Notes From a Transplant on Loving and Living With the Cities We Come To


There is no romance in the city, I am sure of that. It’s all in our heads. Because we believe in the elegance of sacrifice, especially our own, we want to fall in love with the place we leave another for. To see that its generosities, those actually random chance occurrences like finding $10 on the street or always making it indoors right before it rains have been cut out of the ordinary just for us. If you come from a place that is not the city, you will always hold it in your most reverent grip curiously sure of all you don’t yet know. And it holds right back, for as long as it takes you to finally crawl in closer. It’s a ticket – golden, a road – yellow-bricked. More than all that, it’s an escape from what you know and what you no longer care to know.

But we don’t let on about this. ‘Escapism’ smells too much like a vice. We say we want to follow our passion, or find it to begin with. For our friends and family, we pull off the whole romantic package that goes back at least as long as film reels and printing presses, the first time anyone born on a farm could picture what a spiry, churning metropolis would be like. Even they could see the romanticism perched on the city’s skyline like Cupid’s mystic wings. But the heart stirs not for the city exactly, but our own selves, our best, most intelligent, successful, secure selves. Why not another town to live out your ambitions in finance, in medicine or civic affairs, or to write, or help kids learn English, or find love? Another place where you won’t be in debt before the first box was unpacked? We go to get the best of everything, including ourselves.

The city is built on this river of egos. Violent currents and quiet bends and all of that. Its transplants come eager to cross it or bask in its constant drifting. They flutter through the streets of a city that seems to outpace even itself at times, unable of keeping up with its own oblique temper but not wanting to either. This is how it attracts its best and worst inhabitants, naked in history and drunk with ambition. We know about these people; their stories are the sirens of seduction. Success is the ones who make it, are naturalized and fade into the city’s tableau as if they were never not there; while the ones who don’t crumble into the plots of city they’d been given false inheritances of, covered by new paint and new bricks just the next day. Pawned off on the next transplant just the same.

I’ve lived in four cities, going on five, in five years. I’m often asked where my roaming tendencies came from, and I can see the answers in people’s minds before I even give mine. They almost always expect it to be some innate thing, ingested early on or socially derived through well- travelled parents. So I usually trace my answers to a childhood dream, and knowing it was what I’d always wanted, like marriage and a family and a highpowered career as a businesswoman. Except those dreams have all been released into some other river. And it’s the city I’m willing to hold onto, letting all of its lofty associations follow too, like a balloon tied to my wrist. Besides a few flips on the trapeze bar or the occasional turn at the batting cages, It seems one of the last childhood fantasies we are willing to indulge in, fully. As though it won’t come up short like the rest of them – the expectations we had, the reality we find, and the gap we never really know how to cross.

We forget that cities can just as easily serve as distractions, the same as lovers can, to the gaps we can’t or won’t fill on our own. We can idealize their best sides and barricade our resentment for the ugly parts. And the cities we inhabit are never whole for us, are incapable of giving us all we want or need or believe we deserve, but still we try. We come into them as transplants, slates wiped clear of dust, ready to start new. We think the city can build us again, newer and better, just as we watch it do to itself, day after day. We want to get at its deepest parts, the hidden ones it does not share with everyone. But resentments build and nagging tics plant invasive roots. Never able to gauge whose anxieties are whose, or which ones trip our feet with a paranoid insecurity, it becomes something futile and war-like, engaging with a silent enemy that only spits back its bad habits in venomous jest.

The romance is this: move through these cities, use them, build breathless expectations and change our hair or clothes for them, parade them, admire and hate them, try to be more like them, strive to be opposite from them, cry in front of them, stay up until sunrise with them. They are the definitive and bold-print turning points that lead into some higher understanding of the world. We are suckers for their gridlines and grime and their smells of soiled streets, for the things they promise, even though we know they’ve promised the exact same to everyone who came before us. Afterward, they are nothing more than those we take in bodily form, love, lose, scorn, and probably one day love again. So then, nothing less either, I’m sure.

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image via: midwinter