I had studied English because I wanted to be a writer. I never had an expectation of becoming rich. I didn’t care about money. [...] Once I could no longer delay and the payments began, a question echoed through my head from the moment the day began, and often jolted me awake at night. I would look at the number on my paycheck and obsessively subtract my rent, the cost of a carton of eggs and a can of beans (my sustenance during the first lean year of this mess), and the price of a loan payment. The question was: What will you do when the money from the paycheck is gone?
I never arrived at an answer to this question. At my lowest points, I began fantasizing about dying, not because I was suicidal, but because death would have meant relief from having to come up with an answer. My life, I felt, had been assigned a monetary value—I knew what I was worth, and I couldn’t afford it, so all the better to cash out early. The debt was mind-controlling—how I would eat or pay my rent without defaulting was a constant refrain, and I had long since abandoned any hope for a future in which I had a meaningful line of credit or a disposable income or even simply owned something—but also mind-numbingly banal. I spent a great deal of time filling out paperwork over and over again with my personal information and waiting on hold for extended periods in order to speak to a robotic voice rejecting my request. It didn’t matter what the request was or who I was asking. It was always rejected.
And so it felt good to think about dying, in the way that it felt good to take a long nap in order to not be conscious for a while. [...] I started the conversation by asking, “Theoretically, if I were to, say, kill myself, what would happen to the debt?”
“I would have to pay it myself,” my father said, in the same tone he would use a few minutes later to order eggs. He paused and then offered me a melancholy smile, which I sensed had caused him great strain. “Listen, it’s just debt,” he said. “No one is dying from this.”
My father had suffered in the previous two years. In a matter of months, he had lost everything he had worked most of his adult life to achieve—first his career, then his home, then his dignity. He had become a sixty-year-old man who had quite reluctantly shaved his graying forty-year-old mustache in order to look younger, shuffling between failed job interviews where he was often told he had “too much experience.” He was ultimately forced out of the life he’d known, dragging with him, like some twenty-first-century Pa Joad, a U-Haul trailer crammed with family possessions, including, at the insistence of my mother, large plastic tubs of my childhood action figures.
Throughout this misery my father had reacted with what I suddenly realized was stoicism, but which I had long mistaken for indifference. This misunderstanding was due in part to my mother, whom my father mercifully hadn’t lost, and who had suffered perhaps most of all. Not that it was a competition, but if it were, I think she would have taken some small amount of satisfaction in winning it. The loss of home and finances felt at least like a worthy opponent for cancer, and yet here was my father telling me that none of this was the end of the world. I felt a flood of sympathy for him. I was ashamed of my selfishness. The lump in my throat began to feel less infectious than lachrymal. “Okay,” I said to him, and that was that. When I got home I scheduled an appointment with a doctor.