“That’s the story of, that’s the glory of…”
I have come to realize that life contains very little of what I imagined it would. I never imagined I would have to sell a textbook back in the middle of a semester. I never imagined my gas light would scream up at me, daily, from a broken down dashboard. Who thought that at nineteen I would know sixty ways to prepare ramen noodles, and four ways to wear clothes before having to break down and use the last of my laundry detergent? I know this lifestyle is common for a college student, but this has been my lifestyle for as long as I can remember.
I have been poor my entire life, but I cannot bring myself to believe that any life has been more fulfilling. There is such a sense of accomplishment after rolling your smoking car down a street and into a parking spot. That sense of accomplishment is enough to cover the dread of having to ride the city bus for the next six months.
At six I found myself curled against my mother in the passenger seat of a Metro, at the edge of a Bi-Lo parking lot. To my six year old naivety it was little different from the trailer park we had just fled from; only here no one would lock me in a bedroom and force me to powerlessly listen to my mother’s screams.
I think innocence is what makes this lifestyle bearable; I think it was innocence that saved me. I saw my mother being dragged across the floor by her hair once, and I had no clue that my home life was any different than the average six year old’s; I only knew that it made my mother cry.
At eleven when my power was disconnected, my mother’s optimism towards roasting stale marshmallows over tea candles was the shield that kept me from losing the idea that I was no different from anyone else. I was thirteen before I realized to a definite extent that my lifestyle was in fact a bit different from most. I was living in a leased townhome with my mother. We had no carpet and could not afford to turn on the gas; we spent two winters on concrete floors with no heat or hot water. It was the January after my thirteenth birthday that it hit me. I was boiling water on my (thank God!) electric stove and carrying it to the tub in order to take a bath when out of nowhere the searing, angry epiphany hit me. “Why am I living this life? What anomaly of the universe placed me in this cold, tungsten lit apartment?”
That anger stayed with me for a long time before it faded to something bittersweet. It stayed with me long enough to kill my grades and ruin relationships; it stayed with me long enough to stain me. I woke up one morning, looked in the mirror and realized that the anger was no longer just inside of me; it had made its way through and discolored the very image of me. That anger essentially turned me into the person I am today. The only difference between then and now being that the stain did finally fade from anger to bitterness; from bitterness to acceptance.
I won’t ever say that this life isn’t trying, that I don’t wake up some mornings worried about how my mother and I will make the eighty seven dollar payment arrangement with the power company. Days like those are the most exhausting; however, it’s an exhaustion that drives me. I’m already so tired, but I know once we get the bill paid, the obstacle overcome, I will be permitted to sleep. Being poor brings out the strongest in people, at least in me. It gives me the determination to survive and the ability to accept the moments when the stuff hits the fan.
My mother and I have been evicted four times in my lifetime. Nothing will ever match the anxiety I felt each time I saw the sheriff arrive to hand over the notice, or came home to find the yellow beacon of bad news taped to my front door. At eleven, at thirteen, at fourteen, and at seventeen, I cried. The idea of having nowhere to go never became easier to live with. Somehow, each time, at the end of ten days my mother and I would have somewhere to call home, for however long.
New Years eve of 2005 I was sitting on the front stoop of my apartment building when I saw a tow truck pull into our parking lot and park behind my mother’s car. I didn’t have to ask any questions; I just knew. I held a finger up to the driver and motioned for him to wait. I stood on the tired legs of my thirteen year old body, and walked in to face my mother, “Their taking our car today, Mom.” I couldn’t help but to cry at that moment too. My mother’s eyes said “I’m sorry” in a million different ways, but no more words were spoken. My mother grabbed my hand, picked up her keys, and together we walked out and handed them over, and together we watched the man drive away with what felt like our only lifeline. We lost two more cars after that, and each time there was nothing to say. I could have been angry, but I couldn’t place blame on my mother. My mother, who worked an all-consuming job, simply to make ends meet.
In August of 2008 we miraculously signed a lease for a two bedroom, one and one half bathroom, carpeted, all electric, townhome. After putting out the money for the deposit and first month’s rent we were broke. My mother sold our car for seventy five dollars to pay for a U-Haul, and we moved our belongings within a matter of three hours. We pulled up outside of our new place and I was home. We moved in two bookshelves, two end tables, one queen sized bed, and a second hand fichus tree. It was everything we owned besides clothing and toiletries. My mother set up the end tables as if they were placed on the two ends of a couch. The bookshelves were placed in our otherwise bare dining room, and the queen size bed in the biggest master bedroom I had ever seen. At fifteen I shared a bed with my mother and a half bald stray cat we had adopted; it was unorthodox, but it was home.
By December we had enough money to buy a cheap futon for the living room. The purchase was made at Big Lots, and I can never forget how happy we were when we brought it home. We devoured the assembly instructions as if they were the first signs of life on a deserted island. We tightened the final bolts and pushed it into place between the two end tables, right where it belonged. Four months later we laughed till we cried as we carried the broken piece of shit to the dumpster.
I am a nineteen year old college student that sold my most important text books in the middle of a semester, simply to put gas in my car. I won’t say that I’m as bad off as I have been. The bills are more commonly paid on time, Christmas exists again, and I sleep in the comfort of a heated apartment instead of a passenger seat. We have long since been evicted from the townhouse I called home, and I now live in a one story matchbox. I haven’t watched a car get repossessed since I was 14, and our current car is in fact, paid off and breaks down consistently every four to six months. My mother and I finally furnished our house in 2009 with secondhand furniture bought at an estate sale for a total of forty dollars, and I can now say that we are sitting pretty, but only while lounging on the couch. I am grateful things aren’t as bad as they have been, but in honesty I would have never known how quickly a month passes without having to wonder where the rent was coming from. Destitution has taught me to appreciate the rainy day, for even the rainy day has a purpose.