As Alene walked out for coffee today I reminded her not to worry. And as she seated herself on the outside patio of the coffee shop, I suggested she leave her iPhone in her bag and just do nothing while she enjoyed coffee and donut — like we did years ago, when her cell phone was just a glorified watch.
We thought about the Memorial Day holiday weekend in 2001, when we both left our old lives behind us. Alene had resigned her teaching position in the winter and put her house up for sale in April. It sold in early May and she negotiated with the buyers to vacate the property by the end of the month. Normally, a move across the USA would be a big headache — but it’s pretty easy if you can leave everything behind. And Alene didn’t really have to get rid of much. Her realtor knew someone looking to furnish an entire house and also volunteered with a social services charity that could make use of anything left over. The plan was to go through the contents of the house on the Saturday of the Memorial Day weekend, and Alene would leave for Seattle on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, I tied up various business loose ends so that I could work from Seattle if need be. Vacating my little attic flat in South Kensington was heart wrenching. It had been a very happy two years (almost). I had acquired no furniture beyond the futon, and not much in the way of housewares beyond the items Alene helped me buy when I first moved in. I must confess that I didn’t exactly clean up after myself. But the property manager was an old friend of mine and I told him to send my accountant a bill to cover any costs incurred getting the place ready to rent again.
I traveled very light to the USA — with only a carry-on bag. It felt good. Around lunchtime on Friday I was in a rental car driving to the small college town where Alene lived. I knew the way, of course. When I arrived, I checked into a motel on the interstate and then went for a little tour of the town. I can’t tell you how amazing it was to see the place for real. The football stadium was not locked up and I was able to go in and sit on the bench from which I had seen football games on Saturday evenings from my flat in London. I visited Alene’s favorite sitting-under tree on campus. And when I popped into the liquor store on the way back to the motel to get a six-pack of hard cider, the counter clerk greeted me as though I’d been buying my booze there regularly for years.
I had told Alene of my intent to follow her to Seattle, but I hadn’t been too specific about my itinerary. She had been very busy all week, sorting through possessions and deciding what to take with her. It wasn’t until late on Friday afternoon that she began to wonder if I was very close — then I told her where I was. She was suddenly alarmed that I might come to the house. And so was I. There we were, just four miles apart — but afraid to actually meet. Instead, we tuned our respective TV sets to the same channel to watch The Golden Girls, and we drank the same brand of hard cider purchased from the very same liquor store. It just seemed like enough togetherness for the while. And Alene was amused to realize that her excitement for the move to Seattle had suddenly faded — and that she was now not so anxious to leave.
Alene was up early on Saturday and quickly got busy. She drained her waterbed and made a separate pile of the items to go in the car for Seattle. I was checked into the motel all weekend, so I decided to drive into town to get coffee. When I returned, I found a big discussion going on in the motel lobby. It seemed that some reservations had been screwed up so that a family hoping to have three rooms through Tuesday for holiday visitors only had two. A couple of the people looked familiar to me, and knowing how important family stuff is in that part of the world, I decided to be a good sport and offer to vacate my room. I don’t know who I made happier — the family or the desk clerk — but it felt good to be the kind stranger who perhaps was less of a stranger than anyone realized!
I decided not to tell Alene, but just see how she reacted. I got on the interstate, drove west to the next town, and found a place for lunch. After lunch, I found a shady place to park where the car would not be in anyone’s way and then reclined my seat to watch Alene while pretending to be napping. Her TV was playing a BBC America drama set during World War One. It was a bit depressing and somber, but Alene wasn’t paying much attention to it. She was still preoccupied with sorting and tidying.
Then she suddenly stopped and watched the TV for a while. And her happy mood of the night before dissipated to be replaced with restlessness. She decided to start loading up the car — and as soon as she put the first box on the back seat, she decided she wanted to leave that day — once the realtor had been and gone. But before she got much further, the realtor called to say that she would have to postpone her visit until Tuesday.
Alene was suddenly taken by the urgency to leave — and she told the realtor that she had been hoping to go that very afternoon — that her car was packed and she was just waiting for the cat to come home. The realtor asked if her company’s lockbox was still on the front door. If so, Alene would not have to be there and could just leave anytime. The lockbox WAS still on the door — and Alene became firm about leaving that afternoon.
Amazingly, she found telephones answered at the electric, phone, and water companies — and was even able to arrange for DirecTV to be shut off. By the time the car was loaded, the cat had come home and Alene was able to take advantage of the element of surprise to get him crated and in the car before he knew what was happening. Her last task was to bring all the houseplants outside and put them on the patio on the shaded side of the house.
It’s always a tough moment — pausing to leave your home for the very last time — being flooded with memories of everything that’s happened there over the years.
We don’t really remember Alene doing that. Before getting on the interstate, she stopped at Walmart for a bag of cat litter and small litter box to put in the passenger foot well. And before getting back into the car, she did take one last look at the town in the valley. But she was more intent on getting her car headed west.
She had rather forgotten about me in the meantime. It wasn’t until she was on the interstate that she wondered where I’d been. I laughed and told her I was about an hour ahead of her — that I’d left town while that depressing World War One drama was on TV — and my departure probably explained her sudden urgency to leave.
We stopped driving around 7pm. I was still about an hour ahead of her. After finding places to eat dinner, and Alene making sure the cat would be OK in the car overnight, we went to bed early — marveling at the sudden turn of events.
We were on our way.