It’s a gray December afternoon. There’s dirty forgotten snow on the ground and a warning of rain in the air. It’s the Sunday before Christmas, and I’m going to a holiday party. The Chicago Area Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa sponsors this annual event. I’ve been to the party a few times; two years ago, my husband, Ron, came with me. Today, I will be going by myself. I printed the invitation from the Chapter’s online newsletter and told the host that I was coming and would bring a bottle of wine.
I’m not looking forward to this party, but I’m going because I have instructed myself to get out and be with people. Because I am alone too much and have been told it is unhealthy. Because I have nothing else to do on this empty Sunday afternoon.
Phi Beta Kappa is an elite academic group, and its members can be unnervingly knowledgeable. When I’m faced with one of them, I ask questions and listen attentively. I am not an academic star in their midst. But my college elected me, and, unlike Groucho Marx, I am pleased to be part of any group that will accept me as a member. Occasionally I go to the Chapter’s book club, although its reading selections are typically challenging and long. Very long. However, we meet at a nice restaurant, and I usually manage to contribute something to the discussion. More importantly, I always learn something—a distinct advantage of hanging around smart people. The woman hosting today’s party is a member of the book club, and that connection makes me feel more comfortable. I’m hoping that other book club members will also be there; they will be the only people I’ll know.
I’m used to doing things on my own. I lived alone before marrying at twenty-nine. I was divorced at forty-eight and lived alone until I was sixty, when I met and married my second husband. We were together for nine years; he died four months ago. I have begun clearing out his office and discarding his clothes and belongings. There are still many unfinished tasks. I go out to lunch and movies with friends. I count the days. I have built a wall to hold back my memories.
The party today is at the host’s home on the north side of Chicago. I’ve been here before, but my husband was always the driver. Ron had a good sense of direction, and he knew the city well. I have a defective sense of direction. If I’m in an unfamiliar area and I lose track of where the lake is or venture off the few main streets I have memorized, my driving pattern becomes that of someone lost in a maze.
Today, however, I feel unusually confident. The MapQuest directions look easy, and I have a new GPS. I’ve already entered my home address on the GPS but have never actually used the device before. How hard could it be? I’m an expert at MapQuest, and I assume that the GPS will function like a portable version of MapQuest. However, when I try to enter where I am and where I want to go, the GPS refuses to cooperate.
Only much later do I realize that the GPS already knows where I am and wants only to know my destination. It’s not a bad question. I’d also like to know where I am going.
I put the GPS to one side and decide to rely on the MapQuest directions. I get on the expressway to Chicago, and exit confidently at Armitage. The directions say to turn left onto West Armitage. I’m pretty sure my destination on Paulina is west of the expressway, which would be a right turn. But I obey orders. Almost immediately, I come to a red light at Elston Avenue. I check my directions. Elston Avenue is not mentioned. Ahead of me, Armitage comes to a dead-end, just as I remember from earlier failed attempts to navigate the exit.
“I can do this,” I tell myself and decide there is a smaller street, the other side of Elston and not visible from the intersection. The street I imagine goes north and south and will be one of the streets mentioned in my directions, very possibly Paulina.
I am still stopped at the red light, waiting for it to change. Suddenly the driver behind me rear-ends my car. The car shivers slightly, makes a jerking motion as if trying to shake off the attack, and shuts down. I pitch forward slightly, tensing for an aftershock. Nothing happens; there is dense silence; time stops, mired in the immediacy of the crash. I try to run time backward, to before the crash, back to when everything was normal. But time insists on moving forward, dragging me along. I shut my eyes and cover my face in my hands for a long moment, breathing deeply into the blackness. I become calmer.
I get out of the car and inspect the damage. Immediately I feel better. There are only a few additional scratches on my bumper and no visible dent. The woman driving the guilty car gets out and glances dismissively at both our cars. She doesn’t look concerned nor does she apologize or ask if I am all right. “Well, we both have good strong cars,” she says. Then she adds, “The reason I drove into you was because the guy behind me was honking at me.” The woman is dressed in black; her face will be a featureless blank in my memory.
“That’s a reason?” I think. The situation feels a little unreal, like a farce or a bad dream. The woman returns to her car and slams the door shut. She sits, staring ahead and frowning, her hands on the steering wheel. I suspect that she is preparing to make her getaway. Then I notice that the cars backed up behind her have begun driving around me and through the intersection, even though the light is still red. I go to the woman’s car and wait for her to roll down the window. “Is this a right-turn-only lane?” I ask.
“Yes, it is,” she says.
“But it doesn’t say right-turn only. It’s very confusing.”
The woman detects an opening, and she feints. “People are used to driving around here. They know what to do.”
Now, I’m willing to accept that I was lost and didn’t know where I was going. But does that mean I’m to blame for the accident? Does the woman expect me to apologize? Half of me is still immersed in the accident; the other half is standing on a busy street, trying to understand what is happening. No, that’s not right. She ran into me. It’s her fault, not mine.
I ignore her attempt to disarm me and suggest a truce. “I think my car is okay, but give me your phone number and address just in case.” While she fumbles in her cluttered purse, I consider my directional quandary and decide she owes me something. “Are you familiar with this neighborhood? I’m trying to find 1828 Paulina.”
I know she is hoping I’ll just drive off and allow her to get away. But she suggests we go into a small parking lot around the corner. No, it turns out, she doesn’t know exactly where Paulina is, but she’s sure that if I drive south on Elston, I will come to it. “Just turn right when you get to Paulina,” she says, returns to her car, and disappears. The realization that Elston and Paulina are parallel to one another and unlikely to intersect does not yet occur to me.
I stay in the parking lot for a few minutes longer and listen to my breathing. The sound of the collision keeps interrupting. I try to silence the sound by telling myself that the woman’s directions will take me where I want to go. Of course, Ron would have known what to do. But he’s not here, and I have to do something, anything, to get moving and reboot my stalled brain. I exit the safety of the parking lot and begin driving slowly down Elston. The car obeys me, but it’s only following orders, just as I am following orders. After passing two streets, neither of them Paulina, I start to notice where I am going, and I begin checking house numbers. The addresses I am passing are in the 1700s and already south of the Paulina address I am searching for. I realize that the woman’s directions were a blatant fiction, devised to hasten her escape. I have been duped by a savvy urbanite.
I pull to the side of Elston, take out the party invitation, and dial the number on my cell phone. The phone rings three times and cuts off in mid-ring. I dial a second time and then four more times. The ringing cuts off each time in mid-ring.
I could give up, but I’m now on a quest. Paulina must be lurking nearby, and I am going to find it. I reverse directions and head north. My earlier memory of Paulina being west of the expressway is forgotten, buried beneath my need to get moving and do something. Almost immediately, I lose track of north/south and east/west directions. I continue my search. “Keep driving and you will find it.”
The streets are full of self-confident cars and drivers who know where they are going. I am a novice, guiding my inexperienced car in a domestic version of the Grand Prix. I drive the wrong way down unmarked one-way streets. I swerve to avoid an oncoming car and narrowly miss hitting another. Many streets lack street signs, and I wonder if one of them could be Paulina. I begin losing hope, and growing reckless. Probably I am going to fail anyway. Better to play a part than to be a helpless victim. I successfully gun the car through the tag end of a yellow light. Yes!
Thirty minutes later, I am back at the corner of my painful Armitage/Elston encounter. How did I get here? I have no idea? If Ron were here, this would not have happened. I give up and turn toward the expressway and home. But then, just one block west, I see a street sign, radiantly announcing Paulina. I turn left onto Paulina, drive past 1828, and find a snowy parking space four long blocks away. The neighborhood is what is charitably called “changing.” The only people I see are several teenage boys. I make certain to lock my car, and I walk quickly and purposefully. A long-ago memory returns. I have been mugged and shoved down on the sidewalk. If it were to happen today, I would fall onto the bottle of wine I am carrying. I would be cut by the shattered glass. No one would come to help me. I think about returning after the party, alone again and now in the dark. I push these thoughts behind the wall where I store bad memories. I think of how I’ll soon be in a warm living room, filled with friendly people. 1828 North Paulina has become a dreamlike fantasy.
However, I hesitate when I approach the building’s shabby front door. There are three call buttons. Only one has a name attached, and it is not the name of my host. I recheck the invitation. “1828.” I back down the stairs and recheck the house number. “1828.” I’m nervous about who might answer the door, so I don’t try any of the buttons. I walk back to the street corner and hold the invitation up to the street sign. “Paulina” and “Paulina.” I don’t get it. I’ve made a mistake, but what was it?
Driving home, I wonder if this might have been some kind of a special abilities test, maybe an I.Q. scavenger hunt. Should I, someone who, in spite of repeated attempts, cannot find a Phi Beta Kappa gathering, be qualified to be a member of Phi Beta Kappa?
I get home, open my well-chilled bottle of wine, and pour myself a full glass. The whole afternoon I have been watching myself, playing an unfamiliar role on a stage. Now I go to the bathroom and look at myself in the mirror. “Yes, that’s me. I am home and safe. I don’t have to go out again for a long time.”
My glass of wine close at hand, I sit at the computer. I write an email to the host, making the subject line “Was this a test?” and giving a long description of my afternoon adventures. I finish with: “I’m now in my Glenview condo, having a necessary glass of wine from the bottle I was bringing to the party. Was this experience a nefarious test to see if I still qualified for membership in PBK? If so, I failed dismally. I await your response with trepidation.”
I check my email frequently. A week goes by. There is no reply. Have I ceased to exist? Has my membership already been cancelled?
Finally, I receive an apologetic email from the host. Their internet connection had been down. I’d gone in the correct direction, but the directions were not detailed enough. The phone number in the newsletter announcement was incorrect. The home’s entrance was just south of the tenants’ doorway. In the future, she will put a sign on her door saying, “Welcome PBK members.”
I now have an apology and an explanation. But these aren’t enough. Weeks later, I am still wondering why the failure of my search continues to matter so much to me.
It can’t be about the difficulty I had finding my way around a confusing Chicago neighborhood. I already know that I have trouble with directions; in fact I wasn’t particularly surprised to find myself lost. Failing to find a party where I would know few people is not the reason. I planned to attend only to fill a lonely afternoon. I was relieved when I could give up my search and return home.
One evening, sitting alone over dinner, a forgotten memory of that afternoon returns to me. I remember how I had fantasized about finding the party and being welcomed into a warm and friendly living room. But it wasn’t the holiday party that I had been trying to find. I had been searching for a return to my past, the past that every day grows more distant and unreachable.
Beverly Offen grew up on a small farm outside a small Illinois town. She now lives near Chicago and has never wanted to live anywhere except the Midwest. She is a traditionalist and a feminist, a frugal consumer and an irreligious realistic moralist. She was a community college librarian. She has written newsletters, manuals, and poetry. Five years ago, she discovered and began studying the art of writing personal essays. Writing has helped her to understand and make sense of the past and the present. It has given new joy and meaning to her life.