For me it’s sidewalks pulled open by tough green weeds. It’s gas stations and hoodies and carnivals at night. It’s all those kids who never cared what my parents did or what college I planned to go to, only if I could come over and stay up till 3am laughing and memorizing lyrics to rap songs we didn’t fully understand.
The North Shore? We’d never heard of it. Only South Chi Heights for us. Saint Laurent? Pass. We wore clean Nikes and tight jeans. Still do. Friday night wasn’t Friday night unless we were in a set of bleachers somewhere, whether it was freezing to death on the field in October or munching Sour Punch Straws by the court pretending to watch the game. Whatever we were doing, we were there. We knew everyone, and everyone knew us, and whether we realized it then or not, it was a good thing.
Kant, Hegel, and Lacan? We didn’t know who they were. They weren’t “the greats” to us. We knew Jordan and Pippen and Rodman. We rode on the backs of our friends’ bikes and later in the backs of their cars, doing donuts in the empty high school parking lot late at night. We sat around bonfires until the last coals burned out. We made out, we snuck out, we broke up, we made up. We watched our friends make shots, make grades, or just barely make it. We cried with them, sang with them, and walked with them through halls that were ours. We drove with them down streets that were ours. Streets that were in desperate need of buildings that weren’t vacant or liquor stores—maybe, but they were ours, and we were each other’s. We might be far from those days or from those people, but they’re still a part of us, and we can’t forget where we came from.
I never thought I wouldn’t be in love with you. I don’t know how or when it happened. Somehow in the middle of the heat and the hustle it faded away like paint on the walls. It’s not until we take down the pictures that we see what the color used to look like. We see how much has changed. We wonder where it went. We sit and wait for it to return because we’re hopeful because we have to be.
And I thought it would be big. I thought there would be fireworks and foreign countries and oceans with open arms. I figured when I fell in back in love with you there would be glimmering lights and racing hearts and words I’d remember forever. We think this is how it’s supposed to happen, but (thankfully) life isn’t a Matthew Mcconaughey movie. We won’t run from different directions until we collapse into each other’s arms on a bridge at sunset with the most perfect violet sky to the west. We won’t kiss in the rain or storm into churches or yell from a window five stories up.
Instead we’ll be in a car you rented on a Sunday afternoon to move things to your apartment. I’m hungover and trying not to look it, while you’re driving along the lake playing a song on the radio that I’ve never heard before. And still it reminds me of something. It reminds me of winters spent kissing in the dark and summers passed sitting on back porches. It reminds me of sidewalks and stairways and wind on my cheeks. It reminds me of us when we were great. I don’t know the song and I don’t ask you what it is because I don’t want to listen to it later because then it’ll be different. It won’t ever be what it is right now, so I close my eyes and melt into it while the sun splashes across my face.
I’m falling back in love with you, but you don’t know it yet, and somehow I’m still saying the wrong things. I want to tell you that everything will be alright, that we’ll be ok now, but I’m saying it wrong, and you’re still upset. You’ve been like this for months, and I’m trying to do better and failing to do better. I wanted a fix like a thunderstorm or an earthquake or something to show you what you mean to me.
But I didn’t get an earthquake. All I got was a bar at 1:30 am that happened to be playing our songs. The drinks were cheap and strong, and we were talking about the chaos in the world while everything in the room around us glowed and pulsed. Beat for beat, your hand in mine, and we took it to the floor where could dance and spill our drinks and forget the rest. I didn’t know what you were thinking then, and I didn’t know how to ask, but as we said good night in front of an idling cab against a sparkling city that didn’t care what time it was, I’m pretty sure I knew how to fall back in love with someone.
You did it. You won. You’ll walk home through the dark like nothing happened, like you’re the same person you were twenty minutes ago, like you didn’t just leave someone standing in a doorway with the shreds of what used to be. This had been coming for some time now and it was right. Right? If only there were more cars going by or more people on the streets or anything to listen to instead of your own affirmations. Shake the old sounds from your head and find some new ones. Take firmer steps so your shoes collide with the sidewalk in a rhythm you can get lost in. Now there’s only soft breezes and streets bathed in moonlight. Such a beautiful night for a heartbreak.
You thought winning would be applause. You imagined congratulations and Beyonce belting out anthems to the masses, but instead it sounds like those desperate railroad bells that won’t stop clanging from somewhere out the window. It sounds like gates opening and closing with no visitors. It sounds like text messages not sent and not received. All the feel-good nineties songs on the planet won’t take the hollow ringing from your ears. All the you-did-the-right-thing’s from your friends’ lips won’t drown out the it’ll-never-be-the-same’s from your own.
Because maybe he didn’t deserve it. Maybe you were too harsh on him. Maybe it could have been something if you’d given it a chance instead of ending it before it took its first breath because you were scared and stuck and selfish. But now he’s gone, and you’re here, and he’s hurt, and you’re sorry, and it’s too late, and it’s all different. Why is that track on repeat? It’s the train roaring into the empty subway station. It’s the bartender pouring another whiskey and coke. It’s the alarm waking you to start another gray morning. One of these days you’ll sleep without dreaming of him. One of these days.
But how many? Two? Twenty? Two-hundred-and-twenty? Winning sounds like numbers, too, and you hear them all the time: 8, 12, 3, 14. Eight hours since you sent that drunk message that you wish you hadn’t sent and haven’t gotten a reply to. Eight. Twelve days since he held you in the doorway. Twelve. Three weeks since you were dancing together on a rooftop. Three. Fourteen months since you met.
So you make things as loud as possible. Turn the speakers up as far as you can and only hang out with the friends that don’t stop talking. Make sure the T.V. stays on and the talk radio program doesn’t time out. Don’t ever let the quiet get you, especially at night because the nights used to sound like bikes and wind and inside jokes. They used to sound like phones buzzing and doors opening and hands touching. They used to sound like him. The ceiling fan still spins lazily above your head, but he can’t hear it and won’t tell you it helps him fall asleep. The door still creaks in the middle of the night, but he doesn’t know it and won’t complain to you anymore. The neighbor still comes down the stairs loudly, the train still rumbles in the distance, and people’s voices still float through the window indistinguishable. So this is what winning sounds like.