I lay on my bed, laughing and crying, trying to catch my breath. It had happened. I’d been accepted into an American graduate school. In New York City. It was finally happening! My life was moving forward! No more scraping by in shitty part-time office jobs, no more scrounging for freelance writing opportunities. No more being left out of the party. Everything was unfolding, at last! I felt like I’d waited my whole life for this, and in a way, I had.
Ever since I was 10 years old, I had dreamed of living in New York City. I remember my first visit, my mother gripping my hand, as we moved quickly through the squalid, porn-theater wonderland of 1980s Times Square. It all felt overwhelming, from the blinking neon signs to the symphony of car beeps, to the constant tidal waves of people. Recurrent visits brought happy discoveries; there were shambolic record stores, creaking book stores, oodles of vintage clothing stores with distinctly cosmopolitan styles and even more distinct smells emanating from overstuffed back rooms.
There were hours lost in hole-in-the-wall cafes with out-of-tune pianos in the corners, chipped keys spontaneously tickled by old coots and young students alike, the sounds of Chopin and Mozart, Curtis Mayfield and Lionel Richie making the taste of the almost-burnt bagel and too-strong coffee on a bleary Saturday afternoon that much sweeter. I saw Luciano Pavarotti at the Met, Yoko Ono in the Village, Nathan Lane on Broadway. There were late nights in smoky theatre bars, and dizzy next-day lunches at diners with ripped plastic booths. There were long afternoons spent in film-devoted bookstores and tiny record shops.
I’ll never forget peeking out the window of my midtown hotel room one cold winter morning to see an ocean of yellow cabs and people bustling along the street; all I could think was, “one day, I’m going to be part of all this.”
And I was, as of August 2013, when, having spent a nervous half-hour at the Canada-U.S. border getting my student visa validated and many more hours shoved behind the cramped dashboard of a U-Haul, I arrived in New York City, bursting with joy and pride and hope. As the Washington Square arch came into view, my stomach turned and twisted: I am really doing this!
I had lived a fairly quiet existence in the years leading up to my move, writing, working odd jobs, dipping in and out of the creative arena, producing work in public radio, volunteering at theater companies. But New York and its glittering panoply of cultural riches felt like my true home; a busy, buzzy collection of yawning opportunities just waiting for me. It was a far-off dream that I was determined to make my reality.
The first hint of things not going right was walking into the apartment where I’d rented a room, and being met with a pungent cigarette smell. I wasn’t able to actually view the apartment in-person when I’d found it online (thanks, overzealous visa restrictions) but had been given a Skype tour instead. I knew the person I rented from was a smoker, but was assured that only happened in their bedroom. Riiiiight. Being asthmatic, as well as something of a neat freak, I felt uneasy living amidst the stench, the yellowed walls and the giant dustballs in every corner. I was being forced to pay for a cleaner who clearly wasn’t doing her job.
Add to this the fact my roommate and I had very different ideas about decorum (the individual was very stringent on my being in full day-dress whenever I came out of my room; no wandering-around mornings in pajamas) meant we were heading toward a collision, which happened my third night there, with my roommate’s friend at that meeting; despite my having my own friend present as well (a longtime friend who had helped me move), I still felt deeply bullied, a feeling that absolutely intensified over the course of the next four months.
Cooking, something I dearly love to do, was relegated to the back burner, but going out was a financial impossibility. All the clubs and small places I’d enjoyed growing up had closed or had radically changed; the little mom-and-pop shops had been replaced by shiny chain stores. The Village looked and felt like a giant mall, filled with people busily tapping on their phones. The little hole-in-the-wall record stores were long gone. There was nowhere to hang out that didn’t cost a fortune and wasn’t full of technophiles. I didn’t feel at home going out; I didn’t feel at home in the apartment. I felt lost and alone.
School provided no respite. My classmates, a generation younger, were a group unto themselves, and had their own cliques. I found it hard relating on several levels, and befriending anyone, despite my best efforts, remained impossible.
Maybe the worst part of all was that I wasn’t writing; I wasn’t being encouraged to report and write at school (the endeavor was, it seemed to me, looked down upon with a great deal of eye-rolling), and I didn’t want to write anything for myself. I didn’t want to draw, either. Or paint. Or cook. All the creative pursuits I loved were suddenly gone. I felt trapped by so many limitations -- financial, emotional, social, experiential, creative, generational -- and I didn’t see any way of escaping them. New York was less the dreamy place of my youth than a prison of horrific loneliness.
Looking for a new apartment might have provided a way out of the prison, but, as everyone in NYC can tell you, the rent’s too damn high, and my hope of being able to live on my own was curtailed by my work visa situation (I wasn’t allowed to work full-time) and the fact that landlords generally don’t want to lease or sublet to foreigners who have those kinds of work restrictions.
I wound up moving two days before Christmas, and quickly learned I’d gone from the frying pan into the fire. No cigarette-smoke issues this time, but the individual I was renting a room from had troubling control issues. I kept telling myself I could overcome them, that things would work out, that it would all be worth the time, the energy, the expense. But the minute I returned to Canada on Christmas Eve, doubts set in. As I inhaled the cold, sharp air stepping off the airplane that bright Toronto morning, I felt… free. Never have the concepts of freedom and home been so intimately joined for me as at that moment.
Over the next few weeks of break from school, I spent time with loved ones, getting caught up, sharing details of my ordeal, and getting advice. One good friend noted I kept saying the words “if I don’t go back” throughout our conversation, over a shared pot of spaghetti bolognese I’d happily cooked up earlier that day.
“That little voice,” he said, “is maybe something you should pay attention to.”
I smiled but figured it was just my fear talking, just me wimping out.
One dark, snowy night, as I trundled to the end of my mother’s driveway, carrying a heavy recycling box, it occurred that I only had ten more days in Canada. I’d been having fitful sleeps and crying jags late in the night. What to do? A cold moon looked down on me, and I, with tears in my eyes, looked up at it, my breath white against the black sky. I knew what I had to do. And it was the easiest decision in the world.
Sometimes you have to admit when you are vulnerable, weak, and just not up to it. Sometimes you have to stare what you thought was your dream square in the face and realize it was little more than a fantasy, an ego trip, an escapist suit of armor to try to cover up your (my) perceived inadequacies.
I formally dropped out of graduate school and made plans to have my things -- already boxed -- moved from my new apartment. I would return, one last time, to organize, arrange, and move on. It wasn’t an easy trip, but it was an important one. Last January was the last time I was in New York City.
I still love it, but I know I can’t live there, at least not as a single, middle-class, writerly woman who needs a fair degree of privacy, space, cleanliness, and sanity. I don’t miss it but I do miss the culture: the galleries, the museums, the shows. But you can’t live at the Met.
2014 has been perhaps the most important year of my life, but it’s also been the most painful: I’ve discovered strength is many things, namely allowing yourself to be vulnerable. It’s also being honest with yourself without judgment.
My dream is to be a good writer, a good storyteller, to have a space where I can create, interact, and share. My dream is to have a good life filled with good, supportive people, a sane, safe, clean space in which to live and work, to have my little dog wagging her tail at me the minute I walk in the door. My dream is to interview inspiring people and have meaningful conversations. My dream is to continue growing, learning, building, and creating. And really, I’m living my dream. It isn’t perfect, because dreams aren’t either; they’re fallible, just like the people who create them.