Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Insight and Understanding, Courtesy of Zach Braff

The first time I saw Garden State, I knew. I sat in the theater next to Vanessa as the credits rolled, weeping openly.

"So what do we do?"

Zach Braff's character, Large, poses the question to a sobbing, beaming Natalie Portman. He's decided to stick around his hometown New Jersey suburb to be with Natalie. He's unsure of what will happen next, but he needs to stay and see. He's exhilarated. I am exhilarated.

"So what do we do?"

I dry my tears as our group of friends reassembles. "Well?" Brad asks eagerly. "Didn't I tell you?"

"Wow," I mutter. It's all I can say.

Some things just resonate: no rhyme, no reason. I couldn't stop thinking about the question Large posed. I was unhappy. I had been for years, quite frankly, but I hadn't allowed myself my misery. I ignored it and rationalized it away, until it began seeping in to my everyday thoughts.

You could leave him, it would suddenly occur to me. But I'd quickly push the thought aside. I can't leave, I'd retort. We just moved in. How can I leave?

And so it went. We went on as virtual roommates, pleasantly greeting each other as we passed by. We didn't talk about anything. I played happy and stayed away.

"So what do we do?"

Get out. I came to the decision suddenly, unsure of how to execute this newly formed plan.

New York would be my answer. It was always the answer. We had some unfinished business, she and I. An aching need to right the wrongs of 2001 and 2002 in downtown Manhattan; to forgive all that had been ripped from me in that year and to rebuild. I couldn't do that in King of Prussia, PA. I couldn't do that in this dead-end relationship.

So I moved. I determinedly clawed my way to Queens through an ex-boyfriend, mounting bills, and old apartment leases. If I concentrate, I can remember the exact feeling of that first night alone in my new life. Mistakenly getting on the R train (N, Melissa, N!). Vanessa's small one-bedroom littered with boxes. Searching through take-out menus for something appetizing. Crouched on the couch in a crowded living room, watching The Office on DVD. It was pure joy. It was liberation and Christmas morning as a child. It was the happiest I had been in my life.

Memories of that day now are bittersweet; as, in an ironic twist, I prepare to move to Philadelphia to live with the love of my life. I worried about the twinge of sadness that I felt for several weeks: was I making the right decision? Would I regret the move? Would I be a whole person still, when taken out of Queens?

And then it dawned on me, why I struggle with this: I credit Queens for saving my life. Admittedly, I didn't discover who I really was until I lived in Astoria. I made my peace with New York. I let go of the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that had nearly suffocated me years before. I achieved the proper and perfect amount of distance from my somewhat overbearing family, which was quite a coup at the time. I did it completely on my own: good job, exciting travel, great friends, fantastic boyfriend from familiar Philadelphia town.

Maybe it's not the end for me and New York. Maybe I can, in a year, convince J we need to move to Brooklyn. What better place to raise a family? Or maybe someone will publish my stunning and insightful debut novel, perhaps about a girl living in Queens, and we'll be able to afford that brownstone on 80th and Amsterdam.

Or maybe I'll find that I am still me no matter where we live; that I am still whole and good and blissfully happy. Maybe I'll look back on Queens fondly, without longing; I'll take my daughter to Astoria Park one day, and show her where Mommy used to train for marathons (by this time I'll have run one, I know it). I'll lug her giant stroller by my old apartment, past Plaza, past Athena's, up to Steinway. Then we'll head back to Manhattan on the N train, meander through Central Park and make a quick stop at Tasti D-Lite. And then maybe I'll roll her towards Penn Station, onto an Amtrak train, and wherever we end up, we'll both be exhausted and delighted to be home.

"So what do we do?" resonates still. I've come up with many answers since I first saw Garden State, but this is one I'll stick with: we grow and change and fall in love and relocate, and if we are very, very lucky, we keep a sense of humor about it all.

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