This is not what I expected a city to feel like. That’s what I wanted to show you.
Growing up in our small, Southern town, I pictured something so different. I thought a city would be endless contact — people living all over me. Their languages, their ambition, their fashion: suddenly mine to take in. There would never be privacy and that would be perfect. I am no introvert.
And then I moved to that first city, and the next, and the next, and found I had been wrong.
Yes, there are bodies pressed against mine on the bus. The smell of green beans down the hall. Yes, I share every elevator and sidewalk and evening on the beach. The fire trucks blare down my street and I know that someone’s catastrophe is unfolding nearby.
The people in the high rises surrounding mine leave their blinds open, like I do. Their windows are movie screens my family cannot help but watch, so we name them according to their habits. Dancing Man hops from foot to foot in front of his tv, willing his team to score. Lonely girl sits in the same spot on her tasteful couch, always with her legs folded under her, always facing the same direction. The Indian stayed up late cooking herself elaborate meals until she started dating Mr. Indian. Now they go salsa dancing on Friday nights. He wears a white fedora and practices his steps in the mirror while she dresses in the bedroom. She is beautiful, and moves like she knows it.
It occurred to me sometime back that I know far more about the residents of these buildings than they know about each other — more, even, than their own friends do. I see the unguarded moments and the messy kitchens.
We speculate about what they call us. Maybe I am Ratty Bathrobe, my husband Black Socks. They must know that our children wrestle on the carpet after dinner, that we love cereal, that I chew my cuticles, that we have a deaf son. Yes, I am surrounded.
But there is a difference between surrounded and together. That is what I know now, what cities have taught me. City life is not a dorm. It’s a constant effort to create mental space in an environment that lacks personal space. Even in the Midwest with its generous, friendly, practical ways—where anyone on the street will stop to give directions—life in any city requires that one pretend not to notice who is doing what. I’m inclined to talk to everyone, but feel intrusive when I do so.
So here, crammed in with all these people, I am more silent than ever before. Some days I might as well be on Pluto. There is no lonely so lonely as surrounded can be.
I passed The Indian on the street once and found it so odd — like seeing my elementary school teacher at the grocery. I hoped she didn’t recognize me. Talking to her would be too intimate.