My brother worked for us one summer, in the warehouse. It was a very hot summer, and he’d take occasional breaks to come into my office to lean against my desk and gossip in the air conditioning. Whenever somebody would walk in, he wouldn’t even skip a beat in his conversation, swiftly changing the subject by saying “. . . and THAT is why Rockford needs train service.” Soon, coworkers would make comments to me about how much we talked about trains when the truth was that the time was spent talking about our coworkers.
HotGuy/Duke and I started looking for houses that fall. Not together, not officially. But I served as the scout and we saw every house together, made every decision together, made big sweeping motions with our arms while saying things like “we’ll take this wall down and make this one big room!” or “we’ll put a television here!”
Conversations became debates, this house versus that one. This city versus that one. A spreadsheet was created, a decision matrix. His commute was an issue, and drawing on a summer of fake train talk, I would bring it up. Perhaps someday. Train service. Perhaps someday we won’t be an island out here in the sticks. He didn’t care. Preferred the drive anyway. We settled on a house, the Stately Manor, a block away from train tracks that would carry this Metra pipe dream, but not intentionally. The day he made the offer, he gave me a choice. A trip to Hawaii to see U2 and Pearl Jam, or putting in an offer on the house. Both weren’t possible because of the desired closing schedule. I chose the house.
It would be a number of months before we were both living there, together. Months filled with heavy construction as Duke began the process of rebuilding a house. But then a day came where my name was on the mailbox and I began the process of hoping a house could rebuild me. Not my first longterm relationship, not my first cohabitation, not even the first autumn where I planted bulbs and feared I wouldn’t see them bloom in the spring. There was damage, I was damaged. The house was a start.
That was the mistake, of course. Viewing myself as the fixer-upper more so than the house, than him, than us. Allowing him to view me as something that must be rebuilt. I moved in with nothing left of myself, and it showed. He would come home from work to a despondent lifeless version of me and there would be difficult conversations. Not arguments. Not yelling. Just quiet, hard conversations full of long pauses, tension so thick the dog would leave the room. “You have no hobbies, you don’t do anything,” he’d say. And I would get defensive and list off the 10 things I used to do, the 10 different things that used to be everything to me, the 10 things I gave up because he had no interest in them and invalidated them at every opportunity, the 10 things that somehow never got unpacked in this house. I tried to convince myself those things were no longer important, I could find something new, create something new, build something new with him. Throw the old away. He didn’t want to know or love the old. It was a wall he had already knocked out to make a bigger room and it was my fault it was empty and my job to fill it.
But then little things happened. I remembered I loved writing. I remembered I loved racing. I remembered that I loved nothing more than the road, waking up in a hotel, knowing each minute of that day would be an adventure. I loved airport delays. I loved how easy and liberating it was to get on a train and I felt a freedom I’d forgotten I always had. I flipped a switch that had been robbed of its power, rewired to something somewhere else in the house that wasn’t mine. I pulled a novel out of a drawer and said “Fuck you. I have more than a hobby. I have a calling.” But I said it quietly. And it couldn’t be heard over the power tools.
In June of 2009, I was in Wrigleyville at a club when the text messages started pouring in. A Canadian National train carrying 74 cars of ethanol had crossed a washed out set of tracks and derailed with 14 cars catching fire. The point of derailment was between our house and my office, not far at all. Friends were concerned that my house was in the evacuation zone, but nobody was in the house anyway. I was in Chicago living the life that Duke wanted no part of, and he was in Tulsa. I watched the news reports that night and the next morning from a luxurious bed at the Intercontinental while our house sat empty against the backdrop of an ethanol fireball in the sky. It smelled like nail polish remover for a week.
In three and a half years, all but one of our travel weekends looked like that derailment day. I was not invited on his trips, and he was not interested in mine. The closest we came to a vacation together was either my grandmother’s funeral or the 16 hours that it took for us to fly to Niagara Falls and back in the same day. That summer, I stopped asking, stopped including, stopped expecting. But for the first time, I didn’t stop leaving. Hobbies. I have them. The miles piled up, by road, by rail, by air.
In January of 2010, I took the Wolverine to Ann Arbor, Michigan for a folk festival. I spent a weekend with two people who knew just how bad it was, who loved us both but loved me more. I talked about finding a place. I talked about wrong or right choices. First, second, and fourteenth chances, given and received. I cried. I pulled my copy of The Four Agreements from my bag and I referenced it. I drowned out the voices in my head with the voices singing about the tracks we’ve all traveled. I didn’t have to pack. I had it all right on my back.
But pack I did, starting the week I returned. I saw things from a different perspective as I unearthed buried parts of myself to transport to a new place. The day that I carried my first load of belongings into my new home, my first trip was just my two guitars. I had flashbacks then, of him mocking the folk school students walking down the Lincoln Square sidewalks carrying musical instruments. I packed my racing autograph book, the book that has been canonized by several sprint car racing historians, realizing that he never once laid eyes on it and even if he had, those eyes would have glazed over at the first words of explanation. And I moved things into an office, a place where I would write, a space I never truly had in his house. It sounded like a freight train. The emotion in those moments reminded me of news interviews following a tornado. It sounded like a freight train, the sudden realization that he never even met the best parts of me.
The house continues on, grows and changes daily, an empire built on nights and weekends. The projects move down their projected paths, as if on rails, as if I never existed at all. And really, honestly, I didn’t. Blame shouldered equally, the weight of responsibility spread across the notched and crippled joists and washed-out tracks alike, I still feel unburdened by that knowledge.
There will be a part 3.