As I prepared to move, the first step of starting over was doing a belongings audit: Which things would I keep? Certainly not my ultra-comfortable-and-perfect bed, given I had been bitten in it numerous times. My wooden desk and shelves were as good as garbage considering their potential for harboring the pests. That left me with no furniture. Framed artwork would be doused with poison and kept. Clothes were the hardest audit: I had accumulated so much in my three years in New York, and actually saw this as a past-due opportunity to downsize. I only allowed myself to pick 10 t-shirts, a few sweaters, five pairs of pants, and anything that was nice enough be dry cleaned. I dropped my boots, leather bags, coats, and suits at the dry cleaner, and grimaced when I was given a bill for $700; I saw it as insurance that the things I wanted to keep would indeed be bug-free as I moved into a new home. I put it on my Visa—the now-designated “life-recovery credit card”, with my AmEx being the “travel and bills” card—knowing it was the first of more hits to come, especially given I would have to buy new furniture. I hope this doesn’t sound too mopey; I was actually excited to start over, and more than willing to pay for it, even if it came with high interest rates.
The physical belongings audit was joined with a very “head above water” approach at work and on social media. I had told a lot of my colleagues what was happening, which gave me flexibility to take time off when I needed it, for those no-show exterminator appointments, and to work from home as I did laundry and threw out dozens of mementos from past lives—I would start this next phase with just a few storage bins and duffel bags. It’s a very unsexy thing, though, becoming a temporary gypsy and feeling like you’re in a kind of free fall. I didn’t want everyday people learning I was miserable, that I dreaded going home, and believing that I was crying for help from anyone except that innermost group of friends. Those close friends would never see me as a pariah, but not the hundreds of acquaintances or strangers with whom I share innocuous life updates. So, it was happy faces as usual—or a lack of anything, really—throughout late April and early May. “Oh look, Adam is hanging out with a beagle in the park. There he is with friends in Chinatown. Nice, a throwback to when he had a mustache. His life is so normal right now; no problems here!” I know how to play the game: show the good, filter the bad. It was a nice reminder though, to absorb the blow and just move forward.
I needed an escape from everything, and very luckily had a long trip just two weeks away: first, home to Sioux Falls for my brother Keith’s high school graduation, then “home” to San Francisco for the wedding of two college friends who also moved there after leaving Kansas. The trips were back to back, meaning I would get ten days away from hating-it-for-the-first-time New York, and would move out of my hellhole apartment prior to the trip. My chief complaint about going home to Sioux Falls is that it feels like my life is on hold there, that New York City may as well not exist. That has been my biggest fear for some time, oddly enough: New York City not existing in my day-to-day life. I can’t fathom leaving this city for anything. Not an equally metropolitan place like London. Not sunny LA or even darling San Francisco. But, at this moment, nothing felt more perfect than a long weekend at home in South Dakota, where I could pretend like my New York life was a dream. Where I could put thousands of miles between her and me, and pretend it wasn’t such a nightmare.
The most vivid day of the months-long bed bugs debacle was the very last one in that Fort Greene apartment. My roommates were both away, and I had to throw out everything I wasn’t keeping, then pack the rest of it strategically: What did I need for the first two weeks of couch hopping, then for two weeks on the road, then for another month of couch hopping, and what did I need to save but would keep locked away in bins for another year? I washed all the clothes I was saving—twice in hot water, then dried them on high heat, as prescribed. Paranoia hit hardest when I found a bed bug on my flip flops as I packed—I would soon see four individual bites between each of my toes—and couldn’t trust that I had actually rid of the bugs from my belongings. But I had to convince myself that I did it properly, since I had sprayed every single non-clothing item with poison—framed photos, toiletries, appliances, a certain gypsy figurine—then sealed off the bins, sprayed them too, and taped them shut, then sprayed them again. After five or six hours of washing, cleaning, packing, spraying, and throwing away valuables, I took a minute to open Instagram, mostly out of habit. I scrolled through my feed, then navigated to Romeo’s feed, also out of habit. There, just a few minutes fresh, was a photo of the guy he was dating—a guy who, based on features, may as well be my brother—and the photo announced their togetherness in a public way that we were never allowed. At the same time, it pronounced my own not-together-ness. Maybe it was the poison I had been inhaling all day that suddenly made me feel light headed, and that brought tears to my eyes. Or maybe it was the fact that I’ve never felt so desperately and deservedly alone.
I obviously wasn’t as alone as I felt, since my friends all lent a hand to keep me on my feet. Wade (@wadeaddison) helped me rent a small van to shuttle the few storage bins to his apartment, a risk I’m not sure I would ever take on someone, even having needed the favor extended to me; it’s such a risk. Those bins stayed stacked there in his bedroom for an entire two months, and I spent roughly half of that time with him, too, whenever I didn’t have any other friends’ empty apartments to stay in. It reminded me of my first six weeks of couch hopping in New York when I moved in 2011: crashing with friends while trying to not overstay my welcome, buying time on small favors and living one week in Harlem, the next in Alphabet City, then in Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Park Slope, and Bed Stuy. This was actually kind of refreshing, getting a different angle on the daily commute, understanding the various routines my friends live each day—the agony of living off the G train, how different the morning feels in the Upper East, the joy of walking to work from the West Village. Less fun is shuttling the same luggage between each home-stay and living out of bags like a drifter. Even so, there was an upside to experiencing all these sliding-door routines again: realizing that a new start in New York is just one move away, and that my own was nearing.
The week before my trip home, I stayed in my ex Dan’s (@grossypelosi) studio in West Village, since he was traveling for work. I had looked after his apartment before, or rather, watered his one plant and otherwise pretended like the studio was my own—hosting rooftop dinners, gossiping with the neighbors, and running along the West Side Highway. I could avoid taking the subway for days at a time when I stayed there; it made the city much smaller in a good way. The studio itself felt much smaller on my final day, though: I overlapped Dan on the last night, since I had my bags packed for my flight home and it made the most sense logistically to stay put, which was also Dan’s suggestion. We blew up the air mattress for me to sleep on the ground while he stayed in his loft, and then he got a call from a college kid he was dating, someone who lived outside the city and had missed his bus back to Boston. He too needed a place to crash. Dan wasn’t about to kick me to the curb, so suddenly I was staying in my ex-boyfriend’s studio with him AND the younger version of me that he was now dating. I went for a run so they could have some privacy, and returned to an empty apartment—they went out on a date as I cooked and did some writing—then received them with smiles as they got home. We each took turns showering and stepping over my air mattress real estate, and neither of them made me feel unwanted or in the way. One week of gypsy life down, seven to go.
On my flight home to South Dakota, I thought about how willing I was to throw away my belongings and start over, to rely on other people to get me out of my defeated state. That I have friends who are willing to help me is, of course, the best affirmation in this. But I wondered why, at 28, I wasn’t in a position to stay and fight, to pay exorbitantly out of pocket to rid of the pests. I felt too free of responsibility still. I’ve always enjoyed being “low to the ground” with little savings; it’s easy to bounce back, to stay nimble. I didn’t need to change spending habits: I spend frugally for fulfillment, for expedience, for experience. But I did need to chain myself to the ground. Mostly I hoped I had used up my last lifeline. To abandon everything like that was a discredit to my successes, of having a job I love in a city that I love. I felt like a fake. I wasn’t owning up to my problems. The thing is, I’ve felt like a fake most of my life—this undiagnosed impostor syndrome of feeling unworthy of simple lavishes—because I’ve always had to rely on other people, ultimately unable to survive without dialing in support, without reverting back to those first few years post-college, where everything I got was a lifeline from relatives and friends. Having people to rely on for things is pretty terrific, but feeling like I couldn’t return the favor if asked, well, that’s pretty scary. That’s really what I wanted: to finally be stable enough to start doling out favors, to give instead of take. Because eventually, someone’s going to ask. And, as I realized, sometimes that person is me, and I hated that I couldn’t even help myself.