Three Women, Three Cities, Three Loves


So, how has she been?

This question, asked to no one in particular, is a reflex, ingrained in me from birth; it rolls off my tongue when I’ve landed in a city, new or familiar, as I drive through her streets from the airport. How has she been, what has happened to her since we last saw each other?

Cities are like people, to me, and their respective inhabitants, their culture, their music, their histories are fleeting glimpses of the facets of their personalities. Discovering a country is like standing on the cusp of a new relationship, with everything it entails: it could be the best thing that has ever happened to you, or it could be the thing that ruins your life. Some I chose to maintain, visiting and conversing with them like old friends; others I chose never to see again. And sometimes, only choice elements will linger for me, from a select, complicated few: their music, their art, their language, their gastronomy.

It’s the way I have made sense of the revolving door of places I have had to live in, the only way I could keep track of them, the only way I could hold some piece of them before we passed each other by. Cities come alive for me the way people almost never did, and when I ask the question, it’s with the genuine desire to know: so, how has she been lately?

I walk her streets with the implicit awareness that my mother did the same before me; with the deeply-seated understanding that I know her, and above all, that she knows me.

Take Dakar, for example. She is a warm, colorful gal, older than she appears, wiser than her years. Always generous, as quick to anger as she is to forgive, she is the woman you always want to return to, even when you don’t know why. I always felt like she knew me, and in many ways, she does: she is my mother’s home city, all of her childhood memories and her life story contained in the largesse of her welcoming arms. I walk her streets with the implicit awareness that my mother did the same before me; with the deeply-seated understanding that I know her, and above all, that she knows me. She is the aunt I cannot shake off, the teacher who knows me too well, the cousin who walked me through embarrassing moments — this, at times, is uncomfortable, in the insidious way that secondhand gifts can be: does she tolerate me because of my ancestry? Does she tolerate me even though I don’t always understand her? Even though we both know my sporadic visits are mostly prompted by my mother wanting me to visit her birthplace? Still, the place she holds is cherished, and I find myself asking how has she been lately, on days when nostalgia sits on me like dust.

Paris, on the other hand, is a bitch. A mean, two-faced bitch who knows exactly what people want from her, and how to give it to them. A chameleon, coiled in barbed wire. She pulls the wool over their eyes, changes depending on who is looking at her and in turn, people gouge themselves over the sharpness of her nails, cut themselves on the edge of her razor-like beauty in their scramble for her affections. I’ve seen people love her, even when they did not know her — in fact, before they even knew her — and I settle in my sour understanding, saying to no one in particular: she’s not all that. Paris can be mean when people aren’t looking: she can be hateful, leveraging her beautiful history and culture in exchange for the right to be problematic, and I have too often resented her that. But like glitter, which gets more deeply embedded on skin the more you try to rub it off, she, too, is inescapable. I will never get rid of her, because a part of my identity is tied to her. And so I sit, cooly eyeing her from afar, a family member I have made a point to avoid for many years even though we pass each other often; and sometimes the question (different, from another place) surfaces for her, too: how has she been lately?

Montréal was lightning in a bottle. She was a fickle one. Hard to get to know. We were tangled — still are —, but what a complicated tryst it was. She could be lovely, amicable, an artist through and through. Montréal is, at heart, a child, an adventurer: nothing is too daring, too strange, too quirky for her. I had the most fun in her company: a walk in her streets could begin in Chinatown and land you in the middle of a secret party, on a submarine at the other end of the city, by the end of the night. Poetry readings on a bus; winter festivals at the turn of a hat; flash mobs in the middle of decades-old landmarks: nothing is too off-putting for her. She was also one of my longest willing relationships (we lasted more than three years), — that in itself is a feat.

But I found, and lost myself with her, as it has happened to many before me: because as easily as she was approachable, she could be brisk. Her legendary winters were not exclusive to the weather: we would get close only to be shunted apart by loneliness, by impenetrable isolation. It was like trying to speak to each other through rooms in very different parts of a house. Ultimately, ours was a bittersweet one: I wanted to love her, but I felt like she opened up to me too late, a lover confessing her long held back affection for me as I was exiting, knowing full well we were not to see each other again. And so, only when I am feeling particularly indulgent, do I allow myself the question, for her: how has she been, lately?