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.
Stephanie drove to the airport and picked me up, and I was nervous about seeing her again — would our magic still be there? We didn't re-click as immediately as we'd clicked in San Francisco, and there were times that afternoon when the silences weren't comfortable. It probably didn't help that I was nervous about meeting her parents, and Steph was nervous about introducing me to her parents.
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 at no point were her parents anything but pleasant. Then Steph and I were going to drive from Racine to her apartment in Madison, where we'd spend some time packing and saying goodbye to her friends, and then 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. Not in front of her parents, of course; she had too much Midwest Stoic in her for that, but she cried in the car on our way to Madison. She heard what her dad said 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 long stretches where neither of us had anything to say or knew what to say, 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. That was a gamble; this was a decision that would change our lives irrevocably.
After four months of letters and phone calls, we were together again, but 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.
"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. Tukwila. Puyallup."
"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 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 conversation started rolling as fast as the car, and after that it rarely slowed down. 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, driving to and from Racine to se Stephanie's parents, or to Milwaukee for a special night with Stephanie. 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), and also 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 the sales 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 they used to be. And in San Francisco we really wouldn't need a car.
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 and/or ex-hippies; it's now gone, too.
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, or everything.