By: Cheyenne Bilderback
I fell in love with Chicago. A smattering of a thousand little worlds. Cities within cities encapsulated by an infinite lake. You and I often rode our rickety bikes through these little worlds, these cities within cities, alongside the infinite lake. It was easily my favorite sight in Chicago- unpolluted, calm, and quiet, much unlike the rest of the dirty urban streets (I also secretly loved the way the hue of your blue-green eyes matched the hue of the blue-green waves). During one of those very adventures back in June (which is much too early for Lake Michigan), we decided to brave those frigid waters. You waded out waist deep and beckoned me to follow. I tried, but my body resisted, so you wrapped yourself around me, skin on skin, until I stopped shivering. You held me there and together we faced the horizon, with the skyline behind us, with the millions of humans behind us, and I imagined we were the only souls alive.
I fell in love with a door. It was covered by a faded red awning, rain-worn and unsuspecting. The door was white, plain, and invisible amongst the bustling storefronts of North Ave. Its tan brick building blended in with the rest of the tan brick buildings. Opening the door uncovered a gray carpeted staircase. Walking up these stairs led to a small white-walled apartment. To the left, there was a living room furnished with a velvet grey couch and mismatched wooden chairs. Sunlight streamed through the glass on the far wall. Greenery rested on the windowsill next to a small piece of art we bought together at a thrift store. The kitchen was straight ahead, standard and unremarkable with linoleum tile and oak cabinets. Our mornings in that kitchen always began with a cup of coffee. I’d sleepily stumble out and you’d have one waiting for me, steaming in a bright yellow mug, already blended with two tablespoons of sugar.
To the right of the kitchen was another door. Entering through this door revealed a small narrow space. The décor in here was nonexistent, but the space was instead filled with numerous instruments, cases, amps, mics, and music stands. Squeezed into the corner was a twin bed (the only size mattress that would fit). That was the bed where you would lay down, call me, and read to me until we were both too sleepy to continue. I remember the night that first began. I couldn’t sleep and had been tossing and turning for hours. Then at one in the morning, you called me, armed and ready with your nearest book- which happened to be Water for Elephants. It was romantic and I loved you for it. But as time went on, the tradition fell to the wayside. You were too busy or I was too tired. I thought we would finish the book eventually, but we never did.
I fell in love with the bookstores. The bookstores of Chicago are not like the bookstores here. I could walk to three different ones alone from your North Ave apartment. No more than two blocks down the road from your door was Quimby’s, a shop as quirky and eclectic as the name. Its shelves were filled with self-published zines on every topic- comics, music, even the “erotic.” Handwritten signs scrawled with multi-colored Sharpies denoted each of these topics. Tables were covered with magazines, memoirs, and novels. My favorite shelves were in the back, holding the literary journals and poetry chapbooks. In the corner stood a strange red sculpture of a horned demonic creature with a woman’s body. It was disturbing, yes, but not out of place. Off to the side resided a large photo booth covered by a silky black curtain. Large signs hung on the sides, disclaiming that the photo booth would only print photo strips in black and white, but that merely added to the charm.
The first time we went, I pulled you into that photo booth, sliding the silk curtain shut behind us. After I fed a few dollar bills into the silver metal machine, we giddily posed for the camera with laughing smiles and goofy kisses. After a few minutes, the photo booth started to churn slowly, and out came a photo strip of us, frames of our happy faces frozen in monochromatic ink. You tucked it inside the pocket of your winter jacket and we were off out the door and onto our next destination.
Continuing down North Ave and taking a left on Milwaukee led to Myopic Books. This store was not so vibrant and fresh- instead it held vast amounts of used books. Preloved, one might say. Abandoned, another would say. There was an upstairs and there was a downstairs, there were nooks and there were crannies, all forming one glorious maze. The wooden shelves reached the ceiling and held lines of books two rows deep. The warm aroma of musty pages filled the space and beckoned me to wander the aisles for hours. Last time I was there, I did.
That night I came home to you with new words to read and new poems to love. I curled up against you on your velvet grey couch in the lamplight and I showed you the day’s prizes. I passed you the yellowed pages of Erica Jong, who is as feminist and raw as it gets, and a small book called Winter Sex by a poet I had never heard of before (which in all honesty I only even glanced at because of the title). You browsed the pages before launching into your own story of your day and I happily listened until we fell into a night of kisses.
I passed many hours in Chicago like this, sometimes with you and sometimes waiting for you. While you were away at another rehearsal or another gig, I would wander these bookstores and then I would come home to the white door with the red awning. I would come home to a twin sized bed and I would come home to you.
You once told me you wished you knew more poetry like I did, so I gave you my favorite books- in part to show you good poetry but also to show you me. Those books, the collections of Charles Bukowski and Clementine Von Radics, held my seemingly arbitrary markings and underlines, but I was not ashamed for you to see those lines. Those were the words that meant the most to me in that moment, so I underlined them. Or I dog-eared the page. Or I drew stars and squiggles. I thought that maybe the words that meant something to me could mean something to you.
The days came where I couldn’t shake my depression or the days where I just plain missed you, so you would read me my favorite poems from those books. The first time this happened, I was leaning against my bedroom window with my hand against the cool glass. Outside, the Tennessee rain was falling in time with my tears. My phone was pressed against my ear as if it could bring me closer to you. “This is how you die by distance,” you read. “Everyone else is not you. It turns out that’s a huge problem for me,” you read. “Your body is a map I know every inch of and if anyone else were to kiss me, all they would taste is your name,” you read. “Read it again,” I begged. You did. I don’t even know how many times I made you reread those damn poems, but you did, and you did until I stopped crying.
The last time I saw those books they were lying on your nightstand. You told me you would mail them to me, but you haven’t. There is another girl already and I wonder if she lies on your twin bed next to the nightstand next to my books. Has she picked them up and paged through them? Or have you buried them in your closet? Perhaps they got lost in the mail and I shouldn’t be angry- but I am. It is the only thing that still ties us together, the only reason to contact you. It’s giving me something to hold on to and I don’t want to hold on to anything anymore.
Just a few days ago, I was driving towards my new apartment (the one I thought we would spend nights together in but in fact you’ve never even stepped foot in) when I saw a bookstore I had never been to. Compulsively, I flicked my blinker on and veered into the parking lot. Maybe I could find new poetry. But before I even entered, I felt the nostalgia creeping. This was not the pulsing world of Milwaukee Ave filled with Chicagoans, tattoo shops, and bars. It was just another ugly parking lot. But I walked in anyway, feeling strangely compelled to- like I needed to do this. Upon opening the door, I was familiarly overwhelmed by tall shelves filled by hundreds of books filled by thousands of words. I continued on through the store, letting my senses absorb my new surroundings. The books in here were not dusty and worn, but bright and shiny. They had bold modern covers full of color. The air was not warm and inviting, but cool and stale. I quickly found the poetry section and became engrossed, as I always do. Still, I could not shake the thought of Chicago. You were a looming shadow I couldn’t run from as I browsed. This was not the bookstore I wanted to be in. I spent a good hour debating which book to take home with me, while fighting off intermittent tears and a strange sadness.
That night I sprawled out on my own couch, red and suede, by my own lamplight. I consumed the day’s prize on my own- a brand new scarlet red paperback boasting the title Rome in bright yellow, emulating the bold writing of the author. I chose this title after simply skimming a few poems. I hoped to find new words that knew my pain. I did.
“You rejected my body so strongly that my poems about corpses will always be about you,” I read to myself.
But that night I couldn’t get through but a few pages before breaking down. I still hadn’t processed the day’s sadness and now it was overflowing. I was beginning to understand. I didn’t like that bookstore because it wasn’t Chicago. I was sad because I was alone with this book and I would never show you these new words. I was crying because you would never read me these poems. I was realizing. You ruined my bookstores. Maybe you didn’t ruin me, but you ruined the things I love, and that perhaps is worse.
Is the end of a relationship always the end of more? I didn’t think I lost myself in you, but maybe I did. I am relearning everyday how not to call you every night. I am relearning everyday how to write my own story, and not ours. I am relearning everyday how to read poetry without your voice, but instead in my own voice. One day I will find new bookstores with new books and new poems without you in the back of my mind. Maybe one day I will finish Water for Elephants. Maybe one day I will even go back to Chicago. I’ll go back to Chicago, I’ll go to the lake, I’ll go to Quimby’s, but I won’t come home to the white door with the red awning. And it will be okay.