There’s far less than US$500 in my friend Madara’s belongings, all half buried in Lake Michigan’s sand. On Chicago’s numerous beaches, it’s the maximum fine for throwing caution to the wind, stripping down to your panties and ditching modesty altogether.
Madara never wears bras so within seconds, it’s all areola. Pink peaks below tightly crossed arms and prayers to Latvian gods requesting averted faces and blind eyes as she wades scandalously into the water.
It’s the taste of it that has made Madara reckless. A cupped and dripping hand raising the clear liquid to her eager mouth savouring freshwater.
“No salt!” Madara’s cyan eyes widen with ecstatic revelation.
Lake Michigan stretches infinitely towards the horizon, every inch the illusion of a serene sea, so salt is expected.
Freshwater, an enchantment.
It calls to Madara as she sips a slow mouthful before asking my approval of bare breasts once, twice, puckishly foregoing a third to insist I take photos.
Behind us, as Madara’s grinning red head bobs low in the rippling water, Chicago smiles blue.
Sentinel skyscrapers sparkle from light-headed heights and it’s hard to imagine the blaze that leapt over rivers, killed 300 and rendered 100 000 homeless as a calamity of severe drought, devillish fire whirls and ushering wind burnt much of the then wooden city to the ground.
The Great Chicago Fire (1871) is at the centre of an architecture tour and boat cruise Madara and I don’t take at the Riverwalk. I’ve gotten into the first notes of a fracas with a rude ticket seller at a quaint little kiosk beside the Chicago River and Madara has led me away past water-facing restaurants and aesthetic benches as I crossly rain curses on the teller’s house.
On another day, Madara repeats the phrase to me making trenches of her forehead.
Her Latvian accent is thick but hardly indecipherable. In truth, when reading her raw, critically acclaimed confessions out aloud, Madara’s voice is pure, heart-shattering poetry, but she still supposes her foreign inflection has confused the teller the way it does Iowan baristas.
“Caffè Latte? Martha, how do I say this?”
We push on disagreeing about the correct response to confusion and a Trump hotel follows us all the way. Enormous, ‘shaped like a gun’ as Chicago’s architectural apparitions blink blue.
The colour recalling the water that doused two days of a fire which gave birth to higher standards of urban planning, improved zoning, innovative new construction styles and eventually the skyscraper.
Madara and I don’t mark the site of the steel-framed 10-storey Home Insurance Building popularly known as the father of the skyscraper but we gape beneath its brothers and sisters standing proud amidst the city’s famous Loop.
Two days in the Windy City is a pitiful scratch at the surface and Madara and I know it.
We whoop down lively streets.
We drink wine at the House of Blues. We catch our breath at the sight of The Chicago Theatre’s iconic vertical marquee and caress dresses we vow to be able to afford near the Magnificent Mile someday after laughing boisterously at our other selves reflected in Anish Kapoor’s ‘Cloud Gate’ shining otherworldly at Millennium Park.
I tell Madara they call Cloud Gate The Bean and giggle.
I flick it rhythmically in an uncharacteristic burst of obscenity and physical comedy but my exhibitionist partner in slightly sexual crime doesn’t get it.
Behind me there is a little laugh and I catch a reflected pair of brown eyes twinkling at my lewd little joke.
Sometimes there is a little misunderstanding.
But mostly there is the shared need to go our separate ways at the Museum of Contemporary Art and again at the Art Institute of Chicago where I linger in rooms by Virgil Abloh at the former and Madara breaks away to appreciate chromogenic prints of Richard Prince’s girlfriend at the latter. Prince’s unnamed paramour’s perky bare tits and statuesque pose beside a motorcycle clearly speaking to Madara’s rogue skinny-dipping soul.
We reconvene for Italian food.
When in Chicago, the boast is pizza, so we pull up a chair at the first pizza place we see and watch the world go by from behind a large street-facing window, issuing unsolicited style ratings over goblets of red wine.
“Ten… two… nine… five… eight for effort!”
There’s nothing mean about it.
Only something giddy and girlish that notices a steady stream of trendy art students trickling by lugging canvasses and contraptions, looking mostly fabulous all the while.
“This could be New York,” I tell her between fashion policing, my mouth an unworthy mess of pizza dust.
Madara hasn’t been to the Big Apple just yet and her eyes shine at the thought.
But not as brightly as they do later that night. When her eyes are oceans and her mouth is an ‘o’ of awe because we’ve ducked into a jazz club, she falls momentarily in love with whoever sweetens their solo and says raptly:
“Martha! Martha! This is Chicago!”
And it is.
At least for two girls with two days, high hopes and the world at their lake-lapped feet.
Madara Gruntmane is a Latvian poet and pianist, and a 2019 International Writing Programme fellow. ‘Narcoses’ (2015), her award-winning poetry collection, is available on Amazon.
– [email protected]; Martha Mukaiwa on social media; marthamukaiwa.com