by LUCY MORRIS
I am home in the Midwestern city where I was born, and I am not entirely certain how I got here. I know that I have taken a lot of trips in the last year, to two continents and three countries, over and across the United States a handful of times by air and once by car. I know that my pockets are filled with bar coded baggage tags, and that I never have the clothes I need for the right seasons. I am rarely dressed for the occasion at the best of times, but lately I have been looking stranger than usual, hoping a smile and a pair of earrings can compensate for living out of a suitcase.
I am not exactly sure why I am here, but like a lot of things I have done this year, I suspect it has something to do with a boy. Twelve months ago, the idea of uprooting myself for that reason seemed unfeminist and absurd to me. Back then I was working long hours and eating Goya beans every night for dinner with produce retrieved from dumpsters by a fregan acquaintance who was spending some months on my couch. Cutting the mold off a block of cheese, he would ask incredulously, “How can you eat something straight out of the can?” The Squatter, as I affectionately called him, also advocated following your heart. I had never before considered my heart to be a particularly reliable compass, and following it is not the marketable experiment that a year spent following Oprah or the Bible is, but nothing else was working for me so I decided to give it a try.
I had lost my bearings and two consecutive Metrocards during a period when a lot of things in my life were turning over. I’d moved from a two-story house I shared with my boyfriend to a basement apartment with three roommates and a number of mice. I thought of the former house as the place where I had learned to cook soups and invest in quality tights. It was easier to eulogize it that way, rather than as the first place where I made someone important to me cry, and then learned to look away, in a way that seemed like self-preservation but was in lieu of having to change, a callous made thick from gardening instead of just buying gloves or learning to hold the spade right.
Once settled in my new apartment, I began the process of something many people I know have done in reverse: New York was breaking for me and so I decided that I was in love with someone far away. The super of our building was ejected from his nearby home over marital issues, so he began converting the laundry room off our kitchen into an apartment for himself. Bugs crawled through the new incisions he made in the walls. It seemed like the city sanitation department never recovered from holiday weekends, the trash mounting in lolling piles around lampposts. I had developed a difficult relationship with the man at the laundromat, and when I walked to the bodega at night, a guy on the corner had started saying things like, “I would do anything to touch your legs.” I loved my neighborhood anyway, the sudden jolt from the smell of dried fish in cardboard boxes at Nostrand Avenue produce stores, or Saturdays sprawled in Prospect Park’s islands of shade. But sometime last summer I thought I might be able, for a while at least, to love this boy more than I loved the city. For a while I did.
His name was Jonah and it had begun as friendship five or six years prior, but the events that find me here now started late last winter, when I was visiting family in Milwaukee for a week. In a dark bar, illuminated by the torch I’d carried for Jonah for years, I made up my mind to try something – someone – new, even though I had a boyfriend back in New York. Our big house in Bay Ridge, with its old-lady-and-new-smoke smell that still clings to my sweaters, was not enough to contain whatever quarter-life crisis I was having. A week before, I had a cinematic panic attack in a dressing room over a jammed zipper on an expensive dress, which seemed, as these things do, prophetic only later. From the B train home from work the next day, I called and told Jonah what had happened. “I’d do anything to see you in a dress,” he said, which I knew was both the wrong response and exactly the one I wanted to hear. I was both old enough to see that he knew this and too young to mind his transparency.
Back in the Midwest, he drove me around his hometown, where the snow banks were pockmarked with grime and the storefronts were empty. The palette of winter in Wisconsin was lunar in a way I had forgotten, and the realities of the 2010 economy were visible in a way they weren’t in my daily New York life. We talked unemployment rates, and then some hours later, Jonah reminded me in a decidedly different, slurring tone, “You have responsibilities,” by which he meant a boyfriend, a good deal on a place in Brooklyn (and how New York a perspective! I thought through the gin – the real estate consideration). To silence this line of reasoning, I kissed him on the forehead and then the cheek and eventually the mouth. We went back to his freezing attic bedroom. I hadn’t slept next to a different boy in years and because of that I was mostly struck by the ease with which we melded into each other, curled like cavatappi right down to our toes. At first I thought this was indicative of some greater compatibility, and then later I knew it wasn’t, that once you spend enough time sleeping next to another person, it becomes natural to anyone who comes after, that your body – or is this just women’s bodies? – is memory foam adaptable to whoever touches it.
Back in New York, it seemed to suddenly, aggressively become spring. My ventilation-less office in Brighton Beach acquired the inexplicable vomitous smell of an aquarium, and so I spent lunch breaks on the boardwalk listening to “Hounds of Love” in regular, repetitive doses, as though it was some kind of medicine. I broke up with my boyfriend and moved out. The walls of my new bedroom were Mexican restaurant-style orange sponge paint and the slats under my low bed never stayed in place, so my mattress sank to the floor under my weight. Rent was the only physical check I wrote each month so my checkbook was always piled under detritus on my desk: behind some bottles of beer, underneath mass mailings from politicians, in a tangle of computer and printer cords. “It is unclear why we are here and what we are doing,” is how I described the life of my post-college peer group in a note I wrote to Jonah from the boardwalk one day. I asked him whether he thought it was normal to forget the spelling of your landlord’s name every month, and if it was weird to eat breakfast on the train or drink coffee in lieu of lunch. I suppose I was hoping his distance, his Midwestern common sense, or the four years of life he had on me might afford him the authority to comfort me. But deep down I must have known those were not resources he had in him, because I never sent that letter.
I believed I was having a lot of fun – and in the absence of any other unambiguous passion, the blanket pursuit of fun seemed logical – by making meals for one, chatting with my roommates, and drinking more than was advisable and yet not enough to be of real concern. But I was growing impatient, and while I knew perfectly well that this was an internal shift, daily city life seemed to validate it. I felt that impatience in the insufferably slow lurches of the Q train I rode each day past station construction in Sheepshead Bay. It was in the slow lines at Key Foods, where customers rifled for coupons and food stamps while clerks tapped their nails on registers. It appeared among the crowds that gathered on the steps of Union Square as days stretched toward their summer limits, everyone lethargic but urgent, ready to meet their friends and start their nights. When I thought about it later, it was the tactile elements of these months that seemed especially if inexplicably poignant: the thick envelopes my pay stubs came in (LUSYA M, my Russian boss wrote in polite cursive), the slick of my Metrocard when I reached for it in my purse every morning at the Park Place stop, or the scrape of the brownstone under my legs when I sat on the stoop at night with a glass of cheap gin and sour juice, talking to faraway Jonah on my phone, the screen of which swirled with sweat when I was finished.
Halfway through June, after months of long calls and coyness, I stood up straight and wrote Jonah a love letter, offering to come spend the rest of the summer with him. “Some Letters Are Failures, But Few Are Lies,” is what I called it, a line from Amy Hempel’s stories, which I’d been reading on late night subway rides. Although it did not seem strange at the time, I now have to wonder what kind of person titles a love letter, and what’s more, why I was compelled to include in it these details of life in my neighborhood: “Gyptian is playing on car stereos on Franklin Avenue by my burger place and Bushwick boys with jeans pegged just above the ankle ride their fixed gears up Bedford. I told K. he was an asshole but I liked him anyway, and the Squatter, beard freshly washed, asked how my writing is going.” I wrote: “These nights in the gardens of Brooklyn when around 4 AM I reach that moment of sobriety and all I can think of is Milwaukee, or nights in the bed of my friend where he says we probably shouldn’t do this again because I am clearly in love with someone else – these are making me (crazy) restless, sending me pacing the aisles of the E train or up and down Eastern Parkway trying to Be Present with the farmers market boys I’m with or just by myself.” Who were those farmers market boys? Where was I coming from on the E train? Why was I so concerned with being present, and what did that even mean? These are the questions I am compelled to ask when I read what I wrote then. And, finally: why did a love letter to a boy really read like a love letter – an ambivalent one, maybe a failure of one, but hardly a lie – to New York?
Jonah called me a few days later to reciprocate my sentiments. I was flustered by the sudden fact of getting what I wanted. I wished to put him on hold and confer with the Squatter, whose Spanish guitar melodies were wafting down the hallway. “Let me call you back,” I said, and when I did I demurred, telling him I had to give my boss a month’s notice, although that wasn’t true. “I just need some time to wrap things up,” I said, although what was left? All my good friends seemed to have wisely evaporated to less humid climates for the summer. I booked a ticket to Wisconsin, and then I moved it up a useless four days. During the intervening lonely weekends, I took buses to visit friends across the Eastern Seaboard. I went to the MoMA, hoping the steep price of admission would at least force me to focus on my immediate surroundings, to provide the present-mindedness I thought I lacked. Half the time I was radiant and half the time I suspected I was making a terrible mistake, but my friends disagreed. “Nothing matters before we’re 30,” my writerly roommate reminded me by way of reassurance. “Nothing matters ever,” the Squatter added from his perch on the couch. And what more authority did I have than any of them? How could I argue?
Soon I was in the Midwest again, camped in the attic of the house where I’d grown up. I never fully unpacked, but I spent a lot of my time out with Jonah, and plus I wasn’t staying more than two months: why commit to placing dresses on hangers or shoes in neat pairs? In fact, I was afraid. I made the mistake of thinking it was still summer, although it was August now, and people around me were already registering for fall semester classes and anticipating autumn leaves. Undeterred, I bought a swimsuit and drank iced coffee at outdoor cafes where I typed away for my Brooklyn Russians, who’d asked me to work remotely. At night, Jonah and I walked all over town, drinking malt liquor and stumbling home on empty streets, past bar after bar and successions of blinking stoplights. Sometimes we built fires and slept in hammocks, which felt very rustic, although one night during a tedious bar argument I texted a boy I had barely and briefly been intimate with in Brooklyn to say, “I miss New York,” and I meant that. I did not mean, “I miss you,” but like most of that summer, I was tipsy and I was tired, and didn’t know who to tell.
I started to worry that my heart’s directives had led me wildly astray. I wished the Squatter had a phone so I could call and ask him to remind me that nothing mattered. I was as desperate to believe there were no consequences as I was determined to believe I still had summer ahead of me. I knew things with Jonah were breaking, that I didn’t want to be drunk all the time, and that it was getting too cold at night to sleep outside. One night I made cocktails out of my mom’s last melons and I meant to leave a note of apology, but first we were out on the porch arguing and then we were in my bed pretending we could make things right again. But it wasn’t like the cold night in his attic room. It was sticky now, we coiled in opposite directions, and I slept with my phone pressed to my cheek, a half-composed text to my best friend on the screen.
I went west for three weeks to see her, and there I cried in cars and at Catherine’s kitchen table, because what was I doing, anyway? I sat on her lawn and had a long phone conversation with an old friend who had last called a few months earlier when I was at a party in Brooklyn. At some point I stopped listening to him and just mentally returned to that night in late May, when it had been disconcertingly, amazingly windy and on the walk over from my apartment, Catherine and I had stopped outside the Brooklyn Library to allow the wind to push us around, surrendering to the moment at hand, a custom I had come to think of as uniquely New York, although I had been enough places to know it was not. In the garden in Park Slope, people attacked a piñata filled with condoms and miniature bottles of liquor, and everyone there seemed set on a kind of self-destruction that alienated me in its deliberation, the agreed-upon premise that we might work good-for-the-world jobs during the week, but we’d still drink too much and go home with the wrong people and have to beg cab drivers to take us back to our out-of-the-way apartments in early morning hours. Months and miles removed, I now found I missed those strangers the way you miss exes in spite of their flaws. They did do good jobs, they made mistakes but endeavored to fix them, they even hired a mariachi band to make a spring night more festive for their friends. Where was that ingenuity, that ambition back in the Midwest? It was time to go, but I wasn’t sure where.
Catherine moved to China, so I bought a one way-ticket there, and then I started seeing someone new in Milwaukee, someone even more ill-advised than the last, for reasons of age, acquaintance and temperament, and most of all my reasons for engaging: what were they, exactly? I couldn’t remember – the heart I’d followed for thousands of miles was like a crazy cult leader full of bad ideas I couldn’t escape – but I kept finding myself at his house, and I wasn’t unhappy. He was from New York and we mostly talked about that, our vocabulary a glossary of street names. Like the last relationship, it had an expiration date – my departure for Beijing – but like the past-sell date yogurt from the dumpsters of Gristedes that had formed my breakfast diet all spring, sometimes that doesn’t have real significance.
Fall came while I was in China, evident in boot displays in store windows and the slow fade of the sky around 5 PM every day. I thought frequently of falls past, which is to say I thought of New York, where I had spent the last five of them, seasons rich with foliage and laughter. Happy Chinese girls perched on the racks of their boyfriends’ bikes couldn’t distract me from the chasm of nostalgia and anxiety that always opens at that time of year – or is that just in us overly sensitive, us seasonally affected types? My excitement for my eventual return to New York made me lightheaded, but it was counteracted by the dread that swelled in the pit of my stomach when I thought of actually going back. Waiting there in the improbably clean metro stations, so untarnished you almost expected new-car smell, I thought of the early evenings I had spent staring down the train tracks in Brighton Beach, willing the B to arrive and whisk me from work back to non-Russian speaking Brooklyn. Listening to boilerplate subway recordings on the train in Beijing, I thought of the pleasant impatience I felt those nights, ready to get home and sink into my boyfriend, but also of the panic I felt transferring to the R to go home to him once things with us were breaking. I thought, as surely everybody has at some point, that I could get on the train and just keep going, right until the end of the line, and start over there. But our house was just three stops from the terminal one. Nowhere seemed like it could be far enough.
And with this fickle heart guiding me, maybe nowhere could be, which is why I’m calling off the experiment and heading back to New York. Recently I have been back in Milwaukee, spending time with someone and waiting for a place to open up for me out east. My old place in Crown Heights is now occupied by strangers. This year’s exes have new girlfriends. Most days, I am less certain of my own growth, but as I’m packing, I keep finding old Metrocards – maybe the ones I thought I lost a year ago – at the bottoms of my bags, tucked inside yellow papered notes to Jonah. These objects are like relatives I haven’t seen in years, familiar but foreign: I recognize my handwriting but not the sentiments I express in it, which is comforting and alienating all at once. Someone told me recently that your heart, that misguided compass of an organ, gets less resilient as you get older, not more. If most of us believed this, I am not sure that living or loving would be bearable rituals, but by some miracle of human nature they are. At least for me. At least for now.
Photographs by Vivian Maier.