The first thing I learned was how to walk calmly down the street while several conflicting emotions played in my brain like nickels in a garbage disposal. Melancholy, elation, fear, confusion, euphoria, uncertainty. This particular symphony was as beautiful as it was horrific and, if it were possible to prove, I’d swear it aged me at double-speed. This contrast between my internal experience and my external expression dissolved into tears in July – on the subway, specifically — after a breakup. Exactly two months after I defended the long-distance relationship. Irony, palpable.
But long before that, the second lesson made itself known through the crushing, aching muscle in my left shoulder, which strained under the weight of three separate bags. This city is set up for two things: a deluge of activities you can’t anticipate and a sprawling grid that begs you to not return home between them. The New York obsession with tote bags I’d observed from afar suddenly made sense. And often missing from mine were my keys. That was the third: it’s frighteningly easy to forget them when my limbs are already dripping in practical accoutrement. Not that I’m ready to call it a Problem.
I’d gotten said keys in June, when I moved into a four-bedroom on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. This was where I learned the fourth: the sound of rats scurrying through the walls isn’t so bad. It even sounds like a lullaby after a while, if you’re patient. Maybe vermin are the price of admission to an apartment that sits on a street that slopes and then dips just enough to present Manhattan like a pop-up book, sure to startle anyone lucky enough to see it. And if they were, they might also smell the warm air drifting out of the Laundromat to their right, the one that washes and folds, in rapture-like perfection, literal heaps of my clothing for $15. That was the fifth: coin-addled laundry days are a hazy memory.
Where would I squeeze them in anyway, between the working and wandering and thinking and drinking? The sixth lesson crept up on me slowly in the form of a decreasing vulnerability to hangovers. Because socializing is drinking is socializing. Bonding is grabbing a drink is bonding. Long gone are the days of one-cocktail headaches and for that I owe my body equal parts gratitude and sincere apologies. The seventh orbits the sixth and I call it the New York Ten: like the Freshman Fifteen but swap out Cheeto-dusted sweatpants for snug vintage Levi’s that used to have a slouch.
It’s okay it’s okay it’s okay.
A helpful handful of words I chanted in my head on the train in July, when I learned the eighth lesson, which is that the subway is the sixth borough of New York. Ready to have and to hold my tear-streamed face and heartbroken body anywhere I needed to go. I’d courted it for months, navigating its underground nooks and crannies, trying in earnest to speak its language. And then, like the dumbstruck moment you feel the warmth of a love requited, its rumbling timber suddenly felt familiar and it whisked me home when I most needed it.
The ninth lesson lingers in the air 150 feet above those echoing tunnels. It’s a little less like a cocoon and a little more like the moment a ray of sunshine licks your cold skin, sending a pleasurable shiver across your body. It’s the way the buildings shoot up around you and glint in the light then glow as the sun begins to dip below the horizon. It’s the way a buzzing energy radiates off the pavement and into the bodies thumping across it, powering the steps we take with so much purpose and gusto and emotion our skin almost feels too thin to contain us.
The more I get to know this place, the more my melancholy and fear and confusion become a dull hum behind my elation and euphoria and hope. Because even if New York is just a sprawling grid littered with rats and concrete and trash and glass, it’s the perfect canvas for the dreamy chaos that sits behind our solemn expressions. New York is not the center of the universe, it just seems like it to some of us.
Which brings me to my tenth: the air here feels electric because we’re the ones who breathe it.
Feature collage by Lily Ross.