Emigration

Moving day is just a test. Only a test.

“Actually, when you think about it, everything can be a metaphor for anything.”

— Douglas Coupland, Microserfs



I’ve been thinking pretty hard lately about what the best metaphor would be to explain to you what moving has been like. It’s an experience bundled up with so many memories that it’s hard to hold onto all of it and give it a name, the way Adam did with the whole new world he had to face.

(How terrified he must have been.)

But first things first: I can already hear my sister’s voice: “It’s always about you, isn’t it?” The cardinal sin of the nonfiction writer. My sister’s been calling me a drama queen regularly now, so I guess it’s time to hit all the usual disclaimers — how insignificant, uninteresting and unexceptional this particular episode of my life (and for that matter, the entire corpus of my existence) is compared with the story of the losers living down the street, with ordinary leaves caught in street gutters every day, with avalanches and dog treats and strawberry ice cream.

This story is unimportant.

But I’m going to tell it to you anyway because it feels like I’ve aged ten years. It’s fucking weird.

Metaphor One: A nine-year-old in Disney World

The thing about moving is that it pretty much hits you on all fronts at once. Given a fortunate enough set of circumstances, you can maybe get the crap knocked out of you maybe both physically and emotionally in one day. But when you move, it’s everything all at once.

First off, it was driving. I transported all my earthly possessions using an anonymous, battleworn U-Haul truck.

I learned to hate that truck.

They don’t give you any lessons on how to drive the bitch. It’s kind of like being plopped in a moon buggy and told to head over to the Sea of Tranquility — sure, in theory it’s just an new application of all the skills you’ve picked up so far in life, but there’s a mental quantum leap involved that would be fine and perhaps fun if it weren’t for the fact that there were pieces of metal weighing several tons flying around at sixty miles an hour involved and also all your earthly possessions.

Almost nobody in the world wants to teach you anything. Mostly they want your money.

I had to go back into the rental place and ask them where the parking brake was. I charitably assume that the two employees of the Randallstown Mini-Storage remained outside to smoke a cigarette, not watch my extremely tentative moon-landing attempt to point the truck somewhere near the exit.

Driving it was a lot like steering a ship that’s run aground. First off, it’s impossible to know exactly how big the thing is, so you have to kind of guess where to drive to avoid clipping oncoming traffic. You can’t see anything behind you, so you have to rely on a set of mirrors that distort proportion and perspective for completeness’ sake. You can see that there are about three cars trying to figure out a way around you, and that there is a big pickup truck next to you, but you have no idea how close they are to you.

So I had to trust in that weird sixth sense that grows in everyone as they learn to drive — the sense that causes those tiny involuntary movements you make with your arms that keep your car going straight that are impossible to duplicate if you think hard enough about them.

Everyone else on the road hated me. I drove five miles per hour under the speed limit most of the time, which is basically a mortal sin around here. So I now pity truck drivers in a sense. I no longer feel angry at them for obstructing my righteous acceleration after a red light.

So. Packing up my things was nothing new. Adding to the difficulty factor were a few things I was taking from my parents’ house: two bookcases whose shelves were arched with age and weight, a love seat from the basement that if I tend to it carefully enough, will become a tremendous heap of decaying yet wonderfully comfortable junk, and the old dining room table my mother wanted sorely to get rid of.

Oh, that table.

Packing up the truck was easy enough. I was high on the usual adrenaline and not-quite-enough sleep when we did it. It was getting it up the 2.5 flights of stairs to my new apartment that was a problem.

It turned out that my personal moving crew consisted of myself, my father, my sister, and a friend of my sister’s (that Katie is bringing on vacation, so I figured karma would remain balanced). My own friends I had tried to recruit for this purpose had dropped out for different reasons. I wasn’t really upset about this. It just made me want to become more hardcore in my moving attack.

At first, we moved the stuff up with the same eager pace we possessed earlier. It was a bright, warm day, with most of the grass surrounding my apartment building was just at the cusp of death by prolonged dehydration. The temperature hovered in the upper eighties, which would’ve been perhaps comfortably toasty if it weren’t for the dining room table.

Beware the first thing you lift into your moving van, for it will be what you must carry in your weakest moment.

Assault number three: your body. We took breaks to sit and rest in the air conditioning, but no matter how long I sat in the thin air of the empty apartment, my arm muscles didn’t feel any less broken. You just have to keep going and trust that the tendons holding your muscles to your bones are stronger than the weight of gravity on dining room table wood — the kind of wood salesmen will tell you will last longer than you will, the kind of wood people think of when they tell you about the good old days.

On top of its tremendous weight, the legs of the table — just about the only decent handhold available for lifting duty — got loosened by all our struggle and would wobble unencouragingly every time we lifted it.

It took my father, a co-worker who was either nice or foolish enough to come lend a hand, and I a grueling effort to get the thing up into my apartment.

It remains in the place we left it that day. It will remain there for the rest of its life. If and when I leave this apartment, I will chop it into little pieces and pray that it doesn’t come back in zombie form.

It is the only piece of furniture I have ever respected.

Assault number three: intellectual. After lunch, my dad and I set upon the task of assembling the Ikea furniture I’d bought a few weeks back. (Ode to Ikea and explanation of how Fight Club wrongly stigmatized it omitted.)

“It’s like Lego for grown-ups,” I had said to a lot of people before — the kind of glib thing I always say when I want to sound like I know what I’m doing. But the 18 steps for construction of my bureau seemed kind of daunting.

One thing I wonder about in retrospect is why tech ed classes are so useless for everyone who doesn’t happen to become an industrial factory worker. I learned how to work a spot welder and a band saw but not the fact that screws go in easier if you rub soap on their threads. So on top of trying to puzzle out the Scandinavian pictograms, I was having disproportionally large difficulty pounding stupid nails into the back of the bureau.

The fifth assault came around dinnertime and step nine (the darkest moment of any set of directions). As we sorted out dinner plans, my sister handed me a present “from Mom and Dad.” It was a book called Help! My Apartment Has A Kitchen — the kind of book that upbeat, modern parents give to their kids as they leave home for the stratosphere of incredible achievement and quality stereo equipment and become social activists or anthropologists or real, normal, young adults.

It was the simplicity of the gesture, the pure kindness encapsulated in warm paperback pages and appropriately quirky cover art, that brought tears to my eyes.

Crying was not part of the plan. I wished that my sister hadn’t given the book to me, just so I could sort all of it out after I had solved the jigsaw puzzle of my furniture and my failing carpentry skills and arm muscles and checkbook and lease agreement, and could settle in and have a good old uncomplicated cry.

I excused myself to the bathroom and rinsed my face five thousand times but I came out just as worse as before.

“Are you all right?” my sister asked when I came out, which is absolutely the last thing you should ever ask an person on the verge of tears.

Maybe I should’ve cried then. Emotions generally seem best confronted instead of hidden. But in the end, it just felt like one more test.

(Metaphor One Point Five: The trials of Hercules.)

In the end, I held it together long enough for my sister to take me out to a nearly empty Chinese restaurant and talk me down over an Amstel Light, a beer I had never drunk before and probably will never again. It was the only drink that seemed familiar on the menu and all in all, it was a good match for me that night: strong enough to get to work on the brain cells, weak enough to avoid requiring mental toughness to finish off.

With alcohol and caring siblings, the impossible becomes within reach. By the time we finished dinner, I felt grounded again. Calm. Ready to face round two.

We headed back to the apartment and finished putting together the bureau. Steps 10 through 18 were pretty straightforward, and mostly involved putting dowels in holes and other stuff that also was not covered in tech ed, but could have safely been performed by monkeys.

It was weirdly relaxing to finish the job, even though I had no intention of trying to wrangle my clothes out of their suitcases.

I ended the day on the floor of my living room with my cordless phone from college a few feet from my head. My bed was arriving the next night and I had forgotten to pack an alarm clock. Enter a wake-up call from Mom so that I would let the cable guy in.

That’s the big lesson I can share from this whole adventure. You have to count your victories, no matter how insignificant, uninteresting and unexceptional they are. Let me tell you — it was a major win when I got to wash my hair on day two.

Another lesson worth noting is that it’s harder than you’d think to find trash cans in Target. (Hint: they are filed next to the Tupperware you use to store your leftovers. It makes sense, I guess, if you think about it. Unfortunately, the architecture of Target is not designed for ontological contemplation.)

So here I am now.

Metaphor Two: Having your body set on fire for five seconds, then immediately extinguished

You look at the world completely differently afterward. Nearly everything seems less earth-shattering, less complicated, less worth worrying about. Things seem more vivid now. Like I’ve been daydreaming for a long time and just woke up.

My body still feels what I’ve been through. I’ve got bruises and bug bites in weird places all over my body. My arms still hurt. My back feels stiff and odd. And my eyes still kind of have a little of the bloodshot action going on.

Some things are meant to be never forgotten, though. It’s in my mind and in my body.

It feels painfully wonderful.

Article © 2002 by Chris Klimas