JULIE IN CHICAGO
by Eric Lutz
Julie sat on her balcony. It was midday on a Wednesday. She wore khaki shorts, a lime green bikini top, and sunglasses. She drank Tecate and listened to Otis Redding on her phone. She had called in sick to work. She wasn’t sure what it was, but she had for weeks been out of it, feeling a familiar but implacable ache, almost like hunger, as though she had recently lost something she didn’t know she had. She’d hoped maybe some sunshine might help.
Every so often, the Brown Line thundered past her apartment.
Every so often, she went inside to grab another beer.
Mike came over that night. They hardly greeted one another when she opened the door. They went straight to her room.
“How was your day?” he said, taking his messenger bag off his shoulder and setting it down in front of her closet.
“Fine,” she said, moving her clean laundry from her bed to the floor.
She turned to face him. He walked toward her. They kissed. They undressed. He lay flat on his back on the bed. She mounted him and moved on him until his face twisted the way it always did and she slunk down on top of him and climbed off.
“Did you finish?” he asked her after a little while.
“No,” she said. “I never do, though.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“No, I mean like I can’t,” she said. “Some girls aren’t able to. It’s not you.”
She turned her head to look at him. He nodded like he understood, but she could see in his face that he was still thinking it was him. Maybe it was, she thought. Him and all the others – perhaps none of them had been able to give her what she wanted. But what was it that she wanted?
She touched his face. There was a couple days’ stubble on it. She ran her fingers up the sandpaper of his cheeks until she reached his hair. He wore it like an adolescent, with no style to it. He put his arm underneath her and pulled her close to him and dozed off. She lay awake, her head on his chest, hearing his heartbeat and feeling hers, feeling at once close to him and very far away.
She arrived twenty minutes late to work the next morning. Her project manager, Bernice, tapped an imaginary watch on her wrist and raised an eyebrow at her.
“Sorry,” Julie said.
Julie walked to her cubicle, sat down, and started up her computer. Hers was the slowest in the office because she had been the most recent person hired, and the only computer left was the old one nobody wanted. She waited more than ten minutes for it to groan awake, opened her spreadsheet, and began to transfer data from the paper in the manila envelope on her desk to the spreadsheet on her computer. After a few minutes, she opened her browser and began to search for jobs.
Lauren was making stir-fry. Julie sat with her ankles under her at their kitchen table, drinking a glass of red wine.
“You should see someone,” Lauren said.
“I’m fine,” Julie said.
Lauren stopped stirring the vegetables in the frying pan.
“You’re not fine,” she said.
“OK, I’m not fine.” Julie stood up, got an ice cube from the freezer, and plopped it into her wine. “But I just don’t know –”
“Will you stop with the ice cubes?” Lauren asked. She laughed.
“You always do that and it’s so weird,” Lauren said. “It’s a hick thing to do.”
Julie nearly spit out her wine.
“How is it a hick thing?”
Lauren turned back to the vegetables.
“It just is,” she said. “It’s so weird.”
They laughed a little more. Then the laughing was over and Lauren turned to Julie again.
“I worry about you sometimes,” Lauren said.
Julie frowned, smiled.
“Because I put ice in my wine?”
“You know what I mean,” Lauren said.
That Friday night, Julie went to a bar with Lauren and her boyfriend, Tyler. The bar was called the Furnace. It was dimly lit and everything in the place was made of dark wood. The bar was around the corner from Tyler’s apartment. Julie and Lauren took two trains to get there. Julie sat on a stool and leaned against the wall and Lauren sat beside her near the aisle.
“I’ll get the first round,” Tyler said, and went to the bar to order some Scottish beer Julie had never heard of. Julie tried to find it on the menu, but couldn’t. She looked up and caught Lauren’s eye.
“Are you going to get food?” Lauren asked.
“No,” Julie said. “Are you?”
Lauren shook her head. A minute later, Tyler returned with the beer and sat down across from them on the other side of the table.
“Cheers,” Tyler said.
They all clinked glasses and drank. The beer was dark and tasted like coffee.
“I like this bar,” Lauren said after a little while.
Julie nodded, even though she didn’t like this bar.
“I come here to read sometimes,” Tyler said. He worked from home as a copy editor for a trade journal, but had, ever since Lauren met him a little more than a year ago, been three-quarters of the way through writing a play that he hadn’t let anyone see a page of.
Lauren once told Julie she wished he loved her as much as she loved him.
Julie wanted to say that she felt love only in retrospect, only as a memory.
They talked about a shooting that had occurred in Tyler’s neighborhood the previous night. It had been all the way over by the other Blue Line stop, but Tyler said he could actually hear the gunshots. He said it like he was proud of it, like he’d won something.
After a few minutes, his phone vibrated on the table. He looked at the screen.
“It’s Lou,” he said to Lauren. “They’re at the Patio.”
“Do you want to go?” Lauren asked.
“I’m cool hanging here with you guys,” he said.
Lauren looked at Julie.
“What do you think?” she said.
“I don’t know,” Julie said. “Whatever.”
“Yeah?” Tyler said.
Julie finished her beer with one huge, final sip.
“It’s up to you guys,” she said.
Tyler looked at Lauren.
It was a cool, breezy summer night.
“This is a perfect night,” Tyler said.
The patio was three blocks away. Julie had never been there before, but Lauren said she would like it. Lauren was her best friend and cared about her more than anyone ever had, but sometimes – particularly around Tyler – she could confuse what Julie liked with what she liked.
When they arrived, a bouncer checked their IDs. Tyler and Lauren were admitted, but Julie was stopped.
“This really you?” the bouncer asked. He had the skyline tattooed on his huge arm. It made her want a tattoo of her own.
“Yeah,” she said.
He lifted his eyes from her card to her, then looked back at the card.
“What’s your birthday?”
“Julie?” Lauren said from the doorway. “What’s going on?”
“May 23rd,” Julie said to the bouncer.
“She’s older than I am,” Lauren said.
He turned to Lauren, then to Julie again, and handed the ID back to her.
“You look different,” he said.
“Thanks,” Julie said, and walked inside.
“Prick,” Lauren said.
“I liked his tattoo,” Julie replied as they made their way through the crowded bar toward a booth in the back. The place was dark and loud with music and voices. They spotted Tyler and followed him to the booth where his friends were sitting and stood around it.
“I didn’t see it,” Lauren said.
“It was cool,” Julie said.
“Hey,” said a guy with long, greasy hair. He wore tan shorts, a blue button-down, and brown boat shoes.
“Lou,” Tyler said. “This is Lauren’s friend Julie.”
Lou stood up halfway and shook her hand.
“Hey,” he said. “I’m Lou.”
“Julie,” she said.
“What took you so long?” Tyler asked.
“The guy almost didn’t let her in,” Lauren said.
“Who?” Lou asked.
“The bouncer guy at the door,” Lauren said. “He thought she had a fake.”
“He said I look different,” Julie said.
“Can I see?” he asked.
“Sure,” Julie said. She took out her wallet and handed him the ID. He looked at it and back at her and back at the card again, just as the bouncer had.
“You do look different,” he said, smiling.
“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe it’s the hair? I don’t know. I can’t place it.” He handed the ID back to her. “You look great either way,” he said.
Tyler and Lauren went to the bar to get a round. Julie stood silently by the booth and watched people move on the dance floor.
“So,” Lou said. “How do you two know each other?”
“Lauren?” Julie said. “We’re roommates. We went to college together.”
“Cool,” Lou said.
Then they went quiet again. Julie watched people dance. Lou looked at her and past her.
“I’m sorry,” he said after a minute. “What was your name again?”
“Julie,” Julie said.
“Julie,” he said. “I’m Lou.”
Julie left Lou’s the next morning. She went to the park. A series of copper, human-like statues stood across a lane of grass from one another, mirroring each other’s varied poses. She walked around them, then between them, and then sat on a bench in the shade.
Then she left the park and walked to the beach. Gulls squawked and flew and dove at the shore. Julie took off her shoes and walked in the sand. The cold clean water lapped at her ankles. Kids ran screaming into the lake, their skin purpling like frozen chicken breasts. The sky was blue and cloudless and nearly indistinguishable from the water where they met at the horizon. She took off her overshirt and lay on the sand in her tank top. She fell asleep and dreamed of ice. She woke up shivering in an early afternoon breeze.
She started home. A couple blocks away from her train stop, she saw a woman reading the palm of a middle-aged man. The woman wore a thick gray shawl, a dark bandana, and a patch over her right eye. Though she was thin, she stood with the kind of hunched posture Julie typically associated with stout women.
“Rich, what are you doing?” the man’s wife asked.
“Can’t you see?” he said. “She’s going to predict my future.”
“No no,” the old woman said, her voice scratchy and accented. “No predict. I see your future. I see it and tell.”
“She’s seeing my future,” the man said, nudging his son with his elbow. The small boy laughed. The mother grabbed his hand.
The old woman held the man’s hand in hers, running her fingers over the creases in his palm, staring hard at it as though it were a map. When Julie got closer, the woman looked up. Their gazes met. The woman’s eye was milky blue. Her face wrinkled into a kind smile. Julie smiled, too, but just with her lips, and then looked down at her feet.
Julie and Mike finished having sex and lay on top of her sheets, cooling off.
“You got some sun,” Mike said to Julie. “Looks great.”
“It’s sunburn,” she said.
“Yeah,” Mike said. “But it’s your sunburn.”
Julie groaned and rolled over so that she was turned away from him. She faced her bookshelf, which was filled with books she hadn’t read in years and all manner of tiny knick-knacks she no longer had use for. Clothes that she no longer liked spilled out of her closet and drawers, as did shoes that were breaking at the soles and stained with street-salt from the previous winter.
“I want to have a yard sale,” Julie said.
“OK,” Mike said, like it was his yard, too. Like either of them had a yard.
“I’m tired,” she said.
Neither Mike nor Julie said anything for a little while. Then, Mike rolled onto his side, too, and pulled her body to his so that they were spooning.
“I like you,” he said.
She relaxed her body into his and rested her hand on his hand, but did not respond.
“Do you like me?” he asked.
“No,” she replied.
“No,” she said. She turned to face him, they kissed, and she pet his perfect eyebrows with her thumbs. “I hate you.”
“I’m cold to him,” Julie said.
She drank Jack and Coke. Lauren sat on the other end of the couch and flipped through channels on the TV.
“I like him,” Julie said. “I don’t know what it is.”
“Is it just him?” Lauren asked. “Or is it with other people, too?”
“I’m not sure,” Julie said.
Lauren turned on tennis and muted the TV. She turned to Julie and put the remote down on the cushion between them.
“I guess what I’m asking is, is the problem with him or with you?”
Julie thought about it. On TV, the tennis players volleyed back and forth. They looked more like teammates than competitors.
“I don’t know,” Julie said.
Lauren looked at Julie for a long time. Julie didn’t return Lauren’s look, but watched her out of her periphery, trying to discern the expression on her friend’s face. It was confusion or worry. Soon, Lauren turned back to the TV and turned the sound back up. The players made amative groans when they struck the ball.
“I’ve always liked you with Mike,” Lauren said.
“Yeah?” Julie said.
“Yeah,” Lauren said. “So for whatever that’s worth.”
It was Saturday. Julie lay her clothes on boxes she’d set out in front of her building and stacked books and movies in the grass. She and Mike sat on her front steps all day. Cars slowed down but didn’t stop. People casually went through her stuff, smiled, and kept going down the sidewalk. Occasionally, someone would buy a tee-shirt or a scarf. She sold her old purse and a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude that she’d started numerous times but never finished. Huge stretches of time passed without anyone coming by at all.
“We should have advertised,” Julie said.
“Maybe,” Mike said. He put his hand on her knee and she put her hand over his.
In the evening, she gave up and she and Mike went upstairs. He opened two beers and they sat on the floor of her living room, peeling price stickers off the things she’d failed to sell.
“Hey,” she said, her hands interrupting the work his were doing on one of her old umbrellas. He looked up at her. “I’m sorry,” she said.
He smiled and grabbed her hands.
“For what?” he asked.
“I’m just sorry. For a lot of things.” She pulled her hands away from his and picked up a bunch of the crumpled orange stickers they’d strewn on the hardwood. “I mean, it was a long day,” she said.
“No problem,” Mike said. “It was great.”
He kissed her on the neck. She smiled and watched as he took a big sip of his beer and returned to the umbrella. With his short nails he picked away at the sticker. She wondered what he saw in her. She wondered why his sweetness never relented against the weight of her coldness.
He looked up and smiled.
“What?” he said.
“Nothing,” she replied. She drank from her beer and returned to the pile of clothes.
Julie was on the Red Line, on her way to work. She wore a gray skirt, white blouse, and dark sunglasses. She stood gripping a rubber handle and swayed with the veering of the crowded train as it rumbled from stop to stop toward the Loop, all faces turned down into books or phones or newspapers, or watching the shell game being operated by a man in an orange Hawaiian shirt.
“Follow the ball, follow the ball,” he said, shuffling a bean under bottle caps on the piece of cardboard on his lap. “Who sees it, who sees it.”
Julie followed the ball as it appeared and disappeared beneath caps and rotated positions on the board.
“Fools,” an old woman said, shaking her head at the crowd.
Suddenly, the train came to a halt.
A man in a gray suit standing near Julie let out his breath.
“Shit,” he said. He looked over at Julie.
“You said it,” she said.
There was a beeping sound and a voice over the monitor announced that the train was stopped for an emergency on the tracks.
Julie angled herself to look out the narrow windows of the train car. The next stop was maybe a hundred-fifty yards down the way.
“He jumped!” someone a few seats down yelled.
“God,” an old woman said. “Glory be.”
Julie tried to see what was going on, but could only see police standing between the people waiting on the platform and the electric tracks. It was a sunny morning. A flock of birds broke over the top of the low-slung buildings and power lines. She moved from the window.
“Follow the ball, follow the ball,” the man still said. “Follow the ball, follow the ball.”
“Fools,” the old woman repeated.
The man in the gray suit looked at Julie.
She looked at him.
Bernice called Julie into her office. She said she liked her a lot, but this was becoming a problem. She said she’d given Julie enough chances, but that she had proven herself unreliable.
“That’s horrible,” Mike said over dinner that night. “I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah,” Julie said. “Well.”
She broke a piece of bread off the loaf and sponged the olive oil with it. Mike poured more of the house red into their glasses and cleared space for the waiter to put their plates in front of them.
He ate riso tonnato.
She ate stuffed eggplant.
On the walk home from the restaurant, Mike took Julie’s hand.
“I’ve got my own little work situation going on,” Mike said.
“Yeah?” Julie said.
They passed by a row of bars. People smoked in the doorways.
“Yeah,” Mike said. “You remember Monica?”
Julie did. She had met her at a barbeque in May. It had been unseasonably cold and Monica had come unprepared for the weather. She’d had to borrow a sweater from Mike’s boss, who was hosting the barbeque.
“She asked me what my situation was,” Mike said. “She asked me if I was seeing anybody.”
He squeezed Julie’s hand and looked at her, smiling expectantly. He seemed to be waiting for her to say something. When she didn’t, he said: “What should I have said?”
“Say whatever you want,” she said.
Mike kept on smiling, but now it was a little dimmer, a little more desperate; it was as if his face had become stuck that way.
“What do you say?” Mike asked. “I mean, what would you have said?”
“I don’t know,” Julie said, frustrated.
They kept on walking. When they got to her building, they stopped. She turned to face him and he turned away, staring up at an almost full moon.
“I’m not sure if I can keep this up,” Mike said.
“What do you mean?” Julie said.
“I mean, I just don’t know,” he replied.
“Mike,” she said.
He looked at her and past her.
Julie waited for a train.
It was a warm night. A breeze blew by on the platform. A full moon hung in the sky above the top of the brick buildings. A guy took a picture of it on his phone. Julie leaned in behind him and looked at the screen.
“Strawberry Moon,” he said.
Julie nodded. A train came.
She arrived at Lou’s. Julie sat cross-legged around his coffee table. A group of them played a drinking game. Julie pulled a nine from the deck of cards that had been spread around a can of Miller in the middle.
“Bust a rhyme,” Lou said.
“Duck,” Julie said. They went around the circle, each person making a rhyme – puck, suck, fuck – until it got back to Julie. She thought – there were a million words that rhymed – but could not think of one.
“Drink,” they said to Julie.
She laughed and drank. Then she said, “Stuck. God damn it, I should’ve said stuck.”
“Too late,” Lou said.
Lou’s roommate, Chris, came into the living room.
“They’re about to start the fireworks,” he said.
Chris had the build of a runner and a head shaved clean and bald. His jeans and tee-shirt fit him well and he had nice, welcoming eyes.
Lou shut off the lights and everyone headed out onto the balcony. The sky was dark, except for the light of the moon. Julie leaned against the railing next to Chris.
“It’s a Strawberry Moon,” she said.
He smiled at her. His teeth were white and nice.
“Right,” he said.
She smiled back at him.
They waited quietly for what seemed like a while. Then, a thin shadow shot up into the sky and burst into a bright umbrella of blue, dissolving into little ghosts of light raining down over the lake. Everyone clapped and cheered.
“So how’s it going with you?” Chris asked. “Need another drink?”
Julie and Chris lay head to foot on his bedroom floor.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said.
They were quiet a long time.
“I’m a hard person to be with,” she replied.
They kept laying there, staring up at the ceiling. Julie wondered if her feet smelled.
“I’m not so easy myself,” Chris said. He sat up. “It’s just – it’s just so hard, you know?”
Julie sat up, too. She nodded.
“Yeah,” she said. She scooched over to him and lay her head on his shoulder. They sat like that. They kissed. He leaned up against the end of his bed and Julie sat on top of him. They kept kissing.
Chris pulled away.
“I can’t,” he said. “I mean I shouldn’t.”
“I’m seeing someone,” Chris said.
He lay flat on his back. Julie moved down and lay her head on his shoulder.
“Is that OK?” he asked.
“Sure,” Julie replied.
Chris fell asleep. For a long time, Julie watched his chest rise and fall with breaths and exhalations. Then, she slid out from underneath his arm and went to the window beside his bed and peered through the blinds.
She looked out at the city, but saw only her own reflection in the dark window. She heard the sound of voices in the living room, everyone still talking and drinking. She pulled her phone from her pocket and texted Mike.
“I miss you,” she wrote.
She sat on the bed and looked at Chris sleeping on the floor. He looked like a kid, like a little kid who’d fallen asleep on the carpet during story time. She reclined on his bed and checked her phone for a text from Mike. She fell asleep.
Light poured in through the window. Julie was alone in the bedroom. Her phone was dead. She wondered if Mike had texted her back.
She sat up and found her shoes on the floor and slipped them onto her feet. Her head felt heavy and she sat there for a minute steadying herself before standing up to leave the room. The apartment was a mess of empties and open chip bags and discarded paper plates. Chris was asleep on the couch. She crept to the door and quietly left for her apartment.
The world was awash in yellow sunlight and the city filled with people. They took pictures in the shadows of giant buildings and asked strangers for directions, jogging and pushing strollers and walking dogs and holding hands and begging for change. Julie simultaneously felt at home and homesick.
She was a few blocks from her train stop when she saw the old woman again. The palm reader. She stood with her back to a building and scratched at something on her thick wool shawl. When Julie got closer to her, the woman turned to her and her face lit with recognition, as if at an old acquaintance, as if at a granddaughter.
Julie stopped in front of her.
“Child,” the woman said, opening her arms in a gesture of embrace.
Julie felt heavy. She wanted to fall into the old woman and sleep nestled against her soft body. Instead, she held out her hand. She held out her hand and the old woman smiled and took it in hers.
Julie looked at the woman.
The woman smiled and traced the creases in her palm.