I signed the lease on my first apartment in Chicago on Labor Day weekend in 2007. It seemed like the right time to move. I was done with New York; it had gotten too expensive, too stressful, too exhausting. I had found a fantastic new job; they’d offered great benefits and would match my New York salary. But please. I was in love with a man who lived in Chicago, and I was moving to the city to be near him. To credit any other factor for the move would just be silly.
After one spectacular failed attempt at finding a place on Craigslist – I walked up Paulina from my boyfriend’s apartment to a ramshackle house under the El, where I met with two bickering sisters whose cats had overrun the place and weeds had overrun the backyard – I begged my boyfriend to drive me around to look for anywhere with more promise.
So we set off up Lincoln Avenue in his silver BMW, past a sex shop, a taqueria, a Dunkin’ Donuts. Under the El once, then again. Past Addison. Trader Joe’s, Martyr’s, Mrs. Murphy and Sons Irish Bistro. Past Irving Park. CVS, Smokin’ Woody’s barbecue, Jewel, Jury’s. A street called Berteau. Past Montrose. On the left was Welles Park. The shops became smaller; the restaurants had patio seating. Strollers and dogs everywhere. Just as we passed under the El for a third time, I saw a sign. My sign. Blue metal, stretched over the entry to a one-way street: Lincoln Square.
We parked the car along Lincoln and ventured onto side streets aimlessly, looking “For Lease” printouts stapled to utility poles, numbers to tear off, doors with vacancy notices. And then we stumbled on the greatest place ever. A horseshoe-shaped brick building with a courtyard full of red geraniums and a cherub fountain in the middle. A little overgrown…but charming.
My landlord’s voicemail recording: “Uhhh, yeah. Leave your name and number, and I’ll see if I can get back to you. Thanks.”
He did call back. He had a mullet and reeked of cigarettes, and I couldn’t pinpoint his accent. Not quite hardcore Chicago but something equally unrefined. Kind of gross…but charming in that trashy landlord kind of way.
The unit he showed me that afternoon was flawed. But charming. Like the garden in the courtyard, like the man walking me through it. Every surface was covered with a film of dust and cat hair, and the bedroom seemed small. The fixtures were outdated. But the walls, the doors, the windows, the view of that overgrown garden…it would do.
For quite a while after I moved, that apartment was little more than a place to store my things. I spent as much time as I could with my boyfriend at his apartment in Lakeview. With his hilarious hipster roommate and his awful hipster girlfriend and an inflatable whale called Whalebone. Or I was out exploring the city. Or I was somewhere between Chicago and work, in the midst of my interminable commute to the suburbs. (Ah, regrets.) I’d filled the apartment with beautiful furniture – some of which had come from my childhood bedroom, most of which had moved with me from Kansas City to New York to Chicago – and quirky knickknacks I’d collected through the years, things that reminded me of who I am. But it wasn’t home.
Then suddenly, in March, I broke things off with that boyfriend. And that little apartment became the only place I could call home. I’ve spent the last two years making it mine. Now, it’s my space: I love the way my things fit into it; I know every corner and furniture placement by heart. It's wonderful. I think of it as home more than anywhere else.
But the past two years have packed a pretty ugly history in among my beautiful furniture and quirky knickknacks. An ugly history, mostly in the form of Y chromosomes through an essentially revolving door. Some had potential, some were just there. But they all left their mark.
A confused stranger – looking for someone else, he said – used an old key one night and let himself in, turned on all the lights and wandered through my tiny apartment. We had a bizarre conversation, then he ran out. He turned all the lights off again and locked the door behind him. I didn’t call the police. I barricaded the door and cried. Then I made a call. In hopes of finding my knight in shining armor, I called him. And he was. For the night, anyway. He held me as I drifted into restless sleep. I thought he could be part of my home.
But then came the sex and the fighting and the tears and the sex. Torrid. I remember sitting on the sofa, facing the bedroom, spending the entirety of the Emmys writing him an e-mail to tell him I really wanted to try this time. Which was about the third time. The night before he came over and shattered me all over again. He promised to stay, to try, to be good. And suddenly, he was lacing up his shoes and walking out.
And then…him. Another him. I will always, always associate this place with him.
I thought he could be part of my home, too. But he tried to make it his instead, without even asking. Covered my teardrop-shaped glass table in late bills and legal documents, rings from his Starbucks cups. He wouldn’t leave. Wouldn’t let me leave. He yelled at me in the kitchen for throwing away a bag full of parsley, for requesting eggs scrambled dry. He threw a book to the floor of the living room, called me a whore in the bedroom. (And not in that charming way.) I cried in the shower because I was tired of doing it in front of him, all over the rest of the apartment.
I holed up after that, but the comfort of home took its time coming back.
There are wonderful memories, too, a beautiful history written in the past nine months with the Knight, who finally stepped out of the Shining Camry and rang my doorbell one ordinary night in May. We shared a box of macaroni and cheese in the living room that night; I drank wine while we started to get to know each other. The night I returned from Paris, we spent all night in my bed. All night, never sleeping; we talked and kissed and I finally understood that good things could happen there with another person. The revolving door slowed to a stop, the breeze died down, the dust settled and suddenly I was home again, and to my surprise, someone was there with me.
Still, I'm ready to wash my hands of this place. It’s time. Time to physically leave the past behind and watch the future unfold in a foreign space. My heart can fill empty rooms all over again, not just sweep the bad memories under the rug.
It will be flawed but charming. That's home.
More to come.