Most trips back to Chicago I find stifling, even suffocating. This city is no longer mine; this fact has been evident for some time now. But next month marks four years since I’ve left it, offering at least some perspective if not nostalgia to creep up into my mind among all of the distaste. Perhaps it was the month I spent here last year teaching, or the fact that this week is the first I’ve been here since Thanksgiving (save for two short days in a hotel downtown after my Michigan holiday trip with my now-ex-boyfriend). Mostly, though, it’s that an extremely toxic relationship with someone I should have left a very, very long time ago just ended, leaving me angry and quite hurt… and Chicago feels somewhat like an old, worn-out pair of slippers that was waiting for me when I got off the plane.
In the past 72 hours I’ve seen more old friends—including some who just happened to be in town the same time I was—than I have for ages and ages. I’ve chatted with them at diners until the wee hours (because my son was at a sleepover at a friend’s house). I’ve met up with Uncle Eddie and caught up with my host (who’s so kind as to let my son and I stay in his spare room for free). I’ve walked miles just because the weather has been beautiful and it seems appropriate (carrying on what I’ve been doing in NYC as of late, since new medication has all but eliminated my panic/agoraphobia, and also because whenever a major change happens in my life—death, health scares, divorce, whatever—I tend to just walk and walk and walk without any particular limit on how far, other than getting home at the end of the day). I’ve happened upon little free libraries and blossoming trees and even a rather strange box nailed to a tree with a question mark painted on one side, an open face, and a little sign that said “Drink Me” (with nothing inside the box). Tomorrow I’m getting my hair cut (no drastic changes, I hope), walking along the lakefront, and seeing a play.
All of this is to say: Chicago may not be my place anymore, but it seems to be a place where I can go to remember who I am, to remember that I was (and am) an active person who takes chances and is whimsical and and enjoys exploring the world around me. I’ve spent so much of the past few months cooped up in New Jersey—keeping myself small and quiet so as not to ruffle feathers and always (always!) deferring judgment and decisions to someone else—that I seem to have forgotten what an amazing and dynamic person I am.
Last night I was watching Girls (yes, I know; you can criticize me later… but this current season is actually not that bad) and there was a scene in which Hannah runs into a former classmate who’s a famous writer. Hannah’s imagined a glamorous life for this classmate, but the truth is that the famous writer is really rather miserable and quite envies Hannah’s life. The dialogue goes down like this:
Hannah: I just thought you woke up in the morning in a ray of sunshine and birds dressed you and you just came in your pants from all the accolades and people handed you awards on your way to a fancy dinner.
Tally: Yeah, I guess that’s how you’re supposed to feel by my calculations, but look at you. You’ve had all these boyfriends and jobs and moments, and you’ve lived all this truth.
Hannah: Well, it didn’t feel like very much when it was happening.
Tally: But it is much. And you have so much to say.
And I hate to say it, but this is a conversation I’ve had with dozens of people in real life. I’ll meet someone famous or famous-ish and we’ll start talking, and while I don’t say the things Hannah does, I’ll say something like I feel less cultured because I’ve never been to Europe or I don’t know French or something like that… and the response is always that, oh, but no!, you instead have all these other interesting things you’ve done and experienced that are way more important and so much less banal than taking a trans-Atlantic flight. Anyone with money and a passport can do that. What I’ve done (and, in some cases, survived) takes courage, persistence, optimism, faith, hope: grit. Hannah’s right when she says that it doesn’t feel like very much when it’s happening, but there’s a reason for that: it’s survival. It’s doing what’s necessary to put one foot in front of the other. But what I’ve learned is that most people don’t know how to survive very well. I, on the other hand, have become an expert. Maybe I should get a tattoo of a cockroach (even though I hate the suckers), because at times it feels like I have the same capacity for remaining alive—some days I’m in so much pain I can’t fathom how another day is possible, but then the sun is rising, and it’s happening. Life just flows.
Being in Chicago (and watching that episode of Girls on my second night here) reminds me of all that. It’s where I got my head start to take the flying leap of faith that landed me in New York City, where I still am somehow surviving four years later.
But it’s also good to be here because it’s physical space and distance from the relationship that just ended. It wasn’t good for anyone. I never should have given him a second chance. All I can say is that I’ll know better next time. And: sometimes when a door slams shut, a window opens to let some breeze in.
Speaking of windows…I don’t much believe in coincidences, but this one is fairly remarkable: getting a message from someone I met more than two years ago at a mutual sober friend’s birthday party, saying I’d left an impression all this time when I popped up on one of his social media feeds out of the blue. I remember meeting him then and having an amazing conversation, but I thought if he were interested he’d ask for my info from the host. But it turns out he’d been dating someone at the time, so that wasn’t possible. So here we are, years later, my having made such an impression that this guy remembered me after all this time.
I’ll take this one a day at a time, but we’re having coffee when I get back into town. If these first few days in Chicago are any indication, I’ll be my regular self by the time I arrive, and then some. I’m looking forward to being back to normal. And these last few months have been a reminder just how important it is to stay that way. In any case, I’m looking forward to that coffee. The guy’s got at least one thing going for him: he doesn’t live in New Jersey.