Better Than The Website: China Doll Guest House, Chicago

I didn’t quite understand what I’d done. I saw a website while browsing for hotels and such in the Chicago area that looked nice. It appeared as though this one place in particular, China Doll Guest House, had apartment vacation rentals to offer out to guests traveling to Chicago. As I clicked the Next button on my screen repeatedly, I set my eyes on impressive pictures of apartment units much better endowed than my own in Brooklyn. Instead of the bohemian attitude meets dormitory equals artistic commune free for all I live in, these apartments looked different. They looked less used up–like they hadn’t been around the party-till-dawn block every other weekend.

Black leather couches, stainless steel kitchen appliances suitable for restaurant kitchens, and a steam room/jacuzzi shower with multiple shower-heads pierced through the monitor and resonated somewhere in my soul. I needed this. I needed to stay in a place like this. I deserved it as a reward for being on one of the most self-indulgent (and self-righteous) road-trips of my life.

I had built the China Doll Guest House up in my mind so much in the days prior to staying there that the excitement had launched a reverse affect on me. I started to doubt it. I became a naysayer.

“It can’t be that nice, Elizabeth”, I’d say… to myself.
“Websites lie. Pictures lie. Dolls freak me out.”

By the time I actually parked my definitely not eco-friendly but absolutely borrowed from my small-town parents SUV in front of the ivy-clad townhouse in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, I was expecting the worst. I fumbled with the lock at the front door, which I had received meticulous instructions for via email days before. Succeeding at retrieving the key from the coded key box my first try, I felt triumphant and confident that one day I too might be able to piece together IKEA furniture. I opened the door with my pessimism in hand, loaded and ready to fire.

I dropped my bags in the foyer and entered the living room to find everything As Seen on The Internet. The black leather couches were in place, lined up against the wall under a giant piece of colorful art. Like a dollhouse, not surprisingly, the rest of the apartment was puzzle-piece-perfectly organized. I danced through the rooms shouting out the amenities to Ben as I saw them.

“There’s a fireplace! Look at this dining room table! Ben! The stove! There’s an indoor grill! Oh my god, there are hand-drawn Chinese calendar art scrolls in this bucket!”, my voice echoed through the long and narrow unit. He wasn’t really listening, having his own eyes for seeing and all, but I continued, as I usually do, certain that someone somewhere has got to be listening when I speak.

“This room is cute and this room is cuter! Awww, we have a hammock and garden outside! HOLY SHIT, you won’t believe the bathroom! Come here! I’m getting in this thing…”

The verdict was in even before the remaining baggage was: China Doll Guest House wasn’t like the website, after all. It was better.

Unsure of what to do with ourselves, we started brainstorming aloud, wondering who we knew in Chicago… how many people would come over for a dinner party if we whipped up an impromptu one? We had dishware, wine glasses, flatware… all we needed were friends. Being that our only close friend in Chicago was expecting us in his recording studio later that night, we’d exhausted our resources and spent the night in the studio in Wicker Park, both privately fantasizing about the bed we’d be returning to when the song of the week, something we do every week, was finally finished. Turns out the song wasn’t actually finished for two more days. A lapse in planning, an exercise in procrastination and perfection.

Too depressed by the idea of forfeiting our keys in the morning, we decided to stay an extra night in the apartment. We dialed up Ben’s brother, a resident of the Chicago suburbs, at least an hour drive away, and passive aggressively, yet hospitably, insisted he, his wife Kim, and his daughter Lily come visit the city the next day. We baited them with promises of a massive cook-out, images of a garden filled with the songs of delighted birds, and talk of the pure Lake Michigan waters found at the beach just down the road. They obliged and arrived the following afternoon.

Uncle Ben with Lily at Foster Beach in Chicago

We drank iced tea by the pitcher while sitting in the sun on the patio. We ate absurdly overpriced burgers from Whole Foods and tried to remind ourselves that the cows were, you know, fed organic food, and, you know, raised in good homes on good farms and stuff. We abandoned analysis and social commentary at the hand of freezing cold lake water a couple hours later and watched Lily try her darndest to build a sand castle without a bucket, or even a cup. She’s a hard worker, that one. But she’s also smart and values her time, so the sand castle building without tools mission was quickly aborted. We returned to the sprawling kitchen for chocolate ice cream and bittersweet goodbyes.

After taking advantage of every square inch of China Doll we could discover, we left with only one regret: that we had to leave at all.

By: Elizabeth Seward, Photos By: Ben Britz

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