Why I decided to leave New York
By Laurel Fantauzzo
Berto is speaking in exclamation points again. He is that kind of man: always some emphasis of joy. We have just ordered pulled pork sandwiches, and the sun in Iowa City seems to be shining specifically for us at this outdoor café, congratulating us for having made the seventeen-hour drive here with all of my possessions. Berto’s voice is like this spring sun, and it’s why I chose him to help me make the difficult move away from my adopted hometown, Brooklyn, New York.
“I could totally apply to the art school here!” Berto says. “I could get the same fellowship you got! Iowa has, like, the best printmaking program in the—”
The word is launched from a passing van by a white man with such stunning, surgical sharpness, we’re at first unsure if we heard “CHINK!” at all. The diners around us eat without interruption. But when Berto asks, “Dude. Did that guy just call me a chink?” we both know that guy did.
Berto is a FilAm painter. He favors beach caves as his subject, along with works like “Frustrated Brown Man,” which depicts a figure as brown as Berto is, with his head exploding. Berto’s color and eye shape are why the man shouted “CHINK,” and not the more accurate plural, “CHINKS.” I am FilAm alongside Berto, and my hair is black, but the paleness and round eyes I inherited from my Italian father grant me the dubious privilege of ducking curbside racism.
We think that pork sandwiches will make this sour moment better. The waitress arrives, missteps, and drops the sandwiches into our laps. The scent of barbeque sauce, for the rest of the day, smells to me like a rebuke for moving away from New York City.
At our B&B, a fellow guest notices Berto is Filipino and says what good servants Filipina wives make. “She’s Filipino too?” the man asks of me. He thumps Berto. “Marry her, you’ll see how well she cleans the rugs!” We sigh, knowing it is useless for us to tell the man that we are not looking for servants or stereotypes. We are both, however, looking for wives.
“Dude,” Berto says as we look at For Rent signs on apartment lawns. His exclamation points are long gone. “Three years in the Midwest for you, huh? Man.” I don’t have to say what we’re both thinking: I want to go home.
As a Filipina Italian lesbian, I have often joked out loud that I have too many noodles in my life. I have also silently asked myself the constant question, in Catholic churches, schools, Filipino parties, Italian parties, bars, and dances: What the hell am I doing here?
For most of my life I concluded I did not belong at any of these places, and I would retreat to my room. Growing up in suburban southern California near the Reagan Library, I had a sense that New York City would synthesize me somehow. I had no evidence for this, only a vague desire to ride a Subway train, eat whatever I wanted, and write in an apartment with exposed heating pipes.
So I transferred to New York for my junior year and took on too many loans to finish college closer to the city. I earned internships at a PBS interview show and two of my favorite magazines. My performance reviews were all similar: We like her, but she seems very young and nervous. I was. Despite finally being in the city, I was terrified. I was still asking myself, What the hell am I doing here?
I stayed put, though. I settled in Brooklyn with my undergrad friends. We started a sketch comedy troupe. I was hired by a quiet publishing company that specialized in crossword puzzles and genre fiction magazines. I freelanced as a restaurant reviewer for my favorite magazine’s website. I dated a classmate, and moved into her Brooklyn apartment, exposed pipes and all. I befriended other FilAms at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. I even found other FilAm lesbians. We roamed gay parties and ate whatever we wanted together. I visited Berto’s Brooklyn studio to watch his paintings take shape. The rhythm of my NYC routine finally quieted the question of my belonging. I began to think, simply, Here I am. The city became the fork upon which I wound all of the previously disparate noodles of my identity.
Then my sketch comedy troupe broke up. My favorite magazine downsized me. My full-time publishing job truncated my position. I ended my relationship and left our apartment. I cried in my sublet. I applied to nearly 20 grants, graduate programs, internships, and other jobs, and received benignly brutal form letter rejections.
Until the University of Iowa. I hadn’t wanted to spend the application fee to send my essays about being a FilAm lesbian. A habitual hesitance in me called the essays too unserious, too scattered. With too many exclamation points. My real fear, as always, was that my inherent diversity was a liability, not an advantage. But the Nonfiction Writing Program disagreed so strongly with my doubts, it admitted me on scholarship. The strands of my routine in New York ended naturally, pointing me west. And so, one night in his studio, his latest beach cave yawning above his brown, buoyant face, Berto agreed to be my envoy. “Road trip!” he said. “Totally!”
Recommended Resource: Check out online universities offering programs in Nonfiction Writing.
Berto and I find me an apartment in Iowa City on our second day there. It’s the most adorable dwelling we’ve ever seen. Quieter, larger, and cheaper than any in Brooklyn. We celebrate with red velvet cake milkshakes. I am quiet.
“Whatcha thinking?” Berto asks.
I can’t quite voice the fear in my throat that our encounters with strangers and their strange racism is the real face of my new home. That I’ll never date anyone again. That I’ll be undone here in Iowa, submerged in an old loneliness I thought I’d escaped by building a life in New York.
I say, instead, “I’m worried the apartment’s too much. Like, should I have taken something cheaper?”
In the second before Berto formulates his response, there are certain things he cannot possibly know yet. He does not know that in an hour we will find a ‘sari-sari’ store nearby, or that we will discover a town called Brooklyn, Iowa.
Berto does not know that the director of my program will invite me to a home dinner party in a few weeks, or that the director’s wife, from Mindanao, will explain how she adjusted her recipes for ‘laing’ and ‘lumpia’ with Iowan ingredients. Or that a few months after that, a PhD candidate and I will notice each other at a brunch for gay Iowans, and I will become her first girlfriend. Or that I will spend Thanksgiving in Brooklyn, in charge of the turkey while my friends work their day jobs, and Berto will eat with us.
He does not know that my sense of belonging will become more portable than I can feel right now, my milkshake unfinished in front of me. But his reply feels as if he’s synthesizing the strands of all of these future joys anyway.
“Dude,” Berto says. “You made the right decision. Don’t regret it! It’s going to be awesome! I promise!”