My Downstairs Crush
Leaving New York, and leaving other things
“Are you going to channel Joan Didion and write an essay about leaving New York?” my downstairs neighbor asked on my last night in the city. I think he was trying to make fun of me? It was Christmas Eve and we were eating takeout Chinese food. My belongings — books and mugs and old yearbooks and the floofy aviator hat a sort-of-boyfriend once gave me on his last night in the city — were in the back of a truck. I was putting them in storage.
Neighbor and I had been saying “hi” and “hey” to each other for weeks. I’d catch him by the trash cans. Actually, that’s where we first met: the trash.
“I’m in 4F, up there,” I said, pointing to my window, three floors above the trash.
“Oh, hey. I’m Jonah. 1F.”
I immediately had a crush on him, but you knew that already. That’s how it works sometimes, I guess: The month you plan to leave your city, the city spirits start sending little messages to get you to stay. (The “city spirits” are rats, I think. Or maybe those tiny Greek people on the coffee cups.) I’d leave my apartment carrying a single clove of garlic just so I could throw it out (and nonchalantly glance at 1F’s windows). I imagined a future in which, like an heiress who lives “between” Paris and New York, I’d live “between” 4F and 1F. Eventually we’d consolidate our things, move somewhere with slightly less proximity to garbage.
But as I said a few paragraphs ago, I was leaving. Leaving New York, like they talk about in essays and stuff. It felt obvious. Sort of religious? I felt like I’d been touched by an angel — the millennial angel that convinces people to put their things in storage and live in Airbnbs for a while. “I don’t feel like this was a decision I even made,” I told people, which was probably just me avoiding responsibility. But it’s true: One day, I knew I couldn’t stay. My subconscious came to this conclusion so I can’t really comment, but: I’ve lived here 12 years. I’m old enough to know I’m going to die but young enough to forget about it sometimes. And if you live anywhere long enough — even the most chaotic city in America — it will begin to feel small.
Also, California seems nice and New York City avocados suck.
Every time I left my apartment I’d take one (1) piece of trash with me: a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, 80% full, from my mid-2021 beef stew phase; a whole lamp; the copy of Chronic City I’d found in the lobby of my old building (started, never finished; not for me). Sometimes, the lights in Jonah’s studio apartment were on. Most of the time, they weren’t. I tried to avoid staring at my throwing-out-trash face reflected in his windows.
One night, a week before I was supposed to leave, Jonah and I jogged past each other in Prospect Park. Fifteen minutes later, we bounded up our building’s front steps at almost exactly the same time.
We made other word-sounds with our mouths. He was funny and sarcastic, which I guess you have to be if your windows face five 95-gallon garbage cans. It was cold — the sun must have set at 4:30 that day — but we stood on the stoop of a stately brownstone that had been hacked into studio apartments 50 years ago, a building that had seen decades of single people trudge up and down its concrete steps, and flirt-complained about our landlord. My trash was piled next to the stoop: dried poultry mix and two shirts I hadn’t worn since 2010. (Anything you leave on the curb in New York City will be gone within a day, even dried poultry mix.) He knew I was leaving. The evidence was accumulating outside his windows.
Days after our jog, on my second-to-last night in the apartment, Joan Didion died. This felt appropriate. Had she known I was leaving? “It is easy to see the beginnings of things,” I recited to myself, and you probably know the rest.
Some beginnings: Carrying an air mattress up York Avenue and then up 12 flights of stairs. Sleeping on someone named Laurel Harris’s couch for a month and maybe only ever talking about the name thing. Sleeping on the floor of Mera’s ground-floor apartment in Hell’s Kitchen weeks before a small roach wandered into her ear (it wandered out). Nights on 1st Avenue when the red and gold streetlights made the sidewalk into a galactic runway. Mochi balls for breakfast and cheese cubes at Westside Market on 110th & Broadway for lunch. Trying too hard and then trying not to try too hard. Wearing a backpack to The Monster. Feeling young. Feeling alone. Feeling invisible. Feeling invincible.
On my last night in 160 Sterling Place, Apt. 4F, I spent maybe an hour typing and retyping a text to Jonah. We’d exchanged numbers by then, ostensibly to coordinate his adopting my philodendron. I was about to leave for San Francisco, and, in the words of the band Incubus for some reason, “If not now, when?”
“Any chance you want to order food or something?” I deserve a Drama Desk Award for being nonchalant.
Plus, my fridge was empty. Its contents were outside 1F. It was Christmas Eve. Jonah and I are Jews, if you haven’t inferred that by now. I was pretty sure we were the only ones left in the building.
“Patrick is craving Chinese food. Would you want that?”
I wish I could tell you I did not have Jewish Christmas Eve Chinese dinner, on my last night in Joan Didion’s New York, with my crush and his boyfriend. But sometimes, people who appear extremely single are not, in fact, single. (I am single, though.) It was fine. Patrick was nice and had no idea I wished he didn’t exist. We talked about work and real estate, the only two topics of conversation permitted by New York City law. Jonah and I compared texts from our landlord. And he assigned me this essay without even knowing it.
Some endings: Three empty takeout containers. A round table. Soft lighting. Jonah and Patrick saying the word “microclimates,” instructing me to wear layers. Climbing the stairs to 4F alone. Keys in a drawer that never closed right, not even when I first moved in. My laptop on the floor in an empty room in a building built 100 years ago as a single-family home. Saying goodbye, saying “I’ll be back,” saying “I just need to get out of this city for a while.” Dropping one last bag of trash into a bigger bucket of trash on my way out.