Katy Finnegan was born in the UK and raised in Ireland. She studied English literature and film at Trinity College Dublin and currently works as a copywriter. Her writing has been published in Icarus, Voices From the Cave, Vol 1, Brooklyn, Write City Chicago and The Ogham Stone. She was also shortlisted for the 2018 Bridport Short Story Prize.
City on the Make
The planes of Michael’s face are smooth, not like a rock that’s spent its life on the bed of a river, but like one that was cut for purpose. He’s sleeping next to me, quietly, like a corpse. I ease myself out of bed and looked out the window, my palms against the glass, daring it to dissolve under my fingertips and send me tumbling down into Lake Michigan below.
Michael lives at 880 Lake Shore Drive, in the Mies Van Der Rohe apartment block. I think this is the main reason I’m sleeping with him.
I love the apartment blocks, identical twins with different personalities. I love their boxy frames, their retro modernity. Michael, with his clean-cut suit and his characteristic chin dimple, looks like he belongs here, in some 1950s tv version of the future.
The landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted once said that Chicago “had a weakness for big things,” and it’s true, everything here is on a scale we simply don’t get back in Ireland, it’s like being Gulliver in Brobdingnag.
The towers were one of the first sights that really struck me when I came here. Cruising along the dramatic curve of Lake Shore Drive in the back of a cab, on one side the cluster of skyscrapers lit up like gargantuan Christmas trees, on the other, nothing but the immense darkness of the lake. It felt like being on the edge of the world.
It still feels a little like that sometimes. Especially now, after those whispers in the hallway, the knowing smiles from my colleagues.
They’re thinking of keeping you, Fiona, they’ve been really impressed with your work.
Violet is originally from Australia, they got her the H1-B visa.
Nothing is certain yet, but my fingers are crossed for you!
The edge of the world. Nowhere left to go from here.
I told Michael about it last night. We were out to dinner at Au Cheval in the West Loop. I dashed from my office downtown, Smith & Schuster Architects, but although Michael works as a trader on LaSalle Street he got there before me, not a hair out of place.
‘Baby, that’s great news!’ he said, a perfect smile immediately lighting up his face. Irrepressibly American, Michael is never surprised when things work out.
‘It’s not definite yet, some of my colleagues are just saying they might offer to sponsor me.’ I try to shrug it off, feeling suddenly edgy.
‘But why would they say it if there wasn’t any truth to it? Somebody must have heard something.’
‘You never know. It could come to nothing. I’m just saying it’s a rumour,’ I look down at the menu. ‘What are you going to order?’
‘They’d be crazy not to want you, baby,’ he says, ‘I just know they’re going to keep you.’
‘I’m trying not to get my hopes up,’ I say bluntly, almost rudely.
‘Sure thing, baby,’ Michael replies sardonically as the waiter brings us over two Old Fashioneds. ‘You just can’t accept that things might actually work out and that you won’t have an excuse to be all moody and mysterious anymore’ He picks up his drink and clinks it against mine. ‘Cheer up for God’s sake.’
It’s easy to let leaving become the structuring principle of your life. It divides it into chapters, each with an arc, a lesson learned. If you are not leaving, how can you leave things behind?
I came to Chicago a year and a half ago to do some work experience with an architecture firm here. This city is like Disneyland for an architect (especially a dyed-in-the-wool modernist like me) and even as a trainee, I’m earning 10k more a year than I was back home. I like it here. I like the orderly, mostly solitary patterns of life. The anonymity that lets you disappear into the crowd, the identity you can put on and take off like a well-cut suit.
Only occasionally am I reminded of what was left behind – an old receipt falling out of a pocket, a double-take in the street. My muscle memory still makes me reach out for someone who isn’t there, sometimes. But he’s not here, I tell myself with a mingled sense of sadness and relief. Distance doesn’t quite have the same effect as time, but it helps.
The quest for the new, that was one of the structuring principles of the Bauhaus school – in design, art, architecture. To strip things back to form and function, to discard the baggage of history and look continually forward. To collapse time with objects and ideas that would remain timeless.
My apartment is like that. Beautifully, brutally simplistic. It’s a studio with one bed, one table, one chair. The latter is almost never used, as I tend to eat standing up at the countertop, leafing through the papers or a magazine. I like living like this, even though I do sometimes wonder: is the cost of freedom a nagging sense of impermanence?
The next day at work my boss, Joel called me into his office. My heels clicked purposefully as I walked along the corridor, sinking abruptly into the plush grey wall-to-wall carpet.
‘Hi Fiona, why don’t you take a seat?’ he said, greeting me with a smile.
‘Sure,’ I replied, easing myself into the Wassily chair in front of his monolithic desk. ‘Thanks, Joel.’ We’re on the 34th floor of the building, and behind him I could see the white and grey expanse of the city under snow. It looked almost like a piece of black and white photography, breathtakingly crisp and utterly still.
‘You might have heard rumbles of this, Fiona,’ Joel said, placing his palms flat on the table in his characteristic way. He looked serious, but his greying afro hair was springing with mischievous energy. ‘But I’m here to lay it down for you, plain and simple. We’ve been very happy with your work. Very happy. We think you have a lot of potential. Myself and Tori and Frank – we’ve been wanting to expand the firm for a while now. We’re opening a second office in the West Loop in the Spring, and we’re looking for young, hungry architects to join us.’ He smiled. ‘Sound like anybody you know?’
‘Um. Maybe,’ I said, a half smile on my face, a flush creeping up my cheek as my heart beat frantically.
‘Then I think you know what I’m about to suggest to you,’ his eyes met mine and I let out a bleat of nervous laughter.
‘That’s one hell of a suggestion, Joel!’
‘Well??’ My colleague Sheila hissed, cornering me in the hallway after the meeting.
‘They did it,’ I replied, feeling slightly dazed. ‘They asked me if I wanted to stay. Said they would sort out my paperwork and my sponsorship and all that for me.’
‘Oh Fiona!’ Sheila gushed. ‘That’s such great news! You must be so happy.’
‘Well…’ I said, measuring my words. ‘I am happy, but I told Joel I needed to think about it. I promised to come back with an answer on Monday.’
‘Oh,’ Sheila gave me a blank look. ‘I guess it’s good to be sure.’
‘To be sure to be sure,’ I said, side-stepping her and heading to the elevator. ‘Have a nice weekend!’
Sometimes Sheila and I and a few of the others will go out on a Friday night. We’ll visit the latest movie themed pop-up, craft-cocktail emporium, or weirdly specific restaurant (it only serves cereal? Yeah – but 300 different kinds!). We all act like we’re having fun, but it’s more like a simulation of fun.
I like Sheila, she’s conscientious at work and outrageous when she’s drunk, which is a wonderful combination, but tonight I didn’t feel like being her prop – hers or anybody else’s.
When I got home my mother called me.
‘Hi Fiona, hope you don’t mind me calling at this hour.’
I took a deep breath. ‘It’s only 6pm, Mam. We’re 6 hours ahead.’
‘Oh, silly me, I thought you were 6 hours behind and that it was the crack of dawn!’
Another deep breath. ‘Then why were you calling?’
‘Well I’m out walking Toffee and I had some time. Bit miserable here. The weather is shocking. Rain rain rain and no sign of snow.’
‘I just ran into Maura up the road. You know her son is in Vancouver now. Luke. Wasn’t he in your class?’
‘I don’t think so’
‘He’s getting on great anyway. Lots of work out there. Amazing weather. Much better quality of life in Canada you know, unlike here ha-ha.’
‘So have you booked your flight home yet for Christmas?’
I cringed internally. I hadn’t yet told her I had been thinking of staying on here over Christmas. Or maybe going to Mexico. Anything to avoid the madness at home – the frenzy of cooking and cleaning, the endless complaining about there being too much food, too many visitors – and of course my enforced participation in all of it.
‘Not yet,’ I said, my sentence hanging there awkwardly as I tried to think of an excuse.
‘Well, don’t leave it too long, the prices go up a lot around Christmas. And it’s already November you know!’
‘Yes Mam, I know.’
‘After that then how long will you have until your visa runs out? Isn’t it only February or something like that?’
‘Hmm, well I suppose you’re getting great experience out there anyway. You haven’t heard yet if there’s any chance of them keeping you on? You’re so good, I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t.’
‘Well, it costs employers a couple of grand in legal fees. There’s a lot of paperwork and it can be a lot of hassle for them – not to mind me.’
‘Well, you’re probably right. Not to worry anyway. We’re looking forward to having you home for a bit. Toffee misses you, don’t you pet?’ I heard her cooing at the dog while I looked down at my feet, bare on my white Ikea rag rug, a red crease on each from my high heels, kicked off to the side – We miss her, yes we do, yes we do!
‘Toffee’s getting old now, you know,’ my mother said in her lighthearted tone. ‘Let’s just hope she lasts until Christmas.’
Her and me both, I thought to myself.
After that, I freshened up and headed out to meet Michael again.
The snow was bad, so we didn’t bother going out, I got a cab directly to his and we did what we like to do best. We made some whiskey cocktails and sat on the floor, listening to records and talking. He’s the only person I talk to much, here. I appreciate his physicality, his warmth, his proximity to my body. He’s a real flesh and blood human, and I find that so comforting it’s pathetic.
We sat there on the cow hide rug, the blizzard outside growing worse, me leaning back against the sofa and him in front of the fake fireplace, stroking my bare feet. We were silent as the record ended, enclosed in a perfect, almost surreal moment – like someone had posed us for a photograph. I felt the perverse urge to puncture it, to bring some air back into the room.
‘You know I was engaged before I came here?’ I blurted out.
‘Oh,’ he looked up at me in surprise, quickly arranging his expression back into neutral. ‘You never told me that.’
‘Yeah,’ I looked down into my drink, bitterly satisfied that I had ruined the moment, glad that he, my would-be husband was still present in my life, even when he shouldn’t be.
‘It didn’t work out,’ I said ‘Obviously.’ Michael stroked the top of my hand with a fingertip.
‘He was… unsteady. Unreliable. All over the place, really.’ I paused, measuring my words. ‘Not the kind of person you could build a life with.’
‘Huh,’ Michael said thoughtfully. ‘I can’t even imagine the effort it takes to get a ring on that finger,’ he took my ring finger and held it up to his lips. ‘He really screwed up.’
Michael kissed my fingertip and I leaned closer, observing as he kissed my wrists, my knuckles, my palms. I imagined what he would think if he could see me right now. I pictured him on the chair across the room, watching me with wounded, jealous eyes as I kissed Michael hard, and pulled him down onto the floor.
Having sex with Michael is simple. Satisfying, in a basic sort of way. He likes it best when I straddle him, moving up and down and looking at him imperiously, as I hold him in place by the wrists. Using him for my pleasure essentially, which is his pleasure too. Tonight though, something annoyed me about those adoring eyes, the enraptured and reverent subservience to my pleasure (which is really his pleasure). As we were fucking, I impulsively punctuated his yeah baby yeah baby yeah with a sharp slap across his cheek. I watched for his reaction, and of course, he merely moaned in ecstasy. I should have felt powerful, but instead I felt like nothing I do really matters.
Afterwards, we lay there in the absolute dark of his bedroom. His body encircled mine, taut with that exquisite tension between power and vulnerability.
‘I’m glad you’re not leaving, Fiona,’ he whispered. ‘I think I’m really falling for you.’ He breathed out this last line softly, unable to quite keep a note of expectancy from his voice. I held myself very still, and shamefully, painfully, pretended to be asleep.
It’s early in the morning now, just as dawn is breaking. I’ve left Michael in bed and I’m standing at the window. The lake looks like some alien landscape to me, and I feel strangely dislocated, as if I can’t tell where or when I am. This plain bachelor apartment, with its midcentury furniture and Venetian blinds, looks suddenly like a set, some kind of non-place where I have no business being.
Silently I get dressed and slip out of the apartment. It’s early Sunday morning and a rim of darkness still graces over everything. I can’t face the prospect of chit-chat with the cab driver so I get the train home. It’s bitterly cold and I’m the only one in the carriage. I get back to Uptown in a weird daze. The snow here is still untrammeled, perfect and fluffy and brand new. I feel guilty for ruining it with my footsteps.
I walk along slowly, the crunch of my footsteps and exhale of my breath the only sounds. My apartment is only ten minutes away, but the walk feels like a pilgrimage, or punishment. I feel tired, and I want only to get home and go to sleep and feel normal again.
Suddenly the silence is pierced by a noise – a whine which screams danger danger danger with each deafening peal. I look around and a fire engine is careening around the corner, it gallops up the street in a fury of noise and flashing lights, and I watch as it turns another corner onto my street. I stand stock still for a moment, a streak of red on my retinas like a nosebleed on the snow.
When we were studying architecture we spent a lot of time looked at buildings that had been bombed during World War II. We looked at reconstructions of churches, refurbishments of crumbling castles and manor houses. We discussed the ethics of reconstruction versus new builds. What was worth preserving, and who gets to decide. They also told us about the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871, and how architects came from all over the world to rebuild it from the ground up – no, not rebuild – but create something entirely new. That’s what I wanted, I think. To be new.
I run up the street and see the fire when I reach my block. It’s the old dilapidated house that’s sat on the corner forever. Occupied or not, I never could tell. A few neighbours are standing around, cardigans draped over pyjamas, arms folded or hands cupped to mouths. Everyone seemed hypnotized, frozen, watching the flames.
‘Why aren’t you doing anything?’ I ask the fireman standing next to me, and indeed, they’re simply watching the fire too.
‘There’s nothing we can do,’ he shrugs. ‘We just have to let it burn itself out.’
I fall silent then and watch the fire along with everyone else. I picture the flames licking up the door frames, the wallpaper blackening and staircases crashing in. I feel the heat on my face and the smoke stinging my eyes. This house would crumble, would be razed, rebuilt. But it would never be the same. I know now that Chicago will never be my home. I will leave Michael. Leave the firm. Leave it all – not for a new beginning, but for the next phase in my continuum of loss.
It’s easy for leaving to become the structuring principle of your life. It doesn’t really matter where you go. I’m leaving I’m leaving, I think, and that clear, crisp sense of unreality takes a hold of me once more. Nothing here matters anymore.
I stand on the street for a while longer, and notice it’s started to snow again. I hold the palm of my hand out to catch the snowflakes and then I realise, of course it’s not snow. It’s ash.
© 2019 Katy Finnegan