Viva My Ventra Challenge chronicles the author’s exploration of the city by way of a dice game. She and her husband choose an L line and number its stops from two to twelve. They take the train to the designated stop and spend the day traversing the surrounding neighborhood.

We got off to a rocky start. 

I always wake up first and make coffee immediately. This morning, I happened to spill some of it. I wiped it off the counter and didn’t think much more about it. 

Apparently I didn’t wipe it down as well as I thought, and within minutes of Justin waking up, he tracked it down. Like an OCD bloodhound.

This kind of thing is a typical instigator of our benign marital tiffs. He swears I’m messy. I swear I’m “just busy.” I bring charges that he cleans too slowly and is controlling because he only wants to clean stuff himself. He swears he’s “just deliberate.” 

We brokered a peace deal after about 20 minutes of this back and forth and then rolled the dice. Justin drew blue and rolled an eight. On our self-numbered map of the CTA L, that combo corresponds to the Damen Blue line stop.

Our first agenda item was to get food. Is Big Star so cool that it’s now not cool? Maybe. Probably. But it doesn’t matter. Their fish taco is the bomb — and witty discussions about things like the fickle nature of a Twitterati taco crowd were not forthcoming from either one of us after the morning’s battle.

And bonus points for Big Star’s big outdoor patio: It was just loud enough that we could not talk to each other and it wouldn’t be weird. The dogs on the patio in booties and matching vests was another welcome distraction.

You know how it is: the awkward time after you’ve had a dumb fight with your partner but you still have to spend a few hours together. It’s imperative that you both make no sudden moves, lest it all go to hell in seconds.

From the chips and dip portion of the meal through to the last al pastor’s pineapple, we were on this shaky territory. We almost made it to the check. Almost. 

He did something. I don’t remember what set me off, just something. It was probably silly, but cleaning: Maybe he moved his fork into a perfectly parallel line with his knife or inconspicuously tried to wipe up slaw topping I’d accidentally spilled on the table.

Whatever it was, my immature side took over. I wanted to knock the whole table off its legs and — gasp! — make a mess. In a second-long fantasy, I imagined whipping avocado crema and queso across the patio onto someone’s precious Corgi, streaking margarita limes all over the host stand, dropping a Topo Chico bottle like a mic before shouting at him to clean that.

Instead, I did the mature, adult thing: stood up dramatically, took one last sip of my Freddie’s Ginger Beer, and stomped off toward Milwaukee Avenue, leaving him to pay the check and — presumably — straighten the salt and pepper shakers.

I’ll explore this stop by my own messy self, I thought.

  • Terrain Vague: The Promised Land Exhibition at Heaven Gallery.
  • Heaven Gallery sign
  • Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams
  • Big Mini Putt Club
  • Big Mini Putt Club
  • The author below a rendering of the L map at Big Mini Putt Club
  • The Emily Rose graffiti at Myopic Books
  • As seen walking in Wicker Park
  • As seen walking in Wicker Park

I made it as far as Myopic Books. I love this store. It’s one cavernous, tome-filled rat maze after another. They’re perfect for getting lost in (or hiding from your husband as you calm down and eventually realize you’re being kind of ridiculous and might even miss him…).

Hidden in a fiction section, I stewed. 

I overheard some customers tsk-tsking the fact that the Egypt section was separate from the Africa section and I immediately wanted to talk to Justin about it. 

I spotted some “Emily Rose” graffiti scribbled into one of the wooden bookshelves (everything else around it creepily crossed out in thick black marker). I wanted to ask Justin his thoughts on exorcisms.

I moved to nonfiction and instinctively turned to talk to him. I wanted to tell him about the time I found a 1968 book titled A Complete Guide to Family Bowling in another Chicago used bookstore (Uncharted Books in Andersonville), only to discover that its pages had been papered over with someone’s artwork.

Ugh. I knew what I had to do.

I fished my phone from my purse and told him I was at the bookstore. He was already heading my way. He knew where to find me. I apologized for leaving him all alone with the dressed up dogs and the people who own them. He hugged me. Onward.

Next we hit up Heaven Gallery, a vintage shop with art shows that you have to climb a flight of creaky stairs to access. What’s great about going to see art when you are on shaky territory No. 2 of the day is, once again, that you don’t really have to talk to each other! You can just look at the art and it will appear like you’re just two perfectly chill people taking in the work. Luckily there was plenty to enjoy at Heaven, whether we were fighting or not.

Ice cream softens any hard edge, so shortly after we went to Jeni’s for a scoop of Wildberry Lavender (for me) and Brambleberry Crisp (for him). I tried not to read into the symbolism of his choosing something “crisp” and my choosing something “wild.” 

We didn’t need ice cream personality tests. 

We needed an astrologist!

I’d seen on the map as we rode the L to Damen earlier — and passive aggressively avoided eye contact with each other — that there was a place called Astrology Boutique a short distance from where we’d be starting the day.

By the time we arrived, the psychic was about to close. We’d taken our time walking there. I love strolling the residential areas tucked right behind highly trafficked areas in neighborhoods like Wicker Park. There’s always something strange waiting to be spotted, like the random lock on a bridge gate, or the decorative $ symbol carved in the concrete of a townhouse, or a pair of ceramic geese entwined behind an apocalyptic-looking “community” garden (it was locked).

We asked the woman at Astrology Boutique if we could do something fast before closing time. She was welcoming and warm and we decided to get our palms read. Neither one of us had been to a psychic before. Palms seemed like a great place to start.

She led me first to a smaller room off the entrance, which looks like your friendly therapist’s waiting room. Justin waited here, unable to hear whatever mysteries this stranger was about to unfold from my sweaty palms.

The reading room didn’t just look purple, it felt like it — dark, soothing, mysterious but safe. We sat down at a small table, where a clear barrier separated us (because COVID). First, she asked me to privately make two wishes. Then, she looked at my open palms and nailed my whole life.

After buttering me up with some niceties about how I am a kind and positive person (FYI, compliments will always work on me for a better tip) she then said, “I can see you’ve never had any support but still, you’ve been able to be very successful.” 

Listen, I know that statement is vague. I know. But it’s exactly what I needed to hear that day. I felt seeeeeen

My anger about the coffee “mess” had nothing to do with the coffee or the mess or even his calling me messy. I was mad because I felt unrecognized for everything else I do. It felt like a dismissal of all I contribute beyond cleaning. Is that seriously the first thing he was going to choose to talk about when he woke up that day?

I needed some recognition, I guess. Some validation that I was doing my best and had powered through it alone, with no support, for so long. My mindless movement in the morning is not me being careless — it’s me trying to be four steps ahead of whatever is happening. Why can’t I be me in peace for one day?

Her reading concluded with some hard truths. I had a wall up, she said, and it had been there my whole life. Perhaps it was karmic, she said, from a past life. “You have love but have trouble accepting it,” she continued.

Aw, damn. That’s true too. It’d be nice to blame it on a past life, but that’s just me being scared, me being proud. I know where that wall comes from, yet I ignore it too often, hide behind it when it suits me or when I need to feel safe.

When Justin went in for a reading, I felt a bit woozy as I waited for him in the velvety soft enclave. I felt so different from five minutes ago. 

Justin came out of his reading shortly after. The whole experience took about 10 minutes total. As soon as we hit the sidewalk we both doubled over in laughter. 

We started the morning in hell, then went to Heaven, but it was the medium who put us back on balanced ground. 

His reading had been similarly validating. She said she could see that he was a good friend and gave great advice, but he could be too harsh with his honesty. She suggested he start a business. (Perhaps a cleaning service?! Suggestion mine.)

Guys, I know. It’s silly, but I’m telling you, this unusual experience got us loose enough to get past our dumb fight. A palm reading by a psychic got us talking about real things. I was able to clarify to him why I felt so annoyed by his cleaning “tips.” He admitted his “mess assessment” was too harsh. 

The moment freed us up to truly enjoy the rest of the day as we played putt putt golf at Big Mini, visited cardboard Michael Jordan at Round Two, played Pop-A-Shot at Gracie O’Malley’s in between drinks and their popular fish and chips. 

The next morning, I once again woke up early. Made my coffee immediately. Followed my usual routine.

But I did it much more mindfully than the day before.