Listen to The Fairest of the Seasons by Nico
Now that it’s time,
Now that the hour hand has landed at the end.
Now that it’s real,
Now that the dreams have given all they had to lend.
I want to know:
Do I stay or do I go?
—Nico, “The Fairest of the Seasons”
This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for the longest time, and I can’t seem to press publish.
When I was younger, the desire to be heard and read and validated was an overwhelming compulsion, but the older I get, the less need I feel to share myself with the world. The world grows smaller with each passing year—smaller, but deeper—and I am well-content to be my own echo-chamber, my sphere limited to my closest friends, my family, Bear, White-Harp, and my journal. Perhaps this is what it means to grow older. I’ve become more private, more introspective, more selective.
When I was younger. It’s a hard thing for me to say, either in print or in person, being as I am still young. I’m 27 years old, almost 28. At heart, I feel so much younger. But I have lived a multitude of lives in just under three decades, and I have lived more fully and completely than many others three decades older than me. Despite my years, I have grown old. Or perhaps it isn’t that I have grown old; it’s that I have grown up.
It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young.
—Joan Didion, “Goodbye to All That”
I was 18 when I first arrived in New York, 18, fresh-faced, and newly-legal. It wasn’t the first time I had stepped foot in the city; indeed, I had visited several times before. But in August of 2003, I was a freshman at NYU, just a little over two months into adulthood, and determined to live in this city of dreams. It wasn’t enough to go to school here; I was going to make a life and make it mine.
I was alone for the first time ever, really and truly alone. My parents and little brother had just dropped me off at my dorm on Fifth Avenue, and I managed to check my tears until long after their car disappeared into the zombie crawl of NYC traffic. In fact, I checked my tears so long they never came, even when my mother later told me that my then eight-year-old baby brother cried as that iconic city skyline slowly sank into the New Jersey horizon in the rearview mirror. I loved my family; I loved them so much that it hurt, but I also loved myself more.
There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter—the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last—the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements.
—E.B. White, “Here Is New York”
If you had asked me at that moment–that moment when I was 18 and alone for the first time in my life—just why I had chosen to come to New York, I wouldn’t have been to tell you. I would have made a pithy joke about Sesame Street, or perhaps even Sex and the City, but would have been unable to articulate that deep desire, that unvoiced need to be here. Right then. Right now.
I was in love. I was in love with an idea, not of a city, but an idea: a vision of a future self in a garret, an unmade mattress on a hardwood floor, empty cartons of Chinese takeaway, stacks of well-thumbed paperbacks, and a fire escape overlooking the rooftops and water towers of the buildings below. (The only thing to ever come true was the fire escape. And oh, all right, the empty cartons of Chinese takeaway too.)
Ostensibly I was in New York to study; I was matriculated at the College of Arts and Sciences at New York University, a Presidential Scholar, and a not-yet-declared-but-really-who-are-we-kidding-there-was-no-question English major. But the truth was I didn’t care about school; school had only been an endgame to this, to that moment where I stood on the 14th floor of Rubin Hall with two enormous duffelbags stuffed with the last remnants of my childhood. I had always been an excellent student, but I would never again care about grades, a fact that would be borne out by my middling 3.54 GPA, as well as the fact that I graduated a full year early. No; I was at school not to study, but to live in New York, and the sooner that began, the better.
Funny now how things seem to come full circle. Everything began at that moment, that first year I was in New York. It was the year my roommate introduced me to Ani Difranco, to the Slackers, to Nico, to this very song that I now listen to as I write this post. It had no meaning for me then, and yet it is inextricably tied up in who I was then. I can’t help but be 18 years old again when I hear it, 18 years old and playing Nico on my laptop speakers as Sarah (soon to be Eliza) and I sat with our backs to the other, working on our respective papers, but sharing and communing at the same time. It was the year I first read E.B. White’s “Here is New York” in my expository writing class, it was the year I wrote my first expository paper on that very essay, it was the year I was told that I was a real writer. It was the year I first read Joan Didion in a creative writing class, and it was the year I became JJ.
It seems weird to think about it now, the fact that I’ve only been JJ for a decade of my life. Until that moment, I was Sarah, the name I had been given at birth. It’s still the name of my childhood self, the name of someone’s daughter, someone’s little girl. I had had a handful of nicknames growing up, but none had ever really stuck. My dad had always called me a variety of names, from Gertrude to Knucklehead to Killer, and my grandmother had sometimes called me Sarah Jane (not my actual name—Jane is not part of my name at all) and Petunia, but it was only with the birth of my little brother that I became something new for the first time: a big sister. I was christened Noona then, the Korean word for “older sister” (if you’re male), but that was only a name for what I was to someone else. Not who I was to myself.
In high school, the English teacher most responsible for expanding my mind, my soul, my self, used to call me “The Great Miss JJ”. But then it was something special that belonged only to him, and to the blossoming young woman I was becoming. I was still a schoolgirl then, and unready to be the woman I was going to be. But at that moment I decided to be who I was going to be, and that person wasn’t called Sarah; she was called JJ.
Of course, the decision wasn’t made so easily at that moment, or so consciously. In fact, the decision had arisen from necessity. My roommate was also named Sarah, and there was yet another who lived on our floor, and in order to distinguish ourselves, my Sarah and I took on other names. She became Eliza; I became JJ.
(And here I am, ten years later, living with yet another Sarah. Life happens in cycles, it seems.)
I grew up in a large metropolitan city; in fact, I grew up in The Other City, in Los Angeles, California on the West Coast of the United States. People often ask me why I left. Those for whom the world never feels too large and too small at once would never understand the compulsion to leave. I love LA; it is home. But I also love the LA of my childhood, not the LA of my adulthood. By the time I was 18, my home had grown small, both within my own room and within my city boundaries. “There’s nothing here to thrill or bring you down,” Hedwig sang on my car speakers as I played over and over again the soundtrack to Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I was ready to leave.
But it was also because I didn’t want to grow to adulthood in Los Angeles. I used to tell my friends that People come to LA to be found. It’s true. How could it not be? In a town of tinsel and sunshine and Hollywood and glamour, it is a city that draws people who need to be seen. But New York? New York is a place where people go to find themselves. I didn’t need to be seen; I needed to be heard, and the only person who needed to listen was me. And I couldn’t do that in the land of perpetual summer and roses and canyons and night-blooming jasmine; I had do it in a city of subway cars and honking horns and shouts and 4AM salsa music up in Washington Heights.
And so I did. I came to this city to find myself, but maybe it wasn’t to find myself (I’ve always had a good grasp of that); it was to grow up. As my decade in New York City draws to a close, I find myself mourning. But I don’t grieve the fact that I am leaving; I mourn the loss of my younger self. I mourn the loss that punk-eyelinered girl in her ripped up fishnet tights, black tutus and ratty old Chucks, the girl with a black fedora tilted at a rakish angle as she smoked clove cigarettes outside an underground rock club at 2AM in Brooklyn, before Brooklyn was expensive, before it became tame. I miss being young and decadently reckless, irresponsible, careless. I miss the girl I thought I was going to be at that moment, when I was 18, standing alone in my dorm room in Fifth Avenue.
I still am that girl. But she no longer clamors to be heard; she’s had her say, and has now retreated into the depths of who I am today. Still there, lurking beneath the surface of my skin, waiting for her moment to come back out and play. And she does, but before long it is time to put our toys away, to fold herself back up into neat creases, and back into the drawers of memory. I am not her anymore, even as she is still me. The acknowledgment of that hurts. It hurts, but it also feels right.
With that acknowledgment also comes the knowledge that my time in New York has come to an end. In truth, I had always known my time in this city had an expiration date. The vision I had had at 18 contained only myself, room for one and none other. It allowed for lovers, for the mayflies of attraction that came into my life before spending their life in a few awkward fumbles on my pallet. I used them, I discarded them, I took them for what they were to me then: inspiration. Fodder. I ate them and their lives to fuel my own writing. I was cruel, but not maliciously so. I was a solipsistic, self-absorbed creature, untouched by concern for anyone or anything else. I was Peter Pan, “gay and innocent and heartless”, and I did not yet know how to grow up. I was not ready for the “next great adventure”.
Bear came into my life rather earlier than I had expected, or even wanted. I was 20 years old, only two years into being gay and innocent and heartless and free. Love frightened me, still frightens me, for I had ever been a self-contained, solipsistic creature. I do not want to love. I do not want to grow up. So I didn’t.
I stayed in New York long after Bear had moved on from it. And I loved it. I had the safety of his arms and the warmth of his protection, but I was (still) careless and reckless and irresponsible. I was single, solipsistic, and I could bear to have him in my life because it was on my own terms. But this too, I knew, had to come to an end. There would come a moment when I would have to face the fact that my New York vision had no room for another person in it.
It happened slowly, insidiously. Instead of a garret, the room in my mind was slowly being replaced by a house. Instead of empty cartons of Chinese takeaway, I was starting to see a cozy French kitchen. Instead of ratty, thumbed through paperbacks, I was starting to see built-in shelves and a library. Instead of an unmade pallet, I was starting to see a hand-carved sleigh bed. But more importantly, in that room in my mind, Bear was there, always there.
I suppose I should have known it sooner. The death knell of my time here sounded even before Bear received his Match down in North Carolina (back in January—urologists are speshul—and yes, I’ve held on to this news for a very long time). It was when I was home in California over Christmas break last year.
It gets harder every year to say goodbye to my family. The tears I did not shed when I was 18 now come full force. Part of it is because I love my family so much it hurts, but the other part is because I’m reluctant—more and more with each passing year—to come back to NYC. It had grown hard. I don’t know when that happened. Once I relished the difficulty, believing that because I worked at it, living here was all the more worthwhile. And for a time, it was enough. The romance of living here was enough.
When did it not become enough? I don’t know. But it wasn’t a sudden thing, a thief in the night. But perhaps because I knew, but couldn’t admit to myself, just how hard it would be to make that House in My Mind a reality here. I wanted and did not want that vision to come true. I wanted it because it was right, but did not want it because I didn’t want to feel like I was giving up.
It feels like a betrayal of New York City to say I’m ready to go. It feels like I’m breaking up with a long-time girlfriend (although, to be fair, I’ve never had the dubious pleasure of breaking up with anyone) whose life is on a different path from mine. It doesn’t mean I love her any less. I still love her a great deal. But she’s not right for me, not anymore.
A house. A car. My Bear. A grown-up life. At 18, I would have disdained those things; at nearly 28, I welcome them. And I welcome North Carolina. I relish the idea of opening up the next chapter of my life to a blank page. New York taught me that I was an adult; North Carolina will teach me how to be one.
Now that I smile,
Now that I’m laughing even deeper inside.
Now that I see,
Now that I finally found the one thing I denied.
It’s now I know:
Do I stay or do I go?
And it is finally I decide
That I’ll be leaving
In the fairest of the seasons.