I move to New York with everything I own stuffed inside four large trash bags. Left behind in Boston is a mattress, a nightstand, a small bookshelf, and an entire life. I am a 19-year-old with an ID that says I’m 22. A friend of a friend of a friend has a sister subletting her studio in Murray Hill for $1100 a month. I find someone to split the cost with, and we purchase a twin-size blow-up mattress.
On my first night in the city, I sit on the mattress and consider typing a text message to the boy I’m still in love with, the one I left behind. I want to tell him, I’m here! I made it! But something stops me. If I reach out to him, he won’t really be left behind. I want my life here to be something totally new. I want to be washed clean and reborn. In my journal, I write: This will be the only first night in New York that I ever have.” .
There is no AC in the studio, so sometimes I run down the six flights of stairs, cross the street to Duane Reade, get my fix of central air, and leave. The bathroom is so tiny that the door does not properly close. Instead, it hits the sink, leaving a two-inch gap. On only my third night in the city, I bang my head against the sink’s rusty faucet while washing my face and slice open the delicate skin next to my left eye. I receive three stitches, and still, I love New York.
For my first two months, I spend every weekend alone. This beautiful, appalling city is also appallingly expensive, so I get a job at a Mexican restaurant. The owner encourages me to wear my hair down, even though it’s a health-code violation. When I’m not working, I walk for hours, aimless. I set my alarm at 6 a.m. and walk until night. My knees ache. I develop blisters. I keep walking. I try to never take the subway. The idea of being underground horrifies me. There’s too much to see up here. I spend every moment either working or wandering. I’m a sponge. I am so lost. I am never lonely.
When I meet Jonathan, I am reading on the steps of Union Square. He stands over me and I have to crane my neck in order to look at him. When I do, I can see that he’s beautiful. He asks what I’m reading. He asks my name. Without asking if he can sit down next to me, he sits down next to me.
“A week away from 23,” I say when he asks my age. It’s only three years older than the truth. He’s 26, which seems impossibly old. I learn he’s a musician and a bartender. He’s lived in the city for the last 8 years, in a neighborhood called Williamsburg. His heroes are Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. He carries a biography of the latter around in a worn leather satchel. Sometimes he reads just a single sentence for inspiration.
Our first real date happens a few days later. “I have everything all planned out,” he says when he first sees me and hands me a single sunflower. He brings me to Washington Square Park and dinner in the West Village and then to The Highline. I am so new to New York that on the metal steps of The Highline I think to myself, This must be the most special place in the world.
Walking down The Highline’s metal steps, Jonathan says, “We can end our night now or I can show you one last thing.” I agree to one last thing. We board the L-train and exit at Bedford. It’s my first time in Brooklyn and the streets are glowing. Jonathan walks me down to the water and points at an icy blue-high rise. “That wasn’t there when I first moved,” he says, and begins to explain all the ways in which the neighborhood has changed since the zoning laws did. I am learning so much from this man. This man can teach me so much. When the sun rises across the river, I feel every cliché of falling in love–with New York, with a person–wash over me.
I start to spend every night I’m not working with Jonathan. It’s so easy for him to impress me–I still don’t know the city at all. I trail behind him like a small child as he takes me to the Brooklyn Bridge, the Brooklyn Museum, Prospect Park. On the night of my birthday, he tells me, “You’re something else.” It’s the perfect thing to say. What I want is to be something else. I want to be older, successful, satisfied. Being with Jonathan unfolds in front of me as a shortcut for becoming all of those things.
One night in early September, Jonathan tells me he wants to talk. We meet up at a 1950s-themed diner, where he tells me that he wants to be with me in a serious way. I’m frozen. I’ve only been in the city for a few months and am not sure I want to make the sacrifices being in a relationship requires. I look him in the eye and tell him I don’t want to be serious with anyone.
When we walk to the train station that night, I don’t realize it’ll be the last time I see Jonathan for awhile. “Take care of yourself,” he says. He seems to really mean it.
The door is closed. Summer is over.
Four years later, I have an ID that says I’m twenty-four and proves I live in New York. I am not old, just older. I know the city too well to ever wander aimlessly. Manhattan sits in my head as a clear, vivid map, dotted with memories. The building in the West Village where I held my first office job. The apartment in Williamsburg where a man made me scrambled eggs before breaking my heart. The bench in Prospect Park where I called my mom and learned my grandfather was dead. I miss not knowing how the neighborhoods lead into one another or how the subway lines run. Now, I am never lost in New York. I still love the city, but I am not in awe of it. I envy the innocent, wandering girl I was when I arrived. I want her back.
It’s the middle of summer when I get a text from Jonathan and almost exactly four years since we’ve spoken. He wants to know if I’m still in the city. He wants to know how I’m doing. He wants to get drinks. Just as Jonathan had once seemed like a shortcut for become the person I aspired to be, he now materialized as a magic spell for starting over from the beginning. Perhaps seeing him will renew my capacity for awe.
“Yes,” I write back. “I’d love to get drinks.”
We meet at a dimly lit bar in the West Village. When I arrive, he’s already sitting at a booth in the back, hunched over a paperback novel. He does not rise to meet me, so I hover over him for a moment, counting all the ways his face has changed over the last four years. I notice slight wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. He reaches out to me and touches the ends of my hair.
“You got a haircut,” he says. I want to tell him that I’ve gotten many haircuts in the past four years.
We drink three gin and tonics each. He’s 30 now, bartending at the same restaurant he was when we met. The band broke up two years ago. I ask if he still plays music. “Yeah. You know. When I can.”
Inevitably, the topic of conversation becomes our past. I tell him the truth about my age. He laughs and says, “That makes sense. You had the energy of a 19-year-old. It was one of the things that attracted me most to you.” He places his hand over mine and smiles. Nostalgia sinks into me as we recount our shared memories. I wonder, Could I date this person again? Could I experience that same electricity, just four years later?
I try to tell myself yes, but there’s something off. I make a joke and he doesn’t get it. He tells me an idea for a project he wants to work on and I’m bored. I look at Jonathan sitting right in front of me and can see that he’s stuck firmly behind me. I move my hand and feel every minute older than 19. An understanding of how the subway lines work is not the only thing I’ve gained during my time in New York. My tastes have changed. My ideas have changed. I can never recreate that feeling of first arriving to New York.
When we leave the restaurant, Jonathan asks if I want to go to a bar nearby. I decline, telling him I have an early morning. The next day, I type out a short, lame text about how my ex just moved out of New York and I’m sorry, I thought I was ready to start dating, but I’m not. He doesn’t respond. I know that the door is now not only closed. It’s locked. When I leave my apartment that evening I am not aimless and I do not wish to be. I board the 4 train and close my eyes. I know how many stops it is.