There are so many ways to tell a story about desperation, and I have considered them all. I keep coming back to the same dark room in an eighth-floor Chicago midrise by the lake, no furniture save an elevated air mattress, my clothes tangled and heaped on the floor, a string of small paper lanterns tacked to the wall by the former occupant. I lived in this room for nearly six months.
Every night I tried to read by the light of the paper lanterns, my eyes jumping around lines and climbing stanzas on the page. I tried to focus on Mary Oliver’s words—You do not have to be good—and turned toward the light. Another pinprick in the air mattress, another hiss of cold air. Every moment risked ripping a new hole. By the light of my phone, I located the new holes in my bed and patched them with duct-tape. My air mattress was covered in duct-tape, some pieces so old and worn that the edges had rolled, losing adhesion. I pumped in new air and turned out the light, but at 1 or 2 or 3 a.m. every night I awoke, deflated again, my heavy hipbones grazing the floor and my feet in the air. Nothing ever held. Down on my hands and knees again, I inflated the air mattress and prayed my roommate couldn’t hear the roar of the pump.
This is a story about a period of my life when I’d lost all faith in stories. I’d spent my life reading stories with a narrative arc, plot points connected on a linear line, with a climax and a tidy resolution. Even the sad stories made sense. And when I’d stared writing, I’d believed Joan Didion when she said We tell ourselves stories in order to live. I’d believed in the connective tissue of stories to make sense of the world. I’d believed in pain as an inoculation for future pain. I’d believed in stories’ ability to heal. But I was no longer so sure.
This is a story about unemployment, but I cannot tell it without the exposition, the past, the reason why I was so desperate to live in Chicago: I was running away. Picture my aunt holding steady a 9mm Smith and Wesson across Granny’s living room, closing one eye and fixing it to the sight as I came into the room, aiming her new present at me. This was seven months before I moved to Chicago.
Now picture three Kentucky State Police officers arresting my father in his double-wide at the top of a gravel driveway in Waco, Kentucky—just ten miles from Granny’s house. He’d been growing enough marijuana to sell it, and he was a retired cop. This was five months before I moved to Chicago.
Now picture me packing the only things I could fit in my car: dresses and jeans, shampoo and conditioner and makeup, my computer, memoirs and novels and poetry collections, and my mom’s twin air mattress. I was trying to make it to Chicago before nightfall. Two months before, I’d graduated with an MFA in creative writing and had spent the days afterward in my mother’s house wearing the same pajamas day after day, grease accumulating in my hair. I was 30 years old, trapped in Kentucky but terrified of going. But as I finally packed my car, I told myself I needed to just go. I told myself I’d be back soon for the rest of my books and my cats and my furniture. And I left.
Every day that first week I drove a diagonal line through the city on Milwaukee Avenue, looking for an apartment. I looked in Logan Square and Humboldt Park and Edgewater and Rogers Park, anywhere and everywhere with an apartment listing on craigslist that I told myself I could afford. Landlords looked concerned about my unemployment, but I remember telling them how employable I was and still believing it. Potential roommates showed me rooms so tiny I couldn’t fit a full-sized bed inside and still close the door. Most were dingy, musky, badly lighted. I cried in my car every day that week, unable to imagine living in those places but unable to imagine going home to Kentucky. I told myself I had nothing to go home to.
Every night that week I returned to the denim slipcovered couch I’d rented on Airbnb and fell asleep to highlights of the London Olympics on television. Near the end of the week, I was finally offered a clean, well-lighted bedroom with wood floors in an Uptown midrise. It was small, but I could fit a full-sized bed and dresser and still close the door. My future roommate was desperate for someone to sublease her second bedroom as soon as possible. I told myself I was meant to stay.
Some mornings that first month in Chicago, I woke up at 5 a.m. and traced the brushstrokes of the dark turquoise wall in my bedroom. The former occupant was in an institution now. Crazy had lived here, I told myself. He’d splashed blue on only one wall, left a strip of white paint around the ceiling and electrical outlet. He’d palmed the mahogany doors of the closet, left a notebook on the top shelf, heard voices in the room. Crazy lived here now, I told myself.
The skies shifted from blue to gray so easily, time passing like clouds moving in the sky. I made to-do lists every day, small reasons to leave my air mattress. I had a list of the best coffee shops in the city to visit: Dollop in Uptown, Intelligentsia in Lake View, Wormhole in Wicker Park, Ipsento in Bucktown, Star Lounge in West Town, New Wave in Logan Square. I drank coffee and ate grilled cheese sandwiches and told myself the money I spent was worth it.
I tried to write bits of essays in between writing cover letters for jobs and sending my resumé to temp agencies. I told myself this day, this week, this month, I’d find a job. This day, this week, this month, I’d publish an essay. This was going to be the one. Something would break. All I needed was one email. My narrative hinged on a new plot point to move it along.
Instead of stories, I read poems in coffee shops, preferring to live in the line breaks and white spaces, the words from a Dean Young poem that a friend sent me: I would have / a black bra hanging from the shower rod. / I would have you up against / the refrigerator with its magnets / for insurance and agents and oyster bars. / Miracles, ripped thumbnails, / everything a piece of something else. I lived in the fragments. In those months, I stumbled across an interview that Dean Young gave to Jubilat, where he said, I think to tie meaning too closely to understanding misses the point. I needed permission to let go of understanding.
Some days I was even happy, walking under a canopy of golden leaves to my neighborhood coffee shop in Uptown or taking a bus down to the Loop. Some days I called my father and said that if I could just know that I’d get a job eventually, I could enjoy my unemployment in Chicago. I had so much time, but I wanted to skip ahead in the narrative.
Every night I returned to my air mattress and a stack of books in the corner, some edges stained from a spilled can of Coke. I wasn’t reading them anyway. Each one of my air mattresses was a sanctuary and a prison. My first one, a twin with a blue top that my mom loaned me, survived only a few weeks before it was covered in holes, unable to hold air. It seemed beyond repair when I threw it away. I told myself this was a temporary situation, not knowing I’d have to duct-tape the holes on each new one, again and again.
One night, after darkness had blanketed the sky, I walked to meet friends at a bar. The weather had turned, and the cold night wind cut through the weave of my clothing, exposing my bare skin to the chill—but I kept going. I was becoming more desperate at night. The dark sky was a reminder that the work day was done and there were no new job postings. There was no possibility of good news for hours. But I told myself on the walk to the bar that every drink was an opportunity to network. I told myself that this was how I’d get a job.
Inside The Southern, an open air bar filled with wood floors and wood walls—like a log cabin in the middle of Wicker Park—grease and breading hung in the air like wet clothes on a line. The bar swelled with red, displaced Georgia Bulldog fans in the middle of a midwestern city. After I sat down, my friend Sarah introduced me to her former college classmates. I remember studying the spokes of the lemon slice in my bourbon, waiting for a commercial break from the football game so Sarah could introduce me. Then I asked them the same question I always asked: What do you do? I always knew my next question: Are you hiring? It was my refrain, the only thing I knew how to talk about anymore.
That night, like so many other nights, I listed my accomplishments: my MFA in creative writing, the five composition classes and one creative writing class I’d taught, my year as an AmeriCorps VISTA at a nonprofit, my seven months teaching English in a French middle school, my five-month photojournalism internship at a newspaper. I didn’t say anything about my family. I realize now that I was telling a new story I wanted to believe, that I was successful and competent and desirable, that it didn’t matter where I came from or what mistakes I’d made. But I can hear the desperation, too, the melody of desire and despair running underneath every word. I can hear the same Kim Addonizio poem I’d been reading over and over: I, I, I, isn’t it the sweetest / sound, the beautiful, arrogant ego refusing to disappear? I don’t know / what I want, only that I’m desperate for it, that I can’t stop asking. I was begging for a new chance in Chicago.
The second air mattress, a secondhand double given to me by an internet friend, was already defective when I got it, with a slow leak, a small hole no one could find to repair. As I tossed and turned every night, I ripped new holes, each no bigger than the barrel of a needle. Eventually I started listening for hissing air, becoming meticulous in my search for holes I could fix. When I finally tossed it, my second bed was crosshatched with duct-tape.
During the day, I often watched the sailboats on Lake Michigan from my living room. The boats persisted despite the choppy water, the white waves hitting the hull. But as the days continued and the weather cooled, the sailboats hibernated like everything else. Wind whipped against my eighth-floor windows, shrill like a whistle, but I continued to sit by the window and watch the empty water. I had nowhere to go.
I was sitting on my roommate’s ratty red couch, watching the waves break, when my father called. He said a friend had told him what I’d been writing on twitter: that he was an alcoholic, a pothead, and womanizer. It was true. I’d used those words, musing aloud about how my father’s narrative had affected my own. My father was so angry on the phone, his words slurring and his voice jumping decibels every second. I didn’t know what else he was going to say, but I suspected when he was done, I’d cry myself to sleep. It had happened before. But this time I wasn’t sure that I would survive, so I hung up.
I still regret this plot point in the narrative, regret the desperate words I’d written as a 30-year-old woman full of pain. I regret hurting my father. I blamed myself for my unemployment, but some days I’d allowed myself to blame my father, too. I wondered how my life might’ve been different if I hadn’t been so heartbroken when my family fell apart, if I’d ever been able to tell my father how much he’d hurt me over the years with his affairs and words, if I’d been born into a different family. I’d allowed myself to imagine an alternate narrative because I couldn’t seem to change mine, no matter what I did.
My father emailed me to say that he wasn’t an alcoholic or a pothead or a womanizer; he said someone had lied to me. You should realize that shit you post could hurt your chances of getting a job, he wrote. A potential employer looking at that would likely feel that you are vindictive, negative and blame everything else for everything.
I never responded to my father, but in a later email, he told me I was crazy and needed serious professional help. I told myself he was right, that I’d never be employed again, that there was something wrong with me. I told myself I was crazy. It was so easy to believe.
By the time I bought the third air mattress—another double, solid navy—I didn’t have $80 in my account to buy it, so I charged it, knowing that my mom would pay my credit card bill. She was already paying my rent by then, only a month or two into my sublease. I feared I was draining her bank account, faster than a slow leak but slower than a pinprick in an air mattress.
Every night I kept reading and repeating Mary Oliver’s words on my air mattress: You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. I so badly wanted to believe her, but in my head, I had trouble believing I wasn’t being punished for all of my mistakes. I was starting to think I didn’t deserve anything—not even a real mattress—until I had a job. Sometimes I thought I didn’t even deserve a job, because it would be validation of my worth. But still, I couldn’t bring myself to leave Chicago.
The city became colder, a numbness spreading through my body. One night, after a series of bus rides next to a man in a Batman costume and a man wearing a furry antlered mask for Halloween, I returned home to an empty freezing apartment. Wind sped into the kitchen like it’d been slingshotted off Lake Michigan. My roommate was visiting her family in Michigan for two weeks, but she had left the kitchen window open. I tugged it down gently, but it didn’t budge. It was off the tracks, stuck. I pushed in gently and it didn’t move, so I pushed harder, with all my weight, hoping to push it back onto the track. The glass shattered in my hands.
Despite the minor cuts on my hands, in my head I heard a voice of doubt, the same voice I always hear when something goes wrong, telling me this was major, I was stupid, I would not survive this. The voice got louder, telling me I couldn’t afford to fix this, I was hemorrhaging money. The voice rose like someone’s finger was stuck on the volume button, telling me it might cost hundreds of dollars to fix this, it might cost me more than I’d make in months if I had a job. The voice reached a crescendo, telling me I’d never have a job again, my mom would become homeless trying to help me pay my bills, my roommate already hated me because I’d stopped leaving the apartment every day, my landlord might kick me out for being so careless. On and on it went as I watched light pink blood ooze out of the minor cuts on my hands, on and on it went until I washed and bandaged my hands under the bathroom light, on and on it went until I called my mom, who sat on the phone with me, both of us alone but together. Her calm voice reassured me that I would survive this.
After a few months in Chicago, I stopped telling myself that I’d find a job this day or this week or this month—or ever. Friends of my friends never returned my emails about job opportunities. Almost all of the jobs I applied for never called. The temp agencies never returned my inquiries, not the first time I applied or the second or even the third. Only one employer seemed interested—a national nonprofit looking for a senior writer—but after three rounds of writing samples and interviews, I lost the job to someone with corporate writing experience.
I stopped reading emailed job alerts, letting them pile up like newspapers at the front door when no one is home. Their collective mass overwhelmed me. I stopped reading nearly everything, especially narratives, unable to concentrate on Citizen Vince or Songbook by the light of my bathroom window, unable to continue Mrs. Dalloway or Autobiography of a Face after underlining the first pages on crosstown buses. I quit A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Graceling, Salvage the Bones. I stopped writing and sending my work out. I couldn’t understand stories with resolutions, how one word could lead to another, how prose could explain the universe anymore. I couldn’t sustain a narrative. Instead, I lived entirely in the few poetry collections I read, in the words from an Adrienne Rich poem: I believe I am choosing something new / not to suffer uselessly yet still to feel. I told myself I could learn to learn from pain.
My fourth air mattress was a lime green twin, the only one I didn’t destroy. I only slept on it for a week or two before my roommate had a talk with me. Lying on her ratty red couch in the shadow of our living room, she told me I was hoarding too much food and I was home too much—especially in Chicago, where there was so much to do. She told me it wasn’t good for her. She told me I was experiencing a major depressive disorder. She told me she wanted me to move out after my six-month lease ended, and she’d lined up a new roommate.
Instead of believing her, this time I felt a surge of anger, the last bit of pride I had. It was a peak in my narrative. The next day, I called a clothing store where I shopped all the time, outfitting my body in smaller dresses as it shrunk. I’d lost all my appetite for the only time in my life. Over the phone, I asked the manager if they were still hiring seasonal associates. The manager offered me a job without an interview. And right after, I drove home to Kentucky, speeding past the sun setting on the spinning windmills in Indiana. I was heading toward Memphis for a good friend’s wedding, but I was stopping at my mother’s house. I was headed toward a real mattress. I told myself I was done with air mattresses and I wouldn’t destroy another one.
After I was home a week, my mother offered to buy me a cheap mattress and box spring in a Veteran’s Day sale rather than move one to Chicago. She followed me back to the city in her SUV, carrying my two cats and a dresser and what little could fit in my tiny blue bedroom. The mattress and box spring were delivered after she left. My cats hid from my roommate under the bed.
On my first night in my first real bed in Chicago, I popped a spring when I rolled to my side. I thought about a line from Mary Oliver’s poem: Tell me about despair, yours, and I’ll tell you about mine.
On the phone with my best friend, I begged her again and again to tell me the story of the Buddha. She said during one of Buddha’s trials, the demon Mara asked what right he had to live and be happy. Buddha pointed to the ground as proof. He lived, therefore he had the right to happiness. The earth is our witness, Buddha says. I wanted to believe this story.
Some nights I walked four blocks in the bitter blackness to Target on North Broadway and West Sunnyside, no longer caring if anything happened to me in the dark. I wandered around in the bright lights, watching women in puffer jackets and skinny jeans and knee-high boots. I wondered about their stories, how they could afford the mixers and bowls they bought, how they’d decorate with the pillows and curtains in their carts.
I told myself they probably didn’t have sixty thousand dollars of student loan debt. I told myself their cars didn’t have loud noises coming from the wheel well that they ignored. I told myself they lived in other neighborhoods, not Uptown, where there was a shooting outside the Starbucks. I was imagining my own narrative, the life I could’ve had if I’d made better choices or had different circumstances.
Other nights I walked to coffee shops instead, still careless with my safety, but as I wrote in my journal or chatted online with a friend who’d had a recent miscarriage, I’d catch my reflection in the window glass, like lines from a Marie Howe poem: I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep // for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless: / I am living, I remember you. I wasn’t alone in my pain, even if I couldn’t make sense of the narrative.
I wanted a different story of Chicago, but this is the one I have: six months of desperation, desire and despair that I could not overcome. On Christmas Day, fresh snow, white and lonely, floated down to the dirty ground. I spent nearly the whole day alone, the first Christmas I had ever spent without family. I could picture my family eating dinner, a ham and a vegetable medley, at Granny’s house. I told myself they were happier without me and I had no choice but to survive without them. I told myself, as Adrienne Rich writes, I choose to love this time for once / with all my intelligence.
I knew I was broke and broken like lines of a poem, and my lease was up next month. My job at the clothing store didn’t pay enough to even cover my rent. I knew I missed my mother, the one stable force in my life, even if she lived in Kentucky. I knew I was running out of reasons to stay. So I savored my only Christmas in Chicago, walking to my neighborhood coffee shop under a gray sky above, the slush of tire tracks below, and the cold wet snow on my blue, blue shoes.
Rebecca Hazelwood is an essayist living in Huntsville, Alabama, where she drives by NASA rockets every day. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Georgia College and a PhD in English/Creative Writing from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Guernica, Passages North, Anthropoid, Hobart, PANK, Still: The Journal, and December, where she was a finalist for the Curt Johnson Prose Award in Nonfiction. She has also been named an Honorable Mention for the Robert and Adele Schiff Awards and nominated for Best of the Net. She’s currently a lecturer at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. She’s working on a memoir about a destruction and restoration.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.