Here’s a six-word story about my relationship with Chicago: I love her, she hates me.
“And a Single Day” was born in October 2019, when the air mattress I’d been sleeping on for nearly three months exploded. It was about 3 a.m. and I was on the ground in three seconds flat.
I’d recently finished a Fulbright Fellowship in Spain and moved back to Chicago for work. With my brother, I rented a one-bedroom apartment in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood. Given how broke we were, we didn’t fuss over the single bedroom. We inflated a couple mattresses—all we could afford—and kept it moving.
I was in a bit of a mental spiral that fall, due to my descent from Fulbright to inner city, so when that mattress exploded, I sobbed. I broke things. I screamed—fuck!—until my voice disappeared. I looked in the mirror and asked: Why do you hate me?
I saw myself in that mirror, but really I was addressing Chicago. In my mind, we were inextricably linked. Her beauty was mine and so was her ugliness. Nothing I did would ever alter that truth. Back in my room, I picked up my copy of Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren, which lived next to my mattress, and reread those final lines:
We shall leave, for remembrance, one rusty iron heart. The city’s rusty heart, that holds both the hustler and the square. Takes them both and holds them there. For keeps and a single day.
I believed myself a hustler for escaping the inner city of my youth and getting a college education, for “making something of myself.” My family reassured me that it was true. But we all knew the actual truth: that we were squares and would forever be squares, so long as we breathed that toxic Chicago air.
Nothing about our existence in Chicago had ever spelled success. Our history in the city was scarred by poverty, violence, and eviction. I thought of my family’s first eviction, from the Harding Building, and how barren our lives seemed then. I wondered why we bounced between the apartments of friends and acquaintances from day to day, instead of settling back into our own apartment.
My mother was roughly twenty-eight then; I’m twenty-seven now. Her thoughts on that day have always troubled me but, like all of our shared traumas, we never talk about them. We don’t talk about anything anymore. It’s a real shame.
I suppose this story is my attempt at understanding why that might be, of understanding how hope can float away with the wind and wither like a leaf that’s long since left home. Or maybe I don’t know what it is, what it’s about. Maybe I decided to write about my mother because she deserves that, because all mothers do. Because doing so might bring my soul happiness, and maybe hers too.
RANDY WILLIAM SANTIAGO is a writer from inner-city Chicago. He is a Fulbright Scholar, a PERIPLUS Collective Fellow, and a Michener Fellow in Fiction at the University of Miami. Randy’s writing has found a home in The Blue Nib, Litro Magazine, Lunch Ticket, The Masters Review, Storm Cellar, and is forthcoming in Kweli. Find him on Twitter @hoodliterati.