This story is by Melissa Iteld-Jurin and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Melanie!” the woman on the other end of the call chirped, “I have some good news. I found a lead.” It was Mara, my job counselor. For the past six months. Mara had been combing the online job databases in search of a permanent teaching position for me. My last teaching gig ended over two years ago, and now I had run out of money, unemployment checks, and alimony payments (my husband had dumped me after I had lost my job seven months into our marriage, and had gone back to his ex-girlfriend, a business major who had landed a plum job at Goldman Sachs so he could rub her superior job skills in my face.) I lost the lease on my apartment and had to move back to my parents’ home where I slept on the couch in the living room (they had downsized to a three room apartment). At least I was in familiar territory.
“Okay,” I replied, still feeling groggy at eleven in the morning. “What have you got?”
At best I had only held a few substitute teaching jobs. Job interviews rarely advanced beyond the first interview, and cover letters and resumes went unanswered. Judgmental relatives, nosy neighbors, and even my closest friends told me to “pack in” teaching and find something else. My family, namely my parents and my dear older siblings were not nearly as kind; my parents said that I was floundering, and my older sister and brother, both successful professionals earning six figure salaries, called me a loser who would never amount to anything.
“It’s a good start for you to get back into teaching,” Mara said, “and it’s only a one fare commute.” I could picture Mara trying her best to put a positive spin on this job description.
“What kind of job is it Mara?” I asked impatiently. Whenever Mara said that a certain job would revive my career, I knew it was too good to be true. Most of these positions were jobs that no one wanted because they paid little or were in bad schools or neighborhoods.
“It’s a teaching assistant at one of the better inner city public schools.”
“Mara! A teaching assistant? Are you kidding?” I screamed into the phone. “I’m a certified teacher. I had my own classes. How much does this pay? $20,000?”
“Eighteen. But you can work your way up to faculty and there’s health insurance,” Mara said reassuringly.
“Eighteen thousand?” I was so livid that I could have sworn that smoke was coming out of my ears. “That’s what I made on my first job after I graduated from college.”
“Melanie,” Mara pleaded, “I know this is not exactly what you were hoping for, but it’s a foot in the door.”
“Of what? The poverty line? ” I replied angrily.
“Melanie, you’ve been out of the job market for a while. Give it a chance.”
“I don’t know, Mara. This is not a comeback, but a comedown. I have degrees from a prestigious university.”
” I know you do, and you’re very well qualified. But the schools only want people with solid job histories. This could be your steppingstone to better jobs. Don’t you want to move out of your parents’ home? Meet someone new?” Mara said sweetly.
“Of course I do. I want all of that but I don’t want to look like a failure. How can I do all of that on $18,000 a year? It would take me forever to pay all my bills and then have enough left to move.And don’t forget taxes. I’m not getting any younger. No, Mara. You have to find me something better,” I said defiantly.
“I don’t know if anything better will come along, at least for now. If you had a more stable job history, then the opportunities would be greater. What would you do if you needed a job immediately?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“What if you had to move out by the end of the month? What would you do then?” Mara asked.
“That’s not going to happen,” I snapped back.
“You never know,” Mara countered.
A week after I spoke to Mara, my father suffered a heart attack. I wasn’t there when he collapsed; my friend and fellow teacher, Susan, had invited me to dinner at her home. As soon as Susan dropped me back at my parents’ apartment house, My cell phone rang.
“Melanie! Where the hell are you?” The frantic voice belonged to my sister, Elaine.
“Hello Elaine,” I replied while searching through my bag for the building keys. “What’s up?”
“What’s up?” Elaine shrieked as though I had a nerve to ask her how she was. “Dad had a heart attack and he’s in the ER.”
“Oh my God!” I yelled, almost dropping the phone. “I didn’t know.”
“Of course you didn’t,” Elaine replied sarcastically.
“I was at Susan’s. Why didn’t Mom call me?”
“She had her hands full getting Dad to the hospital.”
“Is he going to be alright?” I was scared that Dad might not pull through. Mom and Dad were older than my friends’ parents, and I dreaded the day when I wouldn’t have them anymore. Dad’s sudden heart attack was a wake-up call.
“Why don’t you go to the hospital to find out. Mom needs you.”
“I’m on my way.” I hung up with Elaine and opened my Uber app.
By the time I reached the hospital, Dad had been moved to the cardiac unit. Mom and both my siblings were huddled in the visitors’ lounge.
“Well, look who finally flew in,” my brother Jared said. At fifty, Jared was the eldest and the owner of three thriving businesses.
“At least she got here before it was too late,” chimed Elaine, the middle child and a partner in her law firm.
“Elaine! Enough!” My mother chided my sister.
“I got an Uber as soon as I got off the phone with Elaine,” I said as I hugged my mother. “How is he?” I asked my mother. Her large brown eyes were bloodshot, and her checks sunken. Despite the toll extracted by the day’s events, my mother looked younger than her seventy-five years.
“He’s stable, but the doctors want to do an angioplasty. There’s been some damage to the heart.”
“And then what? He’ll be okay. Won’t he?” I asked anxiously.
“We hope so,” my mother said as though she were about to cry.
“Tell her the rest,” Elaine insisted.
My mother looked at Elaine and then at me. “He’ll require a lot of rest and care. I simply can’t do it myself. I’m getting on in years.”
“I’ll be here for you. I’ll help care for Dad. I’ll do anything,” I said.
“I’m afraid that won’t be enough,” my mother replied.
I was confused. What more did Dad need?
“Tell her,” Elaine said to my mother.
“A nurse during the day and a live-in home attendant,” my mother replied.
“So, what does that have to do with me?”
“Mom needs your bed for the live-in,” Elaine said.
“I can sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag if I have to,” I piped up.
“Melanie,” my mother explained, “there will be a lot of equipment to monitor your father, and I need the space. Perhaps you can stay with Susan.”
“Susan can’t take me in. She’s going through a divorce and has to move in with her sister.”
“Another loser,” my sister muttered.
“Why can’t either of you take in Mom and Dad for a few weeks?” I demanded of my brother and sister.
“Are you kidding?” Jared said in disbelief. “Where will I put my three kids?”
“Don’t look at me,” said Elaine. “I don’t have a spare room. The kids still need their nanny.”
“Melanie,” my mother said softly, “we’ll discuss this at home. I’m sure you’ll make the right choice for your father. You love him so much and he knows how much you care.”
The next day I knew what I had to do for my father.
“Mara? It’s Melanie.”
“Melanie! How are you?”
“My father’s in the hospital. Heart attack.”
“I’m so sorry. Is he okay?” Mara asked.
“Yes. He’ll be home in a week,” I said.
“That’s good. What can I do for you?”
“That job you told me about. Is it still available?” I asked.
“Why yes!” Mara sounded surprised to hear that I was still interested in it. “They liked your resume. Should I call them back?”
“You’re okay with the salary?” Mara asked.
“It’s fine. Just what I need right now,” I replied.
A month later, with the help of the nurse’s aid and a physical therapist, Dad was getting back on his feet. I was beginning my new job as the teaching assistant to a busy sixth grade teacher, and in my spare time, sprucing up the apartment I was sharing with a teacher I had met at the school.