I learn to sleep on an air mattress in the one-bedroom apartment I share with my mother. We don’t have any real furniture yet, but we do have a space to call our own. There’s no overbearing or intoxicated male presence to tell us what to do, and for the first time in my life, I’m not afraid to close my eyes at night.
Until school starts, and my new friends want to come over. Until my grade 8 science teacher wants us to model the galaxy using items we “have lying around the house.” She can’t see that I don’t have anything lying around the house. She can’t see that $5 worth of clay will take food out of my mouth.
I learn to create alternate realities. I know better than to believe that talk leads to action. I’ve been handed promise after unfulfilled promise, and I recognize that my father’s brand of achievement lives solely within an imaginary realm. I know his words were always a means of escape. He’ll never finish the house. He’ll keep punching holes in the walls he built.
I learn to hide behind a false image. I convince myself that I’m fitting in. My poverty floats in the shadows, a monster that I conceal with lies and brand names. I buy a new pair of shoes with my babysitting money. Three wasted Saturdays for one fleeting compliment. These shoes make me feel normal until I realize that the very recognition of my normalcy in this moment serves as evidence that I don’t really fit in. My friends don’t have to think this way.
I learn that every mask I wear only leaves me more exposed. If I could boldly accept my position in life, then maybe I wouldn’t feel so awkward in my own skin. It isn’t elegant to clash with unsightly surroundings. I am always falling out of place, wrapped carefully in my own vulnerability. When two delivery men come to bring us free twin mattresses, I want to be invisible. I want to jump in the closet or hide under the coffee table, but I can’t find shelter in this 500 square foot box. The mattresses are cheap and light, and I wonder if they’re made of abandoned cardboard and Styrofoam. I should be happy to leave our inflatable bed behind, but this new charity only serves as a reminder of my inferiority. We are food bank shoppers. I am starving for more.
I learn to hate accepting help. My mom can’t afford Christmas gifts this year, so the radiology department at the local hospital makes a donation. They buy me a new shirt and an MP3 player. When I learn that my friend’s mother is a radiologist at the hospital, I feel ashamed. I tell my friend that I can’t come to her sleepover. Failure meets isolation. I always blame myself.
I learn to run away from past. I shove all of my belongings into a single, pink, cow print suitcase. New country, new life, same pain. Poverty clings to me like an incessant stalker. The cycle continues, and I keep tumbling forward.
I learn to avoid the conversations that reveal my truth. I cringe when my grade 10 English teacher announces that I’m new and asks where I live. The loaded question. I try to use my ignorance to dance around reality. “I just moved here,” I say, “I don’t know my address.” I tense up as the teacher turns to her computer and prepares to strip me of my dignity. I feel naked. I am exposed. She reads my address to the class and I eat my discomfort. This is my secret. It was never hers to tell.
I learn to lie in fear of ridicule. I join the track team because my mother is working late and I don’t want to take the bus after school. I don’t even like running, but I run to hide my truth. This is part of my survival. When the season ends, the whole team chips in to buy a gift for the coach. We are supposed to bring two dollars each. I’m afraid to say that I don’t have two dollars. Who doesn’t have two dollars? So, I tell the captain I forgot to bring the money. Forgetfulness is more forgivable than being poor. “I know everybody else contributed to gift,” I say, “can you just leave my name off the card?”
I learn to part with expectation. There is no comfortable prediction of better days on which to rest my head. I don’t look forward to a real future. I’m not trying to find my way back to better days. I’m trying to claw my way out.
I learn to keep my story safe as my middle-classed college peers play their hand at the poverty game. They talk about collecting couch quarters to buy alcohol for the weekend. It’s trendy and endearing to endure a youthful struggle. It’s not charming that I started college two years late because I didn’t think I belonged here. I know exactly where I’ll be if I stop moving forward. Poverty is an all-encompassing and pervasive pattern. It sinks into the cracks of every aspect of life. It changes the way I think, structures my thought patterns inside a world with no safeguards. The bumpers retract at the bowling alley. My seatbelt unlatches on a busy street.