City of Firsts

My anticipation of the unknown had turned last night restless, with visions of a mad cloud thundering a typhoon of steel down the earth. I tried to run, to seek shelter from the iron rain, but my feet were somehow frozen, congealed to the ground. Overwhelmed, my eyes pried open. The October fog was hiding the sun, and through the few blades of light I dragged myself to pick up the last of my possessions in the now-spacious room. My trusty olive backpack. My hard-shell suitcase. They weighed heavy like my memories–memories that I had to carry out of that room, to leave it as it was when I, full of excitement to conquer the first place I could call mine and mine alone, first entered it five years ago. I took my things and I took my leave; only an echo left behind the door. A single reverberation, then repeated by every step I took down the stairwell of that ashy brick building – each step a reversed echo of my first time up those stairs, when I did not know which block of that brutal structure I would eventually call home, did not know how to behave in this new city, the farthest possible place from home.

Outside, the cold northern wind greeted me through the University’s grandiose gates, whose four obelisks each balance a polished marble sphere gleaming behind the fog, gleaming like eyes fogged with tears, like those of my parents when I first brought them through those gates to witness my new life. The University’s sepia walls replayed chronicles of self-discovery: on one hand scientific, for the brilliance of scholars that illuminate her walls also illuminated my path, bringing out my best and guiding me to find my own insight, but on the other personal, for when her walls turned dark, I marched on – blind, bullheaded and straightforward – to become who I am now, still my parents’ son but one who makes them proud. Yes, their eyes fogged with tears but those were tears of pride, making mine do so too as I remembered theirs to the sound of vague chatter and hurried cars, the proud breath of this animate city.

I brushed a hand over my eyes as I approached my waiting ride. “To the ‘port, please,” I said to the driver. He nodded, then proceeded to jerk his vehicle through the streets with no caution, leaving me with no choice but to look out through the smeared glass to allay my nausea. Pedestrians, in their characteristic brisk pace, seemed to step to the tune of my baggage rattling in the back. The waltz of a suited man. The foxtrot of a feathered lady. The haka of a wide-eyed lad as he struggled to control his restless terrier, making me wonder if mine too is restless in his own journey away from this city, alone, to meet me elsewhere. Is he burdened by the same memories–memories of the time when we first met, him soiled and me stressed because I did not know how the sound of flowing water could instil such fear in those big black eyes, but then right after, the first of countless nights that he would curl up next to me, making the room feel a bit less spacious but a lot more secure, or of the time when he first escaped his leash, running wild onto the cold cement of the freeway, my heart stopping, praying to God that He would send His angels to protect him from the dangers of this apathetic city He has forsaken? The drunk disco of a drifter. The twin tango of two tourists. The folk dance of a lady in a garnet-sequined dress, hips bouncing to the beat of the festival where I first met my closest friends, most of whom have already left this city, but all of whom I shared laughs, secrets and tears with. I wondered if they too felt this way when they left, thinking of the time when we got intoxicated from midnight margaritas and the coconut song, of the first time each of them had approached me for comfort and with each instance the awkward realisation that my only method of consolation is to give harsh advice, and all of the times that we fought, my vision burning red with fury in the heat of the moment but confident that no amount of idiotic anger can incinerate what we have built. 

The rattling continued as I shifted my gaze up to feats of architecture, unified in their permanence, in contrast to the raucous rumba of the people below. And with the rattling, my memories continued to rush. A prismatic tower punctuated by a needle sticking through the fog, and I thought of the mechanical blood draws in the infirmary, where I first stared death in the eye and felt that, alas, I am not young anymore. A constellation of limestone spires surrounding a sunken square of ice, and I thought of my first time on ice, only to remember that this city is where I also first rowed a boat, first climbed a wall, first ran a race, and really, first lived my life. A pair of mirror monoliths united glass-to-glass by a warm skybridge, and the thought of my first warm awakening descends, crust-to-crust with another – the ecstasy that came with exposition and the emptiness that came with emanation. And an embroidered ivory arch pulpitted by rock pillars that stand strong despite their cracks–cracks that if followed connect to the cracks of my rock-crusted heart, formed by my first romance. I swear that those pillars had eyes. They watched inertly, passing judgement as that first kiss whisked me into an infinite loop of infatuation around the fountain where the arch’s south face looms over, where I hurt myself over and over again, tripping over the same raised cobblestone of rejection, never getting over it, never learning. Inscribed in one of the pillars is Exitus Acta Probat. “The end justifies the deed.” Apt only if I have finally learned, which would also be a first. 

The edge of the city was fast approaching, and soon, everything would just be a memory, still crisp against the moving blur outside, but which time would inevitably make rusty, just like it did to the crabbed sign overhead, which in bold uninspired letters heralded the entrance to the submerged steelbound tunnel leading elsewhere. The vehicle coughed as it entered – its loud metallic clank killing the trunk’s relentless rattle, forcing my consciousness back to the present, to the hush melody of water coming from all directions. This is it. My final moment in the city, immersed in the adagio of the waves, their rhythmic pressure crashing against the concrete-covered steel, their back-and-forth motion echoing a wound incessantly trying to heal. These are the same waves that first washed ashore the creativity hidden within my rigid discipline, something that I didn’t know I had, but something that I now use to write. And in this moment, I write, not to daguerreotype the moment in silver, but to try to clear the mad cloud brewing in my chest – its silver sheen mocking as it thunders two-ton bolts of iron down my gut, torrenting shockwaves to my feet, which now quake free from the ground they were rooted in for the past five years. 

There may have been more firsts if I stayed, but firsts are not owned by the city of firsts. Anywhere can be a city of firsts.

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