“What?” Madison’s mother asked, as the family sat down for dinner. It was past eight, which wasn’t unusual. Jenny thought it was important to have home-made family meals, despite everyone’s long hours. More often than not, they sat in a shared catatonia, quietly eating out of obligation, more than hunger. “Too tired to eat” was a concept Madison had heard adults say, but hadn’t fully grasped herself until her senior year of high school.
Madison smiled. “I decided,” she declared.
“On?” Jenny asked.
“College. I want to go to Northwestern. They have, like, the best journalism program in the country. And they’re not far away. And I think my grades and test scores are good enough. I’m going to apply early decision.”
Jenny frowned. “Honey, that’s a really expensive school.”
“Oh, I know,” Madison replied. “It’s nearly eighty grand.”
Phil choked on the water he was drinking. The conversation paused as he caught his breath. “A year?” he finally croaked.
“No—” Jenny said.
“Actually. Yeah. Like eighty grand a year. A little less, but everyone says they lie, and it ends up costing more than they say,” Madison explained. “But that’s just like list price.”
“You’re getting a discount?” Jenny asked with a half-smile.
“E-bay,” Phil deadpanned. “Slightly used college education. Original packaging.”
Madison laughed and shook her head. “Financial aid. They have a lot of different scholarships. Some of them are huge. They look at your income and if they want you, they’ll give you enough to make up the difference between what it costs and what you can afford. It’s all on their website.”
“And who decides what we can afford?” Phil asked.
“We?” Jenny interrupted. “You know I’m not letting you help out on this, Phil. Madison is my financial responsibility.”
“The school isn’t going to see it that way,” Phil replied. “We are married, so as far as they’re concerned, both our incomes count.”
“We can’t just tell them not to do it that way?” Madison asked.
“No way,” Phil said. “I mean, if I had other kids who I was covering the cost of college for, or something, then it’d be different. But since I don’t, they’re just going to add it all up and tell us to pay for it ourselves. I talked to a guy at work—you met him, Jenny—Howard in ops?” Jenny shrugged. “Yeah, so he’s in a really similar situation but the other way around. It’s his kids, and his new wife didn’t have any of her own. I guess she wanted to, but she couldn’t.”
“Focus, Phil,” Jenny said.
“Oh, right. Anyway, Howie said the forms just wanted all the info from both parents. There was a spot where you could explain special circumstances, but the school just ignored that part. Howie ended up refinancing their house to free up the cash.”
“Seriously?” Madison asked.
“Well yeah. He said the federal loans were only a few thousand, and the school had a crazy idea of what they could afford. So since they were going to have to take out loans anyway, they figured they’d take equity out of the house so it’s deductible.”
“It’s not deductible,” Jenny said.
“Why not?” Phil asked.
“It used to be that if you pulled money out of your house, you could deduct the interest on your taxes, regardless of how you used the money. But they changed the rules, and now you have to use it on your house itself. Otherwise you can’t deduct it.”
“Really?” Phil asked. “When did that happen?”
“2018,” Jenny said.
Madison watched as Phil seemed to be on the cusp of arguing. But if there was one thing you never argued with her mother about, it was taxes. She picked up hours every spring at a big national tax prep firm. She always knew all the latest rules.
“Anyway,” Madison broke the silence. “Some of the scholarships don’t look at need. And there are a lot of other scholarships I can apply for. I found a website that you put in everything about yourself and it matches you up to ones you should try to get. And if push comes to shove, we can just take out more loans, right?”
“I don’t know, honey,” Jenny said. “My credit is a mess. I’m not sure if they’d want me as a co-sign.”
“Well I’m going to apply early decision,” Madison said. “It says that they let me out of the commitment if we really can’t afford it. And it’s where I want to go.”
“Will you apply to some safety schools, in case you don’t make it?” Phil asked.
“Yeah, of course. But I really want Northwestern,” she said.
“We’ll figure it out, one way or another, kiddo,” Jenny assured her. “You’re a great student, and like you said, with scholarships and stuff, maybe it won’t be that bad. How was school today?”
Madison rolled her eyes. “Bryce drama.”
“Again?” Jenny asked.
“Always,” she said. “I love him, but it seems like getting in fights with his boyfriend and then making up, is like… It’s like his whole identity.”
Jenny smiled. “I remember kids like that. I mean, back in my day the gay kids were all in the closet. But it was like that with the power couples. Like the football star and the head cheerleader. I don’t think they even liked each other, but being a couple was a really big deal. And they made sure everyone knew about every breakup and makeup.”
“It was like reality TV for us,” Phil said.
“Back before TV,” Madison joked.
“Before reality, even,” Phil said.
“No metaphysics at the dinner table,” Jenny reprimanded.
Madison and Phil apologized in unison.