If I'm gonna die, dammit, I am NOT dying in Chicago.

So, you wanted to know what, exactly, happened on that mysterious weekend in Illinois? This is the overwhelming majority of a letter that I sent to a couple of people while I was there, regaling them with the weirdness that always comes with a domesticat roadtrip.

Laugh, and be thankful you were you, and not me, during the course of this particular weekend:

Aaron apparently told Geof that I was boisterous and funny. I guess this is good; Geof’s on me all the damn time to quit being so bloody quiet all the time. I thought I’d come out here and just, y’know, try letting it all hang out for few days. See if I scared him off. Doesn’t seem like it….

Anyway. Things started getting weird the next day. Aaron had to fly to Pittsburgh for a Christmas party. He was scheduled to fly out Saturday morning and get back Sunday afternoon.

The problem: his mother pitched an absolute fit about my staying here while Aaron wasn’t here. The “she-could-steal-you-blind” routine. Funny, she seemed to overlook the “small-woman-drives-far-from-home-to-stay-with-strange-man” factor, i.e., that I probably had infinitely more to fear from strangers than they had to fear from me.

The short version: she was going to pitch a screaming fit if I was here and Aaron wasn’t. I offered to make nice and go to Chicago for a day to visit Matthew. I’d see an old friend and we’d keep his mother from coming over and trying to rip my eyes out with spoons or something.

Well, isn’t that always how it’s supposed to work?

I got up on Saturday morning. Wasn’t in a real hurry. Aaron got packed, and left for Bloomington. (Get an IL map; you’ll need it for this.) So I start packing up, and get ready to go, and then realize that I can’t find my keys. I tear the whole house apart and can’t find them. I’m freaking out. I call Aaron, who is equally freaked out because fog is keeping his plane on the ground.

Still can’t find my keys. Still know that his mother lives a mile from Aaron and is probably going to show up at some point.

A couple of hours pass. Many frantic phone calls back and forth with Aaron. Still no keys. Finally, we hit on a solution. I call Joy and Andrew, who live in Champaign (45 minutes away). They come out, pick me up, and we drive to Bloomington (another 30 minutes). I have Aaron’s main ring of keys, so I can open up his truck. Sure enough, there are my keys, in the floorboard of his truck.

Now, the dilemma. I call Aaron—what do I do? Joy & Andrew can drive me back to Decatur and I can pick up my car, but that will turn a 2-hour drive to Chicago into a 4-hour drive. Aaron says, “Take my truck. Just put some oil in it. It’s got some quirks, but you’ll be ok.”

(I drive the world’s quirkiest car already. Anyone who’s ever ridden in my car knows this—it seats approximately 1.5 people, threatens to shake apart at over 80mph, needs a new CV joint, has a transmission-fluid leak, has busted speakers, and has an enormous stain on the front floorboard after that little strawberry pie incident…. Did I mention that it’s also powered by four unionized hamsters that get cranky about working conditions when I try to drive up hills? Quirks? Bah. Quirks can be handled. Who needs a new car? It’s too fun to kvetch about the older ones.)

So I give Joy and Andrew enormous bear hugs, realizing they’re never going to let me live this one down. They heard my frantic-and-nearly-in-tears voice over many phone calls. I pile into this truck I’ve never driven before, adjust what I can, and prepare to head to Chicago by myself.

  1. The side mirrors can’t be adjusted. They point down at the ground.
  2. The driver’s side door can only be opened from the outside.
  3. The doors only unlock when the key is inserted a particular way.
  4. It tends to leak oil, necessitating my adding extra oil.

So I’m driving down the freeway in this truck in which I’ve only got one mirror, preparing to go into CHICAGO. I’m thinking, yeah, bud, I’ve got a death wish here.

So I finally make it to Matthew’s apartment—then the search for parking begins. Parking in Chicago is a bloody pipe dream—like trying to park in Manhattan. I realize with this horrible sinking feeling that the only spaces available are parallel-parking spots, and I’m driving this enormous truck with no useful side mirrors.

So much for free parking. I head to the nearest parking garage, where I learn that parking is $25 for overnight. I nearly toss my cookies. Matthew had warned me that things were expensive here, but I didn’t realize how much.

We talked for a long time, Matthew and I. I exchanged more phone calls with Aaron, who ended up having a lousy day too. The Bloomington airport was so foggy that he got driven by shuttle van to…you guessed it…Chicago to catch his flight to Pittsburgh.

The next morning, Matthew has to go into work to test something out. I go with him, to keep him company and so we can talk for longer. Aaron finally calls me back; I’d left him a message late the previous night saying that if he was bouncing through Chicago, why didn’t I just pick him up at O’Hare and we’d make the drive back together?

All well and good; he was supposed to come through Chicago. He calls a few hours later; his flight’s been canceled and he’s bouncing through St. Louis now, and I need to pick him up in Bloomington. So I get ready to go. Matthew can’t get me back to his apartment (and thus, the parking garage) so I have to take the bus back. This necessitates finding the correct bus stop.

Matthew’s directions are awful. I get to where his directions say I need to be, and there’s no stop for bus 151 anywhere around. At that point, the panhandlers start moving in. I am a casually-dressed white woman in her twenties, wearing combat boots and carrying a cell phone; I obviously have money. I start walking to evade these guys, and I get lost.

I finally call Matthew when I realize I’m being followed. I am quiet, but pretty frantic. I said, “I’m at the Kinko’s at this intersection. Come GET ME to the correct bus stop.”

Matthew, I think, thought I was kidding at first. I was standing up against the building trying to fend these two guys off as Matthew walked up to me. What a surprise; they melted away as soon as Matthew showed up. He apologized profusely and got me to the correct bus stop. He talked with the driver, explained where I needed to go, and the driver said he’d tell me when we got to the correct stop.

So we drove, and drove, and drove. I think you’ve heard about the shopping strip in Chicago called the Magnificent Mile? The bus route took me down that street; you should’ve seen how many people were out on a Sunday night!

Finally—after about 30 minutes—I get to the correct bus stop. I thank the driver and walk as fast as I can; it’s about 4 blocks to the parking garage.

I get there, and look at my ticket. Dammit. I’ve been there for 24.5 hours; I’m probably going to get a massive surcharge. I have $40 in my wallet. I get to the truck, thank my lucky stars that I’ve made it this far, and haul out my maps and prepare to get the hell OUT of Chicago.

I pull up to the garage attendant and hand him the ticket. Overnight parking is $25, and I’ve been there for longer than 24 hours. He squints at the ticket and says in a Pakistani accent, “Two dollah.”

I pointed out the date on the ticket—that I’ve been there for over 24 hours, not 30 minutes. He shakes his head. “Two dollah.”

I have a $20. I try to hand it to him. “I haf no change.”

I dig in my pocket. I have $1.25 in quarters. I say, “This is all I’ve got; either the $20 bill or this,” with the most enormous, embarrassed smile.

He takes the change, pockets it. “You drive safe, lady.”

I realize I have just managed to park overnight in Chicago for $1.25. If the mayor knew, I’d probably be ritually sacrificed. I decide the evil travel gods have lost track of me for the moment, and I decide to run away before they realize that I’m due for a smackdown. If I’m gonna die, dammit, I am NOT dying in Chicago.

I drive like a madwoman to Bloomington to pick up Aaron. I make it there 15 minutes before his flight touches down, and I even remember to stop at a gas station to put in a quart of oil.

I rule.

Aaron basically stumbles into the terminal. We hug; we realize that we are awfully glad to see each other, because we each independently realize that now that we’ve managed to meet up in the same place, everything’s gonna be okay now.

He’s exhausted and frustrated and really wants to go home. I offer to drive; he refuses, and I find that I’m secretly glad. We drive to Decatur; I nearly bawl at the sight of my car—oh, my car, that should’ve gone to Chicago with me. Smiling

We apologize to the cats, talk briefly, and retreat to separate rooms to sleep.

The next day, Aaron gets up and starts work. I start mapping out my day. I’m planning on going to Springfield to tour some Lincoln-related historic sites, plus some other stuff. The bad news: the “other stuff” totally falls through. The Vachel Lindsay house is only open Wednesday through Saturday, and the Dana-Thomas house (the Frank Lloyd Wright house) is closed one day a week….MONDAYS. Which, of course, is what day it was.

So my full-day trip is suddenly a half-day trip. I wait until noon to go out, since half of my reason for going has now been canceled. Drive out, see what I want to see, come back. Aaron’s supposed to have dinner with his mother, and I certainly am not going to invite myself over to that little family soirée…so I stay at the house and watch the sequel to Wings of Desire.

Afterwards, Aaron starts dumping off episodes of Buffy from his TiVo to videotape; he’s doing this for some friend or another. I end up getting sucked in. Blast. I see now why all my friends watch it, and are ashamed to admit they watch it. It’s deliciously campy fun.

We end up staying up late to watch Real Blonde (despite how it sounds, it is NOT a porn flick!) We talk, we laugh, we harass the cats. We start poking through the movies available over his TiVo and start making fun of the titles. The next thing we know, it’s two a.m.—and Aaron has to be at work at 8.

I wake up at 7:50 this morning and realize that I’ve never heard Aaron get up or leave. Worried, I tiptoe into his bedroom and wake him up. He yawns and says sleepily that the person he was supposed to meet isn’t going to be in until afternoon, and so they don’t need him to come in until the afternoon.

He went back to sleep, but here I am, pounding out this email—which is now so long that I’m going to copy out the relevant parts and send to Jeff, who undoubtedly will want to hear every word of it.

I change houses today—I go stay with Andrew and Joy for the remainder of this week. We’re going to go on a movie binge, I do believe. I’m trying my best to get Aaron to join us, but I suspect this will be difficult.

Meanwhile, I’m going to harass the cats. Henry is the softest cat, EVER; Sydney thinks I’m pretty good at administering scritchies, too. (Lucy still isn’t too pleased with my existence, but the outright hatred is gone.) I’ll pack up and head out after I have lunch with Aaron.

It’s all good. I haven’t laughed this much in a long, long time. All I have to do now is remember to snap a picture of Aaron and I together.

- Amy

(p.s.—I never did get the picture.)