A picture worth a thousand words: leaving Chicago for the first time
By Evi Arthur
I cried the first time I had to leave my dorm room.
Moving to Chicago my freshman year felt like a dream.
Daydreaming of my future life in a big city had gotten me through high school. In my head, I’d lived in L.A., New York, Chicago, Boston — all the biggies. But the closer I got to graduating, the further away that life in the big city felt.
Family members told me that all the places I wanted to go were too far and too expensive and too hard to get to. Friends told me that I should look at state schools instead. Guidance counselors suggested I lower my standards. The older I got, the more my daydream felt more and more like just a daydream.
That was until I got my acceptance letter to Roosevelt University, with a scholarship listed at the bottom that was big enough to cut the cost of school more than in half. When I got the letter, I sat down on my kitchen floor and wept.
From then until I left for school, the whole thing felt like some crazy scheme I had thought up. Even as I packed up my childhood room and said goodbye to the friends I’d lived next door to for my entire life, I still wasn’t entirely sure that it was actually happening.
And then my dad and I packed all that I owned into our old green minivan (which later burst into flames, but that’s another story) and drove to Chicago. It still didn’t feel real.
And then we got to Roosevelt and an RA helped us unload the minivan and put all that I owned in the world into a box on wheels and it still didn’t feel real.
And it kept not feeling real — I kept convincing myself that this wasn’t actually happening — until the moment I walked into my new dorm room and stood at the window with all of Chicago spread out before me.
That was when I finally allowed myself to believe that this was actually happening, that my hard work for the last four years had paid off, that I hadn’t dreamt all of this up.
And that’s what made leaving for Thanksgiving later that year so hard. I was convinced that the moment I turned my back on the skyline and got on my train to St. Louis, my life in Chicago would disappear as if I really had dreamt it all up. I was terrified of waking up in my childhood bed the next day to find that nothing had changed — still in the bed with the flower-y sheets and the band posters on the walls — only to realize that my life in Chicago was just a trick my subconscious mind had played on me.
I’d decided to catch an early train, wanting to get it over with sooner rather than later, which meant that when I’d rolled out of bed, I was able to catch the end of the sunrise.
I had put off the trip home as much as I could, which meant that I had no roommates left to wake up while I got ready, playing an episode of my new favorite podcast and laughing along with the hosts while I finished up the last dregs of my coffee.
Packing the remaining items in my suitcase felt final and permanent. Making my dorm bed — the frame was too tall and I didn’t know how to adjust it, which meant every night I literally had to jump into bed — felt like the last time I ever would.
I finished early and spent the remaining time before I absolutely had to leave for the Amtrak station in my desk chair staring out the window trying to memorize every detail of the skyline I could — shining gold with the last pulls of the sunrise. Sitting there and being so melodramatic made me feel like a clingy girlfriend whose boyfriend was going on a long trip.
So afraid of this life being gone forever, I said goodbye to all the things in my new life I’d fallen in love with since I’d last been home in August: the rumble of passing trains overhead, the quiet of the morning when just me and the coffee maker were up and working, the familiar, comforting crunch of a grilled cheese sandwich from the cafeteria and the familiar snarky comments from the other side of the room as my roommate would tease me for eating like a fifth-grader all the time.
I said goodbye to the life I had created for myself — just in case — and left for the train station, feeling a sense of finality as I locked my dorm door on the way out.
Later, when my train was pulling out of Union Station, I couldn’t help but tear up. I felt like a crazy person — crying alone on an Amtrak train in the middle of “The Office” episode that I was playing on my laptop.
It was a startling conclusion to come to at that moment, but I realized at that moment — crying for an empty dorm room that was always too cold and a roommate who was always too loud in a building with crappy washing machines — that I didn’t want to go home.
I realized that I would rather stay in that empty dorm room with my too-tall bed and the cafeteria grilled cheese and my window than go home to a Thanksgiving feast and my parents. I had become too accustomed to the freedom I had found in Chicago, to the person I had become while gazing dreamily up at the skyscrapers.
It was then, crying and surrounded by other exhausted college students, that I realized I would trade it all — my mom’s Greek salad and all the mashed potatoes I wanted, a room to myself, my family, the familiarity of my childhood home, a working washer and dryer — to stay in a city of strangers.