• Caroline Leavitt
  • Manhattan Like Me: Or Why Location, Location, Location, Changed Everything About Me
This blog was featured on 04/10/2018
Manhattan Like Me: Or Why Location, Location, Location, Changed Everything About Me
Written by
Caroline Leavitt
April 2018
Written by
Caroline Leavitt
April 2018

Look at this photo of me in Manhattan. It’s a great one, right? I’m 28 or 29. I don’t remember. See how cool I looked? How glowingly happy?  I was brimming over with possibility, when a month before, I was living in Pennsylvania, sure my life had ended right along with my marriage.

That happiness in the photo didn’t come easy.

I moved in with my boyfriend when I was 22, and subsequently married him. We lived in Ann Arbor for a while, which was urban and lively and full of things to do, and I loved the town so much, I wanted to marry it, too. But then he decided he wanted to go to law school, and the only school that took him was in his hometown in Pennsylvania, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. “You can stay home and write,” he told me. “When I finish school, we can figure out where to live.”

You could say that moving to his hometown was hate on first sight. We were in a suburban enclave where there wasn’t that much to do, and when we did do something, it was to visit his parents (I loved them, but that didn’t mean I wanted to visit them every other day) or go out to eat at the same restaurant. We stopped seeing movies, dance, and plays because he was always studying, so I went alone or with my sister-in-law, who quickly became my best friend. I’d try to busy myself all day, and then my husband would come home at eleven, exhausted, sleeping on his feet, not wanting to talk or even smooch a little. Weekends, he studied all day. I thought this was temporary, that as soon as my husband got out of law school, he’d take a job in a city, and if not New York City, then Boston, or Chicago. I told myself I could manage it until then.

Instead, he took a job in that town, without consulting with me. His family was thrilled and I was panicked, seeing my life spool out in a place I hated, and everything began to fall apart.

My husband was still gone for long hours in his new job, and I was more and more alone. And more and more pressured to be something I wasn’t. See those curls and waves in the photo? In Pennsylvania, I straightened my hair because I was told over and over by my mother-in-law how I should dress like a lawyer’s wife now because what I wore and how I looked reflected on my husband. To my shock, my husband agreed with her. “Pull your hair back,” my husband told me. “I want people to think I married well.” My sister-in-law urged me to get “little haircuts,” the way she did, and even once exclaimed, “You’re getting too thin! You won’t be able to wear designer clothing any more!” which, she said, was an important part of the image I was supposed to have.

Why didn’t I protest? Why didn’t I leave? Because I was the only one like me in that town, and everyone and everything seemed to support the fact that I was the one who really needed to change.

I began to be more and more unhappy. When I sold my first novel and was flown to Manhattan to be feted, I had to come home early because it was more important I attend the Christmas party of one of my husband’s clients. Standing in a rented hall, with taped holiday music blaring, my husband said a quick hello, and without asking me about my trip, strode off to the other side of the room. Leaning against a wall, I shut my eyes for a second. I felt the buzz of Manhattan, the way I had strode down the streets for such a brief moment, but I had walked as if I owned them.

That night, after the party, I told my husband, “I’m not happy here.” He refused to talk about it, so I confided in my sister-in-law the next day. “Oh, no, no, no,” she said. “The answer is to stay with him. He’s rich. You take the money and have affairs. You’ll never have to work. You’ll be set for life. And you can get your love and attention elsewhere. “

“I don't want them from elsewhere,” I said, stunned, and she told me not to be silly, that this was the way life worked.

I don't need to dig up the sordid details that happened afterwards, the ways in which I was betrayed with one woman and then another. All you need to know is that we were getting divorced and I was panicked because I didn’t know what to do. Even the divorce lawyers I saw knew my husband, and wouldn’t take me on as a client, as a courtesy to him.

“Stay here,” my sister-in-law urged. “Whatever it is, he’ll get over it. You can’t give this life up.”

“Come home to Boston,” my mother begged. “You can stay with me until you figure out what to do.”

“You need to go home and keep Mom company,” my sister told me. “You’ll be good for each other.”

Amidst my grief, I knew the answer wasn’t to go from one insulated suburb to another, to be under the watchful eye of another person, however loving, who thought they knew just what I should do, and how I should be.

“I’m going to New York City,” I decided, feeling a thrill even as I said it. Friends of mine had just moved there, and they said I could stay with them until I found a place. Both my mother and sister were horrified. “New York is dangerous!” my mother told me. “What are you going to do there? How will you live?”

“I know you’re going there to seek your fame and fortune,” my sister sniped, as if that was a bad thing.

Despite their protestations, a flutter of hope took wing in me. I could find a lawyer there if I had to, one who didn’t associate me with my husband, who they would prefer.

The first day I arrived in Manhattan, I swear I actually felt the difference. It was 1981 and there was an electric current in the air. Colors were brighter. Sounds seemed to sparkle. The first thing I saw was a man with a tree branch strapped to his head, and he smiled at me, shouting, “Where do you want to go? East Side! West Side! Uptown! Down town!”

I rode the subway to my friends’ house. I was terrified because it was so fast, so packed, and two women standing beside me said, “Are you okay, honey?”

I started to cry. “My husband booted me out,” I said.

One of the women—a stranger!—put an arm on my shoulder. “Don’t you worry, honey,” she said. “You are going to be just fine. It’s good you left him.”

“How do you know?” I asked, brushing at my tears.

“I look at you and I just know,” she said, and then she gave me a hug.

And gradually, I was. I got an apartment! The first place that I didn’t have to share with anyone, the first place that was all my own. Yep, it was a shoebox studio in Chelsea for $500 a month, rent stabilized. It had a floor so slanted, if I dropped a pen, it would speed down to the other corner. There were mice. And roaches. And a chipping wood floor and walls so paper-thin, I could hear the woman who lived next to me sigh. It was a place so tiny, all I could fit was a tiny sleep sofa, a writing desk, and a small table. The kitchen had half sized appliances and no counter. The bathroom was so small, once you were in it, you couldn’t really turn around.

I had never been so happy in my whole life. In Pennsylvania, I had felt old, settled, as if everything good that was going to happen had happened already. But in Chelsea, I felt 17 again. I swear I got funnier, more alive, and even my writing got better.
Every day, I put both my hands on the cracking walls, as if they were a heartbeat, and whispered, Thank you. Thank you.

Of course, I got sad at night. I cried for my marriage. I tried to figure out what I had done wrong. But the city always beckoned me back into happiness. Back then, Manhattan was fantastically dirty, full of danger and opportunity, of trash and dog poop, hustlers and muggers, but every day I felt braver and braver. I learned to be bold, to ask couples (they looked the safest) to walk me up 8th avenue to my apartment, because muggings were common. In Pennsylvania, people believed that “if you weren’t in your pajamas and in bed by 8, there was something wrong with you.” But here, in Manhattan, the night didn’t start until then. In fact, it was at 11, the time when my husband would get home, that my friends and I went out to dance at Danceteria, The Mud Club, or the Pyramid Club, where drag queens would strut along the stage on leatherette night, singing, “Leatherette. It’s cool. It’s soft. It’s leatherette.” At four in the morning, we’d head to the Kiev and feast on blintzes and wine. I came home and tumbled into bed at six, and woke at one, and started to write.

Location. Location. Location. Oh my God, how it mattered. How it changed me. Instead of designer clothing stores, I went to thrift shops and wore vintage pieces. I paired Converse high tops with gauzy Indian skirts. Instead of the smart little haircuts my sister-in-law had begged me to get, I let my hair go wild and curly. I pierced my ears and my complex, big-as-the-moon earrings brushed my shoulders. No one had to tell me how to dress, what image to project, because I was finding my own style. I was learning who I really was. And I liked it.

Six months after I moved to NYC, my husband called. “Remember me?” he said and I shut my eyes. “I want you to come home,” he said. “You’re my wife.”

That pronoun caught me. To be someone’s wife. To belong to another so that you gave up yourself so you could be what he wanted. I held the phone close to my ear. Surely that wasn’t what marriage was.

“I love you,” my husband said, but did he? He loved the me who was docile. The me who dressed and acted right. The me who was an appendage to his dreams, but not allowed to cherish my own.

“I want this,” my husband said. “Come home. Things will be like they were.”

I looked outside my window. I had hired a locksmith to put bars on it because every said that thieves were rampant in my neighborhood, that sometimes they could swing from one window to another to get inside your apartment and steal everything in it.  “You’ll be safe,” he told me, and hearing that, I felt the most unsafe I had ever felt.

“I want the divorce,” I told him.

He didn’t believe me. No one seemed to. My mother and sister were horrified when I told them, especially my mother, who had seen my tiny apartment, and couldn't keep the horror off her face, who had been terrified when I had taken her to an off-Broadway show.  “What if you had a baby with your husband?” she said. “What if you went back and had more dinner parties?”

“I don't want that,” I told her.

“Don’t you still love him?” my mother asked, and I hesitated because the truth was, I wasn’t sure anymore. But there was a bigger, deeper truth, too. I could imagine giving up my husband, but I couldn’t imagine giving up Manhattan, the city I now adored, and how it made me feel: strong, bold and truly myself.

I took a breath. I thought about my future. Before, in Pennsylvania, it had been mapped out for me. My first husband would become partner and have longer hours. There would be more pressure on me then, to play the lawyer’s wife, to look the part. I’d be expected to have dinner on the table. “Running a home is the most important job,” my mother-in-law had told me. I looked around at my little studio and shook my head as if to clear it.

In Manhattan, my future looked different. Here, I could do or be anything.  There were only two things for sure: that the next day, I would go to a divorce lawyer, and when my lease was up, I would renew it. Who knew what could happen in this beautiful, dirty city of misfits and genius and me? I felt a flash of joy.

“Come back to Waltham,” my mother said again. ”Stay with me at my home.”

I rested my head against my wall. The woman next door was swearing quietly. Across the hall, I could hear my new friend, Beth, a dancer, practicing. I couldn’t help but flood with joy. “I’m home already,” I told her.


Caroline Leavitt is the author of Cruel Beautiful World, and the New York Times bestsellers Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow. She’s married to a man now who loves Manhattan as much as she does. You can reach her at www.carolineleavitt.com

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  • Hi Caroline. I am new to SheWrites and am taking a little time to explore. I came across your article, and as a recently divorced woman, I know I don't have to tell you how much this article resonates with me. My eyes and heart fell and rested on the line "...when my lease was up, I would renew it. " For me that day was just a couple of months ago. The absolution and peace that that decision brought could not be better expressed than with a hard stop. Thank you for sharing and inspiring. :)

  • Caroline Leavitt

    Whoops, forgot to say that the other woman in the photo was my friend Patty, who came to visit.