City Love Letters
16 November 2014
Dear Ann Arbor,
Snow has come early this year, big fluffy cloud confetti that makes me feel like I’m being buried in pieces of sky. Do you like winter? It’s honestly my least favorite season—too dark, too suffocating, too ending.
I’m avoiding what I really want to say. Talking about weather tends to work as a way to fill space in any situation. My therapist counselor tells me I need to work on saying what I really mean.
The latest word is that I’m dysthymic or bipolar or ADD or OCD, or I have something called avoidant personality disorder—bullshit that moves me toward a pill and a bottle and an easy fix. I really don’t think it’s all that extreme. I don’t believe in living anymore, but that’s not because I’m ready to be dead. Maybe this is all just a hiccup, a misstep off the marked path into the darker woods. My real problem is that I don’t know how to move forward from here.
I’ve been told to write it all out. I’ve been told to go back to the beginning. “Write about the last place you were truly happy. It might help you figure out where you are on the map at least,” the counselor said. There was something in the way she said it…it just made sense. Maybe I should take this seriously. Maybe this is bigger than I’m making it out to be. I can’t keep laughing off the sleepwalking and the crying and this black hole feeling somewhere deep in my chest forever.
The last place I was happy? Well, that’s easy. The last place I was happy was with you.
17 November 2014
Dear Ann Arbor,
I know you’re a city. I understand that this means you are more symbol than sentient, and therefore I’m writing these letters to no one in particular. But to me, you have always felt semi-human. You exist in my mind and heart as a collage of all the faces and dreams and memories that I’ve imprinted into your skin over the past 25 years.
My memories of you begin around the time I was five years old. It’s your park that I loved then—Nichols Arboretum, with its tulip trail and Hudson River walk and carved wood sculptures and people who run and hike and throw Frisbees all over its grounds. Whenever we visited my parents’ old college friends, Mitch and Lauren’s Ann Arbor home, I loved that a walk in the Arb was always on the agenda.
There was a routine about our Arb visit preparation. Mitch would grab the football; Lauren would grab the water bottles and snacks; my dad would wrangle the dog children; my mom would corral the human children. You would think we were heading on a trek through the Amazon with all the groundwork and debriefing and practice football throws. But no, we were simply walking down the extremely hill-slanted street on which Mitch and Lauren lived to the secret Arb gateway for which only they had a key.
Every time we walked through that simple, human-made chain-link fence, I was certain there had to be magic involved. My mother actually had me convinced for quite some time that the Arb was just another name for the Hundred Acre Wood. And Lauren was the one who told me that fairies danced through the Arb late at night to celebrate children who fell asleep exactly at their bedtimes. Maybe that’s why I refrained from blinking as much as possible during our visits, because I never wanted to miss a second of what could happen in a place like that.
Okay really though, I’ve gotten a little carried away. All flowery language aside, I’ve always wanted to say thank you. Thank you, Ann Arbor, for the wizardry so many years ago. You helped make my childhood a beautiful place.
What will my counselor make of this? I have no idea.
30 November 2014
Dear Ann Arbor,
It’s becoming harder these days, harder to breathe, harder to smile—like there are weights attached to the corners of my mouth. And now the holidays are coming. We stand for a moment on the edge of November, and suddenly December 31st is staring you in the face.
Remember all those New Years we spent together? You quickly became part of one of my favorite family traditions—driving up to Mitch and Lauren’s, saying goodbye to all the parents as they headed out to some ridiculously grown-up dinner reservation, staying up until who-knows-when watching the latest Blockbuster hits. It was always the same crowd: Maddie and Bryan, my brother Peter, some lackey babysitter the adults had found for the evening, you, and me. We would binge on sparkling grape juice and hot dogs cut to look like octopi, placed over a delicate ocean of macaroni noodles in varying cartoon caricatures.
Did you know the only time I haven’t minded snow was when you were wearing it? I loved how it cascaded down your shoulders, hugged you in all the right places, even in the dead of winter. Some years we would get snowed in as the hours of New Year’s Eve melted away, which only meant that New Year’s Day would become a cross-familial-sledding-palooza in the Arb. There would be sudden outbursts of snowball warfare and pulse beats of laughter as Maddie and I raced to get to the top of the next hill. Everyone’s hair would be matted into winter icicle dreads. Noses would be dripping, hands chafing against the freezing temperatures, the promise of hot cocoa dangling in the air—but we would all be jubilant to freeze this moment, to almost stop the passing of time, together.
That holiday has never been the same since we kids grew up and moved on. And now that I’ve become what I am, I have a feeling those celebrations are never coming back.
4 December 2014
Dear Ann Arbor,
I wish I could skip all of these words and just turn back the clock for a while…
Do you remember when I found out that we would be going to college together? There was no better place I could think of to call my new home—as I moved out of my parents, that is. I was more Cardinal than Wolverine when it came to choice of mascot, but this exchange also meant I got a killer view of the Huron from my dorm room window. And my new distance from downtown only meant that my evenings sounded more like fireside whispers than fraternal beer pong bonding.
College years with you meant bubble tea with mango stars and late night runs to the 24-hour donut shop just off campus. You were the epitome of no parking options on weekends when Ohio State came to visit. And when I missed my parents and little Indiana hometown too much, you gave me Mitch and Lauren and my dog away from dog, Kira.
Kira had this habit with people she really loved, where she would jump up and put her front paws on either of their shoulders and look them straight in the eye. Her brown Chesapeake Bay gaze was always so sincere as she leaned all 85 pounds of her frame against me in the closest thing she could offer to a hug.
On especially hard campus days, when I would stand at the tip of the campus chapel’s balcony and consider how much it would hurt to fall, you would guide me to the arms of a Kira hug and winding, aimless journey through the Arb on the end of her leash. If I had to pinpoint an exact moment, it was around this time that things began to go downhill. I came to you as a high school graduate for familiarity and safe passage into growing up, but instead all you did was let me down.
So I practiced getting lost. I would take Kira to the Arb on the edge of a leash and guide us both toward a hill that didn’t look the least bit familiar. My secret hope was that intentionally losing myself would lead me down a path where I’d been hiding all along. But Kira never let me wander too far. She was the ever-present compass who was guaranteed to guide me to one of two places: 1) the banks of the Huron River to fetch rocks (Kira didn’t believe in fetching sticks like her other run-of-the-mill canine friends) or 2) back to the magical gate at the end of Mitch and Lauren’s street. Through wet puppy snuffles and the feel of her bristle-brown hair between my fingers, Kira reminded me that the world could be bigger and far more certain than all the broken thoughts in my head.
My dear Ann Arbor, no matter how hard the day, I always loved the sweep of sunlight against your chapel steeple shoulders on campus, the itchy bramble of your grass-skin in between blanket study sessions. You never swerved in your lessons to me about the way God spells forgiveness and new beginnings in starlight. Your soundtrack at this time was the mixture of the sound of church bells at the start of every hour, late night Friends marathons, the crackle of popcorn and Easy Mac coming to life in a hundred microwaves. It was as if you were whispering, You don’t have to try so hard. You don’t have to try so hard. You don’t have to try…so…hard…
Then there was the unspoken girl code of conduct—who knew there were so many rules involved in being female? Some of it made sense—look out for each other, stick together no matter what, take care of your drunk friends—but then you add boys into the mix, and then I’m being yelled at for something I’ve done and I don’t even know why…
Maybe that’s all better saved for another letter on another day.
Or maybe that’s my problem—I tried so hard to get lost, and now I’ve finally done it.
6 December 2014
Dear Ann Arbor,
You had only ever been good to me. I had only ever met beautiful and kind and smart people at your parties and small get-togethers. But then I ended up living with a sitcom-level entanglement of roommates, and suddenly no Kira hug could bring me back from that ledge.
We were Jenna the mother and Andrea the perfect boyfriend thief and Robin the clunky jock and me, and we all lived together in our freshman dorm. Those first few months together were a lovely adventure. Homework loads were low. Weather was gorgeous. We played “pin the hand on Zac Efron’s stomach,” laughed when Robin got pink eye from her own mascara wand, had indoor squirt gun fights to douse pictures of Andrea’s latest ex, and begged Jenna to tell us one more bedtime story before we fell asleep.
But then there was a dark November night, just two weeks before Thanksgiving vacation. The ground was newly wet from a chilling autumn rain, and my face was still gussied up from my one-liner debut as Village Girl #7 in Playboy of the Western World. I was fiercely proud of all the times I’d left my dorm room for late-running practices choreography session and hair and makeup tutorials with the cast. It had been a while since I’d felt lost or alone or incomplete, and I began to believe that maybe I’d found the cure for my malcontent. Maybe you had been here all along, Ann Arbor, and the theatre had helped open my eyes to what was right in front of me.
Jenny-and-Andrea-and-Robin, however, were not so easily impressed. They swayed before me in the late night November air as one unit—I struggled in the half-light to distinguish where each girl began and ended. The show was extremely boring, they all said in unison. Why did I make them go? Why did I enjoy weird things like that? I followed behind them in silence, unsure of how to respond or whether I should point out it was them who had decided to go. I had actually asked them to stay away.
We are going on a walk, they said. Someplace we want to show you, they said. And soon we were all sitting in the center of a wet soccer field. The breeze around us was autumnal, made me wonder why we hadn’t brought a blanket to spread across the dewy grass, but above our heads, the sky was crowded with stars. I leaned back and cupped my hands as if I could catch a little of the ethereal light, and my lips pursed into a smile. The moment felt beautiful, despite my friends’ grumbling, so I closed my eyes and breathed in the quiet around us.
This is a space to air our grievances, Jenny burst in. Grievances, yes. Our grievances, echoed Robin and Andrea. And suddenly, one by one, each girl began to voice her list of complaints against me.
You are too smart, Amelia. You make me feel like an idiot.
You can’t keep a secret to save your life. Do you enjoy ruining peoples’ lives?
You have too many sweaters. Why does one person need so many sweaters?
I really wish you’d stop making us food so often. I don’t even like muffins. Why can’t you be more considerate of my feelings about breakfast pastries?
Ann Arbor, I knew that girls could be cruel. In high school, I faced manipulation and duplicity at the hands of several best friends when I found out they had started self-mutilating and planning their own suicides. However, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced hatred like this firsthand, before or since. I tried to lean against you in that moment for strength. The starlight fell from my fingers, and I grabbed onto your damp green main below me, and I attempted to breathe in slowly the smell of new rain and soccer field paint lines—but all my nose was filled with was the scent of betrayal.
When the sound of my tears had garbled into quiet gasps from my throat, Jenny tried to reach out a comforting hand. She told me this was meant to be a space for all issues to be shared, so I could say anything something about any of them whenever I wanted. But before she had finished, I was already up and running. My destination was unclear through the snot and the tears and the blind path I rushed along, but I knew I had to get away from there.
Ann Arbor, these girls still send me Christmas cards. When I feel dark and lonely, they think it’s as easy a fix as handing me a bar of chocolate. After that night, Jenny-and-Andrea-and-Robin thought we were good. Don’t you just feel better for sharing? Jenny said to me the next day.
But I don’t feel better for sharing—because I’ve never shared. Instead, I’ve spent the last three years believing their words, letting them soak into my skin until they are burned in place. I am a know-it-all. I am a gossip. I wear ugly clothes. I need to stop baking. I am too much for anyone to handle, and I might as well get out of everyone’s way.
I was alone that night, Ann Arbor, and you never came back for me.
10 December 2014
Dear Ann Arbor,
That last letter was too much. I haven’t stopped crying since I read it to my therapist, and that was days ago…I am breaking into so many smaller pieces as I rehash the places where I used to be. This is supposed to be putting me back together, refocusing my compass toward true North, but I feel more, as I remember, that I am only ever slowly being crushed into a fine, unrecognizable powder.
I want to evoke the present-day warmth of your skin beneath my fingers. I need you to know I’m trying. Do you remember that time we ended up at Zingerman’s Deli together? I thought I was so clever in finding that place, where I first tried an Izze soda, its unexpected bubbles like small kisses against my nose. I ordered the Leo’s Friendly Lion sandwich and some of their homemade pickles—I never knew food could taste like that. Through my whole visit, I saw the smile you kept trying to smudge from your face. You’d been waiting to tell me about that deli for months, but it wasn’t until that day that I finally listened.
It has been 20 years since we first met, Ann Arbor. And yet, no matter how much time has passed, to me you will always taste of fresh apple cider, bagels on lazy Sunday mornings, smuggled Smirnoff bottles drunk in the back seat of a dry campus parking lot. Memories of you will always be rooted in your Arb and make-believing on the playground of a college campus. Others may say you look best in shades of University of Michigan’s maize and blue, but I say warm colors—something akin to autumn and turning leaves and late fall gourds.
I still believe we can go back to the way we used to be. You have been the frame of my dreamy past snapshots for so long, and I continue to plant hope in going back to the fairytale wonder that we shared once before. I can forgive you for the times you weren’t there. We’ve been through so much together. You proved to me once that I could survive this. Is it still true?
I finally gave in and visited you two winters ago. I was going to meet friends for dinner at Cottage Inn Pizza, so I used it as an excuse to deliver a postcard in person—Thanks for the memories! Wish you were here! This space I felt between us—it had to go away when I saw you. I knew it had to all be in my head like the depression and the pills and the suicidal thoughts.
And yet, as I wandered around in this version of you I knew as an undergrad, I came to the realization that at times we are all more ghost than human. I peered through frost-covered windows into old classrooms, old offices of once-favorite professors, but all I found looking back at me were stilted, long-gone shadows of people who used to walk along these halls and have now moved on. They are gone and I am still here, standing alone outside in the snow, haunting my younger memories of us and wishing for the impossible invention of time travel.
Ann Arbor, this is my sixth letter you, and somehow I’ve only managed to circle back to the beginning. If any progress was made through this bramble I’m stuck in, I’ve undone it now. I am a lost girl writing letters to a city, and no matter how much you may care, you will never send me a response. You will never hold my hand when I cry. You will never stop me from leaping if I fall. You will never try to find me now that I’m gone.
I want to be more substantial than that. I want to be here and now and know that it is all worth believing in. To you, I have become a meaningless daydream. And I don’t want to be a ghost anymore.
1 January 2015
Dear Ann Arbor,
Blimpy Burgers has moved. After all these years of staying away, I thought I could at least count on getting deep-fried vegetables with a side of verbal abuse at the same location. But apparently your appetite for change is greater than my hunger for heartburn.
It has been three weeks since I last wrote to you. And on this New Year’s Day, when I usually miss you most, I only feel I should write to tell you I’m moving on. I might just have found the map that leads me toward the person I want to be, and you are nowhere on it. In the time since I last wrote you, I haven’t thought of killing myself once. I might just have found something to live for, and it’s not the memory of you anymore. I told my therapist I needed to take these next steps on my own, and unlike you, she promised to be there if I ever wanted to call.
This will be the last letter I send you. I’ll be leaving them all in the hollows of a tree by The Rock off of Washtenaw. Maybe you’ll find them someday I’d really like that.
I will always love you.
Alicia Drier is a recent migrant to the Windy City, where she is part adjunct English professor, part marketing assistant, part pie shop aficionado. She has previously self-published two novels through Lulu.com and has been published by the literary magazine, Confluence.
Image: Flickr / Jim Howe