In my new apartment in Birmingham, Ala., I have lawn chairs in the living room and an ironing board for a coffee table. Until a few days ago, I watched cable TV from an air mattress. On my third day here, I splurged on a desk, chair and lamp at 5th Avenue Antiques, which is not nearly as fancy as it sounds.
“What brings you to the ‘Ham?” asked the clerk.
“New job at the university” would have been a sufficient reply.
Instead, I over-explained, as I find myself doing often these days.
Well, see, I applied for this tenure-track position at the University of Alabama at Birmingham -- never dreaming I’d actually get hired. I write children’s and YA books -- and really, I haven’t had a regular job-job since 1995, when I taught ESL in East L.A. But my husband and I, you know, we have two kids in college now. And with this economy -- well, how could I turn down a job I knew I might come to love?
My spiel never excludes this most important detail: I have left my husband and youngest child, 10-year-old Norah, back in Los Angeles.
Neighbor, apartment manager, sales clerk at Best Buy, new co-worker, friend of a friend -- they’ve all heard the story and about how it might play out.
Plan A: Commuter. I shuttle back and forth, leaving my husband, Kiffen, and Norah in Silver Lake. He is a teacher at her school, and it is her last year of elementary school. All unnecessary uprooting is avoided, and Kiffen keeps his 21 years of LAUSD benefits. At the end of the year, we assess.
Plan B: Single parent. Norah joins me in Birmingham. She knows she has the choice to move to Alabama at any time if living apart from her mother gets too hard. I have made sure to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Homewood, a suburb of Birmingham that has a good public school across from the Piggly Wiggly.
Plan C: Freak out. Load up the air mattress, lawn chairs and desk and head up Interstate 65 to Interstate 40 and drive back to Los Angeles.
I haven’t actually mentioned Plan C aloud.
Last winter, on the day I had to give UAB my decision, I lay on the floor and stared at the phone for hours before dialing. Kiffen made it clear he would back my decision, even if it meant leaving home.
I’d been on the road regularly, hauling my suitcase of Appalachian stories and props to school writing workshops and going on book tours. I could still do that, I figured, but add a steady paycheck, which, during these lean tuition-paying years, seemed simply prudent.
Still, it would be a relief to say no, and our L.A. life could just continue.
We’d always made it work somehow. True, we had never been able to afford to buy a house on our teacher-writer household income. But we loved our home and our friends. We’d spent 21 years in Los Angeles, raised our three children there. I’d written all my books there. I’d long had a hazy dream of buying a place in the Great Smoky Mountains -- a place to go and write -- but Birmingham wasn’t on the radar.
Also, I hate moving. I grew up moving often, because my father, a coach, was constantly searching for the opportunity to win. I always pleaded to stay, and he’d say, “You want to live in the same town your whole life? Get in the car, you big turkey!” Then he would huddle up the family and say: “Look around, kids. Say goodbye. You’ll never see this place again.”
I know my father thought his way made the most sense -- cut the cord and get on with it. But I didn’t want to do it his way now. I wanted Norah to know that even if we ultimately leave Los Angeles, it will remain part of our lives. I also wanted our two older kids, at least for a while longer, to be able to come home from college.
And so, for the time being, I am alone in Birmingham. My apartment manager resembles Dustin Hoffman in “Midnight Cowboy,” spinning tales at a slow but steady clip about everything from the death of his daddy on June 12 to his mama who is doing all right, and how his family has been in the apartment business since 1971. Just like me, he’s a big over-explainer.
It’s a slower pace here, which is discombobulating. What if I get used to it? It takes about five to 15 minutes to drive most anywhere. I did spend an eternal 5 1/2 hours at the DMV waiting to register my car -- the bureaucracy slowed to the point of absurdity by budget cuts -- but folks were friendly and resigned. I still came out ahead: I bought the car in Hoover, Ala., where the sales tax is only 3%.
A quarter will buy 2 1/2 hours of campus parking at a 10-hour meter.
I take a two-hour yoga class on the floor of Bare Hands Art Gallery for $10.
My apartment is $730 a month and in a neighborhood where you can walk to a park, coffeehouse and bookstore. Another apartment we checked out was in a gated community that boasted “Virgin Margaritaville Night” and a location handy to Chick-fil-A. We also considered Fannie Flagg’s nearby neighborhood of Irondale out of homage to “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe,” but from the back seat, Norah gazed at the faux train depot and announced, “I feel empty inside.”
But the peaches are exquisite. The students and faculty have been lovely and welcoming. The serenade of crickets and cicadas is a sweet late-summer lullaby.
There are, however, constant reminders of how 2,000 miles is much farther than just the odometer reading. The church bells from Our Lady of Sorrows, for instance, start ringing on the hour at 6 a.m.
Local radio is mostly country music, Bible talk or Alabama football, so I have discovered the joy of podcasts. I’ve been informed that I must settle on either the Auburn Tigers or Alabama’s Crimson Tide as my team. “May I recommend Auburn to you?” a student politely offered.
So right now Birmingham feels like a foreign posting. I have cried almost every day -- never in front of my students or strangers, but in front of sympathetic professors who ask too gently how I’m doing. It’s the sympathy that breaks me. And the fact that my husband, alone, delivered Lucy, our middle child, to Sarah Lawrence College. And the realization that my family is stretched across the continent. And the truth that reading stories to Norah via Skype just isn’t the same as having her in my lap.
At the university’s orientation session for new faculty, the provost said: “We want you to love it here. We want it to be your best job and your last job.” I noticed that I seemed to be surrounded by scientists hired by the medical school. I wondered if any of them were cooking up a “no tears” pill for pathetic weeping women who have moved 2,000 miles away from home for a job.
But for now, I go on with Plan A and stay grateful that Southwest Airlines flies direct from Birmingham to LAX.