June 2021 marks my eleventh year in New York City. I wasn’t supposed to be here this long. The Plan™ was never to stay in New York for this long. The Plan™ was to come here for five years to learn how to be a surgeon, then go back to Chicago and be a surgeon and live happily ever after.

When I was younger, I didn’t think that carefully about my future, which is kind of terrifying to think about now, how I made decisions about my life without really thinking about them. I’m trying to be kinder to my younger self and recognize that she was doing the best she could with what she had, even if she didn’t make the decisions that my present self would make, with the benefit of hindsight.

According to knowyourmeme.com, “Expectation versus Reality” is a meme wherein parallel images illustrate “an obvious discrepancy,” usually implying that reality (the image on the right) falls short of the expectation (the image on the left). If I were to meme my life, it might look something like this:

Expectations for 2021, as projected in 2010

  • I’m a surgeon
  • I live in Chicago, near where I grew up
  • I am happy, whatever that means

Reality of 2021

  • I’m definitely not a surgeon
  • I live in Manhattan
  • I am happier than I ever thought possible

I’m lucky that, unlike the meme, my reality has surpassed any expectations. Similarly, while my own vision of my future ended up being totally off as far as the day-to-day, I think the underlying goals I was chasing were the same. Because they’re the same things everyone wants: being able to see the impact of my work, helping people, a feeling of belonging and connectedness.

When I was 25 years old and considering the arc of my life, I felt that feeling that I think a lot of people feel about New York — I was curious about it, drawn to it, and a little scared of it. Brooklyn seemed like a nice compromise because it was close enough to NEW YORK, the CITY, MANHATTAN, without being in the thick of it. I ranked Brooklyn first on my match list for residency and got my first choice. I found an apartment on Craigslist with two other people, a windowless room in Park Slope that was probably not legally a bedroom, for $900 a month.

Shortly after I moved to New York, I went back to Chicago for a wedding. The wedding photographer told me he’d flown in that morning, having photographed a Passion Pit show in Brooklyn the night before. I was simultaneously super impressed and also super proud that I could call myself a Brooklynite. (NOT a New Yorker though — I was afraid to claim that after just two months, in an outer borough, no less.)

People say the first year is the hardest. For me it was the first two years. I was working 80-100 hours a week which didn’t leave much time (or energy) for anything else, let alone exploring a big city. I mostly stayed in Brooklyn, rode my bike around, occasionally hung out with my roommates in the 30 minutes or so a day that we would actually all be in the apartment (usually if I was able to make it home from overnight call before 9:30 am when they left for work). I felt untethered.

Living here during a global pandemic absolutely did not make sense. Why pay Manhattan rent prices when you could work from somewhere else with twice as much space for half the cost? Hundreds of thousands of residents fled the city. People who claimed to be New Yorkers wrote long thinkpieces about how the city was over, overpriced, overrated, and would never recover.

And yet I never even considered leaving. I came to New York to work, and definitely didn’t think I’d be here for eleven years, but there I was, holed up in my Chelsea one-bedroom. It was a weird time1. One day I busted out my violin and played Mendelssohn’s Meditation from Thaïs in my living room, the only piece I could recall from memory after years of not having really played. My next door neighbor, a woman in her 60s who I’d never seen face to face or spoken to, applauded on the other side of the wall and yelled, “That was beautiful!”

I was startled and shouted back “Thanks!”

We’ve never spoke again since.

If I had to sum up all of my random New York memories, most of them are similar to this one. Being in some stressful situation, forging an unexpected and usually fleeting connection with another person, and immediately forgetting about it until the next time it happens with some other situation and some other person.

I no longer try to project specifics of what my life will look like a decade later. If I say with certainty I’m still in this city, I might be wrong. It does feel like I’ll be here for the foreseeable future, and if I am, I’ll still be wondering why.

  1. I say this as if it were decades ago. It was less than a year ago. 2020 doesn’t count, though. ↩︎