Published in Print, March 23, 2017 - London, England
I was never quite ready to leave. The sun rose, a blood-red ball of fire bathing the streets in a certain magnificence only fitting for a goodbye. Its radiance ignited the lies I had told myself as the wind whispered, “rush, rush, rush” as I fought to rubberneck down the avenues. One. Last. Time. I was heading home to Honolulu, Hawaii although, I no longer knew what home meant to me. JFK International Airport came into view from the tinted windows of the shuttle bus and for the first time I felt afraid to fly, these wings were not my own.
I graduated in a sea of purple as the summer heat blanketed the city in mid-May, two years ago. Catching the Subway to Yankee Stadium where commencement was to be held, strangers turned classmates with each parting of the D-train’s doors. We smiled at each other with each sashay of our purple gowns. There in those final moments of us being “students” existed this sense of community that I had never felt during my time at NYU. We didn’t really have a campus as our classes were spread out throughout the vicinity around Washington Square Park and I think we all thought of ourselves as individuals rather than peers. Most friendships lasted as long as the semester did. Everyone was trying to be someone and education was just a necessary step to getting there.
I had a few friends from school but mainly I had myself and the city. As I walked alone through snow and the crowds of summer, I experienced the true meaning of independence, a concept previously foreign to me hailing from the land of aloha. Comfort and pride consumed me as I watched tourists navigate the Subways, while I sunbathed in Central Park. I was made bold by the energy that pulsed through the air here. The anonymity. The possibility… the feeling that I, was at the center of the world. Yet, I slept with posters of surfers on my walls although I myself was a novice at best. I took every opportunity to identify with my home 5,000 miles away because if I stayed here, if I admitted that I loved New York, I might be telling myself the truth. I wasn’t ready for that. The feeling that I somehow belonged in the city came too late, it wasn’t a feeling I even wanted to feel anymore as graduation lay visible upon my horizon and with it, a one-way ticket back to the middle of the Pacific. So I told myself that I didn’t want to work at Conde Nast, I didn’t want to intern, I gave away my loafers, I carried a red, Dakine, Hawaii Lifeguard Association backpack to school every day. I wanted to go home. I found that lie to be the easiest one I told myself over the years.
I had come to New York as a transfer student from Colorado, NYU would be my fourth and final school as I entered my junior year of university there. As a recent high school grad I followed an old lover to Colorado for college. He was the Nicholas Sparks romance of my youth but the mountains were the only arms that would hold me and binge watching Gossip Girl on Netflix was the only comfort I would find during my time at the base of the Rocky Mountains. He traded my love for bottles of whisky and cans of beer and I was still in love with the person he was trying to bury. Goodbyes became easy as I hopped from school to school three times over, somehow managing to transfer all my credits and embracing impermanence too readily. The wind that blew me from place to place was my own exhale. As much as people complain about school being a pain in the ass it was really my pilgrimage for self-discovery. I changed majors at every school I attended, tried mushrooms, got caught for shoplifting, escaped death, read Plato, scaled mountains, learned how to snowboard, made friends and left them with nothing but a memory of who I was then.
I now forget who spoke at our graduation ceremony but remember how easily all 8,000 of us graduates dispersed throughout the city after we threw our caps skywards. Things have an inevitable end and a less discernible beginning. We had only rented our graduation attire so as we exited through the stadium doors we shed our purple skins, returning them to be reused the next year by a group of people who would join us as we became “alumni”. I watched as families reunited under the clattering of the Subway as it whisked by on the tracks above, carrying on with normalcy, unaware that below, lives were forever changed. Vendors were selling flowers, teddy bears holding purple hearts and Yankees memorabilia on the sidewalks. I rejoined my own family at a busy intersection. My dad’s face came into and out of view as I moved through this moment. Each time it wore a different expression, stepping to the right I saw pride, I lost sight of him, flitting into view again, I saw restlessness. He gave me a pat on the back, “way to go Ace,” he said. We ate at a diner up the road as the atmosphere settled around us. I had my moment and it was ephemeral. I took another bite out of my sandwich, digesting glory, shitting it out.
I arrived back in Honolulu with most of myself present but without the understanding that everything would now be different. I was high on my most defining accomplishment and unable to discern who I was from who I was not. Now that I was home I could be the person that I said I was in New York, entrenched in surf culture, obsessed with aloha and elated by the simplicity of life in the middle of the ocean. I was entitled to success. My boyfriend, Cole and I were going to start our own magazine and get licensed to sell Medicare and Medicaid supplement plans and that was as much of a plan as I had. Graduation had granted me belief in this possibility, I studied journalism therefore meaning, I was a journalist.
The magazine was called Wavy but according to its Instagram and Facebook pages, it is now “currently on hiatus”. Wavy was my crutch, I grasped hold of it desperately as I got hired and quit, job after job. But slowly, Wavy too started to crumble beneath the weight of expectation, the burden of my being home. We didn’t hike anymore. I still was afraid of surfing 3 foot waves, none of my childhood friends were here anymore and Cole’s surf videography career took off taking him to chase waves worldwide making Wavy feel like a ripple in the sea of change I was drowning in. Everything I had expected from being home, the sense of belonging, fulfillment, inner peace, had not come. A slow-burning bitterness began to blaze as Hawaii became synonymous with creative purgatory, I had to get out.
I was feeling out another end. My existence had yet to be contingent with the present and so I tried to starve the parts of myself that loved this place. I was working three jobs for a while and reveled in saying so, it made me feel like I was on my way out. Tears don’t stain for a reason. I spent my paychecks on clothes that I said I would wear when I got back to New York instead of putting the money into a savings account that would ensure such a prospect. $100 was a lot of money when buying groceries but not when I was buying a Comme des Garcons blazer off of Depop. My bitterness and lack of an actual career outside of the service industry seeped into the cracks of my self-worth, polluting purity where it was needed, especially with Cole. I moved out and back in three times from the rectangular studio we shared. I felt trapped but realized I had nowhere to run, the sea held me prisoner in paradise. I blamed love for the dishonesty with myself that I harbored and cloaked, too crestfallen to admit that I was the reason for my unhappiness. I hated looking at myself in the mirror. I cut my hair, dyed it blonde and tried to find happiness in the absence of genuineness.
There was no real turning point in my attitude that I can pinpoint as every day was a point of high drama as I got dressed to either sell clothes or make coffee. Writing felt like a burden rather than an act of catharsis. But somehow the smallest moments, like getting a letter from a friend, laughing with my 95 year old grandmother as she stoutly dug into a pint of strawberry ice cream, seeing my name in print, or listening to 80s rap as I pulled the muffins out of the 350 degree oven in the coffee shop before the sun rose at 6 — have all amounted to my being able to say that since graduation, I’ve been walking the earth. I was forced to figure out who I was when I realized that happiness was a reflection of how true you were to yourself.
The concept of “walking the earth” was first introduced to me during my final semester of college by a professor who I acknowledge to be god, James McBride. He wore a gold hoop in his left ear and hats to hide his balding head and taught a four hour class in memoir at 12 on Friday afternoons. On those Friday’s he’d send us out into the world, ice-skating in Bryant Park, baking cakes at a classmates apartment, to Philadelphia etc. We’d write about these episodes, tying those Fridays to parts of our past that hindsight had glazed over. It forced me to make the seemingly mundane significant as I subsequently understood the extent to which our pasts influenced our present. I clung onto this concept dearly in part because it seemed to vindicate taking the long way home. The tattoo on my right shoulder now seemed more like a prayer made in foresight than something I paid $90 for at age 18, it reads, “the end justifies the means.” I’ve been on my knees since. Diversity of experience could pay more than a six-figure salary if I let myself speak and in turn, learned how to listen. This is not how I expected walking the earth to feel but I can hear McBride’s voice in my head as he recites Writing Rule #18 (there are 20 total), “when there is judgment, there is no journey.”
Call my bluff when I say that I’m happy that I took these two years as a crash course in savoir-faire while my classmates landed jobs at Mashable, CNN, Seventeen or Refinery29, because that’s not entirely true. I do however know that without bussing tables covered in pancake syrup, feeling belittled as I tried to sell diamonds with bitten fingernails, or having to really ask myself, who are you and what do you want for yourself, that I would not be going back to New York for the right reasons. Capability is a matter of strength and being ready is a matter of self-respect.
I’ve tried many times to write about my present experience to no avail because I am still living it, it is my reality. When I wake up tomorrow I’ll still have to tell bougie, 40 year old women that they look good in cotton pencil skirts priced at $94 from ten o’clock to six o’clock. But I was on acid a few weeks ago, staring at a sherbet colored sky as the sun dipped its head below the mountains when I knew I was going to miss this place as much as I needed to return to New York. College doesn’t prepare you for life after your diploma arrives. It doesn’t guarantee a “good job” or lasting relationships. As of right now, I don’t have a place to live or a job lined up for when I land at JFK International Airport come June but I have already lived my perceptions of failure: there is nowhere to go but up. I don’t know how to end this piece because I don’t think it has one yet.