By Danusha Goska
I have always been poor. This confuses people. I had been, before the catastrophe, working steadily since age fourteen. And while I can't do many things: mathematics, car repairs, just about anything involving money, words present more pleasure than problems for me. I have concluded, to my bemusement, that when I mention something apt from The New Yorker, my audience decides: you have the aura of the elect; you should not be poor.
But I do this for joy. I remember once, the night before an eviction, sitting up in a bare apartment and reading a recently acquired collection of essays. I remember most distinctly of that night not anxiety over where I would sleep the next, although I did not know, nor hatred of my four-hundred-pound "landlard," a basement-dwelling antique clock fetishist who attempted to gnaw out of single female tenants his emotional and pecuniary needs. I remember, most, the thrill I experienced as soon as I opened my new find and read the first line of the first essay. A writer in war-torn Poland was so sick he had to hold his kidney in place with his hands. He rejoiced after discovering a copy of Spencer's "Faerie Queene" in a smugglers' hideout where he dodged Nazis.
Most of the people who've called me "friend" have had many more dollars than I. Terry was one. He lived in a big house on the highest street in town. My Slovak mother came from a country where such altitude in address telegraphs the identity of rock-scraping highlanders so hard up for topsoil they spanked their kids if the kids forgot to poop in the garden. Terry's dad designed bombs for Uncle Sam. Terry's pet name for his mom was "The Medea of Thalidomide." Her greatest regret, he used to insist, was that she had only been prescribed that drug after his birth. He was nice to her, though: "The will," he would hiss. Their final round: could she drive him to force her to disinherit him? Terry's career involved advertising for tobacco companies. Terry's wealth did not confuse me.
In long, leisurely monologues, Terry recounted his sexual history, several times over. I cultivated a repertoire of sound effects, which I deployed in rations calculated to reward. Audible shivers evanescent as the signature of wind on silk, or punishing animal growls, or abrupt, breathy gasps indicated that he had aroused, amused, or merely wowed me, where appropriate. I could hear the triumph in his voice, and I felt full. It wasn't so much his proffered commodity, his stories, that gratified me, that drew forth my emotional currency. The stories, like Terry, were reruns and contained few surprises. It was his investment of vulnerability, his display of his wares for my perusal that set our cycle of pleasure giving and taking in motion.
One day he asked me out to dinner. I was excited. Terry would now do what courting males do: drag a carcass before me, that I may feed. I wondered what kind of carcass his resources would afford: pâté de foie gras? Truffles? At Chez Panisse? Greens? I selected special garments and paused before beaming older females who pronounced, "You look great."
Terry took me to a hole-in-the-wall burrito factory. It was the kind of place even I could treat him to. The rule was, apparently, that no money would be spent on me that I could not spend myself. "I have felt used by women like you," he said. "I don't want to be appreciated only for the cash I bring in doing work that I know is pretty filthy. If I can make it in this world, anyone can, and I don't want to support you in your dysfunction."
After that my sensory organs began to equate Terry with the rank and stringy mystery meat stuffing my unswallowable burrito. A gag pinched my throat. I wanted to hose down my taste buds with minty fresh Listerine. When we said good night, I couldn't hug him. And he gave championship hugs, the kind honed at therapy sessions and communes up and down the rocky, picturesque coast of California.
Was Terry correct? Did I value him only for his many more dollars? Did I now no longer like him because none of that, not even enough to cover dinner for two at Chez Panisse, would ever meet my perpetually empty, grasping fingers? I reminded myself of Emma Goldman's definition of marriage as prostitution. Was I as bad as trophy wives who exchange the fruits of their dyes and diets for cash?
Perhaps the problem was what acquaintances called my "reverse snobbism." "You're worse than the rich," they insisted. "You think only the poor and the suffering are worthy; only to them do you offer true intimacy. You won't let us in." I wondered if this might be true. After all, I never let myself use the word "friend" to refer to people like Terry, only "acquaintance:" harder to spell and two extra syllables. And I did feel as if behind a barrier, or on my own island; I did feel that more fortunate people did not touch me there. Was this the solitude of the superlative? Was this solitude chosen? Did I choose it?
One day, while studying in Bloomington, Indiana, after unfortunate events involving a powerful professor, events that campus officials would come to label "harassment" and "abuse," I found I could not stand or see. I had been, at the university's insistence, testifying against the professor for some months. Her gender and her ethnicity had been protecting her from the consequences of her abuse of many on campus, I was told. They needed me, a nobody with nothing to lose, to exact their justice for them. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but later tests would suggest that the stress had torn open my inner ear, allowing volatile fluids to crash through vital barriers. Overnight, without any notion of how, or why, or for how long, I was disabled.
My graduate assistantship was lost, taking with it my salary and my health insurance. Campus doctors insisted that I was imaging my symptoms, including a sudden and dramatic hearing loss, and nystagmus, the rapid and uncontrollable zigzagging of my eyes that rendered me functionally blind. Given that I was imagining such bizarre symptoms, they offered me psychotropic medication, which I declined. A years-long pilgrimage from doctor to doctor depleted my life savings, a laughable sum I regretted losing mostly for its sentimental value. Clueless and winging it, doctors in three states diagnosed anything from brain tumor to multiple sclerosis. In every case, they promised me a lifetime of intermittent vomiting, deafness, and functional paralysis and blindness. My application for Social Security disability income and competent medical attention through Medicaid was turned down. I did have functional days; the judge advised that on those impossible-to-predict days I could hire myself out as day labor.
A new roommate moved into my life: Disabled Danusha. She spent days unable to move. She couldn't eat; she couldn't even watch TV. Her nausea, vertigo, and attendant anxiety, her overall sense of disease, were crushing. Even following a radio news bulletin from beginning to end became a steeplechase exhausting her every physical and mental resource.
Catering to her bled my life. On my functional days I couldn't attend parties – she might suddenly show up, and throw up. I couldn't do fun things like play or go to the movies; I had to make up for all the work she couldn't get done while couch-bound. I had to stock up on groceries for her next lengthy visit. The writing of an academic paper that would have previously taken a month now took six. To say I resented her, indeed, wanted permanently rid of her, understates the case considerably. "Rid of her:" there was no doubt that she was the imposter. The real Danusha requires no help to get to the bathroom. Disabled Danusha was the expendable one.
My professors, many of them aging hippie save-the-world humanitarians, from the onset of my symptoms, to the granting of my PhD, never, not once, referred to Disabled Danusha, though I stumbled blindly out of more than one seminar to puke outside. When my weight plummeted by forty pounds in two months, they asked about my new diet regimen. It's a funny thing; everyone I knew, then, was the type who would, scoffing, denounce church or state censorship and donate to the ACLU. And none of these free-speech champions, ever, in reference to me, used the words "poor" or "sick."
One professor, one day, delivered a long tirade about how selfish Americans were. How we all had to be more aware of foreign, starving masses. How we took food for granted. How she wanted to chuck it all and go work for UNICEF in a famine zone. I vividly remember wanting to spring, like a leopard, at her, and tear her to bits. That I did not do so has, I am convinced, earned me extra points in heaven.
Disabled Danusha was the one so other that even while she was in the room, no one addressed her; no one even spoke of her. Terry, back in California, now available only in long-distance phone calls, did not acknowledge Disabled Danusha. I wondered if Terry had decided that my dysfunction had switched from poverty to disease, that I had just come up with yet another way to throw a monkey wrench into his enjoyment of me. He punished me for being chronically ill, my new dysfunction, by phoning less and less often.
Though I told them I went for long periods unable to see, friends continued to mail me clippings they insisted I must read and papers they nagged me to critique before publication. Callers reported on bizarre new social trends, throwing them at me like meat to a tiger. I was encouraged to precisely analyze and devastatingly mock other silly people's silly ways, as I had when we were still all equally convinced of our intellectual and moral superiority. As I had in the old days, I was to provide temporary entertainment and recyclable bon mots.
These conversations often ended with the word "love." "I love you," a female would offer. "Love," a male would declare, perhaps using the imperative. Always awkward this late in the conversation, I would change the subject. Or I would simply lie: "I love you, too." After the words got out of my mouth I hoped that they were never challenged.
One day Terry was telling me about a new toy. He had just bought another mountain bike, this one with a feature that his others had lacked. I was not paying him my usual, focused attention. I had much on my mind. Slowly, through library research, I had matched my symptoms to a class of disease called "vestibular disorder." I was now spending hours on the internet learning what I could of these hopeless conditions. I mentioned to Terry that a surgeon had been having some luck with a new procedure that could, if the stars were right, make me new and whole, and evict, forever, my detested, disabled roommate.
"How much is it?" This was the first direct reference Terry made to my health. I told him. "Funny," he said. "I could give you that and never miss it. It would just mean one less toy, that's all."
I fought my speeding breath. I did not want him to hear what was going on inside me; it was too intimate and raw. I wasn't sure I wanted to experience it myself. I said good-bye quickly but Terry called again the next night. "It's just that much – " he asked.
"Yes," I replied.
"And it would clear everything up?" he asked.
"In a lot of patients so far it has, yes," I said.
"And you're sure it's just that much? There aren't extra bells and whistles you aren't telling me about?"
"What do you mean not telling you about?"
"Well, are there?"
"No. That's what I was told it cost," I said.
"I could give it to you, then."
I could feel myself rushing forward, but I hit some invisible barrier as restrictive and necessary as a bulletproof vest. "Maybe you should think about it, first," was all I could say.
For the next two weeks, phone calls came in everyday, or every other. Terry reported that it hurt him to think of me in pain; that it confused and frustrated him to see "someone of your caliber" being treated "as if you were nobody;" that he had always wanted to be a hero; that he wouldn't miss the money; that it wouldn't take me long to pay it back, if I started living my life right; that maybe if I listened to him and forgot my research about shabby immigrants from long ago that nobody cared about and that if I tried, instead, maybe, a job in advertising, that things would work out better for me; that it wouldn't be hard for me to prove to him that the money was, in fact, going for the operation ...
The funniest thing was that I didn't feel what I had felt after the burrito. This was a new tenderness. My disabled roommate had, it appeared, been tutoring me. Nowadays, suddenly, I was finding myself pausing and aiding a blind man feeling, with the tip of his cane, for a bus stop; a panicked older woman trying to negotiate a revolving door. Terry, I could now see, was laying bare to me the anatomy and the physiology of his disability. I recognized us as equals.
I interrupted him. "Terry, let's not worry about what you're not ready to give," I said, trying to sound gentle. "It would mean so much to me if you called me when I can't leave the house, or even just talked to me about it. You know what would tickle me so much? Just once, I want someone to ask, 'Did you get through the day without puking?' I'm so alone, Terry. You'd be surprised how weird people treat you just cause you walk with a cane. Terry, I need you, you, a person, I love everything you give me, your beautiful hair and slender hips; you make me laugh and whenever I make an allusion I know you'll know to what I refer. Call me. Talk to me. Okay?"
Terry broke off all contact with me after that.
Look; I didn't ask for this: to trade my individuality and autonomy to become the kind of bed-bound, body-fluid-spewing litmus test the "afflicted" become. Like anyone, I fantasize myself the action hero, kung fu in black leotards, the Mission Impossible theme pulsing in the background as I make the split-second decisions that realize my dreams and rock my world.
Jesus positioned us as litmus tests: "I was hungry and you fed me; I was sick and you visited me; Come, inherit the kingdom." People can fail the tests our limp bodies provide: "I was hungry and ye gave me not meat; I was sick and ye left me alone. Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire."
I didn't want to be the wedge that nudged Terry, his slim hips and bedroom voice, into everlasting fire. Or Amanda, either; how could I judge? They had always given exactly what they had. Amanda, who lived and moved under a perpetual waterfall of cascading blonde hair, had given abundantly of her glamour. I remember Amanda, years before, phoning me the night of the eviction. When I heard her voice at the end of the line in the empty apartment, I hoped that she had called to say something that would steel me, as I faced the streets again, to comfort me, this last night in my echoing shell of a home. I hoped she would have news of cheap housing. But she was crying. I pulled myself together, prepared myself to help her carry whatever terrible burden had reduced her to tears.
Between sobs and gulps, Amanda reported, "Jerry Garcia recorded a song that I wrote!"
"That's terrific!" I shouted. "I'm so happy for you! I'm so proud!"
"You just don't get it!" she snapped. "He stressed all the wrong syllables!"
She was inconsolable.
And I didn't want to be a litmus test because I had failed these tests myself. When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal, I had a student far poorer than I will ever be. Yem Kumari – I never forget her name – was quietly beautiful, and also gifted. Her peasant mother recognized this but had no resources to cultivate this rare pearl. Yem Kumari was twelve and it was time to marry her off. But the mother had an idea and with a clean boldness that still takes my breath away she walked up to me and said, "Take in my Yem Kumari. You have ample room in your home. She is quiet and will only serve you" – I didn't need to be told this – "and you can make it possible for her to continue in school, while I cannot." With all the originality of mud, I said, "No." I wanted my space. I wanted my free time. And this girl I rebuffed is still with me. The question comes to me, now, more often than she would have had we lived under the same roof: Yem Kumari. Whatever happened to Yem Kumari. I could have – Yem Kumari.
Becoming suicidal took over a year. I trudged, on the days I could move, from office to office, in a college town where every other bumper sported a sticker proclaiming commitment to social justice; I scurried past churches redolent of potlucks dedicated to raising funds for good causes.
Nothing about my case had been encapsulated on a bumper sticker. I was counseled to abandon all hope by so many fully-informed physicians, had "done the best we could do" to me by so many hound-faced social workers, shoulder-stroked by so many moist-eyed clergy and New Age cat fanciers, shunted to so many righteous officials, commiserated on by so many patrons of National Public Radio, and I discomfited so many very sad activists. They all said the same thing: "How sad. How shocking. Wish we could do something. Can't."
"You've been royally screwed!" they pronounced, with a voluptuous indignation. "I know someone who had what you've got. One day they found her dead in her apartment. She willed herself to die." It is better to be dead, I was assured, than to be poor and sick. I had no choice about the latter; it was my duty to attend to the former.
I saw no villains. I understood that the story was already composed; I had been wounded, and now I must fall. People wanted to applaud that tragedy, after a good, cathartic cry; they didn't want to be asked to participate in changing it. Injustice was not the ugly affront; I was; my mangled presence, rudely enough, reminded everyone of dissonant elements of his own story.
During a two-month bout of couch-bound functional paralysis and blindness, my mind was a hamster on a wheel. I plotted, over and over, my departure. As soon as I could walk again, I would buy a gun from the shop on the square. I made sure that all my recyclable body parts would be donated, especially the temporal bone, container for those implicated in vestibular disorders. I was touched when the NIDCD secretary assured me that these bones are located deep in the skull; I would still look good enough for an open-casket funeral.
The one potential source of last minute tears was the suspicion that I was leaving the world via a Teflon chute. My doppelganger, Disabled Danusha, seemed determined to demonstrate to me that I was a member of a species incapable of compassion or justice. Was she assuring me that any beauty or comfort I found in culture or religion was a lie? She had positioned me so, or shown me that, I loved no one, that I was loved by none, that I would leave no void in the shape of my body or soul or life. I had lost everyone, including myself, and thus had had to know death before dying.
One day, after the last tears had petrified, the phone rang. The little voice announced, "Get that; it will be rescue." Amanda took time from rehearsing a new play to risk hope. She made a withdrawal from her bank account and flew in from the coast to provide, with her warmth and life, an alternative center of gravity to the vortex of death. She also gave me a couple of hundred dollars.
The visit was only a marginal success. I like walking; I walked Amanda into the ground, and into heavy foot blistering. She can like bad movies (sorry, Amanda), and she made me watch a real stinker. I yelled at her kitchen technique. You would have, too – she boils water all wrong. She yelled at my efforts to be polite, calling them "codependent." We were two single women in our thirties, and this is how that tends to go.
I continue to live with this doppelganger, this disabled roommate, who gets in the way of my completing my list of things to do each day, or each life. Disabled Danusha cannot see or write, but I will take her dictation and report to you that she still lives with her own doppelganger. This is a pettily ambitious and callous woman who is so rushed by the minutiae of human movement and sight that she forgets how deep prayer can be in stillness and in dark. Disabled Danusha's able-bodied roommate, no matter how painstakingly she is taught, has so far failed to grasp the worth of body or time and squanders both. Disabled Danusha also wants you to know that her able-bodied roommate is not above pushing past people in wheelchairs in supermarket checkout lines, or even admiring the euthanasia follies produced by and starring Jack Kevorkian.
I continue the exhausting work of applying for miniscule lifelines. I've been rejected for Social Security Disability income, even after the SS administration's own doctor and vocational expert told the judge presiding over my case that I ought to have it. I appealed to the county extension agent and the local Master Gardeners' club for any guidance in setting up a kitchen garden; I received only a memorable e-mail informing me that sick people should not garden because it is hard work and poor people should not garden because it is expensive. I was rejected for access to Bloomington's para-transit for disabled people, I was told, because no one knew what perilymph fistula was, and, furthermore, I was not under a doctor's care. I continue to indulge in momentary fantasies of climbing to the top of a prominent building in town, pulling out an uzi, and exercising my Second Amendment rights as interpreted by the NRA. I do not do so because there is some difference since before Amanda's visit.
I interrogate myself: I love Amanda now, I call her "friend" now; is it her gift of cash? The answer is yes. But it's a different "yes" than I was looking for years ago after the burrito incident.
I am so poor right now, and have been so poor for so long, that any infusion of cash immediately evaporates. Tuition comes first. Then there's food, shoes, rent. Teeth remain a dreamed of indulgence, always put off one more day, month, year. You learn that teeth always eventually stop hurting; you don't investigate why. I have been embattled for so long that I feel it is my duty to suspect that even my best days are just another lure to get me to stick my head out of the foxhole, to provide target practice for snipers. It requires discipline to enthuse. I do not rejoice so much for the things I have received.
Amanda did something very new to me. She gave up sums of money and time that constituted a sacrifice for her. Given her sacrifice, there were things that she wanted that she could not have. She moved closer to the world of material lack and hard choices which I have inhabited all of my life; she did this because she would rather share earth with me than have her goodies and be without me. She performed sacrifice, for me.
And she kept insisting on how easy it was. "Being with you was scrumptious, sweetpea," Amanda cooed. Amanda's sacrifice for Disabled Danusha invited me to learn that even my most calculated despair, carefully supported with citations from a reasonably hard life, is the puffed up product of intellectual arrogance.
So, yes, I guess, the answer is that in spite of my studied, Gandhian poverty, I do want my more successful friends to give me their money. But I don't want that money for the most common and easily proffered reasons. It's not so much that I want to be more like my rich friends in terms of what I can consume. I want them to be willing to be more like me in terms of what they don't have, and to be willing to make that move, that sacrifice, for love of me.