Laying in her cramped, twin-sized bed Sarah listened to her house. The storm wouldn’t let up. Outside, snow and wind pushed relentlessly against the facade, prompting creeks and moans. Even laying underneath a pile of blankets, Sarah bristled at both the sounds of the storm and the room’s meatlocker-like temperature. The sealant around her bedroom’s sole window was of questionable quality, and the adjacent wall was degraded near the window frame. If one looked closely, tiny holes could be seen, through which cold air could pass freely.
Sarah felt cold, and not just because of the Swiss cheese walls. She felt cold on the inside. After bandaging her mother’s finger and walking her to bed, Sarah had wrestled with taking off her mother’s slippers. At one point her leg had lurched upwards sharply, grazing Sarah’s already vulnerable jaw. Sarah shivered thinking about this near miss, which would have made her morning shift at the apartment complex even more painful. It would have forced her to empty her recently bought bottle of ibuprofen, which she already was consuming like candy.
Sarah looked at her phone; it was already past 1am. Groaning, she turned to her side, pulling herself into the fetal position. She felt warmer scrunched together, protected, ensconced. Still, it wasn’t like it had been with James. During those days, he had always beaten her to bed. He was always snoring loudly when she came in, body emanating warmth like a heating pad. Once, long ago, she had gone to bed only to find his body slippery with sweat. “Jesus,” she had muttered, half-endeared and half-disgusted, moving away from his clammy skin. “Jesus.”
Sarah recognized that such thoughts were counterproductive, and, at this point, sort of silly. She hadn’t seen James in 18 months, and the last time they talked was almost a year ago. And, as someone who had eschewed social media in the past year, Sarah was truly in the dark. Normally, she liked it this way; it felt healthier. But nights like this were different; thoughts and memories kept rising to the surface.
Sighing, Sarah pushed herself up onto her left elbow and turned on the light. The small bulb from the bedside lamp flicked on, illuminating the wall behind it and not much else. She looked at her small room, or what was left of it. The light barely illuminated the edge of her bed, and the shadowy folds of her covers receding into darkness below the outlines of her feet. On each side of her drafty window, the room’s dark walls were utterly bare. If one looked closely, faint impressions of long-removed posters and pictures could be seen – remnants of an earlier time. It made the room look as if it had been occupied by someone who had recently passed. Adding to this was her closet, which sat partially open directly opposite of her bed. Although obscured by the room’s darkness, Sarah knew that a small mountain of heavy boxes were staring at her, still stuffed with her hastily packed possessions.
Flopping back onto her bed, Sarah stared at the ceiling. The light from her bedside lamp climbed the wall, arching outward onto the ceiling where it met colors of dark blue, grey and black. It was faint however. The night’s powerful arms reached out across the ceiling. Its charcoal fingers cut through the light and nearly touched the demarcation between ceiling and wall.
Almost three years ago she had laid in this bedroom and felt elated. At the time she had been 20, and had been dating James for about a year. The night before they moved in together had been one of the best of her life. She had barely slept. The room had looked similar then, aside from it having more closet space. The walls, however, had been the same, as had her bookshelf, which was currently sitting sad and dusty. Looking at it now, she could imagine the outlines of all her books, covering dozens of subjects. It had been stacked then, teetering almost on the point of collapse. It had been…
…full. Sarah looked at her shelf, woefully realizing that she didn’t have enough boxes. It was early Spring, and warm light streamed through her window, arching across the mossy surface of her room’s carpet. Outside, she heard the door of James’s car clam shut, indicating that another box had been tucked safely inside. Gritting her teeth, she began filling the boxes she had left, cramming in as much literature as they could possibly contain. She knew that some books were going to have to stay behind, at least until she could make another trip. This wasn’t an attractive idea however. When she had told her mother that she was moving in with James the results had been disastrous. Her mother had immediately clammed up, glaring with a level of intensity that was as scary as it was absurd.
“Got more ready?” James said from somewhere behind her. She turned immediately to look at him, and met the gaze of his silvery-blue eyes. James was three years older than she was, tall with a light build. A track star in high school, he still ran everyday. Once, he had even attempted to get her to start running with him, and she had laughed so hard she nearly choked.
“Oh yeah. Here they come.” Grunting, she lifted the first of her book boxes, placing it into his extended arms.
“You know I have a small apartment right?” James said.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Ssh. Ssh. Ssh,” she responded, mockingly placing her pointer finger to her lips.
“Ok hoarder,” he croaked, stooping lower for her to put the second box on top of the first. Smiling, he then said, “But you’re getting a Kindle for your birthday.”
“Less talking, more moving.”
James smiled again and winked at her, revealing large white teeth that were almost perfectly straight. She then watched him stride purposefully out of her bedroom and disappear down the stairs, and couldn’t believe it was actually happening.
The move out of her mother’s house was quick, which was intentional. Sarah had little to take, yet there were less tangible things fueling her. There was a noxious, unhealthy energy to that house, one that was especially acute in the mornings and evenings. As an early-riser, Sarah usually could count on an hour or two of relative serenity. This changed when her mother got up. The rustling of sheets, the creek of footsteps, and the thud of the bathroom door felt like an impending tempest. Sarah often felt unbalanced in those initial moments, tense from head to toe, and uncertain over what was coming next. “It’s ok; everything is ok,” she would tell herself, staring into the bathroom’s smudged mirror. She didn’t believe it for a second. Of course, sometimes things actually were ok, just not very often.
This was how it had been until James had asked her move in with him. He had been living in his apartment for two years, and in that time had turned its classical design into a bit of a dump. The 500 square foot one bedroom wasn’t necessarily something Sarah would call a hell hole, but it was close. His clothes typically littered the floor of the tiny, closet-sized bedroom, turning it into a carpet of denim, cotton and flannel. However, it was the nuanced dirtiness of the place that bothered her. Every surface was coated with a faint grime that James claimed he couldn’t see. To Sarah, it all screamed for a sponge.
James had, of course, promised her that he would do a deep cleaning before she fully moved in. Yet, the weeks leading up to the move hadn’t allayed her fears. Each time she visited her anxiety seemed higher. The dark chin whiskers hugging the bathroom sink, or the spaghetti sauce firmly encrusted on the stove’s burner seemed more obvious and offensive.
This was why when they arrived at the apartment with her stuff she was amazed at how clean it all was. The floor of the bedroom was bare, revealing lovely maple panels of reddish-brown and gold. The different surfaces had also seen perhaps their first ever wipe, and were relatively free of stains. On the small, rectangular table of the apartment’s breakfast nook, there even sat a bowl of fruit, in addition to her own set of keys. After setting down a load of her possessions, James picked the keys up and handed them to her for the first time.
“Well, welcome home.”
Sarah reached out and felt her hand close around their metallic surfaces.
“Do you think this is where we start to hate each other?” she joked, feigning concern.
“Ha ha,” he sarcastically responded, reaching down to grab another box. Then his face fell. “Don’t joke about that.”
She was kidding, of course, yet she recognized that it maybe had been a mistake. A child of divorce, James had always been sensitive about that type of humor. Still, she couldn’t completely understand his unease. Both of James’s parents were at least somewhat present in his life. They were also perfectly amicable and friendly towards each other.
Some part of her also felt that what her and James were doing was silly, insane even. The thought of being in a relationship, one ostensibly designed as “lifelong,” often struck her as a fool’s errand. She didn’t believe in soulmates or Platoian “other halves.” She had disavowed those stories, not only due to the reading she had done, but also through her own lived experience.
But when she had first met James those thoughts were the furthest thing from her mind. He had been the TA of her freshman seminar, and had approached her after class. While she knew that physical attraction played a part, she was immediately struck by how he actually seemed to listen to her. After talking for two hours, they had gone over to his friend’s house for a party, where her memory of the night became somewhat diluted. The evening took on a kaleidoscopic quality, and everything was flux. Drinking and talking, Sarah and James moved from room to room, all of which buzzed with laughter, chatter and music. By the end of the party she had kissed him, and by the conclusion of their walk home they had made plans for the next day.
After that, James became a refuge, especially when her mother took a turn for the worst, and began incessantly calling and badgering her to come home almost every weekend. At certain times, she would actually show up on campus, although how she got there Sarah had no idea. She hadn’t held a driver’s license in months.
These unplanned “visits” were incredibly challenging. While Sarah could handle the crying, it was the guilt trips leveled at her that finally pushed her over the edge. During one visit, she ignored her mother’s phone calls to be let into the dorm. She simply laid on her bed with her head underneath a pillow. To her horror (although not really to her surprise), campus security was eventually called, which Sarah watched from behind her room’s window. Still, this wasn’t even the last straw. That came when her mother began berating Sarah about her relationship with James, a harangue that culminated with an implicit threat to stop co-signing on Sarah’s student loans. Sarah had finally chosen to call her on this bluff, and act that thankfully coincided with James asking her to move in.
It had all been so fast, and it didn’t seem to be slowing down. During the first month they concentrated on getting the apartment set up, straining the small space despite Sarah’s relatively few possessions. After that, things fell more into a routine. Tangibles like money, and intangibles like experiences, became intertwined; the “I” became “we.” Occasionally, Sarah felt like she was slipping away and losing some part of herself. The experience was often overwhelming and scary, it was also not necessarily bad.
They lived poor, but that was ok. Dark humor became the norm, and it was cathartic and self-preserving. For instance, the car that James drove was a decent one overall, although it had numerous minor defects, such as windshield wipers that had given up long ago. During rainstorms they had to stop at every light and stop sign, and manually move the wipers to clear the windshield of water. Another case involved their weekly grocery shopping runs. During one particular run, Sarah let her financial anxiety get the best of her. She broke down in tears, and staunchly refused to buy anything aside from the cheapest version of each product. This decision, however, eventually came back to bite them both in the ass. The bread they purchased was about as flimsy as the cheap, pathetic toilet paper you’d find inside a highway rest stop. It drooped under the weight of thin layer of jam, and collapsed in upon itself when asked to support a slice of cheese.
Experiences like these could have been emotionally trying; however, with James they were always funny. They laughed throughout each economic hardship, establishing a solidarity equal to their destitute state. They also found ways to make their money stretch, to make a social life together possible. One of these included being able to go the movies for free. A mutual acquaintance who worked for one of the local movie chains was able to pass them free tickets at least once a month. This was still far from an ideal situation, as every time they came to the theater he looked ready to jump off a tall bridge.
While they had no money, they also had no responsibilities, and outside of their jobs the world to have potential. Even work didn’t seem completely hopeless. Two weeks after moving in, Sarah began working at a dog daycare called Pooch Pals, which was located a few miles from their apartment. There, her days consisted of largely two things: breaking up chronic dominance humping and cleaning up chronic sharting. The tool of her trade was a trusty pooper-scooper, a blue-handled beauty that she nicknamed Sally. Sometimes in the midst of a particularly grueling shift, Sarah caught herself muttering outrageous things, which she credited to all the bleach and ammonia she was inhaling while on the play floor. “Lets go SALLY!” she once exclaimed, scooping up a particularly odious turd. It seemed that nothing could break her. This even included a trash bag full of liquefied feces, which split open like a pair of too-tight pants after she decided to throw it over the kennel’s fence one evening.
James, on the other hand, was not doing so well. Being older than Sarah, the pressure of a so-called “real job” was more real and immediate. At the end of the summer, he graduated from the University of Minnesota with a BA in Business Administration. He then began aggressively lobbying for his $10-an-hour internship to be converted to full-time employment.
Nothing of the sort however seemed to be the proverbial cards. Each day at work, James hounded his immediate supervisor: a plump, diminutive man with rosy cheeks, watery eyes, slickly-styled hair and a bulbous nose.
“Anything?” James asked one afternoon in early fall, referring to whether or not the man had received confirmation from the company’s higher-ups.
“Sorry man,” the supervisor replied, looking not at all sorry. The two men were sitting in the supervisor’s bland-looking office. It was lunch time, and after responding to James question the supervisor took a huge chomp of a pungent lox bagel, sending cream cheese squirting out onto his shirt’s faded collar.
And so it went, for weeks and weeks. The fall became winter, and still no job materialized. At home, the laughter, the bonding and the support was also materializing less frequently. Whenever Sarah tried to engage, James’s response was little more than a pained grimace. He seemed to barely have the energy to listen to her when she needed to talk. The nights also become quite and uneventful, with James remaining firmly on his side of the bed even when she felt restless. All of this may have been acceptable if the expectations he placed on her had also decreased, but the opposite seemed to be occurring. To Sarah, whenever James came home from a dispiriting day he looked to her automatically for comfort. She felt burdened, as if a barbell had wrapped itself around her neck.
“Are you coming?” James hollered one night, while waiting for her to come out of the bedroom and watch a movie.
“In a minute,” she called back, her voice somewhat muffled by the book that was only inches away from her face. She didn’t want to go, as she knew her and James wouldn’t actually share an experience. Lately, watching movies together had become a solitary act. He never shared his thoughts about what they were viewing. Instead, he simply sat there, mutely, while grabbing onto her whenever it suited him. A movie also wasn’t attractive because these days it felt like she never had time to read. At the moment, she was reading Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents – which had proven to be almost impossible to put down.
Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility. The passage jumped out at her.
“Sarah?” came a call from the bedroom, dim and far away. She kept reading.
Professional activity is a source of special satisfaction if it is a freely chosen one — if, that is to say, by means of sublimation, it makes possible the use of existing inclinations, of persisting or constitutionally reinforced instinctual impulses.
Somewhere far away, down a tunnel, came a barely audible albeit ragged sigh.
The element of truth behind all this, which people are so ready to disavow, is that men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness.
“SARAH!” came a loud bark. She looked up and to the doorway of their small bedroom.
James stood in the doorway, his pale arms crossed, his brow furrowed.
“What?” she said, annoyed and hot.
“Why are you reading that? Is it for school?”
“I just want to!”
“Well, are you coming?”
“I said in a minute!”
Forget it!” he snarled, turning on his heel. Watching him go, Sarah was struck by a visible change in his demeanor. James no longer strode about; he shuffled. He no longer seemed to move with a purpose. Instead, he seemed burdened by defeat.
It was clear through exchanges like this that instead of going up they were going down, and spinning out of control on the way. Sarah had seen this before, but now it was happening to her directly. As the winter wore on, they made amends, and it was still often evident that there were good things between them. Love was still present, but it became increasingly difficult to not think about how love might not be enough. With each new job rejection, James became angrier and angrier. And in response, Sarah felt herself become more and more resentful. Everything that was tight became tighter towards the end of the year, especially as the dog kennel reduced her hours as its clientele desperately looked for ways to cut expenses.
“The state of our union is strong,” the President droned at some point in January, trying to buffer the spirits of a generally depressed populace. The words couldn’t have rung more hollow to Sarah however, who began temping at a call center out of sheer desperation. This turned her weekdays into an almost continuous cycle of work. Mornings were the dog daycare, followed by a commute across town to the call center on the 16 bus. During these trip, Sarah found herself staring out at the snowy tracks of the soon-to-be-completed Green Line, wondering when she might again feel something approaching happiness.
From her perspective, she couldn’t be working harder. Her performance in her classes had already declined, and she was currently playing with the idea of taking a semester off to bank a bit of money. This was starkly opposed the media she unfortunately and frequently overheard: angry, vitriolic diatribes of every form and flavor.
“Millennials are looking for a handout,” spat one pundit. “Whatever happened to hard work?” sneered another. “They don’t have that fundamental sense of responsibility.”
It was preposterous, but it was also impossible to fully ignore. Sarah knew she’d be hard-pressed to achieve the same middle class stability her parents had when she was young. Was it permanently out of reach? She didn’t know, nor did she know how much blame she needed to shoulder. Some part of her had surely contributed to her current predicament, which included failing grades, a fragile romance, and a seemingly never-ending, check-to-check existence. Things were bad, but they weren’t terminal. Her and James still got up everyday. They still got to work. They still kept a roof over their heads, despite the frosty interactions often present underneath it. In a way, the talking heads were partially correct: the generation her and James belonged to was in decline. But they were also managing that decline. And for now they were managing it together.