17 November 2017


I had dinner with a friend last night, an old friend from Chicago who moved to DC the same week I had. As we gathered around my tulip table, over homemade pasta and meatballs, we reminisced about the year that has passed. How quickly time for came for us, how unexpectedly we grew to call this place home.

At lunch yesterday, as with so many work lunches, always with new friends or out of town visitors, the same question is posed: How do find DC? I pause, I smile, I take a breath, I let my story unfold.

I like it here, but that wasn’t always the case.

I moved to the District with a heart so broken I couldn’t see past my grief. At my going away party in Chicago, I pumped the jukebox at Simon’s, playing “DC Sleeps Alone Tonight” because I wanted my party guests to share in my melancholy. When I arrived, new to town, I openly wept on the Metro and in museums. Reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking on an air mattress in an empty apartment, in a town where I knew less people than I could count on one hand. I ate BLTs while perched on my kitchen counter. I went for walks in the hot August sun and took cold showers and tried my best to assure myself that this move was going to be fine. Everything was going to be fine.

My first week here, a body was decomposing in the apartment one floor below me. Something smelled amiss that first day in the apartment, but I was so concerned with figuring out being alone on my two feet, that I waved off the stench telling myself it was a neighbor’s litter box that needed tending. The day my movers arrived, making that harrowing walk up and down three flights of stairs with my bed, my air conditioner, and my life in boxes, the recently deceased tenant’s apartment was being cleaned by her grown children who wore masks and openly wept as I had been doing alone, one flight up. I was not alone in my grief. This is life, and this is death, I thought to myself. We are but ships passing in the night.

If you asked me a year ago what I thought of this town, I would tell you of my unquestionable unhappiness. Of a loneliness so deep, I found a well of tears within me that carried me through February and March of the following year. I often say in response to the inevitable question about how I find this town, that I liked it, that I moved here for the dream job - as we all do. That making friends at 28 was harder than I expected. That living alone might not have been the best idea. That this place was needlessly expensive, and that my purse strings needed to be tightened. That I didn’t know about hills, or the humidity of a swamp. That the men who holler on the train in Chicago about my body are in other towns than Chicago too. But that this town also has good things. A museum full of portraits that stays open well after the rest have closed for the night. That there’s a Santa Maria Novella perfume shop which so sweetly reminds me of my months living in Florence. That there is an intensity to many of the people who live and work here that makes conversations with new friends rapidfire and engaging. It was fine, everything was fine.

And then the Election happened. As it happened to all of us in this country. For me, a few things stand out: a hiring freeze, an unknowable future, questions about the cutting of my healthcare. I am a woman. I am an independent contractor for the government. I rely on the Affordable Care Act. I use birth control. Planned Parenthood is my main healthcare provider. I am afraid that I won’t get hired, that I will lose my insurance, that I will lose my access to healthcare, that the cost of birth control will go up, that I will have to face these challenges entirely alone. These are the thoughts that plagued me at lunch, in bed at night, on my yoga mat, on long walks with new friends, on flights home, on the Metro in the mornings.

When asked about my opinions of this place, of this life I’d begun to build for myself, I turned the conversation toward anything else. I spoke of Chicago, of the tacos I missed and the all night trains, the dive bars, the tough folks who owned winter. I spoke of my dreams to move to New York, inquiring about the possibility of a job (any job) opening up in that city. I took the bus to New York as often as I could, crashing in heaps of blankets in wobbly apartment buildings. I bought a new overnight bag thinking I would travel up and down this coast, until I landed on my feet - anywhere but here.

I let the solitude take hold of me, wrapping myself in a cocoon of my space and time and whims. I would go for long walks, sometimes crossing the diamond shape of this city on foot after work, hoping to find something that delighted me. A small ice cream shop that serves mint chip without green coloring. The bagel place that calls everyone sweetie and where the servers behind the counter know basic sign language to better serve the nearby students of Gallaudet. The Japanese market that carries shrimp chips and tiny orange fish eggs. The women who spun in a golden circle at my museum for three months, playing a guitar in the most melancholy fashion, some of whom would become my closest friends in this town of strangers. The library that keeps my holds, writing my last name boldly in all caps, as I have done for the last decade.

I searched for myself on these streets. The color blue became my beacon, glowing somehow more brightly than it had in any other place I have lived or visited. The light here is different, unmarred by buildings taller than the Capital, allowing the sun to pour into the crevices of this space, shining light and adding color in ways I did not know possible. The Potomac carves a welcome refuge for contemplation, the Neoclassical and French revival architecture giving me a traveler’s urge to run to Europe with nothing but a camera, a notebook, and a trench coat as Patti Smith had done so many years ago.

Between February and March something in me broke. I sobbed in my apartment most nights trying to figure out if moving here was the correct decision. I spent fitful nights going over the last year in my head wondering why I thought all roads led away from Illinois. I hated myself for taking this risk, and I hated this town for not being home.

And then something changed. The spring came. And with it she brought pale pink flowers, that faint mossy green glow on the trees just before they burst with leaves. An acquaintance became a friend became a partner in crime became a person I cannot see my life without. I spent my birthday eating ice cream with sprinkles on the Mall, followed by a carousel ride, and sushi at a restaurant with no ambience and a menu that is there just for show - the chef sends out what he wants. I started taking myself to concerts and voraciously finishing books. I began painting again. I tried online dating, and I swiftly shut down my account. I woke up and it was summer. Yes, the Election had happened, many months had passed, but I was still here. Working the dream job in a city that was beginning to show some semblance of what it is that I think of as “home.”

I have taken to whispering, so as not to let too many people know, that I love it here. That I did a 180. From saving my moving boxes unsure of my ability to remain in this town beyond my one year contract, to being elated at the prospect of my museum changing my status from contractor to full time. I am planting seeds here, not roots. I am nurturing those seeds with friendships I could not foresee, projects I could not anticipate, successes that continue to surprise me, and challenges that come with being a woman in a not-so-new town in her late twenties. I have a Metro crush, someone I see with some regularity on the train, who makes my heart pulsate a little bit quicker. I have those folks who recognize me at my neighborhood grocery store, and give me a knowing smile when I’m checking out. I have the newly reopened path behind my house that leads me to Rock Creek park. I have a smell of the leaves in the trees on my block that so reminds me of a small town in Michigan, it is transportive. I have my backup sets of keys safely protected by my fierce girl gang I have built for myself. I have the coffee place I like, and the neighbors who I bake for and who leave me apples and greens from their CSA. I have the book in me that I plan to write about this year. I have an exhibition of my work coming around the bend. I have the color blue, the way the light hits the buildings, the favorite portrait of MFK Fisher, a beacon tucked away into my favorite museum.