Ninety five stories above the streets of Chicago, I and eleven other Instagrammers sat around a large, round table. Scattered atop the table were drinking glasses and finished plates, iPhones and cameras. Remnants, really, of both our Instameet and our meal.
We’d spent the last couple of hours wandering around downtown, from Connors Park to the historic Water Tower, to Chicago Avenue and Fairbanks. We’d stopped at a coffee shop whose name now escapes me, but where I had, for once, purchased a hot beverage. I stationed myself in a corner armchair, my toes numb, cheeks rosy, and eyes open. I drank in my surroundings, sipped my cocoa.
The coffee shop had tall windows and was a clean-looking sort of place. It was white, too—but not the sterile white of hospital sheets. No, it was the fresh white of an art gallery. It was purer. Industrial. Shiny.
To my right stood several Chicago Instagrammers, individuals I had met earlier that morning. They chatted about design work, photography, weekend plans and movies, their hands curled around coffees and cappuccinos. Steam unfurled from the cups and curled upward, where it swirled with soft voices, quiet hustle, and teaspoons against china. I felt encompassed by these sounds, ones familiar to downtown coffee shops. You know, the ones in which the young arhythmically type on their laptops and glance out the window, where they watch the breath of a hat-clad pedestrian rise in a petite frozen cloud.
True enough, it was unnaturally cold for November. In the days leading up to our Chicago visit, we’d heard the words “polar vortex” used more than once. In preparation for a day in the Windy City, I’d layered jeans over leggings, my wool coat over a sweatshirt. And though I hadn’t necessarily been freezing, a cup of hot cocoa was quite welcoming. Its warmth was as smooth as the silky, peppermint-scented water with which you draw a bath.
I took a sip and leaned forward, for I was sharing my chair with Steven, one of the three Indianapolis Instagrammers with whom I had traveled. We had caught the 6:00 a.m. train to Chicago, and had dashed through the chilly darkness to the station downtown. Steven and I had sped across the sidewalk, with poor Lizzy practically sprinting to keep up with our long legs and fast strides. We had made it, though. With cold fingers and shortness of breath, we had made it to the station, where Raina had been waiting. United, the four of us began to document our adventure with selfies, both serious and awkward. In the early-morning darkness, we had red eyes and blurry faces, sure, but we had eager hearts, too.
I found my first train ride to be incredibly relaxing; Raina and I sat together, talking of historic buildings and of Instagram and of our respective work places. Steven had fallen asleep across the aisle from us, his lanky form curled against the window. Lizzy, meanwhile, had nested under her coat on the seats in front of us, deeply asleep. As the hours passed, and as the sun rose and the fields of Indiana turned gray and blue and purple and pink and, finally, a radiant gold, the four us found ourselves joking, talking, and asking questions. Lizzy spoke of her siblings. Raina talked about her last trip to Chicago. Steven asked me about my former relationship, about my engagement, and about the wedding that had never happened.
“You know what? No. I’m sorry I asked. Never mind.” He shook his hand in my direction.
“No, no, no! It’s okay!” I exclaimed, looking up from my cross-stitch project. “Really. I don’t mind. I’m okay now.”
I took a breath and divulged. “Canceling our wedding was the single-most heartbreaking and embarrassing decision I have ever had to make,” I said, completing a stitch, “but it was the best decision for us. I didn’t want either one of us to foster resent.”
The train snaked north.
And I realized that these three souls, who had grown up in different states, and with different backgrounds, were more than “Instagram friends.” They had transcended beyond my phone and into my life, shaking me and filling my days with cat photos, euphemisms, and bubbly, infectious laughter. We were all still learning about each other, sure, but I realized that they knew more about me than I had previously credited them. They knew what would make me laugh. And they had checked on me during my darker days, when I was tearful and lonely. No, they weren’t “Instagram friends” anymore. They were real people with whom I had built true friendships.
Back in the Signature Room, I stood at a window, numb to the sounds and chatter of nearby tables. One thousand feet below me were the people of the city. I watched them—the locals, the tourists, the transplants—and theorized that there were millions of tiny alternate universes. Most of them were small, I assumed, but could overlap.
As I watched the cars below me, I thought about the people in them—some
were smoking, I was sure, and others, I imagined, were singing to the
radio as they inched up Michigan. I watched the cars stop and go, stop
and go, change lanes, and turn west. There
were people racing to mid-afternoon meet-ups, and people shuffling
shopping bags and packages, and people flagging down taxis which other
people were driving, day in and day out, and there were people with
headphones and iPhones and hats and scarves and gloves and there was me,
forehead pressed against the glass, living my own universe ninety five
stories above them.
I turned from the window and returned to the table where Raina, Steven, and nine Chicago Instagrammers were seated. (Lizzy and her sister had opted for pizza.) I sat down and looked, in turn, at everyone. We were of different backgrounds, and of different ethnicities, and of different upbringings. We had different stories, and different music preferences, and different favorite foods and we each had our own reason to be in Chicago that day, that year, that lifetime. Around that table, our worlds kaleidoscoped into the most colorful of Venn Diagrams.
Maybe, to an outsider, we didn’t have much in common. But at that moment, we had the Signature Room. And we had Chicago.