It all happens so fast.
When my derby league is nine months old, I realize my season here is almost over. They’ve grown up now; they can do this themselves. They look to me for reassurance once in a while, but their dependence on me is mostly in their heads. I realize I’m not doing them any favors by stepping in whenever they get confused or upset. It’s time to back off.
I feel that same old restlessness setting in, the feeling I always get when I don’t have my shoulder to the wheel, when I’m not rolling a boulder uphill.
I’m going to Portland, for real this time. I’ve been working on Operation Hobo (my project in which I aim to fit everything in my car) all year, but I kick it up a few notches. The employees at Goodwill know me now. I give away paintings, furniture, anything I can possibly live without.
Meanwhile, more in need of a distraction than ever now that my derby league is running more or less fine without me, I go on a date despite what a bad idea that is for someone in my state of flux.
I walk into a bar, just like it’s the start of a joke, mainly because it usually is.
There he is, already waiting at our table: the one solitary guy who survived the OKCupid elimination process. His name is Andy. He has a dog who is also named Andy, which is just one of the many reasons I have found myself unable to rule him out.
I’m late, flustered. But he looks up at me idly, like we’re old friends and I’ve just come back from the bathroom. Nothing in his face reminds me that I am made of meat. I approve of this.
We talk for hours, pleasantly if not avidly—this is not a story of instant chemistry, exactly, but it goes well enough. It’s the wee hours of the morning before we both stand up. I’ve confessed to seeing what I could find of him online and mentioned that I saw pictures of him on crazy high-tech stilts. As he walks me to my car, it is revealed that said stilts are, in fact, in the back of his car. Which is how I wind up wobbling around a parking deck at 3 AM, on stilts, in borrowed kneepads, making a complete fool of myself while giggling uncontrollably.
Right before I stand up on them, he holds out his hand in that same mild way. He’s not timid about it, but he isn’t hungry either—just thoroughly bemused. I take his hand without having to think about it, and he pulls me up onto my stilts, and right then is when I know for sure I’ll see him again. It’s November 17.
He lets me work my way over to him from my guarded perch on the couch over a series of marathon hangout dates. He sets mugs of tea down in front of me, lets me think it over. I can stay, or not; I can sleep in the guest room, or not; he doesn’t seem to mind one way or the other. This drives me completely crazy, but in the best possible way, because it’s not an act. He isn’t playing hard to get. It’s just my decision, like I said I wanted it to be.
No one has ever been clever enough to wait for that before, to leave me stewing on my side of the table until I’m willing to take responsibility for what’s going on, until I’m willing to show my cards.
I am impressed.
Besides, he owns a T-shirt of the grim reaper riding a unicorn and he knows the difference between rifling through something and riffling through something. Who am I kidding.
I concede the existence of our relationship via a Kindle presentation that includes a diagram of a bee’s knee, and that’s that. It’s December 2.
In the next few weeks, I look like hell. I’ve taken the walk of shame and made an entire lifestyle out of it. Half of the T-shirts I wind up wearing to dinner aren’t mine. I smile stupidly at other people, at my own hands, at cans of beans in the grocery store.
I try to hide what’s happening, but my mother is smug regardless. She can tell I’m getting my ass kicked. She has never seen a loudmouth with so little to say.
I bring over some yoga pants, a toothbrush. I’m casually given a drawer in the bathroom and the code to the garage.
A package comes to the door one afternoon: it’s a present for me. I pry it open, examine it. It’s an entire dictionary of the word “fuck,” a word that I’ve likely uttered more times than just about any other.
I have to sit down with it immediately, astonished. He laughs knowingly at the look on my face when I crack it open.
There is a bird called the windfucker. This is yet another thing I didn’t have before that I have now.
I stop talking about going to Portland. He starts talking about where he should look for work now that his contract is expiring.
We realize we have an awkward problem: if Andy gets a job here, he’s stuck here for quite a while, where I don’t want to be. But if he gets a job elsewhere, surely I can’t just come with him after a month of dating. That would be ridiculous. Right?
An opportunity presents itself in Phoenix. Unwilling to say what I mean, I make up stories about the bloodthirsty zombie gnomes that plague the city. I send him pictures of the Brown Cloud, Phoenix’s seasonal haze of pollution. I also casually mention that I hear the West Coast is really nice this time of year, or any time of year.
A job comes up in California. He asks me what I think.
I pause. “San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in the world,” I say.
He understands the way I talk around things. He decides he’ll take it if they’ll have him. It’s December 21.
While we’re waiting to hear about the job, an enormous opportunity arises for the roller-derby league: the chance to play a real arena, something many leagues never accomplish. It’ll be a massive undertaking of ticket sales and advertising and frantically trying to find a halftime act, and we only have a few weeks to pull it off.
We decide to do it, because we’re insane, as per usual. Plus, we plan to donate 100% of the proceeds, so we figure we can raise a little money for cancer research.
Andy hears back about the job, and it’s a go: we’re moving to California.
It is January 14, almost our whopping two-month anniversary.
I don’t want to get married or anything, though. “I like to wait for the big three-monther for that,” I tell him.
Never in my life will I have whistled louder or longer through a graveyard than I’m about to, and I’ve traversed some very large metaphorical cemeteries in my time.
On January 22, the big bout comes. We have nearly given ourselves ulcers scurrying around with the planning, and I’m just frantically hoping we pull the whole thing off, as we’ve slapped the entire event together with duct tape and a prayer; up until the last moment, we aren’t even sure our event insurance has been approved or whether we’ll have to cancel.
By now, everyone has heard that I’m moving to California with some guy I barely know and they’ve barely heard of. People are startlingly supportive, probably because I clearly already know this is the worst idea ever, which seems to reassure them that I won’t be crushed if it doesn’t work out. It dawns on me that people don’t so much mind foolhardy romantic decisions as long as you don’t sugarcoat those decisions into some kind of fairytale. Most people politely fail to mention those hundreds of thousands of times I swore I’d never live with anyone again. This is nice of them.
The biggest thing everyone is hung up on is how on earth I’m going to manage to get all the way to California in a car. I find this both hilarious and sadly poignant. I keep telling them, “It’s just like a road trip, but longer.”
I’m announcing this bout, just like the last one. When I signed up for it, I didn’t realize it would be good-bye, but it’s one hell of a way to go.
Three thousand people come to see us. Many of the faces are familiar, family members and friends who are seeing roller derby for the first time. When the game comes all the way down to the last moment, the entire stadium roars in a way that will later put goosebumps on my arms when I’m reviewing the footage.
Oh, and in the end, we do manage to raise a little money for cancer research. In fact, when I see the total, I exclaim, “Holy SHIT!” and then hastily check to make sure my microphone isn’t on. (It isn’t.)
We present the total while cancer survivors in the stadium stand up and everyone within a mile radius of that giant check weeps into their shirtsleeves, myself included.
It is one of the proudest days of my life.
When the whole thing is over and the stadium is nearly empty, I pull my earpiece out and marvel that I’m really done; I will stay for the one-year anniversary party, but right now is really the moment that I am done with this endeavor, that I can rest. I spend the afterparty with my head on Andy’s shoulder, exhausted.
We drive Andy and some of his stuff out to California. As we cross the bay bridge and San Francisco rolls by, we can’t stop laughing. Thanks to the wonders of Glympse, my family watches from home as we cross that threshold, and they cheer me on via text message. We hang out our heads out the window, amazed at the gorgeous weather and even more amazed that some people are actually wearing gloves and hats as if it’s cold outside; as two people who grew up in a place where the inside of your nose freezes in the winter (quite a weird feeling, if you’ve never experienced it), we find this hilarious.
We go to the beach, we drive around town, and then we find an apartment. When we’re sitting in the leasing office, I wonder for the billionth time just what the hell I think I’m doing.
I sign on the dotted line and fly back to Illinois to finish Operation Hobo.
I go to the league anniversary party in a car that already has everything I own in it, packed and ready to go for the next morning. I fight tears while my rollergirls say incredibly nice things about me. Walking out to my car from the party, I look up at the night sky and feel my first thrill of this-is-really-happening excitement about leaving the next morning. Just a few more hours.
But when morning comes, I don’t feel excited at all. I feel downright awful, frankly, almost incapacitated with doubt and anxiety. I have forgotten this part, how it feels to really say good-bye. I can scarcely bear the sight of my mother crying in the driveway, and for a minute I want to just call the whole thing off. But I program my GPS, pull into the street, drive away, and proceed to sob brokenheartedly all the way through Illinois. I’m not sure why I expected anything else.
Everything is going to be fine—much better than fine, actually. I’ll settle into the Bay Area, get a job, and walk to work each morning while reminding myself that today is a stunningly beautiful day—not because I’m grouchy, but because on my spot on the bay, almost every day is stunningly beautiful, and you forget to notice that after a while if you aren’t careful. I’ll learn my way around the trains, the streets. People will ask me for directions, and my ability to answer them will please me enormously.
Six months from now, California will feel like home.
Awhile after I get there, Andy will tell me about something he did when he was little, when people were being mean to him. It will be a funny story, but I’ll also feel an anger rise up in me. Is someone being mean to a wee version of Andy sometime back in 1983? Because I will claw my way back in time and rip their limbs off. Don’t think I won’t. Don’t you even TRY it, 1983.
A beat after that flash of rage has subsided, I will recognize that protective instinct for what it is. Andy will have become one of mine. He will have become home, too.
On my way west, I don’t know any of that yet. But as the miles roll by, I start to feel a little lighter. When I get to Iowa, I merge onto I-80, the road I will be on for the next 1,789 miles.
I turn the music up, and I start to sing.
Thanks to the amazing David Vernon for all images except the cheering little boy (courtesy of Hillary Wasson) and the photobooth collection (courtesy of a couple of dorks in San Francisco).