To Be Young and in Love and Stranded in the Snow

"Córdoba" by Stuart Dybek, recommended by Electric Literature

person walking in snow

Introduction by Alyssa Songsiridej

Back in the relative innocence of October 2016, I saw the author Stuart Dybek read in a large, churchlike building on the campus of a small liberal arts college. The story he read was this one, “Cordoba,” and made such an impression on me that many years later I can still remember the feeling of hushed anticipation, the thrill of early adulthood and snow.  

In hindsight, an imitation sanctuary full of undergraduates was the perfect place to hear an author skilled at capturing the temporary awe of youth. “Cordoba” is a tight, gemlike story taking place over a single night. The unnamed Lorca-loving narrator has been busy “studying” for a Spanish test with his girlfriend, Lise, and the twenty-year-olds are so absorbed in each other that they’ve failed to notice the raging Chicago blizzard outside. Lise’s mother sends the narrator out to catch a bus, which is definitely no longer running, and he heads into the storm armed only with Lise’s heavily perfumed scarf, an item of clothing that will turn out to play an important role.

What follows is a kind of snowy urban odyssey through small, surprising worlds–a bar full of Chicago Bears, large men who add an affectionate “-bo” to each other’s names, and a driver toting a woman’s kiss and phone number on a torn slip of paper, high on what he thinks is his lucky night. And there’s real danger, too—the extreme Midwestern cold, “zero to the bone, and a handgun in a glove compartment. But though each scene has a heightened intensity, there is also the invincible feeling of youth, the certainty that the young man will get through the night. 

Dybek’s writing has the old-fashioned feeling of a beloved vintage coat, the short scenes shaded with the pre-nostalgia of adolescence tipping into adulthood. Everything is a bit bigger, a bit louder, turning what a thirty-something would experience as an annoying snow-addled commute into an incredible adventure. Nothing feels quite as vivid or large as the memories made when you are twenty years old, and the fact that the excitement is so transitory is what gives such moments meaning in the first place. 

Cruising into my mid-thirties at a confusing stage of the pandemic (middle-late? Late-middle?), I often forget that I was also once capable of such soaring flights of emotion, how all I needed was a car, a snowstorm, or a phone number to feel exuberantly alive. How hope and sadness can mingle in a single heady cocktail, how the young try to hold onto things they will soon forget. The beauty of a story like “Córdoba” is that it captures those moments and gives them air to breathe and survive. I’m very grateful to be able to read a story like this again and again, and to recommend it to you here on the edge of 2022, so we can pick up that sense of expectation and, for a little while at least, slip back inside.

 

– Alyssa Songsiridej
Managing editor, Recommended Reading

To Be Young and in Love and Stranded in the Snow

Córdoba by Stuart Dybek

While we were kissing, the leather-bound Obras completas opened to a photo of Federico García Lorca with a mole prominent beside a sideburn of his slicked-back hair, slid from her lap to the jade silk couch, and hit the Chinese carpet with a muffled thud.

While we were kissing, the winter wind known locally as the Hawk soared off the lake on vast wings of snow.

While we were kissing, verbs went uncommitted to memory.

Her tongue rolled r’s against mine, but couldn’t save me from failing Spanish. We were kissing, but her beloved Federico, to whom she’d introduced me on the night we’d first met, was not forgotten. Verde que te quiero verde. Green I want you green. Verde viento, verdes ramas. Green wind, green branches. Hissing radiator heat. Our breaths elemental, beyond translation like the shrill of the Hawk outside her sweated, third-story windows. Córdoba. Lejana y sola, she translated between kisses, Córdoba. Far away and alone. With our heads full of poetry, the drunken, murderous Guardias Civiles were all but knocking at the door.

Aunque sepa los caminos yo nunca llegaré a Córdoba.

Though I know the roads

I will never reach Córdoba.

Shaking off cold, her stepfather, Ray Ramirez, came home from his late shift as manager of the Hotel Lincoln. He didn’t disturb us other than to announce from the front hall: “Hana, tell David, it’s a blizzard out there! He better go while there’s still buses!”

“It’s a blizzard out there,” Hana told me.

It was then we noticed the white roses in a green vase that her mother, who resembled Lana Turner, and who didn’t much like me, must have set there while we were kissing. We hadn’t been aware of her bringing them in. Hana and I looked at each other: she was still flushed, our clothes were disheveled. We hadn’t merely been kissing. She shrugged and buttoned her blouse. Verte desnuda es comprender el ansia de la lluvia. To see you naked is to comprehend the desire of rain. I picked her volume of Lorca from the floor and set it beside the vase of flowers, and slipped back into the loafers I’d removed to curl up on the jade couch.

“I better go.”

“It’s really snowing. God! Listen to that wind! Do you have a hat? Gloves? All you have is that jacket.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Please, at least take this scarf. For me. So I won’t worry.”

“It smells like you.”

“It smells like Anias.”

At the door we kissed goodbye as if I were leaving on a journey.

“Are you sure you’re going to be all right?”

Hana followed me into the hallway. We stopped on each stair down to the second-floor landing to kiss goodbye. She snuggled into my leather jacket. The light on the second-floor landing was out.

“Good luck on your Spanish test. Phone me, so I know you got home safe, I’ll be awake thinking of you,” she called down to me.

Though I know the roads I will never reach Córdoba.”

“Just so you reach Rogers Park.”


I stepped from her doorway onto Buena. It pleased me— amazed me, actually—that Hana should live on the only street in Chicago, at least the only street I knew of, with a Spanish name. Her apartment building was three doors from Marine Drive. That fall, when we first began seeing each other, I would take the time to walk up Marine Drive on my way home. I’d discovered a viaduct tunnel unmarked by graffiti that led to a flagstone grotto surrounding a concrete drinking fountain with four spouts. Its icy water tasted faintly metallic, of rust or moonlight, and at night the burble of the fountain transformed the place into a Zen garden. Beyond the grotto and a park, the headlights on Lake Shore Drive festooned the autumn trees. For a moment, I thought of going to hear the fountain purling under the snow, but the Hawk raked my face and the frosted trees quavered. Green branches, green wind. I raised the collar of my jacket and wrapped her green chenille scarf around my throat. Even in the numbing wind I could smell perfume.


By the time I slogged the four blocks to Broadway, it wasn’t Lorca but a line by Emily Dickinson that expressed the night: zero at the bone. No matter which direction I turned, the swirling wind was in my face. My loafers felt packed with snow. Broadway was deserted. I cowered in the dark doorway of a dry cleaner’s, peeking out now and again and stamping my feet. The snow-plastered bus stop sign hummed in the gusts, but there wasn’t a bus visible in either direction. A cab went by and, though I wasn’t sure I could make the fare, I tried to flag it down. It didn’t stop. The snow had drifted deep enough so that the cabbie wouldn’t risk losing momentum. Finally, to warm up, I crossed the street to a corner bar called the Buena Chimes. Its blue neon sign looked so faint I doubted the place was open. If it was, I expected it to be empty, which I hoped would allow the bartender to take pity on me. I was twenty, a year shy of legal drinking age.

Even in the numbing wind I could smell perfume.

The cramped, low-lit space was packed, or so it first appeared. Though only three men sat at the bar, they were so massive they seemed to fill the room. Their conversation stopped when I came in. I’d heard the rumor that players for the Chicago Bears sometimes drank there but hadn’t believed it, probably because I’d heard it from Hana’s stepfather, Ray, who’d also told me that as a cliff diver in Acapulco he once collided with a tiger shark, whose body now hung in the lobby of the Grand Mayan Hotel. With all of Rush Street waiting to toast them, why would Bears drink at a dump like the Buena Chimes?

I undid the green scarf that I’d tied around my head babushka-style, and edged onto a stool by the door—as respectful a distance as possible from their disrupted conversation, but it wasn’t far enough.

“Sorry, kid, private party,” the bartender said.

“Any idea if the buses are running?” I asked.

“We’re closed.” He seemed morose. So did the Bears at the bar, who sat in silence as if what they had to say were too confidential to be uttered in the presence of a stranger. The team was having a losing season.

“Buy the kid a shot,” one of the Bears said.

“Whatever you say, Jimbo,” the bartender replied. He set a shot glass before me and, staring into my face rather than at the glass, filled it perfectly to the brim. Each man has his own way to show he’s nobody’s fool, and pouring shots without looking at the glass was the bartender’s: he knew I was underage.

“Hit me, too, Sambo,” Jimbo said, and when the bartender filled his glass, the tackle or linebacker or whatever Jimbo was raised the teeny shot glass in my direction. “This’ll warm you up. Don’t say I never bought you nothing,” he said, and we threw back our whiskeys.

“Much thanks,” I said.

“Now get your puny ass out of here,” Jimbo told me.


Back outside, I hooded my head in the green scarf and watched a snowplow with whirling emergency lights scuff by and disappear up Broadway. Waiting was futile. I decided to walk to the L station on Wilson. Rather than wade the drifted sidewalks, I followed the ruts the snowplow left in the street. I trudged head down, not bothering to check for traffic until I heard a horn behind me. Headlights burrowed through the blizzard. The beams appeared to be shooting confetti. The car—a Lincoln, maybe—sported an enormous, toothy grille. Whatever its make, the style was what in my old neighborhood was called a pimpmobile. I stepped from the ruts to give it room to pass. It slowed to a stop. A steamed window slid down.

“Need a ride, hombre?”

I got in, my lips too frozen for more than a “thanks.” The rear wheels spun. I sat shivering, afraid I’d have to leave the blast of the heater in order to push that big-ass boat out of the snow.

“You can do it, baby,” the driver said as if urging a burro. I was tempted to caution that giving it gas would only dig us in deeper, but knew to keep such opinions to myself. “Come on, baby!” He ripped the floor shift into reverse, slammed it back into drive, back into reverse, and into drive again. “Go, go, you got it,” and as if it were listening, the car rocked forward, grabbed, and kept rolling.

“Thought for a second we were stuck,” I said.

“No way, my friend, and hey, you’re here to push, but not to worry, there’s no stopping Lino tonight.”

I unwound the scarf from my head and massaged my frozen nose and ears.

“Yo, man, you wearing perfume?” he asked.

“It’s the scarf,” I said.

“You in that scarf, man! When I saw you in the street, I thought some poor broad was out alone, you know? I told myself, Lino, the world is full of babes tonight. Where you headed, my friend?”

“Rogers Park,” I said. “Just off Sheridan.” I couldn’t stop shivering.

“Man, you’d a had a tough time getting there. Whole city’s shut down. What you doing out so late? Getting a little, dare I ask?” He smiled conspiratorially. His upturned mustache attached to his prominent nose moved independently of his smile.

“Drinking. With the Bears,” I added.

“You mean like the football Bears?”

“Yeah, Jimbo and the guys.”

“Over at the Buena Chimes, man?”

“How’d you know?”

“Everybody knows they drink there. You got the shakes, man? Lino got the cure—pop the glove compartment.”

I pressed the button and the glove compartment flopped open. An initialed silver flask rested on a ratty-looking street map. Beneath the map I could see the waffled gray handle of a small-caliber gun. I closed the glove compartment, and we passed the flask between us in silence.

“What are we drinking?” I asked. It had an oily licorice taste with the kick of grain alcohol—not what I expected.

“We’re drinking to a night that’s going to be a goddamn legend, hombre. The kind of night that changes your life.” He took a swig for emphasis, then passed the flask to me. “To our lucky night—hey, I’m spreading the luck around, right?—your luck I picked you up, mine cause I got picked up.”

“Huh?” I wasn’t sure I liked the sound of that, and held off on taking my swig.

“Check this out.” He fished into his shirt pocket, handed me a folded scrap of paper, and flicked on the overhead interior light.

The paper unfolded into a lipsticked impression of a kiss, a phone number inscribed in what looked like eyebrow pencil, and the words, Call me tonight. Tonight underlined.

“You ever seen a woman so hot you didn’t want to stare but couldn’t take your eyes off her? I don’t mean some bimbo at a singles bar. I’m in the Seasons and I see this almost-blonde in a tight green dress. She’s drinking with this guy and don’t look happy. He leans over and whispers something in her ear, and whatever he said, it’s like, you know, an eye-roller. She turns away from him and as she’s rolling her eyes to no one in particular she catches me staring. She got these beautiful eyes. And I roll my eyes, too, and just for a sec she smiles, then goes back to her drink. Doesn’t look at me again, but five minutes later she gets up to go to the ladies’, and when she does I see that green dress has a plunging back. Sexiest dress I ever seen. She walks right by my table, and on her way back she drops the note.”

Lino was driving with a story to tell, not about grief or love or even male vanity. It was about luck, and he needed someone to hear it.

He reached for the flask, took a hit, and flicked out the interior light. Blowing snow reflected opaque in the headlights; it was hard to see ahead. He flicked the headlights off, too. “Better without them,” he said. “Ain’t no oncoming traffic to worry about.”

We’d driven blocks, passed the L station on Wilson, and the little Asia Town on Argyle, ignored all the traffic signals on Broadway to keep our momentum, and hadn’t seen another car.

We were approaching Sheridan Road. I was finally warmed up, though my feet were still numb. He took another swallow—he was drinking two to my one—and passed the flask. It was noticeably lighter.

“You believe in love at first sight, man? Romantic crap, right? An excuse some people need to get laid. I’m thirty-four years old and that’s what I always thought, but now I don’t know. Or it’s more like I do know. I know what’s going to happen like it already happened. This snowstorm, the whole city shut down, you know, like destiny, man, destiny in a green dress.”

Verde que te quiero verde,” I said. “Say what?”

“Lines from a poem.”

“My mind keeps going over how she rolled her eyes and suddenly we’re staring at each other and boom, across a crowded room.” He rolled his droopy eyes to demonstrate. “What’s that old song—my Pops used to sing it with an Italian accent: Some- a enchanted-a evening you may see a stranger…”

I’d wondered why he stopped to give me a ride—out of kindness or because he’d mistaken me for a woman alone, or to have someone along who could push, in case we got stuck. I recalled a Chekhov story from a Lit class called “Grief,” about a horse-cab driver who on a freezing Moscow night tries to tell his story to every passenger he picks up, but rather than listen, each person tells him his own story instead. Finally, near dawn, as he unharnesses his pony, the cabdriver tells the story he’s been trying all night to tell—that his little daughter has just died—to his pony. Lino was driving with a story to tell, not about grief or love or even male vanity. It was about luck, and he needed someone to hear it.

“What you going to do?” I asked him.

“What am I going to do? I’m going to call her! She’s hot, man. She’s waiting. She wants me. It’s a sin if a woman wants you and you don’t go. You ever had anything like this happen to you? What would you do?”

“Probably worry about what to say for openers.”

“You could recite a poem. I got the perfect line, man. I’m going to ask her: What did that guy whisper to make you roll your eyes? See, that’s what I meant about destiny. I already know what to say.”

“You know her answer?”

“Man, that’s the fun part. I know she’ll answer, but not what. I know we’ll kiss, but not how she kisses, I know she’ll give me some tit right off, but not what kind of nipples she has—some guys are tit-men, I’m a nipple-man—or what perfume she wears, or what her name is. I know she’s probably home by now waiting for the call, but I won’t know till she picks up that phone what her voice sounds like. Just one little scrap of paper, and a lifetime history of questions. You can’t really tell nothing from her handwriting. Let me see that.”

“I gave it back to you,” I said. “No, man, you didn’t give it back.”

“Yes, I did. I handed it back when you turned the overhead light out, right before you flicked the headlights out. I handed it back to you blocks ago.”

“You didn’t, man, you never gave it to me.”

“Check your pockets.”

He checked his shirt pocket and the pockets of his topcoat. “I wouldn’t have put it in my topcoat, man, you still got it. Empty your jacket pockets, cabrón.”

I did as he asked. There wasn’t anything but white petals from one of the roses Hana must have slipped in a pocket. She did things like that.

“What you trying to pull, my friend? This is how you repay me for saving your ass from the cold? If you think that babe is going to be a slut for any jerk who calls her up you’re crazy. You ain’t ready for a woman like that.

“I didn’t take it, man.”

He braked hard and the car swerved and came to a stop in the middle of the street. He flicked the overhead light on. “Get up, cabrón, maybe you’re sitting on it.” I rose in my seat and so did he. It wasn’t on the seats. “Check the floor.” We looked on the smeary floor mats and felt under the seats. “Check the bottom of your shoes.”

“It’s got to be here,” I said.

“I’m going to ask you polite one more time, you going to give me that phone number?”

“I gave it to you. Why would I take it? I got my own girl. She insisted I wear her scarf.”

“I thought you said you were drinking with the Bears. More bullshit, huh? Listen carefully, cabrón. Last fucking time—a simple yes or no.”

His droopy brown eyes stared hard into my face. I said nothing. He unscrewed the flask and drained it. “Excuse me, man, I want to put this back.” He reached past me, popped the glove compartment, and I was out of the car, running up Sheridan in the headlights he flicked on, bounding drifts, zigzagging along the sidewalk, hoping I’d be a harder target to hit. I could hear the tires whining behind me. He’d probably tried to give it gas and run me down and now the car was stuck. I could hear it grinding from a block away, and stopped to look back. He was trying to rock it from reverse back to drive, but just digging it in deeper. I actually thought of going back and saying, Look, man, you were kind enough to give me a ride, would I have come back to push you out if I’d stolen your phone number? It was a nice thought, but one that could get me killed. Instead, feeling light on my frozen feet despite the drifted sidewalks, I jogged four more blocks up Sheridan Road, checking at each corner to make sure he wasn’t following me. The snow fell more slowly and the wind had let up some, but I could barely see his headlights five blocks back in the haze of snow when I turned onto my street.


In my studio apartment, I kicked off my loafers, stripped off my frozen socks, and, not bothering to remove my jacket, I sat in the dark on my one stuffed chair, clutching my soles in my palms and watching the snow gently float in the aura of the streetlight visible from my third-story window. The surge of lightness I’d felt running down Sheridan had left me shaky. Zero at the bone. Finally, I felt recovered enough to switch on the lamp and slip off my jacket. I’d promised to call Hana. She’d be asleep with the phone under the pillow beside her, so that its ring wouldn’t wake anyone else. What time is it? she’d ask in a groggy voice, and I’d say getting on to one, and she’d say she worried about me getting home, and I’d tell her Córdoba was easy next to tonight. I’d thank her for the loan of her scarf. I’d have frozen without it.

It wasn’t until I unwound it from around my neck that I noticed the scrap of paper caught in the chenille. I unfolded the note and there was the kiss and the phone number in eyebrow pencil.

I sat in the stuffed chair, my feet wedged under the cushion, dialed, and when the phone began to ring, I flicked the lamp off again and watched the snow. It rang several times, which didn’t surprise me; I didn’t expect anyone to answer. The surprise came as I was about to hang up, when someone lifted the receiver, but said nothing as if waiting for me to speak.

“I hope it’s not too late to call?” I said.

“That all depends,” a woman’s voice answered.

“On what?”

“On who you are and what you have in mind. Coming over?”

“I can’t tonight. The city’s shut down. My car’s stuck in a snowdrift.”

“Then why did you bother to call?”

“I wanted to hear your voice. To see if you’re real?”

“That’s a strange thing to say. Are you real?”

“No,” I said, “actually, I’m not.”

“At least you know that,” she said, “which puts you ahead of the game. Most unreal men—which is the vast majority—don’t know they aren’t, and those few that do usually can’t bear to admit it. So there’s still a chance that hopefully some night years to come, you’ll have a different answer. Good luck with that.” The phone clicked.

I listened to it buzz before hanging up. If I rang again, I knew she wouldn’t answer. I sat with the soles of my feet in my hands, rubbing the warmth back into them, waiting to call Hana, thinking of all the years to come, still young enough to wonder who I’d be.

January 4, 2022 : Previously, an early version of “Córdoba” by Stuart Dybek appeared in this issue. It has been updated with the story that appears in the collection Ecstatic Cahoots (FSG, 2014).

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