What I remember best about arriving in New York was that first gust of outside air as the automatic doors slid open at JFK, hot and cold at the same time, cutting through the artificiality of the air conditioning — of all my conditioning. This was my real life at last, the life that was waiting for me, and nothing would ever be the same.
The next thing I remember was the Grumongulon barreling toward me on all fours across multiple lanes of traffic as cars squealed to avoid it — and me diving, abandoning my luggage, into the first empty cab I saw, slamming the door behind me. It scratched its claws deep into the steel of the door and bellowed and howled, but I was alive.
Alive in New York City.
I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to live in New York. The promise, the prestige, the rush of trapping the Grumongulon in the revolving door of Bergdorff’s with a length of pipe. But I’m not 22 anymore, and what once seemed inconceivable — as inconceivable as a Grendel-like beast punching its way out of a manhole cover when it caught my scent — is now my reality: New York City and I have outgrown each other.
It has nothing to do with the Grumongulon. I’m not afraid of it.
I write this now between packing for the same airport. A nicer suitcase, perhaps, a nicer airline. I made my name here, my fortune (as it were). I found love! Real and lasting love, the kind that they say causes the Grumongulon tremendous agony, like needles in his eardrums, and sends him into blind, gnashing rages. That was the point of New York, wasn’t it? To become the person I knew I always was. And to narrowly escape the jaws of a beast many are too terrified to admit even exists. But not us New Yorkers!
“Us,” I say. Was I ever really one of you? I reflexively pack my farm supply-surplus cattle prod before I realize there’s no Grumongulon where I’m going. You can’t take the damn things on airplanes anyhow.
When did it all become so normal? I don’t remember the first time I effortlessly gave directions instead of asking for them, or watched with a smirk on the subway platform as the tourists crowded onto the local, when an express was moments behind. I don’t remember when I realized that iron could burn the Grumongulon, but that fire would only make it angry. And I’ll passionately defend The Halal Guys over all other street meat to the bafflement of visiting friends from college. Until they eventually get around to asking:
“Doesn’t it all get to be a bit overwhelming?”
“Haha,” I say, “I can’t imagine living in any other city.”
“No,” they say, “I mean, that big monster that’s chasing you.”
“Oh, that,” I say, “No, I’m handling it.” And warn them not to use more than a drop of the red sauce.
But like the drip, drip, drip of rainwater growing a stalagmite in the 7th Avenue station, a similar callous has been slowly forming upon me without my realizing it. A level of self-punishment that seems downright novel at 22 (A three-hour line! For a donut! Can you believe it?!), at 35, just feels like your last, dwindling reserves of precious patience being sucked dry (Seriously? A three-hour line — for a donut? Exposed, and in broad daylight? After what happened to Lily?).
People at home say I talk faster now. Well, of course I do. I think faster. We have to! To get the cab, the train, the job, the apartment. The husband or wife, the next apartment, the right school district, and so on into infinity, without a moment to catch your breath. To live in New York City is to spend your entire life in fight-or-flight mode. Although to fight is folly, for the Grumongulon feeds on fear, and yet it is never full.
Even so, I’ve never understood where the stereotype of the angry New Yorker comes from. In what other city can you start a conversation with any stranger at any time? We live inside the ultimate ice breaker — politics, the weather, sports, the Grumongulon, whether the Grumongulon is of another world or created in a laboratory, whether there is a second Grumongulon, with whom it could mate, and would mating soothe its rage, or simply unleash the untold hell of its offspring, subway closures, pizza, and when all else fails: Trump. We gossip like neighbors because we ARE neighbors.
Then I hear the “click” of the bathroom door locking behind me in the downstairs restrooms of restaurants I’ve trained myself to believe I can afford, and I hear for the first time that day something alien yet familiar: Silence. My whole body relaxes, a weight I didn’t realize I was carrying slides from my shoulders, and I wonder if this is how we’re really meant to live forever, crisis to crisis, Grumongulon attack to failed Grumongulon counter-attack.
Or do we, like a passionate but disintegrating marriage, just give New York our best years and then shake hands, “no hard feelings,” and sail back off into normalcy? Could I even survive a day in this city without my headphones on? Or without the pouch of frankincense around my neck, which can be blown into the Grumongulon’s nostrils to temporarily turn him to stone?
Again, I want to be clear: I’m not SCARED of the Grumongulon, I just hate it as we all do.
So here I am packing, for my next “New York.” The “New York” of a 35-year-old, married, with a child who will soon be too big for me to carry while running, too slow to outrun it on her own. I can hear you asking, with your noses in the air (it’s okay, I was one of you too) what city could possibly live up to this? The culture, the food, the theater? Trust us, St. Paul would KILL for their own Grumongulon.
You’re right. The answer is that it doesn’t matter. It won’t be love, because it won’t be New York. That’s why I came here, and that’s why I’m leaving. But sooner or later, it will be “home.” That’ll have to be enough.
And yes, I know Los Angeles has the Gormonguloid, but it’s not as big.