Weights and Measures

How many days will a bag of rice buy?

by Dorothy Bendel
Art by Jarett Sitter
September 1st, 2020

A calendar hangs on the kitchen wall. I look at it every time I walk down the hallway. It’s not my kitchen, or my hallway—these are temporary spaces I occupy in the apartment I rent in DC—but the calendar is mine.

The calendar is both an archive of the past and an attempt to keep looking ahead; I use it to keep from falling through cracks in time. I count the days until my next paycheck arrives from my adjunct teaching job. I circle the date with a thick red pen. I divide eight days by dollar bills. I check the cupboards to see if anything is left for my daughter’s breakfast before school the next day. I explain to her that water is better for the body than milk. My son, thankfully, is too young to notice. I use the back of an old receipt to make a list, jot down the ingredients I have left. One bag of dried beans can stretch across three to four meals. Rice is cheaper in bulk. Flour only needs water to become unleavened bread. 

Seven more days. Time isn’t smooth or linear; I bind it in numbers and rituals. I fill the empty calendar squares with Xs to create the appearance of forward motion. When the pressure builds, it becomes a choke in my throat. Every new panic seems to loop me back to my old life, a life I’ll never stop reliving—back to Florida. 

Back to a Fort Lauderdale bus station, when I was barely out of high school, hiding in the bathroom because I’d used the last of my cash on a ticket to this unfamiliar place. It was nighttime, and I called the toll-free number for a shelter for homeless youth. The flat voice on the line said there werent any available beds, to call again tomorrow. Fort Lauderdale, when I counted the days in a skeletal apartment composed of salvaged furniture and found kids. We scraped together our minimum wages for rent in an apartment block that doesn’t run credit checks. I can still hear the voice of the youngest kid, about fifteen, calling me Mom because I’m always trying to feed everyone. 

My son calls out Mama and it snaps me back to the present. 

Six more days. I sit at a scratched-up table with a calculator and run the numbers again. I calculate bus fare to the grocery store. I calculate how far my legs can take me before they become concrete. On my long walk to the store, I slip into a café, inhale its rich mahogany nutmeg smell, and find a newspaper left at a table. I take the coupon flyer folded inside. I don’t order coffee. I don’t look back as I leave.

Five days to go and the postman feeds my mailbox with letters marked URGENT. I hide the overdue electric bill when my daughter walks into the room, wonder if she can see the worry in me. I put off the payment, hope time is on my side, and think up games to play with my children in the dark if the lights cut out. Hide and Seek. Find the moon. Follow my voice in the night. 

Four more days. I walk my daughter to school and kiss her goodbye. I spot a yellow sweater peeking out from a bag marked FREE on a street corner across from the schoolyard. I imagine my daughter wearing it in the sunshine. I stand at the corner, pretend to study the mulberry tree’s unripe fruit, its color a ghostly mirror of its leaves. I listen to parents complain about the weather, complain about school projects taking up too much weekend time. When they have all walked to their cars and driven away, I slip the sweater from the bag.

Three days to go. I soak the last of the beans. I knead dough until my hands ache. I set the oven timer and close my eyes, enveloped by the steady rhythm and ticking march forward. I know that stillness is an illusion. I know that a home can be made and lost in an instant, that I’ll never quite recall the last straw in a series of violences that turned a girl with a home into a girl on the street in Florida. I know it’s possible to carry a life in an old school backpack: three changes of clothes, a delinquent library book, a plastic water bottle—bare-boned ornaments of an existence that grew heavier through endless nights and lunging shadows. I know I can’t rely on anything to last.

Two days left, and all the numbers are spent. I wake up too early and busy myself with housework to stay in the present, to put off time, to put off panic from clawing me back to the past. I remind myself that I’ll soon feel relief.

Just one more day until I can exhale.

The paycheck arrives and I take air into my lungs. The invisible vise loosens from my temples and my muscles relax in waves, the release its own familiar pain. I set my pen on the table and lean back into my chair. I ignore the calendar for a moment, before the clock resets and the cycle starts again. I’ve managed to keep the lights on, but I flinch every time they flicker.

This series was generously supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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