Living in sin in Cleveland

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I knew it would be bad. I didn’t know it would be this bad. In Chardon, Ohio, there’s red everywhere. It covers my neighbors’ porches. It’s even in grocery stores. People don’t hide the over-pouring of red, red, red. No, they wallow in it. They paint their bodies RED. Folks, I’ve moved to Buckeye country.

But there’s more … There’s orange and brown, like dying leaves falling from trees. Nobody looks good wearing orange and brown. Nobody. Still, there are flags of brown that shiver in the fall breeze. There are orange bumperstickers. You know who to blame: the Cleveland Browns.

As many of you know, I love football. I live for football season, and this year, Jake and I have been overwhelmed by the joy of wearing hoodies and drinking pumpkin beer on Sunday afternoons. In Phoenix, football season never felt quite right, because for most of it, the air outside still burned at 90 degrees. We didn’t have stormy football time; we had sunshine and blue skies–which just ain’t right for football season. It’s just not normal.

I am thrilled to be here in Ohio for autumn and football and Halloween, but let’s just say I have a problem. I’m living in sin in Cleveland, and do you know why?

I’m a fan of the Michigan Wolverines and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, this wasn’t a big deal, because Toledo is considered a “grey area.” You’re allowed to be a Wolverine in Toledo, and there isn’t an NFL team in our backyard, so we could choose from any number of affiliations: Lions, Bengals, Steelers, etc. The same does not hold true for Cleveland. Cleveland is scarlet and grey; Cleveland is orange and brown.

My first somewhat disturbing experience occurred prior to this NFL season’s opener. I had on my worn Troy Polamalu jersey and was picking up wings for Jake and me at the local bar when a man told me, “I’m going to sell your kidney.” I was informed by other bar patrons, “You can’t wear that shit around here.” I laughed … and ran back to my car.

Then I noticed that Giant Eagle carries every possible thing you might need in scarlet and grey. Jake made me cry when he put on a Browns cap but finally removed the atrocity when I started seizing on the grocery store floor. True, I have happily embraced my beautiful, friendly new community and my wonderful new friends, but I refuse to embrace the local sports.

This season, I will wear my Michigan Wolverines t-shirt and two Steelers jerseys. I will wave my Terrible Towel. But I’ve decided: I will behave. I’ve been known for trash-talking, but I won’t do it. I can’t. I refuse to start a shit storm, and I’ve been warned not to hang any Michigan gear on the outside of my house unless I want it burnt down.

I am an outsider in my new city. A weirdo. That said, I’ve been a “weirdo” my whole life, so not much has changed. I just need to remember to wear sunglasses at Giant Eagle so I don’t go blind and keep the snide comments to myself. I am in Buckeye country; I will respect that. And on November 28th, depending on how things go, I will hide in my basement for fear of kidney thieves.

Welcome to Chardon, Ohio

Downtown Chardon, OH.

Downtown Chardon, OH.

Our house was built in 1929. The wood floors creak. The staircase to my office is deadly in heels, and I tell people there’s a friendly banshee in the basement. In the backyard, a child once requested a swing be hung from a tree; a parent once acquiesced. There’s even a tree with dark purple leaves outside that I can climb barefoot all the way to the top.

Saturday night, I heard a skunk talking to himself on the sidewalk; last nigh, I heard cats having sex in the neighbor’s yard—neighbors who, without knowing my face or name, brought beer over to welcome us to town. Today, the air is wet and smells of rain. We sleep with the windows open under a comforter knit by Grandma Dobie.

Welcome to Chardon, Ohio.

After a four-day trek from Phoenix that felt akin to crossing the deserts of hell, Jake and I arrived in Ohio tired, near hysterical, with two dogs who looked ready to commit parricide. It took two days to unpack, because our twin U-Hauls ended up being the travel equivalent of Mary Poppins’ bag: endless and containing mysterious items we don’t remember packing or, frankly, ever seeing in our lives.

staircaseOnce settled, we realized we lived on a little street with pretty, historic homes, much older than ours. Chardon’s downtown square is within walking distance, cheerful in its quiet quaintness of coffee houses, restaurants, and antique shops.

Approximately 5,000 people call Chardon home. There’s a Fall Fest where people get together to walk around and look at red, orange, and yellow trees and carve pumpkins. There’s a December lighting ceremony that turns the downtown square into a snowy, twinkle-filled wonderland. The Geauga County Maple Fest is the big deal in April, because yes, in Chardon, people make their own maple syrup, caught by tying metal buckets to the sides of Maple trees in winter.

There’s an apple orchard nearby. There’s a restaurant downtown called Square Bistro, whose chef was once a chef in the Biltmore area of Phoenix. (Small world.) A local cottage serves afternoon tea to passers-by. There is a known “sledding hill” where everyone goes every snow day. Speaking of snow, during WinterFest, a horse-drawn carriage circles the Chardon Square while artists carve ice sculptures.

One local lady said, “I love living here. I love not having to lock my car door.” When I was at the grocery yesterday, the deli lady was busy and apologetic, and a middle-aged lady told her, “Take as long as you need,” and stood there, smiling.

living roomWhen Raylan (our rambunctious pup) accidentally ate rat poison on Saturday, I ran into my front yard and shouted to see if anyone had hydrogen peroxide to make him hurl. A neighbor rushed to his rescue from across the street.

Have I moved to some strange, perfect place where aliens are taking over the population, or did I just forget what it’s like living in the rural Midwest? More research required.

At the moment, it’s still hard to believe we’re really here. Jake started his new job yesterday. Our friend, Heather, brought over a basket of “Welcome to Chardon” goodies, including local honey, local maple syrup, local pie … you get the idea.

I have Internet, so I suppose that means we really do live here, surrounded by green trees and a pink rosebush next to the front porch.

If I could look at a map, I know there would be a red X with the words “YOU ARE HERE,” but this peaceful, beautiful place is almost too good to be true—not to mention my beloved family is only two hours away, which I never in my wildest dreams thought would happen again.

It’s like the Twilight Zone, this stormy day, scented by wet leaves and moss, as I sit and write in the creaky, old house I’ve always wanted and never quite knew I wanted. It’s quiet. The dogs snore nearby and cuddle close at night.

Welcome to Chardon.

The town, the trees, the people shout the words until Heaven responds and gives me rain.

I climb the purple one.

Our backyard of trees. I climb the purple one.

WE’RE MOVING TO OHIO

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I won’t call it a mental illness, but if I was to name how I’ve felt for the past year, I guess you could call it “Desert Fever.” As of today, Jake and I have lived in Arizona for a little over five years. Amazing friends have been made; amazing things have happened (including our wedding). I owe my fantastic career to Phoenix. I would almost call her My Muse. Still, something has been missing …

In October, it’s still 90 degrees outside. Trees don’t change color. The sky isn’t the color of a dirty puddle, and the air doesn’t smell live clove. It is distinctly un-horror-movie-like at Halloween time in Phoenix.

In December, the sun refuses to go away. There are blue skies everyday. Christmas feels fake and forced, because everyone knows, Christmas is supposed to be cold and white. You’re supposed to want hot chocolate, not iced coffee.

In April, it doesn’t rain. The grass doesn’t grow green, and flowers don’t bloom. Instead, everything prepares to die, because summer is coming, and summer carries with it the oppressive sensation of being burnt alive.

My Desert Fever involved more than weather, though; it has been about family. My blood relatives are, for the most part, on the east coast, as are all of my oldest friends. Sadly, two of our biggest family occasions since I’ve lived out here have been funerals, so basically, I’ve been paying Southwest to let me cry a lot.

Jake was the one who first suggested we move east. (He was probably sick of me watching all my horror movies, obsessively, because they always take place in the Midwest around Halloween, and I longed, longed to be someplace that looked like the places in my scary movies.) Deep inside me, there has been a longing for small town life again. Lack of rush hour traffic. Backyards not brimmed by concrete walls. Not having to travel 50 minutes to meet a friend for lunch.

This is not to say I dislike Phoenix. I’ve fallen in love with her over the years. I love her downtown, her Day of the Dead, her restaurants, and the smell of creosote after a monsoon. I’ve enjoyed getting to use the word “haboob” and eating authentic Mexican food surrounded by artful graffiti in the shape of skulls (my favorite).

Then, while on a “vision quest” road trip three weeks ago, Jake got the job offer of his dreams at a farm outside of Chardon, Ohio, near Cleveland. He called me while I was on my way to my college reunion in Athens, over the moon. Just like that, it was official: we were heading back to my home state.

We’re moving in two weeks. Have I had moments of terrific panic? Yes. Been a bit weepy lately? Of course. But not because I’m leaving Phoenix; it’s because, again, just like when we left Charleston, I’m leaving friends. I know it doesn’t do to stretch things out. It’s okay that we’re leaving in two weeks, but it is odd when you have a beer with someone you care about and realize this will be the last beer … possibly for a very long time.

I will miss things about living here. I will miss, most of all, my friends. I will miss being an active volunteer for Gina’s Team (even though I hope to continue my prison book clubs elsewhere). I will miss the food, the photo shoot fun, and the well-hidden dive bars.

But for the first time since I left Ohio ages ago, I will have a proper Halloween this year, complete with falling leaves and clove-scented rainstorms. I will have snow and the possibility of a white Christmas. I will have April showers and a green backyard filled with trees. Speaking of, maybe I’ll leap into an autumn leaf pile. Maybe I’ll try to teach my dogs how to make snow angels and buy them little sweaters. And my parents and auntie will be a two-hour drive away, as will friends I’ve kept since first grade.

There will be going away parties the weekend of the 14th: one Friday and one Saturday. I am available for impromptu happy hours and hugs. I will not leave this city without letting people know I love them and value them and will never forget them. But it’s time to go home. Home.