The winter after I had my heart broken, I fell in love with the city. The sound of bike bells and dog barks and arguments and lust and longing and feet and tables and chairs scraping, spilling through walls and windows and ceilings every hour of every day, blanketing me in life, life, more life.
So many lives stacked one upon the other. The family beneath me clattering plates and silverware, the sound of their TV and a thud that makes me think, Alonzo, because he is the rambunctious one with the heavy feet, always being sent to his room. Oscar is calm. Never even a door slam. And I am an orb hovering above, taking in this sitcom that is not a sitcom but real life. And then there’s the young couple above me, stunning in their pup excitement for one another at every return.
“I missed you—you’re home!!”
The city is (or can be) joy at other people, but sometimes it’s anger and hate and grief, and a stranger shouting “Fuck you!” to no one across the street, or a man in a gray suit crying on the train. So much to feel. Too much to feel, a bottomless cornucopia of what we are and aren’t and one day could be.
Anything is possible—on the train, bus, sidewalk. In the park, deli, bar, theater. Whirling dervish comes to mind as I step outside my front door and bound down the eight cement steps, look to my right and then my left to see if any of my neighbors are out, and they are not.
It is cold and crisp. The last of the day’s sun shines. I am young (-ish) and single (freshly), and the pain is behind me (mostly) and only good things are ahead (I hope). This is what I tell myself, a talisman of words and ideas that I use to defend myself from the Bleak, a place more than a feeling, and when it wraps itself around your ankles, it’s as if you’re in the Jumanji jungle, trapped by vines and hunted by fear itself, and that is the Bleak.
But, today, I am in the Bright, stepping into the golden hour of December-warm sun and chilly breeze as I walk down Damen Ave to the “L” station. I tap my card at the kiosk—ding—and climb the steel steps fast because I can hear the train coming, my train, my Chicago ears tell me. That is one of the first things you learn in the city—to separate the sound of your track from the other track, left/right, north/south, east/west, so you know if it’s your train or the opposite on its way, and this train? It’s mine, so I run and just barely make it through the jostling doors, out of breath.
I ride eleven stops south and watch a ghost of my face whir by the brick buildings, limestone buildings, glass buildings. Lulled into a trance of rocking and stopping, rocking and stopping. As we pull into one stop, a man a few seats down looks up from his phone, face stricken, and stands. “Fullerton?” he yells to no one. And another man mumbles, “Passed it.” The man scrambles off as the pre-recorded CTA voice warns, “Doors closing.” I wish the man luck in my mind because we’ve all been there.
Sometimes we ride the train too long, I think, and then I stop in my tracks because if I follow that thought too far, it will take me to a sad place, a dark swirl, and I want to stay in the Bright. I busy myself with standing up, balancing as the train herks and jerks to a stop and the doors whoosh open.
Into the cold again and no more sun, but I’m in Old Town, and the hustle is all about me. It’s a mild Friday night in December by all Chicago accounts, with no wind to speak of. My heavy-heeled boots carry me down gum-specked sidewalks, past neon lights and warm storefronts, one with a hot-pink Christmas tree and a pillow with “Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal!” stitched across it.
Burgers are in my future, burgers shared with someone new in my life, and I am electric with wonder and worry. He is already there to greet me—an early man who has things handled—the propane heater a fiery orange tower behind him. “Here, sit here,” he says and gives me the warm spot as he steps around the side of the varnished picnic table.
We order juicy, cheesy burgers and double-fried fries that steam in the cold. We eat, navigating around our bulky coats and hats, the last of the patio crowd, surrounded by honking cars and other puffy-coated shoulders. The world is full of chatter, and my head is full of it, too, as I keep up with the twists and turns of the conversation, as I get to know this man with his warm mouth and eyes, and notice the way his dark hair falls across his forehead.
I’m just the right amount of full and surprised to find myself in this place. A place I’ve been and known before, where I am on the ledge of feeling, having feelings, for this person who was a stranger only a month ago, and now I wonder about his hands. Are they cold? Are they rough? What would they feel like on my face, my lips, around my arms, pulling me toward him?
A precarious place to be, because we both have to agree to reach the same ledge and to let go—to tip. And we’re still on a path, solid beneath our feet. We don’t even know if there’s a cliff to be reached at the end of all this. A topple to be had. But I feel the hint of one, a place where gravity gets stronger and my vertigo kicks in, and I think, What if I jumped? What if?
Our burgers and fries finished, we trash the wrappers and make a plan for our next move. By now, the nighttime crowds have arrived in full force, lines spilling out of bars and clubs, bouncers ready to handle anything that needs handling. We—he and I—move through the lines, bumping against cologne and perfume and faux fur and leather, the smell of cheap beer and hard liquor wafting all around, cars letting passengers in and out, blocking one another as they honk like maddened geese.
He grabs my hand, and we step into the street because the sidewalk has disappeared, blocked by the thirsty-young masses. “We’re bikes,” he says, looking back at me, then down at the white bike painted on the asphalt lane.
I laugh. “Two legs, two wheels,” I say, and it’s as if I’ve entered another universe, one I never could have imagined with this person. This person who is interesting and strange, full of layers and complexities, and I, full of mine, both of us deciding what to share and how much and when.
It’s chaos all around us, the whole way up Wells Street, and the chill has grown some teeth. College-age girls, women really, wearing sports bras as tops and jeans as bottoms. I shiver for them and think, I’d hoped this would have changed by now, because I, too, once shivered in a nothing-top on a December night, waiting in long lines to get into hot and sweaty and tiresome places. The world spins on.
We turn a corner, his hand warm around mine, and the crowds thin but the cars driving by thicken, headlights spotlighting our every move. An oldish man chases a middle-ish woman out of a bar, telling her to never cut her hair, “Not even an inch,” he shouts, and of all the things that could happen next, she turns and grabs him, and they kiss, full on and hard, a sidewalk of strangers bumping past them. My date and I look at each other and laugh, relief on our faces—not the way we’d expected things to go.
Then, a simple black sign above a heavy door, an alehouse that makes no fuss. Wooden tables and benches and chairs scattered throughout, pull up a spot where you can, the alehouse seems to say, its warmth a friendly ocean. Generations are here, all of them, holding conversations and pints, talking about the world and their world, what it means to all of us, what it means for each of us.
We are not dead, we are here, all the voices seem to say, and we want others to nod and repeat it back to us as we pass through this Friday night—an assurance in a time and place where nothing is guaranteed. Eyes and teeth shine; lips are glossed and polished. Elbows are everywhere: in laps, on bar-tops, around shoulders. He and I make it through the throng of bodies and find our spot on a single wooden bench, side-by-side. Paintings of big faces and naked bodies look down upon us, not an inch of wall to be seen, and the bartenders zig back and forth along the single pathway behind us, calm and measured as they replenish the well.
Overflowing pints land on our table atop ring stains from the pints of nights before, and this is how we slip into the rest of the evening, surrounded by longing and voices, drinking it all in. His eyes are deep brown and soft at their edges, and his lips are full and perfect and still unknown to me.
Someone died recently, we overhear, at the table next to us. The lamenting, the surprise, the question of how he went. How? How? And when it’s revealed, how unnecessary. How preventable yet stupidly permanent. To him, we drink, connected for a moment by a dead man who used to sit here.
I see a friend pass by on her way from the bathroom, or someone familiar at least, a young woman who takes a fiddle class with me on Thursday nights. Yesterday, I think, I only just played songs with her yesterday; what a brief amount of time ago. I tell him, my date, about it, and “On the left or the right?” he asks.
“Left, with dark hair.” A sip of beer. “Reyna,” I say, and I am warm and happy and buzzed, and I feel held by the people here, this place around me. Is it okay to feel this way? To lean into the world like this, without the world even knowing?
More people enter and we slide over, but we’re only on a single bench ourselves, a pew, I think, and for a moment imagine all of us at church, the pastor unable to get our raucous attention, so he gives into the fun and abandons the night’s sermon, live and let live. And now our hips are touching, our knees. A sacred thing, these points of connection, an invitation. Closer, closer.
A flash across his face and mine, and we cannot be here a second longer. A cash bar, so no tab to delay us, and we stand, thirds of pints left behind and another couple coming in, thanking us for the table, as if it were a personal gift. An attitude of gratitude, my mind rhymes, and I realize I am slightly drunk, but not so much that I’ll feel bad the next day, the perfect amount of drunk, and we wish them well on their night, pulling on our coats as they take off theirs, stuff hats into sleeves.
Bodies part around us, and he takes my hand, pulling me forward to the exit, and the man at the door who checked our birth dates smiles a goodnight, and just as we pass, I hear my name called from behind, but the door closes and the outside opens. Headlights zip past and blind us, and we’re running, the cold hitting my face, my breath beer-sour, and I feel like a headlight myself, bright and searching in the night.
We pass an empty white storefront, completely bare with a black-and-white tiled floor. In a past life, an Italian restaurant. Or a barbershop. But now, a thin man with brown hair stands in the center and practices the trombone. I laugh because it’s so unexpected, so strange, the man’s face focused as he pushes and pulls notes into being, unaware of the nighttime outside and how he’s a television set, glowing for all of us to gather around. “What do you think he’s playing?” my date asks. “I don’t know,” I answer. “A serenade?” He pulls me close, his arm around my waist, and we’re moving again, our coats whispering against each other.
The smell of evergreen and balsam is sharp and green as we pass the Christmas tree stand, the trailer closed for the night, everything dark except for the white holiday lights running the length of the fence. A brown sign with red paint announces the types of firs (balsam, Fraser, Douglas) and the price of each ($85, $95, $105) depending on height.
Steel tracks cross above our heads, the spine of the city. Trains rumble in the distance, shuttling people from the head of the city to the heart and back again. This is my stop, where I get on and off and have to decide where the journey takes me next. He’s walking, he tells me, and I think about it, about going on foot with him, twenty minutes south and across the river. We smile at each other—what’s next?
Across the street, college girls in puffy winter coats eat slices of steaming pizza in the street, cars honking, and thank goodness they’re warm, I think, and he pulls me toward him. A soft kiss and then a long one. His chest, solid and firm. And what will become of this? Nothing. Everything. Another train that takes me home and sets me spinning every night.
Janelle Blasdel grew up in Columbus, Indiana, and currently lives in Chicago where she works in advertising and performs improv and sketch comedy throughout the city. She's a graduate of DePauw University and received her MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Her fiction and comedy writing have appeared in McSweeney's, The Rappahannock Review, Brain Mill Press, Slackjaw, Points in Case, and The Belladonna Comedy. When she's not writing, advertising, or improvising, you can find her in a park hiking or in a pool swimming laps very, very slowly.