It is November. The weather gods have smiled upon us with sunshine and seventy degrees.
(Many would say the baseball gods have also smiled upon us as the Cubs are in the World Series.)
It is a good time to be in Chicago.
I pull on a pair of brown corduroy trousers from the Salvation Army. Ralph Lauren. Six dollars. Boot-cut and too long in the legs for my not quite 5-foot, 3-inch body.
I slide my hand into the left, front pocket and pull out two small, slippery stubs. Used metro tickets from Paris.
I smile. Wistful.
I’ve been back just eight days but already Paris seems so far away.
The baguette I never eat here but cannot not eat there. Both doughy and solid. Formidable and yielding. I’ve never found anything quite like it at home.
The coffee. Short. Dark. Thick. Served in little cups and drank leisurely in a café, or standing up at a bar, but never taken to go.
The woman who says over coffee, “It’s like there was an empty chair waiting for you, and you slipped right in it … as if you were always there.” And the faces around the table nodding in agreement.
I try to conjure this up in my body. The bread. The coffee. These people who in a matter of days became my people. And I became theirs.
The pastry. The poetry.
The feeling I have every time I find myself in Paris … that my heart might burst if I’m not careful. The feeling I have always been here and will always be here.
But muscle memory fails me … for I can see it, but not fully feel it. Not in my bones. At least not in this moment.
Perhaps it is because I am so here.
In Chicago on this 70-something November day on a bike that doesn’t quite fit me. A loaner from the mechanic until mine is fixed. Wheels out of true. Seat too low. I am more wrestling with it than riding. And yet, I feel the sides of my mouth curling into a smile when I do. My now 47-year-old body embracing the challenge.
Editing my book. Cooking soup. Applying for work.
Watching a Cubs game at a dive bar for no other reason than I have been invited and it sounds like fun.
I am too present here to fully feel there for more than a few moments. And I realize the gift in feeling the ground beneath me. The swish-swish of fallen leaves under my feet.
I have spent years wishing I was somewhere other than where I was — even in Paris — missing the moment.
My friend Paul recently asked why I “even bothered” to come back in the United States. “Your writing is pure poetry there. That is your place,” he says. Perhaps. But for now I am here.
I slip the tickets back in my pocket — so that I might find them again one day and be reminded. Of baguettes and coffee. Poetry and pastry. Of the people who held a chair for me … waiting.
That mid-October was a good time to be in Paris. And right now is a good time to be here.
I have a bit of a sugar hangover. I blame the French meringues. Stacked in big glass jars. All shades of gorgeous. Purple cassis. Cocoa salted-caramel. Yellow-cream.
I blame the lemon and apple tarts, covered with glazed domes, glistening, yellow and red. So shiny and perfect, at first I think they are glass.
I am at my cousin Andrew’s wedding.
I had not planned to eat so much sugar. I never do. Just like I never planned to drink so much, for things to go sideways, as they often did. Especially at weddings.
This is no longer my experience. At weddings. Or anywhere else for that matter. I don’t stick my hand in the cake (already cut up and served, thank goodness) on the way out the door. I don’t offend the groom’s cousin by dissing where he lives. The bride doesn’t have to separate me and her 17-year-old boy cousin who I am grinding with on the dance floor. The one who thinks perhaps this is his lucky day. Or night.
I am grateful.
And I am triggered.
By this girl – a woman, really – who reminds me of me when I drank. She stumbles back to the hotel with us, barely putting one foot in front of the other. Shuffling. Earlier, sitting at the bar, I watched her eyes roll back in her head. Her words don’t make any sense to me. She is speaking gibberish.
I remember making dinner for my girlfriends many years ago in California. Being drunk before they arrive. My friend Rainey, sweetly, sadly, telling me she doesn’t understand what I am saying.
Nobody tells this girl she doesn’t make sense. No one seems to mind. She smokes a joint thick as a cigarette and waves it about. I have to leave.
I am triggered by my brother. Showing up to the wedding with his new girlfriend. It isn’t her. Or him, for that matter. But that he always has a girlfriend. Always had a girlfriend. Always.
I am triggered by my aunt’s stories of dating in her 40s, after her divorce. The seeming line of suitors, one more exciting than the next, waiting for a chance to be with her. Her year in Italy, living with a Count.
This is not my experience. Any of it. And yet, the shame that rises is all mine. It is so familiar. The shame I used to feel in my drunken-ness. The shame I still sometimes feel in my alone-ness. Even if I have – mostly – chosen it.
So sugar seems like a good idea. At the end of the night. Alone, in my cousin’s hotel suite. Tired. Waiting for him and his husband to take me back to their apartment where I am staying.
The meringues are like a siren. The shiny slices of mango torte know my name. Even the leftover pastry from the morning is alluring. All from the patisserie where my cousin works.
I sample each, many times over. Quickly. And then…I stop. I realize I am going to be physically uncomfortable very soon if I continue. I say this out loud to myself. I realize I am uncomfortable in my skin right now. Triggered. I call my friend Matt and we talk it through.
I do not shame myself for using food. It is a small miracle. A victory. As is the stopping while I am in it.
This morning, it all feels a long time ago.
I am walking to the market to pick up some yogurt and produce for the apartment. A coffee. I am dropping into “my life” here in Minneapolis. My life for two and a half days.
I marvel at how easily I can make a place my own. Like I did in Dublin, with Steven. Renting an apartment. Finding my coffee shop. My grocery. My people in meetings in church basements.
I’ve done this in many places. In Brussels. In Charleston. Even my hometown, Detroit. Here, this morning in my cousin’s city, I remember a time when it wasn’t like this.
I was 17. My parents sent me to Los Angeles to visit my cousin – their high-school graduation gift to me. It is my first time traveling alone. I am terrified.
Andrew goes to work, leaving me with a key and suggestions of where I might go while he is away. Places I can walk to right out the door. There are plenty. Surprising for Los Angeles, but true.
I can’t leave the apartment. I am stymied. Paralyzed. I hang out with the cat. Listen to Carly Simon. Smoke his weed. Drink his booze. And wait for him to come home. While Los Angeles waits for me.
It is no different in the years that follow, as I continue to visit him in Los Angeles. I stay in when he is gone. Alone. Afraid.
Perhaps it’s just age. Or maybe it is travel. But I cannot imagine sitting inside today, waiting.
Just like I can’t imagine being the drunk girl at the wedding.
I can almost imagine men lining up to date me, like they did for my aunt. And that in itself is another miracle, that I can even imagine it. Even if it hasn’t happened. But I’m not waiting on that either.
Instead, I think about now. About dancing all afternoon at the wedding. A three-piece band – keyboard, stand-up bass and drummer – playing jazz and swing. About Peter swinging me around the floor. A strong lead, I follow easily. He dips me at the end of each song and I smile big. It is not a love connection. We are just dancing, having a great time.
About Emiko, my cousin’s friend from Los Angeles. She literally watched me become an adult, in those years that I visited, when I afraid to leave by myself. We talk as though no time has passed, picking up the thread of easy connection and filling in the blanks.
About Monica, my cousin David’s wife. The last time we saw one another was at my going-away party – when I was leaving California, with my then husband, for Chicago. The city I embraced as my own – even though it was his dream that brought me here.
About her words to me.
She tells me she is excited for me. For this time in my life. For the adventures I’ve lived, and those I am about to live. That I look amazing.
She doesn’t see the fear. The worry. Just this woman who flew in just this morning to show up for her cousin. For her family. For her life. Not waiting…for anything. For anyone.
This morning, walking, writing, making Minneapolis mine, if only for a moment…I see the same woman. No longer waiting.