It began as bleak as anything could be. Going on day four of solitude, alternating between pacing the room, writing down everything frantically for posterity, for clarity, for any idea of what to do next, then curling up in a fetal position under a pile of down blankets, I was running empty on my own resources. I wished myself no harm, nor others, I just wanted everything to. go. away. But no amount of fluffy bedding could muffle the sound of the cat’s worried mews, of the hellish symphony of construction next door, of the ominous howl of the wind through the drafty window, of my own racing thoughts. I had to get out of this noisy apartment.
It was a quiet, grey Tuesday afternoon in October. I exited the Jarvis el stop, lit a cigarette and held my head up high. I was there to meet a friend, a friend who had always been there for me like he was there for me today, whom my former lover had informed me only kept my acquaintance because he wanted to get into my pants. I didn’t have the luxury of debating if men and women could ever really be friends at this point though and resented that I was going to have to explain why I’d been ignoring his texts. I saw him waiting for me. Chin up. He gave me a hug, and I burst into sobs. Sobs I’d been holding back for days. In silence we walked down the sidewalk, tears streamed down my cheeks. We sat on a wooden bench overlooking the beach at the end of the street, I offered him a cigarette, told him everything, every dark and confused thought, every fear, every way I had fucked up, every regret. I sat looking straight ahead, across the horizon, eyes scanning the small hill of grey stones, the smooth sand, the dark, turbulent waters, the overcast sky, the lilac clouds in the distance giving way to those promising rain. An icy wind scalded our cheeks and threatened our cigarettes and snapped me out of it. After a half hour of crying and confessing with abandon, I gathered my composure and dug about in my bag for something to wipe the mascara and mucus from my face while he doled out advice and shared stories of his own screw ups and struggles. “I care about you, as a friend. Do you understand? I have no ulterior motives.” “I want to believe you, but it’ll be a while before I can trust a man again. Or myself.” “I know.” The wind kicked up, assaulting us with sand, water, leaves and bark, and we headed inside. We warmed ourselves with black coffee at the dining table and chatted about work, vacations, life while two cats vied for our attention. The sky grew dark, and a small lamp in the corner cast everything in chestnut tones. “You seem better now.” “I feel better now.”
By the following evening, all hell was breaking loose. Outside, pedestrians were losing battles with umbrellas. Inside, I sat in a booth drinking a “pumpkin spice latte” and picking at a whole wheat “bagel” with “hazelnut cream cheese.” I had no appetite, but needed to get the manufactured, cloyingly sweet taste of pumpkin goo off my palate, and I had to keep drinking the coffee to stay awake. The evening was not going well. I’d just been given a lecture on how my lack of interest in marriage and a family, along with my penchant for sleeping with bad boy artists, must mean I enjoy being miserable and unstable. As if people with spouses and children have inoculated themselves against misery and instability. As if my ambivalence to the institution were not a consequence of my own miserable and unstable family. As if I had ever dated a bad boy artist before. As if I’d plans to do it again. As if I thought it were helpful to speak of people in stereotypes. I’d left the office shaken. What the fuck was wrong with people? I hadn’t even gone there to discuss relationships. I needed paperwork signed. Psychiatrists should really stick to doing what they know, like paperwork, and not try to analyze people they see for 5 minutes every 2 months. In the coffee shop I tried to read. Well, his wife is dying. I should not take that marriage stuff personally. Still… Jesus, this latte is disgusting. I was supposed to be meeting someone for coffee. I texted, called, nothing. Well, traffic was a mess, and I was in no hurry to venture out into the gale. I wrote a bit, tried to read. I’d been in a boring normal appropriate relationship for 8 years, and that made me miserable. What the hell did he know? I thought if I took another sip of my seasonal concoction I’d puke. Still no texts. Things were getting chaotic out there in way that encouraged me to leave sooner rather than later. “Hey, L-, it’s T-. Not sure where you are but I’ve been waiting for you forever and I am not waiting any longer. I mean, I hope you’re not trapped under a fallen branch or something.” I left, wrapped my trenchcoat tight around me, gave up on the umbrella, tugged my beret down over my head, found a doorway where I eventually was able to light a smoke. The night out there was wet and black and slick and wild and everyone was either running or holding on for their lives. People enjoy being miserable and unstable my ass.
Days passed. Storms departed, leaving warm orange days in their wake. Friends poured wine. Family phoned. Ex-therapist e-mailed. Cat stopped behaving upsettingly (except when I caught him watching the slasher flick Dressed to Kill, his eyes dilated and bulging from their sockets, all cartoon-like.) I cooked, slept, did yoga, wrote, paid visits, read a bit about Buddhism, read a bit about Fascism. I picked up a Reader and put it back down. Fuck all, he’s probably sick of himself at this rate… I gathered myself. I watched a documentary on Catholicism. God is love. But what the hell is love?
It was an October Sunday afternoon, almost 70 degrees and blinding rays of sun thrashed at everything violently, as if in the throes of death before being locked up in the morgue of our long Chicago winters. I’d read something in the paper about a tour of Graceland Cemetery and thought that might get me into the holiday spirit. Not to take the tour, of course. I am allergic to tours. I actually learned the world obyazatelno while trying to squirm out of ekskursii tours. I’d capitulate to the demands of my exchange program overlords but go on my own excursions through dacha dotted wastelands once off the bus and accounted for. Fucking tours. Also, why pay for a tour of a cemetery I can just, you know, walk around in for free? The general offices and visitors center were closed, but the gates were open. “Here for the tour?” a man asked. “No,” I responded defensively, already disoriented still only a few steps past the gates. I tried to look like I wasn’t there precisely to get lost, which I was.
Under my over-sized wool turtleneck sweater sweat gathered in the small of my back. I spent the first half of the walk propelling myself toward mirages of shade. So many trees, so many crypts, so many obelisks, yet no reprieve from the sun. Many of the graves were early 20th Century and unimpressive. I grew up in a graveyard and am a hard sell. (My aunt & uncle owned, ran and lived on the grounds of a cemetery.) Well, it was a beautiful day, a beautiful walk. I finally stumbled upon a cool, dark area, looked down and thought, now who is this lucky fellow, resting eternally in the shade? “Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.” I began to pay attention as I strolled around the lagoon lined with a little wooden bridge, white marble columns and weeping willows swaying lightly in the faint suggestion of a breeze. Burnham. Field. Harrison. McCormick. Palmer. Sullivan. Wacker. Medill. Names so ubiquitous with my town, I’d never fully appreciated that they were real dead people. I contemplated the chalk white arched little headstones wedged into corners next to ostentatious monuments, their names erased with time and bad weather, and wondered who they were. I was glad for their modesty and grace and Halloweenishness. I peeked into ornately decorated crypts with beautiful stained glass windows opposite their doors, the harsh sun transforming colorful scenes into dramatic three-dimensional visions, the kind converts see in the movies. I came upon an imposing black wall against which a larger than life shrouded figure in lurid patina stood, forearm across his face. I looked upwards dizzyingly to the stone angels perched high in the air. I hummed, “I dreaded sunny days, so let’s go and I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates, Keats and Yeats are on your side… Wilde is on mine…”
I showered away my graveyard stickiness, applied copious amounts of eye makeup, slipped on some sexy boots and was headed toward the Western bus. “Poise and grace. Poise and grace,” I repeated under my breath. Earlier I’d texted a girlfriend, “Hey, I kinda know this guy playing music at this performance thing at the Viaduct tonight at 9, wanna come? It’s only 5 bucks.” There was a slight chance the painter cabbie would be there. Then my chef friend phoned from the ER to inform me she’d chopped her finger off, “They can reattach it, but don’t know if it will take.” I eagerly offered to come to the hospital to keep her company, interpreting her misfortune as a message from god to cancel my plans. “You’re too sweet. No, I’m fine. Vicodin. Go out and have fun for me!” I interpreted this as a message from god to stick to my plans. Upon confessing that I was anxious about the possibility of running into my ex at the show, a nice fellow, mutual friend, offered to take me. I thanked him but declined, the horrid assertion that men were only kind to me because they wanted to fuck me still lodged in my memory. Not that a good fuck would be the worst thing in the world. A few weeks ago I’d gone to the Rainbo for cheap stiff drinks and a chat with a date. And a good fuck. I sat under the painting which had been promised me for my birthday, had a wonderful time, he was a wonderful guy, but his advances confirmed my suspicion that I was indeed emotionally unavailable and a good fuck would do no more to kill my pain than cheap drinks. I was too hung up on love. The painting at the Rainbo was shortly thereafter given to another woman. Motherfucker. “Poise and grace. Poise and grace.”
The performance began. The guy I kind of knew played fantastically hypnotizing guitar while a guy I’m very glad I do not know read various monologues featuring porn shoots, satanism, stds, depression and killing homeless people. I sat wavering between horror and boredom. The monologuist was sweating profusely and asking us why we were so silent, as if we were meant to stand up and cheer when the coke dealers set the streetperson on fire. The writing was clearly very angry but very unclear about what, intended to shock but void of imagination, cynical without enough maturity to make it believable. While the performer laughed nervously, dropping his printouts, demanding a towel, my mind wandered: perhaps not the best material to be exposing my fragile self to…, what if I walked out in the middle of the performance?, those large goth girls giggling in the row in front of me, it is nervous laughter?, what is the point of this? My girlfriend leaned over, “Uhm, what’s the point of this?” He continued on about facebook, erections, drinking binges. Were those his parents in the back row? They appear well-shod. I zoned out to the intoxicating sounds coming from the suitcase guitar thing, and the second the show ended I bolted out for a cigarette and reflection. “I feel much better about myself now,” I smiled widely. My girlfriend and I talked about what makes people make bad art, what makes people do bad things. I surprised myself by how grateful I was for the experience in sum, for my curiosity and courage, for being taken out of my own shit for a while, for perspective, even if acquired so harshly. I suddenly felt like a million dollars. At least I am not setting homeless people on fire or writing an homage to people who set homeless people on fire or laughing at homeless people being set on fire. It’s a low bar, I admit, but I felt positively angelic.
It was midnight when I stepped off the bus still high on my own moral foundation and good taste. Lightning flashed in the distance and crisp leaves whipped themselves into small cyclones along my path. Jack-O-Lanterns and cotton cobwebs decorated porches where lazy plastic skeletons sat eyeing passersby. Muffled thunderclaps far off and an angry wind interrupted the silence of a late Sunday night in a working class town. Something wicked this way was headed. The winds erratically shifted direction, carrying the leaves up into the sky where they danced madly around the sulfur street lights, trees shook like the possessed, lightning bolts cracked a few streets north, thunder let out a deep groan of warning. I made it to the door as fat drops of rain began to dot the sidewalk. Safe inside my apartment, I scooped up the cat and folded myself into the merengue of the fluffy down blankets piled upon the bed, listening to the rain tap gently against the roof next door, the wind whistle softly through the window. Finally, I thought, peace and quiet.