Ramblin’ woman

I departed Boston Wednesday morning for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference, held this year in Chicago. The trip was a test, of sorts: I was traveling alone, staying in a hotel alone, would be attending panels alone, and doing two back to back readings in bars, where I knew no one. I was alone. Did I say that already?

Why was I so nervous? I live in a big city, I do solo things everyday, but somehow being newly single highlighted my solitary conundrum. I was determined not to be lonely traveling to this city I’d never been, and while there were some highs, there were some definite lows, for sure. Let me take you through my trip.

I stayed at the Inn of Chicago, which was modern and lovely.

I rested for a few hours on Wednesday afternoon and took a long shower before prepping for that night’s reading at The Empty Bottle. Got a tip from my Chicago-based Emerson pal, Johnny Auer, to visit Rick Bayless’ Xoco, and beelined a few blocks for Mexican food. You don’t need to tell me twice.

I ordered a smoky, slightly tart cochinita pibil torta, with a fiery habanero salsa that nearly burned my face off — and I like it hot. Thankfully my cucumber-mint agua fresca hit the spot. For dessert, I indulged myself with a single churro and a dipping pot of oozy warm chocolate.

I grabbed a taxi to the reading across town. It had started to rain and the wind was coming in, and felt like Boston. Jjittery, I headed straight for the Miller High Life — One. After. The. Other. Luckily, I met Barry Graham, one of the event’s organizer who I’d gotten to know after he’d taught my essay, “Tell Me If You’re Lying,” for a few years in his writing classes. He confirmed that I’d be partaking in an arm wrestling match later that night, which I’d signed up for but secretly hoped wasn’t really going to happen, even if I was my 7th grade summer camp’s arm wrestling champ. (A lot of muscle atrophy has happened since then!) With this in mind, I ambled into the dark bar to drink a lot and hear a few readings before being introduced myself by Chicago-based entertainer Harold Ray, who had some interesting things to say about my last name.

I read, and it went well, but not great. When I stepped down from the stage I got a few encouraging words from some audience members, which felt good. Then I went back to being alone, huddling against the wall, clutching my beer for dear life, wishing someone from Boston would magically appear and save me from this lonesome state. It was nerve-wracking, and to my shame, I even considered canceling Thursday night’s reading. But then I’d just be a coward. I’d come to Chicago to embrace being alone, not crumble from it.

I pressed on.

I beat my first opponent in arm wrestling. I met some new writers. I snapped some photos with Barry in the bar’s photo booth, before skipping back to the hotel without telling anyone. I remain undefeated in arm wrestling because of it — but I really was utterly exhausted from that day’s travel.

Sleep was welcome in my all-white bed with its 900 pillows.

Thursday I took in some panels at AWP, including a nonfiction panel about “selling out” the ones you love; a reading of Carnegie Mellon young authors; and a late afternoon info session on applying for the Fulbright. We’ll see about that one!

I had a few hours to kill in between and I wandered around the city in search of lunch. Block after block I rambled, my feet aching and blistering, but found nothing. I was craving a hamburger, to make matters worse, and everywhere I looked there loomed a McDonald’s, tempting me. I haven’t eaten at one of those since high school, and even that was a reluctant meal. Seriously, Chicago, what’s with you guys and McDonald’s? Desperate, starved, blood sugar dropping, I considered passing through those double arches — but thank god a side-street falafel place materialized. That was a close one.

I headed back to the hotel and readied for the reading later at Brando’s Speakeasy. OPEN BAR, which comforted me in my ongoing nervousness. When it comes to fast food, there is only one Sweeney sanctioned option: Chick-fil-A, a breezy walk from my hotel. Spicy chicken sandwich meal #3, with a Diet Coke. You can take the Sween outta the South, but you can’t take the South outta the Sween.

Brando’s was dark but warmly enveloping with leather seating and big windows and I loved it immediately. I spotted Tom, who edited “Before Adrian Grenier Got Famous” for Barrelhouse, and he gladly made a spot for me at his table, right near the stage. This time, my reading went excellent. And Barry was there too, and the crowd was less drunk, a bit quieter, and more receptive. I got kind words all around, and it was definitely the highlight of my trip. Afterward, Barry and I wandered aimlessly through town looking for strawberry shortcake to no avail. As he entertained some of Chicago’s fine homeless people in front of the Palmer House Hilton, I grabbed the nearest cab and ran a hot bath in the hotel tub to wash away a dozen vodka-sodas and the cold, Chicago night.

I woke up Friday morning and dealt with another kind of business: my upcoming Mexico trip. I’d been searching for condos for months, and had my eye on a few good deals, but those were taken in the interim period where my Harvard bosses were approving my proposal. Some nights before, I’d emailed a couple about their condo, which was a bit more out of my price range, asking them to lower the price for me. And they did! Friday morning I accepted their offer and had booked my two-month stay on Cozumel.

What else was there to do but head back to Xoco? An Americano and huevos rancheros, por favor! Spanish music blasting overhead. I had no idea what they were singing about, but it sounded good. I was in heaven.

The rest of the day passed in a blur. I met with my friend Alicia for a glass of wine and some soup at The Gage, then took in a reading of our former teacher Gail Mazur at the Hilton. I missed seeing the Art Institute due to time limitations, and ran back to the hotel for my bags and hopped on the L to the airport.

It was good practice, but I’m not sure if I overcame my fears of doing things alone. I have three short months to Mexico, where I’ll be living alone for two months, writing and learning about a new country, speaking a language I am certainly nowhere near comfortable speaking. But I’ll do it.

Chicago, the city, was magical, and I hope to return. I felt watched over; everyone really is that friendly. I was coerced into conversation by a young man on the train one morning who said he needed a distraction as he was about to take his Air Force physical test. I wished him luck and wondered if he was serious. Am I that jaded of a Bostonian now? And every cab driver told me to be careful. Who knew they had such fatherly instincts?

Despite the fear factor, traveling alone was exhilarating in a lot of ways. Waiting for my flight out of O’Hare, I ordered a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs and a glass of malbec at my concourse’s Italian restaurant du jour. I ate alone, savoring every morsel of my final moments in Chicago. Being away from your creature comforts takes an interesting toll on one’s psyche. I began to think of myself as a famous writer in a soap opera who had to make do in a new city after fleeing her jealous lover. It was melodramatic, but it made me feel glamorous as I downed the last gulp of wine and strolled back to my terminal, armed with the latest Us magazine and the knowledge that, one day, I’d look back on this sojourn to Chicago as the turning point in my journey to Mexico, to being independent, to arriving at someplace new and different within myself.