A Love Letter to NYC and My Boyfriend’s Ex

Sophie Mulgrew

I used to think New York belonged to me. Walking down Thompson Street to my studio apartment, I noted each possession; here was my bagel store, my bodega cat, my neon laundry sign in the window. I carried with me a constant sense of accomplishment that somehow, I had managed to make this unyielding place my own. I gorged eagerly on the richness of the city, indulging in every opportunity it provided and reveling in my own newcomer’s vanity. This was my place now; I had made it mine. 

When my boyfriend’s first love and longtime ex whom he was still quite close with moved across the ocean to NYC, things changed. I began to lose my city. 

She arrived while we were traveling on the other side of the country and—because my boyfriend’s room was unoccupied—stayed at his apartment while waiting to find housing. The first night she was there, while he and I were setting up camp on the Northern California Coast, they talked on the phone for a long while in a language I couldn’t understand. He laughed and my heart strung itself into clumped knots of fear. My diaphragm tightened against my ribcage. I studied my boyfriend’s face, hoping its creases might reveal something that his voice hadn’t. I tried to read between the lines of his eye patterning, to make sense of their connection through the curves and lilts of his voice. During dinner, he texted her to make sure she had gotten home safe, and I cried quietly into my one-pan chicken cacciatore. 

In the nights that followed, I tossed and turned imagining her stretching her legs in his bed, strolling down his street, visiting the neighborhood restaurants he and I had frequented. The city as I had once known it darkened around her presence. An ink stain on the tapestry of life I had worked so hard to create, she seeped into the far corners of every stitch—blackening and fraying what had once felt so sure. 

When my boyfriend and I returned to the city, I felt her presence like a plague. Every place they went together became compromised, infected. Here was the store where they shopped, where I was sure I still smelled her lingering perfume. Here was the restaurant they’d eaten at, the bar where they’d had drinks, the club where she’d told him it would be too difficult to ever meet me. Soon every street was one she had walked down, might one day walk, could be passing through—even now—as I was. I was perpetually convinced that I’d seen her. Every stiff-iron-curled head of blonde hair was hers. Every Fendi scarf and red-nailed hand and painted pair of lips. How dare she walk my streets. 

New York is, as others wiser than I have also noted, a solitary and individualistic place. It makes sense that the city breeds the kind of possessive-obsession that I embodied. In my first years living in NYC, I wanted to believe that every struggle and triumph was uniquely my own. No one had been so miserable as I on the subway at rush hour, or so wet that day walking under the empire state building when the rain fell sideways. No one had observed as deeply the faces of the artists selling on the street or felt such joy at street jazz in Washington Square Park. I felt I owned every experience, every corner. Passing tourists on my way to work I was gratified by the fact that I—unlike them—belonged here. It was mine to take. 

Social media too, has turned New York into a kind of fantastical triumph of a place. The ability to broadcast one’s life in the city allows its challenges and tribulations to feel more like achievements, like badges of honor that can be flexed: I ride the bus every day! I live in a tiny dark apartment but it's cute because it has brick walls! We post the skyline but not the rat-ridden street. We pose in the subway tunnels but lament their inhabitants. We think there is something romantic about the grit, the hustle, the angst and undoubtedly there is—but what happens when this projected narrative is stripped away? If we did not know New York City, and came to it fresh, without a lifetime of movies and photos and Instagram posts telling us exactly how and what the city is, what would we see? 

Thanks to the ex’s public Instagram, I was allowed to look at her platform any time I wanted, which became all the time. I felt I constantly needed to know what she was doing, wearing, watching, eating. Clicking onto her page became an addiction; a little shot of sickening dopamine knowing I had this window—never mind its curation—into her life. Yet, I despised the frequency with which she posted, the way she shamelessly glamorized her life in the city. I wanted to keep up, and at the same time, I wanted to be nothing like her. I walked through the streets feeling proud of the fact that I wasn’t posting about them. That I was so much of a New Yorker I didn’t even need to put it on my Instagram. 

The city, during that year, slipped away from me. It became merely a two-dimensional backdrop upon which played the drama of this ex and my relationship. The city was no longer a home, it was a set; a stage. And in every neighborhood, every street or coffee shop or park, she was the lead role. My body moved with newfound hesitancy through the neighborhoods I’d been  so comfortable in, as if, at any moment I might turn the corner and discover the illusion; the stilts holding up the cardboard, the director behind the set talking in hushed voices with a stuffy blonde haired girl. It is amazing and embarrassing the extent to which one person changed, and flattened, my experience of a place as extensive and multidimensional as New York. But it has taught me, perhaps, that my initial take on NYC was flawed to begin with. 

Now, the ex has been gone for almost a year, and the city has started, slowly, to breathe more deeply around me— to expand into new spaces and encompass new people, to exhale into long evenings unencumbered by fear. I look for sunlight on street corners instead of sun-colored hair. I spend less time on my phone and more time looking out of subway cars, into windows, through parkways and intersections. I sit at the restaurants the two of them once visited, walk through the stores they once shopped at, and—surrounded by the rush and flush of other bodies, other faces, and people with other lives—I am ashamed that I ever fooled myself into believing this place could be taken away from me. Because it was never mine to begin with. It was not my city, and it was not hers. 

On a Tuesday evening, riding the D train home from an event in Brooklyn, I am inevitably struck by the view out the window of the skyline at night. It has been a long day and I’m tired and in my head about things, but as I catch sight of the lights my body allows itself a moment of relief. Across from me, a man in oversized headphones is stirred as well, though it seems at first he does not know what by. He looks up suddenly from his phone, scans the subway car, and then, as if hearing something outside, swivels around slowly to face the city, like he has just now remembered it was there. He looks out the window for the duration of our journey across the bridge and I look at him. We are a miniature chain of watchers. Me, him, the island beyond. The lights of the city cast themselves into the Hudson in little suicides of brightness. I notice the Chrysler building, which, when I was little, my aunt would point out to me eagerly through the corner window of her apartment. Like an ice cream cone, I would say. And there, on the near shore, is the Kips Bay building where I paid a med student 20$ in cash for an Ikea lamp and lugged it home on the subway like a prizefighting trophy. In the distance, there is the store in the West Village where I stood behind the counter while a homeless man styled his miniature art pieces on the bookshelves. There is the all-pink pet shop on my street and it's perpetually cranky owner and overfed shop cats; the technician at my cousin's nail salon who asks, every time, 

whether we are sisters; my doorman in the village, heading home to his young twin daughters, never without a smile. 

I wonder, looking out, about the stories my boyfriend's ex surely has about the city. I think about the fact that she still has “NYC” in her Instagram bio (a true New Yorker would never). I hate her for taking up such extensive real estate in my mind—in the city of my mind—and somehow, now, I forgive her too. We loved the same man and we loved the same city and neither one was ever mine to keep or give away. I hold my forgiveness close to my hate. They knock against one another as I walk by the speakeasy she and my boyfriend visited, the streets they strolled down. When someone mentions her name, or the neighborhood she lived in, my hate and my forgiveness tremble, rubbing stiffly against one another, generating a pit of heat in the center of my chest. It stirs quietly inside me, always. 

To live and love in New York is never singular. Every day—every street—is extreme. Like me, the city oscillates intensely within itself. Hundred-thousand-dollar handbags and immigrant children selling gum on the subway. Supermodels and street-ridden sofas. Rats. Prada. Park benches. Trump Tower. There is no easy answer. Years from now, when I think about what the city means to me, it will contain the presence and pain of the ex; it will burst with it. But that pain will not eclipse my narrative. It will be a part of it. It will remind me that New York is something so much larger than myself, or her, or any single Instagram post or restaurant or person. 

On the first nearly-warm day of spring, a year after the ex had left, I strolled through Soho—a neighborhood she had particularly loved—taking in the sun. On Spring Street, a group of elderly women in visors chased unsteadily after rogue pickleballs. Next to their court, tourists lined up around the block for Dominique Ansel cronuts. On the far corner, construction workers cursed each other and sucked cigarettes, furious with the day’s beauty. Further down the block, overdressed 20-somethings sipped lattes and posed for photos, continually unsatisfied with the results. Small children wailed in their strollers. Couples held hands and laughed and dashed across the street, avoiding reckless CitiBikes. There were parents and acquaintances, friends and lovers, corporate lunches and housewife shopping sprees, babies and students and skaters and waitstaff and blondes. In the firm, clarifying light of midday, I loved them all.

Sophie Mulgrew is an interdisciplinary writer and artist based out of NYC. She is interested in representations of nonfiction truths across and between different mediums. She enjoys long dinners, used bookstores, and oatmeal cookies, among other things. Her work has been published in Thin Air Magazine, Papers Publishing, Confluence, Whalebone Magazine, The Gallatin Review, Museé Magazine, and more.