Cities as Ex-Boyfriends

Vancouver is the ex you left for all good reasons. You’d been together for so long it had become impossible to imagine anything different. You’ve stayed good friends – he’ll always feel like family – but it’s obvious to you now that you were never really right for each other, just used to each other. Still, he is so damn pretty that whenever you hang out there is a small part of you wondering: “why did I leave?”

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Paris swept you off your feet – a whirlwind romance that lasted six weeks when you were just nineteen. It was spring and everything he said seemed like the cleverest thing you’d ever heard. You were so young and he took you under his wing. Even his broken parts were beautiful to you then. He introduced you to art. You talked about Hemingway and Simone de Beauvoir, lounged on the grass in the Places des Vosges all afternoon. You shed your previous life like a snake sheds its skin, and he read you detective novels in bed at night back at the hotel, eating tuna and corn out of cans for supper, but all of it was perfect.

The next time you saw him, nearly ten years later, nothing was the same. He was angrier and smellier and so full of himself. Still, more than two decades later, nothing can tarnish your memories of that first affair, and when real life pinches too tightly around you, he is still your go-to daydream. You imagine running back to him, mornings in cafes, walking along the river, a black cat and a shabby little flat. You know it isn’t realistic, but then it was never about realism, with Paris.

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You feel badly that you didn’t appreciate Tokyo more. The timing was wrong. You spent years together, tolerating him. You were never faithful, plotting how you’d leave him from the very beginning, even though it took you so long to do it.

He was so loud, so busy all the time, he stood too close to you and repeated the same stories with the same inflection every time. You found him overbearing, unoriginal, inauthentic. It wasn’t until after you’d left that you appreciated how good he was to you, those startling moments of beauty, long evenings in excellent restaurants, all the fascinating conversation you took for granted. He made you feel safe, he was always on time, and unfailingly considerate. If you’d been older, less restless, you could have made it work with Tokyo. He knows you treated him badly but he’s too mature to hold a grudge – or maybe he just doesn’t care that much. You feel a little guilty, but you don’t feel sorry for him. Tokyo will never be lonely.

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You left Tokyo for Kyoto. You’d been in love with Kyoto from afar, sneaking away for weekends with him, for some time. You worried that after years of pining, the reality might be disappointing when you got together at last.

It wasn’t.

You were only together for one year but it was perfect. He didn’t need to show off – his beauty and grace are unparalleled. He always held you at a distance, you know that now, but it only made you love him more. You thought you’d stay but life got in the way, and you still miss him. He’s the one that got away.

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Prague was one of your youthful mistakes. You hadn’t slept in days. He gave you that stupid tattoo on your wrist that you hide under your watch strap now. He’s probably a great guy but the memory of that weekend makes you cringe so you try not to think about it.

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You were smitten with Istanbul. He first kissed you on a rooftop overlooking the Hagia Sophia. You always closed your eyes when he kissed you. He sang and you were hypnotized. You went back again and again, you thought you’d always go back, but then you settled down and never saw him anymore.

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You knew from the start that it wasn’t going to work out with Beijing – the sun lost in a haze, yellow dust settling over everything after a sandstorm, and he acted like it was nothing, just weather. You walked through a ruined lot toward Sanlitun while drug dealers hollered at you and argued with him incessantly but somehow he crept into your heart without you noticing. In the Russian district he told you he was misunderstood and you believed him, you thought that maybe you could understand him. You were wrong about that. You fell for him slowly but even so you were relieved to say goodbye. He was too much for you, in the end, and when you left you didn’t miss him, but you still think back with fondness. He was so full of surprises, and you’ve never felt so free or so content with being ill at ease.

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You weren’t ready for Cairo. You were trying and failing to get over Kyoto at the time, and he was so different, so difficult, so moody and complicated. He took you to see the pyramids but mostly you remember the haze of exhaustion and your pounding headache, like an emotional hangover. He told you all these wild stories, he never stopped talking and you were barely listening. He cooked for you and didn’t expect much from you, which was a relief at the time, though later you wondered if you should have been offended. You had a good time but barely scratched the surface. If somebody asked you now what he’s like, you wouldn’t know what to say.


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New York is your little slice on the side. You see him for a torrid afternoon, a night here or there. He’s always better in your memory, or maybe your expectations are too big every time. He’s large and dazzling and everyone is crazy about him, you know this, but whenever you’re together, you just can’t seem to get this thing off the ground. Every time feels like the first time – and not in a good way. You can’t make any headway with him. You never feel like you know him any better. Still, when he calls, you hop on a train, thinking each time that maybe this time you’ll finally connect.

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Berlin. It was only two nights, and to tell the truth, you can’t even remember his face.

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Toronto – what can you say? He isn’t the prettiest or the wittiest but you just get each other. You’re too fickle and impatient to make it work long distance but you’ve sometimes thought that if there was any real chance he’d say yes, you’d go down on bended knee and present him with a ring.

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New Haven wasn’t what you imagined. Circumstance threw you together, and he keeps on delighting you. He’s a short, funny weirdo with a lousy temper, but you’ll stay forever if he’ll have you. Maybe it’s just timing. Maybe it’s because your kids love him. You know he isn’t perfect, but obviously neither are you, and you’re ready to call someplace home.

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