Writers have spent years of creative libido trying to crack New York City open—willing her to give away secrets by way of vodka martinis and begging her to tell us more, to undress herself, to stand bare and give away her secrets. Those writers have mostly failed or gone the path of cliché least resistance. The sentiment of New York City is overeager, overstimulated, underprepared and underdressed, she’s an ‘it girl’ that is seemingly impossible to reach. New York gives nothing up. She gives nothing away. Virginity, flying colors, a list of times she wishes she could turn back the clock—she avoids disclosure and leans into sheer lined ambiguity, it makes her more illusive, more addictive—belonging to nobody, alarmingly attractive to everybody. There’s a danger, a trepidation, a heat, and we all walk closer.
The lights are on. It’s 3 am after a surprise birthday party you had a feeling was happening—they’re never quite surprises anyway. We always sort of know.
Put yourself in this moment.
Everyone invited has left, drunk and hoarse, glittering in their pursuit of sidewalk pizza, leaning like drunken tree limbs, but always, someone lingers behind. They look at you like hunger. Like ice. Like something they can’t believe exists. They look at you like wonder. Like you’re a voicemail they’ll replay until they’ve memorized the spaces between the words. You don’t feel beautiful when you look in the mirror, but looking at them, looking at you, your life races in front of you like the very best secret. They press you into the shitty kitchen island and your hand lands in a smudge of cupcake frosting. They grab your hand, suspended delicately in the air, licking the frosting from your finger. There’s a moment before you laugh. You don’t care enough but you care too much. The balloons will deflate. The page will turn. The beer will go warm. You’ll clean up tomorrow. It’s too late to waste quiet hours doing morning things.
Open your eyes. Bring yourself back here.
Tiny, beautiful, intimacies. Irregularities and the mundane trifles of subway rides and spilled coffee and missed phone calls.
That is the feeling behind New York. The grit between her teeth. That is the beauty and the beast of a city so seared in our minds it has no more work to do.
Once you’ve made it here, you’ll make it anywhere.
New York City is alive in the moment that everyone jumps and yells “surprise!” when you walk in the door and for a split second, you can’t recognize the faces of everyone you’ve ever known. It is the person you go on one date with that you swear you’ll love forever though you don’t know them. It is the way you can never just pick out one sound, everything is full volume, we are greatly devoid of silence. It is distraction after distraction until you’re above water, on a train going somewhere else. It’s like a surprise you knew was around the corner, but still brought about some sort of playful shock, a shot of adrenaline and a dizzying sensation that you’re surrounded by some weird kind of love.
I hope this isn’t romanticizing New York City. Because frankly, New York City cannot be romanticized, and this is born of two reasons. The first reason is that those doing the romanticizing are either those who have never been here, or those who are privileged with the experiences of 5th avenue shopping, Michelin starred restaurants and bottomless brunches accounted for via credit cards they’re not worried about paying for. No shade to their way of life, of course, but it’s lacking in reality, being that New York is a place that carries with it much more grit than glimmer. The real New York is not multi-million dollar penthouses on the Upper East Side with doormen and standing reservations at Sant Ambroeus and Cirpiani, though that version of a Blair Waldorf mania is anyway attractive.
The second reason is that we cannot romanticize something, when it is on base level, the literal definition of romance.
If you asked the general population to name the ‘most romantic city in the world’ you’d get thousands of Parises, hundreds of Milans, Venices, Barcelonas, Budapests and Berlins. Hardly would you see New York, because we don’t function as though New York is romance, thus our incessant need to romanticize it, forcing it into a mold it simply cannot fit, especially because it’s always in flux.
But the thing about romance in general, is that it exists as a full being—it encompasses euphoria, love, sex, heartbreak, loss, infatuation, lust, coffee dates, smoking cigarettes on a fire escape, never seeing each other again, one night stands and the way you can fall in love with the way someone loves you. We often see romance as only bliss, and we do a great disservice to the very being of romance, when it holds with it a much more of a painful, empty, ache.
Because the truth of New York is that the things that make it ugly, make it real, and the things that make it real, make it beautiful. So in a weird cyclical way, the things that make New York ugly make New York beautiful. A towering, iconic, overhyped and underground beast where at once everyone and nobody cares.
The sensation and cruelty of New York’s own personal brand of romance, is that she’s Chanel No.5 when she’s good, when her heart’s in the right place, when she’s a martini glass and the grass after the rain, but when she hurts, we all hurt, sometimes, too. She’ll tear you down to build you back up again. And you’ll never be upset, you’ll hardly be wounded, you’ll crave, so deeply, her love.
Once, I was walking in the village with a used to be boyfriend. It was a Monday evening, our second date and it had just rained so my hair was hanging around my face in wet, stringy pieces. We were giddy like 8 years olds on Christmas morning because we desperately wanted to fall in love, though we never truly would. It was an indescribable phenomena—we should have fallen in love, in another world probably, we liked each other, and we were compatible and everything seemed so correct, but we’d only fizzle out like a candle void of oxygen—we’d just never go the extra mile. It really is so strange, the way we could fall so close to love but never arrive; our very being holds up a mirror, it’s New York looking at herself.
But we didn’t know that then. We knew that we liked to kiss each other and talk about poems. We went to an oyster bar because Dante was full before Dante was even popular. They gave us free dessert. I had a glass of champagne, him, red wine. That part would become tradition. I wasn’t thinking about anything except for how dark the restaurant was. How almost silent. How we whispered to one another before realizing we were the last people there, that the wait staff had begun to clean up, how they probably wanted to go home. They gave us these red paper fishes though, called a ‘miracle fish fortune teller’. They kind of looked like Swedish Fish, but made of translucent paper. You were meant to place the fish in your hand, and let it unfurl, telling you how you feel, akin to a mood ring. Our fishes told us we were in love. We were drunk, and he was a signal that I’d moved on from old wounds, that I was attractive and artistic enough to be across a hightop table from someone who lived in Bushwick, a promise of love between us. So as the fish said it was true, we’d be in love. We looked up at each other with candy eyes, sugary, anticipating the shoes we would fill of two people destined to be in love. We played our parts for an entire summer.
We were full of bolognese, wine and m&ms, romanticizing the shit out of a partnership that’d never truly be. Not to say it was bad—because it certainly wasn’t, it was thrilling and sensational and lovely, but it wasn’t love, it wasn’t true love, but New York can force you to succumb, to want, so desperately to unfurl into what it hopes you to be in its palm, like a tiny red paper fish.
But playing the part was addicting. It was thrilling. We raced each other around in the rain in Chelsea. Got Mexican food in FiDi instead of going home. Held hands in Broadway theatres. Lingered everywhere, long after the main event had packed its things. He took pictures of me on the Staten Island Ferry and I took pictures of him asleep on the subway. I ignored the impulse that I was living a story I told myself. One time, we were passing a bodega with rows of multicolored flowers sitting on the sidewalk, a typical sight for a New York street corner.
“Isn’t it wildly romantic that bodegas still sell flowers?” I said, we were climbing the steps out of the subway, the bodega flowers meeting us eye level.
“What do you mean?” He asked me.
“Well think about it, for them to continue to sell those at their shop, someone has to buy them. Enough people have to buy flowers for someone else, or just to have, every day that they can justify continuing to sell them. Isn’t that wildly romantic?” I’d always thought this of both bodega flowers and fire escapes—an inherent romance exudes from each.
He didn’t answer me, instead ducked into the bodega and bought me flowers. Returning, he held them out in front of him like a prize.
“I didn’t mean you had to buy me them!” I said.
“I don’t normally spontaneously spend money like that on girls,” he said “But you’re special.”
New York made me want to be just that; special, specific and in the right place at the right time.
But New York’s personal brand of romance extends beyond closing time or free dessert or bodega street flowers. It encompasses the pain, the want, the hardening of emotions, the right place at the wrong time. It encompasses a lack thereof of butterflies. Of comfort, or its’ inverse, discomfort.
New York is crying in your internship bathroom, after having your heart left out to dry. It is the sheer universality of loss. Nobody will care that you’ve had your heart broken, and I don’t say that to be cruel, I say that because it’s true. Everyone else has their heartbroken too. Maybe by a forever, maybe by yesterday. It doesn’t really matter though, I’d feel sorry for myself, walk to the Times Square Dos Caminos alone and stare at my reflection in a glass full of margarita. I was 20 years old, and now my melodrama humors me, but it doesn’t take away the hurt, the want, the desire for someone to comprehend just how much I blamed New York for wringing out my heart. Today, I’m glad she did, in spite of it all.
New York is someone offering to share their umbrella at an interminable street corner where you wait for the light to turn red, as unplanned rain pours on your hair and white shirt. You’ll never see him again, but you cross the street in stride, grateful for the temporary respite from the wet.
New York is losing my yellow notebook when my backpack came unzipped as I ran to catch a train. I retraced my steps. Missed the train. Felt my security blanket rip from around me. In that journal I’d sorted out my feelings, without it, I was forced to feel alone. I sobbed on the train. A stranger gave me a tissue.
It is the knowledge that nobody really cares about you until they do. Care isn’t the baseline, it’s what you work toward. It is the only place in the world people go to with nothing but a dream—open ended, interminable, inconclusive. Most cities are flocked to for jobs, or engagements or family members. New York is pursued because she provides the grace of opportunity in a way that other places could only envy.
My relationship to New York has been the most toxic on-and-off relationship I’ve ever experienced. I always knew one way or another, that we’d find out way back to one another, but she hurt me in summers past so terribly that I tried to work my way around her magnetic capacity to draw me back in. Clawing my way out of a faux New York dream forced me to confront the truth: the way she made me ache made me grow, some of us aren’t born for somewhere so stern, and I am not one of those people.
New York romance is the song that’s playing when you get good news. It’s the moment something really starts to hurt, after you tried to convince yourself it didn’t hurt at all. It’s the sound of an alarm, blaring into a new day. It’s sleepless nights, due to excitement or dread. It’s a never ending whirl of emptiness and fullness, of inconclusive text messages and really great apartment buildings and struggling to get by. It’s a record player across the city, a living room full of incense and the soundtrack an open window can create past dark—bodega shop owners, bicycle bells, giggles, taxi drivers, off-pitch singing. There’s hardly any decoration—a couch from the sidewalk, an orange carpet, bodies listlessly strung out around the floor, eating to-go Pad Thai and remembering ‘this one time in college’. She was so beautiful they’d say, she was so interesting, he was so cruel, he was so heartless. We’re all here now, and we’ll be here, until, until , until. All we really do in New York is trade gossip until the room is full of hot air, and then die.
New York romance is sleeping together in July heat while the J rattles ahead like a clock reminding us of the five minute increments that had passed. The AC broke. Our candle burned. We had nothing else to say.
Its you asking me what the best day of my life was, and looking at the May sun and saying today.
That bar closed though. I lost my earring there, and kept telling you I wasn’t hungry. I was nervous. You ordered a drink with cotton candy on the top. The DJ played Bruno Mars.
We would then go forth alone. We would then cook eggs and exchange glances. We would then play the part over and over until eventually, the part played us.
I watched two people kiss and say goodbye on a street corner today. When one of them walked away, the other stood and watched him go, straight ahead. That’s New York romance, we’re always just watching each other walk away.
All New York really wants is for you to pay your dues. It’s a massive organization that doesn’t give a shit as long as you go through it to prove that you can handle its’ severity and its’ sweetener. Some people don’t last, others last forever, some come for a summer and say it smells bad and then they get on a plane back to LA, or Chicago, or wherever else. When New York romance is finally attainable, is when you accept the fact that life will be a series of heartbreak, good sex, bad sex, love, pizza, small talk and passion. Not one of us can be here without the hurt that it took us to grow.
When I first truly fell in New York love, actual love, not paper fish love, I didn’t feel butterflies, or a need to be a champion, or a breathless, exacerbated performance coming on. I felt like me. The waiter brought us tequila shots. We were one of two tables still at the restaurant, and the wait staff was cleaning up. It was January and I couldn’t decide if I was warm or freezing sitting outside under heating lamps. Two days later, he kissed me in his apartment. I didn’t feel like I had to calculate my next move or wonder if New York would ever let me be in love with anything. I didn’t resent the city, didn’t feel at odds with the cracks in the sidewalk or the way she’d never truly let me be. I just felt myself simmer.
The next day, the sky just looked a little more blue.