out this final bombshell: “When I was six, my dad gave me a purity ring. He told me to give it to my husband on my wedding night — ” Her blonde-haired friend across the table visibly gagged, though that could have been due just as much to the quality of food as to the antiquated notion of sexual chastity —
“ — and said if I had any questions, to call him.” “Yeah, Dad, I’m going to call you on my wedding night.” I imagined that her sarcastic jab was accompanied by the usual eye-roll of a young person when their parent said something incredibly foolish.
Finally, I cracked a smile. I set the book down. I discarded my meal in favor of unrepentant eavesdropping.
The gnawing feeling in my stomach had been sated. Mere proximity to close friendship and the unfettered optimism of youth was, for the time being, good enough for me.
This was as good as lonely Saturday nights got in New York City.
Tara Yarlagadda is a freelance print and multimedia reporter based in New York (originally from the rolling hills of the San Francisco Bay Area). Her beats include human rights, politics, media, tech, food, film/TV, books, and the environment. She is also an avid photographer and aspiring screenwriter. Her work has been published in sites like Paste and The New Food Economy, and in outlets like The New York Times 360 and PBS NewsHour. For more of her professional and personal writing, visit tarayarlagadda.com.