by: Addison Bell
Tabula rasa. I didn’t know what that meant when I was 18. I didn’t know anything, except that I hated myself and I wanted to start over. That’s the idea of tabula rasa: a clean slate. You are forgiven for what you have done and are given another chance, a new life. That was all I wanted.
When I was a senior in high school, I dreamed of becoming an artist. Painting had become my life, probably because it was one of the only things that made me happy. I was fascinated with the idea of creation, of making something original with your own hands. For the longest time, I believed that my purpose in life was to live for everyone else, to meet others’ expectations, strive to be good enough. And then I realized that I would never be good enough. When I painted, I felt like I was good enough for me. My art teacher told me to go to the city. Any city. He advised me to get out of our small town, to leave it behind, and to flourish. The notion made me nauseously excited. He said I would only grow.
My good friend at the time had a brother that went to Columbia in Chicago. On a weekend in February, she and I boarded a train and went. We arrived late and her brother and his friends met us at Union Station. They were carrying alcohol in paper bags and they walked quickly as if they had to be somewhere important. I remember how the cold, Chicago wind felt and how I probably looked like a lost little kid. The funny thing is, I had felt lost for such a long time, but walking through downtown made me feel the opposite of lost. Found. I was found.
He shared a dorm loft with three of his friends. It was bare and messy, as most guys apartments are. They played a FIFA video game and I sat and looked out the window. The loft was high enough to see the illuminated skyscrapers and stoplights. Snow covered the parking lot that was in front of the building. The only thing I thought was, “This is it. This is me.” I wanted to go outside to the parking lot and write in the snow: Welcome Home.
My friend and I went on a tour of Columbia. Ten minutes into it I knew that I belonged there. They didn’t need to convince me or impress me with their gorgeous buildings and the numerous painting classes they had to offer. If they had pulled out a contract and said, “Sign here,” I wouldn’t have hesitated.
Clichés make me cringe, but I’ll never forget that weekend. I shopped at Urban Outfitters for the fist time and bought a crazy outfit. Back at the dorm, I Sharpied my nails all different colors. I rushed for Rent tickets and met the cast afterwards. Later, my friends and I went to a party by UIC. It was my first party ever, in high school, I was very straight laced, and I couldn’t stay because there were too many people. Outside, I met a random group of people and they invited me back to their downtown apartment. I had alcohol for the first time. Another night, we went to my first hookah bar in North Park. They played Spice Girls all night and I felt wonderfully light-headed. We went back to the dorm and I smoked pot—another first—in my new friends’ bathroom, and then I started crying because I thought we’d get caught and I’d get arrested. But we didn’t, so we smoked more.
I did a lot of things for the first time that weekend, but mostly I remember the feeling of possibility. That’s what Chicago is: a city of possibilities. That weekend, I felt like I could do anything, that I could be anyone who I wanted to be, and that no matter what I chose to do, Chicago would love me. I wanted nothing more to move there and become an artist. Chicago was calling my name, beckoning me to start new, to be someone better. I cried on the train home, because I’d never been so happy.
I wish I could say that I graduated high school, packed my bags and paintbrushes, my paints and my easel, and moved to Chicago. I wish that I could say that the happiness continued. But that did not happen.
When I figured out that dreams aren’t free, that I could never afford to go to art school, I sat in my bedroom and sobbed for two hours. It was in April. A few weeks earlier, Columbia sent my acceptance letter. When it came in the mail, I drove to my mom’s work and we both jumped up and down. But then I got my financial aid letter and slowly acknowledged that I would never be able to go. My mom came home and saw me crying, so we went and drive. I told her that if by some miracle I could go, I’d never be able to pay for my loans. All I’d be left with would be my paintings. She started talking about nursing and about how much I loved people. I decided to do that instead.
In August, I entered my first year at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. When I moved in, I knew something bad would happen. I thought that things would get better after high school, that I’d be free. But the truth was that a part of me died when I chose not to go to Chicago. I felt defeated and wounded. When I look back on that first year, I just remember misery. A person I loved very much died and I couldn’t handle it. The bad Thing happened, and everyone saw how much pain I was in. I still don’t like talking about it. The Thing didn’t happen because of my decision to not move to Chicago, it happened because life happens, and sometimes it’s harsher than we want it to be. I got help. I stopped hurting. I didn’t feel defeated anymore.
Eventually, I did make it to Chicago. I stopped fearing the future and finally did what I wanted to do. Sometimes I still can’t believe that I’m living in this city. Three years ago, if you had told me that I would be living in downtown apartment, I wouldn’t believe you. I also wouldn’t believe you if you told me that I was studying English, was openly gay, that I had fallen in love and had my heartbroken, that I broke someone else’s heart, that another person I loved very much died, that I had a tattoo, found an incredible best friend, met people that I’ll never forget and met people that I only want to forget, felt incredibly loved, and loved myself. I wouldn’t believe you, because all of it would sound too good to be true. But my life in Chicago is nothing but.
It sounds great on paper, sometimes I get tired. Sometimes I get lonely and sad and cry I a lot, and feel what I felt my freshman year of college. Sometimes I look at how far I’ve come and what I’ve achieved, and it doesn’t seem real and I tell myself that I don’t deserve it. Sometimes the grey in the city is too much and I feel like doing anything to make the bad feelings going away.
But then I just stop and breathe and remember the possibility that is so apparent in this city. With possibility comes hope. Last fall, I kept thinking of the bad Thing. I was sitting in a coffee shop on Belmont. It was chilly outside, but the sun was out and the sky was beautifully clear. And then I saw a Monarch butterfly flying between moving cars. It survived the oncoming traffic, rose over a building and melted into the sky. It was a beautiful feeling of hope, of possibility.
That’s the thing about Chicago: you can never truly hate it, because it’s laced with beautiful things that make you love it more. It makes you love yourself more. Sometimes you forget and you don’t see the beauty. But if you look, you’ll see it. You’ll see yourself.
Addison Bell is a senior at DePaul University where he is studying English Literature. He is the President of Oxfam DePaul and volunteers with Oxfam America, an organization dedicated to ending world hunger, poverty, and social injustice. Follow Jacob on Twitter @boy_1904 and on Tumblr: colourmegreenwich.tumblr.com.