When I first moved to New York City, the noises overwhelmed me, the constant clatter of voices and horns and sirens and engines and high heels and exclamations. I’d grown up in the suburbs with the sound of cicadas and thunderstorms and the Frigidaire humming and doors slamming when my parents fought. But the New York City air was thick with steaming hot dogs and roasting chestnuts and exhaust and unfettered ambition and desire and the feeling that there was something big about to happen right around the next corner propelling me to switch jobs and boyfriends and apartments whenever I felt restless.
My third apartment was in the East Village. This was the East Village just before it was gentrified and my corner of 10th and First was home to a homeless trio (an enormous older woman and two scrawny, young guys) and a revolving cadre of drug-pushers and their customers and one brave avant-garde art gallery. My building was a run-down walk-up that was managed by a chain-smoking fifty-something couple, a barrel-bellied man with a glossy bald head and gapped teeth and a buxom woman with pipe-cleaner legs and arms and out of control hair that she tried to tame with butterfly clips and bobby pins. And almost every night their goateed son and his bleached blond girl would come over and they’d all start drinking extra large cans of Colt 45 on the stoop and the more they drank, the louder they got and I learned to fall asleep to their party still going on.
I’d tumbled in and out of advertising and acting and other short-lived jobs and blind pursuits and was teaching school to Russian immigrants at a yeshiva at the end of the D line in Brooklyn and waiting on tables in the West Village. The days were long and the pay (even with two jobs) barely covered my rent and my brother died tragically and my sister moved to France and rarely called and at night I laid awake listening for the Colt 45 gang on the stoop but my head clattered with what ifs. I started dating an emotionally unstable, struggling artist, our whole relationship fueled by the high drama that I thought I needed to feel alive. We fought and made up and fought and made up and we were loud and willful and passionately seeking something. In the meantime, the yeshiva went bankrupt mid-year because the head Rabbi was absconding funds, but I stayed on (without pay), and picked up more shifts at the restaurant and started worrying that I still hadn’t a clue what to do with my life, how to stop floundering, where to guide myself, and I saw me waking up one day, 40 and single and still counting tips at the end of the night. I was 24.
I grew exhausted of the artist and our torturous fervor and I broke up with him and he pounded on my door several nights in a row before he believed over meant over. And I swore off dating until I could delineate between what I wanted and what I craved. I knew I needed to focus on focusing and figure out what I was searching for.
And that was when my husband “Mike” walked into my life. He started working at the restaurant while doing a post grad year at Columbia before medical school. And he was polite and clean-cut and ambitious and not my type at all. But I could tell he liked me and I liked working with him. He was funny and kind and generous and he knew all about math and science and geography and how to fix things and he liked to go with me to poetry readings and avant-garde art galleries and funky bars on Avenue A and tiny ethnic restaurants where we sat cross-legged on the floor and fed one another and even though I told myself I needed more time to figure myself out, before I knew it, we were inseparable and then living together in my East Village apartment.
One night the barrel-bellied manager and his wiry-headed wife started drinking their Colt 45’s on the stoop and their son and his girlfriend joined them and Mike and I fell asleep to the sound of their drunken laughter, only to be woken by the sound of a gun and a bump and screams and sirens and more screams. We raced out of my apartment to find the whole crazy family in a shouting match and the police rushing in. Turned out nobody was seriously hurt, the bump was the mother throwing a vase at the son to get him to drop the gun aimed at the father.
Soon after that, Mike took me to the little French restaurant in the West Village where we’d had our first date and got down on his hands and knees and asked me to marry him.
Next thing I knew we were living in Norwich, Vermont on Main Street. A town so tame, the front door didn’t have a lock. The air was thin and crisp and the smells were pine needles and wet leaves and the sounds were overly polite chit chat and birds chirping and sturdy galoshes galoshing and chipmunks scratching on the roof. It was quiet and clean and peaceful and safe.
I got a job teaching high school English several poorer towns away and every afternoon on the way home I’d stop at the Hanover co-op for groceries and spend the evening trying out another a new recipe from The Silver Palate Cookbook and wait for Mike to come home. The day he started Gross Anatomy was the day I made Chicken Dijionnaise and he took one look at the saucy breast and went into the bathroom and vomited. After that he often ate pizza with his study group at the library and I’d make myself a Lean Cuisine and watch I Love Lucy reruns on TV and he’d come home late, spent and thrilled (he was dissecting a human, mastering organic chemistry and neurobiology, living his dream!) and I’d be half asleep with a book resting open on my chest. Before I had a chance to tell him about my day (not so exciting, indifferent students, alcoholic chairwoman, not my dream), he would be sound asleep and I’d lie awake hearing nothing but his soft snores and the chipmunks scratching and my heart thumping and aching for the noises, the pulse and the promise, the people I’d left behind. Wondering, was my sister lonely, was the artist still struggling, were the manager and his family fighting, was the party still going on, and would I ever figure out what I was searching for, or ever stop missing the world I thought I’d escaped?