The first time I lived in Iowa City, I didn’t have any local numbers in my phone. I didn’t know anyone from Iowa City; I only knew people who had moved there. I knew people who had moved there from Los Angeles and San Francisco and North Carolina and Chicago; from Boston, like me, and Seattle, and Palo Alto—and New York, of course, ubiquitous New York, the 917’s peppered through my contact list between 415’s and 323’s and 310’s and 206’s and 617’s. I was a 617.
319 was Eastern Iowa but I only called a 319 number when I needed to cancel a dentist appointment. We were like ex-pats—we far-flung area codes, strangers in a strange land, folks from other places talking about how odd it was to live in this one. We complained about the food—Everything heavy! Nothing ethnic!—and the weather—How far below zero will kill you?—and praised the cheapness of the drinks and the friendliness of the natives. This last praise was offered with such stark condescension: They’re so nice! as if to imply: their kindness must be the fruit of falseness, or else simplicity. Always, there was a sense that we’d arrived at some elsewhere—nowhere we’d ever learn to call home.
The first time I lived in Iowa City, I was getting my MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was twenty-one when I arrived and twenty-three when I left. I did things. I wrote stories. I cried when people didn’t like them. I sent them to magazines. I got involved with men who sometimes fell in love with me and sometimes didn’t. I paid rent, for the first time in my life, and used whatever money was left to drink. (Not to worry, drinks were cheap!) I called my 917 roommate and said: You want to cook our kohlrabi? I called my 415 boyfriend and said, You want to drive to New Orleans? I listened to my 206 ex-boyfriend’s message on my machine: I’ve been thinking of you in the snow.
Kohlrabi was a mysterious root vegetable we bought from the Amish Farmer’s Market off Highway 1. We bought it from a girl who wore a bonnet and wool dress in the humid summer heat. Kohlrabi didn’t grow in the places we were from, 917 and I. We thought maybe it only grew in Iowa. It was gnarled and pale, like overgrown albino ginger. We didn’t know what to do with it. We thought maybe some kind of slaw. Cole-rabi-slaw.
415 and I spent most of our respective bank accounts on the trip to New Orleans. We schemed in the sandwich shop on Washington Street. I cancelled the classes I was supposed to teach, and off we went. The world felt weightless. Responsibilities were only part of you insofar as you wanted them to be. 415 and I had better things to do.
And 206. Fuck you, 206. You broke my heart. Don’t think of me in the snow.
The second time I lived in Iowa City, I moved there with a 917 boyfriend. We came so he could get his MFA in poetry. Like so many before us, like I had before, we carried shards of the East Coast west along the steaming macadam of highway 80. This 917 poet hadn’t ever been west of the Mississippi River before we went to Iowa to look for our apartment.
We did the workshop thing. We went to potlucks where everyone brought cheese and crackers and no one brought entrees. Or else people brought desserts they’d spent far too much time on, trying anything to avoid writing. I had a word for this: procrastibake. We threw parties for visiting writers. We took a trip to the haunted corn maze. We bought baked goods from the Amish at the farmer’s market. I never got Kohlrabi again. I’d never figured out what to do with it. But 917 poet and I cooked with corn—so much corn!—nearly every night that fall. And little mottled tomatoes. We made Iowa friends who weren’t from Iowa.
But things were different this time around. I wasn’t in the Workshop and 917 was. He had fifty new friends and I had a ghost waiting at every street corner, reminding me of the old boys, the old friends, the old parties. The time we painted our pottery stoned…the time I ditched a boy for another boy at a concert…the time I got drunk in the graveyard, the time I got drunk on the old bridge over the Cedar River, the time I got drunk here, and there, and everywhere. In the workshop I’d known everyone. Now I barely knew anyone. I got drunk and I still didn’t know anyone. I kept getting drunk anyway, crawling into quiet rooms at parties to savor my whiskey in peace. I thought about getting a therapist. I did, eventually. But first I got a job.
I started working at a little bakery on the south side of town, just shy of the railway tracks, in the first floor of a small clapboard house. I started working the front register and scooping biscuit dough into biscuit-shaped balls. Gradually I was promoted to order-taking, mopping, and cookie decoration.
There were five of us who worked there, including the owner—a young mother of two who’d started running the business from her basement six years before. Her phone number was the first 319 in my phone. At first, she mainly called to ask me to pick up more shifts, and I usually screened. But as the months went by, she started calling for all sorts of reasons: to report gossip from the kitchen or the café, new lovebirds or a marriage in trouble, the newest ugly cake she’d been commissioned to decorate.
The head baker was my second 319. He was a guy just about my age with a bunch of tattoos up his arms and two daughters at home. He was from a small town in another part of the state, but he’d come to Iowa City to work in restaurants. He worked fifty-hour weeks at the bakery and two or three night shifts as a pastry chef at the nicest restaurant in town. He’d recently moved with his family to a condo about twenty minutes north of Iowa City. Iowa City was too expensive. I thought about the writers’ workshop chorus: Apartments are so CHEAP here! Vodka tonics are so cheap! Everything’s so cheap!
Two things happened during those early months at the bakery: I didn’t talk about writing with my co-workers in the kitchen, and I found I suddenly had something to talk about with writers at our writer parties. As it turned out, every writer was eager to talk about anything that didn’t have to do with writing. You work at that bakery? They’d say. What’s it LIKE?
I found I was no longer just a Writers’ Workshop significant other. No longer just 917’s girlfriend. I was now the resident of a place. I worked somewhere and other people worked there too, and this was nothing special—it was pretty ordinary, actually—but it was a big deal to me. Writers live in our heads, in ourselves, in worlds of our own making. Suddenly, I was living in another world entirely—where I got flour all over my shoes, made dirty jokes in a sweaty kitchen, kept track of sheet trays in the over. At the bakery, we talked about why the croissants weren’t rising right or why the sheeter was acting funny or whether the shortbread frogs should have pink ears or whether frogs even had ears at all. That’s what days were made of. That’s what days are always made of. I just needed a place to be, and to be useful.
My third 319 was the University of Iowa Family Care Clinic. I was on a domestic partner health plan that apparently I needed. The first time I lived in Iowa, I’d only gone to the doctor twice, both times to see a gynecologist who told me I had a “beautiful cervix.” Two of my friends had the same gynecologist and they told me she told them exactly the same thing. Things like this happened in Iowa City, where it wasn’t unlikely you’d run into your gynecologist at the local Co-op, guiltily stuffing the cheaper, non-organic lemons into her basket.
The first time around I’d been untouchable. Nothing was wrong with my health nor would it ever be. Now it seemed like everything was breaking. After I’d had to schedule enough appointments, I finally broke down and programmed the Family Care Clinic number into my contact list. I was surrounded by twenty-one-year-old writers—versions of the writer I’d once been, pretty and healthy and taking their bodies for granted—and I found I’d turned into a little old woman. I had a heart problem and a facial injury and in the middle of our two years I got hit by a car at the corner of Washington and Gilbert and broke my foot in two places.
My boss was with me for the car accident. I’d gotten out of her car carrying a box of tiny key lime tarts and that’s when the car hit. It ran over my right foot with its front tire, but stopped in time to keep the back tire from doing the same. I fell onto the street and my tarts skidded over the asphalt. I got up and said, “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay,” kind of stunned that I was okay, it was only that my foot hurt quite a bit, and I got back into my car and my boss drove me to the emergency room, and held my hand while I kept asking them for painkillers. She kept talking, the whole time, which helped a lot.
I showed up to the Writers’ Workshop BBQ—an annual tradition every August, when all the fresh meat arrives—on crutches. “What year are you?” people asked, as they always do. “Are you fiction or poetry?” I said, “I guess I’m a seventh year,” because it had been that many years since I originally enrolled, and I was tired of saying: I’m a girlfriend, I’m a partner, I’m a not-wife. I thought of what they must think—these strangers, these new arrivals with their new area codes—that after enough years in Iowa City, bad things start happening to you. You stopped getting fellowships. You got a broken leg.
I was starting to rethink these BBQs, these potlucks, fueled by this relentless currency of wit and anecdote. Once I showed up at a party and everyone was seated in a circle. “We’ve been telling stories about the funniest things that ever happened to us,” someone called out, as I walked in. “Now you have tell one.”
This was the workshop winnowed to its most essential demand: Tell a funny story, use your words, earn your keep. I told the funny story I always tell. About a horse in Costa Rica, a botched translation. The anecdote had become like a retainer; it conformed so precisely—with an eerie click—to the contours of my mouth.
I told anecdotes at work, but sometimes they didn’t go over so well. I came back from a trip and told the tattoo’ed baker about a funny thing I’d seen. “There are these three clocks at the Eastern Iowa airport,” I said, referring to a little six-gate operation north of town. “You know how you see those clocks in airports, lined up, and they say the time in LA and Shanghai and Cairo?”
He nodded, squinting.
“Well these clocks,” I said, “they showed the time in Iowa City and Des Moines and Omaha. And they all showed the exact same time!”
The baker nodded, unimpressed. “Never been to an airport,” he said, with no particular emotion in his voice. “Never been on a plane.”
“Oh,” I said. I felt like an idiot. Of course I felt like an idiot.
I started going easy on anecdotes in the kitchen. I started—for once in my life—leaving my own life out of it. It felt better to talk about the materials at hand: the burnt tray of squirrel cookies, the bitchy customers, the documentary about “Cocaine Cowboys” we watched on a laptop propped on the coffee machine, one day when my boss was out of town.
Slowly, my life started to grow roots. Odd roots, but ones that wouldn’t have happened in the city I was from or the cities where I’d lived, places where no one knew anyone they hadn’t chosen to know. One of the bakery regulars—a housepainter—started giving me baskets of food from the customer pantries he cleaned: boxes of spaghetti, cans of tomatoes, strange confections. I did a reading for my first novel at the local Indie bookstore and the bakery made a cake with my book cover reproduced in chocolate. I’d see everyone around town—bakery regulars, co-workers, co-workers’ families—buying ingredients for chicken noodle soup or eating ice cream, running errands. I knew their names. They knew mine. It was the simplest thing in the world, but still strange to me: this being part of a place, walking the streets of a town I shared with others, feeling myself finally—if not a 319—at least close, at least kin.