It is 8 o’clock on the dot and the asphalt is spread out like a giant blackened fish – yellow stripe down the middle, white markings on either side like scales. The street is dark, save for an errant streetlamp and the light reflecting off the neon sign from the carpark across the street.
People say that New York is a dangerous place for a woman, but they also probably haven’t lived, like I have, in Nairobi or Delhi or St. Louis. Besides, I haven’t once had to use the Day-Glo pink mace that I keep looped around my keychain like a warning. Still, arriving alone to a stranger’s apartment at night strikes even me as a little dodgy, so I stop outside and fish around in my bag for my phone.
“Pulse check,” I text Mark, just before ringing the bell. There is an elevator just past the all-white vestibule but ever since I convinced myself that not walking up any building less than six flights is eventually going to kill me, I opt instead for the fire stairs nestled by the back wall.
The staircase opens up to a kitchen island flanked by tiger lilies, high ceilings, and stain wood cabinets. To the left are six or eight desks with monitors arranged in a square, and a large couch with a coffee table and projector. The space is immaculate and takes up the entire story, with the kind of checker-tiled floors and mounted artwork you might find in movie depictions of penthouse apartments. I thought for sure I’d be the first one here, but there are already a handful of other people in their twenties talking and sipping drinks in the kitchen.
“I’m sorry I’m early,” I blurt out nervously to the first person I see, a blue-eyed charmer in a blazer and slacks by the door.
“Not at all,” he replies, as he helps me out of my coat. He directs me toward the food and drinks, and, noticing my gaze, adds: “This whole space used to be a loft, but the owner had to convert it because of building codes.” He points past me to the end of the hall where two former bedrooms have been renovated as conference areas. Even the bathroom, with a glass chandelier, has a stick of Old Spice on the counter that makes it feel both lavish and lived-in. “We run our office out of here now.”
He introduces himself, and I recognize his name immediately from the invitation I received in the mail. I still am not entirely sure why I am here – whether this is a recruiting event, a cult, or – judging by the wine chiller and the dozen or so bottles spread out on the converted countertop/bar – a fantastically perverse AA meeting.
I place the Tupperware full of cookies I brought (the invitation said “potluck,” in curvy script) gingerly on the long table in the living room/workspace.
“Did you make those yourself?” one of the men standing in the kitchen asks. He isn’t particularly tall, but he has nice eyes and is wearing a flannel shirt, and looks like the kind of guy I would have probably tried to go home with in college.
I nod that I did and curl a loose strand of hair around my ear. I have on a white blouse and a skirt that rides up a little more than I intended. I don’t always like to mention Mark right away to new people. Partly it’s my independent streak – I want to be judged on my individual merits and let people get to know me first. And partly it’s because I like to have a little fun.
I tug gently at the end of my skirt and dart my eyes at the counter. The cookies had melted significantly during the commute over, and the peanut butter and chocolate have begun to congeal. I hide my momentary embarrassment in grandiosity, rocking the container alluringly from side-to-side in front of him.
“I don’t know if I can trust you just yet,” he says, flashing a skeptical grin. “I mean, how do I know those cookies aren’t poisoned?” I can tell he is equally as curious about the event as I am. If this is indeed a cult meeting, I haven’t yet considered the proverbial drinking of the Kool-Aid, for which my dessert could be prescient.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” I ask, feigning asphyxiation.
“These days you can never be too careful,” he says, gently waving off my request. I shrug and return the cookies to the table. I have a hunch that eventually he will end up trying one, and tell me that he likes it.
When you live abroad for long enough, you learn to boil your life story down to a sound bite. For me, it is pretty easy: I left New York at eighteen and lived in a half-dozen cities on three continents, only to relocate ninety miles north of it a decade later. As an expat, these sorts of conversations are both unexceptional and integral – making new friends is a survival skill akin to eating or bargaining, and must be exercised like a muscle. So too is learning to recognize the creeps who want to sleep with you just because you’re new in town and don’t know any better. So often those friendships can make or break your experience, but they always start the same way: with you.
“So, how did you find yourself here?” a shorter girl with curly hair asks, as I grab a spoonful of guacamole from the communal bowl.
“I’m a sheep without a shepherd,” I hear myself say. “I just wandered into a pasture.”
By now, there are probably about forty of us milling around in the converted loft/office. And of everyone here – innovators, entrepreneurs, quants, creatives – the one thing that we all have in common is that we live in New York. People came to the city from all over, some lifelong residents and others new transplants. I still consider New York home, even though I haven’t lived here since before I was old enough to vote. But things change, neighborhoods gentrify, friends move on. At first they still send you invitations to weddings and baby showers, but pretty soon they get used to you not being around. After a while, you get used to missing things too.
I still remember the first time I left. It was a few days before my flight and we were eating dinner in New Jersey (don’t ask me why): expensive steak and wine, to celebrate. My dad had Duke Ellington on in the car, and as we drove back home over the George Washington Bridge, he said out loud from the driver’s seat: “She sure is pretty, ain’t she?”
I looked around, half expecting to find someone other than my brother sitting up in the passenger seat. But he pointed out the window at the skyline as it was coming into view, bright lights reflecting sublimely off the water. I looked up at the skyscrapers with a mixture of awe and revelation. It was pretty, I reasoned, and yet even from just across the river something about it had already looked different, like the city that I was born into was now resolutely and unsympathetically not my own.
In New Haven, I don’t have the same problem; it was never a city that was mine to claim. I have Mark, my coworkers, my hairdresser. I didn’t think too much about moving there – it was a city like any other, replete with new friendships and new starts. None of my other girlfriends could understand it – with my entire social network still in New York why I was inventing reasons for living anywhere else.
“It’s only two hours away,” I argued, trying to level with them. “It’s not so bad.” But even then, New Haven started to sound like an overcooked turkey or an iPhone 4; I knew no one who lived in New York would really buy it.
By the end of the night, I probably had a dozen or more conversations, each one full of the life stories I came to expect from meeting people abroad, only it was here, just a few miles from where I grew up. And each one seemed to wear down my defenses. I still harbor some of my misgivings about New York – the artifice, the cost, the time it takes to get just about anywhere. But it is also exciting the way people described the city as a place of connection and transformation, of movement and energy, a city that’s truly as pretty as you make it.
It is almost midnight when I gather my jacket and get ready to leave. There are still plenty of people left, but the train schedule gets fickle after midnight, and I already know it will be a long trip.
“Those cookies were amazing, by the way,” I hear a voice say. He has a vest on over his flannel shirt and shoots me a look that is half-genial, half-pining.
“Just don’t blame me if you don’t wake up in the morning,” I say, packing up what is left of them into my bag.
I tell him that I would stay longer but I have to catch a train back to New Haven. I half-expect him to say something about the commute or whether it wouldn’t just be easier to stay in the city, but instead he asks, simply: “Do you ever think you’ll move back to New York?”
I loop the bag over my shoulder and peer at him from the door. There are some places you choose to go; others, it seems, you can’t fully escape.