Weekend in Reno

Stephanie and I never quite had a honeymoon. The closest we came was a weekend in Reno, after we'd been together for a year and a half.

We took the train from San Francisco. I've always been nuts about trains, which is mostly the reason Steph bought us Amtrak tickets for this trip. The train was frustrating, though, and hours late both coming and going. Every time a freight train needed to get past, our Amtrak train was idled, waiting on some of the world's ugliest side tracks, mostly in what seemed to be graffiti-painted and trash-covered industrial wastelands, while a fright train rumbled past at about three miles an hour.

When our train finally began moving, a park ranger coughed into the public-address system, introduced himself, and started an hour-long spiel about the train, the history, and the route. "Out the window on my left, you'll see blah-blah-blah." Possibly this was interesting if you were interested, but Stephanie and I really weren't. We wanted to talk, and to quietly enjoy the view, but that wasn't an option. Our train ride would be narrated, with no "off" button.

Steph had somehow snagged us a discounted room at an expensive hotel, and even the lobby was astounding. Never seen so many light bulbs blazing. And our room was beyond astounding — it was Stephanie's revenge for that night when I'd only told her we were going to a movie, without mentioning that the movie was at the fabulous Paramount Theater in Oakland.

Steph had only told me we had a room at the hotel, but the room was the honeymoon suite. It was huge, swanky, old-fashioned but brand new, and just generally ridiculous. From our tenth-floor windows, we could see everything in the glittery city below. Our toilet was gold (the color, not the metal), our bed was enormous and round, and there was a hot tub in our room. It was undoubtedly the fancy-scmanciest place we ever stayed, and then it got even fancy-schmancier.

Stephanie called her parents, long-distance. "Hey, Mom and Dad — I'm calling from Reno. Guess what?" And she told them that we had eloped, which wasn't true. We were never legally married, but Steph was worried that her parents might think less of her for "living in sin," so she made up our marriage. She was twenty-eight years old and worried what her parents might think, but I'm not judging her for it. Quite the contrary, I thought it was downright adorable that she cared so much about her parents' opinion.

As for being man and wife, well, I've already written somewhere on this site that we had pronounced ourselves married, and that settled the matter. Stephanie and I never saw the need for a priest or any paperwork to make it official. For us, it was always official.

We did a little gambling while we were in Reno, of course. That's the whole point of Nevada, isn't it? We played nickel-slots, and some keno, and a single hand of poker, and maybe a few other amusements. Did we come out ahead? Of course not. Everyone wins once in a while, because that's what keeps you interested, but big-picture it's almost impossible to come out ahead. Plus we didn't know what we were doing, so whatever we gambled, we absolutely lost. But it was fun. Then Stephanie played more keno while I took a nap in our room.

When Steph had called her parents and told them that we'd eloped, she wasn't expecting anything but "Congratulations," but they insisted on buying us dinner — from the hotel's room service. Steph had used a coupon to wangle a reduced rate for the room, but our meal from room service was not at a discount. It was maybe the most expensive meal we'd ever eaten. Stephanie felt guilty about her parents buying us a high-priced dinner on false pretenses, but she couldn't turn it down without admitting the truth, so … she ordered shrimp, I had steak and potatoes, and we had cheesecake for dessert.

Checking out of the hotel the next morning, though, Steph felt queasy, and on the train ride home she vomited up all the shrimp she'd eaten the night before. "Never should've ordered the seafood," she muttered between trips to the train's toilet. And then the park ranger introduced himself over the train's public-address system, and blathered again for an hour about the view out the window. Steph excused herself for a few more visits to the restroom, and when she finally started feeling better, it was just in time to enjoy a view of some deserted train-yard where our Amtrak idled, as again a freight train rolled past at the slowest possible speed.

Despite the puking and the annoying train ride, though, we'd had a delightful trip to Reno. "Don't order the seafood" became a running joke, and "playing keno" was our new euphemism for wasting time.

The next time we spoke on the phone with Stephanie's parents, we of course thanked them for dinner from room service, and told them how great it was. Steph mentioned that she'd gotten sick, but I don't think she told them that the expensive meal they'd bought for us was what she'd barfed up.

For me, the trickiest part of Stephanie's elopement ruse was that her parents would sometimes say, "Your third (or fifth, or fifteenth) anniversary is coming up, are you two doing anything special?" And I couldn't even remember what date or even what month was supposed to be our anniversary, because it wasn't our anniversary. It was just that weekend we once spent in Reno.

Saying it out loud

It always puzzles me when I'm told that some married couples don't say "I love you" very often. Some couples hardly ever say it, and saddest of all, some people have no-one to say it to.

If you have someone to say something sweet to, it's important that you say it. Tell the person that you love that you love that person.

Stephanie and I said it, often. Usually it was the short version — just plain "I love you" — but frequently we did the long version, with extended reasons why we loved each other.

The last time she gave me the long version, we were on a day trip, driving through some remote corner of Dane County, enjoying the scenery at 40 miles an hour. It was probably late July or early August, 2018. We'd packed a picnic, and eaten it at a small park, and we'd chatted about all the ordinary things — her drama at dialysis, my drama at work, and both of us wondering why the cat had left poop in the bathtub overnight, instead of in the litter box. It was an ordinary Sunday afternoon with Steph, which is to say, it was lovely, pleasant, exquisite. The best of all possible Sundays, just like the previous Sunday.

We tidied the table where we'd eaten, and drove away from whatever that tiny town was, and a few miles later Stephanie said, "You know, you're just the best."

"Nah, not me," I said.

"You're the best, Doug. You're the best friend I've ever had, and the best man I've ever known. You take me on picnics, and you put up with my bull, and you're taking care of me through all the kidney crap, which is more than you ever signed up for, when a lesser man might have left. I just want to say thank you again. I love you so much."

We traded syrupy sentiments like that once or twice a month, and always it was beautiful. Can't remember what I said in response, but no doubt it was something less than I should have said.

The last time I said such sweet things to her was a few days before she went into the hospital for the last time, so it would've been mid-August 2018. I opened the door, home from work, and she was sitting at the desk in the living room, and I kissed the back of her neck and said, "Holy smokes, I love you, Steph. All day at work I look forward to coming home to you, and all through every evening I enjoy hanging out with you, and all through the night I just love having you next to me. Thank you for being the best thing in my life."

Wish I'd said more, but who would've suspected it would be the last time she'd hear me say such things? And I don't remember what she said in response, but it was something kind, something thoughtful, no doubt. Something sweeter than I'll ever hear again.

Those are moments we treasured, and we're so lucky that we weren't the sort of people who let such sentiments go unsaid. If you have something kind to say to someone, well, what are you waiting for? Say it!

I still say sweet things to Stephanie sometimes, out loud here at home, or in the car, or whispered at work so no-one else can hear. Maybe not as often as when she was here to hear it, but just as heartfelt.

"Thank you, Stephanie, for every kind word, every little favor, every smile, every squeeze of your hand, everything you gave me, every way you made my unimportant little life seem wonderful. Thank you, Sweetheart, for teaching me, for holding me, for putting up with me, for feeding me, and for making me so much more of a decent human being than I'd been before you. Thank you, Steph. Always, I love you."

Leaving San Francisco

We'd lived in San Francisco for several years, and we were happy with almost everything about it — the semi-frenzied pace, the liberal consensus, the city's crowded but cool character, its beat and hippie history and haze, and the seemingly endless array of interesting neighborhoods, colorful people, quirky bookstores, and the easy ability, via Muni and BART, to get almost anywhere quickly, in the city or in the suburbs.

Stephanie and I had one major problem in San Francisco. The prices kept going up, up, and away, much faster than any hypothetical increases in income. The first of every month, when the rent was due, became a date to be dreaded. We were never even a day late with the rent, but paying it meant there were fewer and fewer things we could do for fun. And our idea of entertainment wasn't particularly highbrow or expensive; we liked books and movies, picnics and ball games, and little things like groceries and bus rides. It's frustrating to live in one of the world's great cities, when we couldn't afford to enjoy it. We were being evicted by the price tag.

And Stephanie had a second major problem in Frisco. She missed the Midwest ambiance — a difficult-to-define combination of common sense, kind strangers, and plain speaking, all of which she felt was commonplace in her native Wisconsin, but lacking in California. And she missed the weather.

The first time she confessed that she was homesick for the Midwest, was after we'd gone to see a movie at the Embarcadero Cinema. The movie's title and plot are long since forgotten, but it took place in the Midwest, and there was snow. Stephanie cried during the movie, but we both often cried at the movies, so I simply squeezed her hand. After the movie was over, though, she subtly cried in the lobby, and that was unusual. In public, Steph was almost always calm and composed and in control.

I steered us through the crowd toward one of the velvet-padded benches in the lobby, and we sat down. "That movie hit you harder than it hit me," I said.

"The movie was OK," she said. "I'm only crying because …" She hesitated, which was odd, because Steph always spoke her mind, and rarely hesitated. "Because some of the scenes were in the snow." Another long pause, before she explained, "and I miss the snow."

It just about never snows in San Francisco. We saw a few snowflakes falling once while we lived there, but none of the snow stuck to the ground. That's why Stephanie was crying. She'd been raised in the Midwest, so for all her life "winter" meant "snow," and she missed the snow, the seasons.

A brief break for science: In San Francisco and other coastal cities, the temperatures and weather are moderated by the nearness and hugeness of the ocean. That almost unfathomably enormous body of water on the city's edge prevents the mercury from climbing as high or plunging as low as it does a thousand (or even a hundred) miles inland.

Without an ocean and with other dynamic differences to the weather patterns, summers in the Midwest are much hotter than in Frisco, and winters much, much colder. Wisconsin — where Stephanie was from, where she died, and where I still live — digs out from under more than three feet of snow every winter (not all at once, thankfully). Winter in San Francisco means wearing a windbreaker. Winter in the Midwest means shoveling your way out of a parking space in the morning, or standing on plowed piles of snow-frozen-solid while waiting for a city bus.

And Stephanie was right about the other intangibles of the Midwest — the vibe, the feeling, the ambiance. After living in Madison for 15 years, I'm beginning to understand the Midwest that Steph had missed in San Francisco. Back then, though, my understanding of the Midwest mystique was nil. I'd never lived anywhere that wasn't within an hour of an ocean. "You want to move to the Midwest?," I probably said. "OK, sure." I was neither excited nor disappointed at the prospect. I would've moved to Vermont or Alaska or Brooklyn, wherever Stephanie wanted to live, so long as we could be together.

The American Midwest is a sprawling concept, generally defined as everything from Michigan and Ohio on the east, to North Dakota to Nebraska on the west. It's a dozen states, and much of it is farmland and tiny towns, but we wanted to live someplace urban.

To determine our destination, we made a spreadsheet, not on a computer but on old-fashioned paper. We listed all the major cities of the region, researched them, and charted their pluses and minuses. We had eight candidates: Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Minneapolis-St Paul, Omaha, and St Louis.

There were four cities we didn't consider at all: Cincinnati is literally across a bridge from Kentucky, and we knew we didn't want to live in the South. Chicago, we thought, is just too darned big, and too likely to prove unaffordable, same as San Francisco. And Steph eliminated Milwaukee and Madison, because Wisconsin was home for her. "I'm homesick," she said, "but I'm also loving the adventure of living in a new and unfamiliar place, making our way in a city I don't know at all. I still want that adventure, just in a Midwestern city."

We Googled a thousand things, and spent evenings and weekends at the library researching Midwestern cities. We considered each city's unemployment rates over recent years, the presence of major or minor league baseball, the number and niceness of each city's parks, and a long list of other factors. We looked at maps of public transportation systems, and to get a feel for the electoral landscape we read about the political positions of each city's mayor. Over weeks of conversation we eliminated cities one by one, before finally making one of the biggest mistakes of our lives.

"I guess that settles it," I said.

"Yup," Steph said. "The decision has been made. We're moving to Kansas City."