Lessons for Broke Georgia: Chapter One

Never Lend Out Your Credit Card

If I have to whiz again after this, I’m putting on a diaper, I tell myself.

It’s time to leave for my appointment, but I keep running to the bathroom. This will be my fifth wee in the last fifteen minutes.

I’ve been anxious all morning. The worst-case scenario’s been on repeat in my head: I’m coming out of laser eye surgery, all bandaged up; when I remove the gauze, my eyes are singed and reduced to smoldering sockets.

LASIK’s a fairly safe, easy procedure with a high rate of success. I’m only freaking out because things always go wrong for me. They shouldn’t today—I’m paying good money to reduce those odds.

As if Doctor Tang, the best eye surgeon in the country, would do something grossly incompetent, like use the wrong brand of laser on my eyes. But what if the nurse absentmindedly hands him the wrong patient file and it’s for someone farsighted? I’m nearsighted. You can’t tell what’s wrong with an eyeball by simply looking at it. You need the correct patient file. Or what if—Stop. I’ve already thought of a dozen scenarios that could result in blindness and burnt sockets, and I can think of a dozen more. I’ll drive myself mad.

The great Doctor Tang has already cured everyone else at work. I’m the last one left with faulty vision. It took me a year to save up for the surgery and it was last summer when I finally got to see him for a free assessment. He said I was a straightforward case with low risk of complications. The estimate was $3500, an amount I could pay. But I didn’t book it.

Basil, my then-fiancé-now-ex, protested the surgery money should be going toward our wedding. He argued I could always fix my eyes after we got married. He had a point, so I conceded.

We would have been getting hitched this spring had things not fallen apart a few months ago. Now I’m alone, humiliated, heartbroken, and buried in debt. The only way I can pay for this is with my credit card. I can’t afford it, but this is something I must do—for me. And that prick’s no longer around to stop me.

I give myself a pep talk. “Last tinkle, Georgia. Get a grip on your bladder and go fix your eyes. You got this!”

Psyched, I promptly finish my business in the bathroom and leave for my appointment.

After the surgery, I won’t be able to fully open my eyes until the next morning. Someone has to pick me up and assist me at home. Since a loving fiancé is out of the question, I’m relying on public transit to take me there, Mom to drive me home, and my best friend, Sly, to look after me for the rest of the day.

I get to the stop in time and board the toasty bus. It’s January in Canada, that time of year they like to crank up the heat to the infrared sauna setting. Switching from cold to hot makes my eyeglasses fog, something I hate. I wipe the lenses clear, for one last time, and scan the bus for a seat. I make my way to one toward the back. I settle in, trying not to disturb the napping riders on either side of me. It’s so damn hot in here that half of the passengers are passed out.

Instead of making me drowsy, the heat irritates my nose. Massaging it provides relief, but that only makes a sticky mess inside. I’m always so snotty in the winter. I fish a tissue out of my bag and clear my nasal passages with a good blow. A booger remains. It’s poking my septum and making my eyes water. I need to extract it.

I cover my finger with the tissue and execute a quick nostril sweep. A folded edge stabs me high up in the cavity. I wince and blood gushes out at full throttle. Shit. I’ve punctured the nasal aorta. I try to contain the situation with my only other tissue—and now with my gloves.

A lady across from me quickly pulls out of her backpack a Kleenex box. “Take the whole thing,” she says. Only someone with a cold would be carrying around that much tissue, and here this kind stranger is giving me her stash.

“Thank you so much,” I say, tasting blood as it seeps through my lips. Scrumptious. I pull from the box the entire tissue stack and press it against my face. With my other hand, I pinch my nose, but it doesn’t slow the flow. I don’t know what else to do.

“Tilt your damn head back!” barks an old man.

Great. I’ve activated a loudmouth. There’s always at least one on every bus. The slumbering passengers awaken from the disturbance. My neighbors recoil at the sight of me and move to the center of the bus.

“No, she shouldn’t,” a woman argues. “She’ll choke on her own blood.”

“Serves her right!” he snarls. “Blasting drug addict. That’s what she gets for messing with the cocaine!”

I normally ignore the aggros, but this one’s giving everyone the wrong idea. “Sir, this is not from coke,” I state loud and clear for all to hear. Warm blood dribbles down my chin and drips onto my cream sweater and light gray duffle coat.

“Oh, for the love of God!” explodes the old man. “You’re hemorrhaging everywhere, spreading the Black Death and hepatitis and who knows what else! Tilt your damn head back bef—”

“Shut your filthy trap, you old windbag!” screeches a granny. “What does it matter if she’s on drugs? Can’t you see the girl’s sufferin’?” She’s pointing a shaky finger at me, drawing even more attention to my wretchedness.

My rickety defender gets up and jabs the old man with the tip of her long umbrella. He swats at her; she shrieks in anger. Passengers yell at them to stop.

“Shoo, you damn cunt!” he shouts. “Don’t make me hurt you!”

The umbrella prodding and arm swatting go on for a long, uncomfortable minute. I marvel as I watch the ancient Titans battle. She delivers one last poke, and then angrily shuffles toward a courtesy seat in the front. The winner’s throne.

Transit drama in Vancouver is a regular occurrence, but I’ve never been at the center of it. This has me rattled. Fortunately, my stop is next. I ring the bell, signaling to all I’m getting off. My hater continues to berate me from his corner, saying it’s best I go before I turn the bus into ground zero.

I’m prickly hot, more from all the unwanted attention than the heat. I feel the passengers watching me as I quietly take the verbal abuse. I stare at the doors, willing them to open. Finally, they do.

I speed walk my way to the medical building. By now the tissue’s a mushy red mass drenched in type O. The guard at the security desk leaps from his chair, gawking at me as if I’m devouring an organ.

“Excuse me, miss?” he says. “Do you need help?”

I halt—as does everyone else in the lobby when they see me. I’m too fucked to care. Excess blood drips through my hands and splashes onto the floor.

“Um ’ere to shee Joctor Tang,” I mumble through the tissue.

He raises a doubtful eyebrow. “For what matter?”

“Uh shurgery,” I answer. “Nose job” would make more sense.

He’s calling up, but I can’t wait for his permission. I’m a patient in need of medical attention, not a terrorist. I rush past him to the elevators.

The posh eye clinic erupts into chaos when I burst in. The office assistant gets off the phone and frantically looks for help. A nurse appears and rushes me to an exam room. She swiftly strips off my bloodied coat and tosses it aside like it’s biohazardous material. She leans me over the sink, slips on surgical gloves, and very firmly pinches my nose bridge. I see. Had I applied much more pressure, I wouldn’t have lost a liter just now.

“How did this happen?” the nurse asks. Her tone is accusing, even bitchy. Like her face. She’s used to classier, less gory clients.

I hesitate, too embarrassed to tell her. This injury, however, could affect the outcome of my surgery. I fess up. “I was cleaning my nose, and I went up too high with the tissue.” With my nose hostage to her clamping fingers, I sound like Big Bird.

“Humph,” she grunts, unconvinced. Sheesh. Don’t tell me she also suspects I’m a user. 

I’d be lying if I said I never did blow. I tried it twice. Very overrated. One minute you’re soaring and feel like the bomb; after it wears off, you plummet and feel like a massive loser. Not worth all the money and trouble, if you ask me. I know a few cokeheads—they’re twitchy and they talk too much. Thanks to this burst blood vessel, people think this is a case of coke nose.

We wait in judgy silence for the bleeding to stop. “All right,” she says, peeling off her bloody gloves, “go to the washroom and get cleaned up. We need you ready for surgery.”

When I go into the washroom, I nearly scream. Holy shit. I don’t recognize the freak show in the reflection…but it’s me. Semi-dried blood masks the lower half of my face. It looks as if I’ve stuck my mouth into the belly of fresh kill and gorged. I’m overwhelmed with horror and self-pity. I want to cry, but the bloodthirsty brute staring back unleashes a wild cackle instead. For sure they hear me out there, but I’m well past the point of caring.

I rigorously wash the blood from my face and hair. It takes several rinses to get the red off my teeth; only the taste of iron remains. I’m clean, but my clothes are a different story. I’ll worry about that later.

I’m light-headed, almost tipsy, as I stagger back to the exam room where Doctor Tang is waiting, his face cringed with concern. “How are you feeling, Miss Alfonso? I heard you had a minor accident earlier. Think you’ll be okay?”

I smile goofily at the handsome doctor. “I’m a bit woozy, but I’ll make it.”

He examines my eyes one more time and determines I’m good to go. There’s no turning back now. I pop a couple of Tylenol tabs, put on my hospital cap and gown, and anxiously wait until they call me into surgery.

I’m at reception, about to complete the final course of punishment. I’d already dropped a deposit of two grand last week; today I owe the remaining $1500. I crack open my eyes to type my PIN. I feel both relieved and gutted when I see the message: PAYMENT ACCEPTED. THANK YOU. The money has officially changed hands. You’re welcome, Doctor T.

“I hear your surgery went well!” exclaims the bubbly assistant.

“Yes, very smoothly,” I reply. I trust it did. I can’t test out my eyes yet; they sting, so I’m to keep them shut for the rest of the day except to put in drops.

The surgery was quick and pain-free but stressful. I was awake and watching as the doc sliced, opened, and lasered each eye. It smelled like hair burning, but no. It was cornea. I remained completely still, knowing the slightest movement could mean blazing the wrong part of the eye (burnt sockets!). I was terribly nervous, but Doctor Tang talked me through the whole procedure. It was over in ten minutes.

The assistant hands me the receipt with a breakdown of the fees. “Hang onto this for your insurance and taxes.”

“I definitely will,” I say, slightly moaning. I need to claw back any amount I can, even a small reimbursement. I blindly insert into my bag the papers, along with my post-surgery care kit and sedatives.

The young lady guides me to the waiting area and seats me. “Here you are, Georgia. Holler if you need anything. And don’t forget your follow-up this Friday at nine-thirty.”

I’m more than ready to go home, but Mom’s late, as always. In anticipation of her tardiness, I even gave her a much earlier time. If she doesn’t show up in the next ten minutes, I’m calling a taxi.

I hear her arrive. “Dear God! What did they do to you, child?”

Ah, yes. My coat, clothes, and canvas satchel are bespattered with blood. And with eye shields taped to my face, I look like an explosion victim.

“Mom, I’m okay. I had a nosebleed on the way over.”

“I knew I should have driven you here! Why didn’t you let me?” She yanks me up by my arm.

“Can you take my bag?”

“That bloody ting?” she whines.

“Forget it.”

On the way to her car, Mom carelessly guides me into a few walls. I almost faceplant when we step over a curb.

“Yo, Ma! A little warning would be good. You know I can’t open my eyes.”

“It’s just a teeny step. We’re almost there.”

“Never work with the blind. Not even as a volunteer.”

We’ve stopped in the middle of the parkade, but we must have circled back because I can smell the rank stairwell from where we’re standing.

“Georgia, where’s my car?” she asks.

“How would I know, Mother?”

“Well, you betta help me find it, or you’re not gettin’ home.”

Gosh. I’ve forgotten about Mom’s scattered sense of direction. I should have arranged for a cab ride. This will be more painful than it was getting to surgery.

After a frustrating walk around the parking garage and multiple wrong turns on the road, we’ve finally arrived at my building. I open my eyes a sliver to be sure we’re at the right place.

Taking greater care this time, Mom walks me safely to my apartment door, just inside the front entrance. “I can stay with you for the day, dear.”

“No, that’s okay. Sly’s taking care of me. She’ll be over soon.” I touch Mom’s face and give her a peck on the cheek. “Thanks for taking me home. ’Preciate it.”

“Anytime, hon.”

I’m expecting her to leave, but instead she clears her throat like an orator about to address a crowd.

“By the way,” she says with authority, “I need to borrow your credit card. The college wants me to deposit one thousand for my counselin’ course, and they only take cards. I have the money. I’ll go to the cash machine later and pay you tomorrow.”

Not again, not now, I think. Mom’s never been ashamed to capitalize on her acts of kindness. Just a few weeks ago, she asked for cash when she gave me an early Christmas present. I handed over what I could. It’s ridiculous that she’d ask me again so soon.

For as long as I can remember, neither of my parents ever qualified for credit—they were the undisputed champions of bounced checks, unpaid bills, and overdrafts. Mom once bragged they had a card decades ago—until Dad told Visa to fuck off over a billing error. Sure. You’d have to do much more than that to earn a permanent ban from the greedy credit world, but whatever. Basil didn’t have his own card either, though for a more plausible reason: his credit card was hacked. It was a while before he found out and reported it, which damaged his credit. People can’t get credit for hundreds of reasons, and I don’t care why anymore. No one’s ever using my credit card again, not after Basil racked up mine the way he did.

I lie: “Sorry, Ma. I have no room on my card. I just used it to pay for my eye surgery.”

“Give me three hundred in cash, then. You know I’m savin’ to set up my own practice. Every little bit helps.”

There’s only one way to make her back off. “Take the cash in my wallet,” I say.

I crack open my eyes to watch Mom, the mini Bahamian version of Oprah, take the money from my wallet. All thirty bucks. There goes my laundry money. She exhales a long, exasperated sigh. I’ve failed Oprah.

She shoves my wallet back into my bag. “Girl, I went out of my way to pick you up and drive you home. You can’t even do me a small favor in return.”

“You offered to drive. I said I was gonna take a taxi, remember? A taxi woulda cost me twenty bucks. You got my thirty. A thousand is a lot, don’t you think?”

“I’m not askin’ for money, just the use of your credit card!” She’s shout-talking. Things are about to get ugly.

“Can’t you help me instead? You know that Basil took eight grand from me and then left. And I still have student loans to pay back. I’m super broke.”

“I’m the one who’s been strugglin’. Ever since your father left me for that whore.

I hate it when she brings this up. Dad’s mistress was an exotic dancer, not a lady of the night. I also heard she quit the pole for good after he got her pregnant. It was shitty of him to leave us the way he did, but I still feel the need to defend him. He’s dead now; there’s no need to keep trashing him.

“He left over six years ago. You can’t still be strugglin’ because of dat,” I retort, mocking her accent. She warns me with a glare. I add, accent-free, “He didn’t even take any of your money.”

“Don’t forget that when he died, he left me with nothin’ to live on.”

Once she gets started on Dad’s death—which happened almost four years ago—she’ll end up hysterical. Then she won’t leave until she gets what she wants.

I go on the attack before she backs me into a corner. “What happened to the seven hundred I lent you for your professional licensing fees?”

“You did? When was that?”

“How could you already forget? It was two months ago. You said you’d pay me back, and you haven’t. And what happened to the two hundred I lent you before Christmas? Where did that go?” I could mention the thousands of forgotten dollars I “lent” her over the years, but it’s pointless with her. She’ll just mention how much it cost her to raise my brother, Lenny, and me. It’s an argument I can’t win.

“Fine!” She jams the cash into her purse. “I’ll take whatever crumbs my ungrateful children toss my way!”

I listen as she angrily hoofs her way to her car and speeds off.

That woman is insufferable. She’s always asking for money to cover various costs. And what you lend her never goes to what she says it’s for. Where it ends up is a mystery. She makes good money as a counselor at a private mental health facility; she lives modestly; she exhibits no signs of substance abuse. With her earnings, she should be able to get credit, save money, and buy her own place. But she can’t. I’ve concluded long ago that she has a gambling problem. Lenny and I once held an intervention to help her confront her addiction. She just laughed at us for even suggesting that. She didn’t deny it, though.

After today’s little blowup, I doubt I’ll be hearing from her for a month or two. I could have ordered a cab, but she said she wanted to be there for me. Like a sucker, I thought I’d give her a chance to be a normal mom.

As I blindly fiddle with my keys, Sly opens the door from inside. Hallelujah. She’s already here. I’m in good hands now. After such a trying morning, I can finally relax and enjoy the sedatives.