There is the fact that I survived. What lies beyond that fact are the many losses this survival incurred. Of these losses, one is easier to talk about because it is tangible, it has a shape, a latitude and longitude, unlike the other losses—some for which I don’t have a name, only a space within me that knows things have disappeared, possibly irrevocably. As I adjust to a new life with parts of myself having been damaged and replaced, I realize that some losses are too full of sorrow, shaped like black mourning crows ascending to faraway treetops, to talk about. I can only ask questions: Will my body get stronger and allow me to create the future I desired for myself before all this? What can I release to feel free again? How can I reconstruct my life? Where do I belong now?
Since my sudden and unexpected departure from New York City, I’ve seen pictures of the apartment I used to inhabit. A friend lives there now with her boyfriend and they’ve made it look fabulous with their modern furniture: the navy blue tufted loveseat, matching reclining chair and ottoman, light wood industrial storage coffee table, whimsical lamp, new artwork, airy light blue curtains, no piles of books. All the things that are not mine. Not my dark wood leaning shelves filled with books, not my storm blue couches that pulled out for visitors, not my yoga ball chair, not my structured lamp, not my dark blue blackout curtains secured for the south-facing windows, not my candles and yoga mat, not my stacks of books on nightstands, on end tables, on the floor. All the things that I had chosen for the first space I’d occupy independently, without roommates or relatives. I imagine myself visiting now, walking across the threshold and breaking down in tears. The space that I chose and filled all on my own but never got to empty.
Instead, a few of my girlfriends emptied my apartment while I was in San Francisco, in the hospital for a month, recovering from the emergency open-heart surgery that replaced two bacteria-eaten heart valves and saved my life. While I was in the hospital, still bewildered and drugged up post-surgery, it was decided for me that I wouldn’t be going back to NYC any time soon, so why pay the exorbitant rent for being absent? Being former New York inhabitants themselves, two of my girlfriends flew from SF to NYC to generously take on the task–with the help of a few friends who also lived there–of selling and donating all the big items and packing and shipping all the rest back to SF. A month after my surgery, my apartment was empty and a friend took over my lease the next month. I never got to say goodbye. At the time, it didn’t feel like such a loss because I was too busy being grateful to be alive.
* * *
After viewing over twenty apartments all over lower Manhattan—tromping up five floors sometimes, entering other people’s spaces or spaces that had been empty for several days or weeks, imagining myself and my furniture there, making a life—I finally found a space that felt right. This one with its easy rectangular shape, only three floors up, its high ceilings giving the illusion of more space. I remember receiving all my boxes and furniture shipped from San Francisco that first day of March, after all the papers were signed and the space cleaned out, repainted. The moving men grunted up the three flights of stairs with the heavier furniture and boxes as I stood overwhelmed with nothing to sit on and a forest of boxes surrounding me. I remember the next three exhilarating weekends I spent at Crate & Barrel, Bed Bath & Beyond, and the Container Store deciding what I needed in order to settle into my new life in NYC, making the place mine.
Within the walls of the 400-sq-ft one-bedroom space, I became familiar with the sounds of my apartment. The nightly crash from the tenants above me, a neighbor during his usual 11:00pm departure, pounding down the stairs as if being evacuated, car horns blaring at every hour of the day, the fire trucks screaming down my street at what seemed like once every two hours (could there be such a need for help?), lovers arguing outside at 4:00am sounding like they were in the next room. And above all this, the normal frenetic din of the city that caused my apartment to vibrate on its foundations, buzz…buzz…buzz.
For a person living in New York City, I spent an inordinate amount of time in my apartment on the days I wasn’t working. My space became a refuge from the long hours at work, from the disappointments of relationships, from the anonymity of NYC that causes loneliness even while being smothered between people on the streets and in subway cars. I think this happened because of my south-facing windows. A few months after moving in, during one homebound weekend, I experienced the phases of sunlight moving through my apartment over the span of a day. These phases I didn’t get to see while working 10-12 hour days at the job that brought me to NYC—leaving in the morning when the sun’s early rays cast the apartment in drab grays and returning home most nights to dim luminescence from the streetlamps, allowing me enough vision to fumble the switch on the nearest lamp.
But I discovered this: for about four hours during the day, the sun shines hot and bright through the windows and the whole apartment is a sun-drenched happy place where bold colors—blues, yellows, browns, a shock of purple—and warm feelings are all you see and experience. That’s when I felt the freest to do anything. Usually I played my music loud and read, or wrote. Or danced and practiced yoga, or napped. I did whatever I wanted because it was just me in that space, with room enough for my stress to dissolve and my hopes to expand. I reveled in the strength of my body and the whims of my mind, believing life could be nothing other than this. As the sun slowly finished its day’s work, arcing below the tall buildings, I was like a cat, curling myself into the shrinking panels of warmth cast on the hardwood floor, trying to reap the vitamin D benefits of some UV, chasing strips of comforting light before they disappeared. Then, without the sun to placate me, I would get ready to go out for another New York City night.
* * *
On a 70-degree February day in San Francisco, ten months after my surgery, the ocean called to me as it used to when my thoughts became tangled and needed unwinding. I walked down Balboa Street to the ocean and passed under the wide windows of a second-story apartment, one of many in a tall, light gray block of a building. The windows were thrown open for the occasion of the warmest day in the city so far. The bright notes of recorded acoustic guitar music drifted down to me. It was an older genre, I think. Maybe 1960’s or 70’s. The upbeat tune and melodic notes were the perfect music for a warm, sunny afternoon. The music immediately lifted my mood and filled me with all the hope that a carefree Sunday can bring to someone on her way to see the ocean, wanting to feel the expanse of it ease her loss. I wished I knew the song and I felt like I could be friends with the person playing that music. I even felt attracted to the person without knowing him, just because of that music. I was in love with everything for those few minutes, after the music entered my body, made me groove and snap my fingers to the beat in its wake while I walked along. Toward the ocean in anticipation. So pleased to be there.
On my walk back from the ocean, feeling consoled, I passed by the apartment again. Its windows were still wide open but music no longer drifted out of them. I didn’t realize that I’d been hoping to hear the music again until I felt the disappointment in its absence. I took a good look at the apartment, trying to get a glimpse of the tenant through the open windows, maybe get his attention, yell up to him and ask him what song he’d been playing earlier. That’s when I noted it was a south-facing apartment. When the sun is out and as it arcs from east to west, its rays stream through those and all the other windows facing south the entire day. I remembered an exercise from a writing book that I had just read: “Write ‘Things I didn’t know I loved.’” One response those south-facing windows elicited from me was this:
The freedom of walking around naked in a sun flooded apartment that was all mine.
I wished to live in that apartment building then, in longing for my apartment in NYC. And I remembered myself in that sun flooded apartment, full of hope and expectancy, ready, and awaiting my next NYC experience. But as the sun begins to arc low, the panels of warmth cast on the hardwood floors shrink and fade away, along with that version of myself. I am here now. But over there, my New York City apartment: the only space that has ever truly been all mine in a time when I was free, whole, strong, and certain of what I could accomplish.