My brother-in-law is in trouble. That’s how he puts it over the phone. It is September, 2022 and I am leaving my classroom at a university in Boulder; one of the three universities I’m teaching writing classes this fall. I see the flatirons and a clear blue sky. I see students wearing Lululemon and sipping green juice, frat bros with backwards caps. There is a man tanning his bare chest in the perfectly cut grass. I might’ve dreamt of coming to a campus like this when I was eighteen had my dad not warned me against all the debt “a little blanca” like me would’ve accrued without my parents to pay the way. Funny how now it all strikes me as too relaxed. I dodge a frisbee, and focus in on my call with Luis.
“What kind of trouble?” I ask knowing the varieties of trouble are infinite.
“Money trouble,” he says. Which is both relieving (thank god it’s not law trouble) and soul-crushingly exhausting. It is always, in some form or another, money trouble. “I need $4,000. A-SAP,” he says. “That Craigslist guy wants a refund for the Audi. He said it broke down.”
This 2001 Audi had been causing headaches for months. It’s a car that Luis bought my mom a couple years back as a thank you for all she does for him and my nephew. The car was originally taken into the shop for a faulty carbonator last November, but the diagnostics kept rolling in until it’d been in the shop so long that my sister had since bought a new car, my mom was now driving my sister’s old car, and there was no longer need for the Audi. Hence, Luis selling it on Craigslist for $4,000 (equal to the amount he’d spent on repairs). The sale was especially relieving because that $4,000 was all money he’d had to borrow.
“The guy is pissed,” Luis tells me. “He called screaming and swearing and threatening to make me sorry.” Luis agreed to a return and refund. Which would’ve been fine, no sweat, except, having settled all his debts, Luis no longer had the cash.
I am walking to my own car for the entirety of the phone call. My off-brand Fitbit clocks it in at 1,139 steps. I accidentally step on an empty laptop case—the bottom half, hard plastic—already cracked. A friend of mine who went to this university said at the end of the school year girls would shatter their MacBooks the way rockstars shatter guitars. Sounded fictional when I first heard it. Now I’m not at all surprised. On this campus, I feel myself inside a world where the $4,000 that Luis needs is no big deal. Where it’s a two-week summer vacation to Europe. A shopping spree. A year’s worth of Mad-Greens. Admittedly, I’d hoped my employment here might put me in the same league, but I make $4,600 per class (the lowest of all three schools in fact). Right now, I have $4,790 to my name.
“I’m so stressed, Shell,” Luis tells me now. “The guy is being an asshole. He threatened to sue me. I told him I’ll give him the money back, but I don’t have it right now.” There is a pause, and then a crumpled voice returns, “I feel like a failure.” This makes me tear up instantly. Luis is my nephew’s father, my sister’s ex-husband, so technically my “ex” brother-in-law, but a man I deeply see as family. Originally from Mexico, he’s been on a green card since 2015, 19 years after leaving his whole life behind for the same American Dream so many others have pursued. Getting the green card took a lot of hard unglamorous work, a lot of saving for a lawyer, and was probably made possible by the birth of my nephew in 2008 and subsequent marriage to my sister in 2011. But even now with above-table work his career options are limited. His education stopped early. He is a laborer. He earns a laborer’s salary. Yes, he now works with a social security number. Yes, he has been granted the right to drive in this country and pay American taxes and dish out $500 a month for health insurance. Yes, the ceaseless threat of deportation is gone. But life for a Mexican immigrant earning $50k a year working construction in one of America’s most expensive cities is still incredibly hard on both his body and survival. He doesn’t need another car issue. He needs a break in the weather.
“I know you’re stressed,” I say to Luis as gently as I can on the phone. “We’ll figure it out.” And offer the only solution we have—I’ll let him borrow the money. He is relieved when I say I’ll bring the cash by tomorrow after work.
When I drive away from the school and merge onto the highway, I think of a conversation I had with my therapist a few weeks back. “Being in Boulder feels like a mind fuck. Like inoculation from poverty on a whole city level. There’s a ‘no person is illegal’ sign in everyone’s front yard, but there are no immigrants in the whole town. Then I get on the 36 and the rest of the world returns. The rest of my life returns.”
“What does that make you feel?” my therapist said. Her face was the size of my computer screen. My therapist is younger than me (I’m 31), seems to have been raised upper-middle class, and is going through a breakup. Whenever I ask how she’s feeling, she tells me that she misses their dog most. It’s a statement that would make my Chicano father double down on therapy being a white people scam. Must be my white side that is convinced it’ll help me. Even if I too roll my eyes at the dog comment.
“It makes me feel discouraged,” I told her. “That some people don’t have to deal with the world’s rough edges, so they just, like, don’t.”
“We may think other people don’t have problems,” she said. “Or we may think their problems are easier than ours. The truth is everyone struggles, and, when we really sit with it, we usually wouldn’t trade someone else’s problems for our own.” My therapist is a fan of shifting our perspectives, but all I’ve been doing since that conversation is think about which problems I, or my family, would trade with people. Like Luis would probably take an Almond Mom, for example, over generational poverty.
“We’re family,” I say aloud to myself. It’s practice for what I’ll tell my therapist when she questions this decision to give Luis what will essentially be the entirety of my savings account.
“You don’t have to help,” she’ll say. I already know this because she always says this. “What part of you takes on this feeling of responsibility?” She’ll ask.
The part that doesn’t want them to feel so alone in it? I will tell her. The part that knows they actually need some help? The part of me that wants my family to feel like the world isn’t just a terrible place? I feel self-satisfied with these answers.
When I get home to our apartment, I tell my girlfriend, Daisy about my day. “It was rough again,” I say, referring to my classes. Not every single moment, but the majority.
This is my first semester teaching that I don’t feel I have anything to offer my students. Well, I feel like I have much to offer my online students, but it is because they appreciate my flexibility and point-generosity—they need it. I work full time at Costco, a student from one of my online classes writes on the discussion board. My example of critical thinking in real life was this time when I lost my job and had to find a way to file for unemployment without a computer. I’ve never heard of a literary analysis. I have no clue how to do it. I can teach them how to write a paper. I can help their confidence with my comments and feedback and gold stars. But the Boulder students have come from a different world. When I assign them work, they submit it correctly. They know how to conduct research on the database, they tell me. They’ve written about a billion research papers, annotated bibliographies, you name it. They’ll even complete the readings if they’re short enough. And especially if there’s a quiz on the other side. But the general feeling my students seem to share is that Boulder’s required composition classes—and by default me, myself—are useless to them. So, instead I give them assignments that I hope will move beyond pure intellect into their feeling selves. “Today I wrote on the chalkboard: What is something you are going through?” I tell Daisy. “And I made the students write their answers on notecards.”
When I had my orientation back in August, the professor in charge told us new hires that we were “not allowed to have the students write about trauma.” She said this to correct me, after I had introduced an ice-breaker assignment that I was planning on giving where I was going to ask the students to share what they were going through.
“There’s no way you can give them an honest grade when they’re writing about their dad dying,” the woman said. We were five in total in the room. Four of us made concerned eye contact. “And,” she said, as though I’d just tried to pull the wool over her eyes. “No assigning traumatic readings either.”
But life is the trauma, I wanted to tell her. For some of us, life is the trauma.
I read a few notecards aloud to Daisy. What are you going through? Nothing really, someone wrote, which I don’t actually believe, but there’s not enough classroom comradery for him to share. Another said, just school and homework. The most vulnerable wrote: Rushing a sorority. It’s so hard. It’s the first time in my life I’ve not felt like the most beautiful girl in the room. I tell Daisy that, at first, I felt taken aback by this answer, but I can appreciate this girl’s pain.
Last week, I visited my nephew, and sick of losing his attention to Snapchat, I went in with a question I thought might spark a robust conversation. “Are you depressed?”
“No,” he said.
“Do you know what depressed means?”
“Yeah. When you feel down and struggle to get through the days,” he said.
“And you don’t feel that way.”
“No,” he said, and against himself—the hard, aloof teen he wants to be—he smiled. “You’re nosy,” he said. “That’s a very personal question.”
I smiled too. All I want is to love him and know him in a way that he wants to be loved. God only knows what that is. “When I was your age,” I told him, “nothing would’ve touched me more than grandma asking about my mental health and then offering to hear me read my poetry about ex-bff Tiffani dumping me because I wasn’t goth enough.”
“Tiffani?” Carlos asked. “That lady that works at King Soopers?”
“Yes,” I said, shocked to hear him refer to Tiff as a lady and not a girl. “We have all aged.” I reached up and touched my face. Hyper aware of the ways it’s changing. I believe this is a response to my feeling of financial security being wrapped up in the way I look. On a cultural level, yes. But also, on a body-memory level because I have a history with sex work (stripping and, later, sugar babying) which had been the most fruitful work of my life. Even better than the three University jobs I am juggling now—combined. It was my body that got me out of student loan debt. My body that bought my car. My body gave me enough savings to go to grad school, get a Master’s Degree, and consequently a “good job.” It is not a hyperbole to say that my body has changed my life.
“This was the first semester I told my students my age and no one looked surprised,” I tell Daisy now. “Instead they invited me to Parents Weekend, which included a bar crawl.”
Daisy rubs my shoulder, and in an attempt to soothe me, reads a funny notecard, “I’ve been having major gastro issues. If I randomly run out of class, just know that’s why. But I’ll be back. Smiley face.”
It helps a little.
“Oh, and Luis needs $4,000,” I tell Daisy. It is not at all an afterthought, I’m just being chronological.
“To borrow or to have?” Daisy asks, but we both know these things are not clear. That borrowing is an indefinite term. I can only shrug.
“Let’s split it,” Daisy says. “That way, if Luis can’t pay the money back, it’s not such a big hit for you.”
I refute a little. Daisy and I have only been together one and a half years. It seems like such a grand ask. Saying yes would mean me accepting their intertwining themselves with my family in a big scary financial way. And so I state it again that this is not the first time my family has needed money. It is never the last.
“The way I see it is that we’re a team,” Daisy tells me. “We’re together in things.”
I love Daisy very deeply. I tell them as much. I am moved by the comradery of this gesture. We are in it together. It is one of the ways I understand family to be. (I make a note to tell my therapist this too.)
The next day, I arrive to my family’s place with an envelope of cash for Luis. At his request, I hide it in a lampshade in his bedroom before joining my nephew at the dining room table. I am happy to see him, but all this money strife has me pensive. I’ve spent the day marinating on the fact that even if all three of my university’s enrollment plummeted, I could not prosperously return to the world of sex work, having aged out already. There are other jobs I tell myself. Truck driver, like my dad. Wal-Mart, where my sister works. Construction worker, like Luis. Or Advanced Health Care, where my mom is beloved, and just happens to be the site of my and my sister’s earliest jobs (dietary aide $8.25/hr). Her boss has promised Carlos the position when he turns 16.
“No freaking way,” Carlos says now, as I remind him of this. He is opposed due to the job’s lack of rizz. “I’ll be the only member of our family to never work at Advanced.”
I guess it doesn’t seem like that great of a company. Especially considering my mom, who works there full time, is still poor. When I asked if she could help with any cash for the car debacle, my mom said, “I can give $250, but then I won’t be able to pay the electricity bill.” What’s that saying? God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change? But I fail, and feel I could chew my nails down to the knuckle, because my mom, who can’t find a dollar to lend towards the car issue has just walked in with bags from Chick-fil-A (a literal everyday expense) and shyly kisses me hello. She knows what I have to say. “$37 for three chicken sandwich meals? You could make this for a fraction of the price.”
“And for a fraction of the flavor,” my nephew says. Reaching into the bag. “Plus, food is the most practical thing to spend money on. We need food to live.”
My mom says thank you, with a tone, like Jesus Christ, finally someone gets it.
“What would be a better way to spend our money?” he asks, sure that he’s stumped me.
“You could try saving some,” I suggest.
Everyone shakes their head. “I’m going to work ‘til I die, Michelle,” my mom reminds me. Which I think translates to: If I’m not saving for retirement, then saving for what? Sometimes, when I get really stressed out, I can feel the blood pumping in my veins, and I am sure I’m on the verge of a stroke. My mother is sweet and understanding and kind, and yet, and still, because of her recklessness with money, I feel like I’ve been swimming upstream against her my whole life. “You should pay your bills, and then save, and then spend frivolously,” I say. “But emphasis on saving, because you’re already surrounded by disasters if you’d just look: a leaky faucet in the bathroom, a check engine light.” I motion towards her face. “Glasses being held together by tape.”
She shoos my hand away. My mother chooses to ignore what she can, and then hopes someone else will sort out the rest on Judgment Day.
“We might be broke, but we’re happy,” Carlos says, dipping a waffle fry in Chick-fil-A’s secret sauce. “And we’re happy because we enjoy ourselves in the moment. You’re broke and depressed.”
“Think of our value systems,” my therapist once told me after I complained about my family buying Air Jordans when there are overdue bills. “You may value security and financial safety,” she said, “while they may value appearance, fun, entertainment. You can’t fault them for having different values.”
Her advice was to plan for their next big financial crisis privately, so when it happened I was prepared, but I didn’t need to stress about them not caring, because well, they just don’t.
Here’s my plan: praying for infinite success with my writing. I dream of my book being picked up by a publisher and then turned into a Hulu series. I imagine a million dollars arriving in my bank account, and how I will make this one million save all of us. But in other moments, I pray that my nephew goes to college or trade school, gets a stable job with a salary that seems ridiculous and saves them. Then I feel terrible for trying to pass on this torch of responsibility that has plagued my life.
“Plus, I do help dad with money,” Carlos tells me, smugly. “I gave him $300 last year for Antonio to pay the coyote.”
I didn’t know this. Last year, a cousin of Luis’ left Mexico and paid a coyote to help him make the journey. I was amazed when he made it safely, and moved into their townhome for eight months. Which, with his rent contribution, ended up being a huge blessing for all. I’m glad he could help out, but it still makes me sad to think of my nephew lending money already.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Carlos says, good naturedly. “Money comes and money goes.”
“Well, then you should’ve skipped eating out tonight and given Luis the $30 towards the car.”
They both roll their eyes. I get it. It seems petty. Stupid. Like such a small figure couldn’t make a difference, but isn’t it the daily decisions that equate to a lifetime? Against my therapist’s advice, I’m just about to go into this when Luis walks in, grabs one of the chicken sandwiches, a box of waffle fries, his Sprite, and thanks my mom for dinner.
“I’m getting the car back tomorrow after work,” he tells me, matter of factly. “Then I’ll drop it back off at the mechanic. They told me they’d look at the Audi for free since I only picked it up a month ago. When it’s fixed, I’ll try and sell it again. Then I’ll pay you back.” He smiles and places a black cap and black apron on the table. “Plus, I just got hired part-time at P.F. Chang’s, so I can make a little extra cash.”
“See. Money comes and goes,” my nephew whispers to me.
I frown at Carlos. This kid has never even had a job. He has no idea what it’s like to work full time, and then tack on more work. My internal voice sounds faintly like a Boomer, but can I be blamed? Carlos doesn’t even have the wherewithal to know it yet, but he will be my teammate in the next stage of life. One day we’ll be the caretakers of our ailing parents and our ailing selves. One day, we’ll need to be the breadwinners.
My therapist would be displeased to hear that, yet again, I am dreaming of other people’s problems. The ones whose parents have enough money to rent their own place, repair their own cars, support themselves comfortably. Eat Chick-fil-A and keep the light bill on. I imagine her saying, “Well maybe some of those parents aren’t loving or kind. Think of those celebrity kids who say they would’ve given up all the money for a present dad.” I imagine Madonna as a mother. I imagine myself as Lourdes Leon. One brand ambassador deal would transform our whole lives.
Luis interrupts my small break from reality. “You like P.F. Chang’s?” he asks. I do. “You and Daisy can come have dinner for free.” Then he is boisterous and jolly when he says, “I’ll cook it!”
The next day in class, we read Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s New Yorker essay, “Waking Up From The American Dream.” She writes about being the daughter of immigrant parents, and the emotional equation of what they’ve given her by bringing her to the States, what they’ve lost in that, and what she feels she owes them of her own life to make up for it. It is not that I expect my classroom to precisely relate to it, but I want them to understand what life might look like for someone with immigrant parents. How they might be less judgmental, less prejudiced, and more curious, kind. As an instructor, I understand that when I look out across a classroom, I am potentially looking at policy-makers, doctors, lawyers, cashiers, etc., whatever they end up doing, they’ll interact with people with different backgrounds. I want them to learn empathy.
“Why do you always assign us such sad readings?” a senior wearing a Billie Eilish t-shirt asks me. This is one of my favorite students. He always raises his hand when the room is dead. And he’s kind. He says hello and goodbye each class period. But I make a mental note to tell my therapist about his question, as an example of what I find unsettling in Boulder. It’s fine to not relate; the issue is in the reluctance of seeing the rest of the world in the daylight. I am professional when I tell him that we have pinpointed the thesis of this piece, we have talked about the power of narrative works, we’ve addressed the purpose of each anecdote Cornejo Villavicencio includes, we even laugh at the last paragraph. This piece is sad, sure, but it’s also full of humor. It’s engaging. It’s smart. It’s just such a good essay.
The truth is, I also teach this essay for selfish reasons. I feel a small kinship to Villavicencio. I am also the only one in my family who went to college, which we all hoped was going to be a golden ticket to security, but mostly it has just resulted in everyone coming to me with things like filing taxes, or filling out job applications, or just general crises. You know, administrative duties. I don’t mind helping. Really, I don’t. I suppose what I mind is the terrible interminable feeling that, in my family, help is always and will always be needed, and I’m never fully in the position to unsweatedly give the aid. This has resulted in an eagerness for my nephew to join me so we can divvy up the tasks and financial load. In the meantime, I Google Spanish-speaking lawyers and ask a friend if Luis is at risk for arrest over the car situation, because I find out after class that the suing threats have only ramped up.
“I was going to meet the guy today to give him his money back, and he told me that now he wants me to give him $5,000 for the hassle,” Luis tells me on the phone. “I told him no, just exactly what he paid and he gives me back the car. He started cussing, and threatened to call ICE on me. I said, ‘Call them, man. I got papers.’ Then he said he was going to get your mom and Carlos.”
When I ask what “get” our family means, Luis doesn’t answer, just keeps on with the debrief. He tells me that he’s not giving the guy a refund anymore. “He can’t treat me like this,” Luis says. It is true. And yet I find myself so terrified of this guy’s threats that I throw out the possibility of just doing the exchange and ignoring the racism. “I was trying to do the right thing,” Luis says. “The guy said he’ll sue me, I said that’s fine. I got papers, so let’s work this out in court.”
On the drive home, I am weepy, but when I pass the third billboard for injury lawyer and local celebrity, Geoffrey Crew, I remember that my friend’s husband works for his office. When I get him on the phone later that night, this husband tells me wonderful stories about Geoff. Says he is rich out of his mind. Drinks whiskey neats. Loves little Play Bunny women. And once, during a Zoom conference call, didn’t know he was unmuted and called the whole lot of his team, “Fucking jackasses.” Thank god for this husband though. He’s giving me free legal advice about the car situation.
“It’s shitty for everyone,” he says into the receiver. It sounds like he is eating a big salad. “But legally it’s not Luis’ problem or fault. Colorado has Buyer Beware laws.”
I am relieved to hear this. If it goes to court, it will be okay. It will likely rule in our favor. But court, fuck. What a headache.
“Where do you want to go to college?” I ask my nephew the very next day. Daisy and I are at the house again, this time to collect the money back we lent, and help Luis complete his P.F. Chang’s online orientation. After many battery/ assault threats, the Audi saga has momentarily resolved itself via Luis blocking the guy’s number. To my family it is merely abruptly anticlimactic, but I am anxiously waiting to see if we’ll be sued. Or—dare I even say it—murdered.
My whole family tells me to relax, they say to just cross that bridge if we get to it. They think I am a stick in the mud, but I am only trying to be vigilant. Plan for the next disaster secretly for yourself, I can hear my therapist saying. Fuck, maybe she’s right.
But for now, the orientation is annoying. I’m filing out Luis’ W-2, and emergency contact info (my mom), and uploading a picture for his I.D., and completing training videos about wok safety and proper cooking methods. Luis doesn’t need the P.F. Chang’s job now, but he was already hired and Christmas is just around the corner anyway. Why not pick up some shifts? Why not get some comped meals? And I shouldn’t complain. Right now, Luis is outside, fixing my car’s floppy bumper. The result of a hit-and-run from parking on the street downtown. I thought it was only cosmetic damage, but when I merged onto the highway, the wind nearly ripped the whole thing off. My solution had been a gas station mental breakdown and then Duct tape. Luis came up with a plan to reattach the bumper to the body with wire stitches. I am grateful for him. Grateful for his car knowledge. I have already counted the money he’s saving me.
And anyway, it’s not that hard to help.
I have all Luis’ information—his Alien Registration number, his social, his bank routing number—and the training videos are unnecessary for him, as he’s already worked the job, years back. “I know how to do all the cooking,” Luis tells me when I pull up the website. “But doing all this shit on the computer, that’s all very hard for me.” As I click around on a page, select a picture of a cleaning cloth to learn more, I understand that an interactive training session for someone with only a cell phone might be dysfunctional, if not altogether impossible. For some reason I want to tell my students about this. I want them to design programs that work well on Androids.
I suppose that is why I ask my nephew this question about college. So he can be the person designing job orientations to load easily on cell phones. He can get rich off the patent, and solve all our family’s problems. It is kind of hilarious that I still believe his education will be the ticket to upper class, to financial security, to a good, easy life, even when I myself prove this to be untrue. I am educated. I have a Master’s Degree. I teach at three Universities because each on their own provides an unlivable wage. But then again, I am only one—just imagine the two of us together! Me and my college educated nephew will even out the playing field in our family. When I ask Carlos the question: Where do you want to go to college? I am actually saying: You’re going to help me, right?
“Colorado State University in Fort Collins,” he says. “Or South Carolina.”
I can’t help but shake my head. Both of these options just make me think of debt. Of dorms, meal plans, and expensive tuition rates.
“Don’t jump into a university,” I tell him, and offer different suggestions. Like: Enroll the first two years at community college while he lives at home, or possibly a trade school. A gap year to figure out who he is and what he actually likes. I graduated undergrad a few months shy of 26. I learned much more in my mid-twenties than I did fresh out of high school.
“You don’t think I’m smart?” Carlos asks, a little wounded, but this is not what I mean at all. My nephew is very smart, and he’s motivated. I know he will do wonderful things.
“I do. You’re not hearing me,” I say. There is a P.F. Chang’s video playing in the background. The earliest known mention of a Wok was over 2,000 years ago. The term stir-fry is defined as cooking ingredients at high heat with minimal oil, while quickly moving those ingredients around the wok. There are things Carlos needs to know about life that he doesn’t yet—that some students have legs up. They won’t have to go into debt for school and their families have connections. We are not those people. We are in the slush pile of life. “What I’m saying is that you have to be smart about the way you go about college, so you don’t shoot yourself in the foot.”
“Like you?” he asks to be spiteful, hinting at my having sold access to my body to crawl out of student loan debt. But, yes. That’s exactly what I mean.
Luis comes back and briefly interrupts our conversation. He is dirty from car work, but he is happy to tell me my car is fixed. I am happy to tell him that the orientation is done. We’ve passed the quizzes 100%. He’s officially a line cook. “A-plus?” he says.
“A-plus-plus,” I say, and because we are suddenly sharing in the joy of his certificate, I am suddenly thinking of Villavicencio’s piece again. How she writes, “My father sobbed when I handed him my diploma, but it was not the piece of paper that would make it all better, no matter how heavy the stock.” It is stupid, I know, to be thinking of her Harvard diploma right now, as I minimize the P.F. Chang’s training course. It is stupid, even more so, to be thinking of her Harvard Diploma in the context of her whole essay. How she writes that a diploma didn’t make it all better. It didn’t get anyone rich or save them all. But I must be delusional, or insane, or maybe I’ve just heard this college-to-breadwinner-pipeline story so much that I can’t shake it, because I hear myself saying the words like it is the answer, “You know Carlos, you’re actually so smart you should consider applying to an Ivy League school. If you qualify as low enough income, you can go totally for free on scholarship.”
I can tell by the way the whole room lights up that we’ve all entered the fantasy together. One in which my nephew goes to Harvard or Yale or Brown or Cornell on scholarship, he gets the degree, and then the job that pays him six figures. He stays humbled and grounded, and takes care of his dad, of my mom, of himself. I have a folder in Google Docs—Plans for Future Disasters—that Carlos co-edits. We save money together. We are proactive. We can handle anything life throws our way. We think of the old Audi and we laugh. I think of my old therapist, and I laugh. Because we would never change our new problems—our higher tax brackets, our busy schedules, our bigger houses to heat—for our miserable, never-ending old ones.