John stayed over Tuesday and Wednesday. I gave him a couple of stickers for his car so he could park on the street. I called in sick from work when he was out unloading his backpack. Told him I was off for a few days. Boss’ daughter getting married. I don’t know if he bought it or not.

I asked where he wanted to go and he said he’d feel embarrassed going anywhere. He only had smelly hiking clothes and boots. I offered to go to the laundromat with him. I offered to lend him some of my clothes. I gave him a towel and a bar of soap and access to a shitty, moldy apartment bathroom full of old grout and house centipedes. He told me I was the greatest host on earth, that I ought to open up a five star hotel.

On Tuesday night we sat in the laundromat between the barbershop with the big “unisex” sign out front and the 24-hour taco restaurant.

“Do you want to eat anything,” I said.

“I don’t have any money,” he said.

“I’ve got it,” I said.

“I don’t want to owe you anything,” he said.

“You don’t,” I said.

The bells jingled on the laundromat door as I exited, and as I reentered minutes later. I think it’s important we were eating. Meant we didn’t have to look at each other.

“Where’s next?” I asked.

“Um. Home,” he said.

“Your dad’s place?” I asked.

“Mom’s,” he said.

“That’s good,” I said.

“It’s whatever,” he said.

We finished eating. Stared at our reflections in the glass. The reflections of the clothes dancing in circles above our heads.

“She misses you,” I said.

“No she doesn’t,” he said, moving his head to stare directly into the floor.

“She called me. She called all the old gang. Asked if we knew where you were,” I said.

“Oh,” said John. Then, “what did you tell her?”

“That I hadn’t seen you.”


Out in the parking lot, young idiots were already gearing up to go racing down Lake Shore Drive. We could hear the music from the open doors of their cars. We could hear them drinking and laughing. A few of them would probably die a few hours later.

“So. Road trip recap. Best thing you saw?”

“I dunno,” said John. “I liked North Dakota.”

“What’s in North Dakota?” I asked.

“You know. Um. The parks. Lots of trees. Nice people,” he said.

“Really?” I asked.

“Nice to me. As a stranger,” he said. “I liked being a stranger, for a while.”

“Well. I’m glad you didn’t get like, serial killed or whatever,” I said.

“Yeah, me too,” he said.

On Wednesday we woke up at six to go to the diner across from Millennium Park.

“Thought you said we have to get here early, thought you said it’d be packed, it’s a freaking Wednesday,” said John.

“It’ll get busy, it always gets busy,” I said.

The waiter floated by as though he’d just slept eight full hours, or maybe done a line of cocaine. “And what are you ladies thinking for drinks this morning?” he said.

John stared at the exact middle of the table and didn’t say anything.

“Cappuccino for me, and whatever my boyfriend’s having,” I said.

“Oh, so sorry sir,” said the waiter, his face suddenly slightly pink.

“Uh. Just. Coffee,” said John.

He kept staring at the table for another minute. I browsed the menu to avoid looking at him.

“I’m not your boyfriend,” he said.

“I know,” I said.

“You don’t have to do that,” he said.

“Do what?”

“I don’t care how people talk to me. I don’t care if they’re wrong,” he said.

“Well I care,” I said.

“Get over it then,” he said.

I bought him a plate of eggs and bacon and pancakes. I was glad to, he looked so skinny, his cheekbones poking out of his face. Then, we were outside, crossing the street to get to the park.

“I don’t like when you treat me like this,” he said.

“What do you mean,” I asked.

“Like, you’re providing for me. Like I’m still your girl,” he said.

“You know I don’t see it that way,” I said.

“I guess,” he said.

I stared at the white lines painted onto the road. The red walk sign. The clusters of tourists milling about.

“You don’t see me as the protective boyfriend now, do you?” I asked.

“Of course not,” he said.

“Then. We’re fine. We’re not emulating the way we were. We’re just. Hanging out,” I said.

“Right,” he said. His voice was rough. I wondered if he’d started smoking cigarettes or something.

The light on the sign blinked white. We swapped places with the tourists on the parallel sidewalk.

“Anyways,” I said. “That’s the parking garage where I got my first job after moving here. And that building’s a theater, and they all connect with the pavilion underground. I’ve always wondered if it’s old prohibition tunnels or something. Or if they just built it that way because of the snow.”

“Snows a lot in Chicago?” asked John.

“Yeah. Lots more than home. You should visit, in the winter,” I said.

“Maybe,” he said.

We were standing across from those giant screens with faces, then. Close ups of pores on little glass panels. Blunt rectangles in the park.

“These creep me out,” said John.

“Yeah, me too,” I said.

We turned down the path towards the bean. We walked right up to it. We stared at our reflections in the warped mirror above our heads.

“This is kind of boring,” said John.

“I think so too,” I said.

“What are we gonna do now?” he asked.

“You want to do anymore tourist shit?” I asked.

“Not really,” he said.

“We could sit by the lake,” I said.

It wasn’t all that busy. It was the end of the tourist season. We found a spot on the concrete teeth and looked out at the sparse boats on the water.

“Why’d you move here, anyways,” asked John.

“I dunno. Lots of people. It’s nice to be a stranger, sometimes,” I said.

“It is,” he said.

We sat and watched boats and didn’t say anything for a while. John laid down on his back. I could see the shadows of clouds roll over his brow bone.

“Do you miss it?” he asked.

“What?” I asked.

“Us,” he said.

“Sometimes,” I said.

“What about it?” he asked.

“I miss you, sometimes,” I said.

“I didn’t think. I didn’t realize…” he said. His eyes had that look in them, like he was somewhere else. Beamed into the past.

“Didn’t realize we were the same,” he finally said.

“Well. I could’ve told you. But I didn’t,” I said.

“When I ran away I thought I. I figured you. Only liked me because. You liked having a girlfriend, so. I dunno,” he said.

“Did you only like me because you liked having a boyfriend?” I asked.

“Not at all,” he said. “I didn’t like, I didn’t want to, I mean. I felt very stuck. With. Everything, I guess, but. I just. Liked spending time with you I guess. That’s the part I miss.”

“Me, too,” I said.

“I didn’t realize. Until I called you. When I was driving out here and I called I. Um.”

“Nobody told you I’m a woman now?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I thought this visit would go um. Pretty differently.”

“Yeah. I was kind of an asshole. I can see how. I mean. I can picture it too. Old me. In the um, in the baseball hat.”

“Yeah, I remember, you used to wear that gross baseball hat all the time,” cut in John.

“It wasn’t that gross, I just didn’t wash it very often,” I said, laughing. “But I can picture it. Old me, if I were. If I were actually that man. If I were actually the type of guy I tried so hard to be. All, ‘what do you mean, babe? You’re a bro now?’”

I tried to do my best comical masculine accent, but my voice cracked. John sat up and laughed.

“You can’t pull it off, anymore,” he said.

“Well. You can’t pull off cheerleader anymore. So we’re equals,” I said.

“We’re equals,” he echoed.

Out on the water, a wave swelled up and carried a white sailboat into the air. It looked like a seagull for just a moment. Then, it swayed sideways, and capsized back into the water.

I took John to Pequod’s Pizza later that night. We leaned on a dark, sticky table towards the back of the room.

“I thought people liked those other two, the uh, uh,” John started.

“No. This is the only tolerable deep dish in the world. Deep dish is awful and this is the only place where it’s edible,” I said.

“Why are we here then?” John asked.

“I’m trying to give you the full Illinois experience,” I said.

“Well I’m leaving tomorrow, and I doubt we can hit every attraction in the state by then,” he said.

“You’ll just have to come back,” I said.

“Okay, okay,” he said.

“Pinky promise me,” I said.

“Hey, I used to be the one to always… Sure,” he said.

We linked pinky fingers.

Fifteen years ago, he asked me to marry him when we were older. He made me pinky swear on it. I could picture the memory like a slide in a projector. Us, so squishy and small.

I blinked. Back at Pequod’s Pizza. We ate gallons of cheese and sauce and doughy bread. I tried to bully John into trying the local beers.

“I don’t like beer,” he said.

“Come on, if you’re gonna be a man now you gotta like beer,” I said.

“Oh, and you’ve got to stop liking it now that you’re a woman? How’s that going?” he asked.

“We’re working on it,” I said.

I ended up with just enough beer in my belly to insist on a bar crawl.

“It’s a Wednesday, and I’m leaving in the morning,” said John.

“You’re in the drinking capital of the Midwest, it does not matter that it’s Wednesday. Besides. You leave tomorrow, so this is our last chance,” I said.

“I don’t wanna drive hungover,” he said.

“Well then drink water like a normal person?” I insisted.

I dragged him up the street to the art deco bar on the corner. Drinks cost sixteen dollars each. Under glittering dim chandeliers, a handsome bartender in a sweater offered to read our tarot cards.

“You any good at it?” I asked.

“Of course I’m good at it,” he said.

“Why is my drink on fire,” asked John.

“We get a lot of customers from social media,” said the bartender. Then, he brought the deck of cards out from behind the counter. He shuffled the deck like a gambler would. Then he asked John and I to pick five cards. He spread them across the counter and flipped them.

“This one represents you, monsignor,” he said, poking John on the shoulder. “It’s The Tower, means you’re quite the trouble maker, no?”

John tried to protest, but was cut off.

“And this,” he said, pointing to the next card. “Is you, madame. The Fool.”

“Haha, you got The Fool,” said John.

“It’s not a bad thing. Means you’ve retained some innocence, you’re not afraid to take risks, to jaunt about and be merry.”

“Yeah, that’s what we’re doing, we’re jaunting about and being merry,” I said.

“And the other three?” John asked.

“Past, present, and future,” said the bartender.

“Looks a bit bleak,” said John.

“Au contraire, monsignor. Here in the past is the Lovers, but reversed. Out of harmony it was, yes? Then, the present. Six of Wands! A card of conviction. Community, even. Now, your future…”

He paused for dramatic effect. He laughed. “Well, want to order any more drinks before I tell the future?”

We laughed, too. “This is quite a hustle you’ve got going,” John joked. We bought another round.

“Your future,” the bartender continued. “Is a Five of Cups. Loss on the material plane. But the material plane is just stuff. The heart carries on.”

John and I applauded him. We were thoroughly tipsy by then, if not entering full drunkenness.

“Time for the next stop,” I said.

“What do you mean, next stop?” John groaned.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime night. We will never be this young again! Let us drink and be merry,” I bellowed.

“Yeah, yeah, if you say so,” answered John.

We stumbled further up the street to Lilly’s. I jiggled the brass doorknob. The door didn’t quite fit in the frame; it was an 1800s original.

Inside, a band of college kids played covers of David Bowie songs on their keyboard and harmonica.

Lilly’s is just a house, with basically no proper refrigerators or sinks. The bar looked like it was cut and pasted out of a magazine into a diorama. Behind the bar, the bartender grabbed us beers out of tin planters full of ice.

I handed him cash, which he fed into a broken, hundred-year-old brass cash register that took up half the wall.

“You’re insane,” said John. “You’re insane and you go insane places and drink too much.”

“Shh, no such thing,” I said.

I took him to the very back booth. We sunk into the tattered sofa cushion. Overgrown monstera leaves bobbed above our heads. I took out my keys.

“The fuck’re you up to now,” John mumbled, swaying to the harmonica music.

“Shh,” I said.

I carved “J + E 4 EVER” into the wood paneling on the corner wall.

John laughed and pressed his forehead into my shoulder. “That’s so dumb,” he said.

“I’ve always wanted to carve a heart into a tree or some shit,” I said.

“Idiot,” he said.

“You’re such a bully,” I said.

“Fuck off,” he said.

I pressed my forehead into his. I looked at his big glittering eyes. I didn’t kiss him. I was thoroughly drunk but I knew not to. We weren’t in love anymore. We were just people, again. Nearly strangers.

“Stay in Chicago,” I said.

“I’ve got to let my folks know I’m alive, at least,” he said.

“You should stay. You should move here,” I said.

“I’m out of fuckin money,” he said.

“Move in with me. I can handle the full rent, until you find a job, or-”

“I need my fuckin birth certificate, at least. My social security card. All that shit’s at home. I’ve got to. Got to at least go home for that,” he said.

“Fine. But please. Come back,” I said.

“I will,” he said.

“Promise?” I asked.

“Pinky swear,” he said.

Over the college band harmonica cover of “Under Pressure,” we could hear the train screeching along the tracks, barreling towards us from outside, a comet swinging on its orbit. 

I don’t really remember getting home but my alarm woke us up on Thursday morning. We were fully clothed. John was diagonal across the air mattress. I was on my bed, with my head at the baseboard.

“I feel like shit,” said John.

“Nothing some bacon and eggs can’t fix,” I said.

“I want to leave early,” he said.

“It’s still early,” I said.

“You’re so annoying,” he said.

I flipped eggs on the stove while he loaded his backpack back into his car. We sat across from each other at the table and ate quietly. Wind rustled through the chimes hanging by the kitchen window.

“Thank you,” John said softly.

“It’s really no problem,” I said.

“No I mean,” he started. He poked his plate with his fork. “Thank you for. Being kind to me when we were younger and then. Not resenting me, now that we’re old.”

“We’re not old,” I said.

“Feels like it’s been a billion years,” he said.

“I guess so,” I said.

He gave me a long hug before heading out to his car. I waved from the open door. He waved back, smiled, and turned the key in the ignition.

I never saw him again.

I went back to work Thursday. Put on the usual secretary attire, took the train downtown. Apologized to my boss, said I forgot to bring a doctor’s note.

Then Friday was the same. I felt like one of my organs had been ripped clean out of me. I tried not to think too hard. Didn’t want to think about getting back into the usual loop. Train work lunch work train home sleep. Shoot the shit with some buddies who barely know me. Get drunk on Saturday nights and then do it all over again.

On Saturday, I got a call from John’s mom on the train ride home. I held the phone up to my ear and listened over the rattling on the tracks.

“Have you… have you seen my daughter lately?” she asked. Her voice was quiet and shaky.

“No,” I said. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“Oh.” she said.

She was quiet for a bit. I could hear her breathing over the line. Sharp inhales and slow, reverberating exhales.

“You two were close, you were always so… anyways. I figured I should tell you. Um. She was um. Driving on the. On the highway and. Um.”

The line went quiet for a minute. I sat completely still, holding the phone, rocked by the train.

“She was um hit by a, a, a trucker who um fell asleep at the wheel. Um. Bad accident, four car pile up um it was on the news, so. Anyways. If you want to come to the service. You two were always close.”

The train pulled up to the northernmost stop. I hadn’t realized the call had ended. I hadn’t realized I’d just been sitting there, with the phone still to my ear.

I got off and looked around. Just a parking lot. Some old out-of-commission train tracks from a hundred years ago. If it were back then, I could’ve headed north forever.

I walked across the platform to get to the southbound train. I sat in an empty train car. Nearly missed my stop, again.

I didn’t cry until I got home and changed out of my work clothes.

I bought an Amtrak ticket back to Ohio for the funeral. I stayed downtown at a hotel. I didn’t want to run into my parents, if I could avoid it. Honestly, I didn’t want to run into anybody. Not John’s family, not our friends from school. I wanted to be invisible.

I wasn’t invisible. Everyone was staring at me. At the funeral our old English teacher tried to talk to me.

“Your… your hair’s longer, now,” is all she said.

“It is,” I said back.

There were about a thousand moments that made me wish I hadn’t come. Pictures of John in high school, long hair, in the girls’ uniform. Faces from years ago, huddled together, whispering. “She used to be so nice. Such a shame.”

But I got to see him in a big wood box. I nearly laughed when I saw him and had to stifle it. He looked like a drag queen in his funerary makeup, caked on extra thick to cover the bruises from the crash. I imagined it was quite the taxidermy project.

Then, his mom. She looked dead, too. Sunken eyes and thinning hair. Asked if anyone had any words to share.

English teacher shared a story about a time John was smart. Old classmate shared a story about a time he was kind. Old family friend talked about the times they’d all get together and bake Tollhouse cookies.

Then, John’s mom looked at me. She called me by my former name. Asked me directly if there was anything I’d like to say.

“Um. No thank you,” I said.

“Come on, dear. You knew her best of all,” she said. She walked down two rows, took my hand. Guided me up towards the front.

“Um,” I said.

I really didn’t want to disappoint this whole room full of people. I realized I was going to disappoint them anyways. I already had, before even opening my mouth.

“None of us knew him very well,” I said. “I mean. I didn’t know him very well. But I could’ve. If I could’ve. Anyways.”

I nodded my head as some kind of visual apology. Then I walked up the rows of seats, down the hill, back out to the parking lot.

I called the local cab company to pick me up and take me back to the Amtrak station. They said it’d be thirty minutes. So, for thirty minutes, I sat on the curb in the parking lot.

I cried a bit. It wasn’t raining. The seasons were changing. Not too cold, yet. Trees just beginning to glow orange. A cardinal, migrating, stopped to peck at a stump a few feet away.

I thought, I wonder if John would come back as a cardinal? Then I thought, nah. If there’s any choice in the matter, he’s not coming back at all.

I imagined him seeing the oncoming truck and thinking, oh, what a surprise, I wonder what’s next?

I wondered what’s next, too. I sat in the parking lot and thought about it for a bit.

The cab finally arrived. I scrubbed my blotchy face with my hands and climbed in. I didn’t talk to the driver. Outside the window, I saw empty cornfields. Harvest was over. Once the winter’s done, they’ll be waves of gold once more.

Then I was alone at the train station. Alone on the train, gazing out at land and nothing else. Alone back in Chicago, back in my apartment.

I hadn’t put the air mattress away yet. It still carried a John-shaped indent from the week before. I pulled the plug out and watched it deflate. I folded it and shoved it back into its box.

Outside, it was nighttime again. Down the street, clothes spun in circles at the laundromat. Downtown, tourists took pictures of a giant mirrored bean. On the water, boats dipped below the waves and up into the air. Several stops south, bartenders read fortunes and college bands made their harmonicas sing.

A bird pecked at my window for bugs. The first snow of the year began to fall.

I think that. In the next life, maybe. We will all be able to see each other for who we really are.

Morris McLennan is a writer from Chicago, Illinois. His plays have been workshopped with the support of DePaul University and Shattered Globe Theater. He has a BFA in Playwriting from DePaul University, where he was the recipient of the Zach Helm Endowed Playwriting Scholarship and the Bundschu Award. Currently, he interns for Fruit Bat Press while working on his upcoming play, debut novel, and his Chicago restaurant review zine series.