In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
I have no children. I’ve been contentedly single for most of my childbearing years, and I haven’t really wanted kids. People have told me I’d make a good mother, but being good at something and wanting to do it are two different things. A few years ago I found out that I suffer from endometriosis, the top cause of infertility in women, so I probably couldn’t get pregnant even if I tried.
I’ve chosen to borrow other people’s children instead. My two best friends and my sister have all invited me into their homes after the births of their first children to help with chores and offer support where I could.
Three times I have washed bottle nipples with tiny brushes, changed diapers, felt spit-up run down my cleavage, fished boogers from tiny nostrils, patted out burps, sung lullabies, slept with a newborn on my chest, and stared deeply into a baby’s eyes. Three times I have fallen in love. Three times I have returned to my own home, heartbroken.
I live hundreds of miles from the children I once helped care for. This distance sometimes feels like a physical ache. Though I have not shepherded a child into this world, I have learned one of the lessons of parenting: how to love and let go.
Jennifer R. Myhre
San Mateo, California
In the early seventies I left academia for life in the country. I bought a raw piece of land and struggled to build a cabin, till a garden, and put up fences. I made friends with the locals, particularly Clyde, an older farmer with a hair-trigger smile. I’d drop by his place and help him with his projects just to be entertained by him. When I mentioned I was going to fence my meadow, Clyde offered to come over and drill the post-holes for me. I was thrilled. After that we regularly helped each other repair barns and care for animals. No money was ever exchanged.
I had been raised never to ask for anything; borrowing had always caused fights in my family. As Clyde and I went on helping each other, I felt obligated to keep it fair between us, and I pointed out that I had many more needs than he did. Clyde smiled and said, “If you need something, ask. If I can help out, I will. And if I need something, I’ll ask. You can help me if you can. But don’t ever keep track.”
We helped each other for the next thirty years without issue.
Friday Harbor, Washington
When I was sixteen, my parents let me borrow their old Subaru to drive thirty miles to Missoula, Montana. My sister went to college there, and she and I had tickets to see a concert. This being my first solo car trip, I was hyper-aware of everything: dashboard lights, humming sounds, whirring noises.
About halfway there I felt the car start to bump up and down, and I knew instantly that I had a flat tire. I pulled over to the side of the highway and, figuring I needed help, knocked on the door of a log cabin. The owner let me use her phone to call my parents and also my sister. (This was before cellphones.) I arranged for my sister to pick me up so we could make it to the concert, and my father grudgingly agreed to come and deal with the car.
While I stood beside the Subaru to wait, I assessed the damage. Walking in a circle around the car, I realized there was no flat tire; the bumping had apparently been caused by something in the road. With my annoyed father already on his way, there was only one thing to do: I held a pen cap against the valve needle and let the air out of a tire. It took a surprisingly long time.
I told my dad this story five years later, thinking he might find it funny. He didn’t.
My friends Helena and Allie are both pregnant and starting to outgrow their clothes. In my garage is a plastic bin full of maternity clothes from when I was pregnant with my son. It’s foolish to let them sit unused while two of my closest friends need new wardrobes to fit their expanding bodies, but I can’t quite let the clothes go. I was supposed to be wearing them again — until I woke up in my tenth week with blood spotting my underwear. Now I don’t need them, or the infant swing, the bottle sterilizer, or the car seat, all gathering dust.
My friends and I planned to go on maternity leave together. Instead next week they will come over to borrow the clothes and baby gear. I will smile and share my wisdom from doing this once before, but I can’t say that I won’t look at Helena in my maternity blouse, round and glowing, and think, That should be me.
East Palo Alto, California
When the U.S. military borrowed the man I love, we had less than a week to prepare. He notified his employer. We canceled our trip to visit his mom. He proposed. I accepted. We visited his godmother, grandparents, uncle, and brothers to share the news. With each retelling the reality started to sink in, and we clung to each other. It was the first time I’d seen him cry. (Actually it was so dark I didn’t see it, but I know he did.) I cried uncontrollably for days. When I wasn’t crying, I followed him around, trying to be useful.
He was deployed for thirteen months with no leave. I saw his face once on a video he sent, and we talked on the phone whenever his schedule and the connection allowed. I spent days assembling care packages with the perfect balance of necessities, entertainment, and messages of love. We planned our wedding from opposite sides of the world.
Unfortunately the military doesn’t return people the way it got them. My husband came back, but his soul still seemed to be deployed. He didn’t want to be around people. He wasn’t sleeping well. He sometimes wouldn’t talk to me. He was bitter and untrusting. I had expected him to want out of the military after this horrible experience, but when he got laid off, he said he was considering joining up full time.
Luckily the man I love learned to talk about it. He came through the difficult time and emerged a different person, stronger and more whole. Then he reenlisted anyway.
Now the government has borrowed him again. This time we had months to prepare, but it didn’t make saying goodbye any easier. Suddenly I’m a single parent. They’ve taken my husband, my daughter’s father, the family’s cook, dog walker, and banker. I look forward to the day the military lets me have him back.
My sister called and asked to borrow thousands of dollars as if it were a cup of sugar. “I need it for my next two mortgage payments,” she said.
My husband, Dan, and I made modest livings and had a nine-hundred-square-foot home on Maui’s north shore in Hawaii. Dan and I didn’t believe in having debt and often ate salad and potatoes for dinner as we carefully tended our savings account. We’d been living with a plywood floor in the bathroom for months while we saved to have that room finished. Meanwhile my sister and her husband drove expensive foreign cars, ate at fine restaurants, owned a large house in California, and took vacations throughout the year.
Then I remembered that two weeks prior to her phone call I’d bragged to my sister that Dan and I had saved enough for a hot tub. The amount she was now asking us to loan her was exactly the cost of the tub.
I told her I’d talk to Dan and get back to her, but in truth I wasn’t about to finance her extravagant lifestyle with my disciplined saving. I wrote a careful letter to my sister explaining why we couldn’t help her. I sat on it for a couple of days and then mailed it off.
For six months my sister wouldn’t speak to me.
She and I eventually resumed communication, and thirteen years later, on a park bench on Maui, my sister expressed how hurt and disappointed she’d been that I’d turned her away in her time of need. “A true friend would have lent me the money without hesitation,” she said.
I replied that perhaps I’d never meet her definition of a true friend, but I was grateful to be her sister. We’ve never spoken of money or friendship again.
When I was five, my distant cousin Lisa came to stay with us. She had been living in a detention center near Frankfurt, Germany, since the end of World War II. The Red Cross had tracked us down — her American relatives — and my mother had made arrangements for Lisa to live at our house until she could find a job and a place of her own.
Mother explained to me that during the war Lisa and her mother had been prisoners in a German concentration camp and had worked in the camp’s kitchen. Lisa’s mother had become ill with pneumonia and died. The rest of her family, including her father, had all perished in the Holocaust. We were her only living relatives.
Lisa was twenty-six, slim, blond, and blue eyed. She did not seem sad, as I’d expected her to be. Some mornings I noticed that her eyes were red, but she explained that she was allergic to the feathers in our pillows. If Lisa cried in the night, I didn’t hear.
Lisa had brought with her only a brown cardboard suitcase. Inside were a few clothes (which my mother soon replaced) and some treasures that Lisa showed me, such as a tin box with a lid. “I found it in the trash at the camp,” she said. “It held cigarettes. You can still smell the tobacco.” There was also a paper fan printed with tiny butterflies, which had belonged to Lisa’s mother, and a doll made of a tattered gray stocking with a single button eye. And there were rings, several of them, made of wire twisted around colored beads. The beads were small except for one, a large red-glass bauble that I found irresistible.
“It’s not precious,” she said, “except to me. I loved the boy who gave it to me. We wanted to marry, but he’d been a Nazi soldier when Berlin fell. He thought he was fighting for his country.” This was the first time I saw tears in Lisa’s eyes.
She let me hold the ring and try it on. It fit the index finger of my left hand perfectly. I asked to borrow it, and Lisa said yes. For several days I wore it proudly and was the envy of my friends.
I borrowed the ring several times after that, and each time Lisa reminded me to return it. “You don’t have to tell me,” I’d say.
Then one day I took the ring without telling her. When she brought out the treasure box and saw the ring was gone, I pretended to help her look for it: in the bedclothes, under the bed, in the corner of every drawer, and in all our pockets. Lisa was devastated. She looked for the ring every day for a long time.
Finally I put it back.
Lisa got a job, moved out, married, and had a little girl. When her daughter was six, Lisa died of lung cancer. In her coffin she held a white rose. Nestled in the just-opened rosebud was the ring, its glass stone like a spot of blood against the petals.
Rancho Mirage, California
I was single and living in New York City when I selected a friendly, uncomplicated man fifteen years my senior to be my first lover. (I was a late bloomer.) I did not love him, but it was time, and I figured that at his age he would certainly know what he was doing. Plus he smelled good, and his gentle sense of humor assured that I would get through the experience without too much awkwardness and embarrassment.
I wasn’t altogether wrong. I certainly felt safe and, well, valued. He seemed skilled and used a condom.
We were together for a few months, and at some point I insisted that he borrow my treasured, pristine volume of Rabindranath Tagore’s stories and poems. The man never returned it, and after we’d moved on by mutual agreement, I missed the book more than I missed its borrower.
Some years later, after I’d gotten married, I was walking home along West 72nd Street toward my apartment. I stopped at an intersection, and there he was: my first lover. We greeted each other tentatively — I don’t think he recognized me at first — but soon we were bantering like old pals. We walked toward the river until we came to my apartment building, with its doorman out front. We were about to part when I reminded him that he had borrowed my book. I would love to have it back, I said. He promised he would leave it with my doorman when he was in my neighborhood again. He awkwardly admitted that he could not remember my name, and I fired back — with a bit too much enthusiasm — that it was different now, because I was married.
A few days later I received a string-tied, brown-paper package containing my volume of Tagore’s works. The once-spotless cover was worn and stained. I wished this man had treated my cherished book as kindly as he had treated me all those years before.
Myra Emmer Gold
My husband, Jim, has been best buddies with John since they were both five years old. Jim was John’s best man when he married Sue, and John later returned the favor when Jim married me.
Jim and I are always borrowing from John and Sue, and vice versa. It seems there’s never a time when one couple doesn’t have something that belongs to the other — if not a borrowed item, then borrowed money. When we go out to eat or go shopping together, we take turns paying for it. We’ve been doing this for so long that we no longer keep track of what we owe each other. We decided that all this borrowing was our way of insuring we would keep getting together.
Jim and I supported John and Sue through the loss of a parent, a grandparent, a brother-in-law, and a friend. When our disabled son was ill, they waited with us in the middle of the night as he underwent emergency surgery. They kept us sane during sixteen years of medical crises and were there for us in our son’s final days, even helping plan his memorial service.
Recently Jim and I were forced to sell our dream home because of the poor economy. This was the house that my husband, an architect, had designed just for us. John and Sue gave up their weekends to help us pack and move. We even traded vehicles for weeks, as theirs had a hitch to pull a trailer.
After the move we returned each other’s cars and a few stray items, and Jim said, “I think we all have everything that belongs to us.”
“Oh no,” John said. “Does that mean we won’t get together anymore?”
We laughed, albeit nervously. As much as we had been through, it was silly to think borrowed items kept us together. Wasn’t it?
After John left, I suddenly remembered that I had a DVD of Sue’s. Our friendship was guaranteed to live another day.
Every evening after I leave the Peace Corps bureau in Mali, I chat with the fruit vendor across the street to see what she is selling that day. Some days I pick up a couple of papayas or fifty cents’ worth of mandarins.
Once, as I was turning to leave, a man pulled up on an old motorcycle. “I was hoping you could help me,” he said. “I am a teacher at the high school around the corner from here. I see you pass by and go to your office every day.” He took a breath and told me his wife had just given birth to twin boys. Now she had a postpartum hemorrhage. All the banks were closed, and he needed to borrow some cash to buy her medicine.
I was skeptical. Strangers in Mali often asked me, a tubob (Westerner), for money and came up with stories to scam me. If I “loaned” this man money, it would open the floodgate to other requests. I started to step away, but he became more insistent and showed me the prescription. “I need to get her medicine, or she will die. I will pay you back. I will leave it with the office guards.” He burst into tears, then quickly composed himself.
I looked down at the prescription. Just that week I’d gone to a training for midwives that addressed postpartum hemorrhaging. Twelve hundred women out of every hundred thousand die during childbirth in Mali; in developed regions of the world that number is twenty per hundred thousand. The man’s desperation seemed genuine. I’d never seen a Malian man cry during two years of living there. The amount he needed was roughly ten dollars. I decided to give it to him.
Over the weeks that followed, I sometimes thought of the man, who had never left money for me at the desk. Had his wife died, leaving him overcome with grief? Or had he scammed me? I thought about going to the school and inquiring whether a teacher’s wife had recently given birth to twin boys, but I didn’t want to know.
A month or so later I was walking into a restaurant around the corner from my office when the man drove up on his old motorcycle. “Don’t you remember me?” he asked. He said his wife was recovering, and his sons were healthy. “But, you know, the salary of a teacher is very small, and now I have to buy milk for the babies and meat for my wife.” Expectant pause. I couldn’t tell if this was his way of saying he couldn’t pay me back, or if he was asking for more money.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have any money today,” I said. “May God provide for us all.”
He shrugged, smiled sheepishly, and drove away.
My sister-in-law Gail is almost sixty and addicted to heroin and cocaine. I estimate she has “borrowed” more than fifty thousand dollars from family and friends over the last thirty years. When she’s sober, she borrows to keep herself in coffee, cigarettes, and rehab. She also borrows for court fines, bail, and attorney’s fees.
Gail’s sober periods are as intense as her episodes of addiction. She gets up at 4 A.M. and races around cleaning, drinking coffee, smoking, and getting ready for whatever breakfast shift she may be working. She speaks in loud rushes of laughter, anger, and excitement. She drives everyone nuts and leaves her boyfriends broke. Her spirit sparkles and dims without warning, delighting and infuriating all who love her.
My husband and I budget for Gail’s weekly bites into our income because we find it difficult to say no to her over and over. We joke with family members that she is included on our tax returns as a dependent.
We know what we’re doing is called “enabling,” and we have tried family counseling and tough love, only to lapse back into rescuing her. We are past it all now and are simply grateful that we don’t have Gail’s demons. I hope that one day she will find a way to recover for good. Until then she will borrow tens and twenties to feed her hunger, and we will do our part to help her eat and stay warm.
My mom was one of three single mothers sharing a building on Chicago’s South Side. They were all poor and struggling to raise children on fixed incomes in a bad neighborhood. In their sixteen years as neighbors they mostly got along, but a lie, a rumor, or a conflict between their offspring could prompt a name-calling, door-slamming fight. Two women usually aligned against one, but occasionally all were at war with each other.
The neighbor children would often appear at our door asking to borrow butter, sugar, or eggs. When relations were good, my mother would oblige the child with a smile, and she sometimes sent my siblings and me to their apartments on similar errands. When a fight was brewing, however, my mother would snap, “Tell your mama I ain’t got none.” Once the child had relayed the message, the loud talking through the apartments’ open doors and thin walls would start:
Johnnie Mae: “That’s all right. Wait until her fat ass wants to borrow something, and see if I have it!”
Mom: “I don’t know why some folks think I’m the damn grocery store when they get more food stamps than I do!”
Annie [joining in]: “I ain’t got none either, whatever it is.”
Johnnie Mae: “I don’t know who invited her little ass in on the conversation. Didn’t ask her for shit and wasn’t going to!”
Annie: “Good, ’cause you wasn’t going to get it!” Door slam.
Mom: “You got nine kids with four different men: go ask one of their daddies!” Slam.
Holidays had a way of cooling heads and warming hearts. At Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, the air was filled with the scents of dressing, greens with smoked meat, and sweet-potato pies. Doors were opened again for visits. Cursing and yelling gave way to singing and laughter. If one of the other children appeared in our doorway to borrow some cinnamon, the spice was sent along with a plate of holiday treats. The peaceful borrowing would continue until the next falling-out.
Los Angeles, California
My friend Carolyn wakes me up the day before we are to leave college forever and says, “I need my scarf. You borrowed it. Where is it?”
Eyes blurry with sleep, I mumble, “I’ll get it for you later.”
“No. We’re leaving tomorrow. I need it now.”
All my belongings are boxed up and stored in my parents’ room at the Holiday Inn, so we drive over there. I’m embarrassed to wake my parents, but Carolyn is insistent. Finally, after pawing through many boxes, we find the scarf.
In the years that follow I visit Carolyn many times and borrow lots of items: black boots, silver earrings, a beret. When I wear her accessories, I feel less clumsy and fat, more stylish and chic.
Carolyn lives in a high-rise apartment building with a doorman and views of the lake. From her apartment you can hear the howl of coyotes across the street at the zoo and see a magnificent Ferris wheel that lights up the night sky. One time when I visit her, our children are whisked away by an experienced nanny, and she and I go to a bistro around the corner for a fabulous meal. When I get back home to my small city, I stare at the soft black gloves I have borrowed and caress them as if they were a pet.
One day I’m eating a bowl of lentil soup at the co-op when Carolyn calls on my cellphone.
“Have you seen my black gloves?” she asks.
I’m wearing them. “No, I haven’t,” I say.
I’m not like this with anyone else. I always return books and clothes borrowed from my other friends. The difference is I don’t want just Carolyn’s gloves; I want her life.
Dan was grossly obese. From the moment he came to my school in India, he was the butt of many jokes. He tried to be friendly, but the other boys and I would have none of it. I did not particularly want to be unkind to him, but I considered it important to be one of the crowd. That Dan came from a wealthy family and arrived at school in a chauffeured car somehow made it easier to laugh at his expense.
One day I fractured an ankle on the school playground. The headmaster called my father, but it would be a long time before he could find a taxi to come fetch me. So Dan asked his driver to give me a lift home. After that Dan and I started spending time together, and I found him genuinely good-natured and amiable. To my surprise he ate very little; a thyroid problem accounted for his large size. Doctors continued to treat his condition, but he seemed placidly resigned to it.
I hid my friendship with Dan from our classmates, even going along with their cruel jokes, though it made me increasingly uncomfortable. Then Dan began coming to school less regularly. He told me he had begun to feel unwell, as a specialist had warned his parents he might.
Finally Dan stopped coming to school altogether. The teacher told us he had become quite sick. Without telling my classmates, I went to see him. When I sat down next to his bed, he smiled wanly. He was writing in a notebook — keeping a journal of his illness, he said, so that he could later tell our class what he had been through. He wanted his classmates to understand why he was so large.
I admired his beautiful fountain pen. I had never seen such a fancy writing instrument before. Dan promptly said I could borrow it and return it to him the next time I visited. Maybe it was his way of ensuring I would come back. I took the pen and showed it off to friends the next day, though I avoided mentioning where I’d gotten it.
I never visited Dan again. The following week the headmaster announced that Dan had died. I went home and looked at the beautiful pen and wished I had openly acknowledged our friendship.
I borrow your boyfriend while you’re away. I walk down your street, and I pretend it is mine — I pretend he is mine. I am wet in anticipation of how well he will fuck me.
I ring your doorbell, and he buzzes me in. I run up your stairs and borrow his mouth as he kisses me, borrow his hands as they slide up and down my body.
I borrow one of your glasses for the rum that I drink. Maybe it’s your favorite glass, the one you always wash by hand. I borrow your toilet to pee and use your lotion on my hands and run your hairbrush through my hair.
Then I borrow your bed, your sheets, your blankets and pillows. I borrow his arms to feel safe and loved in. I borrow his brain for stimulating conversation. I borrow a sliver of your life.
In the morning, if I am feeling bold, I’ll borrow a spritz of your perfume. Before I leave your apartment, I’ll take a last glance to make sure I’ve left nothing of mine: no earrings, no journal, no trace of my borrowing.
I had always thought of myself as a good neighbor, the sort who would gladly welcome a knock on the door for the proverbial cup of sugar. But this person on my doorstep was not close to me in age or income or lifestyle. She wore immodest attire, her unkempt hair barely held in place by a headband. A gaggle of kids scampered animatedly behind her. “Excuse me, ma’am,” the woman said in a smoker’s voice. “I’m Leticia, your neighbor from two doors down. Our power won’t get turned back on until Tuesday. If you have an extension cord, could I plug into your power so the kids can watch TV and play their games?”
Caught off guard by the oddity of her request, I sputtered that I would look around to see if I had a cord. I told Leticia to check back in thirty minutes. Before I closed the door, I heard her raise her voice to reprimand her children and recognized the New Orleans accent. After Hurricane Katrina many evacuees had come to my Houston neighborhood, bringing with them much unwanted noise.
I found myself alone with some uncharitable thoughts. I presumed that Leticia let video games and cable programming baby-sit her children in lieu of taking them to the library or the park. I wondered why I should give her my electricity during the creeping heat of May. I was forever checking that lights were switched off and keeping my thermostat on a near-miserable eighty degrees. Wasn’t I, a single female with a moderate income, also struggling to pay my bills?
When the shellshocked Katrina evacuees had first arrived the previous fall, I had done my part, baking cobbler, cajoling friends and family into donating furniture, and gathering job leads for a displaced family next door. I was still upset that the family never called any of the potential employers and didn’t accept the children’s furniture I’d procured for them. Those neighbors had lived there for four months before returning to their near-destroyed parish as lightly loaded as they’d arrived.
Unable to decide what to do, I dialed my trusted childhood friend Jill across the street; she would advise me on the proper course of action.
After I’d described the encounter, Jill said, “The gall! I am so tired of these people! What was she thinking? Thanks for letting me know. I will definitely not answer my door for the next hour.”
Jill’s outrage legitimized my own — so much so that I told Leticia, upon her return thirty minutes later on the dot, that I hadn’t been able to locate an extension cord. She muttered a simple thanks with downcast eyes and said she would keep looking, beckoning her children to follow. I looked at the kids ruefully before I closed the door on her once more.
Later I wondered if I had punished Leticia for the seeming ingratitude of my former neighbors. Hadn’t she come seeking aid from a presumably friendly fellow female? Perhaps it was common to “borrow” electricity in Louisiana. I comforted myself with a thousand false excuses of how I would have been enabling her or setting myself up for a barrage of future demands. I turned on my television and upped the volume to drown out the basketball bouncing and singsong chatter of children playing outside. But I could not so easily muffle my guilt.
At nineteen I had been married only a year when I discovered a broken waist seam in my best red dress. “How did this happen?” I said more to myself than to my husband, a bearded cowboy from Wyoming.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I won’t do it again.”
I felt the blood drain from my face. Jerking the dress from its hanger, I stuffed it in the garbage.
Twice more over the next ten years I found my dresses torn at the waist. Each time my husband said it would never happen again.
When I turned twenty-eight, I gave birth to the first of two sons, and my husband fell into a depression. He adored me but despised himself.
Weeks after the birth of our second son, our house caught fire, and we got out just in time. In the aftermath the children and I spent two weeks with my mother. When we came home, my husband told me he’d started counseling for “gender dysphoria” — discomfort with one’s gender — and would be experimenting with wearing a feminine wardrobe (not mine) when I wasn’t around.
We talked and cried daily. He watched me apply eye shadow and mascara, practicing these techniques on himself in the early-morning hours before he had to change into “boy clothes” for work. His compliments on my figure now focused on the cut and color of my clothes, and he fantasized about one day appearing as attractive as the mother of his children.
While he took the boys for a walk, I stayed home to scream and sob on my knees. I wanted to shave my head bald and wear shapeless T-shirts and hide every hint of womanhood.
But as we let go of our dreams for the future, our compassion for each other grew. My husband’s new female identity took hold, and I welcomed the bittersweet opportunity to learn to love without attachment. Our children were unfazed and never questioned our love for them or for each other. My “wife’s” transition now includes a plan for sex-reassignment surgery.
Today the borrowing continues — mostly of jewelry, and with permission. We continue to raise our boys together under one roof. Their “Maddy” (Mom/Daddy) is now named Seda and has been living and working as a woman for three years. Our romance, despite our efforts, has been dead nearly as long. My boyfriend of eleven months lives with us part time. At some point Seda and I may need to divide our earring collection, but that next step doesn’t seem imminent.
Kristin Krebs Collier
My new cellmate, Mike, was notorious for fighting, but he and I got along. One day he asked if he could borrow a bag of instant coffee. “I’ll get you another one next week,” he said. I was uneasy about loaning anything in prison because half the time you didn’t get it back. Also, when you gave anybody a loan, you became a magnet for others in need. But I trusted Mike and gave him the coffee.
The next day he got locked up for fighting: two years in confinement. I shook my head and kissed that bag of coffee goodbye.
Two years later when Mike got out, word came around that he was looking for me. I suspected he wanted to borrow something else. David, you’re weak, I told myself. It was hard enough buying my own tobacco, stamps, and coffee; I didn’t need to be Mike’s welfare office as well.
The next day Mike spotted me on the yard. “How’s it going, bro?” he said.
He was pale from lack of sun. “You look like you got a confinement tan,” I told him.
He laughed, then said, “I gotta talk to you.”
“I know,” I said. “You just got out and need to borrow a few things.”
“Man, you got me wrong. I still owe you a bag of coffee. It’s been haunting me for two years. I just wanted to let you know that I’ll get it to you as soon as my money’s turned back on.”
St. Petersburg, Florida
Gramma and I sleep together. She is having another bad night. Her spells are getting worse, she says. She probably needs to go back to the hospital to get her sugar under control.
Gramma says the spells give her bad dreams. She says that when I try to feed her milk and sugar, she thinks I am the undertaker making sure she is really dead so he can collect the money. (That explains why she kicked me last night.) Gramma says when she was a child, a neighbor who went into a coma was buried alive. The only reason the neighbor survived is that thieves dug her up to steal her rings. Gramma says to be sure and bury her with her rings.
Gramma wants me to hold her close to keep her warm. She says she will stop shaking soon. Gramma says she’s sorry she wet the bed again; we’ll have to put the mattress out on the fence to dry tomorrow. It’s too soon yet to change the bedsheets because she may have another spell before the night ends.
Gramma says she is better now and for me not to worry and to go to sleep. I have to stay awake in class tomorrow, she says, because I need all the education I can get. Gramma wants me to be someone important someday.
On nights like this Gramma cries a lot and says she has outlived her usefulness and is on borrowed time. I lie awake and try to listen to everything Gramma says.
Oak Island, North Carolina
I always scorned my sister’s credit-card debt, yet I didn’t hesitate to borrow money to attend college and graduate school. I was putting the money toward an education, I told myself, so it was acceptable to borrow. As long as I paid my credit-card bill in full at the end of each month, I thought I was in good financial shape. But in order to pay off my balance, I had to take out more student loans every semester.
Many years and many loans later I earned my PhD from a leading public research university. When I’d applied, the fees had seemed reasonable, but they’d skyrocketed since. Even a public higher education is now affordable only to the wealthy.
After graduation I am nearly a hundred thousand dollars in debt and still looking for work. This degree sounded like such a wonderful idea, but I can’t eat prestige. At least my sister had fun.
I met Bob on the beach in San Diego in the summer of 1974. He said he played football for the Dallas Cowboys but was recovering from an injury. He was well built and tan with an engaging smile. I was teaching summer school, but my workday was over around noon. Every afternoon I would meet him at the beach. It was an easy summer fling.
At the end of the summer Bob needed me to drive him to a repair shop to pick up his car. Just before we arrived, he asked if I would cover the cost of the car repair; his money was temporarily tied up for some reason, but he would pay me back in a day or so. It was an awkward moment, and I wanted it to end, so I agreed.
The repair bill was about half of my entire summer-school salary. As I paid it, he assured me he would get the money to me soon.
Earlier that summer I had proudly mentioned to my parents that I was seeing a guy who played for the Dallas Cowboys, and my dad had asked his name. By coincidence, right after I’d given Bob the loan, my father called to tell me he had phoned the sports editor of the Los Angeles Times and checked the roster for the Cowboys. No one by my boyfriend’s name had ever played for the team.
Immediately I went to Bob’s apartment. When he opened the door, I could see boxes stacked inside. He said he was moving the next day, but just up the street.
I asked for the money, and he wrote me a check. Naively I hung on to a shred of hope that I could cash it.
The check bounced. Bob vanished without a trace.
Nearly ten years later I was married with two children. One Sunday my parents took us all out to lunch, and afterward we went up to the terrace of an expensive hotel to look out over the ocean. As we admired the view, I noticed a handsome couple eating and having a deep conversation. The man was Bob. A wave of anger and embarrassment washed over me. I quickened my step as we passed him and his date, and I wondered if she had any idea how much this meal would eventually cost her.
La Mesa, California
When I was a child in Germany, my mother and I were very poor. The hundred marks a month my father sent for my support and the few marks Mother earned through sewing were not enough to live on, so Mother occasionally sent me to her friend “Uncle H.” to borrow money. He was a dentist and would always give us a small sum. He also treated us without charge. I don’t know if she ever paid him back. One time he said to me, “Tell your mom that she needs to budget her money and make it last through the month, OK?” I felt ashamed, though I knew we didn’t waste money.
Garbage collection did not exist in East Germany after World War II, because there was no garbage. Food scraps were composted. Newspaper would become toilet paper or be rolled into a bag. All scrap metal we didn’t need at home (I learned to straighten a crooked nail with a hammer) would be taken to school, and the class that brought in the most would be rewarded. Old pieces of clothing were cut up and made into something new. After the main harvest my mother and I would walk the fields, looking for dropped potatoes. Every bit of fallen wood was collected for winter heat.
On my yearly visits to my father in West Berlin, I always carried a list of goods we needed that were unavailable in our little town, such as shoes or a sweater. My father went over the list and questioned each item. “I bought you a pair of shoes last year,” he would say. “You shouldn’t need another pair already. What do you do with your shoes? You should be careful and don’t kick stones.”
He knew I walked a rocky path up the mountain to school, at least half an hour each way.
Once he said, “Whenever you want something, ask yourself whether you really have to have it.”
I thought, How about your two packets of cigarettes every day? Do you have to have them?
I felt ashamed for wanting anything, even a ball to play with, and I told myself that I would earn my own money as soon as possible and never be humbled by begging again. When I got my first job, I didn’t know what to do with the paycheck, because I had no desires apart from basic food and clothing.
Decades later I still buy secondhand most of the time and sleep in a tent or in the car when I’m away from home. I don’t throw away food, and I donate what I can’t use. This behavior might seem virtuous, but it’s based on deeply ingrained habits of self-denial. Still, with our planet facing overpopulation, the end of oil, global warming, and so on, they are habits I don’t regret having.