It took a minute before Kelly and I met.
She lived in Dayton, as I might have mentioned. It worried me. Dayton was awful then, and it continues to be awful now. Partially because of death threats from the cuckolded boyfriends of grimy hipster girls and partially because of the calculated depredations of bored suburban housewives, Dayton assumed a superstitious significance for me. There were other reasons also, ones less articulable. I thought my thoughts on the other side of my head from where I kept Dayton thoughts, much in the same way that you chew on the other side of your mouth from where you have a cavity. Dayton is like a cavity; it’s a decayed city full with decayed people. Except that it was and is nowhere full, its people leaking out from its used-up center, metastasizing to other cities, leaving behind vacant property.
So I dragged my ass, and we emailed.
In the meantime, although I had a job, I lived like I didn’t, and sank paycheck after paycheck into my credit card debt. To sell the illusion of independence to Kelly (and, realistically speaking, to the women who would come after her—I had been dating for too long to really believe that she would be where I stopped looking, but I did and do believe that all displays of independence are inherently illusory), I rented the bottom floor of a large, rickety two-story house in Avondale, moving my numbered boxes from my parents’ house to this one and filling the empty rooms with Goodwill furniture.
The neighborhood in Cincinnati that used to give the suburbs fits is called Over-the-Rhine. It was the queasy locus of this city’s belching race riots in 2001. (We have a long history of riots with a refractory period just long enough for the previous one to be generationally forgotten). After all the smashing had been swept up, the neighborhood began aggressively gentrifying, sprouting curio stores selling ruthlessly overdesigned bullshit and pulling in a much whiter, hipper crowd who stopped talking about “Over-the-Rhine” and started talking about “OTR.” Avondale picked up the slack as the neighborhood people avoided during their evening commutes, popping up in the local consciousness as a place where landlords still tried to put up “whites only” signs on their swimming pools or where someone’s escaped pet lion might maul you. The sounds of occasional gunshots just count as local flavor.
As I’d learn later, my new house had been sold for a song to my new landlords just after one of the large neighborhood trees had fallen through the roof during the Hurricane Ike windstorm. That part wasn’t in the lease. My lease did, however, forbid me from running a take-out restaurant from my house. Apparently the previous tenants had done that using the massive kitchen they’d proudly shown to me as a selling point, perhaps to distract me from the uninsulated walls and gently sloping floors. I nodded enthusiastically along with my landlords, forgetting in my eagerness to move that I don’t know how to look and can’t be bothered to learn. Over the year of my lease, my meals would come from the microwave or delivery people, just like always. The landlords also claimed that my apartment would be a two-bedroom. This claim was true only if you believed that apartments did not require living rooms, but since the rent here for a putative two-bedroom apartment was lower than the rent for a studio in neighborhoods with fewer armed robberies, I decided not to make a stink about it. I signed the lease, arranged my new couches and called Kelly for our first date.
We’d planned to meet at a Barnes and Noble. Rather than going for one of the inexplicable Starbucksian drinks the café was pushing, I got a black coffee and waited for her to show up.