The summer I turned 16, we moved. Like desert nomads, we packed up our lives and hit the road with barely a month’s notice. Few goodbyes, zero farewell parties. Not even a moment for regret. My mom had won another trip to the asylum, so that left me in charge of preparing the house for market. And taking care of my little brother.
Could I handle all that responsibility? The question never occurred to me quite like that. When you have no choice but to rise up, then you normally do. If I said your life depended on learning French by next weekend, I bet you’d become surprisingly fluent. Oui?
Facing adversity in youth builds a surprising amount of strength and character that serves us well in adulthood. God, that sounded lame. I’m not sure how else to say it. That’s the truth.
At the time, I was surprised how some of my friends reacted to all the bad news when I shared it with them. Wow, we were moving. My mom was going nuts.
One of my best friends felt obligated to point out the unfairness. She said, “If I were you, I’d just run away.”
It was a good thing we were talking on the phone. Because I rolled my eyes. Hard. Of course, my friend persisted. “Why do you even put up with all that? It’s not your fault all this bad shit keeps happening.”
Even at 16, I was learning to embrace a fact that many adults still struggle to accept. You have to deal with problems all the time. Many of them won’t be your fault. But they’ll effect you anyway. So face them. Solve them. The less time you spend moaning, the better.
Imagine if I’d run away like my friend suggested. A stunt like that would’ve tanked our moving plans and jeopardized my dad’s new job. Our entire family, including my clinically insane mom, depended on that job. Even a 16-year-old girl needs food and clothing to survive.
Sometimes, you get lemons. No sugar. No plastic cups. You don’t make lemonade. Life doesn’t even give you a fucking peeler. You just have to bite into that lemon and suck it. Otherwise, you’ll starve.
Obviously, lemons only work so well as a metaphor here. In real life, you’d starve anyway. Lemons have limited nutritional value. At least you wouldn’t get scurvy. That’s something.
Anyway, too much hung in the balance for me to feel sorry for myself. We had to sell the house. We couldn’t afford for my dad to take any time off between his old job and the new.
My life sucked for a while. Nobody wants to move halfway through high school. Back then, we didn’t have smartphones or snap chat to keep in touch. When you moved away, you might as well have died to your friends. That year taught me I could handle a lot. The last little bit of trust in my mom eroded. In fact, every day she slept under our roof posed a mortal threat to us. Meanwhile I had to take her place raising my brother. Figure my way around a school in a new city. Prepare for college. Compared to my last two years of high school, the rest of my life has felt almost easy.
During the move, my dad would give me a list of things to do the next day. He would call at lunch to check up. He needed to know if I’d pressure washed the front porch. Had I re-painted the living room? Had the plumber come by yet? Had I let him in? If I’d done a good job, he’d make the same joke. “So what’s for dinner?”
Except he wasn’t joking. He laughed, like it was a joke. His way of saying thanks, but there’s one more thing…
“Lasagna,” I’d say. Or, “Tacos.”
Nothing fancy. Most of the time, I just had to shove something frozen into the stove and make sure it didn’t burn. But sometimes I would try to impress him by chopping up some lettuce and vegetables into a bowl and calling it a “salad.” I mean, I guess that’s what a salad is.
We had to load our house onto a sixteen-wheeler by mid-July. By then my dad called twice a day. Had I organized all of my brother’s toys? What about his clothes? My brother was 11 or 12 at the time, utterly helpless.
Even after we moved, somehow my brother became my job. He came home from school, asked me for a snack, and fired up his gaming system. Somehow I had to cajole him into doing his homework. Half the time, I failed. Which meant I had to focus on my own later that night, tuning out the father-son wrestling matches in the background.
That summer felt like an internship. Too bad I couldn’t list that on my resume. Surrogate mom-wife. Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? In truth, I look back on those weeks with a feeling of extreme pride. While most of my friends spent their time watching MTV, I’d enjoyed a sneak peek at adulthood. Okay so I watched a little MTV, too. Back then they showed music videos, ones that briefly carried me away from my problems.
My responsibilities followed me to our new home. My mom had revolved in and out of mental hospitals for years by then. Her mind was mozzarella. She couldn’t take care of anyone anymore. At best, she sat around and smoked and watched television and ate chocolate. At worst, she talked about suicide and took shits on the living room floor.
Those shits had to be cleaned up by someone.
Groceries fell under my domain. Imagine a 17-year-old pushing a shopping cart around Kroger, full of wholesome things like baby carrots and chicken pot pies. I also learned how to do my own laundry. For some reason, I remember being entrusted with a “budget.” My dad wrote me a check every couple of weeks, and I spent that on food, clothing for me and my brother, and gas. Some of my friends guffawed when I mentioned parts of my life to them. It was abnormal, unfair, hard. Bitch, please.
In college, the tables began to turn. The people who had things easy started to struggle, flail. You wouldn’t believe how many “adults” I met my freshmen year who couldn’t figure out how to wash their clothes. They were so impressed when I loaned them my liquid detergent and explained the difference between warm and cold, delicate and permanent press.
One of my best friends crashed and burned her first year of college. She’d been the type to inspire extreme jealousy in me a year earlier. Two smart, employed, stable parents. They threw her this big 18th birthday party our senior year. Invited all her friends. Gave her a toast, a trophy (I think), and a savings account pre-loaded with thousands of dollars.
My friend had the kind of parents who proofread her college application essays. Hired a test prep tutor. Paid for her to take the SAT four times. Traveled with her on campus tours and asked questions about the meal plan. She was smart, sure, but also extremely privileged.
It still beats the fuck out of me how we wound up roommates. Somehow, we got along despite my hidden jealousy of her encouraging, loving family.
Some help those were, though. My best friend suddenly started coming up with excuses for bad grades halfway through our first year. As it turned out, she couldn’t discipline herself.
While I sequestered myself in study rooms, she talked to her boyfriend and toyed with the idea of joining a sorority.
While I waited tables, she called home to ask for money.
While she slept in, I went to class.
We both partied on the weekends. Except I partied after my shift. She just partied.
One night, my roommate told me she was going to a study session for Advanced Economics. A few minutes later, the sky opened up with thunder and rain. She threw open the door and crashed back on her bed, laughing. “Well, I guess this is fate.”
I reached down for my umbrella. “You can borrow it if you want.”
Yeah, at age 18 I had a motherfucking umbrella. Go figure. It was big one, too. The kind you don’t forget to take with you when you leave. My roommate declined. “I’m pretty sure I’ll be okay on the exams,” she said. Alas, she failed. The poor girl lost her scholarships and had to take some time off from school. I kept up with her off and on for the rest of college. It was amazing how much she struggled with basic responsibilities.
Eventually, she had to get a job waiting tables at Chili’s. After five weeks, they let her go for showing up late. “It wasn’t my fault,” she confided in me over the phone. “My khakis got wet, and I had to dry them. So I was late!”
I frowned. “They fired you for being late once? That seems harsh.”
She stuttered. “Well, I mean…that was the last time I was late. But it was a valid excuse, right? They have this strict uniform thing…”
When I asked why she only had one pair of work pants, she stuttered. I tried to offer random, meaningless phrases but then finally broke down and asked why, if nothing else, she hadn’t just pulled on some jeans and then explained to her manager the whole pants situation. But my friend wasn’t calling me for life advice. She just wanted to complain about how unfair everything was. So I listened for a while and then hung up.
Around that time, another friend caught me on AOL Instant Messenger. (Yeah, that sentence makes me feel old.) She told me about her recent mental breakdown. When I offered a sympathetic ear, she blamed everything on her roommates. “It was my first time sharing an apartment, and they were really mean!” How mean? So mean they would use her towels and have people over without asking permission.
At first I thought my friend was joking about her “mental breakdown.” But she wasn’t. Her parents had actually picked her up and paid off the rest of her rent, so she could move back home.
I remember thinking, “Wow, I guess some people really do have it worse than me.”
Nowadays, I’m pretty sure this is what I meant: Wow, some people can’t even handle a nasty roommate. You see, I felt lucky that I was able to handle more. That’s a good thing.
Some people really do get fucked in life. Yesterday, a man tapped on my car window and asked for a dollar. I gave him three, and still felt like a bit of a cheapskate. Windchill in single digits, this man had his entire life’s possessions sitting on the back of an old bicycle. If anyone has a legitimate gripe with life, it’s him. But even this guy hasn’t given up. He’s doing the best he can.
A year ago, a woman stopped me downtown and asked for twenty dollars. Sobbing, she explained some problem with her food stamps. A malnourished baby. We walked to an ATM, and I withdrew $20. I didn’t care if she was lying. Anyone who needs twenty bucks that badly, for whatever reason, I can’t turn them away.
Most of us will never reach that depth of despair. We might feel like we have. Some people might even fantasize about it. Every year since turning 16, I’ve come across an unfair situation. Something that wasn’t my fault. My college cut my stipend. They canceled my summer class. The IRS asked for more in taxes. Someone I counted on let me down. Someone else cheated me out of something. Whatever happened, somehow I found a way to keep going. If I had to work a part-time job in grad school on top of teaching, I did it. Sacrificed sleep. Comfort. Relationships. But here I am, still going. You can always handle a little more than you think.