My students have been using Google Earth to learn about maps this month. There’s something really compelling about zooming in on satellite pictures of their respective homes. First there’s this whole earth, then the planet spins and stops so we see North America, zooms in on the United States, New York, and Brooklyn in one second, then drops a balloon on the general neighborhood of where we are. Then, when it seems like we have located ourselves, we zoom in again and there’s a whole universe of streets to navigate. It serves as some sort of allegory for making a decision. Particularly, how several small and large decisions made the little balloon drop right here.
I had actually gotten a job before I finished my graduate program in Syracuse. It would have been a respectable job, teaching writing at a community college in Northern California. I had a place to live. I had friends there. I had started to pack up my little attic apartment in Syracuse and then a feeling of dread made me stop.
I wasn’t so sure I had made the decision to go back west. Each time I had made a life-altering decision, it was like peeling off a coat in 90-degree heat. Each time it also seemed to involve some sort of geography. Leave a boyfriend. Leave a career. Go write. Take up with that guy. Fly away. Come back. Drive around my ex’s house. And repeat.
This decision didn’t feel like that. I had always meant to live in Northern California again after my four years in college. My mother had thrown some drama worthy of an opera when I moved out of the house to go to Stanford. I was the first in my family to graduate from college and the first one to leave home. After graduating, I spent more than a decade in Los Angeles, sort of apologizing for leaving, sort of taking care of my family, and sort of thinking about maybe living up in the Bay Area again.
Being the oldest daughter in a Latino family is like having a PhD in Obligation. I took about a decade to finish up that lesson, and was left feeling like I wanted something more than what my family expected. That was the story of my life. I wanted freedom but I didn’t know what I wanted to be free from.
I thought back to the time when it seemed the whole world opened up to me, when I felt exhilarated that my effort and luck had brought me to a new place. I had always linked Northern California with that feeling. But it was in San Francisco, during an otherwise forgettable visit on New Years Eve, that I looked out the window at the skyline and I knew that I would have to move very far away to find that feeling again.
And when I was in Syracuse, the prospect of going back felt redundant. I had been away for three years, but I had a sense that I wasn’t done.
I tried a rational course of action. If I crunched the numbers my future plans boiled down to:
a) Staying in Syracuse, taking about 5.5 part time jobs, and enduring more 6.5 month winters
b) Going to Northern California, taking 2.7 part time jobs, only to fall 20% short of making a living
c) Going back to L.A. with 0 jobs, to sleep on my mother’s couch and take an infinite number of trips to Panda Express with her.
So of course, I watched TV for many hours to stop the videos of choices A-C from running through my head, already knowing what every second of each choice would be like. I needed a choice D to appear.
Then I tried the whole “Give me a sign.” business. And one day, just weeks before the lease was up on my place in Syracuse, I got Sign #1. I was walking over to my friend’s house in the middle of a muggy afternoon thinking, “where am I going?” And suddenly I heard myself answer, “New York City.”
And then my phone rang in my pocket and it was some lady who was trying to get me to sign up to pay more than a thousand dollars to take a TESOL course in New York City. I said no thanks. But I took it as Sign #2.
Then I got to my friend’s porch and she was putting down mulch in the little garden in front of her house. We talked about how the purple flowers were doing well.
She said she had a friend who needed a roommate in Brooklyn. I took that as Sign #3.
My friend had lived in NYC for nine years before coming to Syracuse. She said that she had moved there and then found a job. “That’s the way everybody does it,” she said.
That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I didn’t trust the everybody business. I’m not everybody. I wanted someone to tell me that my choice (when and if I made one) was the right one, the one that wasn’t going to veer me off course. But then that begged the question—what course? Doesn’t that assume that I know where am I going?
I knew no one would give me the answer. Even my Psychic Superfriends gave me about three relocation possibilities each. So I put my ass in gear. I blasted New York City with my resume and packed up my apartment. Before I knew it, I was saying goodbye to my friends in Syracuse and driving to the city with my friend Tim (to whom I still owe my first born for driving that truck).
After an endless day of driving and then a three-hour getting lost detour, we made it to the brownstone where I was going to live. The two guys that I’d hired on Craig list were waiting for us. They helped us to unload the truck. Tim and I went to dinner, unpacked stuff to sleep on, and slept.
The next morning, I took Tim to the airport to catch his flight back to Syracuse. I didn’t have cash for cab fare (after tipping the Craig list movers). I’d heard that you could take the A train to the airport, and there we were at six in the morning, walking by all the closed 99 cent stores in Bed Stuy. My friend Chelsea had told me to look for the green balls that tell you there’s a subway station. We found the entrance to the C train at Kingston Throop. I had the right directions, thankfully, and he got on his plane.
Then I took the Air Train to Howard Beach to take the subway back to my apartment. Just as I got off the escalator, I saw the train pull up and open its doors. I leapt in, right before the door closed on me. I sat down, a little disoriented and out of breath.
The train started to move. It was above ground and the sun was coming in through the windows and lighting the inside of the old subway car gold. There were three sleeping people on the train, and Asian woman and a Mexican couple who all made perfect stone figurines. Instead of letting my mind race about all the things I had to do that day, I let the subway car became a gallery where I could contemplate the ancient contours of their faces. I sat and watched them until they woke up. I didn’t want to know where they were going or who they were. They reminded me of something I’d read about how artists draw better portraits when their subjects are shown upside down. It helps them not to be distracted by whose face it is or what they know about the people they are painting.
I used my directions to the airport backwards to find my apartment again. I got dressed, found my directions for the school where I was going to interview, went to the interview, did a sample lesson for two people, used my directions to the school backwards to get to my apartment, took off my suit, got a call telling me I’d gotten the job, and then took a nap. I didn’t think about the things that happened that day as signs. I didn’t think about how sore and tired I was from moving, or what I was going to do next. It would detract from whatever mystery I shared with the sleeping figurines on the train.