I was young, seven years old or so, when I learned about Racine. It was where my mother was born and, during the Great Depression, where my grandmother was born. It was where they were “from,” but I didn’t think much of it at the time. I was young and disinterested in family history, so Racine was just another distant city, like Cairo or Paris. I probably knew more about those cities than I did about Racine, honestly, because my knowledge was incredibly limited. I knew just two things—one, that Racine was built on a lake, and, two, it was where one could find kringle, the Danish pastry that was shaped like an oval and tasted like Christmas. Everything else was imagined, and “Racine” became a place that existed only in my mind, like “the Egypt and France of a child’s mind, filled with blurry visions of perfect pyramids, and warm sands, and Eiffel Towers, and something that people called ‘wine.’” I didn't understand. I didn't understand that my family’s roots were in a state to the east, in a city built on the shores of Lake Michigan. And I didn't know. I didn't know that Racine was where my ancestors, where my great-great-greats, were buried. Back then, I was too naive to believe in ancestry, history, and the abstract comforts of "home." To me, Iowa was "home." In fact, years later, Iowa is still "home." It's where I was born, it's where I spent my formative years, and it's where my mother and grandmother have lived for the last fifty-some years. But. But if you mention Racine to my grandmother, her eyes ignite. She speaks of her childhood, of her dad, of kringle from O&H Bakery, and of summer afternoons at the quarry. She has her memories. And, fifteen years after I first learned about Racine, I have some now, too.
On the Fourth, after watching fireworks, Ty and I discussed what to do the following day: downtown Chicago or Racine? There were things to do and places to see in either city, so I was torn and indecisive, as always.
"We'll just go to Wisconsin," Ty said. "I know you want to, anyway." His words were firm, but true. Had he suggested taking the train into Chicago, I might have protested. I was in the mood for looking into my family's past, after all. I thought of the lake, and of the quarry, and of the drawbridges over Root River, and I found myself nodding.
"Okay," I said. "Let's go."
We left the suburbs of Chicago late Saturday morning and got off the Interstate around noon. We took Highway 38, which turns into Northwestern and runs past the quarry and the sign announcing the city's population. As soon as I saw it, I remembered. I remembered yellow shorts, hair wet from swimming, and cicadas' omnipresent humming. I remembered walking to the quarry with my mom, who asked me to pose beneath the sign, and I remembered asking, "Is this bigger than Council Bluffs?" as I stared at the numbers. 84,298.
That was sixteen years ago. It was 1998, and I was ten. The city was bigger then. Now, the population hovers around 78,000, and the numbers on the sign are different. But the road, Northwestern, was the same. It still led us right into the city, and right past the quarry. And I'll be damned if I wasn't going to see it again.
The last time I had been to the quarry was August 2, 1998. Mom had etched into the sand our names and the date, and had taken a photo. Until recently, the photo had been forgotten, tucked inside one of the many boxes I keep under my bed. When I retrieved the images, I flipped through them, leaving thumbprints on the glossy corners. I flipped through them again. The water was a smooth teal, and young children and adults alike frolicked in its coolness. There were sunbathers and a lifeguard beneath a crinoline of red and white. And the beach. The beach was made of a rocky sort of sand, almost amber in color. And, if you intended to build sand castles or dig holes, you quickly found that, beneath the surface, the sand turned ash black.
But that was sixteen years ago.
When Ty and I first got to the quarry, I kept my shock to myself.
The beach was gone. Gone, too, were the sunbathers and the waders, the young children and the rowdy teenagers. There was no lifeguard; there was only a red-lettered warning: SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK.
"This ... this is ... very different," I said.
"Well, it looks like the water has gotten a lot higher," volunteered Ty. "Look at those trees over there." He pointed to the northeast side of the quarry, where a number of trees and plants appeared to be growing out the water. "That's not normal," he said. "But they have been getting a lot of rain up here."
We walked around the outer edges of the quarry, on what had once been the "upper" level of the beach. I took off my shoes and dipped my toes into the water, half-hoping to see a fish lurking near the surface.
"I remember swimming with them last time I was here," I said. "They sort of tickled your legs and took you by surprise."
A shriek of raucous laughter echoed behind us. I turned to look at the one family that had gathered at the picnic tables.
In the past, the quarry had been a place to go swimming, cliff jumping, and fishing. Now, it was quiet. The sand was without footprints, and was as flat and undisturbed as an Indiana cornfield. In the past, the beach had gently led visitors to the water. The slope was so subtle that—had you been happily lost in conversation—you might have found yourself waist-deep, with fish tickling your toes, and with no recollection of how you got there. It was just too harsh, now; you were either on land or in water, minding the discarded bottle caps or minding or the sign. SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK.
I wondered if the quarry's decline in popularity was attributed to Racine's crime rates, or its location in town. I didn't know. I just had my hunches.
As we walked, we met a man strolling in the opposite direction. "Afternoon," he said, nodding.
We offered our hellos.
"I gotta figure out how to get that basketball back," he said, pointing toward the water. "And I can't even swim."
As we had no change of clothes, we offered our apologies.
The man shrugged. “No worries. It’s a beautiful day, though, isn’t it?” We agreed, and began walking toward the southwest side.
"That man had an ankle monitor," Ty said matter-of-factly.
"Huh," I muttered. And that was that.
We found our way to the banks of the Root River, where Ty suffered a muddy slide. We took a few pictures and gandered at the twisted roots of trees. And we threw sticks into the water, just to see them float. And with one last solemn look at the quarry, we were in the car and on our way. To the church where my mom was baptized, to the home where my mother was born, to the house my grandmother grew up in.
 Lawson, Jenny. Let's Pretend This Never Happened. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2012. Print. Page 116.
It was the last weekend in June.
Sunday, to be exact.
Early Sunday evening, to be exacter.
Early Sunday evening, to be exacter.
Ty and I had spent the majority of the day slouched on my floral-patterned couch, watching The Simpsons. We'd removed ourselves only to swap disc two for disc three and had barely, just barely, gotten out of our pajamas by 3:00. After donning clothing that would publicly render us as members of square society, we promptly sat back down and watched two more episodes.
Eventually, we declared ourselves hungry.
And also lethargic.
But mostly hungry.
We found ourselves at Traders Point Creamery, an organic dairy farm on the northwest side of Indianapolis. Ty had never been to the farm before, and I—after having attended an Instameet held there in May—wished to visit again.
The Brown Swiss cows had already been rounded up by the time we got there, so we stood above them, on a metal catwalk, and watched as they, one by one, entered the milking parlor. We stood in relative silence at first, arms crossed and resting on the railing. Every few minutes, we’d point out some small detail, some observance.
“There’s the cow with the curly horn.”
“That one’s my favorite. The brown one with the white spot on her back.”
“Did you see how skinny that cow’s horns are?”
We watched as the cows swatted away flies, stamped their feet, mooed, pooped, peed, rushed forward, turned around, stared, mooed, and fought each other for who got to be milked first.
“Cows are goofy,” Ty concluded. “Do you want to walk down to the garden?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
We’d been outside for only fifteen minutes or so, but our skin was already damp, our breath a bit short. It was, as John Green says in The Fault in Our Stars, “finally real summer in Indianapolis, warm and humid—the kind of weather that reminds you after a long winter that while the world wasn’t built for humans, we were built for the world.”
At the time, it was a little difficult to believe we were made to survive the heat, the humidity, and the haze that hovered above the pastures. We could feel the sweat on our brows and behind our knees. All the same, there was much to see. The grass was a vivid green, lush with clover, and the garden was spotted with crimson raspberries. There were yellow lilies and white blossoms and—in the air and in response to Ty’s cursing—my laughter.
“Get off me, you wicked cricket!”
“You, uh, you okay there?”
“Yeah. Just, uh, you know. A cricket crawling up my leg.”
I smiled. “Well, how’s about we head up to the restaurant? You hungry?”
“Like the vodka?”
Ty rolled his eyes.
“Just a little word play,” I teased.
“Mmhmm.” I placed myself in front of Ty and looked up. He put his hands on my hips and pulled me closer. But instead of kissing, and instead of laughing, we narrowed our eyes, each of us challenging the other to out-sassify the other.
I broke first. “Food?”
“Yes.” Ty nodded. “Food.”
Once inside the Loft Restaurant, we were seated beneath a small window and at a table with fresh flowers, a flickering candle, and a pristine tablecloth. We each ordered a beer. We each drank water out of Mason jars. And we poured over the menu for at least fifteen minutes, before deciding to split two appetizers and one entrée. Our eyes traced the rustic interior of the restaurant, its high ceilings and wooden beams. Sunlight shone through the windows, and it was both romantic and comfortable.
And then I shivered.
I, being reptilian, had predicted that I would be cold. To combat my anticipated shivers, I had brought with me a cardigan, which, at that moment, was still tossed in the back seat of my car. Because of course it was.
Ty, however, swiftly asked for my keys, swept himself down the stairs and, within two minutes, returned.
"Here you go, miss,” he said, handing me my cardigan.
"You need to stop doing gentlemanly things,” I said, shoving my arms through the sleeves.
“And why is that?”
I leaned across the table. “Because I can’t stand it,” I hissed. “Stop being irresistible.”
Ty chuckled. “I am no such thing.”
It was my turn to roll my eyes. “Well, while you’re in the mood to deny anything I say, I just want you to know that you’re also pretty. Stop being pretty.”
“Again,” Ty said, “I am no such thing.” He took a drink.
I sighed. True, Ty’s appearance had changed in the four years since we had first met. He was a different shirt size, his hair was below his shoulders, and—for the last couple of years, anyway—he was more apt to sport a full beard and mustache than any other form of facial hair. But his voice hadn’t changed, and his hands were still the same, and his laugh had never faltered. And his eyes were still that same steel blue that I’d always lost myself in.
“Not true,” I said, taking a swig of my own drink. “Not true at all. Your face hasn’t changed. It’s still you.”
Ty looked at me, and I stared right back. He may not have believed me, but he also knew that I was telling him my version of the truth.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Our first appetizer arrived then, in what felt like a scripted segue. We shrugged. We were hungry, anyway, and so we moved past our conversation and toward the cheese plate. On it were four cheeses—three of which were made at Trader’s Point—and a fig chutney. The board came with bread from Amelia’s, a production bakery located just one block from my apartment.
“My, God, this is good,” Ty said after trying the spiciest of the cheeses. “This reminds me of that sriracha hummus you make.”
“Personally, I’m a fan of the chutney, but that’s just because I love anything sweet.” I reached for another piece of bread. “That said, I have a feeling that this meal is going to be like the one we had at Syndicate.”
“Was that the place in Niagara Falls?”
“Yep! The one where we each ordered a three-course meal and a drink, and I made you finish my dessert because it was so rich? Yeah, that one. I just remember sitting between you and Zoë, with the Olympics on in the background, and the chatter of the bartenders before us, and thinking, This is it. This is the life.”
Ty laughed. “That’s a tough meal to top.”
“I still say this one will make the top five.”
Ty raised an eyebrow.
“It will,” I promised.
Sure enough, we were smitten with our second appetizer—country smoked salmon topped with radishes and greens. It was fresh. It was simple. And it was perfect for summer. We could’ve been satisfied then, with our bread and our cheese and our salmon and our beers. We could’ve been satisfied.
But then, the lamb arrived.
It was tender, so wonderfully tender, and we both savored, savored, savored. It was the perfect portion size … but it wasn’t enough. It was too good to eat … but it couldn’t be wasted. It was the best lamb I’d ever had. It was the best lamb Ty had ever had. And when we were finished, but not quite full, we ordered a trifle and ate that, too, at our table with the fresh flowers and the flickering candle and the Mason jar drinking glasses. When our bill arrived, it was more than either one of us could afford, but we didn’t care. Not at that moment, anyway. Because we were full of lamb and salmon and bread and dessert and beverages and So what? because this, this meal, was in the top five.
Ty sighed and leaned back. “That, m’lady, was glorious.”
“Oh yeah.” I nodded in agreement.
“We-ll, I say we head back to your apartment and continue watching The Simpsons. What say ye?”
I continued to nod, eyes closed, belly full, brain comatose.
Ty chuckled. “All good? Ready to watch The Simpsons?”
“Do I have to wear pants?”
“No. You do not have to wear pants.”
I went back to nodding. “Okay.”
In southwest Indiana, there’s a small town lush with trees, landscaped gardens, and historic buildings. It's quiet there, and it's not unusual to see the town's hotel guests using their preferred method of transportation: the golf cart. In this town, there are no chain restaurants, and some of the locally-owned businesses prefer cash over plastic. Sometimes, the community feels a little exclusive, but you can sense its devotion to nature. Sometimes, it feels like an escape.
This small town is also a twice-failed utopia.
As the historical marker toward the center of town says, New Harmony is the location of "two attempts at communal living: the Harmonists under Reverend George Rapp, 1814-1825, and the Owenites under philanthropist Robert Owen, 1825-1826. New Harmony remained an important cultural center for many years thereafter."
True enough, New Harmony is popular with individuals who seek both solitude and historic culture. There are nearly three dozen buildings from the 1800s, a significant number for a town of just 915 souls. Some of the architecturally significant buildings include the opera house, the library, the Granary, and the Roofless Church.* New Harmony was even the site of an installation by Patrick Dougherty, an artist who specializes in building sculptures out of tree saplings. The New Harmony installation, which was titled Just Around the Corner and was featured on the cover of Alessandro Rocca’s book Natural Architecture, is no longer standing. (As Dougherty’s sculptures are made of natural materials, they decompose after a few years.)
It's worth a visit, New Harmony. There is a farmers and artisans market every Saturday, and the second floor of the Working Man's Institute features an art gallery and a museum (one with fossils and oddities, including an eight-legged calf). There are antique stores, cafes, and even a self-guided architecture walking tour. And just south of town is Harmonie State Park, a place of entangled trees and walking trails. So although New Harmony may have been unsuccessful as a social utopia, it is certainly a utopia for historic architecture and quiet nature.
* Visit New Harmony is currently using one of my photos of the Roofless Church on its website! They contacted me a few months ago and asked if I would allow them to use it.
I think, sometimes, that this is where I'm supposed to be. You know, in a neighborhood with white picket fences, yellow front doors, and lush ivy. My eyes search for the quainter aspects of this historic district--for porch swings, for cats without collars. Curious as a kitten, they say, curious as a kitten. And, really, I have to agree with them, because I am that girl--the quizzical one, the explorative one, the one who doesn't hesitate to take a shortcut through the alley. I'm looking for familiarity, I say. Every day, I try to dirty my jeans with the air and the dust and the people of the city. I wish there was time to explore everything. And I wish I were a bird--a fleeting creature who takes the updraft to the forty-eighth floor of the Chase Tower. Who, hidden in small niches, shields herself from sudden summer storms. And who watches, with a curious eye, as neighbors wave to each other, walk their dogs, mow their lawns, and tend to their cozy bungalows. You know, the homes that are painted purple or teal and whose yards smell of lilacs and honeysuckle. It's like what you see in movies, like what you hear about in happily-ever-afters. Oh, those picket fences. Oh, the dirt on my shoes on this walk, on this walk through Holy Rosary.