I pushed open the plated glass doors, hoping against modern mechanics that they would slam behind me, the impact against the frame reverberating through the steel beams of the skyscraper. This was meant to be my last exit through that doorway, and I wanted to part with a little flair, a little panache, a little something other than the paperwork to extend my health care benefits. I hadn’t passed through those doors countless times. In fact, I had kept careful tally of the times I had come and gone. The job had been disastrous, every expectation a glaring opposition to my interests and abilities. But you have dental insurance, my mother reminded me in a pitch achieved only by those who had spent years and years never having dental.
The din of passing traffic and drifting conversations along the avenue assaulted my ears as I paused to consider where to go. I couldn’t return to my apartment; I wasn’t ready to assuage the concerns of my new roommate as to how I would supply rent without a paycheck. Despite co-opting living space and utilities, we were still strangers, unaccustomed to the time the other preferred to shower, unable to sit comfortably with each other upon the same couch. I slinked along the border of the building, suddenly breathless and overcome with tension. I leaned against the wall, palms pressed against the cool metal, before I crumpled into a heap upon the gum-studded concrete. I buried my face between my knees as my shoulders heaved with each inhalation, hands trembling on the exhale.
I had come such a great distance to get to New York City. The city was the end. But the job — the one I had just quit — was the means. I had coveted this position only weeks before, believing it a divine ordering of circumstances that I had gotten it. I bid my farewells, relishing the chance to tell anyone that I was headed for a big job in a big city within my suddenly big existence. I had felt, when boarding the plane, like I was surrendering to the centripetal pull of the life I was supposed to have. Self-actualization with minipretzels. This job had placed me at the trail head of a glorious mountain climb, one with neat gravel paths and clear guideposts. Yet I had barely begun the ascent before I found myself wandering in the woods at dusk without bearings or provisions. The reality of what I had just done banged around inside my skull.
I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. I looked up, chagrin inflaming my cheeks, to see a man standing above me, staring at me with the knowledge of someone who had been slumped over his own knees before, wondering when things had gone so contrary to his plans.
He held out a strip of paper, which I gingerly accepted, before he turned heel and disappeared down the street. I flipped over the ticket with a perfunctory motion, expecting a garish advertisement for palm reading or a Unitarian congregation. It was neither. It was a ticket to a Broadway show. One that was starting in an hour. I brushed off my business-casual pants and walked tentatively toward the theater, unsure of the beacon I was moving toward but aware there was nothing else left to do.
I emerged from the show a little lighter, grateful for the charity of peculiar theater-loving strangers. As I walked the streets of the west side, the air heavy with August’s moisture, I took notice of the urban idiosyncrasies, which are unveiled most starkly at night. A woman walking her dog, oblivious to the rivulets of urine he leaves upon the sidewalk. Two men arguing in Korean before one mounts his bicycle and rides away. Friends splayed across the stoop of a building, having themselves a smoke. A man buzzing the doorbell before standing back to catch the key that is tossed from a high window. A homeless man purveying the day’s loot upon the hood of a car that was not his own.
As each vignette unfolded, I felt that curious magnetism underfoot again, the one I was enveloped by aboard the plane. The ache battering my temples lifted. The knots inside my stomach unwound. The bile that had been lapping at my throat receded.
This is what it feels like to be home.
I’ve spent the last several months in the same crouched position I found myself in that day. The end of my marriage. The end of my family. The end of my familiarity. I have leaned against walls, buckled upon floors, and agonized over how I had arrived at this place.
This past weekend forced me out of the crouch and into the middle of the country to perform before a crowd of seven hundred. I waited in the green room, head between my knees, hoping my cue would never sound. As I was led through the guts of the theater to the wings, I felt the tremor in my hands. I stood off-stage, unable to bring myself to steal even a glance at the audience, waiting for the act before me to conclude. I noted the clapping, my signal to take the stage, and as I took that first step from behind the curtain, certain that my footing would fail, I felt the pull that I had experienced in New York ten years ago.
I approached the microphone stand. I looked out at the crowd.
The ache battering my temples lifted. The knots inside my stomach unwound. The bile that had been lapping at my throat receded.
This is what it feels like to be home.
Erin Donovan moved with her family to the midcoast, where she constantly is told she says the word “scallops” incorrectly. She performs live and produces Web sketches derived from her popular humor blog “I’m Gonna Kill Him.” Follow her on Twitter @gonnakillhim.