"You're leaving me already?" the conductor asked, with pleading in his voice. "You just got on! Just get in the train and take a ride with me!" My quick, carefree laughter cut through the cold air as I assured him we'd be reunited soon enough. I barely had time to step in one door at Rockwell, smooth my bangs and adjust the zipper on my coat before stepping out on the other side of the Brown Line car and into the familiarity of my neighborhood at Western.
My legs are so sore from yesterday's workout that the thought of walking back to my place was unbearable, even though it's less than a quarter-mile away.
In that short distance between stops, the El tracks rise up from between unlucky houses in Ravenswood Manor, cut diagonally through the quiet alleys and suddenly tower over Western Avenue, welcoming visitors to the only neighborhood I've ever felt truly at home. I spent a whole afternoon between those two stops one spring with my camera, capturing frame after frame of alley refuse, shoes dangling from a power line, wall murals and shop signs. The pictures don't mean anything — to anyone but me, anyway.
I didn't change for dinner after spending hours at Starbucks worrying about the week's deadlines. I made it as far as writing a list of things to do; but I'll wait until tomorrow to do them.
I wore the same skinny jeans I wear almost every day — still the only pair that really fits me, despite my recent crazed fitness kick — with a pair of new-to-me, hand-me-down flats from Target and an old turtleneck sweater with stretched-out ribbing at the sleeves. My winter hat has ears like a cat, button eyes and a little pink nose and whiskers stitched on. (I forget sometimes that I'm wearing a hat designed for a 6-year-old, until I catch people looking quizzically at me, not making eye contact.) My scarf, a Christmas gift from my mother, was handmade in Kansas City from six-inch lengths of old sweater sleeves. I can make a fist and thread my arm through up to my elbow.
I absentmindedly made a serpentine sock puppet with the scarf during dinner, between bites of my blackened chicken sandwich with wilted spinach and citrus mayo, and a side order of cheddar fries. I ordered what I wanted without counting calories because a week after my breakup, the night before Valentine's Day, I can still pretend to be wallowing and eating my feelings — and I know I'll return to dietary austerity as soon as that excuse stops being valid. That will probably be tomorrow, too.
As we slurped the last sips of soda from our glasses, the bartender set down a warm, rich brownie à la mode for dessert. "On the house," he said.
The pie hole: There's always room. We ate until we were stuffed, left vanilla ice cream melting into a puddle on the dish to drown the leftover brownie crumbs.
I'd just missed a train when we left the restaurant, so I stood just inside the station with a book and lost myself in the silent world the words somehow create. The inbound and outbound trains arrived at the exact same time, a chance meeting I always make a little too much of.
There were maybe five people in that first car headed to the Loop; I was the only one who disembarked at Western. Sometimes it feels desolate, but tonight I relished having the platform all to myself.
The dangling flaps of the conductor's hunting-style hat waved goodbye to my cat ears as I twirled through the turnstile and headed down the stairs. "You take care, now," he said, his voice fading as the train rumbled out of the station. Traffic rushed on Western Avenue below the station, but the platform was so, so quiet.
I saw the first flakes of snow we'd been promised, cast in a melony glow, just after I boarded the train. In the alley between the station and my apartment, I raised my face to the sky waiting for a soft, cold kiss.
It's still hours before Valentine's Day begins, and I've moved so far past the defiance and hurt I felt a year ago. The song remains the same: Half my bed will be cold and empty, sheets crisp, when I wake up in the morning. But I know I'm not alone and may never be again; on the contrary, I'm in love with the whole world…and it loves me right back.