Dear Sallie Mae,
Guess what I did this weekend. I had fun! I had the kind of fun that you have when you go out for a night with your friends, spend an exorbitant amount of money, party until the wee hours of the morning, then sleep for an inadequate number of hours. Of course afterwards you must stuff your face (with Tim Horton’s if it’s in the vicinity) and go back to bed for a friendly cuddling session where everyone that’s coherent climbs into bed together. Yes, even if it seems logistically impossible to fit everyone into one bed somehow you and your friends manage. You laugh, you talk, you look up ridiculous topics such as cat breading on someone’s iPhone and laugh and talk some more until a force beyond your control causes someone to move. Burj Khalifa, The Address, Fibber McGee’s, the Paddyman, that pit stop at Circle K, the spilled wine fortune telling. It. Was. A. Blast! I mean, atomic bomb, aftershock, jaw dropping, “Wow! We really did that!” fun. It’s the kind of fun that makes you think and wonder why we don’t do it every weekend. Then… I remembered you. I remembered the money that was no longer in my wallet, I remembered that I’d be eating potatoes for the rest of the month, and I remembered my spreadsheet.
Before you get mad, let me explain a few things. I don’t mean to make you sound like a Debbie Downer or insinuate that you object to fun, but I have very mixed emotions about the way that we interact with one another. We were introduced to each other almost eight years and four months ago. You were wealthy and though I was not poor, I didn’t have access to nearly as much money as you had. Even though we weren’t friends and you barely knew me, you trusted me enough to offer to lend me a good chunk of change. Similar to all give and take relationships, there were conditions to accessing your money and you’re pretty anal so you wrote them all out for me. Thanks by the way, I really appreciate the time and effort it took you to do all of that. I only wish I’d taken as much time to read all of it. Fine print and financial jargon didn’t appeal to me at the time, but I skimmed it before letting you know what I was going to do. I was only nineteen, and making decisions about large sums of money wasn’t exactly my forte. You presented yourself as reliable and generous. Furthermore, I didn’t have to write any essays or go through too much effort so I accepted your offer with gusto. Getting back to my point about you and fun, you enabled me to go to the University of Maryland where I enjoyed the ideal college experience. Everybody always talked about college being the best four years of your life and the importance of soaking it all up while you’re there, and YOU allowed me to do just that. When I think of you I remember all of the wing nights at Santa Fe, the dollar beers at Cornerstone, Lupo’s before it became Thirsty Turtle, the privileged feeling of hanging out with Marae’s senior crowd as a sophomore, Courtyards pool parties, basketball games, route 1 riots, Byrd Blackouts, soccer games, Blockshows, Apples to Apples at Meg’s apartment, the All-Niters, Juke Joints, silly group cramming sessions in McKeldin, spring break in Miami, skiing at Flat Top Lake and all of the other countless times that you held out your hand so that I could experience fun with a capital F. I am truly grateful for all of that because without your support I wouldn’t have those memories. You were my silent partner.
Here’s where my mixed emotions come into play. The aforementioned capital F is a double entendre. Now that I’m out of school and trying to pay you back as quickly as possible, I have to limit the number of weekends that I can splurge on fun. Every month I glance at my middle finger as I click to open the email reminding me about how much you expect in return for our initial agreement. I’ve gotten used to your emails, and the figure isn’t as shocking as it was in the earlier years. I’ve stopped flicking you off as often, but every now and then I regress.
My relationship with you has caused me to examine my character. In an effort to get you off my back, I’ve started planning my expenses six months in advance. Responsible? Yes. However, I have these amazing, spontaneous, outgoing friends. They’re like me in the sense that they relish in experiences. They want to go, to see, to do, and they want to do it now, and I want to go with them. But I can’t. Unfortunately, my spreadsheet doesn’t leave too much room for spontaneous events that require me to spend money. Therefore, I’ve found myself in situations where I don’t want to explain that even though I make enough money to live comfortably, I question amounts as small as thirteen dollars. I’m embarrassed to say, “No, I can’t spend 50 dirhams at the golf course today” or “Sorry, it’s not on the spreadsheet, and if I don’t stick to the spreadsheet I won’t be able to give Sallie an extra $200”. So instead, I find myself lying about my whereabouts or ignoring phone calls so that I don’t have to lie. It’s quite pathetic behavior, but I find it necessary in order for me to experience financial freedom in the near future and avoid the shame of telling my active friends that I’m sitting on the couch for a whole weekend. I know you’ll say, “Shannon don’t rush it. Just give me the minimum. I’ve given you fifteen years.” But, Sallie, I don’t want to give you my youth AND my money. I’d rather pay you back as quickly as possible so that I can get back to fun with a capital F while I’m still young enough to enjoy it.
My dad tried to warn me about the downside of entering into an agreement with you, but when you benignly waltzed into my kitchen and offered me that first $25,000 it was such an easy path toward instant gratification. My dream school, all expenses paid, and I wouldn’t have to think about it again until after graduation. DEAL! Daddy told me that I wasn’t seeing the whole picture, but how could I? I’d wanted to attend Maryland since I was in eighth grade. It was my number one school. I took the full scholarship at Georgia State for a year, but campus life just wasn’t what I expected. It didn’t suit the college experience that I had in mind. Everyday I went to class feeling like I was settling for a second rate college experience, and if that period was supposed to be the best four years of my life I wanted it to be a grand ‘ol time. It’s possible that I never really gave Georgia State a chance because I never wanted to go there. Maryland was my dream, and I made it my mission to get there no matter what the cost. I can’t say that I’d have changed my mind even if I knew the impact that interest would have on the principle, but at the very least I would have been more prepared to pay up if I’d seen an equation in bold print that showed what I’d be paying back after three years of fun. Instead, you sucker punched me six months after graduation.
It took me a long time to forgive you for the way things went down that night. I was in tears because I was adjusting to life after college, dealing with the day in and day out of professional responsibilities and here you come to kick me when I’m down. All throughout life I was spoon fed the American dream rhetoric. You know it. You reinforced it! Study hard, go to college, get a good job and of course you’ll be able to pay back those student loans and buy a house and achieve anything you want….blah, blah, blah! I didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, but I had my degree—the one that you paid for, and were coming to collect on when I was in the worst financial shape. It’s okay, I can see your point of view now. You gave, I owed, and the joyride was over. It was pretty matter of fact, but I didn’t see it that way at the time.
Anyway, time has a reputation of giving way to perspective. Now that I know that the best times of my life are not limited to my four years of university, I want to close that chapter by paying off my expenses. At one point, I harbored a lot of resentment towards you, but I want to move past that. I realize that I owe you more than money. You’ve given me an education that even Maryland couldn’t provide. Every one of my friends has learned a thing or two about responsibility since college, but we’ve all learned in different ways. Some had their kids as teachers, others had husbands, siblings or sickly relatives. I had you. I had to produce a check for you at the end of every month. Not only that, you taught me lessons about money that Robert H. Smith couldn’t have taught on his best day. You also enabled me to look inward and create a conscious thought process about the impact that money has on my relationship with others and with myself.
In closing, I want to say thank you. The fact is, our relationship is both a burden and a blessing, and I hope you can understand why my feelings about us are muddy. Paying you off means that I have to undergo some austerity measures. I don’t like it, nobody does, but it has to be done. All in all, I know it’s for the best. I mean it with the utmost sincerity when I say thank you. I’ll always be grateful for the Fun that you financed and the knowledge that you shared with me.
P.S. I’ve enclosed a few pictures of my premeditated, spreadsheet planned Fun. I’m not completely miserable.
Hanging out at the Airpark!
New Year’s Eve at Barasti!
Cocktails at the Burj for Heather’s 30th!
“This place is great! Do you smell that? Leather bound books and dusty covers. I love it! It’s a shame I can’t take pictures. I’ll never be able to capture all of this with words.” I looked down the center of the Long Room pondering how I’d aptly describe the setting. I looked at the arched ceiling. It was so shiny that I stood there trying to decide if it was wood painted with a very thick shellac or if it was a high gloss brown paint. I looked at the (approximately) 12 foot wooden ladders attempting to estimate the height. I decided that it was probably my dad’s height times two, and subtracted six inches after looking at the slope of each ladder and figuring in practical measurements. Who would really build a ladder that’s six feet six inches, anyway? Eh, maybe. I studied the faces on the white, marble busts and thought about walking down the Hall of Mirrors and losing Michelle. Michelle and Mandy would love it here. They’d know exactly what I mean when I say how good the books smell. These students are so lucky. They get access to these books for four whole years. I’d come in here all the time if I were a Trinity student. Not true, I’d probably take it for granted. I moved closer to the ropes to look at the spines of the books and the big gold reference letters painted on the columns. There were so many books and they were all crammed in so tightly. There were two identical levels. I thought of my summer working at the Atlanta-Fulton public library. It must suck to reshelve and catalogue books here.
Reshelving and cataloguing new books had it’s pros and cons. I used it as a time to skim through books to find out if I’d want to read them. If it was a good one I’d write down the title and plan to go check it out later. By four o’clock the book was already on hold or snatched up by someone else, and that drove me crazy. I’d spend the next few minutes finding out that my name was at the bottom of a waiting list for a book that had a waiting list before I even entered it into the system. I looked at Damian, “It’s got to be great to be a student here. You never have to worry about your book being checked out since you can only use them in here.” Damian had more on the itinerary and wanted to get going. I wasn’t ready to go. This is crazy! How did we even make it here?
Photo credits to thebestcolleges.org
It started as a bit of a joke according to him, but that’s not what I remember and Gerry won’t vouch for him on that. I was on a date with DJ Chris, but I was bored with him. I could have fallen asleep trying to have an engaging conversation with him. When he had to get ready for work, I felt relieved. He went to set up at Luce’s, but I told him I was going to run up to the Horse and Jockey to sit with my friends until the “party” began. He offered to join me, and that annoyed me even more. I thought about Daddy’s basic rules of men and economics. NO MATTER WHAT YOU THINK AS A WOMAN, DINNER IS NOT FREE. I guess I have to endure him a little bit longer to pay off my dinner debt, but he better not expect anything else because that dinner is a sunk cost now. Things got awkward around Amanda, JP and Joe and luckily he decided to go back down to Luce’s. I told him I’d meet him a little later. I got up to go the toilet. Walking back to my table, I said hello to Gerry. He was sitting with a friend and a group of girls. Shortly thereafter, a guy began saying my name at an embarrassingly loud volume. I didn’t know who he was, but I wasn’t getting up to find out. He continued, and I wanted it to stop. People were looking at him and us. I got up.
“Hi. Why are you screaming my name and what do you want?”
“I’m Damian. I want to take you on a date.”
“You couldn’t even get up to speak to me. No.”
“Come on. Please. My friends got in a fight with the guys you’re sitting with and I didn’t want anything to happen when I came over there.”
“Nice to meet you, Damian. No.”
“What are you doing after this?”
“Going to Luce’s. I’m actually on a pseudo date.”
“Take me with you, please. I just have to pay my tab and I’m coming.”
Laughingly I said, “No, I just told you I’m on a date.”
I walked away and rejoined my friends. Shortly thereafter we paid our tab. I looked over and caught a glance of Damian asking for his tab, slipping his card in the black book immediately and telling the server that he was ready. He looked over and mouthed something to me. I tried to gather my things and move swiftly. I didn’t want him going into Luce’s with me. I may not like DJ Chris, but I’m not that rude.
He followed us, and walked hurriedly to catch up to me. He did a little dance and I couldn’t help but laugh at him. Ugh! That stupid dance. That wouldn’t make me want to go out with you. How am I going to lose him? In the moment, I thought it was unfortunate that I couldn’t shake him. Down in Luce’s, DJ Chris was watching me from the time we entered. I tried to go up and create some conversation with him, but he was in full work mode. Seeing that DJ Chris was fully engaged in crowd pleasing and spinning a mixture of tunes, Damian swooped in and took full advantage of the situation. Amanda tried to warn him about Al Ain being a small town and taking his time and doing things slowly, but he wasn’t phased. Slow was not his style. He told me about his time in Al Ain, his girlfriend of four years that he’d just broken up with, his prior travels and continuously insisted on taking me on a date. Eventually he was tired of plotting and wanted to put this whole thing to rest. He wanted my number. I thought he was interesting after talking to him, but I was starting to feel like the walls were closing in with DJ Chris watching me. I went to tell DJ Chris an adapted account of what was actually happening and that I was going home. Damian ran out of Luce’s. I thought we were going to chat in the lobby, but he was miles ahead of me. He rang my phone and told me to hurry up. I took my time saying goodnight to everyone, not seeing the urgency in the matter. When I got to the top of the stairs and didn’t see, Damian I thought I had dodged a bullet. Great, I can go straight home. Walking out to the taxi stand, I saw him turning to come back into the building.
“Come on, I got you a taxi.”
Wow! That was nice. What’s he doing? Getting in with me? Oh, I see where this is going. Nope! Not tonight, homeboy. According to Daddy, I’m at least entitled to dinner. I haven’t even agreed to a date. The whole way home he pestered me about a date and since he agreed to drop me off first he’d surely know where I lived. ”Okay.” I agreed to a date thinking I’d be interested for a week or two, then I’d lose him. Plus, he was fresh out of a relationship. Four years, he’s just out having fun tonight. No way is this going anywhere. No worries. He’ll leave me alone in a week. It didn’t happen.
It’s now been several dates, a month of total separation while I was traveling, a month of reacquainting ourselves, a month when we were inseparable, a few house projects, an airport scene with teary eyes, a trip to Copenhagen, never ending Skype sessions, a night out with the cousins, a scene out of P.S. I Love You, a brief meet and greet with one of the sisters, another airport scene and a moment to reflect on the highs and lows of it all in the Long Room. I had to smile at the thought of how things began and how much our relationship has evolved.
As we neared the staircase leading toward the gift shop, I was still reluctant to leave. I spun around to take in one last look and tried to impress all of the fine details in my mind. I may not have a picture (and it’s certainly not the first time because he prefers the experience over the visual representation), but it’s one more place to add to our story, one more page in our book. Amongst all of the stories in the Long Room, I was only interested in one at that moment - ours. I took his hand and listened to the creaking on the stairs as we left.
“Mohammed, fleus? Do you want zatar or cheese? Juice?” He gives me a blank stare. In an effort to get through the process quickly, I switch to Arabic. “Hacier?” He shakes his head and gives me that grin that says ‘Good job, English speaking lady. Now you’re speakin’ my language, but it sounds kind of funny.‘ I go around the semi rectangle until I get to Khalifa. “Khalifa, andak fleus?” He looks at me and because he’s cock-eyed it looks as if he’s looking at me and Ms. Amna. She is sitting beside me leading the kids in a song. Khalifa shakes his head vigorously and in the most peculiar voice says, “Mob andak flues.” I think to myself. Again! Damn. I taught his older brother Zayed last year. At least three times a week I watched Zayed shake his head to tell me that he didn’t have money, and this year it looks like I’ll be doing the same with Khalifa. Freeloaders! Does his mom think he eats for free? I’ve learned that our ways aren’t their ways and asking questions is neither helpful or useful. Just roll with the program, Shannon!
Prior to coming to the UAE, I thought I was an open minded thinker. However, in the course of a year I’ve learned that my point of view on many topics is constricted to a Western doctrine. During my first week of school in the UAE I passed out the students’ sandwiches and asked Fatima, “What should we do for Zayed? He didn’t have lunch money.” She walked over to the table, picked up another student’s sandwich and said, “Okay, Ms. Sha-nun. We bdr-ake.” Humaid appeared to be happy to share with Zayed. I thought, Hmm…his mother gives him money to eat a whole sandwich and he ends up sharing on account of another mother’s neglect. That wouldn’t be my child. As for his juice, she asked all of the students if they had one dirham. The students gladly raised their coin and she took one from a little girl’s arm and told me to go get a juice from Ms. Nahla. As I walked through the grotesque blue, cartoon decorated hallway I couldn’t believe I took another kid’s money to buy juice for Zayed. What if their mother was expecting change? What if that was intended for another purpose?
The students sang louder, “Bis meh lah, bis me lah nahkt-a yoni bis meh lah.” I patted Khalifa’s pockets to be sure that he wasn’t hiding his money. Then I asked, “When shanta?” He hissed, “Mah andak shanta.” I guess this is just the way things go in his household. He was the last student I had to collect money from so as the song dragged on I tallied up the number of cheese and zatar sandwiches needed for the day and counted the money. As I put the bills aside and dumped the coins in the basket, I did some self reflecting. This is probably how Leah, Charlotte and Heather feel. How dare you criticize Khalifa’s parents when you do the exact same thing. You’ve been freeloading for a whole year. Hah!
Last year my friends started weekly dinners, so that we’d stay connected throughout the year. It helped us find something to do, save a little bit of money and avoid the silent giant known as homesickness. Everyone hosted dinner at their house. Lauren had a few tranquil evening gatherings, Charlotte held a candlelit rooftop picnic, Leah hosted so many dinners that I lost count, Aisling had the hoe down of all hoe downs, Heather and Caroline threw a merry affair just before Christmas holidays and Adam even got credit for hosting an event even though Leah did all of the work.
What did I do? Nothing. I showed up. I was the ultimate freeloader. I washed a few dishes, brought a couple of bottles of wine, tended the grill and helped set up. However, I avoided full responsibility—-just like Khalifa’s mom. My intent was to host the final shabang of the school year. I’d thought of a theme and everything, but as time approached I had too much going on and preparing for AmeriCanadalympics took precedent over my long overdue dinner. Of course, I couldn’t take credit for that successful event either. In spite of the fact that Leah and I provided the outline for the ultimate Independence Day competition, it was hosted at Leah and Adam’s complex. Obviously, all of the credit went their way.
I wasn’t fully present as I sat on the carpet. I could hear my students responding to Amna’s questions, but I had other thoughts going through my head. That’s why Charlotte and Heather were so eager to call me out. I’m a freeloader. At book club last week, Charlotte made me shake on it to seal the deal. After shaking on it, she promptly announced on Facebook that I’d be hosting the next book club gathering. I liked it. Amna looked over. By the look on her face I could tell that she’d already asked the question once or maybe even twice, “Ms. Sha-nun, pass me sticker. Shathra, shathra, Khalifa.” She was rewarding him for doing something correctly. I passed the stickers and looked at him and smiled.
I’m going to lose my title of certified freeloader next week. Maybe his mother just needs to be called out to realize that she can lose her title, too. I’ll draft an appropriate note for her this weekend. It won’t be the first time I sent a note home to that household, but hey, it took me a whole year to figure out that I was dodging responsibility so maybe Khalifa will have lunch money next week.