On my last business trip to New York, before I moved here permanently, I had one last free day to spend in the city before flying back to San Francisco. For some reason, the prospect of the free day was more overwhelming than all the the previous days spent racing to meetings at the different publishing houses. I realized it was my first time on my own in New York with no plans and no company. My previous trips to the city had been with my then-boss, who breezily packed our schedule with back to back meetings every fifteen minutes that left me completely gutted by the end of the day, or with my ex-boyfriend with whom I’d had an intense and consuming nine month long distance relationship. With both my boss and my boyfriend I had been comfortable taking the back seat with the plans, content to have my schedule decided for me in advance by people who knew the city better than I did. I was also content to have their company. I’ve never been a loner. In spite of having lived alone and been single for the majority of the past ten years of my life, I’ve never thought of myself as someone who needs “alone time.”
I was excited to finally be on my own in New York, but I was also nervous. It felt like the first test of whether I’d float in the Big Apple. It was another jumping off point into the unknown, not wholly different from my cross-country move to San Francisco several years earlier, except that now I was 28 instead of 21, and this move seemed less like an adventure and more like a necessity.
Where should I go and how should I spend my day? I thought of the Met. I thought of the Fricke, and how my mother had always told me it was her favorite museum in Manhattan. I thought of Central Park, and the Empire State Building, but the day was overcast and raining. I thought of the Statue of Liberty, which for some reason I’ve never had any interest in touring. How was it I was in the most exciting city in the world and didn’t know what to do with myself?
In the end, I decided to go to the Natural History Museum. I’d never been before, but I had loved the public museum in my hometown of Milwaukee. I loved to look at the dinosaur bones, to tour the European Village and gaze through the windows at the scenes inside. I loved the button hidden to the side of the Native American exhibit. When you pressed it, the rattlesnake in the foreground of the tableau shook its tail like a maracha. It had always been a place of wonder for me. Like ducking into a place that held all the wonders of the world without.
I took the subway train and got off at the museum stop on the Upper West Side with a gaggle of school kids. They looked to be about seven and wore uniforms similar to those I wore in Catholic school. I followed them into the main hall and stopped in my tracks at the sight of a giant brontosaurus skeleton. It’s long neck curved up towards the high ceiling, the vertebrae tapering until they met the small, slender head. The voices of children bounced across the grand ceiling. A bird was loose inside, batting its wings furiously as it swam around the dome.
I could say many things about this first visit of mine to the museum, but where I’d originally intended this entry to go, and what I remember the most, is the planetarium within the museum. I bought my ticket to a show about the stars. I think it was narrated by Robert Redford. When I entered the planetarium, it was like stepping into a giant, suspended golf ball. I tried not to look in too much of a rush as I made my way towards the back row. Although I’m not sure it’s actually true, I’ve always felt you get the best view of the entire sky when you sit in the back. No need to crane one’s head backwards to see hard to reach constellations. When the lights fell and the narration began I felt a total sense of peace set in. I felt like a child again, full of curiosity and wonder, and maybe still a little thrilled by being in the dark. I don’t remember what I learned from that visit, but I remember that I relaxed, that I sensed I’d be okay. I’d found the escape I could always return to, if I ever needed it.