A History of Us in Debt

Bryn Gribben
Featured Image: Golden Spirals © Veronica Lavia 2018

The Short-Term Loan

You are twelve, and I am sixteen. We are at musical theatre camp, and you are the real performer, lying about your age so you could come. You see one long braid down my back and follow me around, from the cafeteria to vocal rehearsal to dance practice, where you want to be partnered with me, as if you could spin my red hair into gold. I think you are fourteen and only notice you because I believe I am worth following and because your eyes unsettle me, watching me as a cat watches unseen souls in the darkness. Because of the age gap, I feel powerful, but when you first touch me, I become a liquid asset, transfigured by your heat into something altogether different. There is kissing behind the sets and on the stairs to the dressing room. You call me once that year and talk about horror movies, which I find disgusting, and you seem both arrogant and naïve.

At camp the next summer, and for the next five summers—even when I am in college and am your counselor—we will continue to withhold affection spitefully, the age difference an arrogance of its own. The withholding takes different forms: one year, you will awkwardly ask me, at the beginning of the week, if I mind that you want to be with some other golden-haired teen beauty who can tap dance. Another year, I will mock you for your devotion; I will do this cruelly to prove that I am learning something in college, until my fellow counselor, who is also my best friend, who is also in love with me, will yell at me outside of the dorms while our campers—including you—sleep inside, because I never look at him the way I look at you.

So then, each of those weeks, every year for five summers, will end with our reunion, magnetized to each other by doubt and conflict. We will give in, give it all to each other in those moments when we feel time running out and the rest of the year spreads out like a certificate of deposit. Our touches feel grasping and greedy, but our tears and our silences are ever-plentiful and free. You will tell me that you love me, and our weeping is a consecration. We are like a young married couple applying for our first loan—the loan to buy our dream house. We do not know that we cannot afford this house, nor that we will pay for it for the rest of our lives.



You are eighteen, and I am twenty-two. We make love once—my first time—that June, at camp of course, although this time, I have had to drive to meet you. I am no longer even a counselor, but you have called me. You have extracted the number from a college friend still working on campus; our youth to continue. You have called me, and I must come because there is an uncashed check in your voice and I must sign for it. When you walk out of the choir room and see me, you stop, radiant, and I ignore the greetings of all who still know me, pushing past them to bury my face in your warm hair, your neck, the secret of us revealed to all around like a legacy read off by an executrix. That night, your roommate sleeps in the current counselor’s room, since the counselors now were campers who knew Us, who knew about the dark walks after rehearsals and me coming back in tears, you flushed with lust and confusion. This roommate will have told you not to call, that one’s best chances are with girls one’s own age; however, since I have shown up, he is impressed, sets his bar higher, and sleeps on the counselor’s floor in the next room. I have been naked before with men but never with you and never for sex. We have never had more than an hour alone to count the prizes among the treasure of our bodies. For years, I will tell others that the album playing was Liz Phair’s “Supernova,” but it is, in fact, “Fields of Gold” by Sting. During the school year, this room is the home of a friend my own age, walls covered with a dime-store tapestry and posters of French films. Now, the walls are empty, bare as we are together in this bed with no coverlet. It is harder to accept this gift than I thought, though neither of us doubts that it is time for it to be given and received.

This is your last year attending camp. You will go to Colorado the next, intending to study film; in two years, you will have a son you did not plan. You will drink your twenties away, hoping that merely staying near him will make up for your own father’s disinterest. But for now, you are eighteen and I am twenty-two, with an entire night before us. I wear your dead grandfather’s robe to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and your roommate tells you that you have eaten of the forbidden woman.



You are eighteen and I am twenty-two at a Best Western in Tulsa, a city I do not know at all, in which I have little interest except that it holds you. It is the second hotel room I ever pay for by myself; it is the first for this purpose. I have driven all day to Tulsa, your home, where I have never visited you because it did not occur to me that I could, our assets so tied up in location, so rooted in camp. It occurs to me to do it now because I have a paycheck that isn’t from work-study, which somehow legitimates this plan. It later occurs to me to wonder why money legitimates anything about being grown up.

It is one in the morning, and I have been here since eight o’clock, watching the television and wondering when you will come home and find the message I have called. These are the days before cell phones, when one had to trust in the goodness of a mother to pen a note from the girl she knows you love and have no business loving. One hopes the recipient notices the note on the counter, in the dark, when he returns from a night out with friends, doing the things that lead him to rehab years later. Tori Amos, your idol, is on The Tonight Show, singing “Father Lucifer.” She wonders if Joe DiMaggio still puts flowers on Marilyn’s grave. I have been wondering many things. You arrive, and I think of nothing to do right, overthink everything else. We are in bed again, for the second time, and I do not know why I have to get up and leave the room for a minute after sex, but it has something to do with the division of this room from this situation, of myself from you.

The next day, at your parents’ home, you say you do not know fully for what I have come, which makes two of us, since this was a gamble, an unsound plan with unstable backing. You tell me it is too strange, that you have nothing to give me, that I will always be the gold standard for women, but all we have given is foreign currency, beautiful and worthless: it cannot be exchanged for anything, except at a reduced rate, and will at best become a trinket. When I return to my apartment that night, I play “Father Lucifer” on repeat one; it will repeat for two weeks, as I lie on the floor and drink cheap wine, getting up only to teach my composition class.

But that is after the drive home. I will cry all the way back to Kansas and throw change into the tollbooth every thirty miles, until I have nothing left.



You are twenty-eight and I am thirty-two. I have made a huge mistake, moving from Seattle to Missouri, and I am alone in my office when I receive your message on Friendster, reading, simply, “Just let me explain.” On the phone that night, we talk for the first time in eleven years. We talk as we never have nor could when we did not understand the value of even our own lives—the many ways one can invest poorly, how one is capable of gaining and losing interest in lovers without intending to do either, how some things retain their value because they are rare.  Having always spent Time like it was an arcade token, which is to say to spend it when we had it, this phone call is a vacation accrued after years of labor. The darkness stretches out in a room more familiar than the hotel room or a dorm room stripped bare, since this is my room, and you seem more familiar, more loved for your years of absence than when we lay absorbed by those rooms belonging to neither of us. You apologize for youth. I am awed and saddened by the difference in how we spent our twenties.

Though I feel as if I have been given a great gift in your return, I will choose to pursue another lost love because the risk seems lower, more manageable given my emotionally impoverished state in this terrible town.  When I write to tell you this, you say it is as if you are standing on a dock, watching a boat pulling away; you see me wave from it, and you did not realize I was even on the boat. Though I will feel your cat eyes on me in the dark, I will rejoice in making a careful decision. The choice to love this other will later become a consolidation of all emotional losses and exceed them horribly, at the same time, but at this moment, I consider myself simply lucky to have secured access to your life again.



You are thirty-four, and I am thirty-eight. I look at Facebook for the third time this morning to see if you have responded to my comment about Pina in 3D. I consider adding Adrienne and Claire, your two best friends, and remind myself, again, that I have never and will never meet these women, though we speak through your wall to each other like Pyramus and Thisbe. We speak about you, around you, and you “like” everything we say. Two years ago, you considered visiting here but have no money; and I considered buying half your ticket. I consider going there myself, but I have vowed never to go to you again, or to listen to Tori Amos. I have moved back to Seattle to save what was left of me after Missouri and the break-up with the other one I loved, which caused me to sob until my top rib slipped out of place to make room for the sadness. It has taken two years to recover. A friend, upon seeing your picture on my wall, says you look like my new boyfriend, and at times, she is right. He finds my spirit generous, and the love is true and supportive. You respond to one out of every five messages, and I send one more immediately, in which I ask you more questions than you will ever answer, beginning the wait again.


Armed Robbery

You are thirty-six, and I am forty. I step off the plane in Austin dressed in all white, and you step out of the car to pick me up. I said I would never go to Tulsa again, and I haven’t, but I have forced my way here, instead, your new home of a week. It is a big moment, but I hate your hair. Your cat eyes are puffy from drinking again, and you tell me, as we get in the car, that if you act weird, it is because you took an Adderall yesterday to help you finish some work. We have two nice hours and a bottle of wine before you yell at me.  I do not understand that it doesn’t take much for drinkers to get angry because I do not understand addiction, my own drinking heavy but not daily or in secret. We are on your bed, listening to the CD I made you, just for this night, and I tell you if you yell at me again, I will leave. You apologize, as Beck’s “Lost Cause” comes on. I think: if God exists, he manifests primarily as a DJ.

We canoe on the lake the next day and try to have all the conversations for which we never had time, to make up for lost time. But the time is already lost—I could not make love last night after you yelled at me, could not sleep, and each time you touch me, I pull away, despite the years I have spent wanting just that. There is a new love back home in Seattle, but I tell him that this trip is one I have to make in order to be whole, one last heist before I quit for good. Before you are even awake that first morning, I call him, tell him that this trip is not going well, that this was a mistake, and that I love him, love him, love him. He tells me to get through the next two days and then come home to him. He will listen to the CD I made until then.

I do not make it two days. The second night we drink heavily: I am desperate to have fun, having disliked you all day—your arrogance without accomplishment, your bitter rage at your twenty-four-year-old ex-girlfriend, your mother, your son, your life, your need to smoke a cigarette or weed or take a pill or drink every two hours; you are angry at me in that way only lust can fuel and you want to blur my edges, if you cannot have my soft body. We drink until we are drunk, and then we drink some more, get in your car, and suddenly the tumblers click, the safe is open, and the alarm inside of me goes off, as we speed down the highway and you begin to yell at me again. You are not my treasure, this has not been worth it, and I think that we might die, the car going faster, and I pray for the first time in years, really pray. You notice I am white-faced, that I refuse to look at you or talk. And so, you yell and yell, swerving to scare me more, laughing when you do. This is not my sweet-faced lover at twelve, or, maybe, it always has been.

We arrive at the apartment, and I run upstairs, find my suitcase, start to pack. It is three in the morning. You push me on the bed and somehow there’s a knife, but I am sobbing with my eyes closed, and a voice from my mouth stumbles as it repeats the thing even it cannot believe it says: please don’t kill me please don’t kill me. You let me up, I grab my bag and run from you, as I always knew I should, run from the scene of this crime against my heart and maybe yours, run in this strange neighborhood until I reach a Walgreen’s, and the night manager takes me into the back room, gives me a bottle of water, wipes the blood that is, thank god, not my own off of my arm, and tells me, as I cry and hate myself, “Girl, we’ve all been there. You got away, and you never need to go back.”


Safe Deposit Box

You are eighteen, and I am twenty-two. It is one in the morning, and the knock on the door startles me so that I feel sick. I open the door, and you are finally here. Your eyes are clear, and you are wearing a straw-colored T-shirt the color of your shoulder-length hair. In the sodium light, you are so golden, you are so beautiful, that it brings tears to my eyes. Here, in memory, I stay with you in that doorway forever, owing nothing to you or to myself but that which we owe to love, who never forgives a debt, and so we keep on paying until there’s nothing, nothing left.


Other recent essays and poems by Bryn Gibben can be found in the Rappahannock Review and 3Elements Review. She is an instructor of English at Seattle University, teaching literature, composition, and creative nonfiction, and has also taught at Richard Hugo House.

Veronica Lavia is a writer, filmmaker and photographer based in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her work has been published in The Acentos Review, The Sea Letter, and The Library of Rejected Beauty. Several of her short films have appeared in film festivals, including the TU 35 Expanded at the Pecci Museum in Italy.