By Amanda E. Snyder
I’ve never really been a Lincoln Park kind of girl, but I was staying with a friend there over the holidays and that night, with the snowflakes drifting down in front of overpriced brownstones, making a perfect wintery gingerbread scene, I couldn’t help but smile. I walked under a leafless tree on Fullerton with bright, metallic red and green and blue Christmas ornaments dangling from its knobby branches. As I looked up at the ornaments, a snowflake kissed my nose.
Jesus, it’s like Chicago is flirting with me, I thought. And I’m just home on vacation.
It didn’t hurt that I was on my way to a date with a guy I’d met just days before, a friend of friend who I had such chemistry with, a chemistry I’d forgotten existed in the world, that I would’ve agreed to any kind of date he suggested. He was tall and thin, had full lips, and kind, deep-set eyes, and somewhere behind them, a sorrow that I wanted to devour. I’d have watched sports if he asked me to.
I know, right? Luckily, we were just going out for dinner and drinks.
All of it: the snow, the leafless, ornamented tree, and the beautiful, sorrowful boy, it all felt like Chicago was calling me home.
You see, I lived in San Francisco. Temporarily, but currently, nonetheless. I moved there from Chicago for graduate school number two, but now, that was over, and Chicago was wooing me back home. At least that’s the vibe I was getting.
It’s not that I didn’t like San Francisco. How could someone not like such an obscenely beautiful city? A city so gorgeous it seemed dreamt up by romantic painters and poets as a heavenly playground. Hills and ocean and bridges and parks and mountains perfectly placed within reach…so it’s not that I didn’t like San Francisco. But for some reason, living there did not suit me. Living there felt like swimming in a straightjacket.
“I cannot breathe there,” I would tell my date, within the hour, over margaritas. “I just can’t breathe there.”
I still felt foreign, after two and a half years, trying to find my way around San Francisco, even though it was a mere one-fifth the size of Chicago. Even though I shouldn’t have, I routinely got lost in the city by the bay, with its curving, hilly, zig-zagging streets. Did you know that as you cross 16th Street, the building numbers are still in the 500s? 16th Street. 500s. Not 1600s, as any normal city planner would divine.
I still can’t wrap my brain around it. Which is why I got lost every time I went somewhere new there.
And then there was that feeling of being adrift. There were nights in San Francisco, a place where the houses and the people in them are like dominos packed tight together, that I felt more alone than I’ve ever felt in my life. My heart, it seemed, had gone through a numbing castration process where I just couldn’t feel anything anymore. Relationships were merely a string of passionate but fruitless endeavors, ones that I knew had an expiration date. I felt like the walking dead in a place so alive with beauty.
So Chicago, my home, was calling me back. See? I had managed to meet a guy I was actually excited about within just days of arriving home for the holidays. The thing was, I had no job in Chicago, even though I’d been looking. I did have a job in California – and a decent job, actually doing what I’d gone to school for (imagine!) – but not necessarily a job that was my passion. But still, I had a job, and a well-located, sunny apartment with an agreeable roommate I actually liked, and friends, and the ocean, and vacation days, and healthcare, and ok, maybe “swimming in a straightjacket” is a dramatic metaphor for life in California, but the point is that it wasn’t home. It wasn’t Chicago, where the ground knows my feet, where I feel a physical pulsing electricity in my body when I see the skyline at night, where I feel embraced – embraced! – by the cold concrete of downtown skyscrapers. Chicago, where things are reassuringly flat and you can see everything clearly and for the love of all things holy, 16th Street equals 1600 South.
Logic. There is logic here.
I was expecting more blissful logic on my date, and found it, mostly, except for the part where he said he was moving east in a few months to pursue a more fulfilling career. To New York of all places. While I was being called to Chicago, he was being called somewhere else.
But I tried to put that aside, to keep it tucked under my napkin as I sipped on my margarita and tried desperately not to eat the entire bowl of guacamole. And perhaps unfortunately, I was successful at keeping it tucked way. Because I forgot about it long enough to see that he was slightly but endearingly nervous. Long enough to see that we had everything in common, from a love of travel and writing, to, well, like all good writers, a love of drinking. I forgot about it long enough to know that I wanted to suck on his bottom lip until I was dizzy.
We laughed. We went across the street to a bar for a nightcap.
“Dessert,” he’d called it.
We laughed more.
I touched his leg once or twice.
As we left the bar, and he was headed north and I was headed south, we stood there, on a cold January night on Clark Street, smiling. I was a little less sure about how this boy, who I might never see again, figured into Chicago’s plan to woo me back. I was a little less sure about everything, except that I really, really liked him. Him, and all of his nervous, sorrowful, humor.
A few hours before, I had been sure of the signs, sure of what arrows the universe was flashing at me, and now, as I hiked my hippy purse up higher on my shoulder, I was only sure that I wanted to freeze time: 1 a.m. Early Sunday morning. Gray January. Chicago.
The boy smiled and leaned in, and we kissed and I got the chance to suck on that beautiful bottom lip, and I put my naked fingers on his cheeks and pulled him closer because I didn’t want it to end. I wanted that kiss to anchor me to the spot, to show me something concrete and real was waiting for me here – not him, necessarily, but something. Something meaningful. I was leaving and he was leaving, but being pressed against him on that cold gray street felt like home. More home than I’d felt in two and a half years. And then he pulled away and my hands were still around his cheeks and he said “Maybe I’ll see you before you go back.”
But I knew we wouldn’t. What good would it do?
This wasn’t an anchor.
It was just a kiss.
The boy and I parted, and still I was smiling and he was smiling, and we gave a little wave to one another before turning away to walk in opposite directions. Only I wanted to turn back and just watch him for a second, so that I could remember his shape walking away, but I thought that would be a little creepy and what if he caught me doing it?
So instead I turned and walked down Clark Street, back toward my friend’s apartment.
The snow had stopped.
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