How To Sleep In Your Car

By COURTNEY KERSTEN

 

First, something must break.

For you, it’s your marriage. Your husband and his six-pack and fifth-a-day habit. Him and his blank job applications sitting in a pile on the floor. Him and his teary proclamations that your lives will never get better in California. Him saying you are the only thing he has: if you leave, I’ll have nothing. Does he see that you’ve wanted this the whole time? To leave? He must. Maybe it’s you that breaks. Your willingness to take it. Your eagerness to soothe. To pick up beer cans and cigar wrappers. Certainly, it’s the illusion that breaks. That it’s perfectly reasonable to marry someone only after months of knowing them. Did you even know what marriage would be? Did you only assume it would be all pleasantries and his-and-hers bath towels? Well, those are gone now too. It’s what you used to gather what he smashed on his way out. The dinner plates. Your bike helmet left in pieces on the sidewalk. You know what was left behind because he’s the one that walked away, but you’re the one that asked for the vow to be broken.

He said it to you as he slammed the door shut: Good luck paying for this place on your own. You didn’t have to do the math. It was all too easy. Too simple. That place was too expensive just for you. In fact, it was more than everything you make in a month. When you moved in together as newlyweds, you thought you’d cracked the system. You thought to yourself, This is the way to avoid poverty in California while getting a PhD—just get a roommate you can share 250 square feet with: a lover. But as you watched him walk away, you realized you never cracked the system. You’re still in it. You always were. You don’t contemplate food pantries or double-check the numbers in your bank account. You know none of those things will make a difference. You know there is only one option: leave the studio. You did not fear about breaking the lease—you were living in an illegal unit. Isn’t everyone? If the landlord protested, all you would have to whisper was Santa Cruz housing authority. You felt strange about it—dishonest. Manipulative. But somehow, that has become the currency of existence in California. Lie to the post office about your address to protect your landlord. Listen to everyone else lie about how they love it here, telling you that the housing prices and double shifts and loans are worth it. Lie to your friends in the Midwest about the paradise of your married life. Let your husband manipulate you. So, when you told the landlord your husband has left, you’re getting a divorce, and you have to leave the rental, the landlord didn’t remind you that you signed a twelve-month lease, and it’s only month three. He didn’t seem surprised or peeved. Did he expect such a thing? Maybe. Because the only thing he asked you is where you’ll go.

You said you don’t know.

You did know, but you were too ashamed to say it.

 

Next, you must time travel. 

Pack up what you have in that studio space, and peel through your fantasies dreamt over the past three years of living on the California coast. They began when you arrived in Santa Cruz and saw the tent encampment. Recall the scenarios you have crafted. Find the one that suits you best. 

When you first visited this place, before you ever lived here, you wandered the city, looking at apartment buildings with pansies on the porches. You wondered how much it would cost to live there. You would think of your little life in those tiny apartments—listening to the radio in the morning while sitting on your concrete patio, the sunsets you would watch. You decided fate made you pass by that particular apartment building that day. You knew you were meant to live there. So, you called the apartment building the next day. You would get someone on the line, the landlord or a secretary, and ask about the numbers. How much it will cost. How much a deposit is. How many apartments are available. The person you spoke to told you the numbers. You asked them to repeat them. They repeated them. The monthly rental. The deposit. You laughed. Oh, you said. 

Would you like an application? We also require pay stubs or a W-2, references from your past landlords, and two personal references.

No, but thanks, you say, your naivety washing over you like a sunburn you swear everyone could see for days. Call three places until you convince yourself the cost is a trend, not a fluke.

Once you married the second year you lived in California and your husband came to join you, it became a game you and he played as you walked the city together. You would look at the houses for sale. Bungalows with weed smoke rolling inside or single-story homes with painted pastel mailboxes. You would guess the price. 400k. 500k. Then, you would look up the actual numbers: 1.8 million. 2.2 million. You both grimaced. Let your jaws drop in astonishment. Laugh at the absurdity of it. Sometimes your husband told you it’s like a dystopian novel never written, this chasm between the million-dollar homes and the tents. Sometimes he tells you he should start to write it. But if he were to write it, it would seem too improbable. Too farcical. You told him it would have to be nonfiction. You reflected on your idiocy to move here in the first place. You would later read all about it—how Santa Cruz is said to be the least affordable small city in the United States. How it is described as a “crisis.” How seventy percent of renters in the county experience a rent burden paying more than thirty percent of their income towards housing.  

You read the news too late.  

But, maybe, you need to time travel to a different time: the time in-between your first visit and your marriage. That’s when the fantasies really began. Different kinds of fantasies. Not sunsets or listening to the radio on a balcony or living in a home with your spouse. Because what you see before the housing is the lack of housing. You see it from the people without homes who camp on the street. You see it in the tent city behind the strip mall. You see it when you learn the difference between homeless and houseless. Everyone here says houseless because most people here who don’t have a place to stay aren’t homeless. They went to Harbor High or grew up in Felton. This place, Santa Cruz, is their home, but they do not have housing. You saw it when you tried to find a place to stay upon your arrival, and you ended up living in a shed on a donkey pasture in the Santa Cruz mountains where it was so humid mold grew on your shoes overnight, and each day you bleached the plywood walls to kill the black mold spores. The two donkeys on the property stood indifferent in the pasture all day. No one talks about the weather in Santa Cruz because it’s always the same. Sunny. Instead, everyone talks about housing. Where you got it. How you got it. How shitty is it, do they have space for someone else, and how much does it cost. So, that first year, when your colleagues asked you how much you paid to live in the shed, and you told them, they gasped. What a good deal. Under $1000 for 100 square feet. 

Yes, you said. 9 dollars a square foot. Plus, two donkeys. 

You felt like you won. 

Still, even though you found a place to live that first year, you understood the tenuousness of it. How you got there—scrambling to live in a shed in a pasture of donkey feces and peeing in the woods for $900 a month. How much of your paycheck goes to that. How much other people are paying. How long you can afford to do this. How easy it would be for your rent funds to evaporate if you had car trouble. A tooth abscess. You see how easy it would be to have no place to go. You see that the existence you thought you were so far away from is actually at your fingertips. So banal. So quotidian.

You have met people who live on the street while riding the bus or in line at the grocery store. There is Keith from Kentucky, who was in a touring musical after high school. There is Ricky, who came out here after Hurricane Katrina, who tells you one day about the fish he cooks on the beach with a stick. There’s Juan who tells you you’re beautiful and that he misses his daughter who lives in Spokane. You know their stories. You know how they got there. They share what broke for them—their job, their family, or some other combination of misfortune. You see how it has broken for other graduate students—the ones that live in closets or stay on their cousin’s couch or commute from Sacramento. 

It was then that you started making plans.  

 

Next, recall them.  

In your initial fantasy, you imagined moving to Reno and commuting from there. It’s only a five-hour drive to Santa Cruz. You could’ve probably found a way to stay on someone’s couch during the workweek. You thought about Bridgeport and Bishop. You looked to see how much apartments are in Fresno on Craigslist. You pictured yourself happy there in the desert, commuting on the 33. You thought of the diet sodas you would’ve drunk and how glad you would’ve been each time you pulled away from the coast and the rent you would not have to pay. Then, you let your mind whirl. You thought about lying—about telling the university you had to telecommute from the Midwest because of an injury or having to take care of a family member, so you could abscond to Muncie or Sioux Falls where you could afford to eat and live. Maybe you really would’ve just gone home to live in your rural Wisconsin hometown. But the lie would’ve had to morph to keep you away indefinitely. The injury would’ve had to grow septic. The dead family member would’ve had to haunt you. Maybe, you thought, this would be perfect. This would be worth it for the cheap rent and smiling midwestern pleasantries and Friday nights you could spend at wood-paneled bars and never fearing medical bills.  

You ultimately decided such solutions, Reno and lying about some dying family member, were too far-fetched. Too improbable. Next, you strategized you could live in your office on campus. Much easier, you thought. You researched all of it. The legality. The potential to be fired. Fire codes and how to store a pillow and sleeping pad underneath your desk. You looked for a sleeping bag at the thrift store and measured the dimensions of your desk. You thought about purchasing a hot plate and mini-refrigerator. You told yourself it would be cozy. You would’ve made friends with the janitor. No—you would’ve had to avoid the janitor. You told yourself you’d save so much money. You told yourself, maybe, that’s just what you should do even if, one day, you can afford to live here. You imagined living in your office forever. Having potted plants. Putting up a Bless This Mess placard.

Then, you thought about all the ways to get caught. Your advisor catching you in the bathroom late at night while you brush your teeth. Your department chair seeing you and your slept-on, crinkled face walking to the drinking fountain. That one custodian who wonders why you always seem to be there. You envision rumors that spread. There could be meetings with you and the Dean. You and the chair. You and the health center. Someone with a set of keys may find the sleeping bag under your desk. The front desk attendants at the gym would attest to you arriving each morning for a shower yet never using the exercise equipment. You envision expulsion. An eviction from a home you never had a claim to.

You abandoned this idea.  

You then strategized you could live in your car. This, you thought, meant that you are deeply fortunate. You have a car you could live in. Plus, there are YouTube videos to watch. There are Reddit conversations to follow. There are accessories you could buy: wet wipes and a steering column lock and paper screens for your windows. Things you can eat: instant mashed potatoes and Chef Boyardee. Some of the people who claim to be car living experts are, to you, campers. They pull over outside of National Parks and attest to the freedom of living in your car. The real American dream! they say. The car is a temporary thing. Some of the people who give advice are not campers. They are doing this because of the reasons you are doing this. They caution you. Do not park on the same street more than one night in a row. Do not leave the car on all night. Get a coffee can with a lid to pee in. There is a lot of advice from people living in vans. Vans with lights and compact camping equipment and instant boiling apparatuses. Vans that have had months of thought poured into their form and function. Likewise, when you envisioned this live-in-your-car plan, this contingency plan where your fears became your reality and you truly do not have a place to live, you thought you would have more time. That you would see the inevitability of your houselessness arrive like a storm churning in the distance. The tooth would abscess, and you would have weeks to either figure out how to scrounge the money or plan your eviction. More time to look for wet wipes and instant mashed potatoes. More time to plot where to sleep and how to shove your life into your trunk. Somehow, you thought you’d have, at least, a week. But you do not have time to consult the videos again. You timed this breakup precisely imperfectly: on the 30th. Right before your rent is due. Right before not having enough money for rent. Right when your husband leaves.

So, after he departs, you can only do the same.

 

Next, once it turns dark, leave.

Leave the studio with its tile floors and indoor plumbing. Leave the hope you held that moving into this studio with your husband would make things better. Leave the Crockpot you got as a wedding present at the Goodwill. Take the photographs from the wedding album your aunt made you and put the empty book on the curb. Feel uncertain about what to do with the wedding photographs. Shove them in the glove compartment. Shove everything—your clothing, your books, your toothbrush into the trunk. Feel uncertain about how and where to urinate. Contemplate how to pee into a yogurt container. Wonder if a single-serving yogurt container will contain all that you can urinate. Feel uncertain about how to sleep in the backseat. Try it out. Be fetal. Then, stretch yourself across the cushions. Feel the belt buckles dig into you. Put the pillow against the door. Feel your neck compress. Your back stiffen. Hug the pillow. Put the pillow behind your head on the seat. Feel confined. Wonder if this is what it is like to be in the womb. Think that this must not at all be like what it is to be in a womb. This car was once your mother’s, bequeathed to your brother upon her death and then bequeathed to you. The car has never entirely driven right since your brother hit a buck with it, there are cigarette burns in the driver’s seat from your sister-in-law, and it has 220,000 miles on it. You decide to think of it like a womb, your mother still taking care of you. Though, really, crammed in the backseat, you’re more interested in the amniotic comfort of a womb, a feeling antithetical to what you’re experiencing now.

You crawl into the driver’s seat. Close your eyes. Wonder if you could sleep this way.

Open your eyes. Read text messages from your husband, now driving home to sleep in his parent’s basement in Fargo. Read text messages about your malice. About how you never deserve to love again. About how you deserve all things evil. Look back at the studio. Look at the road before you. Shove the phone in the glove compartment.  

 

Then, drive.

Up Highway 1 towards Davenport. Look for darkness, for inlets, for places where you cannot be found. Find a place near Bonny Doon Beach. Consider the rain. Consider that you will not be able to open your windows because of the precipitation. Consider that you should just open the windows anyway. Decide not to and immediately feel sweat crawl on you. Decide you will think of this as amniotic. Something sensorial and fluid. Make a bed of sweaters and towels on the backseat and crawl back there. Sweat. Consider taking off your clothing. Consider how mortifying it would be to have a cop knock on the windows to see your naked-self sweating in the backseat. Consider if this is illegal. Know that sleeping in your car is frowned upon. Assume that sleeping in your car naked is even more frowned upon. Public indecency? You are uncertain but fairly certain this is frowned upon.

Lie in the backseat, fully clothed, fully sweaty, and tell yourself you are lucky. You are lucky to have a car. You are lucky your husband had his own car to take and did not take yours. You are lucky to be able to file for divorce. You hear your cell phone buzzing in the glove compartment. 

Open the windows and let the rain pour on your face and toes. Look at your cellphone. You have a text message. Your husband tells you he’s decided you’re the cruelest person he’s ever met.

You are lucky indeed.

Sleep in twenty-minute intervals. Listen to cars drive past. Put a pair of underwear over your face to keep the headlights from waking you up. Feel the underwear grow wet. Wipe rain off your face with napkins you find in the driver’s seat back pocket. Wipe rain off your toes on the felted door. 

Wait for daybreak. Calculate you have slept approximately three hours. Go to campus. Forget every worry you had about sleeping in your office. Crawl underneath your desk and sleep for two more hours. Wake up to the sound of the janitor waxing the hallway’s floor.

Day two: do it again. Another little inlet on Highway 1. Another night of sweating. The seat buckle in your ribs like a pinch. Squatting to pee in a dune. Sand on your boots. Sand on your passenger’s seat. Sand everywhere. Shower at the campus gym. Nap in your office, brush your teeth in the women’s bathroom sink. Do it again. And again. Lose track of the days. Lose track of your planner. Lose track of your mascara. Think it’s somewhere in the glove compartment. Find your wedding photos. Forget about your mascara. Ignore your husband’s phone calls. Wake up one morning and find them: late-night drunken ramblings on your voicemail. About love. About sadness. About you.

 

Meanwhile, feel sleep chase you.  

In class. While sitting on the toilet. While standing at the chalkboard writing a quote. While driving the lopes of Highway 1’s curves. Feel like you exist somewhere between dreaming and waking. Stare into the horizon before crawling in the backseat for the night and fantasize about getting caught. Wonder why you haven’t. Swear you know exactly what it would be like—the police officer’s knock at your window, your startle, your clumsy exit from the backseat. The cop’s questions. Your tears—from fatigue, from embarrassment. Your eventual crawl into the driver’s seat to get your license and registration.

Maybe you want to get caught. Maybe you want to be forced to do something else. Maybe you want to be forced to leave. To give up. Maybe you created this whole thing from the start—the fear over losing a place to live, the anxiety over housing, the plans, and plotting. You wonder if you shouldn’t have done it—if you shouldn’t have told your husband to leave. You could still be in that studio. You could still be with him. Pass out immediately at the thought, your mouth open and snoring to the world. 

 

Next, greet the weekend and feel rage.  

Walk the ocean cliffs and rage at the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans with surfboards lining the rooves and AeroPress coffee makers on the countertops inside. Rage at blonde dreadlocks. Rage at the bungalows and the apartment buildings and your decision to ever come to school here. Rage at singing the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreaming” as a child. At your longing to be a “California Girl” when listening to the Beach Boys as a teenager. Rage at your foolishness, your ignorance, your fell-off-the-potato-truck trust in happy endings. Rage at your husband’s incessant messages and that he’s calling you right now. You answer. Rage at your willingness to sit on a bench and listen to him talk about his suicidal fantasies. Fantasies no different than when you were together. Walk back to your car and mute your rage as you refer him to a suicide hotline. Telling him to write the number down and making him promise to call it. Mute your rage during your phone calls to his parents, beseeching them to help him, telling them you are worried. So worried.

Grow tired from all of it.

Drive to campus. Take a shower at the gym. Nap in your office. Feel gratitude for the cable carpeting printed on your face when you wake up. Feel gratitude for the crows barking outside the window. Gratitude for the campus gym and its watery soap. Sit at the library and read about the California Missions. Forget about everything. 

Answer another call from your husband. Listen to him tell you he’s feeling much better because he’s realized it’s not him that’s the problem—it’s you. Because you’re the one that’s ruined his life.

Tell him you have to go. Hang up the phone. Find a pair of clean jeans in the trunk.  

That evening, go on a date with a friend of a friend of a friend. It was the advice of the first friend who told you it would be a free meal. You were too tired to say no. Meet him at a dark restaurant with candles on the tables and listen to him talk—about living in Palo Alto and the great real estate opportunities in Santa Cruz. About his family’s home in Marin and his bungalow here in Santa Cruz. Feign interest. Smile. Take a bite of gnocchi. Listen to him ask you no questions but feel your own questions rise within you. The want to ask him if he can tell. If he can tell everything you own is shoved into the trunk of your Camry. That you slept on Highway 1 last night. That you refused alcohol for fear of passing out right at this table. That your husband walked out the door knowing him leaving was what you wanted, but that him not contributing to the rent would leave you with nowhere to stay. Your husband keeps saying you are cruel, but you don’t want to blame your husband for any of this. That feels unfair. Because, if we’re going to blame someone, why not blame this real estate man in front of you?

He orders an espresso. He drinks it in one gulp. Watch the liquid dribble from his lip and let yourself hate him. Channel all your anger at him as though he was responsible for all of it: every single person sleeping in a tent behind the strip mall. All of your colleagues who sleep in closets. Everyone’s collective precarity. Is he really the reason? You are uncertain, but your rage doesn’t care.

Both leave the restaurant. Wave as he gets into his Tesla and drives away. Feel no sadness at him not asking for your number or to continue the date. Only feel rage. Ambiguous rage. Flat rage. Get back into your car and drive to campus. 

Go to your office. Shut yourself behind the door. Create a nest of towels and sheets. Snuggle inside. Pull your laptop into the nest and go back to every single of those videos about how to sleep in your car. Watch them all. Review the final minutes. See what they do in the morning. At the endings. See that there is nothing at all. See that there are no instructions about what to do next. The videos end saying, You are having an American adventure! Being on the road! Or This is how I sleep in my Sprinter van in style! The story is finished. There is no reflection on how or why they’ve come to sleep in their car or where they will go next. There is no reflection on the people who do this out of necessity rather than choice. There is only valorization of “the lifestyle.”

Slap your laptop shut and feel unsatisfied. Nuzzle your head into your pillow. Close your eyes and feel too tired to be frustrated. Let yourself feel satisfied by the darkness of your office in the early morning hours. By the heater’s gentle buzz. By the scent of your old studio on the sheets. By your cell phone’s lack of battery power. Feel yourself drift between sleeping and waking and let yourself slip into the ambiguity. Let yourself dream. Past the redwoods and banana slugs creeping. Past Silicon Valley and the Bay. Past breakage and un-breakage. Dream of a place you’ve never visited. Somewhere you can’t find on a map.

Sleep for ten hours.

Wake up. Forget where you are. Roll over and stare up at the ceiling. Pull your jeans on. Stand and wander to the window. Stick your fingers through the slatted shades and look at campus. Turn back to your nest and stare at the space your body took, the way the sheets folded around you. The way the towels hold your mark. Inhale. Exhale. Imagine a new ending.

 

Courtney Kersten is an American essayist, educator, and author of Daughter in Retrograde (University of Wisconsin Press 2018). Courtney’s essays can be seen or are forthcoming from Prairie Schooner, River Teeth, The Normal School, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. Her essays have been awarded the Bellingham Reviews Annie Dillard Award in Nonfiction, the Southern Indiana Review’s Mary C. Mohr Award in Nonfiction, Crazyhorse’s Nonfiction Award, and been listed as “notable” in the 2020 and 2021 Best American Essays series. Her work has also garnered her a Fulbright Fellowship to Riga, Latvia. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Idaho, her Ph.D. in Literature with an emphasis in Creative/Critical Writing and Feminist Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is a mentor with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. 

How To Sleep In Your Car

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