When my mother bought me my plane ticket to New York from Geneva in August 2004, on the eve of my first year at Columbia College, she booked my return for Christmas. I landed at JFK on the 17th, student visa in hand, and my high school boyfriend — technically my ex at that point — joined me a few days later for a vacation. I had always wanted to live in New York, had been raised on New Yorker cartoons and Woody Allen, but could not claim to belong there. My ex, on the other hand, had spent a few years in the city as a child; at the time, this seemed significant, even though he’d lived on Roosevelt Island and been barely old enough to walk. To compensate, I did my homework: listening to Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and the Ramones; accumulating an encyclopedic knowledge of the downtown punk scene; reading (and secretly hating) Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.
I remember little from those first weeks besides tall cans of Arizona iced tea, the smell of clove cigarettes in TriBeCa, “Strangers” by The Kinks, that annoying Ashlee Simpson single. The world was sticky and sweaty and hot and new, and my ex and I ran on friction and fumes — exploring record stores in SoHo, making out behind churches and shopping for last-minute dorm supplies in the muggy jungle of late-summer Manhattan. I was staying at my aunt’s and uncle’s in Park Slope and, one night, coming back from Manhattan alone, my cab driver took me for an extended and highly unnecessary spin around Brooklyn before dropping me off at their doorstep, ripped off and groggy. When August ended, school began and my ex left; I wasn’t sad, though, because I knew I’d be returning home in four months. I had my plane ticket. It was a plan.
That’s how it was for the next decade: Geneva was my point A and New York was my point B. I’d never go anywhere without knowing when I’d come back.
These bookends helped me cope with a culture shock I didn’t expect. I found Americans strange: They put ketchup on everything, had a puritanical obsession with alcohol and had an aversion to smoking I did not understand. I didn’t get homesick, but I do recall feeling a certain displacement while I stared at the Herbal Essences shampoo and the Rubber Ducky stickers that my roommate from Virginia Beach had plastered on our bathroom walls. We were a case study in terrible roommate assignments: she played field hockey, decorated her side of the room with Technicolor tchotchkes and a real (and utterly baffling) white picket fence. I was a wreck: sleep-deprived, underfed and, all in all, pretty pleased with myself about that.
I dragged myself through the semester, through finals and onto the plane, where I bawled my eyes out to get a seat when the flight was declared overbooked. It was there that it hit me: New York and college were hard. Knowing I had my ticket to Geneva for Spring Break was what ultimately coaxed me onto my flight back to New York in January. Six weeks couldn’t be so bad; I should finish the year and reevaluate my options.
Things did get better, and then worse, and then better and then even worse again. Things got properly good the summer of my junior year — I was having a blast — and, naturally, it got harder and harder to get on the plane home.
Still, that ticket remained an escape hatch, a safety net, a haven. My mother would book the tickets, nagging me for dates then forwarding me the reservation. I think it made her feel a little better to know I’d be coming home. In some way, it helped me, too, even when I had no idea when that next trip would be and booking a flight didn’t make sense. We rationalized: I had no money, and she had frequent flyer miles! One-way flights cost more than two-way flights. I’d be coming back for the holidays anyway. I could always change the date on my ticket. And so on.
This pattern repeated itself for years. It persisted after graduation and through a first job. It survived the year I spent living in Paris between the College and the Journalism School. I went home twice during my graduate studies, and kept going after that. Then, something happened: I forgot about a departure.
My last ticket to Geneva was booked for June 6, 2014, almost 10 years after the first — but that date came and went, and I didn’t even notice. July passed, then August; I didn’t acknowledge that I’d failed to show up for my flight until summer was almost gone and the ticket non-refundable. Because I’d seen my mother on another occasion, it hadn’t occurred to me to go back. So the next time I went, I booked another flight, originating here.
Now, my itinerary is flipped: New York is point A and Geneva point B. I don’t always know when I’ll be flying there. But I know I’ll end up going.