We fought all the way across the country. It started almost immediately the first night after he picked me up from the airport in Los Angeles.
He drove his new Honda Civic up the hill to his home in Running Springs, a bedroom community outside San Bernadino, as fast as he could, showing off its handling of the tight curves, its kick. He was so proud of his first real adult car bought with his first real teaching job.
We stopped at a lookout to take in the view, all the lights and life. After five months apart, I had longed for this intimacy, this actual physical closeness. We’d talked nearly every day on the phone in that time, both of us feeling the ache of the distance, how much seemed to be passing in the other’s life without being able to be present. He heard all my hardships of student teaching, counseled when I needed it or just empathized and listened when I needed that. And I’d listened while he talked about his own struggles: leaving his life to be near his daughter in what we both thought was soulless Southern California, but also about his joys—the passion he had for teaching middle school math, the connections he was making with his students. We’d had to make due with telephone calls and letters; we’d created an emotional intimacy where there was no physical one, and we’d built up a great well of sexual longing.
But now, here, on top of this mountain, I felt tension. Though he’d struggled to make this place his home, he was leaving a job he loved because I didn’t want to be in Southern California. More importantly, he was leaving his daughter. San Francisco was much closer than Michigan, but still it would be several hours away. We were supposed to pack up the car in the morning and leave, first for the Bay Area to square away a place to live and look for jobs, then to Michigan where we could save money before our move. We only had this one night on the mountain for me to see his life that he’d made for himself all the way across the country, and most of it was already in boxes. His friend and roommate had already moved out. The house felt dingy and desolate.
I don’t remember now if we had sex or not. What I do remember is that I stubbed my toe violently on his bathroom door, practically shredding the nail off, and when I hollered and cursed, he told me I was overreacting.
Things got worse in San Francisco. We were staying with his much older cousin in Sonoma. The room they gave us had two single beds that we had to push together if we wanted to make love or even just cuddle at night. It was uncomfortable of course with the large crack that would open up into a gap doing either of these, and the one time we were intimate, after a huge, crying fight, I knelt on one of the single beds to pleasure him; that was it. We mostly didn’t touch.
San Francisco had too much traffic and too little of everything else we wanted. We couldn’t find any of the culture we’d heard so much about and ended up stuck in his new Honda Civic, driving around or sitting in traffic, trying to imagine where we could possibly live that wouldn’t make our commutes to the Peninsula, where he was hoping to get a job at a corporate charter school, too horrific. We answered ads on Craigslist for one bedrooms, knowing full well that no one in their right mind would rent to two people if they could help it, especially not two people with a cat. So he kept telling everyone that “the cat didn’t have to come.” The cat was mine and, besides him, the love of my life. We fought endlessly about the cat and about everything else.
We’d fought before this, of course. A year prior we’d even broken up when it seemed we couldn’t figure out how to fit our lives together. But after he moved to California, he told me he realized that I was the person he wanted to spend his life with, that he would do what it took to make it work. Now that we were fighting, I felt the same desperation I had felt previously, that nothing I could do would be the right thing to turn us back around, and I didn’t know how to get unstuck.
I went to a job interview in San Francisco at a k-12 charter school. I’d never worn a suit before. I’d bought this one with my mom for just this reason. I’d thought about how to cover up my tattoos and unshaven legs, and I’d hung the suit in the bathroom with the shower on as hot as I could get it to help the material relax any wrinkles from being in my suitcase. Afterward, when I took off my jacket, I noticed I reeked of the sourness of fear and too much emotion. I didn’t get the job.
We made it to Salt Lake City where we stayed in a hostel. We didn’t explore the city at all. We had sex, perhaps the only good sex of the entire trip, in that private hostel room. But in the morning, I realized I’d bled all over the sheets starting my period, and we stuffed the sheets into a broom closet on the way out.
In Colorado, he made fun of me for liking country music, continued to insult my family from the South, no matter how much I asked him to stop calling them ignorant, racist rednecks, and told me that it was painful for him to listen to me talk because I sounded like an idiot.
But then we finally made it to Michigan. I had been staying in a beautiful room painted a seaside-cabin aqua color, and the house had a screened-in porch that looked out over the flower-filled yards of the old Ann Arbor neighborhood and a swing tied to a giant tree in the back yard. We were going to share this room for just two months, our first try at living together. I’d planned gatherings for my friends to re-meet him. I’d hoped to make this a glorious stretch of time to say our goodbyes to the town I’d come to love before leaving for San Francisco.
He spent one night with me that first night. I tried to make love, but it didn’t work; he didn’t work. After this, he retreated to his parents’ home in the suburbs of Detroit. He didn’t come to the party I’d organized so that he could see my community again. We all drank beer and swung on the swing in the hot, muggy summer air without him. I cried that night, tried to call him. He didn’t return my calls.
Finally, he invited me to dinner and a movie with his family. We went to see Chicken Run, but he dragged us several rows ahead of his parents and sister because he said he was embarrassed by my smell, and he didn’t want his parents to have to experience it. I helped cook dinner for his family, my mom’s grilled eggplant recipe. While I was cooking, his sister pulled me into his parents’ room and took out the ring that had been his grandparents and was promised to him for his wife. When he followed us, she said to him that she was jealous that the ring, the family heirloom, was his and not hers, and he said to her, “Take it. I don’t need it.” She gave him an astonished look and then looked at me. She tried to protest, and he insisted that she take it, that there was no woman that he’d ever want to give it to. She looked at me awkwardly and even put the ring on my finger to see if it fit. He walked out of the room saying it was hers.
Two nights later, I lay in my bed trying to read Crime and Punishment. I was only a handful of pages in but had no idea what was going on; my brain was too focused on how alone I felt, on how this was not the summer I’d planned for us. It was midnight when he came in. He opened the door of the bedroom, looked at me and said, “I don’t love you anymore. I’m leaving.” He gathered up the few things he had there, and that was it. He didn’t look back. He got into his new Honda Civic and drove away.
A month later I would buy my own Honda. It was used, but I named it Esperanza anyway. I packed everything I owned into it, including my cat, and drove across the country to the San Francisco Bay Area to take the middle school teaching job I had committed to. For a while, I expected to run into him wherever I went or see him driving his Honda Civic on the freeway. It turns out he never made it West.