Even if I don’t exactly remember the day, my mother has told the story enough times to imprint what looks like a memory into my mind. We’re at my elementary school playground. It’s a mild, overcast day, because it’s Seattle, and yet everything seems to glow, as if drenched in sunlight, because it’s a memory of my childhood. I am seven…no: eight years old. My hair is still blonde, my eyes a grey-blue that will turn hazel brown within a year or two. In my story-memory, I am wearing a frilly white dress; pleated skirt, pink and yellow tulips stitched across my chest. In reality, I was probably wearing something more like pink sweat pants and a green sweatshirt with some kind of smiling cartoonish animal printed across it.
I run over to my mom from the playground, cheeks ruddy from play, eyes glittering. I have something to tell her, something important. I wait a moment, pause to catch my breath, then lean toward her, voice low and conspiratorial, and confess, “Mom, I think I’m going to be famous.”
Kids are notorious wild fantasizers. Hearing a child declare her future fame is not uncommon or particularly noteworthy, but when I said it, I really meant it. I believed in my future fame. It wasn’t completely unfounded. I had my first poem published when I was eight, in The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, a magazine to which established poets aspire for publication. I made my first $100 off writing that same year, and for several years I was the chronic first place winner at the Mercer Island Books youth poetry contest. I’m not telling you all this just to brag. I’m telling you this because I was not born a failure. I had every reason to believe that I would grow to be, if not actually famous, a successful writer. Or at the very least, not poor.
My mother, who once loved to recollect the story of my self-predicted fame, has stopped telling it. Last week, I missed therapy because I had to go to the Department of Human and Health Services to apply for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. Otherwise known as Food Stamps. I hold two writing degrees, and still receive compliments and offers for publication, but I am also unemployed, my credit is an abyss I will never crawl out of in this lifetime, and I struggle to maintain tenancy in a roach-infested rundown apartment owned by Seattle’s most notorious slumlord.
Why? Why does someone who once held so much promise, whose claims to future fame were believed not only by herself but everyone else too, who could incite middle school kids to forgo recess to rehearse in the plays she had written; why is she living chronically poor on the brink of homelessness?