In my dream, I was standing in my pajamas in front of the giant clock in Grand Central. The station was crowded – I don’t think I’ve ever seen it any different – and people were streaming in from all directions: dismal commuters, men with pleated pants, toddlers in strollers, bridge-and-tunnelers clutching aluminum tall-boys. I was a child again and carrying vegetables in my arms, zucchini and artichoke as immaculate and inert as the cornucopia of fruit atop Carmen Miranda’s head. It felt like I was standing at the center of a compass, with paths that forked in every direction – only I couldn’t decide which way I was going. One week had passed since I moved to Seattle, and already I seemed to be moving somewhere else.
This preoccupation with movement should not have come as any great surprise. My girlfriend Courtney and I drove to Seattle from New Haven last August to move into our new apartment. She stayed out there, but for the next six months I lived in New Haven, I found myself cleaving to an unrooted existence. I sublet a room in a crumbling brick house with five college juniors next to a 24-hour falafel restaurant. The restaurant’s exhaust fan blew directly into my bedroom window and the smell of rotating lamb permeated my every waking moment. The room had shag carpeting and a twin mattress, and I stowed away a clean set of dishes for every time I made food. In December, I bought one of my roommates his first legal drink; I graduated from college the same year he celebrated his bar mitzvah.
Without Courtney, it appeared, the idea of home was illusory. I left the house before my roommates woke up and came back most nights after midnight. On weekends, I traveled up and down the Eastern seaboard like a freight conductor, oscillating each week between friend’s couches in Boston and New York and Washington, DC. It was a perpetual (and premature) state of goodbye as only I could relish; each goodbye felt more powerfully sad than the last. And yet, I thought it would make the eventual leaving easier, trying to hone and perfect it like it was a stage on the path to enlightenment.
My roommates almost never saw me; save for my time in the office at work, I barely left a shadow. The travel helped, but it never completely staved off the feeling of loneliness. My mind was with Courtney, in Seattle, but my body was always somewhere else. I couldn’t seem to get used to the idea of sitting still. On the day I eventually moved out, I polished off a can of Spaghetti-O’s from a microwaveable cup, my last ode to young adulthood, to long distance relationships, to living a bachelor’s life.
I bought a one-way ticket to Seattle for February. I was both nervous and excited, eager to finally make good on my promise to leave but still not entirely emotionally prepared to go through with it. I was born in New York and had lived on the East Coast for the majority of my life. It was where I had family and friends and an entire life. In Seattle, I had a girlfriend and an apartment, but almost no friends and little idea how I would spend my days. There was something about being ungrounded that made it easy to question everything. For months, I asked myself if I was making the right choice. In spite of all my griping about the city – how it’s changed in both huge and imperceptible ways – New York still felt like home.
It didn’t help that my last trip to New York was through Grand Central. For four years, it had been a perennial waypoint, the confluence of two worlds. On one end were the tracks that led to New Haven, where I’d lived on and off for the past five years, and on the other, the station doors that spilled onto the streets of Manhattan, the city where I grew up. By the time I woke up from my dream, I never did find my way out of Grand Central. Every step I took led me right back to the same spot under the giant clock. I might have only considered those two directions, but in reality, the destination could have been anywhere, as enigmatic and far away as one of the clusters of stars painted above the station like a Venetian ceiling.
For the two years when Tyra and I dated, there was a sense of anticipation every weekend I took the train into Grand Central. New York was a retreat, a place to escape the affectations and provincialities of New Haven. But it was also deeply familiar. Pulling into Grand Central on Friday night felt like baptism, like rediscovering myself. As long as I visited enough, I could indulge in the fantasy that I was a part of the city, and that life ceased to exist there without me in it. But Sunday night always brought me back to reality, when each week I trudged the two hours home to New Haven, the bright lights of the city retreating against the twilight.
But Grand Central holds other significance too. On Halloween, the day Tyra and I broke up, we had the talk there, on the benches in the lower-level dining concourse. It was awful. And not just awful in the way that ending a relationship is always awful, but it was the spectacle of it, how public the whole thing was. For months afterward, I couldn’t think about New York without replaying the whole terrible scene in my head: the reasons why we should still be together, the reasons why we were destined to fall apart. The two became linked, and deep down, part of me was apprehensive about going back. Without knowing it, New Haven began to feel like its own kind of retreat, an escape from a former life, the life I’d left behind.
On my last day in New York, I walked through my old neighborhood with my best friend Sam. I’ve known him since middle school, and he knows my propensity for nostalgia better than almost anyone. We started with the water tower by the Gowanus Canal and headed north on Smith Street, passing Court and then Clinton, until eventually we got to Carroll, the street I grew up on. The whole time we talked about how we would miss this feeling, the wandering and discovery that seemed to typify so much of the time we spent in New York together. Sam mentioned how sudden this all felt, and I agreed. Despite knowing for months that I was leaving, there was no good way to prepare for it.
Sam was with me for my first big move in 2009, at a 24-hour Burger King in Bay Ridge the night before my first flight to China. It certainly felt like I was leaving New York then, too, but in a lot of ways I knew it wasn’t forever. I was 22 and newly graduated and craved for the chance to create an experience that was entirely my own, knowing full well it was only temporary. Even though I went to college in the Midwest, I had always been back to New York for summer breaks and holidays. In the back of my head, I knew that New York would be there for me when I returned.
But this move felt somehow more permanent. Seattle was a place I could start a life, and Courtney, someone I could start a life with. Reliving all those memories with Sam made it that much harder to imagine leaving. But memory is dangerous because it paints a static picture. The reality is that it is impossible to reclaim a time that has passed. Even more, there is something valuable about leaving a place, for good and bad. Had I never left New York for China back in 2009, I would never have known that there were things I did miss about New York. The irony, of course, is that you appreciate somewhere most only once you’ve left it. It’s as if you need new experiences to ascribe meaning to, to allow time to pass so that you can appreciate all of those old memories anew.
On my last night in New York, we went out for drinks, and it was after midnight when we pulled up to MacDougal Street to get pizza. There wasn’t any parking, so Will and Katie double-parked and stayed in the car while Sam and I went in. The line was long, but it was warm out for February, and no one seemed to care. There were girls in knee-high boots, fraternity brothers in matching striped shirts, a basset hound leashed to a hydrant sniffing around in the trash. I was exhausted and nearly sober, out past midnight for the first time in a month. All around, the noxious smell of Axe body spray, Justin Bieber blaring from an iPhone speaker, the comparing of fake ID photos. We were two people from the front when it finally dawned on me: Sam and I were the oldest people there.
When I was younger, I couldn’t understand the passing of time: how fads fell out of favor, the way habits were made and lost, why we stopped seeing certain friends. Suddenly, I felt like I was asking that same question again. A drunk guy from outside barged in and started yelling and asking for napkins, tomato sauce running down the length of his arm. “There’s a box by the door,” one of the cashiers droned, gesturing a finger, as if this was not even the first time this hour that someone had asked. New York is a young city or it’s an old city, where people go to make their dreams or return long enough later to deny ever having had them in the first place. The question was: how did we find ourselves on the other side of it? I turned to Sam, and I could read it on his face too: even if I did stay in New York, how long could we really do this?
When we got back to the car, Will started asking me questions, the kind you ask someone who is leaving a place he loves and doesn’t know the next time he will return. What will you miss most about the city? he said, peering at me in the rearview mirror. Images cycled through my mind like a zoetrope. The Cyclone in Coney Island. Sneaking into movies at the Regal. Staying up in Tribeca until sunrise. Walking to the tree in Rockefeller Center with a thermos of brandy. I thought of all the missed connections, the people I would never meet. And then, the pervasive fear that this city was a part of me, and how there would come a time, months or years from now, when it wouldn't be and I would no longer be a New Yorker.
Seeing me struggle with the question, Will turned around to face me in the backseat. What will you miss the least? This time, I had an answer ready. I remembered all the hours I had been in Grand Central, a routine so ordinary people spend their entire lives doing it. And how even now, years later, I can’t think of Grand Central without remembering the last time I was there with Tyra, the moment she turned to look at me before streaming through the turnstile doors.
If there was a silver lining about moving to Seattle it was this: live somewhere long enough, and everything gets imbued with meaning. There was a part of me that would always miss the drama and the feelings associated with nostalgia. But in some ways, I was ready to leave New York. I liked the uncertainty of starting out somewhere new, the challenge of making a place your own. Seattle was a blank slate of stories where nothing yet had been written. Every place, every experience, and every moment would become an entirely new memory. I thought about the breakup with Tyra and how, months later, I met Courtney in New Haven. Sometimes we need to write our own endings, if only so that new beginnings are possible.
Sam and I said goodbye, as we always have, on the corner of 6th and 8th Street, where I take the subway down to Brooklyn. As much as we could over the years, we parted ways here, whether it was after a long night out, or in the morning, a few blocks from his parent’s apartment where I crashed the night before. This time, not knowing what else to say, we just stood outside the station. It was late and the wind had picked up, but we stayed there, quietly, trying to take in every last detail, not sure when we would have the opportunity again. I didn’t know yet whether my new neighborhood would have the same crooked sidewalks, tall oaks in metal planters, the streetlights that framed the street like a noir film. The same way I didn’t know why after so many evenings that ended exactly this way, I would inevitably remember this one the most.
They tell you in hindsight you miss all moments equally, but you miss the last of anything most of all. The last time Tyra turns to leave you at Grand Central. The last time you take the D train back to Brooklyn, counting the steps to your mom’s apartment. The last time you fall asleep on the pull-down sofa, dreaming of the city, of Seattle, the new life that lies ahead.