You walk quickly down the sidewalk with your hands in your coat pockets. It’s not quite cold enough for this jacket, but you want it to be so you wear it anyway. There is your best friend. She’s standing twenty yards away, and you haven’t seen her in weeks so you both run toward each other for the leaping It’s Been Forever Hug. You link arms, laughing, and go inside for an overdue coffee date. With her by your side you can’t picture any place more perfect than this crumb-covered table in the back of a downtown Panera Bread.
But she leaves, and you leave, and everywhere starts to be imperfect. Not just imperfect, but downright flawed — to the point of no redemption, so you realize you need to get out of town as soon as you can. That charming bowling alley you loved looks scummy, your favorite Thai place closed down, and the bike ride to work leaves you breathless and wanting to vomit. You’ve got to stick it out for a few more months, though, so you bide your time and go out with groups of people to this show or that bar. You get off the train in the West Loop and see your friends waiting so you walk up and begin the breezy rounds of We Are Americans So We Hug Not Kiss Hugs. You try to ignore the wind lashing your face with scraggly bits of November as you all walk to wherever it is that some band is playing.
All you’d like for one night is to dance till closing time so you can forget the complacent solitude falling over you more each day, but that one guy friend who always has one slimy eye on girls’ chests is there, and tonight he has his eye on you. You duck and dodge and plan your escape, just narrowly making it out with your dignity thanks to a Hail-Mary I Really Don’t Want You Touching Me Hug. You go home alone and think about how you can’t wait to leave this city.
A week goes by with a Thanks, Darling, Brunch Was Great Hug, an It’s My Roommate’s Birthday, Happy Birthday! Hug, and a late-night, post-study-sesh Get Home Safe Hug. They’re all nice, quick yet firm, but you forget them easily like a meal you’ve had too many times. Did someone order a soggy Roasted Vegetable Sandwich? Then another weekend arrives, and you’re on another train going to another bar to hear the same songs and watch the same guys with big glasses hit on the same girls in ripped tights. It makes you sick, but you’re bored, so bored, that you go. But this time you meet someone, and he’s weird, and you like him. You go home with him (you never do that!) and at 6 a.m. you stand outside the train station while the cold turns your lips as white as the air around you, and he’s saying “I’ll see you again soon?” and you’re thinking it’s B.S. You hear the train growling in so you both lean in for a quick, bumbling Your Tongue Was Down My Throat An Hour Ago Hug before you run up the stairs so you don’t have to wait for the next one. The last place you want to be is standing on a platform in last night’s outfit with hungry-looking pigeons stalking overhead.
After that day you start unlocking categories of hugs you didn’t know existed: the Jumping Up And Down Because It’s Cold And You’re Waiting For The Walk Signal Hug, the This Bar Is So Crowded, I Almost Lost You Hug, and the Work Sucked Today, It’s Good To See You Hug. These hugs take time. Months pass. The air gets lighter, the sun less shy, and the back porch becomes your sacred temple because you can drink homemade beer together and pretend to watch the sun set (you can’t really watch it because you’re stuck in the urban-apartment gridlock, but you don’t care).
Soon August rolls in with a bath of sticky days and nights that make you want to peel off your skin just so your bones can cool off a little. You go to work, you go home, you cook, you kiss, and you fall asleep. You are so busy trying to take in oxygen in this suffocating mass of city air that you barely believe it when it’s time for another new hug: The Last Hug. Months ago you said you would leave, so you made arrangements you can’t un-make, and now it’s time to follow through. You stand in front of the train, longer this time, just looking because it’s not quite real. You reach up as he reaches down, and you both hold on, heads bent, eyes closed. Then you release and step back to say “Be well” before walking the opposite direction.