I used to think I didn’t get attached to places. The past was a haze, an awful mystery I yearned to escape. My heart was not heavy when my family moved us from New Jersey to Florida when I was 10, and it was lighter still when I finally left Miami to seek my fortunes in Ottawa, Canada. I had much to flee. It was only later that I found something to mourn.
When I returned to Miami, the paths were the same. The same Australian umbrella trees and beautiful palm thickets lined the streets, the same pervasive sun and majestic vultures on thermals graced the skies, but I was not home. I was not looking at the stuff of a decade of memories. It was under this sky and these vultures that I dated my first girlfriend, attended my first college party, gasped in awe at my first alligator, but now…I was nowhere. Watching the blue mangrove crabs challenge cars for dominance and the grackles fight for trash-bin scraps, I felt empty instead of delighted. I walked the 33 blocks to the grocery store that sells all the Latin specialties I quickly learned to miss in Ottawa, and it didn’t feel like returning to myself. It felt like traveling a long way away for my weird exotic tastes, no realer than the trip across Ottawa for Scottish ginger concentrate.
This isn’t home. I don’t belong here. And I’ve finished with this place.
New Jersey never alienated me the way Miami did. My family left New Jersey and I fell into the maelstrom of adolescence all at once, and found few fond memories tied to our tiny house or the several schools I attended there. Even the memories that made no sense apart from where they took place—the fishing trips to the Rahway River, looking out over the far grander Hudson River to New York City, the cherry tree in my aunt’s backyard—they seemed to exist in an airy cloud, nostalgia unfulfilled. Maybe it’s that I spent those ten or eleven years and never went back to New Jersey, never looked again at that tiny house and the little holly tree in the backyard and Mom’s prized rose bushes that she tells me died long ago, never got any closer to those memories than an impromptu lilac tour on the way farther north. Or maybe New Jersey just never disappointed me the way Miami did.
I visited so many Miami places, trying to find the ones that still felt like they were part of me. The park near the house in Miami where I would play trust games with the ground, falling on my back and looking at the sky, hoping I picked a spot that didn’t have red ants. The hidden canal where I used to watch the cormorants and moorhens, beauty no others knew. The view from the bathroom at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, looking out onto the beach, the envy of peers situated anywhere else. The outdoor lamps where I studied giant water bugs and wraithlike white geckos in rapt attention, in awe that such creatures could exist. The picnic table near Lake Osceola on the University of Miami campus where I ate almost every lunch I ever had there, a short sprint from the lake’s resident crocodile, watching the green herons and needlefish and sulking in the loneliness that seemed to pervade those days.
Those places don’t feel mine anymore.
But every now and then, when I visit the neighborhood where my parents set me up when I came to Ottawa, and look at the façade of the poorly-insulated studio apartment where I lived for my first while, I feel fond. It was a tiny place and I had to share a toilet and shower and an obnoxious coin laundry and I would regularly be awakened at three in the morning by crowds of drunks carousing past and I wore multiple sweaters indoors in the winter and as little as possible in the summer because the insulation was so absurdly bad, but that place was mine, and those memories are mine, and that deep draught of independence is a recollection that feels right somehow.
I don’t feel that way about Miami anymore.
I walked for hours today through the city that saw me through middle school and high school and my bachelor’s degree and I felt wrong. I looked at the wide streets half missing sidewalks and the signs for dentists and lawyers and chiropractors and psychics, at the endless avenues of palm trees and Spanish tile roofs and nativity scenes, at parades of drivers so awful that they make the torrent of billboards advertising lawyers who specialize in contesting traffic tickets make sense, and none of it felt mine.
I listened to the sounds, the heron squawks and frog calls and the wispy vibrato of a startled mourning dove’s wings, and it felt alien, foreign, even hostile.
This is a place where the only people who walk or run anywhere are romantic fools like me and people in gated communities who need to go over the paths again and again to remember which cookie-cutter house is theirs, where the sprawling chessboard of minor variations on the same one-floor house goes on in every direction, punctuated mostly by some of those having business signs in front of them and others having a cul-de-sac adjacent. This is a place where things are cutthroat and vicious, where people forget what a social species we are and family members stab each other in the back for “appearances” or advantage, forever.
I never met a place filled with more nature that felt so artificial.
I never met a place so warm that made me feel so cold.
I missed the doves. I miss the chickadees of the north so much more.
This is not my city.
This is not my culture.
This is not my country.
Is it weird that when I arrived in Ottawa one of the first things that almost moved me to tears was seeing one of those little chickadee birds again? One of those little grey birds with their black heads and tiny feet in a tree in Strathcona Park, next to a Rideau River that will never, ever be dearer to me than my memories of the Rahway River and the gambusias I used to bring back with me, and it was like coming home. Seeing that black-capped chickadee and hearing its tinny song brought me back to simpler New Jersey days, when everything was imagination games and logic puzzles, when I was too young to know the things that would probably sour that place, too. Canada could have been foreign, and in some ways it was, but the birds…they made me fit.
I never fit in Miami. Not for one magnificent second did I fit there. There’s no room in Miami for people like me. Miami has no place for people whose schemes and connivances don’t lead to anyone’s downfall. Miami actively excludes people who don’t think that talking over someone is an expression of interest in what they’re saying. Miami makes mincemeat of people who think that making left turns shouldn’t be a blood sport. Miami dismisses as irrelevant eccentrics the people who look at all of that wildlife and see it for its beauty and not as a nuisance between them and another interchangeable subdivision. Miami tells people who do not thrive on pointless displays of bravura, impulsive belligerence that they are weak and submissive and will never amount to anything. No dove or moorhen could make that place be mine.
Miami tells people everyone else in the world deserves every iota of their ill fortune, but not you. You’re special. And it’d be a crime against that specialness to ever take an action that benefits someone else more than it benefits you.
This is not my city.
This is not my culture.
This is not my country.
I’m not sure exactly when Miami lost me, but I know what it felt like. It felt like every memory of opossums digging in the trash and anole lizards sparring in the bushes turned gray and sad, indelibly tinted with the too-human toxicity this place aimed at me. It felt like something so pure as the natural bounty that I first fell in love with about Florida becoming a symbol of everything I hated about that place, everything that drove me away, and I couldn’t look up at the blameless sky at the majestic vultures and see creatures that had done me no wrong. It felt like the preternatural sadness that mourning doves always symbolized, but that I until then found peaceful and calming instead. It felt like realizing that nowhere would ever feel more “home” than the first place I had to navigate entirely on my own.
I want to miss the moorhens. I want to miss the needlefish and the manatees and the grackles and the blue mangrove crabs that pick fights with cars. I want to miss squirrels being rare and lizards common. I want to miss the ultramarine sky no other place I’ve been could match, and the faint smell of sea salt 30 kilometers inland. I want to miss culantro and bananas in people’s gardens, fresher than anywhere else. Some part of me still does, I think, or it wouldn’t feel so strange and empty that the abuse I endured in Miami took the rest away.
So now, home is skunks and raccoons robbing the bins, squirrels in the trees, and groundhogs on the lawns. Now, home is white-tailed deer and coyotes at night, sneaking through the greenbelts and even the streets, refusing to abandon the urban areas humans built through their homes. Home is rivers instead of canals, full of sunfish and turtles and insect larvae that all start to come out when I sit quietly next to them and let them forget I’m here. Home is nuthatches and ravens and wrens living quiet forest days. Home is poutine and independence.
This is my city.
This is my culture.
This is my country.