There’s this one perfect little table upstairs at Zingerman’s Next Door , the café adjacent to the famous delicatessen. It’s in the insanely green room, right by the window, looking down on the picnic tables outside. It’s an ideal place for people watching, especially at lunchtime on a Saturday. Peering down, unnoticed, I keep seeing people I know. The problem is that they’re people I know from St. Louis. So it’s not really them. It’s their Ann Arbor doppelgangers, but each time I glance down, I forget that for a moment and feel again that warm sense of recognition before I understand, once again, that these are strangers.
We’ve been here two and a half weeks now, but it feels in many ways much longer than that. Which is a good thing. We feel like we belong, as much as anywhere in St. Louis, and maybe that’s precisely why I keep thinking I should be seeing people I know. Because we’re in that strange place where our comfort with the geography far outreaches our familiarity with the population.
All of this would feel stranger, I’m sure, did we not know just enough people here. We are not completely alone here. Fara is nearby and often in contact. The Butters are a car ride away in Ferndale. It’s highly likely that we could run into John Bacon or Charles Clover (the latter, at least, until the end of August) anytime we stop by Espresso Royale on State Street. And I’m making efforts to get out – lunching with Amy at 826 Michigan, planning workshops for the Fall, calling for Anusara yoga schedules, looking into knitting groups, flirting with the idea of taking sewing lessons. When we moved to Indianapolis in 2000, it was a completely different story. Chris had taken a job at the Indianapolis Star and I was flirting with ill health and serious mental burnout from a taxing marketing job, from which I escaped with just the barely recognizable remnants of my soul. Chris and I had not lived together before but our relationship had progressed so that neither of us remembers an actual conversation about moving together; it was just a given that if he went, I’d go along too.
At that time, Chris very generously encouraged me to go freelance. He was able to say out loud what I had been afraid to think: that my writing abilities were being squandered in the world of marketing, my energy wasted on the never-ending juggling act of account coordination. So I went freelance, which meant I was home, all day, alone in a new city.
It never quite felt like home. Living together was the easy part; the greatest gift of our relationship is that it has, largely speaking, never been a struggle to navigate. But I was not feeling well much of that year, my fibromyalgia kicking in at full force, my ego crushed by freelance rejections and my own fear of shooting high. And I had no friends.
I liked Indianapolis. More honestly, I liked our neighborhood. The Old Northside was within walking distance of downtown, a neighborhood of Victorian homes painstakingly renovated and painted cheerful alluring colors. I liked the idea of urban dwelling. It just never blossomed into much. I left the house for meetings and to go to the gym. I didn’t meet many people and the few I did just never seemed…right. And even though Chris and I had decided to marry and were planning our upcoming wedding, I wasn’t happy.
So it seemed fate intervened when the Indianapolis Star was bought by Gannett and Chris was lured back to the Post-Dispatch – almost exactly one year after our arrival. Everything wrapped up in a tidy package, we moved back to St. Louis and it was the right place to be.
At that time, Chris and I moved to get away from things. He wanted to try something new, to take on a job that would allow him to do the investigative reporting he loves best. The job there was a good one, but the specter of corporate newspaper ownership was not appealing. I was desperately trying to escape the world of marketing and, I realize now, a whole lot of fear. If I wasn’t going to work in marketing – which had been my fall-back position after my mother assured me no one actually made a living writing fiction – then what was I going to be when I grew up?
My point in this rambling stroll down memory lane is that this move to Ann Arbor is completely different. We weren’t looking to leave St. Louis, both of us comfortable in the city that had been home to us, both separately and together, for nearly 18 years. We had great friends, a good home, lots of connections and contacts and familiar places.
Yet when Chris got the fellowship and we moved to Ann Arbor last year, we experienced an amazing sense of comfort almost immediately upon arrival. It’s hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it – and I certainly hadn’t before – but it felt like a giant exhale, like a math puzzle finally made simple. It made sense to us. So while we’d had no designs on leaving St. Louis or the incredible group of people who hold us up there, we wanted to find a way to make Ann Arbor our home. And that’s what we did.
There’s none of the lost feelings I had with Indianapolis, which probably had as much to do with the place I was in my life as the place I was in the country. Chris and I are at a different place in our relationship than we were then. We’ve now been friends for nine years, together for seven, married for five and are stunned that it just keeps getting better over time.
I’m still struggling to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I’ve now stopped writing business materials for clients, which is a big financial sacrifice but leaves my soul and my brain freer for meaningful writing. And I’m trying to discover just what that is. If I keep writing essays or columns, will there be a book one day? Or will I take the chance I’m dancing around right now and write the short stories I loved best from the beginning, the things I began writing at age 13? Will I ever be disciplined enough to be anything more than a “pretty good” writer? I’m not sure.
I do know that for someone who hates to move, who despises the chore of meeting new people and doing the hard work towards intimacy and friendship, I’m doing okay with this latest change. It’s an absolute thrill to see your partner finally get a chance to do what he loves and what he’s best at. And despite the boxes in the basement still stuffed full of miscellany, we’re pretty settled in our digs here, pretty much at peace.
I realize that I’ve downsized the pleasures in my life in recent years. This morning it was 86 degrees by 10 am, unusually warm for Ann Arbor. The house was starting to feel muggy and so we headed out for, of all things, the Farmer’s Market in Kerrytown. It’s a relatively small affair, but it was absolutely teeming with folk crowding the aisles to sample and pore over a bounty of goods. Piles of peaches ‘n cream corn, kernels peeking out from behind silky threads and drying green husks. Small mountains of ripe tomatoes, buckets of golden sunflowers, plastic crates of squash and zucchini in every shade of yellow and green. Green cardboard quarts of raspberries, blueberries and cherries so sweet and dark they look almost black. Small round plums I mistook for giant cherries. Plus herbs, plants, bouquets of fresh cut flowers. Locally made cheese, bread, honey and preserves. Amish men and women staying cool under their hats as they filled paper bags with green beans. Is there anything better than all that?
Then we escaped the heat by stepping into Zingerman’s where we enjoyed a pair of delectable Dirty Sheeds (toasting, as we always do, to Kim Porteous) and gazed out the window for a while. Then we moved to another room, squeezed out of the first by a giant and loud party, and plugged in our computers, sucking up the electricity, free wi-fi and air conditioning as we work on our various projects. Chris is hunkering down on his first major story, which will be on the site Monday and I’m, obviously, penning this rather cumbersome entry.
If I have a point here (and I’m not entirely convinced that I do), it’s that I’m happy. I like it here. I’m enjoying myself. That’s as good a point as any, right?