By Meribah Knight
When my partner came to me with the notion that moving out of Chicago might be the only prudent move for his career, I supported him because that is what loving and committed partners do. We say things like, “I’m totally fine with you being Facebook friends with your ex.” or “Apply for that job in Des Moines. Why not? There’s nothing to lose.”
Truthfully, though, we rarely mean any of it.
But I knew something eventually had to change. It was becoming harder to convince ourselves that the walls weren’t closing in our careers. Not because we aren’t hard working, but because we chose the most unsustainable career path ever. We are journalists. Print journalists. I am a writer and Andrew, my partner, is a photographer. And these days, with our industry’s current state, a two-journalist household is either doomed or staring down compromise. In theory, I was prepared to accept the latter. And so, for the next eight months our conversations went as such:
Him: There is a job opening at the Dallas Morning News.
Me: Hmm. No. Absolutely not. I am from Massachusetts. I will never live in Texas unless it’s Austin.
Him: There is an opening at the Indianapolis Star.
Me: My mother is from Indianapolis, and she says she escaped from the Prairie. I can’t disappoint her by going back. Don’t be ridiculous.
Him: There is an opening at the Des Moines Register. It sounds perfect. It’s such a great paper.
Me: Fine, you should apply. (Dying inside, wishing I’d said yes to Dallas now.)
Him: I got an interview.
Me: What??? I can’t go to Des Moines? There is only corn and white people there. And Donald Trump said he wanted to buy a farm there. NO!
A few months later, in late October, he came to me with yet another possibility: a job opening in Nashville. This time I had no witty retort. “I guess that could be cool,” I said. Yes, it was the most practical of all the ridiculous options he’d presented. As in, I had a mild curiosity about the place rather than utter disgust.
Plus, Nashville was a city on the rise. I had read the New York Times’ “36 Hours in Nashville” and, for the last three years, had been begging Andrew to go with me for a weekend visit. Something like 80 people a day were moving to Nashville. Chicago lost 3,000 last year. Also, I have a strong affinity for country music—anything recorded before 1972. This could be a good city if I got my head right.
“Go for it,” I said with only a mild cringe.
Much to my horror, he was offered the job three weeks later. And when he sat me down and told me he wanted to accept it, I did what any sane girlfriend with her back against the wall does: I started sobbing and promptly gave him an ultimatum: “If we’re going to do this,” I said, clutching Abner, our three-legged cat, “I need a ring on my finger, a king size bed and I want to adopt a dog.” Andrew gave me a quizzical look, nodded, and replied that he was working on the ring, was fine with a larger bed and thought the cats should get situated before we adopted a dog.
“I want a dog,” I said flatly.
“Ok, fine,” he whispered in a small voice.
“Alright, let’s do this,” I said, tears streaming down my face.
TWO MONTHS LATER, ANDREW WAS IN NASHVILLE STARTING HIS NEW JOB. I was in Chicago getting my own work in order and figuring out our move: It was up to me to get the bulk of our stuff to Nashville, a load that included our three cats: Abner, Maybelle and Ellie. By this time, he’d proposed. (Demand No. 1=check.)
So I asked Andrew’s mom, Terri, to accompany me, and the cats, in my 2007 Honda Civic on the drive down South. Our friend Nik would drive the 12-foot rental truck, which, after a Tetris-like feat of packing, fit all of our remaining stuff, including my ad-hoc collection of thrifted mid-century chairs.
I figured a seven-hour road trip with my future mother-in-law on the most stressful day of my adult life would provide us with a good chance to bond. Plus, Terri is cool. Like, let’s do tequila shots and watch that concert DVD of Morrissey, cool. I knew she’d be a good travel partner.
And so, on a unseasonably spring-like day in early March, we packed up the car. We drugged the most dramatic of all my cats, a hairless sphinx named Ellie, and set off for Nashville. I collapsed into the front seat, watching my apartment recede out of view.
I thought I would get emotional, leaving the first home I’d ever owned for a new life south of the Mason Dixon Line. I’d spent the last two months coming to terms with leaving the city where I jumpstarted my career and had satiated all of my reporting curiosities, despite Chicago’s shrinking collection of media outlets. But really, as we set off, all I thought about was wrangling the cats, getting them into their carriers, and hitting the road so we could get to Nashville before dark. We were going to drive nonstop, eat fast food and occupy ourselves with an array of podcasts I’d downloaded for the occasion.
We made it as far as Gary, Indiana. And what happened next was like the plot of some sad Thelma and Louise remake for Animal Planet.
“Do you smell something?” Terri asked.
I turned around and I saw Maybelle, the coolest tempered, had puked in her carrier. But the smell was far too noxious for a just cat vomit.
“Let’s pull over,” Terri said. “I think someone pooped.”
“But we’re in Gary. Where are we going to pull over? I am pretty sure it’s just puke. We can make it until we need gas.”
At this point Maybelle was clawing at the door of her carrier. She wanted out. So I opened it. That’s when I saw her sad state: She had it coming out from both ends. I conceded. “OK, we’re pulling over.”
Amid the post-apocalyptic landscape that is Gary, Indiana, we found what was the saddest Days Inn Motel I’d ever seen, with faded siding and a marquis sign missing more than a few letters from its advertisement “FREE WIFI.” It did, however, have a large dumpster in the back, the perfect receptacle for terribly soiled cat blankets.
We pulled in just as the smell was peaking. For good measure, I looked in Abner’s carrier. Terrific. It was like a symphony of shit. So I let him out. Now Abner and Maybelle were both wandering around the car, climbing on and under the seats. Surely this was against some rule of the road, I thought.
“I need to throw out the blankets,” I told Terri. “And we need to drug all of them.” Right then, a maid walked by, dropping a bag of trash into the dumpster and leaving us with a long hard stare.
Back on the road, I made a mental note to stow this drive away for future relationship leverage. This was quality stuff.
THREE HOURS IN, THINGS WERE SOMEWHAT OK. Terri and I were listening to a Patti Smith interview on Fresh Air. Abner was sleeping in the makeshift litter box behind the driver’s seat. Maybelle looked blissed out. Her drugs seemed to be working. Ellie, though, was a different story. She was still growling and meowing. The double dose of tranquilizers was not working. I needed to call my parents to let them know how the trip was going, which, so far, was pretty terrible.
“Oh no, how awful,” my mother said through an explosion of laughter, after I recounted the gruesome details thus far.
“This reminds me of something,” my father chimed in. I knew what was coming next.
“Remember our drive to visit Nana Rusty and Grumpa in Cleveland,” he asked. “You were two, and we put you in your car seat. You kept demanding bottles of apple juice. Ten hours later we arrived in Cleveland, and you’d filled your car seat with pee.”
Then, somewhere in Kentucky, Abner decided it was prime time to cough up a hairball the size of his missing arm. And his aim was good, managing to get it all over my new Uniqlo jacket. “Let’s pull over,” I said. “I’ll wash this in the gas station bathroom and take over driving.”
“Sounds good,” Terri said.
I took the jacket into the bathroom, and washed it in the sink. Fucking Andrew, I thought to myself. How did I get stuck with this tornado of shit and puke? I missed him dearly. Our two months apart had been nothing short of unbearable. Just knowing we were in limbo and that there was an inevitable move put my anxiety on high alert. “You’ve never been good with transitions,” was my mother’s refrain. She was right. I’ve never been good with change. I like knowing what to expect at all times.
Plus, leaving Chicago was going to be traumatic, whether it hit me now or later. I knew at some point an emotional reckoning would come. Would it happen right now, as I washed cat bile off my jacket in this sad Kentucky truck stop bathroom? Possibly.
Chicago was the only city I had ever made a life in. I’d lived in New York and Boston; neither had felt like a proper adult home. In New York, I’d always felt abused by the city, forced daily to feel like I couldn’t handle its grind. And Boston was too erudite, too studious, too intellectual, too old, too cloistered.
Chicago, though, had taken me as I was and had grown with me—neighborhood-by-neighborhood, block-by-block: Lincoln Park, Englewood, Uptown, Little Village. It was all Chicago. Hiding in plain sight. The city left it up to you to decide if you could handle its truth, for better or worse. And I had embraced that.
And despite all of its professional frustrations, Chicago fascinated me. Its gritty politics and social strife—whether it was race, violence or education—offered fertile ground for reporting. As a city, it had so many faults. But its soul was honest, even if its politicians weren’t. And I loved that about Chicago. There was no pretense.
At that moment, it hit me. What was I getting myself into? The South was like a foreign land. A place where people drank sweet tea on porches and still believed the Confederate flag had a sacred place in history. As anxious people tend to do—or what my therapist likes to call my “ingrained negative-thinking pathways,”—my anxiety quickly snowballed. Would I ever make new friends? Would I ever write another word? Get another client? Find another great story? What about the eight years I’d spent in Chicago working to develop my sources? What would it mean outside of that city? Would I be the same reporter in Nashville as I was in Chicago? Doomsday, blah, blah, blah, doomsday.
I snapped out of it when a woman walked in on someone else in a bathroom stall. “Soooory,” she hollered, the word rolling off her tongue like molasses.
Just get to Nashville, I thought. Then unpack. Then figure out your life.
BACK ON THE ROAD, WE WERE ABOUT 30 MILES SHY OF LOUISVILLE. It would definitely be dark by the time we arrived.
“What time is it?” Terri asked.
“Nearly 5,” I replied.
A smile spread across her face.
She bent down, rifled through her purse and pulled out a pint of Tito’s vodka shrouded in a small paper bag.
“I need a shot,” she quipped before opening the bottle and taking a slug. I love this woman. I am proud to call her my family. Seriously. Life gives you shit, literally, and she just rolls with it. It’s 5 o’clock somewhere. Let’s get buzzed. That was her thinking.
I looked at the bottle. I wanted it. I wanted it so bad. But I knew better. Drinking with your future-mother-in-law is bonding. Drinking while driving is just illegal. Plus, I had a bottle of tequila in the back that was waiting for me on the other end of this drive. Just 180 more miles.
That’s when a giant billboard came into view: HELL IS REAL.
“We must be in the South,” I moaned. I looked in my rearview mirror. The sign’s other side read JESUS IS REAL. “Yup, we’re definitely in the South.”
But soon the Tennessee hills came into view, blanketed with birch, maple and hickory, and I realized just how beautiful this part of the country was. I glanced behind me. The cats were all sleeping.
When we finally arrived at the house, it was dark. The cats were exhausted. Terri was slightly buzzed. But Andrew was outside, waiting for us on the porch with a huge smile across his face.
I wanted to yell at him and tell him how dare he leave me alone with such a task. But when I got out of the car all I could do was laugh. “That fucking drive was insanity,” I yelled.
“I’m sorry,” he said, giving me a kiss. “I am so glad you’re finally here.”
“I am, too,” I replied, my frustration evaporating. The prize guilt trip material I’d planned to use on him suddenly seemed meaningless. I was here, with the man I loved and our cats. Chicago had brought us all together. And now, in Nashville, we would begin our married lives together. I had no regrets. Even if the journey was paved with shit and Jesus billboards.
When I got into bed that night, the cats gathered at my feet, I looked around. I am in Tennessee, I thought to myself. And this room is way too small for a king size bed.
Meribah Knight is a writer based in Nashville.