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Poor

By Aria Dominguez

Bio

Aria Dominguez (she/they) is a writer whose poetry and creative nonfiction navigate the terrain between beauty and pain. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize, and she was winner of the 2021 Porch Prize in Creative Nonfiction, finalist for the 2021 Lighthouse Writers Workshop Emerging Writers Fellowship in Nonfiction, winner of a Fall 2021 Brooklyn Poets Fellowship, and winner of the 2022 Sunlight Press Essay Contest. Aria works with a nonprofit focused on food justice and lives in Minneapolis with her son.

Why can’t we just paint the kitchen ourselves instead of waiting for Bud to do it?” you plead.

            “Paint’s expensive, it would take too much time, and he wouldn’t allow us.”

            “But it’s our apartment.”

            “He owns it, Aria. We just live here.”

            “That’s my point: we live here. I’m sick of worrying that the ceiling’s going to fall in my food. I mean, come on, look at it.”

            Dad’s gaze follows the path pointed to the cracked, crumbling plaster, the paint chunks hanging on by their fingertips, the bare patches long abandoned by less-determined flakes that fell flippantly to the floor, disregarding the distress they would one day cause by their absence.

            “It’s soooo embarrassing. And Muffy’s, like, rich. Really rich. I can’t have her see this.”

            “I’m sorry it bothers you, but I don’t know what to do about it. If she’s your friend, she won’t care where you live. Anyway, painting the kitchen isn’t going to fool her into thinking you’re something you’re not.”

            Something you’re not, like not-poor. You had never really applied a label to your economic situation until the other night, when Dad was arguing with Momma after you were supposed to be asleep. His voice was an angry wasp, a low buzzing from where he pulled the phone into the kitchen. After a long silence (so hard to stop Momma as she gathers steam, chugging down the well-worn track of bitter accusations and reclamations), the wasp stung, “Jesus Christ, Karen, do you think I can pull money out of my asshole? When the fuck are you going to figure out that I’m poor?”

            You had always heard your parents say, “I don’t have much money,” or, “There’s no money for that.” Statements that made it seem as though perhaps one day they could have money just as well as not.

            Poor, though, that’s a label for a stable situation. Poor implies that the next ten years are likely to go much as the first. Poor sounds like an indelible line drawn between you and Muffy, over which you can call to her but not cross. Poor is a place where a rich girl would slum for the weekend before returning to the elegance and comfort of her Summit Avenue mansion perched upon the lofty hill overlooking downtown Saint Paul.

            You stare up at the ceiling in consternation. There must be something to do about it before the Saturday sleepover. Adults always say that you don’t respect limits, but they invent arbitrary boundaries: the time for fun is over; you shall sit in that desk and read this book; it is the appointed hour to eat; you must sleep even though you’re wide awake; sorry, that’s just the way things are. If Bud bars you from painting the kitchen, that’s just a barrier you’ll have to sidestep as you figure out how to avoid the humiliation of letting Muffy see the sorry state of the ceiling.

            “Could we cover it with cloth, Dad?”

            “No, I don’t have that much cloth, and we’d have to nail it up or something, and that would make holes.”

            “But there’s already holes.”

            “That doesn’t mean we can make more.”

            Another brilliant idea ruled impractical by an oh-so-logical adult. You look around for further inspiration.

            “How about we cover it with tinfoil?”

            “What? I don’t think so.”

            “Why not?”

            “Well, uh, how would that work? I don’t think it’ll stay up, and it probably won’t look like you think it will.” You sense a chink in his resistance—he doesn’t actually have a reason behind this objection.

            “We could tape it up. It would look cool. Please?” He wavers, but still balks.

            “I only have a little bit left.”

            “I’ll ride my bike to the store and get some more. It’s cheap. And you can take it out of my allowance. Please, Daddy.” He shrugs his shoulders, smiling slightly as he gives in to your obstinance once again.

            “Okay, if it’s that important to you, I guess it’s fine.”

            Dad hands you two dollars, which you stuff into the pocket of your jeans. You grab your bike from where it leans against the front steps and fly to Herbst Market. There’s not much Sunday afternoon traffic on University Avenue, so you cross against the red light. That’s totally against the rules, but you’re on a mission, a quest that will not wait for an unthinking eye to delay your progress.

            You grab a slim blue box off the dusty shelf and take it to the front. The more ancient of the Herbst brothers is perched on a stool next to the cash register. His head is slumped against his chest, which moves slowly up and down as he sleeps. You clear your throat loudly; his head bobs up as close as it gets to upright on his perpetually hunched neck. He’s a nice guy, but you can’t help but jiggle your foot in a fit of impatience as he slowly, oh so slowly, counts out your change and slides each individual coin across the faded counter.

            “Thirty-seven…thirty-eight…there you go.”

            “Thanks!” you shout over your shoulder as you yank the door open and dash out, bells jangling sharply.

            Back home, you mount the table with tape measure in hand. As Dad holds the other end, you find that the kitchen is exactly ten feet and one inch long. Then you measure the other way: just under six feet. There isn’t room to lay out ten feet of foil in the kitchen, what with the sink, stove, refrigerator, and table, so you take it to the main room of the efficiency. You pull the crisp aluminum off the roll, carefully measuring out six sheets at 121 inches long each.

            You have Dad hold one end while you, one foot on the small stove and one on the tiny table, start taping up the other. At first it seems too loose, like every gust of wind from opening the door will blow it down. Maybe you need stronger tape. Maybe Dad was right. But then you start pressing it against the ceiling, and it clings to the cracks quite nicely. You had in mind a smooth, shiny expanse, but this will do. You wouldn’t have thought metal molded to marred plaster would work, but the flaws become intrigue. By the time you are done, they web across your shimmering sky like roots or branches.

            When the last square inch has been transformed to twinkling, you lay down on the blue linoleum floor to survey your handiwork. You are most pleased. The naked bulb’s lambent light sparkles overhead. Muffy may have crystal chandeliers, but you have a whole winking welkin. Even when you leave the room, everything seems to gleam with the residue of refulgence, your eyes’ memory of a silver sky.

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