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