My son and I were born in the same hospital, Akron General. Twenty-seven years ago, my mother flew to America from Poland to give birth so that I could have dual citizenship. My mother is clever that way. Her water broke with no contractions and she had to be induced. She spoke almost no English at the time. She had to have an emergency C-section because her labor wasn’t progressing. The doctor cut the cord. My father passed out on the floor from the stress of it all.
I fell in love with New York because it reminded me of home—Lublin, Poland, not Stow, Ohio. Most of the time I act like they’re interchangeable, but they’re not. There’s the place where I’m from and the place I grew up, and if I were wired differently I would accept the second one as both of them, but there’s a part of me that takes “So you’re American” to be grating. I’ve never eaten peanut butter and jelly and still think it’s wild that we celebrate crucifixion with presents and candy, even though I’ve lived here nearly all my life.
I didn’t used to be this way. Younger me scoured the discount stores for Limited Too castoffs and resented her mother for never packing Lunchables, though now I think mothers who do so don’t really love their children. I refused to speak Polish to my non-English-speaking grandmother and made several attempts to change my unpronounceable name. My adult self holds onto every shred of exoticism like pieces of a torn-up dollar.
With its vast indifference and self-righteousness in the face of human suffering, public drunkenness, and fresh bread baked the proper way, New York was home. I was in love with it before I got there, the way most people are in love with it before they get there, with a longing for something they expect the city to fulfill: sex, success, disappearance. But my love had no object. I didn’t know it was New York I wanted. I just wanted to be someplace that felt safer, less acrylic. Someplace I could keep my unpronounceable name and breathe.
In Poland, my pregnant cousin tells me, women who would otherwise opt for epidurals wind up scheduling C-sections, because the anesthesiologists are paid so badly that sometimes they’re simply not there.
When I moved back to Ohio, I didn’t mean to move back to Ohio. I meant to take a break: Sublet my room in Bed-Stuy—which was quickly approaching East Village rent—breathe easy, walk slower, dry out, and spend time with my grandmother, who I was sure was going to die without saying goodbye to me.
But I was obsessed with New York. I wrote bad essays about it. I thought I’d found my forever home, even though I had three jobs and still couldn’t afford to live. I thought about Allen Ginsberg taking pictures on 7th Street rooftops, immortalizing human angels. He’d taken a few selfies too. I didn’t think about the fact that if Ginsberg were alive today, he’d probably be living in Ohio.
Then some things happened. I lost my apartment. My grandmother got skin cancer. My clothes and paintings and the celebratory bottle of Ciroc marked PUBLICATION DAY got stuck in an electrical closet in Williamsburg. New York was moving away from me. I grabbed for it blindly. I sent out resumes with my Brooklyn address. I had Skype interviews that went nowhere. No one wanted me to do anything. I wasn’t even capable of being an office assistant at my alma mater. I sat at Olive Garden on rainy afternoons drinking half-priced shots of whiskey, setting wishful deadlines for myself. And then I got pregnant.
And here I was again: bad drugs, low buildings, strip malls, and the suicides everyone ignored. No memorials for the misfits, no moment of silence for the black boy found in the woods; no dedications like the stadium scoreboard for the blond baseball player who got drunk and drove into a lake. Pastel-clad kids riding scooters down smooth asphalt, a meth lab one street over. Me and everyone else stuck in high school again, straining and aging and waiting to get out, the universal want, especially for those who stay. Because I’m a closet optimist, I decided to look at my self-imposed exile as a writing retreat. Who needed to pay an application fee and wait around for months to find out whether some committee considered you good enough to go scribble in a forest? I could do that for free. I installed myself in my father’s walk-in closet, set a deadline, and went to work.
Before I thought about leaving New York, I read “Goodbye to All That . ” There’s so much to be said about saying goodbye to all that that there’s also an essay collection called Goodbye to All That . Makes sense. New York is such an event, you almost have to have a story. That’s why we’re all so proud of ourselves. We feel like we’ve made it, even though we’re thousands of dollars in debt and aging caricatures of each other. At least it’s not slowdeath suburbia wasteland, we think. We lit out. Escaped the sticky boring nothing. Here we fucking are. And sooner or later, we leave. Burnout, exhaustion, lack of prospects, enough of humanity climbing all over, paranoia, need for peace: We make our peace and get out, drink about it, write an essay.
My apartment in Highland Square is close to the coffee shop I like. I used to drive there in high school to sit in the wire chairs on the sidewalk and smoke cigarettes. It is next to an apartment building with big balconies and flowers and ivy, a courtyard with stone benches and a library triangle. Behind the building are sprawling houses outfitted in great winding gardens, fountains, wind chimes, colored glass orbs, lights embedded in the trees, swings, and rocking chairs. No tacky suburban lawn ornaments here. I note this when I take my son on walks, navigating the stroller around the blasted sidewalk. There is an overpriced grocery store across the street that on busier days reminds me of the Bowery Whole Foods.
I sit and read obsessively about New York, books and essays, the thrill of recognition when I see familiar places and streets. The books and essays are mostly all the same. Debt, anxiety, phantasmagoria, the feeling of disappearing, the city’s a bitch, and yet.
Right now I’m reading Diane di Prima’s Memoirs of a Beatnik, which has a lot to do with the city in its bohemian heyday, if there ever was such a thing. She has a lover named Dirty John, whom she describes as having a layer of grime over everything but his cock. I find myself jealous of her five-cent coffees, the fact that an apartment in the East Village cost her $37 a month in rent. And she complained about it.
“Nowadays there are always Heads, millions of Heads, between me and any work of art,” she writes about the tourists at MoMA. “If it’s an opening night, the heads are likely to be well-groomed and finely perfumed. If not, they are apt to affect the latest Ohio hairstyles and Sears Roebuck coats, and to be equipped with loud, raucous voices.” I laugh when I read Ohio, bracket the passage and draw a heart. Diane di Prima herself ended up in San Francisco.
There is no subway here, so I have to set aside time to read.
I had a lot of time to read when I was pregnant but I also felt like my brain had fallen out. I watched Gilmore Girls instead. I studied Lorelai Gilmore and her love of the small Connecticut town wherein she raised her daughter. Indeed, Stars Hollow is charming. Everyone is nice to each other, for the most part. There are Christmas lights on trees, seasonal festivals, a gazebo. The town events are out of control. Maybe I could learn to love Akron the way Lorelai loved Stars Hollow. Maybe it was simply a matter of perspective. The baristas in my coffee shop are attractive, some unfriendly enough to be Luke on a rough day.
But small town or not, Lorelai lit out for the territories and made it. She didn’t regress to her parents’ mansion in Hartford when things got rough. She lived in a shack with her baby daughter behind the inn where she worked as a maid, because she had some goddamn principles. Going back to the place you worked so hard to leave will always feel like a type of failure.
So move back, everyone says. If you hate it here so much. I remember the rat falling onto an infant’s face in the Bowery J station. The psycho hitting women in the head with a hammer in Union Square. Myself getting spit on by a passing stranger on Nostrand Avenue at two in the morning, recoiling in horror then rushing home glad to not have been slashed or raped. It could have been worse, I thought in the shower, shampooing for the fourth time. The time I actually was raped I walked away glad to not have been murdered. My optimism. I wanted to write about the spitting incident but almost every site allows comments. I knew I would read a comment about being part of the gentrification problem but I wasn’t ready to read I deserved it.
I would love Akron too if I knew I were moving on.
Ohio voted Trump, my ex-girlfriend texts to say . Like it’s my fault. She’s always saying things like that. Not us, I say. My city’s in mourning. I tell her about the coffee shop and its Halloween Trump mannequin enjoying an espresso at the counter, spiders creeping from his mouth. The friendly junky who’d escaped his rehab facility to vote on Election Day, threatening to push me into traffic if I chose the wrong side. The neighborhood cobbler with a TRUMPBUSTERS ghost cutout in his window, replaced post-election with a giant turkey, a hatchet sticking out of its yellow wig.
My Facebook page is awash in activity. Anger, activism, apocalyptic theater. Post-its covering the subways. Public lamentation. Think pieces in every flavor. Don’t agonize, organize. Waking life nightmare. A sixty-nine -year-old veteran set himself on fire two blocks from my apartment. I almost don’t know this because my newsfeed is tailored to friends from New York.
I think about moving back to New York every day, though I spend most of my time in the apartment so it’s like I never left—it’s decorated like my old place and near the end of my life there I stopped going out anyway. I need a job. My parents suggest teaching English in Poland but the pay there is weak and the country’s regressing, trying to ban abortion in all cases now. When governments feel impotent they take their rage out on women. I remind myself Ohio’s just fine for a baby and I don’t want to be selfish, that when he’s older he’ll get sick of wherever we live and leave anyway. Ohio introduces the Heartbeat Bill, another violent measure. Home is where the heart is, but my heart’s in three places and nowhere feels good.
My son and I were born in the same hospital, Akron General. Five months ago, I drove there from up the street on a Sunday morning, having canceled a last minute trip to New York to see the Cure. My water broke early so I had to be induced. I didn’t have the right words at the time. After ten hours of pain that were teaching me nothing, I asked for an epidural at eleven p.m., grateful to America and our well-paid anesthesiologists.