by Michael Abraham
I wake early—not with the dawn but not long after it—and I stare out the window at a little conglomeration of Brooklyn backyards, severed from one another by brick walls and dotted with deciduous trees holding out their last against autumn. I am all wrapped up with the man I am dating, here in his home, in his bed, in Clinton Hill. He jokes with me, makes fun of me for being up so early, since I am one for sleeping late and one who protests mightily should sleeping late prove not to be an option. But not this morning. This morning, something momentous is about to happen, something about which I have thought many times, thought of as a far distant possibility, one that might never reach me. Indeed, I have written before about how it would never happen, how it could not happen. In these many flights of fancy about it happening, I have pondered deeply what it would feel like, decided it would feel none too good, that it would be a tragedy. But, here I am, poised on the precipice in the gray of a November morning just past seven a.m., poised on the precipice of it happening, and I have no sense of how it is that I feel, of whether it is a tragedy or a triumph or simply one of many things that must happen in the winding course of a life. I am leaving New York. I cannot say if it is for good that I am leaving, meaning both that I cannot say if it is a good thing and that I cannot say if it is forever. I ache as I wonder what it means to leave for good, as I wonder if that’s what I’m doing.
I burrow into the man’s shoulders, into his back, hold onto him for a moment, as though he might anchor me here in Brooklyn, as though he might conjure some immense gravity that holds me here, here where I have made my home for a decade, here where I discovered what it means to be a subject. Here where I fell into love and fell out of it, here where I partied like it was going out of style, here where I fell into confusion and into abjection, where I rose to high places inside myself and danced with angels and lit candles that never burn out, where I fashioned a soul out of copper and dappled her with rain until she dulled green and lovely as the lady in the bay—I look around the bedroom into which I have woken, and it washes over me, the realization that I am leaving this place, perhaps for good, and my eyes widen. I still cannot say what the ache inside me means, if it means tragedy or triumph or winding. I pick myself up out of bed, put on my clothes, and face the man I am dating. I kiss him. I taste the fear in my mouth as I kiss him, the sweetness of the kiss and the bitterness of the fear playing back and forth across my tongue and my teeth, making a chaos of my mouth.
I am not moving so far, only to New Haven, Connecticut, where I teach and where, by rights and by contractual obligation, I should have lived for the last five years. However, I was stubborn, and I refused, and, up to this point, my refusal held up. But no longer. It is a paucity of options that has pushed me to New Haven. With little money, seven months on from a divorce, uncomfortable with the roommate from whom I was subletting a tiny room in Bushwick, in the midst of a New York City housing crisis that has pushed rents far beyond my meager means, I have decided the only logical thing to do is to secure a little studio apartment in Connecticut and pack my life, for the second time in a year, into only four Home Depot boxes and carry it across state lines. All this comes after four days of being unhoused, shifting back and forth between New York and New Haven, searching desperately for somewhere to land.
The move isn’t so consequential as far as moves go. I can take a two-hour train back to New York whenever I wish, back to the man whom I kissed with fear in my mouth, back to my friends and confidantes, back to the city of two rivers. I promise everyone that this is exactly what I will do, that I will come back as frequently as I left to work—that is, twice a week. And I’m sure, as I write this, that I will do that—not so consequential, not so consequential. Only, it is consequential to leave New York. New York is not like other places, and to leave her is not like other departures. I can hear in my mother’s voice as we chat on the phone, as she hears my despondency, that she thinks this is nonsense. New York is just a city after all. New York is just a city, and cities are meant to be left in one’s twenties; one’s twenties are all about coming and going. This is part of the natural course of things, she implies with her tone, implies carefully but firmly. It is not special. It is simply the winding out of a life; it is just the winding that is happening to you. Perhaps this is true.
Or, perhaps, New York is, indeed, unlike other places. It is frenetic; the energy is strange. It wraps about you and whispers at you cloyingly, insisting that there is more to feel, more to experience, more to do with this day than you have done. The city reaches into you with spectral hands and pulls out, like a clown with an endless string of colorful handkerchiefs, your vices and your failings and your weaknesses. It makes of you an absolute spectacle—if you let it. And, o, I have let it. I have allowed New York to hollow me out, to take everything from me and put it on display, such that I no longer have ownership over the stuff that makes me up, such that I have ceded my agency to the city, given myself over to be made a string of lights, of bright twinklings and twinklings out into darkness and obscurity. What I am trying to say is that, by the end of my time there, New York was starting to break me as a person. This has everything to do with being too drawn to brightness, like a moth given over to phototaxis. The city is one allure after another, an onslaught of glittering promises. And some people do not know how to resist an allure, to say no to a promise, because they are of the same substance as that which draws them, are fashioned of promise and light and glitter themselves and so cannot help but barrel headlong into the dangerous swirl of photons that the city offers in its palm, the peril of its bright lights.
But I am getting ahead of myself. On the morning that I leave, I don’t see with such clarity that New York is becoming a danger to me. On the morning I leave, all I can see is the tumbled expanse of Brooklyn, its brilliant patchwork of experience and difference, as I walk from the man’s house to the U-Haul center in Park Slope. I choose to walk the fifty minutes because I want to mourn, want to mourn with my body, to feel the passage of the city through my body as I move through its body, to exchange with it, to kiss it goodbye with my steps.
The move itself is remarkably straightforward. I rent the U-Haul—much too big for my four boxes, two bags, and a painting—and I drive it to a friend’s home where I have stashed my stuff for the four days I have been without an apartment. I pack up the truck, and, with a wistful gaze down Park Place, I pull out toward Connecticut and toward a life entirely without guarantees. I am a terrible driver, and I almost get into four accidents on my two hour journey. But by the grace of some power higher than my own poor motor skills, I make it to the tall, beige house on Sherman Avenue with its bright purple door and bright purple stoop. I pull my U-Haul around the back to where another purple door stands between me and the studio apartment in which I have determined to make a life, a life that satisfies. I exchange pleasantries with my chatty landlord, sign my lease, and get my singular key, the only key I have to my name. I hold it a moment, staring down at it. It is light, of course, but it feels weighty, as though wound throughout its metal are a whole host of hopes and fears and other heavy, consequential feelings. I tuck it into my pocket and move my four boxes, my two bags, and my painting into the apartment, trying not to notice how little space my few belongings take up, trying to see all the negative space in the room as an opportunity, rather than a condemnation on the size of my world. When I left my husband, I took only these things—books and clothes mostly, a poker mat—and took up in a furnished room in Bushwick with two roommates whom I did not know. My things all inside, I sit on the small wooden stoop in front of my violet door, and I smoke a cigarette, thinking about all of this, all that has happened in the seven months since I decided I had to leave my marriage, since I shattered, entirely by choice, my own lifeworld.
For seven months, I have lived in what has felt like a nonstop party. When a shattering happens, with a mind like mine, the disco ball starts turning, the white fire gets sucked up the nose, the lights begin to pulse heady and ecstatic. I was taken into the sway of a manic fever dream, a complete surrender of self to pleasure and desire and madness. I have barely eaten for months, slept not at all or far too much, given over any care I might have had for my own real wellbeing, embracing, instead, some hedonic dragon inside me and flying with him to heights of great peril. Those who love me well have called out from the corners of my life their worry, insisting that I am unwell, while I laugh and wave a limp wrist at them, and insist to the contrary that I am more fine than ever I have been. And while all of that might be just the story of a bipolar twenty-something facing a major life transition, New York—gaudy, raucous, wild New York—did nothing to prevent me from burning myself to the quick; New York made the burning all too easy, encouraged it, delighted in it. I found myself fashioning a lifeworld, in place of the one I had just brought to its end, that was teetering on the edge of an abyss. I was riven through with addiction and despair, but I could not feel these. All I could feel was the intensity of desire, the yearning for the next thing, the next sensation—a yearning for something without a name. I sit on my little wooden stoop in New Haven, my life in boxes and bags on the other side of the door, on an unseasonably warm day in November, smoking my American Spirit to the butt, and I think on all of this. I think on how near the cliffside I have been dancing, and I wonder if this move to Connecticut—undertaken out of necessity and with no thought to anything other than the base and material conditions of my life—might be necessary for reasons other than the pragmatics of having a house and paying a reasonable rent, if it might be necessary for reasons like settling into a mind and learning to be alone and finally exhaling.
The first night I sleep on the floor, on a pile of sweaters, the bed I ordered having yet to arrive. I wake with an aching back and a throbbing neck but lit with another sensation too, with a strange species of peacefulness that I have not felt in many seasons. I move to cage this peaceful feeling as quickly as possible, to trap it up, like some holy dove sent down from the throne of the Lord. I will need this feeling, I know. I will need it for what lies ahead.
What lies ahead is not so dramatic from the outside: merely a matter of unboxing books and hanging up clothes. But, inside the experience of it, it is so very involved, so very intense. With each movement, I feel myself departing farther and farther from New York, farther and farther away from the life I spent a decade building, from my friends and my lovers and my city sprawled across the rivers. I give no space to the feelings that try to creep up with each cardigan hung, with each book stacked, each knick-knack placed. I train my eye on the dove in its little gilt cage. It flutters, my peaceful feeling; it threatens to flee at any moment should I let down my guard. But I don’t. I center myself over and over, remind myself that this might be for good, that I can make this for good. My unpacking done, I turn my attention to the real work of making a home, which is charming it. I bless some water and a burning candle, set them in the sill of my kitchen window with a smattering of lavender to ease the mind and anise to ease the body, so that the water can trap up the bad and the fire can burn up the bad—the bad, the madness, the abyssal risk that might have slunk behind me all the way from New York. I decorate my charmed windowsill with a couple of sea shells, too—not for any reason of occult technology but merely because I am a child of the seaside, and sea shells bring me peace. That night, I take the charming even further, even more seriously. I gather to myself my grimoire, my summoning stone, and my wand. With fire and water and herbs and air, I summon the fifth angel named from the puzzle of the name of the Lord, Mahasiah, whose role is to bring peace to those who call upon him. On my knees before the flat, round, marble stone upon which the angel has been summoned and bound, as the fire dances shadows up onto the wall and the ceiling in the darkened room, I beg for peace, for peace to fill the little studio apartment and make of it a home, for peace to fill me up and make of me a thing still as water in an afternoon pond. I pray to the angel, who is silent in response, for angels are always silent, for an end, finally, to my madling adventure, for a homecoming that might calm my ragamuffin spirit, might ease my wretchedness. Despite its silence, the angel does something; I feel something happen. Some tension inside me unwinds, some tension of which I was unaware for months; a weight drops out. And, then, the fire extinguishes itself, and the ritual is over, and I am left in the dark, left alone to make real the peace for which I have prayed.
Sometimes, life finds us unmoored. No matter if you have some mental illness to pin it on or a failed marriage to point a finger at—life unmoors us all now and again. And, when unmoored, it is entirely possible that you don’t notice your own state, that you think all is fine, that you believe wholeheartedly that you can manage the vicissitudes of the moment. Perhaps you can. But I could not. It took a minor cataclysm—finding myself unhoused and without means to rectify the situation in New York, moving to Connecticut and leaving behind a decade’s worth of life—to shake me into wakefulness, to inculcate in me the intentionality to pull my life back from the cliffside. Sometimes, unmoored and helpless, life throws you a line, and I suppose what I came here to say today is that the line does not always look the way you expect. Occasionally, as in this instance, the line may look less like help and more like a tragedy. But I have continued to wake with the dove, and I have continued to cultivate a sense of settledness in the few days that I have lived in this studio in New Haven, and the tragedy of leaving New York is perhaps no tragedy at all. Perhaps it is the line. It is, in the final analysis, a risk to take the line, to decide to be happy when it seems that you have lost everything and are starting all over, again, yet again. It is a risk to decide that it all might be for good, that there might be a gift waiting to be claimed at the bottom of your crisis. It is a risk to look a crisis in the face and smile at it.
It is a risk, I think, worth taking.