Just in case you haven’t read the thing, here’s the entire story in one piece…
CHICAGO, An Unusual Love Story
I called her Chicago because that was the only name I had for her. She sat down at the bar stool next to mine, throwing down a purse that looked more like a horse’s feed bag and rattled with keys and loose coins as it hit the bar. Before I had the chance to take another sip of my beer, she popped the question. “Will you marry me?”
I barely paused, but took that sip. Nah, probably it was a gulp or two, but then I replied, “The question is, would you want to marry me?” I looked over my glass at her and saw the beauty in her. She smiled at me and went slightly lopsided. One eyebrow lifting up, a dimple in her left cheek, her mouth oddly slanted. Chicago wore almost no make-up, but it really didn’t matter. In the dim glow of the bar, her eyes sparkled, and something radiated from her.
“I could be a child molester, a serial murder,” I continued before she could answer. I motioned to the bartender, thinking I’d order my new friend a drink. “Or worse,” I laughed, “I could be a Republican. Or, a Republican serial murderer.”
“As long as your politics aren’t Republican and your many victims are the Republicans, I don’t have a problem with that.”
The bartender approached while she reached into her purse and rummaged around inside, leaning into the thing, trying to find lord knows what. I mean does any man really know, or want to know, what’s in a woman’s purse. The secrets buried deep, the hidden implements of torture. “Ummm … can I get you something to drink?” I asked her. “I mean, after all, if we’re going to get married … wait a sec, you were serious, right?”
She rustled around for a second or two more and then stopped, her hands still in her bag, she tilted towards me. “Sure, why not,” she shrugged before returning her attention back to her deep search. “I’ll have a beer. Doesn’t matter what.”
Doesn’t matter what. Okay. This was a test. Actually, the whole thing was a test. Was she serious? Was I deluded to even think she was? Was this all it took for me to jump? A cute girl sitting next to me, her arm brushing mine, sending little shock waves deep inside, as she searched back and forth in the depths of her purse. The dimple and the sparkle. Was I that desperate to … yes, I was. Now I just had to figure out how not to blow it. Sure, we weren’t gonna get married, but maybe there was something else there akin to a negative that just needed to be developed. I had to be steady and not scare her away. Not blow the necessary chemical reaction.
And she wanted a beer but she didn’t care what I got her. If I ordered her a Coors, would she be offended because she’s a beer snob who only drinks the latest craft brew? If I ordered an IPA, would she claim it was too bitter? And if we were to be married, wasn’t this something I should know? Damn, this odd possibility could be wiped away in the next few seconds.
I drained my beer and pointed at it. “Two more. For me and for …” I didn’t know her name so I just flipped my thumb in her direction and held my breath.
“Sure thing,” the bartender replied and turned back towards the taps and began to fill a pint glass.
When he placed them in front of us, the foam just leaking over the edge of the glass and leaving a wet trail down the side, I slipped him a $20. “Where you headed?” I asked her.
“Yeah?” I wiped the foam off the glass, running my thumb from bottom to top. “You from there? Or is it a vacation?”
She turned to me, her head slightly dipped, and looked at me through a curl of blond hair that dropped across her face. “It’s where the wedding is,” she sighed. “You should realize that by now.”
I sensed I was failing her test. But then she took a sip of her beer and then another one before settling further down on to her stool. “God, I needed that.” Before I knew it, she leaned into me and pecked me on the cheek, blushing to her roots as she pulled away. “Thank you,” she whispered, not necessarily to me. She spoke it almost as though she were speaking to her beer, to the bar, the bartender, and to the world at large, which just may have included me, don’t you think? I mean, I’m the one with the feeling of her lips still on my cheek.
I took a pretzel from the bowl between us and took a bite out of it and waited for her to continue. She did by placing her hand on mine. “Here’s the deal,” she said, turning to face me. I turned to her as well and looked into her eyes. She smiled. “I was supposed to get married this weekend. In Chicago. At the frickin’ Cubs game. In a suite.” She took a swipe at her nose and turned away for a second, before I could see the mist start to collect in those round eyes that had swept me in. “That was before he had a change of heart and decided he’d rather run away with … I don’t even know her name.”
I was thinking that made two of us and was about to ask her name, my mouth opening and the words right there, even my brow furrowed in a questioning way, when she continued on. I decided to wait and enjoy the feeling of her hand on mine. It was warm and soft. It seemed to fit with mine just right. I finished my pretzel and gulped back some more beer and let her go.
“It was going to be in a suite,” she repeated. “A small affair. Just 18 of us, with hot dogs and nachos and beers, oh my!” Chicago took her hand from mine and an arctic chill settled in where her warmth had been. She rummaged in her purse and pulled out an envelope. “See,” she stated, holding it out to me. “Here’s the invitation. Open it. It’s all there. Even the ‘oh my’ and I bet you just thought I was being silly. Or maybe going off the deep end.” She stopped and took a breath and a swig of ale and then turned to me with what seemed to be a new fire in her eyes. “And, you know, that wouldn’t be very nice, right?”
In my head a thundercloud burst open. Thunder and lightning battled for attention. The thunder booming at me a warning that yes, indeed, this woman was far more than just silly. She was a walking whacko, waiting for the men in the white coats to take her away. But the lightning was streaking through the synapses and gray matter, shredding my last shred of self-protection and common sense. My god, she was beautiful, with her almost blonde hair framing her cornfed pureness. When she smiled and her eyes lit up the lightning grew brighter. And, well, I must admit her short skirt that rode up her thigh and seemed to promise me something more than even my imagination could comprehend. “Right,” I breathed. And, let me tell you, I had a well-developed imagination. It was pretty much all I’d had the last few years. Ever since Socorro left because we couldn’t figure out whether we had a real thing together and I couldn’t seem to find a way to interact with another woman after our six years together.
“Of course,” Chicago laughed. “We’re getting married. It wouldn’t be good to start off with you thinking I’m a goofball.” She looked at me then, her brow furrowed and her smile suddenly gone. “Because I’m not, but maybe it’s my goofiness that attracted you to me in the first place. We can tell our grandkids that years from now.”
I thought of sliding the card out of the envelope and confirming at least something about her story, but I chose not to. Instead, I placed it on the bar in front of us. “I’m sorry,” I said. “For your …”
“Pshaw,” she waved her hand at me. “Don’t be. I’m not. He clearly was an ass and now I’ve found you.” She stopped and began twirling a strand of hair in her fingers. “But you know . . . if we’re going to get married, I should probably know something about you.” She leaned towards me again and looked into my eyes. “Tell me three things.”
“Uh . . .”
* * * * *
I worked in compliance for a tech company in Seattle. I had some options if things worked out, as they seemed to be, in a little over a year, when those options vested, I’d be the 732nd millionaire who got his start at that little company. I was just counting the days. But I couldn’t tell Chicago that. Maybe she was a gold-digger. Besides being a little off.
I was on my way to Tampa, to bury my Aunt Lavonna. The woman who raised me when my mother went away for a long time for murdering my father as he slept next to her. Something about abuse and violence, but I was eight when it happened. I had no memories of any of that, but I had learned long ago no one really knows what might happen behind a closed door. I couldn’t tell Chicago any of this. She might think the abuse was genetic. How could we get married in Chicago if I was headed to Tampa? My Aunt Lavonna, who loved me and cared for me when nobody else would, needed to be buried. I owed her that much. Seemed to be an unresolvable conflict that would turn Chicago away.
I was scared. Of living the rest of my life alone. Of dying alone. Of never having a child. Of never touching a woman again. I was just so remarkably scared. Socorro was the one. I thought. Before her, it was Traci, and Deb, and one or two others. I gave my heart to them and something always happened. One was a dog person, I was a cat person. Deb got a job and I wasn’t ready to move. And Socorro. For a few years, we clicked. Until we didn’t. Now I was gun shy. Make that girl shy. Nothing I thought I knew made any sense anymore.
Maybe what Chicago was offering was the way to go. Marrying a stranger and going from there. Marrying a cute little thing who had a way about her that reached down deep and made my insides start to spin. Maybe …
But I couldn’t tell her that either, could I? That I was seriously thinking about what was clearly a joke. Right? She couldn’t possibly be serious about me following her to Chicago and getting married in a luxury box at a Cubs game.
* * * * *
“I’m 42,” I told her, trying not to cringe before she reacted.
“I’m 27,” she replied before dropping her voice to a whisper. “Jake’s 45.” I could barely hear her above the dull hum of conversation that filled the bar behind us.
“Did you say 45? Your ex?”
“Yes. You have nothing to worry about.”
“I’m not a Cubs fan. I actually don’t like baseball. It’s too slow for me.”
“We don’t need to watch the game and can leave as soon as the wedding is over. The rabbi is booked and paid for.”
“Yeah. I’m Jewish.”
“But you got a rabbi to perform a wedding at a Cubs game?”
“Sure,” Chicago laughed and batted her eyelashes at me. “He’s reform and a huge Cubs fan. He doesn’t care.”
“I’m not Jewish.”
“That’s okay. I told you he’s reform.” Chicago drained the rest of her beer and set the glass down on the bar, slightly off center of the condensation ring that had formed there. “And I don’t either. I’m actually about as Jewish as a bacon-wrapped pork chop stuffed with cheese. Never been to synagogue. Wouldn’t know the first thing about it, but my mom is Jewish and I thought having a rabbi marry Jake and me … excuse me, marry you and I … at a Cubs game would be different. Another story to tell the grandkids. Don’t you think?”
I tried something then. Call it a test. She had given me a peck and covered my hand with hers. Batted her eyes and asked me to marry her. I leaned over and kissed her, feeling her lips, cold from the beer. I closed my eyes and when I opened them, hers were still closed, the lashes down. I pulled away and looked at Chicago, her eyes flitting behind her closed lids as though she was processing the kiss. “Sounds good to me,” I said to her. “I’ll even buy you a Cubs hat for the occasion.”
Chicago licked her lips and opened her eyes, looking at me through those lashes. “That was nice. Thank you.”
“Kids, huh?” I asked.
“Well, maybe. If things work out.” She winked at me and wiggled her empty glass at me. “You only told me two things. One more and then I’ll tell you three things about me.”
She was right, but I didn’t know what else to tell her. I motioned to the bartender, allowing me to stall a bit. “You good with that?” I asked her, pointing at the glass.
“Two more,” I told the bartender and followed him with my eyes down to where the taps were before turning back to Chicago. “And one more for you. What do you want to know?”
She shook her head back and forth. “Nope. I’m not helping. What you decide to tell me is almost as important as what you tell me. For instance, I now know two things about you I didn’t know a few minutes ago. You wanna know?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Sure.” The more she talked, the less I had to. The more she talked, the longer I had to come up with that third thing if she continued to press for it.
“You’re concerned about your age and it’s not just that you were afraid I’d think you’re too old. That’s why it’s the first thing you told me, but don’t you worry about that.” Chicago reached out and tweaked my nose. “You’re just right for me.”
I grabbed her hand before she could settle it back on the bar and held it. “What’s the other?”
“You think I’m young and I want a ‘real man’ and you’re afraid you don’t meet my definition of that.” She leaned into me again and looked into my eyes. “I don’t have a definition and, if I did, it wouldn’t have anything to do with baseball or sports or whether you can fix a car with duct tape and spit. So,” Chicago hummed as she settled back on her bar stool, “stop worrying. We’re good.”
I wanted to disagree with her, to plead confidence in myself. In the idea of us. That I was sold on this crazy notion. But, who was I kidding? I was terrified. That this was all just a joke and that she was being completely real about the whole thing. Both. At the same time. Or maybe there was a hidden camera somewhere and soon people would pop out and tell me, slapping me on the back and slipping authorization forms in front of me, that Chicago had pulled this same stunt with twelve unsuspecting men already, all for some obscure cable show to air next month. I was the best, they’d say. I’d get my fifteen minutes.
Terrified that it was all too real and the next words out of my mouth would bring it all crashing down. This girl, this woman, had plucked my strings just right and I was ready to walk across hot coals for the chance to make this crazy idea a reality. I could change my flight and head to Chicago. Delay the burial by claiming Aunt Lavonna really wanted to be cremated. I’m sure that would take a few days – converting her remains to ashes. And wouldn’t the ashes keep? The good folks at Morrison’s Mortuary Services could store them away until I finished this thing with Chicago and then bring her to Tampa. Show her off a bit.
I owed Chicago a third thing about myself. I didn’t know what it was, but I needed something mind-blowing. As I opened my mouth, Chicago smacked her forehead with her open palm. “Jeepers,” she exclaimed. “I know the third thing.” She held a finger to my lips. “Ssssshhhhh. Don’t talk.”
Chicago stood up and stepped away from her bar stool, tugging and straightening her skirt. “Come here,” she said, beckoning me with a finger, the twinkle in her eye aflame. I stood and approached her. “Closer,” she demanded. I inched closer until our bodies were almost touching. I could feel her heat and smell her shampoo. I imagined I could feel the blood racing through her veins. And then I could.
Chicago reached out and drew me into an embrace. Her arms wrapped around my waist, she rested her head against my chest. I placed my hands on her hips and felt her body against mine. We each breathed a breath or two and she pulled her head away. “Kiss me.” I accommodated her request. “No, not like that,” she insisted, “like this.” Chicago leaned into me again, molding her body to mine and we kissed, our tongues dancing together, our bodies growing hotter. The sounds of the bar disappeared. I brought a hand to the back of her head, entwining my hand in her hair and held her there until we both needed another breath.
“Whew,” she whispered as she rested her head against my chest again and I dropped my hands back to her hips. “Okay. That’s the third thing. You fit me perfectly. No change that. We fit perfectly.”
Who was I to disagree?
We stayed like that for a moment before Chicago pulled away. “It’s my turn,” she said. “Three things.”
We sat back down, but this time I nudged my stool closer to hers so we could remain in contact.
“I have three degrees. Pyschology, Criminology, and French.” She giggled and looked sideways at me. “I’m thinking of a fourth.”
“Okay,” I replied, interrupting her before she could move onto her next tidbit about herself. “That tells me you are really smart, or,” I held up my hand to stop her from responding, “you can’t commit.” I tried to laugh it off because it was an odd challenge to make to a girl I was about to marry. If she couldn’t pick a major and a career, what did it say about the chances of her sticking with me once it got boringly normal?
“Maybe it’s both,” she winked at me. “But don’t you worry about us. I was with Jake for a loooong time.” She shuddered then. I felt it against me and I wrapped my arm around her shoulder, drawing her closer to me. “So, the second thing about me that you should know is . . .,” Chicago began to drum her fingers on the bar, “. . . that I really like cats.”
I almost shouted it, “Bingo,’ and kissed her on the cheek. “Me, too.”
* * * * *
So, we got married. Yes, we did. Chicago never told me the third thing.
The rabbi was there from the first pitch, watching the game from a corner of the box. He had a couple of brats, loaded down with sauerkraut, and a pair of beers. “Don’t tell my wife,” he requested. He wiped a smear of mustard from his cheek and took another bite. “Or my congregation. Oy vey, the kibitzers would have a field day with this.” I half expected him to cross himself the way a priest might after nipping from the holy wine, but instead Rabbi Saltzman stuffed the final bit of his polish into his mouth and turned his attention to the game.
She was wearing a Cubs jersey with Sandberg on the back. I vaguely remembered the name, but couldn’t place him. I chose a Mariners jersey to represent home. Griffey was on the back. Chicago, of course, knew the man. Both the father and the son. She giggled at my surprise, “My daddy was a baseball fan. We went to a lot of games when I was a kid.” She pointed at the glove on the ground by her feet. “It’s why I brought that. I wouldn’t be able to look him in the face if I came to a game without my glove.”
That her parents had decided to bail on the wedding when they found out Chicago’s fiancé of two years made other plans and their only daughter had decided to go forward by marrying a complete stranger, well, it might have suggested her daddy wouldn’t really care one way or the other. But that’s only a thought that came later. Instead, I was still smitten. While she spoke, she watched the game, and swiped her hair behind her ear, leaving her neck bare. Just there for the nuzzling, but that probably wasn’t the right thing to do just before our vows. Right?
Or was it okay? I mean, we were breaking with all sorts of traditions anyway. Nothing borrowed. Nothing blue. Except for the Cubs jersey. We were spending the whole day together instead of not seeing each other until the ceremony started. So, why not? Rabbi Saltzman was there kind of ruining the mood, slurping at his $10 beer, belching up the remnants of his brats, and mumbling about getting some garlic fries.
“You’ll protect me if a ball comes up here, right?”
“Of course.” She turned towards me and held her arms up in a body builder pose. “You have nothing to fear as long as I am here.” She giggled and fell into me and I felt her warmth. We were waiting until the 7th inning stretch. Chicago thought it would be a nice touch – vowing our love for each other with the Wrigley throngs belting out the stretch’s traditional song. What doesn’t say wedded bliss like peanuts, and popcorn and Cracker Jacks.
I didn’t want to wait. I was sold on the idea, but I knew it was her show. I was an extra just happy to be within the edges of the spot light shone on her. Two innings to go. I had great hopes for the benefits I would receive on the fringes of Chicago’s star. I certainly hoped we’d win one for the home team.
With two outs in the top of the 7th, the Rabbi rose from his chair. “You two ready.” Before we could respond, he held one hand up and balled the other into a fist and placed it on his chest. “Oy, maybe I shouldn’ta had the extra brat. Oy, I’m going to pay for this tonight. What’ll I tell Mona.”
I looked at Chicago and made sure she was looking at me. I gulped, bobbing my Adam’s apple up and down. Pretended to wipe sweat from my brow and smiled weakly at her. “My dear.” I held my arm out for her to slide her hand inside my elbow. “Shall we?”
Out on the field, the light-hitting shortstop for the Padres was behind 0-2.
“We shall.” Chicago ignored my elbow and slid her hand into mine. I was happy to feel the nervousness on her skin. She rose to me and kissed me on the cheek. “Don’t be nervous.”
The shortstop, a 165 pound slender reed from a Caribbean island, slapped a seeing eye ground ball between first and second base.
“Who me?” I shrugged and pretended to wipe a piece of lint off my shirt. “Never.” We presented ourselves to Rabbi Saltzman. The pinch hitter sent up by the Padres to hit for their pitcher lined a double off the ivy covered wall in straightaway center. Eight runs, three pitching changes, and 30 minutes later, we had each found our seats again and ordered another round of $10 beers. I had excused myself to take a leak, returning in time to see that final run score and watch as the next batter lift a fly ball to the ivy-covered wall where it mercilessly settled into the rightfielder’s glove.
Was it an omen? The gods, whoever they were, delaying what shouldn’t happen with the hope I’d come to my senses. Or maybe Chicago might turn to me and with one of those smiles with her eyes downcast, she would say, suddenly shy of me, “I’m sorry, but this isn’t happening.” She would admit finally, “that it was all a silly lark,” brought about by her anger at her fiancé. That it had all gone too far and now mercifully it was over. She would sigh deeply and then shoo me away with her hands.
Instead, the Rabbi told us about how he and his wife had met back in the city – New York City. They had married almost like we were. Hardly knowing each other but desperate to do so before he went off Vietnam. Whether it was the beers he had drunk, the emotion of the moment and his memories, or just the indigestion from his brats and garlic fries, he even shed a tear as he asked us to rise as soon as the third out was recorded.
It was then that the good Rabbi administered our vows, with our luxury box waitress as our witness.
It was then that I learned Chicago’s real name and decided to stick with Chicago.
It was then that the Rabbi asked what I was doing and she winked at me and said, “Go on.”
It was only a few more breaths later when we were pronounced man and wife, as a desultory crowd of Cubs fans finished the final words of baseball’s seventh inning anthem.
We kissed amidst the rustle of 40,000 returning to their seats and the lights of the stadium beginning to glow in the early evening. I could feel her smile as our lips met and the heat of her body as she pressed into me. I was convinced I had never wanted anything more than to know everything there was to know about this woman in my arms.
“Now I can get some cotton candy,” the rabbi mumbled as he turned away from us. “You two need a room.”
If only it was that easy.
When the game was over, we exited with the rest of the Wrigley throngs and made our way back to our hotel. We hung on each other through the lobby and into the elevator. I confidently hit the button for the 14th floor where her room was and leaned against the back wall, expecting Chicago to settle into my arms.
Instead, she punched the 11 button and stood apart from me. “I owed you a third thing.” I looked at the button for the 11th floor lit up. It was the floor my room was on. When we checked in, Chicago insisted on separate rooms. “Not yet, you tiger,” she said, batting her eyes and kissing me on the cheek, when I looked at her, no doubt with desperation on my face. For the last two nights, I had slept alone, imaging the pleasures and treasures that awaited on the 14th floor.
“What? What are you talking about?”
Chicago wrapped her arms around herself. “At the bar. We never got past cats.” She shivered. I wanted to keep her warm. “Thing is … I’m not that kind of girl.” She swiped a hand through her hair. “I can’t sleep with you tonight. I hardly know you. We haven’t even …”
The doors slid closed. “We just got married!”
“ … really had a first date.” The elevator started moving.
“It’s our wedding night.” I then processed what she had said. “What about the bar?”
“Don’t be silly. That wasn’t a date. That was like a getting to know you get together at a coffee shop after meeting on Match.”
“What about …”
Chicago moved closer to me then and held her finger to my lips. “Ssshhh, my dear. All in good time.” The elevator stopped at the 11th floor and the doors opened. “Have a little patience with me. We just need to get to know each other a little more.” The doors started to slide closed so she reached her hand out to keep them open. “When we get back to Seattle. A couple of dates oughta do it.” She tilted her head at me. “Don’t you think?”
What was I to do? I sighed and walked off the elevator, too damn frustrated to even look back as the doors dinged close. At the door of my room, I fumbled with the key card, dropping it, sliding it in backwards, and then finally getting the door open. In the darkened room, a blinking red light drew me to the phone on the nightstand. A message awaited me. Who left messages on hotel phones these days, I thought as I picked up the phone and followed the instructions.
The mechanical voice of the recorder told me the message had been left at 5:15, while we were at the game. The message began to play. “You silly goose,” came Chicago’s voice. “Get on up here. We’ve got a wedding to celebrate.”
Ha ha! Love the ending! And I liked the baseball game setting! Really a fun, light-hearted read, Mark! Happy holidays 🙂
Fun and light-hearted, with a little bit of stress and humor thrown in, was what I was looking for. Thank you. And happy holidays to you as well!!
Pingback: The Story Behind the Story | Novels, Short Stories, and More
Pingback: I Wrote a Story | KingMidget's Ramblings
Inventive, creative, and so readable… I love the three things bit in the middle, that was an excellent change of pace. I want to marry Chicago myself, that is a girl fully realized and made fleshy – congratulations on a totally real character. Love the interjections of the baseball game into the ceremony (not to mention the Ryne Sandberg and Griffey references). The tease at the end, heart-wrenching – kept expecting something to go wrong, for it all to fall apart, but glad it didn’t.
You have great talent, Mark, for telling a story and keeping the reader reading. Don’t forget that as you contemplate your novel.
Thank you as always for your support. Your description of the tease and your expectations and the ultimate end of the story are exactly what I went through as I wrote the thing. Lots of decisions to make about this story as I went and I struggled with them. In the end, I was really happy with the ending because, you know, they really did need to end up together.
It’s not support, Mark – I don’t support anyone. I appreciate and love great writing, that’s all – spades are spades and I like to call them as such. I think you nailed this story on a variety of levels, and it seems to me that your decision-making was bang-on. The die-hard romantic in me badly wanted them to end up together, and I’m glad they did.
Keep at it – would love to read more stuff like this.
What a delightful story!