Clenching my teeth, with head held high and comfortable shoes, I stride out the front entrance of the Iowa City Graduate Hotel. I am spending the weekend at the Iowa Writers’ Conference, one of the most prestigious writing schools in the country. I have rented a deluxe room for this occasion, a lifelong dream realized, possibly, just in time. My room is one of a few with a private bath. This splurge was a long time coming, after my husband’s prolonged illness.
The rooms are decorated with a writing theme. The walls ingeniously clad with multicolored pencils, the lamps, old school trophies, the desk equipped with black-and-white notebooks and Eberhard Faber pencils—for your writing pleasure. Years ago, I might have called it tacky. Now, it makes me feel relevant, involved, alive. I search the photos hanging on the walls of the men on the soccer team and imagine them today, their muscles flaccid, their uniforms moth-eaten, in their prime in 1937, when I was born.
After my husband’s death, I stayed put. Afraid to try things on my own. For fifty-seven years, I’d had a bodyguard. He carried the boarding passes, lifted the luggage into the overhead bin, would probably notice if I dropped dead in the hotel room, slipped in the shower, or was trailing a tail of toilet paper out the door. He killed the bugs, paid the bills, stroked my head, and loved me.
I’d never considered the possibility of tripping on a plastic bag and going to Iowa City Medical Center alone. I found the insurance cards and remembered my address and my next of kin. The X-ray disclosed a hairline fracture—the pain continued for the duration of my stay. They gave me a cheesy sling, and I was on my own. I stood on an overturned garbage receptacle and flung myself onto the high bed, amazed that I scaled it by tugging on the sheet.
Most of the time, I was navigating around in a maze.
Backtracking, searching for something, something I need: keys, phone, shopping lists, insurance cards—all nag like a toothache.
My life is now a continuous scavenger hunt. I enjoyed that game when I was a kid. I was good at deciphering the clues, but now, when I finally locate what I’ve misplaced, it’s validation that I have not yet crossed the line.
My thoughtful grandson has given me a doormat that reminds me in bold letters to check for:
KEYS PHONE MEDS
It’s early; I’ve given myself plenty of time to locate my classroom. It’s hot, humid, and uphill—a trifecta that impedes my determination. My writing paraphernalia is heavy; I lug it behind me in a burgundy backpack with wheels that clunk as I shlep them noisily over the cobblestones. They reverberate, causing the students racing past me to turn around and stare.
The concierge has drawn me a diagram; I know to turn left when I exit the hotel. Then climb the hill leading to the campus, and the quadrant of pale stone buildings at the top. They are identical. Each has four entryways, leaving sixteen possible choices. I am out of breath, and panting. I feel the sweat gluing my thighs together as I circle the buildings looking for the right door. Nothing is familiar, even though we had a welcome dinner here last night. Time is running out, and I am forced to ask a coed wearing shredded shorts with long strings hanging from the crotch, and tendrils of hair echoing the statement. “Where is building A?” I ask, horrified that I might be at the very place where my journey began ten minutes ago. “You are standing in front of it; follow me.” She beckons.
Breathlessly, I enter the classroom. My eyes averted, I lift the wheely thing off the floor to keep it quiet. Everyone stares as I take a seat in the last row and ruffle through my papers, retrieve my water bottle and shawl. The air conditioning temperature cannot be regulated and is on the igloo setting. I am aware that they are all waiting for me to get settled, and also, that I am the oldest person in the room.
I remember another time, more than forty years ago.
My late husband and I are sitting in the front row at a comedy club performance—never a good idea—I remember being warned about that, too late.
I glance around the room and notice that we are probably the oldest people in the audience. I mention that to my husband, whispering into his familiar warm ear. “You are nuts,” he responds curtly.
The hyperactive comedian leaps onto the stage and greets his loyal audience. There is a lot of clapping and catcalls. He is strutting, enjoying the adulation when suddenly he stops and notices us in the first row—big mistake. I sense it coming; something tells me I am right; he is staring at us with lust in his eyes.
Slowly, with determination and a deep bow, he says, “Ladies and gentlemen, look who we have with us tonight.” Long pause. “Let’s give a rousing cheer for Fred and Ethel Mertz.” The audience and my husband are hysterical. I, on the other hand, am mortified. Is it too late to move to another country that reveres its elders? I wonder.
I have not forgotten that moment—the burn can still crawl up my neck, and my eyes can still smart. I can feel diminished and humiliated. But suddenly I’m laughing with them, and I’m the audience, not the victim.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” I ask nobody in particular.
I am amazed when the maze eventually leads me through to completion—giddy, when the other students laugh as I read my newest story to them. One gent sharing later how he almost “pissed his pants” when my protagonist told us that she considered writing porn part of her writing practice.
But most of all, I am amazed to know that I can still be amazed.