In America 12/7: What A City Is

The town wasn’t small, but it wasn’t big, either, just another post-industrial ghetto rusting gently by the lake. You laughed when they put up condos; sure, the harbor’s pretty, but nobody’s going to live here. You could drive from the neighborhood to the beach in ten minutes. Everybody went to Catholic school, or else you weren’t worth thinking about, was the logic of the day, so it was the same 200 people, birth to death, you shared fingerpaints with the boys you kissed in the backs of their cars at sixteen, or couldn’t kiss them, could never kiss them after you watched them throw up scrambled eggs through their noses in kindergarten.

You knew the make and model of all the cars on the block, talked to the same five women every day. And in the middle of the night, perfect safety to turn on the flashlight and keep playing horror movie games; your big bullying neighbor, Greg, a convenient gargoyle. There was safety in your lack of numbers. Everybody wore the same “stylish” sweatshirt that year, and nobody got a tattoo. You knew, when you left the house, everyone you would run into.

But once a year, before the winter bit but after Halloween, he packed you up and piled you in the car and you drove down the freeway at an unimaginable 65 miles an hour, flying along, the window cracked open because he couldn’t stand recycled air, your nose pressed to the window glass because just up the next turn, just over the slight rise in the pavement, would be the skyline, and you wanted to be the first to spot it. There was something lucky in that, in the race over the expanse of concrete toward the buildings, till it seemed you’d go right through them, they were coming up so fast. And the sight of all those lights made something in your chest flutter, made you lift up out of your seat and strain at the seat belt, a feeling of yes, yes, this, this is where I want to be.

So. Many. People. People in black with blue hair, people with boots and people with dogs and people with strollers. He parked the car and took you on foot in the middle of them, and you marveled, the way a crowd this large carried you along, the way you instinctively followed the man in the dark blue fur (fur. on a man.) in front of you, that if he walked straight into the lake (how the wind off it burned here, burned your face red) you’d follow until the water swallowed you. You went into stores taller than any building in your whole town, and people came up to him and offered them things, and he asked your advice, would your mother like that, would that color look good with her hair, and the salesgirls smiled at you with their perfect teeth.

You watched the way he handled himself in this new place, the confidence with which he approached people, as though they were no better than he, as though he (this man who slept in T-shirts with seven holes in them and changed his own oil) had nothing to prove to them in their cashmere and leather. You watched the way they treated him, responding to that quiet authority you so seldom saw in him, subject as you were to discipline rather than respect at that age, the way they catered to him, wanted to please him. You stood taller, carried the bright colored bags with gifts. You learned how to be with people, how to get them to do what you wanted, when you so often felt awkward and wrong in your skin. You borrowed his ease in this world until you developed your own.

The avenue darkened and the tree lights came out, puffs of breath from beneath fur hats and above fur collars, skaters on the rink, carols from the corners, and he always pitched pennies into the violinists’ buckets, because that’s not an easy instrument to play in below zero weather. You walked, up and down, looking at the buildings, all lit up, and thought, I will live here someday, I will know these streets. You did the trip every year, though some things changed.

One year, at the age of sixteen, a waitress mistook you for his wife and asked you if you’d like to order a drink. Another year you forgot where you parked the car and though you feared he’d be enraged he laughed as you looked for it. You never forgot the face of the elderly woman he escorted across the street as she struggled with her cane.

When you drove back to your sleeping town, headlights cutting through the dark because the outskirts of town weren’t lit yet, the back of the car packed with presents he’d have you sneak into the house while he distracted her, wrap them and stuff them under the fat Christmas tree, the sound of traffic would hum in your head. When you went away to the city for school, your roommate, from a very very small town, stayed up half the night just watching all the cars go by. She was frightened.

You weren’t. You’d seen it before.