It’s late 2009, and we are at my parents’ lakeside condo in Madison, Wisconsin, for a family vacation. The two-bedroom home is filled beyond capacity; finding the privacy to process the marital tensions that attend any gathering of this kind is what my 10-year-old would call an epic challenge. But Pat and I have managed it by pulling up a rug and jamming a bedroom door closed.
“What else can we do?” Pat says after checking the security of our barricade. “You’ll have to ask them to lend us $1,000.”
I’m sitting on the edge of my parents’ bed. My mother is very proud of this new piece of furniture, which is so high, she has to climb up onto it.
“We borrowed money from them last year,” I remind him, my feet dangling like a child’s. I close my eyes, wincing at the prospect of going back to my mother, hat in hand. But a $12,000 check we have been waiting for—one that will cover our rent in January, among many other things—has been held up by a clerical error. It cannot be issued until after the holidays. Meanwhile, we have no money to see us through until that check arrives and no real credit to lean on (we rolled our many cards into one to get a lower interest rate). A thousand dollars would tide us over. I am a writer, Pat is an actor, and most years we make six figures between us. But the recession hit us hard, halving our income and drying up our reserves. We used to fill financial gaps with odd jobs, but there simply aren’t any to be had now, especially for 50-year-olds.
“We’ll pay your parents back,” Pat says, stepping on the edge of a leaky air mattress on the floor, which hisses back.
“We didn’t repay the $600 we borrowed last time,” I respond tartly.
“We didn’t?” Pat says.
“You know we didn’t.”
“I thought we paid them back last spring,” Pat says.
“No. We didn’t. Remember? Mom said not to worry about it.”
“Then why are we worrying about it now?”
“We’re worrying about it because when Mom says not to worry about it, what she really means is, ‘Don’t worry about it this time. But I will remember. And I will worry that you can’t make enough money to care for yourselves. I will stay awake nights agonizing about how you are going to survive.’ That’s what she means, Pat.”
“Brett, if you’re so worried about worrying her, then let her help.”
Pat and I have been married for 18 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 I have suppressed for years: Why is it myfamily that rides to the rescue? How come Pat got to marry someone whose parents have modest teacher’s retirements but can manage the occasional thousand-dollar bailout—while I married someone whose parents divorced when he was a year old and struggled to cover basic living costs most of their lives? (Proving that drops of blood can indeed be squeezed from a few stones, his mother is so strapped, she often depends on us to help her out.)
Tears sting the inside corners of my eyes. I feel ungenerous. Unloving.
“Look,” says Pat on a slow breath that means he’s going to use the reasonable, officious tone I hate, “if you have a better plan, let’s hear it.”
Although my mind races through possibilities, I know the exercise is futile. We’ve explored financial options already, and we know there are none except emptying my puny IRA or raiding the kids’ college funds.
“I’ll think about it,” I tell him.
“Thank you,” says Pat, as though I’ve finally come to my senses.
He walks over and gives me a kiss on the top of my head before leaving and closing the door.