I like to tell people we left in the night like some kind of refugees fleeing their country under threat from their government. Somehow, leaving in the night evokes an urgent image of ripping sleeping children out of their beds, Anne Frank style, to shove them into an already running vehicle and hitting the gas with the sense of being followed. Fleeing in the night brings to mind the idea of sorting and hurried compartmentalization: “We can’t take it all; pick what is important! It has to fit in the car! Hurry!” It involves dark secrets and that type of bleary-eyed confusion that, over time, takes over, encompassing a person’s life patterns, slowly undergoing metamorphosis to become fear.
In reality, I have a mental snapshot of our 1980s model powder blue Ford Escort sitting in the unpaved driveway. It is pulled up to the stained redwood fence that my dad built around the yard years ago and on which the blue morning glories wind and cling to, opening, in their fickle way, only in the early morning hours. It is daylight, though the morning glories are already tightly clenched closed for the day, and the Escort’s trunk is open, half-full in my dad’s style of Tetris packing. Because my default response to uncertainty is obedience, as instructed to do, I am dutifully placing the important things that we’ll need right away on the ground next to the car so my dad can carefully complete the trunk puzzle. I am ten years old and I am wildly confused and afraid to the extent that my fear masks the sadness so completely that it will take years for me to realize that was the most devastating moment of my life to that point.
I see the neighbor’s back door open and for a split second, I can see their hallway with laundry piled and pantry shelves full of canned goods. One of the neighbor girls leaves the house, letting the door slam behind her. I see her jump down all three of the steps leading up to the back door and duck down under the clothesline behind our house. She sees me and wanders over inquisitively. She begins to ask questions in a hushed tone. As she talks she climbs onto the top of the split rail fence, and, holding her arms out like a tightrope walker, she places her heel in front of her toe, carefully balancing. I listen to her questions but I really have no answers and as our conversation continues, we are both clearly verging on frantic. She continues to haphazardly walk the top of the fence beam, teetering, catching herself, sometimes falling the two feet to the ground then climbing back up. I become a machine, robotically moving boxes from here to there, walking the well-worn dirt path between the front door and the driveway. As I walk, I pass the swing hanging from the single tree in our yard, made out of a wood plank and painted pink on a day when my mother napped for too long. The wagon – also painted pink – is pulled to the edge of the yard and sits on the line between brown grass and dirt driveway. If there is room, we’ll take it. There is a slightly rusted red Radio Flyer tricycle lying on its side in the middle of the yard. It has been passed down to all the small children in the community so many times that no one knows who it really belongs to – like most things here.
The neighbor girl and I have stopped talking, each in our own worlds. She has grown bored of walking the fence and now sits on top of one of the boxes I’ve left by the car but she is not still. She picks at the edge of the packing tape on the box that was once used by my grandparents to send Christmas presents. With no more boxes to carry, I start rearranging the ones I’ve already moved. We are quiet but not peaceful. My worry has become mechanical and dull, hers frenetic and agitated.
Suddenly my dad appears and the neighbor girl jumps up. He doesn’t have to say anything for her to know it’s time to move on. His energy is terse and intimidating. He has an air of heaviness about him; he’s always exhausted. She slowly walks away and I stand at attention, wanting to be of service and invisible at the same time.
Later, after the Escort has been packed with the sort of efficiency only exhibited by a Marine or an Eagle Scout, my little brother, sister and I climb into the back. I hear my mother’s sharp intake of breath as she buckles her seatbelt in the front passenger seat. I am prone to motion sickness but this time with my gut internalizing all of my anxiety, I am nauseous even before the car begins to move. I don’t know where we’re going or that we’ll never be back – at least never like this again, but I know there is something wrong. I feel a hint of guilt as though I have made all of this happen and I am vaguely aware of my little brother’s whining as the car lurches into reverse to back out of the makeshift driveway. I look out the window and blink rapidly. In the blur of my tears I see the pink wagon still patiently sitting at the edge of the yard, too big to fit in the car, and as we drive, in the cloud of dust behind us, I can just make out the shape of the neighbor girl standing in the middle of the community garden watching us disappear without saying good-bye.