Maybe I Loved You
A love letter to New York, almost
I left New York City about a year and a half ago. I still can’t entirely believe it. I mean, what the fuck did I do? Moving to Germany. I lived in New York for ten years. Maybe ten years is not a long time. Sometimes, a day can take forever.
I grew up in Englewood, New Jersey, and went to the city all my life. In the eighth grade, I invited three of the popular girls in my class to go shopping at Canal Jeans. My mother drove us in. We bought clothes and then went to Washington Square Park. This venture, however, did not make me popular. As a child, I used to go with my family into the city for museums, dinners in Little Italy, shows on Broadway. I went to my first concert in Central Park, James Taylor in the Sheep Meadow.
But I was always a little bit scared of New York, too. When I got older, I would go in on my own. I didn’t like the trip: the porn shops that used to line 42nd Street, the grime, the homeless people. That part of New York seems strangely gone, wiped clean, though I don’t particularly like the shiny lights either. All of the shopping, stores you could just as easily go to in just about any mall. The tourists. The crowds. And where are the homeless people? Where have they gone?
I didn’t move to New York after graduating from college; I went to San Francisco because a friend told me I would like it there. And I did. I loved San Francisco, but I left after five years, quitting a high paying administrative job to go to graduate school in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. People thought I was crazy. Even the UPS man delivering boxes to my new apartment thought I was crazy. I still miss San Francisco, but have never made it back for more than a brief visit.
I didn’t make it to New York City until I was thirty years old. When I rented my first apartment, it wasn’t in Manhattan and it wasn’t in Brooklyn, either. I moved to Astoria, Queens. The neighborhood had been on the cover of Time Out the week we started looking for an apartment. I had been married for all of two weeks, marrying my graduate school German boyfriend at City Hall. We found an apartment we could afford, seven blocks from the N train, much too close to the Grand Central Parkway. We didn’t know any better.
Astoria, famous for its Greek restaurants. I never fell in love with the Greek restaurants. Honestly, I never fell in love with Astoria. Some people do. I understand why. There were a great many things about the place that I liked. I have not been completely happy anywhere. At least not yet.
In the ten years I lived in Astoria, I wrote and I published two novels. I had the same job for nine, a content editor for a startup, Screaming Media, a hip company with free M&Ms and granola in the kitchen, a company that got bought and sold, and then bought and sold again and again. Every time, I was rehired. At some point, I swung benefits, vacation days. Wow, that job. It was like an NEA grant. Mornings, I worked. Afternoons and evenings, I wrote. Which was all that I ever really wanted to do.
Every day, I took the subway into Manhattan. In our one-bedroom apartment, I did not have a proper desk. At the Writers Room, where I was a member for almost a decade, there were more than forty desks, but I could only write at maybe six of them. The desk had to be near a window. I couldn’t sit next to a loud typer, a heavy breather. If a good desk wasn’t open, I would wander the streets. Which was okay, because the space was in the East Village, and I liked that. I’d go to Union Square, buy produce at the farmer’s market, and later, when Trader Joes opened, I would go there, too, buy bags of groceries, wine, and carry the heavy bags home on the subway.
I’d wander into the St. Mark’s Bookshop and gaze at the shelves of new paperbacks on the front wall. I always wanted to write a book; I always wanted my book to be there, on that wall. Later, when my books were published, they never quite made it there. St Mark’s carried my novels, but shelved them in the stacks.
Sometimes, I worked at the Writers Room late into the night, when all of the good desks were open. I would take breaks, walk the empty aisles, stand in front of the big picture window and gaze at the lights of the Empire State Building.
The magic of New York was not lost on me. Do not think that I didn’t eat my share of Thai food. Or Indian. Or Japanese. Often, I long for the crispy squid served at a Vietnamese restaurant downtown, not far from City Hall, where I got married, across the street from a prison called The Tombs. Don’t think that I didn’t go out for bagels, or eat pizza, or, on indulgent days, have sushi delivered for lunch. Do not think that I didn’t go to movies, or to readings, to gallery openings and free concerts in the park.
My older brother lives on the Upper West Side. His apartment is only blocks from Columbia University, close to Riverside Park. Going to his apartment felt like entering another world.
Michael would visit me in Queens. He called it “the land of junk.” He had a point, of course. My brother reveled in the dollar stores. He bought Elmo t-shirts for his daughters, random plastic toys. I took him out for huevos rancheros. He was polite, picked at the refried beans, but did not like them. His wife once told me she loved Queens because of the U.S. Open, but the tennis tournament was not part of my life in Queens, even though I used to go the Open with my brother when I was a teenager.
We would have fun, my brother and I, watching on the outer courts. There’s a picture of me taken with him and a woman who was in the tournament that year. She was a tall and beautiful black tennis player named Camille Benjamin. My mother framed this picture. It was the year I was fifteen, the year that I had short hair.
I was also a film critic at About.com during my years in New York. I loved to see movies in screening rooms, to sit on the plush leather couches in the Sony building, so comfortable that sometimes I would fall asleep, regardless of the movie. I used to attend film parties and drink free drinks. I went to press junkets, and I loved that, too. To wander into fancy New York hotels, sit at a crowded table full of overeager online film critics — nobodies, all of us—across from genuine famous people: Woody Allen, Scarlett Johansson, Sean Penn, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Sofia Coppola, Gael Garcia Bernal, Cate Blanchett, Parker Posey. I interviewed French actress Isild le Besco in a café. I once stood next to Daniel Day-Lewis at a premiere. He was surprisingly tall. I would go to the morning press screenings at the New York Film Festival and Rendez Vous With French Cinema at Lincoln Center, and then out for the lunch special at Ollie’s, the Chinese restaurant down the block.
I think about that, those days of movies, riding the subway into Manhattan. I miss it. Wonder how I gave it up. So what that About.com, like Screaming Media, also got bought and sold, bought and sold again. That my pay there was cut in half. That I felt a little bit dirty, sitting at those press junkets, watching stars cringe as they were asked questions they clearly did not want to answer. I still want to go back. Back to the movies. Back in time.
But honestly, for the last two years that I lived in New York, I went to very few movies. I had a baby. I was laid off. I could not afford childcare to go the movies. Irrationally, I did not want childcare. I wanted to take care of my daughter.
I was in love with her, Nina, a burning crazy passionate love. My life in New York City pretty much fell apart after she was born.
I did not know when I moved to Astoria that I would be there for ten years. Once, when the lease ended on our first apartment, my husband and I looked at apartments in Brooklyn. We were discouraged by the higher rents, by the smaller spaces. We gave up, perhaps too easily, found another apartment, a better apartment, not aware that the auto repair shop next door, so quiet in the winter, would make us feel crazy on beautiful springs days, when we would open our windows to the sound of its industrial noise.
The truth is, of course, that I have always envied what money buys in New York City. I envy the Brooklyn writers. I wished then, as I wish now, that I could be better at making money.
I wrote and I published those two novels. Twins. Bad Marie. I hired a publicist, bought dresses, had book parties, was reviewed and later profiled in the New York Times and written about in glossy magazines. I got to feel a little bit fancy, a little bit proud of myself. A lot of people go to New York City to be artists, to write books, and end up doing something else. I published two books, and somehow, it wasn’t enough. I sound like a petulant child. Often, I feel like a petulant child.
I made money from my books, but really, I made rent and health insurance through my job. It was the job, not reviewing films, not writing fiction, but editing headlines for corporate websites that paid. I knew not to take it for granted. New York is an expensive place to live. Nina was two months old when I was laid off.
Nina is three and a half now. I no longer live in New York City. I have been gone for a year and a half but it feels like forever.
I moved to Wiesbaden, Germany.
I actually did that.
We left New York for Germany, to get affordable health insurance, something I lost with my job after the COBRA ran out. My husband promised to find a job in Germany, where social media was only just beginning to take off. I could almost picture it. Monthly kindergeld. European vacation time, six weeks a year. Free babysitting. My husband’s parents are much younger than mine. They promised to help with Nina. I would have time to write. I would have time to write.
I think that, alone, was what sold me.
I had left San Francisco, after all, for graduate school in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and the chance to write.
Many people think it’s cool to live in Europe, raise a bilingual child. Leave America, which was steadily going downhill. That is what they told me, before I left. What do they know?
I am homesick.
I am waiting to hear from my agent about the new book I am writing. I am waiting for emails from my friends back in New York. There is a six-hour time difference, and I am often waiting for my friends to wake up. I am in a constant state of waiting.
I lost my job the year Bad Marie came out. It didn’t seem like such a terrible thing. I would be able to get another job. I received severance pay. I was able to go on unemployment, stay home with my child.
The day my novel was written about in Time, I went for my first appointment at the unemployment office out in Flushing. It felt surreal to me, sitting in a crowded room full of newly jobless people, a room full of immigrants, and white, middle class me. I felt like I had a secret: I didn’t belong there. Of course, I did belong there. I had lost my job and my benefits. The advance I received for Bad Marie would not pay my rent. I had a five-minute session with an employment counselor, who, befuddled by my resume, told me about a new racetrack opening up on the edge of Queens that was looking for cashiers.
Then, I went out for lunch. I loved that lunch, how decadent it felt, to sit alone in a restaurant by myself, eating Chinese broccoli, drinking tea, out without the baby. I had been to Flushing only once before, for dim sum.
Months later, I would have to go back to that unemployment office, to prove that I was still looking for work. I was, but I also wasn’t. I was promoting my novel. I was taking care of Nina. I was getting by. The appointment was early in the morning. My Romanian babysitter couldn’t make it. My husband, sick in bed, couldn’t watch Nina. And so I put her in the stroller, packed the diaper bag, and went on my own, all of it so much harder with a baby: taking the subway, transferring trains, finding the elevators in Roosevelt Station. I remember missing my second train, the door closing in my face. Almost panicking when I couldn’t find the elevator at the Flushing Station, taking the escalator up instead, and then racing through the crowded streets of Flushing, only to get there late, fifteen minutes too late, more than twenty minutes by the time I made it to the front of the line.
That was me: writer, new mother, beyond exhausted, in a shirt covered with spit-up and milk, sweaty and flushed because it was summer and I had been racing to get there, pushing a stroller. Nervous. Wildly nervous. I had missed my appointment.
“Too late,” the Asian woman behind the counter told me, not coldly, just indifferent.
There was, of course, a line of people behind me. I started to cry. I think now: Why didn’t I tell my mother? She didn’t know then that I was on unemployment. Why didn’t I tell her? At the very least, she would have told me to take a taxi. She would have paid for the taxi. All those years in New York, I never took enough taxis.
My parents had helped us with the hospital bill after Nina’s birth. Nina spent the first four days of her life in the NICU at NYU Hospital. We had good health insurance then, and still could not afford that hospital bill. This is the same NICU where sick babies were carried down nine flights of stairs by nurses when the back-up generator failed after Hurricane Sandy. I remember those stairs. Those four long days, I was a floor below, being treated for complications from the birth. The doctors had told me to take the elevator when going from my room on the eighth floor to the NICU on the ninth, but often, I couldn’t wait, and I walked.
I stood there and cried at the unemployment office in Flushing and the woman behind the desk looked up at me, reconsidered. She decided to accept my updated resume and the piece of paper where I had diligently written the jobs I had applied for, the jobs I would apply for. The woman processed a form for me; she told me that I was fine, until the next time.
And this is what I think of when I remember my life in New York. Not the plush couches at the Sony screening room, or the hip bars in Nolita, or the book parties. I think of the unemployment office in Flushing. And my Romanian baby sitter Mary and her overweight teenaged daughter, whose name I can’t remember, who had recently been released from the psych ward. They would pick up Nina at my apartment, and take her around the neighborhood, while I tried to work. I am surprised by how often I think about Mary, wondering how she is now, what happened to her daughter.
I think about how scared I felt, how out of control.
Those ten years I lived in New York, why did I never fall in love with the city? I had the screening rooms. The take-out sushi. A place to write. I had my friends. I had my family.
But I always had something to complain about. The subway. The cost of brunch. The lines for brunch. How crowded it would get at the bagel shop. Sometimes, I couldn’t even get a table. The noise. The crowded streets. The tiny aisles in the supermarket. My neighborhood and how ugly it was.
I don’t fall in love easily. My husband had to work to woo me, and I mean hard. It was months and months before I would kiss him. I had to get over my life in San Francisco first and a former boyfriend. Sometimes, it takes me a while.
Like now. Writing this essay, sitting on a couch in a café in Wiesbaden, irrationally angry at the Germans not far from me, angry at them for speaking German, for being German, I think that I might have actually loved New York. That I could have figured it out, found Nina regular childcare back home. Not crossed an ocean to get steady writing time. Here, I take the bus almost every day, and I miss the subway.
Only now, living in Germany, where I don’t speak the language and the people seem impossibly cold and distant, do I think: Maybe I loved New York.
And maybe I didn’t.
Maybe I don’t.
Maybe I just don’t like where I am now.
I am not sure how, but I want to go back.
Excerpted from Goodbye to All That | Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, edited by Sari Botton. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.