The last day I wrote for the Allegan County News in late July, my publisher Cheryl told me I was making a huge mistake moving to California – especially since I was driving alone. I had intended to drive with my friend, Jenny, but she backed out at the last-minute and once my mind was set on a thing – I would see it through.
The Kalamazoo apartment I shared with my roommate, Sara, sat mostly vacant. She had moved out a couple weeks earlier and I was packing up my life alone. Though I was only taking a computer, my bed, TV, clothes and some personal items – it was a large job and I could have used some help. But all were busy.
The eery quiet of the two bedroom, one bath second story dwelling sent a shiver down my spine. I drove to a fast-food place nearby and returned to have some lunch on the floor, while my feet rested outside the sliding glass door on the balcony.
I leaned against the door frame and looked across the wooded area between our complex and the one on the next street over. A family helped a man move into his apartment. They were laughing and messing around outside between trips to and from the moving van.
Once the place was cleaned, painted and ready to be turned over to the landlord, I drove to my friend Nicole’s for a meal before leaving town for San Diego. In the morning, her mom, Joan, packed me a lunch. Nicole and I met while we worked together at Applebee’s along with Jenny and my former roommate, Nicki. Together, with Sara, we had lived in the Kalamazoo “student ghetto” – an area of town with affordable, historic homes. Ours was beautiful and always exciting. But those days seemed a distant memory after I moved into a more respectable place for my junior and senior years.
A couple hours later, I crossed the state line into Illinois and hit driving rain in Chicago. The rain stayed with me for a couple states. My first night, I stopped in a tiny town, watched the “funky spunk” episode of “Sex and the City” and had a restful sleep.
The next day, I stopped for gas in Omaha, Nebraska. The gas station attendant asked me where I was going. She had 1980s sky-high bangs and bright blue eye shadow. She snapped her gum in an assaulting way.
“I’m moving to San Diego,” I said. I smiled and paid for my gas. She took the money slowly across the counter.
“Why would you want to move there?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Why would you want to live here?”
My little geckos, which I adopted from my favorite gay, Jason, traveled in their glass home in the back seat. I sang, listened to music, stopped when I was hungry, took pictures of amazing scenery and generally, enjoyed the time alone to clear my head.
My life as a Michigander ended and I looked forward to something new and exciting. I risked everything – I left without a job in San Diego, a friend in the world and just enough money in my bank account to make it for a couple months on the $525 a month I would have to pay in rent. But I wouldn’t fail; I couldn’t.
After passing through the surprisingly cold summer weather of Denver, I descended into the low land deserts of Colorado. It was amazing. I had never seen the west before; the flat sands and plateaus seemed to stretch out for years. It was then that I realized my car was running hot. I pulled over, propped open the hood and poured in a little anti-freeze with some water. I stood beside the car, the hot desert sun pressed down on my shoulders and dust filled my lungs.
I repeated the cooling process several more times. Each time I turned on the car – it was slightly cooler, but not enough to drive. I looked in the back seat at my little friends. They were getting warm. I cracked the other windows, and tucked a shirt in the door beside them for shade. The dry heat made my lips feel thin and papery.
Despite the heat, the stress made me crave a cigarette. In my head, I heard every person who told me I was crazy setting out for a new life alone.
Back in June, I visited my sister in San Diego, who was there for the Navy. No snow, sandy beaches and the ocean – it was everything my life had never been. I went home, ended my relationship with my boyfriend, quit my job and rented a U-Haul trailer.
After a few more attempts to cool the engine, I decided to hitch a ride into town. I stood on the side of the road, waved my hands as cars zoomed by at top speed. I figured the first few cars didn’t have time to slow down, but when the number climbed to nearly a dozen – I wondered if I looked dangerous.
Finally, a man stopped. My heart started to pound. I prayed he wasn’t a serial killer and took the risk. He drove me straight into Grand Junction, dropped me at a tow company and a mechanic drove me back out to the wreckage. The mechanic lifted the hood, turned on the car and a rattling sound popped off. He got out of the car and looked at me with concern.
“I think you split your engine block,” he said.
“No, no way,” I said, panicked. “I cooled it off. Maybe it’s the thermostat; the air isn’t running through the engine right.”
“Well, let’s hope,” he said. “How old is the radiator?”
“It’s pretty new,” I said. I looked at my stupid Pontiac Grand Prix and wished it were my old car, a 1987 Buick Le Sabre. Not as much giddy-up, but it ran fine.
“Ugh, I’m an idiot,” I thought.
By the time we dragged the car into Grand Junction, I was exhausted, stressed out, pissed off and on he verge of tears. The mechanics tested the machine and determined the engine was dead. I would have to move all my stuff out of the trailer into a moving van, and tow my car to San Diego.
As I was making the switch over, I realized my pets were dead.
I knelt down beside them, looked in their cage and tears streamed down my filthy face. I felt defeated. I took the glass container out of the car and saw a large trash container nearby. I didn’t know what else to do. The moving company was closing soon and I needed to turn in the trailer to exchange for the truck. I set the container beside the trash collector, said my prayers and went back to work.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone come out from the company next door to the trash and notice my deceased friends. I tried not to look. The person ran inside the business, three more people joined and one woman said: “Who would do such a thing?”
Later, as I left the moving company parking lot, towing my car – I saw the next-door company’s sign. It was a pet shop.
I found a hotel, took a shower, called my worried parents and brother, then decided I needed some food. Since my spirits were low, I decided to just walk downstairs to the vending machine. I wearily stuffed a dollar bill into the machine that was repeatedly spit out. I hit the machine, sweared at it and still, it spit the damn bill out again.
I walked up to the counter in the lobby for a newer bill, hoping the machine just didn’t like my sweaty, wrinkled dollar. A woman was ahead of me, yelling at the clerk about her room. He did his best to make her happy and she finally skulked off.
I walked up to the counter and he looked at me. Our facial expressions mirrored one another.
“Ever have one of those days?” he asked.