The City, She Loves Me

No New Year’s Eve post this year, because this time I’m too busy to write one until tomorrow. Instead, have a story–the only piece of fiction I’ve written for more years than I’ve kept track of. 

When my partner first started to disappear, it was just a little bit at a time. I barely noticed, at first.

I visited her in New York for the first time that spring. I’d been to the city before, as a child—saw a family-friendly Broadway show, took a cruise around the island, went to the Statue of Liberty, ate a lot of pizza. I remember my little brother hated it and couldn’t stop crying at the noise, the people, at everything. Even the pigeons terrified him. But I neither loved it nor hated it; it was a place like any other.

When I came to visit her it was different. She showed me the city like I’d never seen it before. It was late April and everything was blooming, and I never knew a city could have so many flowers. They lit up the trees that split the avenues in half. They spilled out of window boxes and pots hanging from the lamp posts. They popped up in the strangest of places, like the sunflowers growing in abandoned lots in Brooklyn, where we went to visit her friends. They peered out at me from behind rusty chain-link fences, little suns adrift in the city.

That week was the first time it happened, only I didn’t know it was happening. We were in Washington Square Park, looking at the Arch and the flowers and the performers. It was a Wednesday afternoon, too late for the lunch rush. We were watching a dance troupe perform near the fountain, and I was holding her hand.

Suddenly I felt her let go. When I looked over she was gone. Just gone. A little crowd had gathered to watch the dancers, but there weren’t so many people that I could just lose her like that. I spun around in circles trying to find her, unsure whether or not to trust my own perception. But not ten seconds later I felt her hand in mine again. I turned around and there she was.

Startled, I said, too loudly, “Where were you?”

She just looked at me, gold flecks dancing in her green eyes, and said, “Exploring!”

And her mouth curled into that mischievous smile I loved, and I thought I must’ve been imagining things.

~~~

Unlike me, she had always loved the city, from her first trip there at one year old. Her parents went almost yearly to visit relatives, of whom she must’ve had dozens in the city. By the time we met in Chicago, both recent college grads, she already knew she was going to move. It was only a matter of time.

The first job she was able to find in New York, she took. It wasn’t the best of jobs, as we both knew. She’d be reporting on local news—crime, subway disasters, things like that—rather than the more serious political stuff she wanted to cover. But everyone has to start somewhere, I suppose.

At the time we were living in Lakeview. Too far from the lake to actually view it, but close enough to walk to the beach in the summers. We’d been together for about three years. Since I always knew she was going to escape to New York at the earliest opportunity, it was neither a surprise nor a disappointment when  I came home from work one day to find her beaming, phone still in her hand, telling me she got the job. I was a little sad for me, but very, very happy for her.

Besides, my job paid well and would only pay better and better, so I knew I’d be able to go see her a lot. In those weeks as she scrambled to find a spare room at one of her numerous relatives’ apartments, to decide what to take and what to leave, to say her goodbyes to her family and all the friends she’d made in Chicago, we talked a lot about how it would be. How we would be.

My friends were less optimistic than I was. “Look, I hate to tell you, but she’ll find someone else,” they would say. In fact, that possibility didn’t worry me too much. Although it’d been years since either of us dated anyone else, I figured she might meet someone, someone she could see anytime she wanted. Sure, maybe it wasn’t the most pleasant thought, but I knew that she loved me and felt confident that we would make it through whatever came next.

They said other things, too. “Watch out,” a friend joked to her at her going-away party. “That city will consume you if you’re not careful.”

I had always thought that was just a figure of speech.

~~~

The next time I saw her it was July. The city was burning. We walked less, spent more time in the museums and bookstores we loved. We went to Rockaway Beach for a day, and to Brighton Beach, too, where I heard my parents’ language spoken everywhere.

She was disappearing more and more often, and for longer periods of time. At first she was playful about it, like it was a game she and the city were playing with me. But I could see that she was starting to worry a little. Like she was losing control over it.

I tried to ask her about it once, after I spent an hour wandering through the Met by myself.

“Where do you go when you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Disappear for a while like you just did.”

“Oh, you know. Exploring.”

“Exploring where?”

“Just around. I pretend I’m the city.”

Maybe that should’ve been my clue, but I was too confused, my head too fuzzy with longing for her and with the summer heat, to understand.

~~~

Although we talked about a lot of things, we never really talked about that. We talked about our crushes and we talked about sex and we talked about money and the future. But we never talked about what it meant, her going away like that.

The closest we got was that fall, when I visited again. Red and orange and yellow leaves reflected in blue glass skyscrapers, pressed into wet pavement, flung into the rivers by the wind.

We were sitting on a bench in Central Park at sunset, facing a pond. Across the water, the trees rose up like a cliff, their colors fading as the light slipped away.

We were holding hands, but she was neither here nor there. Sometimes I could see her but couldn’t touch her. Sometimes I could feel her hand in mine, but when I turned my head I saw I was alone. Sometimes she was both invisible and untouchable, but I could still hear her voice in the rustling dying leaves.

It was during one of the moments when she was completely with me that she suddenly said, “I’m sorry.”

What could I possibly say to that? It wasn’t okay. But I wasn’t angry at her, either. It wasn’t her fault.

So instead of saying anything, I squeezed her hand harder. But a moment later I was squeezing nothing but air.

~~~

That visit was the last time I saw her. After that, we talked less and less. When we did talk, little had changed—she said she missed me, asked me about my day, told me stories about the city and the things she had seen there—but she was rarely online. I could see that she was fading away.

When I asked her if I could visit again in February, she wrote back:

“well…I’m not exactly around much :/“

It was just text, but I could almost hear her voice, apologetic and a little embarrassed.

“That’s ok,” I typed, “we can hang out as much or as little as you like.”

“the thing is I’m not sure we’d be able to hang out at all.”

I said I understood, even though I didn’t really. It was a surface-level understanding. I understood that she was telling me not to visit because she would not be able to see me. I did not understand why she couldn’t, not really.

Not long after that she stopped posting on Facebook entirely. None of our mutual friends had heard from her either. Once, on a whim, I checked the website of the newspaper she wrote for. They’d hired someone new to cover crimes and subway delays.

The weirdest thing is that I wasn’t worried. I was sad, and I missed her, and I wished more than anything that I could see her again, but I felt almost certain that she was absolutely okay. Happy, even.

On what would’ve been her 27th birthday, I drove out to the suburbs to see her family. We’d visited them often when she still lived in Chicago, and I remembered the way even though she’d always been the one who drove. The passenger seat felt especially empty next to me that day.

Her folks welcomed me as always. Her younger sister, who was in between jobs, was living there too. She looked so much like her it was disorienting.

I told them everything I knew—the way the disappearances kept getting longer and longer, the fact that someone else had apparently taken over her job. Of course, they’d noticed too. They’d expected her to fall off the face of the earth a little bit once she finally moved to her beloved city, but they hadn’t heard from her at all in weeks and that wasn’t normal.

We all cried, a lot, and reminisced about her and the ways in which she’d changed us. We sat in her room with its tacky Times Square posters and thought about the woman she had been. We called up her relatives in the city to see if any of them had maybe seen her one more time, but no one had.

Her mom found a scarf that she’d crocheted and given her as a holiday present a year ago, only my absent-minded sweetheart left it there on New Year’s Day. “Take it,” she said. She didn’t have to say anything else. The scarf was pink and blue—a little too bright for her, maybe, but just right for me. I still wear it.

It was long past dark when I finally got up to leave. Her dad walked me to my car despite the snow. As I opened the door, he said, “You know, I always thought that something like this might happen.”

“What do you mean?” I said, although I knew.

He looked up at the night. “It wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened in our family.”

As I drove home, I couldn’t stop thinking about her and her relatives and the city they all love. I wondered how many of them are still exploring it with her, too flighty and transparent to be seen by ordinary people.

~~~

I suppose it was only inevitable that I would follow her there. I’ve always said that I’m not the sort of person to move across the country for a partner, and to some extent that’s still true. Before she left, we talked about it a lot. We both loved and valued our careers, and we both understood that the distance wouldn’t stop us from loving and valuing each other, either. Living together could wait a while.

About a year after she disappeared for good, my firm opened an office in New York and offered to transfer me there so I could manage it. Although I already managed a small team back at the Chicago office, I was eager for the chance to move up. It wasn’t just the higher salary that appealed to me, though. I wanted to lead more people, to have more influence over the direction the firm would take and the types of clients we would work with. But a huge part of it, still, was that I wanted to somehow be closer to her.

The city was different and yet it wasn’t. The little pieces of it had changed—stores and restaurants had closed and new ones had opened, trains got rerouted, a few luxury high-rises had appeared where they hadn’t been before—but otherwise it was the same old New York.

Without her, I fell into a new routine, found my own favorite little spots and my own routes to walk. Work keeps me pretty busy, but on weekends I take the city in, by myself or with the new friends I’ve made.

I’ve started to notice how much of her is still here. Her echoes are everywhere—in the rumbling trains, in the cables of the bridges, shaking in the wind. At times I feel someone take my hand, but there’s never anyone there.

In these endless streets where so many people feel lonely and forgotten, I know I’m never really alone. Her smile glows at me from the holiday lights; her voice whispers to me when the trains rush past.

I miss her, but it’s not so bad. I’ve started dating other people. I usually tell them about her pretty early on, or else it feels deceitful somehow. Some people just give me a weird look and our texts peter off after that. But others get it.

The guy I’m seeing now wanted to know all about her. We spent a whole Saturday walking all over the city, from Battery Park to Washington Heights. I showed him where she was, and even though I know her can’t see her, feel her the way I do, the fact that he tried was all I needed.

At the edge of the Hudson that day, as she whipped through our hair and made our eyes water, he kissed me and for a moment I missed her a little less.

But all the same, I can’t forget her. How could I? She flows through the wires and pipes and tunnels and streets. I don’t go anywhere without her.

~~~

When she first moved away, we decided to get into the habit of messaging each other back and forth throughout the day. We both knew we’d miss the constant casual conversations you get to have when you share an apartment with your partner, so we wanted to recreate that online.

In order to avoid dull chats about annoying coworkers and messy roommates, we played the question game. I’d ask a question, she’d answer it, ask another.

One day I asked an admittedly boring question: “What are you most afraid of?”

She said, “Not existing. If you had to be trapped inside any video game which would it be?”

I broke the cardinal rule of the question game by ignoring her question entirely. “Not existing? You mean dying?”

“Yes and no. It’s not the dying part that bothers me. It’s the fact that I just wouldn’t beanymore. I wouldn’t get to feel. I wouldn’t get to see. I wouldn’t even know that I’m not getting to do those things!”

I think of that now, and I think of her, wandering through the city unseen, existing forever.

I’ll admit that it’s hard not to envy her.

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The City, She Loves Me
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4 thoughts on “The City, She Loves Me

  1. 1

    Wow, what a story!

    I liked the little brother, terrified by the pigeons. I liked also the way you described the relationship: engaging and important, but at the same time sort of contingent, temporary, and light. And your

    We were holding hands, but she was neither here nor there. Sometimes I could see her but couldn’t touch her. Sometimes I could feel her hand in mine, but when I turned my head I saw I was alone.


    sounds to me like an apt, sad description of so many real life situations.

    I’m glad you left her not just as “feeling and seeing”, not merely as a perennial invisible outsider, existing forever, but with “her relatives and the city they all love”. This makes it less cruel. This makes the final envy more understandable.

    You are really good at it. Not that it’s a surprise.

  2. 2

    This made me think of a China Mieville book, The City and the City. I don’t really know why. He’s my favorite author but I’ve only read that book once; I don’t think it was one of his best. Maybe my mental association comes from the possibility of disappearing into a city, which is one of those ambiguous ideas that are sort of tinged with the fantastical. You can experience a city like New York so differently than someone else that you might as well be living in different places; you can live on the same block and never even see each other, if you so choose. Anyway, thanks for posting this.

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