I was thinking of you. It was late and the lights in the bar were set low, creating the cozy, private feeling that you always found so depressing in those sorts of places. They’re my sort of place now, but there was nothing private about the mass of people pressing on me as we stared in awe at the big television screens.
“The bridges are gone, collapsed at the same moment.” The reporter gasped. “There’s no sign of an explosion. Authorities won’t answer questions about what happened.” They were showing the same footage again. And again. The Brooklyn bridge crunched at the middle as if giant hands pressed either end together, then collapsing, crashing into the water below, taking who knows how many people down with it. The Holland tunnel was uprooted and submerged. New York was completely cut off from its suburbs on Long Island and in New Jersey. It had to be a bizarre natural disaster or a brilliantly executed terrorist plot or…something.
“It’s like the city just shrugged,” somebody whispered. He spoke to the television, but it sent shivers through everybody who heard him.
That’s when I thought of you.
Chicago was next, a year later. It was one of those foggy days when the air is so thick and close that the buildings disappear inside of it. On that day the ground rumbled and the air was filled with the sounds of steel sliding over glass, of concrete creaking over rebar. The city shook with the sounds of building after building around the city prostrating itself to the Sears Tower. They bowed before it, the King of the skyscrapers, and suddenly everybody knew.
They didn’t have footage of it to play over and over like they did with New York, but they had experts. Whether they knew anything or not, the experts talked. The one I remembered most sounded a little like you. “There are precedents of course. Atlantis is the obvious one, but I think the tower of Babel probably references a real event that’s been garbled over time.” The experts speculated about what made the cities wake up, about how the ritual obeisance could have been coordinated, about anything and everything but the one obvious question, the one you’d never answer for me: “If they’re waking up, what does that mean for us?”
You’re still gone, vanished with New Orleans, but I know you’re out there. They’re still creeping toward consciousness, so you must be.
New Orleans was the first city to wake up, but it took them years to figure that out. It was so much smaller than the others, its skyline so much less impressive. But you’d always said that buildings were the side effects of cities, that their souls didn’t need skyscrapers to grow and dream and whisper their passions to you. New Orleans had an old soul, pieces of Paris and Marseilles glued together with fragments of Barcelona and bits of Africa, thrown into the world and forced to find its own place. So you chose it as the first.
The weathermen started talking about Hurricane Catherine changing course, and still you went. She grew bigger and angrier while I begged you to stay, but you couldn’t be stopped. They nicknamed her Katrina II, but you laughed at me as you climbed into your car and set off.
I’ve tried to picture it ever since, you strolling into a city anybody with any sense had long since fled. You whistled; I’m sure you whistled. But then what? Did you crawl into the city’s bed and stroke its shoulder, nibbling on its ear and whispering tidings of morning, the way you would for me? Did you wrap your arms around it and speak of love and sex and waffles, coaxing it past the foggy stages of fresh wakening and into the warmth of your voice? Did you even think of me as you made love to the city, mother, midwife and lover all in one? I picture it, but I don’t want to know.
Whatever you did, it wasn’t enough. Or it was too much. New Orleans woke in the middle of the worst cyclonic storm on the Atlantic since they’ve kept records. It trembled and shook, as if convulsed with shrieks of, “Not again!” and threw itself into the ocean, taking you and every other poor soul trapped there with it. Katrina II, Hurricane’s Revenge.
The waking must be contagious. It traveled up the Gulf Stream to New York, then through the Great Lakes to Chicago. They’re waking themselves and you’re dead and gone, drowned in a pile of rubble. I’ll never have to look at you and know you dream of sapient Metropolis even as you kiss my fingers. You’re lost and gone and I’m rid of you and your mania at last.
I remember the night we first talked of cities. We wandered down State Street, lightly buzzed and falling into each other’s arms at the slightest provocation. You spread your arms to the sky, as if embracing it and the towers around us. “Can’t you feel it breathing?” you asked me. I felt humid air and the stillness of closed shops and closing restaurants. “We could nudge it, just a little. Then there’d be something marvelous.”
We kissed. I pressed my lips to yours, helpless to answer you another way. The train rumbled overhead as we parted. You sighed and I heard the street sigh with you.
Los Angeles never woke up. You said it wouldn’t, that it was a stinking mass of ghettoed neighborhoods and highway united by a central strip devoted to tourists and hookers. You said there wasn’t enough human soul there to keep the people from turning to plastic. You called it an abomination, a collection of suburbs with no city. San Diego, San Francisco, they creaked into life, but Los Angeles remained still.
You were right, but it’s the only city with suburbs left. All the wakeful cities went to war today. They ate the half-towns surrounding them, swallowed them into the earth, trampled them underfoot, and consumed their remains. Millions of people are dead. Half of Maryland and portions of Virginia aren’t there anymore. All the grey places that cannibalized the cities are gone.
I wish you’d been here to see it.
I work on a farm now. They’ve sprung up where the suburbs used to be. The cities are riddled with markets selling fresh produce. Visiting the markets is the newest pastime for the people living in cities.
The farmers are experimenting, making new things out of the soil. They’ve made a plant that tastes like chocolate grow in the Midwest. It’s creamy and sweet so you can eat the fruit straight. It tastes slightly nutty as it dissolves in your mouth. A used car dealer from Troy, Michigan, developed it. Horticulture had always been his hobby, and it became his life after Detroit leveled his home and killed his family. He lost everything, but the cities are full of chocolate.
I don’t think of you when I eat it, because I don’t think of you at all anymore. I just go to the private bars with low lights out of habit. The world has changed and there’s no room left for missing you.
Los Angeles is gone. San Diego and San Francisco marched against it. They say the whole coast trembled under the strain of the two cities treading steadily toward their victim. Los Angeles was still asleep and they tore it to shreds.
It’s not the only one. All of the sleeping cities are under siege. Milwaukee and Chicago devoured Green Bay, leaving a pile of rubble surrounded by lakes. But you know that.
I’ve spent the last year working a farm in Wisconsin. Chicago turned back south and as it passed by I ran to the roof, telescope in hand. I don’t know what made me think of it, but I needed to see this divided city holding itself together with nothing more than wrath and disdain for the unconscious heaps of buildings nearby. I leaned out of the window, almost nautical as I scanned the skyline. You were right; they’re glorious when they’re awake and moving with purpose. And there you are, perched on the spire of the Sears Tower, hair streaming in the wind and laughing with joy.
The telescope falls from my hand. I’m running, feet slapping hard against the ground as I rush to catch up with the city, to join the march. I understand now, and I need to see it, to be part of it. Wait for me, just a moment longer. I’m coming to you.