No Place Else
by Megan Kirby
The best thing to order at Chili’s if you’re pretending to be healthy is the Quesadilla Explosion Salad. Chili’s devotees agree that this salad is the real deal. It’s topped with a housemade cilantro corn relish and an entire cheese quesadilla. I’m a Chili’s fanatic and I’m not ashamed to say it. I love reasonably priced Tex-Mex in a casual Southwest atmosphere, and if you’re against that you’re against me.
It took moving to Chicago for me to really appreciate the suburbs. I love casual chain dining and shopping malls. I hate parallel parking. I go to Target for the ambience.
I grew up in Aurora, Illinois, 45 minutes South of the city. Aurora was named for installing the nation’s first street lamps. That’s one of those facts I heard a lot in elementary school and never confirmed, and it feels sort of false, like how the pilgrims and the Indians were all good friends. Most people know Aurora as the setting of Wayne’s World.
When I was a kid I had this recurring nightmare that Garth from Wayne’s World was trying to kidnap me. I don’t know what instilled such a terrible fear of Dana Carvey in my child heart. Something about his ratty blond wig and overbite really freaked me out. I’d be in the car with my mom, or looking at a wall of VHS tapes at Blockbuster, and I’d think, “He’s here. He’s come.”
Every year, a handful of kids at my high school would dress like Wayne and Garth for Halloween. We were prouder of these fictional deadbeats than we were of our real alumni, which includes local weatherman Tom Skilling and his brother Jeff Skilling, CEO of Enron–he didn’t make the Blackhawk Hall of Fame. West Aurora High School can also claim a woman who made a sex tape with Colin Farrell in the early 2000’s. Every year, when I got my new locker, I’d secretly pretend it used to be hers. She also didn’t make the hall of fame.
A thing my Aurora friends and I had in common is that we all wanted to leave. As soon as we were old enough, we started riding the Metra downtown to see as many Fall Out Boy shows as possible. We used a Walgreens-worth of black eyeliner between us and steered clear of the mosh pit, because we were too timid. We took pictures of each other at wig stores in Boystown and coffee shops in Wicker Park so that we’d look cooler on Myspace.
The best thing to order at Chili’s when you’re 16 and broke is bottomless chips and queso. Yes, you know this is a dick move, but Anna’s mom said you can’t all hang out in the basement again tonight. If you all scrounge around for a few crumpled dollar bills, you can split a chocolate lava cake five ways. There are worse ways to spend a Saturday night.
I moved to Chicago when I was 23. I thought the city was the answer to a question I’d been asking myself since I was 13: How do you become cool? When I moved to my Albany Park apartment, my life wasn’t suddenly washed over in the Walden Instagram filter. Turns out that in the glamorous third-largest city in the nation, you still encounter things like bad hair days and inconvenient diarrhea. But my memories of that year are suffused with the glow of new love. Everything was familiar and new, so that even grabbing McDonald’s breakfast from down the block had a certain fresh charm. Here I was, a city girl walking down a city street to get a city McGriddle. Look at me now, West Aurora class of ‘08.
But during that first year, my roommate and I made a lot of drives up to the Chili’s in Skokie. When you’re waiting for your table, you look up at this big chalk mural of a red chili pepper and the words “Skokie: Like No Place Else,” and while that might be true, I can confirm that the Chili’s is exactly the same as everywhere else. Each time we drove down Touhy Avenue and saw the glowing pepper sign, it felt like the moment at the beginning of each Mr. Rogers episode where he takes off his work shoes and puts on his white sneakers. Like oh, good, I’m home.
Whenever I sat down to peruse the Margarita menu, and the stress of city life faded away. There are 10 different Margarita options on the Chili’s menu, and each one has its merits. You can get the Blueberry Pineapple Margarita or the Tropical Sunrise Margarita or, if it’s been an especially tough week, you can get the Coronarita, which is a margarita with a Corona half-submerged like a shipwreck in its icy depths. I recommend the Platinum Presidente Margarita, because then you get a plastic cocktail shaker of extra Margarita on the side. Whenever I take that first sip of hand-shaken Sauza tequila, Patron premium orange liqueur and Presidente brandy, also available in strawberry or mango, I slip away from the stress of dirty sidewalks, crowded Red Lines, laundromat dryers that eat my quarters, the homeless man who once looked me in the eye and yelled “Why aren’t you working on your novel?” Like, how did he know?
If someone offers to drive me to the suburbs now, I almost always say absolutely. Of course I want to hang out where no one judges me for ordering a Frappuccino or buying too many BOGO candles at Bath and Body Works. Sometimes my roommate and I joke about moving into the apartment complex behind the Portillo’s in Skokie and I’m scared we’re not really joking. I can ride the Yellow Line to work. We’d be walking distance from Old Navy. Oh, I love Old Navy. The last time I was at that Old Navy, a man asked me if I worked there, and my instinct was to say, “No, I live here.”
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t want to live in the suburbs, but part of me wishes I did. A friend of mine skipped town for Palatine a few years back, and she described it as, “When you’re playing a video game and you switch over to easy mode.” I think of Yorktown as the inevitable place we all end up after we’re ready to own a house and grow hydrangeas and never, ever lug a bag of cat litter on public transit again.
The suburbs sprawl out but stay the same: strip malls and four-lane roads and big parking lots. These days, that sameness makes me claustrophobic. Because for so long, the suburbs were all I knew, but then I learned some things I’d rather leave behind. The suburbs were where my parents decided they were splitting up and then they weren’t splitting up and then they were, and then they weren’t, and then they did. The suburbs were where my mom got sick, and the suburbs were where my mom died. Six months after her funeral, I moved to Chicago.
The best thing to order at Chili’s when you’re homesick is the sizzling fajita platter. It comes with soft flour tortillas and an elaborate wire tree that holds little cups of pico de gallo, sour cream, shredded cheese and jalapenos. My mom really liked the sizzling fajita platter.
I can’t really go back to Aurora anymore. When I pull off Route 88 on Lake Street, past the fading Tinseltown movie theatre and the western wear store with the plastic Appaloosa out front, I start feeling panicky. So many flashbacks hit me at once, and some are good, and some are bad. I usually start to cry, and it feels like a melodramatic scene in a bad movie.
There’s this big, stand-alone 1960s neon sign you see when you get off the highway. It says Northgate, which is the name of the strip mall behind it. The letters are contained in separate green squares backed by a red S with eight-point stars at either end. When I was a kid, it still lit up. The star would shine in angles of yellow, and then the red S would fire up slowly–neon cell by neon cell–like a red snake being dreamed into existence. Then, it would blink back to darkness and start over. When we drove by at night, I’d twist around in the back seat to watch it out the window until it glowed tiny in the distance. It doesn’t light up anymore.
My dad sold the house where I grew up in 2013. A new family lives there. They have no idea about our dog Muffin getting hit by a car in ‘96, or me getting my first kiss in the upstairs bedroom in ‘06, or my mom getting her cancer diagnosis at the dining room table in 2011. If I drove by, I think all those things would happen at once, and I’d just sit there pinned at the center.
You can’t always go home, but you can go to Chili’s. You can go to any Chili’s, because they’re all the same, and you can get a Coronarita for $9.95. You can sit in a vinyl booth and read menu items that feel like names in a yearbook, and you can order Southwest Eggrolls for the table, and you can say, “I’m so happy to be back.”
Megan Kirby lives and writes in Chicago. She has bylines in places like The Chicago Tribune, Jezebel and Bitch Magazine. She also writes a few zines. One is about The NeverEnding Story. You can find her on Twitter at @megankirb.