I’m exhausted. I take off the clothes I have spent the last nine hours in, being careful not to put them on my bed. It’s a familiar welcome ritual for me and has been for a few months: shutting down a laptop and escaping the grip of American companies and getting on the C train to Euclid Avenue, until I finally got home, where I undress and settle down.
Locked in the safety of the four walls of my apartment, I feel untouchable, even invincible. I stand in the kitchenette of my studio and flip through a stack of letters that I retrieved from my mailbox on entering. A white envelope addressed to me from a marshal’s office with an address in Queens catches my eye. I examine the letter and feel a burn in my cheeks; my stomach is falling. Bad news, wrapped and stamped. I push my index finger into the very edge of the envelope and tear it down its entire length.
Definitely, the crumpled notice informs me that I have been successfully sued by Community Management for a sizable total of $ 15,490.53. The initial amount consists of missed rent payments and late fees. Years of accrued interest have since been added. I am expected to pay the debt, the letter continues, with a wage garnishment. I clutch the letter with my sweaty hands, reread it, wondering if it’s real. It is: my new employer will be notified, and I can expect the collection to begin in the coming weeks.
I feel helpless and frustrated. I managed to build a protective shell over myself and my finances only to be penetrated by an unseen entity, once again. I feel tears coming to my eyes; the sweet tingling that comes just before. Unlock the memories of a life I thought I left behind.
Our co-op building was part of a cul-de-sac, sharing a loop with five other buildings. It cultivated a sense of fabricated community among people who were mostly strangers, canned greetings and stale conversation while standing near the mailboxes.
I can imagine the popcorn ceilings and stained marble tiles in the kitchen. A wood-framed glass table, draped in a magenta polyester tablecloth with what once served as a napkin holder on top, now stuffed with junk mail and rental letters. The threat of eviction had not been opened, hidden in plain view on the kitchen table. My younger brother has not read them; neither of us did at that time. We jostled them throughout the day. I sometimes found myself irritated by his lack of participation. Why was he not concerned?
Of course he wasn’t, because he was 14 years old. No one should have to worry about this stuff at 14.
I continued to lie to my brother whenever it was brought up and assured him everything was fine. Even in superficial matters, I tend to shut down. My shame and stubborn pride makes me cringe inward, refusing to ask for help in an effort to manage public perception. As much as I pretend I’m not, I’m so consumed with what people think of me. This in turn contributes to emotional isolation, packed with unproductive thoughts of abject failure and self-pity.
Perched on the chipped white radiator just below the windowsill, we peeked down the street below some evenings, just in time to grab our aunt as she got off the Q85 bus. She used to not call every time she came from Canarsie. Often we were alerted to his arrival by the sound of the keys turning in the door. Its presence, once lingering after our parents passed away, became rarer as rental letters began to spruce up the kitchen table. For a while she was helping by paying part of the rent out of her own pocket, but that didn’t last long as she always maintained her own apartment. Most of the time it was just my brother and I in the apartment, either confined in our separate bedrooms or silently passing each other in the hall. Our tight-knit family unit, marred by death and insolvency; slowly undone.
“Do you have half the rent?” She would ask me, usually as I was about to step outside and head to my retail job at the Queens Center Mall. The Inquisition never arose from a place of concern but sprang like a spade, strategically meant to shame me before I started my day. I remember thinking, “How much do you want me to contribute when I work part time for minimum wage?” My shame and pride kept me from saying this out loud.
I slipped out of the apartment and down the hall to the elevator without answering, enduring searing resentment. I had started to feel that my aunt was the cause of a lot of my financial problems. When I was 18, I took over the lease for the three-bedroom apartment, relinquishing my older sister, who had fled to Pennsylvania, from any financial and moral obligations. I have heard that young minds are unable to grasp the importance of long term commitments. I signed my name on the sheet of paper. It didn’t occur to me at the time how much this little decision would affect my life for years to come.
Contrary to popular belief, the eviction process takes place quite quickly. One beautiful summer morning, barely a month after receiving the first warning, we received our last letter. The notice, printed on pink legal paper and affixed to our front door, ordered us to vacate the premises by the following afternoon. Literally a scarlet letter.
Everything we were able to collect from the apartment we had spent 10 years of our childhood in we hastily packed in boxes I bought from Home Depot. Family photo albums, my dad’s vinyl collection, kitchen appliances, sliding into a common box with no padding to keep them in place. The hired movers kindly offered small amounts of money to save us the relocation, but sprinkled the already unwanted little discussions with invasive questions about our situation.
A light knock on the door interrupted the conversation. I squinted through the peephole to see the building manager, dressed in a dark jumpsuit and chewing on cashews; the rest he held firmly in his hand. The time was up. Reluctantly, I opened the door and he walked in without even a greeting. Slowly, he walked through the vacant rooms to make sure we were done packing; the contents of his right hand poured out on the marble tiles that made up the kitchen floor, cashews cut in half were spreading everywhere. After glancing in my direction he offered an ‘I’m sorry’ so devoid of heartfelt emotion, I could only assume it was in reference to his rubbish and had nothing to do with it. our homelessness.
“It’s okay,” I replied, “I don’t live here anymore. ”
As we crossed the threshold and stepped into the fluorescent hallway light, apartment 7G was locked behind us for the last time, with a key we no longer had.
Now, feeling uncomfortable, I shift my balance on one foot and stretch to store the letter in a stack stacked on the refrigerator. Suddenly I’m suffocated by my studio’s small kitchenette, which seems to close as I try to slow down the pounding in my chest. I am still and numb, feeling exactly the same as when I saw the eviction notice stuck to our front door. As overwhelming as it all is, I remember circumstances changed.
I refuse to accept a life of progressive failure, I try to fight against it. It means stepping away from a dead-end part-time job and pursuing entry-level work that would eventually lead me to a solid career path. As I navigate the uncharted waters of adulthood, there is no family support, there is no direction on offer. I accept that my situation does not allow me to take unpaid work such as internships, so any dream of a creative career falls apart. Having a decent job is the only sufficient way to pay off my debt and stay afloat.
Lessons are learned on the fly; there are missteps, there are failures. I persevere by choosing to believe that I am overqualified for every position I apply for. Over time, my sustained financial stability invigorates me. I take comfort in the fact that I will never find myself walking the hallway of this three bedroom apartment, wondering where it all went wrong. Start from scratch in a new borough. It distracts me from ruminating on the dollars cut off from my new salary. Years go by, and the bi-weekly deduction on my heel barely registers. It is easier to recognize the big picture. By simply moving through my day, I slowly reduce the total. No extra effort is needed. I should be so lucky.
Another beautiful summer morning, locked in my studio, my last payment is taken from my account. I enter my login credentials and expand my digital pay stub to full screen, focusing on the zeroed line item. The total amount of $ 15,490.53 is shown in the Year-to-Date column. I sit in silence, heaving a sigh of relief as I look at the screen, then quickly close the tab. There is no one to tell. It is a silent victory.
Deb Ashley is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.