I saw the advertisement around February, which is the month when I think I can’t possibly drive the same five miles of Flagstaff anymore: “Studio apartment for rent, Brooklyn.” I wouldn’t say I have many regrets in my life, but there is something like a feeling of absence. I wish I had lived in New York City when I was younger and been an intern at The New Yorker. I imagine I would have been like an intellectually inferior Andy Sachs working for a writerly Miranda Priestly. Whenever I have the chance to go to New York, I book my travel quickly and without much thought, which is how the Brooklyn studio recently became mine for two weeks.
Although I’ve written about feeling like every place I travel becomes “home,” there are moments of doubt before I arrive at my destination usually centered on not fitting in. During a layover in Minneapolis, I worry that, even though I have packed all of my black T-shirts, I don’t have the right backpack or shoes for this trip. Do people still carry backpacks? Will my “dress Crocs” be capable of handling the streets of New York? Also, where will I buy groceries? I’ve marked several places on Google Maps, but it’s hard to judge distances now that I don’t walk everywhere and may not have packed the right shoes.
All of these fears are allayed as I walk the Brooklyn neighborhood the first afternoon. No one cares what I’m wearing because everyone is worried only about getting to their own destinations. The grocery store is only three blocks away. I make the same shopping mistakes that I make at home, except they can be easily corrected here. For example, when I forget soap, I walk three blocks again. Another benefit is that when I feel peckish, I leave the apartment and walk four blocks for a fresh bagel. I forget I own a car in Flagstaff until my cousin asks me if the ol’ Subaru is still running.
I am surprised by the number of rose bushes I see in the few blocks between the apartment and the grocery store. Yellow wild roses and pink tea roses and some white low-key roses. (This is how I name them because, despite my grandmother growing roses in her backyard, I never learned their proper names.) Many of the rose “bushes” are tall and hang over wrought iron fences and doorways, making everything feel like The Secret Garden, which I re-read between forays into Manhattan. When I left Flagstaff, a May snow had coated the beginning blooms of our lilac bushes making them dead on arrival. I buy lilac cuttings on a street corner near the grocery store and bring them back to the Brooklyn apartment.
People rush past me on the street and I realize that I walk too slowly now, although probably faster than I walk in Flagstaff. In some ways, it feels as though I never left the East Coast. I see friends and family, and marvel at how much easier it is to make plans without half the country between us. I walk around and over upturned cobblestones and bricks, avoid small metal fences around trees, make friends with dogs everywhere I go. I walk afternoon city streets dappled in shade, hear the rush of students as they leave school. I’m lulled into thinking I’m now friends with the barista at the local coffee shop because she calls me “young lady” every morning when I place my order. I feel in my gut that I belong here and that maybe I never should have left this part of the country.
As the days pass, however, I am reminded of why my husband and I moved. A fellow café dweller’s agitated and sharp tone disrupts me as he places a hyper-specific order for what amounts to a sweetened iced coffee. During a rush-hour subway journey from Manhattan to Brooklyn, I remember summers filled with long, public transit commutes without air conditioning, and of standing too close to the edge of the subway platform hoping for a breeze. I remember other people in other cities who thought they controlled the universe and wanted to let everyone around them know how in control they were by talking loudly. I remember that, at one time, I too thought I was in control of everything. And I remember the times I let myself be a mean person who thinks mean thoughts in a city.
I’m going down a dark path, perhaps trading what sometimes feels like a rut in Flagstaff with a rut in Brooklyn, but I realize quickly that I am the one creating that path. I pull out The Secret Garden to read on that hot subway commute. Mary Lennox arrives at Misselthwaite Manor with a “contrary” moniker, but her understanding of the place and its inhabitants transforms her. By observing the cycles of the garden, she comes to know that there is a different way for her to live. When I get back to the apartment, I look through the photographs I have taken during this trip. Most of them are of the roses in the neighborhood.
On my last day in Brooklyn, I stay close to the apartment. I wash the host’s linens, clean her refrigerator, and wipe down the living room windows and the bathroom tile. I want to be invited back and have convinced myself that cleanliness is my ticket. I do want to come back, perhaps at the same time next year. I leave the apartment for a final walk around the neighborhood. The roses are in their last bloom, fully opened, still sweet-smelling and lovely in their death throes. Next to them, pink hydrangeas are blooming. I was there through a whole cycle of roses. I promise myself I will do better at recognizing and appreciating all of the cycles of life wherever I happen to be.