We set out early. I hadn't slept much for several days, and I know I was still awake about two hours before the phone rang to wake me with the news that Ian was on his way to Chicago. It was about 6:30 am. I blinked, bemused for a long moment, and reminded myself not to be angry with Ian for calling more or less when he was supposed to.
Our destination was a park near a college campus, to embark upon a 22-mile bicycle ride through the city of Chicago on a beautiful morning near the end of summer. Our spirits were high. We were glad to be doing this event, glad to be doing something together. We have been friends since sometime at the latter end of the 1980s: high school students, later bandmates, and now just very close friends who have known one another for a lifetime.
We got our rider numbers, prepared ourselves. Ian told me that he had not been on anything approaching this long a bike ride since perhaps his boyhood days as a scout. I could tell he was a little nervous. I told him that a leisurely ride of this sort of distance was generally far less tiring than even a 3-mile bicycle commute through morning traffic to work, and that he would do fine. I told him that the fact he had not ridden a bike lately would work in his favor, as his muscles would be surprised.
We set out in the third wave of 22-mile riders. Chevrons and an occasional sign would guide us, and we had a paper map of the route as well.
The first half was pretty delightful. We rode at our own pace, allowing the clusters of cyclists to pass us. Sometimes, we could no longer see any other riders from our event. At the halfway mark, we paused at a rest area the organizers had established, to eat bananas, drink water, catch a second wind, and complain to one another that our asses were sore already from the bicycle seats.
Shortly after we reestablished ourselves on the ride, something changed for me. It wasn't that the tease of rain which had felt so refreshing turned into outright rain, chilly and thick. It wasn't that the wind sometimes grew fierce and made our progress require more effort. It was something internal, sparked by something Ian had said. Along the way, we had discussed music, thoughts of the future, the ride itself. And as we skirted alongside yet another park on our journey, Ian said to me that he was really enjoying the feeling of being in the city, rather than driving through it.
I looked around, and I couldn't see what he meant at all. I've long prided myself on my ability to see Chicago as something new each time I move around within her borders. This very blog has at times been stuffed with such observations. But in that moment, it felt as though Chicago had nothing it could do to spark me into finding its hidden beauty. I knew even in that moment that this was temporary, a trick of the light, as it were. Tomorrow, I could go out and find new ways to fall in love all over again.
I also knew, though, that this ride had become the beginning of what feels like a farewell to this city I have lived in for so much of my adult life. I am ready for something new, to be seduced by another city, another town. I will not be leaving anytime soon, so of course my feeling could change, but I feel a new chapter starting, and it is not set here, I don't think.
I said nothing of this to Ian. I don't know why. I think he would certainly have understood it if I tried to vocalize it.
We continued riding, and for some reason, the event organizers had plotted their route so that the second half of the ride took us into the crowded shuffle of the loop. All at once, our leisurely ride took on all the mannerisms of a morning commute. The rain grew somewhat relentless, and we had to become far more vigilant about the increasing number of cars we shared our roads with. They poked at our comfort zones, and edged us toward danger of collision from time to time. At one point, we shared a single lane of traffic with both construction and a city bus, breathing hot exhaust into my face as I moved behind it. I told Ian that he was essentially experiencing the worst form of some sort of Chicago Bicycle Commuter Fantasy Camp, but instead of three to five miles, we had close to ten to go, growing weary from the dozen already under our belts.
Eventually, with some help from the increasingly confusing chevrons, we completed the ride. We both agreed that it was a worthwhile experience, but one we could have easily organized for ourselves for free, choosing our route at whim. We were soaked to the skin, and more than a little exhausted.
And I thought it was fitting that in what I had come to view as the first leg of a farewell tour of my city, Chicago had shown me both its beauty and its frustrations. We had gone through affluent neighborhoods, and ones I might normally grow somewhat uncomfortable with even in my car. We had seen the peaceful side of a Sunday morning on a warm summer day, and the chilly danger of being unprotected in traffic during a heavy rain.
Chicago remains a glittering jewel, with far too many facets to count or experience in a single lifetime. And one day, I might return here with fresh eyes and love it anew. But for now, it feels like it is somehow less mine, and that I am somehow less a part of it.
Before I got home to process some of these thoughts (which are not nearly as negative as I fear I have painted them. I am rusty.), I got one more delight. I stopped at a sandwich shop on the way home to get something to eat. When I asked the kid behind the counter for "lots" of tomatoes, he put what amounted to two whole tomatoes on my submarine sandwich. I love tomatoes, and have never experienced that particular largesse at a chain eatery. That moment served as at least a minor reconnection somehow, and maybe what it indicated was that even though I think I might be ready to leave, Chicago will never stop finding little delights for me to experience. In that, I feel that I can leave on a note of happiness when I finally go: two dear friends shaking hands as they part for what could be a weekend or a lifetime, hoping they have made their mark upon the other in some small way.
I am trying to relaunch this blog. As you may be able to see if you used to read it regularly, I am changed in some ways since the last time I scribbled things here. I hope that my writing will improve again with time, and that I will find my way back to communicating something complicated with a bit more grace than I have now.