Sometimes when you love a place it creeps up on you. You don’t fall hard and fast right away, and it’s definitely not love at first sight – it was never that pretty. It’s a gradual thing that builds up over nights and then months, until it’s hard to think of the last ten years without it. But you remember your first time.
Hungry Brain is a bar without a sign, but you remember it’s just past Oakley. You’re 19. You like bars. You’re too chicken to get a fake, but your friend works the door and lets you in, accepting the cupcakes you’re carrying with a nod. You asked him to look he other way just this one time because it was your friend’s birthday, just this one time, and he does. He lets you in the second time too, then the third and fourth. “You don’t cause any trouble,” he says in his froggy, rasping voice. “And you bring treats.”
There is no special occasion the fifth time but it feels significant. You drink cheap gin and tonics and look around at a space that resembles a sort of cool older cousin’s basement, if that cousin had a stage and decent beer. It’s comfortable, like a low-key house party where you know enough people to make it familiar but there’s some strangers to keep it interesting. The lighting is low and that makes you confident. There are couches and tables. The tamale guy comes by around 10.
The friend who let you in moves to California, but it’s okay because you’re 21 now. You can go to other bars and do, but like this one more than most. You go there for more birthdays, but there are other reasons too: Everything is Terrible playing the best/worst to grace VHS. Friends having a battle of Yo Mama jokes. Bands. And sometimes (most times) there’s not a reason, because you don’t need one.
It’s close to where you live. People usually like it. The drinks are cheap and there’s places to sit. These are all reasons, but the truth is you like it. A lot. You talk to the bartenders. You throw up in the bathroom and work furiously to clean up so they don’t hate you. You give a lot of strangers high-fives. It’s exciting but comfortable, a rare combination. It’s fun. You always agree when it’s suggested, and often you’re the one who brings it up as an idea, just throwing it out there, but really you hope everyone else goes in for it because there’s not many other places that feel as much like home.
One night there you run into a guy you always liked. He’s cute and quiet. Your friends are sick of hearing you bitch about your ex and tell you to go for it, even that one friend who’s usually the opposite of an instigator so the advice must be sound, right? There are whiskey shots, then a beer, then another beer. You do go for it, and it’s dumb and sloppy but pretty great. You fall in love. He’s positive and supportive. You spend less time obsessing about your relationship and start writing again. You move in together. You’re still together.
There’s a reading series there. You ask if you can read and you can. At one point you actually read the Facebook invite and realize it’s at your bar. This is both comforting and terrifying. You try to cure your nerves with two gin and tonics and three Oreos. You throw up. You head to the stage you’ve seen a million times but never performed on read about a guy in college who was afraid of going to hell, how it made you think about your own fears. It’s your first time reading on any stage, ever. Your voice shakes but it doesn’t go terribly.
When you find out they’re closing your stomach drops out. You have measured your Chicago history in gin and tonics and beers, in conversations at those tables and kisses on that couch. You feel like you’ve taken it for granted, and suddenly feel guilty that you drink and go out a lot less. But you thought it would always be there.
You remember you tell the same stories over and over again, especially when you drink, and realize in a small, annoying way that sounds a lot like your voice, it always will be.