Wanetta, Minnesota

This is Chapter 2 of my attempt at writing a novel for National Novel Writing Month. If you haven’t read and would like to read Chapter 1, please read my blog post entitled, “The Drive.” Feel free to leave comments below. Enjoy!


“Wanetta is a wonderful place to live and work. The city is situated on the edge of the Mississippi River with numerous recreational opportunities, a wide range of educational choices, and a healthy economic base. Wanetta has a history of innovation that persists to the present and has more recently been home to a burgeoning arts scene.

“The original plot of the city is located on a sand bar of the Mississippi River, and surrounded by river bottoms and wooded blufflands. The present-day city of Wanetta was founded on a village of an eastern band of Sioux. Growth in Wanetta was built on a railway and steamboat transportation system, wheat milling, and lumber. In the mid 19th century, over 1,300 steamboats stopped at Wanetta. During this time, southern Minnesota was the greatest wheat-producing region in the country and Wanetta was the main port for shipping Minnesota wheat. By the turn of the century, there were more millionaires in Wanetta than in all of Minnesota.”

From “About” on the Visit Wanetta website

It was the first week of August, and Rafael Dybdahl was sitting on a plastic deck chair in his backyard reading the latest issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. His three children were occupying themselves as best they could until their mother, Zoe (Rafael’s ex-wife), picked them up for her weekend custody. She had to drive 30 minutes to Rafael’s place.

Rafael’s phone buzzed. It was Zoe. She texted him, “Raf, sorry I’m running late. Will be there by 5.”

Raf texted her back, “No problem. The kids will be here.” He took a swig from his bottle of Grain Belt, placed it back on the grass, and resumed reading Asimov’s.

The back door to his swung open wildly. Raf deduced that it was his youngest son, Quentin. He and his older brother, Tobias (Raf’s middle child), were inside playing video games on the computer. It was likely that Quentin was going to express some video game-related grievance.

The little boy walked slump shoulder in front of his father. Raf peaked up from his magazine. “What, dude?”

“Dad, Tobias and I were taking turns on a game, and he died, so it was my turn, but he kept playing, and I told him to give me a turn, but he called me an Adipose.”

“What do I tell you, guys? If you are going to play games, you need to self-regulate. If you two can’t be reasonable and police yourselves, I’ll just have to suspend video games next week after you come back from your mother’s.”

“But—” Quentin started to protest, but Raf interrupted.

“Tell your brother that his turn is over. Take your turn. Then no more games this week. Your mom will be here in an hour, so you two boys need to pack your stuff. Got it?”

Quentin was heartened by the judiciousness of his father’s decision and sprinted into the house. 

Raf heard Tobias yell at his brother, “You adipose!” But he must have accepted his father’s decree because shortly later the screen door swung open, and his lanky son walked in front of Raf. 

Raf peaked up from his issue of Asimov’s. “Do you have your stuff packed for your mom’s?”

His son wiped the bangs from his eyes. “No.”

“Well, why don’t you do it? Your mom will be here in an hour.”

“Dad, I’m hungry.” Tobias was only 11, but he wore a size 11 shoe and was almost as tall as his father.

“Why don’t you make yourself a ham sandwich then?”

“I’m tired of ham.”

“There’s sliced watermelon in the refrigerator.”

“Yeah, but the watermelon has seeds.”

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you.” 

“I think I’ll have a bowl of cereal with milk.”

“Ok, help yourself.”

Tobias clomped his way back into the house. Raf tried not to think of the mess Tobias would make and dishes he would dirty in the process of making a bowl of cereal with milk. He returned his attention to the issue of Asimov’s.

Raf’s oldest child, Octavia, was sitting on a blanket in the grass drawing in her sketchbook. She dryly quipped to her father, “Tobias will probably pour his cereal into one bowl and his milk into another.”

Raf added, “Then he’ll use a spoon for his cereal and another one for his milk.”

He and his daughter chuckled at the scenario that was quite plausible given Tobias’ predilections.

Raf loved his children but was looking forward to a weekend without them. His daughter was fine, it was mostly the boys who were vexing him by the end of his custody (Monday through Friday, for the summer). Just one more hour, and Raf could make himself a stronger drink, smoke a little pot, and watch the latest Netflix disc of Legend of the Seeker that just arrived in the mail.

Suddenly, Raf’s phone buzzed again. Oh, no. Zoe wasn’t going to be even later? No, it was a text from Collin, Raf’s acquaintance from grad school.

“Hey, Raf,” the text read, “it’s me Collin. I have something important I need to talk with you about. Can I stop by?”

“Sure. Does 5:30 work for you?” Raf texted back.

“Yeah.”

“Ok, see you then.”

Hmm. Raf thought. This should be interesting.

– – – –

Zoe had arrived at the time she indicated. Raf and her exchanged pleasantries as their kids scurried to complete last-minute packing for the weekend. Then they headed back to Zoe’s place. Actually, her place was technically her boyfriend’s house, where she moved when Raf and her separated. However, that was another matter.

Now, Raf and Collin were sitting in the backyard. It wasn’t as warm as it was earlier, and the bugs were starting to come out, but there were still three or more hours of daylight left. Raf had offered Collin a Grain Belt when he arrived. He was sitting in the extra plastic deck chair that Raf had pulled out of the garage. 

Raf hadn’t seen Collin all summer, but he looked like he lost weight since the last time they hung out. That was when Raf and his kids went to visit Collin and Lyla at their place. Probably in the spring? They had a good time, and Raf would have liked to stay longer and drink with Collin, but he had his kids and still needed to drive back to his place so that put a damper on the evening. Collin looked good—the contours of muscles were showing in his arms—but there was an exhaustion in his face like he wasn’t getting enough sleep, or he was thinking too much.

“So, man. What brings you all the way to my place?” Raf asked in a breezy manner.

Collin took a deep breath and looked like he was holding back emotions that were rushing to his face. He looked away as tears welled up in his eyes. After composing himself, he finally was able to reveal, “Lyla and I are separating.”

Raf manner shifted to concern. “Oh no, man. I’m so sorry.” He waited to see if Collin was going to say any more. Collin took a deep breath and then a swig of the Grain Belt, having voiced what was upsetting him he seemed to shift back from the brink of tear to simply being drained. Raf then ventured, “When did you find out?”

“Yesterday. She called me. Her and the boys have been up north with her father for the past month.”

“Why haven’t you been up there?”

“I’ve been working all summer. I’m helping with a summer program for international students.” Ah, now Raf remembered. 

“I’ve been calling every day, talking with the boys, talking with her. Things between her and I haven’t been so good this past year.”

“Really? That’s surprising. When we hung last time, everything seemed fine.”

“When we were with other people, everything was fine. But when we were alone together, that’s when we had problems.” Collin fidgeted with his beer and retrieved a pack of American Spirits Blue from his pocket. He pulled a cigarette and a lighter from the pack. “Do you mind if I smoke?”

“Not at all. Maybe it will chase away some of the bugs.”

Collin lit his cigarette and took a deep drag. He then resumed talking, “This past December she told me she didn’t love me. I tried to leave, but I came back. I thought I could fix our relationship. I came back early from work, I spent more time with the boys, I tried to be more helpful around the house. But nothing seemed to work. She was still distant and cold towards me.”

Raf thought about his own divorce a year ago and nodded. Yep, sounds familiar. Then he dared,

“I hate to ask, man, but is there someone else.”

“She was spending a lot of time with the boys at their Taekwondo lessons. She even started taking lessons herself. I accused her of having an emotional affair with the instructor, Mike. But she said that there was nothing going on. I believe her.”

Raf nodded. Hmm.

“On the phone the other day, she said that we had grown apart. That she just couldn’t be with me anymore. That it was better if we separated now than have to go through another year of things not working between us. That she wanted to work on herself.”

“Do you believe her?”

“I don’t want to, but I can’t be with someone that doesn’t want me. I have to move on.”

Raf nodded. Here it comes.

“The reason I’m telling you all this is I watched you go through a divorce during grad school. The semester is starting in three weeks, I can’t be under the same roof as her. Can I stay with you until I get things sorted out?”  

– – – –

Raf led Collin to the second floor of his house. There were two bedrooms joined by a dark windowless hallway. One room where Raf slept overlooked the street. There was a mattress and stacks of books on the floor in the room. One room was where his boys slept overlooked the backyard. There were two twin mattresses and toys scattered about in the room slept.

“You can take the upstairs. One room for you, and one room for your boys. I just ask that my boys be allowed to play up here during the week when you boys aren’t around.”

Collin walked through the two rooms looking at the disorder. Raf definitely had a more laid-back approach to home décor and tidiness. However, he was graciously giving Collin two rooms of his house. 

A lifetime ago, Raf was an Evangelical Christian. He preached and lived the Gospel—he even baptized a friend or too. That fervor eventually tempered as he got older and couldn’t intellectually accept some of the arguments that those in his circle were contending—despite empirical, scientific evidence before them. Yet, although he didn’t identify as an Evangelical Christian anymore, Raf still practiced some of the teachings that he internalized—like the one about loving thy neighbor and opening your home to strangers in need.

Collin was put off by the messiness of Raf’s upstairs, but it was no different than the current state of Collin’s life. A seismic shift had taken place and leveled everything that he had built for the past decade. He had found some stable ground, and now he had to clear the debris to build a new life for himself and his boys.

“Thanks, Raf.” Collin said, “This is perfect.” 

– – – –

 “After high school, educational opportunity abounds in Wanetta. The city is home to three institutions of higher learning. In fact, students consistently represent approximately one-third of Wanetta’s official population (36,592). In addition to robust academic programs, each school has strong relationships with Wanetta businesses and organizations. These relationships often translate into increased opportunity for local internships and employment.

“Founded in 1855, Wanetta State University is a comprehensive public university with close to 10,900 students.   As the oldest member of the Colleges and Universities of Minnesota System, Wanetta State offers 80 undergraduate, pre-professional, licensure, graduate, and doctorate programs on its three campuses: the original Main Campus in Wanetta, the West Campus in Wanetta, and Wanetta State University-Rochester.”

From “Education” on the Visit Wanetta website

Collin opened the door to his soon to be former home. It was empty, Lyla and the boys were still up north at the father’s place. She had ostensibly gone up there to work with her dad at the nursing home where he worked. She even took her two cats up with her too. Collin wasn’t able to join her up because he committed to working a program for international students that summer.

It had been a tough summer for him leading up to the dissolution of his relationship. On the first day of the summer program, Collin had been in charge of picking up all the international students who arrived at different times at three different airports in the vicinity of Wanetta State University. He handled the pickup so deftly that there were no problems—except one Chinese student’s luggage was lost in transit. Since the airport was in the city where Collin lived, he arranged for the wayward suitcase to be delivered to his home. The next day when all the students were shopping at the mall, Collin and the student, Wen, went to his home to retrieve the suitcase.

Collin and Wen had a pleasant conversation. Wen seemed like a nice kid who was excited about the summer program and improving his English. He also talked about starting his Computer Science degree and going on for a master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Collin mentioned that UW Madison was his undergraduate alma mater, and this impressed Wen very much because of the school’s ranking.

The two of them retrieved the suitcase and met back up with the other students shopping at the mall. Collin dropped off the students late in the afternoon. They had a little time before their evening swimming activity. Because Collin handled airport pick up duties and the mall shopping activity, he had the afternoon off. He went home drank a beer, called Lyla and the kids, and took a nap. When he woke up at 11pm, there were a number of texts and voice messages on his phone.

“First message at 9:22—” It was Sam. She was one of the program assistants for the summer program.

“Collin,” She sounded extremely distressed, “something bad has happened. Please call me as soon as you can.”

Collin called Sam immediately. She calmly explained that during the evening activity the students went swimming at a local beach along the river. Her and group of the Chinese boys were swimming beyond the roped in shallows. Everything was fine until the boys noticed that one of their friends was missing. She commanded the boys to swim back to shore, she borrowed a pair of goggles from some nearby locals and dived under looking for the missing student. Sam paused and wept. She said the boy was just lying there motionless on the bottom of the river. Still, she pulled him to the surface and performed CPR on him until the paramedics. Now he was in a coma at the Wanetta Hospital.

“Who was the boy?” Collin asked.

Sam informed Collin that it was Wen.

This was only second day of the summer program, and it cast a pall over the first week. Wen’s parents where contacted in China and were making arrangement to fly to Wanetta. Wen remained in a coma, but classes had to proceed for the rest of the students. University officials took turns spending time at the Wen’s bedside at the hospital who remained in a vegetative state. Things did not look good, and the concern was that his parents wouldn’t make it in time to say goodbye to him. Other summer program staff members went and visited Wen at the hospital. Collin could not. He knew that seeing the brain-dead student would devastate him emotionally, so he made the decision to avoid involving himself in this aspect of the program. Instead, he focused on running the summer program and teaching his two classes. The program had to continue for the rest of the students who needed to improve their English in order to matriculate into regular classes during the upcoming fall semester. 

For the next two weeks, Collin prepped and taught his classes. He also performed his fair share of the evening activities with the students. He was surprised at how most students functioned in their classes and enjoyed themselves during the activities, despite one their cohort members clinging to his life in the hospital. However, by the third week, the Wen’s mother arrived from China and made the decision to terminate life support. The university held a memorial for Wen, and Collin held it together for most of the service until the end.

“My god. That’s so sad,” said Lyla.

“Yeah,” Collin explained, “they played some Chinese song that was the Wen’s favorite. That’s when the tears started running down my face.”

“That poor mother coming all this way,” Lyla continued. Although she expressed shock at the fact that a boy had died in Collin’s summer program, she seemed less empathetic about the impact that it had on Collin and less interested in consoling him.

They talked for what seemed like, to her, the requisite amount of time one should talk to a partner who experienced something traumatic, but then she said that she needed to get the boys ready for bed and ended the call.

This didn’t sit well with Collin, and he mulled over this the next day. However, his mulling was interrupted by a phone call from his mother. His stepfather was in the hospital and had to have an emergency triple bypass surgery. 

“What?” Lyla responded. “I hope everything goes well.”

When Collin called her and shared the bad news with her, he hoped that she would decide to return home with the boys to be with him.

“As much as I would like to be there for your mom and stepfather, I really can’t leave now. My dad did me a really huge favor at his workplace, and I really need to remain here for the summer.”

Collin wasn’t happy with Lyla’s answer, but things had been so precarious with her, he didn’t feel like pushing back on her. Instead, he continued to be supportive and understanding, believing that this was the best tactic to take in order to save their relationship. “No, stay there with the boys. My brothers and sisters are here, and we’ll support my mother and stepfather.”

Collin’s mom was quite strong and positive during her husband’s surgery, even more so than his immediate family who did know how to handle the alarming situation. They were quite emotional and negative. His mom took the situation in stride, comforted that her three sons and daughter were there. Collin taught in the morning and joined his mother and siblings at the hospital in the evening. Being able to spend time with his younger sibling was an unexpected silver lining for him. He needed their familiar comradery after the death of a student, the health scare of his stepfather, and the growing rift between him and Lyla.

Thankfully, Collin’s stepfather’s surgery was successful. He had his chest cracked open, and three blood vessels were grafted into his heart to restore the coronary functions of the most decent man that Collin had ever known. A man that was much younger than Collin’s mother, and even though she had three sons from a previous marriage, he wanted to be a part of her life. For most of their relationship, he worked construction, which meant him working during the week elsewhere at a project site. Then on the weekend, he would drive back to be with Collin’s mother and her trio of spirited boys. And, no matter how out of hand Collin or his brothers got, he never raised his voice or tried to discipline them. Instead, he would communicate his concern their mother, and she would handle them, since they were her sons.

Collin wanted to weep when he saw his weakened stepfather in the hospital bed. He was delirious from pain medication but responsive.

“Hey, Collin.” He weakly whispered. “How are Lyla and the boys?”

“They’re good, Mike. They couldn’t make it, but I know they’ll be happy your surgery is over.”

“Hey, no problem. We’ll have plenty time when they get back.”

Collin wasn’t so sure, but his mother was positive, and Mike was positive, so Collin needed to be positive.

It was a week later that Lyla called and told Collin that they were over. He tried to plead with her, but she seemed immovable in her decision. She was like an iceberg, and Collin had only been dealing with the problems that rested above the surface. Yet, in his heart of hearts, he knew that they were over, that there was no point in stringing their relationship out any further. What were they going to do when Lyla and the boys needed to come back at the end of summer?

“Maybe we could still live together until our lease is up?” Lyla suggested.

That was a very dumb idea, Collin thought. Since he had the fulltime teaching job, and Lyla was only working part-time while she was going back to school, he would see about finding a place that he could move out. That’s when the possibility of living with Raf occurred to him.

Fortunately, the possibility of living with Raf did pan out and would be better for Collin in a number of ways. Collin and Lyla would not be living in the same town, he would be closer to his job in Wanetta, and he would be able to start a new life in the college town that he enjoyed much more than where he currently lived.

Collin went to the stoop at the back of his house to smoke a cigarette. He sat down to ponder all he had been through during his Job-ian summer.

That’s when something bit him on his ankle.

– – – –

Collin was pushing a shopping cart through the aisles of Office Depot. The rows upon rows of stationery and office supplies had been arranged and stocked to highlight the Back-to-School sale. In his hand, he had the 6thgrade list for Zak and the 4th grade list for Ryk. As Collin pushed the cart, he leaned his weight on it every time he took a step with his right foot. His ankle was tender and swollen. When he put weight on his foot, his ankle would grow warm with pain.

The night before as Collin was sitting on the wooden steps, he suddenly felt a sharp pain in his ankle. He first thought that he bumped an exposed nail, but when he went inside to look at the spot, there was no blood. There was only a feint raised bump, and a hotness where some insect’s venom was diffusing into the area around the bite.

The next morning Collin’s ankle had swelled up like he had sprained it. There was a slight purplish color to the area where he believed the spider or possibly centipede had bit him. His ankle hurt, but he laughed to himself. Might as well get bitten by a recluse spider and have my foot amputated. Add that to the list of his ordeals over the summer. Collin was like a character in some Greek tragedy who had forgotten to provide enough sacrificial offerings to the pantheons of gods, and the one god that Collin had overlooked was now making his life as unbearable as possible. This petty god even sent a spider to bite Collin to make his move not only emotionally painful but physically as well.   

After a cursory check on the internet about spider bites, Collin decided that he would go to the hospital if the pain grew more intense or if the purple discoloration spread. Collin then spent the morning sorting and packing his items to be moved to Raf’s place. He tried to do this as much as possible from a sitting position to keep off his ankle. 

There were things that were obviously his, like everything in his basement office. He would take it all. There were things that they both used, but he had bought, like many of the higher end kitchen items, such as the Wusthof knives, the Calphalon cookware, and cast-iron Dutch oven. He would take these. Also, he had spent a portion of his tax return to buy the couple a nice mattress and box spring. He would borrow his stepfather’s pickup and haul the bed to Raf’s place in Wanetta. She could sleep on the futon for all he cared. However, then came the matter of keepsakes like the photo albums of the boys and all the loose pictures that the couple had generate over the past decade that were now stored in a plastic tote. 

As Collin started to sort through the albums and totes, his eye slowly shifted from the cold task of scrutinizing what was his and what was hers to reliving the memories in the albums and the loose photos. Here was the album that Collin put together of his days in college. Here was the album of when Lyla was pregnant with Zak. Here was the album of Zak’s first year. Here was the album of Ryk’s first year. Collin’s sorting had stalled as he found himself adding to his sadness with each album that he paged through, and when his misery reached its apex, by about the tenth album, Collin cried. 

Collin was beyond the embarrassment of crying at this point. As long as he was by himself, he would indulge his need to cry. It was part of his daily routine now. A random outburst triggered by an unexpected encounter with something reminding him of Lyla. Otherwise, Collin was putting one foot in front of the other trying to move through the emotional wasteland of his lifeless relationship. He was exhausted from thinking too much, he was getting only 3 or 4 hours of sleep, and he had to make himself eat because he had no appetite and had lost weight. Also, he was starting to cough because of his habitual smoking. 

Still, at his rock bottom lowest, something in Collin kept pushing him forward. He might not be as productive as he was when he was overachieving in high school or graduate school, but his default when dealing with difficulties in life was to make his lists of things he had to do and start crossing things off. His list for the day was simple: pack, take a carload to Raf’s, and buy the boys’ school supplies. 

Collin left the photo albums and totes on the floor. He thought that purchasing the boys’ school supplies would give him a break from the depressing job of deciding what was his and what he would take into his new life. He was also somewhat in denial and thought by doing things for the boys that Lyla normally took care of would somehow stop the finality of Lyla’s decision, like a last-minute pardon from a governor on the night of an execution. Collin didn’t really believe it would work, but part of him wanted to. Collin’s superego told him that he needed to do things for his sons because it was the right thing to do, not because it was silly gesture to win back their mother. So, Collin was pushing a shopping cart and hobbling through the aisles of Office Depot.

Collin studied the two lists, and they seemed incongruous. They had some of the same items but in completely different orders. As Collin went to the aisle to buy scissors for one list, he later found that scissors appeared on the other list when he was in the aisle buying pens for the first list. This happened when he went to buy glue, notebooks, tissue paper. In his emotionally depleted state, he wasn’t able to scan both lists and discern the similar items buried in the mixed-up order. This was stressing him out and frustrating him. How was he ever going to function on his own if a simple task like buying school supplies was too Herculean for him?

Instead of crying right then and there in the back of Office Depot in the aisle with the various models of paper shredders, Collin went outside to have a cigarette. When he calmed down sufficiently, he went back into the store to retrieve his abandoned shopping cart with his first attempt at shopping for school supplies from both lists. Instead, this time Collin would retrieve all the items from one list before moving on to the items from the other list. It meant that he had to spend more time in the store, but at least he would have the certainty of finding everything on both lists.

Eventually, Collin managed to find the last item on the second list and slowly made his way towards the check out aisle. But on his way, he bumped into Sandy, one of Lyla’s mom friends.

She made eye contact with Collin, “Oh, hi, Collin! Fancy meeting you here.” She had a shopping cart and doing exactly the same thing as Collin. Her youngest son and Ryk were in the same grade, even though there was a 10-year difference between Collin’s age and hers.

“Hey, Sandy.” Collin responded. Despite not wanting to have a meaningless conversation at this point, he was about to, so he had to act normal. “How’s your summer going?”

Sandy then ran down a list of the things that her two kids and her husband did so far in the summer. Collin listened politely but forgot everything she said immediately after she said it. Then she asked, “How are Lyla and the boys?”

Collins eye slightly quivered, but he maintained his façade of everything is fine la-la-la. He explained that Lyla and the boys were still up north at her father’s and that they were coming back at the end of the week. 

“That’s great,” Sandy responded. “Well, enjoy the rest of your summer.”

“You too.” Collin then made his way to the cashier and paid for the boys’ school supplies.

When he got home, he sorted the items into two bags: one for Zak and one for Ryk. He then put the lists in the respective bags. 

Collin then grabbed the two photo albums that he had compiled of his college years. He removed all photos with Lyla in them and threw them into the tote of loose photos. There would be blank spots in the photo narratives of the two albums, but that was fine with Collin, he would know what went there, and if he ever forgot, what did it matter?

The rest of the albums and photographs would stay with Lyla. She could decide what she wanted to do with all the keepsakes of their old life. That would be for her list of things to do, Collin only needed to worry about his list from now on.

Collin threw the two albums into one of his boxes of his office items and carried it to his Matrix.   

– – – –

“Wanetta is a hub for road biking and mountain biking in southeast Minnesota. The bluffs that surround Wanetta provide challenging hills for road bicyclists and the trails the city provide over 10 miles of single-track riding for mountain bikers. In addition, because a majority of the City rests on a relatively flat sandbar, Wanetta is a friendly city for bicyclists of all skill levels.

“The Arts and Culture scene in Wanetta Minnesota is considered a ‘hidden diamond of the mid-west.’ With two professional theater companies, the Great River Ben Johnson Festival and Theatre du Mississippi, numerous music festivals such as the River Hippie Music Fest and the Minnesota Bach Festival, and local museums – the Minnesota Marine Tchotchke Museum and Wanetta Society of History, Wanetta is a thriving arts community.”

From “Things to Do” on the Visit Wanneta website

It was about 7pm when Collin’s Matrix pulled up to Raf’s place. It was loaded with boxes of books. Thankfully, Raf was around and help him bring everything upstairs. Raf had cleared out the room of his items and moved them into the extra room downstairs. It was a tiny dark room under the stairs, but Raf said he liked it. It felt cozy to him.

They piled all the boxes in the closet, and tomorrow Collin would bring another carload of his stuff by. He would come earlier to give the room a good cleaning. When they were all done unloading Collin’s car, Raf offered Collin a Grain Belt and pack of frozen green beans to put on his ankle.

“How are you holding up, man?” Raf inquired.

“Just putting one foot in front of the other.” Collin answered.

Raf nodded. “Just keep doing that, and you’ll be alright.”

“How long do I have to keep feeling like this?” Collin inquired.

“I don’t know. I’ve heard different calculations for how long it takes to get over the end of a marriage. Some people say you divide the time that you were together by two. Some people say that for every year you were together you add one month. How long were you and Lyla together?”

“About 12 years.”

“So, it will take you either 6 years to get over her or 12 months. What sounds better to you?” Raf chuckled.

“Um, the latter.”

“Ok, in 12 months you’ll be over your ex.”

One year sounded like a prison sentence to Collin.

– – – –

After unloading his boxes and visiting with Raf, Collin was in no rush to return to the duplex in La Crosse that would become less and less his home with each carload to Wanetta, so he decided to drive around the city that would become his home by the end of the week. For the past three years, he only knew the city as a graduate student who commuted to school and later as a freshman writing instructor who commuted to work. He would drive into Wanetta State University; then drive the 30 minutes home at the end of the day. 

Collin knew that the city was a college town, and its downtown was populated by a variety of bars catering to college kids. These bars thrived during the school year and laid fallow during the summers. He knew that city had a strong blue-collar population in the town. There were local dive bars in the various neighborhoods throughout the city. In fact, on the corner next to Raf’s house was Frankie’s, the neighborhood bar. In these bars, the locals would show up after a morning or afternoon shift, drink an ice-cold Budweiser or two, buy a pull tab, and then go outside to smoke a cigarette with the resident bar fly who had been drinking since the bar opened. He knew that there were doctors, college professors, and business owner who owned the old historical homes built by the river barons of the 19th century throughout the city. These professionals were the only ones who could afford the upkeep and utility fees of the beautiful buildings with their antiquated infrastructure. These people drank at the golf course on the outskirts of town or at the soirees held during the various cultural events throughout the years. Then there were river hippies. Collin knew about them because he saw their houseboats moored on the island in the middle of the Mississippi. They would spend the day kayaking, canoeing, and fishing the channels around Wanetta. They were sunburnt with wiry frames smelling of pot and patchouli. Their crowd flit from bar to bar—depending on where there was live bluegrass music—and would drink whatever regional craft brew was on tap or in bottles, so you could find at least three beers that catered to their tastes at the college bars, townie bars, or golf course. They were also the main architects of the annual River Hippie Music Festival.  Lastly, Collin knew about the punk anarchists that rode around the town on their bikes with mismatched bicycle parts. They bought PBR tall boys from the Kwik Trip which they carried in bike messenger bags decorated with patches and safety pins. They didn’t like to drink around the sheeple at the local bars. Instead, they preferred to crash a friend’s place and drink their tall boys while listening to their mix CDs of punk music.  

Collin drove around Raf’s neighborhood. It was definitely working class with the two-story homes that all looked relatively the same. Some homes were kept up by its owners, with energy efficient windows, new siding, and a roof in good shape. While other homes were falling into disrepair, with the renters biding their time until the bank foreclosed on the home or the city condemned the home. 

From Raf’s house, Collin could walk to work at Wanetta State University. The closer Collin drove to campus, the nicer the homes became. Right before campus, there was a street of old 19th century homes. Some of them were being kept up by the professional class that could afford to live there, like the tenured professors at WSU. However, some of these historical homes were turned into student housing. It was sad to see how the once grand interiors were subdivided with cheap building material from the local Menards into smaller apartment that would be crammed with students.  

Collin once dreamed of buying one of these homes. He, Lyla, and the boys would live in the top half of the home and rent the bottom half out to students. In the back, they would have a garden and sitting area where they could string up lights and entertain guests. When he suggested this to Lyla, she was lukewarm to the idea. She didn’t share his bougie aspirations. Her idea of a good time was hauling a bunch of shit into the woods to rough it for a week. Collin never went on these trips with her. This is how she spent last several summers with the boys. 

Past the campus, Collin drove towards the two lakes and parks that surrounding them. Wanetta was interesting because not only did Mississippi border it on one side, but the lakes and the bluff bordered it on the other. It was a naturally beautiful area with plenty of access to freshwater, and that’s why the Sioux spent their summers here, and why the early industrialist set up their homes here. There was only a finite amount of livable space in the area because the river and the bluffs prevented too much city sprawl, so that was one of the reasons why the population never grew more than 30,000 people.

At one point during the first semester of grad school, the stress was overwhelming Collin so much that he joked up tying up all his interlibrary loan books and using them to weight him down as he waded into the middle of Lake Wanetta. Now, he thought how he would try to quit smoking and start running again. He would start running around the smaller lake before running around the larger lake. (Actually, the two lakes were really one lake, but a road was built into the middle bisecting the lake into two.)

Past Lake Wanetta, Collin reached the highway that hugged the bluffs and ran from Wanetta to La Crosse. He would drive home now to the rubble of his relationship where he would he might sift for more of his belongings he wished to take with him. Maybe he would have a strong drink in order to dull his mind from all the emotional processing it was doing throughout the day, that kept him from being able to sleep more than three to four hours a night. Maybe he would get a crazy idea to call Lyla and try some new rhetorical tactic to appeal to her and get her call off the end of their relationship.

Regardless, Collin was still putting one foot in front of the other each day, and by the end of the week he would be moved out, and then he would await the return of Lyla and the boys.

– – – –

On top of the bluffs, a shadowy figure watched Collin’s Matrix drive out of the city limits. Happy with the disarray it had created in Collin’s life, it would torment him no more. It climbed back into the rockface of the bluff to resume its slumber. 

Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

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