Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What I Found in Chicago

The hotel lobby doesn't look familiar. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised; I haven't been there in nearly 22 years. I'm wondering how often hotels replace their carpeting when the front desk clerk clears his throat. He's holding my room key, as well as my credentials for the American Library Association convention, which my editors have left at the desk for me. "You're from New York?" he says politely.

"Ah. No. Tennessee," I say.

He nods, because it's all the same to him. I go up the elevators, which do look familiar, as does the slightly worn-down hallway. The room decor is fresh, but the view out the window, of the Chicago river and the high-rise buildings across from it, is the same.

I was here 22 years ago, this same hotel, for the American Chemistry Society's annual conference. I went because I had a job as a research chemist, and I got put on the list to go to the conference, and it was bad form to say that you weren't really interested. You were supposed to be thrilled with the free trip and the opportunity.

I was only actually friends with a few of my fellow chemists, who, in the company where I worked, were all male and mostly older than me. None of my good friends were on this trip. I hung out with the others at dinner and at a Cubs game, where the guys I was with drank a beer an inning and I stayed sober to drive us home.  McCormick Place, the convention center, was a vast dark frigid hall; I wasn't much interested in the equipment displays, since I wasn't in charge of buying any new equipment (analytical machines easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars), and, honestly, wasn't much interested in the presentations either. I took notes on some, as my boss had asked me to, and was frankly astonished by how poorly some chemists spoke, even about their own work. Arrogant blowhards, I thought.

My life was in a holding pattern. I was grateful for my job, which paid well, had excellent benefits, and was mostly interesting and challenging, but I was becoming more and more aware that it was not what I was meant to do. I was starting to be paid for my writing, but not enough to even think about quitting chemistry. My husband was in medical school. I wanted children, I wanted to be a novelist--and as I sat in my hotel room last Saturday, looking out over the river, all the yearnings and loneliness of that time came back to me. I was so young then. I was so afraid.

A brisk knock on my hotel room door. I open it, and launch myself into the arms of the tall man standing there. "I've missed you so much!" I say.

He bends his head down to kiss the top of mine. "I've missed you, too, Mom," my son says. He's in college not far from Chicago; he's driven over to have dinner with me. "Ready for your speech tomorrow?" he asks.

My speech at ALA, about my new novel. My 16th published book.

"I think so," I say. We go back down the elevators, out the lobby, into the bustle of Michigan Avenue, leaving the memories and ghosts behind.