I watched my mom do it my whole life. She’d call her sister, or her sister-in-law, or my grandma, or one of her old coworkers, or the woman who used to babysit me, whoever, and make up some story about her car being impounded, or a need for a medication that wasn’t covered by her insurance, or an illness that would keep her away from work for several weeks. And it would work. They would scribble into their checkbook or wire her money. Same day, sometimes – $500, $800, sometimes a couple thousand. Once my grandma didn’t have any cash so she gave her a car. Once she got the money, my mom would leave the house, tell me she was going to happy hour at Chevy’s or something, and would come home two days later, all smoky and dehydrated-looking.
“Did you go to the casino?” I’d say.
“No,” she’d say. It was as if I, too, was one of the people she was constantly conning. I guess maybe I was.
It wasn’t as easy as it looked. I spent the whole weekend convincing Aunt Kendra and Uncle Paul that Jack had hit me in the stomach and robbed me of everything. That I was afraid to stay by myself in the trailer we’d been squatting in and I wanted to drive across the state to a women’s shelter. That I needed gas money for the trip, maybe some extra money to help me get back on my feet. But they kept wanting more and more details.
“I don’t know where he went,” I said. “He didn’t tell me.
“There’s no bruising, or, well, it’s a little red, I guess.
“I don’t know how he left, maybe he got a ride from a friend, I have his car here with me. Yes, it is weird he didn’t take his car. Maybe he got a DUI he didn’t tell me about.”
The next day they tried to convince me to drive to their house. I told them I had actually already started driving to the shelter already but had run out of gas on the way. I was stranded in some town, I said. I’d have to find the name of it later. I told them I’d slept in my car the night before. The questions kept coming. I said I had to go and that I’d call back after I charged my phone.
“This is bullshit,” I said to Jack. “Nobody ever did this to Mom.”
“You’re being really loud and I’m trying to sleep,” he said.
“Well, get up. It’s 3 p.m.”
Jack stomped to the bathroom. I pulled up a map on my phone and picked out a plausible place to be stranded that was also far enough from them that they wouldn’t want to pick me up. My hands were shaking pathetically. My incompetence at deception was so physically apparent, like, wow. How had I not inherited the one useful gene my mother had?
“I’m in Ellensburg,” I said, on the phone with Kendra again. She asked me another hundred questions. What had I been eating? What clothes did I have with me? Was Jack’s car reliable? Was I going to press charges? After a little while, Paul got on the phone and said he’d found a Rite Aid in Ellensburg and would wire some money there for me.
Jack emerged from the bathroom, steam escaping in clouds. Seeing him naked made me sad lately. Like, here we are, two people who haven’t even figured out how to be people yet, and our bodies have already begun failing us.
“I have to drive to Ellensburg,” I said. “Come with me.”
“The cats,” he said, stepping into basketball shorts. “They can’t stay here alone.” He gestured to our two sleeping cats, one on the windowsill next to our bed, and the other a few feet away under the coffee table.
“They’re cats,” I said. “They don’t need us. They don’t even know we’re here.”
“This is basically your job, right?” he said. “Like, this is how you’re earning money? So, why do you expect me to go to your job with you?”
“OK, yeah, but I’m doing this for us. For our band.”
“And I thank you for your contribution to the band.”
Hard to explain why, but there was definitely a subtext in his comment about me not contributing enough to the band. “Vocalists get off easy,” he sometimes said.
My mom wouldn’t have driven to Ellensburg, I realized halfway to Ellensburg. She’d have come up with something easier. A crazier story that somehow sounded more plausible because of its craziness. Something that took no effort to pull off.
Dare to Dream, I thought. Like that sign on the wall in my eighth-grade algebra class, cursive white letters over a giant tranquil ocean, peeking out from behind the pull-down screen on which Mr. Keller projected handwritten math problems.
Dare I dream? I always thought. As if dreaming took some kind of special confidence. As if whatever your dream might be, there was inherent risk involved. That you were risking something to dream it. Don’t you dare.
We’d probably never get anywhere with our band. Maybe that was already obvious to everyone. But this life could easily be another life, one where I was driving to Ellensburg not to scam my relatives out of money but to play a show with my band. Our equipment stacked in the backseat, or maybe we would have a van just for gigging. In this other life I would roll down my window just as I’m doing in this life, but it would feel different. Or maybe not. It’s funny how people glamorize driving long distances. It’s like the luckier you are, the more you feel compelled to make a big display of enjoying simple things. It’s just pavement, my friends. The radio stations have been playing the same songs for 20 years. The rest stops often don’t have toilet paper.
I spent the last of my money on gas to get to Ellensburg, and by the time I got to Ellensburg I was out of gas. I picked up the damn wire transfer and learned that you can pick up a money wire at any old Rite Aid. You don’t have to drive all day to get to some specific store. Just one of the many things my mother neglected to teach me. The wire was for $75. Keep in mind this is the same family who once spent $500 to fix their dog’s broken leg after a neighbor ran him over with a skateboard. Apparently my health and well being was about a sixth as valuable as a dog leg.
“Um, I got the money,” I said. “This is barely going to get me a tank of gas.”
“That’s all we can swing today but we’ll help you more when we can. Give us the address of the shelter when you have it, and we’ll set something up. You’re still more than welcome to come here if you like.”
I used to wish Kendra and Paul were my parents. Sometimes it felt like they had wanted that, too. When I was a kid my mom would send me to their house for long weekends in the late summer. Of course it was strategic. I’d only been allowed to take my oldest, grossest clothes. Kendra would inevitably take me to the mall, not wanting me to have to go back to school looking like a prisoner of war. She let me get whatever I wanted. One year I picked out a $25 long-sleeved white and purple striped shirt with a cute little white collar.
“I love that,” Kendra had said. She suggested it would look good with black jeans. Then we picked out a thick white belt to tie the look together. My mom sold the shirt on eBay for $6 before I even got to wear it to school.
When I was 16, my mom told Kendra and Paul I got pregnant, and that I was considering keeping it, dropping out of high school, and moving to Montana with my boyfriend. My mom wanted them to convince me to get an abortion, and also help me pay for the abortion. I wasn’t pregnant, was still a virgin in fact, which is why my mom stood next to me for the duration of the phone call, making sure I didn’t blow it. I listened to them tell me all the reasons they loved me, all the things they wanted for me, all the things I might miss out on if I had a baby so young. College. Parties. Dancing with boys in bars. Road trips with girl friends. It all sounded so wonderful. I wanted to believe these nice things were possible. I cried into the phone and accepted their abortion money, which my mom used to fly to Vegas.
Life is a pyramid scheme whether you acknowledge it or not. Although I don’t know what there is to gain by acknowledging it.
I put $50 in my tank and smoked a cigarette in the driver’s seat of my car, which offered a wonderful view of a very full gas station garbage can with an open-face dirty diaper placed prettily on top.
A gifted con-artist walked away with $25 profit today after a complicated scam that took over 36 hours to execute, I imagined news anchors saying, my misspelled name displayed across the screen because no one has ever heard of the name Britnay.
Somehow, driving back, I felt OK. Maybe it was the Collective Soul coming from the radio, or maybe things were never going to be OK and that was okay.
Twenty-five dollars wasn’t going to be enough to get a new guitar and amp. I mean, just to spell things out. Not happening. But maybe it’s enough to take Jack to Olive Garden. We could order calamari and lasagna and barely touch it but keep asking for new baskets of free breadsticks. They have to give them to us. Did you know that? They might look at us weird and be annoyed and take a long time to bring them to our table, but they have to do it. It’s the law at Olive Garden. And then we’ll have them wrap the calamari and lasagna in a box and eat it at home, in private. Maybe I’ll even tip.
And I laughed at myself while the tears rolled down cause it’s the world I know.
I turned up the volume on a song I’d never really liked and sang along, understanding for the first time that my fifth-grade music teacher had been wrong (or lying) about my voice being special.