Devil in a New City: Week One Down, I’m Still Alive

It’s 95 degrees out today and it’s supposed to be hotter tomorrow. The weather report says that these are record high temperatures and the little exclamation point indicator warns against going outside at all if you can help it, or to stay in an air-conditioned area. It seems as though the extreme heat has been following me all summer. I can’t remember ever sweating so much in my life, and I wonder if your sweat glands expand as you age or something. Or if stress or anxiety increase your moisture content. There’s a part of me that wants to WebMD “too much sweating” but I have no internet for another week. It’s sort of a relief.

It’s been one week since I arrived in Chicago. All of the tempestuous worry leading up to the move makes being here seem less stressful. There’s no going back now. I did it. I’ve unpacked all my things, pooped in my bathroom, and masturbated. I officially live here.

Hyde Park, like the rest of Chicago, has a clear-cut segregational divide. It seems split between the old-timer townie population: largely Black upper middle to working class families, while the other half consists of current students and graduates. The University of Chicago, a city in and of itself, is the glittery beacon in the center of Hyde Park, adjacent to the enormous (like literally, the biggest one in the Western Hemisphere) Museum of Science and Industry in Jackson Park and a pretty eclectic shopping district. The streets are wide and flat, the breeze off the Lake is glorious, and the brick and stone architecture of the old buildings and houses on any given block are breath-taking. I couldn’t have picked a nicer neighborhood. My building is a mid-18th century three-story brick structure flanked by two wrought-iron gaits and a narrow courtyard overrun by small garden projects, clay pots overflowing with basil, and tomato plants lining the cobble walkway up to my front door. You might even forget you were in the city if it weren’t for the back entrance: dim bare-bones wooded staircases leading down to a series of alleys, sewer drains and dumpsters. At night, walking through the back entrance, it’s impossible to ignore the scurrying of the rats behind the garbage, the occasional casualty flattened on the sidewalk.Chitown

My favorite part about Hyde Park? Lake Michigan. In an effort to not spend too much money (because moving is damn expensive, I dropped over three grand in one month!), I have been navigating the cheaper side of Chicago: the park district. Lucky for me, I am three blocks from a beautiful dog-friendly park. On one side it looks like any other city park—well-kept greenery, a small fountain and various benches under chestnut and linden-berry trees. After about 500 feet you come to a wide, echoey tunnel full of buskers and skate-boarders. You walk through and when you come to the other side, you’re in a different place entirely. The beach.

Now, I’m not entirely ignorant. I know that Chicago is on the water, I know that Lake Michigan is a Great Lake. I had some expectation. But, I was not anticipating this sort of vastness. Lake Michigan looks like the fucking ocean and if it weren’t for the fresh water, I’d have never been able to differentiate the two. Come through that tunnel, you are navigating a sandy beach. The waves are high, the current is strong, and the water is turquoise blue and inviting. Look out along the horizon, you can see swimmers diving like fish against the Chicago skyline. Oh, to be ignorant in a new place can be glorious. It’s like being five.

But, it’s also intimidating. And alien. Today is the first day that I am completely alone. It is the first time in weeks, really. Leading up to my move I spent every waking moment with my friends, spending nights with my boyfriend, and soaking up every second of social time until I left, sobbing in the passenger seat of a 16′ Penske moving truck. My friend Dean co-piloted the drive out here and stayed the week, which was punctuated by spatterings of other visitors from home: Mark and Giselle, who drove my car here for me and left two days later, and Henri who hitchhiked here from Michigan to spend some time before heading further west. Dean, who lived here for about six months some years back, carted me around the city on small driving tours, wandered around my neighborhood with me and bought me cocktails at Bar Louie, a swank little spot just down the street.

But today, I am alone. This is the beginning of life here. And it’s too fucking hot. I rally out of bed before 11am (a feat!) to take the dog out for a walk. It is still a novelty going downstairs and checking my mail in the foyer of the building, and I am pleased that today is the first day I receive mail intended for me and not the prior tenants. A bill from MetLife, new debit card, new AAA card, and my final paycheck from work. This is a huge load-off, as I don’t get the first installment of my living-wage loan until September 30th. I walk around the block and try to go off onto side-streets with grassy patches for Rufio. The sweat is already pouring down my forehead and collecting in the divots of my collarbones. The heat’s not supposed to break until Thursday. It’s only Monday. Because I’m in a new place, I’m trying some new identities on for size. I thought today I would pin up my bangs and wear gold eye-shadow with black eyeliner. All I can see in front of my face are glittery sparkles where the shadow is running down my eyes. I hurry back upstairs to my apartment to clean myself up. It looks like someone scrambled an egg on my face. Maybe I’ll just give up and get back into bed.

Fast forward twenty-four hours, and I find myself in the campus library of U-Chicago. I am sitting in a small internet cafe drinking a Diet Pepsi and dissecting a bran muffin. There is a sort of guarded familiarity about being back in academia. It’s not like being in the city, because you can tell that most of these folks don’t leave campus. They carry everything that’s important to them—their laptops, backpacks, notebooks and phones. They wear U-Chicago t-shirts and hoodies and their student I.D.s on lanyards hanging round their necks. Speaking of student I.D.’s—I just got mine. I think these things are designed to accentuate your insecurities. In keeping with the theme of sweating like a pig, there’s a nice little sheen of grease highlighting my forehead and my nose looks like it belongs on the face of a seventy-year old man. But enough vanity—I’m officially a student again, and that’s cool, right? Especially since I can ride the bus for free and judging by my experience with mass transit this morning, I imagine I am going to be screwing up a lot.Image

Today has been sort of a mind-fuck. I woke up to the them music of The L-Word looping on my tiny T.V./DVD combo player (I might have bought the second season DVD box set for three dollars at a Salvation Army yesterday) and someone either having really aggressive sex upstairs or someone aggressively working out. Either way, I’m jealous. Someone up there is either getting laid, which I’m not, or waking up early to work on their fitness, which I’m not. I write “EXERCISE” in big capital letters on my white-board in the kitchen. I hear U-Chicago has a sweet athletic center, with a big-ass pool, so I literally have no excuse to not take advantage, since it’s free for me.

This morning, I opt to leave out the new glitzy makeup regimen and figure that the new Lauren might just be someone who wears long skirts and sandals instead of short skirts and tennis shoes. That’s a change I can manage for now. I look on my transit map and figure out the closest way to the University and once on the bus, realize that my stop is closed for construction.

After I watched it zoom past the window I stood up and did one of those frantic little kid double-takes and started maniacally asking everyone on the bus if I screwed myself or if I could get off at the next stop and still be variably close to the school. “Oh my God, oh my God, I think I missed my stop! Can you help me?” Everyone pretty much ignored me, likely (and correctly) assuming I was just another pain in the ass new student.  One guy popped an earbud out to say, “Calm down, baby,” and then returned quietly to his music. Apparently all was not lost, as an angelic elderly woman told me that all I had to do was head East two or three blocks and I would come upon my intended destination. All I had to do was figure out which way was East. I did, eventually.

I found my way towards the University of Chicago Law Building, where I met my friend Sam, and we walked to a cozy little coffee bar and ate some lunch. I haven’t seen Sam for ten years and though we were able to re-assert comfortable dynamics and engage like old friends (which we are), I sat across from her and tried to remember any interactions we’d had in the past. I couldn’t. I know that Sam is funny. I know that we played in the orchestra together. I remember she dated a sweet, gawky kid in high school and that we took gym class together and goofed around. But as far as actual conversations, I had nothing. It’s weird, childhood. You know these people for years and years and then time creeps up on your hindquarters and memories blank out. Still, it was nice to see a friendly face, to hear little snippets of information about my neighborhood, and more than anything refreshing to come face to face with someone who had left our hometown and was into cool things, and nerdery to boot. Also sleazy dancing, so friendship has been re-established, thank you common ground!

Now, I’m wasting time in the library, trying to take some advantage of the internet before going home, back to my apartment and the sort of swirling-dust quiet that has become too much for me these last few days. It’s only been a week, but already I am craving a schedule, a regiment to keep me out of my head so much. I have been finding things to do—mostly wandering around my neighborhood, buying smoothies or Pad Thai, going to the Target nearby and buying useless household items, sitting by the lake with Rufio and counting the sailboats and the jet skis, wondering if by this time next year I might know someone who might take me sailing.

It is lonely here, I won’t lie. It’s a foreign feeling, to be so displaced. I have spoken to my friends a bit in the last few days and though I was ready to leave Massachusetts, I never tired of the people. I hear that they are going to the dive bar downtown and running into each other and I can’t help that twinge of jealousy I feel in my gut. It’s sick, really. I am in a goddamn metropolis and all I wanna do is shroud myself in blankets and materialize my man-dude so we can make out and watch Ken Burns documentaries. At least the extroverted, active little gremlin that lives somewhere inside of me is forcing me outside everyday, forcing me to bake cookies for my neighbors and doing that whole, “Hey look, I’m a self-depreciating asshole who likes contemporary fiction and Thai food, do you want to be my friend?” But the other part of me—the whoa-is-me-this-is-all-so-tragic-I-have-to-sleep-til-noon part—just wants to time-travel six-months into the future where all this adjusting is behind me and I know what I’ve gotten myself into. Part of me knows that even writing this is somewhat of an admission of my depression—it seems I can only write when I’m blue—but there’s something equally cathartic in recording things as they happen. It’s one of those “maybe I’ll look back on this and laugh” kind of things before it happens, so I’m writing to my future self a decree to get over all this sentimentality by being overtly sentimental.

In two weeks, I start school officially. I will meet people and these achy feelings will fade. I will have a life again. I won’t have time to sit in cafes and sigh wistfully while wondering what all my friends are doing without me. I am trying to savor this solitude, because, looking back, I have been here before. As an undergrad, I felt so out of my element, so completely alone, and within months, I couldn’t imagine a life before Simon’s Rock. I stopped calling New York home. I have tried to remember the earliest moments of being new to my environment, of getting lost, of meeting the people who soon became my lovers and friends. I can’t do it. I don’t remember what it was like to be without that comfort. Maybe that is why leaving a place can be good. Constant comfort can’t be good for anyone.

Will Chicago be my new Massachusetts? It’s hard to say. I know that I like it here. I know that I am someone who eventually does settle into her surroundings and evolves. Will I be someone else here and try to forge some edgier more confident identity? I don’t know. I feel like me wherever I go—this awkward, insolent chick keeps following me, even to Chicago! But I do know that I’m proud of myself on some maternal-self level that I did this. That I left all that comfort and cush and catapulted myself to somewhere I’ve never been with nothing but my own ass to land on. So, ya know. That’s good. Mission accomplished. The girl across from me is biting the tip of her pen, every three seconds she checks her phone. I turned mine off so I would stop doing that. I wonder if she’s new here, if there’s someone that she misses, someone she’s wishing would call her. I want to ask her, but, I can’t. I don’t want to hear that she’s fine, she’s just waiting for her friend to text her about dinner. I want her to continue being my silent comrade, to make up a story of her own feelings of loss and anxiety. I don’t want her truths to ruin that.

It’s time to go home. There’s nothing left to accomplish today and I’m hungry and hoping that outside, the heat has broken at least a little bit. Tomorrow is supposed to be nicer.

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About Lauren Singer

Until my life turns into the Beyonce single that it’s meant to become, I’ll be over here, cuddling my pup and supplementing my delusions with bottom shelf-whiskey, RnB dance parties, and a lot of Netflix movies ‘featuring a strong female lead’.
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