When we last left our heroine, she had defied all odds and managed, through credit card advances, persistence, and luck, to arrive in San Antonio alive, her trusty cat Max at her side.
In Corpus Christi, I managed to drive my beat up Accord to a local mechanic. I was wearing pleather pants, which convey a sense of power and control, so I’m sure I wasn’t swindled when the mustached shop manager said the engine was full of holes, he wouldn’t charge me for looking at it, and he had a mechanic who could take it off my hands for free. Grateful that I didn’t have to pay to unload my car, I accepted a ride home from the manager in his Pontiac Firebird.
You can’t really get far in Corpus Christi without a car (they drive everywhere there, even onto to beach, it is so painful for a northwest hippy), so my first couple of weeks post-divorce were mostly spent reading the newspaper and watching movies with English subtitles. My new roommate, a long-time friend, bought groceries and I cooked as payment. We decided to try being vegan, for kicks. He was already vegetarian, but I ate meat four times a day, so this prospect seemed daunting to me and I was pretty sure the phase would be over before it really began.
The vegan thing stuck. But that’s another story.
A few weeks after I arrived in Texas, I was on the road again, this time to Pensacola, Florida. We crammed the few personal belongings that the Navy hadn’t moved into his tiny Honda del Sol, Max in her carrier on the ledge behind my seat. It was January, but hot, which is wrong. We stayed overnight at a youth hostel in New Orleans where the dreadlocked owner gave me a room full of bunks to myself (that’s the pet-friendly part of the youth hostel scene). It was cheap and I was grateful, even though there were no overhead lights and I’ve blocked the memory of the bathroom from my mind.
My friend and I moved quickly to find a house to rent. He wanted to be near his work, so we ended up in Milton, Florida, about 30 minutes from Pensacola. It was not a hopping town, unless you count the Texas Roadhouse or the Piggly Wiggly. No bus, too far to bike (and no bike), I tried to buy a scooter from a local dealer, but with a lot of debt and no income, that plan fizzled quickly. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was facing a classic problem of the poor – need a job to earn money, need a car to get to a job, need money to get a car, need a job to earn money, etc.
Three days after we moved into the three-bedroom house we rented from a local couple, me in my own bedroom, not crashing on a couch or a flea-bag motel for the first time in a long time, Max ran away.
It was my fault for not communicating clearly to our houseguest, a woman who would later go on to be killed in combat while flying helicopters for the Marines, that when I said Max “didn’t” go outside, what I meant was “Max would love to make a prison break, but she is a cat and doesn’t realize that cars, raccoons, and people are dangerous, so please do everything in your power to prevent her from exiting this safe building.” Jen, the houseguest, chatted on the phone late that evening with the back door open. The next morning, after I realized Max was not hiding somewhere in the house, she explained that Max had hung out contentedly on the back patio while Jen talked, but when Jen told Max it was time to come inside, Max bolted into the dark forest behind the house.
Let’s recap. My marriage is over. I am in Florida, in a town of 9,000 people with no car and one friend. I have thousands and thousands of dollars of debt and no job, no degree, no prospects. My brain is not sure why I have suddenly cut off its supply of SSRI’s. I have kept Max alive and safe through a harrowing cross-country trip only to have her saunter out the back door. All I can think about is Homeward Bound. I imagine Max will make friends with a stray dog and show up at my parent’s house in Oregon in three or four months. I break.
I run through the neighborhood and search the forest, whistling “You Are My Sunshine” through choking tears. I check the sides of the roads for little furry bodies. I pray so hard. My roommate drives me to the grocery store where I make hundreds of copies of “Lost Cat” fliers and then helps me post them throughout the town. As night falls, I stand by the back door, willing Max to return, and I leave it ajar until the moon is high in the sky and the mosquitos start to swarm in.
Tearfully, reluctantly, I close the door and sit at the dining room table, defeated.
And then, a scratch. Could be roaches, because Florida. But there it is again, a scratch, at the back door. I rush to it in hope while simultaneously preparing myself for one final disappointment, fling open the door, look down, watch Max cross the threshold and head straight for her food bowl.
This was the night that I started to see dimly how I was being cared for, watched over. What helped my vision clear…next.