Have you ever seen the same thing, time and time again, but every time you see it, it looks different? You may still find it beautiful or intriguing, but the light or something about your viewpoint has changed to make it look new.
Recently, I’ve been reminiscing about my time in Chicago. When I think about living there for two years, completely on my own for the first time, it sometimes seems very long ago. My memory has been changed to almost think of it as a separate life I had. I feel like a different person compared to when I lived there, which make sense to a degree. I know I’ve changed over time, as people tend to do.
In a recent writing club session, I wrote about my time in Chicago, specifically a part when Nate visited that has stayed with me, and always will. I’ve decided to share it here.
“I too want to be important. By being different. And these girls are all the same.” – Sylvia Plath
Chicago’s air could definitely be harsh most times. In fact when I moved there, I really wasn’t prepared for it. All I had brought with me for the first two months was a faux leather jacket, that despite how low the temperature got, I continued to wear as my only line of defense against the city. I finally caved and bought a scarf, as if that would help protect me. But with my hair as short as it was, it did manage to help cover and shield my neck and ears as I made the 5 minute walk to the “L” and prepared for the 10 minute wait for the train.
I remember times when I would be waiting for the train, willing it to arrive so I could find shelter and warmth, even if it was among strangers. I’d be on the platform, exposed, the cool air moving around me, so empty yet filled with mutedness. I was at the mercy of the train and its schedule, which I imagine must feel similar to shipwrecked, left out on a raft in the middle of a wide ocean, waiting for signs of life. As a gust of cold, unforgiving wind would blow it’s hardest, I’d wish and wish and wish for it to die, only to have it respond with even more intensity. The train would finally arrive and I’d get inside and search for a seat. And there usually was one. I’d listen to my music and watch us pass all the buildings and move from neighborhood to neighborhood.
It was Irving Park, where I lived those first two months, almost like a nomad. I had found a giant, plastic suitcase and filled it with everything I deemed as a necessity. I remember how sad I felt getting on the Megabus with it, as if I wasn’t coming back to St. Louis and what was in the suitcase was all I had to my name. My parents, who didn’t think I would actually move, had the reality of the situation written all over their faces. Up until that point, I had been biding my time, feeling mostly like a caged animal, wanting so badly to go somewhere, but not quite sure where. I was waiting for something to happen, which I finally put into motion, but could easily not have.
As we’d make our way downtown, I’d observe all the people getting on and off at each stop, until finally it was my turn. My feet would hit the pavement in shoes that were never meant for walking very far or often. It wasn’t long before I’d feel the dull ache inside my foot’s leather tomb throb as it made contact with the ground. I’d finally emerge out from the underground tunnel and onto the sidewalk, and the wind would be waiting, moving, as if I didn’t matter to it at all.
But then there were evenings when I’d get out of work and it would already be dark. I’d exit my building and prepare to cross the street, but a few times, I would just stop and look up at the buildings. They were so large, almost cartoonish, making me feel small yet important all at once. They would dizzy me, scare me, thrill me. It was in those moments, when the city would go silent and look back at me, that the wind seemed to stop and let the moment happen.
Nate would visit me any chance he could. I’d plan our weekends together to visit my favorite restaurants, some parks and shops in my neighborhood. I’d always try to show him a good time so that hopefully he’d be tempted to live there with me someday, but it never really worked out that way. Instead of remarking on how good the food was, he’d fixate on how long we had to wait to eat it. In fact, the long waits in Chicago restaurants led to Nate’s declaration that he “never wanted to wait for food again.” The parks in Chicago paled in comparison to the wildlife and vast outdoor sceneries of Missouri, and often we’d grow bored after spending just 30 minutes walking around. The shops, while different and unique in their way, were expensive and sold mostly frivolous things he couldn’t justify buying. I wanted us to so badly spend the weekend having Chicago adventures that would enrich our relationship and prove that we could have fun anywhere, despite living five hours apart and dealing with the stress and sadness that came with it.
And then the day would come, usually a Sunday, but sometimes a Monday morning, when he would leave me to head back to St. Louis. Each time he left felt as sad and lonely as the previous time. I’d watch as the bus would drive away and I’d try to see if I could find him amid the shadowy heads bobbing with each pulse forward. I wouldn’t feel normal again until Wednesday or so, when my job and the Chicago noises would drown out his touch, his smell and how good he made me feel just by being in the same room as me.
The first time Nate visited, he arrived by Megabus and I was so ecstatic to see him. He brought just a small bookbag and a pillow. I hadn’t seen him in a month, which was the longest we had ever gone without seeing one another. I was sleeping on an air mattress at the time, and we spent the night laying on it talking about everything we missed in each other’s lives for the past 30 days. It felt so great to be around him and made me question why I was willingly not doing it.
That weekend, Nate brought a sharpie with him so he could write, “Nate Rules” on the bathroom stalls of every place we went to. He wanted to leave his weird mark on Chicago and I was amused by his ability to be ridiculous without any shame. He also decided that after reading a really great book, he’d leave it somewhere for someone else to pick up. That weekend it was “Into The Wild” and the last I saw, it was laying on a newspaper vending machine near the Blue Line in Irving Park.
He decided to leave Monday morning, which meant I could wait with him at the Megabus stop and see him off before heading into work. I was so, so sad. And mad. I was mad at myself for taking advantage of being with him every single day for so long before moving.
There was a long line to enter the bus, and with each move of our feet I felt dread inch closer and closer. I knew that I’d have to exit the line soon, to let him go and make my way through the crowded city to my building and begin a horrible week of forgetting what it felt like to have him near me. He grabbed my face and I waited, expecting him to simply say that he loved me, but instead he kissed me and pulled me close, whispering in my ear, “Every girl in this city is the same. But you’re different. You hear me? You’re different. Don’t forget that.” And then he got on the bus and I was left standing there, changed and charged, not ready to say goodbye and take the first step away from him and towards the day.
As the bus drove away, the tears crowded my eyes and spilled down my cheeks. The city took its cue and the wind started to blow again, each gust cooler and longer than the previous one. I started moving and the sounds around me got louder. The wind continued to churn and my feet continued to pound the pavement. Everything seemed to work together in unison, reminding me that in that moment, the city wouldn’t wait for me. It kept moving, but hopefully, by the time I left work and started my journey home, I’d feel that familiar feeling of being both enormous and tiny at once, reminding me why I stayed.