Rick R. Reed © 2021
All Rights Reserved
I had been mesmerized by the apartment for months, perhaps years, on my Brown Line L train ride from Western Avenue to downtown Chicago. The place was hard not to notice, even in a city as big and crowded as Chicago. Unique things tend to stand out.
The loft apartment took up the top floor of a storefront building. Every time I passed it, I caught my breath just a little. I mean, I couldn’t help but stare at the soaring glass wall that fronted one side of the unit. It was a voyeur’s dream—or maybe an exhibitionist’s? It certainly grabbed my attention.
Sitting on the train, I would peer into the apartment, but curiously enough, I never managed to catch a glimpse of anyone who lived there. With its openness, it had the look and feel of a movie or stage set. Every time the train went by, I would look up from whatever I was reading to simply see if I could glimpse anyone in this place that had taken on such a weird fascination for me. I desperately wanted to see the person or people who lived there. Even though it was irrational and maybe even a bit stalkerish, I wondered about who they were, what their lives were like, what drew them to this unusual apartment. Or maybe it was a condo?
It had to be one of the most unusual homes on the North Side of Chicago. The loft was just one big, open room with an open stairway up to a mezzanine, where the bedroom would be. The steps were simple wood slats with a streamlined railing made of steel cable. The wall opposite the soaring glass was exposed brick, distressed, dripping mortar between the red bricks. Simple. Minimalist. Almost industrial. Ductwork was visible, silver, and a little bit corroded.
It had hipster charm for days.
I often imagined that, despite it being so open to prying L-rider eyes like mine, I would love to live there. There was something both magical and magnetic about the place. I longed for the day when I would roll on by and see a FOR RENT or FOR SALE sign affixed to the glass.
I think I even dreamed about it a time or two.
Even though I never saw them, my imagination worked overtime to visualize the people who lived there. I imagined an artist or maybe a sculptor, someone creative anyway. I’d put myself in his or her place, hoping one day I would have the opportunity to move around that large inviting space, to tiptoe up the stairs to the loft in the evening, to cook a meal in the small kitchen, to gaze out as trains rumbled by, sparks from the rails in their wake.
I never imagined my dream would come true.
But it did. And in a funny way, what drove me to this particular apartment led to a lot of dreams coming true.
But dreams can turn to nightmares in the space of a single breath.
Fate stepped in one day and changed everything—past, present, and future—when I rounded the bend of the L tracks and my glass-walled apartment came into view.
On that day, there was a change, a difference of two words.
Hanging as though suspended in midair was one of those black-and-red signs one can buy at the hardware store. The sign proclaimed: FOR RENT. Below the bright red letters was a white rectangle with a phone number written in black marker.
Oh my god. It’s coming true. This place will be gone by the afternoon! I can’t let anyone else have it.
I dug inside my messenger bag, groping for paper and pen to jot down the number. I’d call the moment I got to work, already feeling like I was racing against some imaginary clock hanging just above my head. Such a unique place wouldn’t be on the market for long. Hell, someone else might have already snatched it up.
I wasn’t fast enough to write the number. Of course, I wasn’t. The train had stopped for only a minute, two at the most, long enough to let a few folks off and a whole bunch on. There was a lot of chatter, the huffing of the train, the pneumatic hiss of the doors closing, and the garbled announcement for the next stop.
The apartment—and the FOR RENT sign—sailed by as it always did, and the phone number along with it. I turned in my seat, straining to try to see the number from this distance, even though I knew it was a stupid and impossible move.
I knew, as sure as anything, if I waited until the next day, with my pen poised and ready over a pad of paper, the sign would have vanished. Someone else would take possession of what I felt, in a weird and possessive way, was rightfully mine.
There was only one thing to do.
I tried to be patient despite my thundering heart, waiting until we neared the next station. I leapt up and edged my way through the crowd toward the doors. When they slid open, I stepped out and stood on the platform, giddy with my own impulsiveness. This wasn’t like me. I was usually a planner, every decision carefully considered before moving forward—or not.
Impulsive was something other people did.
On the platform, I paused for a moment, watching the southbound Brown Line train as it continued its journey toward the Loop. In the distance, the skyscrapers of downtown rose. A breeze rustled my hair. Autumn was definitely present, even though the sun peeked out through scattered clouds, drifting downward in illuminated shafts, like a religious painting. There was an undercurrent of chill that, at the time, I attributed to nothing more than the changing of seasons.
But now I wonder—was the chill an omen, foreboding? Was fate trying to tell me to get back on the next train and get to work like the safe and dependable guy I was? After all, I had a home and in it was a man I loved, a man to whom I hadn’t even whispered a word about wanting to move.
It was late autumn in Chicago and the day had all the portents of the coming winter. Gray, low-hanging clouds amassed near the horizon, some of them so dark they verged on black.
In the short time I stood there, the weather made a dramatic change, which, if you’ve ever visited Chicago, you know isn’t unusual. “Don’t like the weather?” Self-proclaimed wits were fond of saying about the Windy City. “Stick around for a few minutes, and it’ll change.”
The little sun there was vanished, beating a hasty retreat behind a bank of fast-moving and bruised clouds. Drizzle hung in the air. A needling, cold mist crept into my bones, making me shiver. This was worse than a downpour because it seemed like no matter how much one bundled up against it, the cold seeped into one’s bones, making it nearly impossible to get warm. The wind, which blew off the lake two miles east, picked up, running at a breakneck pace, westward bound, down Irving Park Road. I watched from the platform as the people below rushed to get out of the inclement weather, their umbrellas turning inside out. The wind ripped the last of fall’s leaves from their branches.
In spite of the weather, I made my way along the old wooden L platform to its northern end so I could stand directly in front of the object of my desire.
It was the first time I’d actually seen it up close. And now it almost looked unreal, as though it were a movie location dreamed up by the guy who did the set for Hitchcock’s Rear Window. My current view had that same urban, surreal feel, that same voyeuristic quality.
Looking back, I wondered if it also had that same air of menace Hitchcock was so noted for.
Close up the apartment was different.
I admit—I had idealized it. The soaring glass wall that I was so taken with was actually part of the roof and the glass had metal mesh inside it. I had imagined pristine glass; this was marred by water and mud stains, the color more a translucent gray than clear.
But I could still see inside the apartment, which looked quite small, but interesting: it was all one room, on two levels, with a large living area and kitchen down, and the sleeping area up. I don’t know if the current tenants were in the process of moving out or if they were simply minimalists. The place contained only a platform bed on the upper level and a swooning couch on the lower.
Whoever, they were, I decided, they lived much of their home lives horizontally.
I liked that.
And then I noticed one more thing—an elaborate screen pushed to one corner, near the wall that could be called the kitchen because of its stove, refrigerator, cupboards, and sink. Even through the rain-smeared glass and in the dim light of a rainy autumn morning, I could make out that the screen had been elaborately painted in a kind of graffiti style that reminded me of Keith Haring. Lurid red, white, and black leaped out at me from across the way.
I first heard and then saw the approach of another southbound train. I knew I had time to write down the phone number written on the FOR RENT sign, but inspiration, or fate, stepped in once more.
Why not just get off the platform, descend to street level, and see if I can claim this little piece of home right now?
Because my confession to not being very impulsive was somewhat true, I did take the precaution of jotting the number down.
And then I turned and descended the steps off the platform and continued through the turnstiles. Once I was in the relatively quieter environs of the Irving Park Brown Line L station, I pulled out my cell phone and called the number.
It took me by surprise when a woman picked up on the first ring. It’s almost like she was sitting by the phone, waiting for me to call. I’d expected to leave a message, so for a moment, I was a little taken aback, tongue-tied.
When I could engage brain and mouth, I said, “I’m calling to inquire about the apartment for rent.”
As soon as I said the words, I had the eerie feeling that I’d crossed a line. Nothing was ever going to be the same again. The words tumbled out and even then there was something within me, something no logic or reason can account for, that caused me to inexplicably know my fate was about to change and my wish for that apartment, placed into the universe subconsciously over many, many morning trips to work, was about to be granted. There was also a moment where an almost irresistible force compelled me to simply hang up, let go of this dream. Following it was rash, impulsive.
Before the woman even continued speaking, I knew I would be moving into that apartment the first of November. Even as the woman, her voice chipper and upbeat, perhaps a bit too friendly, invited me to come and have a look at the place right then, another thought, a clichéd one, intruded: Be careful what you wish for.