UNDERWORLDS APART: A STORY FOR AILIE
By Mindy Watson
Newly three years old, you’re a different flower bud to me every day: one day fierce tiger lily, knocking down boys with a resounding “HIYA!”; one day fragile orchid, spewing tears at the slightest reproach; one day preening narcissus, adulating your mirror reflection – “I’m fantastic, Mommy!” And, my little daughter, still years away from womanhood – what am I to you? Am I just a culmination of warm associations: an elbow-bound shelter, a comforting breast, a loving hand untangling your hair? Then crawl up into my lap and let me tell you a story. You’ve spent months idolizing those golden-tresses Disney princesses who twirl, ball gown-clad, within your glossy pink board-books. Come listen now to a story about a different kind of princess, a long-ago princess unlike any you’ve ever seen.
There once was a princess named Persephone, the harvest goddess Demeter’s daughter, who spent her days frolicking innocently amongst her mother’s flowered meadows. But one day, the normally vigilant Demeter became so consumed with her own affairs that she turned her back on her daughter. In that moment, the father of all gods, Zeus, bade the earth split open, delivering Persephone into Hades’ subterranean fire. For seven years, Persephone dwelt in Hades; for seven years, its rapacious flames lapped away her innocence. When Demeter finally learned what the all-father had done, she furiously recalled her precious daughter from the underworld. But no mortal returns from Hades unscathed; the untouched girl Demeter once knew was gone. Though Persephone physically ascended back to the light, the six pomegranate seeds she’d eaten while in Hades forever ingrained its darkness in her. And no matter how high she rose, the underworld always beckoned to her.
Someday, Ailie, when you’ve grown from bud to bloom, I’ll retell this story, unsheathing my reimagined myth’s true meaning from the figurative scabbard your young age now demands. I’ll tell you that I was this story’s Persephone, my maternal grandfather, its Zeus. And I’ll explain how, eight years after I escaped Hades’ underworld, I felt the inexorable desire to descend its fiery staircase once more. I’ll tell you about Chicago, the Chicago I knew the summer of 1996, where I – a puerile, twenty-year-old girl – sought self-sovereignty in an underworld of my choosing.
They said I went crazy that summer in 1996 – the summer my boyfriend ran away from home. I was studying English at a small liberal arts university in Bloomington, Illinois: I was a senior from Wisconsin; my boyfriend was a local sophomore. That May, weeks before my slated graduation date, my boyfriend’s mother started a heated quarrel with her son that ended with this seemingly irrevocable pronouncement: “I am ashamed to have given birth to you.”
Unlike my own adoptive German-American parents, who considered proactivity and self-sufficiency a child’s ideal attributes, my boyfriend’s traditional Chinese parents favored filial piety and unquestioning obedience. The shame my boyfriend’s mother referenced stemmed from her son’s recent, seemingly flagrant waywardness, which she attributed to her family’s new interloper: his girlfriend – me. To her, I was the insidious Serpent slithering through her family’s well-manicured Garden, whispering sibilantly in her son’s ear and compelling him to disobey his honored father and mother. Though my non-Chinese heritage (I was a “too American” Korean adoptee) was in itself objectionable, my encouraging her son to pursue his beloved computer science classes when his parents had already decreed that, despite his subpar biology grades and absent enthusiasm, he would be a successful anesthesiologist like his father – was unforgiveable.
Following that explosive fight, my boyfriend fled his opulent family home in his beige Acura Integra, eight hundred dollars of his parents’ cash stashed in his pocket.
I was poised on the university pool’s high dive, arms albatross-outstretched, when I heard him knock against the rear gymnasium door, turned and saw his still pubescent pimpled nose pressed against the door’s glazed glass. I stepped backward, my toes gripping the slick board, and retreated down the ladder, each rung portending an impending descent of a different kind. And after I sprinted, wet yet fleet-footed, toward him and wrenched open the door, he asked, “Will you come with me?” The knowledge that I was on the cusp of college graduation, that this swimming class comprised the sole gym credit I needed to graduate, counted little. I simply said “yes.” By foregoing that dive, you see, I receded from one possible future and plunged into another.
Ailie, as the penetratingly intelligent young woman I know you’ll one day be, you’ll undoubtedly ask why I made such an impetuous and apparently infantile decision. I could tell you that I was madly in love, or that I feared the future. Or that the seeds I’d consumed in a dark place long ago had spawned in me some irrevocable need. Though all these are true, none completely answers that question. So I’ll ask you to keep listening.
Hours after abruptly departing our university, we reached the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago and quickly signed a lease for an unfurnished studio apartment on West Melrose Street. Why did we, now officially college dropouts, choose Chicago – specifically Lakeview, one of Chicago’s most eclectic and expensive neighborhoods? When my boyfriend and his parents had first emigrated from China eight years ago, Chicago’s Lakeview was where they’d first settled. Lakeview – with its bustling twenty four-hour arcades, action-figure-peddling comic shops, and astonishing Smashing Pumpkins sightings – was a wide-eyed new American boy’s dream. And years after his father’s meteoric rise to head anesthesiologist at St. Joseph’s Medical Center and the family’s subsequent move to Bloomington, my boyfriend continued to see Chicago’s Lakeview – because the L’s mass transit backbone (comprising North Sheffield Street’s train stations) bolstered its west and Lake Michigan (boasting white breaker-riding schooners) bordered its east – as potential incarnate, a literal and symbolic conduit to anywhere. It was the place he’d first dreamed he could be anything he wanted at a time when his future still belonged to him.
Our first month in Chicago, we basked in blithe irresponsibility. We were invincible –careless caricatures of youth, Belmont Street fixtures riding the Ravenswood L. We mashed arcade buttons at Dennis’s Place for Games and collapsed inebriated every night on our second-hand black futon, smoke tendrils incessantly rising from my green Goodwill ashtray. We burned through those eight hundred dollars quickly.
In the late 1990’s, jobs in Chicago were scarce. We began to panic. Despite my retail experience, I couldn’t even secure a job at the nearby Walgreens or Chicken Hut. So I soon scoured the less conventional want ads. And one night, I donned my too-short denim cut-offs and my yellow midriff shirt and the antique-lace thong my mother once owned, and asked my boyfriend to drive me to a club in Gage Park as soon as the sun went down. After downing twenty ounces of scotch from a de-labeled Mountain Dew bottle, I exited his car and willingly, willfully slipped from evening’s darkness into another darkness altogether. My boyfriend waited outside, his Acura idling quietly.
That night, as I descended the stairs into the club’s underbelly, its center of pulsing pastel-tinged lights and guttural hoots and hollers, my Salvation Army sandals’ heels clacked decisively against the steps as I strode further down, down, down. I asked for the manager, a middle-aged, sandy-haired man who intuitively understood why I was there. He raised his pointer finger, motioning for me to wait until the scantily clad blonde sylph prowling the stage finished her third and final song. And then it was time for my audition – my compulsory trial by fire. The manager tapped me on the shoulder – So, hey, what’s your name? And I immediately said, Orchid. In the coming months, I’d don different names for different clubs, but Orchid, the Killer Instinct arcade game assassin – hers was my first. Mounting the strobe-lit stage after tossing my silver-green trench coat on the floor, I suppose I must have been nervous. But I only remember feeling exhilarated. And strangely unreal.
Atop the stage, I surveyed my subjects. They were, for one song, mine, these nameless men in the audience. Some stared unabashedly; some fidgeted, nervously fingering wedding rings, but all churned with one collective desire. And after my song ended and I triumphantly dismounted the stage after relinquishing my strobe light crown, I understood, perhaps for the first time, what it meant to feel truly powerful. I’d officially landed my first job in Chicago.
Later that summer, though, my elation ebbed. My boyfriend’s parents called, offering to fund a second-chance college stint for him at the University of Illinois in Champaign. They even promised him his own apartment as long as I didn’t accompany him. When he readily chose his accustomed lifestyle over deprivation and a restaurant server’s job, I realized the romantic idealism I’d adored in him had been mere posturing. I was devastated, but defiant. Determined to stay in that Chicago apartment, I convinced his best friend’s nineteen-year-old girlfriend, Tracy, to move in with me.
Tracy got a steady security guard job through a family friend, but, beyond our mandatory rent requirement, her bi-weekly paycheck and my paper dollar stacks went mostly to alcohol, cigarettes, and impromptu jaunts to the corner Melrose Restaurant. Proximity and convenience dictated that we become makeshift best friends, and we were, for a time, something like that. Which meant, when both her father and younger brother – intrigued by my current occupation and recent penchant for dressing the part off-duty – overtly flirted with me, she almost credibly concealed her disgust. And when, on my off-shift nights, she squeezed anonymous men into our studio apartment, I dutifully closed my eyes and feigned sleep, regardless of how much noise she made with them.
My boyfriend’s untimely departure aside, I loved my blissfully unchained, to-the-flame existence: the financial volatility, the moral grey. I left jobs frequently, but always for similar ones. For six months – no matter the site – the nights were veritably the same. Darting first through fall’s crisp ochre leaves, then winter’s sullied greyed snow, I was a young, urban empress astride mass-transit steeds – the rollicking L, the roaring city lorry. I was a spot-lit underworld queen presiding over a never-ending contingent of nocturnal subjects in venues named after dolls and foxes and cherries.
Then one winter night, still high on my self-sovereignty, I started a new job in a Cicero lounge. I was regaling two gentlemen who’d bought me two cherry-red stirring sticks (good for two scotches from the bartender) with some lively Shakespearean analysis, when the lady of the house brusquely interrupted my conversation. Lowering her voice so the men couldn’t hear, she hissed, “You aren’t making money sitting around talking to the customers.” I nodded and continued nursing my second scotch. “Get up,” she said, “I have a friend, a client who would just love you.”
He never told me his name – even if he had, I wouldn’t have remembered. I’d just remember the way – after I took him past the beaded curtain into the dark room with the pulsating fuchsia lights and I peeled out of my clothes down to my mother’s lace thong and I undulated trance-like to the awkward techno beat and he pulled me eagerly, almost lovingly, onto his lap and whispered tobacco-and-desire-suffused words into my ear and pushed his fingers deep where they were not supposed to go – his withered old Chinese face became, for a moment, the face of my mother’s father – my grandfather who had once loved me and whispered to me and touched me this very same way. And at once, I was no longer Hades’ queen, I was again just little captive Persephone, crying as the underworld flames into which my grandfather had delivered me fifteen years ago burned and burned. My reign was over; my power was gone.
The old Chinese patron withdrew, mumbled a stilted “sorry,” and pressed a crumpled twenty-dollar bill into my palm. Donning my green trench coat and knee-high black boots, I slipped silently from the lounge. I walked only a few frigid blocks toward the nearest bus stop before two police officers stopped to ask: where was I going dressed like this? Wasn’t I cold? After I climbed up into their paddy wagon, they kindly drove me all the way back to Lakeview. And when I returned that night, Tracy was too high to scorn my night’s mere twenty-dollar take. Or to protest when I said I was leaving.
Weeks later, to my boyfriend’s parents’ dismay, I moved to Champaign, where they currently financed both his apartment and previously maligned computer science classes. Because his parents threatened to revoke their generous subsidy should we again cohabitate, I moved into my own studio apartment on East Clark Street, the center of Champaign’s aptly named “campus slums.”
And now it’s nearly twenty years later. My ex-boyfriend and I live on opposite coasts. We’re both married with children: his two little girls – my two little boys, and you – my Ailie. If, after I’ve told you this story, your hazel eyes haven’t narrowed to slits and you want to keep listening, I’ll explain that, while 1996 Chicago was the only underworld over which I once reigned, it wasn’t the last I inhabited. I’ll tell you about the darker ones, the underworlds I wandered blindly within for years. The mistakes for which I haven’t even begun to forgive myself. The truths I acquired at too high of a cost.
But, Ailie, there’s one truth I won’t explicitly need to utter, because someday – when you ascend from your own Hades (where one blackness or another eventually pulls each of us) after its lascivious power has flown and its riveting fire has all but incinerated you – you’ll know it as well as you know yourself. It seems a lifetime has passed since I climbed for good back up to this overworld of light and responsibility, yet I still think of that long-lost Chicago, that one-time self-possession. And because the seeds I once ate there still linger undying in my belly, I wish I could – for one solitary moment – grasp a shred of that sovereignty again.
About the Author
Mindy Watson is DC/Northern Virginia-based creative nonfiction writer and federal writer who holds an MA in Nonfiction Writing from The Johns Hopkins University. Her nonfiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Ars Medica, Thread: A Literary Journal, and Corvus Review; her poetry has appeared (or is forthcoming) in The Quarterday Review, The Ekphrastic Review, Autumn Sky Poetry, Midnight Lane Boutique, and Cemetery Moon.