Nighttime isn't darkness here. It's the orange hum of streetlights and the buzz of neon beer signs, passing headlights and dim lamps through windows high above the sidewalks. It's not silence; it's just a different kind of noise. Battered Crown Vics peeling out at green lights and smokers reveling in their nicotine haze, a safe and legal 15 feet from the bar door.
Often, lately, I don't notice these things. I don't look at the sky to see that I can't see the stars; I walk around in my own haze, the streetlights illuminating my beeline, cars no more than an obstacle in getting from place to place as quickly as possible. I'm not often out this late and actually cognizant of my surroundings.
A girlfriend and I had been out sipping wine flights, noshing on cheese, talking about men. We tottered to another bar, after we'd stuffed ourselves, for a birthday gathering. I was ready to stop drinking, and not just because Miller Lite seemed to be the table's drink of choice. I sipped water and took in my surroundings. Crystal clear, for once. It was a bit surreal to realize how often I've been buzzed and fuzzy around the edges lately. It would be easy to pigeonhole this realization as my retreat to Summer 2008, a vintage I will likely only recall in writing when I write my book.
This is not that.
I have to let myself believe that: I'm just getting my sea legs back. It's the first time in quite a while that I've had something to celebrate. And when it rains, it pours: I have a whole new life to celebrate now. I'd taken a twenty out of the bar's ATM, prepared to take a cab home after yet another busy day, but when I stepped outside, walking seemed. Almost 11 p.m.
I made my way northwest on Milwaukee Avenue; cabs occasionally passed me and honked twice, briefly. I shook my head softly and they zoomed away. I watched their little yellow lights fade into the night. I passed maybe three others on the sidewalk. No stumbling drunks, not a single panhandler or homeless person asleep on a bench. Just people on their way to their cars or back to their apartments. I'd found no man's land. I'd planned my outfit carefully for the evening: an oversize chambray shirt cinched with a blue beaded belt, black leggings, bangles and dangling earrings, sparkling gold flats. The leggings were a bold move, one I immediately regretted when I remembered I'd chosen them partially because they're stretchy and my jeans don't fit as well as they might. Still, the look was more or less what I'd been going for. Walking alone, white earbuds peeking from under my wavy hair, I felt pretty for the first time all day. I passed the Chicago Blue Line and knew it would be smarter to get on the train the rest of the way home. But I was craving the solitude — something deeper than the bright anonymity of a train car alive with weekend partiers and fluorescent light. Just past the station, there's an abandoned building. It's boarded up and covered in a thick coat of construction dust; the inside is gutted. The Blue Line runs just underneath the structure, and every time a train leaves the station, the boards rumble like it's passing straight through the building. But there's an empty street just next to the building, and a highway beyond that. The train never does come crashing through the old brick.
That kind of solitude.
I paused on a bridge that crosses the highway, knowing just a length of chain-link fence and a few feet of concrete separated me from the speeding cars below. The melon glow of the streetlights shot a long-legged shadow before me.
Wait, two. No, there's a third.
One, zig-zagging along the curb and fading up the fence's honeycomb into rushing traffic, was the shadow of summer 2008 Paige. She feeds me the energy to stay up late, to keep my dizzying schedule straight, to drink more than I eat some days. She stokes my mild platonic interests into blazing romantic fascinations, swoops to action with a deft charm and sexuality I forgot I possessed. She's drunk on power and angling for a takeover.
A second, barely visible until I really trained my eyes on it, was Weakness. She misses the old life, the trees and strollers and puppies and the Shining Camry. She misses what the Knight was to her, what he saw in her. In…me. That shadow walked alongside me for much of the walk homeward, an invisible finger poised over his entry in my address book, at the ready to send a text message as soon as I let my guard down. She's easy enough to ignore until the right darkness sets in.
The most clearly defined, jutting straight out from my sparkling shoes, was my real shadow. She was quiet, resigned, tired of fighting the other two. I took her the rest of the way across the bridge and locked us both safely inside my little apartment. Then I turned off the lights and set my shadows aside in the soft blackness of my living room. Let my music wash over me. Darkly content.