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23 Stories Around UIC in 23 Hours pt.1

1:00 A.M. – Atop the Bridge

There’s a real rush watching the cars race down the freeway. That’s why I’m out here late at night. The streaks of red and gold lights, the screeching sound of tires against pavement, the rush of air that comes off of every car; it’s crazy. I’m kind of surprised I can feel it from here, on top of the bridge, overlooking the Halsted Blue Line stop. Some nights – if I’m particularly lucky – I might even get to see the last train heading back to the station.

Even on cold winter nights like this, I can’t help but stand here and watch the seemingly endless highways disappear into the starry horizon. Even with the biting wind and the empty streets, I can only sit here and watch in wonder.


I come out here at night to be alone. And because other people find it weird when I do it during the day. Out here alone I can be left to my thoughts, the occasional honking of horns the only distraction in the rare case of early morning traffic. Here, watching all the bright, racing streaks, I can finally focus.


Maybe it’s the monotony of it all. Or maybe it’s the repetitive and familiar colors and sounds that finally put my mind at ease. Either way, I’m glad I found this place.


Here I can finally let my mind roam free, for the next hour or so at least. On top of this little bridge, I can relax and let my mind construct all its little fallacies and fantasies without the clawing need to head back to reality. No math class here – oh no, sir – that’s in the morning. Calculus III feels like I’m locking my brain away in a puzzle box, though instead of trying to solve the puzzles, it’s ramming itself against the sides to break free.


No need for history either. I was never good at remembering the dates anyway. Here, I can make my own history; my own kingdoms and empires and how they spanned the lengths of this bridge. Where every passerby pays the toll and every cargo container carries treasure beyond my wildest dreams. At least they will till the end of this hour.


Then it gets too late and I have to go back home to the dorms. Usually they’re locked by now but I asked Danny if he could hold the door open while I got some air. He always said yes, probably because it gave him an excuse to smoke a late-night cigarette or two.

I still have the remainder of this hour to run with my thoughts at least.


What else do I have to think about? Maybe the urges? Sometimes I felt the urges here. You know the urges, the call of the void and whatnot. The idea that you can jump off and just let your body hang loose. I bet I’d live too. Unless I’d get hit by a passing semi-truck on the way down. Then I’d probably turn into a red smear across the asphalt. In my thoughts that is, I’d never actually do it.


These thoughts are getting weird. Maybe this is a sign that it’s time to head back inside. The wind is getting cold and the number of cars passing by is growing scarce anyway.

Goodbye my little palace atop the bridge. I’ll see you tomorrow. Or maybe the day after; depends on how hard my biology midterms are.

2:00 A.M. – Early Morning Cigarettes

First off – before you get mad at me and all that – I want to preface this by saying that I know. I know that smoking is a nasty ass habit and that my parents hate it, but really, they have no one to blame but themselves. Smoke a pack a day each in front of a kid for eighteen years and see how they grow up.


Doesn’t help that Greg used to smoke with me until last year when his doctor told him – straight to his face – that he had to stop or he would die. Now he’s trying to get me to stop with him. I can’t blame him though. A better boyfriend would stop with him, at least temporarily for support.


Can’t say I haven’t been trying though. At least I don’t smoke when he’s around anymore. Now I do it outside with my tail between my legs. Like a coward running from his problems.

I’m glad Diana asks me to help with her weird bridge thing. Now I at least have an excuse to go outside. But Greg will know. Anyone who’s smoked or has been around a smoker knows the smell. It’s impossible to hide. When I get back to our room, he’ll probably talk to me about it again.


Just like last night.

And the night before that.

And the one before that.

Or worse. Maybe he’ll just stare at me before going back to sleep. Maybe he’s tired of all this; tired of me and all of my stupid problems.

I have to quit, man. I just have to. I don’t even really like smoking. Sometimes when I breathe now, I can feel this burning in my chest and throat. Like I’m cooking myself from the inside out.


I have to stop. But my mind keeps wanting more. My body needs more.

I let the butt drop out of my mouth and fall to the ground before stamping out the embers with the toe of my shoe. I can hear Diana coming back; she’s the only other person out here so it isn’t hard. I try to freshen up. I know she’s seen me smoke out here before, but I try anyway. Probably a force of habit.


“You done with your smoke break?” she asks me.

“Yeah.”

“Want to help me with this next time?”

“…Yeah.”

3:00 A.M. – Nightmare

I’m in the backyard again. Or at least I think I am. The world always changes whenever I think about it too much. Like it’s trying to catch up with my most recent thoughts. I don’t really remember why I’m here, but I’m here now. Out by the shed. And the old tree stump. And alone again.


Whenever I was back here when I was younger, I was alone. My parents made me come back here to get some fresh air and exercise. They also made sure that I did it alone because they didn’t trust the neighborhood kids. They didn’t really trust anyone after we moved to Chicago for mom’s new job.


I think they were scared from all the news they watched. Or maybe they didn’t like the skin tone of the neighborhood kids.


Either way, I’m out here now so I go back to doing what I always did. I sat down on the old stump and checked the nook for cigarettes. I always hid a pack back there and I doubt my parents were very thorough with cleaning out all my old stuff.


And what do you know, my hand feels a familiar cardboard box. It’s a little damp and a little gross, but the foil hasn’t been opened yet so it’s probably fine. I take one out and put it in my mouth before realizing I don’t have a lighter. I let it hang in my mouth – if I can’t smoke anymore I might as well feel like I’m smoking – and look out towards the chain-link fence. The alley wasn’t the most interesting place to look, but I had nothing better to do.

But I hear someone coming. It’s Danny. I think it’s him at least, I can’t really make out his face. But I want to get a closer look anyway. But I can’t. My legs don’t work. Can’t feel them, at least not fully.


They refuse to move and Danny keeps walking by with a cigarette in his mouth, same as me. His is lit though and I can smell it. It smells like poison and hell. I want to smack the cigarette out of his mouth and get rid of the smoke, but I can’t move and I feel like I’m sinking into the stump. I feel like I can see myself getting trapped into this stump while I watch Danny walk away. His body is changing. He’s all smoke and embers now.


“Hey.”

The world around me is fogging up, but I still feel like I can see Danny and all that smoke.

“Hey!”

I let my eyes open. They burn like hell. Like I’m trying to pry them open with spikes, but I open them anyway and I see Danny. It’s late. The door to our room is open with a few lights shining in from the hallway.

“Are you ok?” he asks me. “You were groaning in your sleep. Is your chest in pain again? Do you need water?”

I look at the worry etched across his face. There’s a bit of silence in the air before it’s inevitably broken by the sound of our door slamming shut.

I let out a whisper. It claws its way out of my throat like it was trapped.

“No. Just a nightmare.”

He tosses off his jacket before getting into bed. I make sure to hold him close.

“If you need anything, just let me know,” he says to me.

And I hold onto him as we both drift off. But I can’t sleep.

I can still smell the smoke.

4:00 A.M. – Maybe I Can Make It

This paper is a struggle. It’s been a struggle for the last few hours, but I just can’t make heads or tails of it. Four pages. Doesn’t sound like a lot does it? But trust me, these four pages are driving me insane. Mainly because I have to write them about myself.


And let me tell you something, there isn’t a lot going on with myself. No fun stories, no cool memories, no strange travels, nothing. I’m just some kid from the south side of Chicago who stayed inside too much. Now I need to write a narrative about my life.


I overheard someone in my class talk about going to Brazil. Another guy talked about making it to state finals in wrestling. And another about their grandma passing and the massive funeral they held for her. Even my buddy Hector has something to write about.

Stuff like this makes me wonder why I’m here. I’m a nobody. I barely passed most of my classes and if it wasn’t for my SAT scores which, frankly, felt like a fluke, I wouldn’t even be here. I’m someone who has never left the city of Chicago, has never participated in anything outside of the bare essentials, and – thankfully – has two sets of living grandparents.


And so here I am. Stuck writing something nobody else is having trouble with.

Why did I even become an English major anyway? I don’t have anything interesting to say. All I’ve got is this tiny little dorm and some next-door neighbors who keep making noise late at night. Seriously, hearing the door slam this early in the morning is very distracting. And I don’t even want to know what’s happening in the other neighbor’s room. It’s like they don’t even care that I’m here.


Story of my life really. Walking through the world like no one sees me. Like I’m invisible.

Maybe that’s what I should write my story about. I bet nobody else feels like this. I guess I wouldn’t know if they did, what with them being invisible and all that. I guess that would make this story weirdly relatable.


Let’s do some math first. I have class at ten in the morning. I’ll have to leave at nine thirty to get to the printers (by the way, who still mandates printing papers in this day and age?) in the library before class. That’s five and a half hours or so from now to get this paper done. Not the best, but not the worst. Maybe I can make it.

5:00 A.M. – I’m Always Sick Now

I’m in the bathroom throwing my guts up again. That’s the third time tonight and the third day in a row. That can’t be good. Cause that means the test might be right.


I’m not ready for that. I’m way too young and – if you ask me – way too pretty to deal with that right now. I don’t want to end up like my parents. They had me at a young age and look where they are now. Four kids deep and a mortgage they can barely pay off.

And it’s not like I’m ungrateful, god no! I love my parents and all that. They worked hard to get me where I am now, and that’s part of the reason I can’t deal with that. Whatever this is, if it is what I think it is – and no, I won’t say what “it” is cause while I might not be religious, I can damn sure be superstitious, especially in moments like this – it can only hold me back at this point in my life.


I have dreams, you know. I want to be an engineer. I want to be something my parents can be proud of. I want to have a job that can help pay off our crappy little bungalow in Pilsen before they have to retire. If I have to deal with this, I might not be able to. They might have to start supporting me again and I can’t let that happen.


It’s not like I don’t want kids either. Someday, I can see myself with some guy or gal and a nice house on the North side – but not too North – with some little ones running around. I’m the oldest and my mom had the youngest when I was twelve, I know how to handle kids.

But not right now.

I just can’t right now. I have too much to lose.

I went from valedictorian in high school to just another face in the crowd. I have to work twice as hard to stand out half as much now and I’m exhausted all day. I don’t have time for this.


But what if…

What if I can do both? My mother worked when I was a baby, maybe I can too. Maybe I can be the new age girl-boss type. Graduate college, have a kid, get paid a crazy amount of money. That could be me!


But who would look after the baby? I can’t put that on my parents, and abuela’s too old now. My sisters are all too young and, honestly, I don’t trust any of those little monsters.

And what about the costs? The scholarships and financial aid barely cover my tuition and room. I don’t even think I can afford three meals a day, how can I support a child?

I hear that people think single moms are red flags too, and I already have enough of those…


Why am I thinking like this? That’s all the proof in the world that I’m not ready for this. But the biggest thing holding me back is fear. My dad brought me to see the birth of my second sister. He thought I was old enough to see it happen. I still haven’t forgiven him, but I tell him I did and smile to keep him happy.


Oh no, I’m not ready for this. I’m not ready for this. I’ll have to email my teachers, tell them I’m sick, and see a doctor tomorrow. If worse comes to worse, I’m going to be sick a lot more in the future.

6:00 A.M. – It’s Too Early for This

Brush my teeth. Wash my face. Eat a soggy bowl of cereal. Put a coat on. Sling my bag over my shoulder. Get on the 62 bus. At this point I am a machine at doing this. I barely need to think anymore. I’m honestly not even sure if I’m awake when I do this anymore. If it wasn’t for the chill in the winter air, I’d probably think this was all a dream and that I was minutes away from waking up, only to discover I’m late for class.


It’s times like these, I wish I lived on campus like Dante does. Lucky guy. I should ask him about it during English class.


Which reminds me, I have to get that paper printed out before I head to class since I won’t have time between classes. That means I’ll have to run off the Blue Line to make it to the ARC in time.


And that means I’m going to have to run off the Orange Line to make it to the Blue Line in time.


And that means I’ll have to run off this bus as soon as it gets to the station.

And all of that depends on the CTA not screwing up and delaying me ten, twenty, thirty minutes.


And all I can do now is sit here in this bus.

7:00 A.M. – I Hate This Bus

The 8 bus in the morning is what I think hell would be like. I seriously can’t stand being on this thing. And from here, I can see the bridge, which means we’re about to stop at the Halsted Orange Line and this ride is about to get so much worse.


It’s cramped. It’s early. It makes my mask smell like BO and sadness; a smell that I didn’t know existed or even could exist until I started riding this bus. I swear I heard someone snoring while riding this thing. If I could see who it was, I would have gotten up and socked him in the throat for even having the audacity to do such a thing.


But no. I’m Aia and I’m the calm one. I’m Aia and I have to stay kind and rational and not have a public freak-out on a bus.


At least I’m not one of the cattle who have to ride in this thing standing up. My stop is early enough that I get to sit in the long seat all the way in the back. That makes me both metaphorically and literally above all of them.


I hope this little wave of superiority lasts me until I get off this bus or I might not make it without having to strangle someone. Don’t let the intrusive thoughts win, they say. They won’t be saying anything much longer if this bus doesn’t hurry up and get me to class.

8:00 A.M. – The First Class

I honestly can’t believe that this class is always packed. That’s the first thought I have every time I walk through the doors and I’m sure I’ll continue to have this thought until the end of this semester.


Even with this class starting so early in the morning, students seem genuinely excited to be here. Now, personally, I’m not the biggest fan of getting up in the morning. Doubly so if the class doesn’t take attendance, much like this one. But I guess the infectious energy everyone else gives off has gotten to me too.


So, I find a seat in the back and get ready to learn. Man, that sounds dorky. It’s a Friday morning and I’m sure a ton of other people are just itching to get classes over with so they can peace out for the weekend, but not us, no. We’re all patiently listening to Professor Camden give their lecture on history and art and astrology.


I think that’s one of the reasons people like the class. You know, besides the fact that this covers a mandatory history credit. It’s the variety. It’s the way they describe the stars and the people of the ancient world and how they describe change.


And because of that, it’s one of the few classes where everyone has something to say. Not only do they have something to say, they seem eager to get their piece in. Whenever Professor Camden asks a question, hands go flying up like I’ve never seen them before. It’s kind of crazy.


I guess this is what school’s all about really.

9:00 A.M. – Another Stop on the Blue Line

I live and die on the Blue Line these days. From the dorms to the medical district and then back to the dorms; back and forth and back again. It feels like my days are flying by now.

Have you ever had to eat lunch on the Blue Line before? Let me tell you something. Peak aesthetic. If your aesthetic is looking vaguely destitute of course.


I guess you can say that I have a very love/hate relationship with this train.

On some days, it makes everything so easy. In and out, back and forth like clockwork. I get a chance to catch my breath and look at my phone. Maybe even message a few friends before getting off and getting back to work.


And other days it’s 20 to 30 minutes late. Why? Who knows, honestly. But then I’m left standing around; aimlessly waiting for something that feels like it will never come.

But honestly, I’m kind of grateful. It gives me a quiet moment in my day that I wouldn’t have otherwise. A time where I can just exist. Where I’m not a nurse-in-training or a struggling student. A time where I can just be Cynthia and watch all the cars rush by on the freeway before I never see them again.


I guess what I mean to say is thanks.

Thanks for being there for me and thanks for giving me space when I didn’t know I needed it.


But mostly; thanks for stopping by. It might just be another stop for you but for me, it’s everything.

10:00 A.M. – What’s Outside the Window

Class is still going. It always feels like it lasts forever. Most of the class is listening, but around me I can see them. If you’re one of them then you can always see them. People who are absolutely checked out, but have mastered the ability to still look interested.


In this class, there’s only a few of us. One in the fourth row next to the big guy with blond hair. Two in the fifth row close to the exit. And one more near me all the way in the back row.

That’s all of us. All the slackers in Math 245. At least I think they’re slackers. Who knows, maybe they’re just not morning people and use this time for an eyes-wide-open nap. Or maybe I’m losing my touch and they actually are paying attention and I’m the only slacker.

Wouldn’t be the first time I was the dead weight in a class.


But honestly, I don’t even really care anymore. I know I can pass the tests – probably by the skin of my teeth, but I digress – and I don’t really have much of an interest in math so can you really blame me?


At least I still show up, so I have to earn a few points for that, right? I just spend most of my time in class looking out the window. I chose a seat that angled me just right to where I can look outside while staring past the professor.


There’s a tree outside the window which usually has two squirrels on it. I can’t see them today so maybe they’re out looking for nuts, digging holes, or doing other squirrel things. I like watching them, the way they skitter and roll around the trunk of the tree.


One time I saw one of them try to jump from one tree to another. There was this little moment when it landed and it looked like the branch was about to snap. Shaking up and down and up and down just a little too much. But it held on and, shockingly, so did the branch. And then it went on with its life.


I hope one day I can be that carefree. But for now, I’m trapped and this window is my only vision of freedom.

11:00 A.M. – Skipping Class

Back here again, like I always am. Same time, same place, even the same seat. I managed to find this little room that’s out of the way – and no I will not tell you where it is – and whenever I feel like I just need a break, I come here.


Which sadly turns out to be more often than I would like to admit.


I don’t understand why I feel this way anymore. I used to think it was because I struggled in classes, but now I’m pulling in a B and yet, here I am. Still in my room. Still skipping class.

Sitting here and waiting. I’d like to think I was being productive with my time but honestly, I spend most of my days staring at the wall. Just hoping – praying – to feel some sort of motivation to work again.


But I know that I’ll probably be back here tomorrow. So, I sit and wait for tomorrow to come. I hope it comes fast. Days feel like they last too long now.

12:00 P.M. – Lunch in the Circle

I said I’d meet Tina for lunch, I didn’t think she meant lunch in the Inner Circle. I rarely come up here. Too many people. Too many screens. It makes me feel like I’m being watched. The ceiling looks like a dome of glass, which makes me feel way too vulnerable.


I walk in and I’m met with a cacophony of noise. I look around and I see people talking, people relaxing, and most of all, people having fun. And that only makes me feel even more out of place. I cling to my coat, hoping I can make me invisible, or at least shield me from any wayward eyes that may be looking at me.


Just need to find Tina. Then I won’t be alone anymore. Then I won’t stand out.

I slip past an oncoming group of girls. They’re all pretty with their nice coats and colored nails. I wish I was like them. I wish I was with some friends right now.


I manage to find an open seat on one of the stands; rare considering it was the lunch hour rush. I try to pass the time by looking at my phone. I usually don’t look at my phone during the school day since I don’t want it to become a distraction, but I’ll make an exception for this moment. That’s when I see it.


Sent about an hour ago, Tina said she couldn’t make it. She was feeling sick today.

I’m about to be sick too.


Now what do I do? I can’t leave, that would be way too weird. Someone coming into a room just to leave like a second later, that will get people talking and that’s definitely something I don’t want.


I guess that means I’ll have to have lunch here. Alone. By myself.


What if people look at me chewing? What if they don’t agree with the lunch I get? What if they see me staring at them for a split second when my eyes wander?


I feel like I’m becoming a puddle.  I definitely feel like one under this coat. Which, reminder, I cannot take off this coat. People cannot see the mess I am underneath this.


But I’ll muscle through this. I’m brave after all, or at least my parents say I am. They said that when we first moved to America. They said that when I first went to school here. And they said that when I become the first person in our family to go to college.

I can be brave now too. At least for today.

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