by Catherine Spinley
Long before I lived in this apartment in downtown Manhattan, I knew I’d live here.
I was 10 years old when my parents took me to New York for the first time. Instantaneously, I was captivated. That first trip took place over Thanksgiving break; we went to the Macy’s Day Parade where I cried my eyes out as my favorite boy band stood 20 feet away from me and lip synched through a few of their most popular songs. My mom and I rode the wooden escalators at Macy’s and perused the clothing racks that seemed to stretch into infinity. A few years later, back again, I was allowed to spend time alone with my friends. We walked the streets of Greenwich Village and down Broadway where I remember the gentle radio calypso floating out of car speakers and onto the street. The sun set gently, closing the frenetic chapter of a New York day and welcoming the intrigue and possibility that comes with a summer evening. On one trip in particular, our hotel room overlooked a large, curtainless Flatiron loft. During the day I saw nothing but each night I drifted to sleep while watching the inhabitants live out their dreamy New York City life: takeout dinner eaten while watching movies on their larger-than-life television, a cocktail party ending with friends (many dressed in all black) dancing on the long kitchen table, and finally an empty loft lit only by soft recessed lighting, beacons leading the owners home again.
Each time I left the city and returned to my sleepy little Western New York island, I dreamt of nothing but escape. I spent many years feeling like a caged animal, counting the days until I was able to leave home and never return.
At 17, I left forever.
When I graduated from college four years later, I moved to New York, as I promised to do years before. My first three years in the city were a struggle - I witnessed 9/11, struggled to pay my rent on an entry-level salary and began experiencing an existential crisis of sorts I’ve been grappling with ever since. I struggled the way most people my age did: with jobs, with friendships, with relationships, but I also began experiencing a bout of depression and anxiety which would later come to play a major part in how I cope and exist in this world. After 11 years in New York I abruptly decided to move to San Francisco, a decision propelled by a particularly bad romantic experience. I’d burned out on New York’s energy and craved something slower, laid-back and exponentially more soulful than the concrete streets of Manhattan. I also needed a safe place to heal and start again. New York had become as cloying and claustrophobic as my hometown felt years before. I’d taken to spending many late nights sitting on my Carmine Street fire escape, watching the world go by below me, a mere spectator in my own life.
When I landed in San Francisco I knew it was all wrong, not because San Francisco was wrong but because I was. San Francisco will always be “the one who got away.” Perhaps if things had been different, my California life would have played out with a happier ending. My decision to move west had been born from sadness and frustration not from intrigue or adventure and somewhere deep inside I knew operating from a place of fear, sorrow and lethargy would never yield the results for which I yearned. I was in a new place, with almost no friends and I felt as though I’d set my life adrift.
I slept for most of the time I lived in California. Prozac and Klonopin helped a bit but so did Netflix and YouTube and a really comfortable memory foam mattress (I read My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh earlier this year and it was a LOT like that). I took up photography and swimming and gave up writing and running. West Coast me was very different - I didn’t recognize this person but I tried living life her way for a little while. She hiked and camped and made kale chips and had wine delivered monthly to her apartment. She took photography classes and wine and cheese courses and went oyster shucking with friends and brought her canvas tote to the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market on the weekends and if you followed me (her) on social media you probably thought I (she) was living my (her) best Nancy Meyer’s life. Confused by all the pronouns? Imagine how I felt. I was sick and bottoming out and 15 months after I landed in San Francisco, I packed my life into 33 boxes and moved back to my parents’ house (still in Western New York though no longer on that tiny country island) to rest, relax and figure out who the fuck I was again.
Three weeks into that sabbatical, I packed two suitcases and bought a one-way flight back to New York. I’d forgotten how grey and sad the winters were up on that stretch of No Man’s Land, how the lack of noise allowed your inner thoughts to come out louder and clearer than ever before. Not yet ready to sit alone with my pain, I sought refuge in the first place I’d ever fled to in hopes of finding myself again (or for the very first time). I lived in a remodeled church in Brooklyn, which could have been located in Kansas, for all intents and purposes, because no one came to visit me. The structure, built some 90 years prior, had walls so thick it was nearly impossible to get internet or cell phone service without the use of a superbooster. At night, there were none of the usual city noises - no wailing sirens, teenagers out past curfew yelling profanities at one another, or garbage trucks making their midnight rounds. There was only a deafening silence and the gentle hum of the fluorescent courtyard lights. I sat with that silence for a year. Some nights I nearly climbed the walls. Other nights I considered checking myself in to the nearest hospital, but I continued on. Many nights I uttered my fears and my perceived failures aloud and, in my darkest moments, I believed them. I worked with my therapist and my psychiatrist weekly, I cashed in a lot of favors with my family and my friends and I began putting myself back together again.
Five years have passed since that year in Brooklyn, which was after that time in San Francisco, which came about when I decided my life in New York was no longer what I needed, which was once the only thing I ever wanted after that one time my parents took me on a trip to New York City, the Big Fucking Apple. A handful of months ago, I started getting that West Coast itch again, convinced I needed another chance at making a life for myself somewhere new, somewhere fun, somewhere fresh and far away from my problems and insecurities. Rather than pack up my life and flee, still bruised from the mistakes of my past, I talked about my urges instead of bottling them up only to explode into some sort of maniacal manifest destiny journey back to California. I used to think I was always chasing something better, but now I know I’m only trying to escape something worse. And this lifelong desire to escape people, places and situations hasn’t changed.
But I have.
“I USED TO THINK I WAS ALWAYS CHASING SOMETHING BETTER, BUT NOW I KNOW I’M ONLY TRYING TO ESCAPE SOMETHING WORSE. AND THIS LIFELONG DESIRE TO ESCAPE PEOPLE, PLACES AND SITUATIONS HASN’T CHANGED.
BUT I HAVE.”
CATHERINE SPINLEY IS THE EDITORIAL DIRECTOR AT THE SUNDAY ISSUE AS WELL AS A FREELANCE WRITER AND SOMETIMES-PHOTOGRAPHER. WHEN NOT STALKING OTHER PEOPLE’S DOGS OR YELLING AT PEOPLE WHO REFUSE TO WALK UP THE LEFT SIDE OF THE ESCALATOR, SHE WORKS IN THE BEAUTY INDUSTRY AND PRACTICES YOGA. YOU CAN READ ABOUT HER AT WOREPAINT.COM AND @SPINDERELLA1110.