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Creative Nonfiction

This story contains themes or mentions of substance abuse.

MY SIDE OF THE STORY...

I remember meeting Lorraine one blindingly sunny day at Shoppers Drug Mart. My head throbbed, and I leaned heavily on the shopping cart for support. I’d overdone it on the vino again. 

About ten years younger, she beamed from behind the cosmetics counter as I entered the store. I was buying perfume and mints as cover-up, and offered a “Cheshire Cat” smile to disguise my self-loathing. 


“Hi! I’ve seen you shop in here a lot. Do you live in the neighborhood?”


“Just up the street.”


“Oh wow, me too! I love living near the park and the lake.”


I agreed, and we chatted about the weather. Spring was in the air, and she complained that she rarely experienced the fresh air because of her long hours studying for her Masters in Social Work, and toiling part-time at the drug store. 


I was impressed. I had a degree in child psychology and taught school. 


Over the next few weeks, I made a point of saying hello whenever I shopped. Her outgoing vibe eased my social anxiety. Recently separated from my husband, my therapist was pressuring me to “get out there,” so I invited her for a drink.


“Oh, thank you, but I don’t drink. I’m in AA.”


“Good for you!” I praised her, buried my shame, and assumed the role of cheerleader by listening attentively to her story. She confided, in whispering tones, some personal details about her childhood, and her battles with drugs and alcohol. Her openness was an ego massage.


I told her about my alcoholic parents, carefully omitting any details about my own struggles. “You’re forging a better path,” I added, a mentor bestowing approval.


Her past, similar to mine in some ways, was harsher. She’d had no emotional or financial support to pursue an education, whereas my mom had paid for my university tuition.


“You’re very resilient,” I added, launching into a summary of an article in Psychology Today about children in poverty breaking the cycle.


When she landed a part-time job as an overnight counselor in a treatment center for women addicts, Lorraine was no longer available for chats during my shopping excursions.


A year later, when I wound up in AA myself, there she was! 


“I knew you were an alcoholic!” she declared. “I thought if I told you my story, you’d realize you needed help!”


My bubble burst. Unwilling to relinquish my perceived role as special confidante, I did my best to prove, in recovery, that I was worthy of being that mentor.


With parental-like concern, I inquired about her schooling. 


“I work overnights, and sleep when I can. It’s brutal. I owe a fortune in student loans, but I graduate in a year.”


“That’s wonderful,” I praised, easily slipping into my comfy role as cheerleader.


Lorraine was co-operative, and as our roles solidified, we settled into our friendship. She often complained about stress and poverty, while I soothed and encouraged. 


“It’s not forever. When you graduate, you’ll find a well-paying career with good benefits.”


Soon afterwards, I was challenged to offer more than verbal support. One rainy day in April, Lorraine burst into the church basement in tears. Noticing how others slid away, I felt sorry for her, and went to the rescue.


“Lorraine, honey, what happened?”  


“Oh my God, I don’t know what to do! I’m short on rent and don’t have any money to buy food. I’m so sick of my life!”


“I can help you get some food. How much more do you need for rent?”


“I’m $200 short. What if I get evicted?”


“Don’t worry.” 


After the meeting, I drove her to my bank, made a withdrawal, and handed her the cash.


She lunged at me for a hug. I tipped backwards, regained my balance. 


“I’ll pay you back as soon as I can manage.”


“Take your time. No rush,” I responded. I had savings. She, on the other hand, didn’t.


Helping her with groceries became a weekly pattern. Every time she asked, she reminded me that she would keep tabs and refund me as soon as her student loans were paid off. I had also offered to drive her to the grocery store every Friday, since she couldn’t afford to own a car.


 I kept tabs of my own. After a year, she owed just under a thousand dollars. How long would she be paying off those loans?

When I broached the subject, she burst into tears. Apparently, she had not one, but three student loans, and was falling behind. Interest rates were drowning her.


“Would you consider co-signing a loan for fifteen thousand dollars?” she pleaded, wiping her tear-streaked face with the back of her hand.


Sensing my pause, she rushed ahead to convince me. “I could use that money to pay off two of the loans completely. That would leave just one. The interest would be way lower. I’d be able to start paying you back. I’d finally have a chance to get out of this hellhole. Please?”  


I had to help her. After all, we were close friends. She listened while I phoned my bank to inquire. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her wringing her hands. 


The bank manager and I reviewed my GIC account, my Line of Credit, and the amount of my retirement pension. After examining my assets, he explained that I didn’t qualify. His words were a helium balloon of relief.


Her dark eyes bore into mine. “You don’t really want to help me. You said nothing to try and change his mind.”


“I’m not eligible to co-sign!”


“Then could you AT LEAST lend me five thousand? I’d use it to pay off the biggest loan with the highest interest.”


She had overheard, from my phone conversation, that I had a ten thousand dollar GIC maturing in three days. I saw no way out.  


When I signed papers to transfer the money, she was euphoric. I was nauseated.


“How can I ever thank you? Now I’ll be able to tackle my debts, and I promise I’ll give back every penny, with interest. I’m also going to name you as the beneficiary on my life insurance.”


I wondered how she paid premiums for this so-called insurance when she had trouble paying rent.


“As soon as those student loans are wiped out, you’re my priority. I’ll be graduating this spring, and it’s all because of you!”


When spring arrived, I was invited to her Graduation Ceremony. She glided across the stage in gown and cap to receive her diploma.  A happy crowd assembled afterward on a manicured field of emerald-green grass. Cameras flashed. Diploma frames were displayed at a kiosk.


“Wish I could afford one of those. Guess I’ll be stuffing my diploma in a drawer.” As she watched proud parents purchasing gorgeous hand-crafted frames, she sighed. 


I decided to purchase a frame as a graduation present. She selected from the top price range. 


There was one more obstacle. She didn’t have the money to pay for a licence to practice. How could I refuse to help after she’d come this far? I figured the two hundred and fifty dollar fee was manageable.


Two weeks later, I planned a weekend out of town with friends to see a concert and stay in a fancy hotel. 


“I wish I could come too! What I wouldn’t give for a little getaway. For me, it’s all work, no play.”


“Do you want to come with us?” 


“I’m too broke. Wish I could, but I don’t have that kind of money.”

Her despondent eyes resembled those of a bloodhound puppy. 


“I’ll pay,” I offered, stuffing an ever-increasing resentment.


“You’re the best friend anyone could ever have.” She pranced around, exuberant and carefree. If she’d had a tail, it would have wagged like windshield wipers in a torrent.


A month later, I made plans to travel to England to see my cousin.


“You’re so lucky. I’ve never traveled anywhere special. I didn’t even go to camp when I was a kid.”


Guilt gnawed at my stomach. I sensed she was looking for another invitation.


She continued to talk about my privileged upbringing versus her lack of opportunity. A long narrative ensued:


“When you graduated, you had no debts. What I’d give to have it the easy way, like you did. I know you helped me, and I’m really grateful. Don’t get me wrong. But it’s still going to take me at least a year to clear my debts before I can start paying you back. I just hate myself. I’m so tired of being broke all the time. I work my butt off, and what do I have to show for it?”


“Don’t worry. I told you, I don’t need the money back right away. I know you’re good for it. Take your time. I know how hard you’re working. You’ll get there.”


“Thanks. I’m really going to miss you. Sure wish I could come too.”


Fighting against a strong current of guilt and obligation, I swam away from the hook.


“Wish you could, too,” I said with a pasted-on smile.


When I returned from England, I learned that she was giving away her TV and computer. The grateful recipient, a mutual friend, was wondering if I could help her transport her new acquisitions in my car. She was delighted to be getting second-hand equipment. From her perspective, it was brand-new and worked perfectly. Her benefactor, apparently, had upgraded to a new laptop and flat-screen TV.


Livid, I surveyed my own living room. An ancient sagging couch and space-ship style TV mocked me.


I cornered her, fueled by rage. “Since you’ve decided to go into more debt before paying off your tuition, I expect you to start paying me back immediately.”


“You said I could take my time! You told me not to worry. You’re breaking our deal!”


“YOU’RE breaking the deal!” I countered. 


“How am I gonna scrape together extra money to pay you NOW? You know I can’t afford it!”


“You went into more debt to get yourself a new TV and computer.”


“You have no idea what it’s like, to never have new things, fancy trips.”


“I want one hundred a month.”


I can’t possibly manage that. It will have to be fifty. I don’t believe you’re pressuring me out of the blue like this.”


“Maybe you should give up your cigarette habit,” I snarled.


 I chased after that money for many months. When she lost her job, the payments stopped altogether, and she moved away to an unknown location. I wallowed in resentment, cat claws gouging the surface of acceptance, until I finally released my grip. It took a long time.


HER SIDE OF THE STORY…

I remember meeting Virginia back when I worked at Shoppers Drug Mart. She looked rough. I could smell booze seeping out of her pores. It takes one to know one. I was four years sober at the time. I’d watch her wander into the store, pale and shaky, so sad. I thought maybe she could use a friend.


After a while, she made a point of visiting me at the cosmetics counter. Poor old girl must be lonely. I decided, when she asked me out for a drink, to tell her I was in AA. Maybe she’d ask me about the meetings, decide to come too.


No chance! She was very chatty about her alcoholic parents, but deep in denial. 


When I got a different job and quit at the store, I didn’t run into her any more. She seemed really kind, in spite of her drinking. I prayed for her.


A year later, she actually walked into a meeting. She looked terrified. I was glad to see her. She offered to drive me to and from the church, and she was thrilled when I asked her to attend a party for my five-year celebration of sobriety. She was the mother I never had, so I thought! 


I feel so betrayed! I thought I’d found a life-long friend. I told her all my secrets. How my parents were drunks, violent. My old man disappeared and left my mom to raise my sister and me on welfare.


She was so generous, so caring. Told me I was breaking a pattern by getting educated. Her mother helped her through university, and she admired how I was determined to do it on my own. She even promised I didn’t have to pay her back until I was on my feet.


And now, out of the blue, she’s saying she wants money NOW!


What business is it of hers that I got a new TV and computer? Does she expect me to live like a pauper while she collects her fat pension and travels the world?


She pretended to support me. She said the diploma frame and licence fee were gifts. She’ll probably tell me I have to pay for them, too! 


What a two-faced bitch! She doesn’t have a clue what it’s like living paycheck to paycheck and juggling bills. How can she possibly expect me to start paying her back now? What am I going to do? If I pay her, I’ll be short on rent. 


I just can’t believe she’d be so heartless and abandon me like this. 


THE TRUTH…

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” - Shakespeare


April 01, 2022 16:48

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