New York was a Dream, a Memory, and a Haunting

Last weekend, I returned to New York for the first time in one year and nine months–the first time since moving back to the West Coast. I knew that because of the baggage I left behind and the loss I had experienced there that I needed a solid reason for my first return trip. That was the easy part: I attended a sales conference for the publicity job I have with Dottir Press, the new publishing house started by my former boss at the Feminist Press, Jennifer Baumgardner. The hard part would be processing whatever emotions arose out of returning to the city I lived in when I lost my brother.

The demarcation line of my life–the time before I lost him and the time after–is drawn across that city. I can’t separate New York from that loss. It’s not New York’s fault.

When I emerged, bleary-eyed, from the subway station at West 4th, it felt like no time at all had passed. This West Village stop is one I had once visited regularly to pick up coffee beans at Porto Rico Importing Co. I found myself walking the same streets, falling right back into the flow of pedestrians like I were just running errands and not starting a 72-hour trip on only four hours of hard-earned sleep from my cross-country red eye.

The eerie silence of an empty subway car

Because I was delirious with jet lag the whole time, I felt like I was moving through a dream, like the kind I’ve had since moving back that feel so real I think I’m walking those same humid streets, dress sweat-stuck to my back. Only, this time I was. This time I was sitting in the overly air-conditioned subway car listening to announcements about which train lines weren’t running that weekend.

Really being there in the flesh, not imagining my return on some rainy Seattle day as I longed for the energy and possibility of New York, meant being welcomed back into a community of friends that I’m so late to realize were utter salvation to me during those early years following my brother’s death. My closest friends from that time also returned to the West. But those who remained, who opened their apartments to me and waited in long brunch lines for the one place I knew I had to visit in my short time there (MeMe’s Diner), they reminded me that my experience of New York was not all loss. That might seem obvious, but when you are experiencing what a friend of mine (and fabulous writer) Nicole Skibola refers to as “the animalistic howl of grief,” it’s hard to count your blessings.

My first night in town, I joined my friends for drinks at a bar I used to frequent in my old neighborhood. After the friends I was staying with left, I made my way home later, alone, down the same street through Sunset Park I had walked for three years. I rode the B63, my old standby, past Green-Wood Cemetery and my old apartment building.

When the bus rolled along the quiet 2:00am streets, the intersections counting up–“33rd, 34th, 35th”–I felt my heartbeat quicken, the feeling in my stomach I had been waiting for all day to bloom: I looked out the window at the nondescript stretch of sidewalk on the corner of 5th and 36th that would mean nothing to anyone else, but to me looked like a ghost. That’s the spot I had been walking on when my dad broke the news–over the phone, from so goddamn far away–that my brother had died.

I’ve known about PTSD for a long time. I’ve known veterans who are triggered by loud noises, illness survivors who use cannabis to calm the anxiety they feel when reminded how much of their lives were lost to hospital visits and sickbeds. I have known it, but I have not understood it until I saw that spot and realized that the four-and-a-half years that have passed since it happened mean nothing. It is still my gaping wound, my fleshy underbelly where all my weakness lies. It’s a cold spot where I walk through and shiver at my brother’s specter.

The rest of the trip was as busy and bittersweet as the first day–drinks with old co-workers and brunch with my old roommate. But it was tinged with an extra layer of sadness: the realization that I’ll never have back the New York I knew when I moved there at 26. Because the city is different and so am I. Because I have lost and New York is lost to me. It’s not forgotten, and now that I’ve conquered my fear of it, I look forward to returning regularly for work and travel. But some of its promise is certainly gone, a little of its sheen scraped away.

New York is a dream for so many of us. Now it has morphed into something new, a ghost story I’ll tell for the rest of my life. There was once a girl who went to New York with a dream, but it didn’t work out how she thought it would. But that’s okay. Sometimes the memory of it, that last fading image as you wake, is enough.



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