The photo has hung on every refrigerator we’ve shared as a couple. Eight-by-ten and glossy, its white paper frame grows more yellow with each passing year.
There she is, her hands white-knuckled around the safety bar, her upper body almost doubled over as if that might provide some protection should the Cyclone’s old white wood finally snap after almost a century of fun. Her eyes are closed tight, teeth clenched shut, waiting for the first drop to rise in her lower stomach. She does not like this.
There I am, nearly twice her size, a smile as wide as the Atlantic that stretches out behind us. The rush of wind as the creaky coaster’s ancient first car crests the hill and plunges down that famous first drop, my short hair blown back over my head. I love this.
Coney Island is the site of many moments in the story of our relationship. Me meeting her at the finish of many a Brooklyn Half Marathon with hands full of Nathan’s and bottles of water. Her indulging my insatiable appetite for the smell of sea air and fresh clams on the half shell. We marked every Valentine’s Day with a pizza pilgrimage, starting at Lombardi’s, where Spring Street meets the Bowery, weaving our way to L&B Spumoni Gardens, and finally ending at Totonno’s, as the frigid February winds roared down Neptune Avenue.
But in that moment, the one captured by the Cyclone’s automatic camera that clicks just as the first car passes over the crest of that giant first hill, the one that has snapped pictures of millions of couples old and new, scared women and men, and boyfriends and girlfriends who pretended they weren’t, she and I were almost brand new.
It was early in our relationship, before we’d be married, before we’d have our first child, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed puddle of love named Julius. It was before we ever thought we’d leave New York City.
We were young when we met at the ice rink at Bryant Park, but not that young. She was nearly a foot shorter than me with an effervescent cheer that belied her status as a longtime New Yorker. We both knew right away that we’d found each other for a reason. Our relationship skipped the passionate first few weeks and months that almost always fade away as fast as they come, as we immediately settled into a routine. It was comfortable and intuitive, as if we had been together our entire lives. We worked hard, her in the television industry, me in the record business, and, like many New Yorkers, assumed we’d start thinking about kids after the age of thirty-five. Anything earlier than that would cut into careers, into parties that raged far too late into the night and well into the morning.
As our love for each other grew, our love for New York waned. The little hiccups that are the daily routine of any New Yorker — late subways, overcrowded restaurants, greenspaces jammed with sun-worshipers on a perfect spring day — became more and more disruptive, more and more disheartening. Eventually, and much to our surprise, the tiny conversations about whether we might someday leave New York to raise our not-yet-family became full-fledged plans on where we might escape to, where we might raise a daughter or a son or both.
We considered Asbury Park, not far from where I grew up on the Jersey Shore. We looked at the Hudson Valley like most then-recently expatriated New Yorkers. We love LA but agreed that it was too far from our families, all of whom were lifelong East Coasters. We decided that if we were going to move, that we would move far from New York and to a place we’d never lived.
“The Southern Part of Heaven” is what the locals call Chapel Hill, North Carolina and in many ways, it’s exactly that. The skies most days are cloudless, the temperature often perfect and the people are amongst the kindest I’ve ever met. The food is great and the scene in our little college town is eternally vibrant, forever optimistic. It is a terrific place to live and will be a wonderful place to raise our son. It’s idyllic.
But that idyll hasn’t been without issue. While we have plenty of friends and even more acquaintances, both Emily and I have found it hard to connect much beyond superficial friendships built over common interests; workout friends, parent friends, friends in the music, film and art scenes. That’s not to say those relationships are valueless.
Quite the opposite.
But it’s as if there is a shared consciousness amongst New Yorkers, an unspoken soul-language in which my wife and I are fluent. Yet now, we’re thrust into a new place, with a new soul-language, one which it might take us years to learn, should we ever.
Living in New York engenders a kind of Stockholm Syndrome in which paying several thousand dollars in monthly rent for a tiny, often roach- or mouse-riddled apartment becomes the norm; where clutching a filth-encrusted subway pole is essential to the everyday; where fighting for every inch of space, for every bit of daily life is part of the contract you sign upon becoming a New Yorker. It’s a life that, when immersed in it, seems perfectly normal, perfectly balanced. It’s a life that once stepped away from becomes all but impossible to return to.
To trade our big house in our quiet neighborhood, mere blocks from one of the most beautiful public universities in America for our seven-hundred-and-fifty-square-foot apartment whose front door opened to a daily trash heap and whose foyer reeked of piss is almost impossible.
To swap our backyard, which will one day become Julius’s imaginary battlefields, his own private jungle, his spaceship or pretend Sahara, for a subway ride to a tiny patch of green surrounded by concrete, overwhelmed with other exhausted parents is almost impossible.
To simply return to the brutality of New York life after having grown soft by its standards is almost impossible.
I love our life in Chapel Hill. I love that our son is going to grow up in a place so verdant, so kind, so quiet. I love the people, the food and the heat of the South. I love the accents and the way they tell stories and how they want to make sure that you’re okay before they bother worrying about themselves.
But I miss New York. I miss New York. I miss New York.
I miss my friends, the ones who held me up when my mother died. I miss my morning commute, a slow walk down Allen Street to where it becomes Kenmare, then down Spring until I got to Hudson Street. I miss Washington Square Park, where I first kissed her, and the cacophony of horns, sirens and shouts that punctuated the night in our tiny apartment above Delancey Street. I miss the Bowery Ballroom, I miss my fruit guy at the corner of Spring and Varick who‘d sell me an apple and ask how I was every workday morning. I miss the A/C/E and I miss Showtime. I miss Bryant Park and the ice rink and I miss real pizza. I miss my friends. Oh, how I miss my friends. I miss the stuffed shells at Bamonte’s and eating family-style at Patrizia’s. I miss real egg rolls. I miss walking across the Williamsburg Bridge only to turn around and walk back to our home to the Lower East Side. I miss eating ice cream along the Hudson. I miss telling people that I was a New Yorker, because of the pride with which it filled me. I miss the young man I was, even though I’m happy with the middle-aged man I’m becoming. I miss Midtown. I never thought I’d say that. I miss Brooklyn and I miss the miserable Mets. I miss trips to Coney Island, whether by train, by car or by bike, to eat clams or walk the boards, to ride the mighty Cyclone with the woman who would soon become my wife and the mother of my beautiful son.
Someday we’ll move back, I’m sure. Maybe in sixteen or so years, when Julius is headed off to college and New York even less resembles the city I lived in than it does today. Maybe he’ll make his way there himself, choosing to study film at NYU or journalism at Columbia and we’ll follow in tow. We’ll want to be near him but really we’ll just be looking for a reason to move back to the city we made our home for so many years, the city we miss so much.
He’ll stomp and stammer and beg us to not move to his new college town. We’ll come to an agreement, promising that we won’t move north of 14th Street if he’s at Columbia or west of the Bowery if he’s at NYU. He’ll acquiesce and his mom and I will laugh in secret, knowing that we had no intention of ever living north of 14th or west of the Bowery.
We’ll show him all of the places that were landmarks in the relationship of his parents, pointing out the ledge of Washington Square’s fountain, where I grabbed her by the waist and kissed her on that first night; the site of our favorite apartment, the one above Delancey Street; where our beloved pizzerias used to be; the route his mom used to jog home after spending the night at my place, before we moved in together; and the sites of all of the little rock and roll clubs his dad used to play.
And we’ll take him to Coney Island to eat fresh clams on the boardwalk. And we’ll ride the Cyclone, up to the peak of that first drop, the one he’ll no doubt recognize from an old picture of his parents when they were brand new and far too young to know that they’d ever leave New York City. And down we’ll drop, the three of us together, in the city that will always be our home.