All Around Us
Before returning to visit in October, I had spent an entire year away from New York City, where I lived for a decade. I felt a lot of anxiety in advance of my trip. Arriving midafternoon on a Thursday was a letdown. I’d told myself to go slow, to temper my expectations, but found upon arrival that I still wanted something from the place: for it to treat me better this time, to show me a good time and congratulate me for having moved on, to applaud me for how well I’d spent my time away, to offer the possibility of a reconciliation, to reveal itself just as susceptible to my bad habits (having kept them at the ready for me to indulge whenever I returned). Overcast and worn down from late-week fatigue, the city barely noticed my arrival. I dragged my checked luggage across three boroughs on public transit to save money and hunkered down in a friend’s apartment, waiting for him to return from work to keep me company and thereby rescue me from my worsening mood.
Not much had changed. All the old buildings and neighborhoods fell into place. But the loneliness was still there too, along with the fear that I was not capable of summoning the best experience from the place, and the ever-present worry of overspending. I’d grown rusty at navigating the city, not anticipating delays or service outages on the subway. And now, there was a mild feeling of estrangement to contend with that felt like grieving a place I’d lost, strange for a city I’d always so stubbornly resisted thinking of as home, because that had always felt too cloying.
I’d planned to stay for a week and a half. The first two days, I barely left the apartment. The time I had remaining stretched out before me like a sentence. New York had again become an ordeal to survive.
I found that whole periods of my time in New York had fallen from my memory. I could barely recall some jobs I’d held or in what order, had almost forgotten stays in various apartments, and had even misplaced the memory of a few friends. The ambitions that had led me to the city had always required I maintain a delusion—that my life was just on the verge of becoming. I therefore spent much of my time looking ahead rather than looking around. It had taken me a year in Little Rock to begin accounting for the time I’d spent in pursuit of that dream. Worse, I’d discovered only recently that I had to confront what the burden of those long-held ambitions had done to my ego, how much they’d closed me off to other perspectives, how outsized my appetites and opinions had swollen over those ten years in the city.
Twice during my visit, I listened to friends say over meals how much they genuinely loved the city. Both times, I immediately thought, Why? Living in New York as an aspiring writer had been hard—isolating and vicious. There had been casualties—relationships I’d leaned on until they broke or some that I’d neglected or cast aside. There had been fresh ideas or lines of inquiry that I’d shunned, in order to cling to diminishing prospects I’d hoped to turn into some type of currency—money, acclaim, respect. Where the city had once seemed a place of limitless potential, I’d become a kind of hermit—buffering myself against perspectives, change, the passage of time—unable to keep up. Little Rock had allowed me an escape, one that I still felt both grateful for and ambivalent toward. It had convinced me again of the possibility of growth while also casting a sharp rebuke on my capability. And yet I couldn’t bring myself to question aloud the enthusiasm of my more genuinely cosmopolitan friends; even the idea of doubting the city’s appeal embarrassed me, returned me to the shame of the bumbling tourist. Moreover, admitting that I didn’t love the city anymore left me feeling homeless, between two places and unwilling to commit to either one of them.
Over the past year in Little Rock, summoning the momentum to try things or to look forward to something new had become harder for me, feeling as though if I hadn’t been able to handle the city, I’d already failed any worthwhile effort somehow or had expended my time to try. Something about this malaise was bound up in that lost decade in New York, in aging, in feeling as though I had less time to take gambits and feeling unsatisfied with what I’d accomplished so far. That specter had begun to haunt this column even, the underside of the optimism I tried to write myself into in this space.
Much of my time in Little Rock processing my years in New York had become devoted to holding myself away from remorse. Returning to New York did not cure me of this. Instead, it left me feeling exhausted. I confronted the desires I still held, knowing I would have to muster new resolve to try and obtain them. I again recalibrated timelines I’d set for myself. Inside the indulgent comfort of the car I took to the airport for my return flight, I felt grateful to have discovered Little Rock as an escape. New York showed me that in my year away, it had not changed much at all. It even wanted to convince me that neither had I. Clinging to the idea that I’d made progress in the intervening months felt more like a decision I now had to make, rather than a foregone conclusion. I consoled myself with the thought that at least I’d done things differently this time, learned new things about my capacity.
In the weeks following, this has sometimes felt like I’m flinging myself around too desperately. I gathered myself for a friend’s wedding the weekend after landing in Little Rock, greeting old high school classmates excitedly, but hewing too closely to the open bar. While working up a sweat on the open-air dance floor in mid-October, my elation turned to melancholy and then again to loneliness. A few weeks later, I roused myself for my first ever Razorback football game, having always shied from what I feared was a noninclusive space. The weather had turned cold by then, and I confronted the realization that despite the lusty roar of the stadium crowd, there was not much hedonism left for me among the young parents and coupling coeds I found in Northwest Arkansas, eschewing a postgame trek down Dickson Street to return to the warmth of my hotel room.
The truth is that I’m restless still, for success and for companionship. Those goals have not changed. The two distinct landscapes I belong to, those that I’ve been shaped by, have both expanded and contracted my sense of self. Time and space, what they’ve done to my body and ego, have left me feeling worn out, regretful of my pride and impatient with my old heartaches and solutions. I’m restless still, for more scenery, different landscapes that will make new impressions on me and that I have a chance to impact differently this time. And I’ve gained some things I hope to sustain: greater compassion, for the lonely souls I find at bars or on my apps; and gratitude, for the hospitality I’ve enjoyed from friends reaching out of their own lives to welcome me; and wonder, at my own will to continue to try.
“All Around Us” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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