How the Big Apple Saved my Life…
Alicia Keys’ hit single ‘Empire State of Mind‘ was definitely the background music to my first trip to New York (and the second, and the third). I just fell in love with everything about the place from the moment my fingers traced the Gotham-like outline of the shiny skyscrapers dappled in evening sunlight through the aircraft window on touchdown. I couldn’t wait to explore, soak it all up, run up and down the keys on the piano like a female Tom Hanks in the FAO Schwarz store and feast on donut after pizza slice after pancake after cheeseburger after bagel… Followed of course, by several Manhattans. All without being told I needed to watch my waistline.
But the very fact that I was there at all was nothing short of a miracle. Because my first trip to New York was slap bang in the middle of an abusive relationship. One where I was kept on a very short leash. And I knew I would pay for it when I got back.
I had initially suggested to my then boyfriend that he might like to go with me…
We had plenty of money, flights and hotels were next to nothing (this sadly being not long after 9/11) but what do you know, getting a new carpet was far more important and I was brandished with all the names under the sun for even thinking about having fun… as well as for imagining I was anything other than a housewife with ideas way above my station!
My big sister stepped in
And that reassured him. Kind of. Because she was family. And family to him meant invisible loyalty. So, even though she was single, she could presumably be trusted to see that I was towing the line. And actually I did – the fidelity line that is… on this occasion anyway. Oh sure, we flirted with the police outside the NY Stock Exchange and got our pictures taken, we got chatted up by bankers fringing the bars of Wall Street, and we got more than our fair share of eyeballing from the city’s rich boys in the cocktail bars and Irish pubs of an evening. But we weren’t even there for that. And New York being infamous for its ‘one on the way in, one current, one on the way out’ dating policy, we were hardly going to be invited back to anybody’s sardine tin of an apartment during our four night break!
No, this was a voyage of discovery, a journey of freedom
And like those before me who had landed on Ellis island (some of whom were from my own blood line), I sensed something was changing in my own life. I knew that things would never be the same again once I returned to the UK. Sure, I knew I wasn’t going to up and leave him straight away. I needed to plan my escape route. But the seed had been planted. After just hours in this exciting metropolis, I realised I could vanish. I could come here (or somewhere else like here) and morph into a number; a person with no name, no history etched all over my face. I could start again, wipe the slate clean. I could be me. The real me. The me who was yearning to break out in celebration just like the dancers in a cheesy Hollywood movie where everyone instinctively boogies in the middle of Times Square, just happening to know all the moves, just happening to be in synch.
But it was Antonio Banderas who really sent me the message…
We’d seen him on Broadway in the musical ‘Nine‘. Oh boy was I starstruck! So much so, that I wasted all of the film in my disposable camera snapping at his then cowboy boot-clad wife, Melanie Griffiths, who was waiting for him at the back door of the theatre next to their stretch limo. To see this man in the flesh was obviously quite something. A palpitating heart took on a new meaning. But for me it was also a snapshot-in-time moment of utter clarity. He had left all he knew behind. He had grown up in Malaga, Spain, where he had a regular, humble beginning. And now here he was, a star. And I am not saying you have to come to America to be an icon, to live the Golden Life. But there is something so refreshing about this place, its people, its can-do positive approach to life. Everybody is high fived and slapped on the back (nicely).
Everybody is encouraged to make it
And suddenly my old life started to fragment into pieces around my feet. It was a wonderful feeling, an exhilarating feeling. I wanted to pick up those limitations and toss them into the air like confetti, grab Antonio by the hand and waltz off to Central Park with him – a Pied Piper-esque trail of happy people no doubt following on behind us in glee… Whilst Melanie continued to tap tap tap with her pointy boots, hands very firmly on hips.
Suddenly I knew…
I absolutely would make it. I would leave him. I would escape. My negations turned into I wills, I cans and I ams. And as we toured the city (me and my sis that is, sadly Melanie did drag Antonio into the limo and back to their penthouse apartment) I became more and more uplifted by every sight. All around me New York seemed to be sending me private messages. My intuition knew it… Ground Zero spoke of liberation like nowhere else. The placards and pictures were haunting. And of course they were there for the thousands of lost Loved Ones. But I think the spirit of those messages has something to teach all of humanity. We all have a right to be free from terror, in whatever form that takes.
Then we would walk into a shop and we’d just happen to catch the tail end of a conversation about freedom and equality for women. We would glance in a window display and a poster would be advertising the debut novel of a new author (I’m a writer, and back then the man in my life delighted in trampling over my dream). We would catch a song in a diner whose lyrics blurted out about escape from a life that wasn’t working and release from the shackles. We even chanced upon a proposal at the top of the Empire State Building. And if that wasn’t a sign that leaving a domestic violence relationship was the best move forward, I don’t know what was!
For four days and four nights the sun shone and the stars danced
It sounds so cliche, but it’s true. This is a magical city! Nowhere else in the world puts on this kind of show. Sure you will find many with ‘glass half full’ perceptions who will zoom in on the lack, the poverty, the pollution, the freneticism here. But they are missing the point. New York, New Me is all I have to say to them. It may have taken me 18 months to do it, but one day I woke up feeling strong enough, those memories of New York shouting ‘do it, do it’ until I could no longer quell their desire to be heard.
And that is why I encourage every single one of you who is going through turmoil… especially from a controlling partner, to come here. Just preferably without them – whoever your them(s) might be!
Because New York isn’t just about The Statue of Liberty (oh how aptly named though, she practically looked me in the eye as we sailed past her), shopping, capitalism, yellow cabs, fashion shows and Sex and The City. New York is an energy. A very special kind of energy. And it is this kind of energy which changes so many lives… for the better.