I was never into Barbies. Instead, I was a sucker for chubby-cheeked, troll-eyed Cabbage Patch Kids. I named my first one Cindy, and my second one Linda. When the “official” birth certificate arrived in the mail addressed to Linda Renstrom (the names of the person—and the doll—have been changed), my mom unleashed holy fury in the kitchen, ranting about the mailman’s audacity to deliver Linda’s mail to our house. That’s when I learned about my dad’s ex-wife.
Despite the court’s decree that she reassume her maiden name after the divorce, Linda kept my dad’s last name for professional reasons, even after she remarried a few years later. I’ve always wondered what her second husband thought about that. It wasn’t a big deal that my dad had an ex-wife (my mom also had an ex-husband), especially given that one of the reasons they split was because she didn’t want kids. Linda introduced herself to me at a fundraiser when I was about ten and over the years I bumped into her here and there. She was friendly and I admit it—I liked her.
In 2006, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. Linda visited him once while he was ill and jokingly asked if he would finally consider retirement. Dad said he’d keep working until my younger sister was through college, continuing to build his retirement fund for his kids and his grandkids. In retrospect, this friendly visit seems ominous. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that I can’t read minds, and probably don’t want to.
A few months later, Linda came to my dad’s memorial service and sat right behind the rest of us, offering words of condolence and pats on the back. She struck up an unlikely, but uniquely comforting friendship with my mom. Linda was the only other person who had loved my dad the way my mom did and made my mom feel less alone as she adjusted to the reality of life without Dad.
Meanwhile, my mom also struggled with the logistical aspects of my dad’s death—namely, his retirement account. The account representatives were strangely cagey with her, and eventually told her that while she was the owner of his account, she wasn’t the beneficiary—a distinction that still baffles me. My mom grew increasingly distressed, and Linda acted as a sounding board, disgusted and empathetic.
Just before the New Year, almost four months after Dad’s death, Linda called to tell Mom the “good news”—she was the account beneficiary and would consider sharing.
I didn’t think we had room for this kind of fiery rage, but there it was, tangling with the sadness, twin tornadoes upending everything we thought we knew. When depression came down heavy and smothering, anger functioned like a combustion engine. My brother and I pulled ourselves from naps or afternoons spent on the couch hiding inside of television shows in order to chop wood in the backyard, splitting the remains of a diseased tree my parents had taken down months earlier. Working with the ax made my shoulder blades ache in a way that offered some small distraction from the other, bigger pain, and vented some of my anger. Chopping wood was the only way I felt I could shape things.
For my mom, it wasn’t so simple. On top of managing grief and the ensuing legal battle, she also stung from Linda’s betrayal and from the loss of a friend. We learned that Linda had been aware of her beneficiary status for some time and had cozied up to my mom to harvest information and increase her chances of netting the most cash possible. I didn’t think things like this happened in real life; then again, I didn’t think colon cancer killed otherwise healthy sixty-three-year-old dads, either.
None of us understood how Mom’s beneficiary status could be in question. The financial services company had records of his divorce from Linda and his thirty-year marriage to my mom. But there was a problem with paperwork—Dad’s retirement was supposed to go into a trust he and my mom had set up, but this was before the time of the internet, a time when something important could get lost in the mail or a file could drop behind a desk unnoticed. My parents were meticulous in financial matters and frequently updated their wills and advanced directives, especially after Dad got sick. But something had slipped through the cracks. Accounting and paperwork don’t care if a family’s heart has been ripped out. Lawyers don’t observe grieving periods. Linda had bided her time until she had my mom’s trust and a keen understanding of our ability—or, more accurately, our inability—to function. Then she made her move, maneuvering legal complexities to her advantage while we were still sorting through the wreckage.
Of course, Linda wouldn’t have been able pull this off if others hadn’t made mistakes. The most likely explanation is that the financial services company bungled Dad’s account. It’s possible they never sent my dad the necessary documentation in the first place, as we later learned happened to one of his colleagues. It’s also possible that he sent the paperwork back but they improperly filed it or never received it and didn’t follow up. Our lawyer, who agreed this was both unfair and ridiculous, somehow couldn’t uncover or subpoena records that proved beyond a doubt my dad’s intentions with that money.
Dad’s death raised questions about fairness, about whether good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. My dad had colonoscopies at the proscribed intervals, didn’t have any family history of colon cancer, exercised regularly, took good care of himself, and was otherwise healthy and happy. He didn’t deserve what happened to him. He was wronged, and so were we.
Linda’s grab for his money was unfairness squared, a double-down on his death. As furious as I was with Linda, I was even angrier that the world didn’t possess a mechanism to stop her. I desperately wanted—and at first expected—someone to look her in the eye and say, This is wrong. You can’t do this. I wanted her to reach a point where she simply couldn’t increase the suffering of the family of a man with whom she had been in love, a man who, among other things, put her through graduate school and let her keep his name. But she never did. Instead, she said that unless we cooperated, she would take everything.
As I cleaned out Dad’s office looking for documents that could help us with our case, I allowed myself a dark thought: What if it wasn’t a mistake? But the only communique I found from Linda was mixed in with thank you notes from students—a photo of a twenty-something Dad on the beach wearing a silly hat and a note that read, “thought you might like to have this.” I looked at the photo and thought about my dad having married this woman. Did he have any idea what she was capable of? It’s hard to imagine he did, though I suppose that could be one of the reasons he divorced her. Or perhaps her morality had evaporated in the decades since their divorce. There’s no comfort in either possibility.
Ultimately, our lawyer advised us against going to court. While fairness was on our side, no one could guarantee what a judge would do. Linda and her lawyer both seemed convinced of a win and were happy to drag us through the expensive and laborious process. For the first time since his death, I hoped Dad wasn’t out there somewhere, in some form, still aware of what was happening with his family.
The choice between settling and going to court paralleled the competing feelings of sadness and anger. Anger was in many ways easier, but it was more toxic, as court would be. As far as I could tell, anger didn’t have stages like grief did—it was a hot burn all the time. On principle, we wanted to fight. But we were so sad and so tired. I kept thinking about what advice Dad would give us if he could. While he would want us to have access to the money he had spent his life earning, he wouldn’t want us to prolong our own suffering by allowing Linda to define our lives any longer. As it was, Dad’s death would define our lives for the foreseeable future.
It was hard not to feel as though we were giving in or paying Linda to go away, and maybe that’s what we did. Even though she received a staggering amount—an amount that suggested she was every bit the intended recipient as Dad’s actual family—we settled.
The desire for vengeance has never entirely dissipated. My brother and I brainstormed various nonviolent schemes, my favorite of which was a plan to get our friends from various parts of the world to send postcards to Linda with horrible images on them: a kitten getting stung by a scorpion, a bloody toenail, a gangrenous limb. Little anonymous deliveries that would put into her life, at least momentarily, some fraction of the unpleasantness she caused us. But we didn’t do it.
About a year after the settlement we ran into Linda at an event. The anger resurfaced, as though we’d been storing it like fat. Utterly unprepared even to see her face, we tried to avoid her, but none of us could forget she was there. We kept our distance until my brother saw Linda talking to his two daughters, who were eight and eleven at the time. They knew Linda from Dad’s memorial service but knew nothing of what had happened since. That Linda had the gall to make friendly chitchat with anyone in our family was simply too much.
My brother walked over just in time to see Linda take a photograph of his girls. “Don’t you dare talk to them!” he hissed, corralling them away.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Linda said.
“Are you kidding me?” my brother said.
“I didn’t take anything I didn’t deserve,” she said, looking him straight in the eye.
And, in a moment that could have come straight from the movies, my brother said, “I’ll show you what you deserve,” and threw his glass of red punch on Linda’s cream-colored blouse.
We all stood there, dumbfounded. My nieces started giggling—they had never seen their father do anything like this. I never had either. We all left in a hurry. Our last image of Linda was with her mouth open, gaping in shock.
That moment has achieved infamy in our family, but as vivid as the image of the punch on Linda’s blouse still is, what I remember most is her silence. Her voice had been so powerful, overruling all of ours, especially my dad’s. Shocking her into silence, even if only temporarily, provided space for us to be heard.
JOELLE RENSTROM‘s collection of essays, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, was published in 2015. She maintains an award-winning blog, Could This Happen, about the relationship between science and science fiction. She’s the robot columnist for the Daily Beast and her other work has appeared in Slate, Cognoscenti, Guernica, The Toast, The Guardian, and others. She teaches writing and research at Boston University.
I sat at the table nervously clutching my purse, hoping I didn’t have lipstick on my teeth. And then I saw them. A handsome couple in their mid-forties. The husband, with strands of silver in his hair. Her, in a perfectly pressed blue blouse and manicured nails. Normal, I thought. But nothing is really normal about meeting the soon-to-be-parents of your egg.
They walked over to the table clasping hands—I stumbled a bit as I stood up. We hugged. She reached up, tucked a strand of loose her hair behind her ear, and sat down.
The next two hours turned into a peculiar exchange: a tender disclosure of precious information reserved usually for the most intimate of relationships. I learned that they had met later in life after two failed marriages. Soulmates, they called each other. And I believed them by the furtive glances they exchanged and the ease in which they unfolded their story. After years of searching for the right person, they were devastated to learn that they could not conceive a child together—a tangible expression of their love and commitment. They had tried for three years. There was nothing left.
And there I was, sitting across from them, fresh-faced from college, fertile, and in need of some cash. Making ends meet outside the gates of the ivory tower was not an intellectual exercise. I was sleeping on a bunk bed and barely earning minimum wage working a full-time job. My dream of going to law school was quickly slipping away. I wandered into the egg donation world on a whim—never expecting to meet two souls to whom I would connect so intensely.
The waitress leaned over and sat down a plate of pasta in front of me. I grinned at the thought of free food. I rattled off my personal stats: above average height, 3.43 GPA, Ivy-League degree, excellent health, no injures or prior hospitalizations, and a clean psychological evaluation. I was acutely aware that I was everything they wanted—not by anything I had done, but by sheer circumstance. I slid my baby photos across the table and saw his eyes linger on one. He picked it up and glanced over at his wife. “She looks like you did as a child,” he smiled.
They offered to give me time to think about my decision as they walked me to my car. But there was nothing for me that think about. This wasn’t some mediocre date spent listening to a man-child trying to impress me with his entry-level tech job. I wanted to be part of them in some way. My desire, perhaps, came from the little girl in me that yearned to have been born in such a stable and loving home.
“You can have my eggs, ” I said.
The wife, who had sat with her mouth pursed during our time, came close to me. Tears streamed down her face. “Thank you,” she whispered into my ear. I hugged them both, got into my Hyundai, and we went our separate ways.
I embarked on the egg preparation and retrieval process with the doggedness usually reserved for finding a closet to turn into a bedroom in NYC. I wasn’t giving my eggs to a faceless void —but to a couple who were in love—and my egg would be loved.
I have to be honest: The egg donation process isn’t for the faint of heart. I injected myself daily with hormones, visited the doctor twice a week to have a giant alien dildo shoved into me. I was poked, prodded, and stuck by nurses who often missed my veins and drew air. But after three weeks, I was ready and brimming with fresh follicles. I was so proud of my ovaries.
I enlisted my mother to care for me on the day of retrieval. “You’re selling my first grandchild,” she joked. But I felt no attachment to my eggs. I had spent twenty-three years trying not to get pregnant. Twenty-three years guarding my vagina like the United States Mint. Twenty-three years trying not to become a teenage mother like she had been.
I forced myself into the thin blue paper gown, shuffled onto the table, and opened my legs. The procedure was over before it even began. When I woke and dressed, the nurse handed me a gift bag. Inside was a hand written note from the couple, a lavender-scented Bath and Body gift set, and a check for $7,000. I read the note and cried.
You always wish that you had paid more attention to the list of “201 things that could go wrong” when of course, shit goes wrong. A week after the retrieval, I woke with a swollen stomach and could barely breathe. “Oh no, they got the wrong one pregnant!” I laughed.
I wasn’t pregnant, but I did have number three on the “201 things that could go wrong list” list: Ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome. An excess of hormone had flooded my system, causing my abdominal cavity to swell. Luckily, it resolved on its own with rest and lots of fluids. And even though it was scary and uncomfortable, I did not regret my decision.
I went to law school with the money they gave me. Our contract stipulated no contact after the egg retrieval, and I never heard from them again.
Time has passed with fierceness. After a career change and with the feeling of my own mortality creeping in the back room, I think back to our brief interlude. I am thirty-five years old now and childfree. My once fertile, blushing and bouncing eggs are committing suicide, jumping off the shelf one by one. Apoptosis they call it—spontaneous cell death. I guess I should be in a panic about the cliff-like decline in my fertility, but I am not. I do have a sudden aversion to omelets, though.
At twenty-three, I didn’t realize that my life would involve no children of my own. I naturally thought that I would marry, have 2.5 gluten-free kids, a modern husband, and live in an overpriced commuter condominium. But that’s not my reality. I’ve had a colorful and interesting life, stockpiling degrees like weapons, moving across the country, falling in and out love, and coming closer to my dream job. I’ve lived big and without restraint on purpose.
Dinner with most of my high school and college friends usually involves booster seats and sliced finger foods. “Don’t you want to experience unconditional love?” they chide. “Life is so much more meaningful with kids.”
I smile, each time, politely. (And then I want to hurl a chicken nugget across the table.) I appreciate their concern for my well-being and happiness. However, they know, and I know, that there are privileges I have as a child-free adult that they don’t. It’s an even trade.
I was never prepared to give birth to a child. My life was always coming together and falling apart in sweeping change. And for this very reason, I am eternally thankful for the opportunity I’ve had to play a part in bringing life into this world without possessing it. I could have never realized how meaningful the decision I made thirteen years ago would become. How three strangers with different needs could come together for a brief moment, change the course of each others’ lives, and never meet again.
I’ve read the note they left for me from time to time. And now, more than ever, after the passing of my mother. Sometimes I think about my egg, now a pre-teenager, and I wonder what (s)he has become. I wonder if (s)he is living their life with the certainty that (s)he can be their truest self and be accepted. I wonder if (s)he feels expansive. I wonder if (s)he is good and kind. I wonder if (s)he is as thankful his or her life as I am for it now.
SAKEENAH EL-AMIN is a passionate social justice advocate. She manages a law education program for young adults in the juvenile justice system and is in the process of starting a progressive, social-justice oriented school for low-income girls of color. This is her first published piece.
I was on my way home from a writers’ conference. I was about to get on the highway when I noticed it was a three-lane parking lot. So I kept going, That’s when the GPS started freaking out, trying to turn me around. I put my turn signal on, until I realized it was taking me back to where I’d started.
“No! I will not turn around. I will not go back.” I was white knuckled, jerking my father’s pickup truck around unfamiliar roads in the middle of Ohio. I clicked off the screen, tossed the phone in the console, and started looking for a place to pull over to consult a map.
“Damn it. I fucking hate Ohio!” I screamed in frustration as no shoulder wide enough to keep a Dodge Ram safe from passing traffic appeared.
I’ve been in these situations before, unsure of where I am, just driving forward, fear growing in the pit of my stomach. It rises to just below my ribcage and sits, nagging, anxiety pushing my pulse higher no matter how many times I count to ten.
“When you find yourself in a situation that causes you stress, take a moment to stop, find your center and breathe,” the yoga instructors always say, calm, peaceful, so fucking Zen you want to push them over and hit up a pastry shop.
Which may be why I have never actually been able to find that rock-solid island in the middle of adrenaline- and coffee-fueled chaos.
But for some reason, as I started to feel the blood pounding behind my eyeballs, I simply stopped. Not literally, because I was still cruising through cow-infested verdant fields of summer green, dotted now and then with absolutely adorable farmhouses, many with hearse-like black buggies next to cherubic boys in dark pants, white shirts and wide-brimmed hats, standing like tiny undertakers all in a row.
But for a single, blissed-out moment I didn’t care if I was lost, or where I was going. The truck said I was going east. That was good enough for me, because I needed to be in Ithaca, New York.
The fields sped by in my peripheral vision. Farmhouses, barns, buggies all started to look the same; I worried I was just going around in circles. I thought about life: Just because the scenery changes doesn’t mean you’re going forward. Or anywhere at all.
Was I going anywhere? What the hell was I doing anyway?
I’d spent nearly a decade taking dozens of road trips with my husband, Sean. We’d driven between Pennsylvania and Virginia more times than I could remember, the most epic when we headed south pulling a newly-purchased twenty-nine-foot travel trailer. This was before either one of us had smart phones―maps and calls to my mother-in-law had to suffice for directions or information on where to get a half-decent cup of coffee―and well before our best efforts at making a life together imploded.
Now, he was in Philadelphia in a full-blown crash and burn―the countless calls and text messages I’d received over the course of the conference confirmed that. He was broke, out of work, homeless, and battling addiction. He blamed me, his mother, and anyone else who, in his mind, had let him down over the course of his life.
I know the fairytale grown-up world I thought existed when I was in my teens , where my―of course, British―rock star husband provides me with enough disposable income to chase whatever creative muse might flit by. I’m cool with working my ass off in conjunction with an equally driven partner. But that’s not how things had turned out.
We’d gone to hell and back during the recession, but we’d managed to finally eke out a somewhat decent existence. He’d returned to masonry with a small company outside Charlottesville, Virginia, and I had lucked into a job as a screenprinter—finally utilizing my BFA—after nearly a year working retail for eight dollars an hour. I’d also found an amazing group of creative, talented friends. I’d never imagined anywhere below the Mason-Dixon could feel like home, but it was tolerable, considering I was northeast born and bred.
“I can’t do what I want here,” he’d started saying from almost the moment we moved to C’ville. “No one here plays the kind of music I do.”
His musical talent is unmatched, so I was sympathetic. I don’t feel that way because I married him―I wouldn’t have married him had he been mediocre. Cold, yes, but if I were going to fully support his creativity, I had to believe in it. He was the real deal. I wanted to see him succeed.
“What do you want to do?” I asked with some trepidation when his misery finally reached a fever pitch three years into our foray in the south.
“I need to move back north.”
He’d made several weeks-long trips to Philadelphia that year to practice and play with his band, which consisted of the same guys he’d been in a previous band with before I met him. He’d handed me their CD shortly after we met―I put it in my car’s player knowing that if it sucked I’d have to break up with him. They were amazing, with the kind of chemistry that doesn’t come around often.
“Well, so, what do you want to do?” I repeated. “What’s your plan?”
It seemed straightforward enough: He’d move back to Philly, where we’d met and lived before the recession kicked us south. I’d stay in Cville and continue working, providing a steady stream of income, stability, and health insurance. He’d get settled, and then I’d pick up stakes and move north.
It fell apart almost from the get-go. He said he couldn’t hold it together without me, and he sank into addiction. I found myself repelled by his neediness. I saw my life with him as a trap. So instead I moved further north. It wasn’t a plan so much as a reaction.
I felt like an asshole, like I’d somehow abandoned him. The guilt still burned red hot as I navigated the winding Ohio roads a full year after he’d packed up a rented van and driven north, away from our cramped, aged camper and onto a completely different life. He wasn’t my kid, he wasn’t a child—he was a full-grown man who refused to take responsibility for his actions. His mother and I had spent countless days and dollars to keep him afloat until it became obvious no amount of assistance would ever be enough. Yet I still felt like a jerk, and I couldn’t shake it. I didn’t know if the guilt would ever go away.
And I was sad. I knew in my heart that, in the end, we’d go our separate ways, but it’s not that I didn’t care about him. It didn’t stop me from feeling paralyzed, plodding through life’s motions under a heavy weight. It felt like just another failure, another way I’d managed to veer off life’s path, whatever that was supposed to be.
In many ways the hardest part was the external judgment, which just added to my uncertainty about what I was doing, or should be doing, or should have done. It was almost like the second Sean fell down, those around me headed my way with knives out. They’d been holding back, barely, their disdain, but all bets were off. I found myself putting up walls, forcing my own disdain at what had been, so completely, my life, as if by swearing it off I could convince the world—and those around me—I wasn’t like him.
“I always knew he was bad,” they’d say. “What were you thinking?”
And I’d nod my head in agreement—“Yeah, what was I thinking?”—afraid that if I defended him, they’d judge me harshly, too.
Thing is, he wasn’t actually a bad person. He may have looked like your typical bad boy, and he most certainly embodied the stereotypical rock and roll persona. He was tall, thin, his body angled in sharp lines from hard living and hard labor. He smoked like a chimney, swore off whiskey and the rages it put him into, and sported one—intentionally—amateurish tattoo: a skull and crossbones with the words “fuck off.” He was wholly, unabashedly, loudly uncouth. But he was also a voracious reader and a constant questioner of the kinds of things most people just accepted as fact, which the journalist in me found a kinship with.
When the financial sector collapsed and everyone I knew turned their backs while we struggled, we only had each other to rely on. Losing my ally, my—albeit damaged—champion was like another floor dropping out. He may have been alive in the corporeal sense, but I wasn’t sure the real Sean was ever coming back. And if I waited to find out? How many second chances could I give him before it was too late? I hated myself for even thinking this way, and I hated him.
He’d dropped out of school at sixteen, lived wherever he could find a place to lay his head and was, for the most part, married to music, his second wife. I was his third. Drugs were, and always had been, his first.
I wasn’t sure about moving north, but winter was coming fast and the camper was falling apart. I had to make a decision. I had family in Ithaca, but for all intents and purposes I was broke and alone, save for my two terriers. I was forty-four, not a single possession worth calling my own. Even my own truck, which I’d left for my dad to drive if needed when I headed to Ohio, was a slap in the face: I had a car I loved somewhere along the east coast, which I’d been forced to leave after its water pump quit. Sean was supposed to drive from Philly to Virginia to get it after I moved, and we’d trade in the spring―I’d headed north driving what had been our tow vehicle, our Behemoth, a ’97 Suburban. I had no idea where my car was, or whose dubious possession it might be in, along with the rest of my belongings. So I was limited to very local trips considering the advanced age and state of disrepair of the tow beast.
Which is how I wound up driving more than four hundred miles each way to Ohio in my father’s pickup. I’d attempted to rent a car, but was turned away when it was discovered I was a nomadic ne’er do well.
“My dad’s going to pay for everything,” I said sheepishly, handing over my driver’s license at the rental counter. I was, after all, well beyond the age of my father paying for anything. But he’d offered, and I was in no financial situation to say no. I’d taken a part-time job in Ithaca with the same chain store that had plucked me from jobless perdition in Virginia just to make sure I didn’t go without work. But the pay and hours provided little more than spare change in the adult world I had once been accustomed to living in.
I’d spent thousands of dollars on this particular car rental company; I had no reason to think there would be a problem. They’d gained my loyalty when the engine of my Volkswagen Golf self-destructed in 2010, melting to a puddle of oily, metallic goo on the side of Route 495 in Delaware, leaving me, Sean, and our puppy stranded as traffic zoomed by. Their gimmick was they’d come get you. We’d needed a car. I’d wound up renting from them for well over a month.
So it was a shock when they rejected me.
“If you don’t have a major credit card, we need proof of income and residence,” the woman behind the counter said. “And you’ll have to pay for everything yourself. No one else can pay for you.”
“You’re kidding, right?” I asked, still not comprehending the situation. “Why can’t he just rent the car and add me on as a second driver?”
“Because we need the same information from all drivers, so even if you’re a second driver and you don’t have a major credit card, you still need to prove income and residence.”
My cheeks grew hot, my pulse started to race, and my favorite feeling―enraged embarrassment―took over. I could prove my pittance of an income but not residence. I hadn’t had an actual, legal address in years. By federal law, even as a full-time RVer, I was considered homeless.
“This is outright discrimination,” I stated, digging my fingernails into my palm. “I do not have proof of residence, and why, exactly, do you need proof of income?”
As if I didn’t know: Because if you’re on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, you’re a lazy, shiftless thief. Because people without credit cards don’t work. Because being chosen to hold credit certifies you are an actual citizen in the eyes of the rest of society. That’s what matters―money. Anyone who doesn’t have it is scum and banned from normal activities. Like renting a car to attend a conference. Because lazy impoverished scumbags don’t go to conferences. They’re too busy collecting welfare and doing drugs.
It makes even the strongest-willed person want to crumble. Which is why I can almost understand Sean’s compulsion to numb himself no matter the consequences. Almost.
It’s no secret: I bought into the lie that as an educated person I deserved to live a life of comfort, free from things like being turned away when trying to rent a car. But the life I’ve lived and its choices—some made by me, some hoisted upon me—have shown me that there’s really no escaping the mess that is life.
But I was neither a total failure nor the victim, but something in-between. I loathed working retail and the pittance I earned, but I also hated working seventy-hour weeks in uncomfortable shoes so some CEO could feel impressive and buy something else. I’d been given the chance, an existential Scrooge story in reverse, to decide what, exactly, had to change. Would I keep pushing forward until I found my way? And if it all went to shit, if the traffic stopped moving, was I agile enough to veer off and figure it out without crashing again?
I figured I needed to find the fine line between living in the moment and looking at the long-term ramifications of what I was doing. I’d been cruising along for decades, certain I’d always find another on-ramp and everything would work out for the best. There’s merit in that approach, but also some nasty potholes. Getting hitched in the basement of a bland, brick apartment complex with no witnesses and celebrating afterward with a cup of Dunkin Donuts might have been a place to start thinking about the path I’d been on. But I hadn’t. I needed to find balance. I dreaded becoming stuck, but the other option—full-on hedonism—was also something I couldn’t even bear witness to, let alone indulge.
With the conference behind me, and its amazing writers inspiring me to just get to fucking work, I had to accept I was alone, wandering on the eastern edge of the Midwest. The guilt, the hurt, and the anger still burned in my gut, and probably always would. But was anyone else’s happiness my responsibility? Was it okay to put myself, my ambitions, first?
I’d been taking the most circuitous routes my entire life, but they were mine. I owned them. The writing conference was just another start, a way to meet people like me, wake the muse up and keep going. It wasn’t fucking up so much as it was just life. Could I cut myself some slack? Should I? And more importantly, could I stop feeling sorry for myself and everyone else and do what needed to be done?
“Aha!” I hollered as I spied a sign for the highway. I could see it off to my left, cars and semis flying along. “So there!” I exclaimed, slapping the wheel in triumph, shaking off the melancholy.
ERICA S. BRATH is a non-fiction writer currently living in Ithaca, New York. She works as a graphic designer and editor, and has written for publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Weekly, and Men’s Health. She is currently working on a nonfiction book detailing her experience living full-time in a travel trailer during the Great Recession. Her website is esbrath.com.
She Stopped Taking the Pill—but What Happened Next Shocked Everyone!
She and her husband wanted a child—a “little-Nick-and-Sarah-baby.” She stopped taking the tiny daily pill. Nothing happened. Her body, young and healthy, refused to ovulate more than three times a year— a practice of inadequate irresponsibility it had begun with Menstruation Number One, when she was almost sixteen. She worried, a lot. She could become one of the women forced to smile through tight teeth. The mouths sing-songing, “We’re trying!” “Whenever God blesses us!” “Someday!” The ones who cry to see blood on the soft, snowy cotton, those who stare surreptitiously at the lucky. The experts on aiming a bad-news-bearing pee stream on a plastic stick, the minds trying to will nothing into a pink line.
After Months of Suffering, She Made an Amazing Discovery That Would Change Everything!
In the end, her body would fail for only a little over a year. The worry had eaten away at her for no reason. She could have saved the tears for something better. When she felt her way to the gray dawn bathroom and she vomited into the bowl, she knew it must be true and it was. It was a bad time—they had just moved across the state—and they had stopped actively trying, wanting to get more settled in their new city. But she hadn’t started using birth control again; she’d been lulled by their failure thus far. Now they were, at the same time, happier and more worried than they had ever been.
The Appalling New Ways in Which Her Body Betrayed Her!
She should have spent those worry-months picking up extra waitressing shifts. When the sickness came, she wasn’t ready. Her body failed her in a new way now. Her blood rushed harder through the highways. Her doctor, bony and cruel faced, the only female doctor who’d accepted Medicaid, berated her for gaining weight—it was too much, too quickly. She’d thought only a woman could understand what she was going through, but she saw no sympathy in the stony eyes, just disgust. The prescription for high blood pressure—get off your feet and stop eating so much. Her worry over her inability to conceive morphed quickly into another worry, as her body struggled, as the money quickly became not enough.
Groundbreaking Research Uncovers the Top Five Things to Avoid When Pregnant!
She needed to keep waiting tables—they couldn’t pay their bills with only his tips. She left her restaurant and he left his, so they could get a new restaurant together. This way, he could carry her heavy trays. Sinking into their sofa after midnight, after working a double shift, her feet and legs rebelled. They tingled, ached, screamed at her as she held onto the stove for support. She stirred canned soup and heated hot dogs—all against doctor’s orders, but they were quick, cheap, and she was too tired to deal with more. They sat on the green sofa with the Southwestern design—ugly but free—and binge-watched episodes of Friends he had downloaded—illegal but free—as they fueled their bodies with salt, sugar, and fat. These nutritional sins were the only luxuries they could afford so they savored them. They went through all 236 episodes in that dark apartment. She doesn’t think Friends is funny, anymore.
They Had Nowhere to Turn—and Then, an Unexpected Phone Call!
They had to choose which bills to pay. The apartment’s rent was the most important, of course, the truck payment second. All frivolities had already been cut, and all bills were already in or past their grace periods. The truck insurance was allowed to lapse, which meant they now were in danger of their only vehicle getting repossessed. One chilly night, his parents called him. They weren’t rich, or even super comfortable, but they had read between the stress lines in foreheads and the pauses in phone calls. They offered to share what they had. They offered to make room. She threw everything in cardboard boxes, nervous and relieved about the offer. He used their last dollars to rent a U-Haul, and they drove it, along with their uninsured truck. They drove from Dallas to the Hill Country; from the cold apartment complex surrounded by strangers to the warm house surrounded by family.
The Aging Effects of Stress—Doctors Say You Can IMPROVE YOUR MENTAL HEALTH by Letting Go of Unrealistic Expectations!
The stress wasn’t over, but it was lesser. It was now the stress of preparing for childbirth, of two women sharing a kitchen, of heads butting, of chore parceling, of packed cardboard boxes in the garage with no plans to unpack them anytime soon, and of feeling beholden by the knowledge that this graciousness could not be repaid. It was no longer the stress of unpaid car insurance, eviction, and having to choose cheaper food over healthier food. She still couldn’t bring herself to care what the scale said—she’d deal with it later. Her new doctor-who-accepts-Medicaid was a man; she felt that she could accept the advice that resonated in her and release the rest as “something he knows nothing about.” He didn’t mention her weight—either he was more compassionate toward her feelings or too busy and uncaring to take the time. Either way, she was grateful to ignore it for now.
The Shocking Aftermath of Her Life Choices!
She gave up canned soup, doctors with cold eyes, waitressing, and Friends. She gave her body her blessing to grow their baby girl for the remaining three months. His parents gave all they could spare to the preparations for their granddaughter’s arrival. She and her husband felt the relief of release as hope returned to their eyes. It wasn’t the perfect start for a young family, but it was a safe and loving one. They accepted it gladly.
SARAH BROUSSARD WEAVER lives on a hill in beautiful Portland, Oregon. She is a senior at University of Portland. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Eastern Iowa Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Mulberry Fork Review among other journals. You can visit her at sbweaver.com or tweet hi @sarahbweaver.
From the second I read the subject line of the email—“More Information Regarding Your Apartment Check-In!”—I felt queasy. Having spent weeks looking for a one-month rental in New York and only finding places that were booked, bleak, or insanely expensive, I’d gotten used to the idea that our plan wasn’t going to work. But then, just minutes after requesting information about a beautiful apartment I found on craigslist, Gibbson’s response popped into my inbox:
Hello tobin! i am so glad to hear from you that you would love to take my apartment! I will be more than happy to keep and maintain the place for you on your arrival. The cost for a month will be $3000 and i am willingly and ready to give you discount of $600 so you are require to pay the sum of only $2400. You are require 50% of the total fund ($1200) to secure the dates you have chosen also a security deposit of $200. You are require to pay $1200 + security deposit of $200 = $1400 the total fund to pay to secure and book the dates for you will be $1400. The apartment is much available so you will need to give me more information with the exact date that you will be checking in so that i can book the date for you to avoid other people to book for the same date, i do not like disappointment so i will be more than happy to know the exact date for check in so that i can keep and retain the place for you and your wife. Here is the link for more information or pictures https://post.craigslist.org/manage/1275981629/368jey.
I will be glad to hear from you asap. Regards Jeff Gibbson
This was way too much information for me to take in all at once: we already have the apartment? We’re getting a discount? But we need to send the deposit right away so no one else books it first?
Part of my queasiness was sticker shock: after all, $2400 for a single month’s rental was a lot of money and I am more than capable of feeling buyer’s remorse even before I buy; still, we knew from the start that this “small-towners spend a month in the big city” experience was not going to come cheap. No, there was something besides the cost that was making me feel like I was being pulled into a bad dream.
And that’s when I had to confront an uncomfortable question: was I really so petty (or, worse, so prejudiced) that I was bothered by a few uses of non-standard English, by the fact that this Mr. Jeff Gibbson was clearly a non-native speaker of English? Even while I knew that this might be what was bothering me, I deeply hoped it wasn’t. After all, I was by temperament, politics, and occupation (I teach college students how to write) conditioned to be sympathetic and open to struggling writers, including non-standard speakers of English and so I knew it would be illogical, un-PC, and flat-out unfair to draw any negative impressions or inferences about someone’s character based on a couple of unusual idioms. I could painfully imagine how well—or how poorly—I could write my own version of that same letter in my pitiful, supposedly “reading comprehension” French (“Bonjour, Gibbson, Je suis tres joyeux…”).
But there was more than an inelegant turn of phrase that made me nervous about Gibbson’s note; there was also his unsettling eagerness. I knew from all my fruitless searching that there was a seller’s market for what Gibbson had to offer, so why was he so amped up about my interest and so eager to close the deal right away? There was his almost spell-inducing listing and repetition of prices and numbers. And, still more disconcerting, there was his assumption that my request for info about availability and rates was actually a commitment: “i am so glad to hear from you that you would love to take my apartment.” I was certainly interested in his place or I wouldn’t have written him, but what’s love got to do with it? And why had he already moved on to the details of our check in?
All of this seemed to add up to a not-so-subliminal message: act right away or you will lose out. Even the supposedly reassuring phrase—“the apartment is much available”—seemed intended (from the rest of the sentence and paragraph) to convey the very opposite—the idea that the apartment was not much available but was, in fact, in much demand and, therefore, required an immediate commitment and deposit.
And, finally, there was that ominous-sounding phrase—“i do not like disappointment.” Wasn’t that a wise guy’s understated way of saying “Disappoint me at your own risk; I’m not messing around here”?
Here are two facts about me: one, I have almost never been conned or even pushed into a bad deal. Two, I walk around the world with my own little personal homeland security advisory system and—like the government’s post 9/11 Homeland Security Advisement System which keeps its terror warning constantly high, even in the absence of any known or immediate threat—I normally run somewhere between yellow and orange. In other words, skepticism is my default mode; introduce the slightest bit of suspicious behavior and I start trending towards red alert. For all of my life I’ve connected those facts. I’ve believed that I never get conned because I’m always on guard, always reading between the lines, always fearing that every subtext has a sub-subtext. Determined to avoid the double pain of a material loss followed by a how-could-I-have-been-so-stupid? blow to my ego, I’ve always reacted to every offer that sounds good by telling myself that it sounds too good to be true.
Clicking on the link to Gibbson’s apartment for maybe the fiftieth time that night, I saw that he had just added a new link: “More pictures of apartment.” Looking at one of the additional shots, I had a sudden sense of déjà vu: I was certain I had seen that photo before. And, in fact, it only took me a few minutes of scanning through my bookmarks to find that very photo in an ad for an apartment on a website that advertised short-term home rentals. But weirdest of all, except for the photos and the opening line—“An elegant apartment in a top New York neighborhood”—nothing from this ad matched up with the craigslist ad. The owner was listed not as Jeff Gibbson, but as Jack Marsh; the apartment, according to the availability calendar, was already rented for the entire fall; and there was nothing about any $600 discount.
So whose apartment was this, anyway? I decided to email Gibbson to see if he could clear things up:
Hello Jeff. Thanks for sending me that information about your apartment. I am interested but I have a few questions: First, I saw an ad for the same apartment on another website and on that website it says that the apartment is already rented for September. It gives the owner’s name as Jack Marsh. Are you renting the apartment from him? And do you have his permission to sublet it to someone else? If so, could I speak with him, too? Finally, if I came to New York in the next few days, could you show me the apartment? I look forward to hearing from you soon.
This time, Gibbson didn’t answer right away; in fact, this time he didn’t answer at all. Not wanting to lose the apartment, I decided to email Marsh directly. Within the hour, my phone rang. “Hello, Jack Marsh here. You emailed me?”
He was calling to say that the apartment I had seen online was already rented but that he had another apartment which was available for September. He gave me the address of the link so I could look at it while we talked. This available apartment —“we call it ‘The Miller,’” Marsh said, “because the playwright Arthur Miller, you know, from Death of a Salesman, he once lived in it”—looked nice enough. The problem was that the Gibbson apartment looked much nicer and had, off the living room, a beautiful, little terrace with two appealingly-angled Adirondacks chair and a little wooden table where we could place our hot coffee or glasses of red wine while we read novels and the Sunday Times. I realized that I wasn’t ready to give that up.
“But is the bigger one available as a sublet?”
“No. I never allow subletters.”
“Well, I think your other apartment might be available as a sublet; I saw it advertised on another website for September rental.”
“It must have been an old ad.”
“No, I saw it yesterday. And actually I’ve been emailing with the guy who placed the ad.”
“Oh,” he said, clearly confused. Then, just a beat later, he said “Oh” again. But this time he didn’t sound confused it all; he sounded like he just figured something out. “The ad you saw? It’s is a scam; it was put on craigslist by a con artist pretending that my apartment is his.”
“But he had all those pictures of the apartment.”
“Yeah; they just copy ’em. It’s simple enough for them to do. Hey, could you send me the link so I can email craigslist and get his ad taken down?” Clearly this whole experience was easier for Mr. Marsh to shrug off than it was for me.
“Wait, so the reason his email sounds so different than his craigslist’s ad is that he used your words in his ad but he used his own words in his email?”
I was still a little shocked at how easily I’d almost been fooled and still a little heartbroken that we apparently weren’t going to get the terrace or the discount.
Still, the smaller apartment looked nice enough online and nice enough in person, too, when, after I took the train the next day down from my home in Maine to New York, Mr. Marsh showed me around. In fact, after the Gibbson debacle, it was enormously reassuring to deal with the ultra-professional Mr. Marsh. No strong pressure to take the apartment from him; in fact, he was in all ways the anti-Gibbson. As he walked me to the door, I said that I was almost certain we’d take it but that I wanted to go home to talk and think about it with my wife. Could he hold it for a few days while we decided?
He smiled and shrugged. “Well, I can’t officially hold it: my policy is always to rent it to whoever puts down a deposit first. But I haven’t even advertised it much yet for September so it should still be available once you decide.” Feeling reassured, I was halfway out the door when Mr. Marsh said in an offhanded way, “Except I guess I should mention one other thing: the tenant in there now, he has a friend he’s been trying to talk into taking the place after he leaves. So I guess the sooner you tell me, the better, since I’d hate to have you call and be disappointed.”
I’ve got next-to-no interest in run-of-the-mill hucksters—the car salesman trying to talk me into undercoating the undercoating, the Jehovah’s Witness wanting only a small donation to save my soul—but for some reason, I am captivated by the Nigerian princesses who email me from their hospital beds or prison cells or hospital beds in a prison cell to tell me that their dying wish is to make me the recipient of three million Euros if I will only agree to be the executor of their entire fortunes that otherwise would go unclaimed since all of their families have been banished or murdered, or murdered and then banished.
In fact, the more complicated and creative the scam, the more preposterous and chutzpah-laden the pitch, the more likely I am to give the scammer my grudging respect. How else to explain why, twenty years after the fact, I still find myself thinking about the time that my wife and I once agreed to tour a time-share complex in exchange for a nineteen-inch color TV, two free airline tickets to Hawaii, or a “secret prize worth over $500”? The tour turned out to be less awful than we feared—the complex actually looked surprisingly nice—but, by the end, our two young daughters were getting antsy and we were more than ready to collect our gift and hit the road. That’s when we were ushered into a little cubicle in a big room surrounded by many other little cubicles, and the hard sell began.
As the salesman kept dropping the price thousand by thousand, I just kept repeating: “We have absolutely no interest; we just want our free prize.”
But like Sartre’s “No Exit,” we were apparently stuck in a Hell that was other people, or more specifically that was one other person: our ready to fight-to-the-death salesman, Bill. He was clearly determined to keep us there until we opened our checkbook, and we were just as determined to get the TV or tickets without committing a penny.
“Okay,” our Hell-mate finally said, “This is my very last offer.” And he wrote down a figure, folded the paper in half, and slid it across the desk.
Though I made no move to open it, Bill suddenly shouted, “Wait!” and made a theatrical lunge to retrieve the paper. “What did I just do? Let me see!” As he read his own offer, he slapped his forehead with his palm. ”Oh, God, I just screwed up big time! I wrote down the wrong amount by mistake and I just gave you a price $5,000 less than my boss told us we were ever allowed to give anyone, even family. But legally I can’t take the offer back. It’s in writing. Don’t worry. It’s not your problem—it’s mine. You just got a time share that you could turn around tomorrow and sell for a huge profit—and it’s all because I screwed up. I better go tell the boss what I did.”
And before I could repeat my mantra—“We are not buying a time-share today no matter what price you offer”—he was gone. We waited five minutes, ten minutes, but no one came back to our tiny cubicle to give us our tickets or TV. On one side of our cubicle’s walls, I heard a man yelling that he wanted his free gift while, on the other, I could hear a little kid crying. Just as we packed up our own kids and headed toward the door, a different man suddenly scurried in. “Hold on a sec. Johnson just told me about the mistake he made with you—offering you the wrong price. I want you to know that I am going to lose my shirt on this but a deal is a deal. I can fire Johnson for costing me an arm and a leg—and I want you to know that I already have—but, much as I’d like to, I can’t take back his offer. So here’s the deal you got—and I’ve got to live with.” And he handed me a pen and a purchase agreement with the “mistaken” price at the top.
It seemed like a ridiculous theory when it first came up. I was having dinner with my nephew, Sam, and his girlfriend, Isabel, just a couple of hours after looking at Marsh’s apartment, and I was telling them what had happened with the craigslist ad. “That is a pretty good scam,” Sam said, “but you know what would make it a great one? What if Marsh were the guy running the scam and he invented Gibbson in order to make you trust him?”
I laughed it off at the time, but that night, lying in the bed, I found myself wondering, was Sam’s absurdist fantasy completely impossible? After all, I found Marsh through the link on Gibbson’s email. And he was quick to dismiss the scammer and introduce himself as the real thing. Wasn’t that the oldest trick in the confidence man’s book? As in: be careful; there are con artists out there but you can trust ME. And hadn’t he sucked me in with the oldest move in the history of advertising: the old bait-and-switch? I wrote him because I was interested in the first apartment, the nicer apartment, and then was told (predictably?) that it was long gone but that he had another he could rent me. Hadn’t he buttered me up with the soft sell—“I’m not even advertising the place right now”—and then thrown in that little bomb right at the door about how the tenant’s friend might change his mind and call?
The Arthur Miller angle suddenly seemed fishy, too. Wasn’t it just a little bit unlikely that after not being able to find any apartment at all, the one place that pops up was once occupied by one of America’s greatest playwrights? I couldn’t help but wonder whether Marsh saw my name and return email address, then Googled me to discover that I taught in a university English department, and then invented the Arthur Miller detail just to suck me in further.
I reminded myself that this was nuts, that Marsh had in fact answered the door when I rang the bell and had, in fact, showed me the apartment. But that, I realized, could have been a hoax, too. It was at least possible that the real owner of the building was out of town or at least away for the evening and that Marsh had a key—maybe he was a handy man or a dog walker who was once given access to the building—and had showed me an apartment he didn’t own.
It wasn’t surprising, given my apparently unlimited capacities for skepticism and anxiety, that I found myself deeply unsettled by that possibility. What was surprising, though, was I almost wished it were true. After all, if Marsh were the real con man who, in order to fool me, invented a less trustworthy fake con man, added a made-to-order story about the apartment’s role in American literary history, and then gave me the tour posing as the apartment’s owner, we weren’t just talking Arthur Miller; we were talking Mamet. Glengarry Glen Ross Mamet.
The scariest con men aren’t the arm twisters; they’re the ear whisperers, the Iagos, the ones who use our own best and worst traits—generosity, trust, and love, on the one hand; foolishness, grandiosity, and greed on the other—against us. Or worse, they’re the ones who simply seduce us into using ourselves against ourselves. Since the clichés are true—there really is a sucker born every minute and if you build it, they will come – the best con men don’t need to be aggressive; they only need to set an attractive-enough trap … and then wait. One of the keys to the success of Bernie Madoff’s investment scam was that he played so hard to get: his strategy for reeling in wealthy investors was to pretend not to need or even want them. By creating the illusion of exclusivity—members at his country club asked other members to introduce them to Madoff as perspective clients—his services appeared all the more desirable and legitimate.
In a world filled with aggressive, clearly sketchy con men and women, the confident and confidence-inspiring Madoffian con man can have a field day. When we think we’ve finally found that one honest insurance salesman or loan officer, we are all too eager to let down our guard, and we throw ourselves and our money at him or her with gratitude and relief. “I am so happy I found you,” we confide to the last person we should be confiding in, as we reel ourselves in. “You won’t believe the sketchy offers I got from the other guys.”
Back home in Maine, at the island in our kitchen, I read and re-read the invoice for the deposit that Marsh had sent me. My wife and I had already agreed that we’d take the apartment, but with my checkbook open and my pen poised I did what I always do—I began to think through all the possible pros and cons (in both meanings of that word) of renting the apartment. I began to wonder whether I might not be falling into a trap, whether we might not find a better apartment in tomorrow’s ads, whether we should consider spending the month in San Francisco instead.
And that’s when I suddenly remembered something I hadn’t thought about in years. I remembered the time I ran into our neighbor, Joanne, at the supermarket. “Guess what happened to us?” she said. “We got an invitation to tour some condos in a time share complex.” Since the complex she named was the very same one where we’d been given the hard sell in that tiny cubicle, I figured she was about to tell me a similar horror story. “Even though we just went up there because we got this letter telling us we had won some special prize,” Joanne continued, “we ended up buying a time share. They explained that it’s a great investment — we can always sell our week for a big profit anytime we want—and the best part is that once you buy in, you can go there any time you want to use the facilities. They’ve got a pool, a golf course, a great dining room. We’ve been going almost every single weekend. We LOVE it!”
I looked again at the invoice. I took one more deep breath. And I wrote the check.
LAD TOBIN has recently completed a collection of personal essays for which he’s seeking a publisher or agent. Essays from the collection have appeared in The Sun, The Rumpus, Utne Reader, and Fourth Genre. He teaches at Boston College and lives in Kittery Point, Maine. Connect with him on Facebook (lad.tobin) or twitter (@ladtobin).
Two years ago, my husband and I moved away from Portland, Oregon, on purpose. We left behind friends, career prospects, and a two-bedroom rental house that cost a mere $875 a month. And we loaded our dog and kid into our Outback and drove as fast as a ’99 Subaru can go all the way to Marietta, Ohio, the town where I grew up.
“We just need to be closer to family,” I told people in the perplexed silences that inevitably followed when they heard our plans to relocate. What illustrious family could possibly woo us away from an artsy Eden on the Willamette?
The family thing was true and untrue. We needed to be closer to them because we were perpetually broke, and the broke-ness had become such that it was time to deploy the emergency move-in-with-my-folks plan.
But there was also an ache that hadn’t gone away despite five years of gamely trying to adore that adorable city where we fit in so well, in so many ways. Portland loved me, and I could not love it back, and I felt like a shithead because of it.
We arrived in Portland in 2007, three mayors and at least two ultra-bougie New Seasons food markets ago. Before that, we lived in New York City, and in comparison Portland seemed preposterously quaint and manageable. Our first months in Oregon, my husband and I would admire the downtown skyline and the conifer-studded hills rising behind it and coo, “Oh, look—it thinks it’s a city!”
The intensity of city life was what we moved to escape, and our new no-name strip of neighborhood between I-205 and the used car lots of Southeast 82nd Avenue struck us as a quiet haven of playgrounds and modest houses, with a few hookers thrown in for color. Two greasy old-school Chinese joints bordered us, Hung Far Low to the south and Chinese Garden to the north. We had a spacious backyard, where I doggedly pruned an overgrown apple tree and hacked away at diseased lilac bushes. We got a dog from the Humane Society. My husband joined a few bands. On heady Portland summer days when the sun cascaded down like a shot of heroin, he haunted a skate spot under the Hawthorne Bridge. Though magazines and newspapers in New York barely gave me the time of day, in Portland I wrote freelance stories for the food section of Portland’s major news daily, eventually worked in their test kitchen, and also taught cooking classes on nights and weekends. My husband had a string of long-term temp assignments in administrative offices. It was almost enough to keep us afloat.
All the while, we looked for better jobs. And looked and looked and looked. There were two main problems we grappled with in Portland: rain and money. Too much of one, and never enough of the other.
Let me tell you about Marietta, Ohio. Founded in 1788, the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory. Situated at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers, which means it’s in spitting distance of West Virginia. It’s an Appalachian Interzone, at once very Midwestern and not Midwestern at all; a generous pinch of twang runs through the local speech. The population is staggeringly white, though there might be about twenty black residents now, and if memory serves, back when I was in high school there were maybe five. So that’s improvement. As for other ethnicities, if you live here and you’re Asian, you’re probably a doctor. There’s one shop that serves decent coffee, but it’s a nutritional supplement store/smoothie bar that doesn’t open until nine in the morning. Vietnamese food? A taqueria? Fat chance.
Portland feels like another universe in comparison. I still struggle to define the charms and drawbacks of each place. Both are defined by the big, dirty rivers that run through them. Portland had innumerable food carts and strip clubs; Marietta has innumerable churches and fracking rigs. You’ll have to wait for hours to score a table at Portland’s Tasty n’ Sons for breakfast on a Sunday, but in Marietta, the Busy Bee Diner offers immediate seating and a waitress who wears her hair in, yes, a beehive. Sure, Portland has scads of idealistic youths engaged in civic activism—but you’d never guess how many grumpy retirees in Marietta volunteer their time for charitable causes. Instead of laptops, they might carry concealed weapons. John Deere pajama bottoms worn as all-purpose outerwear are a common fashion statement, true, but the population overwhelmingly accepts proven science and public health—that is, you don’t see citizens coming together against fluoridated water that way they do in Portland.
Living here is a bit like going back in time. After my high school experience as the resident misfit weirdo, I skipped town with a happy shrug, never suspecting that decades later I’d come to crave Marietta, with its scenic bridges and dozens of historical markers and goofy festivals and rickety, underfunded little museums. It’s an all-American community with a picturesque downtown of antique stores and brick streets. The thrift shops and flea markets are great, because the records and mid-century furniture aren’t all picked over. Baby boomers abound, as do minimum-wage positions in nursing homes. Among the ladies there’s an unfortunately popular haircut, this wedged-in-the-back/spiked-in-the-front chemical-drenched thing with streaky highlights that my husband and I call “crispy hair.”
And I have to be slightly more mindful of what I say in mixed company. In Portland, most people likely lean Democratic, or support reproductive rights. In Marietta, I have friends who vote for Tea Party candidates.
Free from the confines of that infamous Portland bubble, I like walking around and not running into endless clones of myself and my political views. I feel like I have a better understanding of what the rest of America is like, and a window into the goodness of people who don’t think like me. “You’re not from around here, are you?” I’d get asked when we first moved back to Marietta. The old guard here clings to a deeply ingrained Midwestern/Appalachian skepticism of outsiders, and they are reluctant to embrace change, even small ones, like installing pedestrian crosswalks on the busiest street downtown.
“I grew up here, actually,” I delight in replying. Not fitting in is my comfort zone. I’m used to it. I’m comfortable in Marietta.
My California-bred husband still wakes up dazed upon realizing that he resides in the ass-end of Appalachia. He loves record stores, ethnic food, post-rock bands, and independent movie theaters. He’s trying to be a good sport.
But once we had our daughter, those things phased out of our Portland lives, anyway. By then I’d veered away from my culinary career, landed job with the county library, and was thoroughly enjoying the best employee benefits of my life.
Which was great, because we needed those funds to cover childcare. It became apparent that raising Frances in Portland would present increasingly complex logistical problems. For our one-car family, Frances’s daycare had to be reasonably close to my library. Both Joe and I worked until six many nights, and nearly all daycare centers closed before then. Through desperate combings of Craigslist we found a few options, but there was precious middle ground between total sketch-fests that reeked of sour milk and tiny palaces of early childhood education where the tuition was higher than my paycheck.
When my husband’s temp gig with a Portland city agency ended, even though he wanted to work, we realized we couldn’t afford it. We reluctantly pulled Frances out of the loving daycare we’d been lucky to find and had him stay home with her, collecting unemployment until he got a job offer high enough for us to clear her monthly fees.
That put us more in touch with the day-to-day struggles of the working class than we were comfortable admitting. We could have chosen housing that was even lower-cost than our moldy house of sadness, where I had to make wiping the backs of our bookcases down with bleach water a weekly task. I developed a ceaseless runny nose that eventually blossomed into massive sneezing attacks, ones that disappeared once I walked out our door, and I realized I was allergic to our own home. We knew we had food, a roof over our heads, and a bank account that was barely ever overdrawn.
The biggest ache was a battle we raged with our privileged identity. We’re educated, liberal, and artsy. People like us are supposed to gentrify neighborhoods, not get pushed out of them. For extra money, I picked up sub shifts at public library branches; eventually, I worked at least once at all eighteen branches in the county system, the grand slam. It was a great way to see the parts of city that the alluring travel features in magazines don’t show you. That was the Portland I ultimately fell in love with, the one that didn’t trump itself up. I saw a lot of meth teeth and smelled the stench of urine wafting from clothes that had not been washed in years, sure, but I also saw people who were more or less…normal. People who needed jobs and barely had any tech literacy, so I’d have to walk them through filling out a resume online as they raced to submit it before their allotted time for the day ran out on the library’s public computer. People who needed referrals for free legal services, or were trying to locate their parent’s birth records, or who just wanted recommendations for a good book.
To a casual observer, I looked like the Portland dream: The librarian-writer! With nerdy glasses! Who used to be a chef! But really, I was one of them, the other Portlanders. The ones who constantly did the utility bill/paycheck triage. The ones whose shady landlord, when asked to take down the 1970s wood paneling because it’s housing a robust colony of mildew, replies “But if I take down the paneling, it’ll expose the hole in the wall!” The ones who shopped at the discount grocer not because thrift is trendy, but because thrift is necessary. A few strokes of massive bad luck and I could have been the urine-reeking patron, or the patron who lived in her car, or the patron who lost visiting privileges with her kid.
We were tearing our hair out, working with a tiny margin of error from month to month, with no bright future in sight. We cobbled together our work schedules for Frances-watching duties, doing that frantic parent-to-parent handoff as one of us headed out the door; I worked every weekend, and we rarely had relaxed family time together. What’s the point of living in an amazing city when you can’t access its best attributes?
“You know that feeling you get when your plane descends to land in Portland, and you look at the city below and think, ‘I’m home’?” A friend posed this question, and I had to confess I’d never once felt that way. It was more like, “Huh. Here we are again.”
The love that Portlanders have for their city borders on romantic. I felt like a third wheel, immune to the giddiness. While tall bikes and food carts made out on the couch, I skulked in the corner of the rec room, alone. I became cantankerous about the stupidest things, hundreds of soggy twigs to fuel the brush fire of animosity shouldering inside me. I think of myself as a person with pluck, a problem-solver who deals with the situation at hand, but I’d somehow let my circumstances neuter that part of me. On I went, pruning the apple tree. Bleaching the furniture. Polishing a turd.
But really, I was angry for us at not getting it together enough to thrive in one of the most livable cities in the country. Portland was often good to us. We had lovely friends, and I adored my library job. Every morning I’d wake up and resolve to bloom where we’d planted ourselves, and then the sad numbness would settle in, and it became impossible to suss out which part of that sadness was Portland’s fault and which was mine.
There’s that TV show. You know the one I’m talking about—it pokes affectionate but absurdist, sketch-comedy fun at Portland and its charming yet maddening idiosyncrasies. It’s big there; it’s very Portland not to get enough of Portland. If you live, or once lived, in Portland, people will inevitably bring up That Show.
Please don’t bring it up with me. I can’t watch it. Not because I don’t like it, but because it’s too close. Why watch a parody of something that felt like a parody the first time around, in real life? “Come sit with me,” my husband implored as he sat on the sofa a lifetime later, in Marietta, enjoying That Show. He says it reminds him of bygone times, times when it was unlikely that he would have a co-worker named Delmus who wore a t-shirt that read “Dicky-Doo Champion: My Tummy Stick Out More Than My Dicky Do!”
I recognized all of the spots on That Show that Portland people recognize, the cutesy storefronts and brunch places and busy intersections, and I felt both so glad to be rid of them and so idiotic for my inability to flourish there. That Show is a little like my past punching me in my gut.
We had a big garden in our Portland backyard, which I spent many pleasant hours tending, and we curated a collection of the jagged, dirt-crusted bits of metal and plastic and glass that perpetually worked themselves to the surface of the soil in an ornery dis to gravity. It was not a pretty garden, but it produced enough vegetables that it created a decent dent in our grocery bill during the summer months, and yanking at its prolific weeds was an excellent outlet for the bad juju I carried around. Besides, I love to be outside in the sun. With three dependable months of it, I had to soak up as many Pacific Northwest rays as I could.
One day, Frances, who was out playing with the broken Fischer-Price farm I found for free on someone’s curb, called out, “Mama, look at what Scooter did.” I looked up from my weedy reverie and saw a bloody rat between the parsley and Swiss chard. Our dog looked up at me, beaming over his fresh kill. The rat, I assume, had been nosing around in our compost heap. I dug a shallow hole at the base of our fruitless apple tree to bury the thing, and in the process unearthed two corroded AA batteries. Who knows how long they’d been lurking down there? It was nothing, really, but after that, I was done with Portland. The rat-battery incident was my final straw.
I was poised to score a coveted Library Assistant position at the library, one that would nearly double my pay. But I didn’t have it in me to hold out any longer. I couldn’t be content in a saggy dump of a poorly-insulated house, donning two sweaters indoors to stay warm and buying organic spinach and avocados on our credit card. We aged out of that, but couldn’t get it together to bring in the income for necessary creative-class trappings we saw our friends enjoy: Waldorf preschool, annual beach house rentals, February trips to Hawaii in order to remain sane until mid-June, a compact, tidy home in a cute neighborhood within walking distance of a bar full of synth music and unevenly executed vegan menu options. Portland is a shitty place to be broke, though I guess you could say that of any city.
Still, on most days, Marietta squeaks ahead as a less shitty place to be broke. We lived with my parents until we found a house that does not give me allergy attacks. Its rent matches what they raised the rent to in our old Portland dump after we moved out. To the new tenants of the putty-colored house on SE 89th Avenue with the collapsing back patio: I hope the apple tree’s fruiting now. The flower pot of rusty nails and glass shards you found in the shed are the spoils of my unintentional garden archeology digs. Let me know if you ever accidentally encounter that rat.
Sometimes in Marietta, I look at the lazy bends of the Ohio River’s familiar brown muck, and waves of profound contentment wash over me, a strange mixture of bliss and relief. We came back to Portland in July for a visit, our first since moving to Ohio. I rode busses all over town, savored frequent cups of expertly-brewed coffee, and enjoyed the absence of crispy hairdos. At the tail end, I started getting a twinge of the coolness fatigue I had when we lived there. Boutiques selling tiny terrariums, bars built to resemble libraries, movie theaters selling rosé by the glass. In Marietta, maybe a dozen things are cool, and half of those are cool because they are utterly not cool at all. It’s special to be cool.
When we got back to Ohio, our cherry tomatoes were ready to pick. The first sweet corn of the season hit the farm stands. Vinyl banners advertising dozens of vacation bible schools crinkled in the breeze. My daughter returned to her preschool, where she played with classmates named Kolton and Kaylee instead of Mabel and Forester.
The flight back was uneventful. The plane took off and I looked out the window at the familiar vista below, crisply outlined in the magical Portland summer sun, and I thought, “There it is. That was my city.” Keep on loving it for me, okay?
SARA BIR is the food editor of Paste Magazine and a regular contributor to Full Grown People. “Smelted”, her essay from this site, appeared in Best Food Writing 2014. She lives in southeast Ohio with her husband and daughter.
Last night my husband filled out an application for a home loan while I scoured the forks, the sink, then attacked the coffee stain on the counter, so porous with age everything stains it. The idea of a house sparked, simultaneously, a singed hope and a wild, beating dread. I wanted to look over his shoulder, but I finally had to leave the room. I tried to lose myself in a book, but after two pages, the words remained scratch marks, practically hieroglyphics. I had been too busy listing the reasons why we shouldn’t buy a house, reasons that we’d already discussed, argued, fought over a dozen times. He wasn’t interested in hearing them again, but I could not stop myself from rehashing them, point and counterpoint, like a country duet.
There was my voice, high and clear: A house is a money pit.
And his answering call: A house is an investment.
Renters are free spirits, I call back. You can pick up and leave whenever you want.
Free spirit? You haven’t left the state in five years.
The word “mortgage” is French for “death pledge.”
Good thing this is America, then. His voice would be especially twangy on that line.
We’re too old for a mortgage. We won’t be able to retire until we’re seventy-five.
I love my job; I’m not going to retire anyway.
Here, my voice would crack. Renting is better for people like us.
People like us? You mean people like you.
And he’d be right. People like me. People with a foreclosure to their name.
I’m bad with money. I’m cursed. But I’d be singing to myself now because he would have left the room. You can’t argue with a curse, real or imagined.
And there, in my mind’s eye, is not one house, but two. The house I lost as an adult and the house I lost as a child.
The house I lost as an adult had two bedrooms, a small backyard, and no garage. Still, I loved that little house with its yellow siding and green trim. There was hardly any storage, not even a hall closet. And I hated the blinds that hung in almost all the rooms. Even the cats, who’d torn up every other set of curtains that I had ever owned, despised them and left them alone. But I loved the tree in the front yard with limbs low enough that I could lift my daughters into it. When they were old enough, I imagined calling them in for dinner and seeing only the bottoms of their bare feet, swinging back and forth.
I loved the bedroom the girls shared and its two large windows that filled the room with light as soon as the sun came up. But mostly I loved the sunroom. This was where we kept most of the girls’ toys—the Legos and little figurines that they played with while I read stretched out on the futon, basking in the room’s buttery light. When it wasn’t too hot, we ate at the small rectangular table and, through the windows, admired the patch of purple and white irises that had sprung up as if Van Gogh had visited in the night.
On our first night in the house in 2006, the girls tucked in their beds, my first husband and I sat in the backyard, our bare feet in the grass, and made plans. We would buy a small table with an umbrella and four chairs. We would plant tomatoes. We would harvest the plums and make jam to give away at Christmas. And we would find a way to coax the avocado tree, which had once born two avocados ten years ago, into bearing fruit again.
That little plot of dirt and grass and house was mine, my speck of Earth. I imagined that I could see it from space with a powerful telescope and wondered what its exact coordinates were. When I heard about Google Earth, the first place I searched for was my house on 61st Street. There on the computer screen, to my astonishment, was my little house, our red Jetta parked in the front, the hydrangeas in full bloom.
Almost immediately, I fantasized about the improvements we would make one day, after we refinanced and were both making more money. In a fantasy no one can stop you from being greedy and impractical, and so I decided that we’d build a second floor with two more bathrooms and three bedrooms so the girls wouldn’t have to share a room during their teenage years. Downstairs, I’d convert one of the bedrooms into a dining room and expand the tiny living room into the other bedroom. I actually thought about buying the house behind ours, with its huge backyard just so I could move the fence back. My parents could live in the other house, I reasoned.
An annoyingly rational voice pointed out the obvious. If you had all that money, why wouldn’t you just move to a bigger, better house? Isn’t that the American way? First you buy a starter home and then you discard it for a better home in a swankier neighborhood. But I didn’t want to toss it aside. And so I kept these thoughts to myself because I could never fully explain the loyalty I felt to that little house except that it had unshackled me from the homelessness I’d felt ever since I was thirteen and the bank took our house away.
We were never homeless. You shouldn’t exaggerate, I can hear my mother whispering fiercely over my shoulder. You make it sound like we were living out of a car, for God’s sake! And she’d be right. We never had to live out of a car, or on a park bench, or in a shelter. All my life I’ve been able to attach my name to an address, to exact coordinates, whatever they were. But the houses we lived in after we had to leave the house on Mulberry Lane never felt like ours. The first house we moved into belonged to my grandfather. A tiny place, it sat on a small plot of land he owned, miles from town. A simple trip to the grocery store meant fifty minutes of driving. The wind billowed down from the north for days at a time, rattling the tin storage sheds, whipping the Eucalyptus trees, and throwing dust in our eyes. Days like that we stayed inside. My sister and I shared a room because the third bedroom was a dangerous rat’s maze of boxes and bags that we never bothered to unpack. Once I went inside to look for a book and came out with a cut that required a trip to the emergency room and thirteen stitches.
At night, while my sister slept in the bottom bunk, I would run my fingertips across the ceiling and think about the family that now lived in our house on Mulberry Lane, about the girl who I was sure had moved into my room. I hated her. She was ugly, I decided, with a cartoonish wart at the end of her nose and bad teeth. But when I wanted to feel even sorrier for myself, I’d imagine her a much prettier version of myself, a popular girl, with a family that wouldn’t ever go bankrupt. I thought about her in the pool my parents had put in. I saw her eating dinner in our little kitchen nook, laughing and asking for seconds. Who were these people? How could I get rid of them? And more importantly, how could I earn enough money to buy the house back?
On the long bus ride home from school—my sister and I were always the last to be dropped off because we lived so far from town—I imagined our return in great detail. I would find a job at a neighboring ranch. I would muck stables, sheer sheep, weed the garden. I would do whatever was asked of me in lightning quick time. They would pay me in ten- and twenty-dollar bills, which I would keep hidden in a shoe box. Every week, I would add to the stash, not spending a single penny, until one day there would be enough and then I would present my parents the box of cash. I could picture their astonished faces. My mother would burst into tears. But my father? He would be quiet and thoughtful. “Nikki,” he would say, “Where did this money come from? Did you find it? If you did, then you must give it back.” Honor was important to him. Only after I proved to him that I’d earned every penny, would he envelop me in his arms, tousle my hair, and call me a “go-getter,” the highest compliment anyone could get from him. Then together all of us would return to Mulberry Lane in a Cadillac, flags trailing behind. We’d wave some important papers around, rout the imposters, and move back in. I mean, it would be biblical.
Years later, we moved back to town into a rented condominium, not the return I’d imagined. Though I’d long given up my dream of getting Mulberry Lane back, I would revisit my old fantasy from time to time. All I had to do was close my eyes and the image of my thirteen-year-old self materialized: a slightly pudgy girl with a brown ponytail and braces. Look, there I am shoveling manure into a wheel barrow. There’s me, in the dim bedroom light, adding another twenty dollar bill to my secret stash. These images were like old home movies, flickering and without sound, but as real as any true memory.
In 2005, I was living in an apartment along with my first husband and our two daughters in what was turning out to be a dangerous neighborhood. About a month after we moved in, two young men were shot and killed in the alley behind our building. No one was ever arrested. That summer, there were so many violent crimes and break-ins that the police department held a meeting to address community concerns. And then there was the apartment itself: tiny, dark, no place for the girls to go outside and play. We were surrounded by old Victorians and craftsman style bungalows. Looking at them on walks to the nearest park, eight blocks away, I felt an old desire begin to wake from its long hibernation. A house! I hadn’t allowed myself to think of one since the years I’d obsessed about Mulberry Lane.
But more potent than the Victorians and bungalows of our neighborhood was our yearly trip to Massachusetts to visit my husband’s mother, who still lived in his childhood home. The first few days of every trip, he would disappear for hours at a time into the basement or attic to drag out old records, toys, books—the memorabilia from his childhood. Sometimes we’d go through the photo albums and laugh at the evolution of his mother’s decorating style. “Remember that yellow sofa?” he’d say to her. “Oh God, I don’t know what I was thinking.” They’d laugh. Later, when he’d slid into one of his inevitable funks, I’d think, you don’t know how lucky you are. No matter where he was in the world, Dartmoor Drive would always be his. I wanted all that for my daughters, too, a place they might laugh at, but one they could always come home to even after they grew up. The house my parents were living in at that time was one they’d rented after I’d gone to college. I had no fond memories or attachments to the place.
A house, I began to think. A home. We didn’t have any money saved, but since when did that ever stop anyone from dreaming?
One Saturday afternoon as I was driving to the store, I saw a sign with a blue arrow and the words “Open House” in huge block letters. As if hypnotized, I followed it until I came to a little white house with a large front window and an orange tree by the driveway. I am a sucker for windows and fruit-bearing trees. Imagine the thrill of opening your door to oranges, lemons, and plums. I knocked on the door—I didn’t yet know you could just walk in. Ushering me inside, the real estate agent handed me a flier. I betrayed no sticker shock, what she called a mere $375,000 for a home that the original owner still lived in. “He’s sad to be leaving. He raised a family here,” she said, as if to explain the hefty price tag. I wandered through the rooms. There were yellowed pictures of the man’s children and grandchildren on every wall, his slippers at the foot of his bed, shirts folded neatly on a dresser. Nothing, it seemed, had been remodeled or updated. One bedroom had electric blue shag carpeting, the likes of which I had never seen. In the corner was his dead wife’s sewing machine and an aquarium full of dingy water and geriatric fish. The kitchen was strangest of all. There, right next to the old stove, were a washer and drier, three battered appliances lined up like old people in a soup kitchen line.
“Huh,” I said.
“All you have to do is put up a thin wall and folding doors and then you wouldn’t have to look at those appliances,” she said.
“Isn’t there a garage,” I asked, “where these could go?”
She told me that there was a detached garage, but it had no hookups.
“How old is the pool?” I asked. “When was the roof replaced?” I enjoyed asking questions. I was playing a role: prospective home buyer. And prospective home buyer is one step up from renter.
“Are you going to have another open house?” I asked. “I’d like my husband to see it.”
“Next Sunday,” she said, handing me her card.
On the way home, my head rang, my fingertips vibrated. I was a bell that had been struck… hard. We would rip out the blue carpet, paint the kitchen cabinets, put in hardwood floors. I had forgotten all about the price tag because this was a fantasy and in a fantasy you may ignore whatever you like. But the closer I got to our apartment, the more I realized there were a few things I couldn’t ignore. A fixer upper would be a hard sell. My husband was not interested in hammers and nails. Ripping out old carpet was not his idea of an adventure. Worse, he despised suburbia and although the house was only a six-minute drive from downtown Sacramento, I knew that he would count every minute against it.
Ultimately, those were aspects we could negotiate. What we couldn’t negotiate was the nature of home ownership itself. Like marriage, a house is a commitment and a choice. Choosing to live here means that you decided not to live there, and in my husband’s case, there was Boston, his ideal city. Renting made him a Californian by default, but buying would make him one by choice. It was like having to give up citizenship. It was a lot to ask.
Just keep an open mind, I told him on the following Sunday as we drove to the old man’s house. We stepped out of the car. It was an overcast, windy day and in that dull light, the magic was gone and the place looked depressing. Or maybe it was the way he stalked around the rooms, his hands shoved in his pockets. He did not bother to test the toilets or open the closets. I had not warned him about the blue carpeting and when we came to that room, he stopped cold.
“We’ll rip out the carpet,” I said. “I’ll bet there are hardwood floors underneath.”
He stared at me in disbelief, his eyebrows arched dramatically, the universal male expression for, “Woman, are you crazy?”
And then I thought about how I had married a man who had no skills as a handyman and even worse, had no desire to acquire those skills. It would not be like those home shows where the young couple buys a crumbling dump and through trial and error transforms it into a showcase. It would not be This Old House or The Ol’ Yankee Workshop, either. That was a fantasy I would have to shelve. No matter. I had retired many a fantasy over the years and there was always another one to take its place.
Over the next nine months, I walked through about fifty open houses with the line from the single’s website, “It can’t hurt to look,” ringing in my head. Open houses are like coffee dates. Quick. No pressure. Just a mutual scoping out, sizing up. Could we be compatible? Are you worth a pushup bra and heels? But the slogan, as it turns out, is wrong. It can hurt to look. You might see something you want so badly, you can’t sleep at night. What would it be like, you wonder, to wake up in that house and drink a cup of coffee in that nook and look out at the walnut tree arching over a luminous blue pool? Instead, you wake to claustrophobia in your rectangular apartment, the upstairs neighbor stomping overhead in what must be steel-toed moon boots. My God, you think in your darkest moments, I’m going to die here.
Every month the prices went up. There seemed to be no ceiling. Who would pay $300,000 for this dump, I would wonder, only to find out later that a bidding war had erupted. If we didn’t act now, we’d be priced out, I told him. We’d be shut out from the American Dream, renters forever. And when you come from a family of immigrants, the American Dream is no joke. It is, in fact, the very reason why you are here, so far from your ancestors, your culture, your language. Like so many Mexicans, my grandparents left their extended family behind to start anew in California, a place where they could work hard and scrape together enough money to buy a little house. Even my father, who came from Denmark in his twenties, was lured by the promise that anything was possible here. Not surprisingly, the first major purchase my parents made together was a house. To get the down payment, my dad sold his little twin-engine Cessna. While a plane can get you the exhilaration of freedom and an endless horizon, a house will get you its opposite: walls, fences, a roof, and a competing feeling—security.
The American Dream is especially potent for those of us in the habit of fantasizing, those of us addicted to picturing, with the precision of a drone strike, something bigger and better. And it is most potent for people who have lost something or never had it in the first place. My husband didn’t come from a family of immigrants. The American Dream was something one read about in a high school classroom, he along with his white, solidly middle-class peers. The American Dream, how quaint! How 1920s! How Gatsbyish! But say what you want about Gatsby and his ill-gotten gains, he knew how to lure Daisy: with the biggest house on the block.
Nine months after I’d followed that first open house sign, I wandered into the little house on 61st Street. It had a 1990s Santa Fe color scheme: bright purple, yellow, and green walls. It had hard wood floors and a little arched indentation in the wall, perfect for a tiny shrine. It was priced to sell at $335,000, the realtor told me, because the owners planned to retire in Mexico.
I called my husband, then Angel, our real estate agent. We met with a mortgage broker. Because we did not have the money for a down payment, we’d have to take out two loans, but that was not a problem. Everyone was doing it, he assured us. A month later, we signed on the dotted line in almost hundred different places and then the house was ours. Or, as my friend’s husband likes to tell her about their home, we didn’t own the house, we owned the idea of a house.
We bought two loveseats, three unfinished pine bookcases, which we primed and painted ourselves, a kitchen table and six matching chairs from a garage sale, a hutch, and a new computer desk. My mother-in-law, who helped us with the closing costs, bought us an electric lawn mower.
We had friends over. We met the neighbors. Our cats, for the first time ever, were allowed to go outside. They ruled the backyard like little sultans, basking in the sun and waiting for the girls to carry them back in.
And now, when I had a particularly difficult day at the high school where I worked, it was worth it because I was working for that home I’d always wanted. I was righting an old wrong. If anything marred the set up, it was that my parents didn’t share in this “return.” I often felt guilty that I’d bought the house while they still rented, as if I had disrupted the natural order of things, or overreached. Later, when it all fell apart, I would joke that I had been like Icarus and flew too close to the sun. But now, some years later, I realize that I was more like the father in that story, poor old Daedalus, pacing the confines of his prison, scanning the horizon, willing to risk everything just to get home.
What finally happened with the house was this: my husband quit his job and left. Oh, it was much more complicated than that, of course. The death of our marriage was slow and labored and painful and another story entirely. We needed two salaries to pay for the house and now, less than a year and a half after we’d signed the paperwork, I had only one. It was a matter of math, a simple equation, input and output. I could not, on my teacher’s salary, pay the mortgage, childcare, food, electricity, gas. What luxuries could we forego? What could I cut? What could I cut? Every time I ran the numbers, I was at least $1,800 in the red.
For two months, my mother-in-law made up the difference, but this was unsustainable. I called the bank. They told me to write a hardship letter. I sat at the computer late one night and wrote a rough draft. In all the years that I’d fantasized about a house, I’d never pictured a moment like this one and so it was like an out-of-body experience—look at that woman, chewing on her bottom lip, trying to find the words to explain why she can’t pay her mortgage… oh wait, that’s me! Only those who have ever written a hardship letter will know what it feels like to write one. You have to employ all of your writerly talents; you have to choose the right details. You have to be humble and trustworthy. Your story should provoke pity but not be pathetic. To this day I wonder if anyone ever read it or if it went into what I came to think of as the filing cabinet of hopeless cases.
Every day I heard more bad news about the housing bubble… the crash… the crisis. It didn’t matter what you called it: home values all over the country were plummeting, and Sacramento, with its wildly inflated home prices, was hit hard. Turn on the news and there were shots of decimated neighborhoods, the tell-tale signs of foreclosure blight—dark windows, brown lawns, and white for sale signs like lopsided crosses. On my way to work, if I could stomach it, I would listen to NPR’s stories about the crash, feeling implicated in every story, like a fugitive who sees her own wanted poster in the post office. One couple they interviewed said that it made no sense to pay more for their house than it was worth. It was a bad investment, and they were going to cut their losses and walk away. Walk away! The thought was inconceivable to me (cut), though wasn’t that what my husband had done? And what became of people who walked away? They became nomads, people trapped in limbo, practically ghosts.
I began to discuss the possibility of foreclosure with friends and with my parents, who had never wanted to talk about Mulberry Lane. So many people were in the same position, they pointed out, that I shouldn’t feel too ashamed. If half of the country is in foreclosure, then it feels more like a virus, something anyone could catch, rather than a moral disease like lung cancer or emphysema or cirrhosis, the end result of a disgusting habit, or moral depravity, or reckless ways.
But I had been reckless, I had to admit this to myself. I bought a house at the height of the market because I didn’t understand how these things work. I listened only to those people who said I should buy now before the prices went higher. I bought a house with a man who had been unhappy for years, who wanted to move back to Boston, his ideal city. And I bought a house because I was still, in part, that thirteen-year-old girl, rooted in the shadow of Mulberry Lane, who wanted her triumphant return.
I had two choices: a foreclosure or a short sale. A short sale was the responsible route, less of a stain. I called Angel, and a few days later there was a for sale sign in my yard. It was that simple.
Sometimes Angel would tell me she was bringing a prospective buyer over, so I’d have to invent urgent errands to drag the girls from their games. I made no attempt to put our personal things away, to streamline pictures, toys, the clutter of our lives. I hadn’t “staged” anything to make it sell faster because I didn’t want to sell it at all. This was my home; strangely I had become like the old man whose original house I had liked. If someone was going to profit off my misfortune, I wanted them to know it.
I found one buyer, but Countrywide sat on the offer for months and the buyer drifted away. I found another buyer. Once again, we faxed all the paperwork into the vast void of the Countrywide network. Nothing happened. When Angel and I called, we were told, after long waits, that the agent was working on it. The second buyer came and went. Then a third. What I really wanted was for Countrywide to reduce the principle balance to what the house was now actually worth. On my way to work, I argued with imaginary Countrywide agents. Either way, I’d say—a foreclosure or a short sale—the bank was going to take a hit. Why not resell it to me for what it was actually worth? Why not keep the owner in the house? A single mom with two kids, a teacher, a public servant, I would whine. Have pity! Banks, though, are not interested in pity. I had taken a risk on my American Dream, but I’d done it with other people’s money and there was nothing to be done now except take my beating and slink away.
And then Countrywide collapsed and Bank of America swooped in for the crumbs. I figured that bought me some time. It would take a while for the new people to sift through the mess Countrywide had left behind. In the meantime, the president announced a housing initiative, billions in aid for struggling homeowners. I applied, once again writing a hardship letter and pulling my bank statements and tax forms together. Six weeks later, their offer arrived via FedEx. I took the envelope into the sun room, into the buttery light I loved so much. This is it, I thought. I tore the tab and slid the papers onto the table. Fingers crossed like a gambler at a roulette table, I read the terms three times to make sure I understood. Their idea of helping me was to take the amount I hadn’t paid—more than $25,000—and add it to the principle balance, so that now I’d owe about $360,000. In return they’d lower the monthly payments by a measly $300. The house was worth somewhere around $200,000 was my guess, maybe even less.
I would have to walk away. The only questions now were when and to where?
Unlike the day we left Mulberry Lane, there was no one single day when I left 61st Street. Slowly, a little less than two years since the trouble started, I began to move my things into a house I rented with my new husband. After work, I’d swing by and take another carload. My dad helped me take several truckloads to the Goodwill. We never said anything about what it feels like to lose something as big as a house. But it was there between us, unspoken. “Okay, Nikki,” he’d say, clapping his hands, “Let’s get this show on the road.” Together we’d load up his truck and my car until they were full with the detritus from my failed American experiment. Maybe because my AP class was reading The Grapes of Wrath, I thought of the Joads. It wasn’t the same, of course. I didn’t have to pick peaches, I wasn’t sleeping in a barn, my children weren’t starving. But there were thousands of people like me, people who, at that very moment, were loading their belongings into a car and leaving home for good.
My visits to the house became infrequent, tinged with regret and loss like visiting a relative with advanced Alzheimer’s, someone so ravaged by disease they are not really there anymore. Not today, I’d think, tomorrow. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. But I could never make myself go. Though there were still some things left behind, junk and old toys mostly, I finally had to admit that I was not going back. Not then and not ever.
I had done the unthinkable. I had walked away.
Tonight there’s a house that my new husband wants me to look at on the computer. It’s listed at $565,000, slightly higher than the average listing price for a home in our college town. Here, a half a million dollars gets you four bedrooms, maybe, inefficient windows, old carpets, and forty-year-old countertops. And you are supposed to feel lucky to get in at that price because most four bedrooms top $600,000, easy. Who are these shiny, magical people, I keep asking, who can afford such extravagance?
“We are,” he tells me. “We are those magical people.”
He pulls up a slide show. It has a big window in the front, raised flower beds. Looking at the pictures, I wish I wore glasses. I wish there was a lens, some kind of protective barrier between my bare eyes and the simple, sweet house we are touring. When the slide show ends, he has to look up at me because I have not committed even to sitting down. I remain ready as ever to walk away.
But the look in his eyes! So full of hunger and longing, it roots me to his side. I want him to have it. I want her to have it too, my thirteen-year-old self.
He points to the money we have managed to save despite the fact that our rent is as high as a mortgage.
“Slow down, let’s think really this through,” I tell him. But really, I’m talking to her. She is chattering away about the mature wisteria vine, the patio, the spacious backyard where the kids could play.
“The prices are going up,” he says. “Interest rates, too. Now is the time.”
I know these arguments intimately. I practically invented them.
“Listen,” I tell them, “there are many advantages to renting.”
My husband just shakes his head. But that girl, my old self? She actually scowls. Forever adolescent, she crosses her arms, rolls her eyes. Two against one, unfair advantage, I think. I take her aside. You tried this once before, I hiss.
She fakes an exaggerated yawn. She’s isn’t buying any of my arguments and she is not interested in cautionary tales or literary allusions.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Gatsby died and Icarus too. So what?
The word mortgage is French for—
Oh stuff it, you old windbag. She turns her back to me and lustfully tours houses on the Zillow website.
She wants what she wants. A backyard, a lemon tree, a little room to write in, an open kitchen, high ceilings, natural light. Those greedy fantasies, again. She’s planning her return, with or without me.
NICOLE SIMONSEN teaches English at a public high school and for the Upward Bound program. She lives nearby in Davis, California, in house she bought last year with her husband. Her stories and poetry have appeared in various journals including Brain, Child, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Talking Writing.
Cambodia feels like an open wound. Still raw from a scrape with death, still aching from its painful roots. Reminders of the genocide are everywhere: in the eerie absence of the elderly; in the mountains of garbage that clutter the roads and define the landscape; in the pleading tone of the desperate tuk tuk driver, hoping for a day of work; and in the perfectly rehearsed sales pitches of the children peddling baskets of discount Lonely Planet guidebooks on every street corner.
For the second time in five months, I am walking the half-mile stretch to cross the border at Poipet—the gateway into Cambodia and the portal to its poverty. It’s hotter this time. It’s now summer, and the tropical sun rules the land in a brutal tyranny. After eight months of traveling, I’ve grown accustomed to the musty stench of my soiled clothes and the taxing load of my backpack that contains everything I own, but never to the heat. As I walk under the stone archway inviting me into the Kingdom of Cambodia, the black dots of dehydration appear in my periphery like passing planets to a sun-bound astronaut who’s drifted off course. My head is forever trapped in a fogged-up fishbowl.
Poipet is not a coastal town, yet everywhere there is evidence of a shipwreck. Scraps of plastic, cardboard, styrofoam, metal, and human flotsam appear to have washed ashore. The people I see seem like the only survivors, still recovering from this thalassic catastrophe. Families huddle together under facades of crumbling concrete, the remnants of homes. Everyone walks slowly, staring at nothing, myself among them. I can feel crow’s feet forming in the corners of my eyes from all the squinting. One thought raps relentlessly on the front door of my frontal lobe: I need water.
I search in vain for someone who looks like they might be sitting on a cooler, a makeshift minimart that often flanks the streets. But for the first time in Southeast Asia, I can’t find anyone to sell me anything. People are preoccupied, squatting low, on their haunches, with their faces covered and averted from the sun, trying to avoid the heat.
I am jolted from my feverish quest by a tug on my pinky finger. Two deep, dark eyes stare up at me, their depths like the abyss of a cave. A girl who looks to be about three years old stands obstinately before me like an avant-garde performance art piece. The canvass of skin covering her bones appears painted in haste, with sloppy brushstrokes, muddy streaks. She clamps her entire hand around my littlest finger with a firm grip and without the slightest indication of letting go.
“Excuse me, lady, one dollar. I need a dollar, lady. Please, lady, give me a dollar,” she chants.
I have a dollar. In fact, I have 300 of them stuffed neatly at the bottom of my pack. I had stashed them away for this very trip to Cambodia. As my semester teaching in Thailand neared its end, I carefully regulated every saved penny from my salary to fund a final trip around Southeast Asia before returning home to Atlanta.
Never giving money to panhandling children; it perpetuates their livelihood as beggars, I repeat in my head, the way I used to prepare for lessons and study for tests.
I had spent weeks reading and researching everything from personal blogs to the BBC. And every source answered my question of whether to give money to child beggars with a firm and stern don’t do it. They each echoed the same warning: “By feeling pity, giving money and food, child labor—a growing business—is supported and the children are sustained on the streets.”On paper, it made sense. And my response seemed easy.
But standing face-to-face with a three-year-old in Cambodia, my heart sinks and I panic. As a teacher and a student, I have never been as unsure of my answers. I can’t stop myself from thinking: What if they are wrong?
Reluctant to pull my finger from hers, we walk pinky-in-hand for several more steps before I finally untangle myself from her taut grip. I look at her and she expects me to speak, but instead of answering her question or acknowledging her presence, I look away. Our locked eyes make me feel a thousand times heavier than the fifty pounds I am carrying. A weight that recurs continually here, always with the threat to bury me in a quicksand of indecision. Eventually I tell her “No, I’m sorry,” but she follows me, tries to walk in my path, demanding me to notice her. She repeats her haunting mantra as if in a trance, “Just a dollar, lady.”
Ten months prior, I was in Atlanta, sitting on my bed, thumbing the glossy pages of a National Geographic, and fantasizing about the day I would soon be in Cambodia. It was a picture of Ta Prohm that had summoned me. The twelfth-century, tree-entwined Buddhist monastery was the stage for Lara Croft’s adventures in Tomb Raider and is one of hundreds of ancient temples that stand alongside Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. On two full pages, creeping strangler figs and slinking lichens devoured the once indestructible ruins. It was a perfect crystallization of nature’s dominance over mankind. A reminder that nature can undermine even the apotheosis of human creations. I ripped out the pages and kept them in my purse for weeks. I wanted to be here, to feel small, and to stay inside this photograph forever.
When the day came for me to shrink my life into a backpack, I was staying at a friend’s house. Scattered across her floor were the remainders of my purged possessions and the things I would take with me. There were stacks of clothes separated into two piles—one for teaching and one for adventuring. There were labeled Ziploc bags, a diary of Anaïs Nin, a Canon Rebel. An empty journal and a manila folder stuffed full of goodbye cards addressed “Dear Miss Josalin.”
There were fifty of them, actually. One from every kid at SoulShine, the liberal afterschool program I worked at as a teacher and counselor in Atlanta.I picked up a card signed “Love, Emilia,” depicting an underwater scene: blue, squiggly lines for waves, spider-like crabs, swaying palm trees, and a mermaid replica, exactly the way I would have drawn it. For months at Soulshine, there was a mermaid craze, and it all began with Emilia.
Everyday after school, she would rush inside, throw her backpack to the floor, scarf down a hasty snack, and climb onto my lap. I loved the way her crimson curls bounced, giving off warmth and complementing her fiery spirit. I would twirl them in my fingers and she would, without fail, ask “Miss Josalin, today can we draw mermaids?”
I am not an artist, and my drawings were, at best, mediocre. But to Emilia, they were masterpieces. She praised me for them, begging me to teach her every step of my drawing process, eventually surpassing my talent and producing them en masse. The kids at SoulShine started to take notice, and soon every girl and even some boys were bombarding me with requests for drawing lessons. For hours after school, I would show them how two pencil strokes could make a ponytail and how a mix of blues, greens, and gold glitter create an iridescent fin. How a “3” and a capital “E” formed the outlines of a seashell chemise and how long eyelashes make the mermaid feminine.
Flipping through my cards, I saw dozens of mermaids. I closed the manila folder and wedged it alongside the few other carefully chosen items in my pack.
In Poipet, I surrender my quest for water and opt for a beer instead. It’s ten in the morning, but I feel like I’ve been in this city for centuries, and the cold, foamy taste in my mouth provides a refreshing relief. I try to focus, envisioning Ta Prohm, and examining the bus schedule to Siem Reap. Waiting for the bus, a young girl races me to the trashcan to salvage my beer can. She wears a ponytail and shuffles by with shaky, knobby knees, hunched over like an old woman. Her shiny, thick hair whips like the tail of a black stallion, with features both bold and refined, in utter defiance to her demeanor. She holds her t-shirt stretched out like a basket in which she carries her collection of tourists’ trash—her treasures.
I watch her attempt to add my can to the pile and fail. Her shirt collapses, revealing her scrawny frame, and bottles and cans topple in every direction toward the ground. She looks around, eyes racing with the trajectory of launched pinballs. Gathering the bottles, she drops them two more times before scurrying away. In a few seconds, she vanishes from my sight, but her presence lingers in my mind. Sitting and waiting, I wonder: Would these children be forced to sell and beg and scrounge and steal for their lives if their families hadn’t been butchered and uprooted in a ruthless genocide?
From 1975-1979, Cambodia’s government systematically massacred three million of its own people. Promoting a radical agenda of nationwide ethnic cleansing, Pol Pot and his obedient Khmer Rouge regime rivaled the Nazis in organized cruelty. With horrifying gusto, their motive was to purge and reform the population in place of a pure, agrarian Communist society. The entire country suffered, but the Khmer Rouge singled out certain people as the enemy. Among those targeted were intellectuals, city folks, minorities, teachers, writers, doctors, and people who wore glasses. When the Khmer Rouge took power, they captured Phnom Penh, the capital, and evacuated the entire city in three days. Once bustling, thriving cities became wastelands and torture camps. The displaced people met their fate in an orderly fashion: They were herded to labor camps, then torture prisons, and, ultimately, to their death in the killing fields.
My bus pulls out of the station and leaves the forgotten shipwreck survivors to fend for themselves. Poipet disappears behind me in a dusty dirt cloud like the phantasmagoria of strange dreams. I gaze out the window at vast, barren fields and conical tops of straw hats and wonder what the people beneath them had seen and felt and suffered when Pol Pot reigned supreme.
To save cash and prevent scams, I rent a bike from my hostel in Siem Reap at dawn the next morning. Ten kilometers of dirt roads and dodging tuk tuks, and I am finally amid the ancient ruins of the Angkor Empire. It is low season, so there are not many tourists, most of them choosing to avoid the oppressive heat. Normally this would be a good thing, but in Cambodia it means I am an easy target.
I arrive at Ta Prohm temple with high expectations, burning thighs, and half the vigor of Lara Croft. As at many of the popular Angkor temples, the atmosphere is frenzied. Tourists strike stupid poses, snap photos in rapid succession, and discover hidden crevices by way of their own routes. Local merchants cast their well-practiced lines into a sea of unsuspecting tourists and wait to see who falls for the bait. Their merchandise is often handmade: wood-carved finger flutes, jangly jewelry, charcoal sketches of Angkor Wat, and hand-painted clothing. All for one dollar.
Through the chaos and crowded amalgam of flashy new Apple products and sweaty bodies, I see my enchantress. The divine tree fatally intertwined with the ruins from the two-page photograph. Like a comfortable houseguest she sprawls out and makes herself at home in a sacred room of the ancient monastery. I situate myself in just the right place and take the very same photograph, though not as high-res and with an amateur’s eye. I take hundreds more as I explore Ta Prohm. It provides me with endless inspiration, and the ruins invoke my creative spirit. But what captivates me is a pair of young merchants. A brother and sister no older than nine with bright red baskets and stockbrokers’ enthusiasm. Squatting on a mound of rocks that have been squeezed out of place by thick, gnarled roots reclaiming the jungle, they scope out the torrent of tourists entering their domain. They wait like watchdogs, sniffing me out immediately.
“Lady, I have very nice jewelry for you. Come here, lady. I have many, many things for one dollar,” the girl says, arms draped with bracelets from her wrists to her armpits.
I’ve prepared something to say this time. Silence, I convince myself, reveals weakness. I try to appear honest and confident, hoping my answers will suffice them.
“I can’t today. I will be back though. I will come and buy some tomorrow.”
She glares hard at me. Her brother stands behind her with one hand on his hip, the other cradling his basket like a baby. I shrug my shoulders and reveal my empty hands.
“Not tomorrow!” she says, now indignant and miffed by me. “You buy now, lady. Tomorrow, I do not see you.” Wiping the palm of her hand down her face, “All farangs [foreigners] look the same.”
And indeed she does not see me. She sees what she wants to see: a rich, white tourist crippled by guilt who might dish out pity in the form of American dollars. And I try hard, but I do not see her either. I want to see a nine-year-old who runs through the ruins playing hide-and-seek with her brother, laughing and skipping, and free to just be. I want her to hold my hand and ask me about my funny clothes or my pale skin or if she can braid my hair. I want to see a child with the innocence that reminds me not to take life too seriously.
Just then, the wind kicks a slight breeze. A delicate dandelion flower floats by, hovering in the air briefly. The two siblings fall silent and still, their eyes fixed on this evanescent wisp of beauty until it drifts out of sight. And in this moment, they abandon their roles as pushy street merchants and again become children. I snap a photo of their sudden transformation and steal this moment for myself. When the dandelion vanishes, so too does their laughter and wonder. In Cambodia, this phenomenon of children behaving like children surfaces only in glimpses. I take a few more unimportant shots of big trees and crumbling rocks and exit the temple.
To my surprise, my bike—secured with a flimsy, shoestring-sized cable lock—is right where I left it. I try to drone out the cacophony of auctioneers offering me water and make a beeline for my two-wheeled getaway. But I am promptly intercepted and detained by a thin, young boy and eager guide. His hands are callused, and I feel tender when they touch me, grabbing my arm and dragging me along quickly. He seems like he has something to show me, but I soon realize it is me that he is showing.
He presents me to a group of kids of staggering heights and ages. They are his cohorts and his siblings, and it is clear who calls the shots. He points to the youngest, gives her the cue, and she yokes me with her eyes and begins rattling off her ABC’s.
“She can say her ABCs for one dollar,” my kidnapper says proudly.
I look around for an adult, but I see no one. And I remember reading that parents often get their children to do their begging for them. Smaller, cuter, and livelier, they have been proven more successful on the streets.
When he sees me turning to walk away, he runs after me, trailed closely behind by his well-trained posse. They crowd around me, hurling English phrases and fragments, convinced of their ability to sway me.
“Look, I can count to ten! One, two, three, four….How about ten bracelets for one dollar or a bottle of water? You are very thirsty, lady.”
I had seen this business savvy before. The same precocity, but with different motives.
A master of the ocean realm, Emilia soon advanced to drawing castle-dwelling beauties. She was diligent and her hobby easily gained momentum within her circle of friends. She started a drawing club composed of six core members and a handful of transient contributors who came and went depending on the day. After snack, Emilia would dump out every box of crayons into a massive pile in the middle of them, and the others would elbow each other to get a spot at the big picnic table. First attempts at mermaids, princesses, dragons, and castles littered the floor daily. Somehow crayon nubs covered entire pages with fantastic scenes and not an inch of wasted paper.
They drew constantly. And in a seamless transition from schoolgirl to sales executive, Emilia started a business.
“Miss Josalin, look at the mermaid I drew, just like you!” Emilia boasted. “Will you buy a picture?”
“Oh yeah? How much?” I asked, amused.
“You can get one for fifty cents or four for one dollar!”
Of course I bought them. I bought them all, with whatever change I had lying at the bottom of my purse. It didn’t seem to make a difference if I gave a dollar to some children. But these were children who had three meals a day and shoes on their feet. Children who got back rubs for bad dreams, and Band-Aids for boo-boos, and kisses just because. They didn’t need my money. The quarters I gave them would gather dust at the bottom of their piggybanks.
In Cambodia, my dollar holds power. And I’m unsure of how to wield it. Sometimes, I think I came here expecting to watch a performance, like an audience member snug and relaxed in her seat. Instead, with the swift crossing of the border, I am dragged on stage and thrust into the scene. How am I supposed act? What am I supposed to say? The plot is complex, and no one gave me a script. Uncomfortable and blinded by the spotlight, I improvise. I hold my breath, believing that a botched line or a missed cue could sabotage the entire show.
I am constantly torn, thoughts bisected between not knowing how to help and how not to hurt. I struggle to reconcile my heart with my head, my guilt with my gut, constantly. I am suspended in a state of hopelessness and inner conflict, always. Here, I am forced to confront life’s injustices and contradictions. Here, I learn that there is not an answer for everything. The aftermath of genocide is not easily reversed, and the people will go on suffering, creating, destroying, enduring.
JOSALIN SAFFER lays her roots in Atlanta, Georgia, where she received her B.A. in Journalism. She spent the last year living, writing, and working as an English teacher in Thailand and exploring Southeast Asia. This fall, she will continue her journey as a writer and teacher in the Czech Republic. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian Weekly, The Matador Network, and South East Asia Backpacker magazine. To read more of her published work, visit www.josalinsaffer.com.
There was likely a time when I didn’t know that that long stretch of 47th Street on the west side of Manhattan was called “the diamond district,” but I can’t remember it. There was a sort of shorthand for streets in Manhattan that I learned as a kid: diamonds: 47th street, shoes: 34th Street, Indian food: 6th Street, and so on. This is the old city, the city of my parents and grandparents, that remarkably still exists inside the twenty-first century one, if you know where to look for it.
So when I found myself at the end of my marriage, panicked nearly every second about money, with my only valuable possession a diamond engagement ring buried in a tiny box on the top of my dresser, well, I pretty much knew where to go.
And so, on a hot summer day, a couple of years ago, I stood in front of a diamond exchange store on the corner of 47th Street and 6th Avenue, considering my options.
I don’t know what drew me to this particular store, but there I was. It was simply the first one I noticed. It was large and on the corner, which seemed like important details. Now, as a rule, I don’t excel at comparison shopping. In fact, when I am looking for something, I will pretty much snap up the first thing I see, and that’s it. Then I spend the next day? month? year? hearing about everyone else’s great deal on the very same thing that I should have gotten if only I’d bothered to shop around. In front of that store, I told myself that I could just see what they had to say and then try a few more places. But I knew this would be the only place I would enter.
The tiny ring was now in the pocket of my jeans. I hadn’t worn it in about a year.
The minute I entered the store, some young people rushed over. Really, I’m remembering this as a sea of twenty-somethings, men and women, descending on me. I told someone that I wanted to sell my ring. A young woman took a look at it and then there must have been some unseen communication going on (why is there no HBO drama set in the underground world of the diamond district?) because seconds later, a man in his late seventies, wearing a rumpled suit, came sweeping past everyone, took one look at my ring, and said, “Come with me, young lady.” He grabbed me by the arm and led me away. I knew at that moment that my ring was valuable. There was an actual charge in the air.
The man swept me past the crowd of young people all the way to the back of the store and up a flight of stairs into his crowded messy office, which looked probably exactly the way it had looked for the past forty years. Was there a manual typewriter? I know I’m not getting this right. He introduced himself and I’ll call him Abe Feldman, which may be his actual name; I no longer remember.
Abe Feldman was of a time when people said things like “how do you do” upon meeting someone and I wish I’d had the foresight to say such a thing. It might have given me an advantage. Instead I came across exactly as I was: hopelessly out of my element. I knew I would have to play the game I had been dreading, the ancient ritual of figuring out a price. Some people find this thrilling, I know, but for me it is simply exhausting. But Abe Feldman was raring to go.
Here is what I knew: the ring had cost six thousand dollars. The man who would become my husband, and then my ex-husband, had bought it with a credit card, which eventually we both paid off. I couldn’t imagine what the ring would be worth now, and probably I should have done extensive research into this, but I hadn’t. I knew that Abe Feldman would say some number and I would succumb pretty quickly.
I can’t remember if Abe Feldman wore one of those eyepieces that jewelers wear to look at diamonds, but let’s just say that he did. He spoke fast and urgently as he examined the ring, explaining that it had a slight crack in it (which I suddenly remembered) but that it was in decent shape.
“I’ll give you two thousand for it,” he said. He opened the safe on his desk, which I hadn’t noticed, and took out a big pile of cash. He started counted out hundred dollar bills, one at a time, flipping them onto the desk like cards, hypnotizing me. Abe Feldman was a master of seduction. He looked at me carefully and then said, “I’ll throw in another hundred,” and placed one last bill on top of the pile.
This was a ton of money. And yet, the number sounded right to me, which made me think that it was worth even more. But I wanted to stop the game, which Abe Feldman clearly knew. “Now, come on,” he said, “It’s nearly four. I have to leave. You should take the money. I’m giving you a good deal.” I had the feeling that Abe Feldman had all the time in the world. It was me who wanted to get out of there as fast as possible.
I must have agreed to it, because I remember him asking for some identification, which surprised me. Nothing at all felt legal in that tiny crowded office, but I handed him my driver’s license and he copied everything down.
It hit me at that moment that Abe Feldman was getting the deal of a lifetime and I knew that I couldn’t just give up so soon. I realized that he had seen my name. “As one Jew to another,” I began (I could be seductive too), “you know I’m supposed to bargain with you as long as I can, right?”
He smirked. “As one Jew to another,” he said, “I’m giving you a good deal.” And then I really knew there was nothing left to say.
I don’t really remember this part, but eventually I must have left his office and gone back downstairs and out onto the hot summer sidewalk. I remember thinking about Abe Feldman laughing to himself the moment I left. And maybe he did, but the best part about this was that I had a pile of money now in place of a ring that had been sitting in a tiny box on top of my dresser. And that ring, which, to be honest, I had always felt conflicted about, as I never really saw myself as a diamond-ring–wearing woman, had become more important, more useful, at the end of its life than it ever was before.
I would love to end this story with me throwing my hat in the hair all Mary Tyler Moore–like and then skipping down the street to buy myself something fabulous with all that money, or just simply strolling down the street, grinning, with an enormous sense of relief. And I would get there, eventually.
But this story actually ends with a sudden flash of memory: the man, who would later become my husband, and then my ex-husband, but now still my boyfriend, sitting on the end of our bed and asking me to marry him. And then, as we were both laughing and crying, just beside ourselves with feeling, he said simply, “I have a ring.”
And then there I was, standing on the corner of 47th Street and 6th Avenue, with thousands of dollars in my pocket and a terrible sinking feeling.
When I responded to the email and signed up our family for a shift, the details of exactly how we would be spending our Saturday morning didn’t dawn on me. I didn’t pause to picture myself and our older son standing on the edge of a puddle of cindery snow-melt, cigarette butts, and crumpled receipts, the cuff of my jeans trailing over my sneaker soaking up the cold water. We stood outside the Market entrance to Wal-Mart, the only magnet big box superstore in our rural area. My husband and younger son occupied the Home and Garden entrance, engaging anonymous strangers and occasional acquaintances. And we panhandled.
The mom in charge of the booster group for our kids’ basketball team arranged the permissions from Wal-Mart, set up the shifts, and provided us with a laminated 8”x11” sign naming our cause and an empty pretzel jug. Surprisingly, that’s all it takes for an activity that yields a one hundred percent profit margin. No Wal-Mart employee checked on us, and we must not have provoked any complaints, although one skeptic shrieked, “It’s a scam! It’s a scam!” as her companion dropped a dollar in the can.
Fortunately for us, the temperature on the day we panhandled was thirty-five degrees, not the twelve it had been for weeks, and the burst of sunshine seemed good for donations.
When the boys were toddlers, I always gave them each a dollar or two to put into the Salvation Army kettle or for a poppy for veterans or into the offering plate at church. That’s how I’d been raised, and the kids couldn’t see the checks my husband and I wrote over the years—to the United Way and the Volunteer Fire Department, to a scholarship fund established in memory of my grandparents and a scholarship fund at the school my friend founded in rural Nicaragua, to NPR and the Fish and Game Club, to the Cancer Society and the March of Dimes. I wanted our boys to have tangible experiences of giving. My hope was to nurture their giving hearts, for them to grow up never remembering a time they left some stranger poor.
In early adulthood, I passed the particular homeless man who stood outside the corner bagel place near my apartment in Hyde Park in Chicago frequently enough that eventually, I didn’t buy myself a cup of coffee without coming out with two. If I didn’t have enough money for two overpriced luxury items, then I probably shouldn’t be buying one, I reasoned. I’d give him a couple dollars here and there, and once a sandwich I’d packed for lunch. After a few months, he disappeared for a week or so, and then reappeared, looking one hit away from death. His actions embodied the reason most people don’t give to people who act like him. Of course I didn’t want him to die, but I honestly didn’t really care what he did. All I knew about him was that he liked three sugars in his coffee.
Eventually, though, as our kids entered the world of organized activities, and as the tide of fundraising rose around us, irritation about giving rose within me. I found myself constantly buying or selling, for my kids or my friends’ kids, to support a variety of worthwhile activities. The homemade frozen pie sale for the preschool was my gateway.
From there it has been all downhill in the currency exchange that supports field trips and field improvements, playgrounds and pay-to-play. The catalogs of overpriced junk—nine-dollar bags of gummy bears or ten-dollar rolls of wrapping paper—from the PTO go immediately into the recycle bin without hesitation. The fifteen-dollar dollar tub of cookie dough my friend’s son delivered went into the garbage after one batch of plastic flavored cookies. A year’s worth of organic gardening magazines piled up, unread, on an end table in the year three of my friends’ kids sold for the magazine drive for the senior class trip to Washington, DC.
I’ve refused to let the kids participate in most fundraisers for a while. Instead I grudgingly write a check for the buy-out amount rather than guilt our relatives into a quota’s worth of Zap-A-Snacks. But now my husband and I figured it was about time the kids do something to support their activities other than sell raffle tickets to their grandparents the night before money had to be turned in to their coach. Thus we signed up for “the fundraiser” and pretty quickly, the details of what we were doing sank in.
Our younger son learned in the first five minutes to drop the direct appeal. He tried initiating contact—“Would you like to support our basketball team?”—but that caused people to turn and run, and his contagious smile turned out to be the best ask. A few commented on the basketball logo on our sign, but most people didn’t ask what our cause was before dropping a dollar in the can. Between the two entrances we covered for two hours, windshield washer fluid and fifty-inch TV sets seemed to be the most obvious hot items, amidst carts of mundane groceries.
The older fell into a script. “Good morning!” Eye contact. A couple dollars or a handful of change later, “Thank you, Sir.” “We appreciate it, Ma’am.” I’d echo his thanks, maybe comment on the warming sun. The wind thrashed the clouds back and forth, flooding us in sunshine or shadows, warm enough to remain gloveless, but with only one hand exposed at a time, while the other warmed in a pocket.
“Sorry, no cash! You should swipe debit cards!” fortyish moms would call out to us as they rushed their cart to their crossover vehicle, acknowledging us over their shoulders. My son would look at me skeptically and I’d shrug. I could equally believe or disbelieve each one of those moms that passed us by. You’ve got to draw some lines somewhere.
People who appeared most able, based only on appearance, usually made no eye contact and a beeline for the side entrance where we could be avoided entirely. That reminded me of a comment an adult paper carrier told me knowingly: “The longer the driveway, the smaller the tip!” Even though I know that it’s not a good indicator of generosity for people who probably itemize their charitable giving, it does sting to be ignored. Elderly and disabled people, people who looked to have enough on their hands by just getting out of their cars and into the store—let alone endure the exertion of their shopping experience—hardly ever ignored us. They paused, painstakingly extricating wallets from pockets and dollars from wallets, smiling softly. People who know what it feels like to be ignored don’t seem to pass that feeling along.
During a pause in the action, I asked my sonhow he felt about our efforts and how a person decides how to give. Does the cause matter? In a world of limited resources, how do we make good decisions? “You think too much, Mom,” he responded, a twelve-year-old feeling the success of what he was actually doing in the present moment. I came with him into the present, and when the grainy wind picked up, peppering us with the silty dust of a three-acre parking lot, we’d squint and lean into each other in solidarity. When the twenty-something skateboard type blew past us with a quick hey nod, and we realized he’d dropped us a tightly rolled ten, we shared twin feelings, reflected in each other’s faces.
He’sright, though, I have reflected a lot about giving well. My uncle contracted AIDS in the eighties, and died in the nineties, before protease inhibitors, but not before devising an intricate estate plan. He established a charitable trust of which his nine nieces and nephews would be the trustees. Until the youngest of us turned thirty, we would distribute the interest annually, then eventually, the principal. The annual distributions weren’t huge amounts of money but certainly more than any of us would have been giving out of our own resources. We rotated the decision making, and then made the big decisions on principal together, through email and on an Adirondack porch, over lots of wine, tears, and laughs, lining up our memories, values and our dollars.
I think there is a tendency to want our giving to mean something, to make a difference, to influence a change for the better. Most people like the idea of teaching a man to fish and feeding him for a lifetime. I get that, but there’s a bigger and bigger part of me that doesn’t like it at all, that doesn’t like the potential for superiority that can accompany the transaction of money, knowledge, or power. Sometimes hungry people just want a fish, not because they like fish, but because they are hungry, and they will figure out how to get something different than fish next time. Lately I see myself less persuaded by mission statements and program descriptions and find myself more likely to pull out my moneyand just give away the damn fish. Somewhere where are no expectations involved—hopes that a scholarship recipient will excel or a belief that the advocacy will yield a certain result.
“What’s the point?” one may quite reasonably ask. Isn’t there an inevitable futility to this approach? An endless string of coffees with three sugars?
I suppose there is, and for me, that’s okay. It falls in with the lot of our common humanity, and the likelihood that anyone is as likely as anyone else to need the unexpected compassion of another. I won’t sign up for another shift panhandling outside Wal-Mart to fundraise for youth sports again anytime soon. The generosity of strangers overflowed our cans. As we got home, warm and clean, the kids counted the money, enthusiastic and reflective, and they promised themselves never to walk by person collecting without pitching in. Turns of fate are often hairpins, it seems to me, and in the switchbacks, in the ebbs and flows, keeping my balance requires a give and take.
ELIZABETH CAMPBELL is a pseudonym for a clinical social worker who, because of the nature of her work, seeks to limit personal information available online.