by Heather Rick
I was walking southeast on Milwaukee and my tights were slipping down my legs. It was the kind of winter day that feels like a December without a Christmas. The world was wrapped in cold, damp cotton, the fog stinging my pores and nostrils like rubbing alcohol. The advent of winter in Chicago is always presaged by a weight in your stomach, as though your intestines are processing lead. It’s a pressure that makes you hate the scowling streets, makes you want to duck into bars to drink whiskey shoulder-to-shoulder with other denizens of the loosing daylight hours, and to see yourself reflected in the steel walls and concrete bellies of the city, just to know you aren’t a ghost in all this grey and ice.
In defiance of the weather and the city-wide depression, I wore a blue flowered dress with a white ribbon around the waist and a long bouncing skirt, something that Alice would have worn to tea in Wonderland. The blue tights were beginning to puddle around the tops of my Doc Martens. I couldn’t pull them up because I was carrying my entire life in my arms down a wet, hazy half-mile of Milwaukee.
A blue duffel bag, embroidered with my ex-girlfriend’s name and high school volleyball number, bulged with weeks of unwashed socks and panties, crumpled jeans and un-ironed skirts, t-shirts snagged from her closet. They smelled like cigarettes, like her roommates’ pot, and the angry rumpled clothes of her bed, all stuffed into the bag on our last morning together. Her apartment had been covered in vomit and beer cans from a party the night before, and I’d had to dig my things from beneath blissfully blacked-out people. The fact that she hadn’t even offered me breakfast rankled in my stomach, still uneasy from last night’s beer and crying fits. Digging into my hip with each step, a brown paper shopping bag was square with books, records, notebooks, official pieces of paper that had ceased to anchor my life to any semblance of adulthood or normalcy.
I don’t know why I didn’t just put my bags down on the sidewalk, yank the thin nylon fabric up my stubbly legs, and look at myself reflected over vintage cocktail dresses and pearl-embroidered handbags in a boutique window, to watch the ghost of my blue hips and legs dance in fractured light against the ashy wet street. But I kept walking, letting the crotch of the tights work slowly down toward my knees. The strain in my arms and shoulders warmed my stiff muscles and limbs. I was cramped from sleeping on the living room floor with my ex, curled into the crescent wasteland of her body, the sound of boys shouting in the kitchen and the ground-into-your-bones-deep sound of the El trains outside sifting into my body through the cracks in the shifting tectonic plates of sleep.
I passed a group of squatter kids sheltering against the raw edges of the mist in the doorway of an abandoned storefront on Honore. They all had white faces the same color as the winter smog, crust punks in black clothes and combat boots, facial piercings bristling. One girl, with a tear-drop pearl of a face and long black hair, asked, “Can you spare a dollar so we can get something to eat?”
Her words made little vapor puffs on a thin babyish voice. I shook my head, panting under my load, almost limping from the rebellious tights and biting boots. Couldn’t they see I was walking around with my whole transient existence in my arms—my purse empty but for a CTA pass, a Walgreen’s-brand lipstick, and enough change for a coffee? Couldn’t they tell from my pallor and my lips the shade of artificially-colored frosting under 24-hour convenience store lights that I’d had nothing to eat all week but Pop-Tarts from vending machines and spoonfuls of Skippy peanut butter? I had almost as little as they did.
Maybe that’s why she asked me—another poor kid, half-crazy with desperation, would have more sympathy and willingness to split with a dollar than some hipster babe riding through Wicker Park in the diamond-scented arms of a trust fund, to whom shopping was a recreational activity. There was an offer of kinship in the girl’s question, a bond of youth and penury that we both suspected might exist.
I could have set my bags down in the slush like so many useless fragments of an old life, easily thrown away into the maw of winter. I could have yanked up my tights and dug out some quarters and a smile for the girl. I could have stayed and talked, told them about my troubles and listened to theirs. Our laughter would have bloomed through the murk, the kind of belly-quaking laughter that chases away hunger pains and warms the body and spirit like a couple shots of tequila, laughter that teases the beauty and humor out of shared misery.
But I walked on, solitary. It’s harder to shoulder through life that way, but it doesn’t require a sacrifice of vulnerability, the way trusting somebody enough to laugh is always like cutting out a length of intestine and tying one end to their wrist, a bloody mockery of the friendship bracelets we might have worn as girls, she and I, when that half-mile of Milwaukee, gray with the winter-beauty of our fractured youth, was as yet unthought-of. Who knows what I would have given to join her, as I made my way down Milwaukee Ave onto Wicker Park Ave into the tangle of residential blocks, cutting the frozen quiet of Ellen Street, to drop my burden on the concrete outside Mike and Stephen’s basement apartment. I rapped frost-chapped knuckles against the door and waited for people to wake up inside and let me in so the next phase of this failing decade could begin.
Heather Rick is a New England-based writer with a Midwestern heart. An art school drop-out, she is currently churning through the bowels of community college in the cultural wasteland of north-central Massachusetts. She is suspicious of writers with fancy degrees and believes in the power and importance of fucking up. She is currently working on a nonfiction book about her own fuck-ups.