Everyone comes to New York for a reason. Technically, I came for college. More honestly, I flew across the world from Singapore to learn how to accept myself on my own terms, miles away from the tangled web of pressures and expectations that only a childhood home can spin.
My first apartment in New York City was a high-rise building in the financial district. The address rolled off my tongue when I hopped in cabs or swapped apartment search stories with strangers in the grocery store — 2 Gold Street — its breathtaking panoramic view shimmering in my mind as I rode the subway to and from Grand Central.
On a bitter frozen night in the middle of my first January in the city, the warmth of Christmas a distant memory, I stopped to look up at a building on John Street and saw a couple dancing across the brick in their evening finery. The massive black and white projection must’ve been from the forties or fifties. My chapped lips and frostbitten fingers were forgotten for a glorious moment as I craned my neck upwards to watch their strange hallucinatory frames leap romantically through windows and across balconies. That same evening I was called a faggot in the local deli while buying a soda at ten in the evening. Such is the life of a New Yorker — straddling a delicate balance between track-stopping joy and all-consuming dread.
On my second year in New York, I shared my first kiss with a man in public on the stoop of my next apartment. It was an old brownstone in midtown on Second Avenue, stains from air-conditioners long uninstalled and thrown away dripping down its front, covered almost entirely by crawling vines that started in the bottom right corner and draped themselves over the remaining facade. There was no garbage chute in the building, no doorman to collect packages that often went missing, and a landlord who was unreachable during his “business hours,” even when the toilet overflowed rancid sewage water from the bathroom into the kitchen.
I rested my tired arms on the shoulders of my lover and gave him one final, leg-popping movie star kiss as flurries of snow fell on our cheeks. Then I sat on my stoop and smoked a cigarette, as I often did, while I watched him walk away — his back becoming less visible as the ferocity of the snowstorm increased. I loved everything about New York that night: the endless chances it offered, the way it treated you regardless of who you were or what you held, the red tail light haze of the cabs ploughing through the slush.
In the waiting room period between spring and something else during my third year in the city, I spent my commute to work on Canal street daydreaming about my childhood. I longed to be in Singapore, the sole home I had known prior to New York City, drinking cold coffee on the balcony, ushering in the day with the cicadas and the coelle birds. On my lunch breaks in Chinatown, I fantasized about returning to the tropical heat and lush greenery. My old home was stalking me — following me home at night for months, taunting me with its promises of freedom and familiarity and reinvention.
But there was always some spectacular reason to carry on — a hum from a deep crevice in my heart that propelled me forward, a spring in my step that hopped on the 6 train at 33rd Street and dropped me bouncing at Bleecker. And then, on a distinctly New York spring day with the winter wistfully forgotten and the summer not quite on the horizon, I woke up to deafening sirens and people shouting outside of my apartment and the hum in my body was gone.
That’s when I knew: No ritual pilgrimages to the meatpacking district after midnight, where the icy chill from the Hudson blew up my overcoat and tickled the slither of skin between my boots and the hem of my jeans, could resuscitate the hum that had arrived like a second pair of lungs only to be ripped from me like a scarf during a blizzard just three years later. I was tired — a strange and lonely way to feel in a place so electrically charged that its inhabitants march instead of walk down avenues and across streets, up mazes of many-floored walk-ups, out of cabs and into bars or meetings, from sunrise to sunset.
I was Cinderella — summoned home in the middle of the party, stripped of the garb that allowed me to pretend I was someone else, wandering barefoot in the direction of somewhere old in a new state of mind. I picked up my ragged Nikes and strolled down the cobblestone path, away from the bourgeoisie, not quite giving a damn if it was improper to leave an estate early and partially dressed. And when I looked back at the decadent castle and saw women laughing demurely into glasses of champagne, I realized that my absence was no absence for anyone at all.
So I made my decision; I would go while the going was good. I wouldn’t make like Didion and stay too long at the fair. I would leave New York while I was still amazed by all that it had to offer, so that perhaps one day I could return and fall back in love without the burden of love once scorned. I would leave the apartment I’d just signed a lease on and move back home to Singapore to collect myself. The city will always be here, with its overflowing garbage and blinking neon signs — but I will only be this young and this confused and this malleable once, and I’m not sure I’m ready to be renovated by New York.
My mother once asked me over the phone, during one of several New York-related breakdowns, “Why are you still there? You’re not under lock and key. The only person forcing you to make it work in New York is yourself.”
So three years later, with a sureness of myself that I’m confident the city gave me, I’m going home to catch my breath and see what’s next.
Zachary Hourihane is a freelance writer and musician based in Singapore, you can find him on Instagram here.
Photo by Peter Keegan via Getty Images.