It is 1994.
The milk crate is heavier than I remember as I haul it down from a high shelf in the bedroom closet. The plastic box lands with a thump on the bedroom floor. I settle in around it on the low carpet, legs straddling the dusty contents, my back supported by the empty bed. I worry that the noise will stir the two toddlers, sleeping across the hallway underneath their 101 Dalmation comforters. I decide to jump back up, do a quick check, peeking carefully around the partially closed door, before I start what I know will be a confusing reconciliation of my past with my current situation.
With the quiet glow of the toddler’s night light comforting me from across the hall, I lower myself back into position, perfectly matching the indent I’ve just left in the vacuumed carpet of my own bedroom. I pull out the expired college catalog and open it first. Occasionally, I blow the dust off the edges of pages. I pour through the options in the catalog, skipping the pages of majors I’ve already attempted (Political Science, Construction Management…). Overwhelmed by the options, I set the catalog aside and flip through the remaining contents, working my way through the folders like old records.
I grab a faded and torn, seaweed colored folder near the back of the crate, which carries the contents of my school past. Sprinkled among the folder’s official documents–mostly grade reports and transcripts–is a hodge-podge of artifacts: a picture of Ashley, her two year old self standing in our small garden in big work boots; my hand written “Activities-Record” from high school, jammed packed with lists of accomplishments–student body president, “most outstanding senior girl,” leadership awards, and cheerleading camps–lists used to help write my original admission letter to Chico State in 1984; the scores from my English placement test (high) and my math test (low); an old grocery list. I am not certain how this coffer full of folders is the solution to my current situation, but it somehow seems to hold a past and a future more hopeful than the constant, abusive present I’d been living in.
When we first moved to Peach Street, like every move before, I had high hopes. We packed up the contents of a two-bedroom apartment, hauled boxes down steep, concrete stairs while Nick and Ash wailed and rattled, safe from the stairs behind a baby gate. Those steep stairs and the busy street below had been a constant source of fear, particularly as 1 year-old Nick had learned to open the front door. We loaded the toddlers into car seats, boxes towering above their heads from the backseat, and drove the 40 minutes to a small farm town, where my spouse would join his family’s rice farming business. Farming felt safer, more family friendly, than the construction life we had been living. It seemed more sober. The tiny house on quiet Peach Street we pulled up to was not ours, but it had a big backyard with an old, wooden playhouse and stubborn windows that opened to the smell of lilacs.
Within days, the spouse disappeared as he always did. I mostly knew where I could find him–a quick check of any number of local bars would be easy–if I bothered to look. But my days of strapping infants, now toddlers, into their car seats only to have my concerns confirmed were growing old. The backroads between the small town bars felt less and less safe; the roads mostly led me to an embarrassing argument in the middle of a bar, faced with a drunk spouse sitting next to some woman he had no desire to leave for a wife and crying toddlers. My home routine, away from those places, was in control: wake up alone with adorable toddlers, make homemade Playdough and go on bike rides, come home from the park and make peanut butter and jelly cut into animal shapes. As Ash and Nick played with Little Tikes and Polly Pockets, I scrubbed the abuse and fear from the house with every product under the sink; the smell of Pine-Sol, Windex, Comet, and bleach created a witchy mixture, chasing out the chaos lurking in every corner of this tiny home. After 4:00pm–the marked hour when I knew that once again he was unlikely to come home–I would feed the children, read books, and rock myself to sleep in the corner. Honestly, over the years, I stopped longing for him to come home and had learned to welcome the break from his temper and drunk confusion.
Reaching for the milk crate came after a long week of isolation. He had, once again, drained our bank account dry. I was mad at myself: I usually managed to get to the bank before him on the days I knew his binge was coming, draining the money myself. I kept the depleted funds for groceries and rent and phone bills, and far too many trips to Toys R Us in an attempt to distract Ash and Nick from the reality of our life. I returned the cash to our bank account once I knew we had a few days of stability before us. But exhaustion had kept me from loading the three of us into the car that hot, summer day and now I found myself with a past due rent, a cut off phone, and an empty gas tank. That night, as the sweet babes slumbered, the mantra in my head grew too loud to ignore…you have to get out of here, you have to get out of here, you have to get out of here. Without a phone line to the women in my family, no one could convince me to stay just a little longer, assure me things get better, or talk me through the current trauma. All short term solutions had failed– moving home with family, asking him to leave for good–I knew I had to plan for the long term escape. Old transcripts and catalog in hand, I began to match coursework completed to college majors, wiping away tears as I imagined a new future with my former, stronger, self. I wrote “English major” when the petition for admission form asked for my area of study.
I did not know that future would become this path, that I would meet the most incredible mentors the moment my foot stepped on campus, and again at Berkeley, and find other strong women who would carry this burden with me. That I would meet and marry Jeff. That I would create a way to be whole and full.