By Erica S. Brath
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.