Let’s talk about cities.
The ones we exist in, even briefly passing through. The ones that exist only in the memories we keep to give them framework.
Some background: I’m sitting in JFK airport. It’s 4 am our time and I have flown all night without ever really sleeping. I just finished Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. I started this book in Las Vegas, where I live now. I read the middle of it in the last few weeks of going back and forth to California, the place where I grew up.
I use that term “grew up” loosely. We moved a lot. I never knew what to say when people asked for my hometown, but those near-LA-suburb cities as a whole will always be where the pull feels strongest. Those are where I cheered on losing football teams, got my first degree, made my best friends, vomited in bar bathroom lines. Nobody has known me since kindergarten. My parents only know the names of two of my friends. My old bedroom is already redecorated so beautifully that when I bring Catsby over, they make me change the bedding.
But that region is so significant to me because we’ve all been all over it. Sleeping on its couches. Screaming at our GPS as we wind deeper into its folds. Crying to our friends’ mechanic husbands as our cars fall apart on its shoulders. It has such deep illusions that we’ve been going somewhere when we’ve all really been tethered to some unknown thing that keeps us there. I’ve lived so many places and so few are not there.
But then I left, again, for real this time, and it’s not home anymore but it is something. All of this struck me a couple weeks ago as I sat at the green tables (where you could always count on running into someone between classes) on ULV campus alone, reading Calvino and listening to Death Cab for Cutie’s new single, “Gold Rush.” The scene is an almost exact duplicate of the previous day, when I sat reading the same book and listening to the same song on repeat but in Claremont and let’s just say I was feeling SOME TYPE OF WAY I DON’T EVEN KNOW. I started thinking about how I would describe each of these cities if I were to try and do it like Calvino.
A note on this collection: Invisible Cities is like nothing I’ve ever read. It’s essentially a bunch of flash fiction punctuated with occasional dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan as he describes the cities of the empire. Extremely lyrical, transcendental, often environmentally charged, with strong ties to the cosmos and the idea of the afterlife (so basically my ideal book). Most of the cities aren’t real. They’re named after women and goddesses and put under distinct headings: Cities and Desire. Cities and Memory. Thin Cities. Hidden Cities. Cities and the Dead. Khan is both mesmerized and frustrated with Polo’s ethereal descriptions. He wants both to know the cities better to and see them with the grand vision that Polo does. I didn’t know what to make of how this book made me think of my cities because I hadn’t put my finger on what I was supposed to get from the book, but here in New York City, sitting in an airport, something clicked.
“Irene is the name for a city in the distance, and if you approach it, it changes. For those who pass it without entering, the city is one thing; it is another for those who are trapped in it and never leave. There is the city where you arrive for the first time; and there is another city which you leave never to return. Each deserves a different name; perhaps I have already spoken of Irene under other names; perhaps I have spoken only of Irene.”
-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
This comes in one of the closing sections. The idea of all our impressions set to this mold in our head of the city to which we will compare all else runs throughout the book. Where the city is doesn’t seem to matter. But it’s this idea of the places you’re expecting to find, the hopes you have for them, the cute Insta captions you’ve prepared ahead of time. Those aren’t the city at all. In that way, anywhere can be your city because no city can have you, either. Not the you that you are when you’re alone at home with your cat. Only the you that you prepared specifically for this place, building off of all the expectations your experiences have made, dressing in airport bathrooms in the specific outfits you picked for each day of your trip, annoyed because you followed the sign that said food court and it led you to literally nothing but a Dunkin Donuts. Expectations already crumbling to give a glimpse of the city you came for. The one that’s real.
“I’ve ascribed these monuments a false sense of permanence. I placed faith in geography to hold you in my memory. ((gold rush)) I’m sifting through these rubbish piles ((gold rush)) through the rubble of bricks and wires ((gold rush)) Searching for something I’ll never find. ((gold rush)). Searching for something I’ll never find.”
–Death Cab for Cutie, “Gold Rush”