top of page

This is What I Imagine Chicago is Like (I’ve Never Been to Chicago)

By Mena Brazinski | February 26, 2024

There’s a moment when you cross the bridge heading east on the turnpike that you know you’re back in Chicago. And it’s not because the elevation changes or the skyline comes into view or you can smell the first hot dog you’ll have while you’re there. 

It’s just a feeling in your gut that tells you you’re home. 

The closest I’ve come to describing it is a simultaneous loosening and tightening in my chest, the last dip on a rollercoaster that makes my stomach drop, the rare and impossible act of belonging. I walk with the people. I soar with the buildings. 

The high usually lasts for a few days, follows you downtown, tags along with you for lunch at greasy hole in the wall diners, peels back the sticky menus, brushes off the dust. It’s underfoot while you walk Madison avenue, and it tucks you in every still night as the skyline stretches for the stars. You are always equally happy to see each other. 

Your sister is in town on business, but swings by for hometown food and friends. It’s the least she can do, she says, for her little brother. Over a sub you remember how to order for her as she ruffles your hair like you’re eight again, and you let her. You indulge her, just for the hell of it. Just because of that feeling. Your brother has grayed a bit since you’ve seen him, like he got sharper around the edges, a sobering difference in his stature, the way he carries his weight around like it’s holding him back from something. But he’s not immune to it either, the strange cloying pull of this place, and a trip to the pier brings his grin out of retirement for the big game, and he cracks the bat and a smile that threatens to cut his face in half. He claps you on the shoulder and the two of you stumble home after buying each other rounds, clambering in the kitchen too loud at one AM, shushing and laughing your way into the bedroom you used to fight over sharing. 

Your mother is the same as she’s ever been, a comforting constant who eyes you warily from behind red frames, shooting you a look of disapproval you know well enough to feel warmed and welcomed by it. Peter, you should really shave that beard, you know that? It’s unprofessional, she tells you, before your bags have even hit the floor. This is old bait. You’re not biting. You fight fire with sugar and the ants can’t help but get stuck in syrup. She’s smiling before you can see the bottom of the first mug. 

You wonder if she can feel it all the time, your mother, who has lived here her whole life. Your mother who taught you what it means to put down roots, about the importance of staying anchored to somewhere, who has charmed tomato vines to snake across her porch, mint to grow on the front lawn. Maybe it’s an acquired taste, the sort of thing you’re unaware of until you learn to miss it. 

On the second day the high is still holding your hand, tipping your head back so you take it all in, every rooftop, every billboard. It demands your attention, directs you to stare into the sea for hours, even coaxes you into it once or twice. You freeze and yelp like a chihuahua, squirming an embarrassing amount, looking over your shoulder because some irrational voice in your head keeps telling you your high school crush is just around the corner. 

The feeling squashes the fear into something palatable and bite sized, squeezes it into the smallest corner of your chest. It tells you not to worry, reminds you of who you are when you’re here. When you’re here, you are smart when you would be dull, compelling where you would be boring. Here, if you ran into your high school crush, you would say something smooth and complimentary you never could’ve pulled off elsewhere and you’d end up getting dinner a week from now and married four years after that in the church on the corner of Broad and Dominick. Her father would walk her down the aisle and you'd wipe away no less than three tears, and you’d buy a house in the suburbs, visit your Ma on Thursdays for lasagna, and on Fridays just because. You'd become the kind of guy who doesn’t just go to church on Christmas or Easter or when someone dies. You can see it now. The flowers would be beautiful. 

On the third day you’re stuffed from too much food and you find out your brother snores, (since when does your brother snore?!) and you do run into your high school crush in the aisle of a grocery store, not on the edge of the vast, illustrious, romantic ocean. She is less impressive after your brain developed and under fluorescent lighting, and the squeaky wheels on the cart remind you not everywhere possesses the pull you attribute to this place, that not always will you feel the rising and falling of its oscillating arc. You’re both reaching for the same brand of salad dressing when you bump into her, and it should be cute, but it isn’t, and you think of how great it would be if you could offer to pay for a girl’s gala apples and coffee creamer at a checkout line the way you pay for her tequila shot at a bar, but you can’t because people don’t do that and the conversation fizzles and coughs like an engine turning over before dying. 

By the fourth day your bags are packed early, even though you hate packing, and you have never looked forward to hopping into an Uber so much. You miss driving your own car, (since when do you miss driving your own car?!) and Arthur is kind and punctual and has four and a half stars. You kiss your mother’s cheek, duck into the backseat and exhale. Leaving is always easier than you think it’ll be. You don’t dread it like you used to. 

The drive to the airport is uneventful and impersonal and 40 minutes long, because every airport is 40 minutes away. Your mother wanted to drop you off but she had work, and patients don’t care when your son is in town, and she just Can’t see why you keep booking those early flights anyway, it’s not worth the money you’d save. You tell her it’s ok and you mean it. You tell her you don’t want to be a burden and that is most of the truth. 

The whole truth, all of it, is that you need those 40 minutes as a transitional phase. That you need to hold the city in your hands before it lets you go again. That you want to stare out the window like a child, let yourself be a tourist in the place you grew up. 

You crack a window for air and the sounds wash over you. This is nice, and you will miss it, you’ll miss even the midnight sirens and the god awful smells, and the potential. You’ll miss the potential perhaps most of all. 

Which is another almost truth. 

What you will come back for, what you will always come back for, is the feeling. That soaring, sweltering heat in your beating heart, the adrenaline rush of a homecoming. 

When you are not here, it lies dormant, your ribs a useless cage.


bottom of page