Leaving NYC Was a Great Life Decision. Guess Where I Ended Up.

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Oct. 8 2013 8:08 AM

Escape From New York

Leaving the city was a great life decision. Guess where I ended up.

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As improbable as it seems, that is how I found my first agent. Not only that, author No. 2 has become a good friend, thus confirming that the daily slog of living in New York—the crowds, my long commute to Wall Street, the lack of space, the heaviness of kitty litter bags—could pay off.

* * *

In your 20s, you always secretly think you’re the one person who’s never going to grow old, your evidence being that the next day you’re not old, nor the next or the next—ta-dah! But one day, you’re 30, and no matter how well-preserved you look, chronological limitations begin to become apparent. At 30 I was a published novelist, got an op-ed in the New York Times, had done a few teaching gigs—and I was also very tired.

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Goldman Sachs had to plunder the U.S. economy without me. I’d quit to write full time and found my new life still kept me on a frantic treadmill: paying for rent, food, utilities plus my own Social Security taxes. And no more luxury medical insurance, no more free Wall Street travel clinic where you could get your shots for dengue fever and prophylactic antibiotics for your trip to Cozumel. Now, I had a high-deductible “catastrophic” plan paid out of pocket that dissuaded me from ever seeking medical help for anything short of losing an extremity. To make up for the inevitable shortfalls, I established a small word-processing and editing business from my apartment, as well as a job reading submissions for Ladies Home Journal’s “Helpful Hints” column. Even income from three sources wasn’t enough; I returned to work part-time for another investment bank.

My personal life was also starting to shift. The idea I’d had at age 9 of life in New York—cat, tiny apartment, lots and lots of writing—turned out to be eerily accurate. But its sustainability came into question. Because my building was a singleton’s warehouse—almost all studios and one-bedrooms—as soon as people had children, they moved out, most of them directly to Westchester or Jersey, leaving the childfree to age alone. Given the building’s proximity to Lincoln Center and Juilliard, there were musicians and actors who, you could tell, had begun full of youth and potential but, after sacrificing space, sanity, and fertility in pursuit of their art, had come to realize that New York was not going to keep up its half of the Faustian bargain.

After a dozen years, I had a hankering, if not for open spaces, then for something new. The exigencies of my current novel, which was set in Korea, drove me to apply for a Fulbright to do research. I got it and believed my leaving New York to be temporary. My plan was to spend the next academic year in Korea, come back, and resume writing and life as it was before. Life, however, had other plans. My boyfriend was now my fiancé. I was just as adamant about my writing career but becoming less rigid about where to conduct it. We wedged our wedding in between my leaving for Seoul and Karl’s first job as a professor at Oberlin. Somehow, in this short time, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I hadn’t even fully unpacked in Seoul before I flew back from Korea to take care of her until she died a few weeks later. It was a long year, at the end of which we received the wonderful news that Karl had been chosen for a job at our alma mater, Brown.

We inherited one of Karl’s family’s cars, an aged but sturdy Jetta, and I remember an odd sense of relief as we drove my stuff from the Upper West Side north to Providence, R.I. No more ridiculous humidity in summer! A yard! Living by the ocean! It was a wonder, the small stuff, like driving to the grocery store and stocking up heedlessly, instead of mentally calculating how much one could stand to carry.

We bought a house. It was a modest four-square, but our New York friends marveled at the size. There was a single-car garage for the Jetta and even a pizza slice of a yard. This was the early 2000s, when most of our friends had also left New York, either priced out by the beginning of the hedge funders’ era or smoked out by the devastation of Sept. 11.

It was an end of an era, of my 20s, of my youth, but also of much of my searching anxiety: What would the future hold? Would I succeed as a writer? Would I get married? As I headed into my fourth decade, I finally realized that what would happen would happen, whether I worried about it or not. I enjoyed my new outlook in the easy yet circumscribed life of a college town. I began to associate anxious or harried feelings with New York, where anything could and would happen at any time—but in a bad way—as opposed to Providence, where nothing much seemed to ever happen at all.

I didn’t think I missed New York. We had a child with medical issues, and treatments and driving him from doctor to doctor consumed a decade. When he was stable enough that I could travel, I would go into New York for the day on the train and be back in the early evening. One year, I judged a literary contest whose gala celebration was held at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, where the crowds are so thick they swallow you up. Once I staggered into my room, there was still no peace: The crazy blinking nikon camera sign invaded the space with its red neon light, even through the blackout curtains. I loved it. Yes, I had quit New York, but I still carried around those feelings like a magnet that became reactivated every time I returned. But I had a child now, a teaching job, a house, and a community. New York was for the dreamers, the unattached, mobile types.

Act II: An opportunity for jobs in New York, for both my husband and me, came seemingly out of the blue. At first, we categorically dismissed it. It was going to be too hard on our son, now 12. To prove it to ourselves, we brought him down for an interview at one of the specialized schools for the disabled and waited for the stress and endless tantrums. To our surprise, he didn’t tantrum, not once. In his own unique way, he found the chaos oddly soothing. He lost his phobia of dogs in a day. He has severe cognitive impairments, so I know he didn’t pine for New York or even know what it was. But he wasn’t unhappy, and that’s something, because he often seems very, very unhappy. Could it be that New York might be a destination for him, the way it was for me?

Reader, we moved back.

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