Introducing myself to any new city involves finding the 24-hour joints, and becoming well-acquainted through the endless struggle of insomnia, smoking cigarettes, and staring out windows. I let my coffee get cold all too often; I'm not even sure how it works if I'm not drinking it.
In New Orleans, it's bars open constantly. Professional alcoholics on every street corner, gazing at you longingly in the hope that you'll buy them another beer. The bars close at a proper hour in Chicago, but I wasn't old enough to drink anyway.
There were a few diners I did stints at, though. The popular one I rarely frequented, as they often overflowed with the hip in their silver pants eating the pancakes I felt were doughy and undercooked. Somehow, I ended up finding a broody little coffeehouse way uptown, where the lawyers all lived. This was no kind of place for a Loop student, especially one with paint on her clothes and clay in her fingernails. I gave them my grocery money, and they kept me awake, so everything seemed to work out in the end.
They served things like expensive lox on their menu, and daily-made soups, nineteen different persuasions of espresso beverages. I drank coffee. Cream and sugar. This was it. Eating meant I had to go hungry for a week, and there was rice at home. I ate a lot of rice.
The Scorpio is another story entirely, but she was the one who had fallen in love with my roommate. This would have been all well and good, had my roommate not fallen in love with me first. Not only did I consider myself staunchly heterosexual, but I had a quiet eye on a witty virgin two floors up. He had a girlfriend back home, and always let me win at chess. The virginity thing I had issues with, so I simply entertained myself by feeding him good wine and playing an electric wall of sound whenever he visited, then sending him back up to his own dorm, untouched, untainted by my scheming hands. Teasing him in this manner was something of a masochistic revenge against my own loss of innocence.
Anyway, the Scorpio and I never quite slept, just passed from one stoned haze of dreams to another. The only thing that ever changed was Dylan albums in the stereo. This was four months straight of Bob, mind you, and a tangled web of hate and desire we wove. She and I drank a lot of coffee together, and I showed her my little uptown hideout where I knew we'd go undisturbed. She told good stories. This is why I liked her. She also knew when to shut the fuck up. This is why I cared.
We'd been issued year-long train passes at the beginning of the school year, but she'd gotten hers stolen in some nightmarish rape scene with a local junkie. She never gave details, and I never asked. We walked uptown, most nights. Thirty-odd blocks though the black streets of Chicago, huddling into our thrift-store peacoats to compensate for all the weight lost to the city's grey skies and bitter winds. There's a particular walk one takes on in weather like this, hunched and shuffling. Bright little eyes peering out over our scarves, constantly sizing each other up. Deciding what secret to share today.
There's another real reason I never acted upon any of our lovelorn dramas sexually, as it were. (Not, at least, until my last week in town, and that was with the Scorpio herself, leading to a drunken phone call to my bewildered mother at 4 in the morning. I announced that I was a Bob Dylan fan, and expected her to find this infinitely meaningful. She didn't). Moving to Chicago had been the end of an ordeal of an extended affair with a pretty, selfish boy I later discovered had never felt a thing for me. I spent my first months in school stubborn, hurt. I vowed never to deflower the virgin, having suddenly realized the power of an innocent heart.
My closure with this past love lost finally came during one of these long, windy walks with this girl, this Scorpio, to pay for coffee we could have just as easily brewed at home.
I was fumbling a lighter from my pocket when I noticed. Sitting clenched into himself on the grimy sidewalk was a young man, homeless, staring emptily into space. Beneath his dirt and winter hat was the face of this boy I had loved for so long. He was holding a cardboard sign reading HELP ME.
I paused. The Scorpio kept walking. This meant nothing to her, of course. She didn't feel the Chicago chill ricochet through her spine; she didn't even know of Michael yet. I hadn't been ready to tell her the story, the wound was still too fresh.
I squatted down and peered into the same eyes I had for years preceding, always then seeking something that never existed. This couldn't have been the same boy, I tell myself to this day. These eyes were dead. This boy was dead. Postmortem. I didn't know what to do, so I did the only thing I could.
I stuffed my last dollar into his frozen hand.
I ran almost a block to catch up with her curious gaze. "Buy me a cup of coffee tonight," I said, "and I'll tell you a ghost story."