Made for You and Me, page 1
Made for You and Me
GOING WEST, GOING BROKE, FINDING HOME
Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole.
—JOHN STEINBECK, THE GRAPES OF WRATH
EPILOGUE; OR, WHAT HAPPENS TO A DREAM DEFERRED?
About the Author
About a week after we got home it hit me, hard: “I’m almost thirty-five years old and I’ve just crossed close to four thousand miles of America in a hatchback with a two-month-old baby, a ninety-pound dog and my husband, Dan, to move in with my mother in Maine. My life as I knew it has officially collapsed and ended. I’m in some new zone: part limbo, part full-on life-altering change, part grace. And Dan and I are sleeping in separate beds.”
It was this last thing that made me feel totally upside down. Somehow, two years earlier, when Dan and I got married, as if my independence had been magically erased, I became a person who has trouble sleeping if Dan’s not in bed with me. I’m all too aware that his big lump of six feet and five inches of cozy flesh isn’t a few inches away breathing, sometimes snoring, dreaming and twitching.
But in my mother’s house, there simply wasn’t a bed comfortably big enough for both of us and our son safely in between. So I was sleeping in my childhood bed, which my mother had moved down to a small room off her living room. We call this room “the library,” or sometimes “the Christmas room” because it’s where we put our tree. Admittedly, “the library” sounds terribly grand; in reality, it’s a small, bright room lined with simple wooden shelves filled with books and in one corner stands a desk that used to be Grammar’s, my grandmother. It has a few comfortable cushions piled together on the floor and a cozy chair in another corner. Off the library is a tiny room, which we call “the back room,” big enough for a single bed and a desk and above which my mother had a sleeping loft put in that fits one double mattress on its floor. Dan was sleeping in that loft. Although I missed Dan in the bed, our baby still needed me throughout the night to nurse. Giving up this mammalian bonding and putting him in a crib right then, when everything else about our lives was in such flux, felt like another big loss no one was up for. So, at night, in my childhood bed, with one eye open and one hand on his little body, I kept vigil to protect my son from our lives.
The worry wasn’t that living with my mother this way would never end or that Dan and I would never be in the same bed again, although there were days when my skeptical optimism was certainly challenged. What this watchfulness meant and what kept me awake at night was that we were, in every way, a family trying to pull itself together, no matter how our basic survival needs might affect our lifestyle, personal dreams, or flimsy notions of what our lives should look like. I had no idea how long we’d be like this. From the distance of time I scoff a little at this anxiety because, truthfully, thank God we had somewhere to go—since the bottom fell out of the economy, many people have lost their homes or their spouses; some lost their lives. Families have had to hole up in motels or, worse, in cardboard shelters on the street. Still, for us, in our young marriage, in our story of our lives falling apart while we tried to do whatever it took to take care of our son, our dog and ourselves, we felt, essentially, flattened. Actually, it was worse than that: What we felt was that we could no longer dream. That was, possibly, the most dangerous aspect of what had happened to us.
Every night, Dan climbed the ladder to his perch, the mattress set on the floor underneath a skylight, and looked up through white pine branches to the stars and moon, and turned out the light. Every night, after I cocooned myself in bed next to my sleeping son’s body and after our dog, Hopper, had climbed into the bed with me, I’d lie awake in the darkness. Not only was my mind bubbling with worry, but my body ached from being contorted into a snail shape around my son, my legs positioned diagonally across the mattress to give Hopper as much room as he needed. I used to carry with me a New Yorker cover from 2006, which I affixed to every fridge door in every apartment I ever lived in, of a blond man, who looked a lot like a cartoon depiction of John Updike, piled into a bed with his wife, children and cat. No one has any room in the drawing except the cat, who is sprawled out, the covers pulled up to its chin, taking up the whole bed while everyone else tries to accommodate it. This, in a nutshell, is how Dan and I have always slept with our animals and, now, our son. I can hear the hardliners already: We’ve inverted the natural hierarchy of the world. Or, worse, we’re just plain nuts. Perhaps. But there must be something in it for us.
Honestly, at my mother’s, I felt scared at night with Dan sleeping in the loft. That was the bigger thing—more than missing his body, per se—I was just plain frightened. He seemed miles away, which is part of the reason the dog was on the bed and I was holding on to my son (you might, then, ask the totally justifiable question: Who’s protecting and parenting whom?). The library’s double glass doors to the woods outside felt like a vulnerable porthole where anything or anyone could come in and hurt us. It seems almost silly to say that, since I grew up in these woods, in the boonies: I should have known better. What’s there to be afraid of? Pine trees? The passing bears, coyote, bobcats, fishers, deer, fox, varying hares, bats and tree frogs? Truthfully, even with a pack of hungry coyotes, a starving bear and a bobcat gone mad, those woods are safer than most streets in Los Angeles. I knew this. My mother had taught me (nay, more like ingrained in me) a deep and passionate respect for the land and the animals we shared this piece of earth with. Because my mother was a wild bird rehabilitator when I was a child, on any given week, we had robins in our basement, a baby red-eyed vireo in our kitchen screaming for us to feed her, a saw-whet owl in the bathroom (not the most fun thing to encounter when you had to pee in the middle of the night), a raven named Chac who loved to steal my jewelry and suntan lotion while I was busy “lying out” on the lawn and listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40, and an eider duck who hung out on our dining room table, reeking of fish. Because of my mother, I had raised three baby raccoons and, once, a baby skunk. These guests, although at times borderline humiliating to anyone who wanted to keep human friends, became our family. They also became part of the fabric that our family still weaves to tell our story to each other, to our friends and spouses, to our children.
Also, ever since my parents’ divorce, my mother had made this small, protected piece of ground she lived on even more sacred. She had helped create a wildlife sanctuary in the acres surrounding the house, which protected the land from future development. Inside, she had rearranged the existing furniture and bought new furniture, giving away or tossing many of the objects of our past. Despite losing some of the stuff that signified our history, we gained my mother’s cleaning out of her soul and mind to a point where she could make her own place in our family house. And she did all the things that somehow never got done with a marriage foundering, tw
I did, at least tangentially, know real danger in other places. Long before Dan and I went west, I taught acting for a time at a juvenile jail outside of Portland, Maine. What I saw there—from both the law-enforcement perspective and also the children’s side—was that violence is so terrifyingly ingrained in our culture, it’s no wonder some people feel that trying to fix anything or anyone with jail is a pointless Band-Aid for a much larger problem. Also, once, many years ago, while still living in Portland, I was followed home by a man who exposed himself and started masturbating on my front stoop while I somehow managed to get my key in the lock and myself through the door and then upstairs. And, later, I certainly wasn’t safer from danger while living in L.A., which may be unrivaled in its glaring disparity between rich and poor and the violent tension that hovers in between. But here, home, I somehow felt more scared. My fear was something inside me, something existential that might not have been assuaged even if Dan had been able to fit in the bed.
Hopper was also scared of the dark. This was not very comforting. When I told Dan this, Dan told me I was crazy and that Hopper would rip anyone’s head off who came near us. “Look at him,” he’d say, and we’d both regard Hopper’s enormous bulk of black and tan rottweiler-shepherd mix. But sometimes, when I took Hopper out for a late-night tinkle, we’d both stand on the porch, neither one of us interested in being the first to step off. He’d turn and look at me, his long Eeyore’s face fairly confident I wasn’t going to force him because then I, too, would need to get off the porch. I’d tell him, “Go on, Buddy. Go pee. I’m right here (ready to bolt, but nonetheless). Go on, Bud!” We’d stand like this for a moment and then, without even discussing it, we’d both turn back, no peeing having taken place. Neither one of us had stepped off into the dark and onto the damp, early spring ground that smelled so pungently of loamy earth and ice thawing, it made my mouth water. Neither one had disrupted the perfect orbs of light from the house which illuminated the first brave tendrils of grass coming up, feathery and emerald green. As soon as our backs were turned, we’d run the ten feet to the door like we were freaking Orpheus. I’d slam the door behind us and then we’d both be so relieved.
Some nights I’d find myself at four thirty a.m. standing at the bottom of the ladder to the loft where Dan was sleeping. I’d call up to him, “Dan, are you sleeping?” Silence. Of course he’s sleeping, because he’s willing to accept for the moment where our lives are and do what any sane person would do: get some rest so he can tackle all of it tomorrow.
I’d call him again. “Dan?”
Then I’d hear, muffled, like from underneath ten comforters, “No . . . ? What’s wrong?” Whenever he says “no” like that, I know he’s definitely been sleeping but that he’s hoping that I’ll think he was awake, too, working on figuring out whatever I’m awake mulling over, even though he was blissfully, irritatingly, asleep while I was doing all the mental gymnastics.
“I can’t sleep. Our lives are chaos. And I hate this. I mean, I hate our lives being like this. I hate not sleeping in the same bed. I hate that nothing is solid and the only place we have that’s ours is our car, which isn’t even ours, it belongs to Toyota. And I feel overwhelmed and hysterical.”
“Do you want to come cuddle?”
Pause. “No.” I’m too wired for cuddling. Plus, cuddling seems like a hop, skip and a jump away from something else.
Always forgiving, always optimistic, my husband decides to ignore the sting of my “no” for the moment and focus on the hysteria at the bottom of the ladder. “Cait, I don’t know what to tell you. It will get better. It has to.”
In the half-light I look at the pile of bills that came across the country with us and still hasn’t been opened. They’re looming on my brother’s dresser, which we’ve set up in this room for our clothes. Its three drawers are ornamented with a butterfly, a dragonfly and a ladybug my father painted when my brother was born—all of which are so picture perfect and beautiful they should be in National Geographic. “Someday,” I think, “someday, our baby will have his own room, his own bed, his own dresser with paintings like that on it.” But that day feels so far away, I almost can’t bear it.
I want to scream, “How did we get here? Where did we go wrong?”
Instead, I say, “OK.” And I go back to my bed and curl around my son, his little body safe as houses next to me. He reaches out his tiny hand and smiles in his sleep. I take it, and, like this, I fall asleep.
* * *
I got California on my mind
I’m leavin’ this old town behind…
—“CALIFORNIA ON MY MIND,”
MERLE HAGGARD & THE STRANGERS
My new husband was packing and unpacking all of our belongings onto a dirty snowbank. It was the 30th of March, 2008, and unseasonably cold. Even though the sun was brilliantly shining, the temperature hovered around thirty degrees before windchill. From behind our living room window I could hear Dan swearing a blue streak. For two hours I’d been watching him reach in, shove things around inside the car, rip at our bags and throw them out onto the snow, then shove them in again. We were supposed to leave Portland, Maine, that afternoon for a weeklong drive across the country to start a new life in Los Angeles. Dan and four of his friends had already spent over three hours in the wind trying to negotiate our Thule bin onto the top of our car. A few days before, the movers had started out ahead of us with a truck full of our belongings. Now the things we’d earmarked to go with us in our car would not cooperate. There was no room for all our stuff; us; our dog, Hopper; and our cat, Ellison. Something, or someone, was going to have to go. Dan kept coming into our empty apartment to warm up his hands. Every time he came in, I’d say, “Hey, Dan, this isn’t working. Maybe we need to rethink, sleep on this and leave tomorrow?” I was starting to get that kind of anxious that makes me freeze in one place and become totally useless. I was supposed to be packing the bathroom, but all I could do was watch my husband and freak out.
“No, Cait, we’re going today,” he responded. And then he went back outside to yank everything out of the car again and line it all up on the dirty snowbank. I had washed everything and neatly folded and packed it so that we could start out brand new and clean in our new life. I had gone so far as to buy two beautiful boat bags from L.L. Bean, one for each animal’s gear. I had wanted to get them monogrammed with their respective names in big embroidered block letters, but Dan said that was a ridiculous waste of money. Looking outside at our duffel bags, CD cases, boat bags, one lone sleeping bag, pillows and books all strewn this way and that, I wasn’t sure anything we had amounted to much. And, suddenly, I had no idea why we were leaving everything and everyone we knew.
Dan unpacked the car again and brought the bags and pillows, CD books and CDs all back inside and told me I needed to start throwing stuff out. When he gets like this I call him Deputy Dan. Because he’s generally mild-mannered and mostly kind, when he’s on a tear, I do what he says. I figure he’s taking charge because we’re in a crisis and this is what men do; they manage crises. Our friends Molly, Brian and Joelle had come over to say goodbye. They were starting to look a little nervous because, I’m sure, this whole thing seemed more disorganized and more wrenchingly unpleasant
“Uh, what stuff are you suggesting?”
“All that stuff you’re packing in the bathroom—all that perfume you hardly ever wear. This pillow, this hat, this bag, these books, half of your clothes. They won’t fit. We’ll get this stuff again.”
“Cait. I’m serious. In a couple of months we’ll buy all this shit, new. Nicer. Trust me.”
“Are you sure?”
“It won’t fit. I’m sure.” He had a firm but slightly pleading look on his face that was hard to ignore.