Triptychs – Chapter 18
The thing about being down – really, deeply, blackly down – the thing is, time helps.
I’m always surprised, when it happens; yeah, and grateful . . . somehow, I just always forget how it works, how one night helps, and then the second night helps even more.
Not that everything gets all better; fuck, no. But over a day or so, the edge comes off, and I can function. On some level, anyway.
And so, that’s why I was at school, that next Monday; heading into my Learning-Community-study-hall-homeroom.
Hoping, really hoping, that nobody asked too many questions about my date with Erik; because I knew I wouldn’t be able to pull off the answers. Not with the right tone.
In the end, I was lucky. Somebody else was in more trouble than me.
“ . . . exactly why you SHOULDN’T drop out,” Daniel was saying, as I walked in; his voice serious, in a way I’d never heard before. “Yeah, things are tough; but you’re not going to make it, picking up day labor jobs. You have to do something different.”
“You can get help,” from Kat, more gently. “There’s financial aid, available; more than you realize.”
I blinked, as I got to my usual chair, next to Daniel –
Jose was back. At last.
“Aid,” he went; with an ironic tilt to his head. “Aid enough to pay my rent, to feed my daughter, while my wife works two jobs?” He shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
He looked different. Always before, he’d been in jeans and t-shirts, usually pretty worn, classic contractors’ clothes; now he was in a clean, long-sleeve dress shirt, and slacks, and I could see the long-ago, young university student.
“Start with unemployment,” went Kat, in her gentle, persistent voice. “You’re eligible to collect unemployment, aren’t you - ?”
I dropped into the chair next to Daniel, and I looked over towards Noah, like always –
But he wasn’t there. The chair next to his friend Ron, the Not-Erik-Guy, was empty.
That was weird. He’d never missed a Learning Group meeting, before. Or a day at the bookstore, for that matter; I figured it was the Catholic-upbringing thing.
“ . . . benefits have already
been extended once, and they’re almost certain to get extended again,” Kat was
saying, reasonably. “Probably to a full year. That would cover at least three
quarters, maybe four; and who knows what the construction industry will look
like, after a year? You might have your pick of jobs, before then.”
“Unemployment benefits aren’t a salary,” Jose said, bleakly.
“No, but it’s a start,” from Kat. “The next step is to go to the Financial Aid Office, and see what other grants or loans are available. You’d be amazed how much help is out there, and you’ve be amazed at how much of it goes unclaimed, because people don’t know about it! You just need to ask, and you need to be persistent; but it’s there, and you can get it.”
“Laid off,” Daniel whispered to me.
“No shit,” I whispered back.
“She’s right,” went Michelle, in her shy, shy voice; which just showed how important the whole issue was to her, she didn’t speak up all that often. “She’s right; and she’s helped me, a lot. Kat helped me get a Pell grant, when I was about to drop out, too.” She turned her shy brown eyes on Kat, and her face was so full of love, I almost had to look away.
Jose was scowling, now, looking down, shaking his head, a little. “But how can I accept aid, for myself and my family, without working - ?”
“How long have you been working?” from Daniel. “I mean, here, in the U.S.?” His voice still serious, almost impatient.
“Since – I don’t know. Almost fifteen years.”
“And have you ever collected unemployment before? Or food stamps, or Worker’s Comp, or anything?”
“No. Not me; not anybody in my family.” Jose’s expression said, his family was better than that.
“Then you’ve already paid for any financial aid you might get. You’ve been paying taxes all this time; that’s what they’re for. It’s unemployment INSURANCE; you’ve been paying for it, all these years, now is when you collect.”
I almost opened my mouth, to say something to support him; then I had a thought, and I looked back over to where Noah should be, pure reflex, like I would have done if he were there –
And Ron, the Not-Erik-Guy . . . he actually caught my eye. He kind of blinked at me, for a split second; then he looked away, fast.
That was weird, too. I’d only ever talked to Ron once, with Noah, in front of the bookstore; and in our Learning Group, he’d always been totally oblivious to me, the classic, happy jock . . .
An exhalation of breath, from Jose, and he looked down, quiet, for a second. Then, he was looking back up at us, at Daniel, and Kat and Michelle, and at me, in turn. “My whole family, my parents and grandparents, first in El Salvador and then here . . . we have always worked. We have always supported ourselves by the work we do, and we never lived off of the labors of others. Never. We did not own other people’s land, we did not collect rents . . . we worked for whatever we had.”
Silence, for a second; a sympathetic silence. Then, from Kat; “What did your family do, in El Salvador - ?”
A kind of half-shrug from Jose; then a faintly amused look. “My mother and father both taught at the University. But my mother’s family . . . they had made beer.”
“Beer?” from Daniel, blinking.
“Just a small brewery. But it had a good reputation in San Salvador.”
“Damn,” from Daniel, after a short pause; softly, and maybe a little reverently. “Damn, you’ve got me beat; my family’s just into real estate and banking.”
Silence again, for just a second; then I couldn’t help it, I started to crack up, and that set off Kat, and then Annie –
“Hey, I mean it!” went Daniel, even as he started laughing, too. “I really do! Making beer – that’s a positive contribution to humanity. That’s a real contribution! A lot more than banking is, anyway.”
“And, perhaps, teaching?” from Jose; ironically, but smiling openly himself, now.
That stopped us, for a beat; Jose wanted to go into education, he’d said so, before, and we all knew it.
“No, no, that’s all right, don’t answer; sometimes I wonder, myself,” Jose went on. He shrugged; and then he looked down, again. “But . . . still, my parents, my grandparents – whatever they did, however they lived, they didn’t accept government aid . . . ”
“Jose,” I broke in. “Dude – you’re assuming you’re going to get some kind of aid without working for it, like some kind of gift, or something; and believe me, it doesn’t necessarily work like that.”
“No. I’m in work-study right now, and so is Noah – ” Another quick glance over at his empty chair; I really, REALLY hoped he wouldn’t mind me talking about him, his financial aid, like this – “and believe me, I’m glad to have it, I wouldn’t be here without it . . . but it’s work-study. It’s WORK, and we both work hard, and the pay’s low. The University’s lucky to have us.” I took a breath. “If you want to work for your tuition, I think you can probably find a way to do it. And if you’re worrying about it being charity, about it being aid, well, I’m not all that sure who’s aiding who . . . ”
“I have an idea,” went Kat; looking at me, pointedly, then at Daniel, then over at Jose.
“Uh . . . okay - ?” I said, glancing sideways at Daniel.
“Let’s go over to the Financial Aid office, and make an appointment for Jose.”
“Now?” from Daniel; a little blankly.
“Mmm-hmm,” she went, nodding. “We’ll make the appointment, and pick up some information on the types of financial aid that are available – it’ll be interesting. Maybe we can find something that’ll help all you guys – do you want to come, Michelle?” A meaningful flash of her brown eyes in my direction, as she said it. “We might find something that could help.”
“I’ll go!” I went, cheerfully. Picking up the cue. “Maybe there’s a new grant or scholarship or something I don’t know about, yet.” Who knows, I thought, it might even be true.
“I’ll be glad to go,” from Daniel, a little awkwardly. As far as I knew, he didn’t use financial aid.
“I’ll go,” went Michelle, quietly, her head tilted, not-quite-looking at us. Shyly; but I figured she knew what was going on, too.
“Jose?” from Kat; gently.
A long pause, from him; a long pause, and his face was unhappy. But in the end, he shrugged. “Okay. Sure.” A shift of his shoulders. “I would be very grateful.”
“It’s not about gratitude, Jose,” I said. “It’s about what you’ve paid in.” I groped for the words. “And it’s about what we do for our families.”
Which got me a very eloquent eyebrow-twitch, as our chairs scraped on the linoleum, as we all started standing up.
* * *
I wasn’t surprised to find Noah at work; it was one thing to miss a Learning Community session, it was something else to miss a paying workday.
We were back doing Receiving, back cutting open cartons on the open loading dock; it was, Corbin’d told us, the last big shipment of the quarter, and real soon now we’d be doing buy-backs, organizing and boxing up a lot of the books we’d spent weeks un-crating and selling. He seemed to like the idea; but then, he wasn’t the one covered in cardboard-grit and plastic scraps . . .
We were back doing Receiving, and it was amazing how much better at it we were, than when we started; how much faster we were, how much easier it was. It’d even bought my Very Own Box Cutter, to use instead of the crappy ones they had at the bookstore; and I was so proud of it, I’d stuck my name on it, in those raised plastic stick-on labels that you can make for yourself. ‘T MCCARTHY’, it read, white raised letters against bright, bold blue. Hey, a working boy’s got to be proud of his tools, right?
And of course, I was telling Noah about Jose, and the group of us going over to the Financial Aid office.
“ . . . so there were five of us, all in a group, coming through the door; and you should have seen their faces, they must have thought we were coming to do a sit-in, or something.” I couldn’t help laughing at the memory; Kat looking determined, Jose looking adult and grim, and the financial aid workers with their mouths a little open, as the door closed behind us.
“Sorry I wasn’t there,” from Noah; his head down, eyes behind the bill of his cap, as he sliced away at some shrinkwrap.
“Yeah, it was pretty hilarious.” I smiled, at the memory.
“Do you think he’ll do it?” from Noah, and I felt him look up at me, for a second. “Apply for financial aid, I mean; instead of dropping out.”
“I don’t know,” I went, slowly. Looking out the loading dock doors; towards the west, a huge bank of blue-white fog was piling up over the coastside hills, beautiful and ominous. “I don’t know; he was really freaked out at getting laid off . . . he was all set to start trying to pick up day labor jobs. You know, standing around in parking lots, on street corners, with other guys, waiting for people to hire you for cash, under the table – ”
“Yeah,” from Noah. Soberly. “We’ve got those, in Tracy.”
“I think you have to be pretty desperate, to consider doing that.” I shrugged.
Silence, for a second.
“I hope he stays,” went Noah; softly. Reaching for another book-brick.
“Me, too.” I thought about the places where day-laborers gathered, hoping for someone to come by with some work, any kind of work . . . and how they were so much like the shape-ups the dockworkers had to go through, before the ILWU. My great-grandfather Patrick had to do that, line up with the other dockworkers and hope he got picked for the day’s work, hope he got enough pay to buy the next day’s food . . . Yeah, I’ve got family history with the whole, evil process . . .
Silence, then, for a stretch. The same, familiar rhythm; take the shrinkwrapped book-bricks out of the carton; find the best places to cut through the plastic without cutting up the books; free up the books, stack them on the dolly, check them off the packing list, return to Step One.
Outside, the light got more golden, the hill of fog across the Bay got darker and more blue; it was getting darker earlier these days, winter was coming. But it was still warm enough to sweat from the exercise, and for me to wish, for the hundredth time, that I’d gotten a work-study job in a nice, air-conditioned campus office, somewhere.
“So,” from Noah, out of nowhere. A little flatly, maybe. “How was your date?”
I was startled, and I couldn’t help looking over at him. His head was down, way down as he cut away at his book-brick, and I couldn’t see anything of his face.
I looked back out the loading dock door, and I sighed.
“It was okay,” I went; and then I surprised myself, by beginning to smile, just slightly, out of the corner of my mouth. “Well . . . the first two hours were okay, anyway. Which is how long the whole date lasted. A little less than that, actually.” I looked back down at my book-brick, shaking my head, beginning to laugh at myself, a little. “It went downhill after that, though.”
I felt him look up at me, without saying anything.
“We had a good time, for a couple of hours . . . a REALLY good time. Horizontally, if you know what I mean.” I thought about filling in some of the details . . . but, no, no; he wasn’t Cole, he’d probably freak. “And then, he had to go study, so I left. But I stayed in the neighborhood, to have something to eat . . . and so I got to see him walking to the Muni stop with his real boyfriend. Like, his permanent, full-time boyfriend.” I cut carefully at the shrinkwrap, grinning openly, now; feeling the absurdity of the whole situation just, kicking in. “I have to admit, they make a cute couple.”
Silence, for a couple of beats, from Noah; then – “You’re sure? That they’re a couple? A, a, REAL couple, I mean - ?” He asked it softly.
“Yeah.” I looked over at him, meeting his blue eyes, for just a flash, and I gave him a lopsided smile. “Yeah. They used a lot of tongue, when they kissed.” I shrugged, and looked back down again. “And there’s more, a lot more . . . Yeah. They’re a couple. More of a real couple than him and me ever were, anyway.”
More silence, for a second.
It’d expected it to hurt more than this, talking about it.
It had hurt when Cole had called me Sunday morning, all excited to hear the dirt, and I had to tell him, using as few words as possible . . .
He hadn’t said much, then. But he’d made sure we all hung out together most of the day, him, Jeremy and me . . .
And then he’d come home with me, that night, to study at my house; saying ‘Hi’ to my mom on the way to my room, like he’d done a thousand times before in our lives, more than a thousand times . . .
And when it was time for bed, he didn’t leave, he didn’t say anything, he didn’t say a word, he just stripped off and climbed into bed with me.
And he held me in his arms.
In bed, both of us naked . . . and it was so totally non-sexual, it was comfort, it was LOVE, and his arms around me and his body against mine made all the difference in the universe . . . and fuck-me, I slept. I actually slept.
“I’m sorry,” went Noah; and I blinked a couple of times, surfacing out of the memory. “I’m really sorry . . . ”
“Yeah . . . well, you want to hear something pathetic - ?”
“What?” He said it cautiously.
“I didn’t exactly have a fun weekend . . . yesterday was a little rocky, actually. So when Jose showed up with his problem today, I was actually grateful to him; because it meant I didn’t have to keep thinking about myself, about me and Erik. I could think about somebody ELSE’s problems; and I was grateful for that.” I looked down at the shrinkwrapped books, shaking my head a little; not smiling. Groping for the words. “Him, laid off, maybe dropping out, maybe doing crappy manual labor just to survive – and I was grateful to him, because my little heart got semi-broken. Bruised, maybe, and he took my mind off it.” I kept my head down. “Is that, like, fucked-up, or what?”
Silence again. A long silence; and I was thinking, Fuck, fuck, poor Jose. What could we do for him - ? Feeling, for him –
And that’s when the world changed, underneath me. Again.
Noah twisted where he sat, to put his books onto the flat dolly; and when he finished that move, he stayed there for a second, all awkward, and then he leaned close to me, and put his hand on my shoulder, and he squeezed it.
“This Erik guy’s an idiot,” he said, softly. Looking down, way down; his hand warm on my shoulder, one second, two seconds, three –
And when he let go and settled back down, his face was flushing bright red under his baseball cap, and he was breathing faster, and trying not to show it, and then his face was back to being almost-invisible, hidden behind the bill of his cap –
Which was just as well; I was sitting there, gaping at him like an idiot, my mouth open . . .
Fuck me, I thought. Fuck me hard.
Noah liked me; the realization came flooding in, I could almost feel the shock of it. He LIKED me; as in, he was interested. In me.
He liked me.
And here, I’d been telling him all about Erik since – Day One? The first day I’d met him - ? And, I’d told him some about my dating habits, and I’d told him way too much, without really meaning to, about Cole, and Jeremy, but especially about Cole –
And still, Noah liked me.
Fuck me, I thought.
Now what - ?