iii. looking for shelter
For a while I consistently wrote that I arrived in California “via shipwreck”. I wrote it on tumblr posts and a myriad of online ‘profiles’ – attempting to etch out marketability for the tragedy I was trying to recover from. Not only was I an unemployed, homeless, motherless daughter; I was also an inexperienced millennial college graduate (who couldn’t build a website) and had somehow become convinced that she was supposed to marry this one guy she went to school with. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the good sense to not tell him. Ha. So I was, among other things, both traumatized and heart-broken. And ridiculous. But the latter is probably still true in some ways.
So what happened after Canada is that my mom picked me up from the airport, and then she died. There were a few weeks in between the two events, but not many. The morning after I arrived back in the States, I was woken up by a kiss from her on my forehead before she went to work, and I didn’t see her again that evening. She’d been checked into the hospital, ravenously attacked by unhealthy cells. I spent the next month or so watching her waste away, leading my younger siblings through a bible study in the book of Ephesians, and starting my senior year at UNC Chapel Hill.
The following May, I officially completed my degree program with a B.A. in Psychology and a Jewish Studies minor, though I didn’t walk in the ceremony. Mainly because it took place on Mother’s Day and I chose solitude and grief over crowds and celebration. Beside all that, I was still scrounging to piece together some semblance of a boastable life, but to no avail. I didn’t receive the coveted Ring By Spring (which honestly should not have come as a surprise. ha). I also didn’t have a car which made trying to get things going all the more frustrating and unreasonable. Aside from trusting God to provide the funds for my college education (which He so graciously did), 2012 was probably the first significant exercise in me walking by faith. I knew I had to leave my on-campus apartment by mid-May, but I had no idea where to go. My campus ministry bible study leader drove her jeep over to my Ram’s Head apartment and helped me transport my meager belongings to a storage unit I had secured in Cary. I chose that location in half wishful thinking and half reasoning for low odds of theft.
With only a few more days staring me sideways, I wrote up a profile on Care dot com in an attempt to salve and solve my deferred hopes and pressing troubles by becoming a nanny. The bulk of my nanny experience was really just babysitting cousins, so I called my godmother to let her know that some folks might call asking about the nanny she had. She responded by deciding to send me to California to live with my older sister, Dani, who was earning her PhD in Physics at UC Berkeley (aka ‘Cal’).
Dani collected me from SFO after a long day of flying and fighting back tears. After navigating BART at the leading of my sister, I found myself in Berkeley soaking in – for the first time – the hazy, summer golden hour California is known for; the palm trees and alien foliage that enhance the quirkiness of Berkeley. Because she’d be leaving town for a week or so, our first stop in Berkeley was to her friend Sandy’s house. She wanted me to have a point of contact in case of earthquake and/or emergency.
My sister was living in a studio through Cal’s Student housing. There was one set of keys and she wasn’t technically allowed to make me a set. For the first few weeks, I spent my days too timid to really explore much of anything, marveling at the fact that the sink was undivided, and watching episodes of that Reality TV Show Clint Eastwood’s wife had at the time. When I discovered how close Carmel (By-The-Sea) is to Berkeley, I determined in my heart to traipse over there, but it would be a few years before that happened. The studio on Channing was the first of a few locations that she and I ended up living over the coming half decade, and as the years passed and I moved around, I found myself pointing out, ‘Oh, I used to live there’ in the same way you might point out an old boyfriend who walked away with more closure that you did. I just remember there being a ton of orange – on the exterior, on the walls, in the entirely concrete courtyard with nary a green thing in sight.
My very first Sunday in California, my sister was gone on her trip and I decided to try a church plant I stumbled upon on Google. Those folks became my family for the next five years. Not always glamorous, but irrevocably good. One of my favorite things about the early days of those relationships was doing life so closely and regularly, and seeing other people not have a category for our friendship. That mysterious and particular beauty of the Body of Christ. Only a few years later did it really dawn on me how incredibly selfish it was of me to spend all night at their house and wake my sister up at 2AM to let me in…
It took almost a full year for me to find full-time employment, and even that started with an election-year call center gig and contract work in the city. That was the beginning of the dozen jobs I had. Eventually, the stress of working, my grief, and my introversion caught up with me and created painful friction in my most treasured friendships; I struggled to allocate energy, and my adrenals struggled to keep up.
I think my first autumn in California coincided with the third (or so) season of NBC’s Parenthood – where Kristina runs for mayor and Crosby and Jasmine are flighty and confused. Familiarity with semi-fictitious settings and obscure references has always been my claim to fame, so living in Berkeley and working at a call center during an election year created a sense of identity for me that first November. One the other hand, Kristina’s cancer diagnosis, Max’s Aspergers (I have a male cousin with Autism) and the network’s unexpected ability to convey such authentic-seeming story and emotion was a bit much for my heart sometimes. Everything seemed to hit so close to home.
In the course of my job search, I applied to work as an Administrative Assistant for Coldwell Banker in Walnut Creek. The in-person interview I had is the reason I first ventured out to that glorious haven in the valley. I instantly fell in love and drew up blueprints for relocating myself out that way and building a life. When I didn’t get the job, I would still BART out that way, spending money I was borrowing and/or didn’t really have, and dreaming of becoming a California housewife in the valley. Walnut Creek was actually the reason I turned down a job as a personal assistant for a retired judge in the Berkeley Hills, and ended up working at a custom t-shirt printing company for nine months. And that’s how I met Blake. Blake is not his real name, but it feels like a fitting pseudonym. I came up with a list to choose from. Ha.
Blake was actually my current age when I met him, which I tend to forget. He’s five years older than me which, I suppose, explains in part the dynamics of our relationship. I use the term ‘relationship’ loosely. Because friendlationship is too long to type on a regular basis, and because I believe that you have a relationship with everyone you meet. It may not be lengthy or extensive or healthy or deep, but the potential for all those things – and unfortunately, their opposites – is there.
At any rate, Blake was beautiful and cool and has been written into at least a dozen of my melodies. As I’ve been blogging this memoir, I’m realizing that I’m not quite the kind of memoir-writer I must have thought I would be, and that it’s far easier to capture all the things and keep them secret when writing a song. But this process also feels necessary and useful; I’m being stretched in six different directions these days, and taking a long time to tell a story is just one of many. But honestly, this should be the fun part. It took me eighteen months to realize I was falling in love with that unparalleled pair of dancing green eyes, and another twelve to untangle my heart strings…
So. Fun fact, I am a late bloomer… and in need of another glow-up, tbh. Ha. Only within the last five years have I learned to recognize when men are flirting with me, and to do anything besides literally panic and run away when I am directly approached by someone I find attractive. So imagine my dysfunction when the slightly obnoxious and clueless recent transplant version of Bekkah circa 2013 continually found herself sucked into the aura of a bro-tanking, smoke-breaking, California-native with seven shades of golden in his beard. At the outset, we could not have been more opposite, though I have become comfortably accustomed to the artifacts of our collision that have embedded themselves into my personality.
Working for the alleged ‘start-up’ in Downtown Berkeley was only a slightly more bearable version of high school. I made just barely more than minimum wage, and took seventeen trips to the bathroom over the course of day because I was constantly drinking water. It was in those back and forth traipsings, along with the laughable staff meetings, that I started to pick up on the vibes that Blake was emanating my way. I recall one moment in particular when I was asking him about something I probably could have figured out myself, and all at once I saw that he was trying to smoulder me! I had probably been talking for a good three to five minutes and suddenly couldn’t string two thoughts together. Whatever train of thought I had was derailed by those sparkling green eyes that seemed to eliminate all the other everything in the room.
But ya girl wasn’t about to go out like that, so I got my life right quick and went about my business… and tried to remind myself that he kind of dressed like a bum and smoked too much and probably didn’t love Jesus. I remember texting my older brother that the whole ordeal was starting to make me feel like Ariel from The Little Mermaid… all of my logically constructed deal-breakers were in question and all I could muster in a prayer of re-orientation was, “But Daddy, I love him!” to God. So that began a few months of (probably cringey) workplace flirting and me finding a million excuses to keep up with his schedule and discover coveted personal information. Much of which happened over Skype chats throughout the workday.
In overheard conversation, I found out Blake was from slash lived in Walnut Creek. Since I was still obsessed with moving out that way, I figured no harm could come from a friendly, ‘so what’s the rent like out there’? To which Blake responded that he lived with his parents, and voluntarily rendered himself a loser. I offered that he should give himself a few more years and that probably by the time he was 27 or so he’d have figured things out… I think something to the effect of, you’re not a loser… yet. haha. This was just days before his 28th birthday. That was maybe the first time I ever really felt like I’d put my foot in my mouth. And I’ve said some things. So then, at some point, I asked for music suggestions – I’ve been trying to guess what kind of music you like judging by the way you dress. I can’t figure it out. He seemed surprised that those two things would be correlated in my brain; that I would try to figure out what kind of music someone liked judging by the way he dressed. But he answered me, and I got my first taste of just how eclectic he was… like me. Turns out we’d both gone through a country-music phase, and we both liked The Good Old War. That was the suggestion that he provided, and to this day, I still have and listen to a Pandora station with Looking For Shelter as the seed song.
Eventually, I finessed my way into arranging a jam session… I did not finesse. ha. But it did happen. By now, I was suffering from all the terrible symptoms of infatuation that I had no idea what to do with. Why was I thinking about this person all the time, and why did my day feel entirely incomplete unless he texted, walked by, or stuck his tongue out at me?
OH. Sidenote – by this point, my sister and I had moved to a 2 bedroom, 2 bath apartment on Fulton Street that the Lord miraculously provided for BMR rent. It was bright and clean and had nice amenities like granite, and a dishwasher, and a terrace on the roof. While we lived there, you could see across the Bay to San Francisco, but I think they’ve since built something out toward South Berkeley that now stands in the way of that view. Blake’s brother lived about a ten minute walk away on Blake Street (see what I did there…). So on September 28, 2013 (you can ask me how I remember, but I might not tell you. ha.), I traipsed over to the boys’ house for a jam session he nearly cancelled. He’d been working with a life coach named Rebecca (the nerve of that heifer, having the same name jk), and called to let me know that his appointment might prohibit us hanging out. So I told him I was a big girl and if he didn’t want to hang out with me he should just say so. The truth, of course, was that I was desperately hoping that he did want to hang out with me; feeling like my entire day would be stale if I didn’t get to see him; and not having much of a life or very many other friends to choose from. He said that he was afraid I would think that, that it would be rad to have a jam session, and that he would let me know in a couple minutes if we needed to change the time. I asked how many other guys would be there because it was Berkeley after all, and I was starting to understand how Californians rolled.
It worked out that he was actually the only one home, and I was East Coast, ISTJ prompt to the time we agreed on, which seemed to have taken him off guard. As I came down Milvia and turned onto Blake, he was standing bare foot on the front porch of the square rental house he’d end up moving into with his brother wearing a griege sweater, smoking a cigarette, and playing a banjo. I really could not have been more smitten than I already was, but I found a few more ounces of intoxication. I was wearing an overly thought-out outfit comprised of ripped denim, rainbows, and the hipster-eque cloth bag my best friend had sent me that was made by refugee women in Haiti, and lugging my heavy guitar that had to be tuned with a pair of Ikea pliers. The guitar was a gift from my dear friend, Tiffany who I met at the church I started attending when I first moved to Berkeley. She found it in her parent’s garage and had it strung left-handed as a gift for me. She will forever be the real MVP.
Over the course of the next few hours, I coaxed enough history out of Blake to write lyrics to a melody he’d been playing around with. And that’s how the song Poor Lindsay was born – in honor of his ex college girlfriend.
As I said before, I am a late bloomer. As a teenager, I didn’t really go places or do things; and in college I genuinely preferred spend my Friday nights baking and watching HGTV. I am sure all the things that happened between us meant more to me for that reason, on top of the fact that I am very selective with who I choose to spend my time with, and my energy on. Nonetheless, I could tell Blake was impressed with my songwriting skillz, if for no other reason that he told me so. But also because I had gotten him to write a song after four years of not being able to finish one.
At some point, I came to the realization that Blake was my favorite musician. That first Saturday afternoon on the porch in comfortable unfamiliarity, he finger-picked a melody that he hadn’t known what to do with, and felt that my lyrics had captured a thing that he lived through. I, of course, can still hear the melody – and because it’s recorded in my Evernote, I sometimes still listen to it. It’s layered and vibey and changes to a metered strum before seamlessly reliquifying into the fluid kind of openness he taught me to appreciate. I sure did love that boy.
And in loving him, I only grew in awe and affection for the God who created him in His image, and has so entirely healed my heart that I can smile through these memories without wincing at what used to be pain. Eventually, our Saturdays would be spent on his couch and in his kitchen, with me developing a deep and intense attachment I didn’t know I was capable of living through.
I bet if you asked him the story wouldn’t sound the same. We never dated. We worked together. I lived down the street. I kept inviting myself over. We had chemistry – unmistakeable chemistry that quickly bubbled over into tension, and we were good friends. It was whatever.
But I am not a ‘whatever’ kind of person; I never have been. I am incredibly intentional and patient and committed. I take my relationships – and sometimes too often, life in general – seriously. He was my person; he had started to feel like family to me. And also he was really freaking hot. So there was that.
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