This song always reminds me of my first last time in Paris. You can have more than one “last time” if you come back changed. This one was in 1995, at that cusp of an age when I was old enough to know what was coming, but young enough not to flinch. We danced our last dance to this song. Nothing as obviously referential as a tango, which is theater masquerading as intimacy, but a slow, circular shuffling, an excuse in public to put my arms around her, to commit her to memory. I had an early morning flight, but we didn’t go back to her flat. Not that night. She understood better than me how these things worked. By increments, she’d begun pulling away. Preparing us.
She taught me that romance relies on a predetermined end to cast a shadow on its beginning. The pang of impending loss is the spice that intensifies the flavor. It keeps the focus on the now. L’amour, c’est comment on comprend la mort she said, between puffs of her Gauloise Blonde. Love is how we understand death. And I believed her because she was French, and could make anything sound profound and sexy. Standing with my bag outside the Métro station, brave and miserable, I knew better than to ask if I could call, or write, or if I’d ever see her again. But I asked anyway, the words flinging themselves at her despite my efforts to hold them back. Her smile hid pity. “Write that novel,” she told me. “I will read every word.”
The novel, like so many things of youth, fell by the wayside. I think of her only rarely now. Les Feuilles Mortes. The smell of tobacco. The raspberry-jam taste of Beaujolais. Small reminders. Hers was a story with an end, the only possible end, because of course she wasn’t much of a character to begin with. Just a collection of fantasies and stereotypes, a milepost along an imagined road. The depressive pixie dream-girl, projected onto a canvas of loneliness and yearning, unable to survive beyond its borders. I didn’t even give her a name.
You can chase that perfect cup of coffee your entire adult life. It exists in your mind like a Platonic Form. It takes you back to that café, the one where you stopped because you had time to kill, and you managed to snag a table outside in the morning sun. You had that cup, and then another, not because you were trying to wake up, but to bolster your claim on the city’s best outdoor seat. You imagined writers finding inspiration and putting pen to paper in a seat like this, but the sun made you lazy, and you settled for reading the inspired words of others.
An impulsive swagger made you order your coffee black, but after a couple of sips you added just enough milk and sweetener to enjoy as though no one was watching because of course, no one was. The adjustment made you pay attention to the coffee’s flavor and the aroma, and the warmth spreading through your chest from within. That’s when you ordered your second cup and slowed yourself down.
Over the years you’ve tried different shops, different blends. You’ve had cups that are, if you’re being fair, superior on every measurable dimension than the one you’re chasing. But they remain your fall-back, your second-best. Sometimes you fear that if you ever found that original cup, it wouldn’t hold up to your romanticized memory. Your tastes have changed. You’ve changed, and as the saying goes, you can’t go home again. And that’s when it hits you. It’s not about the coffee. All this time, you’ve been chasing a moment.
It’s that time of year when Chicago slips off her sweats, shimmies into a sundress, and you just stare like you’re seeing her for the first time.
On days like this, seeing Chicago through visitors’ eyes is like the nods of men as you walk by with a beautiful woman on your arm. You realize what you have, and have inevitably taken for granted, and you know, deep down, that it was all dumb luck and never really had anything to do with you. It’s just where you found yourself. Still you walk taller, even as you realize the difference between pride and vanity. Because you’re one of Chicago’s own, and in a way that means that Chicago is yours too.
While the sun is warm, the people are out, and a cool breeze brushes the lake-smell over your face like a childhood memory, you can revel — and when was the last time you did that? When was the last time you lifted your gaze up from the slush, and your boots, and your phone, and saw Chicago decked out in color and light? It’s been too long.