Tuesday, January 15, 2008

art imitates life

I'm going to write this down before I forget it again. A dream reminded me. In the dream, I'm holding my infant son as his father ferrys his belongings out the door. He didn't tell me until the movers came. In my dream I am standing in the door, holding our son and demanding that he stay, because if he leaves, I cannot pay the rent. In my dream our friends and my parents are there, telling me that they're sure I'll find the money and to stop worrying. It is the 29th of the month.

This has happened in real life.

Not with this boyfriend, but the one before, five years ago. After months of getting to know me, he moved in (partially because after going to school, working at a gas station, and having two toddlers, I could not afford to pay the rent, so we worked out a trade.) I made that deal women make a lot, in which they trade company, cooking and sex for help. Yes, it's still happening. I know we've killed sexism, made the genders equal in pay and all, but it still happens. Did I love him (which ends up being the justification for said arrangement)? No, but we were basically sexually compatable and he was not terribly bad (at the time), so I made the arrangement I'd been taught to make.

I didn't want to be on welfare, because that would be shaming.

So he moved in. And we argued. And argued, and argued, and argued. I went to pick up my girls after work, near the end of the month. I want to say it was the 19th or so, something like April. The drive back was pleasant enough. I had the windows rolled down slightly for the 45 mph air conditioning which was the only air I was gonna get out of that car. When I got back, his car was gone, which in and of itself didn't bother me. He was probably out running errands or something. We walked up the stairs to the apartment, the girls and I, slowly, because that's the only way you're getting anywhere upstairs with a four year old and a six year old. I was due to grocery shop, and was going to drop off something at the apartment before going to Smith's.

I remember turning the key distinctly, that the adobe walls had a chunk missing by the right side of the door, on the bottom. The door itself was an innocuous beige, and the frame was heavily, though not recently, scarred. The scars were filled with paint. My youngest child was on my hip. The door opened. The TV was gone.

It took me looking through the bedroom to be sure. I called him. He told me that he was under too much stress, and that I nagged at him. I reminded him that the rent was due. He told me it wasn't his problem and hung up on me. I put my hands on the kitchen counter and leaned my head down flat on the linoleum counter tops, which were cold, and recited to myself the contents of the kitchen cabinets, which came down to a can of beans, a small bag of rice and a can of hominy, and the refrigerator, which came down to some milk, a few eggs and the condiments everyone has.

I get in trouble for writing about these kinds of things in workshop. My characters don't do emotionally what they're supposed to. I want to laugh at the kids, teacher included, who read my stories. Who has time to cry? I didn't want the girls to see me, then they'd have been upset, and despite mounting evidence to the contrary, I wanted them to have a happy childhood. I told the girls that the TV was being repaired, if I remember correctly.

And the other students look at me during critiques. I want to scream, 'I took shit out because I knew you wouldn't believe it. You keep telling me no one's life is like this. Well here I am, motherfuckers. Here I am. This is my life. All you have had to do is read.'

I took the yellow pages out of a cabinet and called all the shelters in town. Some of them wanted several days notice, one of them wanted me to go work for them, if I wanted food. The only one that could do it in the next 24-48 hours was the Storehouse on Broadway. I went the next morning with my youngest, pawning my oldest off on my parents, and stood in line at five-thirty am, coincidentally when I'm writing this, with a long line of people in the pre-dawn cold waiting for the heavy iron door to open. I made a steady stream of chatter at her, trying to amuse her, and held her, shifting her from hip to hip when the arm threatened to give out. The Storehouse is first come, first serve, and fortunately for us, we were only the twentieth people in line. I had her baby bag with me. The people ahead of me were surprisingly cheery, talking and stomping their feet to keep warm. When they opened the doors at seven, we filed in.

The Storehouse is a large, cavernous building made from a single room. When you get into it, the area has been divided into little boxes, the first of which, to the left, is full of toys and a line of heavy desks. The kids play, the parents answer questions and surrender their driver's license or id. The Storehouse employees keep a record of you, like most shelters, to insure you won't defraud them of their supplies. The line behind me had stretched out forever, and I was anxious to get the interview over as fast as possible so that we could get back into line. They made me recount the story of how I came to this and ask pointed little questions to insure that I am, in fact, telling the truth about the state my life is in. Out of the corner of my eye, the line snaked forward with people who've been there before and don't have to be so throughly vetted. I received my chit and my daughter received a book. I still have it. It's a Xerox self-publish called Dorrie and the Witch Doctor. She was being such a good girl. Everyone commented on it as the line shuffled forward again. I sang to her quietly. I could tell she was going to be upset soon. We were both hungry. I hadn't eaten since I found out that the grocery money needed to be applied to the rent. It had only been something like sixteen hours, which is nothing. I craved coffee and cigarettes, not that I was going to take up smoking again. It's an expensive habit. On the right, we passed tables with mounds of clothing, which we did not need. One of the room-like boxes, the furthest on the left, was a 'grocery store', or a small maze with shelves and a short bank of standing freezers. The chit I had been given stated which items I could take, and I presented it to the man walking me through the maze to insure I didn't stuff anything into the baby bag or my coat. One tub of Kroger's brand peanut butter, one loaf of expired wheat bread, one can of green beans, one can of tomatoes, one bag of pinto beans, one jar of Smuthers, one box of government issue milk, one bag of Land O Lakes stir fry and one pound of ground beef. I froze, walking into the maze, and could not grab anything. I was deeply ashamed and afraid of how little it turned out to be. The man escorting me clicked his tongue with disgust and put the items in the basket for me, towing us to the 'register,' where they double checked the items against a list and let me totter out the door. I put my daughter into the car seat and tucked the bags in around her. I found out when I got home that they were mostly expired, not that it mattered. We ate them anyway.

I can't sleep when my dreams bring these memories back to me. My best friend had an apartment right across the street from the Storehouse, within a short walk of downtown. We were within spitting distance the last time we went drinking, and I didn't remember even though we stood right next to it, staggering drunk, until, in this last dream, I was standing with a baby on my hip, begging the current boyfriend not to leave. I can't sleep when I remember these things. There are times when I want to send these stories to workshop, to stomp in and stare dead-eyed at the kids in the program while they discuss whether or not anything like that ever happens anymore. I get complaints about how dark my stories are, how they are self-indulgent and how the reader may not forgive me for having to read it.

I always want to laugh. Read them? Yeah. Put the story down. I'll take more life out of it next time.

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