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Her City

The city was gone.

As good as gone, in any case. What remained could hardly even be called a town.

She still remembered how it used to be. The busy streets. The scramble crosswalks, with throngs of people hurrying in all directions. When she looked out the window, she used to see high-rises across the park, their brick facades stern like those of factories. Now, she saw a street of dilapidated two-storey houses and a row of power poles with loosely strung wires. Beyond that, the sky.

Even these remnants would disappear soon.

There was a time when the city was real. It was full of churches, post offices, libraries, and schools. It was a maze of avenues and alleyways, with courtyards, plazas, and pockets of stale time in which some buildings stood, unchanged, for decades. It abounded in nosy neighbours, feral cats, and pigeons, those unloved but faithful guardians of all real cities. Kids delivered newspapers. There were restaurants that stayed open through the night.

Suburbia went first, rows and rows of nameless houses. She did not notice it until most of the subdivisions were gone. Then, one day, as her son was driving her to a shopping mall at the edge of the city, she looked out of the window and frowned. “Isn’t this where the Joneses used to live?” she asked tentatively. ”It’s just fields now. What happened?” He shook his head, glancing at her with a tinge of concern. “There was nothing here, Mom. Who are the Joneses?”

She was fifty-five then, and they were going to get her a dress she would wear at his wedding. Several years later, she once again asked him to take her to that mall, for a dress for a much more somber occasion. His father had had a heart attack. The funeral was in three days. They had been estranged for years, but she was planning to pay her final respects.

“I have never heard of that mall, Mom,” her son had said then. “Is it in town? Did it just open?”

Year after year, the city shed more streets. Nobody either noticed or cared. Maps changed, and people forgot. Everyone, that is, except for her.

She saw the city fold in on itself: the schools, the churches, the libraries. Parking lots turned into meadows. Scabs of debris formed over hollows where houses once stood and other houses gradually moved in to close the gap. It didn’t seem all that long before her son and daughter-in-law started getting uneasy, without knowing why. They talked about opportunities, told her of old acquaintances who had moved to the coast. They left magazines lying around, flipped to pages of modern city living. “This used to be modern city living”, she wanted to tell them. “Just a few years ago.”

They told her how great it would be to live by the ocean.

Her daughter-in-law came for visits during the day, swollen and exhausted with her first pregnancy. Sitting in the living room, clinking a teaspoon against fine china, she complained of her husband’s unrewarding job. Of her own predicament, too: what kind of marketing work was there in a city of this size? Another mom and pop store needing some fliers? She was not going to be a ‘homemaker’. Bigger cities held so much more promise.

So they left. There were a few evenings of arguments when they tried to convince her to go, too, but she would have none of it. Yes, her city was constantly changing. Yes, she’d blink and something would, inevitably, be altered. It bothered her, but the other city would be all change: nothing but change.

This was the city of her birth, her city, and she would stay right here.

*

They kept in touch, of course. She got letters, phone calls, and invitations to visit. She dutifully answered them, the invitations in the negative.

The city around her kept changing. As time passed, it seemed to be doing that faster and faster.

Alleyways closed up. Their edges came together until the backs of the houses touched, like edges of cuts pulled by invisible sutures.

Landmarks disappeared. Once, she was mortified to find herself lost in the very heart of the city she once knew so well. A concerned passerby offered to take her home. “Thank you,” she said hurriedly to the woman. “I’m fine. It’s just that they took down the bell tower. It really changed the landscape.” “A bell tower?” the woman asked, puzzled. “There was a bell tower in this town?”

In phone conversations with her son, she still tried to sound brightly cheerful. “That’s great news about your job,” she would say. “And it sounds like a lovely neighbourhood for the kids”. When she hung up, however, she would look at the closed shutters for a long time, waiting until the echoes of the conversation died in her head.

She often kept the shutters closed during the day: the outside could not be trusted.

The town around her was going to seed. Tall weeds rose up in the front yards of some houses. “The owners must’ve gone to the coast,” people would shrug. “Anyone with a bit of sense is leaving.” She alone seemed to know what would happen next. In a week, the house would be gone, with just the frame remaining. Shrubs would grow through the windows. A tree would unfurl its branches into an undulating green roof. And then, a short two weeks later, there would be no trace of a man-made structure in that patch of forest.

She started waking up with an oppressive thought of how much must have changed outside during the night. Her city was shriveling, shrinking. Would there come a time, she wondered, when it would be gone from all the maps? If her city disappeared, would she go with it?

Her son dutifully phoned twice a week with news and stories. He told her of the little parks they found on their walks, of tranquil wisteria-overgrown lanes she would like so much. His words trailed invitations that were getting more and more difficult to ignore.

Occasionally, she still ventured outside. Some of those trips were necessary: groceries, medicine. Some, like walking to Sebastian’s bakery, she enjoyed for a while longer. At the bakery, she could get a coffee, a slice of meringue pie—the best in town, since she could no longer be bothered to make her own—and company. After a while, however, that adventure lost its attraction. There were fewer and fewer familiar faces she would see. She started to notice whispering behind her back. “Have you heard? Her neighbour has caught her staring down empty alleyways again.”

“I don’t want to leave my house,” she thought miserably when she got home from one such walk. Sinking deep into the protective embrace of her sofa, grocery bags set, iceberg-like, by her feet, she surveyed the familiar pattern of cracks on the wainscoting, the dusty pink roses on the wallpaper, and felt tears well up in her eyes. She grew up here. This was hers. She shouldn’t be forced to leave.

Soon enough, however, there came a day when she knew it was time. It wasn’t the day when Sebastian’s bakery vanished, though that caused her almost physical pain: on the familiar street, between a hairdresser’s and a dollar store, there was now a sore gap, like a missing tooth. No. It was the day when she went to open the door to the backyard only to realize that her house no longer had a backyard—it had a forest.

The next time her son asked her whether she’d consider moving, she surprised him by saying yes.

*

Getting used to the new city was not easy. All the stores were different, and for a long while, there wasn’t a familiar face among the neighbours. But her family helped her with the groceries, and took her for oceanside walks, and the kids would sometimes stay over at her house in the evenings and ask her to read aloud.

Soon enough, she started feeling better. This city was a good place. Vibrant, growing, alive. Just a few weeks after she moved into her new neighbourhood, a bakery opened around the corner. It even reminded her of Sebastian’s, although the man calling out greetings from the back was completely unlike Sebastian in age, height, girth—everything, in short, but the jaunty angle of the baker’s cap on his head.

But it was solid and trustworthy, this new place. Concrete staircases stayed in place day to day. So did monuments, crosswalks, and traffic lights. This city never brought up curbs to trip her, never hid subway entrances or shop doors when she came looking for them. Things here held their own against the passage of time.

Sometimes, however, she remembered the other city, her city, and wondered. What was happening to it? Why? It was almost like there had been a turning point in its history, a point when it forgot all about its promised bright future and started drifting backwards in time. Shedding layer after layer, it withered instead of developing. Could cities, like humans, fall ill? She was sorry for abandoning it, but the lingering sense of betrayal would lift as she looked outside and smiled a warm, slow smile for sunny-haired kids on bicycles, for dogs trotting proudly with sticks or toys, for rotund middle-aged accountants and insurance brokers on the way to their offices. This place was real. This was where she wanted to be.

She started going for solitary walks again. Every day, she would venture farther and farther into the neighbourhood, knowing that she could always find her way back.

“I shouldn’t have fought so long before moving here,” she said one evening, comfortable at the table with her family. Her daughter-in-law had just dug into a tub of ice-cream, and the kids haggled over how many scoops they were to get. A glass bowl of chocolate ice-cream (three raspberries and a mint leaf on top) had already appeared in front of her, and she smiled as she looked down.

“Moving here? What do you mean?” her son asked.

“Well, it turns out I really like this city. And being with all of you, of course.”

He shook his head slightly, uncomprehending.

“Mom, but you have always lived here.”

And that was when she knew, without looking at the map, that her city was gone for good.

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Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
irinitsa
Aug. 13th, 2016 09:30 pm (UTC)
Excellent! It reminds my of my favorite Breadberry or Cortasar. But it's really interesting without any comparison. And your language, I like it much.
be_unafraid
Aug. 15th, 2016 01:04 am (UTC)
Thanks :)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )