"This town is this big," Part I

by Kristin on June 14, 2007

in Small town in the midwest

The first thing you need to know about the phrase “This town is this big” is that it must be accompanied by a visual: hold your thumb and index finger about a half inch apart, and squint your eyes ever-so-slightly, as if you’re straining to see something quite small. The other thing you should know about the saying is that it’s inextricably tied to my best friend, Ellen. It’s her saying, and whenever any of the rest of us says it, it’s a known and accepted fact that we’re borrowing from her act.

The phrase was coined for reasons that are obvious to anyone who lives in Champaign-Urbana. Although there are nearly 100,000 people here, the town has a way of feeling about one quarter the size. Everyone knows everyone and is somehow tied up in one another’s business—usually in a convoluted rather than obvious way. The ties here aren’t one-dimensional, either. For it to be a quintessential C-U knot it must have several layers. Examples of this are at the heart of many Halfway to Normal tales. (In the future, I’ll simply refer to it as “The This Big Phenomenon.”)

The first and most important “this big” story I’ll tell is fittingly about how Ellen and I met. Ellen is very distinctive. Not only is she tall and beautiful, but her coloring and curly hair often prompt rude people to ask “What are you?” (For the record, Ellen’s dad was African-American and her mom is white, but Ellen could easily be Latina or Caribbean or from a number of other exotic locales. Yes, I’m harmlessly envious.) I mention Ellen’s looks to point out that she’s noticeable, which is at the root of how we met. I noticed her everywhere. At one cafe, then at another. At the park or the pool. At the grocery store and the bar. I began to wonder if she was trailing me. (I guess I’m noticeable, too, because Ellen tells the same story about seeing me everywhere.) Finally, one day, after seeing her at Cafe Paradiso in the morning, Aroma Cafe in the afternoon, and the swimming pool in the evening, I marched right up to her and demanded friendship. Actually, I said something like “I think we’re living parallel lives, and it’s time to meet.” Within a week we were together all the time, with or without our kids and Ellen’s husband, Gabriel. It’s been that way ever since.

I met Ellen during a difficult but on-the-upturn time in my life. It was in 2005: four years after moving here, two years after C and I ended our marriage, and a couple of months after I ended my first post-divorce relationship. I was full in the throes of single parenthood and keeping my freelance writing business thriving, and frequently found myself in some not-advisable dating scenarios. I had also recently decided that I was going to root myself East-Central Illinois, and be happy about it. No more feeling sorry for myself about being “stuck” here because of my ex-husband’s career. In the span of a month, I met Ellen and bought myself a house, which marked the beginning of the upswing. I also changed churches and, a few months later, met Jason, who’s now my husband (of two weeks!).

I’ve been upheld and supported by many wonderful people since moving here, but Ellen has single-handedly rescued me more times, more consistently, than anyone else. Jason, of course, is the obvious super hero, but he and Ellen own different roles. Jason essentially relocated my entire home, so to speak, to higher ground. But Ellen is the one who came paddling out when I was flailing—dragging me in, or sometimes just treading water with me for a while, keeping me company. She still does, although the need, I’m glad to say, is much less frequent.

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