ANOTHER EMPTY HIGHWAY – Part 3: Shit Sandwiches
Before the pandemic, I was an avid gym goer, spending eight to twelve hours a week training my body. I was physically fit and mentally tough. I endured the physical demand of the five long months battling the pest infestations comprising biweekly packing, unpacking, pest control treatments and endless cleaning. This perpetual cycle taxed me emotionally—until one day, I became numb, emotionally detached myself from my situation and just plowed through another fumigation. My physical strength enabled me to endure the last stretch of our inevitable move out of LA—packing what remains of our belongings, loading them into the truck and enduring a 30-hour long drive with sporadic 20-minute power naps. Likewise, the military taught me to be mentally tough and to do what needed to be done, no matter how hard or grueling the task might be. The military taught me to put my feelings aside, suck it up, and “take the hill” no matter what. The military equipped me with the skills necessary to assess situations and develop and execute a plan with the least complications. I navigated our last months in Los Angeles and to reach our first destination safely and without incident. Although I was physically and mentally tough, none of my training prepared me for isolation, loneliness, loss, innumerable setbacks, transitions and emotional difficulties I experienced during the pandemic.
For some, going home to live with family is a positive experience because of great relationships with parents and siblings. For others, moving home is a negative experience because of abusive or broken relationships. Mine was none of these. I have a wonderful relationship with my parents; and visiting home is pleasant when in short bursts. However, moving accompanies other complications. My family prides themselves on achievements such as independence, making money, having status in a company, raking high in the military, owning a home, and having a family. While many of my siblings did well—had children and remained married, had great paying jobs and/or are home owners—I was none of these; living my last twenty years in a poor single parent, working multiple jobs to make ends meet while navigating PTSD.
My complicated relationship with family pushed me to the Pacific Northwest, and our first stop was a small town just south of the Canadian border. Our frightfully long journey was exhausting and, as with any human fleeing catastrophe, we believed greener pastures awaited us, and this hope propelled us onward. I thought it would be only a couple of weeks to find a job, and transitioning into a new place wouldn’t be that difficult. However, I didn’t know that COVID-19 would play a significant role in my inability to find employment and stable housing. After leaving Los Angeles, the president of the United States declared a national shutdown—all non-essential businesses were closed nationwide. Businesses across America stopped hiring, furloughed or laid-off employees, or closed their doors forcing millions of Americans to file unemployment claims in numbers far beyond those seen during the Great Depression. The national shutdown went from fourteen days to thirty, to forty, to sixty and the weeks turned into months.
The pandemic and the nationwide shutdowns made finding employment impossible. Unemployment, stay-home orders, and financial hardships resulted in unnecessary tension in my temporary living situation. My son and I had no choice but to pack our belongings and move back home with my parents. I begrudgingly packed our things once more and set out for the Midwest. Our move to the Midwest proved to be the best situation for my son, who found refuge with a close friend. I am thankful my son found a place to live when he did. He was lucky—his best friend’s family took him in, helped him find employment, and gave him stability—something I couldn’t provide. To this day, I thank my lucky stars he didn’t have to navigate the pandemic the way I did.
For me, moving back to the Midwest was not so smooth and was far from the greener pastures I imagined when I left Los Angeles. After arriving home, I got the ol’ “welcome home, and you failed” lecture. What is worse, my parents never failed to glorify my siblings’ accomplishments while pointing out my flaws, shortcomings and poor decisions. This daughter is doing this, this son is doing that, and “God loves all my children” while glossing over my innumerable losses and calling it “divine providence” and “moving home was for the best,” “I never could make it out there in the big world,” and “well at least you are safe and that is all that really matters.” At first it wasn’t so bad—I glossed over the criticism, thanked my parents for taking me in, and tried to adjust to sleeping on the couch, their sleep and wake schedules, and my lack of privacy. Although I love my parents, I felt almost alien, foreign, and disconnected from the life and traditions I had grown up with. The thing was—I grew up, found my identity, found my own way of living, and lived by values I defined for myself—outside the constructs of my upbringing. Likewise, I had a strong need for meditative quiet time, personal space, and independence. I lived away from home for 25 years despite the difficulties and challenges I faced as a single mom. I had my own life, beliefs, customs, and daily rituals—and the cultural clashes that ensued further divided my relationship to my parents.
I wasn’t the little girl I was when I left home. I wasn’t the weak child who made poor decisions. In contrast, I came home a shaved-headed soldier who was strong, opinionated, and who stubbornly held on to her ideals. I was an adult who saw the best and the worst of humanity and endured significant hardships. I was an abrasive and brutally honest human being with the strength and tenacity to do what needed to be done. By the time I came home to live with my parents 25 years later, I looked like a female Buddhist monk, a would-be could-be GI Jane—or both. My shaved head had purpose and meaning despite familial opinion. What I found in myself after I shaved my head was distraction free confidence and strength. My family nagged me, pleaded with me, begged me to grow my hair out. They said, “Grow it out,” “It looks awful,” “You need to look more like a girl,” “Long hair is feminine,” and “You ain’t gonna get a man looking like that!”—The more I heard this, the more determined I was to keep it shaved out of spite. My desire to embrace courage, determination and strength turned into an all-out-war for independence and individuation. My shaved head was the only control I had amidst a crazy out of control global situation.
I applied for jobs everywhere within distances of up to 200 miles from my parent’s house—but to no avail—all positions were filled, on hold, or or companies laid-off employees. The pandemic touched every industry across America—Likewise, every employee felt the effects of the pandemic. However, there was a growing concern for individuals with higher education stealing grocery and delivery jobs from those who were economically disadvantaged. Likewise, there was a concern the pandemic would be over soon and those with higher education would return to their previous line of work, leaving industries scrounging for employees. Therefore, preferential hiring went to those who fell into lower education brackets and minority groups, further reducing employment options for individuals like myself. Rejection letters came one after another after another.
Failure to find employment fueled the tension between me and my family members. And the more I applied, the more rejections came, the more my confidence eroded. Slowly and methodically, the lockdowns gave way to helplessness, desperation, and despair. I was a guest in someone else’s home and there was nothing I could do to change it. I was losing the war for my independence and I laid down at night, feeling utterly defeated.
I felt like I was not just eating shit sandwiches with a side of humble-pie while navigating pest problems in my last apartment in LA – but shoveling it in, swallowing without chewing and chasing it down with a shot of failure on the rocks, shaken not stirred after I arrived home to live with my parents. After all, “You wouldn’t be home otherwise,” “I told you so,” “you should have moved out of Los Angeles sooner,” and “What were you thinking?” These were my parents’ go-to lines for “you made your bed now you have to lie in it.” With businesses laying off, not hiring, closing, soaring rent prices and limited income, I was in no position to prove otherwise. There was no amount of ‘cry me a cup full’ or ‘suck it up butter cup’ wrapped in pretty packaging with a bow on top to make me feel better about my present circumstances. My already strained relationship with my parents became more strained.
I applied for jobs with grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants, customer service to state and government jobs hoping someone would hire me. I spent hours a day working on my resume, tailoring it to jobs, and submitted dozens of applications each week. The hope of finding employment within the next few months faded against the growing realization I was going nowhere until the government lifted the stay-home-order. Likewise, the hope of being independent and self-sustainable transformed into a despairing reality that my future is at the mercy of circumstances beyond my control.
The pandemic, lockdowns, and constantly changing CDC guidelines were fuel to a fire—the days turned into weeks, and tension began boiling over. When things got stressful at my parents’ house, I spent my time sitting in my storage unit. Most days, I just sat on an old office chair without a plan or purpose in doing so. Other times I sifted through my belongings—reminiscing about the past while trying to imagine a future that felt so far out of reach. I sifted through old photos and knickknacks and organized buckets of Legos by color—I’m not sure what I would find sorting buckets of my children’s Legos—perhaps sorting tiny pieces of plastic by color helped me compartmentalize my feelings. For the first time since September 2019, I acknowledged how I felt—dark, alone, empty, and lost. Perhaps I was trying to find hope, comfort, or resolution or because I had nowhere else to go. Perhaps still, I was finally mourning my losses. I missed my kids. I missed our evening dinners, our bantering around the dinner table, and the stories we shared. I missed my friends, my community, and the life I worked hard to build in LA. Despite the aches and pains, I could scarcely cry.
Only five weeks after moving home, my parent’s and I hit our breaking point, and I moved out. I reached out to local homeless shelters and veteran-related help resources—but with the pandemic—shelters were at capacity and the waitlist for a bed was months long. I made calls to old friends, colleagues, and distant relatives to find a temporary place to live—still hopeful my situation would turn around soon. I resorted to car surfing, although I could call it what it is—homeless. I preferred the term car surfing because it sounded untethered, wild, adventurous, and exciting. It had a feel of endless sunsets across the grassy plains and rolling hills. The reality—I escaped homelessness in LA only to be homeless in the Midwest. Despite my optimism, sleeping in my car was not all that exciting and didn’t have the same adventurous feel. But it was a quiet space, my space, and I was finally in control of one aspect of my life. Shortly after, I reached out to a local Veteran housing program who granted a temporary stay at a hotel. After two weeks the program ended, and I and two hundred other Veterans were back on the streets again—despite the president’s homeless relief program. I started car surfing—sleeping in well-lit and empty parking lots and showering at a friend’s house. I went from city to city, parking lot to parking lot—traveling as much as 200 miles between destinations. My car offered me something no other place would—control, independence and peace, despite not having the convenience of a hot shower and a warm meal.
Those empty nights sleeping in my car, I dreamed about seeing my friends again. I would dream I could see their faces, hear their voices, and hug them until I laughed and cried. My dreams were so beautiful—the kind of dreams without shadows, picturesque, untainted, pure and almost holy; where the sun painted halos around the individual leaves on trees and blades of grass dazzled with diamonds from the early morning dew. My friends’ faces were like angels—every detail of their faces and hands, although aged, were flawless. The dreams were so vivid that I thought I could hear as if they were right next to me—encouraging me to press on. Likewise, I dreamed about the endless nights sitting on the banks of the Pacific Ocean, smelling the salty air, watching the waves come and go, gazing up at the starry night sky or across the black ocean illuminated by the moon while watching the bioluminescent waves on display. I dreamed about the early morning commutes to commerce from the San Fernando Valley—the crispy air in the wee early morning hours before traffic hour, the smell of diesel, the roaring traffic as semi-trucks whizzed by—nostalgic. I missed the army so badly I would have done anything to be down range or standing in formation next to my battle buddies. I missed my friends, my community, and my old life—as difficult as that life was—I would have done anything to have another dinner with my friends, another Friday night dinner with my kids sharing stories, another night on the Pacific Coast smelling the salty air and watching black waves crash against the seashore. I felt pains in my heart—the kind of pain a person feels when they miss someone so much and can’t imagine living without them. When I awoke from these dreams, I had tears streaming down my face.
My dreams and memories were never so sweet as they were during the endless nights of the pandemic. Perhaps what I missed most was the authentic and deep connections I had while living in LA. I missed belonging, authenticity, adventure, excitement, and laughter. A friend of mine once said, “When you have so many terrible memories, you need to make wonderful memories to cover up the bad. And this will help you during troublesome times.” My memories of beautiful people and experiences carried me through one of the darkest times of my life. Maybe this is what memories are for—not just to create associations, to enable us to remember information for species survival, but to give us hope in times that are utterly hopeless.
Every dream ended and when I woke up to the bright blue cloudless sky, I found renewed hope and courage to press on another day. And every night was the same as every morning, and every morning the same hope ended in despair, desperation, and defeat—like a wheel going round and round. The days were no longer separated by night and night by day—likewise; the seasons came and went and I scarcely recall the mundane hours in between.