I did not sleep well the night before I left, and woke up to one of those turbulent, anxious stomachs that makes you fear the worst every time it rumbles and you’re not near a bathroom. After getting through security, I bought a box of antidiarrheals in my terminal and took two pills to shore up my intestines before finally settling into a middle seat for my flight out of California.
Before I moved to New York to start graduate school five months ago, I would sit in my San Diego living room and Google images of the city’s iconic skyline, scrolling through pages and pages of pictures. I did this at work, too, and at red lights, and at coffee shops I thought I’d never miss. I made one of them my desktop background, a different one my Facebook cover photo, a third — my phone’s lock screen. In August, I stuffed all my hopes, cardigans and boxer briefs into six suitcases and uploaded a shot of them sitting on my bed to Instagram. “These 6 bags contain everything I own,” I wrote in the caption, like some proud, spartan post-grad. “New York, wait up for me.”
I did not sleep well the night before I left.
The funny thing about Manhattan is that once you live on the island, you rarely see the skyline. Unless you make an insane salary that gets you an apartment on the 40th floor in midtown, or take a trip to one of the other boroughs, you see surprisingly mundane things, things you’d find in every other major metropolis — brick walls and cement alleyways, grocery stores and strollers, poverty and semi-annual sales. A proverbial smoke and mirrors game of sorts, you arrive wide-eyed in search of the mythical outline that lured you, like a siren song, from across the country, only to discover that you have to leave the city to find it. I saw it for the first time when I was driving back from Boston with my parents, who had come to visit for the week from Sacramento. We missed our exit off the 95, and ended up accidentally crossing the George Washington bridge into Jersey. When we turned around to recross the Hudson, I finally saw the vision I’d saved to so many screens in San Diego: the Statue floating in the water, the peak of the Empire State glowing white and red, the Chrysler reaching up with glittering scales — all set against a raven sky.
Zora Neale Hurston said it like this: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” I’ve come to say it a bit differently: skylines harbor all our hopes.
Crossing the bridge that night, I realized for the first time that the skyline I clung to in California was not New York. Instead, I’d discovered, New York is crowded subway cars and long lines at Trader Joe’s. New York is having to wear long sleeves to go running and seeing it snow for the first time. New York is taking the crosstown bus to get to Target and picking up a second job. It’s Thai take-out, long nights in the library, and drinks in Greenwich. It’s Emily, Matt, Heather, and Toni. It’s reading Baldwin. New York is being just as uncertain about my future as I was when I lived in San Diego, and learning, for the first time, to be okay with not knowing what’s next.