Making it through: Surviving the Great Recession on opioids and vodka


Chapter IV

[Note: The names, they are a-changin’.]

The most scenic route to San Francisco from Orange County is the 101: long stretches of coastal views and cool, dry air whipping through your windows. For our cross state move, Selene and I drove the 5 through the desert.

The trip started with a fight over a flimsy IKEA mattress that refused to stay strapped to the roof of her Jeep. Selene argued for dumping the thing, but I was determined to get that slab of hay to our new home even if I had to ride on top of it. Ultimately, we dumped it by a gas station dumpster just outside L.A.

So began Year 4.

This would be Selene’s first time living away from her parents.

Relocating every year bred routine: rent an apartment, explore the neighborhood, find a job. For Selene, though – joining me despite the vehement objections of her father (strangely immune to my charms) – this relocation upended her entire existence. In addition to her family, she was leaving behind a job, college, and her college boyfriend – her entire life up until that point – to be with me as I pursued my dream; a dream, mind you, without a raison d’être.

We’d gone in with two other couples for a lease in the unfashionable Portola neighborhood of southeast San Francisco. Though the predominantly Asian neighborhood is at a remov from the more celebrated and urban areas (or, at least, was back then), wherever your find yourself in the city’s 49 square miles, you’re never far from some activity.

We arrived under the red glow of the gloaming. Greeting us at the Jeep were Ann and Don, he an aspiring stand-up from Australia, and she the manager of a clothing boutique. Inside were Samantha and Glen, an earthy, vegan couple who, like Selene and myself, were brand new transplants to San Francisco. After first impressions, I expected to have more in common with Ann and Don, but they’d soon demolish that assumption.

With greetings out of the way, Selene and I unloaded our belongings and called it a night. In echoes of my first night in Philadelphia, all we had to sleep on was a pile of blankets.

Exhausted, Selene still couldn’t sleep. The alien surroundings mixed with a motorcycle engine revving belligerently beneath our window had her on edge. I offered to go out and say something to the cyclist, but Selene insisted I stay with her. I was her anchor to the familiar, and would be for some time. I had every intent of staying awake until Selene fell asleep, but eventually I dozed off. She never did.

Our first San Francisco morning, Selene was clearly operating on frayed nerves. I suggested a walk to familiarize her with the neighborhood so the strangeness might dissipate.

She appeared to have calmed some by the time we came across a discarded mattress a few blocks from our apartment. We hauled the find back to our place, and even though we didn’t have the right size bed frame, just having a real mattress to sleep on felt like a victory. Laying sheets down, we crawled into one another’s arms. For a moment, everything felt settled.

The moment was brief.

“Are you okay?” I already knew the answer. I could feel Selene crying into my chest, her body taut as a violin string.

“I can’t do this.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t stay here.”

Since our arrival, her anxiety had only grown worse. I attempted to convince her to stay and give San Francisco a chance, to trust that in time she would acclimate. I knew well the unease of unfamiliar territory. My best efforts weren’t enough, though. Even as I begged her to reconsider, she gathered her things and headed to the Jeep.

Out on the street, I tried every last arrow in my quiver to change Selene’s mind. For an instant, I thought I might have succeeded when she slid back out of the driver’s seat. But it was only to give me a tearful, trembling goodbye.

Another woman driving away.

Selene didn’t answer her phone while on the road, so I called Kate, a mutual friend, and filled her in. Kate had worked with us at the bookstore in Costa Mesa and had been privy to every development in our romance from the beginning. Sometimes she seemed as invested in Selene and my relationship as we were.

Kate leapt into action. Throughout the next week, she worked on persuading Selene to give San Francisco another shot. Sometimes, Selene and I would talk by phone, but with 400 miles between us, it was up to Kate to act as our mediator.

Alone again, I had little else to do but wander San Francisco. One afternoon, having stepped into a bookstore, a title caught my eye: Stuff White People Like. Absentmindedly flipping through the pages of the book, one entry stuck out: “Difficult Breakups.” Touché, hipsters, touché. Under the circumstances, the humor was a bit lost on me.

Day by day, Kate chipped away at Selene’s doubts. Finally, Selene called and we discussed what it would take for her to feel comfortable in the city. I vowed to spend all day, every day with her until she felt at home. We would go to shows, take in the sights, have our bohemian, San Francisco romance.

Meanwhile, Selene was remembering why she had gone with me in the first place: her boredom in Orange County, the lack of ambition she felt there, her desire to see more. She was primed to travel. Would she take the risk?

A week after I had helplessly watched her drive away, Selene returned.

It might have been the biggest mistake of her life.

September 2008

It’s hard to express just how disastrously those first months in San Francisco went for us, but consider: We moved to one of the priciest cities in the world at a moment in time that economists have identified as the nadir of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. So, not ideal.

Up until that point, it had never taken me more than a month to find work. In San Francisco, I went without employment until January of 2009. Selene had better luck, landing a gig with the San Francisco Symphony, selling tickets on commission. Bafflingly, the middle of a recession is not the best time to try to hawk tickets to the opera.

And then there was Ann and Don, the Platonic ideal of horrendous roommates. Don, the Australian  comedian with an allergy to humor, didn’t have a visa to work and so spent his days lounging on the couch in his underwear. He might have pulled off the charming layabout cliché if he weren’t such an unrepentant piece of shit. Verbally abusive towards Ann, he berated her for her cooking (though she worked all day, she made his dinner every night) and could be heard yelling at her behind their closed door almost daily.

Ann, who could be perplexingly chipper and assertive with the group, confided her grimmer truths to Samantha: she was pregnant and hoped to keep it, but Don was demanding she abort or he’d leave her. Having furthermore admitted a penchant for finding (nay, seeking) abusive relationships, there was little question which decision Ann would ultimately make. One weekend, the couple disappeared without announcement; when they returned, the matter was closed.

Samantha, Glen, Selene, and I resolved that they had to leave. Best case scenario, Don might be forced to return to Australia and would simply ditch Ann. Since they were persistently behind on the rent and owed Samantha and Glen money, their protestations garnered little sympathy. Still, Ann knew there was only one person responsible for their ousting: me.

Cornering me in the kitchen one afternoon, she unloaded, arguing that she and Don only fought because of my sinister presence. I, it turned out, was the real corrosive element in the household. More stunned than angry, my bemused expression must have rubbed her the wrong way because suddenly she reared back, snatched a spoon from the counter, and flung it at my face. Thankfully, her aim was as poor as her taste in men.

In the midst of that drama, Selene and I had our dwindling finances to worry about. We rarely went out. Instead of drinking cheap whiskey, I settled for cheaper vodka (sacrifices had to be made). We did manage a pleasant New Year’s Eve out when an elderly queer gentleman at the bar took a shining to me and bought us drinks all night in exchange for the occasional ass grab. Worth it.

As our poverty worsened, I grew convinced that my project would become a causality of the recession. The stress dissolved our bound like acid; Selene and I existed in a perpetual cycle of fighting and reconciliation.

In November, Samantha alerted me to a two-week medical study that paid $2,100. I promptly signed up. It was a drug trial. I was administered two different drugs: the first was a potent opioid, while the second was supposed to nullify the narcotic effects of the first in an effort to quell withdrawal symptoms. Either the drug worked or I was on a placebo, because the only effects I felt were constipation.

For the length of the study, I was sequestered on a single floor of the hospital, leaving Selene behind two months after promising to be by her side through everything. She was on her own, and she was fine.

Home sweet home

When I left the hospital – practically rich – Ann and Don were gone.

Shortly afterwards, we received news that Selene’s great-grandfather had passed. Driving down to Orange County to attend the funeral, we had no choice but to stay with her parents where I was not a popular guest. Still, aside for a few pointed remarks about my joblessness, her father was generally civil.

Preparing to leave, I carried our bags to the Jeep. With Selene in the house, her father stood on the driveway, drinking a beer.

“Must feel good to be the man for once,” he called out. We didn’t speak another word to each other.

(At this time, I was also dealing with excruciating pain: my wisdom teeth were coming in, but jobless and without insurance, I had to live with it.)

In December, a charming young woman named Nicki moved in with her kitten, ushering in a quiet, calm breath of fresh air. Our living dynamic was now peaceful. The five housemates spent many nights playing board games or watching movies together.

In January, I interviewed for a management position at the locally owned Books, Inc. I had interviewed for this exact same position when I first arrived in the city, but never received a call back. That was 2008; in the new year, the store manager hired me essentially on the spot. After five months adrift, we found land.

Then Nicki’s breathing problems began. We discovered moist, black mold growing in almost every room of the apartment. At first, we only noticed dark spots in the middle of the walls, but upon investigation, we uncovered thick sheets of growth behind our bookshelves and dressers. Our attempts to wipe it away were futile: the apartment was a lost cause.

Leaving behind our friends – comrades in arms, by this point – Selene and I moved to Outer Richmond, a short walk from the beach. We had been in San Francisco for six months.

After half a year of constant, roiling turmoil, our lives were stabilizing. The new apartment was clean and the new roommates were boring, but in a good way. Selene, adapted to her new life, worked as a bank teller. We could afford the occasional date night, usually Mexican food and margaritas at a corporate chain followed by a film at the indie cinema. We were making it work; we worked.

But there’s no such thing as status quo in my life.

Year 5 was on the horizon.

Keep reading: Chapter V – Chicago

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