I’ve been working on this story for months. It has been outlined again and again. Just when I thought I knew exactly how and where I wanted it to go, another detail would occur to me. Hours upon hours on airplanes and trains slipped through my fingers as I sunk myself deeper into this story. Notes were scribbled on the backs of credit card receipts and sometimes even on my forearm. “Don’t forget this! It’s so important,” I would tell myself.
Now it’s here. And it’s really long. So I’m breaking into four posts, every day or so. I don’t want you to cramp your wrist with endless scrolling or shrivel your corneas from prolonged reading. Plus, it will be more suspenseful or something this way. Right?
Chicago in January is unimpressive. Residents bravely march through winter with soft bellies full of fortitude-lending liquor, toting bags of movie rentals, store-brand cold medications, and countless cartons of cigarettes. The days are brief. The sun sets long before dinner, prematurely plunging the already dark day into a final blackness. Those courageous enough to venture out for dinner parties and cocktail hours find themselves donning layers upon layers of protective clothing. The mere act of getting dressed becomes exhausting. They are jealous of those lucky enough to afford tropical vacations and cars with all-wheel drive. But it is the memory of spring that keeps everyone going. Around April–unless it’s a particularly cruel year–the sun returns to melt away the seemingly permanent layer of snow and ice, revealing well-tended flower beds and delicate dogwood trees. The residents emerge from chrysalises of bulky sweaters and long underwear, revealing pale newborn skin. The lake fills the horizon with blue and silver glitter.
But this afternoon–just a few days after the New Year–the view from the bus window was merely a dreary blur of dirty snow and people swallowed up by puffer jackets.
It was my first time in Chicago. And now I lived there.
The bus ride from the Blue Line El station was too long. I wondered if I had made a mistake. Apparently I had moved to America’s version of Siberia. Desperate times will lead to desperate decisions. Meanwhile a steady stream of fun facts and encouraging statements flowed from my boyfriend’s mouth. This is your home now. Our home. Actually, he had been here for six months while I floundered back east, waiting for my stepfather to die. I was twenty and he was the only person I had. So I was here now, too.
I silently stared through the steamed up windows. I was glad that we had long passed the point in our relationship where my participation in conversation was necessary. I saw a hospital with a smugly beatific Jesus watching over its entrance. A factory that specialized in artificial flavors filled the bus with the ghost of freshly baked cookies. There were stores upon stores bursting with copyright infringement Pokemon paraphernalia. I judged the souls foolish enough to walk dogs in this weather. I spotted the occasional teenage girl clad only in hubris and a miniskirt. And at least half a dozen McDonald’s locations. We had travelled no less than one hundred blocks. I speculated that I had spent more time on this bus than I had on the flight from Baltimore. But eventually the bus deposited us at a bleak intersection in front of a check cashing place. Now we got to drag the two huge suitcases that held all of my worldly belongings through the slush. And then we huffed and puffed up three flights of stairs. Apartment 3N. That was where I lived now.
My boyfriend introduced me to our female roommate. She shook my hand, offering a sip from her Big Gulp cup of wine. I knew instantly that I liked her.
“This is Patrick,” she said, indicating a lanky young man sprawled on one of the three couches in the living room. “He used to live in your bedroom.”
I blindly offered my hand in his direction. “I’m Angie.”
Patrick sat up, revealing a thick mop of dirty blonde hair and enormous blue eyes. His forearms were flecked with tattoos that may have just been Sharpie scribblings. It was as if a mad scientist had cleverly attached the head of a little boy doll on the body of an unreformable juvenile delinquent.
He examined me from the tip of my snow-covered boots to my filthy, somewhat recently bleached hair. I was glad that I had spent the final descent into the Chicago area applying a medley of Wet N’ Wild cosmetics.
“I didn’t know that your girlfriend was a goth,” he said, smirking at my entirely black outfit. I was still wearing the clothes from my stepfather’s funeral in Pennsylvania the day before.
My boyfriend denied this or said something funny or laughed about an entirely different joke. But I couldn’t hear anything. I was awestruck. I was attracted to this guy in a strange way. Yeah, he was cute and obviously cool, but I didn’t want him to fuck me. I wasn’t even sure that I would want to be his friend.
I wanted to be Patrick.
No, I didn’t want to peel back his skin and crawl inside, wearing him like a costume.
Nor did I want to borrow his clothes or find out his favorite records or hear about his family. I didn’t want to like anything that he liked.
I just wanted to wake up the next day with the same air of confidence and coolness. Girls probably sat around their phones, waiting and waiting for his call. Guys probably wanted to be his friend just so they could touch a little bit of whatever he attracted. But it was more than that. I quality I couldn’t describe, eliciting a feeling I couldn’t explain.
I hated it.
My boyfriend called to me in the shower. “Hey, I’m going to invite Patrick.”
“No!” I exploded from the bathroom into the hallway, leaving a trail of foot-shaped puddles behind me.
“No! Please don’t. I don’t like him. In fact, I hate him.”
“Oh, Angie, I know you can’t have an ambivalent feeling about anything, but that seems a little over the top.”
I shook my head. “I just hate how he thinks he can just have any girl he wants. And you know he’s terrible to them.”
“You’re being crazy. And yeah, he’s a handsome guy. The ladies love him. It’s not his fault.” He walked toward the phone, probably already planning some funny voice or stupid joke he would use when Patrick answered. Because just like the rest of the foolish world, my boyfriend really wanted Patrick to like him.
I stuck out my tongue before stomping away.
Back in the shower I remembered last Friday night. I had returned from a very wet walk to the grocery store, feeling pissy about my inability to remember to take a hat. Why am I always unprepared and why was it my job to do the food shopping anyway? Of course Patrick was waiting on our couch. Oh fucking great.
I dropped the bags of food and beer on the floor for the sake of drama. “Why are you here again, Patrick?”
He laughed and laughed, watching me peel off my rain coat and sweater. “You’re wet. Really wet.”
“Seriously, don’t you live somewhere? Surely you have some sort of mailing address that also includes a bed for you. I expect there is also a sofa or a davenport or even a love seat there.”
He stood up. “Everyone else is on the porch smoking. I guess it’s time for me to join them.”
I scowled as he walked by.
He paused and whispered in my ear “By the way, you look really sexy in those plaid pants. I mean it.” And then he disappeared down the hallway.
My cheeks burned with the memory. I turned off the hot water. I shoved my head under the now Arctic stream, screaming “He’s a MISOGYNIST.”
Preparing for the party had been really fun. We filled a cart at Jewel-Osco with a plethora of the most esoteric liquors. Blue curacao. Apricot brandy. Creme de banana. We were going to serve our guests a rainbow of punches using recipes from a sixties cocktail book that I found at The Ark Thrift Store. We spent the preceding evenings carefully assembling playlists designed to work our guests into a dancing frenzy. We agreed the devil is in the details. I hung streamers, neon artificial flowers, and glittering stars from every ceiling beam and door frame. You’re a magical hostess, my boyfriend said, kissing the nape of my neck.
But in practice, the party was not much fun. The guests were definitely having a blast, dancing and singing, sloshing vintage punch on every surface. Semi-strangers made out along the darkened hallway. Too-exuberant bear hugs lead to even more exuberant bear hugs. I felt uncomfortably drunk and anxious. I didn’t know what to say to anyone. My big blue tulle skirt was itchy. I wondered if I had a hole in my tights. Was I sweating? Did I smell? Was it just me or was it about 105 degrees in the apartment?
I grabbed my brown teddy bear coat–held together by safety pins but still somehow keeping me warm since freshman year–and made a break for the stairs. Third floor. Second floor. Ground floor. Stepping onto the sidewalk felt like jumping into the coolest, most delicious pool in the middle of the hottest beige desert.
I would go to the liquor store to get cigarettes. That was something to do. And it was a totally reasonable mission during a successful party.
“Where ya goin, Princess Angie?”
I turned around startled. It was just Patrick, smoking near the courtyard gate.
“Oh, I’m just going to the store for cigarettes. Being a hostess is hard work.” I could hear the blood leaving my heart and pushing its way up my neck and into my cheeks.
He dropped his cigarette into the gutter. “Haha so now you’re going to take up smoking? Our girl’s growing up. Well, I guess I may as well go with you because no blushing little ballerina should be pirouetting around alone at this hour.”
We walked in silence. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was breaking some sort of rule. But there was no law against going to the liquor store together. Nothing was going on here. Just one friend thinking of another friend’s safety. It was practically admirable.
He laughed at something no one said, making me nervous. “Remember how you had blonde hair when you first moved here? That was weird.” More laughter.
I patted my now blackish-brown hair, hoping that it was an improvement. I wished I had remembered to bring gloves. Why am I always unprepared for… Before I finished the thought, I felt Patrick’s hand closing around mine.
“Really, we’re going to hold hands now?” I scowled
One by one he laced his fingers in with mine like a challenge. Pinky, dare. Then ring. Double dare. Middle was a triple dare. And last but not least, index.
I stopped and stared up at his face. He squeezed my hand and stared me down.
This was going to be a thing. No, this was a thing. This was definitely a thing.
My knees were shaking. My teeth might have been chattering. I wanted to close my eyes and just fall over in surrender, but I couldn’t stop staring back at him. He bent down and then–
Well, it wasn’t a great kiss. Kind of wet and tonguey and not my style at all. But my eyes still filled with surprising tears.
I pulled away, wiping something invisible but terrible from my lips. I can’t and I’m drunk and I don’t even know what is happening right now. But someone once told me that a tree planted in poisoned soil never bears fruit and I’m not even sure if you have a job and I just have to go. Maybe I said some of that aloud.
I took off, running as fast as my silver shoes would take me.
Oh fuck, I hate leaving voicemails.
Just get it together. Be cool. Be brief. But sound sexy.
“So I’m single now. I finally broke things off. I don’t think I’m sad. Meet me at the Music Box Theatre at 9. I’m smuggling beers in my bag.”
I wanted to touch his hand through the entire movie. The urge was so consuming, I worried that my extremities might just strike off on their own, skipping over mere hand-holding to unzipping his pants. I decided it was best to just sit on my hands for the remainder of the film. A film full of characters and events that I would never remember. I hoped he wouldn’t want to talk about it afterwards. It’s stupid that we have to pretend to watch a movie just so we can have sex later. I stared unblinkingly ahead, hoping that I looked like I was having a good time.
I must have suggested that we go back to my place. We set off on our bikes to Wicker Park. It was so important to me that I pedal as fast as possible, leaving him at least a block behind me at all times. I’m in charge of what happens tonight.
We sat on opposite ends of the couch in my bedroom, passing a bottle of whiskey back and forth. A really, really nice whiskey that I had bought solely to impress him. I chose Histoire de Melody Nelson for background music because it was the sexiest album I had ever heard. It made me want to undress myself one slowly undone button at a time. I hoped this was a common reaction to Serge Gainsbourg.
I changed the subject every time he mentioned the movie. All I could remember was that it was in black and white. I wasn’t even certain about that.
I hadn’t slept with anyone except my ex-boyfriend since my freshman year of college. If I managed to somehow get it together tonight, Patrick would be the fifth person ever. So far. I had planned this night out for days, imagining how sexy and clever I would be. I had rehearsed all sorts of seductive lines. I was wearing nice underwear. But now I was drunk and I could feel my hands trembling with eagerness.
I just couldn’t stand the suspense for another moment. I raised my hand as if I were in class. “Hey. Hey! I think you should kiss me now.”
He raised his eyebrow as if to say Oh really? He gave me a long look. “Okay, if I’m going to do that then you have to move closer to me.”
I climbed across the couch with calculated feline slowness. I straddled him, thrusting my hands into his hair. Finally.
The kiss started off weird. Too much tongue. Too urgent. But it occurred to me that I had the power to make it better, to guide him into what I liked. I pulled away for a moment. I bit his lip gently and pulled his face closer to mine. Slower. Softer. And then it felt like everything good all at once.
Hours later, we were naked under my Hello Kitty quilt, gradually finishing that bottle of whiskey. We were both possibly too drunk to really have sex. I wondered if there was anything I could do to turn this around. I wanted so badly to be an Experienced Woman of the World. A woman whose mere sexiness would overcome the negative side effects of alcohol and nervousness. But I was still a stupid girl with children’s bedding.
“Are you okay? Should we go to sleep?”
That was the worst idea I had ever heard. As if I was ever going to fall asleep with him here in my bed. Patrick is naked in MY bed. THE Patrick.
As if he could hear my thoughts, he grabbed my hand, placing it on his heart. “I’m sorry. I just can’t believe this is happening.”
I shrugged my shoulders. I can believe this is happening because I wanted it so badly.
“No, I mean it. I can’t believe I’m in bed with Angie. THE Angie.”