I am trying to finish a whole bottle of wine before I fly to Iowa City tomorrow to read at a great bookstore called Prairie Lights. It's my responsibility, the wine. It's 2005 Cameron Arley's Leap pinot noir, which I opened recklessly last night. The wine is from my friend Laura, who had it delivered with a bag of Hershey's kisses when my thriller Heartsick hit the bestseller list last month. (Laura lives in New Jersey, or, as she likes to say, New York.) Laura and I went to grad school together in Iowa City, and this is pretty much what we lived on. There are two half-truths in that sentence.
a. When I say that I went to grad school in Iowa City, people often assume that I went to the famed writers' workshop MFA program at the University of Iowa. I didn't. I got a master's in journalism. Sometimes I do not expound on this. Is it my fault if people get the wrong impression?
b. We did not live on Cameron pinot. We lived on 1994 Napa Ridge pinot. Not fancy. Still, very delicious.
Laura and I could get a bottle of Napa Ridge at John's Market (approx. 25 feet from our apartment) for six dollars. A bottle of Napa Ridge every day, a bag of Hershey's kisses a week, and a box of saltines, and we had enough money left-over to invest in our weekly poker game with Laura's future husband, the husband of a cousin of Laura's future husband, and a collection of pharmacology students. "They actually teach us how to make codeine!" I remember one of the pharmacology students marveling. I wonder where he is sometimes. I'd like his phone number.
Laura and I lived in an old white house (circa 1920s) above an architect's office. This was nice because the architects were only there during the day on weekdays and therefore we did not have to worry much about noise complaints. My bed, however, was directly above the receptionist's head and I had a really loud vibrator at the time (about the size of a human femur), so I know she must have been at least vaguely aware of our presence.
"Is someone mowing the lawn outside?" I imagine some prospective architecture client asking her over the phone.
"That's nothing," I imagine the receptionist saying with a sigh. "Just that horny drunk girl upstairs again. I think she goes to the writer's workshop."
I was born in Iowa City and spent my early childhood on a hippie commune just outside of town. I grew up in Washington State and then eventually found my way back to Iowa City for grad school. I'm like salmon that way.
A lot of it was about my parents, I guess. I was 22 and I wanted to understand what they had been all about, so I could sail on into my own adulthood. They had been so hopeful and young and handsome and maybe there was something about Iowa that could help me be hopeful/young/handsome, too.
It was a great year. Especially that last summer. Laura and I spent much of our time lying on the kitchen floor complaining about the heat and the rest of the time painting the kitchen "lipstick pink." Laura's husband doesn't know this, but she started dating him because his apartment had air conditioning. We went to readings all the time, covered the fridge with poetry we liked, and got to shit on Kurt Vonnegut's toilet. I swear. Someone had redecorated the place he'd lived in when he ran the writer's workshop in Iowa City and some enterprising fool had absconded with his old toilet and installed it in an apartment a friend rented. (The toilet was red. Isn't that perfect?) We saw great bands on their way to Chicago. Read books late into the night. And ran to the river every time it rained, hoping it would flood.
The fireflies had just appeared when I got the call that my mom was dying. I flew home to Portland and didn't come back to Iowa for three months, and then only for a few days, to pack up and clean up the apartment. Laura had moved to Manhattan. I hauled most of our furniture to Goodwill and spent a few days rolling white paint over our pink walls so I could get my deposit back. And then I left.
My mom died that next summer on a Sunday morning in the apartment we shared in Portland. It was June 30, 1996. A blue moon. Dinah Washington was on the stereo singing "Cry Me a River."
When I am in Iowa City I will go by many of the old places. I will go by the apartment Laura and I lived in. And I will go by the apartment just around the corner that my mom and I lived in twenty years earlier. There's a tree in the front yard that my mom and I planted together when I was five. It is a huge beautiful maple. And I like to look at it and see how it has grown.
My daughter's almost three. It's just about time to plant a tree.
God, wine makes you sentimental, doesn't it?
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Chelsea Cain started writing Heartsick to kill time while she was pregnant. Also the author of Confessions of a Teen Sleuth, a parody based on the life of Nancy Drew, several nonfiction titles, and a weekly column in The Oregonian, Chelsea Cain lives in Portland with her husband and daughter.
Books mentioned in this post
Chelsea Cain is the author of Heartsick: A Novel