We nap to the hum of The El roaring over the tracks just a stone’s throw from our window. The grinding of a parking garage elevator dock awakens us. We can count on a fire engine’s siren to startle Kaia in the deepest of night hours, jolting her upright with a scared cry. As she nestles into the starchy sheets of the hotel bed with her Grams, I anticipate Indi’s post-midnight snack call.
I look quite the tourist here in Chicago, sans winter coat and swathed only in the cloth of the saffron Moby wrap, enjoying the brisk gusts of Lake Michigan-tinged air. Indi peers at the iron skyline from the carrier and Kaia looks inquisitively into the steely eyes of strangers clutching lattes and cigarettes on their way to the office. A man jingling a Styrofoam cup – and noticing the baby strapped to my body and one in her stroller – holds open the door to Walgreens and when I exit I deposit a dollar into his fund. I think to myself that if I did that for every person with a crumpling cup, an open hand, or sticker-encrusted guitar box, I’d be broke within two days. That leaves me sad. For them.
The pedestrian landscape of this vertical city sets my worn mama-nerves on fire, providing my feet with an outlet for the desert city woes. Jason comes to life here, swimming in architecture pavement to sky. We giggle and cheese it in front of The Bean (aka Cloud Gate) like a million other visitors before us, somehow captivated by a cosmic, curved, polished mirror. As if we’ve never seen our reflections. The everyday made into art, a mantra for this churning city.
Typical for vacation, Kaia is overtired from lack of sleep and routine naps. This is why I carry her shoeless body horizontal and kicking and screaming for two blocks. She pushes open a door with her feet and I say “Thank you for helping”. Because there’s nothing else to say when an entire street is staring at your daughter mid-tantrum and you’re smiling because you’re on vacation.
Then seven o’clock arrives and I am rocked into a pleasantly numb state on the subway train. Leaving the girls and a bottle of pumped breastmilk with Jason and my mama, I’m off to visit B and SJ, two women who I know everything about. Only we’ve never met, our words colliding onscreen through blogs and email exchanges (SJ posted a pic of us here).
I text message a few folks in order to look occupied in my molded plastic seat. It has been almost five years since I visited The Windy City yet the faces on this train look familiar and the subway scene hasn’t changed much. Walkmans and magazines have been replaced by iPods and cell phones. But the characters have remained the same: the hip, young student engrossed in song, the chic woman in knee-high leather boots – trench knotted and cinched perfectly at the waist – who busted through the glass ceiling, the guy who leers at her too long, the haggard man in Dickies whose eyes close and open in rhythm to the trains stops, the person wrapped in too-many garments who may have dipped into their Styrofoam cup fund for a ride to nowhere. The subway; a microcosm of the city, its denizens trapped body to body trying like mad not to notice the humanity within each other.
During my 20 minute ride, I manage to peep into the lit windows of apartments, noticing the single mom shuffling slowly in the kitchen to prepare dinner and the young couple lounging on their IKEA sofa sipping wine. My stomach is knotted in first-date anticipation and I fiddle with the lip gloss in my pocket (which is carefully applied in the window reflection moments before my stop). And for one minute, we are treated to a trio of sounds from a band on the platform, their sign hand-scrawled with “God Bless. Rock-n-Soul!”
SJ and B pick me up and we scour the city for a parking spot, finally settling on one a few blocks from the restaurant. B struts her bad self in black stilettos and my feet stumble in jealously in my barely-trendy wedges. SJ dons sensible platforms and a serious smile. Over dinner, we share and eat and wine and laugh. Yes, I got to hear Bella’s earnest and bold laugh. Usually a decent judge of character (even through words) I’m shocked that their personalities vary from what I’d anticipated. But as the night wears on I can’t remember knowing them any differently than I do in that very moment, eyes narrowing during stories of our youth and opening wide while we volley tales of motherhood.
B is vivacious like her curls and reminds me of Juliette Lewis for reasons I cannot place. SJ is composed and intense, her words as articulate as the emotions in her photographs. With them, I feel clumsy, gregarious and at times borderline overbearing. Yet, I also feel undoubtedly authentic, as if my heart is bursting within my mouth. And so I embrace the diabolic energy created when the three of us surround the table, reveling in the ebb and flow of conversation. I couldn’t finish my Sangria but downed the organic chocolate cake.
We exhaust ourselves by ten and on the return trip I mention how strange it is to connect with people you may never meet again. B reminds me that I do intend to move to the Chicago-ish area someday so I shouldn’t lose hope. We part in the hotel hallway, hugs of gratitude doled to both. The squeaky opening of the hotel room door leads me to my daughters who had just fallen asleep minutes prior to my arrival. Two days later, I receive a delayed text message from Jason from that night, only 30 minutes after I’d left: “OK, Indi is so mad I can’t believe it. We are trying everything…”
Like the stretching arms of metal in Millennium Park, I am fluid and solid in Chicago; enveloped and expansive. Yes, Chicago, Rock-n-Soul!
“Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.”
**Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago”