I’m exhausted. I peel off the clothes I spent the past nine hours in, careful not to put them on my bed. It’s a familiar, welcome ritual for me and has been for the past few months: closing a laptop and slipping out of the grip of corporate America and onto the Euclid Avenue-bound C train, until finally arriving back at home, where I undress and settle in.
Cocooned within the safety of the four walls of my apartment, I feel untouchable, invincible even. I stand in my studio kitchenette and thumb through a stack of letters I retrieved from my mailbox on the way in. A white envelope addressed to me from a marshal’s office with a Queens address catches my eye. I examine the letter and feel a burning in my cheeks; my stomach drops. Bad news, packaged and stamped. I dig my pointer finger into the very edge of the envelope and tear along the length.
In a definitive tone, the creased notice informs me that I have been successfully sued by Community Management for a hefty total of $15,490.53. The original amount consists of missed rent payments and late fees. Years of accrued interest have since been tacked on. I’m expected to pay off the debt, the letter goes on, by way of wage garnishment. I clutch the letter with clammy hands, rereading it, wondering if this is at all real. It is: My new employer will be notified, and I can expect collection to begin within the coming weeks.
I feel powerless and frustrated. I’ve managed to build a protective shell over myself and my finances only for it to be penetrated by an invisible entity, yet again. I feel the beginning of tears welling up behind my eyes; the soft stinging that comes just before. Unlocking memories of a life I thought I’d left behind.
Our co-op building was part of a cul-de-sac, sharing a loop with five other buildings. It cultivated a feeling of manufactured community among people who were essentially strangers, canned greetings and stale conversation while standing by the mailboxes.
I can envision the popcorn ceilings and stained marble tiles in the kitchen. A glass table framed with wood, draped in a magenta polyester tablecloth with what used to function as a napkin holder on top, now stuffed with miscellaneous junk mail and rent letters. The threat of eviction lay unopened, hiding in plain sight on the kitchen table. My younger brother didn’t read them; neither of us did at that point. We shuffled by them throughout the day. I found myself occasionally resentful of his lack of participation. Why was he not concerned?
Of course he wasn’t, because he was 14 years old. No one should have to worry about stuff like that when they’re 14.
I continued to lie to my brother whenever the topic was broached and assured him that everything was fine. Even in superficial affairs, I tend to shut down. My shame and stubborn pride cause me to retreat inwardly, refusing to reach out for assistance in an effort to manage public perception. As much as I pretend not to be, I’m consumed by what people think of me. This in turn contributes to emotional isolation, packaged with unproductive thoughts of abject failure and self-pity.
Perched on the peeling white radiator sitting just below the window’s sill, we peered out to the street below some evenings, just in time to catch our aunt as she stepped off the Q85 bus. She had a habit of not calling whenever she came to visit from Canarsie. Oftentimes, we would be alerted to her arrival by the sound of keys turning in the door. Her presence, once evergreen after our parents passed, grew more infrequent as the rent letters began to embellish the kitchen table. For a time, she would help by paying a portion of the rent out of pocket, but that didn’t last for long as she still maintained her own apartment. On most days, it was just my brother and me in the apartment, either sequestered into our separate rooms or silently passing each other in the foyer. Our tight-knit family unit, marred by death and insolvency; slowly undone.
“Do you have your half of the rent?” she would ask me, usually as I was about to step out and head to my retail job at Queens Center Mall. The inquisition never derived from a place of concern but shot out like a barb, strategically meant to shame me before I started my day. I remember thinking, “Just how much do you expect me to contribute when I work part-time for minimum wage?” My shame and pride stopped me from ever expressing this aloud.
I would slip out of the apartment and into the hallway toward the elevator without answering her, shouldering a burning resentment. I’d begun to feel as though my aunt was the reason for a lot of my financial woes. At the tender age of 18, I took on the lease for the three-bedroom apartment, relinquishing my older sister, who had fled to Pennsylvania, of all financial and moral obligation. I’ve heard that young minds are incapable of grasping the significance of long-term commitments. I signed my name on the sheet of paper. It didn’t occur to me at the time just how much this little decision would affect my life for years to come.
Contrary to popular belief, the eviction process moves rather quickly. On a beautiful summer morning, a mere month after we received the first warning, we were dealt our final letter. The notice, printed on pink legal paper and emblazoned on our front door, instructed us to vacate the premises before the following afternoon. Literally a scarlet letter.
Whatever we could manage to salvage from the apartment we had spent 10 years of our childhood in, we packed hastily into boxes I bought from Home Depot. Family photo albums, my father’s collection of vinyls, kitchen appliances, sliding around in a shared box with no cushioning to keep them in place. The hired movers kindly offered small sums of money to save us from displacement, but peppered the already unwanted small talk with invasive questions about our situation.
A soft rapping at the door caused a break in conversation. I squinted through the peephole only to see the building manager, dressed in dark coveralls and chewing on some cashews; the rest he held tightly in his hand. Time was up. Reluctantly, I opened the door and he sauntered in without so much as a greeting. Slowly, he walked through the vacant rooms to ensure that we’d finished packing; the contents of his right hand emptied onto the marble tiles that made up the kitchen floor, halved cashews spilled everywhere. After glancing in my direction, he offered up an “I’m sorry” so devoid of sincere emotion, I could only assume that it was in reference to his littering and had nothing at all to do with us being put out onto the street.
“That’s okay,” I replied, “I don’t live here anymore.”
As we stepped over the threshold and moved into the fluorescent light of the hallway, Apartment 7G was locked behind us for the last time, using a key we no longer possessed.
Now, feeling uneasy, I shift my balance onto one foot and stretch to tuck the letter into a pile stacked on top of the refrigerator. Suddenly, I’m suffocated by my studio’s small kitchenette, which seems to be closing in as I try to slow the beating in my chest. I’m still and numb, feeling exactly as I had when I saw the eviction notice taped to our front door. As overwhelming as this all is, I remind myself that circumstances have changed.
I refuse to accept a life of gradual failure, I attempt to fight against it. This means moving away from dead-end part-time work and pursuing entry-level work that would eventually take me down a solid career path. As I navigate the uncharted waters of adult life, there is no familial support, there is no proposed direction. I accept that my circumstances won’t allow me to take on any unpaid work such as internships, so any dreams of a creative career fall to the wayside. Holding down a decent job is the only sufficient way to pay off my debt and stay afloat.
Lessons are learned on the fly; there are missteps, there are failures. I persevere by choosing to believe I am overqualified for every role that I apply for. Over time, my sustained financial stability reinvigorates me. I take comfort in the fact that I will never find myself pacing through the hallway in that three-bedroom apartment, wondering where it all went wrong. Starting over with a clean slate in a new borough. This distracts me from ruminating over the dollars being shaved off the top of my new salary. Years pass, and the biweekly deduction on my stub barely registers. It’s easier to acknowledge the bigger picture. By simply moving through my day, I am slowly chipping away at the total. No additional effort necessary. I should be so fortunate.
On another beautiful summer morning, siloed in my studio apartment, my final payment is withdrawn from my account. I type in my login credentials and expand my digital paystub into a full screen, focusing on the zeroed-out line item. The full $15,490.53 amount is listed in the Year-to-Date column. I sit in silence, breathing a sigh of relief as I stare at the screen, and then quickly close out the tab. There is no one to tell. It is a silent victory.
Deb Ashley is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.