Just about the first two questions I received upon arriving in New York City on Friday—where I went this weekend for my brother’s not-really-at-all-impulsive wedding (sorry, J)–were these:
From my best friend R, who I called in the cab from LaGuardia: “Welcome home! Oh sorry—is it strange for me to call New York ‘home’?””
From my mother, who I met near her East 92nd street office for a pre-wedding blowdry as we powered down Lexington during rush hour: “Oh! Are you having culture shock? Do you always have culture shock when you come back here, still?”
I am inclined to say I had no clue how to answer either of these questions—but, in fact, my real-time response to each one was a fairly assured ‘no.’
As in: no, it’s not strange at all to refer to New York as “home.” I was born here, it’s where virtually my entire family still lives and where my parents still occupy the house in which I grew up.
And: no, while I regularly tell of a consistently violent cultural jolt each time I visit the city, even when it was only from DC (Aaaah! Everyone’s more stylish than I am! And skinnier! And walking with even more speed and apparent urgency!), it seems that nine years of fairly regular ins-and-outs has numbed the shock.
Which makes sense. And, you’d think, would be a positive: these days the ten hours of non-direct air travel and whiplash jetlag of a two-day trip is enough trauma, thanks.
But, this time, I found my unusual lack of response to be an unexpected source of frustration.
I often explain that whenever I come home I am beset with one of two polar reactions: either I am enamored with the city—energized, enthralled, giddily nostalgic for the freneticism and walkability, the infallible access to a decent pedicure and delicious slice of late-night pizza. Or, I am repulsed: claustrophobic in the crowds, horrified by the subway delays, infuriated by the ever-escalating price of a metrocard and a pint.
Deep down I understand that my response has nothing to do with what’s happening in New York and everything to do with how I’m feeling. And yet, I like to consider it a passive process: I anticipate with some excitement which one will take place. I embrace the notion that the city is acting on me, not vice versa.
As I continually wrestle with the question of ever returning to live there, I expect my reactions to the city to provide some kind of tarot card: to will tell me whether I should come back or I shouldn’t, whether I’ll be happy there or I won’t. It’s as though I expect that, somehow, the decision will be made for me.
When I speak of my relationship with New York, I use the language of destiny: “I’m not sure,” I pronounce, “whether I’m meant to end up there.” And then I get frustrated when the signposts don’t cooperate.
There’s comfort in thinking that our choices are pre-destined: that we’re following some ordained, inflexible life path and that everything that should happens to us, will. The truth, of course, is that our lives can take inumerable shapes: that each day we make decisions with varying degrees of consequence.
I like to tell myself that everything happens for a reason–but it’s equally, and always, true that other things could happen, for other reasons.
Which means I must accept the fact that there’s no answer to the question of whether I’m meant to be in New York–only whether I will. And unfortunately (though, I know, fortunately too) that’s something only I–not the city, or the MTA, or some existential cartography–can decide.