Some people just aren’t built to be rock stars. The big audiences, the grueling travel, the long stretches away from home, living out of suitcases and a new city almost every night … it takes a lot out of the most stable among us.
In the early 2000s, I was touring with the national company of Def Poetry Jam. We had been on tour for a few months, flying from city to city. With each stop, each show, each new hotel, I was slowly disappearing. I felt like a visitor in my own mind, dragging my body from one place to another, never really connecting. It felt like what I imagine “the sunken place” would be.
I blamed it on the stress of being on a tour. I found myself in a position where I couldn’t eat or sleep or stop crying until they announced my name to get onstage. There, I would shine. I would spend two hours, including an intermission, as if nothing was wrong, but offstage I was quiet and withdrawn. By the time the tour made it to Chicago, I was thin and tired.
And to make things even worse for me, the city already held a quiet kind of heartbreak.
My relationship with Chicago is complicated; we were frenemies. I’ve never officially lived there, but it is part of my personal narrative. My first love was a transplant. I had followed him from Washington, D.C., to Chicago before he transferred to a law school in Cambridge, Mass. It took four more years and two more cities before we unraveled. Both of us were too young, me too naive, to be in something so serious.
A few years later, my heart led me to a native—a man so born of Chicago that his breath was part of the wind that plagued the city. We divided our time between my Brooklyn, N.Y., and his Chicago. It became a second home; sacred and intimate. It ended for reasons too personal to name, except for one.
I was dissolving and I didn’t know how to stop it, or stop him from melting with me.
I will spare you the details, but back in my beloved Brooklyn, I saw a string of doctors, one who finally explained what was happening to me. I told anyone who would listen that Chicago broke me. One day, my first therapist stopped me: “Chicago saved you.”
She was right. I would have died if the city hadn’t given way beneath me and handed me a permission slip to admit that I needed help.
When that tour stopped in Chicago, I hadn’t been back since the native and I broke up a year before, and it landed me, a trembling mess of tears and fear, curled underneath a sink in my dressing room.
Long after that final tour and that breakup, for years, Chicago represented both fear and strength. I was still learning when to let go and when to hold on for dear life. And the weariness I lived through last year made me hesitant to come again, afraid that the anxiety would return and send me back to the place I’d fought so hard to grow past.
I stayed away for years, returning just once for this native who made me fall in love with his City of Big Shoulders. I had come begging for his forgiveness, coated in a reason to save my own life, and left with a bloodied heart in my hand. I left with the thought that I would never return; it was a farewell tour. My heart was beating backward, and I didn’t know how to set it right again.
Love had driven me away, but it was also what brought me back.
My big brother Roger’s second daughter was making her appearance, and the five of us—Patrick; friends Syreeta, Lynne and Roger; and I—closer than most but spread across the country, decided that she was as good a reason as any for a reunion. Patrick and I arrived the day she did. The week in Chicago was about spending time with my friends-turned-family. But I was still weary of the triggers the city held. I declined invitations to events, asked people to come meet me rather than venturing out. I stayed close to the hotel and chose to spend the time primarily with people I came to see.
It was safe until a small gathering grew and the names of friends triggered memories that hit me at the wrong angle and sent my anxiety on its own course. One of the burdens of “wellness” is the inability to escape the damaging or humiliating things you did when you weren’t so well. These situations would come rushing toward me at the worst time, making me dizzy with shame. I was hoping to avoid anyone who knew that part of me and was under no obligation to welcome me with love.
The night before, we all went back to our respective parts of the world. We sat outside Roger’s huge backyard, a circle of mismatched lawn and dining-room-table chairs around a roaring fire pit. Here I felt the safest I have in a long time, surrounded by my closest friends: storytellers, poets, DJs, dancers, writers. … The people I was embarrassed to see held and hugged and cupped my face, whispering, “It’s so good to see you.” And they meant it. The anxiety I was holding slipped away like the wisps of smoke from the fire.
We traded laughter and stories about our pasts and futures.
Patrick had been playing DJ all night, and at some point, I danced. I can’t remember the last time I danced in public, but the warmth of fire, combined with the mezcal radiating warmth in my chest like a charcoal stove, released any apprehension. The night gave way to morning, the food was eaten, the liquor bottles emptied; we sat. I turned my eyes toward the Chicago skyline in the distance.
Chicago was no longer fear and regret; it was wide, endless possibility. It was new babies and 20 years’ worth of friendship spread across the country, tying us all together.
Chicago and I had finally forgiven each other.