Living in a city like New York is hard, but leaving is harder.
When you leave a city like New York, it’s like leaving someone you love. But not just any love, your first love. The breakup is always sharp, quick, and intense. You gotta pull the Band-Aid off before dwelling on it too long. Before you change your mind. That relationship was hard; you know that. It challenged you. Put you out of your comfort zone. It pulled you up and knocked you down. It showed you your strengths and it magnified your flaws.
When you leave a city like New York, you can’t look back. You can’t second-guess yourself. You need to trust your gut that says you need to see what else is out there, to learn more about yourself that New York can’t show you. You know there’s a chance you may end up together in the end, but you can’t think about that now; you need more time. So until then, you’ll have to live without happy hour that turns into hours, indulging in 99-cent pizza at 4 am, falling asleep on the subway, missing your stop and laughing about it at brunch the next day.
When you leave a city like New York, you’re inevitably in denial for a while. You avoid unsubscribing to the emails you get about special deals in the city. You refuse to get your driver’s license changed. You keep the MetroCard in your wallet that’s probably empty but you’d rather not know. And you hold on to that crumpled “buy 10 coffees get one free” punch card, even though it only has three holes in it.
When you leave a city like New York, you can’t imagine feeling that way about another place again. You will, but you’ll feel guilty when you do. You’re always guarded at first. You have one foot on the ground, the other ready to go back. But once the dust settles, you realize all of the sacrifices you made to live in New York. You realize that life actually does go on elsewhere. And you realize that that life can be a happy one, after all.
When you leave a city like New York, it kills you knowing that your closest friends still live there. You secretly want everyone else to cut ties with New York, too, but it doesn’t work that way. You consider deactivating your Facebook because you can’t bear to see photos of them there. It reminds you of the way New York used to make you feel, a way that no place will ever be able to. But worse is how it reminds you that New York will always be there, ready to take you back.
And when you do go back to a city like New York, you treat it like meeting for coffee instead of dinner because you don’t want to open too many wounds. You’re scared of what will happen if you get too close again. You’re scared of wanting to stay.
When you go back to a city like New York, the streets will flash like lightning and make your adrenaline pump like a drug you fear will make you relapse. The smell of colognes and beer and roasted peanuts on those streets will ignite your hunger again. And the familiar sound of a woman’s voice on the subway intercom will make your heart ache.
When you go back to a city like New York, you’ll realize that so much has happened since you left. You’ve missed so much. And you don’t really recognize it anymore. You’ll feel abandoned when you revisit the café you stumbled into half-asleep every morning and you don’t recognize the person making your coffee. And you’ll feel alone when the guy at the bodega around the corner from your old apartment no longer recognizes you.
But when you go back to a city like New York, the hardest part isn’t realizing the ways in which New York has changed; it’s realizing the ways that you have. Like the way you no longer walk as fast. The way you say hello to strangers on the street. Or the way you feel claustrophobic in your friends’ apartments.
The way you can’t remember street names anymore or the bars you used to frequent. The way you always carry cash on you now. Or the way you ask the bartender if he did the math wrong because you forgot how expensive drinks are.
The way you’re too overwhelmed to take the AirTran from JFK to Brooklyn because you know you’ll end up in Queens. The way you no longer have an unlimited MetroCard. The way you have to hide the fact that you need to glance at the subway map. Or the way you dress slightly less fabulous.
And when you leave a city like New York again, you can’t help but wonder if you made a mistake. If you did something wrong. And if you should have never left.
When you leave a city like New York again, you wonder if you’ve changed too much. If you’ve grown too far apart. And if it’s really not meant to be.
When you leave a city like New York again, you wonder why you didn’t make it, and why everyone else did.
Because leaving a city like New York is hard; but leaving a second time is harder.
Editorial note: 20(something) Questions columnist Joey Albanese has recently developed a deep love affair with the Big Easy, as you might remember; but, at the same time, that doesn’t mean he’s not still recovering from the breakup with his first love.