The general consensus—and it was a popular topic at Spinelli’s, where she’d worked for so many years—was that this was a terrible idea, she’d lost her judgment, and she was going to wake up in Timbuktu feeling very, very sorry. Richard (whom she’d met at Spinelli’s, back when he was working on his dissertation and liked to come in with his laptop and sit at the counter drinking coffee for hours) thought that too, with a fury. The size of his anger had surprised Madeline, though it probably shouldn’t have.
“Look,” she’d told him toward the end of yet another argument about her decision. “Our plans—they’re your plans, really.”
“They’re good plans,” he fumed. “And we’ve practically signed the papers on the house. Why are you making things so complicated? All this upheaval—it’s for nothing. You’re afraid to actually live your own life, now that you can.”
She couldn’t tell him that the nearer it came, the idea of the life they were supposed to lead together in that sweet little Victorian a few blocks from campus—him teaching at Northwestern, her in art school finally, on his dime, their friends (his friends?) coming over for casually gourmet dinners that involved lots of talk about books and films and music—made her uneasy. Uneasy and curiously flat. Confined instead of secure, angry instead of happy. But then, she was angry almost all the time now.
Madeline stared at his craggy face, that shank of dark hair that fell over his eye. At first, when he was a doctoral student and she was a waitress who’d once dreamed of being an artist, the differences between them hadn’t been so apparent. But that would change. It was already changing. They came from such different worlds.
Richard’s parents still lived in his childhood home, six thousand square feet of elegance that required not one but two massive furnaces in the basement to heat it. Emmy, on the other hand, had struggled just to hang on to their not-huge, not-fancy apartment. She’d scrimped and saved to keep it all together, and that was what Madeline was used to. She wasn’t sure she could glide across the tracks into Richard’s world. Not and still be herself, whoever that was.
She bit her lip, her heart sinking. Then she said. “I’m sorry, but I am going. I have to. I’m not sure when I’ll be back.”
And suddenly there was nothing more to say. She gave his ring back. She’d been surprised at how relieved she felt when she called the bank to say that they wouldn’t be buying the house after all.
Maybe everyone was right, maybe she was crazy. But the thing was, she had nothing to lose. That shouldn’t have been so. Chicago was her home—Chicago, Spinelli’s, the dear old drafty apartment Emmy’d bought before she ever took Madeline in, the neighborhood that was so familiar Madeline knew every angle and shadow by heart. There was her job, her friends, Richard, all their plans, everything. But the emptiness inside was more real and more pressing than any of it.
So, she was going five hundred miles north to live with strangers, taking nothing with her but her beloved cat Marley, a miscellaneous assortment of bags and boxes containing sturdy, warm clothes and a lot of books, mainly, and the Buick she’d inherited from Emmy. The Buick. Emmy’s folly. What a heap. She’d bought it, used, when Madeline was a senior in high school. She’d had ideas of taking little trips with it after Madeline was in college—up to Madison for an annual bookkeeper’s convention, to Milwaukee to tour the breweries, to Decatur and Springfield and Hannibal on the trail of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Small, innocent dreams. None of it had ever happened, though they did drive up to Lake Winnebago every autumn to see the fall colors. The rest of the time it sat in storage, gently decaying.
It was only running well enough to make this trip thanks to the local mechanic who’d always tuned it up for them. Madeline had been serving Pete Kinney runny eggs on rye toast for as long as she’d been at Spinelli’s, and he’d become a friend over the years. He was also nearly the only person who didn’t think Madeline was crazy for leaving. He’d told her that he and his late wife had loved going north, that he envied Madeline the adventure. So that’s the line she began to take with people: this was to be an adventure. And it was to maybe fix what was broken in her, if anything could, but that fact she kept to herself.
On the day of her departure, Madeline left Chicago after midnight, hoping to avoid traffic. She drove slowly—the car was old and she was an inexperienced driver—but finally got through Green Bay. After that the cities and traffic fell away, the towns got smaller and shabbier and farther apart, and near dawn she crossed from Wisconsin into Michigan and was on a narrow two-lane highway that threaded through pines and cedars.