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Chicago, 17 Years Later

17chinight01

The sprawling expanse of it never ceased to impress me.

It was a “city of neighborhoods,” everyone had said.

We only ever needed one.

The apartment was a ten-minute walk to the train – the Granville stop of the red line to Howard (14 stops from downtown Chicago). One of the last on the line, so far north was it. Near the lake too, though I only went there once or twice. It would not be warm enough – not during the limited months of fall and winter in which I’d be there. (I didn’t know that at the tail end of summer when we moved in, else I’d have gone a few more times.) We found the apartment earlier in the summer. It was one of the first we looked at, and, somewhat frightened we might not find another, we took it without exploring others. It was huge, but rather far from the downtown and other places of population. We’d forgotten the main tenet of any real estate interaction: location, location, location. Still, the space was immense and airy. A sunny living room with an expanse of windows (in which we draped silk saris and a bright accent of orange fabric) was where we set up my writing desk and the television. A dining room, which we used maybe once or twice, was luxuriously plopped in the middle of the layout. There was a cozy kitchen in the back corner of the apartment, in which I cut my cooking teeth, and two bedrooms. He would move into the smaller, second one right before we ended it.

I sat on the train, not reading a book or looking at my phone, but simply existing, inhabiting the moment. This was important to me, I don’t know why. I’d long since made peace with my ex-boyfriend. We were friends. The past was done. I was returning for something else.

The train ride went swifter than I recalled it going. Back when I lived here, I could not get to and fro quickly enough. Every time I sat on the train, I wanted only to get off it as soon as possible. On this night, I sat and breathed in the moment. As each stop ticked by – Addison, Sheridan, Wilson, Lawrence, Argyle – I remembered a little more. Frigid nights, waiting on the platform for the next train… The first flush of snow that fell so furiously in that first and only awful winter… The happy trips downton in the beginning… The lonely trips near the end… And this trip… which would it be? Lost in thought, I looked up as we were pulling out of Thorndale. The next stop was mine.

It came too soon. I wasn’t ready.

I stepped off the train and walked down to the street. Vaguely, it began to come back to me. I sensed direction more than I recognized anything specifically. A bar I recalled was still there beside the station, and I ducked into it for a drink. A toast to the past. A glass of fortitude. A bit of warmth as the night grew ever colder.

Back on the street, I walked in the direction of my old apartment. It was more difficult to remember in the dark of night, but I still knew the general way I was headed. It was quiet here. I always liked that about this part of the city. Tonight, it was haunted.

Do you know the scene in the Harry Potter books when he returns to Godric’s Hollow? That’s how this night felt. There were ghosts here, phantoms of the past scurrying about, and each shadow held a promise and a warning. I hastened my pace, and realized I had overshot my turn. I asked the only soul I saw along the way where Thome was, and he directed me back to the street I had just crossed. When you’re 41, things are fuzzier than when you were 25, especially at night.

Back on track and righted for the instant, I approached my former apartment from the opposite end. It was fitting, I suppose, coming at things from a different angle. It also happened to be the first way we approached the place on the day we moved in.

An August day, summer in Chicago, at the last half of the end of the century. The year was 1999. Everything was about to end. It was hot, as expected, but there was a different kind of heat in my throat, which felt like it was closing up as a sickness hit me the moment we drew into the city. A bad omen, to be sure, but I was still hopeful. I’d go to the hospital a day or two later to figure out what was wrong, and then I would heal. An inauspicious beginning to an early end. Something wasn’t right.

We both knew it. I felt it in my heart, but was too afraid to admit it. On our first day moving in, I’d seen our mailbox, and we put both our names on it. It left me with such a feeling of promise, and a burden as well. In a changing world, we were a couple now. A gay couple, and certain eyes would focus on us as an example of what was to come. There would be shame and a victory for all the worst people if we were to break up. That’s no reason to have or end a relationship. But it was in the back of my mind the whole time. I’d be lying if I pretended it didn’t matter. I’d also be lying if I pretended it wasn’t unfair.

We settled in nonetheless. He took a job at a dinner theater place, the way most actors do. I sought freelance work and got a couple of articles published in the Windy City Times. It was my first encounter with an editor who cut me down to size, and it was the most embarrassing and helpful bit of guidance I would receive. (Thank you, Neda Ulaby.) Growing up means acknowledging what you don’t know, and having the courage to accept criticism and advice with grace, and with an eye toward improvement. Ms. Ulaby gave me some much-needed wisdom about leading with a striking sentence, and setting up the reader to want to read more. I had never thought about writing that way, and in so many ways I owe her more than I ever told her.

It was a small moment of personal advancement in a time when I settled into the homemaker role. My boyfriend was out and about at work and auditions. I cherished the role, and I started cooking for us – walking to the local market and coming up with dishes from a cookbook that my Mom had given us. It was an empty job, as most homemakers, male and female, ultimately realize. I shouldn’t say that. Some find fulfillment in it, and I will be the first to defend the difficulty and nobility in it. More accurately, it wasn’t for me, not then, not so soon. I’d kill to do it now, but back then it wasn’t me. I wanted it to be, but he didn’t want that. We would always be different.

He saw that first, and he had the prescience to end it then. I wanted that discipline and forethought and courage, but I didn’t have it. That’s why it broke me. Still, as much as I was heartbroken, on some level I knew he was right. Those are always the saddest break-ups. Because there had been good. There had been romance. There had been the beginnings of a life together. I was devastated when it ended. But I understood.

Suzie had come on that last day and we drove a rented truck away from my first true love. I remembered that now. In the dark of night, I approached the walkway to that apartment. No one else was around.

Tonight, I pause at the open gate and remember my first day and last day at that apartment. I walk by the privet hedge and the yellow brick of the building, and approach the entry-way. This was it. How strange that it felt like the end of the world at the time, and yet I feel so little right now.

At the end of the walkway, near the door, I see the buzzer box listening the current inhabitants. I remember when our names were next to each other there. I peer inside at the row of mailboxes, and to the right, where the stairs led up to our old apartment. There was darkness there now. Darkness of night, and darkness of memory. It wasn’t my home now. It never was.

Turning around, I go back into the night. Walking to the train station, the route I had taken so many times, so many years ago, I found myself crying. It caught me by surprise. The church that once inspired a short story stood before me. A monolith of gray stone, it rose into the sky. I always felt dizzy as I followed it higher with my eyes.

The street was empty. I was grateful for that.

I cried for how young we were, how much we knew but didn’t know, and how much we had once loved each other. I cried for the way life did this to us, how we grew past it, how we forgot and moved on and all that we shared here seemed like nothing. I cried for the young man I left behind in this city, for how much he once cared.

I cried for the beauty of this night, for the dark solitude in which I found myself seventeen years later, for the way I walked past the block the first time because I had forgotten so much, for the gentleman who turned me in the right direction, and for the couple suddenly walking their dog behind me. I don’t know why, but I cried for it all.

I slowed my pace as I neared the intersection near the train station. It was brighter here.

The light at the end of the tunnel.

Back in the street lights of the main road, I wipe away my tears, almost laughing at them. Maybe this was the delayed weeping from having seen ‘Hamilton’ and forcing myself not to bawl in front of anyone.

…The moments when you’re in so deep/ It feels easier to just swim down…

And maybe they’re just the tears of the past that I never cried.

 

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