The thing I never did successfully with California was let go. I flew off to New York for college in 2003 from tiny, 2-gate Long Beach airport, completely underdressed and underwhelmed by what was about to occur.
I spent the first year missing my friends back home. My roommate was from Pomona, and that almost made it worse. A handful of the girls back home joined LiveJournal and fewer of us obsessively recounted our adventures (or our heartbreaks, or our frustrations), sometimes multiple times a day, using LJ as a text messaging service before texting was something other than an astronomical charge on our parents’ cellphone bill. I pasted pictures of us onto the wall near my desk. I wrote short stories set in a highly-romanticized Moreno Valley. I called a guy named Nathan whom I’d left behind more times than my pride will let my subconscious admit.
About halfway through that first school year, when it was 22 degrees and snowing outside, I laid in bed with a guy I was kind of seeing and lamented how much I missed home.
“So go back,” he said. Simple. Obvious.
“I can’t. It will mean I failed.”
He didn’t have a response.
Twelve years later, I’d hear a version of this repeated back to me through “Breathe,” a song from In the Heights, sung by a character who is the first in her family, and the neighborhood, to go to college. When she comes home for the summer it’s to tell her parents she’s not going back. My grandmother had just died when Spotify handed it to me on a Discover Monday, and I cried from, “Hey guys it’s me, the biggest disappointment you know. The kid couldn’t hack it, and she’s back, walkin’ real slow. Welcome home.”
But digging my heels into New York back then only meant I clung harder to California. Don’t ask how that works; I’m still not completely sure. In some ways, it was very good for my soul: my connection to California feels virtually unbroken even though it’s very clear I’ve been East for a long time. Three of my best friends, and other close friends are there. It feels very much like home.
But maybe because California wasn’t what people would have necessarily categorized as “home” is why I hung on so hard. I needed somewhere to be home, and I didn’t want New York to be it, so by default it was tangerine-and-macaroni sunsets and marine layer, smog and six-lane freeways. It was traffic on the goddamned 91.
Refusing to loose California from my grip meant I didn’t make peace with living in the city until 2010. The first couple of years of school I was adamant I was returning after my four years were up. You know when four years was up? 2007, as everything crumbled around us. I’d graduated in December 2006, and still didn’t have a driver’s license, and had no family left in the state. I had no job prospects in New York but the news starting to roll in about a bursting housing bubble didn’t sound good. So when I got a job as an editorial assistant for a newspaper reporting on the banking industry, I took it. And as housing got worse and banks began to fail, I had health insurance. My friends who’d graduated six months after I did were having trouble finding work, and I had a salaried paycheck. I even survived round after round of layoffs.
And still — still — I was not really into New York. I’d come back from a trip to see family in Idaho or Wisconsin and immediately begin planning the next one to my grandma’s in Minnesota or to my friends’ in California. I moved in with my boyfriend in 2008, and we talked about getting married and moving to Mexico. The night Obama was elected I watched the celebrations in Union Square on TV instead of getting my ass on the train and going to join them.
Things got rocky in 2009, when my feet began again to itch and I started taking driving lessons with the ultimate goal of obtaining my license and then heading out on a long, solo road trip. Shockingly, my boyfriend hated the idea. Not of the license — that made sense to him. The road trip without him was the point of contention. I couldn’t see it then, but I can see it now — how fucking terrible for your significant other to tell you that they’ve been dreaming about months away from you. (Nevermind that he would go alone to Mexico without a return ticket and keep me hanging for weeks without an answer as to when he’d be back.)
Tl;dr, I didn’t get my license, and I didn’t go on that road trip but he and I broke up and in 2010 I decided I was leaving NYC for good. I was done. I’d wanted to go home forever anyway, and now was my chance. My best friend and I tore up the city that summer. We drank way too much Four Loko on Rockaway Beach. We danced at Village Underground every Friday night we could. I dated a guy I worked with (ill-advised) and went dancing with him at fucking Latin Quarter, where Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg, before exploring his Brooklyn neighborhood with him. She indulged me and we went to the West Indian Day Parade. We ate really, really good food, didn’t sleep enough, and drank our bodyweight in terrible, overpriced cocktails.
And then I languished in Wisconsin for a few months, nursing my wounds and trying to figure out how to pay my bills. I went to Albuquerque to hang out with my new grandparents, and then to Ann Arbor to spend the weekend with a friend there. En route on the Megabus to Ann Arbor I had an 8 hour layover in Chicago and walking that city dressed like an old-timey hobo clown (minus the blackface, obv) made me miss New York. It looked so much like NYC on a smaller scale that I kept thinking I saw my old office building, kept imagining I was wandering into the Financial District.
A little over a month later, I was home. Home home, this time. I was back in New York, back to work in my office overlooking the harbor, back to the people who held my hand and patted my back as I figured out who the fuck I was and what the fuck I could do.
I made a promise to myself on return, to enjoy everything New York could offer. I went to concerts, to plays on and off and off-off Broadway. I ate and drank and danced as much as my wallet allowed. I learned what I liked and didn’t, what I really, really didn’t want and what I could live with. I took a new position completely out of my depth and worked hard to excel at it, relishing the opportunities to work with mostly women and travel around the country. I stayed single and did things alone, I dated disappointing men and tried to do things with them. I met a really good man who became one of my best friends, even though he isn’t a Beyoncé fan, and he cajoled me into joining a bowling league. I let myself love New York, while I’m pretty sure it was strongly ambivalent about me.
But they wear, right, the six-hour flights across the country. The quiet loves. The not-so-quiet breakups. That happens anywhere, but it was a pattern I wanted to break. I wanted more solitude when I was alone. Fewer garbage trucks or delivery trucks outside my window at 4 a.m. Less personal space invasion on my morning commute. Greater mountain opportunities. The ability to stay home on a Friday night and not somehow still spend $85 dollars.
So I moved to Denver. Rapidly gentrifying Denver. It’s been messy. There was a car accident, a man trying to incorporate me into his stable of available women, and an apartment lease signed under false pretenses. But two weeks and some perseverance through the instinct to just fly away later, and I’m mostly moved into an apartment on the outskirts of the city. There’s a pool, and there’s carpet in my room, and in lieu of a car I’ve got a cute lil’ Italian road bike. I keep wanting to check in with New York Culture beyond checking in with my friends, but I recognize the sinking feeling in my stomach when I give into the urge and the first notes of “Breathe” start playing in my head and I think that leaving means I failed. That I didn’t “make it” there and have to settle for somewhere less cutthroat and soul-sucking.
But, I’m pretty sure that shit isn’t true, because how do you not “make it” somewhere for over a decade? So I’m holding onto my friends, and I look forward to seeing them Labor Day weekend when I’m back home for two weddings AND my birthday. But this time, I’m good with letting the rest go, and welcoming this other pain-in-the-ass place with open arms.