Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Season 2, Episode 3: Chicago

Some twenty-something years ago, I was born at Cook County Hospital in the only midwestern city worth mentioning: Chicago. I have very little memory of my childhood in general but the most distinct one I have of the city is going to see A Christmas Carol with my mother and brother. On the way there, I tried to step into traffic and my mom yanked me back so hard I suddenly understood that whole "mother lifting a bus for her baby" metaphor. Despite this, despite me getting the squirts and forcing my mom to come sit in the bathroom with me right when the ghost of Christmas Future was about to come on stage, I remember loving every other second in the city. The lights, the people, the excitement is something one can only understand once they experience it. As a wee kitten, this imprinted my soul with a desire for the hustle and bustle. All I've dreamt of since leaving was going back - at first, just to a city, none in particular but eventually I knew it had to be Chicago specifically.

I remember when I first moved to my Current Population: 8,040 residence, my first question after "where's all the black people?" was "when can I leave this place?" It took me a bit but I've grown to appreciate it and it's sleepy residents, the repetition of "looks like it's going to be a big one," every winter; how relaxing and predictable the flow of life, the beach and the tourism is here. All the same, every minute here is a minute devoid of opportunity or innovation unless I create it myself. You can only do so much on your own and my need to find a space to grow and learn within eats away at any sort of peace I could ever find living here.

When I tell people all of this, my absolutely favorite reaction is the classic baby-boomer "you've just gotta do it," reply. These are the kind of people who do not understand that money is in fact a necessity for living your dreams and the way the world is now, we are designed to be slaves to a system that doesn't actually want you to climb up. If everyone got a college degree, got their dream job and the house with the white picket fence, who would serve you your morning coffee? Who would take your plane ticket, check your luggage, fly your planes? Clean the toilets? Even those few who do make it, who get into their field and find The One and a sweet suburban home are chained to their tens of thousands in college debt, possibly a six-figure mortgage and slaves to any fluctuations in our society's economy. But I digress.

Like I said earlier, to understand the appeal of living in a city, you have to experience it. Otherwise, all you hear is "murder" this and "expensive" that. I've wanted to take Nicholas down there, to rediscover this place I barely remembered other than shards of memory carved into my heart, and recently something came up. My grandmother, who I've been corresponding with for the past few years, had some blockage discovered in her heart and needed bypass surgery. She's 84 years old and granted a tough lady but scared that I may not get another opportunity to see her again, to introduce Nicholas to her and reconnect with her, I rushedly tried to figure out a way down there. Money is beyond tight now (fun examples: we aren't using the dishwasher anymore because we can't afford dish detergent, I've been re-using sandwich bags and I basically forced my mother to quit smoking), but I knew if I didn't make it happen somehow, I'd always regret it. So I booked a room and hopped in the car.

The trip down was pretty easy up until we got into the city. Although Nicholas' driving was perfect, the GPS on his phone wasn't working thanks to me throwing it against the wall the week earlier. That's a long and stupid story but totally unrelated. Once we found the hotel, I got a hold of my grandmother and planned a visit to see her. The butterflies had been fluttering before we had even left home but now they were out of control. I hadn't seen my Grandma D-D in thirteen years. This was tough but what I was about to do felt a thousand times tougher. Hands shaking, I dialed my father's number.

He didn't answer so I left an awkward voicemail which went something like "Surprise! It's your daughter and I'm in Illinois!" When he called me back, I told him I was up visiting his mother and that I would only be in town for basically the next 24 hours. He said he'd get a hold of me when he knew exactly when I could visit. Did he have to clean up his coke stash, wash the shit stains out of the shower, throw a load of laundry in so he'd have something to wear not covered in garbage? Now, now, Carly, your cynicism is showing.

When he texted me back, he told me he'd meet me at grandma's. Of course. I don't know why this surprised me. I knew I should have just dropped in on him. I couldn't help but be curious what the Clark Street house looked like now. Plus I'm still pretty sure I have a box buried in the yard which I will eventually retrieve. Some other day. Most importantly though, I had wanted to keep my time with my grandmother and my time with him separate. I wonder if he thought I might yell at him. I didn't even know if I thought I'd yell at him. Knowing how much of a slave to social niceties I am, though, I probably wouldn't have.

My grandmother's house was an unbelievably uncomfortable, surreal experience. Twisting our way down the streets of Wheaton, everything began to feel eerily familiar in an implacable manner. When we pulled up to the house, my stomach tried to make a break for it through my mouth. Riding a bike, petting some dog, dancing, chasing my cousin - flashes before my eyes of things that happened right here what felt like an entire lifetime ago. When we pulled into the driveway, I couldn't stop fidgeting with my hair, my shirt, my purse. What if my grandmother took one look at me and hated me? What if she didn't even recognize me? I knew that was ridiculous. I look like a taller, ginger version of my kid self who grew boobs. My face is no different and I'm still nowhere near skinny. My goofy, gap-toothed smile is entirely unchanged.

My uncle Neil opened the door. I had never met him before, at least not within the span of my memory though I understand he saw me at some point as an infant before he moved to California. Then he got my grandmother. She was such a tiny woman, I would have had to of gotten on my knees to be at her height. I couldn't believe how different she looked to me even though her features were generally the same. My grandmother. This woman who had let me into her home during the summer, brought me cinnamon sugar toaster pastries when she visited and got me my most treasured American Girl on my eighth birthday. Though as a child I admired and idolized this woman, I realized suddenly I didn't have any idea how I felt about her now.

My uncle gave me a cup of black coffee. I wondered if there was any creamer in the house or if I just looked like I took my coffee black. I drank it and realized I was grateful for something to put my hands on, to distract my mouth with.

I knew before I saw him that my father had arrived. I'm not sure if I heard him or if this was one of those strange moments where I just know something before I should. He walked into the tiny kitchen with a gas station cup of coffee in his hand and I wondered if he drank his coffee black. I doubted it. We exchanged an uncomfortable hug and sat around the little wooden table that I was pretty sure had been in this house for the past thirteen years that I was gone.

He tried to remember the last time he saw me and I corrected him that it was at my graduation. What a fucking bizarre night that was, I wanted to say but so far my voice had been locked in my throat. The words that came out of my mouth for the next hour or so of torture was simply a puppeteer pulling my strings and making me function. So much of what was said during this time is lost to me now. My husband told me later that the entire time we spent at the table I spent folding and unfolding a tiny plastic bag upon it's surface. I vaguely remembered the bag when he mentioned it but didn't realize I had spent an hour playing with it.

The highlight of the visit was our tour around the house to look at all of my grandmother's pictures. Images of my brother and I as children were a rare treat for Nicholas and I as I only have maybe five images from before I moved to Michigan. The resemblance between my father and brother stunned me as I saw what they both looked like when they were younger. Side by side, you would have sworn they were brothers.

A walk through the sitting room, the red chair where my cousin Sarah and I would sit to pose for pictures when we visited. Always in some flowery dress with white tights and dress shoes, usually after church. The Christmas tree that our presents would always be under. The piano that I annoyingly would play Chopsticks on repeatedly since I knew nothing else. The bedroom where I'd sleep each summer. I expected a flood of images but everything was simply a glass of nostalgia, flavored with melancholy.

My father told me that he was sober, as he always did when we spoke. I searched his face for features we shared. The goofy smile, to be sure. Heavy eyelids above, dark bags below the same stormy blue-grey eyes. Other than this, I saw only Tyler etched into his hollowed out face. I couldn't believe how old he looked now. I felt more sorry for him than I ever had before even though I could still feel the bitterness and disgust rotting through my stomach from his news of his newest daughter. Isabelle, I think he said her name was. As he showed me a video of her playing, a photo in his wallet, I just wanted to cut through everything and hiss, "Why do you think I would want to see the girl you're using to replace me? Nothing you ever do will make up for how you destroyed me."

One strange moment brought some tenderness to me long after it happened. Seeing my green glasses, he asked, "Is green your favorite color?"

Even though by definition it probably is since "rainbow" isn't a color, I wanted to defy him. Scoffing, I dismissed this question, "No. Why, is it yours?"

"Yeah," he said, obviously a little disappointed.

I realized he had reached out to me in a sincere, noninvasive way. It was the same question I asked of those I was just getting to know - what's your favorite color. Since the truth was that other than the first ten years of my life we knew nothing of each other, it was a good starting point. In the month or so since this happened, I have had this question come back to my mind whenever my memory trails to that kitchen.

When Nicholas and I left, I hugged both my father and grandmother. I even hugged my uncle Larry, who had appeared just before we were planning on leaving. I think the last time I had seen him was at a Mother's Day buffet extravaganza maybe a year before we ran away from my father. This was one of the precious times I had asked my parents, "Did I get my five dollars worth?" Which, for the record, I always did.

My father and I talked semi-privately for a brief moment in the driveway before we left. I could see he was trying. I don't know what he was hoping for but I think that in truth he just wanted to make sure he didn't mess me up any further. All I could think of though was getting the fuck out of there and driving as far away from this place as we possibly could.

Later that night, we took buses and trains down into Old Town to see a show at The Second City theater. Nicholas had never used public transportation before and I couldn't really remember what it was like so we sat back and enjoyed a performance by a pair of singers on the train, ran from stop to stop in panic like a pair of stupid tourists and finally raced triumphantly up the steps of the theater when we found it.

I wanted more than anything to read every poster, to touch everything, to ask a hundred questions of the staff working there. It was so strange to see people my age in charge of something that seemed so historical and sacred. We were late, though, and we barely had time to sit down before the show started.

The money I spent on these tickets was worth every cent and thensome. If you know anything at all about me, you know that it is a dream of mine to perform on The Second City stage. The cozy comedy club was not what I expected. It was better. Talent absolutely oozed out of the performers and the energy of even their wait staff was incredible. I was overwhelmed by how desperately I wanted this to be my life and after the stressful events of earlier that day, I was so relieved to laugh harder than I ever had in my life.

Trying to get back to the hotel was a disastrous mess due to our complete and utter lack of understanding of how public transportation works. When we finally made it there, I remember crawling into bed and immediately becoming unconscious.

I woke up early the next morning due to Nick moving around the room. Apparently he slept poorly which was hard for me understand because I had literally passed out cold into a dreamless slumber. We ate breakfast, discussed the news, planned a new day. Today Nicholas was in charge of what we did and where we went.

Now we drove into the heart of the city. Watching Nicholas weave in and out of traffic at twenty above the speed limit was like watching a duck in water. Again, we got a little turned around but enjoyed the sights in the city as we tried to figure out where we were going. We had our little freak-out moment on the highway at one point from both of us being stupidly tired and sore from the wandering we did the night before but once we found MyPie, we took a deep breath and tried to remain open to the day.

We had the most fantastic deep dish pizza and then made our way down to The Museum of Science and Industry. The kind man at the ticket desk gave us free tickets since the museum was closing in a little over an hour and we wandered around a few areas until we found the U-505, a submarine we had captured from the Germans during WWII. Nicholas and I loved it as we're both big WWII buffs and we would trail apart then come back together, mindlessly tangling our fingers together. We shared our awe as we finally came to the room where the U-505 was and posed for a picture I knew we wouldn't buy at the end of the exhibit.

It was time to go home. As soon as we headed for the Skyway, every ounce of me wanted to scream, "Stop! Turn around! We're never leaving!" I knew it was unrealistic but goddamnit, why can't I just up and do it like the wizened sixty-year olds kept telling me? Why could Madonna go to New York with twelve bucks and a bus ticket but I had to save thousands of dollars to cover security deposits and moving expenses?

Coming back to Ludington was strange. I was the same, surely, but something new was budding inside of me. A renewed craving to get the fuck out of here, a reminder of why I wanted to live in the city. Chicago had made me her bitch once again and I didn't mind one bit.

All that keeps me going now is the thought that with just a little bit more time, moving there will be a real possibility. If we can somehow survive through the rest of winter and spring, if we can make it to May when I'll finally be making enough money for us to not only pay bills but start saving, then it's only six months of busting my ass until we can finally break free of this small town trap.

I've said it before but I won't stop saying it until it's true: this fall, Nicholas and I are moving to Chicago. The only difference is this time, nothing will stop me.

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