A college graduate is caught in a cycle of diminishing returns.

by Victor LaValle Published Winter 2009-10
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She caught herself. “I keep a storage locker for clothes. When the summer’s over, I go in and get all my winter stuff. When winter’s over, I go back and make the switch.”

She flicked at the shoulder of her white short-sleeve blouse. Four years old and fraying at the collar, but a luxury when she’d bought it. Running to teaching assignments all over town had kept her thin, which allowed her to keep wearing the same clothes. That, plus she often skipped meals.

Horvath shook his head. “I don’t make much, either, but I live a lot better than this.”

Samantha bit into a piece of broccoli. “I used to think suffering was part of the point of coming out here.”

Low pay, even less respect. The worst junior high schools in the city. She’d actually felt all that was romantic once.

“You could’ve paid off something.” Horvath popped a dumpling into his mouth.

“On my salary?”

“You could’ve picked up the phone.”

Samantha considered this. Despite her wish to defy Horvath, she couldn’t really disagree with him. She had, after all, run out on her debts. Now those debts had grown. Thirty thousand in student loans had, by now, ballooned to nearly $70,000.

She’d never felt she had enough to afford a payment, not even the minimum of $100 a month. Not even $50. Saving seemed impossible. She’d always assumed she’d get a full-time teaching job some day, a regular income from which she could start to repay. She still believed it would happen. She just hadn’t managed it yet.

To avoid the whole business, she would move into new sublets before the billing statements could catch up. And she stopped offering forwarding addresses. Maybe the debt would simply disappear if she ignored it long enough.

Sometimes she even bought lottery tickets, thinking she’d hit it rich and pay off the loan in one lump. She kept hoping something would happen, that things would break her way. She knew this wasn’t logical, but still, she hoped for it.

“So what do you want?” she said.

“Five years I’ve been after you, Ms. Cooley. And you treated me like a . . . like a stink bug. I have no doubt that if I let you go, you’re just going to disappear again.”

Samantha didn’t want any more food. She didn’t even want to look at it.

“It’s getting late, Samantha. I suggest we come to some sort of agreement.”

Samantha looked into Horvath’s strangely youthful face.

“What kind of agreement?” she said.

Horvath stood up. On reflex, Samantha slid back in her chair. “I was in here a while before you got back,” said Horvath. “I looked through every closet, every drawer.”

“I told you, none of this is mine to give,” Samantha said. “I understand,” said Horvath. “But I have an idea.”

Samantha watched as Horvath went to the countertop near the oven. He pulled out the drawer containing the silverware.

He said, “I’m really not asking for much,” and reached into the drawer.

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