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TODAY

Monday, February 18

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Airbags

My hand hurt from all the lifting and I decided to sit out a few loads. The three of us had been moving boxes into the dark house for almost two hours, steadily nibbling away at the contents of the Uhaul. Cars drifted along Glendale Boulevard and slowed to stop at the traffic lights down below. Earlier that day, I moved out of the the house I shared with the Dame. Now it was nearing 1am and I leaned against the bumper of the truck outside the new place, flexing my fingers.

A few weeks before, a guy I know in DC gave me his editorial notes after reading the first pages of my novel. I was expecting to get some minor direction, but he laid it out straight and narrow — too descriptive, too much detail, too little allusion, better sentence structure needed here, here, here and here, etc. He was without emotion in his encouragement, using the old "well, you should finish it so at least you can say you've finished a novel" as a closing statement. Almost immediately, I started thinking in short bursts, no metaphors or similes. A few days later, I stopped writing altogether.

My hand was feeling more flexible. I reached in, slid a laundry basket full of power cords to the edge of the truck and carried it up to the front step. Mike returned to the vehicle, silently hoisted up the heavy package next to mine and left. The chill of the night was turning my sweat cold and I felt the tendons in my wrist attempting to compensate for the lack of mobility in the rest of my right hand. I walked up the seven steps to the slip of concrete in front of the house.

I stopped in the house to wet my throat. After pulling newspapered hunks out of a box, I gulped two glasses of water. Mike's ex-girlfriend Jody entered, carrying a banana box, the word "Jackets" written neatly along the side facing me.

"Hang in there, monkey. Getting to the easy part," she said as Mike passed her.

"Right on, monkey," I said, watching him kick at a stack of boxes. Mike looked at me and then at the pack of cigarettes on the counter. "You smoking already? You give up on quitting?" he asked. "Had two earlier. I'll have one more before we're done," I replied, refilling the glass again. He and I both pledged to give up smoking a week earlier, while celebrating our impending house-sharing at a nearby bar.

Mike's girlfriend was moving back to Chicago, with the hopes of later traveling on to New York. The two had been together for four years and, since the relocation to the West Coast, had slowly grown apart. Now, a year later, he was firmly settled in, but she missed her friends and family. Mike stopped hanging out in bars, cut some excess weight and sometimes declared that he should have moved out to Southern California years ago. When the two of them traveled back to Chicago for this past New Years, she gave him the news. Despite the equitable nature to their separation, he was taking it hard.

Meanwhile, I was suffering real and imagined offenses at the hands of my roommate, the Dame. I'd found her in the Craigslist apartment listings and was initially charmed by her eccentricities. Now the charm was gone and replaced by plain old annoying and weird. She accidentally let my cat out several times, ate my food, used my toothpaste and left large clumps of hair at the bottom of the shower drain. Once, when she took initiative and mopped the kitchen and bathroom floor, she poured the dirty mop water into the shower and threw all of my toiletries into the base of the tub. The amount of confusion and anger in my hung-over head the next morning, stepping foot into a black, gooey mess of shampoo bottles was enough to reduce a murder charge to manslaughter. When Mike told me about the breakup, I saw his need for a roommate as an opportunity to escape.

Now, walking circles around the inside of an empty moving van, I was having second thoughts. My car had blown up earlier in the day. The head gasket completely gave out. I placed a panic call to a friend who came and helped me with her massive Volvo. My own car, stuffed to the top, overheated in less than a mile on the final trip. Abandoning it in a parking space, I walked to the house to wait for Mike.

He didn't show up until five hours later, with a last-minute moving van and Jody's Volkswagon following behind. One of Mike's bandmates had planned to loan him a pickup truck for moving purposes, but was pulled over on the highway that afternoon. Expired tags put the truck into impound. As a result, Mike got a very late jump on his move. Whenever I called him to ask about his arrival time, he'd told me that he'd be there soon. I agreed to wait there for him. The blue light of the sky turned black as I sat and smoked cigarette after cigarette.

Before they arrived, I ate the only food I had brought with me from the Dame's place — a block of blue cheese and some malted milk biscuits imported by an English friend. I sat chewing on the cheese and cookies, watching the cats sniff around the empty apartment which would soon be full of Mike's things. I had nothing, just the several boxes I moved to LA with months before and a cheap futon. The cats walked into the corners, sniff sniff, move along the wall until they ran into each other, hiss, turn around, double back. Pointless activity. I smoked and stared at pages in a magazine I'd brought with me.

Mike slapped the side of the moving van. "Hey, champ. Help me bring in the fridge." I stopped pacing. Mike got into the van and we scraped a refrigerator to the front. The lip of the truck bed held it tight until we rocked the coasters over the edge. The two of us negotiated a weaving path to the foot of the steps. When we approached the cast iron rail along the steps, Mike must have anticipated a hard push, because he picked up speed. "Whoa, monkey!" I shouted, dropping the white box low enough to miss shearing my fingers off against the black metal. "Whoa." "Sorry," he said, "just want to get this shit done."

Earlier in the day, I lost my job, no fault of my own. The prospect of moving into a new apartment with no way to pay the rent gnawed in my gut. I didn't mention the job thing to Mike. He was looking piqued enough, walking in and out of his new apartment while passing his ex-girlfriend. We carefully jostled the fridge until it slid in the front door sideways. I stepped back from the appliance.

"I thought you said it was small," I said. The chill was sticking to me now, covering my arms and legs in cool sweat. We flipped it over carefully. A few more complaints and it stood upright, in the appointed place. A guttural hum buzzed as the freon inside the black coils settled down. My hand was tightening up again.

~*~

That morning, I had been eating cereal and staring at the fridge when the phone rang. My boss let me know I wasn't needed at the reality TV show any longer. He added that there just wasn't any work, that they'd have been happy to keep me, but there just isn't any work coming in, this is the slow time, get used to this sort of thing, it's just the way LA works. I coughed. One of my cats whined for the milk in the cereal bowl. I pushed him away with my foot. I asked if I could call back tomorrow and he said sure — either that or they'd just call me when they needed me. I told him I'd call back tomorrow. Sure, take care. Bye.

When I hung up, I thought about the past few weeks of working third shift, how much it had changed the way my brain worked. I had been reluctant to take the job. I hated working at night. Later, a few weeks in, I started to crave the minimal structure it gave the world around me. No longer was I idly roaming around, waiting for friends to finish their shifts. I had come so far from my arrival in LA, trying to sleep on a flat air mattress. Long hours of sifting Craigslist help wanted ads, looking for space to swim in a tight, well-stocked pond. Finally finding a job that I could do for a reasonable salary. Now I was back at the first day, facing the same unknown. I wanted to throw up.

The sound below me continued uninterrupted. One cat's meowing attracted the attention of the other one, who padded over to look up at the bowl of milk in my hand. I set it on the floor between them and went to my room. The Dame walked past as I lay on my bed. She was whining into a cell phone. "It's stupid that they're giving her all the press. I'm a much bigger underground rockstar than she is, it's so stupid. Don't you agree, I mean, really?" She stomped into the bathroom and I closed my door. Outside, the grey clouds floated over the city. It was a surprisingly lovely view of the neighborhood's greenery. Long steep rows of palm trees stood up against a neutral sky. A rooster's crow called out from somewhere in the tangle of jungle below.

~*~

"I'm going to bed," I said into the dark moving van. Mike jumped down from inside and pulled on the door handle. The slats rolled and slammed into place with a satisfyingly hollow boom. His ex came down from the house and the three of us stood back near the front door. I finished my cigarette, hugged Jody one more time, shook Mike's hand and went up the steps. Another new house in a new city, I thought, closing the door on the nighttime.

I was trying to keep my cats from clinging to me when my cell phone rang. Stretching out, I knocked the phone off the bed. It skittered across the room. My stiff arm resisted and I got down on all fours, hoping it was a sympathetic ear from Chicago. It was Mike. He needed my jumper cables to start the moving van, the battery was dead. I closed the phone and started shaking with exhaustion. Some days must be dealt with in hours, in large chunks, the minutes can seem so long. I counted to ten and got out of bed.

I plodded up the sidewalk to my dead car, wearing a heavy metal t-shirt plucked out of a bag. The night stretched the city out in all directions. I tried to consider the whole experience as something I might want to write about later. My better judgment rejected the idea. "You can't fucking write anymore," he reminded me. "Your book is crap — he didn't even damn you with faint praise." The ridge between my shoulders was sore, making my arms hang loosely.

I reached the cold green station wagon. Somewhere in the back, under the two lamps, the afghan blanket, the coffee filters, bags of clothing and all my photographs, a pair of jumper cables were resting. I pulled open the squeaky door and pushed through the jumble. Down at the bottom, in an antiquated Sears and Roebuck container, I found them. My father had packed them before I left Wisconsin. For emergencies. The metal and plastic box was heavy as I swung around the corner, the silent moving truck waiting over near Jody's car. A little exhaust streamed around the Volkswagon's headlights as I approached. Mike clapped his hands and congratulated my father on his foresight. I smiled weakly. He hooked up the dead battery to the live one, cranked the ignition and the truck's engine turned over.

"Something good better come of all this," I said. "I'm so tired I can't think anymore. If I don't sleep pretty soon, I'll start crying." My new roommate laughed in what sounded like a cough. "I hear you, man. Won't be long." My fingers creaked when I dug into my pocket for the last of the pack, took a cigarette and offered one to Mike. The lighter was exchanged without discussion. We both stared down the street and then into the dark truck engine churning away above blinding headlights. As the exhaled smoke floated off to mingle with the chill of the night, the two motors grappled for the shared power of the single battery. They communicated in a neutral way that showed only what was heard, that betrayed nothing of what was actually being said.

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About the Author(s)

Sean U'Ren is a video editor who recently moved from Chicago to Los Angeles. In this occasional column, he shares his experiences transitioning from one city to another. Fork It Over returns next week.

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