And then I went to New York.
If you have been asleep, New York will slap you out of it.
I boarded the Q47 bus and watched the sunrise from the bus window, mentally reviewing Manhattan’s grid of streets and the carefully plotted route that would take me to the Hotel Chelsea for a night and then on to Long Island to visit my brother. I had planned my trip to the minute and carried with me a schedule I had typed up and printed. I was 28 years old, and my life was controlled. Managed. Predictable.
I could tell anyone exactly where I would be at what time.
I considered myself old. The main crossroads of my life already past.
But New York was not going to take any of that bullshit.
* * *
I ate brunch alone in a cafe. I climbed onto a concrete wall in Bryant Park and watched the people eating lunch below me until a police officer shooed me back onto the ground with an amused smile.
I dodged garbage bags on sidewalks and visited a public library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I strolled through Central Park in my stacked heel boots until I got blisters. I bought ice cream from a bodega. And I leaned over my balcony railing and watched the traffic down on 23rd Street, men and women shouting at each other across the sidewalk, a dance studio across the street on the same floor as my room, men twirling their partners.
I could like it here, I thought. I could really, really like it here.
* * *
That weekend I visited my brother at Webb Institute, a marine engineering and naval architecture college in Glen Cove. We drank beers. We played pool in the pub in the college’s basement. I met his friends Stacey and JC and Nathan. I walked the grounds and gazed out over Long Island Sound. I wrote.
For three nights, I slept in a guest bedroom above the gymnasium. Black and white photographs of the school’s ancient sports teams hung on the landing outside my door. I stared into their long-dead faces for minutes at a time. The room had a lock and casement windows that overlooked a courtyard where a fountain splashed all night. When I arrived, I laid down and slept for two hours. The soundest sleep of my life.
I have never, before or since, felt such safety as I did then.
* * *
When it was time to catch my flight, I called a taxi, and my brother directed me to take the AirTrain.
I hadn’t wanted to leave.
But I arrived at Jamaica Station on time. My brother had directed me to transfer from the Long Island Railroad to the AirTrain, but I noticed it was labeled JFK Airport. I phoned him.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey, so does the AirTrain go to LaGuardia?”
“I’m at Jamaica Station, but the AirTrain says JFK. My flight is at LaGuardia.”
“LaGuardia. I need to get to LaGuardia. How do I get there from Jamaica Station?”
“Uhhh… I don’t know.”
“Well, can you find out?”
“I don’t really… I don’t really know.”
“What about Nathan or JC?”
“I’m not sure.” He suddenly sounded busy.
“I’m so lost,” I said. “It looks like I’m nowhere near LaGuardia.”
“Uh, no,” he said. “You’re not.”
“Okay, okay. So you told me to go to Jamaica Station, and now I’m lost, and my flight leaves in 30 minutes. Is there any way you can help me?”
“Uh, not really.”
“I just don’t know,” I said. “How can I catch a taxi? I’m looking for taxis, but I don’t see any.”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Okay.” I said, beginning to grasp that I was really and truly stranded, and he wasn’t going to help me.
“Okay then,” he said, and there was a long pause. “Good luck. Bye.” And he hung up.
* * *
I knew my brother didn’t think much of me. He cared about me. He wanted good things for me, as I did for him. But we had been cruel to each other in a cruel household as children, and our parents had constantly mocked my intelligence and accomplishments. It didn’t matter that I won recognition at my ballet or martial arts schools. That I was always at or near the top of my class in every class. That my writing had won awards in two languages. That I had worked hard to acquire expertise in language acquisition, literature, and writing. The fact was that the family story had been that I was the village idiot and would never amount to anything. Ever.
He believed that.
I think he still does.
And my getting lost, although he had sent me to the wrong airport, only confirmed this reality for him.
Or maybe, at 28, I was only afraid he thought that.
But I had never felt so utterly alone as I did that afternoon at Jamaica Station. So totally abandoned.
My brother did not understand PTSD and still does not. I was only beginning to. He had told me that I overreact to things that shouldn’t bother me. That I was irrational and unreasonable and out of control. And this is the terrible double bind that survivors are put into.
My parents and Top had stripped me of my ability to protect myself, to process stimuli normally, to develop the social skills of a functional and independent adult.
So I had become someone who was, on some level, perpetually a child. My development stalled out at age 12 when I was first traumatized, and I was left to play catch up with my peers. Trying to make sense of responses that were shaped by the most extreme of environments, by caregivers who were in fact dangerous. And because of this, I was not believed. I was not trusted. My skills and abilities were easily overlooked because what people saw first and understood least were the hallmarks of trauma: the easily triggered rage and terror and anxiety, the obsequious kindness, the disordered thinking, the fragmented memory, the hypervigilance that left me exhausted and distant.
I felt all of this then.
I felt that I was not normal and never would be, and that my brother would never make the effort to understand why or to see beyond the symptoms. Symptoms that he did not understand as symptoms.
I took the elevator to the ground floor and ended up in the bus depot, staring at a map of bus routes on a wall, trying to figure out how to get to the airport that would take me back to a life and a home I did not want to go back to.
I did not want to catch my flight.
I did not have a home to go back to.
I loathed Top.
He hurt me, and he liked hurting me.
I hated my jobs.
I hated my life.
I had no family left but my brother, and he was trying to leave me behind. I knew that was why he had moved across the country. I knew that he had to. Sometimes, when you have relatives with mental illness, you have to save yourself. I didn’t blame him.
But now I was alone.
I stared up at that map.
Brittle as an eggshell, my composure finally cracked.
And I howled
I hadn’t known human beings could make a sound like that. A sob and then a long, careening wail. I couldn’t draw a breath without the sound coming out of me again.
My voice echoed through the depot. It bounced off the tiled walls. For a second, everyone froze and stared at me, this white girl standing in the corner and wailing.
I tried to stop and couldn’t. I thought about just walking out into the May afternoon and wandering into the streets of Queens until I was really lost. Until even a map couldn’t save me. Maybe by disappearing, I could make my past vanish, too.
Maybe I could finally kill the person who had, on some level, accepted that these things happened to her because she thought she deserved them. From those ashes, someone new might be born.
And then I thought that maybe I could find a cheap hotel and max out my credit cards until I found a job, rented a room somewhere. Maybe in Hoboken.
I don’t know how long I stood there.
Long enough for the hurt to deaden a little. Long enough for the wailing to subside.
It had been such a long time since I had felt anything at all. And the first thing I felt was grief.
No, I decided. I couldn’t just up and leave everything like that. I would go back to my life, and I would figure something out. But something had to change.
Something absolutely and completely had to change.