The public conversation around cancelling student loan debt inspired me to use short fiction as a way to highlight nuances of the student debt crisis and explore the immediate impact broad student debt cancellation would have for Millennials.
I’m in an existential crisis.
Here’s how my days start: I roll over and reach for my phone before my eyes kick in. Of course, I’ve slept in my contacts again; I’m a terrible person. I blink until I can read the screen. Once I drag myself out of bed, I put on a podcast about whatever show I’ve been binging and keep as quiet as I can while I’m getting ready for work. My roommates, Nina and Chris, work late nights in bars downtown. They’re usually going to bed when my day begins. I’m not a morning person either, but whenever I get too envious over them working nights, they come back with, “At least you have health insurance,” and that shuts me up. All three of us have master’s degrees.
I’m thirty, by the way. People dream about what they want by the time they’re thirty. Here’s what I didn’t want: roommates and a growing pile of debt. I swear I’m doing my best.
Anyway, you can kind of see why my nights usually wrap up with a dose of existential dread. I’d say four nights out of seven. On average.
This is what I tell Cyndi, the therapist, during my free consultation. I don’t bring up the notebook in my bedroom, even though it was the whole reason I even made the appointment.
There’s actually a lot I don’t say because I don’t think she’d get it.
I notice that Cyndi’s sympathetic facial expressions don’t reach her eyes when I’m speaking. Maybe she’s sitting there thinking I must spend all day eating avocado toast and drinking lattes. I’m sure any good therapist would tell you I’m projecting.
All that doesn’t bother me too much, honestly; I still feel better after talking to someone. At least it will hold me over until next week’s consultation with Elena. I’m hoping she’ll be easier to talk to.
Elena is not easier to talk to. She wants to go over my medical history and talk about goals; straightforward stuff, all business. I can tell she’s very practical — I bet she’s a Virgo.
She wears a polo shirt and a gold anchor pendant, and I get the sense Elena’s never had to wait for the next paycheck to clear before buying groceries. I mean, that’s not a character flaw on her part, I guess. Money just makes me uncomfortable.
I leave that appointment feeling like I told Elena nothing. Once again, I fail to mention the notebook. Maybe I’ll have better luck with Alex.
Okay, so, I have this small, black notebook on my bedside table.
I don’t really know where to start, I guess I’ll tell you how I got it.
My dad gave it to me when I finished my master’s. He told me to open it when I was ready to start writing my novel.
Getting that notebook was a big deal. It’s a Moleskine. Growing up, my dad never let me buy a notebook this nice — only grocery store composition books. I knew we were living paycheck-to-paycheck, but I still used to get mad about things like that. Kids, you know? Bestsellers get written on napkins, but you get what I mean. The Moleskine was my dad’s way of saying he took my writing seriously.
My mom died in a car accident when I was eight and so it was just me and him for a long time. Then, six months after I graduated with my master’s, he had a heart attack and didn’t make it. Since losing him, I’ve never been able to bring myself to open that notebook. What if there’s a note in there? It will be the last new thing he ever says to me. And what if there is no note? Like, that’s worse, right?
Anyway, it’s been eight years. I haven’t written my novel. I haven’t even started one. I have one of those jobs that needs you on-call 24/7. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to have it. I’m just saying I don’t have much creative energy leftover when I find downtime.
The thing is, I don’t know how much time I have here. I know that sounds dramatic but hear me out. I can tell you no one expected my parents’ lives to end when they did. Especially not them. I’ve been running out of time since I was eight years old.
I wonder what they put off because they thought they had more time. Meanwhile, I’ve paused my own dreams for almost a decade.
All of that pours out of me when I’m talking to Alex. Yeah. The entire session is a brain dump.
Alex seems close to my age. He has long hair and a beard and kind eyes. He’s so nice, I don’t even catch myself wondering whether he grew up with money.
Like Cyndi, Alex kind of mirrors me when I’m talking and makes sympathetic facial expressions, but there’s understanding in his eyes.
I leave that visit feeling like I told my story for the first time. Maybe I’ll eventually find a way through this and start writing again. Maybe I’ll stop being so scared of grief and failure. Maybe I’ll open the notebook. Maybe.
I wish I could make another appointment with Alex, but that’s not an option. I see other therapists over the next few weeks, but none of them put me at ease in the same way. No one else gets that full brain dump.
My therapy consultations continue until my roommate Nina calls me out.
It happens one day when Nina’s off work and we’re sitting on the couch, catching up over drinks. Anyway, I end up telling her about how much I got from that one session with Alex. I get this confused look from Nina before she interrupts.
“I thought you couldn’t afford therapy.”
“I can’t,” I tell her. As I say it, even I can hear how obvious it is that I’m trying to breeze past the topic. Nina’s not having it.
“You seem to go a lot.”
I should explain that I’ve been texting Nina after each appointment to tell her about the therapists. Nina’s a bartender; she’s a people-watcher. She and I usually have a good laugh over peoples’ quirks; it’s our thing. It’s not as fun when she turns those powers of observation on me. If I was worried about Cyndi’s judgment during our consultations, it’s nothing compared to Nina’s.
“You’ve been going to a free consultation with a new therapist every week instead of paying anyone?” I’ve never realized how green Nina’s eyes are. Something about their color against her dark eyeliner looks menacing.
I mean, what can I say? All I can do is nod while she stares at me.
I’m looking down to avoid the disgust and disappointment on her face. For some reason, I catch myself wondering if she’s noticed the chipped nail polish on her thumb. Amazing, the things my brain chooses to focus on.
In fairness to Nina, she gives me a chance to explain myself. When I don’t say anything she groans and turns on the TV.
Five minutes go by before Nina looks at me again. “So you’re not paying them,” she says. “But they all think you’re a potential client.” Nina’s a better person than I am. I bet she’s never slept in her contacts. Or taken advantage of unsuspecting therapists.
Nina’s also never dropped anything in her life, but it’s hard for her to continue if I won’t say anything. And I’m staying quiet as a small town on a Friday night because I’m not good with confrontation. I’m sure I’d get better at it in therapy.
For a while, no one speaks. I know the reprieve can’t last long, but I’ll do what I can to prolong it. I take out my phone, the savior of awkward silences and uncomfortable moments.
And it’s a moment that changes our lives. Maybe even the lives of our generation. Because the first thing I see when I get past the lock screen is the headline, “STUDENT LOAN DEBT FORGIVEN.”
Look, since I was eight years old, I’ve known life can change at any second. But it’s never happened in a good way before.
I get to break the news to Nina.
For the first time in the four years I’ve known her, she forgets she’s supposed to be mad at me and goes out to buy Prosecco to celebrate. With her psychology degree paid off, Nina might be able to move out and not have to deal with Chris or me anymore. Imagine having me as a roommate.
I’ve avoided talking about my debt and how it’s been messing with my head. I guess I haven’t talked about it much because there’s just something embarrassing about having debt. Some of it is from weddings I couldn’t get out of, some of it’s from a car repair, but most of it is my student loans.
Since I left school, my student loans have gone up by $20,000 in interest. I mean, whoops, right? The payments are the main reason I haven’t left my current job. Maybe that’s the point. It’s the interest that really messed me up because it just kept growing, like an invasive species destroying my financial future.
When I took out those loans I didn’t know about interest rates and how careers now start with unpaid internships.
Look, I don’t know how or why this happened or if I deserve it, but it’s like I just won $20,000. The original loan is gone, too; but I always expected to pay that.
The first thing I do with the extra money is book an appointment with Alex.
It’s been six months since student loans were canceled. Nina’s moved out, but Chris and I still live together. We’re both saving money. It feels good to be able to say that.
Life’s been a lot better lately. You can probably hear it in my voice. I started my new job a few weeks ago. I’m making less money, but without the student loan payments, I’m handling the pay cut fine. The best part about this job is that when I’m done for the day, I’m done; I have energy leftover to try to make my dreams happen. Right now, I have a sense of possibility and hope that I haven’t felt since I was a kid.
I’ve been writing every night after dinner — right now just little stories in the composition books I pick up at the grocery store. I never thought I’d say this, but I think I might be ready to open the notebook. The one my dad got me, the one I’ll write my novel in.
I wonder if there’s a note from him waiting for me. I hope there is.
When I get home from my weekly session with Alex, I sit down at my desk and open the Moleskine. I don’t look at the inside cover and skip the first few pages, just in case. I’m not ready to see whether or not my dad left a note. I take out a pen and start writing, but it’s not my novel; not yet. It’s a letter to him.