I left my friends and my family and my job and everything else that anchored my self-identity on October 27, 2013, and moved to Kentucky. Six days later, I turned 29. One day after that, the loneliness hit me, hard and fast as an elbow to the face, knocking the wind out of me and sending me reeling backwards, straight into bed, where I stayed for the better part of the next week.
On November 6, three days after my birthday and two days after The Loneliness and I became suddenly and intimately acquainted, a package arrived.
I left it unopened for hours, comforted by the knowledge that something good was inside; comforted by the knowledge that when I opened it, something good and special would certainly happen. Knowing that you are in the moment right before something good happens is rare under any circumstances. In the middle of the desert of The Loneliness, it might as well have been the only glass of water I would ever have again, held right in front of me. I held onto the knowing like a prayer that was going to be answered.
I pulled open the box that night, sitting on the still unfamiliar floor of our new room. Inside were tiny tissue-paper packages held with string, each marked by a sparkly silver tag, each from a different friend. I cried as I opened them. Each one of them felt like being home and each one of them was perfect. Coffee from my favorite shop in New York and the most perfect birthday mug in the world to go with it. A Buzzfeed tote bag (The 15 Greatest Philosophers Ranked by Hotness) just as I had worn holes in my old beloved one. Three kinds of tea that smelled like home. A tiny package of magic from the witch, with a candle that smelled like patchouli and tobacco, and a little potion called “boundaries in a bottle.” Sweet handwritten cards and letters.
When I was done looking over everything, I took what I needed immediately – the tote bag, the tea and coffee, the bottle of boundaries – and put the rest back. For months, on a bad day, I would glance at the box, weigh the pleasure of opening another gift on that day against the inevitable day the box would be empty. I took things out one at a time, once a week, once a month; I smoothed each piece of tissue paper out when it was no longer needed and saved it. I kept one shiny silvery tag hanging over my desk. It said, “Northern Downpour.” I went back to that box and I went back and I went back until May, when I took out the very last gift, and then I turned the box upside down and shook it just to make sure I had gotten every last tiny little bit of magic out of it.
It got harder for a long time instead of easier. I thought about moving. When our roommate was being particularly awful or the stress of being severely underemployed felt like too much, I thought about going home. I thought about selling everything I owned and burning the rest and heading even further west, out to a state I’d never lived in, or another country. If I was going to be lonely, it would be better to be alone. My loneliness was crushing everyone else near me. I was a happiness liability.
Everyone told me how friendly southerners are, and they are right – southerners are all greetings and warm smiles and my northern tendency to consider a terse nod plenty of interaction for a grocery store is taken well by no one – but no one ever said they were polite. A clerk at CVS checked my ID and commented in the most upbeat tone of voice that she “could just never live up North – I had a friend who moved and she just hates it.” Did I hate it, she wondered? Had I moved south to escape the Northerners? She had heard they were rude. And the cost of living. So outrageous. Yes, I thought, seething and counting change, but the drivers who don’t take to snow like a homicidal maniac locked in a haunted hotel all winter takes to an axe, well, it sure runs stiff competition to all the people here asking me where I go to church and why I’m not married to the man I live with. I sprayed myself with Boundaries every time I left the house. In March I ordered a new bottle. For months I couldn’t get a job at all, not to so much as sweep sidewalks; a real improvement was when low-wage labor accepted me as one of its own and allowed me to work as, in short order, a retail associate, a barista, a nanny, and back to retail. Attempts to pick up pieces that resemble whatever life I knew before have had the feeling and ultimately the same results as raking my soul slowly over hot coals.
I would think of a Lori McKenna line all the time, the one where she says, “Well but God only gives us as much as we can take… I guess.” There’s another unspoken truth there; not quite that we get what we need, but that we get what we need to do what we must. I got Emily Mowery. Acquaintances through a mutual best friend, we ended up in Louisville at the exact same time, accidentally, each knowing no one else. We eyed each other wearily for a few weeks, circling, expressing ourselves gently, before realizing that we were two pieces of the same puzzle and going all-in.
Emily’s a kinetic learner. We had to go everywhere, touch everything, try every restaurant, have every adventure. We drank beer at Holy Grale, out back in a secret garden with twinkling lights. We stumbled onto First Friday at Garage Bar, where it became apparent that Emily Doesn’t Understand How Bars Work. We did a weekend trip to Columbus, OH, where, on Friday the 13th, under a full moon, I taught Emily how bars work, and we were both made of magic. We went rock-climbing at Red River Gorge and stayed up all night drinking beer with the summer employees of the hostel where we stayed, grown-up campers with no responsibility beyond having fun and making sure everyone else did, too. I insisted we go see a free show at 4th Street Live, something no self-respecting local would ever do, because the beautiful man playing that night was going to blow up and be so huge and we would be able to say we saw him way back when, I just knew it. We got into the meet-and-greet; buried somewhere in my files is a photo in which I look totally insane, arm around the performer’s waist. The show was incredible. The kid had the number one country song on the charts two weeks ago.
Without a steady job, I found projects. I wrote for myself and for other people. Someone published something I wrote. The witch got a little business off to a rollicking start and sent me some magic in the mail; a friend and I started the back-end work on an organization; another friend and I got into the planning stages of a business of our own that might someday come to be. Other friends and family members made things that inspired me to keep pushing; one friend’s fully-funded kickstarter will soon be a podcast I cannot wait to listen to; my brother and sister took a pilot they co-wrote from east to west coast and won Best Pilot at the LA Comedy Festival. I accepted that life isn’t going to look like it did before, even though I don’t yet know what it will look like in the future.
I went to New York to see friends and family and stopped by the MADRE office, where I used to work. I walked 50 extra blocks when I left, circling all the way around to the Flatiron building and back up to Ktown, so I could walk by the museum where B and I met. I got confused and took an inefficient side street to get back to the metro, a block lower than the one I needed. Everything looked familiar. When I stopped to think why, I found myself in front of St. Francis, the church my coworker Roxana attended, where we held her memorial service and where I sometimes went to sit and think after she passed away. I went in and lit a candle for her, and told her not to get any ideas. I’m still Jewish.
When we were looking for our house, the one that took forever to find, I pictured it over and over. I saw the two of us painting and unpacking, how bright and how warm it would be, felt the wood floorboards underfoot. A psychic told me it would have three steps leading up to it, but the day we found it, it had closer to twenty – until, at the landing, when we turned left, we were facing three steps leading up to the porch, and the front door. To paraphrase the witch, when you don’t have a dentist, a primary care physician, or a 401k, but you do have a psychic and a pack of tarot cards, that is magical thinking.
The other night I was reading in bed when I heard a scratching sound. I sat right up, looked frantically around for mice, of which I am hateful and terrified and which were, in fact, a huge problem when we first moved in. I called out for Ben; he heard the scratching too, but insisted it was coming from outside. We have eight cats next door, but I know their sounds now and I find it comforting. The backyard is more theirs than ours, and they patrol it regally. They are not prone to scratching and squeaking. We listened for another moment. “I think there’s a dog out there,” Ben said. He headed for the door. I had a moment of panic. “Where are you going?” He looked at me. “I’m going to check on the dog.” I should have thought of that, but I was busy keeping all of my appendages on the bed, where nothing could reach out from the dark and grab them, the commotion outside was making me that nervous. Ben called from the back door, “He’s trying to get in.” I got out of bed. “Does he have tags? You might as well let him, we have to call his owners.” The tiniest, most perfect little beagle mutt came bounding towards me, then away from me, trying to smell everything and see everything at once. “Come here boy!” I pet him while Ben tried to read his tags. He accepted the petting while simultaneously attempting to be in a completely different room, smelling more things. “Good boy! Sit!” Ben grabbed his face while I made a grab at the collar. I looked up. “Ben?” I held the tag for him to see. “I think the dog’s name is Ben.” The puppy licked my face. I wanted a dog so badly I called one to us by name. His owners were very happy to hear from us.
Every now and then, maybe five times in my life, I’ve been sitting in a moment and realized, “I have dreamed this. This has happened before. This has happened before in a dream.” I had one of those moments walking down a street with B’s sister-in-law and sister – I recognized the street, the houses, the exact moment itself that we were in, even though I had never seen any of it before. Then it happened again during a weekend in the catskills for my friend’s 30th birthday. Then again, back in Louisville a few days later, three times in just ten days. If I’m not where I’m supposed to be, something sure wants me to feel like I am. In the nearly seven months since I ordered that second bottle of Boundaries, I’ve used only a little more than half.
There’s an eloquent line from Cheryl Strayed about what Amy Poehler aptly calls time travel – that thing we do where we find ourselves in a moment we forsaw. “Who we become is born of who we most primitively are,” she says; “we both know and cannot possibly know what it is we’ve yet to make manifest in our lives.” I knew we would find the house. I knew someday, someone would publish some of my writing, and then some more, and then some more after that. I both know and cannot possibly know that there is success in many bizarre forms in my future, in ways and shapes I would never have anticipated; I both know and cannot possibly know that there is travel, and family, and warmth and laughter, a dog, more challenges, houses full of people we love, enough money, rewarding work.
I did not know I would still be working holiday retail at the age of 30, one year after I began. That I am afraid I did not anticipate.
I’ve spoken to one friend almost every day since I moved here; probably not coincidentally, he is a therapist by trade. We were talking last night about an irrational fear I sometimes have, which goes along these lines: My intuition has always told me the right place to be and the right thing to do before, but what if it stops? What if that feeling that drives me is finite? What if I only get so many of those, and I used them all up? He laughed a little and said, “Yeah, under circumstances like these we get into some magical thinking.” I stopped. “It is so weird that you just said that,” I told him, “because I’ve been working on this post for the site…”