The Red Zone

I could say that Jake was my childhood boyfriend, but that wouldn’t really be accurate. Jake was more like a cicada, turning up every three or four years without warning, making a lot of noise and then disappearing.

The last time Jake turned up it was a scalding summer day with overcast clouds threatening rain. I was making deep-dish pizzas at Caffé Florian’s sauna of a kitchen. Why do Chicagoans insist on eating doughy pizza when it’s hot? Beppi, the squat owner who wore white aprons artistically splattered with pizza sauce, came back with that look of his, brows bunched up over his dark eyes.

“There’s a fellow out there who says he needs to see ya?” He stood crossing his arms over his Picasso drizzle.


“He’s got a gee-tar,” Beppi said, stretching his neck as far as he could to appear taller. Tufts of curly hair sprouted along his neckline.

“Uh-uh. Don’t know anybody like that.”

“What I told him. Says you went to school together. High school.”

When I pushed open the swinging door to the dark, cool, dining room, I thought of all those other cool, dark places we had been: the laundry closet at a Lab School party, the backseat of his car in the parking lot at the Museum of Science and Industry, the seedy hotels on 47th Street when he was passing through on a gig. I remembered sitting at dusk at the pond near Jackson Park, waiting for Jake’s baseball games to end. Afterwards, he smelled of cut grass and talcum powder and had dirt in the crevices of his elbows and in the creases under his eyes.

It had been three years since we had last seen each other. Since then, there’d been stray appearances around the holidays that people reported to me breathlessly. My mother once saw him at the Co-op picking up milk and bread for his mother. They spoke briefly. He told her to tell me hello. But I never saw him. Not once. Not in three years. Not even a phone call.

And yet, there he was—slouching against the dark, piney paneling, his guitar case at his feet. Seeing him reminded me of the image I’d been clinging to all those years: the Lake Michigan eyes, the twisted, teasing smile, the innocent freckles scattered on his nose like specks of dirt, making him look more like a child than a man.

But what stood before me was definitely a man, at least the shell of one.

I hugged him. He smelled of cheap cologne, something he’d splashed on his neck instead of showering. I directed him to a table. He pulled along a green Army duffle and his guitar case as if they were all the possessions he owned.

“So what brings you to town?”

“Well, I wanted to see you.”

“Me? After all these years?” It felt strange to have his full attention, to have him looking at me across the table, waiting on me. I had always felt so ancillary in his life. I had been the one waiting on him, for the few moments he could spare, waiting for him to show up, waiting for years.

“Well you graduated, right?” he said.

“How’d you know that?”

“I keep up.”

“I’m just waiting for my real life to materialize. I can’t seem to find a job.”

“I’m surprised you’re working here. Do Lab School kids still hang out here?

“Pretty much. What are you doing these days?”

He looked down at the table, turned up his lips and shook his head. “Not much.” He was thin and angular in that way that looks attractive only on musicians and his hands twitched like he’d drunk too much coffee. He rubbed his eyes, his skin slowly filling with color as if he were materializing into human form from the ghost-man of my past.

“When you done here?” he asked, barely moving his lips as he spoke.

“Soon. You got plans?”

“I was hoping I could hang with you.” He reached across the table and trickled his fingers on top of mine. “Maybe we could go to a bar? I really need a drink.”

We walked down the street, me in my khakis and sweaty T-shirt, and Jake in his jeans, cowboy boots and long-sleeved shirt with fringes, his guitar case strapped across his back. We’d stashed the duffel at the restaurant, but Jake wouldn’t part with his guitar. In the sunlight, I could see him better. His face was boney and angular. The rims of his eyes were red. Around his neck, hung the charm of a clenched fist, its palm scooped to hold something tiny. But what?

He’d insisted on hitting a certain bar on Stony Island, a dive on its last legs where old blues players liked to go to riff. The temperature on the Hyde Park Bank sign read 98 degrees. Jake said he was craving a beer. But when we got there, he ordered a Coke. An Eric Clapton song came on the jukebox, and when I mumbled along, Jake gave me a hard look.

“Do you know what you’re singing?”

“Yeah. Sure. ‘Cocaine.’ ”

He ran his fingers through his dirty blond hair, stringy and past his shoulders. His eyes held a vacant look. The freckles had faded to mere specks. He fingered the fist around his neck and opened his lips to speak, then shook his head. Whatever it was, I knew it was bad. I wanted him not to say it. I swallowed hard, and looked away.

My parents didn’t know about Jake. Not wanting to upset the cocoon of idealism they lived in, I’d kept most of the details from them. They were extremely political, the kind who touted Green Peace bumper stickers on their cars—his Prius and her Volvo—and kept a perennial row of political placards in their front yard. Then it was it was all about The Senator from Hyde Park vying for the White House, even though we knew he lived in Kenwood.

Growing up, my family kept to the Hyde Park neighborhood, an “island” protected by an army of University security—the largest private police force in the United States. But outside that one-and-a-half square miles, the other South Side threatened, a place of boarded up buildings, strewn trash, men with hot sauce-stained T-shirts and missing teeth who would cut your throat if you didn’t promptly hand over your wallet—at least that’s what we were told. Not by our parents, but from other kids who’d crossed over and had gone beyond the neighborhood boundaries. U of C kids were easy marks, they’d said. Those people could see the innocence on our faces, our lack of street cred. At the Lab School, we had kids of all races—Asians, Latinos, African-Americans. But they either had rich or smart parents who could either afford the astronomical tuition or were employed by the University and got a break in fees.

The clash between Hyde Parkers and much of the South Side wasn’t about race, my parents insisted. It was about education and class. University professors, my parents were liberal Democrats, vegans and firm believers of civil rights. They supported Jesse Jackson Sr. and had educated black friends who came to dinner and discussed politics and race in an academic way, using words like “disenfranchised” and “environmental economics.”

But even they were adamant about the safety of my brother and me. My father drew a map of where we could go. The twelve blocks around the University were shaded in light green. A two-block ring outside of that was colored yellow and the areas beyond that were stop-sign red. Every time I looked at that map, I had an urge to sneak into the red zone just to see what would happen. The irony was that the person who had done me the most harm had lived in our midst, a Hyde Parker, a doctor’s son, a kid who went to the Lab School.


That day, after Jake and I left the dive bar, we went to my apartment. I was nervous about being alone with him; why, I wasn’t sure. He just didn’t seem the same anymore. We sat on the couch drinking beer. The air-conditioner was belching warm air. I was sweating but Jake seemed cold. He pulled me beside him and wrapped his arm around me. I’d forgotten how sensual he could be, touching my face lightly with his fingertips, whispering as his mouth hovered over my eyes, my cheeks. I smelled like dough and sausage from Caffe Florian and was aching to take a shower. But he insisted that I wait. He said he had something to tell me.

“Baby,” he whispered. “Wouldn’t it be great if we were always together?” He pressed his lips lazily against mine, not a kiss but a marriage of lips, and held them there gently. I started to pull away.

“Don’t you want me? All these years, didn’t you miss me?”

I didn’t know what to say. He was saying all the things I’d wished he’d said to me years ago. I felt a nagging in my head. Something didn’t quite make sense. He still looked much the same. But there was something different about him, something elusive. Wrinkles from late nights rimmed his eyes like rings in a tree. And those eyes, once brimming with confidence, seemed vacuous, as if their essence had been drained.

The next day, all he did was sleep, eventually waking in a sweat. I made him soup but he wasn’t interested, just rolled over and pulled up the covers. The following morning he was more affectionate, pulling me onto the couch amid his cool sheets, pecking me with kisses, speaking in that low murmuring voice that wilted my reserve.

“We’re going to be together,” he promised. “And we’re going to have a family.”

On the third day, I cut Jake’s long, tawny locks. I sat him on a chair in the kitchen, like a little boy, and draped him with a beach towel. Then I snipped the long strands, tapering his hairline to the back of his neck. The thin, fly-away hairs scattered the floor in clumps, stuck to the towel and speckled my skin. Stray strands floated in the air and adhered to my damp skin, coating my body, as if I had rolled around with some gigantic shedding cat. I would pick the hairs from my shoes for weeks. I’d find them in the strangest places, caught in the clasp of a necklace, in the crevices between my toes.

After a week, Jake’s hands had stopped shaking, his eyes were clearer and his feet didn’t constantly tap the floor. He’d been there before, he admitted, on the doorstep of sobriety, as he called it. But he’d always gone back. He was certain that with me, he wouldn’t. We could have a life together, he said. He could form a band in Chicago. I wanted to believe him. I did. But neither of us had considered how the ambition of a young woman trumps the lusts of a young girl. As much as I wanted him, I didn’t want my life to revolve around any man, particularly one so transient. And I had a longing desire to experience life out there, beyond the confines of Hyde Park, as if life were some foreign country I had to visit.

We never argued about it. Even parting we were striving to keep our image of each other pure. We didn’t want to taint it with bickering. He said he knew I just wasn’t ready, implying that someday I would be. I quietly cried and he held me. He was sober. I had given him that much. He picked up his big duffel bag and strapped his guitar across his chest and walked out of the apartment and that was the last time I ever saw him.

The desk clerk at the Central Arms Hotel found his body after he noticed that the music in Jake’s room had stopped. The University police report I read years later questioned whether his death was a suicide. He’d camped out at the hotel immediately after leaving my apartment, using the money he’d saved for my engagement ring to go on a cocaine binge. He partied for days with a slew of strangers in and out of his room. The coroner said he’d been dead for three days. Of course, I had thought about Jake during those three days. I dreamt about him, like I’ve dreamt about him ever since, these same vivid dreams. And like a cicada, every so often he arrives in my sleep to continue our life together. In that nether world, we get married and have kids and live in a giant Victorian near my parents, just a block from the lake in Hyde Park. Jake has a band and I have my job at the University. And we are happy, always so happy.