When I’m alone, I sing almost the entire time. Obviously not when I’m sleeping. And usually not when I’m writing, either. But if I’m taking a shower or folding laundry, I’m definitely singing loud accompaniment to whatever is coming out of my stereo. However, I refuse to get involved with karaoke. And no one is going to successfully sign me up for caroling.
I forget how to operate my car if I’m not also harmonizing with the randomized contents of my Ipod. So last night, I was driving home from running numerous errands in northeast Philly (whiskey, hair dye, paper products for back at the ranch, and birth control pills), singing along with Whipsmart (I’m feeling really 90s lately…I was also wearing a pair of 14 eyelet Doc Martens recently acquired via Ebay)…and “Jealousy” started playing. And as I was singing along with the line about ex-girlfriends, I started thinking about my little story about Ryan’s ex-girlfriend Janet. And then I remembered a story involving her that I had forgotten until just now:
Quite spontaneously, I decided a few weeks ago that I would take a trip to Chicago. A boy I love was about to move to Canada. I knew that the best way to deal with missing him and the fastest path to forgetting him was a vacation. As soon as he revealed the exact date of his last day in Portland, I booked a plane ticket.
I’m not sure why I picked Chicago. I’ve only been back once before, about a year ago. I spent the entire trip far away from Wicker Park, in Alex’s neighborhood along the lake. We did take one late night foray down to the Rainbo–my favorite bar ever–to meet up with Zach. And that was it. Brad (he was actually weeks away from leaving Chicago, too) drove us back up to Alex’s apartment. So I didn’t even have to walk through familiar scenery. I didn’t have to confront the Damen El stop platform, the setting of many frustrating “searching for Ryan” dreams.
But now I’m back in Chicago again for a few days. Once again, I’m staying with Alex, forcing him to wake up early in the morning. Yesterday we drank and wandered around Andersonville. I have a sprained ankle, so I have been hobbling around popping painkillers. This has made me an incredibly laidback, semi-slurry guest. Easy to entertain with Adult Swim and Fruity Pebbles. I have no one left here. Zach lives in Portland now. Brad moved to Washington, DC.
Today I am on my own, because Alex has to work until the early evening. There are numerous things I could do: visit the miniatures and Impressionists at the Art Institute, go to the Lincoln Park Zoo, even take a trip to Chicago Comics. The whole city is laying out for me. There are neighborhoods I’ve never even seen, but for some reason, I realize that I have to go to Wicker Park.
Fortified with Vicodin and an Ipod filled with cheery music, I take the red train to the blue train. And less than an hour later, there I am, stepping on to the Damen El platform. I scurry down the stairs before I can think about the significance of this.
Somehow my mind has believed that Wicker Park has been in the midst of a nuclear winter since I left Chicago. I have imagined that all of the buildings have turned to dust and only ghosts wander the streets. The sky is permanently grey and silent.
But of course the street is filled with living, breathing, fast-walking people. Everything is the same and yet everything is completely different. Earwax is across the street now, but they’ve brought all of the tables and art with them. (Myopic Books is in the old Earwax spot). Now the movies are in the basement, instead of the attic. But the menu is the same. Even the servers seem to be the same, except they are younger. But the cafe is now non-smoking, the singular sign of change. The tables are packed with aged hipsters (best recognized by their expensive haircuts, still super-tight jeans, and black leather jackets)…with small children in strollers. I’m pretty sure I recognize at least one guy from a particular spree of “making out with guys with brown hair and glasses.”
The boy that brings me my coffee asks me if I’m from Minneapolis. I’m completely puzzled by this question. I shake my head. “Okay…wait…are you from Portland? Because that’s my other guess.” I laugh as I ask him how he came to this conclusion. “It’s the way you are dressed…it’s very Minneapolis/Portland. So different from here.” We talk for a while and he convinces me that I should visit Minneapolis as soon as possible. And then he invites me to hang out later. I give him my number, but I’m pretty sure that he’s about 22.
I text Alex as I leave Earwax, “Well, I might not be home tonight because I’ve found a boyfriend in Wicker Park.”
I promise myself that I’m not going out to Ryan’s apartment in Humboldt Park. I can’t imagine how I could find the strength to do that. And I’m glad that my CTA card is empty, barring me from taking a bus ride out there. And I avoid my old block on Paulina, too.
Instead I walk down Milwaukee, up and down Division. All of the cheesy furniture stores and empty storefronts have been replaced with chichi boutiques and art galleries.
And then I head down Damen to Chicago Avenue. Privata–a cool Mexican-meets-Italian restaurant–is gone. A few of Ryan’s paintings had been hanging in there for years. I wonder where they are now?
Finally, I find myself on Ashland. For years, gentrification was forecasted for this street. I remember there were a lot of rumors about Gap and Starbucks moving in. But even now, this street remains an assortment of vacant lots, Mexican restaurants, and empty stores. Maybe the street is too wide. Or maybe it’s the lack of trees. There is nothing here.
I decide that I’m going to walk to Jewel-Osco to buy cereal for Alex (I promised). And then I’m going to hike over to Rainbo for a nostalgic drink and a round in the photo booth.
As I’m walking, I see a cute little store on the opposite side of the street. There is nothing else on the block, so I jaywalk across four lanes of traffic to see it. Just then it starts to rain, so I realize I’m definitely going to have go inside.
It’s dark and cozy. The walls are lined with cool vintage fixtures. The shelves are filled with cute things. I find vintage barrettes, postcards, and fancy soap for my friends.
I stand at the cash register for a few minutes. The girl behind the counter is on the phone. I’m fiddling with my own phone when I realize that there is something familiar about this girl. I try to covertly study her. Did she date one of my friends? Did I date one of her friends? Maybe we worked together or something? I just can’t figure it out.
She hangs up the phone and apologizes for making me wait. “Oh, don’t worry…Your store is so great!” We talk for a while–I tell her I’m from Portland–so she asks me questions about the Pacific Northwest. All the while, I’m scouring my memory for her identity. I want to prolong the conversation until I solve the mystery.
She smiles as she is wrapping up my purchases. I know this face. How do I know her?
When I hand her my credit card, I suddenly realize who she is.
I take a deep breath and then ask, “Are you Janet?”
She looks startled. Yes, yes, she is. She’s waiting for me to explain how I know her, but I can’t figure out the best way to say it.
“I dated Ryan after you. I was his girlfriend when he died.” Somehow this seems inaccurate. An understatement. More information is required. “He’s also my daughter’s father.”
Her face crumples and then she instantly regains her composure. She looks at me somberly. “I think about you all the time.”
This doesn’t make sense to me.
And then she continues, “I thought you looked familiar as soon as you walked in the store…but I just couldn’t place your face. And now I remember.” She tells me that she missed Ryan’s funeral, she just couldn’t bring herself to go. But a week later, she drove down to Decatur to visit his grave. She stopped by his mother’s house for a visit. His mother gave her an old jacket of his–the coat he always wore, even when we were together, something Janet had once given him. She left it in the car for days, not ready to deal with it. Eventually she decided that she should pack it away, somehow preserve it. She put it on for a moment, wanting to see if it held any memories of Ryan. She slid her hands into the pockets, only to discover that they were filled with pictures of me. “And I’ve been thinking about you since then. I mean, look at how much he loved you! And you looked so young, like a little girl doll. And I’ve always wondered where you were and how you were doing.”
We talk for a few more minutes, lots of niceties about how great it is to finally meet.
It’s still raining when I step outside. I walk down to the next block, looking for a place to smoke. But really, I’m just using smoking as an opportunity to pull myself together.
I duck into an empty storefront with an awning. I crouch on the ground as I light a cigarette.
I haven’t cried about Ryan in years, since I moved to Portland. I still miss him every single day. I can’t look at my daughter’s face without seeing him. But still, the active grieving is done.
I think back to a sunny afternoon years before. We were at the playground in Humboldt Park. I was flying back-and-forth on the swings, impressing the children swinging next to me. The sun was so bright, I could hardly see. Ryan pulled out his camera to take pictures of me. I jumped off in a flash. I grabbed the camera out of his hands. “Don’t do that!”
He laughed at me. “Why can’t I take a picture of my cute girlfriend?”
“Because you can tell how somebody really feels about you by looking at a photo they have taken of you. And I don’t want to know how you feel about me.”
“What if I promise to never show you the pictures I take, ever ever ever?”
A handshake was required to seal this deal. I stared straight into his eyes. “You have to promise.” And then I handed the camera back to him.
He broke so many promises, especially the most important ones. But he never showed me any of the photos he took. Ever ever ever.
And now, three years later, smoking a cigarette on a soggy Chicago afternoon, I miss him all over again. Tears are silently streaming down my face. I can’t do this right now. I stand up and brush the ashes off my dress. I wipe the mascara stains off my cheeks.
I text Alex, “I’m going to get a few stiff drinks at Rainbo. I promise I won’t forget about the cereal.”