I never wanted to live in Philadelphia. I was never the kind of person with big East Coast dreams. I moved there for a boy, and it all fell apart before I ever arrived — which proved to be the best possible thing for me. And yet, when I left my apartment for the last time, I did it in tears.
As I approached graduation from the University of Texas, I started to realize I had no concrete plans for the future. My dream job — becoming a novelist — felt unattainable because I actually needed a way to make money, but I had no idea what I wanted to do in the meantime. I didn’t want to leave Austin or Texas in general, but my undergrad apartment had essentially become a depression pit, and I wanted a drastic change. I was dating someone from New Jersey who had no plans of moving closer to me, and we were at that point where we needed to either take a tangible step forward together, or we needed to end things. So, I gave myself a purpose by applying to tons of East Coast grad schools just to see who would take me.
I was immediately accepted to Arcadia University, a last-choice school that was close to that boy. I waited to hear back from the New York schools, but I didn’t have much hope. And it didn’t happen. I was on spring break driving down a mountain in New Mexico when I heard back from Syracuse: they weren’t accepting me for the fall semester, but they’d take me in the spring if I re-applied.
I closed the email and took a deep breath. Syracuse was one of my top choices, but the boy driving me down this mountain had told me he wasn’t interested in maintaining the long-distance thing, even somewhere as relatively close as Syracuse.
“I’m going to Arcadia,” I told him.
In the weeks that followed, the move seemed doomed. My then-boyfriend wanted me to get an apartment in Philadelphia proper, but I opted for something closer to Arcadia, which is north of the city. I picked a nicer apartment complex, one located next to a local branch of a business where he worked, so my boyfriend could move in with me. But he didn’t want to pay rent, and he said he did’t want to mooch and let me pay the full bill, so he moved in with his parent. And he didn’t want to see me, because the 40-minute drive was too long. And he told me he kind of liked the novelty of having a girlfriend from Texas, one he didn’t have to see all the time.
All this before I’d even finished packing to move.
I spent my last month in Texas in and out of my therapist’s office, usually in tears. I didn’t think my relationship would make it, and that was the thread holding me together as I prepared to leave for a city I never had any desire to live. I was in tenuous health, just starting antidepressants and existing in those first few months of recovery from an eating disorder. I was leaving behind everything that was holding me together.
As it turned out, the relationship wasn’t meant to be. We made the yearly pilgrimage up to Watkins Glen for the IMSA Six Hour race, by which point I had given up on trying to make the relationship work. I’d wake up in the morning to find my then-boyfriend had wandered off, and he’d spend the day without me. When one of our mutual friends, Chris, sauntered up to me with a bottle of old podium champagne and asked me to listen to Van Halen and watch the stars with him, I obliged. We laid in the grass until the wee hours of the morning while my boyfriend sat in a camping chair, watching us but refusing to intervene. The fact that he refused to speak to me on the drive back to his house was almost a blessing.
We tried to make it work, in a weird roundabout way. We never fought. At midnight, on my official move to Pennsylvania, he broke up with me. Four days later, after I’d moved in and unpacked and assembled my furniture, he asked me if we could start over from the very beginning and try again. I agreed, and he came to see my apartment for the first time — but mostly just to have sex and use the complex’s pool. And then he left without bothering to say goodbye.
At that point, I’d been talking more and more to Chris, who was showing me the little kindnesses I’d never had with my then-boyfriend. He’d text me in the morning and ask what my day’s plans were. He’d tell me jokes and try to cheer me up because I was miserable about not being able to get a text back from my boyfriend, who had just informed me that he was planning his own move to Michigan now that I’d moved across the country for him.
A few days passed, and I decided to just end it. I called my boyfriend and told him it was over. He told me it was unfair, that I’d never even bothered to give him a chance and that he’d be a better partner now that I was close by… even though he was planning on that not lasting long at all, with the expectation being that I’d fly out to see him in this new state that he wanted to move to. And then, when it was all said and done, when he knew he wasn’t going to talk me into staying with him, he told me that he didn’t believe my history of abuse and that I was just like my abuser.
I shut my phone off that night and went out on my balcony, where I could see the skyline of Philadelphia in its entirety, and I wept, bitterly. I brought out all the succulents I’d brought from Texas, the cacti I’d bought to remind me of home, and I began repotting every single one of them. I cried until I felt empty, then picked cactus spikes out of my dirty fingers. And I made a plan to make the most of my time in this city; I had no intentions of lingering there after graduation, but I could at least do what I’d failed to do in Austin and explore.
Looking back now, there’s pain because that never happened. I never reclaimed the city as my own. I started dating Chris, and I ended up driving out to Canada on the weekends. I took a full-time job on the weekdays. I went to school at night. In the summer, I went home. And when COVID-19 began sweeping through the East Coast, I fled to Texas for a year and only returned to move out.
I’d set exploration as my metric for success in that apartment, and I failed to meet that goal. But on my cross-country drive back to Texas, I had nothing but time to reflect on what I’d done instead. On the very surface level, I graduated with two degrees and got married and bought a house and signed a book deal. I learned my strengths and weaknesses and got to hone my skills. I spent more days happy than miserable. And the last time I restricted food was the day I broke up with my ex. By those metrics, I think I can say that my time in Philadelphia proved to be successful.
I cried as I left my apartment, yes. I’ll always regret that I never did more in Philly. But I’m damn proud of the person I grew to be, the one who will dictate the growth of the rest of my life. At the end of the day, I can close that chapter with confidence. I’m ready to write the next one.