chapter eleven.

It was just then, standing in the gangway, that the long evening of drinking caught up with me. How much liquor had I consumed that night?  I had passed the point of  an accurate beverage talley.  I collapsed against the brick wall.

I considered just sleeping on the stoop. It was almost two. Stephen would be waking up in a few hours to get ready for his opening shift at the coffee shop.  A three hour nap on concrete didn’t sound too terrible.  Well, except for the potential rapists and rabid rats.  And who could forget the family of opossums living in the alley?  Flesh a la whiskey sour was probably a delicacy for angry urban rodents.

Calling Stephen was an option.   He usually slept with a phone next to his bed, expecting that I would lose my keys or become too drunk to remember our address.   But of course, I left my phone upstairs.  I could picture it, resting soundly on my blue bedside table.    There was a pay phone at the Kinko’s on North Avenue.  I had used it once before, back when I thought only mortgage brokers and drug dealers owned cell phones.   But at this time of night, the innocuous copy shop transformed into a haven for pimps and prostitutes.  I was too exhausted to walk over there.  Six blocks?  Maybe seven.  Too much.

Henry was quiet while I tried to concoct a plan.   I was hoping that he would offer a solution.  Instead he absently rubbed my back.  Maybe he saw the panic creeping into the corners of my eyes.  Or perhaps he recognized a promising opportunity.  But suddenly he sprang into action.  “I don’t have a cell phone.  Why don’t I drive you to my apartment and you can use my phone to call your other roommate?”

This seemed like a reasonable idea. “Where do you live?”

“Humboldt Park.  Off of Kedzie, on the west side of the park.”

This meant nothing to me. “Where is that in relation to the Empty Bottle?”

He laughed. “You ARE a hipster, aren’t you?”

He assured me that Humboldt Park was actually quite close. And no, driving me out there and back would not be a problem. Yes, he would bring me immediately back to my place. No, he would not throw me out of the car at a stoplight.

Within minutes we were zooming west on North Avenue in his little red car. His apartment was in an inarguably “bad” neighborhood. Abandoned buildings. Trash everywhere.  Dust instead of grass.  And yet, it was only one block from the park, an idyllic expanse filled with duck ponds and enormous trees.

The drug dealer on the corner greeted him when we got out of the car. I smiled blankly as Henry lead me to the first building on the block. He explained that his landlord lived in the apartment above him, but she was really cool.   He never had to worry about playing loud music. “I think she’s an alcoholic,” he whispered solemnly.

There was a photo of KRS-One on his apartment door, taped below the peephole.  This made me indescribably giddy. I actually started giggling uncontrollably.  I was a semi-closeted hip hop fan in a neighborhood filled with Superchunk devotees reading Edith Wharton books at the bar. Which was not to say that I didn’t enjoy both No Pocky for Kitty and Washington Square. But it was amazing to meet a boy with other interests.

We were greeted by his dog, Eleanor.  I sat on the floor, scratching her head. “Where are your roommates?”

He shook his head.  “I can’t live with other people.  I did enough of that in college.  I need peace and quiet to paint.”

He lived alone! This was astounding to me. I had slept with a heaping handful of 30 year-olds in the past year, and even all of them  lived in weird indie rock communes.  Bad art school paintings on the walls.  Stacks of books gleaned at thrift stores in the suburbs.  Coffee-stained chore lists on the refrigerator.  One particularly grungy Romeo had warned me, “Don’t walk around in here without your shoes and socks.  We’ve had a lot of athlete’s foot problems in this household.”  Ah, romance.

Henry’s place was tiny but colorful. Lots of plants and 70s wall art. Canvases stacked against the wall. Tubes of Liquitex meticulously arranged on a small table.  Shelves and shelves of records. A refrigerator covered from top to bottom with Chiquita banana stickers.

He turned on “Blues Before Sunrise.” Anyone struggling with weekend insomnia/late night drug addiction/drunken loneliness in Chicagoland loved this public radio show. I listened to it almost every Friday night.  I found myself thinking silly things like “Oh my god…he’s so perfect for me.”  I hoped that I had reached a new, never-before-achieved level of intoxication.  Normally I would have spit at such disgusting little girl romantic notions.

I had already forgotten about using the phone.

He made me a cup of tea. We talked for a while (approximately 90 seconds), and then we were kissing again. My ears were tingling.  Clothes began to disappear .  One thing was leading to another at a velocity my brain could barely process.  Oh, wow…this was going to be amazing!

Of course, the reasonable part of me knew I was wasting my time.   I was incapable of having an orgasm the first time I slept with someone.  I blamed a high level of anxiety and nervousness.  Or maybe was I just too excited about the idea that someone wanted to sleep with me. It could have been the result of alcohol and nicotine abuse.  Who knew? Regardless, this curse had lead to many Oscar-worthy performances on my part since the mid-90s.   Every round of Wicker Park “Futon Blanket Bingo” ended the same way:  sleepy naked Abbie waiting for her temporary beau to drift off into unconsciousness, so she could race home to relive the NC-17 content of the evening….while addressing her own needs.

But that particular night with Henry…when I was semi-drunk and sleepy, with half-dead nerve endings…I was lying on the bed thinking, “Oh poor guy…I should almost tell him not to bother. He’s going to end up rubbing off all of his taste buds.”

BUT THEN!

It happened! A miracle of epic proportions.

Minutes later, I was sprawled out on the bed, convinced that somehow Henry had just given me brain damage.  OhmygodIdon’tevencareifAshleyandDavyaremadeatme/thiswasworthitthroughandthrough.

I realized was going to fall asleep if I didn’t get up.  From page two of The Rules of Engagement (According to Abbie Ellwood):    “Always wake up in your own bed, alone.”  There was nothing worse than waking up with a pounding whiskey headache, in a strange place with an even stranger male.

I got up to wash my face.   I watched the next five steps unfold:  I would get dressed.  Drink a glass of water.  Call Stephen.  Return to my apartment in Paulina.  Crawl into my empty bed.  Yes, yes.  It would be great.

I discovered that he had a huge claw foot bathtub.

I yelled from the bathroom, “Let’s take a bath!”

We spent hours in the bathtub,  talking and drinking a bottle of champagne (previously hidden away in Henry’s refrigerator).  A ridiculous amount of hot water was used. There were puddles on the floor from random splash battles.

As we grew sleepier, the conversation tapered off.  We simply sprawled under the hot water, smiling dreamily.  “This could be one of the best moments of my life,” I thought.   I sighed.  Maybe this was the beginning of something amazing.

And then I remembered:  somewhere, at that exact moment, someone I had never met was having the worst day of their life.  Cancer with a grim prognosis.   The death of a parent or spouse.   A devastating car accident.  Rock bottom.  The end.  Loneliness, fear, unbearable pain.  All of the ugly adjectives and nouns were gathering around that instant.

This was why I never took public transportation; I couldn’t bear witnessing the the agony and disappointment of strangers.   Between the Chicago and Lake stops, I would inherit the worries of no less than five individuals.  Forget influenza and rotovirus, the most contagious (and virulent) diseases were fear, regret, and sorrow.  I had no immunity, despite numerous vaccinations.

I was squeezing my eyes closed, trying to push the thick grey clouds of my mind (“Jesus, Abbie…why do you have to ruin a perfectly good time?”)  when he said it.

“You and I make the most perfect couple.”

I giggled nervously.  Who would say something like that after only a few hours of acquaintance? Didn’t he know he should play it cool? Maybe give me a demi-compliment like, “You’re cooler than a lot of other girls.”  Or tell me he might call me in a couple of days?

He grabbed my hands and pulled me on top of him.  “Listen, I don’t play games.  I’ve never met anyone like you.  I’m not going to pretend that I’m feeling ambivalent.”

I nodded my head.  Yes, yes.  He was right.  But, weren’t we supposed to be ambivalent?

“I’m glad that I might you.  It’s like every action and minute was leading up to now.”

I kissed his forehead, letting my lips rest there for a few minutes.

Eventually we dried off and got into bed.

I was half asleep, dreaming about coral and cerise clouds.when the phone started ringing.  I nuzzled my head into Henry’s chest.  Of course he was too old school for voice mail, so an answering machine picked up.

We both jumped out of bed when we heard a familiar voice speaking. “Uh…hi, Henry. Um. This is Davy. I was wondering if you know where Abbie is. She never came back to her place and I’m still here.”

We dressed in a frenzy of belts and tights and untied shoes. Within minutes, we were racing back to Bucktown. Neither of us spoke.  Henry parked at the end of my block. He grabbe my hand. “I’m sorry if I’ve put you in an odd position.” I gavee him a sleepy (and hopefully convincing) smile. We kissed goodbye.

I trudged to my building with leaden steps. I hoped that Stephen would be the one to let me in the door.   Sure…he would give me a knowing “what trouble did you get into now?” look, but at least he wouldn’t be angry at me.

I was immediately buzzed into my building.  A grim Davy was waiting at the top of the stairs.

Excuses began gushing out of my mouth. “Oh my god, Davy…Ashley wouldn’t let me in and I didn’t know what to do and I thought about sleeping downstairs but then Henry took me to his house so I could use the phone to call Stephen but then I just feel asleep and suddenly now it’s the morning and oh my god I’m so sorry and I hope you are feeling better and wow what a bad night.”

He said nothing as he walked past me, down the stairs and out the front door.

I took out my contacts, brushed my teeth, and collapsed in my bed.  I knew I should feel guilty. And I did, really. But more than anything, I was filled with a great sense of accomplishment.

I realized I was smiling as I fell asleep, settling into dreams about long baths and boys who eat a lot of bananas.

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