Year One, First Friday of June
You’re having sleep for dinner tonight and you tell yourself it’s a virtue. Every dollar you spend instead of saving you hear your mom in your head, Pay yourself first, but then you spend it anyway. Years of calculations scratched into diaries, on Post-Its, in the notes app on your phone, and when you finally have money you’ll never look at them again, you tell yourself. If you ever get money.
Of the $981 in your TA stipend every month, mercifully only $200 of it goes to rent–a miracle in Denver in 2016. You sleep in your friend’s mom’s basement, which is equal parts generous and depressing. It’s spacious and furnished but full of pictures of your friend and her siblings when they were kids. Family presses in around you when you’re just trying to pretend you don’t have a stomach. You’re the thinnest you’ve ever been and you tell yourself it’s a virtue.
You’re trying to find free food on campus because your credit is shit and you’ve maxed out your loan amount this year. It’s young adulthood, it’s cutting your teeth, it’s this kind of thing that will make you bold and angry and illuminate something quintessential about millennials or trauma or humanity, except that right now, you would rather die than stare at your computer screen any longer, and you just might. You commit yourself to an inpatient facility and hope not to be surprised by a bill, but inevitably, you are. The food there is an embarrassment of plastic packaging, shitty microwave meals that leave you constipated for weeks.
Finally get some savings. Stash some of your tax refund in an Acorns account, watch it gain pennies in dividends every couple of months. Car trouble. Withdraw the money and Acorns is disappointed in you, Are you sure you want to take that money out, cracked windshield, flat tire, worn spark plugs, you’re sure. You feel lucky to have a car but you wait to see how long you can go without heading to the grocery store. King Soopers is always bright and crowded and just too much. Every time you have to go to a different store you’re shocked at your body, how it wants to collapse into the fetal position as you try to figure out which aisle grits are on. You used to walk through the commissary so calmly with your mom and sister in your Kingdom Hall clothes. Anyway, people get shot at grocery stores these days. It’s probably better that you don’t go.
You “budget” into the negative because you have $500 in overdraft protection from when you and your mom set up your bank account together, move-in day at your college. You try calling the bank to get her name taken off, but both parties have to consent. You’re not ruining your day by calling your homophobic mother. Thank you, you tell the bank rep in your white voice, rolling your eyes as you end the call. Another overdraft fee hits your account. You buy a passable burger and excellent curly fries at the student union. You give half the fries away to another member of your cohort in the grad office. Altruism, a virtue.
You do burlesque at first because you love it and then because you need the extra 25 bucks a week, throwing acts together for so many Monday nights in a row the exhilaration wears off. You spend one week’s bonus on a real makeup brush set from Amazon, a 16-pack of facial glitter, a rainbow eyeshadow palette. Now you have flawless skin under the stage lights and you tell yourself it’s a virtue. At 1 in the morning, after the show ends, you walk out of Pie Hole with two pepperoni slices and shove one in your mouth, inadvertently greasing the steering wheel as you drive home in the car you once nearly attempted suicide in on a back road in Georgia, but that was years ago. You know your things would last longer if you took better care of them. Less money on repairs. Better still if you had quality products to begin with, like the Vera Bradley bag your mom bought you for the ministry when you were a teenager, now full of makeup and easily removable clothing in the backseat. When you get home, you toss the bag in the corner, half expecting to glance back and see a Watchtower magazine peeking out of it or the bulge of your old Bible. You scrub your face so hard it looks like you’ve been standing outside in the cold for hours. There’s always glitter on your pillow when you wake up anyway.
At least your work isn’t endangering you anymore, and you appreciate that. You’ve done a lot of dangerous shit for money when you didn’t have to, like the time you worked briefly in a garden-level jack-shack where the proprietor posted the Craigslist ads and owned the house where you did in-calls and took half of everything you made and it wasn’t until you saw your fiancée’s face when you told her that story that you put it together: “Proprietor” was too nice a word, but your anxiety about misrepresenting the exploitation made you talk around the obvious. (Politeness, your foremost virtue.) You weren’t coerced; you weren’t physically harmed; you were paid to take bad dick, something you’d already been doing for free. You were experiencing economic pressure, sure, but you remind yourself that you could’ve done any job, if you’d been better at managing the executive dysfunction and the impulsiveness and the occasional inability to do anything but have a fucking breakdown, wrapped in your towel, still damp from the shower you took to get ready for the day. If you’d been willing to pretend you weren’t gay anymore, or at least perform the light deception of silence and plausible deniability, you probably could’ve even gotten some money from your mom, two or three hundred to put on rent. There she is in your head again, I have to feed you, clothe you, and house you. I don’t have to love you, but I do that anyway. Generosity, a virtue. You feel guilty and enraged at having been given so much and still wanting more.
Natalie Sharp (she/her) is a Black queer writer, dancer, and educator hailing from Savannah, GA and based in Denver, CO. She completed her MFA in creative writing at the University of Colorado Boulder, and her poetry and nonfiction have previously appeared in Foglifter Journal, BOAAT Journal, Bodega Magazine, and elsewhere. If you propose to her in a Waffle House, she will probably say yes.