The Road Trip

road-trip
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Karen Collier

“Are you going to write about this?” my ninety-eight-year-old grandmother asked as she shambled across the convenience store parking lot with her walker, and I followed with her purse in one hand and her diaper bag in the other.

“No, Granny, what happens in the restroom stays in the restroom.”

She stopped and reached over to grab my arm. “It’s okay, darlin’. You can write about whatever you want.”

A month before, I’d come up with the idea of a road trip with Granny during a visit to my uncle Doug’s home in Burkburnett where she’s been living since leaving her home in Midland two years ago. Even though Doug had a heart attack last year and his wife, June, is on her third round of chemotherapy for lymphoma, they refuse to even consider a nursing home for Granny. Doug makes a weekly trip to Walmart to buy her beloved no-name-brand cheese puffs, and June cheers for her as she makes her laps around the pool table each day. Between them, they make sure Granny has three square meals a day, and when she needs to go to the doctor, they insist that she leave the housecoat at home and put on a pair of pants and a blouse, all neatly pressed by Doug.

I arrived in the late afternoon, and Doug met me at the door.

“Get in here.” He grabbed my overnight bag out of my hand and led me though the hall and kitchen into the den, carefully avoiding the knick-knacks balancing on every surface.

“Mother! Look who’s here,” Doug yelled at Granny who was sitting on the couch, eyes glued to the television.

“Huh?” Granny turned toward Doug and scrunched her face. She’s been almost deaf for a decade, but she won’t wear a hearing aid.

“Mother, look, it’s Karen.” Doug stepped out of the way, so Granny could see me.

“Oh well, what about that, you made it!”

I knew they’d had a conversation earlier in the day about my unreliability.

“What are you watching?” I plopped down next to Granny while Doug set my bag against the wall.

“‘Family Feud.’” She turned her attention back to the television. “Do you like ‘Family Feud’?”

“I don’t watch ‘Family Feud.’”

“Huh?”

“I DON’T WATCH ‘FAMILY FEUD,’” I yelled.

My aunt June walked in, patting her hair in place with both hands.

“You didn’t eat yet, did you?” she asked.

I glanced at the clock and saw that it said 4:30. “Nope.”

“Do you still not eat meat?” she continued.

“Still not eating meat, but don’t worry about me. I’ll make do with whatever.”

“What about chicken?” Doug asked.

“Nope, not chicken either.” We have this conversation every time I visit.

I sat on the couch with Granny, while in the kitchen Doug cut up chunks of cheese and June heated up cabbage soup. I was almost certain that she’d made the soup with chicken stock, but I wasn’t going to try to explain again that this matters to a vegetarian.

Just as the credits were rolling for “Family Feud,” June brought a plate into the den, and while balancing it in one hand, she pulled a T.V. tray in front of Granny with the other. Then June put the plate down on the tray. A frozen corndog, microwaved and cut into bite-sized pieces.

“Is that a corndog?” Granny seemed neither pleased nor disappointed.

“Yes, Mother, it’s a corndog.” June called Granny “Mother” just like Doug.

“What about my puffs?”

“Just wait a minute. Doug’s bringin’ ’em with your tea.”

“Okay then.” Granny forked a chunk of wiener covered in breading and popped it in her mouth just as Doug added the missing plastic glass of tea and bowl of cheese puffs to her tray.

“Want a puff?” Granny’s mouth was still full.

“Okay.” I took just one and felt my blood pressure rise from the infusion of salt. Where did that orange color come from? Real cheese isn’t that color.

After dinner, Doug, June, Granny, and I sat in the den and watched as June toggled between “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Voice.” During one of the rare moments when both channels were having a simultaneous commercial break, I asked about my aunt Betty. Betty is Doug’s sister and Granny’s only other living child. Betty suffers from Parkinson’s, and shortly after Granny had moved to Burkburnett, Betty’s children had moved her into a nursing home in Midland so her son—my cousin, John—and his girlfriend, Sharon, could keep an eye on her.

Doug said they hadn’t heard from Betty in a several weeks, so we decided to try to get in touch with her the following day. Around nine o’clock, June gave Granny her pills and helped her get ready for bed while Doug pulled out the sofa sleeper for me.

It was late the next afternoon when I finally got to talk to Betty on the phone. It had been two years since I’d talked to her, and the changes were staggering. I could barely hear her soft voice, and the words I did hear made no sense: Junior, Oldsmobile, Thanksgiving.

After I hung up the phone, I realized that Betty and Granny might never see each other again unless someone stepped up and offered to drive Granny the two hundred miles from Burkburnett to Midland. June volunteered Doug to go with me.

“Granny,” I yelled to get her attention.

“Whaaat?” She was annoyed. I’d interrupted “Wheel of Fortune,” her favorite.

“Want to go to Midland?”

“I would like to see my house one last time.” She perked up and lost all interest in the dinging that was blaring from the television as one of the contestants bought the right vowel. “I lived in that house for fifty-six years.”

“Okay, then.” I went in the kitchen to look at the calendar with June, and we found a couple of days that would work the following month.

“Do I need to put on my clothes?” Granny yelled from the den.

“You’re not going today,” June yelled back.

“Huh?”

June went into the den, sat next to Granny, and explained that I would come back in a few weeks, then Doug and I would take her.

“Okay.” Granny sat back against the couch, her gaze returning to the television.

The next day, I returned to Austin, and over the next four weeks, I told all my friends about my plan to take my grandmother to see her old home and her daughter, probably for the last time.

“Wow, what an adventure,” my friends said, and I’d teared up a little and shook my head. Yes, I was doing such a wonderful thing for Granny.

Four weeks later, we were on our way to Midland when we stopped for a restroom break, and I found myself following Granny and her walker across the asphalt parking lot of a convenience store while Doug grabbed a quick smoke.

When we finally arrived in Midland two hours and two restroom breaks later, we checked into the Hampton Inn and headed to Rockwood Manor to see Betty. When we walked in the front door, the comingled smells of iodine and boiling potatoes hit me and turned my stomach. I looked at Granny, thinking how lucky she was not to have to live in a place like this. When we found Betty’s room, John’s girlfriend, Sharon, was already there. John is Betty’s youngest son, and even though he and Sharon have been together for years, he’s spent most of them in prison. When it was time to move Betty into a nursing home, Sharon stepped up and offered to help John see after Betty, but I was pretty sure she was the one doing most of the work. She was definitely the one directing the campaign to convince us all that John had become an outstanding son.

“Look at her pretty finger nails! John paints them for her every week.” Sharon dragged a vinyl-cushioned chair next to Betty’s recliner, so Granny could sit close. Granny grabbed Betty’s hand and pulled it into her lap, while Betty stared down at their clasped hands, expressionless. Granny couldn’t hear, and Betty rarely makes sense, so everyone else did the talking.

“And this is where I put her snacks.” Sharon opened a drawer in Betty’s bedside table and pointed to a bag of Cheetos. I thought for a moment about retrieving Granny’s puff from the car so they could have a taste test but then decided against it.

“Hey, Sharon,” I said, “before I forget, can we come out to your house tomorrow and get Granny’s personal stuff out of your shed?”

“Uh, yeah, okay.” Sharon looked nervously over my head.

A little over a year before, when Doug had his hands full taking care of Granny and needed to sell her house, he’d made a deal with Sharon. If she would empty the house, she could have the money from anything she could sell. He’d told me that Sharon was keeping Granny’s personal items, like her photographs, in a storage shed until someone could pick them up.

“The thing I really want is the framed photograph of my mother as a child. It was hanging in Granny’s bedroom.” I thought the location of it might spur Sharon’s memory.

Sharon didn’t respond, so I continued. “It was in a beautiful silver frame with a blue velvet mat.”

“I don’t remember it, but I’ll look when I get home.” Sharon looked at her feet.

“It was the only photograph of my mother as a child.” Even I could hear the whine and the hope in my voice.

“Granny!” I raised my voice to get her attention. “If we leave now, we can drive by the house before we meet John for dinner.”

“Okay.” She squeezed Betty’s hand before letting go.

“I want to see the house, too,” Betty said softly.

“Then come with us.” I saw a glimpse of the aunt I adored.

“I’m not sure you want to do that,” Sharon warned. “She can be a handful in the car.”

“I was the one she was with the first time she tried to jump out of a car.” I smiled at Betty again. “We got this, right?”

Sharon protested for a few more minutes about Betty’s anxiety and then the size of her wheelchair. I didn’t know if Sharon was being protective or controlling, but it didn’t matter. I dug in my heels until she realized this was an argument I’d never let her win.

I drove to the house, with Doug in the passenger seat and Betty and Granny in the back. I’d engaged the child locks, as I didn’t entirely trust either of them not to jump out.

I slowed the car in front of the red brick ranch at 4012 Monty Drive, the house where Santa sometimes left our gifts before dark on Christmas Eve so my grandfather could see us open them before he had to report for his shift as a policeman. The house where my girl cousins and I had once collected all our parents’ change, placed it in a special plastic Easter egg, and then naively entrusted their older brother to hide it. The house where my grandmother, Joy Green, had spent over half of her life.

As I stopped the car at the curb, Granny looked excitedly out the window.

“They planted a tree.” She pointed towards a sapling staked in the middle of the long-dead grass in the front yard.

“My American Beauty is still there.” Her eyesight was sometimes perfect.

After Granny completed a full inventory of the plants, both old and new, we had a few more minutes to kill before meeting John and Sharon at the restaurant, so I decided to drive by Dennis the Menace Park—the park where Granny had taken us to play when we were kids and Dennis the Menace was a popular cartoon. Doug jumped out for a quick smoke while I pointed out what was left of the original park—a faded sign and a 1960s-era water fountain that looked like a rhinoceros.

We eventually made it to the restaurant, one of those family places that serve catfish and fried okra, dipped in the same batter and fried in the same grease so that the taste is indistinguishable. As our food was served, John blurted from the other end of the table, “Sharon told me about that picture you’re looking for. I’m pretty sure we don’t have it anymore.”

I blinked hard. What?

“We kept that stuff for a couple of years, but no one ever came to get it, so we finally threw it out.”

I bit my lip. Granny had barely left her house a couple of years ago, and it’s only been a year since the house was cleaned out and sold.

“What’s wrong?” Granny hadn’t heard a word.

“Nothing, Granny.” I stared down at my plate as I choked down the rest of my catfish or okra, I’m not sure which, and thought about the day Granny had given me the only picture she had of my mother as a child. In the photo, my mother, who was probably three or four, had a few wispy curls pulled back with a barrette, and her smile revealed her dimples. When Granny offered it to me, I protested—this was her memory, not mine—but she insisted, so I accepted the photograph and took it to be framed so I could give it back to her for Christmas. She asked me to hang it on the wall of her bedroom and made me promise that I’d get it back when she was no longer there to remember.

When we finished our dinner, Sharon and John offered to take Betty back to the nursing home. Granny wanted to drive by her house one more time. This time, Doug rang the bell of one of her neighbors, and the woman and her husband came out to visit with Granny in the backseat of the car. Their dogs tried to lick Granny as they talked about the couple’s impending move to the Northeast and how the Texas Rangers were playing. I stayed in the driver’s seat and stared out the windshield, fuming about the lost photo.

As we drove back to the hotel, I finally spoke.

“That photograph of my mother is gone.” I said it low so only Doug could hear.

“I’m afraid you might be right,” he said.

I was determined to say no more about it. Doug had taken on all the responsibility for Granny, and I didn’t want him to feel guilty about anything. When we got back to the hotel, Granny and I wished Doug a good night and closed our door. It was almost nine o’clock, and I was anxious for her to go to bed, so I could call my husband.

Unfortunately Granny had other ideas. Her old neighbor had mentioned that the Rangers were playing that night, and now she wanted to watch the game. I sat down next to her on the couch.

“Karen, tomorrow we need to go to John and Sharon’s and get my pictures.”

“Granny, there aren’t any pictures to get.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.” I wanted to vent to my husband instead.

When Granny was finally ready for bed, I tucked her in and crept out to the lobby to call home. At first, I sobbed so hard, I couldn’t get the words out, and when I finally did, they erupted in a stream.

“What kind of person throws away someone else’s photographs? Why didn’t I go get it as soon as Granny said she was staying in Burkburnett? Why didn’t Doug tell me before he had Sharon clean out the house? Why did I trust someone I didn’t know to take care of it for me?”

“I don’t know,” my husband said softly over and over again. He usually jumps at the chance to solve a problem, but even he knew there was no solution for this.

I returned to the room and climbed into bed, exhausted. I’d lost my mother all over again.

At some point during the night, Granny came awake.

“Remember we have to get those pictures tomorrow.”

I pretended to be asleep.

The next morning, we had breakfast in the hotel lobby where they offered one of those free breakfast buffets. I chose the Fruit Loops like I always do when I travel because I love them but wouldn’t be caught dead buying them in the grocery store. Doug made Granny a waffle and then headed back to his room to shave.

“Karen.” Granny stopped her fork midway between the table and her mouth. “Don’t forget, we have to go out to Sharon’s and get my pictures.”

I tried not to yell. “There are no pictures to get. They’re gone.”

“Where are they?” She dropped her fork, her voice was rising.

“Thrown away.”

“Who threw them away?” Now people were staring.

“John or Sharon, I don’t know. All I know is they’re gone.”

“Well, they better not be or I’m gonna scream.” She was already screaming.

I shrugged in apology to the woman who watched from a nearby table.

“It’s okay,” she said, “She can scream if she wants.”

It never fails to amaze me the allowances people make for the elderly.

“Screaming won’t change anything. What’s done is done.” I tried to calm Granny down.

She shook her head and finished her waffle.

We loaded the car and headed back to the nursing home for one last visit with Betty. As I pulled into a parking spot, I braced myself for the moment I had been dreading, the moment when Granny said her last goodbye to Betty.

“Ya’ll run in and tell Betty I said ‘goodbye.’” Granny stared out the window of the back seat.

“What?” I looked at her in the rearview mirror.

“I’ll stay in the car.” She continued looking out the window.

“Uh uh.” I shook my head. “You’re coming in with us.”

“It’s too much trouble to get my wheelchair out of the trunk. You can say goodbye for me.”

“Mother,” Doug finally chimed in, “you need to go in and tell Betty goodbye yourself.”

“It’s just too hard on me getting in and out of the car.” She was holding firm.

“It’s all about you, isn’t it?” I blurted out and immediately realized this was one of those incidents she would recount to every friend and family member.

“Well, okay then.” She returned my stare in the rearview mirror.

Doug wheeled Granny into Betty’s room. John and Sharon and a couple of family friends were already there, waiting for us.

“I wanted to stay in the car.” Granny told them the whole story and ended, of course, by mimicking me in a tone much more hateful than the one I used. Then she laughed while the others shook their heads at me in disappointment.

We were ready to head home when John suggested that we all go across the road to a Mexican restaurant for lunch.

“Mother, you want to go have some enchiladas, right?” John leaned down in front of Betty.

“Okay.” Her eyes lit up, and I thought maybe there was hope for John after all.

Granny, Doug, and I had finished breakfast only an hour before, so we looked at the menu for something small. Granny asked me to order her some nachos, and then when I brought them to the table, said she didn’t want nachos and sent Doug back to order an enchilada. She was getting revenge for our insistence that she get out of the car earlier.

After lunch, as I was loading Granny into the back seat, she suddenly yelled, “Bye, Betty,” and gave a little wave. I realized Betty was already settled in the front seat of John’s car. They hadn’t had a chance to say a final goodbye.

Betty smiled and gave a wave in return. No one shed a tear, not even me. The reality of our road trip turned out to be nothing like what I imagined, except for the restroom breaks at gas stations along the way. Those turned out exactly like I expected.

I deposited Doug and Granny in Burkburnett where they belonged and headed back to Austin late that night. As I was leaving Wichita Falls, I started crying all over again. I’d remembered it clearly the night before, but now I was unsure. Did she have a barrette in her hair or was I confusing it with a photo of me as a little girl? Was she smiling or did she have her chin oh so shyly tucked?

When I arrived home that night, my husband asked me if the trip was worth it.

“Absolutely not,” I answered.

I thought I was giving my grandmother the opportunity to say a final goodbye to her daughter, but Granny and Betty parted as if one of them was simply running up to Walmart to buy a gallon of milk. How was it that I’d been the one who ended up devastated?

In the days that followed, I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother, not as a little girl in a photograph but as a dying woman in a hospital bed. She spent the last four days of her life unconscious in intensive care while I slept on a couch in the waiting room. When the doctor finally turned off the ventilator, my stepsiblings and their spouses gathered with me and my husband around her bed while Granny stayed in the waiting room with our children. I had been so surprised that she chose not to be with her daughter as she died. Granny was the one who’d brought my mother into the world. Why was I now surprised that Granny hadn’t wanted to say a final goodbye to her other daughter either?

Then I remembered the way my conversations with Granny always end.

“I miss your mother.” She always says it first.

“Me, too.”

“She was my baby, and you were her baby.”

“I know.”

Granny is the only person in the world who misses my mother as much as I do.

Today I can still feel the heaving of my chest and taste the salty tears running into my mouth as I drive home from Burkburnett, just as clearly as I can hear Granny yelling across the parking lot, “Bye, Betty” and see her cheerful wave. My grandmother’s heart and mine are broken in different ways, but broken just the same.

•••

KAREN COLLIER is a native Texan. She spent twenty long years in high tech before becoming a high school English teacher and discovering how the other half lives: in poverty. She left teaching after five years to pursue life as a creative writer. This is her first published essay.

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Go That Way, Very Fast. If Something Gets In Your Way, Turn.

chippedhouse
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

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.

Read more FGP essays by Erica S. Brath.