Writer Jackie Mantey sits on a bench outside in the park

Notes on a Couch Warming Party


OK, look, this is very exciting because, ever since your breakup—a wretched, booze-soaked affair that ended with you prematurely exiting the shared apartment with a wobble-wheeled suitcase packed and not one but two chip-nailed middle fingers in the air—you haven’t owned a couch.

Door slams. Lock bolts.

That was two years ago. You’ve lived and lounged and lamented your life since then on a bed (a raft, really, in an OCEAN OF TEARS), moving from that stupid shared apartment back to your stupid parents’ house, then to a stupid studio that smelled like if moths had their own closets, then to ~here~…

Your new home. A gorgeous one-bedroom, bottom-right quarter of a falling down, white-and-brick house in a hip part of town. It doesn’t have windows that open, but it does have your cat, which your ex hated, and as of noon today—of all glorious, single lady days—it has this: A suede dreamboat in the color of “Stone.” It’s called the Darcy Sofa. It is seven-and-a-half-feet long, which is ideal for your five-foot-two frame and your feet-cuddling cat. It is perfect.

This Darcy Sofa cost you $500 and is officially one thousand times more valuable than any diamond ring, you’re sure of it.

You eye it now, mentally applaud how it looks on the hardwood living room floor, shoved up against the butter-colored wall you don’t want to paint because you’re renting so you’ll have to paint it back eventually and who has time for that, and across from the brick fireplace you can’t use because the chimney has been plugged-up with who knows what because squirrels or drug dealer Santa or something.

The couch looks familiar. It’s almost identical to the one you bought for your first apartment out of college. You remember, that $150 bear-brown thing that your brother and your cousin helped you transport from the Big Lots (née Odd Lots) where you bought it. Afterward, feeling oh so grown up, you offered for your moving mates to stay and hang out and here, have a beer, I bought it just for you! (even though you already drank half the pack).Your cat, a mere teenager at the time, hopped on the couch and onto your cousin’s lap and everyone had a perfectly lovely evening sitting on your brand new couch, bought and paid for by you and only you, until you probably blacked out and they went home.

It was the best day you had in that apartment.

Who knows where that couch is now.

Your friends are coming to meet the Darcy Sofa in just a few hours. You have decided to host a Couch Warming Party, because this is to be celebrated, an occasion to remember! It represents healing and independence, this furniture, this moving-on-up. This couch means a new world is opening up to you. You made it. Couch Warming Party is being held on the weekend of your terrible ex’s birthday. You didn’t plan this timing on purpose, at least you don’t think so, but it does make the second glass of wine at three p.m. taste even sweeter.

Now it’s nine. You are fuzzy and warm and a little bit sick. The couch, soft as a petal, feels like a lily pad beneath you. Bobbing, bobbing.

Your friends are here! Your friends pile in the aching red-rimmed door. Your friends clamor in the living room and oh and ah appropriately before tumbling down the long hallway to the kitchen and out its back door to the fire pit you share with the other dwellers of this broken home-you-love’s divvied-up apartments.

Your friends are good friends. They agree to pose for photos on your new couch. They make a big deal about it, even though this couch, it’s not that special.

They are just happy to see their friend happy again.

They bring you Couch Warming Party gifts they’ll know you’ll enjoy, like a new blanket, lounge pillows, cat toys, vodka, smokes, cocaine. By the end of the night, you are all outside howling at The Man and the moon, crouched beneath the giant tree you don’t know the genus of, that the city hasn’t torn down yet but will soon. Your backyard’s wooden fence stands guard. Tonight, as the fire licks the air and your friends lick each other, the perimeter feels like a hug and not a cage.

The couch has been forgotten. But that was the point.

At two a.m., you sit alone on your back porch smoking a gifted Parliment. Your cat has joined you, that loyal little thing. You both purr and wish every moment was a Couch Warming Party moment. You wish this especially because you know what awaits, what you’ve been running from. Morning. When you will wake up and every inch of you will hurt, including your heart. Especially your heart, and the yet-unknown thing rotting beneath its floorboards. It will be seven more months (exactly one month after your 30th birthday) before you wake up on another stranger’s couch—again!—and finally—finally!—decide it’s time to get sober. And you do it! You beautiful, goofy, grateful recovering alcoholic! You finally break through. Find a home inside yourself.

Tonight, though. Tonight is as bright and dark as a chewed up cherry pit, as twisted as the tongue-tied stem, and to be lived to the last briny drop.

You have so much further to go, but tonight you honor everything it took to get to Here. To the Stone-colored sofa. Your new Plymouth rock.


Fun in the time of quarantine


I’ve finally landed on a word the best describes how this pandemic has made/is making me feel: Bewildered. (And, I guess, longing. I miss my family, my city, my lifestyle, etc.) That said, Justin and I have been having a lot of fun together. I can’t see being stuck inside with him for months as anything other than a lopsided gift. Justin’s a fun friend and a good partner. 

Here’s an example:

In an effort to find different things for us to do together as the 2020 months crawl on, Justin decided to find a video game for us to play. To do this, he had to consider many variables. Well, two variables. 1) I hate video games; and 2) I hate video games because I’m absolutely terrible at them and have none of the hand-finger muscle memory that seems to be required for success in any of the adult games and when I’m bad at things I get pissed off and ruin the this-is-just-for-fun vibe and ok, back off, I’m working on it.

But this didn’t stop our sheltered-in-place friend! Justin spent weeks researching games that moved quickly and provided many a dopamine hit of congratulations by way of sparkly animated gems simply for showing up and pushing buttons. So, basically, games for children.

Enter: Castle Crashers.

It’s perfect for us/me because 1) it’s made for beginners/children and I can just mush all the buttons and still accomplish something maybe or at least think I did in the flurry of chaotic noises and special effects; 2) there’s a Pink Knight character that, duh, I chose, and my “magic” abilities include stunning opponents into dropping their weapons and giving peace signs by throwing stuffed animals at them and shooting rows of rainbows out of my hands to distract them; and 3) we can play the levels at the same time, so essentially Justin does all the work killing bad guys and strategically spending our gold coins on health potions and doing the things that get us moving forward, while I furiously shoot rainbows at the empty, endless void and try to figure out how to turn myself around.

This is so indicative of who we are as people and why we work together as a pair.

Justin1 and Justin2 (aka Jackie), sittin’ in a tree…

Anyway, today’s our three-year wedding anniversary. 

Thanks, boo. I feel unsure about pretty much everything except you.

2017
2020

The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook is here!


An essay I wrote is in the new book “The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook” from @beltpub! I’m excited and grateful to be included. The Chicago Tribune called the book “required reading” and I can’t wait to dig into it this weekend.

I’ve only had it for a few hours and already stained the cover with fried food grease because that will always be who I am as a person.

There’s a release party from 5:30 to 8 pm at The Hideout Inn (1354 W. Wabansia) on Sept. 11, featuring readings by some of the writers, including @meganstielstra (!!!😍!). Plus delicious food donated by Abra Behrens and by Floriole bakery. Books will be available for sale! Here’s the Facebook event link!

The second event is at Marz Community Brewing (3630 S. Iron) on Sept. 17, from 7 to 9 pm. There will be readings and a DJ at this release party. RSVP on Facebook here!

Check out the whole lineup of books examining life in the Rust Belt at beltpublishing.com (oh, hi, they also have a Rust Belt Arcana tarot deck and I think that’s so very awesome).

Everything I know I learned from a kindergartener


I’m on stage before the show. Nerves threaten to drown me if these sweat rings (spreading like an oil spill in my armpits) don’t first. What if no one likes my story? What if no one understands what I’m trying to say?

The theater’s free sparkling water nips my nose and snaps me from my trance long enough to think about one of my nephews hundreds of miles away. The memory seems random at first.

On my last trip to Ohio, I’d visited him and his siblings at their house, giving myself extra time to play with the kids on their family’s brand new trampoline. Following a few standard edition games that kids seem born knowing how to play (ie., monster chase, jump contest [children edition, aunt as judge], duck duck goose), the oldest boy announced that it was time to play “Shhrrrs.”

<silence>

What? I said, gently, my mind frantically trying to connect his consonants.

Shhrrrs. He responded.

Shirts?

Shhrrs! Slower now, eye roll impending.

<I call for his translator [his mom] to come over.>

Can you describe it? She asked.

The things in water. Shhhhhhrrrrrrssss.

I don’t know what you’re saying, baby.

I am getting anxious, worried this child I desperately want to feel wholly capable is going to feel so frustrated that no one can understand him that he won’t want to play the game anymore—maybe not even jump on the trampoline with me, maybe forever feel insecure about saying what he wants or what he thinks because we cannot decipher the intended enunciations of this toddler speak! Disaster! Catastrophe! A message lost in a bottle at sea!

He looked at me. Then his mom. I waited for tears. That’s what I would have done probably. Right? Cry? Or change the subject, avoid confrontation, make a joke at my own expense, make sure everyone felt comfortable, doubt myself, ask someone else what they wanted to play instead?

I grew itchy, ready to jump in and suggest another game so he didn’t feel bad or embarrassed. But then…

Shhrrs. He said again, with such matter-of-fact, unwavering assurance and non-self-judgement, ready to sit there and keep speaking his truth until we all figured it out with him, I did almost start to cry but not because I was sad or worried.

SHELLS! My sister yelled from the porch deck. Also matter of factly.

Oooooooh! His mom and I said in unison. Sheeelllllsss!

Yeah. He said, excited. Shhrrs!

To play Shhrrs (aka Shells), the children lay in the middle of the trampoline with knees hugged to their faces and arms wrapped around themselves tight. Giggling optional, but likely. Aunt has to jump around these “shells” until they can hug themselves no longer and must open to the world—vulnerable, losers in an un-winnable game, but surging with the thrill of change without warning or control.

I jump around them and get the two smallest ones laughing and un-shelled in no time. The game’s mastermind, however, held on longer. A tough shell that’s all heart.

A few more hops… Boom. Open this shining little seashell popped, arms and legs now splayed open like a starfish, eyes still closed, cheeks I want to kiss salty with sweat, tiny body spinning in the air, dangerous, a smile given without question to the sun, unencumbered, his truth, having fun.

A 45-pound pearl of wisdom.

Back on a Chicago stage, I breathe again.

Published: Meet My Neighborhood


Don’t miss my latest dive into home sweet home Irving Park for Neighborhoods.com. I wrote about seven of my favorite spots in my neighborhood, including Independence Park and the best new cafe this side of the Blue Line.

Best window seat in the house.

P.S. Right after I filed this story with my editor, I read about Mirabella Cuisine & Bar in Bon Appetit magazine. The Italian steakhouse is owned by an Ecuadoran immigrant who is carrying on the red sauce legacy of Chicago. I didn’t even know Chicago had a red sauce legacy… or that Mirabella was a hidden gem in my neighborhood that I pass almost every week on my Irving Park runs. Can’t wait to try it!

That’s my favorite thing about living in a city as big as Chicago. There’s an infinite amount of restaurants, art, people, culture, events, drag shows, book stores, et al, to discover here.

Published: Art and writing in Crowded zine


I’m jazzed (jazz-handed?) to have embroidery artwork and creative writing in the newest issue of CROWDED zine, a quarterly multimedia zine affiliated with The Crowd Theater, featuring written and visual work of Chicago artists.

The Issue #3 release party is tonight, May 11, at 8 p.m. in The Crowd Theater near Lakeview! Admission for tonight’s show is free, and you can purchase a zine there for $6. They’ll be taking cash, card, or Venmo exchanges @CrowdedZine. If you can’t make the show but would like a copy, Venmo $8 to @CrowdedZine with your address in the description and they’ll mail you your copy!

Published: Essay in Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook


Technically, this book of essays from Rustbelt Publishing won’t be out until September 10, but you can pre-order your copy today for $20 here! I’m really excited to have my work included and can’t wait to get my hands (well, mostly my eyes) on it. Following, a description of the book from the publisher:

Chicago is famously a city of neighborhoods. Seventy-seven of them, formally; more than 200 in subjective, ever-changing fact. But what does that actually mean? The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook, the latest in Belt’s series of idiosyncratic city guides (after Cleveland and Detroit), aims to explore community history and identity in a global city through essays, poems, photo essays, and art articulating the lived experience of its residents.

Edited by Belt senior editor Martha Bayne, the book builds on 2017’s critically acclaimed Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology. What did one pizzeria mean to a boy growing up in Ashburn? How can South Shore encompass so much beauty and so much pain?  What’s it like to live in the Loop? Who’s got a handle on the ever-shifting identity of West Ridge? All this and more in this lyrical, subjective, completely non-comprehensive guide to Chicago. Featuring work by Megan Stielstra, Audrey Petty, Alex V. Hernandez, Sebastián Hidalgo, Dmitry Samarov, Ed Marszewski, Lily Be, Jonathan Foiles, and many more.

Published: Tiki time in LongWeekends magazine


Check out the summer 2019 issue of LongWeekends magazine. The latest issue promises everything us Midwesterners need to plan the perfect long weekend trip this spring and summer.

My short piece is about three must-try tiki bars and restaurants in Chicago: Three Dots and a Dash in River North, Lost Lake in Logan Square, and Hala Kahiki Tiki Bar & Lounge in River Grove (worth the commute out to the ‘burbs, my Chi-town friends; this place has been tiki-ing since 1964 and claims to be the Midwest’s most authentic tiki bar).

Sober pals, don’t let the tiki-theme tempt you into not checking out these kitschy fun spots. Nonalcoholic treats abound. Example: Hala Kahiki’s zero proof Fruit Punch, a mix of passion fruit, housemade grenadine, housemade Orgeat, orange, pineapple, lemon, and lime.

Thumbing through the magazine has already garnered some travel ideas for us to conquer this summer, like taking a trek to Springfield, Illinois, to try the world-famous “hot dog on a stick” at The Cozy Dog Drive In. I guess I’m just a suck for anything corny! (Get it? Corn dog. Ha. Ha.) What are your big (or small) summer plans?

#SundaySentence: Maud


For David Abrams’ Sunday Sentence project, readers share the best sentence they’ve read during the past week, “out of context and without commentary.”

(Except I totally give context and commentary.)


“My heart would hear her and beat/ Were it earth in an earthy bed; My dust would hear her and beat/ Had I lain for a century dead; Would start and tremble under her feet/ And blossom in purple and red.”

From ever-the-romantic Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “Maud,” as read in Margaret Atwood’s “Alias Grace.”

Also, a babe.

On writing: Find the lie


I signed up for author K.M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors newsletter about a year ago, but only recently have I started really digging into her work.

It’s good stuff.

Her book “Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story” helped me finally understand the difference between the hook, the inciting incident, plot points, and pinch points. The breakdown, in fact, was so enlightening and easy to understand that it was key to me finally wrasslin’ all of my ideas into a workable plot structure (!!!).

The notecards method was doing me no good (so overwhelming, so much trash), and the thought of the time-suck-potential of “pantsing” made me feel super itchy (and breathy with anxiety).

That was a tough egg to crack, and girlfriend has got me cooking with gas now! How do you like your omelettes, baby?!

Weiland produces her own podcast (she’s already 450-something episodes deep) and has free e-books up for grabs on her website for newsletter subscribers. If you’re trying, like me, to wade into the vast waters of writing your first novel without drowning, her stuff is a good place to start to understand the mechanics of the whole thing.

As I move forward with my own process, I’ve been trying to work on character arcs. I encounter a sort of chicken-or-egg headache (no omelettes) when I try to think of plot and character arc as separate entities. In her podcast interview with Bulletproof Screenplay (below), Weiland once again helped me see the light!

I know that in a good novel or story, a character has to change in some way, for better or worse, but, as Weiland explains, an easy way to imagine this journey is to first consider the lie that a character believes in the beginning of the story and then consider what truth they have to face near the midpoint to do something climactic toward the end. So simple. I was really forcing matters with outlandish external events, but this pro-tip helped me understand that the writer has to understand the character’s internal events first. Because of course.

You can listen to the interview here: