Chapter 1: E-mail seductions

The first thing you should know about me: I value choice, but decisions stress me out.

I’d been the kind of kid who was duped by her older sister into trading three sparkly costume jewelry rings for a plain, broken necklace — only to have said sister immediately taunt me for the senseless choice I’d made. (This is a sister’s job, after all.)

So I then became that annoying kid at Disneyworld who, after getting ten dollars spending money from her parents, wept in a gift store at dusk, overwhelmed by too many choices, certain I’d have regrets about whatever item I selected.

Decisions had always provided way, way too many opportunities for me to get something wrong, and that annoyed me. So I became maniacally methodical and careful – the kind of person who won’t take a bet unless I’m 95 percent sure that I’ll win.

Therein lies a primary reason Joe and I dated for seven years before even discussing marriage. But big decisions aren’t the only ones that terrify me. The small ones have a way of profoundly skewing my life, too.

To name one example: I’d signed up to receive a free Publishers Weekly daily e-mail newsletter in 2003, and chose to actually read it (I often deleted it) one Wednesday morning in mid-August — ten days before my wedding.

In the newsletter’s “Best of the Web” section, a reporter explained that New York-based writer Amanda Stern was seeking a driver for a national book tour to promote her novel, “The Long Haul.” The blurb said that even if you weren’t interested in applying, the humorous questions merited a quick read-through.

Curious, I clicked on the link to Amanda’s Web site and read:
In November, I will spend one month driving across country on my book tour. One small, tiny little problem, though: I don’t know how to drive. A month ago, I scored 100 on my written Learner’s Permit test and last week I started taking lessons with Rey, from the Professional Driving School of the Americas. …Open the file below and apply to come along as my tour companion. WINNER WILL BE ANNOUNCED in the beginning of October.

I clicked on the link – while sitting alone in our house’s shadowy den, still wet from a shower, wearing nothing but my grubby, old yellow bathrobe – and laughed out loud. Not only were Amanda’s 24 questions witty, but the person behind them seemed charming, neurotic, and fun. I suddenly, desperately wanted to know her, so I spent a considerable chunk of my morning trying to answer the questions in the spirit in which they were asked. Some highlights:

Do you have a hair maintenance routine that lasts more than ten minutes and involves more than two products?

No. It involves a brush and a hair band.

Are you on any medication?

Not a thing. I’m robustly healthy. Is this going to work against me?

Can you bring extra?

I guess the answer to my last question is “yes”…

Were you popular in high school?

Dear God, no. I was in band. I played the trombone. Need I say more?

Do you have a trust fund?

No. My parents convinced us that we were poor, and they’re sticking to their story, despite the fact that they had a retirement home built with an indoor pool. Seems fishy to me, but they’ll never crack.

Can I have some?

I’m a free-lance writer and editor; I got that whole “can’t get blood from a rock” thing going financially. But if I had it to give, and you had something I wanted, I’d certainly consider sharing.

Do you listen to Journey, Yes, or Jethro Tull?

This feels like a trick question. The truth is, I used to listen to Journey, years ago, when parachute pants and synthesizers were “in,” and I dated a guy in high school who was pretty into Yes, but I haven’t really (by choice) listened to any of these guys in quite some time.

Has anyone accused you of being pretentious?

No one in my foreign film wine-tasting club thinks I’m in the least pretentious.

Do you suffer from small bladder syndrome and if so, are you averse to wearing a diaper?

I’m practically a camel. If you want to have contests of who can wait out the longest on the road, I’m more than game. I usually don’t stop unless the car’s running out of gas.

Why do you want to do this?

I’ve just spent the last few months writing a book on Jack Kerouac for Chelsea House, a publisher based in Philadelphia, and between the isolation necessary to do this level of research and writing, and the focus on energetic wanderlust for which this writer’s famous, I’m craving the opportunity to do something a little different. Something to shake things up a bit. I got burned out on teaching in Pennsylvania, where I taught composition classes, and immersing myself in the Beats has required me to be buried in testosterone for quite some time. A trip like this, I think, would be a great release for me, and I think, based on this quiz, among other things, that we’d get along well. I’m just weird enough to think that, as you suggest, this WOULD be fun.

After reading through all my answers repeatedly, I pressed “send” and tried not to invest too much hope. If nothing else, I thought, perhaps I’d return the favor of laughs that Amanda had provided me.

Meanwhile, the Ann Arbor movie palace wedding that Joe and I had planned – complete with a secular rabbi, a bagpipe player, and a pre-ceremony screening of “When Harry Met Sally” – came and went. But with our bike trip honeymoon in France still a month away, we traveled to Ontario’s Stratford Festival for a post-wedding mini-vacation.

While there, I suffered the post-wedding funk no one ever told me about: the realization that this event that gathered your favorite people in one place blew past you in a breathtaking blur, and you didn’t even get to take it all in. (Admittedly, watching a production of Sartre’s “No Exit” likely didn’t help.) But when we returned from Canada, Amanda sent a message that buoyed my spirits: I was among the finalists.

I had no idea what this meant in the larger scheme of things – How many finalists were there? Who was my competition? – but I immediately answered her follow-up questions, pouring a huge amount of effort into appearing casual.

***

From: Jenn

To: Amanda

Thanks for the notification! It was great news in this time of crisis (i.e., Ben Affleck and JLo’s shocking last minute break-up).

Are you still certain you want to do this?

Yes. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll confess to a completely natural, small twinge of trepidation—which comes with anything that’s unpredictable and spontaneous and new—but overall, I’m quite excited by the opportunity to do something out of the ordinary. (And I have the overwhelming sense that this would be REALLY out of the ordinary.)

Can you feasibly take time off for one month (November) to travel across country with me?

Yes. As I mentioned before, by November, I will have just finished up a large project (a Kerouac biography) for Chelsea House Publishers, an assignment that I have been working on every day for the past several months. My schedule for November is totally (almost disturbingly) clear at this point.

There will be a documentary filmmaker filming the whole adventure, will this make you uncomfortable?

Again, I’ll pretend we live on “The Honest Planet” for a moment and respond with candor: this will probably be strange for me at first, and may make me self-conscious in the short-term, but the more I’m around the camera, the less it will register on my radar. I would guess that a few days into the trip, I’ll be back to my slouchy, cynical self. …

Do you have any questions for me?

If you were stuck in the hospital for two weeks, who would you want to be in the next bed over, sharing the room with you?

What kind of music do you like? (I’m guessing that Yes, Journey, etc. are NOT part of this answer.)

…Jenn

I crafted such e-mail messages to Amanda while finishing up my Kerouac project and writing a mountain of “thank you” notes for our wedding gifts.

Unfortunately, people had started not-so-subtly dropping hints to my mother-in-law – as in, “Did Joe and Jenn ever get our gift? They should have gotten it a month or two ago, but we never got a ‘thank you’ card. We just want to make sure they got it.” And though I said to my mother-in-law, “We just got married! This is crazy!” the guilt worked its invasive magic on me nonetheless.

So I hatched a plan, whereby Joe and I would each write two “thank you” notes a night. This didn’t seem too demanding, and slowly but surely, I reasoned, we’d chip our way out from underneath the pile. So on the first night, after Joe had spent all day at work and all evening at a rehearsal for the brass band in which he plays (he’s a geeky trombone player, too), I trotted out the notes and envelopes and explained my plan. Joe – who had just changed out of his suit – sighed, his eyelids drooping, his body limp on the couch.

“I can’t do this tonight, Gorgeous. I just can’t.”

“It’s just two of them. It will only take a few minutes.”

He sighed again, looked away, and said quietly, patiently, “Look, I will help you with these. I promise I will. But not tonight.”

I nodded, put the cards away, and immediately plotted how I would do them in bulk on my own. One crack at this two-a-night plan was all it took for me, because I knew the chore would be time-consuming and draining, and I knew Joe. He worked sixty hours a week as an attorney (in addition to his band rehearsals and concerts), and there was never, ever going to be a “good” time for writing thank you notes. Yet these people who had been so generous to us were getting antsy, and this, in turn, made me physically nervous.

“They can wait,” Joe said. “We just got married. They can give us a break.”

His argument was rational, but I knew we wouldn’t get a “break.” So when Joe was at the office, I worked on the cards in clusters. In this way, I ended up doing all but four of them, much to Joe’s dismay. “I said I’d help you with them,” he protested, upset that I’d martyred myself.

But already, even this early into our marriage, I was feeling the disparity of our respective workloads and incomes sucking me in. I was slipping into the “take care of everything” role that so many wives had assumed before me – one large reason for my anxiety about marriage.

After all, I’d been the calculating little girl who refused to learn how to cook and sew, believing that if I had absolutely no knowledge of these tasks, a man would never expect me to perform them. But despite the care and precautions I’d taken along the way, perhaps it was impossible to avoid gender roles and expectations entirely.

This thought terrified me.

***

From: Amanda

To: Jenn

I understand your trepidation. I too am suffering from the same thing. We’re in the same boat and if I choose you we’ll be in the same boat together. So, don’t fret too much.

If you were stuck in the hospital for two weeks, who would you want to be in the next bed over, sharing the room with you?

Well, John Ritter is out. Ideally, I’d want a private room (to deal with my impending operation, and to have conjugal sex with the hot surgeon) but that’s not an option, is it? So, I think my answer would be . . . Oprah. I think the amount and caliber of guests she’d get would be worth my two weeks there. Don’t you? Besides, I really want to know if Stedman is gay or not.

What kind of music do you like? (I’m guessing that Yes, Journey, etc. are NOT part of this answer.)

I’m a singer/songwriter kind of gal. I like Patty Griffin and Liz Phair (not the new album, though) and yes, I do like Ani DiFranco. I’m into anything acoustic, though I do like to bang my head to some good old rock (esp play that funky music white boy). Anything 80s is fine by me too.

J Lo is staying with me for a little while, just to rest and recover. I’m not supposed to reveal her whereabouts, but she’s here. In case you want to send chocolates. Or diamonds.

A

***

During the next few days, Amanda asked if I could possibly get to New York before October 25th so that we might meet in person. I considered it, but Joe and I were preparing to leave on our two-week honeymoon, and the notion just became too impractical.

Still, I cringed at telling Amanda “no,” fearing this would hurt my chances, so I slipped even further into that bright-eyed, bushy-tailed job interview mode that most of us have, wherein we’ll say just about anything to get a position we think we want. (“Unpaid overtime and late nights? Fantastic!”)

And though I’d never done online dating myself, I knew that the early stages must feel like this. Because more than anything else, I was trying to seduce this stranger through my e-mails. Trying to charm her with my wit. I wanted to do anything I could to win and make her choose me.

But when I couldn’t put it off any longer, I told Amanda that I’d be gone for two weeks “on vacation.” (I worried that Amanda would think me some skittish runaway bride, or even worse, a codependent new wife, and thereby disqualify me, so I kept mum about the fact that I’d just gotten married.)

In the middle of our honeymoon — dressed in a sweaty t-shirt and biking shorts, and seated in a small French village’s Internet café — I read a message from Amanda that asked me to contact her when I returned. I was in the final two.

From: Amanda

To: Jenn

WELCOME HOME! …

So, you’re in Michigan, right?

Perhaps we should talk on the phone.

But you should know this at the outset – I have failed both my driving tests. It’s not that I am bad, it’s that I am paralyzed with anxiety. There is so much pressure for me to pass, I just can’t do it. So, I have one more scheduled for Oct. 22. If I don’t pass that, I am going to have to bring my boyfriend along because I can’t honestly ask you and the documentary filmmaker to do ALL the driving. That just wouldn’t feel right at all. Unless, of course, you’d be amenable to that…

But I wanted to be totally upfront. So, we can either talk AFTER the third road test or before. Your call.

Amanda

***

I started to look much more closely at the scheduled tour stops posted on Amanda’s Web site. I’d always heard that Portland was a terrific town; and I’d never been to Vegas. Plus, driving through the dry, barren landscape of New Mexico and Arizona would be a whole new experience for me. But what I looked forward to most of all was Austin – a town that had been described to me as a warmer version of Ann Arbor (a town I adore), and where Amanda would team up with Neal Pollack to do a reading. I started to imagine the trip in more real terms, picturing the road adventures I might have.

Amanda and I scheduled a phone “interview,” and I was so nervous that I shut myself up in our den to receive the call, staring at the phone until it rang. Amanda’s voice was somewhat low in pitch and scratchy, and she seemed to be munching on something as we spoke. (Well, what did she have to be nervous about, after all?)

Early on, she asked what kind of car I owned, and whether I’d be willing to use it for the tour. This stalled me. How could what we would be driving on the tour still be up in the air at such a late date? (Had I not been so gung ho, I might have viewed this as a really bad sign.)

I also got confirmation that I would receive no pay (this had never been said outright, but during our talk, Amanda said that the field of applicants narrowed considerably when people found this out). That being the case, I was particularly ill-inclined to offer up my new green Ford Escort – the first new car I’d ever purchased. Besides, it was too small to comfortably lug three people and their belongings that far of a distance, I argued. Fortunately, Amanda agreed.

“So what authors do you like?” she asked, and mental paralysis took hold. After a lifetime of impassioned engagement with books, I suddenly stuttered, “Um, Anne Tyler’s one of my favorites. Uh…”

“What do you think of chick lit?” she asked, moving on.

I confessed to reading these confectionery novels occasionally, but more often than not, I said, I resented the genre. Yes, a breezy, fluffy read occasionally hit the spot, but I felt like the publishing industry was encouraging me to eat a literary diet of nothing but desserts. And I often found the genre condescending, because it regularly seemed to reinforce outmoded, cookie-cutter cliches about women’s desires and ambitions.

Once I stopped pontificating, I swallowed hard. For all I knew, Amanda adored “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Confessions of a Shopaholic.” But I’d told her my honest opinions and hoped for the best.

Then sent her a neurotic, late-night e-mail.

***

From: Jenn

To: Amanda

OK, one bizarre-o question that I must ask, but forgot to on the phone last night…

I need to practice my trombone, at least a little, every day—would this annoy you? I have a practice mute that will make this a pretty quiet affair, but nonetheless, if this is something that you think would drive you absolutely batty, I thought I should be honest and let you know. (I have to keep the muscles in my embouchure in shape, or it’s long climb back to having a good tone. Running works the same way. Why do I pick these stupid hobbies??)

Also, I think it’s funny when I consistently black out when people ask me which writers I like; when I awoke from my stupor, I remembered: Tim O’Brien, Carol Shields (I LOVED “Unless,” her last book, particularly), Elizabeth McCracken, Richard Russo, Stuart Dybek, Charles Baxter, Amy Bloom, Margaret Atwood, and Mary Karr….

Hope this gives you a better idea of my preferences. Talk to you soon!

***

It might seem silly that I took such pains to expand my “favorite authors” list, but asking a writer whose books they read and love is a revealing, personal question. We know we’re being evaluated when we answer, because we’re the people who, in the airport, look at what everyone else is reading and make snap judgments about them on the spot. (Trust me on this.) So I felt an urgent need to clarify the point. In this strange, co-ed sorority of writers, you are who you read.

Significantly, though, I’d made a conscious choice not to read Amanda’s novel-in-stories, “The Long Haul,” before the tour. Having the world’s worst poker-face, I knew that if I read the book and didn’t like it, I’d have difficulty lying when/if Amanda asked my opinion.

I also knew, of course, that if she chose me for her tour companion, I’d be listening to her read sections from the novel many, many times over the course of a month. So the longer I could delay “Haul”-fatigue, the better.

***

From: Amanda

To: Jenn

So…..if you are ready and willing, trombone and all, we are offering you the third and final spot in the car!!!

Now, I just want to make really clear that you will probably have to do the bulk of the driving. Cedric will share the driving with you, but he needs to film mainly, but he will share it. I also will share it, as much as I am allowed (license, no license…) and as much as we all feel comfortable with me behind the wheel. So I just wanted to put that out there, to be totally honest, so you don’t feel like you’ve been duped or given the old bait and switch. Anyway, the first stop IS Madison, Wisconsin on Nov. 2 and provided all this is good for you and you accept our offer, we will arrange to pick you up along the way. Pennsylvania, perhaps.

But first, do you accept the challenge, the journey, the adventure, the experience?

Here’s hoping.

Amanda & Cedric

***

I accepted, of course, with less than two weeks to prepare.

And two days later, Amanda passed her driving test, on her third and final try.

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