"This is the only place I belong," I said to SE in the back of a cab on Thursday night. Lights on 1st Avenue trickled past: pizza joints, drugstores, sushi restaurants, all open past 10pm on a weeknight.
I was talking about New York and I noticed the intonation in my voice. It was one that felt more akin to an angsty teenager pleading with a parent than a 27-year-old gal-about-town who runs her own business: not "This is the only place I belong," but "This is the only place I belong." I sounded like some sort of overdramatic pseudo-goth teenager in Doc Martens, ripped tights, and eyes rimmed dark with thick black eyeliner. Where had this voice come from?
SE had been talking about the suburbs, which he loves. A born and raised New Yorker, the idea of leaving the city's inner limits and having things like a front lawn and a driveway and a Golden Retriever and a mailbox you don't have to open with a key all thrill him.
But they're the things I spent most of my life trying to escape. Things like this cause my stomach to churn and fill me with a sense of my soul being ripped from my body. (Not so much the Golden Retriever, but, you know, the other stuff.)
I started saving money for an apartment in New York starting when I was 16 years old. I knew that I was weird, that I was different, for a long time. When I was 13 I first went on an Alfred Hitchcock kick then a Woody Allen kick, doing my best to see as many of the directors' films as I could; when I exhausted the options at my local Blockbuster, I made my way to Billy Wilder, Joshua Logan, and Frank Capra. I didn't have a subscription to any magazines like YM or Teen People, I wasn't allowed to watch cartoons, and I was happy to spend my weekends taking inventory of my parents' record collection. I made conversation more easily with adults than kids and was constantly wearing my mother's clothes from the '70s. I did not...belong. And though I didn't know a lot of other people like me (thankfully, I did end up finding some and am still friends with many of them), I knew where they were.
I read about the early eighties drag scene at the Pyramid Club. I read about the punk movement in the 1970s on the Bowery. I read about the '90s club kid scene and Andy Warhol's Silver Factory and Max's Kansas City and CBGB and Studio 54 and I wanted it all. In my mind I had found a place for the creative, rebellious spirit I wanted to be, that I would never have as a self-enforced overachieving straight-A goody-goody teenager living in suburban Fort Lauderdale. I wanted to get away from people who looked and acted and dressed and spoke all the same way and had the same experiences but more importantly I wanted to get away from myself. I wanted a place where I could be the person I always wanted to be.
I wanted to wear leather jackets and motorcycle boots like Patti Smith. I wanted to wear bright red lipstick and red high heels like a fifties movie star. I wanted to wear glitter for no reason and have nobody raise an eyebrow at me and sneer. I wanted to wear a mink coat and cowboy boots and a leopard print cardigan and have nobody look at me like I was insane. I wanted to wear fishnets and concert t-shirts with Chuck Taylors. I wanted to go to a place where the norm was a perpetual exercise in creativity, not khaki pants.
I wanted to go to gallery openings and walk up the long avenues painted with light at 3am because New York is always bright, because it really never does sleep, and I would never be stuck watching Friends until I passed out in front of the television because I had nothing else to do on a Friday night ever again. I wanted to meet artists and make my own work and walk the hallowed ground upon which so many of my idols have also tread. I wanted to eat at wild restaurants and go to a never-ending stream of concert venues, and dance until 4am then stumble into a diner and order a hamburger. I wanted to go to drag shows all the time and make friends with drag queens and drink martinis while I watched them lip-synch and perform better than any musical theatre actor I had ever seen. I wanted to go to plays on Broadway and experimental dance pieces way far off Broadway. I wanted to waltz in and out of record stores and vintage clothing stores and cafes without needing a car that I still couldn't drive because I had my feet and that's all that mattered.
I love my friends in South Florida and I love my family; I love the way the Atlantic Ocean turns my hair into a mess of mermaid waves; I love how the salty air hits my face as I drive up A1A; the way my skin feels warm and slightly greasy after being in the sun covered in SPF 4 the whole day. But I love New York, and I finally have the life I always dreamed I would have.
I have eaten dinner and watched Run Lola Run with monks; I have crashed a gala at the New York Philharmonic; I have photographed a dance performance inside the Museum of Natural History; I have hung out in artists' salons and gone to movie premieres and watched the sun come up in the East Village; I have walked Manhattan's streets alone and with friends and with lovers; I have bought a vintage shortening barrel at Brooklyn Flea and used it as a side table; I have interviewed artists who have then loved my writing and given me their work for free and it now hangs in my apartment; I have hung out backstage with musicians at Le Poisson Rouge and gone all the way out to Brooklyn only because I wanted a cup of coffee from a particular place; I have listened to pornstars read their non-fiction writing at a feminist bookstore; I have gone roller skating in an abandoned factory and drunk soju at a party in an abandoned bank. And I only want the adventures to continue.
I am the person I have always wanted to be. I cannot leave New York because I cannot, I will not, leave myself.
At 10pm on a Sunday night I am at a drag show in the basement of a gay bar in the West Village. I am watching Bob the Drag Queen ("first name Bob, last name The Drag Queen") bat his fluttery, fake eyelashes from under a white-blond pixie wig. His long red nails grip the bodice of his white leotard, detailed with black-and-white faux fur shoulders, his long legs covered in black fishnets that envelop feet nestled into white leather heels. At tonight's drag competition, called Look Queen, I will watch a drag queen with a beard eat a fake heart from a hand covered in long black fingernails; I will watch another drag queen whose dress is made entirely of playing cards and whose eye is covered in a heart made of pink glitter walk across the stage in homemade Alexander McQueen-style armadillo heels; I will laugh and I will be in awe and I will not stop taking pictures the entire time and I will think to myself, "This is the only place I belong," no special intonation needed.