I try to laugh it off. “Are you upset with me, Ryan? It almost sounds like you think I let you down.”
“Look, I’ve taught at MIT, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, the best schools on the planet. I’ve met the smartest motherfuckers in the room, and Jason, you would’ve changed the world if you’d decided to go that path. If you’d stuck with it. Instead, you’re teaching undergrad physics to future doctors and patent lawyers.”
“We can’t all be superstars like you, Ryan.”
“Not if you give up.”
I finish my whisky.
“Well, I’m so glad I popped in for this.” I step down off the barstool.
“Don’t be that way, Jason. I was paying you a compliment.”
“I’m proud of you, man. I mean that.”
“Thanks for the drink.”
Back outside, I stalk down the sidewalk. The more distance I put between myself and Ryan, the angrier I become.
And I’m not even sure at whom.
My face is hot.
Lines of sweat trail down my sides.
Without thinking, I step into the street against a crosswalk signal and instantly register the sound of tires locking up, of rubber squealing across pavement.
I turn and stare in disbelief as a yellow cab barrels toward me.
Through the approaching windshield, I see the cabbie so clearly—a mustached man, wide-eyed with naked panic, bracing for impact.
And then my hands are flat against the warm, yellow metal of the hood and the cabbie is leaning out his window, screaming at me, “You dipshit, you almost died! Pull your head out of your ass!”
Horns begin to blare behind the cab.
I retreat to the sidewalk and watch the flow of traffic resume.
The occupants of three separate cars are kind enough to slow down so they can flip me off.
Whole Foods smells like the hippie I dated before Daniela—a tincture of fresh produce, ground coffee, and essential oils.
The scare with the cab has flattened my buzz, and I browse the freezer cases in something of a fog, lethargic and sleepy.
It feels colder when I’m back outside, a brisk wind blowing in off the lake, portending the shitty winter that looms right around the corner.
With my canvas bag filled with ice cream, I take a different route toward home. It adds six blocks, but what I lose in brevity, I gain in solitude, and between the cab and Ryan, I need some extra time to reset.
I pass a construction site, abandoned for the night, and a few blocks later, the playground of the elementary school my son attended, the metal sliding board gleaming under a streetlamp and the swings stirring in the breeze.
There’s an energy to these autumn nights that touches something primal inside of me. Something from long ago. From my childhood in western Iowa. I think of high school football games and the stadium lights blazing down on the players. I smell ripening apples, and the sour reek of beer from keg parties in the cornfields. I feel the wind in my face as I ride in the bed of an old pickup truck down a country road at night, dust swirling red in the taillights and the entire span of my life yawning out ahead of me.
It’s the beautiful thing about youth.
There’s a weightlessness that permeates everything because no damning choices have been made, no paths committed to, and the road forking out ahead is pure, unlimited potential.
I love my life, but I haven’t felt that lightness of being in ages. Autumn nights like this are as close as I get.
The cold is beginning to clear my head.
It will be good to be home again. I’m thinking of starting up the gas logs. We’ve never had a fire before Halloween, but tonight is so unseasonably cold that after walking a mile in this wind, all I want is to sit by the hearth with Daniela and Charlie and a glass of wine.
The street undercuts the El.
I pass beneath the rusting ironwork of the railway.
For me, even more than the skyline, the El personifies the city.
This is my favorite section of the walk home, because it’s the darkest and quietest.
At the moment…
No trains inbound.
No headlights in either direction.
No audible pub noise.
Nothing but the distant roar of a jet overhead, on final approach into O’Hare.
There’s something coming—footfalls on the sidewalk.
I glance back.
A shadow rushes toward me, the distance between us closing faster than I can process what’s happening.
The first thing I see is a face.
High, arching eyebrows that look drawn.
Red, pursed lips—too thin, too perfect.
And horrifying eyes—big and pitch-black, without pupils or irises.
The second thing I see is the barrel of a gun, four inches from the end of my nose.
The low, raspy voice behind the geisha mask says, “Turn around.”
I hesitate, too stunned to move.
He pushes the gun into my face.
I turn around.
Before I can tell him that my wallet is in my front left pocket, he says, “I’m not here for your money. Start walking.”
I start walking.
I walk faster.
“What do you want?” I ask.
“Keep your mouth shut.”
A train roars past overhead, and we emerge from the darkness under the El, my heart rocketing inside my chest. I absorb my surroundings with a sudden and profound curiosity. Across the street is a gated townhome complex, and this side of the block comprises a collection of businesses that shutter at five.
A nail salon.
A law office.
An appliance repair shop.
A tire store.
This neighborhood is a ghost town, nobody out.
“See that SUV?” he asks. There’s a black Lincoln Navigator parked on the curb just ahead. The alarm chirps. “Get in the driver’s seat.”
“Whatever you’re thinking about doing—”
“Or you can bleed to death right here on the sidewalk.”
I open the driver’s-side door and slide in behind the wheel.
“My grocery bag,” I say.
“Bring it.” He climbs in behind me. “Start the car.”
I pull the door closed and stow the canvas Whole Foods bag in the front passenger floorboard. It’s so quiet in the car I can actually hear my pulse—a fast thrumming against my eardrum.
“What are you waiting for?” he asks.