Chicago is a place I’ve left dozens of times. To go home the snowy woods for Christmas, to live in Chile for the summer, to Guatemala and Miami and Utah for much needed breaks during the school year. But each time I left, each time I took a cab down Dempster, that traffic-congested, strip-mall-lined corridor, I held a return ticket. Leaving wasn’t leaving, really, because there was always the coming back. Maine was home but Chicago became home-base, the place from which trips were launched, trips that lasted a few days or a couple of weeks or even several months, but that always brought me right back to that lakeside skyline.
As I opened up my confirmation email a couple of days ago my eyes caught on a line at the top, the two words that made this plane ticket, this trip so different than all of the others. One way. And that one way was forward. Onward, into something else, into the next step, into the future. Leaving this time was different because even if there was at some point a coming back, it wouldn’t be the same as all the other coming-backs, because I wouldn’t live here.
Suddenly walking around became a giant string of goodbyes. Goodbye Chicago skyline from Grant Park, goodbye Lake Street El stop, goodbye Norris, goodbye Kresge, goodbye spot on the lakefill I’d stop on my runs to stretch and look at the water, goodbye Allison Hall, goodbye Sheridan road, goodbye Pi Phi porch, goodbye Hamlin street, goodbye Simpson street, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. Nostalgia, when it hits, crushes you like a thick, slow-moving fog.
The summer before freshman year of college I would spend my lunch breaks from shifts at the Gap Outlet in Freeport sitting on a ledge across from the Lobster Cooker, reading books in a desperate attempt to escape the mindless chatter and chain-smoking that my co-workers would indulge in in the break room. One of the books I read that summer was Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book that seemed to inherently resist its readers understanding or finishing it, but that I chugged through on that stone ledge for lack of anything else to do. Garcia Marquez’s novels and short stories are perpetually saturated with that fog of nostalgia, a nostalgia that seems to exist almost in its own right, beyond merely being an emotion that the characters experience. At some point in the book, someone with the last name Buendía, who’s first name was probably José Arcadio just like fifteen other characters in the book who are all related to him (hence the its near incomprehensibility) sits at a dinner table and says to whoever he is with “If you have to go away, at least try to remember how we were tonight.”
With that simple line I was immediately imbued with the same nostalgia that hung heavy in the hearts of all of Garcia Marquez’s characters. Suddenly a place I had been itching to leave transformed before my eyes, suddenly everything I saw was something precious I was about to lose. By remembering exactly how we were, exactly how everything was, the nostalgia was thickened, was solidified until it became almost impossible to move.
The words came back to me, four years later, as I was getting to leave Northwestern, leave Chicago, and the nostalgia settled in more heavily than ever. Because when José Arcadio Buendía urges his dinner companions to remember how they were tonight, he isn’t just speaking about that night—he is speaking of all the nights they spent together, of which this one just happens to be the last. I wasn’t just going to remember how we were my last night, sprawled across the couches of my best friend’s living room, full from dinner and hesitant to move because I knew once we did it would be over, I was going to remember how we were every night that had elapsed between this one and the first one. How we were the night the night we slept on our sleeping bags on the lakefill after eight days in the woods, how we were the nights spent up late in the hallway talking because there was no one to tell us when to go to bed anymore, how we were the nights in library towers when instead of studying we’d drink too many Red Bulls and start sending each other cat videos, how we were the nights we had to bring each other cheese cake and hold each other as we cried, how we were how we were that night there were five inches of fresh snow on the ground and we flew down Western in a cab anyway, how we were the nights we’d jump in the lake when the air got too hot, how we were the nights we’d sprint to the shuttle stop to take the bus up north, how we were the nights we swayed to music underneath a great dark sky, how we were the nights that didn’t seem to have enough hours—how we were all the nights we were together. If I have to go away, I will at least try to remember that.
It is a beautiful and difficult thing, to care about something enough that you will miss it when it’s gone. It is a beautiful and difficult thing to walk away from one thing you love toward whatever next awaits you. And in that strange place, that dissonant union of beauty and difficulty lies the sweet sting of nostalgia. Of knowing that whatever you have must end in order for something else to begin.