June 07, 2010

Six Boxes

Sometime around dawn, the apartment finally cooled enough to make a light cover necessary. Of course, the bedroom, where the air conditioner had been running full blast all night, was much cooler. But it was also infested with some kind of mites coming in through the cracks of the window thanks to the pigeons who insisted in nesting on the sill. Not even a long day of vacuuming, heaving mattresses about, laundry, scrubbing, bleaching, powdering, and pigeon-defense installation could make me tired enough to get a good night’s sleep on the couch in the too-warm living room.

I like to sleep cuddle up in a blanket. Not naked and exposed to the constant breeze from the overhead fan, even if it was enough, just, to keep me from sweating. All these thoughts ran through my mind as I swung my feet over the edge of the couch and looked at the clock on the VCR – 8:03 a.m. They were purposeful distractions from today’s unpleasant mission.

I dressed quickly, brushed my teeth, and fed the cat. There was no point in putting the kettle on. In a vain attempt at detox I had not replaced my last tin of coffee when it ran out. Instead, I slipped into my shoes and began shifting the six boxes stacked in a tower almost as tall as myself out into the hall. Isis took advantage, skittering out onto the worn, orange and brown carpet and heading for the potted plants clustered at the end of the hall near the south-facing window. I moved the last box, creating a new tower by the back door, and then went after her. We played a leisurely game of cat herding before I scooped her up and set her back in the apartment, grabbing my keys, purse, and hat on the way out.

I live on the third floor and the boxes had to be carried down one at a time to my car. They are full of some of my most prized possessions – books. On a discouraging note, these six boxes only represented four shelves, which means I have a long way to go. But six was about what I could manage without pulling a muscle and about what fit comfortably in the back of my car. They are the first step towards clearing out the apartment and getting it ready to show. After the final trip down the two flights of stairs, I sat in my car and dialed my parents’ number. I was almost relieved when the machine picked up, but Dad caught it just after the mechanical voice had kicked in.

“Hi. I’m on my way to Omaha.”

“Okay, you want us to wait for you?”

“No, you guys go to breakfast. It’s gonna be at least forty-five minutes.”

“Well, I’m not even dressed yet,” the deep voice rumbled back. It was an excuse. He dressed about as quickly as I did. My car was already full and the clock on the dash only read 8:26.

“Okay, I’ll see you in a little bit then.”

The drive to Omaha was uneventful. And I mean uneventful. It’s sparsely trafficked interstate almost all the way there, making it easy on a wandering mind with only NPR to keep me from stressing too much. I’d begun and discarded more than one email in the past few days. This was a conversation to have in person.

I let myself in the front door when I arrived and greeted Lucy as she came over, whirring and purring and chirruping. Mom was on the couch reading a book and Dad was at the dining room table sifting through the paper, but he got up to put on his shoes as I came in. I was oddly disappointed when we pulled into IHOP twenty minutes later. I had been counting on a light breakfast, a yogurt parfait at McDonald’s or something. I made myself eat as much of the two-egg breakfast as I could, but Mom polished off the bacon, Dad stole two pieces of toast, and there were still hash browns on my plate. I did cave and order a cup of coffee, which I took my time nursing through family gossip and small talk. Mom and I even managed not to argue about politics.

A traditional Saturday morning is breakfast and a trip to the used bookstore. Once we were home, before Dad could disappear into his basement and before Mom could get to work in her craft room (which, like a conquering army, now encompasses parts of all three of the upstairs bedrooms), I called a family meeting.

I told them about the surprise garnishment on my checking account. I told them about the need to file for bankruptcy not at some mythical future point, but now, this summer. Of course we went over and over the preliminaries. Call the bank. Change your checking account. Get the garnishment paperwork. Find out when they went to court and what the judgment was and why there wasn’t a notice.

“Yes, I know all that,” I repeated, trying to hold on to my temper. I wasn’t angry with them, just frustrated with the entire situation. When I get frustrated, the emotional response is not helpful. I needed to be clear-headed now, not a watering pot. I was also, as predicted, ashamed, guilty, and afraid by turns. Ashamed of not being able to handle my own life according to their standards, guilty for having to ask them for help (again), and afraid for my future.

I took a breath. “I know what the next steps are. I need to know about the longer-term. What I need to know, is whether or not I should still be planning to move to California. Will you help me?”

“Well, if you stay here and work, you’ll just have to start repaying your student loans,” Mom pointed out.

“Yes, I know. And there’s no telling if I’ll be able to find a job that will allow me to afford that. And if I do, it probably won’t be enough to pay those loans and save to move, even if I could find someone to hire me for six months or a year, knowing I planned to leave. To get a good job, I’d have to be disingenuous to my employer. Make them think I intended to stay. I don’t want to do that.”

We went around and around a little bit more. Finally Mom conceded “Yes, plan to move to California. We’ll get you there. Somehow, we’ll get you there.” She wasn’t happy about it.

Dad went upstairs, more to cool down a little than to move the laundry into the dryer, I think. When he came back down, he had a few more questions.

“If we help you, can we count on getting paid back? Say in three to five years?”

That hurt my feelings more than anything else. “Well, of course you’ll get paid back. I’m not asking for you to just give me money. I’m just saying that I’ve always been able to pay you back within six months in the past and this time I don't know.”

“Yeah, but that’s always been small amounts.”

“I can’t guarantee that this time because I don’t know what my living expenses or income will be like in California and I don’t know exactly how much I’ll need to borrow. But yeah, I should definitely be able to pay it back in three years and certainly five.”

It was in the back of my mind that we had also defaulted on the second mortgage for the house in Gretna. That was twenty-thousand dollars my brother and I had “borrowed” from them in the form of a gift of equity which had counted as our down payment on the house. We’d made payments on it for as long as we’d owned the house, even after Brandon had moved out to be with April, now my sister-in-law.

But then I’d gone back to school and we’d taken out the second mortgage because I didn’t qualify for financial aid. Then the second year, Mom had gotten a PLUS loan (for the parents of students) for me. But the mortgage and the PLUS loan still hadn’t been enough, so I’d fallen back on my two credit cards – one of which was now somehow garnishing my checking account. It wasn’t until the third year I was finally old enough to qualify for any kind of student aid. I was finally twenty-four, and finally, by the standards of the federal government “independent,” despite the fact I’d been supporting myself since the age of eighteen and owned my own home since I was nineteen. Ironically, that was the same year I broke down and tearfully asked my mom if I could move back in with them, admitting that even with four roommates, I couldn’t afford to keep the house and keep going to school. And the sale price left no room to repay them.

Moving in with them had proven temporary (thanks to the bank foreclosure and short sale of my current condo, the one I am now preparing to clear out), but school appears to be permanent. With no prediction of any kind of future earning potential and now this untimely garnishment, my hopes of someday being able to repay those defaulted credit cards are dashed. It’s time to call that bankruptcy attorney.

But first there was the inevitable talk with my parents. Money for college is a sore spot with me. I don’t want to have to ask for it partially because I want to take care of myself and partially because I don’t believe my mother, and never have, when she says she can’t afford to help. But it would be disrespectful to refute her statements about her own finances. It would be easier, I think, if she just took the principled stand – that she’s not obligated to help. I’m an adult and should be self-sufficient, like her.

I don’t want to have to care about money. It’s not something I place a great deal of value on, which seems counterintuitive considering money itself is supposedly a measurement of value. However, when it becomes a sore spot, subject of a rift in my family, a source of stress, I resent the entire idea of it. Why does asking for money have to be such an ordeal? Why can’t we live in a society where generosity comes as naturally as breathing? Why can’t we all live by the rules we learned in kindergarten?

Whine. Whine. Sniffle. Cry.

But the truth is, the world is never what we want it to be. As much as I want to accept things as they are, I also want to change them into what they should be (or what I think they should be). Detaching from the outcomes of those desires is fiendishly difficult and the source of much of the current suffering.

My parents want me to be entirely self-sufficient. They don’t want me to need their help. I want the same thing, but it’s not the reality of the situation. I considered not asking them. Scrapping my plans to move west and continue my education, finding a reliable job, paying by debts. I could see myself back in that cubicle where I worked at the bank before I went back to school, in some similar type of dead-end, bored-to-tears job. I dodn’t want that either, but perhaps it would have been the more altruistic choice.

In the end, I just don’t see money coming between us, not really, not in the ways that matter. I’m very grateful for that. Besides, I know they’ll get it out of me in the end. I know they worry about their retirement sometimes, but I never do because I know I’ll be there to take care of them. Of course, that all assumes I’ve gotten my act together by then.

In the meantime, I was home by noon to work on my thesis, six boxes of books taking up space in my parents' garage and six more empty boxes ready to be filled.

1 comment:

Teacher Jim said...

You're in out thoughts.