Eight months ago, brimming with equal parts hope and fear, I moved from San Diego to Washington, D.C. I moved to live with the man I dated in college, the man with whom I was in a long distance relationship for two years, the man who beamed at the prospect of supporting me so I could have a go at writing full time, the man I intended to marry.
But life rarely goes as we plan.
And so last month, rattled and aching with loss, I packed up my belongings from this man’s house, called the long distance movers and prepared for the return home to San Diego.
Now I take the steps to reconstruct a dismantled life. Rent an apartment in my old building. Get my old job back. One foot in front of the other. It’s all I can manage.
The movers are late. Seven day delivery slips to ten, twelve, then fourteen. I start to go a little batshit. The twin-sized aerobed ordered from Amazon to hold me over is breaking my back. The cheap sheets make me cranky, and it’s hard to write without a desk. I’m blazing in existential limbo, frantic from the colossal loss of control, and no one at the moving company seems to know a damn thing about where my things are or when they might arrive. I have no choice but to wait.
I don’t have many possessions. I wear the same pair of yoga pants almost every day and the same pair of Asics running shoes. My furniture consists of two glass top desks and ergonomically correct chairs, a beloved space in which to write, to hold piles of work in progress. I don’t own a couch or dining room table, which is fine because I rarely invite friends over and I eat at my desk. But there are things that matter to me: photos, faded cards and letters, hundreds of books that have shaped my identity, art purchased over the years, wise investments in beauty for the sake of beauty.
Finally, the call. The belongings that mark my history, that form the roots of who I am, arrive.
I am a woman who has started over many times and a certain joy accompanies the task of unpacking, at rediscovering a teapot, a vase, pieces of my self I temporarily forgot in the span of mere days, of choosing where these belongings should be placed within the walls of the new home where I prepare to start my life yet again.
But as I begin to unpack I’m struck with realization: these aren’t my boxes.
I slice them open, one by one, their contents shuttling stunned disbelief. I learn my small boxes, packed so carefully in D.C., were delivered to a warehouse to await pickup from a second moving crew. That warehouse flooded and my boxes got soaked, then the items they contained were thrown haphazardly into the large cartons now before me.
I have to force myself to tackle each new box. Bent over at the awkward angle dictated by these tall rectangular containers, back wrenching with each grasp, I pull out shoes and clothes seized by mold, pillows and a comforter stenched with mildew. I snap photos, evidence of ruin, ammunition for an inevitably strength-sapping battle with the moving company.
Then, my books, half of them water logged and bloated. These are my teachers’ books, the books of friends and fellow authors. Some are damaged but salvageable, while others are destroyed. I feel an ache, spiked with pangs of guilt as I’m forced to discard the words of these writers and turn them into trash. I stack what I can save on the floor and their titles taunt me, like voices shouting over one another, competing for the most apt tag line for literary tragedy. Wells Tower shouts, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned! Kevin Young coaches me through The Art of Losing, Studs Terkel shows me Hard Times.
Every day, bits of memory fade away and die but not with these books. I remember where I was, what I was experiencing in my life at the time I read each one. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance during the long lonely summer after my first year of law school, The Best American Short Stories 1993, purchased with a friend I haven’t seen in years at a bookstore that no longer exists, The Chronology of Water, read mostly in cafes during a period when I was certain I had finally fucked my life up for good.
Maybe that’s why these objects, these bound and covered pages, mean so much. It’s how they touched my soul, gave me strength, carried me through the tough times. It’s how the sight of their spines on shelves can make me smile, make me feel connected to the world, when I am more often than not a person who has so much difficulty connecting. I relate and unite with my fellow humans through words on a page, because face-to-face, what comes out of my mouth is frequently mush.
I come to my pouch of meds, a bag grown fatter over the years as I’ve aged and experienced more ailments. Cipro for chronic UTIs, generic Prozac for when I can’t brush away the blues, leftover Vicodin from a shoulder injury, Percocet from the surgery that followed. I unzip the pouch, already knowing. The Percocet and Vicodin are gone.
I reach the box that holds the only fine jewelry I own: a Corum watch ringed with tiny diamonds, the engagement ring and matching wedding band I have been meaning to pawn for the past three years. I open it, holding the sick feeling in my gut, already knowing. Those are gone too.
I imagine sweat-soaked moving men standing in a flooded warehouse, their disgust at all the goddamn books. They win only a few takeaways for their thieving efforts but still they must have shrugged. Diamonds and drugs. Not a bad haul.
I am not a material girl and yet I feel hollowed somehow. It’s nothing and it’s everything. I drink wine, itemize the loss of what seems the last strands of who I am, permit myself the luxury of self-pity. But such indulgences are never all that satisfying. I try to employ the spiritual tools I need to make better use of in my daily life, tell myself this is the Universe intervening, forcing me to let go. Shoes ruined? They were five years old! It’s time to buy new shoes! The watch? Hadn’t worn it in years! The rings hurt the most, their loss leaving an almost physical sense of violation, but my finances are stable enough that I can survive without the money their pawning would have provided. The drugs? Good riddance. I had been saving them for a rough patch, a time when the fog of an opioid might melt away the pain from the bruises of a bad day. Those men did me a favor. Let them ruin their own livers so that mine be kept pure. Or almost pure.
Things happen in this life that we don’t especially want to happen.
But what if it’s like the Derek Walcott poem, out of what is lost grows something stronger?
My boyfriend John arrives from D.C. Yes, the place I just left. We remain intent on making this relationship work, despite our difficulties, despite the distance, despite the eye-rolling from some friends. He helps me tackle the final box, the largest, containing the canvas created by a Korean woman in San Francisco, a painting I fell in love with in 2003 while sitting in a gallery. I still remember the moment, pausing inside the perfect light, staring, absorbing the wonder.
The canvas holds the image of the artist’s own face, her eyes closed, wearing an expression of tranquility, a place from within so deep, so solid, the harshness of the world can’t touch it. She is fully present, her only imperative peace. The work is textured with tiny triangles so that in shifting light they let the eye play its tricks and the woman’s face appears to move. It’s like she’s alive, and with this flow, this stirring, her bliss is contagious. I doubled my hours at work for three months to pay for this face and bring her home.
John cuts at the box with care, then turns to me with the look I know bodes bad news. Like everything else, this box got wet and now the board sticks to the canvas. Stripping it away means taking the paint along with it. John slices and pulls, gentle and cautious. Finally, together, we slide the painting out. Bits of cardboard stick to the edges, and my serene woman looks like she’s been cowed, crushed, pulled from a dumpster.
I want to cry.
But I don’t.
Together, John and I hang the face on the wall. Sunlight streams through the window and in the terrible glow, reveals every last bit of her damage.
That night John is gone, back to D.C. to the demands of a high-pressure job, three kids and a meddling ex-wife. Demands that nearly ruined us. I’m all alone in my apartment and I stand in the silence, staring at the face and its wounds. She has been beaten badly. She is ravaged, with scars to prove it. And yet, eyes closed, her face remains peaceful, a picture of pure calm.
She is me.
She is who I want to be.
About Karen Stefano
Karen Stefano is a JD/MBA with more than 20 years of complex litigation experience. She is the author of the how-to business writing guide, "Before Hitting Send" and the short story collection "The Secret Games of Words." Karen's next book, "Vigilance," will be published in early 2019, chronicling her jagged road of survival and recovery from trauma after a sexual assault. Her work has appeared in California Lawyer, The South Carolina Review, Tampa Review, Santa Fe Literary Review, Epiphany, and elsewhere. To learn more about Karen and her writing, please visit http://stefanokaren.com.