Chicago, Illinois: Back to the Water’s Edge

This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

My girlfriends always drove because they had cars, cool cars: a Monte Carlo, a Cadillac, and best of all, the Trans Am. Boy bait. And that’s what we were there for, after all, the boys. That, and a place that seemed about as far away as we could get from our land-locked suburban neighborhoods with low-slung ranch houses and two-car garages and flat, trimmed lawns.

Foster Beach.

The City. (You could hear how we capitalized it in the way we said it, like a title, a proper noun. The City. The City. THE CITY.)

The lake was there (is there), wide and wild sometimes, water rolling and crashing. Wild like we wanted to be, pulled by the moon on warm summer nights. And The City twinkled in the high rises behind us while we stood at the water’s edge.

Mostly, though, we parked. All of us. We drove to the beach as though called there, a line of cars cruising slowly, looking for a spot in the lot where we could pull in and hop out and jump onto the hoods of our rides, onto the trunks. We sat in the humid dark while our warm engines ticked and cooled beneath us.

The seventies. And we were white girls from the suburbs grown bored with the white suburban boys we knew who were either jocks or freaks, and who had curfews and homework: read The Canterbury Tales, “The Knight’s Tale;” solve for X, for Y; write a five-page paper on The Industrial Revolution.

My girlfriends, most of them, would drop out of high school, and I would go on to college, first one, then another, until I found the right one and made it work (Columbia College Chicago, just a few miles away from Foster Beach and overlooking that same great lake and the water’s edge there.)

But we didn’t know any of that yet.

What we knew was this: boys with names like Mario, like Ramon—City Boys—pulled huge speakers out of the trunks of their cars, played salsa at full volume, slapped their thighs and the vinyl landau tops in Latin rhythms. Clouds skittered across the moon lifting up over the water, and sometimes we would climb into the back seats of the cars with Mario, with Ramon, because they told us we were pretty. Different. And better times we would walk with them, holding hands and carrying our shoes, our toes in the sand close to the water’s edge. And Mario, Ramon, would say “Let’s sit, sientate,” and we would, and the world (or maybe just the sand) would shift under our bodies. And we’d listen to the sometimes loud, sometimes quiet lap of water on land, to the music swinging through the night from the parking lot, to the cars behind us rushing along Lake Shore Drive, toward The City, or toward Hollywood at the Drive’s end.

And sometimes, too, we’d lie back with Mario, with Ramon, and kiss under the summer stars that we couldn’t really see because dark is never full dark in The City; there’s always light. But we knew the stars were there like we knew other things: we were young. We were pretty (Mario said so, Ramon did.) We were miles away from home, from the suburbs, from sidewalks and shopping centers and our parents, asleep, probably, certain we were close by, safe, doing homework and sleeping over in twin beds in air-conditioned rooms.

And we knew best of all that we would come back to this place, this City place, this Foster Beach. We would leave by the backdoors of our houses and tiptoe over the patios of our yards and meet at the stop sign, the Trans Am purring, the girls inside lipsticked and ready and eager to get there. Not just the next night, and the next, but always. We would return. Pulled (even now, forty years later) by the moon, by the boys and the music, by the cars and the parking, by the possibilities, by the memories. Pulled again and again. Pulled back to the beach, back to the water’s edge.

Patricia Ann McNair

Patricia Ann McNair's collection of stories, The Temple of Air, won the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year, the Devil's Kitchen Readers Award, and was a finalist for the Society of Midland Authors Award. She has had fiction and nonfiction appear in a variety of publications, including Creative Nonfiction, Riverteeth, Fourth Genre, Brevity, Prime Number, Superstition Review, and others. Her work has won a number of Illinois Arts Council awards, and has been nominated for the Pushcart five times. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Creative Writing of Columbia College Chicago.