*I just returned from a trip to New York City. I realized this essay had to come out and greet you, readers, because it was burning a hole in my soul. I wanted to share this story with you.*
“And I still don’t know how you separate where you are from what you write, or what you write from where you’ve been.” –Miranda Ward
When I read Miranda Ward’s VELA blog post, “On Not Writing (About Home)”, my mind drifted to the dissertation I finished over a year ago, a dissertation that was all about home and New York. I was born in New York, and left for Puerto Rico when I was six years old and my parents decided to return to the island. I had no choice in where I was born. I could have been born anywhere, and I could be writing this essay about that place. But my birthplace is New York, and it changed everything. I’ve been trying to figure out my relationship to New York ever since we left for Puerto Rico—hence, the dissertation.
Ward points out how oftentimes home is not necessarily a physical place but built from memories. She says, “it [her home] was invented, and continues to be reinvented, by a process of remembering and misremembering.” Like Ward, my New York home was built out of memories, but they weren’t just my fuzzy memories: they were my parents’ memories, passed down to me while we lived in our quiet little country town in Puerto Rico. The irony that they had a New York to remember but I didn’t, and that irony was certainly not lost on me, even when I was very young.
My parents met in New York in the late seventies and got married in 1979. I opened my eyes in a hospital on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1981, and we lived in the Bronx until I was six and my sister was almost one. Because we left for Puerto Rico when I was so young, my memories are fragmented: the sound of Mr. Softee, the smell of the cold, the shake of the subway car when I went to work with my mother one day, the view of the Henry Hudson Parkway as we made our way into Manhattan from the Bronx to see my grandparents on 94th Street, the floorboards under my feet when I walked into my older brother and sister’s apartment. However, these memories took a while to surface; it’s almost as if they remain in a fog until something triggers them to float above the grey haze.
My parents, my youngest sister, and I moved to Puerto Rico in the late 80s; my brother and oldest sister remained in New York with their mother. When I left New York with my parents I didn’t know I had to remember everything around me. My mom likes to remind me that when she told me we were leaving I decided I wanted to read more books in Spanish so I could learn the language. I was not aware that I had to stock up on memories before Moving Day. My parents, though, had a backlog of New York City moments to carry with them to the island. Those memories were so important to my parents’ emotional sustenance. Twenty years later, those memories still sustain them.
We left. Without fanfare or applause. There was probably applause when the plane landed at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, but I don’t remember it. We made it to this small town in Puerto Rico called Sabana Grande. My parents knew to remember New York. I didn’t.
If Colson Whitehead is right that “You start building your private New York the first time you lay eyes on it,” my New York was a room closed off to me, growing in the darkness. But I knew it was there, hiding behind the door. Was it in my bedroom closet? Was it in the first floor apartment? Was it in the shed in the backyard? Was the door in my kitchen? It seemed to move every time I found it, and I never could find the way to bust it open. “I’m here because I was born here and thus ruined for anywhere else,” Whitehead said about New York. Early on I could tell I was ruined, and I didn’t even understand why.
I left the city when I was a kid. I lived New York in the moment. Growing up in Puerto Rico, sometimes my parents were taken over by memories of their new York, and the stories would come pouring out. Sometimes it was a story about someone they knew in New York. Other times it was a reminder of what train to take where. Other times it was a flashback of a police case my dad undertook. And sometimes it was in the shape of food. French toast. Bagels. Root beer. Things I would have taken for granted if I had lived in the States. On the island they transformed into little luxuries we needed in order to get by. And when I didn’t immediately recollect what they meant by Zabar’s or Westchester, they would say, don’t you remember, Liana? I hated the fact that sometimes I didn’t.
When I was in second grade I met an uprooted New Yorker like myself, and to this day she is one of my best friends. I learned a lot from her about the ruin New York can do to you, to paraphrase Whitehead. She was homesick for New York, and I tried to understand what made her hurt so much. We bonded over the fact that we both spoke English in a Spanish school and that we both dreamed about leaving the island someday.
Years later after my second grade encounter with my friend in Puerto Rico, I moved to Binghamton, New York for graduate school. Binghamton was as close as I could get to New York without actually living in the city (and I had funding for my master’s and part of my doctorate, so there was that too). I traveled as often as I could to New York City, taking advantage of the fact that New York was three and a half hours away, and that I still had family in The City.
I would visit my brother and my oldest sister, extended family members, friends. I would take trains, get lost below 14th Street, take pictures, and, eventually, avoid Times Square by instinct, like all good New Yorkers do. One winter I remember walking around Midtown, taking a deep breath and thinking, I remember that smell. Some days I would take the 2 train to 96th Street so I could walk by where my grandparents lived and remember what it was like to sit on the sidewalk outside of the building on late summer evenings. Later, after I met my husband, a native New Yorker living in Binghamton too, we would drive down to the city together and sometimes visit his family and friends. The sound of the 4 train running past his mother’s apartment building brought back memories of the Parkchester station, where my mom would catch the 6 train to work.
New York came back to me in bits and pieces when I would go there on vacation later in my life. And all of those visits brought back my fragmented New York.
Over the years, I held onto the memories because they seemed to be evidence of my urban roots, the genealogy I was supposed to guard safely in my brain. The memories reminded us my parents and me we came from the city, even when we lived in the country. While some Puerto Ricans born in New York try to trace their roots to Puerto Rico’s towns and countryside, I traced my roots to New York’s streets.
It wasn’t until I immersed myself in how others talked about New York City that I realized that my memories (and my parents’ memories) became an important part of my identity. That remembering New York wasn’t just something that happened, but that we actively remembered it a certain way. The memories were stories. Fictions of home. (Nonfictions of home?) To paraphrase Joan Didion, those memories were the stories my parents told themselves in order to live. Sometimes, I told myself those stories too.
What’s the story I tell myself now? I was born in New York. Lived there until I was six. Grew up in Puerto Rico, in the country. Dealt with lack of electricity and lack of running water and the quietest nights I’ve heard anywhere else except hotel rooms. Moved to San Juan for college because I yearned for the city life. Became an adult in San Juan. Made San Juan my own. Flew to Binghamton for graduate school. Met a different New York while I was there. Dated my husband and had my daughter there. Traveled halfway across the country to Kansas City, and then to Houston.
I have very clear memories of growing up in Puerto Rico, but my New York childhood is very vague, shadowy. It comes in flashes: a street corner, my old house, the sound of the subway, the taste of zeppolis. But I have new memories of New York: taking the subway with my husband, discovering the High Line with my daughter in a stroller, going to my mother in law’s church in Harlem, driving through lower Manhattan to get to Brooklyn to visit my aunt, going to an Italiant restaurant in Little Italy when i first met my sister-in-law. It’s a different New York, this New York I visit, and maybe the New York home I dream up lives on in my memories. After years of dreaming of New York, I realize that my home is in another place and another time. Its time has passed. New York is mine, yes, but not like that. Not like a typical New Yorker. I’m a different kind of New Yorker.
For me, these memories served as the foundation for my love for the city. This was the place my parents love, and my husband loves, and I love too–in a weird way because it was an idea, not a place, and when I started going there regularly, the place became real. I finally have my own New York to love.