Friday, December 14, 2007

Trap doors

My memory has two faces: one, the idealized happy places; two, the grim, desperate places. The haunted side sticks like a broken record in the grimiest corners of my memory, no matter how hard I try to fight it.

Tonight, as I lay awake once again, sleepless, I am actually stuck in a loop of idealized happiness. Tonight, I lay awake yearning for Chicago.

I’m imagining Whole Foods--of all the things in the world to miss—and seeing the bulk bin of Israeli couscous and the diminutive glass jar of Thai red chili paste. I imagine buying henna, even though I’ve never used it before. I visualize the beautiful organic bacon and its thick, apple wood-smoked slices. I see the bulk herbs aisle, smiling at me with its bright lavender and dank burdock root scent, beckoning that I mix teas for sore throats to give as Christmas presents to my friends.

I also see downtown, Michigan Avenue by the Chicago River and north. The lights—beautiful twinkling lights—the red bows, the odd lighted glass globes artistically arranged in cedar branch covered flower beds. So many people, smiling, happy, taking pictures of the lights with point-and-shoot digital cameras set with the flash on (those pictures never come out; you have to set to night mode.). People are shoving and there are armloads of packages jamming sidewalks, but the children smile with glee, and the tourists stop to appreciate the wonder.

I’m thinking of the Chicago River, lighted so green in a summer gleaming blue sky with just the right amount of puffy white clouds in the distance. I see sunlight on art deco buildings, suddenly striking and awe-inspiring as the vision of their masters reveals their ornate, fanciful creations for the rare birds they are. I see the same Chicago at night, when the towering, black, art deco creations seem to loom with sinister intent—or maybe I imagine too much, maybe the Santa Fe building doesn’t glower.

And I lay in bed, thinking, “You chose to leave, Christine. Remember all the reasons you left?” And I think of an acquaintance’s t-shirt that was written in the style of “I heart New York,” but hers read, “I dot Chicago.” I remembered being stunned by it. How could someone who loved to lunch at Fox and Obel’s “dot” Chicago? I asked her about it, and she laughed at her feigned ambivalence toward the city. “You know, it’s the opposite of heart. I don’t love Chicago.” But she was a liar, I know.

But the “dot” t-shirt. Remember Christine? The “dot” was why you left. Christine, you were tired of traffic and public transportation and crowds and indifferent security guards who saw you four times a day for three years but never remembered your face. You were tired of how hard it was to get to Whole Foods. You were tired of even regular grocery shopping at over-crowded, picked-over, under-staffed stores. You were tired of parking. You were tired of your job. You were insanely tired of cold and ice and lingering slush that managed to find its way into your Wellington’s (how did it do that?).

And so, St. Augustine, the anti-Chicago. Little, quaint, tropical, easy-going.

Christine, don’t let Chicago keep you up at night. It’s a chimera. Halcyon. It doesn’t exist; it’s just an ideal you’ve encapsulated into pill form that you accidentally took before bedtime.

A friend once asked me why I didn’t blog about Chicago. She said I had so many interesting things to tell her about Chicago, but I never wrote them. I told her, “I’ve never been able to write a place where I lived. It could only happen after I left. I don’t know when I’ll leave Chicago, but that’s when I’ll tell Chicago stories.”

I feel I’m being trite, but it must be time. It must be Chicago bursting through me at last. But I have to remember the “dot.” It wasn’t all herbal teas and fresh sushi with lucky parking.

Goodnight sweetings. I hope I dream of sushi without regret for loss. I longed for St. Augustine and got it, now I have to keep from losing it to the memory of something that only existed sometimes.