In 2018, she joined the Times as a food columnist. (“Alison Roman! Alison Roman!” read the headline on a piece announcing her appointment.) At the Times, she specialized in visually enticing recipes that brought a sense of youthful glamour to the staid domain of weeknight cooking. If you wanted to bake some salmon, you went to Mark Bittman; if you went to Alison Roman, you wanted to bake some salmon. She developed a robust following on social media. “Alison has a very strong visual sense and is a quick wit—a combination that made her a trailblazer on Instagram,” Lam told me. Home cooks made her recipes and posted pictures; Roman laboriously reposted their handiwork to her account, showing her fans love while making the agnostics wonder if they were missing out on something.
Roman’s interview with Dan Frommer of the New Consumer was intended as a business move. She and David Cho had been tossing around the idea of adding some merchandise to her Web site. “He was, like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna introduce you to my friend Dan. He does this newsletter that’s for people in the tech world and business, and not really your demographic, and I think it’d be really good for you,’ ” Roman told me. “Normally I would have passed and just been, like, ‘What the fuck is the New Consumer?’ ”
I open the email at 9:30 a.m. in my retrofitted, windowless office on the second floor of a high school in St. Paul. The fluorescent lights are so bright and the walls so white that sometimes I look up from my computer screen and feel as if I’m in a dream. Everything blurs and bends. Here, I shield myself from my students’ bodies, from their breath, in between teaching classes. I remove my mask, just briefly, to eat lunch while refreshing a COVID Tracking Map. November 3, 2020: 1,040 people died in the U.S. from COVID-19.
I read the email’s subject line: “The results of your request are now available in a paperless inbox,” before noticing the sender is American Education Services, a private student loan servicer. The body of the email informs me that AES has added a message to the inbox: something about new loan terms that will require me to begin payments in December. I minimize the screen and scan the room quickly as if the desk lamp and the growing stack of compostable knives can see the message. I pull the screen up and read the email again, willing the language to be different this time, but it’s not. My AES account, along with accounts from a handful of other private loan servicers, was settled in 2018 after protracted and painful negotiations that had begun years earlier. What remains, or what I thought remained, is $2,000 in federal student loan debt. But now there appears to be a new loan, something left unsettled. I close the computer screen. Elbows on white table. Head in hands. I cry.
The email from AES is the first I have received from them in over six years, part of a halted but lengthy correspondence that began, unbeknownst to me, on July 29, 2004, when I was 18 and my mother took out the first of many private student loans in my name. That July day was cold in southwest Michigan, a detail I researched years later when I wondered: What went on in her world that day? It rained. There was little sun. In the morning, my father drove to his corporate office to design washing machine parts, I drove to a golf club where I worked in their food shack, and sometime that day, my mother contacted Bank One, a student lending arm of Chase Bank, and requested $15,000 in my name using my birthdate and Social Security number. I’ve never been able to ask her how the fraud was committed — if she told the bank that she was applying on my behalf and would get my approval later, or if, pretending to be me, she filled out an application online. It’s unclear if Bank One, who partnered with AES for loan management and collection, asked her the questions they should have, the questions that might reveal that she did not have my approval or that she was not me. I’m unsure if the bank account she funneled the money to was one she opened in my name or hers. I do know that on the loan application she forged my signature, which I’ll see years later — the swoop of the cursive “K” larger and fuller than mine.
Over the course of the next three years, as my mother’s gambling addiction escalated, she took out another student loan, and then another, and then so many others that the amounts and institutions from which she borrowed knotted together into something big and impossible to disentangle, but the accumulation of which was about $125,000. It seems that none of the private lenders were alarmed by the rapid acquisition of increasingly large amounts of money — more than I would ever need for my state-school tuition — a record of lending they would have seen when they pulled my credit. It might be that they noticed and didn’t care.
Heidi Guilford rode shotgun in her boyfriend’s white Dodge Charger. Her stepsister and a couple friends sat in the back, with the windows rolled down for the smokers. It was a cool night in June—sweatshirt weather—an unremarkable Sunday on an island off the coast of Maine. They could have been in any small town, just about anyplace. A loud engine, blaring music, laughing shouts from the front seat to the back. And all around them:
Heidi knew every inch of these roads. They all did. They’d grown up on this island, Vinalhaven, fifteen miles out to sea by ferry, a rock in the ocean that the glaciers hadn’t quite smoothed over. Seven miles by five, population 1,200, give or take, and triple that when the summer people showed up.
They took a left off Heidi’s road out by State Beach and swung through town, cruising slowly through the downtown stretch, past the bar and the grocery store and the bank, then out to Old Harbor Road and over to the Basin. Most years by mid-June, there are enough tourists in town that you wouldn’t recognize everyone, but 2020 was different. This June felt more like the wintertime, when you can pretty much tell who’s driving every car on the road, often just by the headlights.
They were headed back toward Heidi’s place when they saw a Chevy Equinox they knew belonged to Jennie Candage racing past them. But Jennie would never drive that fast, so they figured it had to be her boyfriend, Roger Feltis. Roger was a local lobsterman, fairly new to the island, twenty-eight years old and husky—big enough that he could seem intimidating, but with a sweet, goofy smile.
They started to follow him, but he sped out of sight, so they looped back down through town and out toward the high school. That’s when Roger appeared in their rearview mirror, then pulled up alongside and told them to meet him in the school parking lot.
It was just around 9:30 p.m. Roger—wearing a T-shirt, a pair of Jennie’s old basketball shorts, and Crocs on a night when the temperature was cooler than usual, in the low fifties—got out of his car and came over to talk to his friend Isles Blackington, Heidi’s boyfriend, through the driver’s-side window. He seemed upset, bordering on frantic, going on about Dorian and Briannah Ames, a married couple who lived down on Roberts Cemetery Road, about a half mile out of town. He said Dorian had cut his brake lines and taken a hatchet to Jennie’s taillight. He said the Ameses had been harassing him, that he was sick of it, and that nothing was being done about it.