The following piece of creative nonfiction is part of a series I started on my personal blog a few years ago called “Alphabet: A History,” which is a collection of short, autobiographical vignettes, focusing mainly on relationships (familial, romantic, platonic, and self).
It’s spring 2005 and I’m single again after two back-to-back failed relationships. I’m 28 and it feels like absolutely nothing and everything could still happen to me. I buy a bike at a thrift store for $40 and start riding for the first time in 15 years. Soon, I’ll upgrade to a different bike — one with actual gears — that I’ll buy brand new for $180. I’ll ride that one up and down Chicago’s lake front hundreds of times before I move to New York in 2007. I’ll ride it all over the city, from the north side to the south side, from the lake to Eden’s Expressway.
If I’m going somewhere, I like to ride my bike, but in my neighborhood I walk: to the Hopleaf for a drink; to Augie’s for brunch; to Chad’s place for a nightcap on his deck. Best of all, I walk to Cafe Bong Ho for karaoke and escape. In Cafe Bong, nothing on the outside matters — not my career indecision or my failed relationships or my empty back account.
Cafe Bong is a hole-in-the-wall in the purest sense of the phrase. The place smells like cat piss, the yellow walls are peeling, the old black-and-white TV in the corner shows nothing but static, and the pool table in the center is crooked and barely bigger than a kiddie pool. There are two screens above the bar that stream Korean music videos or the lyrics to whatever song is currently being sung. The Korean woman who owns the place, Ginny, sings “Feelings” five times a night with such sorrow that you’d think her heart had been broken that night.
Ginny likes her 1800 Tequila and keeps a bottle just for herself under the bar. If she’s feeling generous — and she usually is — she’ll fill a styrofoam plate full of popcorn or peanuts and pour shots for the house before she sings “Feelings” again. Her signature drink, though, is a Pink Lady, and no one’s really sure what’s in it. Some have speculated that Windex may feature prominently. Still, when Ginny offers you a free drink, you take it. And you love it. And you sing your next song with gusto.
It’s the only way to do anything at the Bong.
“We’re all friends here!” I say enthusiastically to any newcomer who seems nervous about taking the mic. And it’s true. Broken pool tables and stale popcorn have a way of creating camaraderie among strangers. And they have a way of pulling people out of the shell of themselves. I’ve watched people find their voices, literally and figuratively, at Cafe Bong. I’ve found my own voice at Cafe Bong. I shed my skin there. I dance on tables. And when I sing, I tear open my chest and throw my heart on the bar.
I have a going away celebration at Cafe Bong the night before I move to New York. It’s September 2007. I’ve spent the whole summer saying good-bye. I’m 30 now and I’m leaving my home and my friends and the lake and my beloved Cafe Bong and am moving to the Big Apple to see if this relationship is the real thing. I’m scared and I’m sad and I’m excited and I have no idea what the future holds. I know anything could happen.
I perform all my standards one more time — “Dream a Little Dream,” “Daniel,” “Midnight Train to Georgia.” My voice catches when I sing, “I’d rather live in his world than live without him in mine.” It’s early still, but I decide to say good-bye now before I call the whole thing off. Everyone holds up a glass and we clink, toasting to the future. I leave quickly after that, without even hugging anyone. I can’t.
Drew is with me. He’s flown in to help me carry my suitcases and the cats to New York. The movers will be here tomorrow morning to take my stuff to storage, and, afterward, we’ll head to the airport and catch our plane to LaGuardia. It’s the first time I’ve ever left Chicago with only a one-way ticket in hand.
As we leave the Bong, I collapse on a nearby bench and sob into Drew’s chest. I can barely breathe. I know tomorrow I’m leaving and I don’t know anything else after that. What if I hate it there? What if I never make friends? What if I can’t find a job? What if Drew and I don’t get along? What if we do? What if tomorrow really is the first day of the rest of my life and nothing is ever the same again? What if my youth is over? What if this is it? What if everything I’ve ever known is changing and there’s nothing I can do about it, even if I wanted to?
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Drew asks, wiping tears from my face.
And I do. I have to. It’s time to move forward.
“Yes,” I say, and the next day I move in with him in his bachelor pad in Manhattan with my two cats and three suitcases.
It’s January 2011. I’m married now and I live in Brooklyn. I still make it back to Chicago every few months. Usually, I stop in Cafe Bong for old time’s sake. Ginny’s always happy to see me and pours me a Pink Lady and offers me some peanuts. I sing my old standards and marvel at how everything and nothing stays the same.
I don’t know this at the time, but it will be my last visit to Cafe Bong. I’ll go home and start a new website and get pregnant and not get around to visiting the Bong on my next trip to Chicago. “How am I gonna go to the Bong and stay stone-cold sober?” I rationalize. After I have the baby, I go back again and this time I’m ready to see my old stomping ground. I’ll bring pictures of my son to show Ginny and she’ll be happy for me and she’ll hug me and she’ll understand why I stayed away so long.
“It closed,” Chad says matter-of-factly.
“When?” I ask.
“A couple of months ago,” he replies, “I thought I told you.”
“Maybe you did?” I say. It’s been a crazy, sleep-deprived few months.
I’m 36 now. I have a husband and a kid and I live in Brooklyn. I have a new bike now. And a new life, and sometimes, on days like today, I really miss my youth.