Earlier this month I went to New York for a week to take part in a (very intensive) seminar on government fiscal reporting. The glaze that just formed on your eyes was one of the main reasons I was excited to go - literally everything I write about as a county government reporter relates back to the budget, but it's hard to report on that in a way that doesn't make people cancel their subscriptions to the paper.
But I was also just excited to go back to the city. I lived in New York for two years in my early 20s, during a time of tumult and heartbreak when I was, in retrospect, so very young, so very naive, and so very very fortunate.
I left in 2007 and I have not been back many times since. In the beginning, I stayed away on purpose. I had moved to New York for a boy - a wonderful, smart, kind, funny boy who was very patient with me but ultimately wanted more than I was capable of giving then - and when we broke up I struggled with living in a place where every memory was connected to him. We parted in the stifling back half of summer. My tiny Brooklyn apartment didn't have air-conditioning so I spent most evenings away in Manhattan. I would come home late at night, always expecting to find him waiting at the top of my stairs with his heart in his hands and a sheepish look on his face.
He never showed.
I waded through the next months. I drank vodka. I made and quickly discarded dozens of friends (I can't now remember most of their names or how I met any of them). I made and kept forever a few others. I was very, very, very hard on myself. I cried all the time. I spent hours dissecting the things I should have done better and the ways in which I had failed. I frequently fell asleep on the F train heading home and woke up at the end of the line in Coney Island, where the sound of the waves felt absurd and disorienting. I danced and ran around the city and laughed. I was exhausted and sad and unsure and trying very hard to be happy. Occasionally I succeeded.
I can remember how much all of it hurt. I can also remember so many moments of beauty.
After I left it felt complicated to visit. So many people dream forever about moving to New York; so many others are never able to leave it. I wandered in and wandered back out. I didn't belong. I didn't fit anywhere.
It is very easy in retrospect to dismiss so much of this because, in the end, I was 24 and I knew nothing. But doing that invalidates all those moments and makes little of them, and I refuse to do that, largely because now, several lifetimes later, I have so much empathy for 24-year-old me. I want to knock on her apartment door and sit outside in the tiny backyard and explain that this is all OK and not that uncommon and kind of just part of the beautiful, awful, wonderful, terrible experience that is being an emotional person growing up in the world. That it will work out eventually and nothing is irreparably screwed up. ("You don't even know yet what it is to screw up something irreparably," I would say, but probably actually I wouldn't, because a lot depends on context and anyway we all screw up plenty every day.)
She's not there, of course - she's nowhere and everywhere, she's in me and behind me - but I went back to New York anyway. I rode the same trains and walked the same streets listening to the same songs. I felt lonely and out of place, but instead of trying to escape those feelings I just embraced them. I cut myself some slack. I visited some old haunts, I left others in the past.
On the third day I was walking down 34th Street, headphones on, and I saw the Empire State Building looming in the distance and I felt all this joy bubbling up inside of me. I wanted to spread my arms and twirl around on the sidewalk. I remembered a moment 10 years ago when I felt exactly that way, I was sad and heartbroken and walking by Rockefeller Center - I don't remember where I was going but I know what song was playing in my headphones - and then, suddenly, I just felt light. Still sad, but OK. Like everything would be just fine.
When things sync up like that, I like to think it's future me sending a message to past me. "Look at what you think is such a big deal," future me says fondly, knowingly. "It all turned out just fine, I promise."
In my mind, future me has really good hair and skin and does not spill on herself during meetings, so I've got a ways to go, I guess. But she's not wrong about now. I made a lot of messes getting here, but it's pretty OK. My heart aches for 24-year-old me, but she doesn't really need it. She and me and all of us are doing just fine.
PS - I love you forever, New York. Thanks for having me.