I should never have moved to Lexington.
Not Lexington, Kentucky, which is a decent sized city (population: 310,000, places to eat: many). I should never have moved to Lexington, Nebraska (population: 10,000, places to eat: one Mexican restaurant).
Lexington reeked of carcass and despair. Lexington lay between a meat packing plant on one side of town and an animal rendering plant on the opposite side. For anyone reading this who has never smelled either a beef packing or animal rendering plant, take a moment to thank the universe.
A meat packing plant smells like rotted meat. A rendering plant takes the foulest olfactory notes of bovine death and transforms them into a symphony. The odor clings to clothes and nests in the roots of hair follicles. When I visited family and friends, people shift chairs upwind of me.
What was more, whenever the wind changed direction, my nose had to adjust to a new stench. Rotting meat smell? That meant the wind blew from the east that day.
But that was not the reason I should not have moved to Lexington.
I worked at the Lexington Clipper-Herald, the first step in my plan to be a superstar investigative reporter at the New York Times. My apartment sat above the newspaper offices. The Clipper-Herald’s editor, a former alfalfa farmer named Bobby (not his real name), liked to smoke cigars in the office long after everyone else had left.
He called me down to the office at night sometimes, where he would regale me with stories about alfalfa farming and vague suspicions about the “big ag companies.” He thought no one knew about the cigars. After all, he smoked them after everyone else had left.
Everyone knew, Bobby, because they smelled like cigars and your office had no separate ventilation system. Thanks for keeping the door closed when you called me into the office for one of your twice-weekly monologues. I still think of you whenever I smell a cigar.
My job was not the reason I should not have moved to Lexington, although I disliked it greatly. My beat involved the monthly Chamber of Commerce meeting, the weekly police blotter, the county board meeting, covering the Lexington High Minutemen in all their sporting glory, and putting together the weekly shopper. (Without forgetting the weekly crossword. I did that once. Once.)
I photographed a dead deer in the back of a pickup, its lolling head gracing page six of the next edition. I photographed deputies as they practiced their high-speed maneuvers in a fallow corn field. I took photos of science club winners and JV volleyball games.
My writing sucked.
Not only did I not know how to write for newspapers, but I found my job deadly boring. Then, when a truly interesting story came along (such as a feature story about the growing gang problem at Lexington High School), I could not bring myself to ask the county sheriff tough questions. As it turns out, conflict-avoidant introverts make for terrible investigative reporters.
I lived like a slob. I had a cat who liked urinating outside his litter box. I got cable television and never paid a bill, I got paid less money than I could have made at a fast food restaurant. I knew no one and did not like the people I met.
I took a yoga class with twenty middle-aged women, I joined the gym, I played with the newspaper intramural basketball team and scored two baskets the entire season.
But none of those are the reason I should not have moved to Lexington.
In the six months I lived in Lexington, I went out one time. The newspaper’s receptionist, Marla (not her real name) asked if I wanted to come to a movie with her and her attractive friend, Kari (could be her real name for all I remember).
“Sure,” I said. “Do you want me to drive?”
Marla laughed and said the movie theater was two blocks away and we could just walk.
For the two hours of There’s Something About Mary, I felt pretty good. It was a funny movie and I ate chocolate covered peanuts (movie popcorn is for suckers, in my opinion). That part with the semen in the hair, funny. Brett Favre, not so funny.
I had a new car, a 1994 Saturn SC that I loved and I’m certain loved me back. “Hey,” I said when we left the movies, “let me give you a ride back in my new car.”
Even though everyone lived within walking distance, they agreed. So we piled into my 1994 Saturn and I dropped Kari off first. She was very pretty and I wanted to see her naked, but Kari’s main ambition in life was to marry a NASCAR driver, so I knew better than to try too hard.
After, I drove Marla back to her car. Our pleasant (and platonic) conversation came to end when Marla looked over her shoulder and screamed, “Oh, shit! That’s my ex. He’ll kill you.”
I looked in my rear view window to see a white pickup pulling a U-turn in the middle of the intersection, bald tires screeching rubber.
After saying something like “Oh, golly,” I pulled into an alley and began to drive in such a manner that, had Kari seen me behind the wheel, she might have taken her clothes off in the car. Luckily, Dwayne the ex (his real name because fuck him) could not keep up with my little coupe de Saturn.
That night I went to bed wondering why I consented to live in Lexington in the first place.
But that was not the reason I should never have moved to Lexington.
The next Friday night found me alone in my apartment, the evening’s basketball game an echo in my ears. My unpaid for cable subscription brought me some kind of game on ESPN but neither the television nor the beer in my hand brought me serenity.
I was 24 years old and rather liked going out on weekends.
“That would be Dwayne,” I said to myself as I got up from my chair. Who else could it be, really?
At the door (which came into my kitchen, by the way), I could smell the bourbon rolling in under the door, a hazy fog of “that sumbitch is sleeping with my Marla” and “Ima gonna beat the shit out of that city boy.”
I pictured Dwayne, standing on the other side of the door. I imagined a barrel-chested cowboy in a John Deere hat and ten-pound fists coiled on hay-bale arms. Barbed wire eyes staring at my head as it recoiled off the stove and onto the ground. I imagined my world ending, looking at his honky-tonk boot as it caved in my skull.
Then I opened the door.
I got the John Deere hat right.
The bantam rooster of a man who stood before me did not look like the kind of man who could easily stomp me to death in my own kitchen. In fact, he looked like the kind of man an introvert with poor spatial skills (two baskets in the entire season, and I started!) might win a fight against. Then again, I might not.
“She here?” he slurred by way of greeting.
“No.” I chose not to play coy and ask who “she” was. Men standing on either side of an apartment door on a Friday night in Lexington did not play such games.
“I don’t believe you,” Dwayne said.
We thus reached an impasse. Were I a thinking man, I would have run away from the building got into my car, and drove back to a properly sized city. Abandoned all my possessions, especially that stupid cat. (The cat would spend the next ten years pissing on couch cushions and in discrete corners through every apartment I subsequently rented, the bastard. I was fond of that cat.)
Sensing that I would have to fight Dwayne otherwise, I decided to invite him in to have a look around.
Dwayne hesitated, perhaps because of the alcohol, perhaps because he expected me to throw the first punch. Yet I had given him only one option, so in he walked.
My apartment in Lexington had one interesting quirk of design. Namely, a closet with two doors. One could go from the living room into the closet, exit in the bedroom, leave the bedroom for the hallway, and thus end up in the living room once more.
Dwayne was a thinker, so he caught onto the apartment’s geography after a few minutes. It also occurred to him that Marla might be flouncing from room to room ahead of him, her ample (perhaps lightly clothed) body defying physics and not making a sound over the squeaky carpeted floor.
So Dwayne sought to catch Marla out by performing a series of switchbacks and sprints around my apartment. He started to walk through the closet from the bedroom to the living room, pirouette as only a 145-pound drunk can, then sprint through the bedroom and down the hall, bursting into the living room with an “aha!” poised upon his lips.
Sensing his saucy minx of an ex just around the corner, Dwayne then pivoted and barreled into the bedroom, stepped on a pile of books, and crashed into my bedside table. The lava lamp, a present from my brother after I’d entered my “unwashed” phase in college, crashed to the ground but did not break.
This went on for several minutes. As I stood in the living room with my Bud Light in hand, I tracked the progression of his steps as he visited every area of my apartment. I heard the shower curtain ripped aside, I heard the cupboard beneath the sink opened, I heard his unsteady clomp as he juked his way through an apartment empty of all life except for him, me, and the stupid cat.
But even that was not the reason I should never have moved to Lexington.
Finally, Dwayne decided his search had completed. Breathing heavily, he stood not five inches away from me, looked up into my face, and threatened my life if I even so much as touched Marla. “I know we’re broken up,” Dwayne said, “but we’re gonna get back together, so don’t you touch her.”
His hands clenched as he gave me one more opportunity to have a fistfight in my own apartment.
I probably could have won, too, but in that pregnant pause which followed, I instead held up my near-empty Bud Light and asked him if he wanted a beer.
Then it came, the reason I should never have moved to Lexington. When I offered Dwayne that beer, I really, really wanted him to accept it. I wanted him to sit down in my living room, drink a beer with me, and watch basketball on ESPN. I wanted someone to complain about the horrible stenches of Lexington with.
I was lonely. So lonely that I would have been willing to accept the friendship of some drunken hillbilly who wanted to punch me in the face. I had suffered from loneliness before and I would again after, but never so bad as that evening.
We are meant to be with others. Even introverts like me need others at least part of the time. Despite its population of 10,000 souls, Lexington felt like a desert. No human should have to endure the ache of loneliness, though many do.
He considered my offer of a beer for a long moment. Then, “No thanks.” Almost as an afterthought, Dwayne extended his hand and we shook.
“Not a finger,” he said as made his way down the hall toward the kitchen. His drunken rage had boiled over, leaving him merely drunk.
After he stumbled out the door, I stood in my kitchen and again considered making a run for some larger city like Lincoln (where my friends were) or Omaha (where I was born and raised). I did leave, a few months later, although to be honest the decision to go had long been made.
At least Dwayne gave me a story. Oh, and he and Marla did get back together. I wonder if they remember me.
Photo by DiamondbackTruckCovers (https://flic.kr/p/iMa2gC) via Flickr Creative Commons.