A Space for Writers of the World
I use the train tracks like a ladder. Climb up and up, swell my brown belly with air that money buys: freshly mowed grass, musk-leather handbag, crisped book pages. Orange-faced girls in glossy French tips, haired-gelled boys in straight leg jeans. Brownstones ruddy with lamplight, absorbing the yellow of far-off sirens. I climb up and up, breathe in muffled library yawn, humming keyboard, page to finger synapse spark. Then, at five o’clock, when classes end and students withdraw into pairs, their promenade laughter hoisting the sky afloat, dorm rooms fixed and warm like Polaris, that’s when I climb back down.
The dingy silver doors pry open. Out of the train car and onto the splintered wooden platform. This is Francisco. This is a brown line train to Kimball. The attendant slumps in graffiti-ed booth, dreadlocks splayed, a bundle of blue wool. I pause underneath beehive blond heat lamps, zip my frayed coat to chin, adjust my bulging Jansport from shoulder to aching shoulder.
In the slate of April dusk I start home, keys clutched like knife in hand.
Time it: the walk takes ten minutes. But the watch doesn’t apply here, not like in the classroom. At school, a private university in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, the professor leans against the table, all khaki smile and brown shoes. We have about ten minutes left. What’s your take on affirmative action, Felicia? Here, linear imperatives fail to translate into neighborhood slang, 40 different languages sung from 60,000 mouths. Albany Park, ethnic pressure cooker of Chicago’s Northwest Side, starts where the brown line ends. Brown, indeed: Mexicans, Guatemalans, Filipinos, Indians, Koreans, Cambodians, Serbians, Croatians, Bosnians, Romanians, Pakistanis, Iraqis, Iranians, Lebanese, Africans, and me, 20-year-old Chicana implant from the desert Southwest, we all call Albany Park home.
The trek from train begins where the sidewalk morphs, crumbles to oil-stained asphalt. Now I use long strides, piloted by my black-haired crown. 23 steps to the streetlight if I shortcut across Patel’s Auto Repair lot. A pigeon, unaffected by the sudden surge of snow, toddles my path, a sagging condom clamped in its beak. I keep walking, head down.
At Lawrence Avenue, the stoplight seeps green. There’s Alejandro’s Car Stereo, adjacent that is a beauty salon advertising airbrushed acrylics. As I wait on the light, I make eyes at storefronts, garbage cans, anything but men. A balding Pole, also waiting to cross, strokes his crotch through blue Dockers, hisses like a snake at my backside; an old man in grey beard, Orthodox Jew, frowns at my red tennis shoes. I count to ten. Ten, the number of heartbeats per second. All the while these men grab and grab, their eyes devouring years, razing me back into that little girl, long hair and polka dot dress, the one clinging to dad’s legs. Say hello, he’d coax, and then, apologetically, She’s shy.
In the city of big shoulders, the wind is charged with stinging your soft parts to callous. Instead, my cracked hands bleed. My New Mexico self is soft shell, feathered oyster, not at all right for a steel-skeleton cityscape.
The light turns red. I cross. The street is narrow, framed by parked cars, brick apartment buildings, 30 acres of River Park. Above the park, a light flickers, reveals in white pulses two metal folding chairs, an old mattress stashed in the brush. Up the street, soapy water streams from pipe to sidewalk, an empty bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos floating in the puddle. I sidestep diamond-thick car glass shattered blue from a recent spree.
It was here last week, at the Moo Oong Terrace apartment complex, that a Bosnian woman in Nike sweatshirt pounced from the courtyard, slammed me up against the brick wall. She was tall, hair an abandoned nest. Where are my clothes, bitch? You stole my fucking clothes! Again and again against the wall, spit in my face, a milky glaze to her eyes. A couple of teenage boys pulled her off of me, yelling in Spanish. I didn’t even thank them. I sprinted home, hands shaking key into lock. Ever since then I walk streets instead of sidewalks.
My parents think it’s glamorous, Chicago. During our phone conversations I tour my dad through downtown: silver-slick Sears Tower, Soldier Field, Lake Michigan. Comb-overs and double-breasted suit coats, stilettos and Saks Fifth Avenue. We talk deep-dish pizza. Then he hands the phone to my mom, and I’m transported to the dry heat of an Albuquerque afternoon: tangled bosque, roving peacocks, squat adobes cloaked in sagebrush. Air wild with manure and crane-song, with Wednesday night hymnals, whispered pleas for a new transmission, food stamps. I’m proud of you, mi’jita, she says. The first to go to college. But you belong at home. New Mexican families are thick like tree trunks. Generations form rings in the wood.
Here, at the corner of Whipple, there’s a group of Mexican men who sometimes gather beside a white pickup truck. The bed slump-bellies in submission, loaded with scrap metal, machine parts, a refrigerator. They drink Negra Modelos; line the sidewalk with rows of brown bottles. When I pass, their voices cream soft as butter: Hola mamita. That’s when I take the alley, to avoid their smiling eyes.
Laced with lidless dumpsters, the alley smells warm, oily, like rotted banana peels. Above me, elbows jut out of a screenless window. Yesterday I saw this same set of elbows feed a bagel to a squirrel; it balanced on a dresser, all ballerina toes and swollen cheeks.
Nearly home now, I firewalk the final ten yards, fisting my hands in anticipation, the key’s metal teeth gnawing my palm. A Polish boy in red jacket, a twelve-year-old kid, likes to follow me along this asphalt stretch. Says he wants to fuck me. Says, Suck me. Or else he’s silent, eyes like press-studs in my back. One day I will stop, turn, blood volcanoing my face to flush. His skinny body taut, a wooden puppet. Stay away from me, I’ll say, exactly like I’d rehearsed in bed at night. What, he’ll answer, shoulders shrugged, I no do anything.
Today we pass without a word.
The back gate. Someone blasts banda music. The polka thump morphs with singsong, a woman soothing her crying baby. Carefully I slide my key into iron grip, studying the courtyard for a group of Indian children who clamor for rides in a K-Mart shopping cart. Back and forth they zip the walkway, a shrieking mass of brown arms and legs.
Up the wooden staircase, I flash forward to my apartment: hand sewn curtains, too soft mattress, thrift store towels, winged library books grounded on tarmac: Tolstoy on the rug, Allende on the nightstand, Cather on the microwave, Cisneros by the toilet. Books charged for flight, anxious for that alien altitude.
First floor, a small Filipino woman studies a casserole. She smiles gently as I pass and I feel the good of the earth revolve in her yellow kitchen. Her daughter, a whispering mess of black hair, perches the countertop in pink-socked feet. Second floor, a heavy-set black woman nods in beat to Erykah Badu, beaded necklace rattling as she wedges the porch door open with an old hiking boot. Third floor, an angle-thin Polish woman sucks on a cigarette, gray eyes staring down a chipped white coffee cup. Her boyfriend left the night before, slammed door and high-pitched screams. She eyes me, looks away.
Here, at ease among the house bodies of women, my shoulders sag defenseless. Why not stay in, stay home, safely nestled inside this brick body? Don’t I belong at home? The men, I can hear them outside my apartment window. The boys, I can hear them, too, yelling, swearing, laughing, spitting. Prowling to the pulse of time, counting down tomorrow’s collision. In the distance, impossibly far, the train rumbles along its metal track, up and down, up and down, long into the night.
Felicia Rose Chavez is a writer and multimedia artist. Her teaching career began in Chicago, where she served as Program Director to Young Chicago Authors and founded GirlSpeak, an online literary magazine and mentorship program for young women. She went on to teach writing at the University of New Mexico, where she was distinguished as the Most Innovative Instructor of 2009-2010, and the University of Iowa, where she was distinguished as the National Council on Teaching’s Outstanding Teaching Assistant of 2010-2011. Felicia holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and teaches Radio Essay at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, where she lives with her husband and son.