A month later he learned the idea had been going round the ex roommates heads too, and David (who else?) was first to suggest it. “Chris and I are threatening to meet out there. Maybe in July. He’s visiting family in Minnie. I am thinking of flying out and he’ll drive down. How about we make it a 4-some? Not sure if any of us will survive it, but could be hilarious on the way to our premature deaths.”
Of course he’d been thinking the same thing. Of course they had to. Of course he was psyched. What would they do? (“I vote we go to the Super Bar for a cheap drunk and some of those artery-clogging brats” was his latest contribution.)
By June, when the weather had warmed and sufficient discussion (wrangling?) had gone on with families, the weekend they’d meet was all set and he was the first out there, a day early (he was the most flexible after all, and Lucy set him, and herself, free for the extra day). In the sedan he’d picked up at Billy Mitchell Field he recognized the same city he’d left for the last time two-and-a-half decades ago. Except for the newer, taller buildings downtown, five, six of them, he counted with a quick turn of his head at a stoplight, it was much the same place that’d dwelled in his mind all these years. The side streets he turned onto had the same gritty look. He was sure the alleys in back of the buildings were as grimy and rat infested as ever. He parked in a lot a few blocks east of campus and walked to it feeling some of the same wonder he’d had his first days out there as an eighteen year old, an imprint that had stuck to his psyche like a powerful suction cup. A huge eye opener. A full absorption of details. A surge of emotion that lasted all the years he was there.
He approached Wisconsin Ave and in another block he came to the older buildings of the original campus, still all there; the gray-stone library, the featureless Engineering School, the dorm known as Shake-and-Bake Hall he’d spent two pretty wild years in. The façade of the Arts & Sciences building had been spiffed up, the brick pointed, the windows looking brand new. Behind it, the newer concrete-and-glass structures (there was even a contemporary art museum!) shown under the bright afternoon light like a miniature Middle East metropolis plopped down in the gray and brown neighborhood. He was sure one or two of his old professors, Hayes and Melton the most likely, still taught there. But the thought he might go over to Lib Arts to see if one of them was around ended as fast as it formed. That might be awkward since he’d never been friendly with them. Nor had he been a star student as David was, who, with a simple introduction, would be remembered and received with some (even if strained) air of excitement and discussion about how things were going. (“You’re the National News Editor there? How fine. Congratulations!”)
He turned on the walkway and went past the guard’s booth, a wood box of a building (of course there was a need for one of those now), and entered the quad where the summer school students, pretty pony-tailed females in tight shorts and printed t-shirts, the wide-eyed boys looking dressed for their afternoon workout, moved in small groups (lucky kids, despite the pressure on them to pay up and do well). He saw them without catching their eyes. He wanted to avoid any unseemly thoughts that might develop about him, and the attention of the security guards, though he was sure his profile leaned more on the side of visiting professor than stalker of coeds. It didn’t matter. The students showed no sign of concern. No sign he might be out of place.
He stepped ahead at a slow pace, seeing again in a far corner of his mind the blonde girl Diane with the long braid and jutting hip bones. A picture of himself with her (another indelible imprint): she sitting cross-legged on his bed in the back bedroom of the Kilburn Ave apartment in white cotton panties (wouldn’t find a pair of those on campus now, would you?). She’d slept with him on that first date, a sudden, splendid urge recognized by both of them and acted on without hesitation. They’d left the Avalanche and holding hands and stepping ahead fast they went right to Kilburn Ave before the others got back. It’d been unsuspecting, but the connection between them was right.
He approached the Student Union. A steady flow of yapping students with their book and computer bags and smart phones and iPods entered and left through the open double glass doors. The same high ceilings and steps down to the seating area gave the place a familiar feel, though this particular style of institutional tables and chairs and décor had been updated in a layout that accommodated many more students than it had twenty-something years ago. He sat at a table (his favorite corner booth was gone, as he’d expected) with a cup of coffee and the July publication of the campus newspaper, The Tribune, a tabloid production he’d plucked off the rack by the doors. The basketball coach’s expanding problems were featured on the front page. A breaking news bit about an encounter in a restaurant (now that showed imagination) with the woman trying to extort money from him and the verbatim public apology he’d issued the evening before (“I let my family down with my recklessness a year ago. And I’m sorry for that and I tell them that every day.”). His attention, though, was focused more on his surroundings than the printed words and photos depicting the coach’s troubles and campus life and athletics; the movement of students coming and going, the ones at the tables surfing the Internet or tapping responses to emails, the others with their heads in a book or involved in conversations that echoed in the open space.
The whole scene was like stepping through his past. Or, more like tiptoeing around it in that he wanted to make sure he didn’t tread too hard over any of it; the mistakes and embarrassments and open doors never entered for whatever reason he’d had at the time to head the opposite way. But in this retracing of steps he felt the scales of the past and present balancing out, reconciling the then with the now. He’d made enough of it. Plenty, in fact. And right over there he saw a picture of himself in the padded corner booth wearing a red flannel shirt, his hair hanging limp at his shoulders. He sat with a few friends (that was before the Kilburn Ave apartment and his social allegiances changed), Bobby Guzzi, from Bahstan. Freshman year a few of the girls, those two roommates from Cleveland Kathleen and Karen especially, enjoyed teasing him about his accent. “Say it. Come on. Say it just once. Pretty please.” “All right, all right. Go pahk ya fhackin car in ya fhackin bahk yahd.”
Five students took the next table and the volume around him turned up. “How do you like dorm life so far?” “The food’s better than I ever thought it would be.” “My bed’s way too soft.” “Mine’s way too hard. Maybe we can switch?” “Yeah sure, no chance.” “Have you used the spa yet?” “I want to but it’s so gross in there. I heard people are having sex in it and they never change the water.”
An hour later he was back outside in the glare of a flawless afternoon. His car was off that way, through the quad with the roaming students and the guard’s booth that was like a shoebox turned upside-down. With the windows up and radio on he drove west on Wisconsin Ave, by the rest of the campus, then past the Pabst Mansion, University Citgo (still there) and continuing by The Ambassador, the hotel on 23rd they’d booked (the $132 a night deluxe room he’d share with David had him wondering just how “deluxe” it was). He’d meant to take a little spin to catch sight of the new Miller Stadium (the roommates were sure they could get tickets at the gate for Saturday night’s game against the Cardinals) before heading back to the hotel, but he went on and there he was in the 80s block, nearing what he was sure was the turnoff that went to the V.A. Hospital where Diane had been an intern. But once he was off the straight east-west path that was West Wisconsin Ave there were decisions to make, a choice of turns without signs for the hospital, and no markers that might have jogged his memory and sent him on the way right to it.
And yet, with a rush of astonishment at finding himself where he was, he recalled the bus he took out there in below-freezing weather to see her. The number 53 was it? Yep, he was sure. The stop on a corner of a main street (but what main street?). In a neighborhood of two story houses on square parcels of land with tall bare trees in the front yards. Minutes later he’d pushed through the revolving door and went up the elevator, a jarring atmospheric transformation when he entered the ward she worked on as if in an instant he’d been transported from suburb to ghetto, from vibrant health to terminal disease. The powerful antiseptic odor burnt his nostrils as he passed empty stretchers, metal food trays stacked on the floor, dirty linens piled in mounds in carts, portable beds folded in the middle like wallets. The whole experience had been like a gauntlet he’d gone through until he found her behind the nurses’ station with the feeling he was emerging from a stupor.
“I didn’t think you’d bother coming out in this weather,” she’d said, and showed him the smile that made all the cells in his body feel they were being tickled at the same time.
All he thought he had to do was head to the South Side, go a few more blocks and there it would be. But he found out otherwise. He was lost and what did it matter? He wasn’t in any hurry (a snap of fingers and blurt of lyrics, “If you feel like I feel baby, then come on, come on…”). He decided to take the next main street he came to, and at the corner of Greenfield he turned. Maybe, just maybe this would be it? He went by a familiar set of storefronts. His eyes lit up when he spotted The National Liquor Mart. The famous Super Bar. Infamous, he corrected himself, sure not much had changed in there. He saw the four of them sitting on the old padded stools (they had to do that one more time) talking too loud after a couple of boilermakers and a greasy brat. In a few more blocks the V.A., he now knew, wasn’t the way he was going. Of course, he could stop and ask for directions. But he was, if nothing else, stubborn and he didn’t bother looking for a face that might be amenable to take the time and point the way for him (he heard Lucy’s little laugh admonishing his obstinacy). After another mile or two and several traffic lights he came to a green-and-silver sign with the three domes of the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, the narrow green arrow curving off to the left.
He took Layton back that way. He didn’t need to see the V.A.’s old gray buildings. It’d been a goal in an afternoon he had no others. The memory of his trip out there to see Diane in sub zero weather was enough.
The rental continued to roll slow in the heavy traffic, past the Mitchell Park domes and across the 27th Street viaduct back to The Ambassador. He’d flown from New York. He’d toured a few areas he was familiar with. Memories had shot him back twenty-five years as if he’d traveled through a vacuum tube instead of on a 737. He’d done all that and it wasn’t even one o’clock.