Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Ride

The idea was for my life to become a poem: a few perfectly chosen words on a clean white page.

I got laid off from a job I'd wanted to leave anyway. At 4:29 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, I printed out the page of my strengths and weaknesses I'd typed up in preparation for the "one on one" with my boss, the new VP of my department. She'd told us in a meeting earlier in the week that the "one on one"s were nothing to fear; she was having one with each person in the department. I'd worn a white button-down shirt that day even though I sometimes showed up in jeans on days that weren't Fridays. At 4:32 her door was still closed, so I knocked, even though I was a little afraid of her. The door was opened then closed behind me. The HR lady was sitting at the table. I sat, thinking, "I know my math's not great, but shouldn't there be only two people at a 'one on one'?" My boss got straight to it: "Christie, we're eliminating your position."

The HR lady peered at me with concern, hazel eyes like little embers in thick ash-black liner. My boss laid it out for me crisply, in her lady-executive suit with her lady-executive haircut: the budget was tight, most companies this size don't have two people for corporate communications, it's nothing personal.

At our department meeting earlier in the week, she had apologized for being bitchy lately and had told us, "I'm actually a really nice person. And I'm a fun person, once you get to know me."

The HR lady started to talk about severance pay and COBRA, but I didn't hear much of it. I was thinking that I felt elated.

I'd had this big idea of moving out West and starting a new life. For months I'd been looking online for jobs in California (I hadn't figured out yet how I'd show up for an interview if anyone was interested in me). I'd even decided to try to get an MFA in creative writing in the next year or so, maybe at a college out West somewhere, and started looking into how the GRE deal works, and student loans. During an inspired trip to Target, I'd bought a big dry-erase calendar and a new daily planner that I wanted to fill with stuff like deadlines for graduate school applications and, eventually, job interviews. I'd also bought a bulletin board and had the seventh-grade notion of putting up postcards with palm trees or the ocean on them, something to help me "keep my eye on the prize!" But it wasn't until I was sitting in my boss's office, tuning out the talk about unused vacation days and signing the termination letter, that the idea climbed down from daydream realm. It was like someone had fired the shotgun to let me know to run.

I left my work-issued laptop, BlackBerry, and key-card to the building with another HR lady, the one from Boston, who said to me as I left: "May Gawd be with you." I drove home in monster traffic. At home in my apartment, I lay on my bed in the dark. I called a friend. I probably cried. Then I got up and browsed craigslist for rooms to rent in California.

I found a posting by an irreverent 27-year-old engineer whose condo was in the Little Italy part of downtown San Diego. I savored the phrase "Little Italy" like a piece of hard candy, the poetry of it. I wrote the engineer a witty e-mail. I got a reply--he was sorting through the other responses to his ad, but so far I seemed like the coolest one. After I read that, I got up and jumped around in my apartment like an idiot. I jumped high enough to reach the ceiling. I thought, "Damn, I didn't realize I could touch the ceiling in here." I jumped up and touched it a few more times. Then I went for a long, long walk.

That night, I contacted a few friends who might be able to help me out, one who worked in publishing in San Diego and one who manages one of a national chain of bookstores. In the morning, I went to my apartment community's management office and asked about breaking my lease early. A girl at a desk in the back told me I could do that, but I was responsible for August and September rent unless I could find someone who wanted my apartment soon. Back at my apartment, I put up an ad on craigslist. Responses trickled into my inbox like tiny miracles.

By the end of the day, I had shown the apartment to a guy with my same last name, his fiancee, and his two adorable daughters from his previous marriage. I told them they could have most of the furniture. They said they'd take it--Could they please move in on Tuesday?

That weekend, I put the last of my ex-boyfriend's belongings in piles (stacks of magazines and comic books, clipped-out restaurant reviews, little plastic toys from Japan, his "collection" of three corn-cob pipes, a bumper sticker we'd bought at a cafe/bluegrass place during our West Virginia cabin vacation, his bottles of high-quality whiskey, his bottles of anti-depressants). I asked him to come for his things Monday evening. I drove trash bag after trash bag of outdated or ill-fitting clothes to the donation shed in front of Blockbuster. I hauled even sentimental things to the Dumpster on my street. My hair was pulled back in a sloppy "getting down to business" bun, my shorts were dusty, my arms ached from moving things. I felt like Superwoman.

On Monday, my mom arrived early and cleaned the apartment while I continued to weed and prune my belongings to the bone. We'd keep the antique dresser that I'd had in the bedroom; I'd only borrowed it from my parents in the first place, so I'd ferry it back to their house. And I'd take my computer and computer table. Everything else would stay for the new Chapman moving in. With the help of a uniformed man standing outside who probably worked for the apartment community, we wedged the dresser into the trunk of my mom's Buick. The man tied the trunk lid down at a 45-degree angle over the sticking-out part of the dresser, using some twine in the trunk. I drove the dresser to my parents' house, a half-hour trip, slow and steady, feeling like a parade float. When I brought the Buick back I saw my mom on her hands and knees, scrubbing my kitchen and bathroom floors, barefoot. My mom is Appalachian and not prissy. We took a lunch break at the Chipotle in the shopping center near my apartment community.

When I'd first told her about losing my job, on Friday night, she had been folding laundry in my parents' bedroom. She'd stopped, clutched the towel or sheet or T-shirt or whatever she'd been folding to her chest, and said, "Oh Lord, Chris! What are you gonna do?" I'd been secretly annoyed at her knee-jerk pessimism, her hillbilly "Oh Lord, Chris!", her panic when I needed to be calmed. I knew it'd be a long way from that reaction to her being okay with me moving to San Diego. I told her gradually:
"I've actually been looking for other jobs for a while now."
"Are you looking for something here, or in another state?"
"Another state... I mean, I've lived here all my life. It wouldn't have to be permanent."
I'm sure it was a long way for her.

But sitting at Chipotle eating our burrito bowls, smelling like sweat and Scrub-Free, our fair-skinned faces flushed from exertion in July heat, my mom told me that part of her wished she'd done something like move across the country when she was younger. She said, "I admire your spunk." She said this even though I won't be with her on my 30th birthday, even though she worries that she won't see me for Christmas this year.

"I'm gonna steal a silver stallion
with not a mark upon his silky hide
teach him he can trust me like a sister
one day we'll saddle up and ride

and we're gonna ride
we're gonna ride
ride like the one-eyed Jack of Diamonds
with the Devil close behind
we're gonna ride
we're gonna ride

I'm gonna find me a reckless man
with razor blades and ice in his eyes
just a touch of sadness in his fingers
thunder and lightning in his thighs

and we're gonna ride

I'm gonna chase the sky forever
with the man, the stallion, and the wind
the sun is gonna burn to a cinder
before we ever pass this way again

and we're gonna ride..."

-"Silver Stallion," from the Cat Power album "Jukebox"


Now that the new Chapmans have moved into my apartment, I'm staying with my parents for these last few weeks before I leave for the trip out West. Since moving back in, the shape of my life has changed. It's populated with new minor characters--the lady who takes her walks in the evenings around the same time that I do, walking laps around the neighborhood but in the opposite direction than the one I like to take, who avoids my eyes when I try to smile at her or say hello; the people who work in the Starbucks cafe section of Barnes & Noble during what used to be my workday hours, who all know that I want a tall mocha frappuccino with two pumps of vanilla syrup and that I do in fact have a member discount card. It smells clean in my parents' house, not stale like my apartment. It's peaceful in their Edenic upper-middle-class suburban neighborhood, no sirens from the fire station near the apartment, or honking car horns on nearby Duke Street, or throbbing bass and casual obscenities from rap music played in apartments or cars. When I walk at night, I don't dodge cockroaches streaming from the cracks in the sidewalks like I did in my apartment community. I don't get hit on by older men standing on street corners.

During my walks now, I see shooting stars. There's bad cell-phone reception because the neighborhood's away from the city, away from Route 1 with its fast-food restaurants and chain-store mini-malls. You see lightning bugs and hear cicadas and sometimes frogs, especially down by the pond and coming from the woods across the road from it. You sometimes have to dodge low-hanging canopies of leaves. At night, I can walk for hours without seeing another person. I can walk down to the boat docks and have the river to myself.

The furniture I left behind:

-1 red couch. My mom and I discovered it while roaming around JCPenney before I moved into my first-ever apartment in Lynchburg, Virginia. I spotted it, cherry-red cotton and roomy, and we both collapsed onto it, happily reeling at the low sale price.

-1 bed/2 mattresses. The headboard was fake wrought-iron, IKEA. My ex and I had privately snickered over how the headboard's bars would be good for clinking handcuffs around, not that we ever did anything like that. When I visited the apartment later, the new Chapman living there said that the double bed couldn't accommodate his queen-sized mattresses, so he'd given my bed to the couple who lived next door. I know that the woman next door's name is Darlene because her boyfriend was always yelling it when she locked him out after one of their fights. He'd get drunk and accuse her of being a junkie and a whore. In the mornings, she played 70s soul music at a high volume. I never heard her yell back at him. The new Chapman said he'd heard sounds of a porn movie coming from Darlene's apartment on the very first night he moved in. 

-1 diner-style table, chrome frame and legs with a periwinkle-blue Formica tabletop. This belonged to my grandparents--my dad's parents--in the 1950s. At some point my grandmother decided that she didn't like the chrome, so she started putting a tablecloth on top and she spray-painted the legs a dull matte brown. When I got my first apartment, my parents gave the table to me. Before I left home, I never asked her to, but my mom, knowing that I'd prefer it if the legs were the original chrome, spent days in our basement, on her knees, scrubbing at the legs with paint remover, using a toothbrush in the crevices. Today the original chrome gleams. You'd never know it'd been painted brown.

The table is vintage and probably worth something. It was the one thing--other than the antique dresser--that my parents wanted me to keep or at least sell. In my haste to get someone to take my apartment, I'd said that the new Chapman could have the furniture, including the table. I hope he knows what he's got. Before he moves out at the end of September, I'll try to remember to tell him.

-1 purple daybed, from the JCPenney catalog. The arms had gone threadbare by the time I left it for the new Chapman (I'd used decorative throws to disguise this, but my conscience had me disclosing it when he came by to check the apartment out). I remember my ex grinding his skull into its arm during a manic-depressive episode one time.

-1 small bookcase that my ex kept his foreign-language books on, organized by region of the world (including Croatian for the trip we took to Dubrovnik, and Spanish for a trip we were going to take to Buenos Aires before I broke up with him).

-1 boxy, clunky 1980s TV. My ex spent many hours struggling with the "rabbit ears" antenna that we had because we couldn't afford cable, cursing at it, and we'd laugh when we'd be watching something and it'd go black-and-white or snowy if one of us coughed or shifted. After he moved out, I was no longer supporting both of us on one salary and could afford cable (I got rid of the diabolical antenna), but I never watched TV after he left. We used to put up the little plastic "Charlie Brown" Christmas tree next to the TV. The apartment seemed most like a home to me when he'd put the rainbow-colored Christmas lights on the tree and we'd turn off all the other lights. I threw the tree away when I moved out.

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