On the day we moved to San Diego the fires were still burning and big flakes of ash swirled in the air as we drove down the coast, my car packed so tightly I couldn’t see out my rear window, Riley whining faintly from his crowded perch in the back seat.
We’ve been here through Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s and we’re closing in on Valentine’s Day, which is also our nine-year anniversary and it occurs to me, more than once, to be grateful we have that much time between and behind us because things are really tense around here. The fires have been out for weeks now and the rains have arrived. Everywhere that burned has become a giant mud pie and people are sandbagging and unrolling big pinwheels of straw across the strafed hillsides like giant Band-Aids.
We’re still living at the La Jolla Palms, a big beige box in a sea of big beige boxes and everything in the apartment is enrobed in one shade of beige or another. The carpets, the walls, the plastic blinds, the bedspreads, the sofas and chairs are all shades of oatmeal and wheat and dirt, their sameness of color broken only by the coffees and caramels of the skin-slick, poly blend throw pillows and the dull, muted greens of the tired looking silk plants that droop in the corners of the living room. The beige trimmed windows face another beige building that looks exactly the same; the sun passes overhead in the mornings without shining a single ray into the long, rectangular room where our boxes of belongings are scattered, unpacked, amidst the shiny furniture we aren’t comfortable sitting on. During daylight hours it is impossible to tell if the sun is coming or going. Is it 11:00? 1:00? 3:00? Here it doesn’t seem to matter. The long days are a vista of beige sameness for me. There is laundry and shopping and a trip to the post office. And there is the growing concern that I have to start looking for an apartment. At night, Chris comes home pale and exhausted from too many hours under florescent lights and we listlessly recount our days for the other’s benefit. We each try to sound more enthusiastic about this new chapter in our lives than we actually are, and at some point the evening is done and it’s time to go to sleep so we can get up and go do it all over again.
And for some reason University City doesn’t believe in high wattage street lights, so when I walk the dog at night I feel like we’re disappearing into the deserted, dark streets where the cars rush by without stopping, like my life has kicked me out onto the side of the road and I’m wandering down a freeway looking for a call box to phone home and have someone come and get me. I’m used to the bustle and sweat of Hollywood and the laid back, grungy coffee shops and people with their life stories—or someone else’s—etched across their bodies in tattoos and piercings and scars. I’m used to stepping over trash in the gutters and navigating the gauntlet of people begging for change in front of the liquor store. Here at the Starbucks or the Peets or the Coffee Bean—all of which are within a mile of our faux Italianate beige cube with its burbling fountains and stands of bamboo whispering and creaking in the Southern California breeze—there are too many blonde girls with too much tanned skin under tank tops and tight denim tucked into last year’s Ugg boots. And there’s me, shuffling along in one of my three pairs of black sweat pants and a pair of black Keds that stink if I take them off, so, of course, I don’t, even when I’m sweating in the sun and even though I’ve had a pedicure and my toes, at least, could pass muster around here as vaguely fashionable.
Today Chris and I are apartment hunting—again—and it’s not going well. It doesn’t help that everything else in our life is in a complete state of flux: the new job for him, this new city where we don’t know a soul, and, of course, there’s my new status as unemployed writer/housewife.
At first it was better to look for apartments with Chris than it was to go by myself. Not just for the logistical reasons of having one person to drive and one person to navigate and look out for rental signs, but also because I’ve started to have panic attacks when I leave the house. I didn’t want to call them that at first, because it’s almost like the admission of it makes it worse, but what happens is that—on the days when I have to leave the house at a specific time, to see another crappy apartment or go to a writing workshop or whatever—as soon as I get in the shower I get this feeling that starts in my torso, an almost imperceptible tightening, a clenching similar to the involuntary smooth muscle cringe that happens when I see someone rip a fingernail to the bloody quick or the time when Riley cut an artery in his tail and the blood was pumping out in syncopated bursts that matched the frantic beat of his tiny heart. Except there are no bloody fingers or frightened dogs, there’s just me trying to leave the big, beige box to find a permanent apartment in a new city I don’t want to be in, a new city where I don’t know anyone, a new city where I have to rely on the monotone and vaguely British woman’s voice in the navigation system in Chris’s car to pilot me through the unfamiliar streets, through the canyons and arroyos that drop off into unpaved nowhere or end without warning at another sprawling, beige complex indistinguishable from the next.
We tried to make it fun, the notion of apartment hunting, the move, all of it.
“We’ll have a new adventure,” we said to each other, and the gaiety in our voices was so enthusiastic that I believed we might.
“We’ll get a little house near the beach,” we enthused. “We’ll get bikes and we’ll walk to the corner for coffee on Saturday mornings.”
A month went by, then another, and finally, as we crept up toward three months here in the box, we roused ourselves from the lethargy that set in from the beige and the new and the work and the lack of it, and we started looking. I pored over Craigslist ads and made forays into the neighborhoods that sounded promising: North Park and South Park and Hillcrest, Normal Heights and Golden Hill and Talmadge. But instead of an adventure or a new beginning there was just the completely overwhelming anxiety that suffused my body like a virus.
Chris grows impatient with me on our outing today, irked by my sighs and my sweating and my misplaced irritation over his erratic driving. We are like magnets turned backwards, repelling each other and sliding to opposite ends of an empty living room in another apartment that neither of us wants to live in: two sprawling rooms set on top of each other, separated by stale air and a rickety spiral staircase that is an accident waiting to happen. The windows look onto a busy street and a brown, lifeless salt marsh beyond.
The realtor eyes us expectantly, her blonde hair hanging in a perfect sheet to her shoulders. “It’s only been on the market since yesterday,” she says, and her voice clatters into the space between us like shiny nickels falling into the tray of a slot machine. “I’ve had 20 calls this morning about this unit. It’s going to go quick.”
My head feels like a balloon, untethered, bobbing somewhere above my body that is grounded here in the room. “I wouldn’t let my dog live here,” I say, and the realtor’s blonde face slides into a smooth mask of inscrutability.
When she meets my eyes, her smile is broad and sleek. “Well,” she says, briskly. “Thank you so much for coming.”
In the car, Chris keeps his eyes trained on the traffic that clogs the street in front of us. Cirque du Soleil is performing at the Del Mar Fairgrounds; policemen in plastic orange vests direct traffic toward the blue and yellow striped tents.
“What’s wrong with you?” he says, and to my ears it sounds more like an indictment than an expression of concern. “Everything’s fine,” he continues, in an irritated voice that does nothing—absolutely nothing—to allay my fears, irrational or otherwise.