It starts innocently enough. But everything starts innocently enough, doesn't it? What I want to say is this: thinking is slippery. It won't stay put. Think a thing, and before too long you are thinking something you don't want to be thinking about, and what else to do at that point but take to bed?
This boy walks into my house. One or two years older than my son. I almost laugh at the knowledge that he is here to inspect our heating system. But inspect it he does. Afterward, shy but earnest, he approaches me. "Ma'am?" he begins. For the second time in an hour I suppress laughter. I will never get used to being anyone's 'ma'am.' "A part in your heat pump has rusted through. Here: I took pictures." He starts to pass me his smartphone. I demur. "I trust you," I say. "No need to show me photos. Not sure I'd know what I was seeing even if I were to look at them." How can I not trust this child? Perhaps he'd like to play with the Legos in our basement? He looks disappointed in me. "Would you like to show me the pictures?" I ask, understanding too late. He nods. "OK," I agree. I pay attention to his explanation of the part he shows me, although I can't for the life of me see what is wrong with it. He is happy that I am listening, or seeming to.
I remember to ask about the cost. "How much?" I inquire. "$87.11," he tells me, "and a discount if you pay now, by cash or check."
I cannot pay now. It is the end of the month. Silly boy, he does not know about this yet, the end-of-the-month problem. "Can you bill me instead?" I ask.
Again he looks downcast. I am turning down a 2% discount, and life has not taught him the reason why. "I guess so," he offers, after a time. Perhaps he is hoping that I will change my mind. I won't. I cannot.
Next week I turn forty-eight years old. I had thought once, when I was the technician's age, that I would long since be out of debt by the age of forty-eight. Instead the debt has only increased, and I am not even starting to pay for anyone's college education until next year. The numbers terrify me.
Everything terrifies me these days, the fault of that damn thinking that I cannot manage to secure in place.
The cats keep throwing up. Because they are both black, and because the kitten is nearly grown, the two of them look alike, at least from a distance. And they like to throw up in private, being tidy creatures by nature, so I never know which of them is the culprit, or the victim, more charitably. Oscar announces that he is going to throw up with a frantic, tell-tale meow. Kind of him, to spare me the clean-up of the carpet and allow me to move him to a hard floor before he gets sick. Hairballs, or something more? I put it down to hairballs, because I am afraid to move to the list of what else it could be, which would require me to consider vet costs and pet mortality, neither of which I am up to considering right now.
I am trying to reassure my high school senior that the college he goes to is not so important in the long view, that he will be happy at any number of colleges, that the college toughest to get into is not necessarily the place where he will thrive. "Look at me!" I exclaim. "All the education in the world, at top universities no less, and I am working at an eleven-dollar-an-hour job. I like my work, but you just never know what your life's path will be." "That's true," he acknowledges, drawing out the second word, and then pauses. Maybe he is waiting for more from me. Is there more that I can say, something that won't take me down the rabbit hole?
I stay silent. I don't - I can't - continue. Here's something else I can't continue: to accompany my son on his college visits and wonder, as we tour campus after campus, "How would I have fared here? What could I have done differently in school, or after?" It is not about me, not now.
The list of things to think about is so much shorter than the list of things not to think about. Is this a problem peculiar to middle age?
Luckily there is no shortage of cat vomit to clean, no thinking required.