May 24 2015

An Indefinite Vacation

We officially, as a family, moved to California on Saturday, May 16. Al flew home to help with the movers and to assist with the whole flying-with-a-two-year-old thing.

When the plane touched down, I felt the same rush of relief I always do. We grabbed our luggage — one suitcase each, plus a car seat — from the carousel. Standard issue. In fact, everything felt just like every other trip I’ve ever taken (except now we had a child with us). Sitting with Peaches, waiting for Al to pick us up in the rental car, I looked around at all the travelers and thought, We are just on vacation. We were going to take Peaches to the ocean, show her some sights, and then we were going to board a plane again and head home. Right?

The flight.
I was semi-dreading a four-and-a-half hour flight with a toddler. P has flown once, for forty-five minutes — she was ten months old and slept in my lap the whole trip.

This time, there was no sleeping.

little girl with butterfly backpack at the airportThat’s not to say things didn’t go well. Peaches did far better than I expected — her best five hours of the day were on the plane, actually. She was so fascinated by the novelty of everything at first; she flipped through every document in the seat pocket and waved to passengers and flight attendants. Plus, I’d tried to come prepared, even though I had no idea what to expect. Her little butterfly backpack was stuffed with crayons, paper, her mermaid dolly, and a sticker book. Bless the sticker book! P spent almost an hour painstakingly peeling those stickers with Al. We changed a couple diapers (while standing up in the tiny airport bathroom, as there were no fold-down changing tables on the entire plane), took our sweet time chewing each and every cracker and grape in the snack tray, walked up and down the aisles a handful of times. Finally, with ninety minutes to go, she started to get antsy. I pulled out The Secret Weapons I had hidden in my purse: an iPad Mini and a pair of toddler headphones.

I suppose I should pause to mention that this is kind of a huge deal for us. After twelve years teaching high schoolers, I am now staunchly anti-screen time when it comes to my own kids. No TV. No phone. No computers. Not yet. When P turned two, we finally allowed a few episodes of Daniel Tiger (mostly to get her to sit still while I clipped her nails) and Frozen in thirty-minute daily increments. I realize this may make us sound unreasonable to some. I also realize that by the time Baby Number Two arrives, a few of these belief systems might bend until they break. But for now, this is me.

Not a shock: P was THRILLED about the tablet. We played some preschool games (her favorites: SoundTouch and Pepi Bath), and I was so distracted by keeping her distracted that I forgot to put in my Earplanes for the first time in years. 🙂 Success all around!

We’ve been in temporary housing awaiting the arrival of our stuff, so while Al went to work all this week, it sort of felt like I was stuck in a hotel room with a toddler. It’s pretty massive for a “hotel room,” but no matter how long I spend on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor, our socks still look like this.

dirty toddler socks

This is making me insane.

Luckily, the moving truck came yesterday with our belongings. Not so luckily, the house is now drowning in boxes, so we’re staying in temp housing for a little while longer until we can make the rental place livable. Needless to say, I’m completely overwhelmed. “One box at a time,” my mom said, and I’m trying to remember that mantra as we lift and sift and sort.

Al found a house in the same neighborhood as the first one we loved and lost, which means we get the benefit of all those cool community amenities we were so excited about. The house itself, though, is a mixed bag. The skeleton is incredible — tons of space, an absolutely gorgeous layout — but the house was built thirty years ago, and the interior has not been updated since. Ever. There is twine around the handle of the microwave to hold the button in place. The splintered floors are faded where someone’s furniture used to be. All the cabinets and drawers are cracked and peeling, and there’s already a major leak under the kitchen sink.

I’m also surprised by how bummed I am about the “backyard,” which is about ten by ten and constructed entirely of cement. It’s especially disappointing when this is the backyard Peaches enjoyed in Michigan:

grassy view from a deck

I feel peaceful just looking at this.

She won’t notice the lack of grass, but it feels incredibly claustrophobic to me. I love acreage, lush greens, and the ability to NOT see into three separate neighbors’ bedroom windows. I guess I’m more of a country girl at heart than I realized.

It’s difficult to avoid thinking about that first rental house we wanted, which has exactly the same “bones” as this one — most homes in this particular neighborhood have identical framework, it seems — but has a brand new interior and a nicer backyard and would have been two hundred dollars cheaper each month. I know I have to let it go, but man, did we ever screw that one up.

The thing is, as we gradually empty each of these boxes, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re doing ALL THIS WORK for no reason. If I knew we’d be in the house for a while, I’d relish the organization, all the time spent sprucing and nesting. But we only signed a one-year lease, and then…what? Go through all of this again? Agree to a price adjustment next May just to avoid the hassle of moving? It feels like I’m in college again, in Temporary Mode, prepared to move from dorm to dorm to house to house with the passage of each year. But I was eighteen then, not a mama in my thirties who craves something just a little more…settled.

My new OBGYN.
I have a good friend who will only live in homes that were built before the 1940s (1920s preferred). She loves the architecture, the potential background, the rich history of it all — and I respect that, and her. But old is not my jam. I would like a house that was just built this morning, please. Like most things, I’m sure this goes back to my germophobia: the newer it is, the fewer hands have touched that doorknob. Fewer filthy feet on the floor. Fewer butts on the toilets. My brain is trained to equate new with clean. And the issue for me is that pretty much everything in California so far seems old. Including my new OBGYN’s office.

In Michigan, I peed in a sterile plastic container, every time. The second you set the sample in the cabinet, a nurse’s hand whisked it away. There were three separate bathrooms that felt private. The office was bright and spacious.

In California, I peed in a Dixie Cup and wrote my name on it in Sharpie. When I put it in the cabinet, there were four other samples sitting inside, untouched. The single bathroom was so close to the waiting room that everyone could hear everything. The office was one-and-a-half hallways long.

Dr. B herself is very young, which makes me a little nervous. I prefer my buildings new and my doctors borderline-ready-for-retirement. I know I was a much, MUCH better teacher in Year 10 than I was in Year 3, and I imagine practicing anything — medicine, law, construction, whatever — would be the same way. You’ve seen more things. You’ve handled more things. You are not fazed when a child drops the F-bomb in class, because you’ve dealt with that seven times already in your career. But Dr. B seems competent and almost overly-professional and she delivers at a hospital that is reputed to have a decent birthing center, so we’re going to give this a shot.

Literally every single day so far, it has been fifty-five degrees and cloudy. Not a speck of sunshine. Wasn’t the weather supposed to be a selling point? According to some of Al’s colleagues, the California “May Gray” is a thing. This would have been helpful to know before I only packed T-shirts and flip flops and sent the rest of my clothes with the moving truck.

People: first impressions.
This has actually been a bigger culture shock than I expected. I feel like the people here seem “accepting” in that they exude a You-Do-You sort of vibe, but they’re also not overtly friendly so far. Plus, there’s a certain looseness to people’s speech that makes me a little uncomfortable, especially when P is around. For example, we were (once again) at Target, picking up light bulbs. Two twenty-something women were there with one of their mothers, and they were basically shouting things like, “Well, shit, Mom! We can’t get THAT kind. Don’t you remember our last fucking apartment, what happened to the fucking lamps?” And the mother replied, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, honey! I don’t give a shit about your last apartment.” And I covered P’s ears as subtly as I could and wheeled toward the kitchen aisles.

It’s not the swearing. I mean, I taught high school. And yes, I do it myself sometimes when I get worked up or stub my toe (although I’m really trying to get better about that). I think it was the manner of the swearing, somehow, or the mother-daughter swearing combination (I hope I never talk to P that way), or the whole attitude or something. There’s a type of cavalierness here that I can’t quite explain, something I didn’t see as often in Midwestern strangers. Some people might say they’re just less uptight out here, and that it’s a good quality to have.

Obviously, I’ve only been here a few days, and I’m aware that a couple of interactions and overheard conversations do not define an entire group of people. But more times than I could count this week, I’ve almost felt as if I moved to an entirely different country. I question, over and over, is this what’s best for my children? Is this a place where I will be able to make friends? In Michigan, I knew exactly what to expect, where to go, what to do.

The Unknown is the scariest thing of all.

The hunt for a preschool.
I know I’m super fun to be around and all (can’t you tell by this optimistic post?), but Peaches has clearly been craving the social interaction she had back in Michigan. She’s been asking, “Where my friends?” and other heartbreaking questions, so all this week I made it my mission to tour some places.

To my dismay, I was appalled by most of them. Most of the center directors were predictably friendly, but the majority of the teachers did not give me — or P — the time of day. Some barely acknowledged that we’d entered the room. And for the most part, I could see why: the state of California’s teacher-student ratio for this age group is 1:12. In Michigan, it was 1:6, and I thought that was crazy. There are two teachers in charge of twenty-four diapered toddlers. It was absolute chaos.

I dragged P to two or three tours a day. Every time, no matter where we were, she ran to the kids and tried to play or paint or eat. Whatever they were doing, she wanted in, buddy, IN! And every time we left, she held my hand reluctantly, trotted behind me, and half-whined, “But…I need mo’ school!” as we made our way to the car.

I thought about a home daycare, but I like the idea of something a little more “regulated.” I like that there are no TVs in these facilities and I like the accountability of having more than one caretaker in each room. I loved P’s old school. But almost everything here seems unacceptable — and several hundred dollars more expensive, of course.

On Thursday, we finally found a place that just felt right (and is five minutes away from the house!), but there’s a waiting list.

On Friday, during yet another tour, I watched a teacher slap the hand of a little girl who threw rice during lunch. I promptly left and called Al in tears. “I’m so discouraged,” I told him. “I have to keep her home with me, all the time. She can’t ever, ever leave.”

But he reminded me that by the time the new baby comes in August, I’m going to want (need?) a couple days a week where I can be with just him, nursing and napping and getting to know each other, like the time I had with P when it was just her. Just a couple days, for her sake and for the baby’s sake and for mine. The search continues, I guess.

Getting from place to place.
Driving here sure is something. Without GoogleMaps, I would be LOST. All. The. Time. My sense of direction in general is subpar at best, and I’m basically just driving around within the same twenty miles and I still have no idea where I am. I’ve been to Target seventeen times to pick up house things, but I couldn’t tell you how to get there without navigation. Hopefully this improves.

Bicycles are seriously EVERYWHERE here. You have to be on high alert for them at all times. When you go to turn right, one just might pop out from behind your bumper and you’d best be ready to swerve out of the way. Plus, I guess motorcyclists are allowed to ride the line in California, which is totally strange — they zoom and dodge in and out of traffic jams and just zip right between rows of slowed cars. What if I have to change lanes? Nerve-wracking.

The speed limit is also an adjustment. All the freeways max out at 65 mph, and most people drive 65 mph. I’m used to a standard 70, which really meant 80 before you needed to worry about a speeding ticket, and this just feels sooo slowww. Also, in Michigan there are nice long on-ramps for a stress-free experience. Here, you sometimes have like half a car length to merge, which is pretty terrifying. There are U-turns in California, though, so that’s nice — albeit a little confusing for someone who’s used to Michigan lefts.

Now that our stuff is here, and so are we, I guess we’ve officially moved — but it feels much too surreal for that. Even now, a week later, I have absolutely no sense of permanence. I still keep thinking that I need to leave my suitcase half-packed, just in case, because, you know, we’re bound to be getting back on that plane at any moment.

About Melissa

Melissa is a SAG-AFTRA actress and former high school teacher from Michigan who (reluctantly) moved across the country when she was six months pregnant. She is the winner of the SmokeLong Quarterly Grand Micro Contest and a past winner of the Breakwater Review Fiction Prize (selected by Susanna Kaysen, author of Girl, Interrupted), the F(r)iction flash fiction competition, and The Writer's inaugural personal essay contest, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cincinnati Review, The Greensboro Review, New Ohio Review, HuffPost, Scary Mommy, and The Boston Globe Magazine, among others. She has been shortlisted for both the Bridport Prize and the Bath Flash Fiction Award and was recently selected for The Best Small Fictions and the Wigleaf Top 50. Melissa is represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

4 comments on “An Indefinite Vacation

  1. I always have, like, seventeen things to say while I’m reading your posts.
    1. I feel you on the anti-screen philosophy, and commend your awareness that it may change when Baby #2 comes along.
    2. One of the first things I updated when we bought our house (which was built in 1966 and was sold to us by its original owner, a 92-year-old woman) was swap out the toilet seats with new ones. I couldn’t stand the thought of All the Butts. It was deeply therapeutic to redo our kitchen with new materials. NEW = CLEAN
    3. The picture of the dirty socks. Ughhh. It was a couple months after moving in before our house was finally clean enough that our socks didn’t turn black throughout the day.
    4. When you describe those Dixie Cups full of pee? I can practically feel the warm, flimsy paper cups in my hand. This is not a good thing.
    5. WTF with the weather?! Unfair.
    6. That teacher-child ratio is unacceptable. (Coming from a former toddler teacher, preschool teacher, and early childhood program director.) So is smacking a child’s hand. Don’t settle. Wait til you find the right place. It might be a home day care – even if only at first. There are some amazing home programs out there! The “I need mo’ school” quote is killing me.
    7. Further proving that you and I are eerily alike, I have cognitive deficits when it comes to navigation, and – no joke – that would be my #1 fear when moving to a new place. I know my phone has guided navigation, but you know what? SOMETIMES IT’S WRONG. I hope you can find your way around soon.
    8. Despite all this stuff, it actually sounds like you’re handling this transition pretty well. Can’t wait to read more posts!

    • I’m thrilled to hear that the sock thing eventually went away…even if it did take a couple months. But it’s better than picturing filth into the infinite horizon.

      I wonder if our landlord will spring for new toilet seats? 😉 Because that sounds glorious. If not, I’ll just consider it a necessary investment.

  2. You moved to California the same day we left. My husband and I are California natives. He’s from the bay area and I’m from around Sacramento. We lived in San Jose for 7 years prior to moving to Oregon. The bay area is a weird place. You are lucky not being from California. It will be easier for you to meet friends. You will most likely find other people from the midwest and since you have that in common, you will connect to one another. I know someone from Iowa who knows a lot of people because of her midwestern meetups. There are a lot of people from other states and countries and since it seems like most people are there for tech money, they don’t really plan on building a community. Also, there are not a lot of old people. That was something that became very apparent to me when I moved to a more affordable area. We’ve been gone over a year and I can’t say I miss it. I understand that it’s a beautiful part of the world, but I grew up in California and have been able to experience a lot of it’s beauty. What ultimately pushed us out was the unaffordable housing, the dirty water and air, the traffic and not being able to connect to people. Two months after moving, a chronic health issue I was having went away. I think it was stress related, but I didn’t even have a job. Just the stress of driving and having to be in my own bubble (I dare you to try to talk to strangers in a store. Tell me how many times you get looked at like you have two head) just really wore on me. So if you are feeling any of these frustrations, it not just because you aren’t from there, it’s really just kind of the nature of the bay area.

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