Slipping Through Our Fingers

We were sitting around the kitchen table in our rented condo with R’s parents and my father.  The wine was flowing, and the kids had already scattered from the table, enjoying the 72 degree breezes coming in from our open doorwall.  It was the first day of our annual sojurn to Florida for Christmas.  R worked late and like a dog all year long so we could make the hike down to Florida for a week of warmth and fun with his parents and my father at the holidays.

We’d driven again this year, but planned it that way, driving my new SUV that we’d purchased with this in mind last spring.  I could hardly believe that we were able to afford such a nice car, with leather seats and navigation and satellite radio and a DVD player for the kids.  But we could, and we did.

“So you’re not moving to Michigan after all?” R’s mother asked sadly, taking another bite of the key lime pie my father had brought up to share on our first night.

I was a little sad about it too, actually.  I was tired of the angry, bitter politics of my little New England town.  I felt bruised and battered and unwanted.  And though I loved my girlfriends, the beauty of our small town and the proximity to New York, I’d been looking forward to a fresh start.  A big house with a pool and no little woodpecker holes.  A sewer system that allowed a garbage disposal (we had septic in our little town). A town that was a bit more anonymous and less political.  Getting to choose a school system that wouldn’t wrangle over money every year.  And of course there was the draw of being near both R’s family and my brother and sister; family holidays that didn’t require more than an hour or so in the car. Plus, the idea of moving back home felt good to me.  When I’d traveled back home for my high school reunion the previous year, there was much that was changed, much that I missed.

“No, we’re not,” R responded, taking a sip of wine.  “They wanted to fill the position locally, so they brought in a guy from the outside, a guy who used to work for GM.  I guess it was cheaper than relocating me.  They really are trying to keep the whole facility locally employed, so even though I was a good fit for it because I am from the area, at the end of the day I still have to be moved there and that isn’t cheap.”

I sighed, took a sip of wine, and willed myself to think of the here and now, and how lucky I was to be here.  A warm December night, the sound of the Gulf of Mexico outside, three kids all healthy and doing well, my close family all gathered together.  We wouldn’t have to pick up and start all over, at least not now.  That was a good thing, I told myself.

A good thing.

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Here We Go Again

“Can I talk to you?” R asked, not looking up from his computer screen.

“Sure,” I said, drawing out the word to show my confusion at the request.  It was a warm Saturday afternoon in August, and I was bustling around with laundry and tidying.  The kids were watching TV downstairs in the artificial cool of the air conditioning.  “What’s up?”

“Well, I got word yesterday my company is opening a research facility in Michigan.  Near the airport, about twenty minutes from my parents’ place.”

Oh.  For years, R had always said there was never any chance of us getting transferred back to Michigan.  His company, which did transfer people around a lot, simply had no offices in the state.  The closest we could have gotten would have perhaps been Cleveland, and of course where we used to live in Cincinnati, but never actually in the Detroit area.

“Are you going to try for it?” I asked, slowly.

Of all the times that this could have happened, this was probably the worst.  I’d just signed on with the town Democratic party to run for the local Board of Education.  My friend Tom had encouraged several of us who had been active in the budget process to do it.  We’d just had our caucus a few weeks ago, and I’d just plunked down $250 for campaign signs, business cards and T shirts.  We’d been working ever since on strategy, logo, talking points, a brochure.  I was engaged and excited about it, my first real foray into politics.

“I want to.  What do you think?”

I searched for the right answer.  I couldn’t lie; I missed being close to our families.  The distance made it hard to stay close.  My siblings could never afford to make the nearly twelve hour drive out East to see me.  R’s parents could, and did, but at considerable cost and hassle.  R’s grandmother had recently passed away in Michigan, and it had been hard to be so far away and not be able to help. But I also loved living in CT, being close to New York and my grandparents, the beaches, even our ridiculous New England town.  I loved all of my girlfriends and the respect I’d earned around town as an active volunteer and education advocate.  I couldn’t imagine giving all of that up.

“Well, I think it is an opportunity worth exploring,” I said carefully.  “I’d love to live closer to the family.  How soon would you know if you decided to go for it?”

“Soon, I think,” R said.  “Maybe a month or two.”

A month or two.  That would be September or October.  I closed my eyes and tried to imagine Thanksgiving in a different home, with all of our family assembled around the table.  The picture was hazy and hard to imagine.  But inviting.

“Well, it would be nice to be close to the family.  I think you should go for it and see what happens.”  I swallowed, hard, all of that which I did not say out loud.

First Night

I lay on our bed in our new house.  The fatigue and days of sadness crept up on me in the quiet moment of solitude, the first in days, and the tears started to fall.

I’d spent several days with my sister and my two boys up in Michigan as R and Melinda watched the movers pack up our life. I was certain that Michael, who needed structure and routine, would do better with sleeping in a strange place than watching all of his things dismantled and packed away.  We slept together, him and I, curled up tightly on her basement hide-a-bed, a pause in the journey that would change everything for us.  Z relished the days my sister allowed her children to skip school to spend time with him.  Finally, we said our tearful goodbyes, and I drove my packed minivan west to spend one last night in the Midwest with R’s parents.  His father would be making the drive out East with me, so that I wouldn’t be driving all that way without another adult.

R’s father and I alternated driving; him driving too fast on the Ohio Turnpike, me driving more cautiously through the mountains in Pennsylvania.  As we drove, I could feel my former life falling away; the changing landscape indicative of the change this journey represented.  The heavy traffic, even on a Sunday night in November, as we drove through New Jersey and around New York City, braced me for the faster pace of our new home.

We met R and my daughter at an awful hotel one town away from our rural town (which did not have any hotels within it’s sleepy town borders), crammed into two tiny hotel rooms, and spent our first night in the Northeast munching on hotel snacks and takeout subs from the convenience store across the street.

And so on a cold Monday morning in late November, we pulled up to the strange feeling (but very expensive) gray colonial home on the busy street.  I was confused by the baseboards which made knocking noises as they struggled to warm up the square footage; we’d always had forced air heat in every other place we lived.  I scowled at the tall grass, which clearly hadn’t been mowed since the day R signed the offer contract weeks ago.   The movers slowly brought our life into these four walls, one piece of furniture and box at a time.   I watched Michael and Melinda in what would serve as their new playroom, keeping them out of the way, as I heard R make jokes with the guys and offer them pizza and beer for lunch.   They in turn set up the bed frames, put the mattresses on, and placed most of the furniture where it was supposed to live.

Finally, after I tucked Michael into his bed (making sure we had his special blanket that he couldn’t sleep without) available, and Melinda into hers (along with seven special stuffed animals), I walked into our new room.  It was half of the size of the one we’d occupied in Ohio; where our furniture had felt fine there, even on the small side, it dominated the room here.  Boxes lined the walls, along with R’s computer, since we had no space for a home office here.  I listened to R and his father talking softly downstairs while they connected all of the electronics to the television in the living room.  My mind wandered to my friends in Ohio, my students, the job I’d left behind, my family that would never be able to afford plane tickets or even the gas bill to drive such a distance, and I started to cry.  All of it, everything that was different, everything I’d just walked away from came bubbling up fast in my chest, and the tears flowed silently onto the pillow.  Before I could catch my breath, full blown sobs came, and I stuffed my face into my pillow so that Zachary wouldn’t be able to hear me.  If I was going to be selling the fact that this move was a good thing, I had better start learning how to believe it myself.

I resolved to let myself wallow in my grief tonight, and put it behind me tomorrow.

One Last Night

I was drunk, definitely.  I could feel the woozy warmth as my friend Annette poured me another margarita fresh from her blender.

“I think you made the right choice,” she said, her tone just slurred enough to tell me that she too was feeling the effect of the tequila she had liberally poured into the drinks.  “Just think, Connecticut is so rich, so posh, there are universities everywhere.” She nodded over the rim of her glass and took a sip.

“But actually that’s exactly what I am afraid of.  I mean, what if I don’t fit in there?  People have nannies in Connecticut.  They live in half a million dollar homes.  They drive fancy cars.  Do you think they’ll stop my Chevy minivan at the border?” I laughed, but I was telling the truth.  I felt inadequate on a good day, but at least where I lived now I felt like I’d found a place where I fit.  Our neighborhood was full of youngish couples just like us, working hard to live the life they did.  I’d met Annette and a few other mothers at Gymboree and preschool.  They weren’t close friends like my high school friend Dawn or my good friend Barb, who knew everything about me and my history.  But they were still comfortable friends that we could share meals with and call with gossip and ask for advice on marriage or babysitters or life in general.

“I thought you told me that the house you ended up with cost half a million dollars. Hate to break it to you there, sister, but you are one of those people, whether you believe it or not. ”

“That’s true,” I laughed, gulping the frothy frozen mess in my glass.  “But still, when you buy a half million dollar house, you expect it is going to be some sort of palace.  It’s smaller than the house we have now.”

“But nicer, you said, inside,” Annette said with a tinge of jealousy she was too drunk to hide.  It was true.  The house we’d finally ended up with, after much deliberation and back and forth with the small inventory in the area, was a total compromise.  We had to take our wish list and segregate it into must haves and nice to haves.  On the must have list were air conditioning (we had been surprised at how few houses in the Northeast had it), gas heat (as opposed to oil, which was creepily stored in large tanks in the basements of houses out there…how did it make sense to have hundreds of gallons of combustible fuel inside your house?), four bedrooms mostly move in ready, in one of our target school districts.  We ended up discarding our dreams of finished basements, newer construction, cul de sac streets and larger square footage; the houses with all of the things we really wanted were in the $700,000 price range, and we simply couldn’t afford them.  We ended up putting an offer on a recently rehabbed 1970s colonial on a busy street, with an ugly chain link fence and even uglier cedar “shake” siding.   The sacrifices on the outside allowed us to have central air, granite counters and stainless appliances and a jacuzzi tub.   It was OK, not perfect, but certainly expensive for what we were getting.  It was the only house that we could even remotely afford that didn’t feel like a trash heap.

“Yeah, it is nice on the inside.  And the schools are good, which was the biggest thing.”

“And that’s something that just is spotty in Los Angeles.  The Northeast is known for their great schools.  You’ll be fine.  Great even.  In a few years you’ll be driving around in a fancy car yourself, giving your ripped jeans to Goodwill and throwing dinner parties just like the rest of them.”

I couldn’t imagine it.  “You think?” I said, draining the glass.  A warm sleepiness was coming over me.  When I looked back at Annette, it took a few seconds to register her red face and the tears streaming down it.

“I do,” she choked out.  “And you’ll forget all about us back here in the Midwest.”

I reached over and hugged her.  We weren’t that close, but we were both drunk, and it was my last night here.  The last time I would walk over to her house and we’d talk and share stories and drinks.  Of anyone in the area, she was the closest thing I had to a best friend.  “Not possible,” I whispered, the emotion coming over me now too, fueled by the contents of the empty glass.  “I’ll never forget where I came from.”

Like Picking Through the Trash

“Well what do you think?” asked our real estate agent, with that false sense of brightness that only people trying to showcase trash as some sort of treasure can muster.

I had left the children with R’s parents at home in Ohio.  R was already working out in Connecticut, so I flew out to meet him early on a Friday morning so that we could spend the weekend house hunting.  It was not going well.

This was the sixth house we’d looked at today.  All of them had been at the top of our quoted price range, or even well above it, and all of the houses were significantly less nice than the one we currently occupied in Ohio.  I was simply unprepared for how expensive Fairfield County, Connecticut was.  I knew that some areas were expensive, I’d seen it online.  But when it came to brass tacks, I had hoped we could move to a town further outside of the commuter corridor to NYC and save some dollars.

Unfortunately, the only towns that were less expensive were either urban areas where we were told we definitely didn’t want to live, or so far from R’s work that the commute would be insane.  The entire county it seemed was priced well above $400,000, which was roughly double what our current home was listed for in Ohio.  I couldn’t believe it.

“I think we’re in some serious trouble,” I responded to the real estate agent, who clearly was used to a much higher level of corporate relocation client.  Perhaps someone who would slide into her Mercedes without batting an eye, or who would consider half a million dollars “affordable”, as we saw in some of the house descriptions she presented to us.  “I just don’t think anything we’ve looked at as being viable for us.  I suppose we’re going to have to find something further out from his job; we simply can’t go much lower in size.”  I glanced at the peeling paint in the horribly painted kitchen, and noted the dirty laundry on the floor of the closet that was left half open down the hallway.  “I mean, what, the market is so hot here that people can sell their house without even putting their dirty laundry away?”

The agent looked at me, with a mask that clearly tried to hide her level of frustration.  She specialized in relocations, which meant a short but intense house search with an guaranteed and usually quick payoff for her.  She clearly hadn’t expected us to be so picky about things like home maintenance.  In Fairfield County in 2004 houses sold quickly, with little effort on the part of the seller; the economy was hot, and the proximity to New York sold places that would be considered unsellable nearly anywhere else in the country.  But I just simply could not swallow spending so much money on a house that felt like a step backwards.

“Let’s do this.  You both go back to your hotel tonight, and I’ll prepare some showings for tomorrow a little further out; that will give you more house for your money, since you’re a little more flexible on location. And try to think about today’s listings with a bit of an open mind.  The locations on these were all good; everything else about a home can be changed.  I promise you we’ll find something that you can live with.”   She smiled warmly as she led us out of the red raised ranch we had been in, the rotting wood steps out front creaking with each person’s descent.

I’d never thought of looking for a place to live as a search for something I could live with.  Was that what this move was going to be?  An exercise in how much we could all stand?  R could sense my frustration and took command of the goodbyes, leading the way back to our agent’s car full of enthusiasm and optimism for the hidden gems we had in store for us tomorrow.  Maybe I was just being too pessimistic.  After all, there was something to be said about living a train ride away from New York, having beaches close by (something I had missed terribly since leaving Michigan), living in a place with the historical significance I’d always craved.

This move was supposed to be a step up for us.  I vowed to try and see the positives before tomorrow.

Until then, R and I were going to have to have at least one bottle of wine with dinner tonight to wash away my weariness.

The Lesser of the Two

Zachary was in tears.  To see my fourteen year old son crying, my son who was so quiet and hardly showed any extreme emotion, was heartbreaking.

“But we just were starting to get settled here.  I can’t believe you want to take me away from everything I know, again.”

Z had seemed to bounce back quickly when we’d moved the first time, when he’d been in fourth grade.  He’d quickly found friends, loved our new house and our new neighborhood.  That said, we knew he missed his cousins, so moving out only a year later, when he was then in fifth grade, hadn’t seemed to bother him that much.  He’d been excited to get back closer to Michigan, and have the opportunity to see family on a regular basis.

“I know, and I’m sorry, Zach,” I told him, trying to cover up my own frustration and sadness at the prospect of moving.  “But your dad’s job…it will be an amazing opportunity for us.  There are so many great things about living out there; the schools are great, and a lot of them work with local universities to offer high schoolers classes.”

Z looked bitterly at me.  He knew his high school was a good one, one of the best in the Cincinnati area.   It wasn’t as if the schools were exactly lacking here.  “What about the band?  Are there good band programs there?”  Z was an avid musician, just as I had been in high school.  His high school boasted the largest marching band in the state of Ohio.  The training was rigorous, but meant that they had an award winning program.  Two years ago this band had played in the Rose Bowl.  He had been hoping for a big opportunity like that at some point during his own high school band career.

“I don’t know,” I said truthfully.  “I know I read that some in the area are very good.  We’ll do everything we can to land in a place where you will be happy, and find friends.”   Which was going to be no small feat.  Everything was so expensive.  I’d put the word out to a few Rick Springfield fans that I knew in Connecticut, to get a feel of where the good areas and what we could afford.  Sadly, we were discovering that Connecticut, at least the area we needed to be in, was just as expensive as Los Angeles.  The only benefit would be the shorter commute.  I’d found an award winning school district, but it was insanely out of our price range; median home prices there were $800,000.  I couldn’t even imagine what a house priced like that would look like in our current area.

“I don’t want to move.  I’m just getting started here.  There are so many things going on with my friends this summer.”

I nodded.  “I’ve told your dad that we will definitely not leave here until after marching band season is over in November. You can be sure that we will keep that promise.  I thinking moving mid year will be a better choice, so you will meet people there.” With Zach being fourteen, it wasn’t like he was going to meet kids outside playing anymore; he needed the social aspect of school to help his adjustment.

Z looked at me, only slightly mollified.  “There’s no way around this?”

I sighed.  I hated delivering edicts that were not of my own choosing; I felt like a helpless passenger on stormy seas.  “We could wait, sure.  We could just stick it out and let your dad see what else comes down the pike.  But we’ll have to move eventually, it’s the nature of the company he works for.  And if we wait, then the move could come at a much more inconvenient time; say, summer of junior year.  This way we at least have a little control over it and have time enough to get you settled and friends.”

His face smoothed a bit, the anguish fading slightly, the bright red of his anger evening out.  “I see,” he said, unwilling to concede anything further.  But the point was made.  He understood the situation, and he was grudgingly going to accept that of the two bad choices in front of him, this was the lesser of the two.

“I’m sorry,” I said to him, my voice cracking.  “I’m so, so sorry.”  I reached out to touch his shoulder, but he stood up without a word and walked out of the room.

I sat in silence on the sofa, listening to the sound of him bounding up the stairs two at a time, and then the sound of his slammed bedroom door.

This was not going to be easy.

East or West?

“Well, which is it?” I asked, frustrated, impatient, and bitter.

R had spent the last month traveling to job interviews throughout the company.  He’d been to Baltimore, he’d been to a town in Connecticut, he’d been to Los Angeles.  It was so different than when he’d done the same before we’d moved here; those interviews had been an exercise in frustration for him with lowball job offers and uncertainty wrapped around them.

This time, R had been shown the moon.  Everyone loved him, everyone wanted him to join their team.  There were offers and promises of this or that, there were tours of facilities and cruises on bodies of water.  Meanwhile, I grew tense at home caring for my three children as the summer waned and Michael’s issues began to come into clearer focus.  I scheduled two evaluations for him at both a private facility and at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, hoping to find a path or direction to go in with him.  My consistent bad mood spilled over to the children, and with no R there to fill in the gaps and provide any relief, everything felt tense.

I found myself growing jealous of R’s burgeoning opportunities.  I had walked away from my teaching career, and had just started building a new one at the University.  I knew that if I could stay in Cincinnati I would end up eventually having a full teaching schedule there in the Continuing Education department.   The staff and students alike seemed to like my simple, no nonsense computer classes; I was constantly asked for more ideas, new things to share and teach.  I would be walking away from that with R’s new job, and I was definitely unhappy about it.

The only saving grace for me was that one of the jobs was positioned out in Los Angeles.  If we were to go out there, I was sure that I could increase my role in the Rick Springfield organization.  I was growing restless with watching the new website designer slowly but surely lock me out of any duties at all related to the site.  When he’d upgraded the site he’d blocked my access, explaining it away to the rest of the team in a way that they accepted, but didn’t make sense to me.  I hoped that if I was out in LA and able to see Rick for meetings now and then, I continue my Street Team work in an even more effective way by accompanying Rick to appearances and making sure that the loyal fans who had kept him afloat enough to be where he was today still played in his decision making.  It was an opportunity for me, and I hoped to be able to take it.

“Well,” R answered slowly, “Baltimore seems like a no go.  That division of the company is going to be sold, and so if I were to take that position, then I would end up not working for this company any more, which is not a position I want to be in.”

I nodded slowly.  Baltimore had been a reasonable choice.  The cost of living had been the lowest of the three choices, and it was near my father’s family in Delaware.  My father had lived there for a short time and so I was familiar with the area.  But I understood his feelings; we had to ensure he was moving up in this decision, not being pushed aside.  “What about the other two?” I asked, trying to keep my voice even.

“OK so the offers just came in this morning for both LA and Connecticut.  And they’re exactly the same.”

Same?  “What does that mean?”

“Well, they’re identical, which I guess shouldn’t be a surprise because they’re both at the same level in the company.”

“But it costs more to live in Los Angeles.  There wasn’t a cost of living bonus or anything attached to their offer?”  This was not good news for Los Angeles.  I’d been on Realtor.com every day looking at houses in LA since R had gone out there for the interview.  The costs were staggering.  Our house in Ohio was priced the same as a house for sale in Compton, a rough part of Los Angeles.  We would have to live far from his job in Studio City for us to find anything affordable.

“No, there wasn’t.  And the Connecticut job is working for my old boss, the guy who I was working for here until six months ago.  Plus that is working for the main corporate office, rather than another side business, so there is more opportunity for advancement there.”

I looked down at my hands.  “I guess I know what you’re thinking, then.”

R nodded.  “I think this means we’re going to be East Coasters.”

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