There are streets my friends and I do not walk down when we are together, possibly because of taboo or superstition or because we are all of us chronic overthinkers, but it’s better to freak out among people you know and love than let it all stifle down. There are street corners we do not pause on, coffee shops we avoid, restaurants we once ate at but don’t anymore. These streets are off limits depending which friends we are each with; we know that there are certain parts of the Upper West Side I’d like to avoid like the plague, another friend hates Chelsea, another TriBeCa, and so on.
It’s because those street corners are where an ex once kissed one of us, that restaurant was a date-night regular for another, and most importantly, that street is where someone — an ex, an almost, a particularly cringe-worthy date or one-night-stand, or something in between — lives or lived.
I only noticed it recently when I was out to brunch with a girlfriend, the one who has navigated Chelsea with a certain amount of finesse after a really nasty breakup. “Oh, let’s go down just this once!” she said, when I had made a move to avoid the block of West 20th between 7th and 8th. “I look good today.” It was superficial, but I saw the cogs working in her head: that if she looked good, and if she felt good about herself, it might be the ultimate revenge if he was home that day, if he looked out his window or walked out the door at just the right time, and saw her. I asked her if she was sure, she said she was. We walked, she lingered, I swear I saw a little bit of a saunter in her step. But we did not see him.
When you live anywhere long enough, you are bound to make memories in all sorts of small little pockets of town. It’s only natural. The bakery that gave you a free cookie on a particularly rough day, the restaurant your friends claim you went to on your birthday but you don’t remember because you celebrated a little too much, all the office buildings for all your jobs and all the subway routes you took to get to them. But we don’t tend to romanticize these things, unless maybe you had a particularly fiery exit at one such job, and therefore avoid the deli where you know your old coworkers all got their salads. We do, however, romanticize all the candlelit dinners, all the kisses and hand-holding on the way home to someone’s apartment, the movies and late nights at bars, the leaving the next morning, the kisses goodbye, the kisses hello, all of it. Because, well, it’s romantic. It’s romance. Or at least it was.
Of course, to imbue meaning once people stop calling, once you start seeing other people, once you scream and yell and call one another names is all a bit silly. You move on with your life. Your ex — or almost, or all-but-stranger — does the same. You reclaim parts of the city you called your own before them. If you shared friends, you navigate how to both be friends with them at the same time, or you split up the friends, like the divvying up of the assets, but the former is the more mature thing to do. If you see them in the same grocery store, you try not to lose your mind. If you see each other on the street, you can cross and hope they didn’t see you do it and walk the other way.
But there will always be little reminders, and all the memories you collected together. So you chalk it up to heartbreak, and avoid while you need to piece yourself together, and start over slowly. Eventually, you head back to the Italian place, maybe, because they had really good spaghetti that you remember loving. You find little reasons to psyche yourself up to go back. To return to all of these scenes of the crime — where you laughed, where you fell in love, where you fought. You learn to walk down familiar streets in familiar neighborhoods again, your head a little higher, your heart a little lighter, your heartbreak a little quieter. “You might run into them,” it warns you, only ever looking out for your best interest. “That’s okay,” you reply. Because you can’t live your life being afraid of streets.
Though, of course, one day, you might hear that they moved, and you will think you won out and reclaim the whole place for your own. That you outlasted them, that there’s one less ghost haunting your backyard. But then again, that’s not the adult thing to think. Adults learn how to live side-by-side. Even with former flames and past lovers and present enemies.
Even with ghosts.