Moving back to Chicago is the best thing I ever did for myself, and I say that as somebody who has not been stingy with self-indulgence. I love this city so thoroughly I can’t find words to explain it. That doesn’t stop me from trying. “Look at that,” I’ll say when something catches my eye. “It’s beautiful.” I’m stopped, struck by fog crawling off the lake to embrace the skyline, by the sunset silhouetting the street as you gaze west to the horizon, or a mural tucked under an overpass, memorializing a person, a moment, an idea. Something specifically precious to that neighborhood. Something sprawling and universal and touching us all. It’s been sixteen months since I moved back, and there’s still a film over everything, a longing, a visceral need to be closer to all of it, that makes it hard to believe this is real. I’m here. I wake up and fall asleep to the rumble of the train outside my window, squeaking its way down the track over the alley between my building and the next, and it’s a warm blanket whispering, “You’re home.”
You are not allowed to take your bike on a CTA train during rush hour. You can’t even have it on the platform. Once, years ago, when I had to commute to the west side for a job, I’d figured out that I could save enough money for it to be meaningful if, instead of paying for a transfer from the bus to the train, then back to the bus, I biked the bus stretches. The only hitch with the plan was that the last train I could catch and still make it on time was scheduled to arrive two minutes after the end of rush hour. That was just enough time to haul my bike up the stairs to the platform, but only if the train never came early. The train is as likely to be two minutes early as ten minutes late. I was gong to save five dollars a week in transfer fees with this scheme, sixty dollars over the course of the job. Sixty dollars was more than my monthly grocery budget at the time. So I explained my situation to the guy watching the turnstiles. He nodded solemnly and took my concerns very seriously and then told me yeah, whatever, there’s never many people on the train or that platform by that time of day anyway, go ahead and go up early. So I did, without incident, for about two weeks.
Then one morning there was a woman on the platform already when I got up there. She was middle aged, full-figured, well put together. Her hat was neat, and she had a blazer jacket over a floral print dress, and shoes I’d have to remove toes to wear. She was not thrilled about the frumpy white girl on the platform with her bike. She marched right over to me and told me straight up, “You are not supposed to be here.”
“I know I’m up here early,” I said. Then I explained about how the train wasn’t supposed to come until after it would be okay, and I’d talked to the CTA guy and…
“I am sick and tired of people like you thinking you can do whatever you want and taking advantage. Some of us have to use this train and we don’t need you disrespecting us or it.”
I didn’t say anything to that. I couldn’t find a way to get across that yes, I can afford to stand there with a bike and looking sloppy, but I’m the kind of broke where I did the math on transfer fees and $60 mattered.
That night I did more math. I’d been biking the first and last legs of the commute for two weeks and it was pretty easy. It would take me about fifteen extra minutes each way to bike it all instead of taking the train. That would still get me back in time to make it to my other job. Not paying for even the train fare saved much more than $60.
I think about that lady all the time. She was right; I didn’t need to bend the rules. I wasn’t even doing what was in the best interests of my budget. Instead, I’d worked the problem half way, and stopped at the solution that called for minor cheating. I hope telling me off made her day. Her week.
I don’t believe in unconditional love. I just don’t. Never have. I believe in indefinite love. I believe in deluded love. I believe people get attached enough to the idea of loving a thing that they’ll go to spectacularly absurd lengths to preserve that state. But unconditional? Really? No. There’s always some bedrock that love is anchored in, and love only endures as long as the bedrock. That can look and feel unconditional, but it isn’t.
Unconditional love is a performance, not a reality. It’s a devotion to the idea of love, not an attachment to the alleged object of affection. Love without condition just slides off its object without ever really seeing it.
Except, I’ve been wondering for the last year or so, what is the bedrock for my love of Chicago? What’s the thing that must not change? There’s an anxiety around this question. I need to know, because one thing that I’ve realized quite starkly since moving back is that I was utterly, spectacularly miserable while I was gone. I knew it when I first left. I remember how constantly and relentlessly I was aware of that misery. Then it faded. Or I thought it did. I thought moving back was a nice fantasy to dream about, something to consider doing someday, later, the way other people retire to sail around the world or to a hobby farm in the country. (That is, in their dreams, and therefore, never.) I got a little dedicated to the idea of someday, but not now. It got to the point where somebody flat out asked me, “Why not?” and I realized I didn’t have an answer beyond, “Because that’s a fantasy.” But now I know: I was miserable, and I was afraid, and this question is why. If I don’t know where the line the city must not cross is, then I won’t know how to steer it away, or brace myself when the bedrock begins to erode. As long as I don’t know the answer to this question, there’s a chance that someday I’ll wake up to the sound of the train and just hear noise.
Last Friday I had a full day with a scattershot of places to be. It was the first nice day after a week of rain and I was desperate to stretch my legs. The first appointment would require a train, then a bus. After that, either another bus or a lot of walking. Then more walking. Then a bus to a train, or a bus to a bus, or a bus to a train to a different train. The night before I stared at the map, checked the weather report, then went, “Screw it. First appointment is at noon. That’s plenty of time.” I took my bike on the train.
There were, of course, no empty cars when the train pulled up, but I did manage to dash onto one with the section at the end where there aren’t any seats and you can take up a lot of space without blocking anybody who isn’t switching cars.
“That’s a nice bike,” a lady sitting nearby says. “I would know, too. My man runs a bike shop over there on Greenwood. He’s got that one in there.”
“Yeah, I like it a lot,” I said. “It isn’t fast, but it’s steady and I can bike forever on it.”
“Well, that’s what matters most. You don’t have to be hurrying everywhere,” the guy sitting next to her says.
“Exactly!” I say. I mean, it’s not a fast bike, but I still beat the bus half the time anyway.
We get to talking. He wants to get an e-bike. I tell him that after Seattle, an e-bike in Chicago would feel like cheating. They didn’t know Seattle was hilly. They couldn’t believe Seattle was more expensive than Chicago. (It is. Oh my god, is it ever. And for no good reason.) We talked about working from home and making offices out of closets. His daughter has gotten into drinking sweet tea, and she’s running late every morning now because she’s busy stirring the pitcher to dissolve the sugar and get it cool. I suggested sweetening with agave nectar, because it’ll dissolve at room temperature, so she could brew it ahead of time and still sweeten to order. “It doesn’t get all solid like honey?” he asks. Nope.
“And it’s better for you,” the lady pipes in.
His daughter’s hefty. He thinks she’s fine now, but he worries that if she keeps getting big, the other kids will pick on her. “Kids these days is cruel, with the bullying. I hate thinking about how bad it is.” The conversation lingers on the subject. I don’t say much. This is a man worried about the happiness of his daughter, stuck between believing she’s beautiful and wanting her to believe it too, and fear that others won’t see the same and will punish her for it. What I think isn’t relevant.
“I don’t like talking about things like this. It always makes me sad,” the lady says. But the conversation doesn’t budge. The guy is stuck on it. He’s trying to move on, but this is clearly something eating at him.
“How’d you meet your man with the bike shop?” I ask.
My affection for Chicago isn’t unique, with respect to my affections in general. I get cranky if I’m not taking time to read something engrossing relatively regularly. I got attached enough to my houseplants that after they all died in the move from Seattle, I wound up in a consult with a lady in a plant shop that looked an awful lot like a grief counseling session. I wore a hoodie my sister gave me to the point it was in utter tatters. I didn’t stop wearing it until she gave me a nearly identical one to replace it. The original still hangs like an ornament in my bedroom. I care about people, sure. They’re great. But ideas? Objects? Rituals or things I can grasp and tie stories and meaning to? The word that’s needed here is “sentimental.” I’m prone to pathological sentimentality.
Though, admittedly, Chicago is very large, and very abstract, and very impossible to put on a shelf or hang from a bedpost. There are still parts of the city I’ve never been to. More things I haven’t seen than I have. I’ve been in love with this place over half my life, but I’m painfully aware that I’ve only scratched the surface of knowing it. My affection here is founded as much on my idea of the place, my individual, idiosyncratic sliver of experience here, as it is on what it really, truly, genuinely is. I am every parent who loves the idea of their child more than the young person growing up in front of them. Every newlywed as enraptured with the fairy tale of happily ever after as the actual commitment they’ve made.
I never lived near enough to the train to hear it, when I lived here before. It doesn’t make sense to have that sound wrapped up in nostalgia, for it to provide comfort to me now that I’m back. Everything about my persistent, dedicated devotion is overblown and irrational. I know this. I’m aware of it in the same breath where I stop at a street corner, point at something, and go, “Isn’t that beautiful?”
They’ve been together fifteen years. He was selling her Avon and she kept going back. Then he opened the bike shop and she helped. They have two kids together and she glows when she talks about him. “I haven’t ever married him, though,” she says.
“Nothing wrong with that,” I say with a shrug. “Marriage is overrated.”
“No!” the guy protests. “There’s nothing more beautiful than a loving commitment.”
“Sure, that’s nice.” I don’t think that’s nice, but I’m talking to a married man. No reason to be rude. “But when somebody comes home to me, I want it to be because they chose it right then in that moment, not because they have to.”
“That is a beautiful way of looking at it,” the lady says. “I’m going to take that for myself. They’re with me because they want to be.”
“Are you married?” the guy asks.
I do a double take.
“Does she sound like a married woman? Aren’t you hearing her? She doesn’t like marriage.”
I feel bad for the guy. I hijacked his moment of worrying about his daughter into a conversation that’s disparaging his choices and values. “It’s not that, exactly. I’ve just seen a lot of friends who are with people who aren’t worthy of them. I think they would have left if they weren’t married, and that’d be better.”
It’s been sixteen months since I came back and I still have no idea what my condition is. Where the bounds on my affection are. I have no idea how to ward off the day when I’ll hear somebody talk about wanting to leave Chicago and nod along, instead of quietly liking them less. I want to fortify against that erosion, to battle whatever apathy or exhaustion or jaded numbness might come between me and the giddy awe I feel every time I look around and go, “Yes, it’s true. I’m home.” I haven’t found it yet, but I’m going to keep looking. I’ll walk and bike and ride every block until I know the city like a family quilt. I’ll clutch it tight, wrapping it around my shoulders as I listen to the train rumble by, knowing my love is real because it’s conditional, but defended. Eternal.