We haven’t seen each other in at least a year; before that, it was four years. I think, anyway, that’s how long. Ever since I’ve known him, he goes back and forth between long-term girlfriends, between being in good shape and looking kind of schlubby.
I have an instinct that this time, he’s going to be cute.
We don’t talk often, so it always surprises me how eager he sounds to see me, when we do reconnect. Once it was coming back from New York to DC; he told me not to worry about anything, he’d figure out a ride for me from the Chinatown bus station back to school for our spring reunion. That was the year after I graduated, and he was a junior.
The next time I saw him, he was out for a friend’s wedding. My roommate saw him drop me off, watching from the front window like an anxious mother, and squee’d at me when I came inside. But, I told her, he’s an old college friend, like an annoying brother, and too young, and he has a girlfriend. He was looking schlubby that year.
He says a night or two before the Chicago visit,
“I feel like you’re going to get my hopes up and then not show.”
“That’s always a possibility,” I tell him. And I don’t feel bad because who cares?
But on the way out, I pack my new green dress.
It’s a long, hot drive and the humidity is 90 percent or something.
As I sit in traffic on the 55, just north of Joliet, he tells me the name of their hotel. When at last I arrive, it’s a lot fancier than I expected.
Exiting the parking garage, I bump into the head valet (or whatever he might be…concierge, maybe?) who directed me there. He says “Follow me,” and it’s a good thing, because the exit is on a different side from the entrance, and I would have wandered the block for ages before figuring out where to make the counterintuitive turn that brings me back to the hotel I just passed.
I catch sight of [Jack] as we near the hotel awning. He’s wearing a plaid shirt that is pink and blue, and his hair is all grown out and falling over his forehead. I adjust my restrictive opinion about men wearing of pink to allow for those with auburn hair.
Jack’s written messages have always been more effusive than his personal demeanor. Maybe that’s guys, or maybe that’s merely Jack. Anyway, the hug is anticlimactic.
While we’re waiting by the gilt doors of the elevator, I tell him, “I didn’t know your hair was curly.”
“I didn’t either,” he said. “I’ve never let it get this long.”
“Mine’s getting long, too,” I say, and pull out the rubber band to show him.
“Wow. Yeah. I’ve never seen it that long,” he says.
He doesn’t say anything after I change out of my sweaty road clothes and into my green dress.
[Charlie] is down in the bar, looking well-dressed and beat. The bartender, in a candy-striper pink uniform, makes him a lot of drinks that she doesn’t charge him for, while Jack and I catch up quickly over eleven-dollar cocktails.
We go to eat pizza (it is Chicago), and talk about the woes of post-graduate life that follow upon exit from the blown-glass bubble of our college.
Our waiter is a transplant from Miami, who impresses us with his eager and attentive service, especially for a corporate restaurant. He came here to go to school, but doesn’t really know what to go into next. He doesn’t mind the weather that much; in the big city, he says, it doesn’t affect things as much as you might think. And when it does, he gets a day off from work. It’s hardest on his pit bull, who doesn’t get to go out as much in the winter.
The hotel bartender gave the guys a list of places to go dancing; Jack knew I’d be excited about that. But the first place we go to has an uncomfortably theatrical barker, who talks us up as he ushers us down into an alley. The syrupy-voiced cabaret singer puts us off almost immediately; the $20 cover and two-drink minimum make up our minds, and we attempt to creep back out past the barker unnoticed.
But as we stand on the corner, Jack and Charlie scrolling their iPhones for other options, the barker comes up to us with an air of secretive compassion.
“What kind of place you guys looking for?” he asks, his theatricality mitigated as much as I suppose it can be, when you’ve got to carry out an 8-hour shift on its strength.
He directs us to Ontario Street. We find it crawling with people–at this early hour, they are mostly down-at-heels friends of the various bouncers, lingering under awnings because there is an intermittent summer shower.
Jack jogs across the street to investigate what kind of action there is. He’s kind of buzzing, though on what I can’t tell. I seldom see anyone with this kind of nervous energy and twitchy anticipation for dancing, besides myself.
Charlie backs out at the last minute–he’s got a friend who lives nearby. Maybe he’ll bring him back, he nods: a polite travesty, if I ever saw one. Jack pays my cover and we go into the downstairs club, one of three in the same building.
The corners are full of people, but no one’s on the dance floor yet. There is candy-flavored fog and blacklights and free vodka drinks, couresty of Rejik, the evening’s sponsor. Remembering my great drink at PLACE in Los Angeles, I say yes to vodka and ginger ale.
Don’t ever do that, is my note on that experience.
We sit at one of the free tables and Jack talks about how much he is learning since he and Joy broke up. This is news to me, though he says he told me last month when we chatted on Facebook. I remember the conversation; I remember the vibe; I remember the texts that came after it and this vague feeling that this was a different Jack interaction than I was accustomed to. But I didn’t want to deal with it, so I didn’t.
Jack has been in nothing but long-term relationships since he was in high school, it seems, and he is determined to learn how to be single. He is full of revelations about this form of life; how you can, for instance, try to date someone and truly turn into just friends, as happened with his coworker recently. How you can go into a bar and not have your objective be to go home with a woman, but just to have a good time dancing. It feels good to dance, he says; guys don’t seem to know this. That it feels good to let loose, to be touched, to connect with someone but not have to seal it with the conquest of intercourse. He wishes more guys knew that. But when we start dancing, he does complain of too many guys on the floor.
We are the only ones, at first. We get bored of just sitting there, since we came expressly to dance, and at this club full of 22-year-old people clad in tight faded denim and thrifted crop tops, no one is likely to be the first. So we get out there. It’s awkward as hell, if I think about it at all. So I keep my eyes on the floor and try to pretend that I’m in my room, alone. The beats are pretty generic, but we both keep moving around and waiting for the magic to kick in. I should speak for myself; Jack doesn’t seem at all to be bothered by the lack of community spirit. He’s not a bad dancer, but a serious one, his head bent and his hands raised to shoulder level. At a certain point–it might have been fifteen minutes or it might have been an hour–something with a vaguely Latin beat starts to play.
Oh sweet mercy, I think, and grab Jack’s hand and make him twirl me around. He’s spent time in Costa Rica and used to go to dances sometimes at college; between those two, he’s not half bad at leading me in something like a salsa-swing.
This always makes me happy instantly; it has the added effect of making other people watch, and predictably, they end up on the floor with us. Before long, it’s crowded; there’s even another couple trying to show us up. (It’s not difficult.)
Dancing with Jack is something I have never done, apart from a large ring of coequals klatched together for security within a large party. And based on everything he said, I’m not entirely sure what to do. Theoretically, if his remarks are authentic, we could touch and connect and do all the things one does with a stranger, or with a lover, but would never think of doing with a friend. But given the difference in the vibe that I felt even through the phone last month, I am not altogether confident of where it might lead, let alone where I want it to lead.
Experimentally, I put my hands on his shoulders. In equal spirit, he doubles me around and puts his hands on my hips. It’s a little weird, but it doesn’t last long enough at once to make any definite impression. I wonder if this is what people do, and if it’s only me–the stuff of drama with friends that some girls seem to have nothing but, the sort of thing that leads to a Shakespearean multiplicity of liaisons within a closed circle of acquaintance. I wonder if I would want to be like everyone else, if it is.
I can’t remember if I felt tired or bored with the music…eventually a new DJ took over and the generic beats returned. We started back toward the hotel, but Jack was still talking and the wind was blowing off the lake, and I felt my heart racing and wanted to slow it down. We wandered all the way out to Navy Pier, found it closed to us, with nocturnal maintenance workers pushing trash bins with as much phlegmatic normalcy as if it were nine in the morning.
Jack’s last girlfriend went to Barcelona, after he said he didn’t want to get married; she was engaged to a Spaniard in a matter of months. It’s hard for me, hearing this, to know with whom to sympathize. Perversely, that R.E.M. song gets stuck in my head at this moment, and it doesn’t leave until we get back to the hotel. Which we turn to do, precipitously.
“I thought you said you wanted to walk until the sun came up?” says Jack.
“I did. But now I’m tired,” I confess.
Charlie, as we expected, is there when we arrive, passed out diagonally on the bed against the farther wall. I’d expected to sleep on the floor, on some couch cushions or something–there are certainly no lack of cushions in a swank hotel. But Jack puts me in the one he used last night, and says he’ll sleep on the floor. The sheets are like tropical water. I’m so happy, and so exhausted, and just about to drift off to sleep when I hear “Good night” above my ear and, looking up, find Jack bending down to kiss me. I think he was going for my cheek; that’s what he got, anyway.
It registers only as a brief blip of confusion before I fall asleep. I don’t even remember it until I get back to Bloomington the following night.