Without a Safety Net

The click of the handle seems entirely too loud as I pull open the car door to check the breathing of my three sleeping children. They look so peaceful lying there, in the back of my station wagon, under the yellowy light of a flickering street lamp.

I smooth the curls on my daughter's scarred face and gently close the door. Those scars are just one of the reasons I am seeing my children sleep in my car. Walking through the back door of the kitchen, I look back once and then, alright, just once more. I smile at the cooks as I rush through the kitchen and grab the food for my customers from under the warmers. They'll keep an eye out the door for me.

When my last table leaves, it's after 11 p.m. I thought they would never finish. Oh, to have the kind of time to linger over a meal. It's been so long since I've had that kind of freedom. I carefully place the wine glasses in the bus tub next to the dessert plates and haul it all down the stairs. My mother would tell me to make more than one trip, but I'd always rather make one, long, painful trip than two or three.

I tip out the bartender and head for the small parking lot behind the restaurant, where, I am told, my children are still blissfully asleep. Again, I open the door, ever so carefully, and collapse into the front seat.

"Hi, Mom," I hear from behind me. Startled, I whip around to find Matthew, the oldest, who is all of five, blinking his eyes awake.

"How was work?" he asks.

"It was fine," I reply. "Very busy. It's late though, you should go back to sleep. We'll talk in the morning."

"OK," he says, and within seconds he is out again. Living in the car doesn't seem to faze him. Oh sure, he asks why we have to keep sleeping in the car, but the answer seems to suffice and he doesn't whine about not having a television. Well, we do have a television, actually. It was a graduation present years before and it's tucked in front of the passenger seat. I tried to sell it, but it wasn t worth much, so I decided to keep it. A last vestige of middle-class life, if you will. I was a middle-class housewife once upon a time.

Into the Woods

Being middle class only suited me and the children. My soon-to-be former husband wanted to live in the woods. I was game for awhile. I had grown up on a farm, so the outdoors were not foreign to me. But our ideas of living in the outdoors soon clashed ... hard.

"I found an awesome cabin," he said to me over the phone one day. "Pack up the kids and come up. It's a nice town and you'll love it."

I had stayed behind to store some of our unnecessary, much hated "material belongings" in my mother's house. So, always game for an adventure, we headed up north. Very north. The far north of Maine. The majority of accepted currency there is Canadian. When we pulled up to the cabin in the middle of the night, I felt my stomach drop to my knees. The cabin was a tar paper-covered, noninsulated shack with a small wood stove. There was no electricity and no running water.

"My husband has lost his mind," I thought to myself. Ever cheerful, though, I unloaded the kids and we began our adventure.

I wince as I start up the car. I don't want the kids to wake up at the sound of the motor (I need a new muffler). My plan is to stay down at the beach tonight. The police know me (I wait on them all the time) and let me stay here as long as I leave early. On the weekends we stay in the campground, where there's a playground and a shower included in the deal. We also cook out and roast marshmallows (a truly cheap source of entertainment, they're only 79 cents per bag!).

I pull up alongside the beach so I can look at the water out my driver side window, as it rushes onto shore. I always wanted a house on the water, I joke to myself, and now I have one. My bedroom overlooks a lovely beach.

Cramped in the fetal position in the front seat of the car while the kids are stretched out in the back, I look out the windshield and yell at God in my head. But what's He going to do? There are far bigger problems in this world than us living in a car. We are healthy. We are strong. So I yell at my ex-husband instead. But I'm not expecting a lot help from there either. I fall asleep with my head on the steering wheel, waking up a few hours later to read by placing my head on my jacket in the passenger seat, the gear shift jammed into my stomach.

Although we are living in my old Subaru wagon, I feel reasonably fortunate. My daughter is well, after a horrible attack by an untamed husky, just one relatively small part of the "Up North Experiment," as I have come to call it.

The dog, a neighbor's over-anxious sled dog, bit and tore apart her face, arms and shoulders. Of course she was terrified of dogs after that, but my ex-husband chose to keep his sled dogs, even after the accident. That was the straw that broke the camel's back: not the lack of water, not even the fact that he refused to get a job. "Thoreau didn't have a job," he would say.

Dogs over children. I couldn't believe it.

Shelter and Showers

The ladies who cook at the restaurant leave the kitchen door open and help me watch the kids while they sleep. When they're awake, I split my tips with a couple of college girls who agree to help me out. The girls take them for walks and to the beach. When it's slow or rainy, my boss let's them play in a separate dining room.

It's summertime here on the coast of Maine, and the weather is nice. After the final blowup over who was to blame for my daughter's accident, I packed up again. With about $50 in my pocket, saved from my tips from bartending at a local nightclub, I headed to the beach. I just knew life had to be better at the beach. And it is. It is cleansing and terrifying all at the same time.

I am absolutely committed to getting an apartment by the time my oldest is set to start kindergarten in a couple of months. The pile of cash in the videocassette box in my glove compartment is growing and with a little luck it will be enough for the security deposit and first and last month's rent required to get an apartment. The apartments I'm looking at are about $550 a month, quite a bit in a one-horse town like this. There isn't a lot of industry besides the tourist trade, though there is always canning fish and working at McDonald's.

I would settle for a smaller and cheaper apartment, but most landlords won't consider letting four of us live in a studio or one bedroom. So I have to find a bigger one, even though I can't afford it. What a Catch-22. I can afford a smaller apartment but no one will let me live in it, but my car, for some reason, is just fine, even though it s smaller! At least the car is paid for, although it's not insured. Let's just hope that if I ever get in an accident, it's not my fault.

During the day things aren't so bad. Because I wait tables, I have the day free to take the kids to the ocean, the library and the laundromat. We walk around town and people smile at us. They don't know how poor we are. They don't know we live in our car. I apply for food stamps, but I don't qualify. I make too much money. Hah! I think it's more expensive to be poor than to be rich. I don't have a refrigerator, so I can't buy things like concentrated juice for $1 and make a pitcher to last for a couple of days. I have to buy individual servings at $1 apiece. The kids have developed a taste for water.

I found a truck stop that will let me fill up my water jugs and that has showers for the truckers. I pay for one and we all take a communal shower. We go there first thing every morning. I can't deal without a shower. The two things I won't even try to skimp on are showers and laundry.

While I am optimistic about the future and set on getting through this (there's a reason for everything, right?) sometimes, I cannot contain my anger. Sitting on an old log, watching the kids play in the surf, I am almost shaking with pain and fear and rage. How is it possible that this is what my life is supposed to be like? I went to American University, Goddammit! I worked in the U.S. Senate! I am smarter than this ... I have to be.

Maybe I'm not. That's what frightens me the most. I was taught that education and brains would bring good things. No one told me to check my gullibility at the door. No one told me that some of the hardest of life's lessons came from a laundromat. No one told me to watch out for being both smart and poor. It's a dangerous and depressing combination.

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