Like any love affair, sometimes a relationship with a city comes to an abrupt halt. After a few years, you wake up one morning and realize you no longer like the same things or keep the same kind of company. Your Netflix selections clash. You’ve become a vegan and your honey is on the paleo diet. You let it drag out because you’ve known each other for so long and it is so much work to meet someone new.
For me, it took eight years to break up with my last home, Austin. You can quit calling an ex and block his email, but how do you break up with a city?
Austin was an exotic lover. I was born in Philadelphia and raised in the Bronx. (My first crush was a boy named Sultan in second grade, but a close second was the noisy, awkward not-quite-adult that was New York.) In Austin, sunsets sent bats like a flurry of black kisses into a magenta sky. I got hooked on the endless supply of bright sunshine and great local beer.
The wide Texas sky was a place where I could project a thousand dreams on an infinite number of stars above. I got nice and comfortable with Austin, cozy enough to build a garden in my backyard and adopt a Mastiff mutt. With my hands in the soil under blistering triple-digit temperatures that seemed to stretch from April to September, I learned about mouse-sized roaches with wings that rustled like paper when they took flight. I learned to save mason jars and use the heat to make sun tea on my porch.
The moment of reckoning always comes, whether you want it to or not. Like that moment you realize the man buying you dinner chews with his mouth open, I understood that the view of the ever-expanding skyline and the pretty live oaks with their crooked branches came with costs.
You know, for instance, when you are the only black girl a guy has ever dated. You feel like love can conquer all, but the uncomfortable, unwelcoming stares follow you everywhere you go. So it was for me in Austin, a place where the percentage of black people lingers around 6 percent and decreasing. But sometimes the universe sends you signs, too. For me, it was the consecutive death of my parents within two years, followed by the death of my dog.
All my surviving family members are back East and I was out in the West, trying to get Austin to love me back. I had done this before, too. I had swapped a handful of other cities for Austin, after all: San Francisco, Seattle, Houston and Beaumont, Texas. Before that there was Chester, Pa. and multiple boroughs of New York City. Why did I think Austin could cure me of my urban polyamory?
At the time, it seemed like a place I could settle for. It was like when you tire of waiting for Mr. Right and instead go for Mr. Right Now.
When I became a journalist, I realized that I was in love with wandering as much as the thrill of the chase. I craved monogamy — in love and in a city — but I was greedy, too. I wanted all of the sprawling urban wild of Houston and the quiet hospitality of East Texas and the seafood with a view of Mount Rainier from Seattle. I wanted San Francisco to be as black and beautiful as Oakland and for the whole Bay Area to offer housing as affordable as the South. For minutes at a time, I could stand tracing the lines of the New York subway system on a map like they were veins in a lover’s forearm.
When I first interviewed Alice Walker a decade ago, I told her I came from the city and that I had never lived anywhere with a garden. She looked at me with such sadness that I became confused. She said that she couldn’t imagine living “so far from the ground.” I didn’t understand her chagrin, since I had never been without city. Soil, to me, was something used to somehow produce the plastic-wrapped food I bought at the bodega. It related to me in only the most distant supply-chain kind of way.
Now I am in Washington, D.C. In this cold, reserved town, as charming as it can be treacherous, I feel again what it means to love a city and to want it to love me back. D.C. is one of the most sophisticated of my lovers — multilingual, international and, sometimes, he brings cherry blossoms. On the Metro, I am among the many trying to carry all of home with me into the broader urban wilderness: A bag hanging from each shoulder, hands fumbling with keys and change, the omnipresent cell phone. I eagerly visited the U.S. Capitol building, in awe of its 9 million-pound dome, remembering how in Austin the locals liked to boast that the Texas State Capitol is taller. But there’s a tunnel straight from the nation’s Capitol building to the Library of Congress, which made me swoon more than a dozen Austin microbrews ever did.
I still think about the cities I’ve left with a mixture of fondness and relief, the way you do when you consider any loved one who is now part of the past. That is how love works — the resigned exhale after the slow, seductive inhale of possibility.