Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Purple Heart

*Some names have been changed. Any similarity to actual people is entirely intentional.

It is easy enough to look back and pinpoint the beginning of things.  Beginnings are marked by a sudden change – a sudden burst of brightness, perhaps.  Beginnings are definitive.  Endings are of a very different nature.  Endings are vague and difficult to place on a calendar or clock.  Endings are a cumulative mess of goodbyes and second starts and failed attempts that seem to exist indefinitely until something else begins again.  At least, that is how Chicago was for me.

Chicago began for me when I was seventeen and it was August.  I drove down from Wisconsin, on two lane highways and county roads, to the north side of Chicago where I had a room with a view of Lake Michigan, a poster of John Lennon and a mixed CD from my best friend.  I had always known that I did not belong in Wisconsin, and I had had a sense that I belonged in a place like New York or London.  But being seventeen and having never been to New York and having visited London but having no idea of how to accomplish moving to a foreign country, I went to Chicago.  Later, in London and then in New York I would say that Chicago was where I really belonged.

My first job in Chicago was on West Lawrence Avenue.  I had been living in the city for less than a month when I started taking the red line and then a bus and then a long walk up the west side of Lawrence Avenue to the small building that at one  point had a bullet hole in the window of the door.  I would leave for work directly after my anthropology class in which I was learning about globalization and local culture. I worked with elementary school students whose parents had come to the U.S. as refugees from the Khmer Rouge.  We would practice spelling and punctuation and basic math and they would tell me about their older siblings who had joined gangs and about their cousins who were making good money waiting tables downtown.  And then later in the evening I would watch them practice traditional Cambodian dances.  At this point I would feel quite lucky, for it seemed to me that I was witnessing a fragile beauty that bloomed there in the late evenings in the basement of that building on West Lawrence Avenue, below the floor that was dedicated to Social Services and the floor that housed a small but striking memorial to the Killing Fields of Cambodia.

Some nights, when their parents were late to pick them up, we would wait on the upper floor of the building, a room that housed a make-shift museum of artifacts and remnants of the dead’s daily life that had been smuggled out of Cambodia.  The children would pick up and play with old toys from the displays and would take pictures of the carved statues with their camera phones until the door with the bullet-broken window would open and night and snow would blow in along with the sound of their parents calling their names.

A year later I met Caroline in my first college fiction writing class.  She had an apologetic grace that I admired and I must of have had something she admired as well for one night in early September she invited me to meet her in Grant Park to listen to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  When I arrived she had a bottle of red wine in her purse.  Sarah was still new to Chicago.  I had been living there for a year and, because I had recently moved into my own apartment, I felt almost native so from Grant Park I led her north up Michigan Avenue.  I liked the downtown best at night and I loved it that particular night because I could see the beauty of the lights through her eyes -- bright and new and full of promises that neither of us could have articulated but that we had both probably dreamed up as children.  As we walked she would stop to stare in store windows, admiring a dress or a pair of shoes, telling me about this designer and that one and what I heard was a way I almost wanted to be.  I led her all the way to North Avenue Beach where we sat together on the shore.  She opened the bottle of wine and poured me some into my empty Starbucks cup.  She was older than me, old enough to buy wine and to know how to make a vodka tonic.  That Starbucks cup was my first glass of wine, but in many ways I was old enough.  The wine tasted heavy and dark.  I didn't like the taste but I liked the idea and I liked her so though I drank it slowly and accepted a refill when she offered.  We watched the Chicago skyline rise up above the Drake hotel and our friendship began.

At another job I met Milton. Milton was my age. He was from the south side of Chicago.  From the very first time we rode the red line together, he liked me.  I had yelled, “What?!”for a reason that I cannot now recall and he had smiled with a big, toothy grin.  And all that day Milton had watched me until finally I had said, “What?!” again and he told me that I was “hard.”  Stuart told me that “hard” meant that I was tough and he told me he couldn’t figure out what had made me that way.  I liked him because no one had ever called me “hard” before – or even “tough” – and because we had both been born into lives that had forced us to be the kind of tough that went far beyond thick skin, that went into our voices and our quick but careful smiles and our entire way of being.  Milton was kind and smarter than most people I had met in school.  On Saturday afternoons we would take long breaks and he would tell me about his girlfriend and show me pictures of his daughter.  He liked teaching me about the world he came from and about the cut and clarity of the diamonds he wore to prove it and even about the gun he carried in case someone decided to remind him of it.

And if I didn’t know it already, after knowing Milton, I always knew that I could handle anything because I knew that he thought I could and that was good enough for me.

The same summer I met Milton, I also met Alex.  Alex was a newly graduated English major from San Francisco who rolled his own cigarettes and called me erudite because he thought I was, even though I didn’t know what it meant.  Alex liked used bookstores and grilled cheese sandwiches and dipping his French fries in mayonnaise and even though I had a boyfriend I liked him quite a lot.  Alex suggested that Annie Hall might be my favorite movie, even though I had never watched it.  And, later, when I was in Canterbury I watched it and found out he was right.  Alex wanted to know what books I had read and what I had thought of them and even if the sparks were only in my imagination I saw some when I quoted my favorite lines from my favorite books to him and, later, when I no longer had a boyfriend I did have a better I idea of what I wanted to have.

Before I left Chicago for Canterbury, Caroline and my friends from work had a small going-away party for me at her apartment on the fifty sixth floor of a building that rose high over downtown Chicago, just above the canals.  Below us the city sprawled like a Technicolor diorama.  And while traffic that looked like toys moved in slow flashes of orange light far below us, we talked and drank and as the night wore on the wine flowed red and then white and then bubbling gold.  And I had watched Alex as he stood leaning against the balcony railing fifty six floors above concrete.  He took a long drag of his hand rolled cigarette, letting the smoke fill him.  Moonlight or streetlight or chance fell upon the orange embers at the tip of his cigarette as a light breeze sent one flying towards me.  It disappeared into the night air just before it touched my face.  I watched his body bend casually over the railing as he tapped his cigarette against it, setting free more glowing embers, all falling fast and orange down fifty six floors of black night.  And later that night he told me that those sparks would disappear in the air before they ever got close to touching the ground.

Months later when I was living in Canterbury, watching Annie Hall, I would think of this moment and write about sparks.  And much later I found that I could see Chicago in every hot orange ember of a late night cigarette that I watched men in tight jeans smoking in any city in the world.

By the time I met David in September of my last year in Chicago I was in love with Chicago.  David was a rock’n’roller, a stoner, a writer, a good friend and a bad idea.  Like Chicago, David was tough to love but impossible not to.

He had Chicago in his smile. He had it in his voice, in the deep ale and cigarette songs he sang in a dimly lit bar or in the unfurnished living room of his apartment.  Maybe that’s why I loved kissing him – because I loved Chicago so much that I wanted to get as close to it as possible.  When we first met, David had looked at me like he wanted to see me naked and I had met his gaze.   Nine months later I let him undress me until I was naked on top of him in his bed.  Those days I wore Chicago the way a veteran of war wears a purple heart – only I was still dressed up in Chicago even when I wasn’t wearing anything at all.  And so David became entwined with my love of Chicago until they were one and the same and later, when I was living in New York, I would listen to his music and every part of me would ache with the pain of missing something that was too big and too much of an idea and too little of any kind of truth to have ever been mine at all.

Of all the times I left Chicago, the most iconic image in my mind is one from the night before I left for France.  The lights of the Loop beamed like stars in the distance and the rattling sounds of the “L” mingled with the far-off whiz of traffic on Lake Shore Drive and the last verses of the Stones song that was drifting through the open door of the bar at my back.  It was a warm February night and I was standing on the corner of Wabash and Balbo, watching the black hair, black leather, black combat boots figure of my friend Mad walk away up Wabash.  She wore Chicago the way I wore Chicago, the way a veteran of war wears a purple heart, the way all of us who came to Chicago from somewhere else and made it ours wear the city.  Even in the moment I knew that was Chicago to me: tough and beautiful and something I admired. Though the city might always be trying to be one thing or another – a tourist attraction or a stereotype – at heart and in spite of itself, or perhaps because of itself, Chicago was a rock’n’roll princess, a mafia darling, and the realest damn thing I had ever experienced.

For a while after I left Chicago, I found myself missing Mad, because to me they are one and the same.  I see her face in my head on lonely nights in New York, where I live now.  I smell the winter windy city air and cigarette smoke lingering together on her leather jacket. I feel the cold that has settled onto her hair as it brushes against the bare skin of my neck when she hugs me hello and goodbye.  I see her throw back her head of long black hair as she takes a shot of whiskey.  After spending time with her, I started drinking whiskey too because I liked the way it sounded when she ordered shots of Jameson and so I started ordering shots of Jameson because it made me like the way I sounded too.  And now, in New York, I am always surprised when I meet a man and he doesn’t like the way I sound when I order a shot of Jameson because everything she said was so sure and strong and I loved her for it and I would like to be loved for it too.  But, then again, it was her who told me that I too was sure and strong.  With a glass of whiskey in her hand, she had told me that it was in the way I entered in a room – in my black boots and long black jacket.  She said I was someone that people felt they should know.  And I had felt so lucky to know her.

When I returned from Cannes, I did not return to Chicago. Instead I spent the summer with my family in Wisconsin before moving to New York in August, but within a week of my return my brother and I were in his car driving down county roads and two lanes highways, to Chicago’s north side, to David’s apartment where his band was playing and a party was raging and where I believed that something happy and hopeful could begin for my brother as it had begun for me. Mad was there too and she taught my brother to drink whiskey just as she had taught me and after some consideration I decided this was a good thing because of all the people in the world who could give him his first shot of whiskey there was no one tougher or better than Mad.

David’s band played covers of the songs I had listened to when I had been much younger and had not yet been to Canterbury or Cannes or New York or even Chicago, songs that had made me feel that I belonged somewhere, songs that I had lived inside until I was able to make my way out into the world in search of my very own place within it.  And now that I felt that I had found my place, I was trying to give my brother the beginning of one too.  So my brother drank the whiskey Mad had poured into a paper cup for him.  And Mad smoked cigarettes out on the back porch.  And David pulled me into the corner of the kitchen and kissed me as if I had never left Chicago and as if we had all the time in the world before I would ever leave again.

It is easy enough to look back and pinpoint the beginning of things.  Beginnings are marked by a sudden change – a sudden burst of brightness, perhaps.  New York began for me when I met Zach.  It was a hot night in late August and it was my fourth night in the city.  I was walking down Second Avenue with Audrey, a friend I had met while living in Cannes.  Audrey had picked up smoking during our time in Cannes and as we walked down Second Avenue she asked strangers if they had any cigarettes.  That’s how we met Zach.  He was standing with his friends outside a bar, smoking.  He gave Audrey a cigarette and soon we were all in a taxi speeding uptown to Spanish Harlem where Zach and his friends had an apartment with a rooftop deck and some beer and a view of a city that neither I, nor Audrey, had seen much of yet.

On that rooftop in Spanish Harlem I found myself standing before Zach and his friends, holding my beer bottle in one hand, while the orange lights of the roof and the city blended together and blurred my memories with my new reality.  I was reciting Woody Allen’s opening monologue from my favorite movie, Annie Hall.  And when I had finished quoting Woody Allen paraphrasing Groucho Marx saying, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member,” Zach smiled, stepped a little closer to me and said, “That was good but here’s how it really goes.”

And so it goes that New York began for me when I was not quite twenty two and it was not yet September and I was too stubborn to believe I could be happy anywhere other than Chicago.  The night after I met Zach, my brother drove down from Wisconsin, on two lane highways and county roads, to the north side of Chicago, to David’s apartment where his band was playing and a party was raging and there was something to begin to be happy about.