Welcome to Grand Island.

grand-island.jpg

Stephanie climbed up the side of the truck, and slid into the driver’s seat. She twisted the key in the ignition, and the engine rumbled. Our arms were tired from packing the truck the night before, but our spirits were riding high as we rolled out of Madison and onto U.S. Highway 151, westbound. It was Monday, December 1, 1997. There aren’t many dates that I remember without doublechecking, but this date I do recall. It was a big day. Our lives would never be the same.

We weren’t leaving as early as we’d hoped, because there had been last-minute things to take care of in Madison, but Steph had made us breakfast before packing the last box in the back of the truck. After months of planning and days of packing, we were finally rolling west. Driving across Wisconsin, we talked all morning and into the afternoon, about everything in this universe and beyond.

We started by talking about our itinerary for the trip: The drive to California would take three days, we figured, with no more than ten hours of driving time each day. We were planning to simply drive until we were tuckered out each day, and find a hotel as needed each night along the way. We had chips and water in the cab of the truck, and a map of the U.S.A., so we thought we were prepared.

We talked about what we would do and how our lives would be, living in San Francisco. Stephanie would move in with me, to the room I’d been renting in a dirty, dingy, decrepit hotel – the kind of hotel that has no concierge, no maids, no standards, and the elevator has been broken since the 1950s.

But she wouldn’t call someplace “home” where she had to share the toilet and shower with strangers from other rooms. Also, of course, she wanted to cook, and the rez hotel had a rule against cooking. And it had no kitchens. So our plan was that Stephanie would look for a job, and once she’d been hired someplace we would start trying to find a cheap apartment. Even in 1997, though (and much more now), there was simply no such thing as a “cheap apartment” in San Francisco. It’s one of the world’s most expensive places to live, and I had warned her that finding an apartment might take months.

In retrospect, I don’t think I really understood how scary all of this was for Stephanie. I had done this before – left Seattle, where I grew up, and moved to Los Angeles, where I didn’t know anyone. And then, when I decided L.A. wasn’t for me, I’d moved to Bakersfield, where I also knew no-one. And then, when Bakersfield didn’t feel like a good fit, I’d moved to San Francisco, where I knew nobody. Third time’s the charm. I’d been in Frisco for six years, and to me it was home.

For Stephanie, though, San Francisco was ominous – she’d know nobody there except me, and did she really know me? We had spent two weeks together, five months earlier, and then spent several days in Madison, packing and saying goodbye. So we’d had perhaps eighteen days together, and here we were, rolling down the freeway to forever.

We took Highway 151 southwest from Madison, entered Interstate-80 westbound, and then spent hours crossing Iowa. I don’t remember much about that part of the drive, and corn is the only thing I know about Iowa. The truck ran well, but it wouldn’t run fast; we figured out that it had a “governor” device, which limited its speed to about 50 miles per hour. Also, the truck drank gasoline like a drunk drinks Thunderbird wine – lots, and frequently.

I stupidly wasn’t taking notes, so like everything else written here, the story I’m about to tell has been reassembled entirely from an old man’s memory. I only know what freeway we took because Google says that Interstate-80 passes through Council Bluffs, Iowa, and I definitely remember Council Bluffs. That’s where Stephanie and I had our first fight.

We had been driving for several hours and we were hungry, but we wanted to avoid fast food on the trip, as it could be hard on Steph’s rather delicate digestion. So we instead parked the truck at a big supermarket, and went inside to wander the aisles. It wasn’t quite as delightful as when we’d wandered the aisles at the Marina Safeway. I didn’t know what we were looking for, just something for lunch, but we obviously couldn’t cook in the truck so it would have to be a cold lunch.

Stephanie had an idea. “We could buy a couple of heads of lettuce and some other vegetables, and some dressing, and splurge on some pre-cooked shrimp, and I could make shrimp louie.”

The thought of shrimp louie makes my mouth water as I’m typing this, and eating it in a U-Haul truck would’ve been a terrific meal indeed. But I wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea. “Sounds like a lot of work, a lot of mess. And we’d have to buy some bowls.”

“Well, I packed the bowls and silverware and spices and stuff where they’re accessible, quick and easy, right by the roll-up door. And it’s winter, so all the leftovers will keep nicely in the back of the truck.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But I’m a fat guy, and I’m not sure salad would fill me up.”

She frowned for a moment, and walked off down a different aisle. Later, slowly, I figured out that shrimp louie hadn’t just popped into her head – she’d probably planned it as our lunch all along, and I’d deflated her bright idea. But I was too many years single and too dim a bulb to figure that out as it happened. When I caught up with her in the meat section, though, she already had a back-up plan.

“They have pre-cooked chicken that looks good. We could buy some tortillas and a few veggies, and I’ll bet I could make us some cold chicken wraps we’d be happy with.”

I shrugged, and she frowned again and walked away. And no, even all these years later, I can’t explain why I was anything less than enthusiastic. A beautiful woman was offering to make lunch and share it with me, and I was being difficult.

She was waiting in the deli section. “OK,” she said, “I could make a shawarma bowl. They have tahini, so all I’d need is some Greek yogurt and a can of garbanzo beans, some vegetables, and some cooked turkey or chicken.”

“Well, you’d need spices, wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah, but I told you, all that stuff is in a box right inside the truck’s roll-up door.”

“Sure seems like a lot of work.”

She frowned a third time, which meant I’d struck out. “So what do you want to do for lunch?”

“I don’t know,” I said, and this time it was me who did the wandering away.

She followed me. “We have to eat, you know.”

“What about sandwiches?” I asked.

“Sandwiches?”

I grabbed a can of Spam off a shelf. “Yeah, maybe Spam sandwiches. I love Spam. A loaf of bread, a can of Spam, and thou.”

She stared at me, then said, “I don’t even know what Spam is. Does anyone know?”

“It’s some kind of pork concoction. Meaty. Salty. We ate a lot of it in my family, growing up.”

She took the can of Spam from my hand, and backed a few steps away from me, as I continued rhapsodizing on the culture and cuisine of Spam. Then the can of Spam went flying past my head.

“I am not having Spam for lunch,” she announced. The can ricocheted off a shelf, and knocked some other prepackaged foodstuffs onto the floor. Pondering the pork product projectile, I said nothing, so Stephanie repeated herself. “I don’t know what you’re going to eat, but I’m not having Spam.”

I don’t remember what we had for lunch in Council Bluffs, that afternoon. Maybe we bought some groceries and Stephanie made something fabulous for us, or maybe we went to a Denny’s. Whatever we ate, it wasn’t Spam.

Steph promptly and profusely apologized, of course, for launching the lunchmeat at me, and reassured me that she’d missed my head on purpose. Indeed, she had missed my head by several feet, so I don’t think she was aiming to give me a concussion. It was the first and last moment of domestic violence in our marriage. All our other arguments were settled only with words.

I, of course, apologized for my vivid cluelessness in the store, where I’d repeatedly dismissed all her suggestions, any one of which would’ve doubtless been superior to Spam sandwiches. I’d been trying to make sure lunch was easy, but easy wasn’t what Steph wanted. She wanted to make a nice meal. She loved cooking, and always wanted to make a nice meal, even on the road in Iowa.

We were both idiots that afternoon. We’d both grown accustomed to living alone, and when you live alone you decide things for yourself. For me, living alone so many years, sandwiches had been breakfast, lunch, and dinner thousands of times. But now that we were a couple, neither of us would be deciding such things alone, and instead there would be negotiating and compromising every day.

On this particular afternoon, we decided together that we would proceed across the state line into Nebraska, driving a few more hours before calling it a night. So we motored the U-Haul in to Omaha, and then flashing lights appeared in the rear view mirror, and we were pulled over by a cop on the freeway. It was, in a word, weird. Stephanie had been driving, but she wasn’t speeding, wasn’t swerving, and the shoulder where we’d pulled over seemed like a dangerous place to be, on the side of a busy freeway.

The policeman looked long and hard at Stephanie’s license, and asked her the ordinary questions, and then asked some questions that didn’t seem ordinary. “Are you moving to Omaha, or moving away from Omaha?” Huh? He’d just seen her driver’s license, so he knew she was from Wisconsin, not Omaha. “Are you two married?” What difference would that make? “Did you go to college?” Why would a cop ask that question? His demeanor was polite, but his questions were kooky. Stephanie politely answered everything he asked, while I sat mute in the passenger seat, using all the patience and prudence I could muster to keep quiet.

Then the policeman told Stephanie to get out of the truck and walk back to the police car, while I was told to remain in the truck. I very nearly shouted No!, as this request seemed miles from typical, and the shoulder was too narrow for the truck, and there was nobody else in the squad car – don’t cops usually patrol in pairs? But a quick glance from Stephanie told me to say nothing, so I sat there and waited and watched my watch, while she spent six minutes in the police car.

When Stephanie came back to the truck, it was without the police officer. She’d said she’d been scared, and that something was off-kilter about that cop. She’d been given a warning but no ticket. And OK, no ticket is nice, but even the warning was ludicrous – for using her blinkers too briefly when changing lanes. Who gets pulled over for that? And what kind of cop asks the driver if she’s married or went to college?

Stephanie was right; something was definitely off-kilter about that whole scene, but we’d escaped unscathed. She started the truck and we were on our way again. But seriously, a memo to the Omaha Police Department – bite me.

After Omaha, the sun went down and snow began falling, but Stephanie had been raised in the Midwest, and she knew how to drive in the snow. It seemed silly to slow down, she said, since the truck resolutely refused to go faster than 50 mph even when the pedal was floored.

As we approached Lincoln, it was past dusk, not far below freezing, and there was a layer of ice, utterly invisible on the Interstate. The truck began to slide. At fifty miles an hour. I’ve done some slipping and sliding in cars, but it’s much more frightening to slip and slide in a 6,000-pound truck, a truck we we weren’t familiar with, loaded with a thousand pounds of boxes, crates, and furniture. One moment we were driving on the freeway, la-di-da la-di-da, and the next moment we could feel the back of the truck sliding out of our lane.

The experts say, if you’re caught in a winter ice- or snow-skid, first, don’t apply the brakes; second, turn into the slide; and third, don’t over-correct with aggressive steering. I had heard these rules many times, but it’s doubtful that I would’ve remembered such solid advice at the moment it was most needed, especially if that moment came with no warning, as it did. So I’m glad Stephanie was driving, and not me. She reacted exactly right – didn’t brake, turned into the slide, and didn’t aggressively over-correct her steering. The vehicle rotated about thirty degrees on the sheet of ice before she regained control, and gently brought us to a stop on the shoulder.

It was terrifying, though. There had been moderate traffic on the interstate, but we happened upon the ice slick at exactly the moment when there were no vehicles in any adjacent lanes. No death, no injuries, and no damage to the truck or to the contents thereof. There wasn’t even any screaming from either of us.

But, still – sweet jeebers! If Stephanie hadn’t handled the truck precisely perfect, we were moments from death. If the U-Haul didn’t have a “governor” device, limiting us to 50 mph when we’d wanted to go faster, where would we be? In an alternate reality, one where Steph tapped on the brakes or turned the steering wheel away from the slide instead of into it, we were dead on the first day of our drive to California. We never arrived where we were going, we never had a happy marriage, and everything that happened over the subsequent 21 years never happened.

The truck remained on the shoulder for several minutes, engine idling and flashers blinking, while we caught our breath and decided that our day was over, and we would spend the night at the next hotel we saw. Then Steph carefully wheeled the truck back on to the freeway, and we soon exited into the city of Lincoln, Nebraska, where a sign had promised lodging could be found.

Lincoln, however, was almost as terrifying as the skid. We never found the hotel; we only found the blackness of night and blurriness of snowfall. From the off-ramp toward the city, we drove several miles and saw no streetlights, no other vehicles going in any direction, and no sign of any hotel. The effect was increasingly eerie.

At one point, we waited at a deserted stop light with no cross-traffic, and when the light allowed it Steph made a left turn. In the snow and darkness, however, she hadn’t noticed that she was turning on to a divided highway, so our U-Haul was ambling down the wrong side of a completely dark and empty road. Stephanie remained calm and executed a Y-turn, and as she shifted out of reverse she said, “I’m sure Lincoln is a lovely town, but whatever part of Lincoln we’re in, it’s scaring the hell out of me, and I don’t see any evidence of the lodging we were promised.”

“You’ve seen enough of scenic Lincoln?” I asked.

“I’ve seen more than enough,” she answered, and at a slow speed we began re-tracing the route that had brought us to the wrong side of the highway on the wrong side of Lincoln. We were headed back toward the Interstate. “We’ll pull over at the first sign of a hotel. You know, a hotel that actually exists, unlike the alleged hotel at the exit we took.”

“If you want a break,” I said, “I am tanned, rested, and ready to drive.”

“I’ll drive,” she said, “but I do want a brief break.” And at that moment, out of the darkness a small city park came into view, which seemed like a good place to park for a few minutes and collect our wits. But the park was eerie, too. There was one light bulb illuminating a fraction of the parking lot, where ours was the only vehicle, but the rest of the park was drenched in darkness and snow. You could see the silhouette of swings and picnic tables, and it was all quite spooky. We pulled out of that parking lot about thirty seconds after we pulled in, with out wits still uncollected.

“You’re sure you’re OK driving?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’ve got this. If you took the wheel now, I’d feel like a starting pitcher yanked for a reliever. I want to go the whole nine innings.”

“You got in a little bit of trouble, continuing the baseball metaphor. The bases were loaded, but you’ve worked your way out of the jam.”

“Hope so, and it’s about time. I almost got arrested in Omaha, almost got us killed back on the ice, and then I took us down the wrong side of some deserted highway here in Lincoln.”

“Well, let’s get out of Lincoln.”

We got back onto Interstate-80 and drove another fifty miles or so, before finding a hotel on the outskirts of Grand Island, Nebraska. The hotel was clean and reasonably priced, and the guy manning the desk made us feel welcome. We drove into town and had dinner at a Chinese restaurant in a mall, and then saw a movie at the mall’s cinema. We returned to the hotel, and slept until check-out time.

There was probably nothing special about Grand Island. It’s just another town on the Nebraska prairie, I’m sure. But for us, that first night on the road, Grand Island was exactly what we needed – peaceful, quiet, welcoming, and well-lit. We were jittery and jumpy when we arrived there, but well-rested and relaxed when we left the next morning. To these two weary travelers, it seemed like an idyllic town.

Once or twice over the years, we spoke of vacationing in Omaha and Lincoln, but we were joking, of course. We also spoke occasionally about returning to Grand Island, for a brief vacation or a longer stay, or even to retire. About that we weren’t joking – that town is sincerely a happy memory. But we never returned to Nebraska.

The next day, and in our next chapter, we went motoring into Wyoming. But first, a tangentially-related memory pops into my head, and I’ll add it as an addendum: My beloved Stephanie never ate a Spam sandwich in her life. Some years later, though, she did consent to try a few bites of scrambled eggs and fried Spam I’d made myself for breakfast one morning. She pronounced it, “Not as awful as I’d expected, but also not good.”

Posted 12/5/2018.

More about Stephanie.

Skipping Christmas this year.

Judging from the snow in the street and the Muzak at work, it’s Christmas time. What am I supposed to do – put up a Christmas tree, just for me and the cat? I don’t think so.

We don’t have children, so half the allure of the holidays was never in play for Steph and I. But even before Stephanie came into my life, Christmas was never terribly important to me, at least not after I’d grown up.

I don’t particularly like Christmas. There, I said it. Beginning in my late 20s, I started withdrawing from Christmas, and by the time Stephanie entered my life, I hadn’t done anything Christmassy for seven or eight years. Mailed no cards. Strung no lights. Wrapped no gifts. And this will not be “a very special episode” of stephmemorial.com; unlike every book and movie where someone says “Bah, humbug,” I will not have a change of heart and become Mr “Merry Christmas” and “God bless Us, Every One!”

In this story, the Christmas miracle comes at the beginning, and unravels at the end. Falling in love with Stephanie brought Christmas back into my world; that was the miracle, and it was wonderful. She wasn’t jolly old St Nicholas by any means – even Steph didn’t do full-fledged Christmas like some folks do. But she wasn’t on strike from the Christmas spirit, like I was. She kinda liked Christmas, and she taught me to kinda like it, too.

Before meeting her, my only Christmas tradition was to go to a movie, at a theater. Alone. I might as well have worn a t-shirt that said, “Cranky old man.” My Christmas movie was never even a movie about Christmas – never Elf or Bad Santa – it was just seeing a movie, on Christmas. In other words, playing hooky from ordinary Christmas, and having fun instead. So for our first Christmas together, I took Stephanie to a Jackie Chan double feature at the UC in Berkeley. We had popcorn and snuck in Milk Duds, and it was a very merry Doug-style Christmas.

When the movies were over, though, we spent our first Christmas together in a rez hotel in San Francisco. That was our home. There was no tree, no wreath, nobody to say “Merry Christmas” to us and nobody we said it to, except each other. But we’d purchased a single string of lightweight, colorful lights and strung them across the ceiling in our bedroom.

“After I’ve taken off my glasses,” Steph said, “I’m lying here in bed and all I can see is the twinkles on the ceiling, out of focus and ethereal. It’s a little bit beautiful!” And indeed, it was a lovely effect, when the mood wasn’t ruined by drunks screaming at each other in the next room. So we didn’t do it every Christmas, but a string of lights on the ceiling became a recurring motif.

For a few years we were treeless, mostly because – where are you going to put a tree, in a tiny San Francisco apartment? We bought a very small tabletop Noble Fir one year, and we were still stepping on needles six months later, so the new rule was: no real trees for Christmas. By the next year, we’d moved to Kansas City and a much bigger apartment, so we purchased a full-sized fake tree at the Walgreens on 39th Street. After a few years, though, even the fake tree started shedding its fake needles, so we bought a miniature fake Christmas tree at a garage sale.

After the apartment was decorated for the holidays, we would share a platter of Stephanie’s ham roll-ups. That was another Christmas tradition. She had found the recipe on one of her recipe-hunts at the Milk Marketing Board, then modified and simplified it until it was the easiest dish in Steph’s repertoire. I made it a few times myself, and never screwed it up; that’s how easy it is. There are only two ingredients, and no cooking.

HAM ROLL-UPS

Pre-sliced sandwich ham
cream cheese

Let the cream cheese sit outside the fridge for a few hours, which makes it soft and easy to spread. Lay out the ham slices on a tray. Spread a thin layer of cream cheese on each ham slice. “Roll up” the ham slices, so you get long tubes of ham and cream cheese. Cut each tube into bite-sized morsels of deliciousness. Steph would put the ham roll-ups into the refrigerator for an hour or so, which made them tastier, but I would sometimes eat a handful or three without that fridge time, and they were almost as good.

Helpful hint for ham roll-ups: Don’t buy deli ham, the stuff that’s thin-sliced and packaged however the meat falls from the slicer. Lunchmeat ham is what you want – pre-sliced, like a loaf of bread.

Another helpful hint: Always make more ham roll-ups than you think you’ll need, because Doug will eat most of them, and there won’t be any leftovers.

We traded small gifts for Christmas, because small gifts were all we could afford. Steph sent cards to all her family, and gifts to her parents and her brother, and I added “and Doug” to her signature on the cards. Always there were twinkling lights, hung on the tree, or the door, the window, or the ceiling.

It’s a challenge to give your spouse the “perfect gift” for Christmas, and then give the “perfect gift” for Christmas the next year, and the year after that, so after trading less-than-perfect gifts for a few Christmases, Steph had a great idea. “Why don’t we give a Christmas present to ourselves, instead of to each other? That way we’ll always get exactly what we want for Christmas.” So around November every year, we’d talk about what our household needed that could make our lives better, and whatever we agreed became our Christmas gift to ourselves.

Our first Christmas gift for ourselves was a set of cookware, to replace our old pots and pans, and it’s been 14 or 15 years but that Christmas cookware is still our cookware. One year, we gave and received a DVD player. Another year we wanted and got a bigger and better TV. One Christmas there were mp3-players for each of us, and another year we bought wi-fi and a Roku, so we could throw files and videos from our computers onto the television. One year, we gave ourselves a weekend at the Fairy Tale Palace.

Two Christmases ago, we gave ourselves a Dutch oven – an oversized cast-iron pot that can go into the oven or onto the stovetop. Stephanie had always wanted a Dutch oven, so was it more a gift for her than for me? Yeah, it was, but I got the joy of seeing her face light up, not just when we bought it, but every time she used it. And I got to eat the stews and casseroles she made in it.

Last year, our Christmas gift to ourselves was a subscription to The New Yorker. With all of Stephanie’s medical appointments, we felt like we’d spent a month of our lives in medical waiting rooms, reading whatever magazines they had. Many clinics have magazines we’d never want to read – Golf Digest and People and Time and myriad medical journals – and good grief, who wants to read Arthritis Today or Diabetic Living at all, let alone read those magazines just before seeing a doctor? We kept noticing, though, that if The New Yorker was in the waiting room, we both wanted to read it, and we could never finish it before seeing the doctor. So, we subscribed. Merry Christmas to us!

Always there were stockings to be stuffed. That was another tradition from our first Christmas together, when Steph surprised me on Christmas morning with a few candies and trinkets stuffed into (clean) socks. After that, every year, there were stockings overfilled with stuff – candy bars, exotic treats, mini-bottles of whiskey, etc. Some years Steph bought the stocking-stuffers, some years I did, and sometimes Santa supplied them.

We decorated the apartment together, and then we’d eat ham roll-ups while Steph would point out the glaring bald spots on the tree, and we’d make minor or major repairs. There are several boxes of Christmas decorations in the storage space downstairs, though we rarely used more than a fraction of them for any given Christmas.

After several years of carefully putting away the decorations and disassembling the tree, I had the bright idea of putting the entire tree in a closet, fully assembled and fully decorated, so next Christmas the job of decorating really just meant carrying the tree up from the closet to a corner of the living room.

The tree is still in that closet. I have no desire to see twinkling lights.

Before Steph came along, I didn’t care about Christmas. She made Christmas worth celebrating, and I’m glad and grateful that she did. Christmas itself was the best Christmas present she could’ve given me, and all those holidays with Stephanie are memories I’ll cherish always.

Now that she’s gone, though, Christmas is over. I have less than zero interest in decorating a tree or hanging lights or stuffing stockings, so I’m skipping Christmas this year. Maybe every year.

Posted 12/1/2018.

More about Stephanie.

Leftovers from Thanksgiving.

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We’d been married for six years when Pieces of April came out, and we didn’t see it at a cinema. I’m not sure we even heard about it while it was playing. The movie was low-budget, with no ads on billboards or TV. The director had no reputation, had never directed a movie before. It starred Katie Holmes, best known then for Dawson’s Creek (a show we hated but occasionally watched just to make fun of it), and later famous for tragically marrying Tom Cruise, and then triumphantly divorcing him. So the movie completely escaped our attention, but we later read good things about it, and had Netflix mail us the DVD.

It’s about a young woman named April, who’s always been a bit of a screw-up. She’s moved to New York City, where she lives with her boyfriend in a bad neighborhood. April has invited her family to Thanksgiving dinner, and she’s going to do all the cooking but she’s not much of a cook, and the family has agreed to come but they’re dreading it and looking for an excuse to back out. That’s the movie’s set-up, and I hesitate to give away too much more about the plot.

Pieces of April reminded us vividly of Steph’s first Thanksgiving in San Francisco, in 1998. Her family wasn’t coming, so it was just me and Steph, but she wanted to prepare a Thanksgiving feast for the two of us, and she did. In our crazy kitchen, across the hall from our apartment, she warmed-up a chunk of turkey she’d bought at Trader Joe (a pre-cooked chunk, not a whole bird). She made green bean casserole and mashed potatoes and pretty much everything else that April made in the movie, the same traditional menu that Steph’s Mom and Dad made for me yesterday. But unlike April, Steph prepped it all perfectly, and our 1998 dinner was divine.

The movie was also spot-on in the shocked reaction of April’s family, when they arrived at the slum neighborhood and run-down building where April and her boyfriend lived. It reminded us of the neighborhood where Steph and I lived for her first few months in San Francisco, before she got us in to a decent apartment. Except that our first neighborhood was far worse than the slum in the movie.

Re-watching Pieces of April in later years, after Steph developed kidney failure and a heart condition and other assorted health issues, she also identified with the character of April’s mother, who has a fatal diagnosis.

And one last, small spoiler – after Steph had her leg amputated, we laughed louder at a scene late in the movie when, after a neighbor has stolen a drumstick from April’s turkey, another neighbor carves and bakes some dough to make a prosthetic leg for the bird. The turkey’s prosthetic fit far better than Steph’s prosthetic, that’s for sure.

Stephanie and I loved that movie, and we watched it together every Thanksgiving after that. It was our tradition, as much as the meal. Watching it again today, the morning after Thanksgiving, I remembered some of the wisecracks Steph had made during the movie, over the years. The movie has a wonderful but realistic “family” vibe, and I remembered the warmth of being part of her family. There were parts of the movie where we’d pause it to talk about our Thanksgiving memories, and of course, I paused the movie today, to think about our Thanksgivings together.

Let me tell you what I’m thankful for: meeting Stephanie. That was the day everything changed. Everything was so empty before she came along. From the beginning, my luck and her courage were both unfathomable. She flew to San Francisco, not to see San Francisco but to see me, which still amazes me. To be clear, I don’t have a lot going for me, and I had even less going for me when we first met. I was not a catch. I was a middle-aged loser when Stephanie and I met, and I was never good enough to be the man she deserved. And yet, she gave me the rest of her life.

Now she’s gone, and I am devastated. I am missing her every moment of every day, and can’t imagine that I’ll ever stop missing her. But even after saying all that, and everything else I’ve said on this website, and the book-length future posts I’m already writing – after everything is said and done, I have to say this:

I am the luckiest schmuck who ever walked on this planet. I won the lottery the day I met Stephanie and fell in love with her. Won it again, because she inexplicably loved me too. And then I won the lottery again and again, every day we were together, all the time we spent together – the good times, sure, but even on the worst days I’d rather have spent that time with Stephanie than by myself or with anyone else on Earth. Every moment with her was something to cherish.

I spent years and years with the most interesting, adventurous, intelligent, funny, fascinating, frustrating, fulfilling, fun, and just generally fabulous person I’ve ever met. I had great times with her, and she had great times with me, and we helped each other through times that weren’t so great. We told each other all of this, often, so I know she felt the same way, but I also know that I got the better end of the deal – I got to spend much of my life with her, while she was stuck spending much of her life with me.

And now she’s gone, and I miss her more than I ever thought I could miss anyone. But does the luckiest schmuck in the world have any real grounds for complaint when, after all those years of all that impossibly good luck, his luck runs out?

We were nowhere near ready for “us” to be finished. We wanted many more years together, but it’s Thanksgiving so it must be said: I am immeasurably thankful for the years we had together.

OK, sorry, I’m bawling here. A paper towel dabs my eyes, and a clean, dry t-shirt replaces one that’s soggy from teardrops. Now, what was I saying?

If you never met Steph, or if you knew her and miss her, you might want to rent Pieces of April. Stephanie was not at all like April in the movie … but then again, she was. Today I spent three hours watching a movie that’s only an hour and a half long, and you know what? It was almost like spending time with my wife.

Posted 11/23/2018.

More about Stephanie.

It’s spelled like it sounds.

It had been four months since we’d seen each other, and we’d traded dozens of letters and called on the phone every few days. This was 1997 – back when long-distance calls were metered by the minute and rather expensive, so our calls had to be brief, but the letters were long and mushy.

The plan was that I would fly from San Francisco to Milwaukee on Thanksgiving Day. She would be at her parents’ house in Racine, and I would call when the plane landed, and then she would come and pick me up at the airport. We would have Thanksgiving dinner with her folks, then drive to Stephanie’s apartment in Madison, and prepare for the move to San Francisco, where Stephanie would be staying for keeps.

But my plane was two hours late, and I didn’t have a cell phone so my call was late, too. Her folks had no internet yet, so there was no easy way to check my arrival, and Steph didn’t want to call the airline because then the phone would’ve been busy if I called. So she waited. She told me later that as her parents’ phone resolutely refused to ring, she knew I was coming, but she thought her parents might think I was a figment of her imagination, or that I’d chickened out and was standing her up.

Well, I hadn’t chickened out. Once the plane landed, I called her folks’ number as soon as I could find a phone booth, and half an hour later I was kissing the woman I loved. Twenty years I had spent alone since moving out of my parents’ house, but my time alone was ended and our time together was underway. It was Thanksgiving Day, 1997, a story I’ve already told, about a nervous dinner with Steph’s parents.

Today, Thanksgiving Day 2018, I returned to that house on a twisty residential road in Racine, and had a very nice turkey dinner with Stephanie’s parents. Steph loved her parents, loved visiting them, but she especially loved visiting them for Thanksgiving. It was, I think, her favorite holiday – a big fancy meal, and some quality time with people she loved. Her parents would always tell Steph she didn’t have to bring anything, but she would always bring something – usually dessert and a bottle of wine, maybe some flowers.

Her parents had told me I didn’t have to bring anything, and I didn’t bring anything. But strangest of all was not bringing Stephanie. It’s my first major holiday without her, and it hit me while I was scraping the snow off the car, that she wasn’t coming. The passenger seat was empty. Well, of course she wasn’t coming. She’s been dead for almost three months, but still – she wasn’t coming. I couldn’t stop crying about that, all the way to Racine.

Especially on Thanksgiving, I am truly thankful that her parents consider me family. But on Thanksgiving in 1997, that afternoon when I first met Stephanie’s parents, I was more anxious than thankful. I’m not good with strangers, and I’m especially not good with strangers when I’m at their home to take their daughter across state lines.

Plus, Steph hadn’t originally told them the truth, a few months earlier, about her visit to San Francisco. She had told them she was visiting a female friend from college, and when she later confessed that she’d instead spent two weeks with me, a complete stranger, and a man, her parents weren’t amused. So there I was – a fat, bearded, scruffy-looking man, a dozen years older than Stephanie, in their house to steal her away. I half-expected her folks to come at me with a shotgun, but instead they came at me with turkey and mashed potatoes.

The four of us spent a few hours eating and talking and playing Bananagrams, and then Steph and I were going to drive from Racine to her apartment in Madison, where we’d rent a truck for her move to California. We all assumed, correctly, that it would be years before Stephanie would see her parents again, so it was difficult for her to say goodbye. Mr and Mrs Webb walked with us through the garage toward Steph’s car, and her dad said something that always stuck with me. “Doug,” he said, “Take good care of our daughter.”

Sure, it’s an expected line, but it made Stephanie cry. She heard it as “I love you, Stephanie,” something she knew her parents felt but they didn’t often say out loud. I heard it exactly as Mr Webb said it, “Take good care of our daughter,” but with “or else” added at the end. There were hugs and tears, handshakes for me, and then we got into the car and waved goodbye.

Steph and I talked along the way to Madison, but there were some uncomfortable silences, and we were both perhaps unsure of everything. The first time we’d met, in San Francisco that summer, we talked easily, almost instantly, but this wasn’t a vacation like her visit in June. This was our lives, our future, and that evening we came close to running out of words as soon as we left her parents’ house.

After four months of letters and phone calls, we were together again, but yikes, what if the magic is gone? What if it all starts to feel like a big mistake, like too much and too fast? I had expected to be nervous with Steph’s parents, but I hadn’t expected to be nervous with Steph. No denying it, though. For thirty miles on the freeway, we talked only intermittently.

“Oconomowoc,” she said, as we rolled west on Interstate-94.

“Excuse me?”

“We’re coming to an exit sign for Oconomowoc. It’s a town. It’s spelled like it sounds, and every other letter is an O.” And as she spoke, we approached and passed that sign.

“That must be a native word, right?”

“Yup. A lot of our odd-sounding geography came from the natives. Milwaukee,” she said, sounding it out. “Wisconsin.”

“Yeah, we have some great native-derived names where I grew up. Seattle. Tacoma.”

“We took the natives’ land, and killed anyone who objected, but hey, we kept a few of their words as souvenirs.”

“American History 101,” I said. “And I love NASA and the idea of space exploration, but I’m a little glad we’re not pushing out into the stars just yet.”

“Yeah, because we’d do the same thing on any planet where we found life.”

“We’d conquer the natives, kill them all or hide them away on space-reservations …”

“But we’d name our new off-world cities after some native phrase, mispronounced.”

We listened to the radio, until the station faded out of range and into static. We talked a bit about our childhoods, and about our plans for packing in Madison and moving to San Francisco. We talked about Thanksgiving, and what it meant to each of us. We’re Americans, so we have a heck of a lot to be thankful for – American prosperity, public education, the modern welfare state, and so much more. We were thankful for both our sets of parents, who raised us to be decent people and generally good citizens instead of hardened criminals. We were thankful for each other, of course, and for falling in love.

Bit by bit along the freeway, our nervousness faded, the conversations came easy again, and the magic returned. We weren’t children and it wasn’t a fairy tale; we knew and acknowledged that there would be hassles ahead, probably arguments and certainly some unexpected problems. Whatever the future held, though, we were pretty sure that we – Stephanie and I, as a couple – would be OK.

“Hey,” I said, reading another sign as we crossed a bridge. “Crawfish River!”

“That’s where I got the name for my Crawfish zine,” she said.

I’ve seen those signs for Oconomowoc and the Crawfish River, many, many times since that night. I saw those signs today, driving to and from Racine for Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws. Sometimes I’m lazy, and the signs don’t literally bring a smile to my lips. Always, though, every time, riding with Stephanie for all those years or riding without her today, those signs make me smile inside.

* * * * * * * * * *

We stayed at Stephanie’s apartment for several days, meeting and then saying goodbye to her friends. There was a big going-away party at a pizza place, where it was probably obvious how astoundingly uncomfortable I was, hanging out with a dozen strangers and trying to remember their names, as they grilled me – gently and politely, but still – on who the heck I was and why the heck I was taking Stephanie away.

I remember meeting Amy and Matt, two of Stephanie’s friends from childhood, who were not a couple and weren’t even together in the same place at the same time; I’m just mentioning them in the same sentence because they’d both been in the Lighthouse program (the genius classes Steph attended as a child). Also mentioning them because they’re the only people I met in Madison that week that I ever saw again, which is why I remember their names.

Steph drove a bright gold Ford Festiva that she called the Screaming Yellow Zonker, which she had sold but continued driving. I’m partly cloudy on that arrangement, but I think she’d taken a check from the buyer, but agreed not to deposit it until she’d left town, at which time she would mail him the keys and tell him where the car was parked. People are trusting that way in the Midwest, or at least used to be.

Steph had quit her job at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, a dairy industry group in Madison. She had humdrum, ordinary office duties, and some duties not so ordinary. She liked the part of her job where she was supposed to look through “women’s” magazines and other publications that include recipes, and add the recipes to WMMB’s database if they included cheese as a major ingredient. That’s a sweet job responsibility, if you’re someone who loves to cook. Oh, and the Milk Marketing Board had milk on tap in the office, your choice of either homogenized or chocolate.

Steph showed me the WMMB offices, and she took me to WORT, the community radio station in Madison, where she volunteered, overseeing the nightly newscast one night a week – Mondays, I believe. I met a few voices and names I still hear on WORT today. The Zonker had a flat tire when we came out of the WORT building, and we jacked it up and changed the tire, got mud and snow all over our clothes, and laughed about it.

She lived in a studio apartment on Mifflin Street, which seemed to be a comfy, homey neighborhood, but she said she wouldn’t miss it. It was too close to the college, so there were often drunk students hollering on the sidewalk or in the distance. And it was ground zero for the annual Mifflin Street Block Party, which has since been tamed by the cops, but back then it was basically a few thousand drunks pissing on your hubcaps one afternoon.

What else do I remember, from my visit to Madison? Not a lot, really. I remember shopping at the Mifflin Street Co-Op, a cramped and crowded little store half a block from Stephanie’s place, with a beautiful mural on the outside wall; the Co-Op is now gone, but the mural remains. I remember walking a few blocks in the other direction to a hardware store that’s still there, to buy bungee cords we’d need for packing. And I remember a superb lunch at a place called the Radical Rye, a sandwich shop run by hippies or ex-hippies; now gone.

Stephanie had another tummy ache one night, like she’d had in San Francisco, but this time she had Maalox handy. And on our last morning in Madison, Steph and I walked along the shores of Lake Monona as the sun came up, and it was post-card beautiful. Then we dropped her apartment keys at the landlord’s office, and dropped the car keys in the mail. We rented a truck from U-Haul, and practiced driving it in an empty parking lot, then loaded it with everything Stephanie owned, with help from a few of her friends.

I remember wondering why Stephanie was giving up what seemed to be a comfortable life, to come live with me. Our apartment in San Francisco was a dump, compared to the apartment she was leaving. In San Francisco she’d have no friends except for me, and whatever strangers she could convert to friends. She’d have no family nearby, and no job, no car.

There was no doubt that I loved Stephanie and she loved me, and that we were going to be better together than either of us had been apart. But as we drove away in that big orange U-Haul truck, I was worried that somehow I was going to screw something up.

* * * * * * * * * *

Returning to the here and now, today was exhausting – a long drive, a big meal, an afternoon of being sociable, and then a long drive home, followed by several hours writing my memories about our first Thanksgiving, and about leaving Madison with Stephanie, all those years ago. One important Thanksgiving tradition remains, and I haven’t forgotten, but I’ll need to postpone it until tomorrow, first thing in the morning. Right now it’s past midnight, and I’m triple-tuckered and need to sleep.

Posted 11/22/2018.

More about Stephanie.

The mystery of the watch

Stephanie had a watch that she liked. Nothing ornate, just an old-style watch with an hour hand, a minute hand, and a second hand. What made it a little different was that the face had an interesting design, with clouds and a sun or moon at noon or midnight. It’s rather nice, for a cheap watch. She had that watch when we first met, but it eventually stopped working. She tried replacing the battery, but time still stood still. Yet she continued wearing it, occasionally glancing at her wrist, then frowning and asking me what time it was.

So we went watch-shopping at a department store, and she was delighted to find that the same watch design was still available. She bought a new watch exactly like the old watch that had stopped. It wasn’t expensive, but it also wasn’t too well-made, and after a few years the new watch also stopped running. Again, she continued wearing it, even though it only told the right time twice every day.

By this point Stephanie was in a wheelchair, and a trip to the department store would have been a bit of a chore for her, so she asked me to find a replacement. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a third watch of exactly the same design. After checking several stores and searching on-line, I bought her a watch that was similar, but without the pretty design on the face. She was briefly disappointed, but wore that third watch for the rest of her life. I brought it home from the hospital, among her other effects.

As I was cleaning the bedroom at home and sorting through her possessions, I found one of the watches that had stopped. It wasn’t forgotten at the back of a drawer or under dust deep in a box; it was on her nightstand. Picture me scratching my head. Is this the replacement watch, or the original watch? They’d both stopped, and I had assumed that they’d both been tossed in the trash. They were $19.99 watches, not keepsakes. Whichever watch it was, it hadn’t told time for years, yet she kept it within arm’s reach beside the bed.

Connecting the clues, my suspicion is that the watch held some special significance for her, more than merely a watch. Perhaps it was a gift from someone? Perhaps she bought the first watch during her travels to Russia or England? Perhaps there’s a story more interesting than that? Whatever that story might be, Stephanie never told me, so I’ll never know.

Posted 11/17/2018.

More about Stephanie.

What saddens me most is the curds.

curds.jpg

There’s not a lot of Steph’s food still in the refrigerator, but tossing it seems wasteful and distasteful. So I’ve done nothing with it; done nothing for too long, to be honest. A mostly-empty green plastic tube of pre-grated Parmesan. Two half-gone bottles of her preferred salad dressing, one Blue Cheese and one Thousand Island. A jar of shrimp sauce, which she used as a dip for cream cheese on crackers.

I don’t want to eat it – this was her food, not mine – and I don’t want to junk it, but some of the cheese has begun changing color or sprouting hair, and there’s a beer that must be skunky by now. Goodbye, cheese. Down the drain, beer.

There’s a bottle of moscato that’s been chilling in the fridge for several months. It was supposed to go well with a dinner Steph had prepared in June or July, but we forgot to put it out that night, so it’s still waiting to have its cork popped. I don’t often drink alcohol, but I’ve kept the moscato as an emergency kit, in case I get the blues extra-bad some night and decide to go on a bender.

What saddens me most is the curds. We bought a giant sack of curds when my family visited, just a few weeks before Stephanie died. Steph was crazy about curds, just loved ‘em. I like curds, but can’t bring myself to even nibble on these. And I’m not absolutely sure, but if memory serves Stephanie bought these curds herself, and that would make them the very last thing she purchased with money or plastic out of her own wallet. It would be truly difficult, maybe impossible, for me to simply toss them in the trash.

And there we are. I don’t know what to do with Stephanie’s curds, and yeah, I feel stupid even wondering about it. I ought to just throw them out and forget about it, but – I can’t. Instead I slid the sack of curds inside an oversized plastic baggie, to protect either the curds or the rest of the food in the fridge. Maybe I’ll let the curds be a refrigerated extension to the Shrine, sitting in the fridge forever and ever, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, curds to mold.

* * * * * * * * * *

Here’s an email from my brother: “Are you OK?” I haven’t answered his last several emails stretching back a few weeks, so I suppose I deserve that. I’ll answer his emails. Hey, I’m alive and well. But of course, I’m not at all “OK.”

A couple of months ago, I lost my best friend, and the meaning in my life. It would be an exaggeration to say there’s no pleasure or no joy; I’ve laughed once in a while, and had occasional happy moments since being alone. But a quarter-inch below the surface, there’s no point to any of it. There’s no warmth, nothing that matters.

I am always, always, teetering on the brink, five seconds from bursting into tears. My big progress is that lately, I don’t think it looks like I’m five seconds from crying. My long-term goal is to make it to ten.

It’s still awful coming home to she’s-not-there. I’ve always been an early riser, and Stephanie liked to sleep late, so being home alone isn’t much different than being home in the old days, when she was asleep in the morning and I’d be puttering around on the computer or watching an old movie on Netflix. But coming home to an empty apartment? That’s the worst thing in the universe.

Steph was everything I had in life, and everything I wanted in life.

For about ten minutes I’ve been staring at the previous sentence. It means more than I meant it to mean, and I’m trying to wrap my head around it. I had everything I wanted in life, which is extraordinary. Not many people can say they had everything they wanted in life, but I can say it and it’s true. And now, everything I wanted in life is gone.

Posted 11/11/2018.

More about Stephanie.

Falling in love.

Alcatraz.jpg

Here’s Part 1 of Stephanie’s visit to San Francisco. Here’s Part 2, and Part 3, and what follows is the end of her trip, a/k/a Part 4.

If you’re showing San Francisco to a visitor, don’t skip Alcatraz. It’s one of those rare tourist attractions that’s everything you’ve been led to expect, but also more. On the off chance anyone is unfamiliar with Alcatraz, it’s a former federal prison on an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The roughest and scariest prisoners were sent there, because escape seemed impossible – even if an inmate found a way out of the prison, how would he get across the water?

Alcatraz was exhausting, because there’s a lot of walking, and sobering, because there’s a lot to think about. Stephanie and I spent hours on the grounds, walking past hundreds of empty but unchanged prison cells, and it’s simply not a place for light conversation or joking around. When we broke for lunch, our conversation was about what justice ought to mean, and how prisons ought to be run, which is largely the opposite of how prisons are run. We were entirely in agreement, and while our day at Alcatraz wasn’t intended as a test, it allowed each of us to verify that the other was capable of a deep, serious conversation. In my life, I’ve known a fair number of people who simply couldn’t or wouldn’t have gone even a few sentences into the conversation Steph and I had that afternoon.

Over the rest of Stephanie’s stay in San Francisco, I tried to show her the town, because San Francisco in the 1990s was undeniably cool and I was proud of it. The Bohemians hadn’t yet been forced out of town by impossible rents, Haight-Ashbury still had an echo of its groovy vibe from the ‘60s, and a grand time could be had for the price of a ticket on BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system we took rides to the end of the line and back on every BART route, just to talk and hold hands, and see the sights out the window.

We didn’t visit San Francisco’s famous Fisherman’s Wharf, because that’s just a gaudy tourist trap. We did visit Golden Gate Park, because it’s gorgeous and inviting, just like Stephanie. We saw the Mission, since that’s the part of town where I lived. We had lunch in the Castro, the rainbow flag-flying neighborhood where outcasts from everywhere else gather to become each others’ families. We rode on the cable cars, halfway to the stars. We went to the zine store, where Zine World and oodles of other homemade newsletters and magazines were on the shelf.

The first movie we saw together (first of hundreds, maybe thousands) was Barbie Nation, a documentary about Barbie dolls, at the Roxie Theatre. It was my idea to see that movie; it looked interesting, and the Roxie was literally just around the corner from where I lived. We shared a big bowl of buttery popcorn, and we both thought the flick was excellent, with a lot to say about how girls are gently nudged toward gender conformity, and judged on their appearance so much more than boys are. Steph was impressed by the movie, and impressed by me for suggesting it.

So I scored points for being a feminist, which I am and always have been. Ask me about women’s liberation, and I’ll just say it shouldn’t be radical or outrageous to believe that women deserve the same rights and opportunities as men. It ought to go without saying, but apparently it still needs to be said.

We went to City Lights, the famous book store and publisher of Howl by Allen Ginsberg, and books by André Breton, Charles Bukowski, Sam Shepard, and much of the pantheon of 20th Century American literature. If you care about books or reading or the English language, City Lights is where your heroes hang out, and we spent hours there. I got lost in the basement, and we left with a bag of books for a reasonable price.

In the same neighborhood, we strolled past the hungry i (lower-case intentional), the legendary nightclub that gave big career boosts to many famous comedians, including Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Professor Irwin Corey, Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, Mort Sahl – on and on. We strolled past the place but didn’t go inside, because these days their only entertainment is “exotic dancers.” It’s become a strip joint with a famous sign out front.

We went to an Oakland A’s baseball game, our first of many. We both liked baseball, a lot, and I’m not certain but we may have gone to our second Oakland A’s game too, during Steph’s two-week visit. It’s the perfect date activity – you’re outside and there’s entertainment, but it’s slow-paced entertainment, without much to interrupt an easy-going conversation between two people falling in love.

This was pre-9/11, so security guards weren’t yet digging through everyone’s backpack, and to save money on concessions I packed some sandwiches – tuna, and peanut butter and jelly. She ate a sandwich and a half without complaint during the game, but told me later that the sandwiches were far too dry – the tuna needed more mayo, and the PBJs needed more jelly. Sorry, Love.

I brought her to the office where I worked, and that was a calculated risk. It was a porn magazine, and even though I only did clerical work – data entry and proofreading and such – lots of ladies might have hesitations about a man who worked there. Steph, of course, was fine with it. (By the way, my boss at that job was a great guy, and he’s passed away since then, as has the magazine, but he’d scowl at me for calling it porn – “Doug,” he’d holler, “it’s not porn, it’s erotica!”)

In Chinatown, we visited one of the many family-run shops selling all sorts of Chinese-made doodads and trinkets, and Stephanie bought a sackful of stuff to take back to Madison and give to her family and friends as gifts. What got my attention, though, was that she didn’t take an hour dawdling around the two stories of store; she briskly walked through the place, focused on an area with affordable but interesting knickknacks, and we were in and out in about ten minutes. My lady didn’t dawdle.

We ate at a vegetarian Chinese restaurant up a flight of stairs in Chinatown. Why did we go to a vegetarian restaurant, when neither of us were vegetarians? Good question, and I don’t have a good answer, except that Stephanie was vegetarian-curious at the time. Chinese cuisine, for me anyway, is mostly about the meat, and the interesting sauces and breadings and dips they prepare – for the meat. So a Chinese dinner without meat was a screwball challenge, a dare we had to accept. And guess what? The food was bland, we left most of it uneaten, and we stopped at a McDonald’s on our way home. And never again did Stephanie express any interest in becoming a vegetarian.

The hamburger didn’t get along well with the meatless Chinese food, because later that night Stephanie said her tummy was troubling her, but she hadn’t remembered to pack her preferred antacid. I offered to run to a drug store and get it, and she said, “No, that’s silly. My stomach hurts but I’m perfectly capable of walking to a drug store.”

“Well, nobody doubts that you’re capable. I’m just doubting that’s what you want to do, ‘cuz you seem to be miserable. I’m your host and your friend, and I hope you’ll let me fetch what you need.”

She relented, and told me what brand and flavor of belly elixir she preferred. I was back in five minutes, and I didn’t even have to go to the drug store; there was a tiny this-and-that shop run by an old Pakistani guy, just a few doors down the street from my rez hotel, and they had Steph’s cherry-flavored Maalox on the shelf.

How many times did I run little errands like that for Steph, and she for me, over the rest of our time together? Many hundreds of times; that’s how many. We fetched newspapers for each other, and milk shakes, coffee, medicines, stamps, fuses, whatever. I only wish I could’ve run a few thousand more errands for her.

By her second or third day in San Francisco, Stephanie and I had decided that we were together for life. We were already married, in our hearts. The only question was whether I’d be moving to Madison or she’d be moving to San Francisco, and it was answered when we went to San Francisco’s Russian area, in the Richmond neighborhood.

Steph had a degree in Russian Language, she’d spent some time in Russia, and she was more than a little enthralled with all things Russian. It’s no surprise, then, that she was double-darn delighted to walk among all the Russian shops and churches, smell Russian food, and overhear people speaking Russian on the sidewalk. We stopped at a couple of Russianesque shops, and she bought some blini and pirozhki and ptichie moloko, all of which became our lunch. Then, while we were waiting for the avtobus back to my place, she said, “I have to move here. Madison is a great place to live, but San Francisco is better.”

With the benefit of hindsight, I’d say that’s wrong. I’ve now lived in Madison longer than I lived in San Francisco, and Madison is better, for myriad reasons I won’t list here. But right or wrong, the decision had been made that day, so we started planning Stephanie’s move to California.

Two weeks after she’d flown to Frisco for a one-week vacation, she flew back to Wisconsin, and we resumed writing to each other, letters long and frequent. We made many long-distance calls, and she packed, and we made the arrangements for our re-connection. The logistics would take a few months, but then we’d have forever.

Posted 11/10/2018.

More about Stephanie.