Nineteen is too young to get married, but I didn’t learn that until I was twenty two. By then, I had thousands of dollars of credit card debt, a prescription for a cocktail of antidepressants, and bruises from where I periodically knocked my head into a wall in an attempt to feel anything but grey.
The time from my middle-of-the-night decision to divorce and the legal end of my marriage was two weeks. I had just turned twenty three and I thought it was the only way I had a hair’s breadth chance of happiness.
My mom and two best friends helped me pack a small trailer with a couch I loved, some clothes, CDs, and a load of books. I had the local U-Haul attach a tow hitch to my vintage Honda Accord, hooked up the trailer, flushed the cocktail of drugs down the toilet, and headed south on I-5 with my cat, Max, asleep on the seat beside me.
I’m fond of rain and cool weather, so naturally when I needed a place to start over, away from the disfunction I had stewed in for too long, I decided a couple weeks in Texas followed by a few months in Florida with my friend in the Navy was a great idea.
The Accord started to smoke just south of Sacramento and I called my ex, crying and screaming, cursing the car I’d taken from the divorce (the one we owned outright, that didn’t require a monthly payment). With no job, no college degree, and no money in the bank, I felt helpless and hopeless. He agreed to advance me enough to rent a U-Haul truck for my trip. After sneaking Max into a “no pets allowed” motel, I hobbled into Stockton, California early the next morning.
I had never seen blight before. Never driven past an empty park or iron-barred windows. I stopped at a gas station to use the restroom and was shocked when I walked in and every surface of the filthy room was covered with graffiti. I was sheltered, I was unknowingly racist, and I was afraid.
I found my way to the U-Haul dealer, which was the side business of a used-tire yard run by a middle-aged couple from Mississippi. The woman had dirty blond hair and yellow teeth and the man sported an impressive beer belly. They had thick Southern accents that my ears and addled brain couldn’t understand. It took a long time for them to rent me the truck. The details are fuzzy now, but they couldn’t find the truck first, then they seemed unclear about how to actually rent the truck to me. Perhaps I was their first customer? My patience wore thin as the morning dragged on, but I was finally able to load my couch, CDs, and books into a filthy 14-foot truck, drive my car onto the auto transport trailer I had to add to the mix, and continue south.
By the time I hit Los Angeles, it was rush hour and the busiest city I’d ever driven in was Seattle. I kept talking to Max, telling her everything was going to be just fine and to hang in there. But the engine temperature indicator on the U-Haul had skyrocketed into the red zone. Then I noticed steam coming from under the hood. Terrified of breaking down in the middle of the freeway, I took the first exit and pulled into a gas station parking lot. I fumbled for the rental paperwork and called U-Haul’s roadside assistance. Through tears, I explained my predicament and they agreed to send a replacement truck. Two hours later, a young man arrived with my own, very clean 17-foot U-Haul. It started to rain and he started to take the keys to the broken van and turn away. I asked if he could help me move my things from one truck to another and showed him how little was there. He said he wasn’t allowed, and it started to rain harder.
It only took us a few minutes to move my soggy belongings from one truck to another. I hugged him, thanked him profusely, and got into the new truck. I slept that night at a friend of my dad’s, in Claremont, California, just a few blocks from where Dad grew up, and the next morning started to head east. The next night, I stayed in Phoenix, with another friend of my dad’s, a woman whose husband was dying of brain cancer. We talked about faith and marriage and new beginnings. Her son was a fan of the Bare Naked Ladies, but didn’t have their first album. We went out to my huge U-Haul and I dug it out of one of the CD carrying cases. The cover was still wet from the previous afternoon’s rain.
My plan was to drive east to San Antonio, Texas, where I was picking my new roommate up from the airport and from there to head south to his apartment in Corpus Christi. I drove late into the night in Texas, looking for a place to stop. There was snow on the side of the road, and construction. It was harrowing to drive a big truck towing my car along a narrow highway, the lights from oncoming traffic and construction barriers dancing in my already pretty crappy vision. I saw a wolf on a ridge at the side of the road, or a deer, and started to worry about hitting an animal, to boot. But Max and I made it safely to a motel, and we rested another night.
The next morning, I piled Max back into the U-Haul and headed for the San Antonio airport. Despite the mishaps and breakdowns, I had hours to spare and was planning how I’d spend the free time as I pulled into the airport complex, trying to follow the signs for oversized, long-term parking.
But excitement or fatigue or bad signage led to my truck pointed straight at a dead-end in the handicapped parking section of the airport parking garage. Every spot was filled. My 17-foot truck, with the Accord firmly strapped to an auto transport trailer, was hopelessly trapped, and anyone who came looking to leave that little section of the garage would be trapped with me. The thought of inconveniencing someone was almost as mortifying as the thought that I’d never be able to leave the San Antonio airport.
For about half an hour, I tried to reverse out of the garage, but the trailer kept jackknifing. I flagged down a man returning home from a business trip and asked him to help. He tried and failed for a few minutes and said he needed to move on. Panicked and panting, with my little Nokia phone almost out of battery, I dialed 411 and then airport security, to beg them for help. They said they’d come if and when they could.
As the battery on my phone died, a lightbulb pinged in my head. Working as quickly as I could, I loosened and removed the straps holding the Accord to the transport trailer, backed it carefully off and parked it around the corner. Defying all liberal arts major stereotypes and a history of trying to fix things by hitting them, I unhooked the trailer from the U-Haul (wires and all) and pulled it like a rickshaw away from the truck, around the corner, and to the front of my car. Freed of its trailer burden, I could now back the U-Haul out of the handicapped parking section with ease and did so, then quickly hooked it all back up again and pulled out of the dark garage into freedom, with a half hour still to spare.
Tomorrow…part two, or, when things got really bad (but also good).