Three Years in New York

I ride my one-year old bike in for its yearly tune-up. It's cloudy and a storm is brewing-- this summer has been all thunderstorms and wet and me, biking every day to a full-time job as a summer camp director up at Columbia on the upper west side. I am headed from Sunset Park, where I've lived for two years, to Greenpoint. It is the middle of August and one of those cooler cloud-filled days when even the intermittent drizzles can't keep me inside. 

Usually I am all time-crunches, schedules, point A to point B, especially on my bike. It is the New York version of my car. But today I ride up to Prospect Park.

When I accepted my spot at NYU and decided to move to New York I knew nothing about it except for this little pizza shop near Windsor Terrace, The Sicilian, where my then-girlfriend and I once staked out for square bruschetta slices and parked the car to have sex in (she was staying with her father for Christmas; she was in grad school in London; okay I am not proud). So when I eight months later made the move, alone, leaving in Rochester a DIFFERENT girlfriend (still not proud) I immediately took the apartment I found at the corner of Prospect Park West and 15th St. It was literally a minute's walk from The Sicilian and the living room looked out over the park. It was the only familiar thing in New York to me; the first place in the city where I'd felt remotely at home and like I wasn't tiny, a speck on the concrete waiting to be smashed by the people who lived here, or the weight of the city itself.

When I ride my bike down Prospect Park West I expect to feel very little, or at most some contempt. My nine months in that apartment were arguably horrible. I lived in an impossibly shaped little room where the door to the closet wouldn't open with a bed in it. The AC unit, once removed, left a gaping hole that let a draft in all winter-long, so some nights I would require a space heater, sweats, a beanie, and a real down blanket to even fall asleep. My roommates were at best messy strangers (once I found toenails on the coffee table). It was there that I was broken up with over FaceTime by my aforementioned senior year girlfriend in Rochester, my only tether to any familiarity in safety in my new New York life. It was there that I kissed my first post relationship fling on the roof, slept with her cozied up to me in the drafty room, there that she, too, left me with a renewed, deepened loneliness. It was there that I got followed home off the subway one night and had to sprint down three unfamiliar sleepy Park Slope streets to lose the guy, there that I lost 10lbs in a month from not eating, the stress of the new city, and running compulsively every morning in Prospect Park, there that I broke things off with a lovely girl who I just couldn't get myself to feel attracted to, then cried all night at the way hurting someone, rather than being hurt, was somehow much worse. When I moved out, down to Sunset Park with my best friend who I still live with, I felt like I'd shed a solitary, lonely, raw version of myself and left her in that drafty apartment with the fat cat and the views of the park and the toenail clippings.


With enough distance, all these chunks of my life that follow something traumatic feel valuable to me, like I want to box them up or scrapbook them and take a trip in them later. Like my old "fat photos" from before I got myself together and lost a lot of weight. Like my old middle-part haircut and transitional glasses. They feel nostalgic in a way that is hard to translate out of comparisons-- the way parts of LA and Rochester feel, sound, and smell, like the place and all the people I was there with and that version of myself (the deodorants I wore at these times are particularly powerful). I felt this in my old neighborhood the other day. The Pavilion, the old-school movie theater my now-roommate and I used to watch cheap movies in with alcohol snuck in, was closing. The park had new, modern art installed into the ground. The Sicilian had a new sign. 

I don't miss my life then, but I miss the potential of it. I was scared in New York for that first nine months. I came home at 5am from bars and clubs and girls' apartments. I cried a lot. I worked out constantly to keep myself busy. I smoked cigarettes when I was drunk. I called student crisis lines to talk to someone when my anxiety would send me down spirals I couldn't climb out of. I bought nothing in that Park Slope apartment; I borrowed it all from the girl I was subletting from, and kept my suitcase out in the open. But all that mess was like an overgrown backyard I could turn into anything. It made its way into my writing as I was learning to be a writer (I never needed help with finding the messy pieces or torn up ground to start writing with; my two years at NYU taught me to turn that into a real functioning thing). It gave me the space to build something better than what I had in LA or Rochester.

Now I have an apartment with a roommate I love, some traction in my career, an award-winning play slated for production, a podcast, funded and in production, two new plays on the way, a day job I don't hate, and friends (real friends) and I am about to have life-changing surgery that took a lot of knowing myself to get going. I'm okay.

But I cry going through the park on my bike. I cry remembering that girl and how scared she was. I cry because I remembered two months after NYU graduation-- one year ago now-- I stood outside the bike shop in Greenpoint, after a summer debating moving to LA or not, and did the final back-and-forth on buying a bike. I was scared to buy the bike and have to leave it here for something in LA, even if that something was just my own anxiety over all my friends moving. And then I got a call from a theater producer who wanted to commission a series from my roommate and I. He wanted to pay us to write. It was small, but it was something. Something that justified choosing to settle into the city I finally loved too much to leave.

I bought the bike. And I'm still here.

Lilly Camp