Every time he goes grocery shopping, my roommate, Soren, brings me back a box of Oreos. He always buys the fancy ones (name-brand, double-stuffed) because he knows they’re my favorite. Despite my best efforts, I resent him for it. I know he only buys them for me because he knows how I shop; every time I go to the store, I buy 35-cent ramen and economy-sized jars of off-brand peanut butter. “You eat like a doomsday prepper,” Soren said once.
“No, I eat like I’m poor,” I replied.
But that’s not necessarily true. I go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which means I’m not poor and I never worry about going hungry. Although I might need to clip coupons and skip going out to eat. I’m not poor; I’m just poorish. A weird middle ground to exist in, especially on campus, surrounded by kids who fly back to California to see their family on Thanksgiving. Those who bring daily Starbucks orders to morning lectures, who wear AirPods and Converse All-Stars so new that the white rubber on them still shines.
The shoes in particular feel shameless to me, like the people who wear them just try to rub it in.
Logically, I know that’s ridiculous. Students more well-off than me don’t psychoanalyze their economic status the same way I do. In fact, I’m sure most of them don’t think about it at all. They exhibit the same benign carelessness Soren shows when he tosses the Oreos on my bed before unloading the rest of his groceries, unaware how much it feels like charity.
Maybe I’m bitter because every day since moving to Madison, I fought to keep my poorishness a secret, not out of shame, necessarily. It’s more of a desire to not draw attention to myself. Because the moment I do, I feel like they’ll all realize I don’t belong here, like three little kids in a trench coat trying to order a drink at a bar. A stupid feeling, according to just about everyone. Before I came to UW-Madison, my professors, my family, my friends and the transfer advisor at my community college all assured me I’d fit in just fine as a Badger. I belong here at UW-Madison, they said.
So when will I stop waiting for the other shoe to drop?
When will I stop thinking that one day, the admissions board will realize I tricked them into thinking I’m like the other kids who go here? The kids with bright-white shoes and vacation homes, the kids who don’t need to think about, much less obsess over, money. Rationally, I know that not everyone here fits that description. I know I’m not the only poorish student at UW-Madison; we all just perfected the art of staying undetected. Occasionally I’ll catch a glimpse of one of us on campus. We hide in crowds the way lice hide in a child’s hair, recognizable only if you know what to look for.
And I do. I look for stuffing poking out of winter coats, friends-of-friends who order just a drink at a restaurant when everyone else orders a full meal, saying they already ate at home every time. I always try to make eye contact with these people, hoping for some moment of mutual understanding, because we blend in so well that we appear visible only to each other. I know how tiring it feels to compel others not to see you, self-aware and humiliated to be there tainting things, like a patch of mold in the corner of an otherwise pristine ballroom. Sometimes we look at each other and it feels like we share a secret: you’re not supposed to be here either, are you?
I graduate in spring, so maybe I’ll get away with it.
Maybe I’ll escape with a bachelor’s degree and a quiet, pointless, but pervasive sense of guilt. And maybe, as a graduation gift, I’ll buy myself some Oreos.