I hang up the phone and try to steady myself while my brain is going a million miles an hour. I resist the urge to get into my car as I am and start driving right away.
I grab a bag and start thinking about what I’ll need. Clothes for a few day. Let’s say three...make it five to be sure, the car is big enough. Laptop for work. I’m not gonna bring any books, that’s ridiculous, JSTOR will have to do. Power banks and chargers for everything. Toothbrush...shaving kit?
Food for the road! I stuff a tote bag full of snacks and stick my head inside the fridge. Will anything here go bad while I’m gone? Again with the uncertainty. I grab the open container of hummus and the bag of grapes–more snacks for the road.
Weather! I better bring a pair of boots and a winter coat, just in case. It’s Minnesota after all.
As I hit the road, I feel restless. I can’t stand the radio–it’s not just the ads, even the stations I normally listen to are stressing me out right now. It’s at least seven hours, usually more, especially if I stop for coffee and the like, which I will. More than once, seeing as I’m almost out of gas. I can’t drive in silence. I land on an NPR news station. A few minutes later I realize I find the dispassioned voices reporting on carbon emissions and international relations oddly soothing. These voices are filled with knowledge yet seem completely ignorant at the same time. If someone can maintain the same inflection when talking about the upcoming Nobel Prize ceremony and about the new federal interest rates’ implications for millions of working class people, maybe I can be there for Mom while Dad’s in the hospital and just support her without getting into our issues. Maybe Dad will be okay and him and I can finally talk through our shit. Or not. He was never one for words. Or feelings, for that matter.
Finally–a gas station. Work is something you can see and touch, not your fancy words; it’s measured in dirty and calloused hands. Few things are as dirty as gas station handles–I wonder if he’d count that.
I snicker but there are tears in my eyes.
When I swipe my card at the pump, it comes up with an error. “SEE CASHIER” the display blinks. I let the computer reset and try again.
I really don’t feel like talking to anyone, so I grab my wallet and pull out my Discover Chrome card, which gets 2% at gas stations, unlike my American Express Blue Cash Preferred, which is the one I’ve been trying, and gets 3%.
Are you kidding me?
I swipe my Chase Freedom Unlimited next, 1.5% on everything–I don’t even care, please just work.
I check my phone; Chase often sends verification texts on gas pump transactions. Nothing. I wait and swipe again.
Maybe I can try another pump. I look around and see they’re all taken and there’s a line of cars waiting. I give up and go see cashier.
I try to ignore the assaulting smell of burnt coffee and hotdogs as I wait in line.
“Oh you’re on number #4, yeah the card reader doesn’t work, it’s been down all day.”
I stare at the cashier: are you kidding me?
“Sorry, I put a sign on there earlier, guess it must’ve blown away.”
He puts his hand out.
“How much do you want on there?”
“$50 and this,” I toss a bag of Skittles on the counter. How come gas stations always have flavors you don’t see anywhere else?
It’s not until he gives the card back that I realize I gave him the Chase Freedom Unlimited. I curse myself: that’s half the rewards.
Some economist you are, I realize as I get back inside the car. You obsess over maximizing reward so much you agonize over where you charge a $50 transaction–in this case, 3% would have been $1.50, by ‘only’ getting 1.5% you’ve lost out on a whopping 75 cents–but you fall for the colorful impulse buy at the register. Three dollars and a sugar crush, great job John.
Of coure it’s not about the 75 cents–actually, more with the Skittles and tax and all–it’s about building a good habit.
With that thought, I open the bag of Skittles.
My phone buzzes. It’s a text from Chase fraud department, verifying my last transaction.
Chase Freedom Unlimited–what would my father think about that? I can hear him in my head.
There’s nothing “freedom” about it. “Unlimited” seems like a redundancy, too–limited freedom is no freedom at all. Or do they offer a “Freedom Limited” card? Let me guess, that’s all of them, but they don’t want you reading the fine print and finding out.
He’s not all wrong there, but the Chase Freedom Unlimited is a solid card with no annual fee and decent rewards. Maintaining good credit is a key stepping stone to many features of American prosperity, but my father thinks that learning to use the system to my advantage makes me Alan Greenspan.
You’re complicit, son! A goon like the rest of them! Work people like me and your Mom into the ground while you get rich!
God, we used to really get into it.
Phone buzzes again. It’s Leslie.
“Hey babe,” I answer.
“John, are you okay? Your text didn’t make much sense.”
“I’m fine. Just on my way to Minnesota.”
“Wait, how far are you? I wanna come with you.”
“Oh no, baby, you don’t wanna do that, trust me.”
“I wanna be there for you–I mean it.”
I admit I am tempted; Leslie makes me feel better. I could turn back an pick her up––
“Thanks, Leslie, that means a lot. But...it’s probably better if I go alone. I don’t know what I’m walking into.”
“That’s exactly why I should be there. I don’t really understand what’s been going on between you and your dad, but I want to support you no mater what.”
“They don’t call you National Debate Champion for nothing!”
I can hear her rolling her eyes at that.
“Nobody calls me that except for you, and that’s irrelevant here; that’s not how debate works.”
“Well, you win, I’m coming back to pick you up.”
When I pull up at her place, she’s already waiting outside, duffel bag and take-out from our favorite diner at the ready. She hugs me tight and settles in the passenger seat.
“What’s the hospital called again?” she asks, pulling our her phone.
“I’m gonna get us a hotel nearby. Trust me, we’ll need some space to be ourselves.”
“We can stay at my mom’s.”
“Are you sure that’s okay for me?”
“Yeah, she’ll understand. Besides, we’re not gonna be there for long.”
“You don’t know that,” she says, solemnly.
There’s a pause.
“Ok we can stay at your mom’s but promise me if you ever want to get away, just say the word and I’ll get the room.”
“Ok, I promise.” I reach out for her hand. “Thanks for coming with me.”
“So, you wanna tell me about what happened between you and your dad?” she asks carefully after she’s helped me eat the food she got for me.
“Honestly I’d rather not get into it.”
“I respect that,” she says and opens her own food container.
“Actually, I think you should know some stuff, just so you’re not lost when my mom and I are talking. Or if he wakes up.”
“When,” she says softly, fries hanging from her mouth.
“Right, anyway, things started when I was applying for colleges and only got worse from there. We haven’t spoken since I moved out.”
“Yeah he wanted me to get a real job, as he put it. In his mind all the college-educated white collar jobs create no real value and only take from the workers whom they continue to oppress. Economists especially. I tried to explain to him that behavioral economics is different. can be a force for good, but he can’t see the difference between Alan Greenspan and Gordon Gekko. Well, more like he doesn’t want to.”
“A lot, I know.”
“More, like, it’s pretty radical. Don’t take this the wrong way, but with your parents being immigrants and all, I’d expect them to really want you to go to college. You know, have a better life, the American dream and all that.”
“Yeah I know. Turns out it was my mom who convinced him to come here. She thought she could get papers through her sister. When that fell through, they were already here with three small kids. My dad used to be a labor organizer back home and seeing the kind of pay and working conditions he could get without papers in such a self-apointed developed country…well let’s say it only got him more convinced everyone with a college degree and a random office job with nice pay and benefits was immoral at best. He has a deep distrust of institutions: banks, government, even universities. It’s difficult, because of course some of that distrust is well-founded, but keepinhg your life’s savings in a shoebox under the bed in a room you’re subletting from a distant relative is hardly the answer.”
“I can’t imagine what that’s like. So what does your mom think about all this?”
“I think she’s torn–her and my dad have a lot of their own issues. Her and I definitely avoid the subject of dad. But she’s supportive of me.”
“John, I don’t know what to say...I definitely admire you for following through on your dream. That must’ve been hard.”
“You gotta remember this was the height of my rebellious teenage years. If anything I likes irked my dad, I was gonna lean into that thing. Luckily for me, I ended up with an academic field of study, even it wasn’t for entirely virtuous reasons.”
She laughs a little but brushes it off.
“John, stop minimizing your accomplishments. You’re brilliant.”
“Well if only my family could see it that way.”
“Wait so that’s it? You haven’t spoken to your dad since you left home for college?”
“Do you want to? If you don’t want, we don’t have to go to the hospital.”
“I want to be there for my mom. They separated shortly after I left and have been very off and on but I know she cares for him. And if things go well I’d want to try and talk to him. I sent him these letters junior year.”
“Wait, I remember you had these long handwritten letters you were writing when we first met. I read all your writing but you wouldn’t let me see those.”
I pause. I never shared so much with anyone. People in my family know most of this stuff but we never talk about it. I feel like a huge weight has been shifted. I squeeze her hand.
“You see, it wasn’t until junior year that I had a non-white professor, it was for Econ, too. Professor Hernandez went on to become my thesis advisor. I don’t think I would have gotten into grad school without him. He really encouraged and mentored me where I didn’t know anything. But before all that he helped me understand a lot about my dad that I didn’t know before. It was mostly unsaid between us, but I saw a lot of myself and a lot of my dad reflected in him at the same time. That and hearing him talk openly about his own experience helped me see my father’s perspective–or some approximation of it anyway. It also made me realize I miss him–that was hard to admit to myself but I did. And then I wrote him there letters, expressing all that. I think I sent one every few weeks throughout Spring. He never responded.”
“John, I’m so sorry.”
“But you know, a little part of me believes I got through to him. That he’s just too proud to respond. I really tried to explain that what I was trying to do professionally could help people like him. I hope he can at least respect that.” I look over at her and meet her eyes. “I know that sounds naive.”
“That’s not naive at all. It’s ambitious, but you can do it. You’ll be like the Hispanic Barack Obama.”
“No way, baby.” I smile. “I’ll be the Hispanic Richard Thaler.”
She beams and kisses my hand, which she’s been holding in her lap, fingers intertwined.
We sit in silence. I wish I had the words to tell Leslie how much I love her. I’ve never shared this much with anyone before but I feel like she sees me. I feel safe.
My phone rings. It’s Mom.
I answer: “Mom, you’re on speaker with Leslie in the car.”
“Hi Mrs. Menjivar,” Leslie says.
“Oh–hi Leslie. Anyway, John, your father just got out of surgery and it looks like he’s going to be okay. They said they want him to sleep and rest for a while but he’ll pull through.”
I am overwhelmed. Speechless.
“John, did you hear me?”
“Yes, Mom, I’m here. That’s great news! Sorry it’s been a lot. But I’m looking forward to seeing you soon–and him.”
I hang up and I realize I wasn’t lying: I’m really looking forward to seeing my dad.