The city has never been beautiful to me.
When I was five years old, Detroit was a black shadow that held my father hostage at the VA Medical Center. When he had a night shift he didn’t come home until 3 in the morning. Sometimes my mother let my two little brothers and I stay up late and we ran, bleary-eyed, into his tired arms covered in wrinkled blue sleeves that smelled like disinfectant wipes and coffee. He came home with stories about gunshots and didn’t realize we could understand the fear in our mother’s eyes when he raised his voice.
When I was seven years old, Philadelphia was an amoebic brown mass. Red and gold dragons paraded through the streets for Chinese New Year and that’s about all the character the city could boast. There was always traffic on I-276 but it was supposed to be faster and safer than crawling through local roads lined with brown apartment buildings with brown grass dying behind brown fences.
When I was eleven years old, Boston was a red city filled with people who were too cool and intelligent and rich to be bothered with a little girl who dreamed of being a writer or a cardiologist. Harvard Square was too crowded. Bookstores were only interesting if they had craft books featuring step-by-step instructions on how to make a tissue-paper flower or if my parents let me buy the next six books in the Warriors series. I was obsessed with the Warriors series.
When I was thirteen years old, New York City was dark spots in my vision and yellow headlights closing in during a Thanksgiving traffic jam under a network of highway ramps on I-478. It was sweaty palms and my first panic attack and discovering I had claustrophobia. My mother told me she rode the train home by herself when she was half my age. She wasn’t bragging.
When I was twenty years old, London was a disappointment and a George Eliot poem that made me cry when I memorized it surrounded by dirty laundry and clean sheets. It wasn’t very romantic. I tried to fall in love, but the garbage bags in front of the hotel and the jostling and the rain made it impossible to feel anything but lonely. London was either too empty or too full. I couldn’t decide which one.
But then we took a wrong turn at 10:30 p.m. and you showed me the Chicago skyline at night and my breath caught in my throat because suddenly the city could be beautiful.
This is a shortened version of an essay I’m currently writing for a class.