Chicago in February is not for the faint of heart. Trees have been dead for four months, the wind cuts like razor blades even through the heaviest of coats and it’s possible to go three weeks straight without seeing the sun. It will have an impact even on the cheeriest of demeanors. Spring finally arrives not because of the laws of the natural world but because Chicagoans will it into existence.
This February I found myself busier than I had been in quite some time. I’d sold my story of surviving The Wave to The National Standard, a prestigious magazine with a broad and influential readership. The story ran in three parts over three months. Not only had it been a nice paycheck itself but it had lead to other work, as well as an offer to expand the story and collect it into a book.
Despite being only 5:30 pm it was pitch black. I was about to leave for a nearby bar to meet up with my friend Mike and a few other guys I hadn’t seen in awhile. Determined to prove my Midwestern grit I opted to walk the six blocks to the bar. Only tourists take taxis, I thought to myself.
I had called it a day on work around 5:00 and was eating a slice of leftover pizza before changing and going out. I wasn’t thrilled with the plans but had been dodging invitations from Mike for a couple weeks now. One more and he’d stop, so I finally agreed, despite my reluctance. It wasn’t anything personal, it was just a general dislike of that scene and the social pressures it carried with it. All of the people coming out were guys I liked, though, so it wouldn’t be horrible.
I still had a couple hours before I was supposed to meet them there and the walk would only take 15 minutes so decided to take a quick nap, opting against setting an alarm to make sure I wasn’t late.
A message from Mike at 8:13 read “You still coming?”
“Shit, yeah. Overslept. Be there in 20.”
I rubbed my eyes and groggily walked toward my closet, throwing on fresh deodorant and a new shirt. Glancing in the mirror confirmed I looked presentable enough, though I wouldn’t be winning any fashion icon awards. Grabbing my jacket, I walked out the door.
The – 10-degree temperature wasn’t bad for this time of year. The route to the bar took me past the diner where Melinda once worked, prompting, as it usually did, a bout of reflection on the events of the last year. I’d spent much of the first month after learning of her fate drunk, unable to cope and unwilling to engage with the rest of the world. It had been Karen who pulled me out of my wallowing and who set me on the path to coming to terms with what had happened. I wasn’t quite there yet, but I had enough emotional distance and perspective that the memories didn’t hurt as bad as they once did.
I shook my hands both to regain feeling in them and to clear my thoughts. I was only a couple blocks from the bar and did a three-point check to make sure I had my wallet, phone and keys all with me.
The warmth of the bar welcomed me as I walked in a few minutes later. Thankfully this was my kind of place; One with tables and beer, not a club with cocktails. It was meant to people to drink and talk, not blow off steam and dance their worries fleetingly away. A quick scan of the room found Mike and the others in a booth along the right-hand wall across from the bar. They all had beers in front of them, understandable given my late arrival.
“I thought you’d back out again,” Mike said as I approached the table. I shook the hand he extended and did likewise for Rich, Gary and John, the others in the group.
“Nah, not this time. Just had a quick 20-minute nap unexpectedly turn into over two hours.”
“Well,” Rich said, “Get yourself a drink and buy a round for the table as your act of penance.”
“Done.” I collected orders and hung my coat on the hook attached to the pole on the side of the table before taking the couple steps over to the bar.
As I stood waiting for the drinks I looked around at the other assembled patrons, catching the eye of a young woman sitting with her own group of friends at a table about 15 feet away. I awkwardly half-smiled as I tried to place what seemed to be a familiar face, turning to track the bartender’s progress on pouring four beers. When I glanced back in her direction she was gone, her chair empty while the rest of the women were still there. Before I could casually look around to locate her I noticed someone approaching from the other side.
“Hey,” she said with a smile.
“Hey yourself,” I replied, instantly wondering what was wrong with me.
She looked at me inquisitively for a moment. “You don’t recognize me, do you?”
“I really want to but honestly, I got nothing.”
“Well you have to imagine me with a clipboard and a stack of forms for you to sign.”
Recognition finally clicked. “You work at the hospital! Sorry, I’m blanking on your name, though.”
“That’s alright, you were still pretty out of it.” She smiled again. “Rachel.”
“Unlike you, I remember.” Ouch
The drinks I’d ordered were finally placed on the bar in front of me. “I have to take these back to the others. Stay right here, will you?”
“Sure,” she said like she’d consider it.
I carried the drinks back to the table where Mike and the others were sitting. Before I could do more than open my mouth Rich said, “No man, you do you.” I put the drinks down, placed two $20s in the center of the table, nodded at each of them and turned around to see Rachel still standing where I’d left her.
My mind sorted through a number of “casual” conversation starters, all rejected for sounding like terrible pickup lines. Before the silence became even more pointed I finally opted for the least objectionable choice. “So what brings you out tonight?”
“Really?” she sighed. “That’s the best you could come up with to alleviate an uncomfortable moment?”
“I need to make it clear there are ill-maintained gravel roads smoother than I am.”
“Noted. How have you been?”
“Not bad. No big problems since you saw me last.” A blatant lie, but this wasn’t the time or venue for emotional truths. “Got back into writing pretty smoothly once my pain meds were under control and” I briefly thought of Melinda “got a few other things behind me.”
“Well that’s good.” She sipped her drink and silence dominated once more.
“I wanted to kiss you at the hospital that day.” The words were out of my mouth before I had a chance to rein them in. I mentally shrugged as I assumed she would be leaving in response. If I were lucky it would be without a drink having been thrown in my face. There goes that, I thought.
Instead she laughed and looked slightly relieved. That was…surprising.
“Feel better now that you got that off your chest?”
“Not even remotely. I’m more than a little surprised you’re still here.”
“Well you haven’t said anything really offensive yet. Do you want to move back to safer territory for a while or is there more you’ve been saving up for six months?”
“No, please, less rocky terrain would be welcome and appreciated.”
She look up at the ceiling as if pondering potential topics. My shame status remained largely unchanged.
“OK, sports. I’ll go first. Go Cubs, go Hawks, Bears suck and Bulls are underperforming yet again. You?”
I shook my head. “Yeah, this isn’t going to help my situation. Go Cubs, for sure. I’ve heard of the Hawks but am only vaguely aware Chicago has professional football or basketball teams.”
“That’s fine,” she said, “it gives me something to work with.”
“I’m game if you are.” We clinked glasses as if solidifying a pact.
For the next 45 minutes Rachel and I talked at the bar. Once she excused herself to go and check in with her friends, who left a few minutes later, seemingly convinced I wasn’t a threat. That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of meaningful glances sent my way as they walked past. Eventually Mike and the others left as well and I apologized for ditching them, promising to coordinate something in the next couple weeks to try again.
“I should go,” Rachel said eventually.
“This isn’t a proposition or anything presumptuous, but can I get you home?”
“Thanks but no thanks, Chivalry Dude. I propose we consider tonight a success before anything further. We need to get out before you make it awkward again.”
I took the hit, which was earned. “Fair enough. I can get your number though, right?”
“You already have it. I put it in your phone an hour ago while you were talking to your friends. You really shouldn’t leave it lying around and need a passcode ASAP.”
I picked up my phone and looked at my contacts list. Sure enough there was a new entry for Rachel. “Bold,” I said.
“I prefer to think of it as seizing an opportunity.”
Finally, I was feeling more confident. After everything I’d been through in the last several months a woman taking initiative like this was just what I needed. “Well that seals it, you’re going to hear from me again. Can I call you tomorrow?”
“You sure you don’t want to talk with your friends about whether it’s better to wait three days to call the girl you just met?”
“I’m sure you can understand my mindset has evolved to one of not putting things off for later.”
She nodded, seeming to understand my reference to the circumstances we’d met under.
“Yeah, call me tomorrow.” She started to turn toward the door but then came back around to face me. “I’m going to leave now but you’re going to wait here for five minutes. No stalking, am I clear?”
“OK then.” She grabbed me and kissed me. Not a gentle and tentative standard first kiss but deeply and passionately, as if we were weeks or months into a relationship. I understood Rachel loved with her whole heart and was drawn to that.
“Call me tomorrow.” She slapped my cheek and walked out the door. No looks back to assess the damage she’d just done, which was substantial.
Our first date was three days later. I took her to the Music Box Theater to see a revival of Jaws 3D, complete with paper glasses with red and blue cellophane lenses. Our second was a Hawks game at the New Chicago Stadium, the first hockey game I’d been to since they tore down the Jordan Center.
We went our regularly for months. Or we stayed in with pizza, beer and movies. I met her friends and roommates. She met my friends. It was just the sort of “normal” relationship I hadn’t had in a good long while and it felt right.
One night in May we went to a party at the apartment of a friend of mine. Rachel and I stayed along a wall, talking with each other and with the occasional person who drifted by. Anna was there, too. She seemed drunker than I’d seen her in a while as she half-stumbled over to us.
“Anna, we were planning on leaving in a few minutes anyway, why don’t you come with us.” It wasn’t a question but a friendly, if forceful suggestion.
“Daniel,” she said with a distinct slur, “you need to chill the fuck out. I love you for this whole 18th-century protector vibe thing you have going on, but knock it the hell off. I mean…you couldn’t protect whatsherface you were so in love with so how the fuck do you think you’re going to keep me safe?”
I took a breath to steady my nerves. “Anna…”
“No, seriously Daniel, I’m not…”
“Anna.” More forcefully.
“Daniel?” This was Rachel. I’d never mentioned Melinda.
“Oh, you’re in the shit now, Mr. Nice Guy.”
I was pissed at Anna for multiple and glaringly obvious reasons. Rachel was demonstrably upset at my revealed lie of omission.
“Let’s go, shall we?” Rachel said as she tried to maintain an air of pleasantry.
Anna mock-saluted me as we walked away. “I’m sure I’ll find someone to help me out. You don’t have to solve all my problems, Dan-O.”
With only a terse nod I turned and walked behind Rachel to leave the party.
The cab ride back was a master class in tense silence. Once or twice I turned to say something only to be met with a tight shake of the head from Rachel indicating I should refrain from any sort of defense, explanation or argument. I’d expected her to continue on to her own place but she got out of the cab at my building and followed me upstairs. As we entered she took off her coat, tossed it on the couch and walked around to put the kitchen counter between us.
“Who was she? Did you really love her?”
“She worked at the diner and I had a crush on her for a while. We hooked up a couple times but that was it. Not someone I was dating but, to be honest, I would have liked to.”
Rachel said nothing, just looked at me, inviting me to continue.
“I don’t even know what exactly I was feeling. I liked her and enjoyed spending time with her. Six or seven months ago she dropped out of sight for a while, I tried to track her down and eventually found out she got caught in The Wave.”
Rachel looked as if she were weighing her words carefully. “I’m not mad you slept with someone before me. I need to be clear about that. This isn’t jealousy, at least not of…”
“…Melinda. I’m only partly made you didn’t tell me about her. Anna throwing it in my face like that…”
“She was drunk.”
“That doesn’t change anything and you need to not defend her right now. What hurts is that it’s another thing I feel like an outsider in your life to. Even more than that, now I feel like her going missing was what caused you to try to kill yourself. Even if you didn’t think it, her disappearance seems like the kind of thing that could put someone on edge.
“How long after you found out she died did we meet? At the bar, I mean.”
I shook my head. I suspected where this was going and didn’t like it. “It was about a month later.”
“Did you date or see anyone before me?”
“No, Rachel, we’ve talked about this. I hadn’t dated anyone for a while before you.”
“You mean other than the girl you were crushing on. Which makes me the rebound chick after the other woman was literally out of the picture.”
Another sigh to clear my head. “I guess you could look at it like that, yeah.”
“Jesus, Daniel, I don’t know of any other way you could look at it. I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I would have gotten involved with you if I’d know your issues were this fresh.”
The rubber band in my mind snapped. “Jesus, really? You’re feeling like I have issues, that I make you feel like an outsider, that’s what this is all about?
“I almost died, and for no good reason, just like the millions of other people in the last five years. I came this close. But you know what? Now the stats make me an almost mortal lock to outlive everyone around me. Unless I get hit by a bus or something, I’m now likely to watch everyone around me die. I’ve watched as my parents died, I watched Todd die, I watched dozens of friends and family die. We’re surrounded by this great vortex of death and now there’s me, right in the middle of it. I feel like the heart of a dying sun that’s pulling more and more death closer and closer until it all collapses into me.
“That’s what I’m living with and never saying. Yes, I probably should, but I don’t know how to start, much less have that conversation. It tears me up inside every minute of every day so much I can barely breathe at times. But I get up and I thank God you’re still with me and I get about living because there’s no other option.”
Rachel stared at me. This was the first time I’d raised my voice to her and the first time she’d see the emotional wake that followed.
“You could have told me,” was all she said.
“Yep. Should have, too.”
“I’m mad at you right now. You going nuclear with the emotional honesty doesn’t change that. It doesn’t let you off the hook.”
“Well,” she said as if she’d just reached a conclusion, “considering you’ve gone monosyllabic I don’t see much point in my staying here tonight.” She picked up her coat and stepped to the door.
“Rachel.” She just stood there without turning around. “I love you.”
“I love you too, Daniel. But I can’t be here right now.” The door closed behind her and I slumped to the couch, contemplating where I’d gone wrong. My phone buzzed. Anna’s name and face appearing on the screen. I ignored it. I’d have that conversation later.
Rachel and I were engaged four months later. We’d worked through at least some – most – of our issues and would tackle new ones together as they emerged. We both agreed, though, that life was too short not to spend it with someone who made us happy. There were still fights, but we always knew we wanted the same thing and found our way back to taking a common path together.
It was the happiest period of my life anticipating marrying her. I could neither remember nor imagine anything better.
I killed myself on a Tuesday morning, for no reason at all. I was on my way to a final tuxedo fitting just days before the wedding. Mike and Tom were going to meet me there and we were going to have lunch afterward. Rachel was at the dress shop with her friends, including Anna and Karen, dealing with issues there.
I walked into an alley just a block from my apartment and slit my wrist with a shard of broken glass. The cuts were so deep I bled out in moments. Even the couple that walked past 20 seconds later were too late to do anything. My mind simply faded away.
Despite the statistics, The Wave had eventually caught me. Like a shark, it circled back and pulled me under, away from the life I’d only recently learned to enjoy.