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by Andy Millman
She pointed at the TV and said we should go there, to the spot in Minneapolis where Mary Tyler Moore was tossing her hat into the air. A local station had been playing old sitcoms back to back every night and we’d catch them when there wasn’t much to do or enough money to do it. We were nestled on a couch in my small walk-up apartment in Rogers Park, an afghan over our laps and a bag of Doritos between us.
“Or,” I said, “We can visit spots from ‘The Bob Newhart Show’.” One of his episodes had just ended. “That’s probably only a couple L stops away. We can leave in the morning, see the building where he treated Mr. Carlson, and be back by lunch.”
“You need to think bigger,” she said.
I considered this over a Dorito. “Okay. We can also try to find the apartment where he and Emily lived.”
She stared at me blankly and we headed to Minnesota two days later.
I’d been working on Northwestern University’s Y2K team for almost a year—a group of a dozen or so computer software engineers charged with preventing a collapse of the school’s infrastructure when the clock struck midnight on December 31st and computers, which only used the last two years for dates, reset to zeros. The public feared shutdowns of our electric grid and the inadvertent launch of nuclear weapons. As a newly-minted graduate from the University of Illinois’s Computer Engineering program, I was responsible for something slightly less serious: securing uninterrupted processing of student fees, including cafeteria card payments. The new year was still months away and I was confident I could take a weekend off and still have plenty of time when I returned to ensure that students would be able to buy their corndogs without a hitch come January 1st. Caylee, conveniently, had no trouble taking time off because she currently was not working.
I filled my Subaru with gas, Diet Coke, and Twizzlers, and as we wound our way up Sheridan Road she opened the window and inhaled deep breaths of crisp air. Lake Michigan spoke to her in a language I had yet to translate. She’d grown up along its shore, about twenty miles north in the tony suburb of Lake Forest.
The road jutted west and she closed the window and turned toward me. “I made something for us,” she said.
“And what is that?”
She dug into her backpack. “A CD mix.”
“Why are we listening to bad radio when we can be playing your CD mix?”
She slipped it into the player. “There’s something the songs have in common. See if you can figure it out.”
It wasn’t hard to do. They were all cover songs, versions of pop hits from the 60s and 70s redone by alternative and punk bands from the 80s and 90s. When we got to the fourth track she turned up the volume before the song even started. It came on loud and fuzzy and though I wasn’t familiar with the version, I knew the song.
“Who’s doing this?” I asked.
“Hüsker Dü. They sometimes played it as an encore.”
“Their fans know the ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’ theme?”
“You and I do. Plus, the band is from Minneapolis. Maybe they play it for hometown pride.”
When the song ended she played it again. And then twice more. She called it the soundtrack for our trip. She sang along, loudly. I imagined she was singing about us, in this car, on this adventure, when she screamed “love is all around,” but maybe it was just to match the volume on the radio. The song had latched onto something inside her head. Ideas would come to her like that, also. They would drop in and establish residence and the only way to evict them was to act on them. This trip was only the latest example.
A few months earlier she’d insisted we build a fire where we first kissed, on the Northwestern University rocks where the campus touches the Lake Michigan shore. That kiss was after our first date, which was in early September. In December, when the idea arrived, it was bone-chillingly cold. I tried to dissuade her but I suspected I couldn’t. “Why don’t we wait until our anniversary,” I proposed, “or at least the first thaw?”
I picked up wood from my parents’ house and she brought marshmallows and wine. We grabbed copies of The Daily Northwestern at the student union to use as kindling and braced a bitter lake wind as we made our way to the rocks. Lights from the nearby walking path provided some illumination, but little in the way of navigation. The truth was that I didn’t remember the exact spot. I remembered other things from that night, like the spaghetti carbonara dinners we’d ordered at Dave’s Italian Kitchen. I’d left half on my plate because I can’t eat when I’m nervous. Caylee finished hers and took my leftovers. She radiated an energy that she later explained was anxiety, but that I’d misinterpreted as enthusiasm. Maybe it was both. She jumped from topic to topic, but skipped over the superficiality of standard first date subjects. Instead of talking about jobs and backgrounds, she asked which actor would portray me in a movie about my life. She asked if I could create or eliminate a law, what it would be. She asked what made me happy.
Back on the frozen beach, I remembered the kiss, and all that led up to it. Holding her hand as we climbed on the rocks. Seeing the sunlight catch her eyes and asking if they were hazel. Noticing the tiny chip on her front tooth. Her reaching up and taking my Cubs hat and putting it on her head backwards. I could picture her smile and hear the waves and feel her leaning into me. All of that I remembered. Where we were when it all happened, I could just guess.
“Here we are,” I said, looking around at the ice and snow like I was Armstrong ready to plant a flag on the moon. I figured we were in the right vicinity. We gathered rocks and arranged them into a circle. Caylee tore part of the newspaper into shreds and I found some sticks to throw on top of them. She knelt down and began arranging the sticks into a little pyramid. I resisted the urge to hurry her along. Once it was constructed to her satisfaction, she stood up and kissed me, a reenactment of that first kiss. She then took a lighter from her coat pocket and turned her back to the lake, where the wind was picking up. I moved close and cupped my hands around hers, and after a few unsuccessful tries, she was able to light the sports section. She lowered this to the shreds of newspaper. A few lit and then quickly took flight, carried off in a gust that brought them to an icy mound about twenty feet away, where they sparkled and died. She tried a couple more times, but with no more success. Eventually she said, “Fuck this,” and kicked snow on the pyramid, collapsing it to the ground. We rushed to the car and headed downtown to catch the midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, where we ate the marshmallows and drank the wine.
It’s one thing to change plans ten minutes from home, it’s quite another when every minute brings you a mile farther away. We’d been on the tollway for a half hour when she turned off the CD and grew silent. “Everything okay?” I asked. She said she was just tired. I wasn’t so sure. Her moods changed like Chicago’s weather, with unexpected fronts moving in and out. I began doing the math in my head. There were four hundred miles between home and Minneapolis. Our plan was to stop in Madison for the night and hit Minneapolis the next day. There were, conservatively, seven hours left in the car together. We passed by Great America, the outdoor amusement park where I’d dislocated my shoulder on the Tilt-A-Whirl in seventh grade. “We’ll be in Milwaukee in about an hour,” I said. “Instead of going all the way to Minneapolis, why don’t we just stop there and see the diner from ‘Happy Days’?”
“I never liked ‘Happy Days’,” she said.
She’d first tried therapy when she was eleven. She was an only child from a well-to-do family and she sometimes joked, or maybe it wasn’t a joke, that if her family hadn’t had money they never would have been able to afford therapy and she’d probably be a lot happier. Her dad had owned two popular steakhouses, one downtown and one in Buffalo Grove, a Chicago suburb. He worked long hours and Caylee described him as generous with everything but his time. Her mom was part of a circuit of mothers who joined philanthropic boards, volunteered at schools, held luncheons, and exercised as if they were training for the marines. Caylee’s mom focused on tennis and apparently was pretty good. She won a mixed doubles tournament with her coach and Caylee suspected that eventually they were mixing it up off the court, too. By the time Caylee started college, both her parents’ marriage and the family business were on their last legs. Now her dad lived in Ft. Myers, married to someone Caylee had met only twice, and her mom settled into a small apartment in Lincoln Park, where she no longer played tennis.
I once asked Caylee what an eleven-year-old talks about with a therapist, and she said whatever they want. “They want you to talk about your mom and dad, but I talked about other kids and TV shows and movies.”
“Why did you go in the first place?”
“Because of my mom and dad,” she said, “just like everyone else.”
Our Minnesota trip, like our relationship to that point, was during one of her breaks from therapy. She’d call for these like timeouts in a game where she needed a breather. She’d complain of going over the same ground over and over during therapy. “It’s like I’m playing reruns of the worst episodes from my own TV show.”
During the therapy-free times she’d throw herself into various and seemingly unrelated projects. Since I’d met her, she’d started to learn French, make pottery, and study Baha’i. Historically, most of these pursuits lasted about six months, after which she’d grow bored or discouraged or both, and as we approached the same mark in our relationship, I began to worry about my own expiration date.
“Tell me about the story you’re working on,” I said while throwing change into the toll bucket. She’d been taking a class on picture book writing at a local community center.
“A frog hops from one lily pad to another trying to find the one that feels right.”
I’m no therapist and I’d never been to therapy, but it didn’t seem difficult to find the meaning in this.
“I assume you relate to the frog,” I said.
“More like one of the pads,” she said.
About an hour later we stopped at a Milwaukee diner, though not the one from “Happy Days”. I asked about her friend Becca, whom we’d be staying with in Madison for the night. They’d been roommates their freshman year at the University of Wisconsin, and though Caylee had dropped out after that first year, Becca made sure they kept in touch. Now she was a single mom with a son, Forrest, who was the product of a sperm donation by three of Becca’s closest friends. Because of the joint donation, and I did not inquire about the logistics of this process, the father’s identity remained unknown.
“Won’t he look more like one than the other two?” I asked.
“I suppose so,” she said. “But maybe Becca picked three of her friends that resembled one another.”
This was one of those statements that seemed to flow so naturally from Caylee but would puzzle me. I tried to assemble in my head three of my female friends who looked like one another. This was especially difficult because I didn’t have three female friends, unless I counted this new intern at work. We got along well, but seeing as I’d only known her for a month, it was probably too early to inquire about her eggs.
“Does Becca have three male friends who look like each other AND she feels comfortable enough asking for their sperm?”
Caylee stirred the ice in her Diet Coke. “She’s very outgoing.”
Caylee wanted to drive after dinner and I was happy to oblige. We arrived in Madison around ten, and based on the volume of drool on my chin, I must have dozed for quite a while. I wiped it off before getting out and meeting Becca. As the saying goes, there’s only one chance to make a first impression.
Becca greeted us at the front door and asked that we keep our voices down because she’d just gotten Forrest back to bed. Once inside, she grabbed Caylee and pulled her into a tight hug. She was a couple inches taller than Caylee, and maybe a couple pounds heavier, but they looked like they could be sisters. They both had chestnut-colored hair and wore it the same way, parted in the middle and brushed back to just below the shoulders. They kept their hands on one another’s arms after embracing, making small talk about the ride and the baby.
Becca then turned to me, apologized, and broke off from Caylee in order to give me a one-armed hug. She took our coats, told us to drop our bags, and led us into the kitchen, where she made some tea. Caylee and I sat at a square wooden table marked with words and doodles. I knew Becca worked at a restaurant and I assumed this had been a castoff. Maybe it was because someone had written in big black letters, “DON’T LET YOUR MEAT LOAF,” which I believe was also inscribed in my seventh grade yearbook. Drawings, probably from Forrest, covered the refrigerator door, and a collection of cactuses stood on the windowsill above the sink. The house was chilly and Becca wore a fuzzy gray robe over sweatpants and a sweater. She handed us mugs of tea and then got one for herself. After she sat, she rested her elbows on the table, her tea held in both hands, and focused on Caylee as if she was waiting for a movie to start. When Caylee simply drank her tea, Becca asked about the massage school, which Caylee had left a few weeks before meeting me. Then the show began.
“I think I’m an affectionate person,” Caylee said. “I had this cat, Clyde, when I was growing up. He would sleep on my chest. He was the last thing I saw when I turned out the light and the first thing I saw when I turned it on. I loved the shit out of that cat.”
I knew about Clyde because Caylee kept a picture of him on her refrigerator. He was on a kitchen counter, where I was told he preferred his meals.
“I think I’m affectionate with humans, too,” she said and then paused. Becca and I both nodded to indicate yes, she was sufficiently affectionate.
“I have no trouble touching other people,” she continued. “But this felt different, too intimate. I guess I’d never touched strangers in that way. Hell, I never even touched people I know that way. I’m not sure I’ve ever given anyone a massage.”
“I’ve never gotten one from you,” I said.
“Me either,” Becca added.
“You’d think there’d be something in the admission process, wouldn’t you? Like you’d come in and they’d have a bunch of strangers lying down with their shirts off and you’d go touch them and then the dean or someone would ask you how it felt.”
“It’s a for-profit school,” I said. “They don’t want to give you reasons to not sign up. And do massage schools have deans?”
Caylee ignored the question. “It was like those baking classes,” she said. “I never eat eggs but I didn’t realize how hard it would be for me to work with them.”
“Why can’t you work with eggs?” Becca said.
I knew the answer to this one. “It’s the whole birth thing,” Caylee said. “I felt like I was disrupting the natural order.”
“They aren’t fertilized,” Becca said.
“I don’t care,” Caylee said. “I wouldn’t want someone making batter out of my ovaries.”
Becca seemed unfazed by this logic. “When I was pregnant I ate eggs all the time. They’re packed with protein. I averaged four hard boiled a day.”
“I’d rather have a miscarriage,” Caylee said.
It was time to excuse myself. I thanked Becca, kissed Caylee on the cheek, and told the two to stay and catch up.
Becca’s roommates, a lesbian couple from Des Moines, were out of town and we were given their room for the night. Unlike the living room and kitchen, their bedroom was uncomfortably warm. A window was half open and allowed plenty of street noise to seep in but not much cool air. Wooden bookshelves lined two walls and I skimmed over the titles, wondering if I could tell these were lesbians’ books if no one had told me. How would I tell? By topic? Genre? Author? My computer science curriculum had limited the number of liberal arts classes I could take and it left a hole in my education. I’m still not sure if George Eliot was a man or a woman.
When I awoke the next morning I reached for Caylee but came up empty. The house was quiet and I assumed Becca and Forrest were still asleep. I padded into the living room and found her on the couch, a worn blanket draped around her shoulders. She must have heard me coming because she wasn’t startled when I sat next to her.
“Hey,” I said softly. “Are you okay?”
She didn’t look at me. “Yep.”
“Did you sleep?”
“Do you want to talk?”
“Not really,” she said.
We got ready quietly, ostensibly to not wake Becca or Forrest, but also because I knew conversation was not welcome. I’m fairly systematic and logical and I often think in terms of actions and reactions. I assumed that something transpired between Caylee and Becca, not necessarily a fight or even a disagreement, but something that tipped Caylee into the direction I now found her in. Sometimes I was right with this line of thinking, but often I was wrong. Caylee would tell me there was little rhyme or reason to why she felt the way she did. In the beginning of our relationship when I saw her mood darken, I would probe for the problem and isolate it. Then I would examine it and consider solutions, after which I would test them in order of likely effectiveness. This was a great method for solving computer viruses, but a horrible one for helping Caylee.
One day, maybe a month into our relationship, we were struggling through a particularly uncomfortable brunch when I put down my fork and asked her, for at least the fourth time since we’d been served our coffee, what was wrong. She told me that whatever it was had nothing to do with me, that our relationship was fine, and that she had no idea what was bothering her—except for my questions. When I asked what, if anything, I could do to help (I know, another question), she took a pen and notebook from her backpack and began scribbling. I pushed my plate away and watched her, but I couldn’t make out what she was writing or drawing. The waitress came by and collected the plates and a twenty I slid to her. Caylee folded the paper in half and handed it to me as she got up.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” she said and headed for the door.
I unfolded the paper. A cartoon bee was sitting on a big flower. Another bee, a bigger one, was flying around a few inches away. This bee wore a smile and thick black glasses, just like I did. At the bottom of the page, written in her unmistakable cursive, were two words: “Just BEE.”
Now, five months later and one-hundred and fifty miles away, it was my turn to write a note. I scratched out a quick thanks to Becca for hosting us and a brief apology for leaving without saying goodbye. Caylee was still in the bathroom when I left the note on the kitchen table and went out to warm up the car. Dawn was just breaking and it was colder than it had been in Chicago. It took a few turns for the engine to catch and more effort than I wanted to exert to chip the ice off the windshield. After clearing enough of it to see most of the road, I climbed back in the car and waited. I wasn’t sure if we’d be heading north or south once Caylee came out.
On the way back from Minnesota we saw a wooden sign outside a small farm in Tomah, Wisconsin, advertising kittens for sale. Caylee was driving and she pulled onto the gravel shoulder. Before I could comment, she was out and heading up a crooked path.
She rapped her knuckles on the door several times. A woman in a housecoat answered. Her hair was long, frizzy, and gray, and instead of greeting us, she said, “Follow me.” She led us down a narrow hallway and into a living room at the back of the house. A small black and white TV was playing “Judge Judy” and the reception was going in and out. “Watch your step,” she said.
I’m unsure how many kittens there were. One was trying to jump onto the couch. Another was attacking a rolled-up sock. Several were bunched together and jostling around for a comfortable position to sleep. Caylee got onto the floor and began examining each one. A large gray cat, possibly the mother, was asleep on the back of a tattered chair.
The woman and I stood off to the side. I watched Caylee, and the woman watched Judge Judy. Caylee tickled one of the kittens and it attacked her hand with all four of its legs. The TV show broke for a commercial and the woman looked at me but didn’t say anything. I felt the need to make some sort of small talk.
“Was this planned?” I asked.
“Was what planned?”
“The pregnancy,” I said, realizing after it was too late how stupid that sounded.
“It might have been planned by God,” she said. “It sure wasn’t planned by me.”
Now that the discussion of the cat’s love life was over, I waited to see what Caylee would do. She decided that, yes, she definitely wanted a kitten. And she wanted the one who had bitten her hand (and subsequently went after my shoe and several of his siblings). Caylee said she liked the way he “attacked life.” The woman wanted fifteen dollars and Caylee gave it to her.
I drove that last leg home. Caylee cuddled and cooed with her new kitten while I thought about our trip. We’d spent less than twenty-four hours in Minneapolis, and much like our excursion to the Northwestern beach, we couldn’t be sure if we found what we were looking for. A friendly traffic cop had guided us to an intersection on Nicollet Ave., which looked like every other intersection in downtown Minneapolis and not necessarily like the one from the show, but he told us that was the spot. Caylee dug into her backpack to retrieve the hat, which she’d found at a Chicago thrift store and resembled the one Mary used at the beginning of her show. “Here goes nothing,” she said, and threw it into the air, just like Mary did. Rather than being swept into the air like an excited kite, it rose a few feet and fell back to the curb. There was no music, no freeze frame of the passers-by looking on in wonder. No one around us stopped or even seemed to take much notice. Maybe they’d seen it all before, so maybe we were in the right place. I bent to pick up the hat, but Caylee told me to leave it.
The kitten fell asleep and we batted around names for him. My suggestions—Lou, Ted, Murray—were straight from Mary’s show, but Caylee’d already switched that channel. She didn’t want to talk about the show or even our short time in Minnesota. I sensed a shift, not only with our TV schedule, but in our relationship. At home we’d spend a day or two together and retreat to our separate apartments before things ever got too awkward or difficult. We never had to work through the inevitable rockiness that all relationships experience. In this car and on this trip, I felt as if there was no escaping and no real attempt to navigate through it.
By Kenosha she settled on the name Felix, not based on Felix the Cat, she said, but Felix Unger, the persnickety roommate on the “Odd Couple”.
“I like the way he doesn’t fit in, knows he doesn’t fit in, and can’t change his ways even if he’d like to,” she said.
“I think it’s a great name,” I said, but she already seemed someplace else.
When she fell asleep Felix crawled onto my lap. I placed my hand over him. He felt delicate and I worried that if I stopped suddenly he’d fly out of my grasp and into the dashboard. I’d never had a cat, or any kind of pet for that matter. I held him tight, which he didn’t seem to like because he bit the fleshy area between my thumb and middle finger. Momentarily steering the car with my knees and holding Felix in one hand, I unzipped my jacket half-way with the other. I carefully placed him inside. He scrambled around for position, his bony legs prodding around my chest. After a few twists and turns he seemed to settle. I zipped up a bit and cupped his tiny body in one hand. I thought about Caylee’s cat, Clyde, sleeping on her chest while she was growing up. I wondered if Felix, or I, or anyone, would ever be able to provide to her what he had. She was sleeping soundly now, breathing deeply through her mouth, her head resting against the window. Felix began to purr. I turned off the radio so I could listen.