It has happened. I have left Chicago. I packed bags, boarded planes, and drove across the bottom lip of the country. I spent eight consecutive years in the Midwest. I am broken-hearted, and elated, and all the other feelings besides. If you didn’t know any better you’d probably guess I was an actor these days, weeping over an audiobook, or rhapsodizing on this, that, or the other, and constantly, constantly working to explain the magic of the North to my new, sunny neighbors.
My time in Chicago had broiling bookends. August 2002 and August 2010 were both foul, hot months in Chicago, giving off the smell of rotting water, a nasty surprise for a Floridian transplant expecting perma-winter eight years ago, and, today, an oppressive reproach: How dare you leave before Autumn?
Especially since there is no such thing as Fall in Southern California, only perma-summer. Honestly, the school year starting in August and not September is probably a gift. I could not leave Lincoln Square during the golden deluge. At least two trees on Wilson Avenue have already started turning, early this year, and the sidewalk will be yellow-bricked and dewy in a matter of weeks. Leland, Giddings, Rockwell, and Talman will burst, seemingly in a few hours, into blonde light, leaves illumining the surrounding brownstones well past eight pm, when the church-home-schooled children are allowed outdoors to play furtive basketball, and the dogs chase after November’s encroaching cold.
I am on an airplane as I write, headed back to Florida before my mother and I drive across country. I have never seen the desert. We will cross first my home state’s panhandle, then nearly 800 dreaded, Texan miles, nod our heads at New Mexico, and, at last, enter the dry place. I have never been without an anchoring body of water. I am intrigued to see the land which makes do without ocean or lake. Arizona, Arrakis, home of dancing lights and kidnapped women. We will not be staying overnight in El Paso.
Last night my friends came out to wish me well. I was given chocolate, tea, and artwork, as though I was a modern incarnation of Magi being prepped for my journey to see the Christ child. I drank more than usual, each progressively harder nightcap donated by well-wishers, often accompanied with reassurances that good choices were being made, pride was just so, and that we would all see each other soon enough. I nodded and smiled, progressively softer: “Yes, yes. This is a ‘see you later.’ Not ‘good-bye.'”
I awoke early and ill, not from the free booze, just aware that it was finally, after denial and delay, time to say good-bye.
I moved to Chicago after high school. No one in my family had lived here. No one had stories or prior claim. It was to be my city. More than that, it was to be the site of my reinvention. I was not destined to be hulking, virginal, or unphenomenal. In Chicago, I might finally be incandescent. Dauntless. And slutty. I have had my moments of each. But Chicago was my first true home for one reason: Turns out, Chicago was where they’d been hiding my friends all those years.
I have measured time and growth in coats.
A thin but lovely red-hooded number the first few years, when I embraced the idea of winter but not the reality. It was perfect for the days warm enough for snow to give off the faint smell of wisteria and fires, but ill-equipped for the inevitable black ice, bone winds, and bleeding hands. It was a pretty coat. I was eighteen. Priorities change.
Then, a coat from Middle-Earth, something Galadriel would gift to Samwise. Soft to the touch, down to the calves, and only escaping a resemblance to Death’s Hood with its warm, charcoal color, a grey pardon in the dark months: protection, seriousness, and quest-ready. A very adult coat.
Finally, a spring-green gift from my father, warm enough for some Aprils and cool enough for the others. It will accompany me to the new coast.
I will miss trains. I will miss the brown line waking me gently in the morning with plenty of room to sit and a good view of the Loop bridges, those bronze frowns spanning our green river, the sensible grimace of a city ready to work, work, work, and gleam when the day is through. I will miss the red line’s Tourettes, its stink, its democracy and span from North to South, its neutrality regarding the Cubs/Sox quagmire, its red-rimmed, 24-hour work day. Of course that line is broken; it never sleeps. I will miss the green line, moving sprightly from 5th City to Oak Park, from neglect to indulgence, with never a cringe, comfortable in both and willing to head South occasionally for Peking Duck. The blue line, its hipsters and maintenance staff at four am, coming home from very different long nights. The yellow line, quick because it knows no one goes to Skokie joyously. The purple line, glutted with wealth, and education, and the confidence that it sleeps closest to the lake, and the Temple, and vicious affluence. The pink line, although I’m still not sure it exists. The orange line, which fills its one bill well, and has never been the reason I missed a flight. All of them, delayed, crowded, suspended, submerged; they were the veins that taught me Chicago’s anatomy, and I will miss their salty floors, eight years’ worth of melted snow coating them.
I will miss trains. I will miss the first snow, and the last. I will miss everyone who takes part in the larger community of artists, the grandest tundra cabaret. I will miss him, and her, and you. I will miss myself wrapped in layers, pale and walking from place to place, because in LA you must drive, and it does not chill. I adore you, Chicago, and ache for you, and I swear I’ll make good. I leave to serve you better, and, if you’ll have me, I will be back. Tan, maybe thinner, with stories of names.
I love you desperately. You are the great American city.