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Once the Butterflies Have Settled

Posted: 01/28/10 02:48 PM ET

When I moved to Manhattan from Cambridge, Massachusetts, two and a half years ago, it was the garbage that kept me from liking the city. Others who had lived here before me and had since left said that it was the constant motion that got to them: the level of activity, the sheer amount of people, the feeling of unrest. They couldn't take the stress, and eventually chose to leave for calmer pastures.

For me it was the trash that I couldn't get over. It sat outside apartment buildings and littered the subway, and it smelled rancid. The hectic life, though, I wasn't worried about, and in fact I welcomed it. I fantasized about having a full social agenda, complete with wine & cheese parties and restaurants that served small-plate dishes, dates with investment bankers and studio artists, and a job that kept me glued to my Blackberry and let me use expressions like "I'm swamped."

But for the first two years of life here those things didn't come, as I was in grad school uptown. Sure I was busy, but with schoolwork, a kind of busyness that involves sitting in a library or a coffee shop and little to no motion. The only friends I had were the ones I'd met in school, and we mostly just hung out in the library while studying. Instead of dating, I opted for a cozy relationship with someone I'd met back in Cambridge named Brady, who had moved to the city around the same time that I did. Minus weekend excursions to the Lower East Side we hardly ever ate in any restaurants outside of Morningside Heights. I could've been living in Hoboken or Wisconsin while school was in session, and my life wouldn't have looked that much different.

During school vacations, though, I tried to get to know the city. First, its restaurants and bars. Then its art galleries, and eventually, what was going on under the surface. I did my best to navigate the once-esoteric Subway system. I ventured off the 1 and on to the N-R-W. I discovered the D train and all its speedy glory, took advantage of the F, learned to avoid the L on weekends and late nights. The spring break of my second year of school Brady and I spent exploring South Brooklyn. Park Slope, Boerum Hill, Fort Greene--we made pit-stops at each neighborhood's coffee shops and thrift stores. Walked its wide, tree-lined streets. Sat on the stoops of a couple of brownstones. Ate Ethiopian food. Back in Manhattan, the first time I walked from the Upper East Side to the Upper West, crossing through Central Park at 72nd street past the Imagine mosaic at Strawberry Fields, I realized that at some point over the past two years, I'd fallen in love with New York.

The honeymoon period lasted from the time I graduated in May to the time I started working at the end of September. That summer I passed endless days in the West Village, after a subway ride on the 2/3 from 96th to 14th street, at my favorite internet- and cellphone-less coffee shop, Doma. The evenings were spent at concerts in the park, MoMa on Friday nights and PS1 on Saturdays, Brooklyn beer gardens and Nolita restaurants, and on fire escapes.

In July, I traveled to the Middle East to visit family in the West Bank and to look for a job. I thought about New York daily while I was overseas. I wanted desperately to be back in the city, but it couldn't offer me employment, which at the time was what I most needed. The thought of not returning terrified me. My life, for the moment, was there, and I wasn't ready to pick up and start over somewhere else.

Six weeks later I came back to the States for a friend's wedding in Woodstock, Vermont, and to say goodbye to Manhattan. I received a call while driving back to the city on I-95, and by some stroke of fate, I got an interview that led to a full-time job.

Those two weeks spent apartment-hunting before I started working were among the best. I peeled away the city's outer layers and explored its one-bedrooms--both old and newly-renovated, walk-ups and doorman-buildings--until I found one I wanted at the border of the West Village and Chelsea, an exact area I'd never before explored. Deeper in love I fell as I realized how much there was still left to discover about NY. I signed a lease, finally making a commitment.

Then I started my job. Working, I soon discovered, allowed for a much fuller social life than grad school did. I could go out any night of the week without worrying about homework, and even had some money to pay for it. And go out I did--with friends and on dates, as I had recently abandoned my now seemingly too-comfortable relationship for the bright shiny city and its promise of something better.

For a while it was great. I was living the New York life to the fullest, the one I'd craved back in quaint little Cambridge. But at some point, somewhere between four consecutive long days at work and nights on the town, it became too much. All my outings started to blend into one. My interactions became less and less genuine, and I felt like a world-class plate spinner. It was like I'd gone to a buffet and put a little bit of each dish on my plate. When mixed together, everything tasted bland.

It struck me that I was at last experiencing the busyness, so intrinsic to New York, that I'd heard about. This was the city's biggest flaw: its seemingly infinite realm of possibility. It presents no limits, just endless options - a quality that was starting to drive me insane.

I spent a weekend on my couch, motionless, reading Wherever You Go There You Are at the recommendation of a friend and wondering what to do. Should I end it with New York? D.C., where I'd worked years prior and had grown to detest, was starting to look truly sexy with its manageable size and confined-ness. So was Ramallah, the West Bank city that I'd almost moved to. Had I made a mistake by turning it down?

Then I began to wonder if I should've ever come to NYC at all. It's always been my belief that ignorance is bliss, and in this case, it surely would've been. Because now the problem was that if I left, I knew I'd compare every other town to this one. And none would live up. What other city would let me drop off my laundry and have it washed and folded for $9.80? Or would deliver Chicken Tikka Masala to my door at 1 a.m.? Or put me in such close proximity to so many of my friends? And when I thought about those moments, so few and far between, spent at home at my desk with a bottle of Bordeaux and a view of the Empire State Building, I remembered what I'd fallen in love with about New York to begin with: its potential to be whatever you want it to be, once you've figured out what that is.

During my courtship with Manhattan, the garbage became less and less noticeable to me. A friend would visit from out of town and remark on it; I'd think to myself, "huh, I didn't even notice that giant pile of trash bags on the corner, with furry creatures scurrying in and out of the not-so-durable Glad bags." Though I never thought it possible, I've grown used the garbage as I've gotten to know the city better, as Manhattan's become a part of who I am. I've learned to anticipate the regularity of its presence outside my stoop. And as I sit across from unfamiliar faces at unfamiliar restaurants, with high hopes for impassioned conversation and excitement, I think about the relationship I left behind and wonder what was so wrong with quiet evenings at home, cooking and reading, and being together without even having to speak.

The honeymoon may be over. As I ease in to the day-to-day of New York, I may discover some of the city's deeper, less superficial flaws. But if it's really love, then I'll have to accept them, and adjust to them. I'll learn to limit my outings, to prioritize, to focus on the things I want most and the projects dearest to me. To slow down so that my heart stops racing.

Passion dies; butterflies flutter away, and they're meant to. Who could live with constant excitement and unease? Sometimes the comfort of routine is necessary for real life to take place. And in those real life moments, if I can still love--in the face of veggie peels and rats, of everyday simplicity--I'll know I'm home.