My fiancée, Rhea, is losing someone very close to her right now. She found out a little over a week ago that she needed to get home to Akron, Ohio. We were supposed to be on tour together this week. I booked us a five-day run to a few smaller cities (Nashville; Lexington; Peoria, Illinois). I’ve been in a lot of larger markets over the past year and wanted to try and connect with audiences a bit off the hip, alt-comedy circuit. More than that, I wanted to connect with Rhea.
Rhea and I got engaged last July. About a month later my travel schedule upticked in a way I hadn’t yet experienced. I’ve been traveling to do comedy since I was 22. The amount of travel increased so gradually that I didn’t notice a particular difference month by month, year by year. Until this year. I have been on the road most Wednesdays through Sundays for the past 12 months. Mondays and Tuesdays I’d come home, to meet with folks I needed to meet with and maintain my presence at shows in Los Angeles.
Until a few months ago, Rhea had a day job in graphic design. She needed to be in L.A. on weekdays to make a living. And to make my half of our expenses, I needed to be away. Most of our daily experiences have not been shared. That’s part of the reason I believe in our relationship so much—we haven’t shared a daily existence and still we’ve shared a household and made a family. We got a dog this year—a puppy—and combined our health insurance plans and invested time and energy in a really beautiful new group of friends.
Rhea and I started out as pals—we knew one another as comics first. I didn’t expect to end up with a friend or a fellow comic. It’s better than I would have imagined and worse than I could have predicted. It’s awful to fail in front of and compete with someone who really understands your goals; it’s amazing to share a passion, skill set and sense of taste with the last person you talk to before falling asleep.
I moved to L.A. from Chicago two and a half years ago. I’d been planning the specifics of move for the better part of a year, and it was during that year that Rhea and I went from friends to lovers. She was set up in Chicago—great job, great apartment, and she’d just hit a stride in her stand-up. I’d been there for years and was ready for the next step. I moved to Los Angeles. She stayed in Chicago. We planned to stay together.
A friend of mine was traveling and needed someone to stay at his place and walk his dog—that’s where I first landed in L.A. I walked his dog. I went to shows. I had coffee with fellow Chicago ex-pats. Rhea and I talked every day on her lunch hour, for the whole hour. That lasted for six days.
On the sixth day, I took that dog out for a walk and tore all the cartilage in my right knee while picking up her poop. I didn’t twist it or fall or get kicked by some wild knee-kicker. I just leaned over a little bit to grab that poop and felt a snap and heard a tear. The bottom half of my leg dangled off my knee hinge and the pain and swelling was so immediate, I knew I was going to need surgery. I didn’t even go to the hospital—I didn’t really know anyone in L.A. all that well and I didn’t have family there. Instead, I called a comic to come stay with the dog and asked another to drive me straight to the airport. I flew home to Chicago, my mom met me at the airport and took me to the ER and I had surgery the next day.
I spent the next week at my parents’ house in suburban Chicago. I was on a pretty massive amount of post-surgery drugs and needed some supervision. Rhea moved into their home with me. She and my dad would get up, grab a cup of coffee, and take the train to the city together. My mom was off work—she’s a teacher and this was summertime—but caring for my 99-year-old Nana that week. My Nana lived with my aunt, but my aunt was out of town. During the day it was my mom, my Nana, and me, and we spent that week talking and watching movies and reading the newspaper. Rhea and my dad would come home from work and we’d have dinner and catch up. The company was great. The drugs were strong. My knee hurt like a motherfucker.
At the end of that week, my Nana was rushed to the hospital. Everyone in my family—my sisters, cousins, aunt and uncle, and more—made it there in time. She didn’t go easily. She struggled, tried to get out of the hospital bed. She looked haunted and scared. She was a tough-as-shit broad and she fought until the end. She died that weekend, two days shy of her 100th birthday. We buried her that day—on her 100th—and, either because of a freak accident or because my body sensed an upcoming shift in my universe, I had had a full week to spend with her just prior to her death.
There was another gift in there as well. Rhea and I had been together for just a short time. In the span of two weeks, we’d seen geographical distance and surgery and death. And she’d lived with my parents, for heaven’s sake. And though all of that, I found I liked her more, that each difficult moment was improved by her being there, and that I didn’t want to face anything great or terrible in the future without her. It was a done deal for me then. For both of us, really. Two months later I moved back to Los Angeles. This time, Rhea came with me.
I’m writing this at a Starbucks in Peoria, Illinois. I’m staying in a particularly murdered-in looking hotel room and I have two more shows tonight and then this month’s rent will be paid for both Rhea and I. Tomorrow morning I’ll wake up and drive the eight hours to Akron to connect with Rhea again. That will be my purpose tomorrow and probably for much of the rest of my life—to connect with her. Whether in person or not, we’re on the road together.