Come Out to the Chi, She Said, We’ll Get Together, Have a Few Laughs …
A year without a home of my own
For my first 5 months living on the road, starting in September 2019, it was fun being a digital nomad. Who wouldn’t love a glorious autumn in the Scottish Highlands? Sailing the Caribbean in December? Writing from a Costa Rican beach in January?
I wasn’t watching the news, I was watching my bucket list. I didn’t need a permanent home. All I needed was my backpack and my passport. Next up: Panama. Colombia. Maybe even Madagascar, baby!
But first — a quick flight from Mexico City to Los Angeles for a funeral. And then — a strange question at the airport. Have you been to China in the last 30 days? And finally, that weird text from the airline that made about as much sense as a word jumble.
Your flight to Panama City has been cancelled.
I had given up my San Diego apartment back in September 2019. Put everything I owned in storage. Left my dog with friends in Chicago.
All flights are cancelled.
I had a pre-paid, non-refundable sublet waiting in South America.
Sure, my friends in Cali offered me their cat-hair covered futon. How long can a pandemic last, anyway? And it’s probably all over-hyped — you know how alarmist those media hacks are. You’ll be back on the road in no time.
And yes, my ex was positively giddy with I-told-you-so-itis. This whole gap year thing was a bad idea. I knew it. I’ll pick you up call me call me call me.
But back in Chicago, my daughter had the inside track. She’s been pushing my Bruce Willis buttons since she was a kid. “Come back to the midwest,” she said. “We’ll get together, have a few laughs …”
And that’s how I ended up living down the block from a “beachside” cafe in Gary, Indiana, ordering fried frog legs and frozen crab cakes for takeout, while four feet of snow piles up against my not-a-4-wheel-drive Toyota Camry.
Because being a “digital nomad” was adventurous and fun, but without a travel itinerary or plane tickets, I’m just a 60-year-old, grown-ass woman with no place to call home.
If I’ve learned anything in the lost year of 2020, it’s how much I’ve misunderstood the idea of “home”. It’s more than privacy and space — it’s control. The power to decide where and how my day will go, without inflicting the consequences of my decisions on anyone but myself. My family was happy to host me, of course, and they have plenty of room. But I could never shake off the feeling of being a guest.
As the pandemic rolled into April and May of 2020, I kept thinking … surely it’ll only be a few more weeks? Just a few more? I planted a garden, tried Reiki therapy, learned to make Crawfish Étouffée, donated recklessly to presidential candidates, started14 projects I never finished.
By fall, my photos from digital nomading in the Scottish Highlands were a year old, and I knew it was time to go looking for a home of my own, however temporary it might prove. A house near Lake Michigan is exorbitantly priced in Chicago, but completely doable in Indiana.
So now, on Fridays, I sit in this Gary cafe waiting for my takeout order. The plastic, beach-themed decor is weirdly comforting, in a group-psychosis kind of way. We’re all pretending we’re somewhere else. Somebody else.
I should wait in my car, but I’m masked, almost everyone is, and it’s 11 degrees outside. I want to breathe some community air, just for a minute.
When my friend Lily calls, she asks about life in the industrial “backwoods” that is Indiana. It’s so easy for a Chicagoan to make fun of this state; what has it contributed to civilization besides the Jackson Five, she wants to know.
There’s supposed to be a really big lake around here somewhere, I laugh. But I haven’t seen anything but snow.
Every week at the cafe, I learn things. How to message the local writers’ group chat. Who’s selling the Black Lives Matter masks hanging on the bulletin board. Where to sign up for my Covid vaccination (I’m old enough in Indiana, but not in Illinois).
That the man eavesdropping on my phone conversation is named Burke. That he’s 10 years younger than me, one of the cafe owners’ friends, and most importantly in this icy hell-hole of a state, he drives a delivery truck. Essential workers move to the head of the line.
I glare at him over my mask, and hang up my call. “You’re being rude.”
He’s unmasked — already vaxxed, he says, and keeping his distance. Mostly. “Can I get you a glass of wine or something? I’m getting a refill.” He lifts his empty rock glass.
“Are they out of whisky?” I ask.
His full, brown lips curve up just a little, and — goddamnit — so do my long-expired, out-of-shape ovaries.
“They’re never out of whisky,” he says. He saunters to the bar, leans over, and grabs a bottle.
I’m really going to have to buy my ovaries a tiny little Peloton.
“I know it’s hard to believe right now, but there’s a glorious view of Lake Michigan from here,” he goes on, pouring me a shot, and then himself.
“Really?” I sound wistful. I am wistful, I am hoping for something. I always have been, my entire life. If only I knew what it was.
“Absolutely.” He air-touches his glass to mine, in a defiant imaginary toast, and takes a lingering sip. “You’ll see. Just wait until spring.”
And … I just might. I might just call Indiana home.
At least until spring.
This story is a response to Medium’s pandemic prompt: What Comes To Mind When You Think About The Pandemic Anniversary?