In Which She Is Still Not Sure

How To Think About Quitting New York

by SARAH SALOVAARA

I hadn’t washed my hair in five days. My brush sat at the bottom of my backpack, beneath DVDs and magazines (yes, those old things), untouched. I had just returned from North Carolina, the suburban, Southern, Disneyland-for-beer-guzzling-beachgoers sprawl known as the Outerbanks. OBX if you’re nasty.

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At 2:30 a.m. on July 4th, I awoke as we entered the mini-golf strip. I discovered that sleep — at first feigning it, then committing — was the only viable way I could silence my cab driver who immediately deemed me an ungrateful brat as I slide into his backseat. I told him my father had rescinded my ride from New York, and I was left to scramble, at my mother’s insistence, for flights that night. Be grateful, he told me.

He spoke from a place of Reason and Experience. His children did not speak to him. Didn’t call him on Father’s day. Not even his Birthday. And it was all because of his damn ex-wife — the German-Italian — who gave a child up for adoption when she was sixteen, years before they were together, but never told him about it, as if that was the source of all their problems. He cheated on her constantly, but that was beside the point. He’d never been to New York, but knew he could make it there anyway because he was a Hustler. A vet, but a Hustler, nonetheless. There was something in there about his illiterate mother with a 10th grade education, before I zipped my eyes shut, the words raining out of his mouth like white noise.

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It is acceptable to not wash or tame your hair when you are in the vicinity of the ocean because, no matter the time of day, you could have just come from the beach. There are only so many inland areas where it is still okay to wear a beaver’s dam atop your skull. New York is one of those places.

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“How was Connecticut?” I turned from the dinner table as my roommate bound through the front door, Whole Foods bags weighing heavy on her wrists.

“It was great! It just made me realize how much New York sucks.”

“Mmmm,” my dinner companion nodded.

“Lately, I’ve been feeling so stifled, and unable to create things and I just realized I kind of hate it here.”

My friend’s head still bowing in thanks.

“All there is is culture, and I can’t respond to that. I’m so uninspired. Maybe I’ll move.”

I stared at my friend. Unblinking.

“What?” she said. “You don’t want to stay here, either.”

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I say this with equal parts self-loathing and self-awareness, but I am something of an anomaly, in that New York is considered my “comfort zone.” I grew up here, my family still lives here, a handful of my childhood friends do as well. In short, I have a safety net; where others are met with the stomach churning excitement of the expansive unknown, I have familiarity that masquerades as something much greater in its constant evolution. New York is not supposed to intimidate me. I am supposed to love it. Supposed to not want for anything more. It is my home. My hometown. I can say that, and I get to mean it. I have license, because it is, honest and true, all I’ve never known.

But I never say it. And even when my heart catches in my throat, and I find myself filled with such warmth for my surroundings even in the midst of Times Square — and no, it’s not whatever’s wafting from the grates or that Nuts For Nuts cart — it’s fleeting just the same. It’s a reminder, not some cherished, divine intervention.

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At night on July 4th, we gather at one of the beach houses to watch old Super 8 videos of my grandmother and her family. “This is so Stories We Tell IRL,” I want to say to my second cousin, once removed. We — all 65 or so of us — watch as my grandmother and great uncle dash along the same shores that sit just beyond the bay windows some seventy years prior. There are no houses on the horizon, just sand dunes. I can read her lips as she tugs at the edges of her brother’s face, briefly suspending the rapidity of the frame. Smile she says. It’s a universal gesture. Corny music plays over intermittent PowerPoint slides. It is so bad I have already barred it from memory.

It stops and I remove my arm from my grandmother’s back and offer to demonstrate Eskimo kisses with a distant little girl who will point her finger at me, accusatorily, and shout, “You’re friendly!”

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That morning, before any of my cousins are awake, I go out to the porch that overlooks the road. I don’t mind, like my mother and uncle do, that we are not directly on the beach. I write a story. It is the first time I have written a story since college, and it is fantastic.

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“Wait!” My mother’s cousin — “Crazy Cousin Elizabeth,” as she is widely recognized — pipes up from before the television, 8 dollar bottles of Cabernet coursing through her veins. “We’re gonna show pictures of the farm!”

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I remember visiting Crazy Cousin Elizabeth, for an afternoon, when I looked at Middlebury. I can’t recall much about her farm — generic details aside — because when I arrived on the campus, I was stopped and interviewed by a local news crew, which was obviously the chief takeaway of the trip for any insecure, narcissistic teenager. I remember what I was wearing. Head to toe.

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The farm is beautiful. Really picturesque and alluring. There are fruits and vegetables, but also horses. And CCE, it must be said, knows how to wield a camera.

“That’s one of the WWOOFers,” she narrates.

“Elizabeth!” I gargle my G&T. “I WWOOFed!”

“Really?”

The slideshow stops. It is the two of us, calling after each other, halfway across the cramped room.

“Yes! Outside of Nashville! I loved it!”

“Well, you have to come visit me!”

“6 am to 3 pm?” I recall the working hours, readily eclipsed by the 3 o’clock marijuana haze that was more punctual than any agricultural ritual I undertook.

“We do morning till about 1 usually, because it gets too hot, and then we eat lunch, and go back out around 4 for a couple more hours.”

“Ah.”

“I mean it.”

“We’ll talk.”

I turn my eyes back up to the screen, embarrassed, or at least feeling like I should be.

Once we’ve returned to the first photo, Elizabeth shoots up and beelines for me. She throws her arm around my shoulder and turns me away from the circle. We pace, thick as thieves. She tells me all about Slow Food, and permaculture, and how excited she is I’m going to stay with her. She can pick me up from the train station. Anytime.

I come back from the bathroom and greet another relative who I haven’t seen in eight or so years. The only thing I remember about him is his name. “So,” he smiles, “Liz tells me you’re going to spend some time up at her farm.”

I need to find my great uncle to tell him what time I want to go on his sailboat tomorrow, but he is gone, and I don’t know which house he is in. Elizabeth offers to take me to him, and I resist, because I don’t want her to pressure me into committing to something I’m not ready for. I need to focus on work, not distractions. We walk and she doesn’t mention the farm once.

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I have always threatened to leave New York. If not to myself, than to my mother, or a close friend. I was definitely going to move to LA after graduation. Then it was Berlin. San Francisco, too.

“I am going to be away from New York for a while,” I email my best friend, drunk, from my apartment in Baltimore. “I can feel it. But, please, remember, that no matter where I am, I am always thinking of you, and always loving you.”

I think about what I always say whenever someone asks me about Baltimore. How grateful, how lucky I was to go to school there. I love the city beyond words, but it is a place I never would have dreamed of living in otherwise. I am ready to say this about another city, for another reason. It is not, I state, healthy to live in New York all one’s life.

My best friend now lives with her boyfriend in Boston, and I, in my entire post-graduate year, have not left New York for more than a week at a time.

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July 5th. Again up early, getting some productivity in, before I go to the beach to socialize. I read the story again. Tweak a word or two. Still fantastic.

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It had to be New York, because it couldn’t be Los Angeles. I was going to work in film, so it’s either one of the two. In New York, people are passionate about film like I am. In Los Angeles, it is alternative means of investment banking, I instruct, to myself and whomever will listen, again and again.

Perhaps, I thought back in February, I will pick up and go somewhere else once my job is done in March. But March came, and I felt like I had to at least try and capitalize on any opportunities that arose.

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“Traveling is the worst thing you can do when you lack stability,” my friend tells me. “Because no matter where you go, you will still be wishing you were at home working, advancing. You can distract yourself, but your true aims won’t go away.” I listen to her, but don’t know if I agree.

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We are picking crabs and a round of relatives trickles in to say their goodbyes. They have early flights, dates with the road at ungodly hours. I speak to yet another second cousin. We are both 22, and I have memories of us being very close at a young age. He has just quit his job at a production company in LA and is moving to Patagonia to work as a ranch hand. He is going to write for two hours everyday. His old professor is married to an editor at The Atlantic, so who knows. The old bay stings my eyes. I am green with envy.

He hands me his phone and I send myself an e-mail. I write “Relativez” in the subject line, and nothing else.

Later, I touch his mom’s shoulder and tell her how awesome — honest — it is that she supports him. “Well,” she admits, “It took us a while.” I feel better, but only just.

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At some point recently, film lost its hold on me. The blinders that tell me I won’t be happy unless I am working within the industry are receding, and I am unable to edit a film I shot. My ex-boyfriend is doing it instead.

The funny part is, I know exactly why it happened. And it’s impossible to convince you that it isn’t trivial. I fell in love with someone who ditched film for the environment. I hung on every word that was preached about working outside yourself, engaging the bigger picture. It was subconscious at first, then, insidious.

I felt myself returning to writing. Not scripts, but essays. Long form. At least once a day. And reading. Reading nonstop. The irony here, you say, is that being a writer is not any less self-involved than being a filmmaker, and you are right. But I can’t seem to help it. I have always oscillated between the two, and perhaps eventually, I will accept that I can do both, but that requires placing passion beneath time management.

Though for now, that reality, that you don’t need to live in New York to write like you might need to in order to do film, strikes me on the shoulder more often than not.

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My other roommate walks in the door with her boyfriend. They too have just returned from Connecticut, from her parents’ house.

“I didn’t want to come back. I need to leave New York,” she also announces, but with faulty conviction. “It’s just talking to all of my friends, you realize how much you sacrifice to live here, and that most of the time, it’s not even worth it. My friend just moved to Providence, and bought a car. And not because she has buckets of money, but because she can.”

“No, no, no,” her boyfriend, ever the optimist, says from the couch. “We leave New York after we’ve established ourselves. After we’ve succeeded.”

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Last week, the two of us, my roommate’s boyfriend and I, were talking about one of his friends who recently left the city to return home. “I hate so much,” he told me, “How it’s never, ‘Oh, well, Billy just realized he liked Detroit better.’ The narrative is always, ‘He couldn’t handle New York.’”

It is, isn’t it? We are always overwhelmed by the city, never under. It is greater than us. Either adapt, acclimate to its dictations, or forfeit.

Would I be part of that narrative? Could I? Or do I get a free pass, again, because I’m from here?

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We leave North Carolina at 6:30 a.m. and I’m sad. Sad because I know I’m going to return to New York and sit on my couch and write, day in, day out, indoors. Not in plain air, on a porch, a stone’s throw from the sea.

I call my mother and ask for Elizabeth’s email. I don’t have work the coming week. I decide I am going to go up to Vermont and help on the farm and write. I am going to take a break, and think about whether or not I’m going to stay, like I told my roommates I would, when my lease is up in August. If I have the courage to leave New York.

I go to Vermont and it is wonderful. Just what I needed. I sweat all day, and then at night, I sit around the table and talk with strangers and have eye-opening conversations. Then I go to my room and I write, and it’s great, too. I am learning things. About the environment, about sustainability.

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Of course, none of this actually happens. Instead, I take a break from the couch and get in the shower. I use half a bottle of conditioner on my dreading ends. I wonder if all my hesitancy is as ephemeral as my love of my life and this city. I write this essay. I am still not sure.

Sarah Salovaara is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She blogs about film here, and you can find her twitter here.

“Sarah O’Sarah” – The Darkness (mp3)

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