We cling together like droplets of water, crawling up or down glass in order to fuse with similar molecules. We isolate ourselves and shut our eyes to what happens outside our safe haven. We are loyal to one another and to no one else.
When we climbed onto rooftops as children, we saw the reason behind our elders’ warnings not to go up there. The view beyond our narrow streets and teetering buildings was grim. If our own children’s expressions are anything like our own were, the world outside our walls has not improved.
When the rare outsider arrives, we celebrate. It is a low-key celebration, nothing like the City Holidays. We pour coffee and bring out the biscuits covered in chocolate, the ones we save for special occasions, and we ask the newcomer questions. We ask about faraway places, the names of which we often mispronounce. R-Kansas, we are told, is actually Ark-n’-Saw. Mehico, the outsider corrects, is Meksico. New York, he says, hasn’t been New for a dozen dozen years. And York, he adds, is not a place you want to know about. Whatever makes a person’s eyes alive dies when he says this, until we ask about Boss-town, and then he smiles and takes out a digigraph of his niece, who was born there, who is beautiful.
We all host the outsiders when they come. We take turns and try not to be greedy. We sometimes wonder whether the newcomers would prefer to settle in one place while they stay here, but the truth is that while we are all eager to talk to the people from outside, we also don’t trust them, not entirely. It is safer to keep them on their toes, keep them moving. We don’t want them getting too comfortable. It is the rare outsider who receives a permit to settle here, and we don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. Not ours, not theirs.
City Holidays are magical. Fireworks are shot into the air and the power stays on all night and we break out the cosmetics and paint our faces as if we were Hollywood stars from the old 2D pictures, with lipstick and eyeshadow and cufflinks to match. We dance in the squares, in big circles, holding hands. We stay up until morning and then get together in big prearranged crews and clean up all the garbage our revelry generated.
There is a time for play and a time for order, and we teach our children to recognize the difference. When the thrice-yearly referendum on the state of our City come along, we show the children how to vote and explain why we choose the things we do and try to present a cheerful face even when the opposite result comes through, because that is what democracy is about, after all.
We remember our first votes, just after our fourteenth birthdays, coupled with our first apprenticeship placements and, for many of us, our first budding romances, kindled in the heat of the ironically called baby steps towards adulthood and the bittersweet flavor of responsibility. Our first votes were sweat-stained affairs. The decision, yae/nae for whichever proposition was our first, felt like a life-and-death one, even though no bullet-fueled weapon was being held to our heads, nor was there a threat to our beings should our vote ultimately be cast on the losing side.
There are rumors of people disappearing occasionally, but what society does not include conspiracy theories? We know our government, though. We are our government. And we aren’t thugs. We occasionally get into scraps when heavy drinking is involved, and of course we have a rotating schedule for guard duty and there are some nights when the more desperate among us attempt theft or assault, but murder is not a common crime. Similarly, kidnapping or “disappearing” criminals or, indeed, those who don’t agree with the more powerful among us – this is not a practice we condone. It is, besides, unnecessary. People know when they are not wanted, but it is more often by their family or their spurning lovers or, more tragically, by their resentful children. If people disappear from our City, it is because they have been active, have “disappeared” themselves, have, in short, left.
When the outsiders leave, though, few of us have the desire to go along with them. We remember our early days of rooftop adventures, and we remember the gray barrenness that lay outside our secure City. We’re safe here, and we’re staying.