Like a lot of non-native New Yorkers, I have an origin story — bookish kid, bad at sports, clever and capable, but not, to my mind, sufficiently acknowledged for either and thus bitter and sensitive, friendless and constantly teased. The town I come from in rural Illinois has 1,800 people and no stoplights. I was an outsider there and felt it keenly; my appetite for recognition was dwarfed only by my desire for new experience, any experience, all experiences, and I desperately wanted to ditch the lonely and provincial trappings of my life so far.
The trigger for my transformation (no lightning bolt, no cauldron of radioactive liquid, no blinding realization) was a phone call from an acquaintance who was en route to New York City and looking for a roommate. In a classic youthful misstep, I had finished college with no plans beyond continuing to work at a sandwich shop in Northfield, Minnesota, with the love of my life, who promptly broke up with me the day after I graduated. Our daily shifts together were a melodramatic nightmare, and when given the chance to do something, anything, else I took it. I had just totaled my car — a one-car accident, involving a fit of heartsick tears and a tree — the day before my future roommate called, so the timing was excellent. The fact I didn’t know anyone in New York and had only spent 36 hours there to date, most of them lost and looking for the job fair I was supposed to attend, seemed irrelevant and easily overcome. I was terrified by the prospect of mediocrity in myself or my surroundings, and whatever happened, whatever I did, if it happened in New York, my thinking went, it would not be mediocre.
Things delighted me then that I can hardly stand now — the subway, for example, and the strip of Smith Street in Brooklyn that was just starting to sprout bistros and specialty cheesemongers and boutiques selling very expensive children’s goods. It was 2003; the dot com bubble had burst, but the housing bubble was coming together and with it, a charge of barely contained energy and potential for excess. The city lent itself especially well to a mental configuration in which you were an extra in an artsy, high-budget movie and saw everything as if through a camera on a set. I imagined a helicopter-eye view of the sidewalks, my sidewalks, pulsing with the synchronized strides of all these black-clad strangers, cocooned in their headphones and sunglasses and murmuring their own private conversations into their own personal phones, yet still unmistakably part of the same huge organism. Amid the truly astounding amounts of trash I noticed the scent of almonds roasting, sugary and delicious. In the single-minded vicious press to exit the subway as quickly as possible someone stopped to help a mother carry her stroller up the stairs — someone who had just 30 seconds before been testing the seemingly infinite limits of rudeness. I noticed that you could cry in public and people carefully ignored you — not maliciously, but because it’s understood that privacy is in short supply.
Falling in love is marked by the subconscious accumulation of a list of cherished qualities — her hair, that laugh, brilliant, great taste in music — and it is perhaps the realization such a list exists that marks the transition from “falling” to “fell.” This is what was happening to me. The Time Warner Center was recently finished but not inhabited. The electricity hadn’t been turned on yet; for just a few days, the murky black glass offered back an unblemished reflection of the opposite skyline. I saw it, alone, trudging home from a late night at work. I breathed into my hands against the cold and stood and stared and fell.
I slowly put together a full and mostly happy life piece by sweat-soaked solitary piece: a promising career in the semi-glamorous field of book publishing, an apartment in Fort Greene, which the New York Times had just declared Brooklyn’s most desirable neighborhood, and a group of similarly clever and capable friends. And along the way, in 2004, I met Russell at a house party near the Brooklyn Museum.
As I write this, it’s hard to reconstruct how much I loved him then. His good qualities read like a bloodless description of a generically attractive person — good-looking, smart, polite, funny. He was six years older than me, with an Ivy League education and a great job, so of course I wanted to impress him, and he was duly impressed. Now I can understand why, although maybe “impressed” isn’t the right word — I was 23 years old, with all of the freshness and confidence and naïveté that entailed, and I had wavy dark brown hair that fell to the middle of my back. When I asked him later why he had struck up a conversation with me at that house party, he said, half-joking, “Because your butt looked so good in those pants.”
We were both, at heart, nice Midwesterners who had acquired a thin veneer of East Coast sophistication, both from fervently religious families, both had several brothers and sisters. If we had ordered each other off a menu, we could hardly have done better, or on paper, been more compatible. But in the early days of getting to know him I felt like I had won the lottery with some sort of fraudulent ticket and that the authorities would be coming to confiscate it at any time. My earlier dating experiences had not been good, and my previous boyfriends possessed rather significant flaws; this one was an alcoholic, that one never finished college, another continued to live with his parents through his late twenties. The previous love of my life (he of the sandwich shop) and I had somehow managed to be crazy about each other without actually liking one another much on a general, daily basis. We could not, for example, watch a movie or talk about the events of our days or do any number of ordinary things without teary fights or extravagantly hurt feelings.
It followed, then, that I was so interested in Russell: I liked that he obviously liked me, and I liked that he seemed to know what he was doing, in New York and in life. It was he who introduced me to all of the places in New York that eventually became my regular spots, who showed me the best places to read in Prospect Park, the secretly affordable wine bar in the West Village, and Great Lakes, the Midwestern-themed bar in Park Slope. A huge mural of them all — Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior — hung behind the bar, and Russell and I used to hang out there, criticizing one another’s jukebox selections and talking about home and our respective lake affiliations — Minnesota/Superior for him, Illinois/Michigan for me.
“We got along really well,” is what I usually say when I have to describe our relationship, which doesn’t convey much unless you’ve had that kind of relaxed, thoughtless rapport with someone you’re also sleeping with. But when we always wanted to see the same movie at the same time, or go to the same gallery exhibition, or fall asleep together on a Friday night after work then wake up and walk around the corner for a late takeout dinner, when we liked every single one of each other’s friends, it felt like everything. He could charm me out of a bad mood — no easy feat — and had a knack for random gestures of kindness and affection. Our birthdays are exactly six months apart; as I was walking down Bedford Street to meet him at our favorite restaurant for his birthday, thinking proudly of the theater tickets I had bought as his gift, I saw him waiting for me and felt the small thrill of secret, happy recognition I always felt when I had a moment to enjoy his presence before he noticed mine. He also was holding a gift-wrapped package. “It’s your present,” he said. “For your half-birthday.” It was exactly what I wanted, an iPod.
But Russell had wanted to leave New York for years, and he was stubborn. He missed fresh air and open space, so much so that after we had been together for about a year and a half he issued what was essentially an ultimatum: I’m going, with or without you, preferably with you, but I’m going. It meant giving up everything I had worked so hard for, the toehold I had carved out in my career, the identity I had assembled, and everyone else I loved, so of course I said yes.
I said “yes” to moving but I hadn’t really said “yes” to a location. Because Russell was an urban planner, with experience that was in high demand, he could work almost anywhere. He had been a Peace Corps volunteer and was interested in living abroad again — somewhere English-speaking, he conceded, so I could get a job. He wanted to be close to places to canoe and hike and climb. He wanted to live in a smaller city. Wherever we ended up, it was understood that we would stay there for a year or two before settling down back home in the Midwest. In theory I was on board with all of this, and as he started to look for jobs and then started getting offers, I remained theoretically fine with all of the potential locations; I was in over my head at my own job and barely had time to get coffee in the morning, let alone ruminate on the implications of these very important decisions.
When Russell asked, almost in passing, how about New Zealand? I thought about Lord of the Rings for a second and told him to apply for the job. I really did not think he would get it, and if he did, there was no way he would say yes — it was so far! And all of this was far less real than the onslaught of demanding emails and sensitive situations I dealt with every day at work and the numb comfort of sinking into bed next to him at the end of a hellishly long day. In the end, one offer was from Calgary, another from San Francisco, and there was probably a third that I can’t even remember now. But he accepted the one from the city council in Christchurch, New Zealand, and moved there in the summer of 2005.
I had only been at my terrifying yet oddly fulfilling job for a few months, and I wanted to stick it out for at least a year, so we agreed to do long distance for an unspecified amount of time. “Long” distance was so accurate it was funny, almost. Depending on the season, the time difference was between 14 and 16 hours, which meant that to talk on the phone one of us had to either get up before 6 a.m. or stay awake past midnight, and this was pre-Skype/Gchat, so we were both spending a small fortune on phone cards. He wrote me a lot of letters, and when I find them now, they still make me cry. He was so happy, and I, in retrospect, distracted and confused and utterly unsure of what I actually wanted.
After eight months of this, he returned to the U.S. to visit me and his family. Bad weather and travel delays cut “my” part short, and I remember riding the subway back to my apartment after saying goodbye to him at the airport, crying in an orange seat in the corner and thinking I could not do this another time, that any amount of career stagnation or uncertainty or opportunity loss was worth not having to say goodbye another time. That’s when I started making plans in earnest, started shopping for tickets, giving away my things, began to acknowledge I was really going to leave. Four months later, in June of 2006, I left.
Even in the cab on my way to JFK, my adult life condensed to four suitcases bouncing around in the trunk, I felt, fleetingly, that this was not going to end well. A few days before I had hesitated to store any of my things with Russell’s sister in New Jersey because I knew subconsciously how hard it would be to get them back later, after it was all over. But the morning was clear and bright, nearly summer but not yet hot, traffic was light and the cab navigated the streets of Brooklyn with ease. I couldn’t remember ever traveling through New York so quickly. Attributing this premonition to some other unrelated worry or insecurity was easy; there were plenty to choose from. I left a few things with his sister anyway, my kitchen supplies and some books, the things that meant most to me.
I had a layover in Auckland during the earliest hours of what is technically morning. I bought a cup of coffee from the one open shop and huddled at my gate near a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows. I had traveled from summer to winter in 14 hours and the chill penetrated through the glass as I watched the sky slowly shoot through with streaks of grey.
It snowed the day I arrived. Russell brought Gerbera daisies and a heavy jacket for me, and there are pictures of me wearing it at the Christchurch airport. It’s his so it’s a little big, and I look tired and shocked and pleased, but also out of place and like I’m wearing someone else’s clothes. We got in the car (a car!) and he drove us through the city out to our house (a house!) in the suburbs (yes). On the side of the road near the main entrance to our neighborhood Russell had posted a hand-painted banner decorated with flowers and carefully lettered. It said, “Welcome to New Zealand, RUTHIE.”
Christchurch is not populous — about 300,000 people — but it is large and sprawls out like a spreading stain. A handful of buildings in the city center top out around 10 stories and the downtown area seemed exclusively populated by 15-year-old goths, rolling cigarettes and waiting for the bus. Everyone else I saw looked to be around 45 and sunburnt. There were a lot of parking lots.
The house was nice, though — a three-bedroom bungalow tucked into an alcove at the top of a hill that you could only reach by driving very slowly and carefully up a windy, narrow lane that accommodated exactly one car. If you encountered someone going the opposite direction the ensuing choreography was intense. The other way to get there was via 187 slippery and uneven stone steps that switchbacked up the side of the hill, around other people’s flower gardens and cottages and car parks. I say “hill” but it was actually the remains of an extinct volcano. The former crater had collapsed and filled with water from the ocean on the other side, and dolphins would sometimes swim in it, alongside the huge freighters and tankers that came to port at the harbor. The colors of the water and the green hills and the sky were surreally vivid. Every sunset was a purple-streaked glory and the stars were dazzling in their unfamiliar constellations. Russell spent every day in manic wonder and could not imagine how I found this remarkable, yes, but nothing more. Some people need to be in the presence of truth, I think, others beauty, and we were each discovering on which side the other one fell. It seemed I had good things to say about dark empty buildings and trash.
I couldn’t get a job so I cooked a lot. I planned elaborate meals that I had to start shopping for around 3 p.m., and as I didn’t get out of bed much before noon this created the illusion I was doing something sort of like living. After I ran out of money, Russell left me some on the kitchen table every Monday morning for groceries. I read The Feminine Mystique and wallowed in the irony. I didn’t make any friends — Christchurch really was exclusively populated by angsty teenagers and the middle-aged, and none of them was particularly interested in a disgruntled New Yorker. Later I would joke, meanly, that the only options for arts, culture, and entertainment were respectively rugby, rugby, and rugby.
Russell worked constantly. When he had time off it was just the two of us, going hiking, which I hated, and trying to find reasonable similes of the foods we missed from home. We sat at restaurants, staring at pizza with corn and shrimp on it or pushing unspeakably foul “enchiladas” around on our plates. I missed bagels the most and there weren’t even bad substitutes to be found, so I tried to make them from scratch. Russell came home after the first attempt and looked over the wreckage in the kitchen: every pot we owned filled with scummy cooling water, scraps of dough sticking to the faucet, the doorknob, the refrigerator handle, a junkyard of dishes in the sink. On the table was a tray of nine or so wizened rings of slightly burnt dough. “I ate two,” I said. “They’re actually not that bad.”
“Oh, Ruthie,” he said. He picked one up and held it.
“The recipe said the malt syrup is optional but that must be wrong. I’m going to try again
next week, I think I can do it.”
He looked skeptical.
“Do you want to bet?” I sort of joked. We bet: successful bagels or a naked run through the main street of our town. I am not someone who invokes nudity casually, but this was toward the beginning, when I was still cocky and confident, and we were still flirty with each other.
The second attempt failed and Russell teased me. The third failed even more miserably. I tried to eat one, but the batch was so burnt on the bottom I couldn’t manage to bite through it. I threw them away and hauled the garbage to the curb and cleaned the kitchen and didn’t mention it to Russell. He continued to try to get me to hold up my end of the deal, but whatever light spirit had been with me when I proposed it had disappeared, and the fact that he hadn’t noticed its absence made me sadder.
I kept applying for jobs in Christchurch although it was obvious — so obvious I wondered, then resented, why Russell hadn’t mentioned this in any of his letters or phone calls — that there were no jobs in the media or in any related field for an American with three to five years of experience. Each morning I spent an hour or two going through the paper and the Kiwi equivalent of Craigslist checking for new listings. I applied for, in order of increasing desperation, copyediting jobs, copywriting jobs, proofreading jobs, jobs in the various departmental offices of the nearby university, customer service jobs at the local library, jobs shelving at the local library, jobs working in a bookshop, administrative jobs in the city council office where Russell worked, and finally any administrative or clerical job I found.
Sometimes I would receive a polite email thanking me for my application but typically I never heard anything at all. Every once in awhile a New York contact would help me land an informational interview with an editor at a university press or the New Zealand branch of a major publisher or one of the three magazines in print, during which I would be told, never outright, but between the lines (as it were) that I was job hunting in a middling city in a small country where everyone knew everyone else and hired their lifelong friends.
After one of the pointless interviews I picked up a tuna roll in a food court and sat down to eat it in front of a TV that was playing American football. I wasn’t a football fan then but hearing the accent was comforting and familiar and I allowed myself to stare at the TV. I loaded up my chopsticks and examined the tuna roll more closely. It was made with canned tuna, gray and flaky. The food court was oppressive in a particularly dull ’70s burnt orange way and redolent with the dueling grease smells of five or six cultures. The only other people there were a group of thickly eyelined teenagers slumped nearly to the floor. I tried to identify something in my surroundings that wasn’t obviously mediocre and failed. I thought about what my friends in New York might be doing at that moment, what it might feel like to be in a crowd, to hurry somewhere, to have a conversation that wasn’t about rain or sports. I realized that the fabled “four seasons in a day” weather was making me sweat through my interview suit, and regretted that I was incapable of thinking about anything other than the weather as well.
I rarely thought about how physically far I was from home except for moments like that one at the food court, when I wanted more than anything to call Emily, my best friend back in New York. It was mid-afternoon; I calculated the time difference and concluded she had probably just gone to bed the night before. Because of this I hadn’t spoken to Emily, or any of my friends and family really, since my arrival. I would speak to them only a handful of times throughout the following year. If I wanted to visit her, it would take at least three flights, several thousand dollars, and two full days of nonstop travel, which was slightly more manageable than visiting my family in Illinois. That would involve four flights, three days, and a long car ride at the end. I’d thoughtlessly mention “home” in passing, meaning only, home, the house on Gilmour Terrace where I’d change my clothes and cook dinner and hang out with Russell, or Home, the United States, where I got my accent and my taste for real sub-style sandwiches. At other times “home” would cross my mind — I want to go home, impatient in line at the supermarket or tired and waiting for the bus, or I miss home, browsing the library alone, in the middle of the day. Then I’d wonder which one I meant: 10A Gilmour Terrace? My Fort Greene apartment? The Midwest? My parents’ house, the house I grew up in? Sometimes I meant all of them, simultaneously.
I remember reading in bed until late at night while Russell slept beside me, peaceful and happy, glancing over at him from time to time, at the little stocking cap he wore because our bedroom was so cold and wondering what was wrong with me. I knew he wondered what was wrong with me too, since we had started to fight a lot about it. He thought I should accept the circumstances and put a good face on them — “Just grow the fuck up!” he said, during one nasty argument, but I found this impossible. I had always relished new situations, never feared the unfamiliar, never failed when I put my whole weight behind something, so I did not anticipate having trouble adjusting to another first-world, English-speaking country.
The tricky thing was that the differences were not so much differences as they were inversions or transpositions, just similar enough to fool you into thinking nothing had changed. Orion is there in the night sky, just upside down. Christmas is a summer holiday and people spend it on the beach. The climate is mild, but houses aren’t insulated or heated, so it’s completely normal to wear a hat and scarf and two sweaters inside and then take them all off when you go out into the sun. For a long time I would automatically get into the car and sit there until Russell rapped on my window — I had gotten in the wrong side. Again. A cart is a trolley and a pepper is a capsicum and trash —“rubbish” — goes in a bin. Sheep, which outnumber people 4 to 1, regularly join U.S. news in the headlines. Bars are open 24 hours a day, and people are reserved and unflappably polite except for the ones who are very drunk.
But that politeness is not a temporary shield, not a shell, not a surface; that reserve is bottomless. As a foreigner you will never reach the end of it. I understood the language but communication was impossible. How could I justify a desire to stand out, to make something of myself, in the context of a complicated culture that values fitting in over individualism; how could I even begin to describe this to someone who desperately and rightfully wanted me to follow their clear social cues and talk about the weather? “That’s quite a change,” people would reply, when I said where I was from, and the right response — the only response — was, “It is, a bit.” I had failed to plan for this and the failure was like a pesky sprain that just would not heal. There was nowhere to go to lick my wounds, no crowd to disappear into, no ocean of work to throw myself at. There was nothing in my life before that I hadn’t been able to fix by being smart or working hard (how American, to even think that for a moment), and this, I was beginning to realize, would not always be the case. This was the first thing that I would not be able to fix.
Finally I landed a job waiting tables at a breakfast diner. I left the house while it was still dark, rode the empty 6:15 bus into town and served plate after plate of waffles alongside a bunch of good-natured teenagers who couldn’t quite figure me out. Join the club, I thought. The money wasn’t enough so I got another job working nights and weekends at a wine bar. Now Russell and I really never saw each other, I was as bitter and sensitive as I ever had been, and I had unlimited access to free booze. Six months remained on my visa and it was clear I wouldn’t be renewing it, since the only way to do so would be to either get married or get a real, visa-sponsoring job. There was nothing to do but drink and fight with Russell, who still thought I should be enjoying myself.
It wasn’t all miserable. When Russell took time off we went on long backcountry hikes together, and with time, I could sense although not really understand what made a certain part of him — the part that was so different from me — operate. Somewhere in a hiker’s shelter near the Cass Saddle our initials are carved together in the bottom of a bunk bed. I hated my 6 a.m. Sunday brunch shifts at the diner, but I always enjoyed my early morning encounters with the people lurching along in the opposite direction, finally on their way home after a long night out. The looks on their faces when they saw my uniform and realized that I was on my way to work were priceless, and sometimes these pub warriors told me good jokes while I waited to cross the street. Once a young man even offered me a bite of his McDonald’s. I could imagine this happening in New York.
I remember sitting with Russell in the back of our local pub, which was really cool, actually, decorated with Christmas lights and bits of kitsch straight from someone’s granny’s basement. A hand-painted portrait of John Travolta circa Saturday Night Fever hung next to the bathroom, the overhead lights were made of doll’s heads and you could peek through the slit-like windows over the booths and see people shopping in the grocery store directly below, unaware they were being watched. The same folk singer, a guy named Adam McGrath, played there every Wednesday night. He was great, but the crowd was never more than us and a few other couples. He always wrapped up his set with one or two covers, and the night he played “Atlantic City,” Russell reached over and grabbed my hand. When Adam went into the chorus I didn’t want to look at Russell at first because I was already crying, but when I did, I saw he was too.
Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.
I had kept a list about him once. Generous, good cook. Hazel eyes with a darker fleck in the right one matching the one in mine, just like the lyrics in a pop song we both loved. He almost never got annoyed but when he did he made a very discreet face that he probably thought no one noticed, and it was unconsciously adorable. Wore funny T-shirts, Midwestern. Nice hands. Etc. From the beginning, he brought me flowers all the time, nearly every week, but the first time, he blindly chose my favorite purple wildflowers, and I took them in my hands and wondered how he knew. He still brought me flowers, usually proteas from the farmer’s market on Saturdays, and it was starting to feel like an empty gesture but I appreciated that he made it anyway.
We had begun to avoid the subject of the future, except to agree that I got to pick where we lived next (anywhere but New York) and that I would move first, alone, and he would follow. One month before my flight back to the U.S. I got in a car accident. I had never fully adapted to driving on the left side of the road and was distracted for a moment by, of all things, the sunset. I drifted into the wrong (“right”) lane, rounded a sharp blind curve, and ran into an SUV. The road dropped off straight into the ocean on one side and I was profoundly lucky not to be hurt or worse. I was also upset that my attempts to appreciate the natural beauty of New Zealand had resulted in this. The car was totaled. “I’m so sorry,” I said through tears, as Russell held me. “I’ll pay for it, don’t worry.”
“You don’t worry. It’s our problem; we’ll figure it out together.”
It was the right thing to say, but my knee-jerk response shocked me even as I knew it was true: I’m not sure ‘our’ exists anymore. I kept quiet. The end dragged out for six more months but that was the day it was over.
It’s been six years and I’m still paying for that car.
I moved to San Francisco in August 2007, but Russell never joined me as planned. Instead we broke up almost immediately, and I spent several months drifting around the city in a haze of grief, confusion, and Vicodin. There was a whiskey bar around the corner from the apartment in the Upper Haight I shared with two college friends, and the bartender liked one of them so he let all three of us drink for free, monopolize the stereo, and stay after hours at will. We stumbled the 30 or 40 feet home and I got up the next morning to temp, or to wait tables. Or I didn’t get up at all and just lay in bed, listening to the unbelievable din of homeless men pushing carts (“trolleys”) full of bottles up and down Shrader Street and getting into fights. I was sick a lot, and I caught pinkeye three or four times in as many months. My friends said that it was from riding the bus. They were joking, but they were also right, I later realized — I cried almost every day, so I also rubbed my eyes all the time with my filthy, Muni-contaminated hands. I became very familiar with the schedule of the 33 Stanyan, which went from my apartment to the free clinic in the Mission. My life was full in its own wretched way and I had no clue what to do next.
Emily all but physically carried me back to New York. She lined up a job interview for me at a literary agency and when I got the job, she let me stay with her until I became once again a responsible, self-sufficient person. The transition was not smooth, but I can definitively say moving to New York is easier the second time around. The subway, grocery shopping, how to talk, where to walk, what to eat — I know how to do this, I thought, and the thought filled me with relief. I worked hard and went out a lot, and every so often at the end of a late night I would treat myself to a cab ride home. My favorite part was — still is — going over the Manhattan Bridge, feeling the little jerk of vertigo in my stomach, and looking at the lights of all the bridges draped over the East River like jewelry.
The city had changed of course; New York always does. In a way, it’s like that “four seasons in a day” cliché that annoyed me so much in New Zealand: You don’t like something? Just wait a little while. All of the places I used to frequent during my first tenure here closed, one by one, no fanfare, just a blank steel security gate and a hand-scrawled sign: “Thanks for everything.” The last time I walked down Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, Great Lakes had closed too.
I saw Russell once more. About six months after we split up, he came through New York and stopped by to return the stuff I had stored at his sister’s. Her basement had flooded, and a lot of his own things had been ruined, but not, he said, the sweet, silly notes I had left for him every morning when we first met. A year later he got married. I know his wife; they started dating three weeks after he and I separated.
A major earthquake struck Christchurch in 2011. It was the second-deadliest natural disaster in New Zealand history. Almost every place I remember well was destroyed, the rest damaged or irrevocably changed by what’s fallen down around them.
Adapted from Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, edited by Sari Botton. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.
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