Chicago Portrait no. 4: The Shirt

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me in the shirt, circa 2011

He was doing his laundry on the bed while I waited. He was always doing chores while I was around, to put space between us or to avoid talking to me or probably just because he was indifferent to my being there. On the day before a long trip he’d go into the shower and spend an hour and a half scrubbing the grout. He spent a lot of time sweeping my apartment. Nothing was every clean enough; he had sensitive feet. These were recurring issues.

He dumped out his half-collapsed laundry bag with the wire sticking out the sides and along with his stained t-shirts and sweatpants there was a women’s charcoal grey v-neck, size medium, semi-translucent.

He made a sheepish look. I was always catching him cheating. It was as easy as opening a door at the wrong time or opening up my laptop after he’d been using it. He was always lying in semi-translucent ways.

“I honestly don’t know where that’s from,” he said. “It must have been in the dryer. I swear. That doesn’t belong to anyone I know.”

And this time, it might have been true. He lived in a crappy studio overlooking the Jarvis El stop. The building had no laundry facilities. He had to bag up his clothes and walk them down the alley and around the block, to a laundromat across from the cafe where he used to work, until he got fired for touching his hair in front of a health inspector. He still went there sometimes, to eat oversized scones and drink coffee while his clothing sloshed around in the washing machines across the street. I would have never returned to a former workplace like that, had I been him, but he was resistant to shame, if not immune.

“Really,” he said. “This shirt isn’t from anyone.”

By then, he had cheated on me with a lot of people. There was the girl from Aurora who drank Rolling Rock and lived with her step dad. There was the round-faced, happy woman who worked at the science museum. There was the bone-thin medical illustrator from Wicker Park, whom I respected. There was his ex-girlfriend of three years, a librarian out in Spokane. She would buy him plane tickets sometimes, let him stay with her, let them pretend that they were still together. Once, she showed up in Chicago unannounced and stayed with him for a week. We went out to dinner. We went to the aquarium. We played nice. It was horrible.

I held the shirt up to my body. By then, I had grown a little pragmatic about it all. I’d spent a good part of a year sobbing, shrieking, and literally banging my head with frustration, and he’d dumped women, groveled, followed me around, and cried to win me back more times than I remember anymore. But as I said, he was resistant to shame.

So instead of flipping out this time, I shrugged and took the shirt with brittle resignation. It was soft, a perfect dark stormy color, just the right size to hang off my body loosely while showing off the incredible cleavage he never even fucking appreciated. He liked women thin and aerodynamic, like the medical illustrator, like his ex-girlfriend.

The shirt lasted me a lot longer than he did. Within a few months I had finally dumped him, and I felt nothing but exhilaration after the fact. I wore the shirt with striped capris, or tucked into a purple pencil skirt. I wore it to work out or with bright blue shorts. I wore it to bed. I wore it as a cover-up as I went to the pool at a hotel in Austin on Valentine’s Day. I wore it a lot, even when it’s semi-translucency was a little inappropriate, until I left it by accident in a hotel a few miles out of Flint, Michigan. I’m actually pretty upset that I lost that shirt. It suited me and we had a good run. But it was never mine, and I was always on borrowed time with it.

Originally published at

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