To Have a Head for Heights
This essay appears in The Hong Kong Review. Buy the issue here.
“Consequently, the city of Pittsburgh lies unevenly upon unruly land.” — Perceiving the Topographical City
Pittsburgh is my home—your home, too. It’s the first home I ever left—for Scotland, then New York, then San Francisco. San Francisco became the second home I left, and I left it to follow you—to come back here to Pittsburgh.
It wasn’t until I left Pittsburgh that I could finally see my city in the way I knew others saw it: a place of in-between. A city with the sometimes-cramped feel of the East Coast, of Boston or New York—houses stacked upon brick houses on narrow, often cobbled streets—yet with an undeniable Midwestern aesthetic, a working-class roughness and pride born from being raised on coal and steel and surviving the collapse of both.
Since moving back to Pittsburgh, I have been dreaming of high places. When I was studying abroad, the leisurely walk from the University of Edinburgh dormitories in Scotland to the base of Arthur’s Seat—the slow climb up its grassy hillside, the breeze of the North Sea, shocking and immense, a sudden sadness for how I at once feel so far away and so close to home, reminded of the meeting of the three rivers in Pittsburgh, the view of their confluence from atop Mount Washington.
And then, there is this: the windswept walk along the gray Parisian streets toward the Eiffel Tower, my back to the Seine, watching your every move, mostly the movement of hair on the back of your head as you approach the glittering tower at night, this immense symbol of romance, of extravagance, of what I once thought was love. I feel the wind against my teeth as I laugh, pushing the hair from my face, my eyes closed so I lose sight of you until I open them and run, catching you at the end of the line to the elevator ride that will take us to the place where we feel on top of the Western world.
And then: in San Francisco, the bike ride down Capp Street over to Folsom until the grade gets too steep so we must walk, our shoes dusty from the trail leading to the summit of Bernal Heights—us holding hands on a bench in the dark, staring at the lights of the Bay and Oakland Bridges so far ahead.
Then always: the long, winding drive to the top of Mount Washington alone—the three rivers below. Monongahela, Allegheny, and the Ohio.
The night I moved back to Pittsburgh from San Francisco to follow you, it was dark. I expected you to be holding flowers as you waited for me at the airport, like you once did at the bottom of the escalator. I liked this view of you from afar and above—the longing of it. It has always made me feel hopeful.
Less than a year after I moved back to Pittsburgh, you would be gone, and I would be spending time in our apartment alone, dreaming of high places, using the car we shared to drive aimlessly, only to always end up on Mount Washington.
Wordsworth writes in The Prelude, “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very heaven.” I am young in that car, only twenty-seven, but I feel very old and tired. I do not feel in communion with heaven.
I read the entirety of The Prelude three times for my final college literature course the same year you left me for her. You and she began something months before when studying abroad for your last semester, before I traveled from Pittsburgh to Paris to meet you at the end of your term—a handful of years before I was on that plane from San Francisco to Pittsburgh for you, imagining flowers in your hand. My final essay that term was about the poetics of endings.
Bliss, I learned, is another word for rapture, a carrying away to another sphere or realm of existence. Many fundamentalist Christians are still waiting for the Rapture, for their chance to meet Christ midway in the air upon his return to Earth. In many Mesoamerican religions, the Feathered Serpent can fly, reaching the sky to the Gods, but it also knows what it’s like to creep along the ground.
Pittsburgh: I have always found its lushness, its rolling hills, narrow streets, and winding roads a kind of slow suffocation. But you loved it here, and because of that, I came back and I tried to love it too.
To be landlocked is to be trapped, to see the sky through the lens of a peephole.
On a world map, I make my finger follow the Seine from Paris all the way west to the English Channel where I feel a sense of relief then satisfaction. My finger drifts to New York, then further west to Pennsylvania where, across its long rectangular expanse, I locate Pittsburgh. Once there, I can go one of three ways: I can follow the Ohio River to the west, the Allegheny to the north, or the Monongahela to the south. I follow each river across state lines only to be disappointed, unsatisfied. The Ohio is most exciting, its route long, winding, and complicated like an unpredictable lover, passing through small cities I’ve never seen, until it joins the Mississippi where I feel abandoned, pulling my finger from the blue stream, zooming out to all the land before me. It takes a long time to get from land—the never-ending Midwest—to the expansiveness of the western shore, the seeming endlessness of water once you hit the Pacific coast.
After your final college term ended in Paris, you broke things off with her, I imagine in your dorm room, shortly before I arrived. She went back home to rural Pennsylvania alone while we traveled through Europe together as planned. We slept next to one another in small beds in hostels, me feeling uneasy because it felt as though you were on another shore. When I asked, you told me everything was fine.
A year after you began your affair with her in Paris, I didn’t know, I couldn’t have known, but we broke up anyways. You had suddenly become cold and cruel, and I couldn’t make sense of it. We fought, though before Paris, we rarely did.
In the aftermath of our first breakup, I became one of those rare, paid interns at a large publishing house on Madison Avenue in New York where I longed to be far away from people and close to water. On the weekends, I’d spend two hours riding the subway from the Bronx, where I lived, to Coney Island. This was how I mourned you the first time.
One day, after three months of falling asleep on the train and walking into the Atlantic Ocean, I decided to no longer love you. I arrived home that afternoon to a letter on my borrowed twin bed, my name and address typewritten on the small envelope. The letter was typed on salmon-colored paper. Once, you were my best friend, so I already knew what the letter would say. You missed me. You were thinking of me. You wouldn’t say you made a mistake. You would not even mention her, but in an email that followed a few weeks later, you would say you’d had a dream that you “set sail to Manhattan on a huge Titanic of a boat,” and I knew that you knew how that dream would make me miss you.
The next week, I’d hear from a mutual friend that the woman you left me for moved to Pittsburgh for you. That, after only five months of dating each other, you’d moved in together.
I return to Mount Washington because it’s the place where the three rivers meet. For me the mountain, despite the tourist excursions up its busy funicular railway, has always been the only place of possibility, of escape. Sitting on a large rock on the edge of Grandview Overlook Park, I feel cushioned by trees directly below. By the creamy yellow of the West End Bridge to my left and the Fort Pitt Bridge to my right. By the skyscrapers ahead that make the city appear larger than it has ever felt to me on the ground.
The last time I drove to Mount Washington was when we finally separated after nine years of breaking up and getting back together from the time I was eighteen to twenty-seven. I took a picture in the early hours of the morning, the time when the sun makes a halo over the city, reminding me that I’m in the process of attempting to capture the uncapturable.
This is what I see in the photo: Dense clouds barely revealing patches of murky blue sky; fog hovering above the shadow of hills, homes, and skyscrapers. The bright white circle of the sun flares dead center in the frame. Its light drenches a line of orange down the Allegheny River, passing beneath bridge after bridge, until it reaches the Point where the three rivers meet.
“There is no there there.” — Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography
Although Stein was referring to the nowhereness of her hometown of Oakland, California, she was born in Pittsburgh and could have been describing her birthplace, as well as many other cities that have cramped the vision of inhabitants dreaming for more.
Pittsburgh has often been half-seriously described to me by other natives as a black hole. They are always pulled back, those who left say. And for whatever reason, they find themselves once again in the grip of the city’s shabby charm, always justifying the move due to affordable housing and small-town appeal, despite its actual large size compared to other American cities.
I grew up not far from the city in the suburb of Bethel Park, one of the few suburbs the trolley, more colloquially known as the T, still serviced by the time I was born. On my mother’s side, my great-grandparents immigrated to the city in the early 1900s—my great-grandfather from Germany, my great-grandmother from Ireland. My father’s family, also mostly Irish-German and even more terse, are a constant, unresolvable mystery, despite my continual curiosity.
I was the grandchild and child who never stopped asking questions, wanting to see old photographs and documents, hear stories about the origins of my Americanness, about the Irish and German cultural customs that somehow got lost here or abandoned. Family meals mostly consisted of store-bought Italian sauces, frozen meatloaf, hot dogs, and packaged pastries. Where was the boxty? The brown bread? The schnitzel?
I still know little of the origins of my Pittsburgh family, except for the stories my grandmother would often share journalistically, as if they were news clippings from someone else’s life: the suicide of an uncle; the younger brother, only five years old, run down by a truck in the middle of the street in Oakland, her mother watching helplessly from afar; the uncle who drowned in one of the three rivers: whether the Allegheny, Monongahela, or Ohio, I don’t know.
Vague stories are all I have of the family I will never meet, and I often wonder if they’re true. “Why Pittsburgh?” was never a question, the unknowability of my family’s immigration story suggesting we did not exist before Pittsburgh, and because no one ever left—at least not for good—we could not possibly exist beyond it.
You are also of Pittsburgh, one of the few in my life who could perfectly imitate the Yinzer accents we grew up with and made sure to polish away before college so not to reveal our working-class roots, laughing in secret about the phrases our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and uncles would use, teaching people how to say phrases like Yinz goin’ dahntahn? or Don’t be a nebshit when drunk together at parties in San Francisco, making outsiders laugh and admire our shared history.
What we often failed to acknowledge was that these voices were also those of the fathers who left when we were teenagers, leaving us to care for our mothers on our own.
When I think of the myth of the Feathered Serpent, its ability to fly through the heavens and also creep along the ground, I think of you because when you fall in love, you’re neither of the sky nor the ground, but rather, constantly suspended between the two, floating.
It’s easy to get lost in time when I think of you. Our story only comes into focus when I attempt to look at it from a great height.
I formed a romantic, overly nostalgic relationship to Mount Washington when I was a girl, which is why I come back to it, and why, after you first left me for her, nostalgia drove me back to you.
On the Fourth of July, sometime in the late nineties, my family and I sat on blankets atop Mount Washington, not far from a sculpture entitled “Point of View”—a statue of George Washington and Seneca leader Guyasuta sitting face-to-face in October of 1770, weapons down, to discuss the settlement of land along the Ohio River. For my family, this was a special occurrence. We rarely ventured from Bethel Park.
That night the top of the mount was overcrowded and cold despite the month, and I felt sad but hopeful. Sad because I hated feeling so young and dependent on my parents for care, hopeful because being on top of Mount Washington was the first glimpse of my possible future, of what could be waiting for me in the city below.
I no longer remember the circumstances of this holiday, why my parents, still together then, still seemingly happy, decided to make the trek rather than sit in a friend’s backyard to watch the fireworks or let me go with a friend’s family like I had the year before to the local mall parking lot, which everyone thought had the best view.
The view from the mall parking lot was nothing like the one from Mount Washington—the mount covered in verdant trees, the light from the tall downtown buildings coruscating from the water. The view of all that industry and achievement set in steel, despite the devastation it wrought, was astonishing.
Mount Washington was once called Coal Hill. Beneath the dense trees lies a portion of the Pittsburgh Coal Seam, an extensive, thick coal bed running through fifty-three counties, producing Pittsburgh’s black gold, its industry, its blood.
I have always been taken with the way the Allegheny and Monongahela turn, running beyond the Point where they meet. I cannot see beyond where they originated. I can only imagine it.
Shortly after moving back to Pittsburgh after my summer internship in New York, I saw you outside a bar on one of those deadly humid August nights. I was drunk on cheap beer and my friends’ laughter. Without thinking, I screamed your name. Your face still registered as love to me then.
When we talked, you seemed nervous with your hands in your jean pockets, moving back and forth on your feet. You asked me how living in Brooklyn was even though I’d been living in the Bronx. There was lots of unwarranted laughter and then a quick goodbye. When I walked away, I sobbed without having to explain myself to my friends.
I'd see you again a few months later, shortly after my college graduation, at a record swap where amongst the crowd and noise, I told you I was moving to San Francisco. I was confused by the stunned, happy, then pained expression that washed over you. I thought then that it might mean you still loved me, but now I know it was only jealousy and petty self-loathing. Maybe it's always been both.
I'd see you again not long after this at a party where we'd stay loosely knit to one another while talking to other people, me showing off—talking brashly about the people I was sleeping with before skipping town. I’d once thought I would be with you forever. I’d once believed in “the one.” Now I needed to prove to myself that there was no “one” by having many. You sat next to me all night, but you barely looked at me. When I left, you followed, asking if you could walk me home.
We walked through dark side streets covered in fresh snow. I’d been so many selves with and without you from eighteen to twenty-three that the only thing we could do while walking together that night, only a few more hours before the sun would come up, was acknowledge this fact quietly. In front of my apartment, the question of who we were becoming hung between us when I asked if you wanted to come in, and you smiled, hesitating before saying you shouldn't. I knew you had to get home, back to where she would be in the bed you shared. You walked away, and I opened the door, telling myself, Don't look back.
“The earth was all before me. With a heart / Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty, / I look about; and should the chosen guide / Be nothing better than a wandering cloud, / I cannot miss my way.” — William Wordsworth, The Prelude
After that last picture I took from Mount Washington when we finally left one another, more than half a year passes before I stare at the meeting of the three rivers again. Before I get to look from a great height while thinking of you, of her, and of myself.
My days are filled with commuting from the suburbs to the city for work, then from the city to the suburbs for the other job I work in the evenings. When I’m not working, I’m applying to graduate schools, attempting to write. When I try to write, I hear nothing but silence.
“The silence depressed me. It wasn't the silence of silence. It was my own silence,” writes Plath in The Bell Jar. I read it for the first time my freshman year of college, when I first thought loving you might not be enough for either of us. I still wonder if we came to resent each other for being unable to take away one another’s familial sadness, for being unable to stay as happy as we were when we first found something we recognized in each other.
This past spring, I visited San Francisco. When I arrived after two years of it no longer being my home, of Pittsburgh once again being where I called home, I cried for hours without stopping. I cried so hard in the middle of the street that I had to leave my friends, telling them I’d be right back, walking a few blocks before finding a solitary curb, a playground close by, where I sat and cried even more, shaded by palm trees, the sound of children laughing behind me. I could feel the salt in the air from the ocean even though I couldn’t see it. To have left this place, to have left the possibility of it for you now seems like an unfathomable mistake.
In Steppenwolf, Hesse writes, “‘Most men will not swim before they are able to.’ Is that not witty? Naturally, they won't swim! They are born for the solid earth, not for the water. And naturally they won't think. They are made for life, not for thought. Yes, and he who thinks, what’s more, he who makes thought his business, he may go far in it, but he has bartered the solid earth for the water all the same, and one day he will drown.”
The summer before I began college, I read the entirety of Hesse’s tale about a man uncertain how to live and be happy in the world. I was sitting in an airport, alone and far from home. We’d been dating only a few months, and you’d already told me you loved me. I said it back even though I wasn’t sure what I meant by it then. I was only eighteen. My father had left the family right before I met you.
This trip was the first time I traveled by myself. I was nervous but soon realized I thrived in the solitude of travel. It allowed for an expansiveness of thought I didn’t know was possible, a kind of permanent in-between, like the meeting of the three rivers, a pause before you must go forth.
When I was 23, before I left Pittsburgh for San Francisco in what I was sure would be a steady forth, you came to my going away party. I was dressed like a sailor, taking the bon voyage motif a little too far. You walked into my room, the music too loud, while I jumped on my bed with a boatload of friends. I reached for you as you walked by, saying your name before tumbling to the ground because I’d reached too far. I lay there prostrate, comically aware of the situation as I said, “This is like a metaphor for our relationship.” The people around us laughed. You did too.
That night, I sat on your lap for a long time and you let me. I could feel how fragile the moments I had left with you were, each feeling like it would be the last. I said goodbye to you casually, waving as you stepped off the front stoop in the cold, part of me hoping it'd be for the very last time. How could I have known then that later, in one of our many back and forths, she’d leave you and you’d follow me to San Francisco? How could I have known that in a desperate attempt to feel of the earth and no longer alone in the vastness of water that I’d follow you back to Pittsburgh?
Mexico. One month ago. I find myself atop the oldest high place I’ve ever been. Teotihuacan was an ancient Mesoamerican city located in a valley not far from what is now known as Mexico City. There is no water in sight. Only dirt and grass and swaths of tourists climbing the pyramids where men become Gods.
From atop the Pyramid of the Moon, I breathe heavy after a long, treacherous climb up the steep, uneven stone steps. I look across the Avenue of the Dead—the long strip of dirt that led me here. I stare out at the Pyramid of the Sun—the largest pyramid at Teotihuacan—situated in front of the gigantic, beautiful expanse of the Cerro Gordo mountain to the north. The sun is hot on my neck, but the air is cool. It feels as though the ocean is not far off—a feat of this holy place, achieving the geographically impossible.
Atop the Pyramid of the Moon, I ask a friend to take a celebratory photo of me. I want a photo of me jumping, caught in mid-air, my feet far from the ground—a photo like the one you took of me once, the San Francisco Bay in the background, only a few months after you followed me to California. We were exploring Angel Island together. It was a cloudless day, the sky completely blue as we walked through abandoned military forts, biking the circumference of the island enveloped by water, feeling happily alone.
After many tries, the best photo my friend manages is of me with my arms awkwardly outstretched to the sky, smiling, my feet only a few inches from the ground. The photo is not nearly as good as those I’d taken with you. I’m not as far from the ground as I’d like, especially here of all places where men become gods and take flight.
The Temple of the Feathered Serpent is the last place I climb in Mexico, unaware of its meaning when I first encounter it. Only later will I discover that the Aztec Feathered Serpent god was associated with the creation of books and knowledge. So as not to forget what happened. Or who we worshipped and how.