Two college seniors sit in a café in a Midwestern college town. Crowds of people pour in to escape the snow. The boy and girl know each other well, and they don’t. They have been together for seven weeks. Their understanding of each other centers on past love lives, confusion about the future, and a vast exploration of each other’s bodies. They need something to move the relationship forward, or it will die.
“Chicago,” she suggests. She grew up a few hours away from there. “You’ll love it.” She’s excited to show him the museums she knows so well, the lake, Michigan Avenue stretching out like a European boulevard. The boy nods, although he’s doubtful. He’s never been there, and he doesn’t believe any Midwestern city could compare to New York, his own home, but he can see this is what she wants, and, for now, making her happy takes precedence. “Chicago sounds great,” he says, pulling off her glove and squeezing her bare hand in his own. She squeezes his hand back.
“It’s Valentine’s Day this weekend,” she says. “It’ll be so romantic. We can get a hotel room and order in.” She imagines bubble baths, dim lights, and sleeping on soft linens, not the sheetless futon he calls a bed. He thinks of having sex with her on a real bed, not his futon or the slim, lumpy single she has at her apartment. The door to the café opens, and a cold draft blows in. People turn to look at the door, holding their fluttering papers and loose napkins until the door closes again, and everything settles back into place.
On the five—hour train ride to Chicago, the boy and the girl huddle in their seat under his coat. He’s got his hand up her shirt, stroking her stomach, every so often grazing the edge of her breast. He studies her face, the way she closes her eyes for a second or takes in a breath. He believes it’s a sign that she likes what he’s doing. He doesn’t have a ton of experience with girls, but he thinks he has an instinctive understanding of what turns them on.
She doesn’t like what he’s doing. Or at least she doesn’t mind the way his touch feels but doesn’t like the fact that he insists on doing it there in front of everyone. She knows he thinks it’s hot, but she thinks it’s stupid, like the time he insisted they have sex in the backseat of his car. It’s the seed of something she’s recognized about him all along. She’s been willing to work with it by considering his inexperience cute and childlike, but now she’s starting to wonder. She knows he would like nothing more than for her to unzip his pants and get him off right there. She’s not going to do that. Instead, she stares out the window, trying to appear hypnotized by the way the buildings turn to trees turn to open fields then back again. Every once and a while, she looks down at her phone to see if they’ve crossed the time zone, jumping back an hour. When they finally do, it’s somewhere outside Gary, Indiana. “See?” she says, holding up her phone. “We’ve crossed a time zone together.” They kiss.
He’s dying for her to open his pants and get him off right there, but he also knows she’s way too much of a prude to do so. The sliding door opens, and the conductor walks in, calling “Chicago! Fifteen minutes!” They kiss again, as if what the conductor has said is more than just a measure of time and space.
The hotel is on a side street with a view of an alley and a large vertical Parking sign across the street. The room is dark and small. It doesn’t matter. The moment they walk in, they are in the bed, stripping off each other’s clothes with gusto. They fool around for a while, but when it comes down to it, he can’t get it up, no matter what he or she tries, as if the stage that has been set is too much for him. “This has never happened before,” he says, although this is not true. He could name at least three times, and those are the ones he remembers. “It’s okay,” she says, although that is not completely true either. Everything he did to her in the train finally got to her, and she feels wound tight. She takes his hand and moves it between her legs, knowing he’ll think that this is sexy but doing it because if he doesn’t, she’ll do it herself and probably better anyway. He’s trying his best, but his attempts are workmanlike and clumsy, harder than she would like. Still, she moans appreciatively. He’s tense, always feeling a bit lost down there. Then again, it’s also because he’s focused on what just happened, trying to make himself rise to the occasion, which, of course, is only making matters worse.
When she finishes, she goes into the bathroom to pee. He feels an urge to turn on the television and watch free HBO but understands that it’s not the right moment. He’s hungry, but there’s not even a menu in the room. He thinks about the show he used to watch as a kid where the genie would just snap her head and make anything appear. He does it a couple of times, hoping that just this once it will work and a plate of nachos will appear next to him. It doesn’t, and he settles in, staring at the ceiling.
The girl lingers on the toilet, wondering what time it is. She doesn’t smoke but wants a cigarette, as if she gets why people always smoke after sex. She looks at the free soaps, the tiny bottles of bath products, and opens one, running a dab of conditioner through her hair. It smells like vanilla. She wonders where she left her cell phone. She wonders what museum she should take him to first. The Field. The Art Institute. She remembers when her father took her to the institute, the way she stared at Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande jatte, and at the little girl in the middle of the painting staring back. She liked to think of the frame around the picture as a doorway she could walk through and find herself in the scene.
When she gets back in bed, she kisses the boy and lies down next to him, guidebook in hand. She’s ready to talk museums, but he’s on her immediately, tossing the book aside, because the kiss activated something that wasn’t there only moments ago. “I’m good now,” he says. He’s focused, not thinking about anything, but also eager not to let what happened happen again. “Okay,” she says and smiles, trying to get into the moment, but she’s struggling. She has, in all ways, moved on. “Let me get on top,” she says, and he complies. When he finally finishes, she slides off him and picks up her cell phone, which was on the bedside table. He falls asleep almost instantly. Then she’s back in the bathroom to pee again, paging through her guidebook, cell phone in hand.
Eventually she too is hungry. She wakes the boy and has him call the front desk. This hotel doesn’t do room service. “You can order in. A pizza or something,” the woman says on the other end of the line. The boy, thinking pizza sounds great, tells the girl, but she shakes her head, making a face. “Let’s go out,” she says. He points out the window at the waves of snow flickering in front of the Parking sign. “It’s a blizzard,” he says. She’s already up, pulling on clothes. “Please,” she says. She tells him about a tavern she knows with amazing burgers. “And then we’ll come right back,” she says with a wink. He recognizes that this is not the right time for a fight, so he drags himself out of the cozy warmth of the bed and pulls on his clothes. “Burger sounds good,” he says.
They walk for thirty minutes, but she can’t find the tavern. Snow is coming down sideways, the wind off the lake slapping against their skin. “Where the fuck is this place?” he says. He doesn’t understand why they just can’t go to any restaurant they see. They’ve passed about a dozen, and now he’s starving. “It’s right up here,” she says, although she doesn’t know. She’s not exactly sure where it is. “It’s really good. I went there the last time I was here,” she says, although that was nearly five years ago when she was in high school with her boyfriend at the time. It might have closed.
Fifteen minutes later they still haven’t found it. And they’re lost. “I swear it was right here,” she says. He points at the first bar he sees and says, “I’m going in here.” He walks in. She follows, as frustrated with him as she is with herself. He sits at the bar. She sits down next to him, leaving a healthy space between them. There’s barely anyone there, just a bartender and an old guy at the other end of the bar. The boy orders a beer. So does the girl. “I’m sure it was near here,” she says. The boy doesn’t say anything, just picks at the label on his beer bottle. He’s thinking how this is just perfect, how she always wants it her way, the right city, the right hotel, the right position. He remembers the time he suggested they go to eat Mexican food at his favorite restaurant back at school and she said, “That place is awful.” At the time, he shrugged it off, but now he sees she has an opinion about everything, and it is usually negative. He thinks about how he so rarely sees his friends these days. It’s all about her friends. He tries to remember what he likes about her, besides her body, which now seems boyish and angular. He looks at her, head down, the sides of her mouth in a frown, studying her cell phone. He thinks she looks a little like a gerbil working a nut. He can’t help but crack a smile.
She sees him staring, a dumb grin on his face. “What?”
“Nothing,” he says and goes back to the label on his beer bottle.
She hates it when people pull labels off beer bottles. She thinks it is obsessive— compulsive, like biting your nails or bouncing your leg. She feels bad about the long walk in the snow but thinks he’s being immature. She remembers all those nights back at school when she suggested they go out to the movies or to the bar or out with her friends and he wanted to stay home. She remembers the time her friend brought over mushrooms and the boy said, “I’ll stick with beer.” She smiled and kissed him, proud that he was assertive enough to do his own thing. Now he seems like an unadventurous baby who can’t get her off. She hates the way he gets pouty and silent. She hates the way he picks at his beer label. Mediocre sex and a big freaking baby. Who needs this?
There’s no food at the bar, so they eat a couple bags of pretzels, not talking. When they finish their beers, two more appear on the counter. “From the gentleman at the end of the bar,” the bartender says. They both look. An old man raises his glass and then slowly gets off his chair. “Great,” the boy says under his breath. “You picked this place,” the girl whispers back.
“Little Valentine’s Day treat,” the old man says as he walks over. “Thank you,” she says. The boy says, “Thanks.” The old man puts a hand on a stool. “May I join you?”
“Of course,” the girl says, eager for new company.
“Sure,” the boy says, although he doesn’t really want to talk to anyone.
The old man asks many questions. Where they are from, what they are studying, what they want to do when they get out of school. Eventually he starts talking about himself, the part of town he grew up in, his two sons and a daughter who live everywhere but Chicago, his seven grandkids. “One for each day of the week,” he says and laughs at his joke. He’s dressed in an old, pilling sweater and a pair of corduroys that are bare in places. The girl thinks it’s charming, like professors at her school who carry their books in plastic bags or wear different colored socks. The boy thinks the guy might be homeless or a drunk and is eventually going to hit them up for money.
The old man says, “You folks eaten dinner yet?”
The boy speaks immediately. Two beers and hunger have turned off his inhibitions. “Just bar snacks,” he says. The girl smiles. She still has her wits enough to see what’s coming next. “Would you let me buy you some Chinese food? I was just on my way. It’s right around the corner. Best in the city.” The boy doesn’t want to go. He’s not crazy about old people, and he didn’t come to Chicago to hang out with a stranger. The girl loves the idea. This is the kind of experience you don’t get every day. “It’s so Chicago,” she thinks. “Sure,” she says, and the boy shoots her a look.
The Chinese restaurant is indeed around the corner, but the old man insists on taking a cab. “If I slip on the snow and break a hip, it’s game over,” he says as they ride in a cab for thirty seconds. They walk into the restaurant, which is dark, the walls decorated with fans and paintings of large flowers and bare trees. There’s no one at any tables except for two women sitting in a corner rolling silverware into napkins. The old man waves at the hostess, and then he sits at the first table. The boy looks around as he sits down, suspicious of a restaurant with no one in it. The girl settles into her chair, taking it all in, thinking how she would have never found this place in her guidebook. It’s a place for locals.
The waitress comes over with menus, but the old man waves them away, saying something in Chinese. The words come out in quick snaps, sharp and pointed, the sounds so different from what they’ve heard from him before that it’s as if a new person is speaking. It surprises both the boy and the girl, but in different ways. The boy feels self—conscious, like a child at dinner with his parents. He sits up straight in his chair, crosses his arms over his chest. The girl thinks how she’s misjudged the man, how he’s probably better educated than she imagined, someone who has seen the world. She feels guilty for thinking him provincial. “If it’s okay with you I’m just going to order a bunch of dishes for the table,” he says, not waiting for their answer. He rattles in Chinese. The waitress smiles and nods, occasionally saying something back, but not writing anything down. The girl wants to say she doesn’t eat meat but stays quiet. The boy hopes the man only orders pork, chicken, and beef dishes.
“Learned some Chinese in the navy,” the old man says. “Stationed in Hong Kong for two years. Know enough to order a meal or ask a girl for a dance.”
The food arrives quickly, so many plates of vegetable, chicken, and noodle dishes, all glowing with sauce, there’s barely any room left on the large lazy Susan in the middle of the table. The boy can’t help himself. The sight of all that food is too much. He digs in and starts eating, as if it is his last meal. It’s delicious. He spins the wheel, taking whatever lands in front of him. This is the best Chinese food he has ever had, he decides. The girl tries to pluck out the strips of chicken and bits of pork in the dishes, but she’s overcome with hunger too. “Fuck it,” she thinks, biting into a pork dumpling that bursts with flavor in her mouth. She wonders why she ever gave up meat.
The old man doesn’t talk during the meal. Once he starts eating that’s his focus, as if everything else is unimportant. He’s got his head down, working a pair of chopsticks as if they were extensions of his fingers. Every so often, he’ll look up, take a swig of beer, and smile at the boy and girl, making sure they have enough of everything. Several times, he nods to the waitress, points at the beers, and another round appears.
When the meal is done, the boy is spinning with fatigue. He wishes he could be transported back to their hotel bed with his beer and watch HBO until he passes out. He snaps his head again, like an idiot, trying to teleport himself. The girl is drunk and feels full for the first time in months, something she doesn’t normally allow herself, but remembers how comforting it can be, like sleeping under a warm, thick blanket. She takes a long sip of water, trying to stay hydrated.
The waitress brings over three fortune cookies and three glasses of plum wine. The boy cracks his cookie open and eats it in one bite. He sips at the drink, surprised at the sweet flavor.
“What’s it say?” the old man says to the boy.
“You bring happiness to others,” the boy reads. He looks up, smiling, before adding, “In bed!” The old man and the boy laugh loudly. The girl doesn’t laugh.
“What’s yours say?” the old man asks the girl. She hasn’t touched her cookie or her wine. She doesn’t do dessert. She picks one up, breaks it, and pulls out the fortune, leaving the cookie on the side. “Your first love has never forgotten you.” She shakes her head and smiles but thinks instantly of Jonas Portman, the boy who sat in front of her in the third grade, and how for a whole year she dreamed of touching his straight brown hair. “Where is he now?” she wonders.
“How about yours?” they both say to the old man.
The man fiddles with the cookie. “Got to make a wish,” he says, closing his eyes, and then he cracks it. He holds it out in front of his face as if he can’t quite make out the words, but then he smiles. “‘You like Chinese food.’ No arguing with that.”
They all laugh, and then there’s a pause as the old man stares at the fortune. The door to the kitchen swings open, and for a moment they can hear the sound of running water, people talking in Chinese, pots and pans clanking against each other. The girl looks at the boy. The boy looks at the girl. They don’t know what to do next. “You know,” the man says, “my wife used to say I was psychic. Knew we were having a boy the first time. Knew the second was a girl.” He pauses. “Knew she would go before me.”
The boy is worried the old man is going to cry right there. “That would be perfect,” he thinks.
The girl wants to reach out and touch the old man, comfort him, but thinks it’s not appropriate.
“So I know,” the old man continues, raising his head, “that you two will make it. I can tell.”
The girl looks at the boy and then down at the plates of leftover food. The boy takes a swig of beer. “Do me a favor, will ya?” the old man says to the boy. “Give her a kiss.”
The boy chuckles to himself. “Get out of here,” he says, leaning back in his chair.
“I’m serious,” the old man says.
The boy rolls his eyes. He doesn’t want to be pushed into anything. Not by this old man. The girl is pleased, loving watching the boy squirm. “For real?” the boy says.
“C’mon,” the old man says.
The boy puts down his beer, leans across the table, and pecks her on the cheek.
The old man shakes his head. “Don’t be a pussy,” he shouts, louder than is appropriate. “It’s Valentine’s Day.”
The ladies at the table have stopped their work. They have unwrapped some silverware and tap empty water glasses, shouting, “Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!” The hostess stands in the doorway to the kitchen, clapping along. A couple of guys in aprons poke their heads out of the kitchen. The girl pushes her hair behind her ears. She’s suddenly uncomfortable. The boy just wants to get it over with. He gets up and walks over to the girl, leaning her head back and pressing his lips against hers. He smells the vanilla conditioner in her hair. The girl fights at first, tightening her cheeks, but then gives in to the moment, the sweet and unexpected taste of the plum wine in his mouth. For a moment they both forget where they are. When they do come apart again, they are somewhat dazed and shocked, as if they don’t recognize each other.
“Now that’s what I’m talking about!” the old man says. The ladies in the restaurant cheer. The guys at the kitchen door clap.
The boy takes the girl’s bare hand in his. She squeezes his hand tightly.
The old man insists on paying the bill. “Someday you can do it for someone else,” he says. “You know, that ‘pay it forward’ crap.” They put him in a cab and watch him go another hundred feet down the street until it stops in front of an apartment building, where he climbs out of the cab and carefully walks to his door, and then he is gone.
The boy and girl take the next cab. It’s dark in the backseat, and they huddle together for warmth. “That was crazy,” she says. “Totally,” he says.
Two days later they will be back at school. Three days later she will buy him a shirt he will never wear. Four days later they will go to dinner at a new Ethiopian restaurant with a group of her friends, and he’ll make a comment about spending so much money on puddles of food. Five days later she will find him at his apartment drinking beer with some of his friends while wearing diapers so that they don’t have to go to the bathroom. Seven days later they will make love on his futon, and then the girl will stand in his doorway and say, “Where is this going?” He will say that he doesn’t know and that perhaps they need to take a break. They will end the relationship a few weeks later, on the first day of spring, people dressed in shorts even though it’s only forty degrees. They will exchange clothes, CDs, books, all left at each other’s apartments. They will promise to keep in touch, to stay friends.
In three months, he will move back to New York and will not see or hear from her again until someone mentions her name, years later, and how she now has two kids and lives in the Bay Area. He doesn’t think of the trip to Chicago until he is there on business and tells his colleague about this crazy old man who once took him out for Chinese food in Chicago. “The guy actually spoke fucking Chinese!” he will say, forgetting to mention the girl.
She will stay in the college town for another year, working for a professor and then as a waitress, but will eventually decide to move to San Francisco and rent an apartment with a group of friends. She sometimes finds old pictures of herself with the boy, which makes her think, not of him, but of how different she was back in college. She will often tell the story of the old man and the Chinese restaurant in Chicago, but she will call the boy “some guy I was dating.”
But that night in Chicago, driving back to their hotel, they hold each other in the cab, almost afraid to let go. They kiss deeply, believing they have rediscovered something that was lost and that it is enough to sustain them for a long time, if not forever. Everything unpleasant that happened before the dinner is gone, a dream. It’s as if they have passed through some kind of threshold, a doorway, and that somehow, magically, everything is now just right. The cab weaves through empty streets, slow and quiet. The sound of the car against the road is muffled by a blanket of snow that covers every imperfection.
John Fried began his writing and editing career by proofreading pesticide labels for a chemical and pharmaceutical encyclopedia. He later received his MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College and now teaches creative writing at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where he is an assistant professor in the English Department. His fiction has appeared in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, where his story “Birthday Season” won the 2007 fiction contest, Front Range Review, Minnesota Review, and the Southeast Review online edition. He is finishing a novel in stories.
“Chicago” appears in our Spring 2010 issue.