In 2017 I wrote an essay about longing. I submitted it to a bunch of publications, like I did with several other essays I wrote that year. No luck. I’d come to call 2017 my year of rejection, though that year I did have one acceptance—for the essay about longing. Trouble was, the editor wanted a major change, wanted me to take the turn that comes toward the end and pull it to the start of the essay. To me, that made no sense. Though it broke my heart, I withdrew the piece and for the seven years since, it’s sat silent on my computer. A few times I’ve considered updating it, resubmitting to newer publications–but it’s an essay about a particular time in my life and I want to leave it as is. All these years later, I still have a deep desire to have more work in the world. You can see that in this essay, this map of my heart.
Last week I thought, hey! I can share this writing, and it doesn’t have to push past gatekeepers. I can share it on Wonder Farm, one of my favorite places in the world. So here you go, an essay from seven years ago. If you’d rather listen than read, I’ve recorded it for you.
Thank you for being the audience that always accepts me.
MAP OF MY HEART
When I look at a map of downtown Manhattan, I see a human heart. A flipped, posterior heart, the West Village in the left atrium, East Village in the right. The lower two chambers narrowing—it must be coincidence—beneath Chambers Street and tapering to apex at Battery Park. All those skewy little streets coming in at all directions like arteries, pulsing, pulsing at all hours, ceaseless.
I have walked this map in my sensible shoes, trying to make it reassemble inside my chest. First the avenues running with the rivers and my spine, then the streets cutting across like ribs. You might laugh at how long it’s taken me to grasp that the East River is the one on the east side, but I’m getting there. The Hudson on the west. It’s in me.
I forgive myself; I started late. I first came to New York City with my husband in the month between our 40thbirthdays because it seemed about time. Our hotel was off Times Square and Chris and I had to shimmy through hooting drunks every time we took the subway. We didn’t know any better back then. One morning we found ourselves in Chelsea while aiming for the East Village. It was 2005 and we didn’t have smart phones in our pockets or the lay of the land in our bodies.
We came back with the kids when Henry was fifteen. Emerging from the stairs at Penn Station, he scanned the street with his smooth, still unshaven face and just said wow. I should have known then that I’d lose him to New York City. We’d already been homeschooling for ten years at that point. I’d left my teaching job at an elementary school to stay home with him, and later his sister and brother. Helping them route their paths, I’d learned to listen for those wows. Songs of their hearts. Map keys to their dreams.
I got so good at following their desires that I left scant time for my own.
Soon we were back, walking those streets, trying to learn the map. That old church at 10th and Broadway. Halfway down the block, beneath the iron fence with railings sharp enough to pierce a heart, the only private place near the dorm to say goodbye, to leave our oldest in a city with no private places and head back to the airport. 3,000 miles to fly, two return tickets. We cried. He cried. Eighteen and alone in New York City. We left him.
We came back, walked and walked. Learned to cross on reds if no taxis were coming. Learned the corner smells: roasted nuts, halal. Learned not to panic when the ground shook. Subway, not earthquake, subway, not earthquake! A lesson for lifelong Californians.
That eave on 4th and Broadway. Lily always said she hated cities but when she turned eighteen her compass shifted. Toward the anonymity of a place that wouldn’t tell her what to be, where learning wasn’t limited to classrooms. Where she could write her own major, shape art and education into something that hadn’t yet existed. Song of her heart, key to her dreams. Months before, Admitted Students Weekend, Washington Square answered back with cherry blossoms, sunbathing students and 78 degrees in April. In September we sought out a new private place, found that eave. This time only I cried. She just said Oh, Mama and hugged us. Turned up Broadway for her orientation, looking like she knew where she was going. We followed her with our eyes, our girl, until lost in the crowd, she was gone.
I’ve been trying to learn the map by heart, the streets around my kids’ dorms first. Both lived, unthinkably, in buildings overlooking Union Square. I have walked between there and the Bed, Bath and Beyond on 7th Avenue more times than I can count, schlepping pillows and shoe racks and under-bed boxes. I know the blocks around Penn Station after searching for groceries when Henry lived on 37th Street because I still love my children most with food. Other neighborhoods I learned by simply wandering, citystruck, like the tourist I am. Nolita, Soho, Chelsea, the Lower East Side. Eleven trips in seven years. I still get lost in the West Village, though I walk it and walk it. The kids think it’s bougie but I don’t care. Those cobblestone streets, brownstones like first edition books on a shelf. I place myself inside one after another in my mind until I don’t know where I am. Bleecker Street always screws me up. My brain wants it to run east-west like it does above Houston; I can’t let it veer north as it does, off through the Village, like a kid making a new life.
That spot near Bleecker and 7th Ave. Always there, Henry chases our cab, bangs on the window, late, brunch missed. Graduation weekend, Chris and I were on our way to the airport, livid. He lived in Brooklyn then and we didn’t get it. Didn’t get how long it takes to get to the West Village from Brooklyn on the subway. Didn’t get the anxiety of leaving film school behind, beginning life as a freelance artist in in New York City at twenty-two, that brunch was the least of his concerns.
You see what I’m doing, don’t you, inserting my family under particular eaves, into specific intersections? I’m claiming those places. Claiming that iron fence, that eave on 4th and Broadway, that spot on Bleecker as if I’ve laid my own map over it, as if New York City belongs to me. I memorize the map as if knowing how to skirt Soho when it’s jammed with Saturday tourists makes the city mine. As if rolling my eyes at Saturday tourists in Soho makes me something different, even as I fly into JFK with my return ticket booked.
Walking the streets with the kids, they point out places. Henry nods to the bodega in Brooklyn where he shot a rap video; Lily shows us the East Village bar where she sang. They call out where they do their laundry, buy their groceries, eat Israeli breakfast with bottomless coffee. Chris and I walk alongside, match their strides, but we’ll never catch up. It’s odd to think that our older two, neither yet twenty-five, are more worldly than their father and I. On a map of New York City, my college experience might take the space of a West Village block. Living at home for two years, saving money, transferring down-state for two more. I got lectured at in huge halls, highlighted my textbooks and blackened my Scantrons, anonymous without wanting to be. Two friends, one that lasted. Then back home, same as I ever was.
Once, wandering alone on Macdougall Street in the Village, looking for the house where Louisa May Alcott may have written parts of Little Women, a thought flashed past: maybe someday I’ll come here and be a writer too and off whirred my heart, spinning into the air for the quickest second until it stopped. I was a grown adult. I had a kid out of college. Back into my chest it settled, back where it belonged.
Maybe I could stay for a month sometime, take a writing workshop. But it wouldn’t be the same. I would not be E.B. White’s boy from the Corn Belt arriving with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart. I would not be Joan Didion coming in on a DC-7 at twenty in a dress that had seemed smart back in Sacramento.
I would not be my children. New York City won’t make me. I can’t claim the place as mine.
One day, a new thought. Flipping the map, I consider the heart from its anterior side. I was once their New York City. I was a place for them to become.
I grew them inside of me, hard as it to imagine now, in choked-down vegetables and unseemly doses of hope. I didn’t learn their genders so I wouldn’t write their stories, just held them inside the watery dreams of me, let them become.
Their longitude, their latitude. Me.
My body has no map of them having been there, no stretch marks, no C-section scars. Lucky, I guess, but sometimes I can’t believe they were ever inside me at all. If I close my eyes I can recall the press of an elbow, a foot, dragging across my belly wall. I’d rub my hand there, feel the odd bump, bone where bone was not supposed to be, the topographical map of me, changed. Sometimes I’d press with my fingers and the bump would disappear. Then I’d wish it would come back, but that wasn’t up to me.
Out of me, I pushed them and watched them unfold, revealing themselves, day by day, year by year, like the old-school paper map their father and I used on that first trip to Manhattan, where streets became neighborhoods, became boroughs, became city as we opened it out between us. Watching them turn from babies to idiosyncratic selves enthralled me and I left that teaching job, turned down the acceptance to a Creative Writing MFA. Twenty years I’d spend as a homeschooling parent, a fulfilling life, more intellectually satisfying than you might imagine and I don’t regret a year of it. Still, sometimes I wonder who I might have become if I’d enrolled in that MFA program. If I’d lived as a young person in New York City, my future spread like an open map before me.
Lily lives on Avenue B now and I’m learning the East Village. It’s an easy neighborhood, all numbers and letters, grid tucked up in the right atrium there. I’ve got it. I’m not sure what compels me to internalize the map. Maybe it’s the kinship I feel for this place that is making my children. Maybe it’s the unlikely belief that this city and its promise might rub off on a 51-year-old still unfolding herself. Flights from California are expensive, but I book my round-trip ticket when I can, see my loves, and start walking. 32,033 steps in one day on a recent trip, according to my Fitbit: fourteen miles. I walk and learn the streets, walk and learn the streets, walk and learn the shape of my own plodding heart.
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