Two days on the Cape.

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Squinting at my screen in the morning light, I noticed specks on my sunglasses, a fine dust of sandy dust and salty sea spray from yesterday's trip to the beach. The water was almost warmer than the cool, heavy air; we stayed for about 20 minutes, until the whipping wind exhausted us. Rains came across the Cape last night while we slept, taking the oppressive humidity and angry skies with them. A cool breeze blew through the open windows around 7 a.m., waking me only long enough to pull the quilt up over the chambray sheets and just under my chin; I hunkered down under the covers for another blissful hour of sleep.

When I gave up on sleeping, the house Mark's family has rented for years was still quiet, though everyone was awake — probably had been for hours. I padded down the hall to say good morning, the wood floors still tacky from the lingering dampness in the air.

The kitchen was already clean, despite the disaster we'd left in our wine-buzzed wake the night before: Mornings in Harwich Port keep the Dish Fairy busy with dozens of dishes from dinner the night before — including too many wine glasses to count, even for just five of us.

Yesterday afternoon, after three dozen Wellfleets — fresh from the harbor across the parking lot, shucked on the raw bar next to us moments before they arrived on our table — and two bottles of sparkling wine, we floated across the street to Mac's seafood, where we bought day scallops, tuna belly, swordfish, salmon, all fresh that morning.

Mark, his dad and I were in charge of dinner, with Barney on the grill and the almost-weds working with our haul from the Provincetown farmer's market that morning: a plum, balsamic and ground cherry sauce for the scallops; ears of grilled corn slathered in butter, salt and pepper; an arugula and heirloom tomato salad topped with fresh goat cheese sliced like mozzarella di bufala.

As we prepared and feasted, we opened bottle after bottle of wine, each more special than the last. Mark's parents now drive each year from Illinois to Massachusetts, a most precious cargo of cellar stowaways in the backseat of their minivan.

Every night on the Cape is some version of this parade of indulgence, with a rotating cast of characters both culinary and human. A couple of days from now, another couple will join us; when Mark and I return from our long-awaited overnight on Martha's Vineyard, his brother, sister-in-law and their daughter will be settled in to finish out the week.

The skies over our home for the next week are clear this morning, with a few cotton-candy clouds drifting aimlessly past the tall trees of the backyard.

The real calm before the storm precedes this afternoon's Bears season opener, which we'll spend huddled over a single television at a sports bar in Yarmouth. For now, we sip cups of coffee and read our Kindle books silently, sports highlights blinking and murmuring on low across the room. I came outside to eat breakfast, enjoying as few minutes of solitude and dipping into another chapter of Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential." (I've been reading it for the past year and a half or so, and I'm determined to finish it during this trip.)

In a few minutes, we'll pile into the minivan and head to Pirate's Cove for a pre-game miniature golf match. I will lose, handily; Mark and his father will duke it out for another year's championship title. The trip will be filled with traditions like this.

It's hard to believe this is only the third year I've joined my future in-laws on their annual vacation. Cape Cod feels just as familiar to me — as much like home — as Door County does from many childhood visits with my own family.

Leaving Chicago. (Leaving Chicago?)

Paris

SuperdawgSunglassed and stubbornly coatless, Mark and I sat today at a blue plastic picnic table at Superdawg, surrounded by the Chicago-est of Chicagoans, watching the northwest-side traffic go by and trying to block the sound of the yapping Chihuahuas two tables down. The cheese in our little plastic cups was quickly going cold, so we munched quickly on our crinkle-fry nubs, trying to keep up with the chill. This past season was the kind of winter that made a 55-degree Sunday like today a godsend.

Despite the hometown love affair this weather should inspire, between bites of all-beef hot dog, nestled in a poppyseed bun and crowned with yellow mustard, neon-green relish, sport peppers and strangely salty green tomatoes, I was anywhere but Chicago.

I'm not sure which soul-numbing snowstorm brought on this yearning, but for the first time ever, I'm ready to think about leaving Chicago. For France.

The eight days of May 2009 I spent in Paris were lonely and melancholy, even a little scary, yet when I think about leaving the city I never imagined I'd leave, France is where I see myself. Six months from marrying a man who's a few tests away from being a full-fledged sommelier, it makes more sense than ever.

Browsing the shelves

So I went to the bookstore this afternoon — slaloming through a course of strollers and leashed dogs — in search of a book I wasn't sure how to ask for, though I had a feeling I'd find it. The Book Cellar has three whole bookshelves stacked to the ceiling with travel books, and two more little shelves of what an employee called travel narrative.

The Book Cellar didn't have them in stock, but as it turns out, there are countless "yes, you can!" guides to leaving America: The Expert Expat: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad, Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America, The Grown-Up's Guide to Running Away from Home: Making a New Life Abroad.

The Book Cellar didn't have them, but becoming an expat, living and working abroad.

These books are filled with chapters about getting there legally, soothing culture shock, navigating overseas health care and other messes. (I wonder if there's an appendix in any of them that covers the anxiety and anticipation in the two years before you actually get there.)

ParisLa vie quotidienne

I don't want this to be a pipe dream. Neither of us want to look back — after buying a house, having two kids and realizing we're cruising toward complacent middle age — and realize we put off something we once wanted so badly. So we set our hearts on a date: spring 2016. That's our vague do-or-die time, the window we have to prepare ourselves for a move that could be life-alteringly sweet — or a spectacular, epic failure that would still somehow seem amazing in retrospect.

Our honeymoon to France next April will be part newlyweds' getaway, part research expedition. In the meantime, Mark will start learning French; I'll begin researching what it'll really take to make this move happen.

To begin: a bottle of rosé from Provence. I'm sitting on the back deck for the first time since we moved into our apartment, listening to jazz and sipping an overly large pour of barely-pink wine.

There are few things in ordinary life that I don't find hopelessly, oddly lovely. A mother and her son who live in the single-family home next door are outside playing catch, counting the number of times each one catches the pink plastic ball they're tossing. When it gets dark, there will be a long line of blinking lights in the sky from the lake, planes coming into O'Hare from points east. The rumble of the train, the traffic on Western Avenue, the smell of Thai from across the street.

La vie quotidienne speaks to the deepest parts of my heart. I just think my heart may be ready for a taste of something new — even if it's not forever. I would miss the cheese fries, though.

 

Superdawg photo: Flickr

Vacation: all I ever wanted.

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Mark is next to me — practically on top of me, actually — in the window seat. He's given up on reading his book, a hardcover by Jay McInerney full of essays about wine. The book's been sitting by our bed for months, a shiny jacket concealing pages set unevenly, like a glass of wine had been spilled on them just after the first chapter. He closed last night, and I woke him at 6:30 with stories of a dream I'd had. Now his head rests against the curved wall of the plane carrying us from O'Hare to La Guardia, his Ralph Lauren peacoat now a pillow.

The woman next to me, in 22D, is laboring over the USA Today crossword, and I want so badly to lean in and whisper, "The answer to 1 Across is 'DAFT.'"

But I won't. Because even after a couple of drinks, I understand that crossword completion — even the USA Today crossword — is a sacred, solitary act.

I saw that we were departing today from Gate K4, which happens to be right next to Rick Bayless's airport restaurant, Tortas Frontera. And just beside the line where underpaid workers sling chips, salsa and warm Mexican sandwiches for overpaying customers, there's a cozy bar always staffed by someone seemingly far too friendly to be working in an airport.

Mark and I rolled our bags — nearly matching gunmetal roll-aboards — to the window and found seats. After wrestling with our coats and carry-ons, we settled in. He ordered a bloody mary, and I asked for a margarita (on the rocks with salt, just as my mother takes them).

We sipped our cocktails, glanced idly at the TVs playing ESPN on mute, and caught up; we've been ships in the night recently, between my early meetings and his late nights closing the restaurant. Finally. Six days together, just the two of us, really.

First up: three days in New York City, my first time there with someone I love. Even after living there for a year and a half, my time there was spent mostly alone — and stressed. That city life didn't suit me. In all my other visits, I've returned to wander Manhattan by myself, revisiting old friends for decadent meals and remembering all the while why I eventually chose to leave: Too fast, too expensive, too many people…too lonely.

This time, we're staying in Park Slope with Mark's brother, Matt, and his wife, Jaime. They're expecting a baby in June; they've told us we'll be carrying the mattress and bed frame from the room we're sleeping in, down the stairs and out to the curb, so they can finish furnishing the nursery for their baby girl.

We don't have many plans. We'll drink wine at a nearby bar tonight, explore Manhattan tomorrow — the High Line? Chelsea Market? Rainbow Falafel? Shake Shack? — and return to Brooklyn to make dinner Friday, stroll the borough together on Saturday before our tasting-menu dinner that night, and find brunch somewhere in the neighborhood Sunday morning before catching our next flight that afternoon.

To New Orleans.

Which…

Wow.

I am so excited I can barely talk about it. I haven't been somewhere truly new, for pleasure, in years. This will be an early celebration of my 30th birthday, and an even earlier celebration of Mark's and my one-year anniversary.

Mark is in charge of our plans there. Drinks at the Carousel Bar, grilled oysters, a Hurricane on Bourbon Street, walks through the Garden District, lazy poolside sunning on the roof of the Hotel Monteleone, where we'll stay for three nights.

Temperatures are expected to rise into the mid-70s while we're there, and the Chicago girl in me who hates heat and loves a cool lake breeze is ready to bask in the glow of the Southern sun.

This is my spring break.

 

But for the next hour and a half…I'm sitting bitch.

Seat 22E belongs to my thighs and me, the only space that's mine on this cramped airplane, a flight apparently equipped with wi-fi that I'm forcing myself not to purchase. Trying to unwind myself into vacation mode is harder than I thought: Now that I'm a business owner, I barely know how to do it anymore.

But the next six days are mine. Ours.

And I also won't stress out about not stressing out. That would be so me.

So minute by minute, hour by hour, I'm just going to…live.

Visiting Florida for fun and profit.

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I'm sipping a $10 hotel margarita, on the rocks, with salt, sitting cross-legged on a chaise longue. There's red vinyl as far as the eye can see, stretched taut across the rows and rows of painted-metal frames fanned out around the pool.

I've been chasing the sun as it drifts westward in the sky, trying to soak up every moment of the fleeting daylight before I leave Fort Lauderdale for Chicago.

Pleasure

When I arrived yesterday, the airport smelled like Cinnabons and sunscreen; everyone was wearing flip-flops and Tommy Bahamas, and I'd left even my sunglasses back home. (It's 8 degrees, and swimsuits and shorts aren't really top of mind.)

So, after checking in to my hotel, I set off down the A1A in search of a new pair of shades. I found a plaza filled with kiosks selling neon T-shirts covered in slogans:

GANGNAM STYLE

YOLO

BUY ME ANOTHER CASE OF BEER, YOU STILL UGLY

 

Oh, Florida.

My new sunglasses were there, a pair of Jackie O–style Dolce & Gabbana knock-offs, and after taking the requisite arm-extension selfie, I made my way to the Drunken Taco, a beachfront Mexican joint with laminated menus and beer buckets full of condiments.

A Hispanic woman in an orange tunic passed me on the street and slowly circled back, telling me I had a beautiful aura. I thanked her but declined the offer for a personalized astrology reading. Actually, I've always wanted to get one, but my budget had already been earmarked for a massive frozen banana margarita with an extra shot of tequila. (Really, which would you choose?)

At the table behind me, a threesome squealed as a careless beach pigeon shat on their table. They moved under the awning, leaving me exposed to all the sidewalk characters Fort Lauderdale had to offer: Families, couples, drifters and grifters.  After the first slurp of my margarita, a leathery beach bum with a distended belly barely covered by his tattered tank top walked up to my table. Politely, he asked, "I don't mean to be rude, but I'm homeless and really hungry, and I was wondering if you could spare anything for me to get a bite to eat."

So, I don't carry cash.

Ever.

For specifically this reason, but also because I generally don't have enough money in my account to be blowing cash left and right. And you do blow it when it's burning a hole in your wallet. (Remember this article <USATODAY>?)

So I shook my head no and told him as much.

Hello, Mr. Homeless Hyde: "How do you live?" he spewed, flinging spittle on my sand-blown table. "You sit there with your cocktail then lie to my face saying you don't have any cash?" …Followed by an impressive string of expletives that would upset Google very much. Resisting the temptation to ask him whether he took credit cards, I apologized and wished his back a nice day as he stormed off.

Sheesh. The people you meet.

 

I also met a cab driver from Jersey who never looked back after he moved to South Florida 20 years ago. He drove us to dinner and back and kept offering to take us for a good time in Miami instead, which he described as "Beautiful people, good food, good drink, good tan line, good hangover, happy happy happy." He said he had a bottle of Patron in the trunk, too, but he never produced.

 

Business

But the reason I was here, my real moment in the sun: a 5:30 a.m. wakeup call to prep for my presentation.

One of my clients, an organization whose mission revolves around providing employment for blind and visually impaired professionals, invited me to present at their sales summit on the content strategy I helped them develop.

I spent 45 minutes clicking through my PowerPoint in a dimly lit conference room that could have been anywhere, as long as you didn't look out the doors to the outside world. I explained the work we'd done to begin telling the company's story, the ways we want to help engage potential customers and ordinary people, through blogs and Facebook posts and YouTube videos. We talked about Google analytics and ROI and the relationships that really make me love what I do

Someone walked by on their way out and thanked me for my wisdom, and at that instant, I felt better than I did in my entire afternoon basking in the glow of a sun I haven't seen in what feels like months.

But not by much.

 

Returning

I waited until 3 p.m. to order myself that celebratory margarita, and my heart breaks to leave this place: I am warm and at ease and happily floating along on my second margarita since I sat down at the pool.

The sun has disappeared behind the jungle of private cabanas, and a fluorescent light just flickered on along the base of a planter. My flight home leaves in about two hours, and even though I know deep down I'll be happier back home, God, am I craving one more day in the sun.

My dreams, in color: to Cape Cod and back.

I will remember the Cape in color.

Blue suitcase, the zipper busted and Samsonite label ripped off by some baggage claim tragedy. Orange Line to Midway. Blush-colored scarf, neon-striped tank, blue jeans and my best silver travel shoes.

Blue skies and a twilight rainbow as we set off eastward. A pitch-dark arrival in Providence.

The pastel cornflower blue Crown Vic we rented the next morning, with Illinois plates and an outdated Chicago city sticker. The trunk barely closed with two sets of golf clubs inside.

Green, green hills everywhere on the course, nestled back in the woods. We left the men behind and spent the afternoon at a beachfront bar with strawberry mojitos and stolen bites of Greek salad.

Matt and Jaime's brand-new black kitten, along for the ride. Swoon.

Mark's and my room's two double beds, covered with mustard, teal and forest-green bedspreads that we stripped immediately and left in the corner for all three nights we slept there. The air conditioning groaned and strained against the persistent heat and humidity.

A damp bathroom the color of old silk roses. Our towels and swimsuits never quite dried in there, and a tiny black plaque nailed to the hollow door begged us to please place the curtain inside the shower, like that could contain the moisture somehow.

Beyond the hellhole motel: exactly as expected, though I didn't have a clue what to expect.

The wild raspberries and canaries of the buildings in Provincetown, a cross between a Caribbean island and a quaint European town at the very tip of the Cape. We drank local beer at the Squealing Pig and watched a barback shuck oysters in giant black rubber gloves.

Peeling red nail polish on my toes, my heels perched on the passenger-side mirror out the open windows as we sailed down Highway 6, searching for songs on the radio we could sing at the tops of our lungs.

Hey, I just met you. And this is crazy…

Pink and blue explosions, hydrangeas in full bloom along the bustling back veranda of the Chatham Bars Inn, where Mark and I sat with fifteen-dollar cocktails and basked in looking the tony part but knowing — and loving — how fleeting that moment was.

Clear, perfect turquoise filling the pool of the Platinum Pebble Inn, where Mark, his parents, brother, sister-in-law, cousin and I sat each night for cocktail hour.

Dim, flickering orange candlelight in a different restaurant each night, where we opened bottle after bottle of wine. The faces of my new second family blurred in my half-drunken state but became more familiar by the second.

The Creamsicle cantaloupe polo Mark wore on the miniature golf course this morning, our final stop before making our way back to the mainland. His neon-yellow ball, the only color he can discern through his color blindness.

Whitewashed clapboard. Wooden shingles aged by the sea air. Sand chased by the tides, darker and rippled near the water, studded with broken seashells and dotted with people in bright swimsuits.

I took pictures, at least a hundred, but they won't mean much to anyone else. A camera can't capture skipped heartbeats; a memory card captures images, not actual memories. My photos will serve only to remind me that yes, it actually is possible to be this happy. Writing this will be my reminder that no, I am not always so utterly dumbstruck by the fullness of my heart.

There are words.

There will be more chowder, more bisque, more fried clams. There will be more oysters on the half shell, maybe even on the same Wellfleet rooftop playing sleepy reggae from tinny outdoor speakers. There will be more lobster and more bottles of wine in years to come, more moments that catch my breath and aching happiness.

All the colors in my head swirl bright to form a brilliant white. I see white, all white — too soon, but not — and there's music in my ears, as my flight bumps and roars westward, toward home — back to real life and the next adventure.

 

 

Reunited, and it feels so…

"I wish this banana was a biscuit," I said, scowling at my so-called breakfast as I settled crammed into seat 7A of the Barbie Fun Jet set to take me from O'Hare to Kansas City International.The man next to me, wearing a red Ohio State polo and tearaway pants, doubled over in laughter. This was going to be a good flight. TC — shortened from Anthony because he grew up in an Italian neighborhood where everyone was named Anthony — and I became fast friends; before we even pulled away from the gate, we were already annoying the people trying to sleep, our shrieks of laughter bouncing around the tiny plane. His niece is getting married this weekend in Kansas City, and tonight I'll be attending my 10-year high school reunion.

Most people I've talked to recoil at the mere mention of high school. I'm not like that. I loved high school. I had incredible friends, liked my classes and teachers, got good grades and will still sing the alma mater. With the exception of a few people who shall remain nameless but will never. be. forgotten. for what they did. — excuse the brief Carrie moment — I'm sort of looking forward to the opportunity to see who shows up, who's gotten married, who's had babies, who's gotten fat, who's lost their hair. Sure, it's a pissing contest. And I'll show up with a full bladder. Okay, that was gross.

Granted, I did opt for the banana over a biscuit, passing the airport McDonald's with a petulant pout, because I've put on a few pounds since high school. Okay: I went to college, lost weight, moved to New York, got in shape, put on muscle, softened up when I got to Chicago, got in shape again, and basically feel like I've let myself go since then. The process doesn't matter at the 10-year reunion. The end result is all anyone sees. And really, in the end, I look pretty good, despite slightly more dangerous curves than I'd planned for at 28. (Which has absolutely nothing to do with the cranberry-orange scone I put away as soon as I got in my mom's car to head home. Really.) Big-city style — as far as I can afford — and much, much better eyebrows.

Mostly, I like myself. I've lived since high school. After chickening out and staying in-state for college, I snapped out of it and got the hell out of Dodge. Not because I hated Kansas City or had to get away from my family, but because I knew there was something else out there. There were a lot of something elses out there. God, what adventures I've had. And will still have. It's not ideal that I lost my job less than a month before the reunion, but I'm not embarrassed. I never settled again after college. Not for long, anyway. Boyfriends haven't lasted; jobs haven't lasted; cities haven't lasted because nothing has stuck that's made me happy. I know what happiness feels like, and I won't go without it for long. I get sad about being single sometimes, but it's becoming less about my age and how I feel like I "should" be settling down by now and more about…knowing some of these adventures would be better with someone else. (Someone…special. Cringe.)

Back on the plane, somewhere over Iowa, TC and I started talking about receding hairlines. He described with glee going to his high school reunion and finding that all the boys who carried around combs and groomed themselves incessantly were the ones whose hair fell out the quickest. "Just wait for your 20th," he said with a smirk. I think TC is the sort of guy who can take a snark tangent anywhere in the span of about five minutes — like I said, fast friends — but I think the conversation stemmed from my recent revelation that a boy I'd liked in high school, who really wouldn't give me the time of day, had positively ballooned since high school. He went off to Baylor, drank his freshman 15 and probably ate another 20, and never bothered to take it off. He's squinty and swollen, and when he crosses my mind every few years, I think, I really dodged a bullet there. We didn't have a bullying problem at my high school. That I knew of. As far as I know, kids didn't get shoved into lockers. No swirlies were given; nerds never had to pre-score their underwear in preparation for mega-wedgies. But if I felt for even a moment like there were kids who were better than me — for any reason, even without physical manifestation — I can't even imagine the emotional effect high school had on some others.

The Facebook friend requests have poured in during the weeks leading up to the reunion. I've ignored them all. People who didn't want to talk to me in high school don't need to see my wall now. Or know that I'm writing about them. Still, I'll look forward to the fake hugs and the perfunctory questions, and the memories I'll keep for years to come of kids turned grown-ups, drinking themselves into a stupor. It'll be surreal, looking at them as they are today but remembering them as they were.

They'll be drinking themselves dumb, digging deep into the past and their glory days, because it's what everyone else does at high school reunions. They've always done what everyone else does. I'll sip my gin and tonic, then I'll come back and blog about it. And drink myself dumb with my real friends — because I want to.