'A Letter to the Me That Never Was' – Women of Letters

We're in each other's lives now, you and I, but it's not for the first time. I had you once before, but looking back now with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that, back then, I didn't realise what I had until I'd shipped out and traded you in for a bigger model.

Who was it that said "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone?" You know, that famous, female singer we idolise and dream of being? Oh yeah, Vanessa Carlton. Well, that famous Carlton wisdom really applied to you and I, because it wasn't until I was away from you for a year at a really pivotal moment in my life that I realised the extent of what I'd left behind. After spectacularly crashing and burning I returned to you, tail between my legs, and you showed me nothing but empathy and kindness. You supported me when you didn't have to, and without judgment. If it weren't for you I wouldn't be who I am now. Without you, no-one would care about me, or ask me to stand on stage and read a letter to you.

Because you, Melbourne, are the reason I didn't become the person I never was, and I'm all the better for that.

I know, I know: a letter to Melbourne. But I promise this is not one of those letters. I'm not going to thank you for your "hidden laneways" or wax lyrical about your coffee culture. I don't really care about those things; all a laneway has ever done is got me lost or given me a convenient place to pee after leaving Cherry Bar.

Instead, I want to thank you not just for giving me somewhere to live when I finally left the town I spent the first 18 years of my life hating, or helping me to find my people and, in turn, myself during the years after that, but I also need to thank you for being the place I could return to when I was at my lowest, three years ago, once I had finally brought myself to admit that the biggest, brightest city in the world had turned me into the smallest, dullest version of myself.

I listened to an interview with Cord Jefferson recently, where he said, "There are a lot of people who really tie their ego and their sense of self-worth to the city they live in," and, "When people leave New York, they feel like losers, like they couldn't cut it."

That's how I felt when I abandoned you, Melbourne, for a promise of a job in the biggest city in the world. Almost immediately after landing in New York City, I knew I couldn't cut it, but how could I complain?

How could I complain when I was 21 and had been promoted to a full-time position with an impressive title, from my first-ever editorial job, straight out of university, and that new role was based in Manhattan?

How could I complain when I'd never even had a passport before I flew to live there, and all of a sudden I could see the very top of the Empire State Building from my office window (when I got a moment to look up from my computer)?

How could I complain when the best falafel in the city was served from a truck at one end of my street, and at the other end was a McDonald's that, for no reason at all, served the neon green St Patrick's Day milkshakes year-round?

How could I complain about being so broke I shared a bed platonically with my best friend in our fourth-floor walk-up in Queens above a Greek cake shop owned by our suspicious landlord, when that description alone sounded romantic, just by virtue of it being a story that could only happen in the city?

That stuff sounds really cool, and if it happened on a short holiday or to a friend or in a movie I'd probably be totally charmed by those situations and that city. But the daily reality of living in a place that tries its hardest to challenge and intimidate and overwhelm you every day is the part edited out of Sex and the City, the part that creeps into the edges of Broad City and makes cameo appearances in Frances Ha and Girls and other movies about white ladies in New York.

No matter how hard I tried, how much money I spent, or how infrequently I spoke to my friends and family at home for fear that one more conversation would be the straw that broke the homesickness camel's back, I couldn't make New York work for me. I didn't exist there, as a Hasidic man named Hershey, from whom I was trying to rent an apartment in deep, outer Brooklyn, told me soon after I arrived.

An acquaintance had told me of the time she went to shake a Hasid's hand after a business meeting, and felt as though she had offended him. With this in mind, I made polite conversation with Hershey when we met during an apartment inspection, but I didn't make any moves to shake his hand. I told him of my situation – I'd just moved to New York City from Australia and had a credit card but no credit history or social security.

"It's okay," he told me, "Call me tomorrow and we'll discuss details."

I felt hopeful for the first time since I arrived in the city, and the next day, after telling my friend all about the apartment I'd found us that would mean we'd no longer have to share a bed, I dialled Hershey's number.

"You're the Australian," he said on the phone. It wasn't really a question, but I said yes anyway.

"We met yesterday and I'm just calling to confirm my interest in the place."

"You have no credit, no social," he told me, repeating the issues I'd raised with him yesterday, before he assured me it would work out regardless.

"That's right," I said.

"You do not exist in this country," he told me, before hanging up.

Ten months and seven Craigslist and AirBNB sublets later, I had racked up a credit card bill that, spoiler alert, I only paid off a few months ago, I finally admitted to myself that Hershey was right. I couldn't do it anymore.

I decided to leave New York in the middle of winter, when my depression mixed with Seasonal Affective Disorder and the thought of trudging through slush to an unfulfilling job was beyond what I could handle.

Sidenote: If I can give anyone any advice about living in New York during the winter, it's not to read The Bell Jar for the first time when you’re in a circumstance like this, unless you really enjoy crying those silent, heaving tears every morning and evening on the subway.

By the time I'd packed up and was leaving for good, it was April, when the weather had turned and the city really put on a show. For the first time it felt like it was turning on the charm for me. But, like a sweet boy who smiles and tells you nice things before ignoring your texts, I knew it wasn't going to last. The city was being a tease.

Before I left Melbourne, my friend Greta wrote me a card that said, "No one will judge you if you want to come home." When I first read it, at my going-away party, it was nothing but a sweet thought; a reassurance from a friend for a hypothetical situation that was a long, long way off becoming my reality. Less than a year later those same words gave me immeasurable comfort when I thought of how much potential I was wasting, and felt like the world's biggest failure for not being able to see it through.

Who was it that said, "If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere?" You know, that super famous singer from New York? Jay Z, right! Jay Z made me feel like total shit when I packed in New York, because "making it" there seemed like such a measure of success, one that proved your ultimate worth. What it did mean for me if I couldn't make it?

Turns out, Melbourne—yeah I kinda ran on my own tangent and forgot this was supposed to be a letter to you, not just about some other place—you didn't care that I couldn't make it there. You proved yourself as a place that gives people chances. I remember once hearing someone say that, here, you don't need to sell a bunch of records for people to come to your gigs, you don't need to be a huge name to have an art opening or book launch or any other creative attempt. The city and the people in it will give you a chance to prove yourself. And if you fall on your butt and start from scratch, reinventing yourself with new passions or pursuits, they'll likely do the same thing the next time. You can make it here like you can't make it anywhere else, and you never get shut out for trying.

"I spent the worst year of my life in New York," one of my favourite writers, Ann Friedman, wrote in an essay on packing in the city for Los Angeles. “When I decamped for the West Coast fifteen months later, I didn’t feel failure or regret but relief. For me, New York is that guy I went out with only briefly and then successfully transitioned into friendship. We were always meant to be platonic."

Ann and I have more in common than just comparing New York to an unfulfilling relationship. It's taken three years, but I, too, can see now that I didn't fail New York because I was too young or too broke or too depressed or too naive, nor because it was too hard or too harsh or too expensive. All of those things were true, but I didn't fail. I tried the city on, decided it didn't suit me, and went with a more flattering option.

I'm glad, now, that I'm perhaps a little more immune to the pull of the city than I once was. I don't romanticise it in the way I did when it was nothing more than a faraway place I saw in movies and TV shows now that I've experienced the reality of living in an apartment so tiny you need to poo with the bathroom door open because it wasn't built to accommodate a toilet and a person. Or now that I've experienced dragging my depressed self out of bed at 3a.m. to camp out on the streets of midtown in the middle of winter for the chance to see a Saturday Night Live taping, before being the first person turned away from the audience because Chloe Sevigny and Natasha Lyonne showed up and requested seats that would otherwise have been mine.

I went back to New York on a two-week holiday last year and, after packing in as many meals and activities and sights and friends as humanly possible, I left, happily, excited to be home in Melbourne and not even once entertaining the idea of returning to New York for anything longer than a holiday.

Downgrading from the biggest city in the world to you, Melbourne, sounds on paper like a step down, but in reality no decision I've ever made in my short, thankfully pretty rosy life, made me feel as secure, confident and loved as that one did.

Ann Friedman said in the essay I mentioned earlier that she has to explain to die-hard New York fans that "For me, getting out of New York felt like learning to breathe again."

In the last two weeks I've been travelling a lot, doing some public speaking and spending time with family interstate. And I never felt a more acute sense of calm and relief than I did yesterday morning upon waking up in my own bed, in my own house, in my own city, after taking my eighth and final flight in this month alone. It wasn't just a feeling of not being somewhere else—not being in my hometown, not being in a hotel, not being in another fucking airport—but being in this place. 

For me, that decision I made right before I turned 22 wasn't just about leaving a job I didn't love. It wasn't just about moving closer to my loved ones and it wasn't just about trading New York in for anywhere else. It was about coming back to you, specifically, Melbourne.

You did more than let me breathe again; you told me I existed.

Read at Women of Letters, 24 May, 2015.