Prologue: Character Study
“The neighborhoods here, they’re very reasonable. It’s not expensive,” my taxi driver explains. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. There are areas where it’s getting so expensive. But those are the areas where, like, people are going around, saying how cool it is. Those people with the, like, Van Dyke mustaches and like going to restaurants where they sit on milk crakes and eat their food off of, like, a freakin’ shovel…”
His energy is making a 5:30 a.m. taxi drive a little less foggy. I listen to him talk about Chicago and his family and his life (in school for Linux Systems administration, wife with two lovely kids, dreams of troubleshooting remotely while living in the Bahamas) and I try to pinpoint his elusive accent. His accent is vaguely Eastern European, and the way he structures his sentences supports that – but the occasional aqui and eso makes me doubt my initial observation.
“No, it’s so good to travel. It’s so good. My wife and I, we just spent some time in California, in Nevada…have you ever been to Zion National Park? Oh my God, it is so beautiful. And we spend all day driving around, and we find this inn, this, like, Summer Ranch Inn or something. And this place is, like, spooky. No one is around and there’s this old rocking horse in the yard and like I’m going, ‘someone is going to smack me in the face with a shovel or something here…’”
After spending the last 4 days traveling by public transit and by foot, it’s nice to just sit back and be delivered straight to the terminal for my flight back home. It’s been a whirlwind of a trip, and the constant go-go-go is catching up on me.
O’Hare comes into a view after a string of tall, glassy hotels – hotels that, as my driver explains, were built that way because of all the regulations on reusing things like beams and stones and bricks. I’ll be back home in a few hours – crossing over timezones, losing the time I gained getting here.
Back to reality.
My taxi driver continues to be jovial as he pulls up to the United entranceway. He reminds me to make sure I have all the things, that it’s important not to forget anything, and he wishes me a safe trip. I wish him the best of luck with everything and go off to check in.
Chapter One: Tattoos and Rings
“Let me see your ring!”
“Let me see your tattoos!”
We first have that exchange in 2010, when my best friend got her first sets of tattoos (an anchor, a stanza of a Pablo Neruda poem) and I got engaged around the same time. It seemed so fitting – here we were, our lives clearly not on the same trajectory, but so insanely excited for the other’s milestone.
It would be an exchange we have, downright verbatim, in 2016, when I make my way to her job, my head popping into her office after not seeing her in person for a little under 2 years. After we jump into each others arms and squeal like we’re 16 again. Now it’s my turn to show off my first sets of tattoos (a Celtic knot variation, a line in a Pablo Neruda poem) and it’s her turn to show me her ring.
It’s a perfect little example of the type of friendship we’ve had over the last 20 years. The weird parallels our lives tend to take, little synchronicities that I see as proof of the people who need to be crossing your path.
Our respective Neruda poems also serve as a loving reminder of our dynamic. Our lines are from different poems. Hers is a full stanza. Mine a single line. Hers is in English. Mine in Spanish. On the surface they look like completely different tattoos. But it doesn’t take much to realize how similar they are. Unexpected mis-matched, matching tattoos. Our friendship in a nutshell.
We go out for a drink after she wraps up work. We sit down, chilling, talking as if we go out to this pub every Thursday.
“I feel like I should be doing more right now, because I haven’t seen you in forever,” she says. “But…this just feels right.”
“It’s like no time has passed at all,” I agree.
Interlude: Character Study
Early Thursday morning, after taking one of the first flights out of Boston, I take a bus from the blue line to my best friend’s apartment to drop my things off. I have a considerable amount of time to kill until my best friend gets off work. On the bus, I listen to the conversation behind me. Two strangers, one who got on before me, one who didn’t, talking about the man who yelled at a lady for sitting in the seat he was going to sit in.
“You see that guy up front? Drunk as hell. Just thinking he can order around people, tell them that that’s his seat, like he owns it or something.”
“Some people, man. They’re just so negative.”
“And that’s why it’s so important to be positive. That’s what I do. I love everyone, and I love Jesus.”
“And I love Jesus, too. And I love you too, man, because you love Jesus.”
“That’s what it’s all about. Love and positivity. That’s all we need in this world.”
Chapter Two: A Matter of Circumstance
I’ve known my best friend since I was 9, when she was the somewhat-neighborhood friend of another somewhat-neighborhood friend. The three of us would spend our days in Great Esker Park, the epicenter of our little area of town. When we were older, we’d couple that with a trip to the local 7-11, using whatever meager money we had to buy Big Gulps and other junk food. Eventually my best friend and I would hang out more and more one-on-one. We’d later recognize it as the type of other-worldly pull that happens when you know on some unconscious level that the other person’s dings and dents line up well with your own. When you gravitate to your type of damaged, your brand of crazy.
We’d watch our relationship morph and evolve. We’d become each other’s best friends by junior high. By high school, the English department knew us well: the two little writers with their respective cliques, but still not exactly fitting into any particular social circle. Long after graduation, when we’d check in on those beloved English teachers, they’d all remark on how much they loved that we stayed so close throughout the years.
They say friendship is a matter of circumstance. And in some cases that’s true. I would’ve never had the chance to meet and know my best friend if she didn’t live a few miles down the street, if we weren’t able to walk to our friend’s house (a midway point between our two places), if we didn’t all go to the same schools. And I can’t count the number of friends I had purely because they were there – purely because, despite my shyness, I adore having people around and they were the people who were around.
Some friendships build their foundation on circumstance. And when those circumstances are taken away, the friendships topple in on themselves. A few casual “We have to do lunch sometime”s and perhaps a few interactions on social media before it all gives way. And I’ve watched more friendships than I can count fade into obscurity in that exact fashion.
I think it’s saying something, how strong and resilient our friendship is. It survived the terrible teenaged years, when friends become enemies at the drop of a hormonal hat. It survived the transition to college, when we watched so many other friendships fall die off the second those homeroom & cafeteria hangouts were removed. It survived life outside of college, when the Capital R Capital W Real World hit and hit with a vengeance.
It survived when I got engaged, and the people around us were quick to go, “You know, friendships change after marriage. She’ll want to be around married friends now.” It survived when I left Boston for New Hampshire, when she left Boston for Chicago.
It survived and it flourished. Two misfits who looked like they were on separate, incongruent paths. One looking like a damn dirty hippie and the other looking like a damn rockstar. Thelma and Louise, constantly clasping our hands together as we got ready to drive off our metaphorical cliffs. A timezone and milestones and a thousand other little things separating us, but none of it mattered. If friendships are built on circumstances, then this something far more than that.
We were two kids whose childhood horror stories spoke of different monsters but would make the readers toes curl in the same way. Two artists, two writers, two lost souls. Perhaps even two people of the same lost soul. Perhaps two people who proved that the concept of soulmates has been far too much Disney-fied – that sometimes the matches and mates for your soul won’t necessarily be the person you Happily Ever After with, but will be the people who prove to be a corresponding puzzle piece for one of your sides, people who keep you on the path you’re destined to be on.
Interlude: Character Study
I’m wandering the downtown area, navigating around a sea of people. I approach a couple, the woman pushing a stroller. After a few steps, the man stops walking, planting his feet as a cement tile separates the two. The woman turns around to face the man. Both have been and continue to bicker. Both are clearly exasperated with each other. They yell at each other about places they’re supposed to be and things they’re supposed to doing. The toddler in the stroller starts babbling, the loud bark of his nonsensical words matching the same barking sound of his parents.
Chapter Three: She’s/He’s Gone.
I got the phone call at 4 in the morning.
It was nearing the end of January. Where I was, a brutal cold had set in. It was technically sunny and warm where she was, but it’s hard to appreciate it when you have been spending the last few days in a hospice center.
“She’s gone!” I heard her cry out from the other line. I threw the blankets off me, got out of bed, and started pacing the apartment.
“She’s gone, she’s gone, my mother is gone.”
Shell-shocked. There’s no other way to describe the reaction. The same shock I felt when she called me the day after Christmas, telling me that her mom had just informed her that she had advanced lung cancer. Back then, I offered what I could, stubbornly optimistic that it’ll all be okay. That she’ll win this fight. That my best friend is not about to lose her mom.
And now there I was again, not knowing what to say other than, “I’m so sorry”s and “If there’s anything I can do”s. The conversation was short and long and outside the realm of time.
“I need to call other people, I need to…I just wanted to tell you.”
“I’m here for you. Call me throughout the day. I’m here.”
By the time I get off the phone and back into bed, my ears are ringing. Echoes of the conversation would rattle in my head for the rest of the morning and for years to come.
Four years later, I would watch my father’s health spin out. I could sit back and blame Parkinson’s but the reality is far more complicated than that. I would watch things deteriorate, then plateau, then nose dive, then plateau, then show signs of improvement, then decline on a steady and merciless pace.
I would be talking with a lady from hospice a week after my 28th birthday. I would be told if was a matter of hours, maybe days, a week later.
On the last day of September, I’d get a call on the landline at 6 in the morning. I knew exactly what it was going to be. My mom is on the other line, trying to relay information. It sounds and feels like a young child attempting to give horrifying, overwhelming news and it breaks my heart as much as the news itself. His heart had stopped beating two hours prior. My older brother – whose birthday was that day, no less – was going to drive my mom to the hospital, to the funeral people, to help out in ways that broke my heart just a little bit more.
My husband’s walking down the steps within minutes of the phone ringing. I eventually hang up and I collapse into his arms. That old shock has returned. All I have in my head is a variation of that echo, on repeat until I call my best friend and tell her the same thing.
Chapter Four: Dress Shopping
My official business in Chicago is to be Maid of Honor to my best friend’s upcoming nuptials. We have a bridal gown appointment that Thursday afternoon. The place is exactly the type of boutique I pictured it, with svelte gray mannequins wearing lace and beads. The lady helping us is exactly the type of peppy girl you want by your side when looking at an overwhelming mountain of bridal gowns.
I look through the gowns as well, noting which ones are beautiful and which ones are a little much – which ones seem like Her Type of Dress and which ones would look great on anyone.
We get our own dressing room area and champagne. I’m alongside another bridesmaids – a fellow Massachusetts expat with a wonderful, quirky energy about her. We watch our friend try on dress after dress. The first looks like an expensive nightgown. The next is very pretty, a potential dress if nothing else works.
The third dress comes out and I deliberately keep myself from giving my opinion, lest I accidentally convince my best friend into something she wasn’t planning on. Even though it’s a sample size dress, it fits her perfectly. It hugs were it needs to hug, billows out where it needs to billow out.
“Oh my God! Look at my butt!” she says, turning her backside to the mirror. The lady helping us admits that that was the best reaction to a dress she’s had all day.
Pictures are taken. A few other dresses are reluctantly tried on before quickly being nixed. The original dress is put on a second time.
“Seriously, my butt looks amazing in this,” my best friend says. The lady helping us comes out with accessories to complete the look. A delicate headband is placed over her short black hair and we dissolve into tears.
This is it. The Dress. It is perfectly hers.
Chapter Five: Virgil
“It’s going to be hell,” my best friend had told me, months before my father died. “And there’s no way people who haven’t been through it can really relate. Especially if their relationship with the parent was never complicated.”
I agree. I know my own attempts at being there for my best friend after her mother died were never enough. Times when I was at a loss of what to say, so I slipped into infuriating clichés. Times I watched friends who had lost parents as well step forward for her, and I instinctively took a step to the side. Vital middle ground had given way and I knew I spent as much time getting my footing again as I did providing support.
It’s a complicated time, losing a parent, and it gets even more complicated if your relationship with the parents was estranged in some way. When you find yourself mourning way more than the loss of someone’s life. When you realize that the death was not just a traumatic event but the opening of Pandora’s box. Demons have been given the chance to roam freely, and they were ready to wreak havoc.
“Let me be your Virgil,” she says. “I’ll help lead you through the circles of hell.”
“You are comfortable in your own company, and I really admire that,” a friend back home tells me.
Thursday and Friday mornings/early afternoons are mine for the taking while my best friend and her fiancé work. I have nothing really on the itinerary – there are a few neighborhoods I want to make sure I walk through, I want to get at least one yoga class in, but that’s really it.
I am content to walk around and wander. Content to people watch. Content to explore the edge of Lake Michigan and take in the comfort that only vast bodies of water can provide. Content to listen to music and look up at the sky and have no particular idea where I’m going.
I’d drive a Type A traveler up the wall with this itinerary, and I’ve definitely tested my travel companions’ stamina with the amount of walking I’m willing to do. And perhaps this is why I’m so amazingly content in my own company. Why I’m keen on solo travel. I’m too antsy for resorts and I’ve grown impatient with tourist traps. I just want to be in a new location with new buildings and new nuances to social graces. I want to be dropped in like a mouse in a maze and allowed to slowly figure her way out.
“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” my best friend asks. “I’ll try to leave work early.”
“I’ll be perfectly fine,” I say.
Chapter Five: He Can Hang
My trip to Chicago also means meeting the fiancé for the first time.
My best friend and I have been our respective wingmen for decades. We’ve seen each other’s first loves, first heartbreaks, first serious-douche-bag-that-was-a-bad-choice-for-a-dating-option-s. We’ve been there for each other when the rug was pulled out from our romantic lives, when something we swore would be forever turned out to have a shelf life, when something we swore would be a nice time turned into a horrific experience. We’ve been there for each other when we’ve made stupid decisions that only confirmed our own insecurities and we’ve been there for each other when the boys we were with made stupid decisions that only confirms theirs.
We’ve played devil’s advocate for each other, pointing things out from a different perspective, calling things out when they needed calling out. We’ve been each other’s safety net when all we would want to do is collapse and give up our hearts and be done with this unnecessary concept called “love”.
And we have been/will be each other’s respective maids of honor. And we both approached our respective positions with a, “Well OF COURSE…” because who else could even think of filling that slot?
It’s Friday night and I’m a few pints of hard cider in. It doesn’t take much for me these days to get me flying, and I certainly feel it. In my state, I want to hug all the friends, tell the people I just met how cool they are, extrapolate on how much friendship means to me. I’ve already pulled my best friend in for a kiss on the temple a few times that night. Inhibitions are down, and apparently when mine are down, all I want to do is snuggle and tell people I love them.
“So, what do you want to do in Chicago?” my best friend’s fiancé asks. It’s been the million dollar question and I almost feel bad that I don’t have an answer. “Seriously, anything at all. What do you want to do before you leave?”
“I think I want to eat a live baby,” I deadpan. A statement I make partly because I’m flying high on two whole pints, and partly because I feel like I can. There was never an awkward “nice to meet you” phase – the phase where everyone paves over their actual personality and stays as nondescript as possible until they can get a feel for the other person (or until they stop having the energy to pretend). And there’s zero paved over personality right now. Out came that horrible, terrible sense of humor that only comes out when I know I’m around people who’ll get my positively twisted how-are-you-allowed-to-be-a-yoga-instructor brain. And, even then, I can count on one hand the number of people who have witnessed my twisted sense of humor unveiled to its fullest, gnarliest extent.
“Y’know, I think I know a guy,” the fiancé deadpans back.
I snort laugh.
This guy can hang. I think to myself. An official, slightly drunken seal of approval
“Well now I know what I’m doing after Millenium Park,” I add in.
Chapter Six: False Start
This Chicago trip was supposed to have happened last November.
The call to visit had been there since the moment my best friend had found her footing in the city. After my father died, the call only intensified.
“You need to get out of there,” said my best friend, and also basically one of only a handful of people who knew just how much of a shitshow my life had become over the last year or so. “You’re drowning in everything that’s going on and you need your head above water.”
I agreed. And so I purchased plane tickets. I was going to spend a long weekend with my Virgil. A weekend in November, just before the cold would get too brutal. I figured I would be in the clear when it came to anything involving my father, but I still contacted my mom, telling her that I would out of the area that weekend and to – please – not have anything scheduled for that weekend. I was reassured that wouldn’t be a problem (possibly a late October memorial service, a little later than usual but still gets the job done).
I was at a wedding at the end of October, two weeks out from Chicago. I make the mistake of checking social media during a lull in the reception. Facebook lets me know that four of my family members have posted a link to a memorial service. With my skin cold and my heart weighted, I click on the link.
I’m not sure what strikes me first: the fact that I’m learning about the date of my own father’s memorial service on Facebook, the fact that cousins knew about it before one of his own daughters did, or the fact that the memorial is happening on the exact weekend I’m supposed to be in Chicago.
I leave the reception area, find a secluded spot by a nature path, and cry. It’s striking directly at the tender spot that reminds how guarded I’ve actually become, despite my insistence that I wear my heart on my sleeve. I attempt to pull it together when I hear the DJ call off in the distance that the cake-cutting is about to happen. I return, only to realize absolutely nothing is going to stay held together. The slightest provocation and I shake my head and walk away. This time my husband joins me as I walk one of the nature paths, find a bench, and sit down.
By now, the cold skin and weighted heart are replaced with blinding anger. I’m shaking with how upset I am.
“This was supposed to be my one chance – one chance – to get a break. A fucking break, and I don’t even get that.”
I would be monstrously upset about it – all aspects of it – for weeks. It wouldn’t be until after the memorial service came and went and I learned about what was going on in Chicago at the time that I’d understand it wasn’t the right time to come out, for either of us. One of those moments where I’d look back in hindsight and recognize the perfect timing of all things.
Nothing will make up for that night, shaking on a stone bench because oh my god how this clusterfuck of new information so succinctly summed up how messed up the situation had become. But it reminded me to have patience. That things come into place when they’re supposed to, even if it feels like punishment in the meanwhile.
Chapter Seven: Hanging Out
It’s a breezy Saturday afternoon and we’re making our way back from the Renegade Craft Fair. After constant go-go-go for the last 72 hours, there’s something wonderful about just driving. We talk a little bit, but eventually it gives way to the sun and the neighborhoods (vast patchworks of neighborhoods, putting the downtown area to shame).
It’s like old times. When we’d drive along the coastline just south of Boston. When we’d fill the afternoon with talking and listening to the radio and just being. There is no such thing as awkward silence. It’s effortless.
“It’s weird, thinking it’s not always like this,” my best friend admits.
“I still can’t believe I fly out Monday morning,” I say.
It was breezy afternoons driving like just this that kept our heads above water during those impossible teenage years. It was during a breezy afternoon driving that we decided on whim to go skydiving. It was those drives that felt most like homecoming when I’d return back to my hometown area.
Sometimes, when I’m pressed to think about those formative years – and I think about the important memories, the ones that had every positive reason to stick – I bypass so much. I bypass so much of my family life, so much of my time with crappy boyfriends who only confirmed my crappy demons. I bypass my retail job and I even bypass a lot of what I learned in school.
But those drives? Those were and continue to mean everything. I sum that time up with the smell of the ocean and the breeze drifting through our open windows.
I probably go to church 2 to 3 times a year, and all those times are usually when I’m in Ohio. The church just outside of Chicago is simple and elegant and unassuming. My best friend’s fiancé plays the piano for the choir. The people are immensely friendly. Everything about the morning is unassumingly inviting.
I’m transported into the past the second church service actually starts. It’s been years since I’ve sung them, but I swear I know the first hymn being played. The familiar melody through an old piano and sung by a choir brings me back to the days when I went to church weekly, when Sunday mornings meant Sunday best and a quick drive to our own inviting little church.
Unlike so many other former-Christians, my memories of church are some of my favorite. The memories are innocent and clean and beautiful — and the first song of the service transports me back.
The sermon is as open and friendly as the church members themselves. The words of the Good Book ring not as truth, but as poetry in my ears. The energy of the minister and the congregation as a whole is comforting. I find myself staring at the cross stationed on the back wall, taking deep breaths and hoping whatever Power That Be is currently hearing my wordless prayer.
This stopped being my path a long time ago, but the piano chords resonate against a sacred spot in my heart. And it makes me ache for something that looks a bit like salvation.
Chapter Eight: You Could Stay
Sunday night is spent with a glass of red wine and one last fire in the fire pit.
“I can’t believe I have to wake up at 5,” I moan.
“Or you could stay,” my best friend’s fiancé offers.
And that has been the offer from the get-go. They do have a guest bedroom. It’s mine if I ever need it, temporarily or otherwise. It’s an immensely comforting gesture – a bit of a net as I feel like everything else is in freefall.
My cheeks red with a bit of a wine drunk, I prattle off cautionary tales of people who ran off to the city to escape their problems. I adore Chicago, and I know I could always make it my home, but my time right now is to be spent in New Hampshire. I know it on an energetic level that it’s not my time to be searching the realty sections of different areas of the globe. I am meant to be in New Hampshire, even if the Northeast feels like the epicenter of all my problems. There’s a lot to be done between now and that hypothetical future. I’ve got promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. Miles to go before I sleep.
Epilogue: Become An Island
The sun is rising as I board my plane back home. I’ve got Sara Bareilles – particularly her song “Island” – playing on repeat in my headphones. I luck out and get a window seat for the flight back.
Waiting for the concrete blacktop to settle down / Long enough for me to get off and get a little ground
The couple next to me is friendly, looking out for me when the flight attendant comes along for drinks, advocating for the drink of water alongside my coffee that the attendant originally forgot, asking if I need extra sugar for my coffee.
Cause I still count on one hand the number of good men I know
I’ve been told a time or two that there’s something about me that makes people want to look out for me, protect me, take care of me. And I’d be lying if I said I never I allowed myself to slip into that role a time or two. I’d be lying if I said part of the reason I’ve become so keen on solo travel is because I’ve grown sick of the fact that I lean so heavily on people that I collapse every time I need to stand on my own two feet – and instead of learning to strengthen what has been weakened, I spent that energy rationalizing why it’s okay being a crumpled mess on the floor.
I get a beautiful view of the downtown skyline on takeoff. The morning is cloudy and hazy, but the skyscrapers stick out like the giants they are. One last little sendoff before I return.
It’s like I’m standing on the edge with just a telephone wire / Trying to get to you first to say the world’s on fire
“You a writer?” the wife asks. I’ve been typing wildly at my laptop since the moment we were allowed to move about the cabin. Typing the first few chapters of this blog, no less.
“Heh, yeah,” I say with a shrug. “Little freelance work here and there.”
There’s a part of me that is so annoyed at myself: You worked like a dog to get where you are right now. Be proud of it! Don’t shrug it off. You write for major websites. You have three books out. The most recent one cracked the Top 100 in its genre for a hot second, no less — and you’re in talks to get your first one out in paperback. Be proud!
“My daughter, her professors always told her that she needed to get into writing. She’s such a good writer. She’s in the medical field now. But the New England Medical Journal published her dissertation!”
“Wow, that’s amazing. Best of both worlds, there. The medical field and writing.”
Boston comes into view in record time. Not to be outdone by Chicago, Boston gives me its skyline in it’s pure, beautiful, simplistic glory. A miniature city compared to Chicago, but it catches my breath regardless.
It’s my reminder that this city will always have my heart. That I can separate myself and distance myself and swear that I’ve outgrown it, but at my core I will always be desperate to return to it, to see it unfold before me. That I will always love it in ways that will make living elsewhere just a little more complicated. The city is that my city, but not my city. Cuidiadcita mia.
You must become an island / You must become an island / And see for yourself that that’s what I am
I go from a city whose public transit system is completely foreign to me to a city whose public transit system is committed to muscle memory. I take the orange line out to my car and drive home. I start my car and immediately hear a slightly outdated pop song. It’s a song that started weirdly resonating with me almost two years back – a song I would love when it came on the radio, as if it were some type of weird reassurance that my heart & soul were going to survive this crazy life. A song I would then come to resent when it came on the radio, during low points without hope and I felt like I was just getting mocked by the DJ. A song that plays three more times that day, on various radio stations, on the drive home.
If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is, I think to myself. What time of sign it actually is remains to be seen. Like so many things, only time is going to tell.
I get home with just enough time to shower, to say hello to a few cats who clearly weren’t fazed by my departure, and dart off to teach a few evening classes. Right back into the swing of things.
As my best friend’s wedding To Do list takes a temporary lull, I find myself now with a long list of maid of honor stuff to get done. I order a potential bridesmaid dress and I look up ideas for bridal showers and bachelorette parties. I’ll be flying out to the Chicago area at least one more time between now and June, before the big day, before the wedding in New Jersey to a man who matches her so well energetically that God help anyone who doubts the validity of this union.
“How’s it back in New Hampshire?” my best friend asks right before my first class is going to start.
“Good – busy, though. I just want to stay at home and blog,” I respond.
Later that evening, she’ll send me a link to her own most recent writing – a ritual we’ve been doing since long before the internet was popular. Two little writers with our own little horror stories attempting to piece ourselves together one experience at a time. Thelma and Louise. Dante and Virgil. Jess and Abby.
“But – OMG – let me tell you about the taxi driver I had this morning…”