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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

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Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

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Entries in chicago (17)


In Which We Stroll Into The Voided Place

On Foot


In this part of California, it is too hot to walk. My mother pulls us in a red Flyer wagon to Target over shimmering pavement. If somebody remarks that their house is twenty minutes away, they mean that there are several hills, valleys, and sinuous freeways between us. I cannot read for more than ten minutes in the car without getting sick. Since the heat has kept us from opening a car or house window for five years, I remain convinced that the entire state of California smells like a Budweiser factory, the only odor strong enough to penetrate glass.

Before, our small blue house was the destination, raspberry fields and dairy farms dotting the countryside along the way. Odors of cow manure and freshly cut lawns crept across the northernmost part of Washington State. We sang “Home, Home on the Range” every time our old Honda passed a collapsing barn. I was always in the backseat, pulled along by a series of small, stable explosions.

More than to any one person, my childhood memories cling to nooks and crannies of the world: the high, diesel-smelling inside of a moving truck carrying all of our belongings from the Pacific Northwest to Los Angeles; the smoggy freeways, the blur of a water reservoir on the right, the diamond window panes of an old house; a library, concealed in the basement of a church; a crosswalk in Burbank, and my mother holding our hands with both of hers; the Redwoods and the Canadian border, deep in the night.

These places are now, as they were then, only accessible by car.

I wish to speak a word for distance, for absolute inconvenience and dependence, as contrasted with what is expected, saved up for in childhood piggy banks or on the backs of greasy hard-earned high school paychecks, – to see People fueled by the strength of spirit and limb, rather than by horsepower. I wish to make an extreme statement, for there are enough champions of driving – if you don’t believe me, you haven’t been spending enough time at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

I have met but a few people in my life who remember how to walk, much less appreciate it; for a sad number among these, the greatest pleasure in walking is the pleasure in arriving at their destination, normally a place in which to buy food or beverages, the consumption of which they justify by recalling the “great” distance that they have walked. As for those who not only remember how to walk, but also treasure the activity in itself rather than viewing it as a simple means, I have only heard rumors of their existence. I believe that the entire race died out at the birth of the internal combustion engine.

Although born bipeds, we’re convinced from the cradle that the best way to travel is on the backs of four or more wheels, preferably endowed with slaughtered animal seats, a decent sound system, and air-conditioning. (Never mind that one of our greatest infant accomplishments is a series of uninterrupted steps.) We have forgotten the usefulness of distance, the necessary separation between two points, and the blissful ignorance of both that immediately follows a stroll. We should go forth on a two-block jaunt, only to forget ourselves and walk past the places public transportation will take us. If you are ready to leave behind perfect pedicures, impractical shoes, wireless hotspots and many faint hearted companions, then you are ready for a walk.

In this, I like to think of myself as a proselyte of an old faith, one that has sadly not escaped cynicism. This creed isn’t bound by left or right, nor is it defined by an environmental frenzy or a cosmetic narcissism that takes stock of post-weekend belly fat and runs, half-wheezing, around the block. In this religion, the faithful err; in their deepest devotion, they stray off the beaten path. But they are few – my fellow walkers and I think of ourselves as the last converts, frequently bypassed, gawked at, honked at, catcalled and almost run over by the skeptics surrounding us.

Were there not a half-mile stretch between my home and the El, and then between the El and my place of employ, my existence would take a dishearteningly pedestrian turn. I gladly sacrifice the extra hour of sleep many of my colleagues enjoy in order to make my way up stairs and over curb, through rain and snow and freezing wind. That a person could spend – without committing suicide – but a cumulative five minutes outside every day, spanning only the space between one seat and the next, seems incomprehensible. Why such complacency? Complete immobility, which once only attracted the people whose lives of combat or extreme curiosity had spent their legs, now enthralls some of the youngest members of our society.

I am determined not to be one of them.

Like all pure things, the best walk is born out of necessity, not desire. It begins as a crossing and ends as an offering, a sacrifice of the mind to the body.

I first saw the ocean through the creaking boards of the Santa Monica pier. Paralyzed with fear, I couldn’t pay attention to the fragrance wafting from churro stands or to the chiming of arcade games. I watched the Pacific churn gray and green beneath my feet as my mother tugged on my hand, reassuring me that the boards wouldn’t fall to pieces, that the relentless pull of the tide would not – as my child mind had already imagined – drag the entire structure away from the shore as soon as I stepped onto it.

The act of walking generates a voided space which is no more a village than it is a forest, no more civilized than wild. Fully engaged, your senses will not allow you to get lost the labyrinths in your mind. In rhythm with your steps your thoughts will follow the paths that your body prescribes.

If I simply become a body, or if I indulge in thoughts best left undisturbed during my walk, I have done it an injustice. A walk is neither a form of exercise nor a moving meditation. It is both or nothing at all.

You will walk far before you know where you must go. Consider first the places that you must visit out of obligation to yourself or to others. Pick a long and roundabout way, including at least one place to rest and one place of magnificent natural beaty. Guarantee that your walk is a quarter to a half-mile longer than you expect you can manage, and extend it when it becomes too easy for you. Walk it as many times as it takes to know it by heart. Then choose a new one.

All roads tend towards parking lots, benches, retailers, public parks, large bodies of water, and sheer cliffs. For every route you choose to walk, there are a dozen places to stand and observe. If you reach the end of a road, stop for a moment and consider that there will never be enough sidewalk for the amount of walking you plan to do. Then turn around and walk to the other end.

Beware of roads that do not frighten you. Avoid any philosophy that makes the world seem smaller or larger than it appears to be from your place on the road. Allow yourself to have a favorite route, or perhaps more than one. Go back to them only when you have changed enough to forget why you loved them.

Along the coast in Marseille there is a path that we call la corniche, a generic French term for any road that curls along the edge of the city in tune with the shoreline. Alternately hugging limestone cliffs and jutting out bravely over the Mediterranean, it is a favorite among joggers, Sunday strollers, and fishermen. Beginning at the Old Port, you'll weave between impromptu stalls where freshly caught sardines and other fruits de mer wait to be sold; from the port’s left shoulder ferries leave, transporting sunburnt tourists to the Chateau d’If where, in spite of its foreboding exterior, they will listen to a very dry lecture about how the Count of Monte Cristo was not an actual historical figure.

You will continue down the port’s left arm, past small yachts and smaller fishing boats on the right, and on the left past various theatres and scuba diving schools and hotels and young men riding scooters far too quickly and restaurants where bouillabaisse is the specialty. Before heading up the hill past one of Napoleon’s many fortresses and an abbey from the thirteenth century, you turn around briefly to survey Marseille: whitewashed, salted, preserved in a sort of sun-dappled glory. This is the oldest city in France.

Across from the fortress is a palace, and many apartment buildings, some with laundry floating out kitchen windows. There is a bakery at the top of the hill where you might buy a particularly crusty croissant. Beyond a very small gas station, the road curves sharply; here is a beach, and here, at last, an open expanse of sea to marvel at. Young people, oiled, play volleyball in an enclosed court. Middle-aged women with skin like leather wring out their hair on the sand as they emerge from the waves.

Stand here for a moment, as I have done, convinced that all of France must smell as wonderful as the combination of salt water and the breeze from Morocco and the buttery remnants of pastry on your fingers. Then keep walking. I believe in bridges, and trying my luck under scaffolding, and purposefully wearing flats when I plan on going ten miles. I require small inconveniences in life, if only to remember my great fortune.

Kara VanderBijl is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about The Hunger Games. You can find an archive of her work on This Recording here. She tumbls here and twitters here.

 "Total Nirvana" - Noir Coeur (mp3)

"Hizzouse" - Noir Coeur (mp3)

"Wet Souls" - Noir Coeur (mp3)



In Which The Closets Are Completely Full

In The Nest


If the suburbs are dictated by anything it is process. Your whole life becomes a process: driving yourself home, picking up groceries, scheduling the DVR for Thursday night comedies. Dinner becomes a process. We do it now they way that we had done it when I was in high school. I set the table the same way I used to, using the same dishes. Every day is indistinguishable from the day before it, and even more frighteningly, the days are indistinguishable from when I was a much younger person and had the right to live here. And, of course, there is loneliness, which is the unfortunate side effect of living in the suburbs.

Most days, I am alone in our house. I say that it is our house, but really it is their house – my parents' house – and I live here rent-free.

I have started to use things I have not used in a long time: my Westmont Public Library card, the beat-up Volkswagen Passat I share with my siblings, things like grocery carts and garage door openers. And like an extended summer vacation, I spend long stretches of time in my bedroom, collecting things of my past. My bedroom is the only space that I truly feel belongs to me, and thus I have filled it with the objects of my childhood. In the chest of drawers I have crammed almost thirty spiral notebooks, filled with amateur short stories and torn at the edges, though I rarely open them or examine them. On one wall hangs a jewelry holder I bought last year, yet I have stuck jewelry on it that I have not worn in too long. They hang lifeless, my own Toy Story characters who resent my adulthood more than I do.

There are things, actual articles which matter here in a way they do not matter in the city. There is the ever important size of your house (“Yes, this room is 2,000 square feet! It was just so difficult to decorate.”), or the distance you live from Chicago celebrities (“You know that baseball player on the Cubs – yeah I live down the street from him!”), or the dollar amounts attached to your car (“I heard she got a BMW.”). These are conversations I used to have when I was a sixteen-year-old, a conversation that I may have even enjoyed at that time. Now they just remind me of my own perceived moral superiority.

My day is now filled with things much older people do with their time. The haunts I used to belong to in the city do not exist here. There are no coffee shops within walking distance; there are no new restaurants to explore. Instead, I have become acquainted with daytime television shows on the Food Network, for they play soundlessly as I hurriedly complete cover letters for job applications. And there are no people my age here left. The neighborhood used to be full of children when I was a child, and now it is full of middle-aged empty nesters. Or else, the twenty-somethings like me are hiding in their own parents’ homes, as ashamed of their return as I am.

But my parents are not ashamed of this difference they have with their neighbors. In their minds, I never should have left. It is not a Pakistani thing to leave home, especially if you are a woman. In some ways, they are right. If I had never left, I would never feel like leaving. And by coming back, I have set something right that was for so very long out of place. They had kept my bedroom the same way: my bookshelves line one wall, my closet full of clothes that I no longer fit into.

And even then, they are filled with the traditional Pakistani clothes, tailor-made for me in Pakistan. These are clothes that did not travel with me when I left for college, and did not accompany me on my eight-month stay in San Jose, California. They remind me too much of the questions we asked ourselves too often: Who would we have been had we never left?

Sometimes, I think I see those people, the alternate reality of my family. There are moments – when I am stepping out of the shower and looking into the foggy mirror, perhaps, or occasionally when I have reached the landing at the top of the stairs – where I know I have seen some figure waft past me. I freeze in my tracks, but I shouldn’t do that. Stopping and acknowledging only make it worse; you are letting them know you are aware of them. The only way to react is to let them know nothing is wrong with the situation in which they have put you.

This was not the first time I had seen something, nor am I the only one who has seen anything. In my family, we have each of us our own personal relationships with the beings in our home. One time, my sister saw a white shape in the basement from the corner of her eye – or rather, she saw its reflection in the large mirror on the wall. "It was a girl," she had said at the time, "A young girl." My brother had seen something similar while he was on the computer, and the white figure had been floating ominously near the underutilized treadmill. It had disappeared, leaving him unfocused and confused.

And of course, I have seen and heard these things for much longer than in recent years. Once, while visiting home from college, I heard the distinct sound of footsteps across our basement’s linoleum tile while I was doing my laundry. The rest of the basement had been dark, and I scanned the blankness with my eyes. I dared the thing to reveal itself to me; my words cracked in my throat. The fear was instantaneous, my mind traveled from sorting whites and colors to the worst possible thought: death. The water heater began to buzz, and I inched closer to it. If it was inside of it, I should not be afraid, I thought. But of course, nothing was there. Nothing was ever really there. With my heart beating violently, I returned to the laundry.

Now, I see these shapes and figures again. When I cross the hallway that is the threshold into our kitchen, I swear I see a flash of the same face, hear the same sound of footsteps. They enjoy waiting where you least expect them. They wait for my mother, the last out of the house, to leave for work. The door closes behind her, and there it is again – a face pale and shadowed! And just as soon as it is there, it is gone.

What has begun to frighten me most is that they never wait for the night; their contentment on waiting for my loneliness, ignoring daylight, makes them unsolvable. And where could they come from? Our house was built in 1987, which is by coincidence the same year I was born. The house has no more years on this Earth than I have, so how could it possess a history larger than me? These figures should belong in an older, more secluded place. Not here in a subdivision that was built during Chicago’s suburban boom. Of course, I understand now that they came into the place with us. And I have realized that I must become accustomed to them in the way that I have become accustomed to the rest of the suburban life.

The truth is we are predisposed to see these sightings. We were raised on jinn stories – demon stories. On visits to Pakistan when we were young, we would spend time on the farm in which my father grew up. And on the roof of the barn, we sat with our cousins, a lively gang of pre-teens, to hear the ghost stories from our older cousins. It was at times like these nights where my sister and I did not feel like Americans intruding on Pakistani tradition, where we insisted everyone speak Urdu and not English for our own sakes. In the time that we spent in Karachi, a large city, we stood out instantly at foreigners. My own broken Urdu was so obviously American, my accent made me pronounce things with difficulty. Here, in quite literally the middle of nowhere, I had learned to forget my failings as a Pakistani, and gave way to the breathy language of scary stories.

We began before night fell, but usually at sunset, anticipating the darkness with an unnatural pleasure. The oldest cousins told the scariest stories, and so we quietly let them begin, with a strange sort of glee that one has when it is known that there is a benign danger ahead. The stories were of people we knew, sometimes even farmers and relatives we had met with just that day. There was the story about the child who had been left out on the haunted swing alone, only to become deformed by a jinn. And then the story of missing jewels, where a witch, paid-off surely, held a séance to recover them. And then the endless stories of figures and shapes appearing before gravestones or underneath the neem trees at night. This last one, about the neem trees, was a favorite of my maternal grandfather’s, who utilized it as a way to scare his children from sneaking out of the house at night. And inevitably, it would be mentioned by someone that to say the word jinn aloud at all is a risk – they will float in the circle, invisible, to hover and listen to you. At this, we would all raise our heads to look into the darkness, hoping and not hoping to see something above us.

These stories are more potent to hear in rural Pakistan, for when night falls there are no lights around you for miles. You are enclosed in an endless shadow, except for the stars. There are millions of stars.

I left somewhere I used to belong to, and every day this weighs on my shoulders. At 3, I boarded a plane with my parents and left for the suburbs of a city where I was destined to be an outsider. My life up until college had been full of the depressed understanding that I would not be considered beautiful, funny, outgoing, or popular. After I had made the resolution to move to the city (for we always have called Chicago “the city”), I had been insistent on finding a place where I could come into my own. I am a late bloomer, I had told myself on maybe millions of occasions. And now I have returned to the suburbs, worse for wear surely, but not yet broken. The suburbs were not built to repair a person. And here again, I must comfort my own mind, coddling myself as a mother might a very spoiled child.

Sometimes I wonder if the ghosts I have seen are the images of myself I should know. The person I should have been, one who would never even have accepted the job that I had to leave. And because I am an immigrant, I am full of people I should have been instead of who I am now. Every choice and decision is an action with an equal and opposite action – an opposite me in an opposite life. And these are truly what jinns are: beings in a different dimension of our planet, attempting to figure out all of the things we must figure out here.

It seems that I should live as though I have fractured my pride, without an income and without a true home. And instead of scrambling, I have taken my time accepting my fate. I have become the real suburbanite. Take the cage door and swing it shut on myself. Here, there is no one to lock the door, but we do it anyway.

Hafsa Arain is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living outside of Chicago. This is her first appearance in these pages. She tumbls here and twitters here.

Photos by Ayub Arain.

"See Birds" - Balam Acab (mp3)

"Master of None" - Beach House (mp3)

"A Town Called Obsolete" - Andreya Triana (mp3)


In Which Lights Go On And Doors Open

When Will You Come Home?



We don't talk about status. We pretend that we are black like everyone else and that we are still "real." But our conversations over holiday dinners acknowledge the separation. There's a lot of "them" and and a lot of "us." Blackness is not a monolithic culture. I know this inherently as a woman whose tastes run counter to what I've been told I should like. These tastes were not a choice to be different, but the things that shaped me as an individual. They continue to evolve and so too does the notion of blackness. 
I think of this in relation to my parents, my family, and our summer holidays together. Fourth of July or Memorial Day barbecues were a way to connect to the other side of the family that didn't live in the suburbs and live like we lived. My sister stopped attending years ago, first due to her job, then college, then friendships and adulthood. But I always went, in the back of my mind feeling like these trips down to the South Side were a means of rectifying the wrongs of breaking away from the community. 


This summer, my mother called from her car. She was outside of my new apartment, ready to pick me up so we could ride together to join the other side of the family for the Fourth. 
"It's not happening," she said. 
"What does that mean?" I asked. 
"It means they celebrated and didn't tell us. It means we're not going down there." 
There was a visible anger in the tenseness of her body and the direct stare she gave me as I entered her car. I sat in the passenger seat as we drove to Oak Park.  

"I knew this would eventually happen. This is so like them. This is what they do," she said.

What they do is stay down South. They like where they live. This is their home, their streets and sidewalks. This confused me as a child, but as I've grown older, I've understood the symbolism and importance based on where one lives. Place holds meaning and meaning changes with age and time.  

What we do is take the expressway past Chinatown and Bridgeport and straight to the neighborhoods that "blend together." I went to school on the north side of Chicago. Years later, I still live up here. When I discuss this part of the city, I break things down by neighborhoods, official and emerging. I live in Wicker Park. I live in the East Village. I live in West Town. I live in Ukrainian Village. These names encompass large areas and then smaller groups of streets. But to me and to many Chicagoans, this makes sense in a way that saying Back of the Yards or the South Shore may not. Everything is just the South Side past 35th street. This is not the reality, but place also builds stereotypes and laziness. It is easier to dismiss than understand. 


Our new part of town, the South Side of Oak Park, was about the same in terms of beauty. We lived off of a major avenue filled with boxed businesses that attracted temporary visitors. Before, we had a run-down Dominick's, a Subway, and a Blockbuster. Now we had a Walgreen's, a car dealership,and a laundromat. 

Our blackness existed on the other side of town. Blackness as a whole existed on the other side of town. The Austin neighborhood, predominately Black and predominately troubled, was across the street. We lived over there too, nearly two decades ago, but I still claim the vast, cold, and penetrating neighborhood as my own. 

When I mention Austin to New Chicagoans, they don't understand. It is a part of the city that is not: is not nice, is not new, and is not desirable. It is not where they live and walk and ride. It is the city that is vast and the city that we tend to forget about, or the city that we ignore.  

My memories are of my grandmother's living room, the expansive backyard, and the few friends I made on the street where my grandparents live. To the Chicagoans who were born and bred here, a mention of Austin is a point of fear and respect. Even they don't meet a lot of people from that side of the city. It shuts them up. There is no question of authenticity. It is an unknown Chicago, and therefore a respectable one. It is not for tourists, but people live and work here. They have done so for years and will continue to do so.  

The other Oak Park was no less beautiful, but the residents were largely black and they moved into that part of town perhaps because they could see faces like their own. Or maybe, as my parents did when we first "crossed the street," to be close to the place they were before. That part of Oak Park was a reminder of that part of Chicago. It was a reminder of where they came from, where they're going, and the structure of this city. 
On Madison Avenue, past Taylor Boulevard is where the Black businesses begin. They are not always Black-owned, but they cater to the Black customer, and in particular, the Black woman. A number of beauty supply stores sit next to and across the street from one another. They are always large and always packed, but I've grown to love them the older I get for their convenience and comforting familiarity. I can always find heavy, curly wigs or tiny bottles of neon-colored nail polish or make-up that is sustainable for exactly one day. No one store is owned by the same person, but you can walk into any and find your way around with ease.  

I came home during the holidays and I pointed out the new beauty supply store across the street. It was the first such business to exist outside of the segregated neighborhoods this town pretends don't exist. It was a bid deal, at least to me, and symbolic in its arrival. It took over an old pharmacy. Neon lights shine long into the night. This store, this space for this particular culture that I know and participate in, but does not define me, surprised me.  

My mother hadn't noticed it, or perhaps she blocked out its existence along with the new cheap shoe store, the other hair braiding salon just a few doors down from the one she's gone to for years, and the low-income housing apartments being constructed from the long-dormant remnants of a local cable company.  

These spaces were empty before, a true dimming on the small community within the local community inside of the town. But it is these new businesses that inspire a fear of change. It is a gentrification of the dilapidation that arose from the break in the economy. It is a renewal. It is an expansion of what it means to live here on this side of town and in the town as a whole. It's not just us anymore.  

At first she said, "You know what kind of store that'll be," but last week, the lights were on and the doors were open.  

"There are mannequins in the windows, modeling clothes," I pointed out as we drove down the street.  

"Hmm," she said. "That's unexpected. Maybe it won't be that bad."

Brittany Julious is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find the first part of this series here.

Photographs by the author.

"Umi Says" - Mos Def (mp3)

"Light to Dark" - Jesse Boykins III (mp3)

"Drowning" - Clams Casino (mp3)