Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Christmas Loan (Part one)

For the two Christmases after the financial crisis (2008 and 2009) Pat and I had to borrow money from my parents simply to afford gifts and January rent. This year, we are visiting my parents again and our circumstances are slightly better. But for those who still feel the financial grip of fear along with their Christmas cheer, I offer the following story – along with profound thanks to my parents who have always, always been there when I needed them:

Happy, middle class families in America are very much alike. Most of them gather at the family seat at Christmas to share meals, tell old stories, compliment each other’s children, and exchange presents, many of which will be returned to Gap and J Crew the following day. Sometimes the adult children drink too much and go outside at midnight to build a pornographic snowwoman. Or maybe that’s just mine.
            Our family seat is my parents’ two-bedroom house on Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin. The winter winds blow so bitterly there that Murphy, a California boy and three at the time, once screamed through a scarf tied so high that only his eyes showed, that he wanted to go back to America. On the rare Christmas that all of us can make it, my parents’ compact retirement house can host eight adults and four children. This means that the ordinary recriminating and bargaining that marks every good marriage must take place in furtive, rushed tones behind any available closed door, including the communal bathroom.
            That is, when the happy couple actually remembers to close the door. I once walked by my younger brother, Keir’s encampment, a mattress on the floor of my mother’s art studio, and heard him impeach his wife’s angry back, “It’s always the same. Every year. Vacation after vacation after vacation after vacation.” The tone was familiar, if not the specifics.
There were a few years when my other brother, the middle child, had no door at all. Erik slept alone on the couch feeling, he later told me, like a failure for being unmarried, childless, and stuck at a meaningless job. Living room couches all across America can give leathery testimony to the ache of such children, now older, yearning for their lives to begin.
            It is the Christmas of 2009. Keir and his family have opted to travel to Thailand instead of joining us and Erik has come home a victor. Within three years he has fallen in love, married, bought a house, and sired a male child – riches and reason enough to lay claim to the guest bedroom. My parents are squatting in Mom’s art studio and my family is staying in the master bedroom. My mother has awarded us their room ever since we first brought Spencer to Madison at ten-months-old.  When Pat and I moved his pack-n-play into the walk-in closet, my mother was thrilled that we could close the closet door and create two rooms out of one. 
            The children are too big for the closet now and share a blow-up mattress that takes up most of the available floor space. That means that when Pat and I talk behind the closed door, we have a very narrow pathway in which to move around. This is a liability mostly to Pat who needs to move when tackling life’s biggest problems, like the fact that the check we have been waiting for – the one that will pay our rent in January, pay our credit card bills before they globally increase their interest rates, pay for our expenses here in Madison, and pay for groceries when we get back to Los Angeles – has been held up due to an accounting error and cannot be issued until the new year when the accountants are back from their vacations with their families and doors and couches.
            We have no money to see us through until that twelve thousand dollar check arrives in mid-January.  And since we voluntarily closed all of our credit cards over two years ago to negotiate lower APRs, we don’t have credit to lean on. The recession has hit us hard too. We used to fill in financial gaps with odd jobs that simply aren’t there anymore.
            “Can we ask your parents for a lona?” Pat asks me.
Proving that drops of blood can be squeezed from stones, his own mother is so strapped that she often depends on us to help her out.
“We did that last year,” I close my eyes, wincing at the prospect of going to my mother, hat in hand, yet another Christmas. Pat and I have done all right, financially.  But because I am a freelance writer and he is a freelance actor, Christmas is always tight, not just because our cash flow isn’t steady, but because the institutions that pay us are buried in paperwork at year’s end and then close down for a couple of weeks.
            “We’ll pay them back,” Pat says, stepping on the edge of the leaky mattress, which hisses air. I can hear the boys sledding down the stairs on a piece of cardboard. They should really be outside but I lack the energy to bundle them up with plastic bags stuck into their boots and over their jeans, only to have to peel off their wet clothes twenty minutes later when they’ve tumbled into some snow bank and have had enough.
            “We didn’t pay them back last year,” I say with a tense jaw. 
            “We didn’t?” Pat says.
            “You know we didn’t.”
            “I thought we did.”
            “No. We didn’t. Mom said not to worry about it,” I say, sitting on the edge of my parents’ bed. My mother is very proud of this new bed that is so high she has to climb up into it. My feet dangle like a child’s.
            “Then why are we worrying about it now?” says Pat, walking into a pile of Spencer’s books, which scatter. I resist the urge to jump down from the bed and stack them again. Pat hates it when I clean during a tense discussion. Which is invariably what I want to do. At least if my life is going to shit, my living quarters can look ordered.
            “We’re worrying about it because when Mom says not to worry about it, she doesn’t really mean it,” I say. 
            “Maybe she does.”
            I jump down from the bed and gather Spencer’s books while Pat glares at me, “What Mom means is, ‘don’t worry about it this time. But I will remember. I will remember how much you borrowed from me and I will worry that you can’t make enough money to care for yourselves. Every time you borrow money, I will stay awake for nights agonizing about how you are going to survive.’ That’s what she means, Pat.” I place the pile of books on the dresser where they will be safer, “And if I worry my mother into an early grave, I’ll never forgive myself.”
            “She’s already eighty, Brett. That doesn’t qualify her for an early grave. And I’ll tell you something else. If you’re so worried about worrying her, then let her help.”
            I climb back up onto the bed and sit, pulling my knees up to my chin. Pat swipes a pile of the kids’ clean underwear off of the desk chair and sits.  We’ve been married for eighteen years. We know what to say and what not to say. Although we’ve said the unsayable and withheld compassionate reassurance plenty of times, with painful results. The thought that visits me now is one that I’ve suppressed for years. Why is it my family that bails us out? How come Pat got to marry a woman whose parents have modest teacher’s retirements, but can manage the occasional thousand-dollar bailout? While I married a man whose parents met in a children’s home, divorced when he was one, and struggled to cover basic living costs most of their lives? How come he got to marry the woman who might inherit a third of her parents’ house while I got to marry a man whose mother might be so poor she might have to move into our two-bedroom apartment for the rest of her life? Tears sting the inside corners of my eyes. I feel ungenerous. Unloving. Unyielding. Stiff. Why did Pat just shove the underwear off of the chair? Couldn’t he have picked it up and moved it to the suitcase?
            “Look,” says Pat on a slow breath that means he’s going to use the reasonable, officious tone that I hate, “if you have a better plan, let’s hear it.”
            I recently attended a wedding where the minister gave a cute little speech extolling the joys of marriage while allowing that “sometimes you will be angry with each other.” My immediate thought then was, “what about loathing?” What about looking across the room at your husband and being filled so high with the black bile of resentment that it threatens to blow you apart, spewing its poisonous ooze all over the room and your man?  As far as I’m concerned, you aren’t truly, happily married until you’ve lived through hundreds of moments like this.
            I dip my chin behind my knees, swallowing bile, frantically thinking of options. Even as my mind races, I know the exercise is futile. We’ve explored financial options before and we already know that there are none except emptying my puny IRA or raiding the kids’ college funds.
            I unfold my legs and breathe out slowly, “I’ll think about it.”
            “Thank you,” says Pat like I’ve finally come to my senses.  He stands, scoops the kids’ underwear from the floor and replaces it on the chair. Damn him.
            He walks over and gives me a kiss on the top of my head before leaving and closing the door. I hear him saying something to the boys and the pounding on the stairs ceases to be replaced by animated chatter in the kitchen. The clanking of pans tells me that Pat is making them grilled cheese sandwiches.
            I am a better person than this and, even though I’ve loathed my husband many times, I will not live without him. No one understands and forgives me more. He makes me laugh until my insides hurt. He is uncomplicated in the best sense. To say that I love him seems trite because it’s voicing the obvious, although I do tell him this every day.
            So I will go to my mother, as we both knew that I would before the conversation even started. The reason why I will go to her instead of my father is that, like many marriages forged in the 50’s, my mother is my father’s Lieutenant. She protects him from the unpleasant ditherings of daily life. She will hear my case and then make her recommendation to him. I can’t think of a time when my parents have turned down a request for a loan or an outright bailout, but there are always emotional consequences. My mother will confess her deep concern about our solvency and even about our ability to negotiate the adult world at all. And my father will mentally tally how much money we owe them, in order to subtract it from my share of the estate, “Just to make things fair.” And, in the end, we all know that their resources are limited. They are incapable of saving us entirely. Were we to find ourselves completely and hopelessly broke, our only recourse would be to move in into the guestroom that Erik and his family are occupying right now.
            This, of course, won’t happen because my twelve thousand dollar check will arrive and I am still finishing two pilot scripts that the networks love and owe me money for. Pat will return to his job as a background extra on a popular TV show and we will muddle through, as we always have. We might even flourish. If one of my shows airs, if one of Pat’s commercials takes off, if Pat does a couple of guest spots, if I sell a big magazine article, if Pat gets cast in an equity play, if that play goes to Broadway, if I get staffed on a TV show, if I get a book deal, if Pat lands a recurring spot on television – if any of these things happen as many of them have and all are possible -- we won’t simply survive the economic crash that is pounding the rest of the country, we will prevail.

Next week: Part 2 -- asking for the loan

Boyz in Madison (2009)