I found myself back in Chicago over the weekend for a planned trip to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I had enough points to make it there and back just by paying tax, where I’d stay stay with said friend who lives downtown and central to all the public I needed for my entrance and exit. It was a perfect setup for a very quick visit and the timing was pretty solid as well.
Arriving a little late thanks to storms between our cities, I worked my way through Midway with purse slung over messenger-style and wheelie bag in my wake. As I was repeatedly cut off by groups of three and four walking abreast so as to take up the entire walkway, the old familiar rage came back. I thought angry things as my brow furrowed and I grabbed my opening of a few spare feet on the outside of the slow-moving, oblivious groups. My calves and feet ached with strain as I stepped intentionally and faster than I had in weeks, if not months. By the time I reached the entrance to the CTA, my shins were begging for respite.
I plopped down on a single seat of the Orange Line (the best seats for zero human interaction), destined for the Washington/Wells stop in the Loop where I’d meet my best friend for a quick lunch before heading to my host’s apartment in River North. I caught up on my phone instead of leaning into the old familiar butterflies when Chinatown and the city skyline grow into view. I felt instead…nothing. If not nothing, then a tinge of something I can only describe as: this again? It was a strange sensation, to feel more obligation and duty than joy and happiness at being, how I’d always thought of Chicago, home.
The train arrived at the stop, I grabbed my bag and wheeled it to the platform, the stairs, then the street. The first thing I realized, maybe it was the 83 degrees and 80% humidity, that the city stinks. It just…stinks. It smells of garbage and sewer and cigarette smoke and exhaust, all mixed with reverberating heat and endless humidity. I had to have known that before, there’s no way it was a special mix just for the day, but it was startling. The coming days would bring witness of garbage thrown from car windows and by careless pedestrians who barely intended to get it in the bin, various piles of vomit from the evening before, inconsiderate public transit users (stand right, walk left), and the standard one person shouting across traffic at another, from the middles of sidewalks in busy stretches where pedestrians went single file to pass. In other words, things I’d witnessed and become 100% used to in the previous 15 years of city living. Suddenly it was like a giant highlighter ran over every offense and I couldn’t help but see them, and hate them all a little bit. My shoulders tightened, my eyes judged, I averted my gaze from everyone else’s because no one was smiling or saying hello on the street, no way.
By Saturday evening’s party end, I was ready to go home (my friend’s home and my own, for that matter). I had to get up at 8 the next morning to leave for the airport and by then D and I had exchanged something like 58 “I miss you, I don’t like this” texts. It was after all, the longest we’d been apart from one another in three years. Hours of conversations with friends who had a few extra drinks then became close-talkers, plus nonstop chit chat and action which started at 9 am on Friday and wouldn’t stop until after 1 on Sunday, mixed in with not great nights of sleep in a strange bed meant I was just done. I went back to my friend’s house without her and tried to sleep, which came in fits and ended much earlier than planned or hoped. I rose an hour early and by 8:05 Sunday morning, I was walking a strangely quiet stretch of Chicago Avenue to the Brown Line station where I’d wait for the train that would eventually take me to my plane home.
The Orange Line runs in a southwestern diagonal from the center of Chicago’s Loop to Midway airport, its terminus. If you sit on the right hand side of the train, particularly facing backwards, you get a beautiful view of the shrinking skyline as you head south. It was a view I always, always caught. I’d stand if I had to. This time, I found myself unintentionally on the left of the train, facing forward to nothing but homes and buildings. I closed my eyes here and there in fits of sleepiness, and by the time the 20 minutes were up and we left the train, I marched headlong and fast to the terminal and waited for Boarding Group C to be called into position.
The only souvenirs that returned with me were two Lou Malnati’s sausage pizzas (with a cup of extra sauce because the frozens are always scant), and two jars of giardiniera, one for a friend. I ate exactly the one meal I missed before we moved, and didn’t miss others. I cannot explain the shift. Maybe it’s marriage and a dog to come home to, maybe the city finally just ended our relationship and it took going back to realize it. Maybe I’d simply grown past everything that comes with living in a town of that size and scope.
D’s job is remote but they gather quarterly to be together and do fun stuff like go on boats and play Whirlyball. I was invited to attend the August 1st gathering back in Chicago. After discussing it, we decided that to make the 11-hour round trip drive worth it, we’d have to stay for at least two or three days, and if we did that, what would we do to fill time? We couldn’t come up with enough missed foods or social activities between us to justify it, and ultimately decided I would stay back and he’d fly out then fly home the next day. What a strange place to be, I keep thinking. When I lived in Cleveland, I returned to Chicago four times in 14 months and could not wait to go back again and again to see family and friends. But as I said to D when he picked me up curbside Sunday, I won’t do that again until I absolutely have to.
It wasn’t a bad breakup, the city and we are just…done. We’d gained all we had to from one another, we both gave and lost repeatedly. We found ourselves paying too much for too little, and in the end took no advantage of what a world class city like Chicago has to offer, it was literally being wasted on us. And when we drive around with the now-expired city sticker in the windshield of our car, we are continually reminded how much it cost for the privilege of living in such a place. And at the end of the day, it was just too much. The air where we are now is clearer, cleaner, far more relaxed, and if I’m honest, welcoming. I’m still trying to get used to greeting strangers on the street, though.