I yawned in response. It had been a long day. A good day, but a long day. We'd spent several hours on our feet, walking in the brisk wind Chicago is known for. From Millennium Park to Lincoln Park, we walked. From the zoo to the bus stop. From bus stop to parking garage. From Point A to Point B to Point C, we had walked. We'd taken the bus, we'd taken the L. And now, after twelve hours in the city, we were back on the Metra, snaking our way to the suburbs.
I was sleepy, and was plagued with a headache I had gotten from wearing my contacts just a bit too long. Your own fault, I told myself. Sighing, I looked up from my phone, with which I had been editing photos. People-watching was more interesting, I decided, especially since our seats on the Metra's upper deck gave plenty of opportunity to spy and take note.
There was the brown-haired girl and her boyfriend, the ones who cuddled together and fell asleep together, smiles on their faces. There was the tuxedo-clad man, the one who sipped a Coca-Cola and turned pages of a well-loved paperback. And then the group of five twenty-somethings just across from us; they had hats and vintage army jackets and canvas bags and would often laugh with each other, sharing phones and photos. And then, next to me, slouched beside me, was Ty. Unsurprisingly, he was nodding between sleep and awake. Feet on the luggage rack, hands folded on his chest. Head bobbing from chin to window, window to chin. Up and down. Dozing.
"Des Plaines. Next stop: Cumberland." The voice interrupted my gazing, as did two new commuters. They clamored up the stairs and down the aisle, stumbling over me and Ty. Their movements were slow, deliberate. Ty and I exchanged a knowing smile. Drunk. We watched them, bemused, as they searched for their train tickets. And though it took the man and woman a few minutes to settle into their seats, it only took a couple of seconds before they were hands-on, full-blown, full-throttle Frenching each other.
I was laughing. Laughing, laughing, laughing. It was awkward and entertaining and strange and surreal. Everyone--Ty, me, the twenty-somethings, the few others gathered on our end of the train--we all stared at each other and stared at them and smiled. We were strangers, a dozen strangers, sharing this moment, witnessing this hands-on couple. Shaking our heads, snapping a photo or two.
"We have an insanely drunk couple SWALLOWING each other," I texted Zoë, who was also on train, but in a different car.
"Pics or it didn't happen."
Snap. Attach photo. Message sent. I laughed when another commuter plopped next to the couple and silently encouraged them to stop. And they did stop. For a moment, anyway. Long enough for the woman to say frustratingly, "Didn't you see us?"
My phone trilled. "Give that man a medal," Zoë had texted.
The day had begun similarly; we'd boarded the 8:30 Metra and had commandeered a corner of the upper deck. It was an early morning--for us, anyway--but the ride into the city was filled with our usual banter.
Ty, a self-proclaimed curmudgeon, was busy whining about one thing or another: politics, technology, "kids these days."
I rolled my eyes; Zoë scoffed. "I'm sorry you're just so miserable," she quipped. "We can't bring you anywhere, because you just complain ninety percent of the time."
"Ninety?" Ty said incredulously as he leaned toward us.
Zoë smirked. "Sorry. I didn't mean to low ball it."
Off the train and at the Bean, we rendezvoused. First, with our mutual friend. Second, with my cousin and her husband. It'd been a bit hectic, admittedly, trying to find a time and a place where all six of us could meet. But I'll be damned, it worked out. See? I told myself. You don't have to worry about everything all the time. Things always work out the way they're supposed to.
Visiting with our friend was fantastic. It'd been more than two years since I had last seen him, since I had said "goodbye" and "happy graduation." We had met outside The Exponent, the student newspaper at which we had all worked. I had passed him an envelope with a note and a gift card, a small token. Something. "Congratulations," I had said. "The same to you," he had replied. And then we were off, walking in opposite directions.
We wouldn't see each other for two and a half years.
As the four of us waited for my cousin and her husband, the banter continued. It was just like old times; we watched people. We questioned their actions, we laughed at their goofiness. We chased pigeons and talked about movies and books. We teased each other and spewed sarcasm. It was almost as if we hadn't aged, as if we hadn't changed. As if we didn't live in four different cities. We were, once again, the news editor, the managing editor, the editor-in-chief, the copy chief.
I don't remember what we were talking about when I first saw my cousin. My attention had been turned to the crowd, not the conversation. My eyes scanned both directions, looked for a familiar blonde head. And, finally, there, yes, over there, I saw her and her husband. I jumped from my seat and raced toward her, filled with an eagerness that I hadn't been anticipating, and I hugged her, practically tackled her, my arms tight. "Ahhhhhh! You're here!"
We talked. We walked and talked and chatted. She told me about grad school. I asked her about married life. We talked about home, about Iowa, about the family and our parents and the other cousins, who--like her--are blonde, blue-eyed and gorgeous. She asked me about Indianapolis and I told her, that, you know what? You know, I think ... I think ... I'm pretty sure that I'm happy. Yes, I'm happy. And with that, I smiled and looked at my feet, which hurried north on Michigan Avenue. We were on our way to Lincoln Park, to lunch and the zoo. Ty and my cousin's husband were just in front of us girls, with Ty playing tour guide. Intermittently, he would point out a building, an architectural detail, an element of the city. To him, Chicago was home.
The afternoon passed far too quickly. After eating lunch at Stanley's Kitchen, we'd wandered about the Lincoln Park Zoo. The sun kept us warm as the wind whipped around us. It whirled about our ankles, tangled our hair with leaves.
It was fall. It was the Windy City. And I was there ... with my friends and my family, I was there.
It was surreal.
Being in Chicago was ... I shook my head and heaved a heavy sigh. This is what I wanted. I was seventeen and I thought about this and I wanted it and ... and ... how? How is this real?
I thought back to September, to the first time that Zoë and Ty and I had visited Chicago. After Ty had collected me, we had headed north to Zoë's. "I get to see you and your cats soon!" I had texted her. "And I'm looking forward to eating all the cookies you baked. ALL THE COOKIES."
It didn't take long for Zoë to respond, and enthusiastically at that: "HOORAY COOKIES HOORAY CATS HOORAY CHICAGO HOORAY HOORAY HOORAY."
Since then, the exclamation has been our catch-all, our cheer. We've shouted it to each other, texted it, typed it, yelled it. HOORAY HOORAY HOORAY
On Sunday, on our way back south, Zoë and Ty and I impulsively stopped at the IHOP in Lafayette. We must have been hungry, as a pancake-themed billboard was what had encouraged us to leave the Interstate. Once inside, we were seated toward the back, at a booth near the kitchen. And at our table, in our own little world, we joked and teased and played with crayons. We scribbled and drew and colored on the children's place mats. Made voices. Replayed the weekend. Laughed until we cried.
I'm not sure, exactly, what was discussed. And I'm not sure, really, what was said. Some of the details have been lost. But I do remember the smaller ones--like the deliberate way Zoë holds her utensils or sips her coffee. Like the way Ty flicks his wrist, making his watch chink. There are Zoë's tearful, hyperventilative laughs, and Ty's Mickey Mouse impersonations. All the tiny details I can't seem to forget. And when I'm sitting at an IHOP with them ... coloring. Laughing. Loving them both to pieces and wishing we didn't have to go our separate ways ...
It's the best kind of happiness. The best of kind of gratitude. Thank you for my friends. For the friends whom I can laugh with and laugh until I cry with. Hooray friends. Hooray pancakes. Hooray Chicago. Hooray, hooray, hooray.