Up On the Roof


“Hey, look! Something tiny and green is growing in the tar!”

Popping my head through the open trap door to the roof. Pausing just for a moment before hoisting myself up. You, sprawled on your stomach in cutoffs and an old University of Wisconsin t-shirt of mine that you slept in a lot, peering over the side of the faded red blanket and staring at something green and tiny that I could barely see.

“So, mold is exciting to you?”

You flip over on your back, and stick our your tongue, “More exciting than you!” Then you smile big and hold open your arms. Coming to you, I exhale for the first time that day.

“So? Tell me, tell me, tell me! How was your day?” you ask with a wide-eyed urgency and full expectation that the answer will include, at the least, a Shakespearean legend.

 

That’s how it was. Up on that roof, where the only demands on us came from the mysteries of uncountable stars. Everything was possible. Starlit love right now, a golden path of endless tomorrows to come.

We were four floors up. An old red brick apartment building on the corner of Webster and Racine, on the north side of Chicago. Back when old Italian guys still sat on the street in front of corner grocery stores. Vic’s Sub shop across the street. The local tavern. Quiet neon. Down the block, you could get burritos and tacos homemade in the back of a Mexican market. Walk a few blocks south to Armitage and there was Romanos Italian Ice, those chunks of sweet sour lemon telling every story you would need to about a warm and windy summer night. We even had a storefront bookstore for awhile.

You and I, handholding young, had the roof.

There were five of us who rented the top two floors. Somehow the rambling big white house near the campus in Wisconsin had morphed into the Chicago apartment with the tall ceilings, huge windows letting in artist’s light, and access to the roof. I remember none of the details on exactly how that happened. Did I sign something? Pack a moving box? No clue.

The five of us were one couple, one almost couple, and me. Andy and Marissa were the couple. Andy was slight, funny, quick and most likely would do something someday that would mean lots of money. I guessed a lawyer. Marissa’s father was a famous political guy, something no one would ever guess by knowing her and her friendly, down to earth ways. Zak and Lucy, they were the almost couple. Both artists. Zak’s bedroom was the entire top floor. Unfinished. Unheated. Even in Chicago winters, unheated. His bed hung by four silver chains from the rafters, swinging in the drafts.

I was the odd man. A special ed teacher in a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, jeans and gym shoes. Part-time job at the bookstore, because Andy knew a guy. Eating breakfast at The Athenian Room, 2 eggs, bacon, toast and coffee for $1.99.

You? Almost didn’t recognize you, that first time I saw you in that loud, smoky place across from Wrigley Field. What you saw in me that first time, it must have been some sort of miracle. Because we were not the picture of a couple. You were an Old Town condo, designer business suit, the right shoes, cigarette-smoking girl who would say things like “I’m in finance,” to the barrage of wannabe-your-boyfriends; watching them run in the other direction, towards the girls who didn’t already have their number.

How did we happen? You told me you were in finance. I snorted derisively and said “Really, I’m in futures.” You laughed and that was it.

It didn’t take us long to discover the roof. The other two couples were never all that interested, so we almost never had visitors. Just us and the stars. The sun would drop in the western sky and the orange glow of simmering twilight would rise, blending with the city lights and in tune with the distant hue and cry of other people’s lives, so far down below. We’d lay on our backs, you talking through your day, popping up to swing around and ramp up the story, because a day was not complete for you until you talked it through.

In the night glow of the city, on the roof, just us, hidden from any other human eyes, the wild music of our love heard only by those stars, where I imagine the song echoes still.

On the roof’s the only place I know.

Where you just have to wish, to make it so.

 

That day I came up to find you staring at the green mold, I had news.

Looking in your eyes with that inner tremble I sometimes got when I thought about not being able to look in your eyes, I said, “I quit. I’m not a teacher anymore. I’m gonna do it. Gonna go corporate. I am sellin’ out, big time.”

“What are you talking about? You didn’t really do that. You’re a teacher!”

“I can do it. I know these things. I’m older than you.”

“Yeah,” you laughed. “And so much more well-adjusted.”

“You know what I make. Teachers never make money. I get some sort of corporate job . . . I don’t know. Think about when we’re really old. Like 50, or something. Who’s gonna have the money, the corporate guy or the teacher? I mean, c’mon, you’re in finance!”

“You’re gonna be what, a solutions consultant? A branding manager . . .”

“Rodeo clown . . .” I said. . .

“ I guess it could be worse, I could be in love with a mime. You don’t have any mime plans do you?”

Which made me laugh, and then you caught it, and we almost forgot what we were talking about.

“Hey,” I said, “Should we all say a prayer for shareholder value?”

“I guess being safe . . . not having to scramble in our golden years. . .I guess that’s not a bad thing, is it?” you said, very quietly. “Maybe a corporate job is what you should do.”

Then you gave me a very long look, punched me in the arm and took my hand. Laying on our backs, on that roof.

Under yesterday’s stars.

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