I walk around the neighborhood as the temperature continues to plunge into the night, scouting out bars to take Katie to – something with character, but not too crowded, which is easy to fulfill during the winter. I find a dingy door in the wall, leading into a surprisingly opulent building that resembles a coffeehouse more than a bar, with couches prominently arrayed and books on the walls. I make a mental note of its location, make some small talk with the owner, have a glass of beer, and leave a five on the counter as I walk out. It’s amazing how easy it is to buy people’s gratitude; I could give a five-dollar tip every day without it really making a substantial dent in my bank account, but this gesture means money to East Coasters and respect to Midwesterners, charming the pants off of both groups.
What I have bought in this case is friendly smiles all around when I come back with Katie later this evening. We walk into the bar and sit down on a couch, my arm dangling casually behind it. I have brought her here, in my mind, to ask her about Elise, but once she is in the generous lighting, I forget about all the baggage and just talk with her deep into the night, about Judith Haskins, about my little sister getting married, about our respective college experiences. I find out another surprising tidbit, another seed for my infatuation with Katie to grow on, when I discover that she went to Columbia, certainly a rare school for a Midwesterner to go to. And so we have New York in common, and we compare and contrast my experience as a high schooler with her experience as a nubile co-ed.
And I talk to her about my observations on Minneapolis society, about my introspective kick, and about everything else, and she is hanging on my every word. I’ve forgotten what it’s like. In college, everyone is hanging on your every word; there are no overriding things in the back of people’s minds, no plans that things have to be fit into. But in the real world, it is much harder; people have figured out their identity, and tend to spend more time asserting it than they do actually paying attention to what other people are saying. It takes time and energy to assert one’s assigned persona. On top of that, after college, people simply have a lot more things on their mind. There are a lot more implications to every decision, a lot more people who are subtly affected. The world is a lot larger, and its pressure requires the human, a social animal, to spend more time generally perceiving and less time specifically paying attention.
But Katie is paying attention to me, rapt as I talk about nothing of particular importance. And it is what I need right now. We talk until four in the morning, when I drive her home, and the next day, still a bit tired upon waking up at twelve, I call her and we get lunch at an awful buffet place, hamming it up as the meal ends, with mock child’s grimaces as we take tentative bites into limpid broccoli.
The next day I sleepwalk through work at Villa, then hurriedly leave as soon as the clock strikes four and rush to pick her up from her loft. She has a strange look on her face when I open the door. “What’s wrong?” I start. She says, confusion reigning in her tone and on her visage, that she has talked to Elise, and all of the memories that had been seeping away come back, and I groan. “Maybe we shouldn’t go out tonight… can I come in?” She nods, still apparently processing whatever had happened with Elise, and steps back from the doorway.
I walk into a loft that is clearly not an artist’s loft. The furniture is from Ikea, aesthetic and functional but with no traces of sentimentality. It’s a blend of Midwestern simplicity and New York optimization. I wonder why she went to Columbia, how she got the idea in her head to go to school in the big city two orders of magnitude bigger than the Rochester she grew up in. Thinking of Rochester jogs my memory; Ursula will be there soon, and I should take care of that, but right now I am sitting on Elise’s couch and she is staring at me with a half-bemused, half-hurt gaze. “Yeah, so … Elise probably says I’m some kind of stalker, right?”
“Kind of. I … well, okay, I’ll tell you. She said that I should spend as much time with you as possible because she’s curious what you’re actually like. Frankly, though, I’m thinking of spending as much time with you as possible because I like you. But she definitely seems to think you’re a loose cannon.”
“Really? That ambivalent? I thought I scared her at the party… okay, I’ll tell you about the party, Elise and I went on a long walk during which I basically just ranted at her about my life. I was pretty unhinged that night. Sort of the introspection thing I was telling you about, people pretty happy everywhere, seemingly singularly happy, me just kind of going along with life one step at a time. I swear I’ve said more unhinged words this last month than ever before. I don’t know if it’s a biological clock thing or what.”
I haven’t conveyed it very well but Katie seems to understand. “I did the same thing with the last guy I was interested in.” She clearly doesn’t know Elise is a lesbian, figuring that my interaction with her is of the flirty nature… correctly, I suppose. “It sort of got out of control. I just kept calling him because I wanted things to progress. I met him at a wedding; he lives in San Diego, we had great chemistry that one day, and I couldn’t get him off of my mind, so I kept calling and e-mailing him and sending small romantic presents. Eventually he told my friend’s husband to tell her to tell me to leave him alone and it was one of the most painful moments of my life.”
Katie, for once, doesn’t have a smile on her face. She is serious and sad and staring out the window; this is about her life now, not about my life, the events of my life resonating with her only because they have meaning to her as well. And because of this coincidence we feel, again, a bond between us, a bond effect by the dovetailing circumstances of our lives. And I see us in the future, leaning on each other, having a Midwestern relationship with a hint of New York, raising children together, our lives converging at exactly the right time. This is the night that Katie and I discover our humanity, our foibles.
We spend the entire night talking about the mistakes that we have made, and I invite her to Maria’s engagement party. The next morning I wake up next to her and feel her warmth next to me, through her pajamas, a serene night unmuddied by the confusion of sex, just sleeping, just feeling close to each other. And I go to Villa tired from the emotional stress and sleep deprivation of the past few weeks but euphoric from the afterimage of Katie’s arms around me, secure in the knowledge that somehow everything will all work out.
Katie and I end up having lunch with Ursula when she comes to visit and I am struck by how fluent Katie is, immediately connecting with Ursula, a perfect mixture of groupthink and ideas. I see her Midwestern background in the former, and her New York experience in the latter; I am floored by how seamlessly she has integrated with the two. Afterwards Ursula pulls me aside and tells me how much she likes Katie.
Shortly thereafter we go to Maria’s engagement party, where I meet her fiancé for the first time. Much to my surprise, he is Hispanic; it takes me fifteen minutes to remember that, in principle, so are we, and this is no scandalous interracial marriage or anything of the sort. He is gregarious, overconfident, and a bit rambunctious; he seems a poor match for my pragmatic sister, but I say nothing, reining back my usual criticism. I know how much this means to Maria, and if she wants to she will read disapproval into my silence. And Katie meets my family and they go crazy for her, to the extent that Maria has to try hard to contain her obvious outrage that Katie is upstaging their party in the family consciousness. I see it and I wish I could comfort her about it, but it’s one of those things in life that’s impossible to do.
Alberto is at the engagement party, crying fake tears as my smoking-hot sister is taken off the market, and I introduce him to Katie, and I see what his eyes do, melting a bit as he thinks of Portia. The objective truth is that Katie doesn’t measure up to Portia; no one does, and no one can, because in the constricted world of college the only things that mattered were the things she had perfected. Portia Freeport was a small sample-size effect; in a world where only a few things matter, she had achieved perfect 10’s. But in the real world, the world where Alberto and I spend our time nowadays, there are so many things that matter that Portia’s 10 average is impossible to beat. So we appreciate Katie, in some ways, more than we appreciate Portia, the extra texture making up for the lack of perfection.
Our dynamic is similar to the way it was in college, but there is a certain added depth to Alberto and me that there never was before. I think it’s because of the Elise Snow thing; I see him, and I see the fault lines of the Portia experience, even years later, threatening at any time to blow up. It’s mostly under control, with a crack team of geologists monitoring it 24-7, but ultimately it’s not something under his control, the way I was with Elise. Four years in Minnesota and everything happened so quickly at once; after four years of insignificance, the Elise volcano exploded, its lava running down the sides of my brain, melting away rock in its inexorable quest to reach the ocean. And then this Katie thing, the rock structures left behind as the lava fell into the water.
For Katie is, fundamentally, the natural continuation of Elise, the natural continuation of the story. I got lucky (unless you believe Kandinsky’s theories of romantic destiny), this girl popping into my life right when I was ready for her, right when I was in the middle of a crisis, the terrain of my personality rupturing amidst chaos. It’s not that Katie is a 10 everywhere; it’s that I notice where she is, and I notice and appreciate the 8’s too.
On the plane ride home there is a moment when we fall asleep, her head perfectly nestled into my arm, and I feel so content with my life that the Elise events seem like a bad dream. Katie stirs and purrs and moves her arm across mine as the plane’s engines whir, taking us back from the New York enclave in our minds to the steady Minneapolis life. I look down and realize that we are flying through one of the approach paths around Lake Calhoun, by now frozen solid, the seaweed caught between flutters, captured in the ice for the next spring’s naturalists to discover.
The jet touches down as the sun is setting and Katie awakens from her slumber. She looks up at me with big blue eyes and flutters her lashes and it’s exactly what I need then, our thoughts in complete synchronization. It seems both true and beautiful. We step off the airplane and shiver in unison at the stiff breeze flowing across, gritting our teeth before stepping back into the warm airport, the universal beacon for travelers, the portal for the invasion of our New York thought into unsuspecting Minnesota.
I notice that everything seems easier with Katie by my side. Work is a breeze. We spend two months only sort-of cloistered, mostly just living, bringing the never-say-die New York philosophy to the impenetrable winter, standing back and looking at the consequences. When everyone else thaws out we throw ourselves into the social scene, effortlessly navigating parties, concerts, book signings. Everything is easy; I recognize it as the high Kandinsky was on, but it is deeper, it is not some sort of drug conjured up by a conducive college environment.
In early April we see Elise Snow for the first time. She looks gaunt, cheekbones hollowed out by the winter, holding onto an unsatisfying winter relationship with an unattractive Canadian girl. She has the same impassive look I saw before, and it brings back memories, memories of the night when that impassive look was all I had to hold onto in my life. Elise curtly asks me how I’m doing and I try to avoid smiling too much out of compassion, but I can’t help it. I laugh a little too much and Elise’s anger comes to the surface and she says with unmistakable irony that she is happy for me and that I deserve it. I ask her about life and she deflects the questions. It’s her past now; I’m in her past, Johanna is in her past, everything is back there in the memories buried behind the defiantly proud lines on her face. The night we spent together walking in the snow around Sarah Calflower’s is on her stack of things, perhaps to be dealt with when she decides on a winter of introspection of her own.
But it’s still in the present for me, a strange relativity that has made one man’s present another man’s past, because every time I look at Katie I am reminded of our first night together at Blue Moon and at the inviting bar. When all I wanted to do was to talk to her about Elise, to see how I could find Elise again, and instead I ended up finding the Elise I was looking for in her, fortuitous to be sure, but also in some sense inevitable, because you get what you look for in people.
And I want to thank Elise for my life, but like with Maria and the apology I still haven’t been able to make (Maria continues to be a bit icy towards me, sending functional e-mails in response to my florid ones), there is no good way to do it. So I leave her with the awful Canadian girl and migrate over to Katie, who is being flirted at by some guy, and as I walk over she looks at me and winks ever so subtly, the lines of her mouth curving up in a smile, and I put my arm around her and her hopeful suitor winces.
At Maria’s wedding, right before she is about to walk down the aisle, I whisper to her that I’m proud of her and that I hope I can be as happy as she is, a dirty marketing trick, telling people they’re happy, but it works, and she is happy. And is this really so bad? We at Villa may not actually make people’s lives better, but we make them happier with it. We make them feel like they are part of something, part of a community; perhaps Triscuits are not the solution to all of their problems, but they can feel the crispy baked texture, and they feel like they are getting what they want, even if we have told them what they want.
And so my baby sister enters marriage happy, with the man who will make her happy as long as she believes that he will, and I feel like I am at the center of it all. Joey is back from college, having improbably found the angst Kansan subculture that he can fit into; I joke with him, finding aspects of his personality missing, and I wonder if he can get to where I am without going through the intervening pain of Elise. I can see the end of his current relationship, with a girl who isn’t trustworthy, who will cheat on him and break his heart. I turn to Katie to say this to her and she nods, she knows the pain of life.
At the wedding I notice for the first time how in love my parents are. They look at each other the way I look at Katie, and I notice how my father leans down to smell her occasionally, just reveling in the marriage. They sit proudly as Maria walks down the aisle; they approve of her husband, whose exuberance they take as a sign of creativity, their hopes already transferred to the grandchildren who will give them reason to live on, grandchildren who they can infuse with their inventive spirit.
Maria stands next to the altar and the officiant starts in with the ceremony. “We are gathered here today to celebrate the love of Maria Gonzalez and Ricardo Rodriguez. It’s a strange and crazy path to this point, and yet their love has persevered.” As she continues her offbeat drivel (she’s a family friend of my parents, her informality the result of mixing business with pleasure), I look around the room, and see the variety of attitudes towards life reflected in the faces of the onlookers, some of them dejected, reliving past failed relationships; others are calm, serene, happy with their state of love and life. The third group is scared, unsure of what the future will bring, their futures not yet decided.
These people fan out into the reception area as I walk in with Katie, my sister now happily consigned to a life of marriage. I scan the couples dancing and I see versions of myself, I see the high school, college me having the blithe, inconsequential fun that can only happen before heartbreak, when every relationship is excitement. I see the heartbreak-in-progress version of me, the people wanting someone they can never have, like me with Portia and Elise, always looking over the other person’s shoulder. Similar to these are those who have not found their Katie, who are going through insecure, validating stopgap relationships. And, finally, those who are at peace with things, my parents dancing hand-on-shoulder, relaxed, and lumped in with these to be sure are those who have gotten there by adopting the beauty approach, it’s working for them, but the truth approach has finally worked for me and I look at Katie and smile, and I can see into the future, displayed before me as plain as the foibles in everyone which I use in my professional life. And I smile at the balance of this vision and we walk to the dance floor, finally at Point B.