8.4 million and alone

When I visited New York City, hand clasped in a lover’s, I wanted to be them: the fast-paced, career-minded people, hurried about their days with a blatant sense of purpose and belonging. They seemed to constantly and collectively be headed someplace else, somewhere inexplicably important. Mesmerized by an unfamiliar kind, I studied their faces: their lips unfurled, their eyes fixed, their expressions unfazed and unflinching. They were mythical creatures and I was a researcher. My gaze followed their deft, calculated movements everywhere we went; I watched them pour in and out of subway stations, march defiantly into oncoming traffic, and maneuver swiftly around the herds of ambling, gawking visitors. Us.

I let my imagination run wild about the seasoned New York locals who seemed to have it all, every aspect of their important and fabulous existences bundled and packaged in an air of blasé coolness. I wanted it, too, what I imagined they had. I saw their busy, high-powered lives as a lofty end-goal, just attainable enough to be worth the effort to get there. Determined to make a grand exit from my perfectly average, comfortable life, I would become a woman independent and involved.

The possibilities before the woman I envisioned myself becoming were endless. She worked long and hard, and she achieved the things that others merely dreamed about. Nothing and nobody stood in the way of her as, steadfast, she fiercely pursued her every desire. I set my sights on becoming her and belonging there with them.

Some years later, I’m there now. You won’t read about me in a magazine or become familiar with my name, but I’m one of them: driven, independent, and working tirelessly to make a name for myself in this dizzying city. I sought, chased, and succeeded. But, nothing great comes free- I got my wish by way of sacrificing another. To take New York City as my lover, I lost him, the former one.

I now watch myself, who I once was, in places all around me. Instead of noticing the powerful, purpose-driven people as before, I now see my ghost in others places. I see myself at the cotton candy-tinted diner table, smiling back at my partner over fried eggs and coffee on a lazy Tuesday morning. I notice myself grabbing his large, calloused hand as he pulls me through a sticky mess of sauntering bodies, and I see us snickering over the perplexity of a subway map in Grand Central. I see him and I taking a Central Park rowboat in the dead heat of the summer, our blood tinged with midday cocktails. And I watch us emerging from the Times Square underground after nightfall, our eyelids prompted to widen in awe and squint shut from the blinding lights all at once. I watch us giggle, tease, embrace, and kiss, uncaring of the public space we occupy. I see now from the other side. And I see now how they look at me.

Although I must glide by in a near blur, I always notice you. You’re peering out the window of the hotel lobby, roaming the streets, or scanning an upscale eatery’s menu. Not in any semblance of a rush, you often pause and look up to watch me. As you glimpse at me, loveless and lonely, I remember that you don’t see it that way. You are quietly envying me, wondering my destination, curious why I’m dressed up and in such a hurry. More importantly, you’re wondering what else could be out there for you. Is there another life sleeping in the shadows, waiting to be dusted off and uncovered?

I was you, too, glimpsing faces worn down and disheartened, reading them resilient and proud. I was you, mistaking numbness for contempt. We probably seem unfazed because we’re anesthetized. Over-exposed, over-stimulated, and over-worked, the sensations are dulled. The couples nuzzling noses on the train and trading kisses on the street corners do not break our hearts any further. The most romantic attractions- carriage rides, rowboats, the Empire State rooftop, and the like- are written off as tourist-exclusive activities, socially forbidden for a New Yorker to indulge. Instead, we work late and scoop up side projects to stay busy. We download a myriad of dating apps for the one-in-a-million chance of hitting the jackpot, and we swipe right for a small taste of human connection.

I try to remind myself that the lives I glance at from a distance aren’t accurate representations of average, everyday romantic relationships. The city is spellbinding from the outside looking in, and romance is dialed up the moment you arrive. The couple beaming ear-to-ear and lacing fingers across the dining table is likely not displaying a typical depiction of their partnership; rather, they are displaying a blissful high point. This is not to assert that the average relationship is poor or unhappy, but that the average relationship is just that: average.

It’s no revelation that relationships and marriages are hard work. Just as the seasons of life, both the good and bad, will rise and fall, a relationship ebbs and flows; if fortunate, the trials and difficulties will be swept away as quickly as they seeped in. Under the magical spell of a vacation, one that permits an escape and retreat, troubles can melt away. Visiting New York can be especially rejuvenating- the crowds, lights, sounds, and excitement can breathe passion and life back into partnerships that may have otherwise begun to go stale in the drudgery of the day-to-day. The couples I see, the couplings I fantastically place myself within, are not a consummate slice of real life romance, yet I continue to romanticize their relationships, composing immaculate fiction love stories within my mind.

I should be attune to the grave fallacy in my assumptions, once-upon-a-time having seen first-hand the city’s remarkable effects on my former partner’s and my relationship. The weekend we visited New York was the weekend we fell in love. The memories, so vivid and practically tangible, are still able to halt my breathing and momentarily suspend my spirit in time. Still and quiet in a place that triggers, I can nearly relive them all.

When I dine outdoors, I can almost detect the cool evening breeze that rustled my bangs as I studied his eyes under the soft glow of a sidewalk cafe’s string lights. Sparkling and illuminated, they were an ethereal experience akin to taking a plunge into an aquamarine pool: glistening, brilliant blue whirlpools swirling into the deep, arcane black of his pupils.

When suitcases are rolled and carried into hotels, I can almost feel the childlike thumping in my chest as we, a couple of renegades, tore through the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel. Our legs clambering up and down carpeted staircases and slipping through unmarked doors, our mission was to find an alternative passage to our room in a labyrinth created to discover. Our lungs then gasping, ballooning with oxygen, I can feel the slow of my heartbeat as our weary bodies collapsed on the bed in unison.

And when I walk home late at night, the streets empty and serene, I can almost audibly hear the echo of, not one, but two pairs of footsteps. I listen to his breathing steady and rhythmic beside me, no need to fill the peaceful air with words.

My heart lurches when I instinctively recall the selfless joy of young love, blood buzzing and souls set afire. A few seconds of bliss pass before I am pulled back into the stinging blade of real-time heartache. In those distant days we were flooded with joy and desire, and we could so clearly see the story of our future lives together unfold as if we were peering into a crystal ball. We were perfect, destined for everlasting happiness, yet our relationship still eventually crumbled.

These days, the romantic overlay like a rosy film prettying your line of vision, is stripped away. Grief is incredibly clear. These days, I wish that I had chosen him. I wish I had been selfless and supportive of the man I loved. Instead of pursuing lofty desires and a life I did not know, I wish I had pursued my lover.

New York City changes its inhabitants, for better or for worse. To turn back the hands of time and return to my previous existence would be a gift, but I’m skeptical I could return to the person I was before. A metamorphosis occurred, and my old identity scabbed and flaked away. Self-sufficient and independent, I no longer have someone to guide me, protect me, or laugh with me; I am alone in the concrete jungle. And now I’ve acquired that distant, hollowed face of the locals I once admired: the unfurled lips, the fixed eyes, and the unfazed, unflinching face. A face that young, lustful visitors with their hearts full and happy will see and wonder about a life they do not know.

One life does not eclipse another, but taking for granted a simple one with a deep love was my greatest mistake. I cannot alter my past decisions; I made my choice when I packed the cardboard boxes and loaded the truck. Now I’ll belong with them, loveless and lonely, fiercely pursuing my dreams with nothing and nobody to hold me back.

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