On Still Living In New Jersey


Midway through my post-grad summer I found myself lost in New Jersey, my girlfriend living an hour away in New York, and my job prospects illusory at best. The future seemed incomprehensible and bleak. I did the only thing I could think of, which was to ignore it for while. I hopped a train into Penn Station, to try and clear my head in the city.

I’ve lived in New Jersey my entire life, in the same house. Four years of college at Rutgers, an hour south of my hometown, and now I’m back in the room where I used to be afraid of the dark. This is a humbling experience. I had a yard sale last week and, in a rush of heroic sentimentality, saved my Ninja Turtles from being laid out on a blanket with the other 25 cent toys.

At first, though, it was actually pretty nice, a reprieve from the thesis work that had plagued my senior year. I slept. Seriously, I slept as much as I could. I slept for all the hours lost studying, partying, writing, sitting hopelessly on the floor of the bathroom waiting for death in the violent throes of dry heaving. I slept through my mom going to work, my sister catching the bus to school, and I barely woke to hear my dad, retired, asking if I wanted him to pick up a sandwich for me when he went out to get his lunch. I answered, “Yes.”

I forgot the names of days, what day it was, and when events were supposed to take place. I lost all track of time, to the point that my chronological deficiency placed me on higher plane of existence from those who inhabited the “day time.” I debated with myself over what to call my first meal (still breakfast). A certain kind of pressure was off, and everybody was congratulating me for something. I saw a lot of my friends who live around here again. My mom cooked dinner a few nights a week, I spent evenings drinking beers, talking with my dad on the back porch. We planted some tomatoes in a garden near the garage.

I kept saying I’d look for jobs, and in the mean time I started working mornings doing maintenance at an elementary school, which is what I’ve been calling my time spent moving desks around and waxing floors. Then things went stale. I felt like I was being slowly reintegrated into an old life that, as much as I fought to escape, insisted on returning me to a certain routine. A month of this, and life became so sterile and uninteresting that I’d accidentally quit smoking. The only spot in town was a sports bar where they occasionally booked an acoustic cover band that played Jimmy Buffett songs. Nothing but endless cul-de-sacs and avenues, idle strip-malled highways lit by the fast food signs, everything a hurtling downhill slope toward uncertain desolation.

Sitting around at night with the air conditioner and its low rumble, and the half-drowned whispering of whatever I’d have on the TV for background noise, I would commit my daily act of masochism – straining my eyes at every conceivable vessel of pointless internet content while the hours between me and my shitty part-time job fell away. The time I’d have cleared for hours of job hunting or writing would collapse into regretful insomnia.

But this night was different. I was staring at my home state dumbly from across the harbor from Governor’s Island, waiting for the rest of our friends to get back with the fresh bottles of water we’d need to get through Fatboy Slim’s set, realizing how much something hurt. Everyone I was with was living on their own, working, interning, creating a new world for themselves out here. It was almost like I was procrastinating life, because I didn’t know what my “new world” would end up being. Every time people asked what I wanted to do I would awkwardly mumble something about teaching English in Asia, some kind of cop-out that saved me from struggling to explain what it was I was looking for, and then having to look for it.

There it was, my quandary split open in a clumsy metaphor on the harbor. On one side, Jersey City, and down the horizon the faint puffs of early fireworks from the waterfront, like some sort of epiphany I should have been having. On the other, New York, and its stark density, its sheer presence. The city and its mass, its life, the imposing gravity it has in the dark. I looked over at my girlfriend and told her that this is where I wanted to be, with her, with this. Then we got up and danced.

Living in New Jersey is like that, ambivalent, caught on the edge of great things, but still buried in a lazy sort of comfort – the soft low expectations of the suburbs, the aimless pent-up frustration. New Jersey is being near the city but not being there. It’s being near your dreams but not being there.

I didn’t want to be the guy always trying to catch the last train. So I got over my fear of cover letters, and have been steadily applying to jobs, all the while gleefully preparing to attack the next unfortunate person who questions the validity of my history major. This is how motivation should feel. Nothing’s going to happen in one burst of perfunctory optimism; this is going to take some sustained resolve.

I romanticize New York because I need to. I hate on Jersey for the same reason. I know it’s not about where I’m living, but what I’m doing, and moving to a new place isn’t going to transform my life. But when there are things calling to you – a girl, a neighborhood, a dream, an experience that seems to exist already in the imagination just waiting for you to fill it in, I don’t think it hurts to build up these expectations. Sometimes one change can be what you need to jumpstart the whole process. If I get there, and the whole idea of New York falls apart in my mind, at least I’ll have made the move. Then I can gather with my fellow disillusioned city dwellers and reflect on our varying notions of the city that drew us in and ultimately changed, making us who we are – at least, for that moment.

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image – Jose Oquendo