On Shame

Kristina Marie Darling

Mar 26, 2018

156,000 into the story, the room is empty.


The man I have started dating listens to my stories of how the dinners at the American Academy would unfold, the careful arrangement of the linens and the cutlery, how each fellow was applauded on the Monday of their arrival. As I spoke, he sat expressionless with his pastel coloured key-lime cheesecake, here in the sprawling suburbs of Brentwood, Missouri.

But too, I would recount the details and stages of the selection process, as we sat across from a walk-in clinic where old men passed through automated double-doors. And too, I would explain to him the relative importance of the awards won by the other fellows before arriving at the Academy, and even during the months of their fellowship. And my voice traveled across the table and around the centerpiece, past his round balding head, even past the waxing and waning line of customers that seemed now the only marker of time. In this way, he had lost interest in speaking, or the details of my brief and precarious life, carried and slighted by a community to which he did not belong.

That he would finally give voice to a shifting region of palpable discontent, in some ways, seemed to anchor the conversation, after months of its becoming repeatedly, persistently unmoored.

Did you pay your own money for the plane ticket.

Their budget wasn't even in the hundred thousands.

Do you even own your own car.

Has anyone ever told you that this is irresponsible.

Each time, my dates would end the same way, utterly respectful of the vow I had already made to repay my master promissory note, an event that was not wholly guaranteed, but must of course be witnessed alone.

In the past few years, such headlines as MEN UNLIKELY TO MARRY WOMEN WITH LARGE DEBTS have become commonplace in electronic and print media.

A recent New York Times article poses the question, When, exactly, are you supposed to reveal a debt of this size during the courtship? Earlier than you'd disclose, say, a chronic illness?

The first modest debt was incurred when my parents were refused as cosigners. Having entered both substance abuse rehabilitation and bankruptcy, they were not the ideal risk to be undertaken by a financier, let alone the college and university system. It was decided that because they were not likely to repay a loan, it would be less complicated to hold me entirely, wholly responsible for it. The regulations carried within them provisions for daughters like myself, who were classified as independent by the Federal Student Aid System, along with orphans and wards of the court.

Which is to say, I was marked as familyless, and it seemed that I would remain persistently in this quiet, though somewhat desperate, state. Because I had no one to sign on my behalf, no one would ever give me their name to keep.

Once separated, once severed, it became impossible to return to the world.

"On Shame" is an excerpt from an in-progress book of essays, THE SORROW LOAN: AN EDUCATION.

Kristina Marie Darling is represented by Marilyn Allen of the Allen O'Shea Literary Agency for book-length nonfiction.