The Art of Surviving a Move to New York
Dina Nayeri on Divorce, Assimilation, and Trying on New Identities
In 2013, I moved to New York City alone. I had just divorced and graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop. My first novel had been released—waiting for it had been my only remaining tether to a former life. With its release, my last connection to the functional adult world was severed and I was unmoored. My roommates bought me a cake. My classmates came to my readings. I felt their love and support, and yet I was terrified. I felt like I was being pushed out of a very comfortable nest. How would I survive?
My ex-husband and I were still friends then, and he had offered to drive me and my giant truck to my new home in New York City. Two years before, he had helped move my things from our home in Amsterdam to Iowa City, where I had taken up a place at the workshop. Now, he would install me in New York and our life together would be finished—one final road trip. But the night before he was set to arrive, he called from Amsterdam and cancelled.
I was in the home of my friends Casey and Karen around the corner, having wine with a group of writers. When I stepped out to take the call, everyone knew what was coming. And if they didn’t then, they knew by the time they heard me screaming in the quiet Iowa City sidewalk. I had been counting on that ride. How was I going to drive a truck? After twelve years in this marriage, I hardly knew how to do anything for myself.
Inside, everyone was silent. My roommate, Jen, chin in hand, was staring at the door. Something was brewing in her mischievous head. She said, “What about all the boxes of clothes he sent to our house?”
Before I could respond, my friends had refilled their wine glasses and started marching to our pretty yellow house. In the foyer waited a pile of boxes: clothes he had ordered from Nordstrom to try on and possibly return. He always did this when traveling to the States, and he took great pride in his wardrobe. Within moments, they were grabbing the boxes at the door, tearing into them though they took care with the contents (my first sign that this was a rescue mission, not a mob).
Ten minutes later, we were all outfitted in my ex-husband’s preppy wardrobe, laughing at his polo shirts and tight jeans. Seventy-dollar t-shirts washed to look old. Boxer briefs. “Look at this fucking thing!” Someone held out an aged Brooklyn shirt with an insane price tag. We tried them all. My friend Dan said, “Dina, go get your tennis racket.” And I obeyed. I love these people. I took photos as they played air guitar on my tennis racket, popped my ex-husband’s collars, squeezed their lovely writerly asses into his dumb overpriced jeans.
When we were finished we packed everything back up—we didn’t want to cost him money—and drank up our wine. That night, I posted a message on the listserv that I needed someone to drive a truckload of my possessions from my big yellow house in Iowa City to my tiny studio on Avenue B. I offered $1000 and a shared motel room along the road. “You’ll end up in New York, so there’s also that!” I chose Christa, a kindhearted, nature-loving, California girl with strong arms who showed up with a bag of nuts and avocados and organic fruits, took one look at the truck, and said, “This needs to be tied down with a bungee cord. Do you have a bungee cord?” I knew I had chosen the right person.
I told her the story about the clothes, showed her the photos, my lips quivering as I explained that I just didn’t want to defend another blunder to this man who had spent a decade judging me. “What if he sees they’ve been worn? What if the store doesn’t take them back?”I lived in a fearful new place, a dark unknown opened up by my divorce, that I wouldn’t escape for another two years, with the help of women.
“There’s a Nordstrom just an hour out of our way,” she said. “Let’s drive there and return your things.” I burst into tears. Christa pulled up to the store and waited there as I returned Philip’s clothes, explaining that they had been tried on. “It’s fine, honey!” said the cashier, an older woman. “The system will refund your card. You’re set.” I was overcome with feeling for this stranger who called me honey.
“Why did you do that?” my friends asked when I texted from the truck that the clothes were no longer my problem. “You don’t have to be nice to him. He should have sent for them himself.” But I wasn’t being nice. I just had to get this stupid errand done—it was part of my responsibilities for entry into the next life, for surviving this one. I lived in a fearful new place, a dark unknown opened up by my divorce, that I wouldn’t escape for another two years, with the help of women.
Christa drove for two days, almost without stop. “We’ll save on hotel money,” she said. We had agreed to stop at my old New Jersey storage space, inherited in the divorce and untouched for a decade, and IKEA. At the storage space, faced with all my college photos, my wedding dress, the trappings of my first home with Philip, I collapsed. I was exhausted. She got to work, choosing what I would need and what I could leave behind. “You won’t be able to close out the space today. Let’s go renew it and change it to your name. It’ll be fine.”
At IKEA, she made choices. I had measurements of my new place and Christa got to work choosing the right wardrobe, dresser, couch.
We crossed the Holland Tunnel during evening rush hour on a Friday. My new landlord had a rule against weekend move-ins, so we had to make it before dark. The way Christa maneuvered that truck through Chinatown was a marvel. I watched her weave through traffic and I thanked the universe for this person I had neglected to truly befriend for two years at Iowa, even as she read my novel and I read hers. As we pulled onto Avenue B from Houston, my chest ached. New York at first glance is so dirty, so frightening.I didn’t manage to assimilate to America: I assimilated to a handful of people who bothered to love me and made myself in their image.
Christa jumped out and unlocked the moving truck. At happy hour, Avenue B was bustling. It was a miracle we had found a space to park. She ran into the bar next to my building and returned with two burly bartenders. The men followed and started unloading my things. Where did she learn to navigate the world, and other people, this way? Could she teach me? When I asked Christa, she shrugged. “I just asked for help. People want to help.”
That night we slept on my floor, ate sandwiches from a local deli, and stared at my boxes and the pieces of my IKEA furniture. Though I had only paid her to drive me to New York, Christa stayed for a week, assembling my furniture, unpacking boxes, and going with me to cocktails at the bar next door (where I now had friends). When she saw that I didn’t have a toolbox, she knocked on my neighbor’s door, another single freelance artist, and borrowed some.
“Meet Tara,” she said, handing me to a woman who would become my best friend and my partner in singleness, until we both met people and moved on from Avenue B.
“Every woman needs a toolbox,” said Tara. The next week, she brought me blueberries from her trip to her parents’ home in Ohio. After that, some homemade pizza. She installed my air-conditioner and killed my cockroaches. She showed up at bars when I wanted to escape dates. She met me on the roof for drinks when my heart was broken. She made me tea, gave advice. When I went away for two months to the MacDowell Colony, she drove up to see me. When I got pregnant and moved to rural France, she brought me organic vitamins. When American politics went from tense to fanatical, we disagreed a lot, sometimes on fundamental things. I never once considered letting her go. When I was sick and alone in the world’s cruelest city, she had been the one who brought me soup.
When I was first married, I used to joke about learning a new culture: the family I had joined was nothing like mine. Before that, when I was 10 and newly arrived as an Iranian refugee to Oklahoma, my family had made it a goal to learn American culture. And a few years ago, when I fell in love again and started a second family, I made a study of my new family’s strange ways. Some of their habits and rules were grating, others delightful. And, though it was less visible to me than the work I was doing to adjust, they were working to learn me, too.
It was a slow change, becoming a member of another family, just as it is slow joining a new culture. I think of this each time I encounter new immigrants struggling to force change upon themselves so that their new neighbors might finally welcome them. How similarly absurd it is to what my friends were doing as they put on Philip’s clothes and played air-guitar on the tennis racket. You can’t put on a Polo shirt and become a preppy Western man, just as you can’t put on a sari or kimono and become Indian or Japanese. You can’t force someone else into your clothes and call it integration. Such pressure pushes newcomers into posturing—assimilation theatre. It’s just silly play-acting, achieving the opposite of its intended result.
But I know that my friends understood all that. They were helping me to change back into myself. It was a different sort of theater this time: a symbolic undoing of my assimilation to him. We will now put on his clothes in jest, in derision. You will now unravel from that identity. It was so kind, and I felt so heartily loved.
At the end of those early years as a refugee, I didn’t manage to assimilate to America: I assimilated to a handful of people who bothered to love me and made myself in their image. I didn’t assimilate to singleness or to New York: I assimilated to Tara, to Christa, to friends tearing open boxes and telling me not to take shit from anyone.
To assimilate is to fall into your curiosity. To give yourself up to it. To allow it to transform you. It is putting on another person’s clothes with respect, with love, and saying “this can fit one day.” Like love, assimilation can’t be coerced; it can’t be policy. And like love, everyone wants to do it, but they hate being forced into it. They don’t want to be told they have to shed their past. What they want—what we all want—is to lose ourselves in each other from sheer desire. And when someone tries to have a hand in your world, to become a little bit you, it is the most transformative thing. It is human instinct to keep such people close.
When I was a teenager, I attended a church retreat called Chrysalis (it was billed as “a transformation,” and I was drawn to that) wherein the staff orchestrated a number of surprises for each attendee. One such gesture was to gather encouraging letters from friends, teachers, and family to give to each attendee on the final afternoon. It was a program tradition, designed to stir up emotions. As I entered the room where white paper bags full of letters were awaiting each girl, a pastor called to me. “I hear you have a very special letter in there,” he said, “from Isfahan?”
“What?” I said, “Are you serious?” I ran into the room. Had this tiny local organization managed to get a letter from Baba—the father I had left in Iran who almost never wrote letters? I sat in a row of girls, unpacking my paper bag. I leafed through the letters, fingers shaking, each one a burst of pride and joy—I was loved. Glancing back, I saw the preacher watching me from a bench. His eager smile was gone. He sat swaying, arms on knees, hands folded. A woman was whispering in his ear.
I returned to my letters. A few minutes later, I glanced back again. The two adults were still watching me. Finally, the woman got up and walked over to my bench. “Honey,” she whispered. “I thought I should tell you before you reach the bottom of that pile. The pastor made a terrible mistake. We weren’t able to get that letter. I’m so sorry.”
I wish I had held back the tears; the pastor misread them. He hurried over to apologize. I was too young and inarticulate to explain that it didn’t matter. Yes, I had wanted that letter, but Baba had disappointed me before, and there would be other letters. I was moved by the image of the pastor on the bench, wringing his hands. After years of daily calibrations—one day I belonged to someone or someplace, the next day I didn’t—I knew I could eventually earn my place in America, but I never expected to register in the emotional calculus of an American adult.
Now, years later, I remember how much he cared, how the possibility of hurting me affected him. How, as an insecure teenager, I marveled at that and thought better of myself. Here was someone who wasn’t pretending to want me around. What a thing, to be loved by a stranger, to have a stranger bother to meddle in your life.
Dina Nayeri’s book The Ungrateful Refugee is available now from Catapult Books and Canongate Books.