Yesterday was just…wow.
It started out fine. I woke up. I had coffee.
I had more coffee.
I listened to Kid Rock.
I played Cupcake Race with my kids. It’s basically Candy Land with tiny pieces of plastic that you have to interact with. And keep track of. And it makes me want to stab myself in the thigh to feel anything other than what I feel when I have to play it. But I played. Even though it’s one of those games that gives me freaking heart palpitations because of (a) tiny pieces (b) the fact that one kid is going to fall behind and/or lose and then have an emotional overreaction to the loss and (c) despite my best efforts I have become my mother, and get very serious about rule following and turn taking and doing everything “right.” In my defense, it’s not to control their fun. It’s to control their behaviors when they don’t like the outcome of the game.
You know how I love love love love love the sound of floral foam being cut with a knife?
I have an equally extreme reaction, in the opposite direction, to the sound of whinging.
I just. Can. Not.
So. Coffee. Kid Rock. Plastic cupcakes of doom. And then I decided it was time to get to work. I’d been wanting to hang a hungry monster hamper on the wall upstairs for the kids. Mostly just because I paid $20 for it during one of the endless parade of fundraisers that our PTO thrusts upon us on a weekly basis, and I couldn’t stand the idea of it just sitting around not being used. But, to hang the monster I needed to relocate a towel bar from its state of abject disuse in the downstairs bathroom and place it in the upstairs hallway.
This should be an easy enough task, but my tool cache has dwindled since my husband left the domicile, and what I have left is scattered about the house, between junk drawers, closets, boxes of other things, and the actual toolbox where the tools belong, which not surprisingly contains the fewest and least useful tools of all the tools that I own.
I’ve tried to change, but it is how I roll.
So, if I want, say, a tiny flathead screwdriver, I need to remember what I would last have used the tiny flathead screwdriver for. And then I must begin the search from the place where I am most likely to have last used the tiny flathead screwdriver, fanning out in a radius of about two feet at a time, like I’m looking for a kidnapped child in an unpopulated national forest, until I finally locate it.
There’s no telling how long just gathering the necessary tools for a job like re-homing a towel bar could take, you guys. Even very simple home tasks require a large commitment of time because you have to really, really want to find the tiny flathead screwdriver. Like, you have to want it the way a four-year-old wants to someday win an Olympic gold medal, which is the singular desire of his heart that keeps him going to practice four times a week for six hours a day for, like, two decades of his life.
I got the towel bar hung. I did get it done. But as I stood there looking at it, I realized that I did not want the monster hamper to be hanging where it was. I wanted the monster hamper to be hanging where the nine-hole pressboard basket holder shelf thingy was currently sitting. Which would mean moving the entire nine-hole pressboard basket holder shelf thingy. Which would mean rearranging bedrooms to make space for it.
I left the monster hamper were it was and headed to Harper’s room. She’s needed a pair of curtains hung for some time now, and part of her Christmas gift was a new curtain rod and curtains. I figured, since I already had some tools out I may as well take advantage of the fact that they were all collected in one place and that I could find them, and I put up the curtains.
In order to put up the curtains, however, I had to move the bed. And when I moved the bed I found a literal cache of books and toys and socks and banana peels between the bed and the wall.
And this is the point in my day yesterday where my life just became that fucking book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.”
I. Hate. That. Goddamn. Book.
“Do you want to rearrange your room today,” I asked Harper who, along with June, was standing there the whole time I was trying to put up the curtains “helping,” which just means holding the stuff I needed and not listening when I asked her to hand it to me and then wandering off with screws and hardware that I really needed but couldn’t seem to find because she was squirreling them away somewhere in her toy box.
Now, I fully recognize that this right here? This little moment of interaction? This is where I dug my own grave. But I’d rearranged two cupboards that morning before they came home, and gone through all of our shelf stable groceries and gotten our most-used cupboards back in order and it had felt good.
And I’m not one to start projects like that too often, because I know that, when I am actually working toward something, hyperfocus kicks in and it can be so hard to break away from it and hyperfocus feels so, so good, but it’s also exhausting. It’s like being a hamster on a wheel and just running until your heart gives out and you just, fucking…die.
I could easily have just taken Harper’s “no” and went on with my life. But I did not. Because hyperfocus had been activated with the cupboards and now I was already on the damn wheel and I was running. “Okay,” I told Harper. “But just think about it because if I put your bed on that wall then we can move all your toys and things over here -” Harper’s room is basically a three-dimensional capital letter “L” – “and it would be like having a little playroom.”
And that’s the point at which I climbed into the grave I’d dug for myself and began shoveling dirt onto my own carcass.
“Oh my God yes, let’s do that,” Harper squealed.
It was on.
I got all the furniture basically away from the corner where I planned to stash the bed and then I crawled over all of it to get the vacuum out of my room, because I do not undertake large projects like this often, but when I do I absolutely do them 100 percent. So I got that corner vacuumed, and shoved the bed into it. And then I went to where the bed had been and began to vacuum again.
And I got a rogue Hatchimal stuck in the sweeper.
It was stuck good, too. Like, thank goodness I already had the screwdriver out, because I needed to get in there and really dig. Which, it’s a good thing I did, really, because the hole that everything travels into from the floor to the belly of the beast was clogged too. But I started pulling the bottom off the vacuum and holy shit.
Since we sealed the crawl space in the basement, where the water meter used to be and no longer is because the water man was like “nope” and got the company to relocate it to the wall where all the other meters live outside, I’ve had the biannual migration of mammals and bugs become a legitimate issue in my house. The mice used to just stay in the crawlspace all winter and it was beyond rare for me to ever see one. They just never came into the house unless they wandered there by accident.
This year, however, we’re having an issue.
And my cats – who are inexplicably frighteningly good hunters even though one has no front claws and neither has been outside the house for any appreciable period of time since they were eight weeks (Bill) and two weeks (Squatch) – have been having a smorgasbord.
It’s disgusting. But as long as I never have to see a carcass I’m okay with it.
Once, I stepped in a wet pile of squish that had once been a mouse but must not have agreed with Squatchie’s tummy tum.
It was just a big, hot, wet pile of stink that looked like cherry slushy because her stomach acid really tried hard to get it through the works before it failed and she horked it up.
It was the grossest thing I’ve ever felt in my life, and I am gagging right now talking to you about it.
But, other than that little snafu, the cats do their jobs efficiently and without need for my intervention in almost all cases. The only reason I ever look forward to winter and summer are for the end of ingress/egress season. I’m always certain to have to deal with one bat from our belfry – and who the hell even knows how they get out of the attic, but one always, always does and finds its way into my bedroom – and one or two mice. By May the mammals have taken off and I’m just beating back the obnoxious numbers of paper wasps who love to live in my old-ass windows.
I just execute them with extreme prejudice and it’s done.
I actually kind of enjoy it, and I get a little bloodthirsty, truth be told. Even though I’m pretty sure they don’t have blood. Or, like, souls. Or the organic right to life that I’m happy to assign basically every other living thing on this Earth.
So, I had to spend an extra ten minutes digging the crusty carcass of a dead gray field mouse out of the vacuum, where he undoubtedly attempted to gain asylum from the cat before getting stuck and dying a horrible, Dickensian death.
But I got the vacuum put back together, and the floors vacuumed, and the furniture moved, and both of the rooms redone with only a short break in between. I even got the nine-hole basket holding shelf thingy moved into June’s room and the towel rod – the original unholy catalyst for this entire awful project – moved to where I’d wanted it in the first place.
All seemed well, and the girls were still at visitation, so I even had some time to relax. I went into the bathroom and went to lift the toilet lid, because I needed a little personal break, shut up, and what greeted me was the most heinous mess I’d seen in that bowl in probably my entire life.
Harper gets constipated. So when Harper does shit, Harper shits bricks.
Harper must have shit that morning, because the clog was mighty, and intimidating. And she must have tried to flush a couple of times before giving up, because the water was at crisis level.
And I plunged.
And I swore. I swore so, so much.
And then I plunged some more.
And then I went for the sulfuric acid.
I shed like a goddamn collie, so there is always a little acid up high on the shelf outside the upstairs bathroom for when my hair blocks the free flow of water through my drains. I’ve lived in that house for 11 years and never, ever had to use it in a toilet. But I figured that’s probably a pretty good run, and eventually all eras do come to an end, and I figured I’d just use up the five or so ounces of acid left on the shit brick currently blocking the toilet hole.
I read the directions, carefully, because of course I did. I’m a directions person. And I dumped two ounces of the caustic death liquid into the bowl and closed the lid and came back five minutes later and oh. My. Gawd.
I opened the lid to see what was going on in there, because the directions were to “preheat” it (eww) with two ounces, and give it five minutes before coming back to blast it with another few ounces and another, fifteen minute wait.
Now. Acid cooks things. It just breaks down organic material into sludge so that it can be washed away.
And after that first two ounces, I shit you not you guys, my bathroom smelled like Satan’s taint.
I am not exaggerating.
Like, if you were to take a turd, and put it in a dry pan, with no oil or anything but a handful of pool shock ,and just melt it down? That is what my entire upstairs smelled like.
I’ll give you just a minute to get your gag reflexes under control.
One big hard turd was literally rolling in the water like a log in a flume.
And it was literally smoking.
Like a witch’s cauldron filled with the contents of Pandora’s box (which I want to be the title of a porno, you guys, so bad) and then set on simmer.
But I gave it the last few ounces and came back fifteen minutes later.
Now, again. Full disclosure. I did this to myself. But the girls were home by this point and I wanted to get the acid out of the drains because I don’t like thinking about them being burned. Or breathing it in.
So I assumed (ass, you, me, I got it, no need to recite the cliché) that everything was fine because…acid. Come on. There’s a skull and crossbones on the bottle and the bag that it comes in. It clearly states that it eats through most organic material.
I thought Harper’s shit was organic material.
Silly me, though.
Because clearly, it is not. Clearly, it is freaking Pittsburgh steel forged in the literal fires of Hell.
Because when I flushed that toilet I thought the water level would have fallen back to normal. I’d heard some gurgling in the pipes while I’d been downstairs, in the kitchen, which is directly below the scene of the awful crime, which is a fact that becomes relevant momentarily. It sounded like the issue was working itself out, you guys.
I should have checked.
I didn’t check.
And that’s when the Shitmageddon began in earnest.
It just started gushing out from under the seat, just running, like a brown, putrid, furious Niagara Falls of feces and doom.
And I swear to God, in the water, I could see the image of the universe giving me two – two – full-on middle fingers and a shit-eating grin from ear to fucking ear.
I will tell you right up front that I did not have an appropriate emotional reaction, and I am not proud of what I modeled for my daughters in that moment.
Now. I’ve basically sworn off calling my parents for literally anything I can possibly, maybe, probably not, but maybe, even handle a little bit, on my own.
I don’t like to do it. I don’t want to do it. I’ve been handling my shit for a long-ass time and I’d rather gouge my own eye out with a rusty melon baller than ask for help.
But, in my head, everything that could possibly happen just exploded in one big hypothetical shit storm of an aneurysm in my brain and I was like “nope to the nope nope.”
Probably didn’t help that I’d just restarted “Breaking Bad” from season one episode one and seen the bathtub scene a few days ago.
Have I mentioned that I have it bad for Jesse Pinkman?
Because I do.
So, so bad.
Anyhow, I did call Jay and he was able to plunge it out. Because my plunger is a dry-rotted old piece of shit that I should have replaced any one of the numerous times I’ve thought to myself “I need to replace that shit stick.”
But why would I do something preventative instead of waiting until the middle of a crisis to deal with shit that needs dealt with?
That ain’t how I roll, yo.
Because I’m a moron with no executive function.
While waiting for grandpa Jay, Harper and June caught scent of the tragedy currently unfolding in the bathroom and literally grabbed the things they love most in the whole house and ran out into the yard. Probably, my emotional overreaction did not help. I’m still upset that I let them see me lose it like that. But it was cute as all shit. Like, they really thought “this is it, it’s the big one Elizabeth, we’re coming to join you,” and they revealed what they love most in their whole lives. Harper took her comforter bag full of Hatchimals and June grabbed her pink cowboy boots and ass they did haul.
I went downstairs to try and escape the smell, but to no avail.
Remember how I said the kitchen is just below the second floor bathroom?
My kitchen has a drop ceiling. That means those little white tiles. That are made out of a porous but not particularly absorbent material.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
And I’m not sure how it’s possible, but the kitchen actually smelled worse than the bathroom at this point.
I emptied out the glass recycling barrel and set it under the drip, grabbed the last beer in the fridge out of sheer desperation, and wished it was vodka, and went to the living room to cry until Jay got there.
While they were outside avoiding the flooding of the whole house with shit, that they thought was going to happen because I reacted like a small overflow was the end of the world, the girls got the mail for me.
That was really nice of them.
I opened the one piece of mail that wasn’t junk. It was from CCIS, which is the agency that oversees my childcare subsidy.
To paraphrase, the letter was to let me know that the verification of pay and child support I uploaded with the application on Compass did not make it through the ether and into my caseworker’s hands. So I was being found ineligible. And I’d have to pay back everything they’d paid the daycare so far this year.
That’s well over a thousand dollars.
Friday, just two days before yesterday, I had been the lucky winner of a fresh wage garnishment from PHEAA. On the eighth of this month, apparently, they initiated the garnishment. On the twelfth, my request for loan rehabilitation went through. They didn’t stop the garnishment.
And they won’t, they told me Friday, for at least six months. Even while I’m making rehab payments and even with the $4,000 income tax return they also snagged.
On Friday, I learned that I’d be bringing home $50.29 a week for a full 40 hours.
Friday was a shitty, shitty day, metaphorically speaking.
Sunday was literally the shittiest day, though.
My upstairs bathroom, as well as my kitchen and downstairs bathrooms, are carpeted. There is now shit in the carpet of the upstairs bathroom, and I know that the floor underneath is rotted from three or four years of kids ignoring me when I beg them not to dump water by the bucketful out of the tub. I need to figure out how to get the bathroom floors done. I’d like to get the kitchen and downstairs bathroom floors done as well. And I’d like to put a reclaimed barn wood floor down throughout the rest of the house.
I figured I’d get the student loans through rehab and into and income-drive repayment plan, get the car refinanced next year, to try and bring the interest rate down from 18 percent to something actually not obscenely impossible, and then I’d start thinking about where I could shave the budget to make a little room for flooring.
There’s lots of barn wood on the garage sale sites right now, and it is cheap as shit. All I’d need would be someone to put it in and then seal it. Labor is expensive, but it was all starting to seem like it was coming together. Like everything might actually be fine.
Or okay, at least.
But then Friday happened, and then Sunday happened, and it really, really felt like the universe was just like, “how dare you fucking think that you get to have some sort of break from bullshit?”
I feel like a deer, being hunted, running through the woods and I can’t even get a chance to catch my breath before the next arrow strikes me. And I just keep running, pierced with arrows, madness in my eyes and fire in my veins, running toward anything, toward nothing, just running and wishing they’d just hit my heart and end it already.
I watched the mid-season premier of “The Walking Dead” last night and I realized that that is my life. It’s not literal human cadavers trying to eat my brains, but my life is basically a dystopian zombie apocalyptic world and everything I do is just a stopgap measure. I’m just layering band aid over band aid over band aid, and what I really need is some damn stitches and a shot of morphine and a week in a locked ward with visitors banned from the building.
I just wish that some of these people who have so much to say about how I should just relax, and how I should do this or do that, these people with all of this “insight” into my life, could live it. For one week. Just dive right in and get your hands dirty for a week.
Seven days. Just, “Man Vs. Wild” style. I’ll drop you off in my living room with a $20 bill and a bottle of coconut rum and I’ll be back in seven days to see how you’re doing.
I need to be honest, part of the reason I’m so adamant about writing this memoir is because, at this point, I don’t see a lot of ways out of this constant state of cortisol-soaked frantic clawing to keep our heads above water other than taking the material life has given me and writing my own damn way out. I’m not writing with my ear to the cash register, because just like when I submit columns for press awards each year, I don’t actually anticipate winning. But like Joan Didion said, “you write what you have.” And what else is this constant river of shit in which I live if not my material? The only reason I’m not just on the floor weeping right now is because I’m choosing to see the challenges I face in my life as material.
There is no story without conflict. Now, take a sharp breath, in through the nose and out through the mouth, and say it one more time.
“There is no story without conflict.”
I listen to the “Hamilton” soundtrack, and I know. I know it’s just an interpretive and contrived idea of what his life was. But I think of him, on St. Croix, living low and writing his way out of it. Regardless of what you think of Alexander Hamilton politically or personally or morally or otherwise, that guy wrote his way out of poverty.
It doesn’t mean he didn’t fuck shit up throughout the rest of his life. But I mean, poverty in and of itself is this quicksand circumstance where you’re running fifteen paces ahead to collect a pail of water just so you can run back twenty and put out a fire with it before moving on to the next fire.
And of course, I know that the universe isn’t out to get me, and that my own attitude toward these things is part of the problem, self-fulfilling prophecies, and blah blah blah, but shit, son.
There’s only so much a person who’s already stressed can take. I have a breaking point. I’m that damn little Dutch boy, and all my fingers are in the dyke, and it’s still just groaning under the pressure of the overwhelm held back by it as the potential complications swell, and churn, and threaten to spill over.
Of course I have an anxiety disorder.
Jesus, who wouldn’t?
All I needed yesterday was someone to hug me and tell me “this sucks, so hard, but it’s going to be okay.” Just basic, basic comfort.
And you know who did it?
She had no idea what I was crying about. And I won’t parentify my children, so when she asked me why I was crying I just told her “grown up stuff.” But she crawled up into my lap and pushed her nose against that soft spot between my ear and my hairline, and breathed warm air onto my neck, and put her arms around me and pressed in tight, against my chest, and that was all I needed. I needed the weight of her on my lap to ground me.
And then we picked up, and we carried on.
The anxiety never really goes away. That’s what living at 100 percent of the federal poverty guidelines will do to a person. And although a lot of people who don’t struggle like to think that it’s just a matter of working hard, it actually does not matter how hard you work. Because people with shitty credit get shitty interest rates, and you have to pay late fees when there just isn’t any money to pay a bill on time, and the entire system is set up such that once you’re on the hill, you’re going to be rolling down it until gravity decides to reverse itself. No matter how hard you work, or what you cut out, when there’s nothing left to save at the end of the month, there’s just nothing left to save. That’s the end of it. Work as many hours as you want, once you’re behind you’re unlikely to catch up without some kind of a windfall.
It doesn’t mean you don’t keep trying. But it means you need to adjust your expectations and, if you want a windfall, you’d better plan on making it yourself.
Hence the dogged attempts to write.
There is always the blade of a guillotine hanging just above my head, and I am living my life with my arms tied behind my back. But I’m doing everything I can to keep the blade from falling.
I just wish a pardon would come. Someone to say “let her out. She’s had enough.”