“What if…” I began with wide eyes and a mischievous smile, the words meant to follow suddenly losing their form alongside my courage to utter them.
We has just put the girls to bed, and I was in the kitchen pantry knee deep in recently liberated packing paper, unboxing the last of our kitchen storage jars as Josh sorted out new homes for our pots and pans. Our house lease in the suburbs of Virginia had begun just two days prior. A global pandemic six months underway and a hesitation to invite movers into our home had left us shuttling our things in and out of storage completely on our own; an easier feat than expected given a quarter of our belongings had just been ruined by mold during their two week stint in a flooded storage unit. Compelled by a strong desire to feel settled once more, we moved with impressive momentum, somehow managing to unpack almost all our belongings into our standalone two story colonial home in just a couple days' time.
A double masked mach three walkthrough during a still occupied open house --as was the style-- had been the most time we had spent in the home before taking it. Upon first glance our biggest requirements were quickly fulfilled: alluring roominess, wooden floors throughout, a tree dappled fenced in yard, and an omission of prior rodent infestations (a necessity given our PTSD from our previous rental's ROUSes); all creature comforts we sought during this home heavy period in our lives.
Our first night in as we were unpacking toiletries under the bathroom sink, what had initially appeared as a mound of dirt on first glance, was, upon closer inspection, a rather large and suspicious pile of brown mold. Sleuthing further, I came across black varieties making very comfortable and widespread homes under numerous window sills. As I lay awake that night, I was unsure if my insomnia was due to the visions of 90's Oprah episodes with black mold and sick children swirling about in my brain, or the jarring sounds of a raccoon sized creature clumping around on the floorboards of the attic overhead.
The next morning we found a chewed up rat d-con box in the attic alongside droppings and bait stations littering the underbelly of the kitchen cabinets; all appearing since our open house walkthrough. As I poured my coffee that morning in a double washed mug I began looking around for the escape hatch...
The oddly conspicuous mold clause graciously inserted in our lease by the property management company (perhaps a common and recurring problem) jumped out at me, giving a perfect one way ticket out if mold was discovered anywhere in the house our first two weeks there. I only had to pitch my halfway absurd idea to Josh.
“‘What if we’ what?” Josh responded lightly as he began to unpack the pot lids that evening—assuming I was about to suggest something benign, like housing the baking ware with the saucepans.
“…What if we move to California?” I blurted out, eyes wide open.
“…When? ...Next year?” He asked.
“How about next week?”
The pot lid clanged on the ground.
Like many of my impulsive and outrageous ideas, this one felt equally magnificent as it was terrifying to liberate by saying aloud. Despite a knack for making the ridiculous sound convincing, I had my own doubts as to whether this one would take hold with Josh, as it seemed to reside among the most outlandish to date. Knowing I had a microscopic window of time to convince him before being pshawed, we ceased unpacking, side-eyeing one another while each crafting our defense in the amount of time it took to uncork a bottle of wine and rummage up a couple glasses; Josh having a substantial leg up as he tended to side with reason and facts in addition to knowing exactly where he had recently domiciled the glassware.
Sitting down at the kitchen table, we cleared a couple boxes so we could see each other across the divide. What began as Josh's utter exasperated frustration at having a ridiculous person as a partner took the slightest turn around the start of glass two as the shock began to wear off and the wine began to take hold. By our third glass we were in full agreement of "Do we really want to deal with rats and mold over the next nine months?" and “How did we end up here in Virginia in the first place?” And finally the one I was waiting for: “Fuck it. Let’s do it.”
By day five of our lease we had packed up our entire house (again), schlepped our things into a new storage unit, and had moved out, leaving most of the neighbors' heads spinning; the one curious family we explained ourselves to seeming to actually approve of our choice, now feeling safe enough to give us the inside scoop on the negligent upkeep and recurrent problems of the block's eyesore. We temporarily relocated an hour up I-95 and found ourselves stumbling backwards into living in downtown DC at one extremely generous boss’ extremely beautiful unoccupied townhouse off 14th and Q.
On our first night in the city we scaled the vertigo inducing four story iron railed spiral staircase on the brick facade. Emerging topside we were enveloped in an alternate universe of treetops, brownstones, rooftop gardens, and quiet urban views. A renewed zeal for life and sense of righting our path washed over us along with the day's last golden rays.
From there, each and every step came together and unfolded so effortlessly we never once doubted our decision, no matter how curvy and reckless it undoubtedly appeared to everyone on the outside. In an uncertain time in the history of the world, we were given the gift of being able to see our path forward with startling clarity, remaining steadfast and united in our decision; only asking (confirming) to one another occasionally in the haven of a dark bedroom right before falling asleep, "We're crazy for doing this, right?"
September and October were spent hunkered down exploring a tourist-free DC; afternoons at Logan Circle people watching with a coffee and newspaper in hand, giving the girls tours of the MLK, Lincoln and Roosevelt monuments, and reclining on a virtually empty mall lawn, nestled between the Capitol and the Washington Monument; painting with watercolors, reading books, the girls running around on the palatial and seemingly private grass getting spectacularly soaked the one time the army of sprinklers happened to catch us off guard.
Every evening we ascended the staircase to the rooftop for sunset, with nights spent too often ordering mala chicken and a spicy Szechuan boiled fish dish from a tiny restaurant around the corner. It was a DC so intimately quiet, beautiful, and honestly, ours; a version we will likely never experience again in our lifetime.
In spare moments we haphazardly mapped out a loose driving route (efficient; to avoid human contact, and Southern; to avoid snowstorms), saving airbnb bookings for the night before our next arrival in order to make sure our whole family could handle our optimistically projected back-to-back 12-15 hour days on the road. We bought a roof rack, cargo bin, camping toilet, portable tent, butane canister for roadside late afternoon hot chocolates and desert ramen lunches; preparation for the potential best and worst types of days on the road. We once again moved everything we owned, which had downsized considerably (the hassle of boxing and shuttling every possession paired with the cost of transporting items across the country proving a real motivator in minimizing), and crammed our life's possessions into a 7x7x8 foot POD, saying adieu as it began its trek across the country ahead of us.
Crisp Autumn air and golden leaves warned us of winter coming, and our date to drive cross country crept closer. A stairwell neighbor caught covid, causing us to conservatively delay out of fear we would fall sick in the middle of Oklahoma, and finally, finally, we decided on an Election Day departure, which felt a poetic and prudent day to leave the city and unplug from society.
On Election Day Eve a handful of DC police officers patrolling the streets caught sight of our car packing prep and advised us to leave as early as possible to avoid any potential incidents Election Day morning. Taking heed, we fully loaded the car at 4:30am, buckling in our excited, albeit drowsy girls, and slowly wound through the city's eerily deserted streets and and boarded up storefronts. The anticipation of the election, the length of the drive, and the uncertainty of life on the other side of the country all palpable as we crossed the Roosevelt Bridge.
Heading down 66-west and south on I-81 was the final first step towards our new life out west. There was no turning back as we breathed in that sweet, heavy Blue Ridge Mountain air, only pausing briefly with a handful of kisses blown goodbye to that familiar and beautiful life growing smaller every moment in our rear view mirror.
Looking ahead we watched, mouths agape, as the sky and country opened up, bottomed out, jutted up, and turned all manner of pastels and browns and yellows and oranges in front of us over the next five days, chasing sunset after sunset, through sandstorms, snowstorms and rain, feeling the freedom of the west expand with every mile that passed, and hearing a new and wild place in the world calling us home.