"It's time for a stretch," I announced, watching the :59 flip on the dashboard clock. "We don't want to get phlebitis." Riding in cars was something I did expertly, having toured every Colonial homestead on the northeast corridor by the time I could say "butter churn." If you didn't stop the Bonneville at the top of the hour, get out and flap your legs back and forth, you could get phlebitis, or worse. Dad was a scheduled stretcher, and thorough. The directive to march wasn't complete unless it included pertinent warnings about arterial clots and thromboses as well as historical information on the first scientists to treat these conditions, even if I was only 5.
Twyla sat in the passenger seat, content for the moment to peruse the farmland out her window. Thousands of cows lazed about, overseeing their baby cows, as it was the season. Springtime in Oklahoma. The previous Sunday's New York Times lay between us, emblematic in its weight, its origin, its linkage to me, a girl in mod sunglasses and not a small share of personal turmoil, though few could tell, what with weekly exfoliation and thoughtful accessories.
We stopped at a gas station a few miles down the interstate, frolicked on the grass like Merce Cunningham dancers and peed. Neither of us had peed in our nation's breadbasket before, I realized, feeling oddly patriotic. I bought a package of trail mix, in the spirit of adventure, and proceeded back to the car, a highly practical orange vehicle shaped like a milk truck and marketed to 20-year-old boys who like to surf and light Sterno.
So what if I was 43. And if Twyla was only kind of human, a Bichon Poodle rescued thirteen years earlier from a shelter in a Manhattan suburb. We were two girls on the open road just then. Two girls and a pink leash.
I didn't have to actually agree to make the trip, of course. But he was a neurosurgeon. Potential dates who are not neurosurgeons get less leeway in the gender tango. The plan was that on a certain Saturday afternoon, I would drive from Dallas, where I live, to Oklahoma City. Alan was "on call" and could not venture beyond a twelve-mile radius. I revered call. "My Dad's going in," I used to say, sorry for the kids whose fathers didn't get to do splenectomies at 4 a.m.
Princess Twyla was co-piloting on the venture north, I told Alan on the phone, or there would be no visit. We headed for our Internet date knowing that Dr. Millstein would likely be a pleasant guy but certainly not a love.
"This is a way to go," I said.
Twyla didn't disagree.
"Maybe we should turn back, but he did do that fellowship in cerebrovascular and skull base surgery."
She raised her brow. We pressed on. I decided days earlier to make the excursion as a sort of mission, feeling hopeful about my new status in the world. This is a pearl in the necklace of enlightenment, I mused, having spent too much time upside down on a yoga mat, and if I sidestep it, the path will veer.
My husband had moved out of the house nine months earlier. The divorce papers were to be signed the following week. I was fully committed just then to the dating re-entry, after fourteen years of strain and strident encouragement from my many strident encouragers. Though the thought of venturing out, at night, alone, in my orange car, did not provide great impetus, I figured it needed to be done. Sometimes, I felt as if I were the canary on my own shoulder, looking down. There she goes, on the sidewalk, in line for the movie. Love that lemony purse.
I decided to experience each sort of activity once. One play. One bar. One concert. Yes, one computer date with a neurosurgeon, requiring interstate travel through pastureland. When I had completed the checklist, I would be healed, graduated.
The girls were staying with their father that weekend, and the back seat was empty.
"They are doing just fine," I said to Twyla. "I bet they are at the playground. Do you think they are at the playground?"
Alan would be ordered and reliable and necessary practice, clearly, even though there was a passing mention of some glass plate collection, which was concerning, at best, despite my longstanding affection for tableware. The process, however, mattered more than the outcome, I realized, and it was with this critical knowledge that we pulled into Dr. Millstein's suburban driveway, slipped on the lavender mules and marveled, no, shuddered at the fake mansard roof before us.
He loped out of the side door to greet us. I shook his hand. His fingers collapsed in my palm, formless and feeble. I would not want these in my brain, I thought, standing beside the gravel flower bed in Oklahoma. These could not extract a lesion purposefully or attach a nerve.
"Do you have a bag?" he asked.
"I'll leave it in the car."
Inside we went. We sat on a couch in a room with just the couch, Alan, then Twyla, then me, in a row. He picked up my dog and put her on the floor. Twice. Then, he called his Mommy on the phone. During the half-hour conversation, he ate his cuticles and pulled on his toes, rotating them like a loose tooth you want to fall out.
Twyla turned her pigtails and stared at our host. It was late afternoon. If we left right then, we would drive only forty-five minutes in the dark. But I was really hungry. And this experience, more spiritually, was to be carried out and endured, I told myself. It was part of the blueprint. Alan J. Millstein, MD, enthusiastic stacker of Depression-era cups and saucers... he would come to represent something, but what, God help me, I did not know.
We went to a restaurant not far from his home, where Alan Millstein drank four sodas before we ordered. I felt ready to be dropped at the hotel directly after dinner. But alas, Dr. Millstein had not reserved the agreed-upon accommodations. There was not a room in the city, he reported.
"Did you check?" I asked, horrified at the options before me.
"Yes, I checked."
He did not check. Girls, even ones who haven't consorted with boys in a while, say, for nearly two decades, know that certain cities are simply not popular travel destinations. Dr. Millstein said he'd sleep downstairs and I could have his bedroom. I did not know this boy. I could not use his pillow or lay prone. People can't hear you scream in the suburbs; I'd be a goner here, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain, silenced and disposed of in the wheat stalks, never to be seen again.
But highways in Oklahoma don't have lights, and drivers drive trucks really fast. In Alan Millstein's house, I would have a fighting chance. I would sleep on top of the acrylic fur and forego the pillow. I would push the end table in front of the door and wake with the chickens. Dr. Millstein was homely and Oedipally-inclined, but he was not depraved, I had to believe.
I did wake early, to a scratching. Twyla sat on the floor, one paw persisting on the wood frame of the bed. I lay sprawled and exhausted, but fashionable in the butterfly pajamas with the scalloped edge.
The digging didn't relent. Fearing a gouge in the leg of the bed, I finally sat up. My bangs stuck out like quills from a porcupine. One lid was glued half-shut, thanks to the lash-lengthening serum my mother brought on her most recent visit. I saw dots, figuring at first that they were globs of mascara. But you know how life can be sometimes, so different on the second glance.
"Oh my God!" I screamed, silently, and jumped up on the fuzz for an aerial view.
The carpet was a traditional berber, creamy and unforgiving. Competent in a crisis, I would be taxed beyond standard limits. Maybe it was the granola I shared in the car. Perhaps she ate a sack of onions when the humans were at dinner. Whatever the cause, the mess was profound, a veritable explosion of gastric unrest so unrelenting, so comprehensive that I was rendered paralyzed.
But action needed to be swift and strategic. Seizing composure from somewhere in my being, I got to work. Under the bathroom sink, I found stain remover, but no paper goods. I would be forced to employ the towels. During my exploration -- okay, snooping for firearms -- I discovered hundreds of linens, each one folded in precise congruent squares and stacked like a retail display, a geometric wonder of terri cloth. I flung open the cabinet door and ripped nine of them off the shelf. A ripple followed, one matching set after another, until all of them were on the floor in a heap, unrestrained. I could not throw out the towels after using them, because Alan Millstein probably took inventory. And I couldn't do laundry. Oh excuse me, I used eighteen hand towels after my shower and now I have to wash them and by the way, I've known you for only thirteen hours. The situation called for triage. Carpet first. Escape for home second. I dropped Twyla into the empty bathtub, a precaution, ran the water in the sink and scrubbed. My upper arm strength surprised me, and I attributed the stamina to all those chaturangas we did in yoga. When the stains were an acceptable hue, I scooped up the culprit from the tub and flew out the back door, barefoot, in my pink pajamas with the midriff top.
Twyla did not heel, come, sit or think on command. So the succession of suburban lawns, coupled with the absence of her magenta leash triggered in her a certain joy that was pure and lovely. She took off at full throttle, floppy ears back, tongue lapping it all up. I followed in pursuit, romping like a terrier myself. Twyla was fast for an old dame and charged up by the chase. We galloped through the neighborhood, a series of houses thrown down off the main road. Alan Millstein MD's was a common brick and shingle colonial disguised as a French manse, with fleurs de lys on the mailbox. Who were they fooling, I wondered. And look, across the cul de sac, there's a Bavarian castle. Did the kids come out in their lederhosen and climb on the plastic playground? Twyla led me on a weaving course, through flower gardens, over stone walls and even up on porches. Half-naked, I kept up well for someone with only two feet.
Six blocks later, I tackled the little lunatic. People in robes came out to get their newspapers and stopped, bent at the waist, to gape. I waved and smiled, as I had learned that friendliness goes a long way in the South, or Southwest, or wherever I was.
I deposited Twyla in the getaway car and snuck upstairs. In seconds, I threw on some real pants and gathered my bag, hearing no movement from anywhere in the house. It was rude to just leave, and my advisors would surely have advised me to write an apologetic note, but he drank four sodas and twisted his toes and had a room in his house for eight trillion bean bag dolls, arranged as if in a stadium and color-coded. I fled through the kitchen, feeling victory as the door pushed open onto the sunny morn. But there, by my waiting carriage, stood the neurologist himself, his chewed up nail beds crossed on his chest.
"Were you just going to leave?" Dr. Alan J. Millstein asked.
"Uh, yes," I answered, catching a pebble under my arch.
With the admission, a stream of sun rose over the house and lit up his glasses like Kleigs at a movie premiere. There are seminal moments, I understood, watching Twyla's head bob up and down in the car window behind him, that swirl you around then spew you forward, changed, somehow. We had ruined the carpet, accidentally, but undeniably. Alan Millstein had been a graceless host. I had choices. I could consider my dog's behavior justified. Or I could assume responsibility like a big girl. I could crumble at the pressures that weighed on me, or I could meet them straight on. This was good, I thought, as the rock pierced through the skin on my foot, and I felt, in that moment, okay.
I walked carefully toward the car and told Alan Millstein that I was truly sorry about the rug and would pay for the cleaning. Then I said that his fingers would get infected if he continued to pick at them and that a little Vaseline would help the healing at night. I hopped into the driver's seat, cheered to have made the pilgrimage and intrigued by the prospects that lay ahead.
"We on our way, Twylee," I said. "Yip-ee-o-ki-yay."