Cities at Night

Every city is a different city when seen by night. I learn this first in junior high, more so in high school when my friends start driving and I start sneaking out sometimes to be with them. Mostly we drive with no purpose, no destination; sometimes we wander through parks where the playground equipment has gone cold from lack of sun. I kiss my second boy on a frigid night under the deck at my mother’s house after sneaking out, when our breath plumes into shapes like the cigarettes he will eventually teach me to smoke. I slip on the ice during that first kiss, but he holds me tighter and I do not fall.

In later years, I learn different cities when I go running at night down the middle of the empty street where the cars would normally drive. Something about it feels dangerous, reckless, not just the running in spaces where cars belong, but the fact that no one knows where 17 year old me has gone. It is in the years before cell phones are ubiquitous, and if my mother were to wake, she would find nothing but an empty room. I spend those years trying mostly to be good, except for those times in the middle of the night, wanting the easy peace others I know have that comes from faith, from friends. I never find it, except perhaps there, when I am alone at night, seeing things differently, the world as new.

I will find this again in other years, in the works of artists, like the photographs of Brassai, showing me a side of Paris different from the one I wandered around in a few months before the Twin Towers fell and I was afraid to fly anywhere. In paintings too, those of lonely roads, bare stretches of asphalt bereft of cars, illuminated by barely there road signs. I saw it again the times I embodied those paintings, driving the highway where my brother had died, the way a familiar roadway could take on an unexpected weight, entirely new meanings in the dark. Sunlight and the shadows of the day had different qualities than those of the light given off by neon storefronts, their strange electric humming a kind of manufactured insect song.

Several weekends ago I wrapped myself in a sweatshirt and stood on the front porch of a friend’s cabin while my child slept upstairs. There was barely any light left, and with what remained I watched the swift bodies of bats wing past, feeding on the insects that wanted to feed on me. They were so fast that, had I not known what to look for, I might have imagined them as lesser birds or merely shadows moving around in the periphery of my vision.

I kept thinking as I was watching them about echolocation and about the last time I had spent any time considering its properties. It was in April of 2015, a mere month and a half after my husband had died and I was in a large event center for the AWP conference in Minneapolis. The first day there I spent time wandering around the exhibit hall where all the book tables were. There was conversation everywhere, so much of it that I had to tune it out somehow lest it completely overwhelm me. I knew there were people there that I knew, but there were so many people there I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find any of them. I felt awkward, melancholy, almost regretting my decision to go to the conference, though I had planned it a year earlier. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see any of them, dreaded the conversations about how I was doing. How was I supposed to be doing? If I said that I felt like a boulder was on me and I could barely breathe would it make them uncomfortable? If I said I was okay would they wonder what inside me was so hardened that it could possibly be so?

For a brief moment I closed my eyes, trying to isolate one sound from another. Through the near impossibility of that, I thought about how a bat finds another bat in the dark when light and sight are dim, poor, barely believable things. I thought about singing my way back to someone, following the sound that bounced back to me from their body, a shape I would unerringly find in the dark. Even the air helps bats find each other, or find food, the particles of it pushing and pulling against another, passing on the energy of the sound.

My human sight is both amazing and limited, affected by light, by context, by the passing of time. When someone asks me years from now what my husband was like, what images of him will I be able to recall? What images too of the other young men, dead too soon, who have wounded me with their passing?

There are photos of my husband, to be sure, but they do not capture when the boy became man, when the man became father. They do not capture the man in motion, the way he cleared his throat, chewed his food, how his hands held our son when walking the halls at night. I closed my eyes for mere seconds in that event center, imagined another person I could hone in on the way bats could, and I couldn’t think of anyone who could find me, anyone who could make me feel less alone.

I didn’t feel alone when watching the bats wing all around me that night from the cabin porch. I felt hopeful, learning to see the world differently once again in the dark, like I had at 16 on that frozen deck at my mother’s house. There were no other arms around me, no other body that knew mine so well it saw the shape of it in the darkness when bereft of light. But this no longer bothered me. I could imagine the day when, like the bats, I could feel the want in me echoed back from another body. When I would find myself recognized. When I would become a new city, regardless of light.

One thought on “Cities at Night

  1. I always read each one at least twice. First for the thoughts and words. Then for the emotion. Profound.

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