It’s a hot September, but the wind blowing through the concrete and steel makes the whole thing fairly manageable. My husband has a meeting in one of these buildings somewhere; I’ve got hours to kill. Hours to kill in Chicago–me and Al Capone. Chicago is one of those cities I always associate with killing. And museums.
I am not yet thirty, but I feel incalculably old; it’s as if I’ve been alive for centuries and just drifting like a piece of shipwreck loose from the bottom of Lake Michigan. I’m not yet entirely comfortable with my round softness because I’m still at the place of believing when society tells women like me that we aren’t right. So I’m on Weight Watchers and trying to add up the points of what I’m eating. That’s because I’m still young enough to not realise that a special brunch with the love of your life in the restaurant at The Palmer House in Chicago is a rare treasure made mundane by counting. The brunch ends and he goes to his meeting. I go upstairs and change into a swimsuit so that I can swim laps. Wherever I go on this earth I am always at home in a pool like I’m part mermaid or still a baby in utero.
I can’t stay in the pool forever and I promised everyone I wouldn’t stay in the room with a book like I did the last time we went to Bermuda. So I took a taxi to the library. The cabbie grins sideways at me when I tell him where I want to go. He asks me if I’m a teacher. He tells me “not many tourists go to the library” in the same way you’d say “English is the most popular language in the Midwest.” Two blocks away I glimpse it and am lost forever. The brick and bronze with the owls at the cornices…the main branch of the Chicago Public Library is the building I’d like to have my funeral in I think. I vow then and there to write a book that gets published, just so they will have a piece of me shelved inside. There have been stranger dreams.
I climb the marble steps with reverence and peer in at the stacks. I don’t dare go in, because if I get any closer to the books I might break out in a rash. To be this close to a book and not be able to take it home is a sharp poison. I wonder still at if I’ll ever become anything more than I am right now. I still want to be someone’s mother. I think I still want to be someone’s lawyer. But I’m not really sure how to get back to the hotel, and that comes first. I realised after the cab ride here that the hotel isn’t really that far and so I walk. I think to myself that I’ll always remember the way the sun hits the buildings today. I stop into a store that sells souveneirs and think about buying a Scottie Pippen jersey. Instead I go back to the hotel for a haircut, since that’s the easiest sort of change I can make to my rutted life. I let them hack off a year and a half of thick brown rope and joke with the man weilding the scissors that at least now I’ll weigh less at the next Weight Watchers meeting. I’m embarrassed, you see, to be sitting there in a real salon while I’m so fat.
When the meeting is over he sees me and does a small double-take. The wife with hair past her shoulders now has a short bob. I make him go back to the library with me so that he can see the owls. And then we walk along the river. He hates Chicago. To him it’s always a cold and windy town with bad traffic–an annoyance between home and Pillsbury College in Minnesota where his sister majored in Flute. We talk about whatever you talk about when you are in love and hopefully ambivalent about what comes next.
Then we see it, there shining in the street. It’s just a bar, I suppose. But it’s a Trader Vic’s. And I had just gotten my hair cut, and it was perfect. So we go there and have a Pina Colada.
I don’t know it that day but afterward it becomes clear that is the trip where I met my actual self and decided that she wasn’t normal but she was still pretty okay.
When I took him back to the library he bought me a t-shirt that said “I went to the Chicago Public Library and all I did was read.” I still wear the shirt, even though we all know now that it isn’t true at all.