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You will have to file a police report against your father. I knew it. I just knew it. Your father is a very sneaky man. For months, my mother had told me that everything was fine. “I am making monthly payments on the loans,” she kept saying, like my father wasn’t in her life anymore, either. “They are satisfied with the payments.”
But now, the debt collector was telling me that all those payments had bounced.
“We’ll give him until the end of next week,” he said. “If he doesn’t resolve this by then, you will have to go through the process of claiming identity theft. You will have to file a police report against your father.”
My father had taken out a whole bunch of fraudulent student loans in my name. I found out about it a few months after I graduated from college, when a random acquaintance wrote to say that some lady named Karen was looking for me. She said it was important, the message read. It’s kinda weird she contacted me. Do you know her? I knew all too well that debt collectors hunted people down through their friends and relatives. My parents were always dodging them. But when I looked at Karen’s number that day, glowing ominously through the computer screen, my stomach turned. I had a feeling that this was going to be about more than just a late payment or eviction notice.
He stole things from us all the time, in small amounts, just to make our accusations sound petty and reaching. “Why would I go into your room to steal ten dollars?” he’d say. “I’d never do that to you.”
I called the number and spoke to a man named Bill.
“You’re behind on your student loan payments ma’am,” he said with authority, after informing me that this was an attempt to collect a debt, and any information obtained would be used for that purpose. “Would you like to make a payment today?”
“I’m sorry, which loan exactly?”
“Your TERI education loans. Looks here like you have eleven of them in collection.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“You have eleven different student loans in collection, ma’am. Looks like, with accrued interest, they total close to one hundred and twenty-four thousand dollars.”
One hundred and twenty-four thousand dollars? One hundred and twenty-four thousand dollars?
“I’m sorry. One hundred thousand? Are you serious? That’s impossible. There’s no way I owe that much!”
“Did you, or did you not, attend Bennington College?”
“Yeah, I did, but I had financial aid. I had a scholarship. I only took out one loan when I first started school, for like, three thousand dollars or something. My father told me he was paying the rest out of pocket.”
“Ma’am, it also looks like there’s a named cosigner on these loans.”
He read the name.
“Oh my God,” I said. “That’s my high school counselor. A friend of my father’s.”
“Well, it looks like she has filed a fraud charge against you.”
“What?” My heart skipped. Feelings of panic beat inside my chest, fast and familiar. “No way,” I pleaded. “My father did this! I had nothing to do with this. He’s a con artist, I’m telling you!”
“This is a very serious matter, ma’am.”
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Bill told me that I was better off making payment arrangements, since filing a claim of identity theft against my father would be a long and arduous process. “Have him call us,” he said. “If he makes regular payments, it’ll all be fine.”
But Bill didn’t know my father. He didn’t know that I grew up in seventeen different houses because we kept getting evicted, or that my parents spent their paychecks on chain restaurants and hair salons. He didn’t understand how many times our utilities had been shut off, how many things we had lost to repossessions and pawn shops. Pay for his own fraudulent loans? I had already trusted him to pay for my education. He made me think that he’d changed. He made me believe that he wanted to help me, that paying for college was his way of “making up for everything that had happened.” I had wanted to forgive him, and he used this longing to swindle me.
It’s difficult to put the things that happened in our family into a definitive chronological order without being redundant.
It didn't matter where we lived, or how much money we made (my parents made enough to support us); every day was a crisis.
We frequented pawn shops more often than the grocery store. If my father wasn't pawning my mother’s jewelry, it was our Christmas presents, or the living room television.
A trip to the pawn shop brought either desperation or immense joy, depending on how dire our situation had become. Pawning a necklace meant we got a meal. Pawning a television meant we got a meal at a restaurant and a trip to the movies. Whatever money pawning yielded, it was spent as quickly as it was received. Sometimes, an item turned out to be much less valuable than my father had anticipated, and this brought desperation. If my father was desperate, it was because he was “always under so much pressure,” a burden forged by our incessant demands.
Explaining what went missing in the house was a chore, a perpetual lie told in the hopes that nobody would ask any pressing questions. We were always “upgrading,” or sending things off to the repair shop. The same went for explaining all our moves. We moved so that we could be closer to my grandmother. We needed more space. We needed less space. The landlord decided to sell the house. The landlord's daughter moved back to town and needed the house immediately, so we had to leave in the middle of the night. Whatever people pretended to believe, we told them, whether we knew they believed us or not. We changed our phone number, too, just as often as our address, which made it harder to hide behind the lie.
In addition to losing our valuable things to pawn shops, we often had our furniture repossessed. Almost all our furniture was rented. “We bought a new couch” meant that we just had our old couch repossessed, and had groveled with Rent-A-Center for a new one. And if it wasn't moving, pawning, or repossession, it was our electricity, gas, or water getting shut off for non-payment. Since my father had once worked for the Electric Company, he knew how to turn our electricity back on after they disconnected it. We often went without gas or water, though, until my father found someone to swindle or something to pawn.
And if he couldn’t swindle others, he swindled us. Now I had to file a police report against him.
Would he go to jail? I was sure that he would. There was no way he’d get away with this. If the police only knew everything he’d done to torture us. The dog hair in my brother’s sandwich. The time he replaced my mother’s cancer pills with Melatonin. He stole things from us all the time, in small amounts, just to make our accusations sound petty and reaching. “Why would I go into your room to steal ten dollars?” he’d say. “I’d never do that to you.”
I always knew that my father was a con artist. Now, as I began to understand the magnitude of what he had done, I suspected him of being a sociopath. He had ruined my chances at a normal life. He had destroyed any hope for my financial future, any possibility that I could run away from the poverty he kept forcing me into.
And my mother had known about it.
“He promised he’d pay it back!” she sobbed after I called her demanding answers. “He promised he’d take care of it!”
“Why didn’t you tell me, Mom? How could you not tell me?”
“I wanted to tell you. I wanted to. But he promised he’d take care of it!”
“Are you going to leave him?”
“Yes. But I can’t talk about that right now.”
I knew she wouldn’t. She was always planning to leave him.
Her threats of divorce were persistent, viable enough to keep you from feeling secure, but predictably devoid of any gumption. I tried to imagine my mother living on her own. She had been so close to leaving earlier that summer after my father spent the three hundred dollars he had offered to give me as a graduation present. I urged her to move to New York with me. I imagined what our life would be like, just us, two independent women living in the city. But I couldn’t picture my mother sacrificing anything to be independent. There were certain things she could not go without. Her hair was the biggest priority. She had to get it done at a professional salon at least once a month, an expense that often included her nails. Her bracelets would click and clank together when she moved her arms back and forth. Her golden necklaces would dangle over her chest, simple and elegant, the way she liked them. Roughing it, for her, would have been to use the same towel two days in a row. She could not live without a shower. She could not be seen in public without her makeup or her nicest clothes.
Her complicity was veiled behind this vanity, her disgust as artificial as the hairspray she wore daily.
How dare my father lie, cheat, and steal to get these things for her! How dare he pawn them to take us out to eat! And now, how dare he forge my name on loans that couldn’t possibly have gone to my school.
My mother had known about the loans, but I was sure she was somehow being forced into silence about them. She was my father’s helpless victim. He had chipped away at her self-esteem for years, doing everything he could for her, until she couldn’t do things for herself. Any time he did something wrong, he’d rush around the house like a servant, catering to her every need with the force of a dutiful captor. “Do you want more iced tea, Toodles?” he’d whimper in his most pathetic sounding baby voice. Then, he’d kneel beside her and hold the straw up to her lips while she drank, her passive body stiff with silent antagonism. After a few days of this, she always forgave him.
My mother was always sick, scared, and depressed, terrified of being alone. This was why she couldn’t leave my father. But now I started to wonder — Was there more to it than that? If I filed a police report, and my father went to jail, maybe she would finally get to be free. Maybe we would all find out the truth about her complicity, that she was being held against her will, and forced to put up with my father’s crimes while actively working to protect us from them. She wouldn’t do this to me. Right?
I sat at my desk and stared at the walls. Was filing a police report the right thing to do? I thought about Bill’s words and the disdain with which he said them. Your father is a very sneaky man. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t feel my heart.
All I could think was about what would happen to my mother. Who would take care of her if my father went to jail?
I picked up the phone and dialed her number. I wanted to warn her.
“Mom, I called the guy from the collection agency again.”
“Bill, the guy from the collection agency. You know, about the loans?”
“He said that all the checks bounced.”
“The checks. The checks that you said you sent for the loans? They bounced.”
“Checks?” She sounded confused like she was stalling for time.
“Mom, are you serious? You know the loans? The ones my father took out? The payments he sent bounced.”
“Mom!” I was irritated. “You know the man you live with? My father? You said you were sending payments to the collection agency. But I just talked to Bill, and he said that the payments bounced.”
“Okay.” She didn’t sound mad or surprised.
“Mom, I’m going to have to file a police report.”
“Okay, mija. He’ll take care of it, though, alright?"
My father never took care of it. I’d spend years in poverty, fighting for collection agencies and police departments to believe that my father had done this to me, not for me. I’d find out about more loans, and I’d beg my mother to leave. But my father never faced any consequences, and soon, my mother began acting like nothing had happened. She’d tell me about her latest celebrity crushes, or her ongoing medical problems, not once acknowledging that my credit and financial future had already been ruined. For a few years, I played along.
Then, I discovered her handwriting on some of the forged disbursement checks. My mind raced as a new reality sunk in. She hadn’t just known about the loans. She had forged my name on them.
My mother was no victim. She was an accomplice.
I love you more than anything, Angel. The memory of her voice echoed against the emptiness I felt now. How many times had she said these words to me, expecting me to say them back? How many times had I done so, feeling worthless and shattered because she never believed me?
I had done everything I could to prove my love to her. Now, she wanted me to pretend like it had never happened. The part of my soul belonging to her was already broken. Looking at her signature, disguised as mine, I knew I had to sever it forever.
I haven’t spoken to her since.
It takes me a minute every morning to remember where I am now. I wake up with panic coursing through my veins, sadness seeping into my chest, until I finally open my eyes and orient myself. My wife’s feet are cuddled next to mine. Our dog, Lea, sleeps peacefully between us. My life is warm and gentle now. I am safe. I am loved. I am home. But sometimes I forget.
I take deep breaths and wonder why I still feel so panicked. I’ve built my life from ashes, and I’ve filled it with intentional kindness and trust. I’ve spent every day trying to be the best version of myself I can be, a good friend, teacher, and wife. Still, all I can feel is the pain of my parents’ betrayal. All I can hear is the echo of my voice, whispering to me as I take a sip of my coffee. You are not loved. You are not worthy. Nothing you do is enough.
But it’s important to me to believe that good ultimately prevails. I’ll go mad if I stop trusting that. I’m shattered and broke, and I’m chained, forever, to the debt my parents have inflicted upon me. The world is on fire, and bad guys keep slipping away from justice, like anything that’s good in this world doesn’t really matter. But I won’t let the bad guys win. I won’t let them steal my heart. I will keep choosing to pursue light, and I’ll stand tall as I walk toward it every day, just to spite them. I will be the best version of myself I can be. I will rise above the charred remains of night like a phoenix and fly away.
My parents stole yesterday. I won’t let them take tomorrow.
I’m not really okay, but I’m trying. And because I believe it, I know someday I will be.