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Five Hundred Thousand Fix
The usual carton of organic milk was replaced by a jug of Hood. That was the first sign. Ordinarily, only fat, sugar, and preservative-free foods would have any chance of making it into our highly selective refrigerator, facilitated by my father. Then, The New York Times stopped being delivered in the mornings, and Netflix movies in the afternoon. One day I even caught my dad snagging a few bills from our box of charity money we were saving to donate to our local soup kitchen, for groceries. The last straw, however, was when my weekly allowance was "indefinitely postponed." My dad knew I saved that $10 for my college fund, so I knew this had to be something serious.
"Carrie! Why is the gas almost on empty?" My father called from outside, his voice wafting through the wall of windows. I looked up from my toes, which I was in the process of painting a malicious red at the kitchen table.
"Oh. I...took a drive." I replied, knowing this explanation wouldn't cut it with my dad.
"I expect reimbursement for that wasted gas money." My dad stated, faking a stern tone. "And I don't know why you'd want to waste your money on that, either. Stay home once in a while; it can't be that bad." He winked and drove off.
The truth is, though, it was that bad. The stress in the house had began coming in spacious waves, and progressed into a permanent, solid haze of tension. I couldn't breathe. My mom had been stoic, ever since my dad got laid off work. I didn't think it was that big of a deal, since her paycheck was the largest portion of our once double-income household. However, apparently it set free emotional, as well as financial, instability.
These days my dad sat around, watching our stock money dwindle as if it was some sort of sick entertainment that didn't actually affect us. However, judging by the sacrifices we had been making as a family, he must've understood how urgent things were becoming.
My mom leaned in the doorway of the kitchen, her gray hairs massacring the blond dye, two months overdue for a retouch. She had neither frown nor smile lines, instead a heavy lack of emotion drained every bit of anything; negative or positive.
"Carrie-" My mom's solemn start to a surely sentimental conversation was cut off by the telephone ring, streaming the melody to The Star-Spangled Banner.
"Who is it?" My mother asked, expecting me to rush over to the caller ID. So I did.
"Grandma," I replied, instantly followed by my mom rushing to phone. A few months back, my family would have ignored the occasional calls from my grandparents house. Recently, though, they came more frequently and were always pounced upon by my parents. I was too lazy to investigate it though, and primarily had no interest in any additional drama. Instead, I left my mom, who was in a jumble of mhm's on the phone line, to retire to the basement. I locked the door behind me, and lay motionless on the cool concrete. The ceiling of footsteps separated me from the otherwise unavoidable surface of action. Something about the indifference drew me in, to crave the silence I thought i'd never stop avoiding. The lack of light drizzled a force of stillness upon my body. Thick, humid air fogged my lungs, until breathing became such a concentrated act, I had no room to pay attention to anything else. I was growing into the blank creature I hated that my mother was.
"Carrie, come!" My mother's voice seeped through the heating vents, annoyingly clear. I shook back to consciousness, and, with much effort, swept myself back up the stairs. She was sitting at the kitchen table, looking out the window as if she hadn't been the one to call me up there.
"Yes?" I asked, praying it didn't come out in a tone as rude as my ears had heard it.
"Your father and I...aren't seeing eye to eye on his current unemployment situation." Her civil words were clearly a severe understatement, though my ability to read in between the lines saved her from having to elaborate. I nodded.
"We're moving out, Carrie. You and I. I can't afford this house alone, and he's too stubborn to find temporary work to fill in the gaps. Until he chooses to view the situation as realistically as I do, this isn't the place for us."
We stared at each other, both not daring to show an ounce of emotion. Partially because it wasn't there, and partially because we knew the other didn't want to see it. I nodded again.
The next few days were a blur of brown moving boxes and trash bags. My detachment from the physical world had become overwhelmingly apparent when my ratio of trash bags to moving boxes was about 5 to 1. Nothing mattered anymore. Not my summer reading, not my parents' lack of attention towards me, not the financial crisis, and definitely not my room full of crappy trinkets.
We were going to stay with my wealthy grandmother, who lived two hours away, in a gated community somewhere in California. I didn't approve. To create a password for an entire society revealed an unmatched ignorance. Proclaiming superiority through locked gates and 24/7 security guards suggested only the unwillingness to experience the unfamiliar. Those high class standards wouldn't teach me, only protect me. Rows of identical mansions didn't tempt me, and I bet they wouldn't really please my mother that much, either. But I digress, and we were going.
Right as I pressed down the masking tape, sealing my last box, the phone rang. As always, my mom power-walked to answer it, her legs far too twiggy to attempt a jog. I started walking downstairs, to savor my last few minutes in my only sanctuary, the basement, when I heard a yelp from my mother. I groaned, and walked back up out of unwritten family obligation.
"Mom?" I croaked, not sure how to respond to what I saw. Her face was pure white, her mouth gaping, and the phone still up to her ear. I could hear the beeps signifying an ended call.
"Who was it?" I waited for a minute, knowing better than to expect a reply.
"MOM!" I screamed, searching for an ounce of recognition, that I was here, a part of the family, and had a right to know something about our lives.
"Aunt Anna...She says...your grandmother had a heart attack. She's at the hospital." My mom managed to mutter.
"Well? Are you going?" I prodded, trying to fish out a concerned nature, if she had one. My mom looked up at me, with big brown doe eyes, and hobbled out towards the front door, expecting me to follow. I didn't want to go visit my grandmother. I knew it was during these moments I was supposed to go and hold her hand in the hospital bed, ignoring the overwhelming stench of hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial sprays, and tell her how much I loved her. But that wouldn't seem right. I'd never told my grandma I loved her, or at least not that I could remember. Not because I didn't, but mostly because my introversion came across as apathetic. So why say it now? She'd know I was only saying it because there was a chance she'd die, and the phony sudden burst of affection would just be pathetic. I had too much pride in my consistent lack of emotion to change. I returned to the stairwell and, again, began walking to the basement.
There I lay, ignorant of time but eager to waste it. It made sense, now, the increased number of phone calls from my grandma. She had probably been struggling with her heart condition for a while. What now? Move into my grandma's house to help her in her delicate state? This was not what we had bargained for. Or was it? Had my mom wanted to be close to her mother in her time of weakness? I tried to rationalize the situation, though I soon became frustrated, resenting my mom for never telling me her plans. My resentment turned into regret for thinking about it so much. And regretting the the effort made, wasted even more energy. So the vicious cycle of conscious "time wasting" became a repetition of hatred, ticking eternally. The shame of obliviousness, became a mentality I wished to mimick. I hoped to be spared of my own guilt, because to not realize, stripped to bare itself as a guilty pleasure. I returned to my normal numbness. It suited me.
What seemed like dozens of hours later, I heard the front door latch open, and the sullen footsteps of my mother followed. Eager to hear what had happened, I sprang up the steps, alternating between two and three at a time. I walked into the light of the kitchen, to find my mom standing stiff, her knees locked tight. Her fingers were intertwined across a small piece of paper, which she was staring at, blank as ever.
"Mom?" I droned, hoping her maternal bond to me would somehow telepathize instantly whatever had happened. Wishful thinking, though.
"She died." My mom finally wheezed. "They couldn't help her. Heart failure. She's gone."
I walked over beside her to give her some sort of pat on the back of comfort, perhaps an awkward hug if she dared start crying. She was still looking at the small piece of paper, so I peered above her shoulder to look. It was a check. $500,000.
"Mom?" I gasped. "What's this?"
"What she left me. From her will."
Now I knew why I had never dared to feel anything. I was avoiding a confliction of emotions, like this. Nothing tops the confusion of the heart, and I was at a loss for how to absorb the news. My mother was most likely devastated about her mother. However, this was the answer to our atheist prayers! Poor finances, the root of all our family's disruption of order, was out of the picture. If half a million dollars didn't fix us, what would? Wrapped in a bittersweet package, sure, though life-saving all the same. More, though, I hoped it would renew our happiness as the one big biological mess that we were. Perhaps this was wishful thinking too, though.
The door jingled open, and my father walked in, chipper as ever.
"Hey!" He flashed us a smile, effortlessly avoiding our solemn gazes.
My mom uttered the news of her mother's death. My dad sighed, his smile constant.
My mom's lips trembled, weighing the benefits and draw backs of true expression; she was about to crack. Impulsively, she raised her arm and slapped my father across his face.
"How dare you!" She yelped, breaking into hysteric heaves and tears I'd never seen by her before. I knew exactly what she meant: How dare he laze around in a time of financial crisis. How dare he heartlessly let us dismiss ourselves from living with him. And how dare he grin immaturely after finding out his mother-in-law passed away.
I looked to my father, whose features instantly soaked up shock. I took it upon myself to translate her desperate frustration.
"Dad, how come you can take everything so lightly? Losing your job? Mom and I almost moving out? Grandma's death? It doesn't phase you in the least." I spoke half out of anger, the other out of jealousy.
"We're all depressed, Carrie," he told me. "Only some of us show it."
At that moment, I looked up into his eyes, the glimmer still there, but I saw the depths of a troubled mind. Somehow, our common sadness bound the three of us, and in truth can bind us all. Perhaps we are wrong in trying to find similar happinesses to connect us, when everything is, actually, framed in sorrows. The truest joys are solitary, while the deepest sorrows can be joined in mutual understanding. I felt understood.