Dear Elsa 

A letter to first loves, cigarettes, and Chicago

click to enlarge Rose Tully
  • Rose Tully

Tully is a former Chicagoan who was recently published in the Windy City Queer anthology.

A $90 brunch at Longman & Eagle in unrecognizable Logan Square, ordering bourbons with our coffee refills like that's something we do. We paid and skipped our broke, happy asses out into the white winter sky.

We hadn't talked in seven years.

"We should get some tobacco," you said.

"No," I said. "I don't smoke, you still smoke?"

"Not really," you said.

At Dollar Plus on Milwaukee and Western, you bought tobacco and rolled two cigarettes in an aisle while I snapped pictures of your blue eyeballs under your hat, Obama T-shirts hanging over us. It would be the first time I'd smoked a cigarette in eight years.

Cigarettes is my uncle in brown slippers heating up alphabet soup for me in the south-side house we've had for 28 years. Cigarettes is breaks at my first waitressing job at Clarke's. Cigarettes is singeing my eyelashes with a lighter that jumped to reach that 104-degree sun at the Morse Red Line stop. You could smoke on platforms then, remember? Before that unidentified 30-year-old man was electrocuted on the tracks, you could get away with smoking between the cars screaming Spice Girls while the world hammered under your combat boots, but I know you didn't try that.

You lit mine for me and I said, "This feels like 1998." When you had that Morrissey haircut, before every queer and their genderqueer mother. You were from Greece and learning English. You dropped your phone number in my backpack. Elsa, I have a confession to make. Me naked as a teenager is the same as me naked now—pale, flat-chested, ribs like a radiator and warm like one too, sometimes sweaty palms.

You said, "How old are you now?"

"Twenty-nine."

"Shit, you're 29?" Which makes you a 31-year-old professor with a master's in English and hair for days. And now in law school. You were always Einstein.

Which is why I know you'll understand when I say I don't have a first love. We both have gone through people like tissues and I can tell you my first love is you. But also my first love is my good friend I had my first weird teenage sex with, whose cancer has now returned at 30.

But also my first love is the one I saved up to buy a ring for, who has now transitioned and doesn't keep in touch.

But also my first love is the beautiful stubborn photographer I'm in limbo with, between breaking up and starting a home. Her dog's name is Mateo.

Elsa, I think of hearts when I think of love, of course, but also I think of lungs. At UCSF Medical Center I studied the lungs of a 30-year-old who died of prostate cancer. He had greenish, standard-issue tattoos. The lungs were not bags like I thought they'd be. They were like sea sponges. They were clean. He'd never lived in the city. I think of breathing when I think of love. I think of the order of things in the body and the sea. I want love like that, like the order of things.

The last time I was in Chicago a radical queer with her mouth full of burrito said about a stranger, "She's a typical south-side lady—sad job, sweatpants, slippers outside. You can picture her in her La-Z-Boy, watching TV." Of course she didn't know I'm a south-sider. I don't know why I wanted to tell you that, or maybe I just wanted to ask you this: Why am I in San Francisco and you're in Brooklyn but we both still have 773 area codes?

Coming home to San Francisco, I saw a woman with a pack of Marlboro Menthols hanging out of her bag because people in my neighborhood can just leave their bags open with their business hanging out, even though any Chicago girl with or without a purse knows better. I wanted one so bad. I don't even like menthols. You gave me the rest of that tobacco, which I turned over to my uncle before I left.

In the black painted doorway out of the wind and air next to Dollar Plus, I reignited my addiction, but also my sense of self, my home, and our friendship.

Really, I just wanted to tell you, Elsa, thanks for hanging out. I had the best time.

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