Dara Bellinson

Family Ties and American Lies

A not-so-fun fact about me: my relationship with my family is centered around my achievements. Or, rather, the lack thereof—at least that’s my perception of their perception of me. From where they seem to stand, I’m nothing special: I attend an okay college and have a roughly average range of interests; I don’t put nearly enough pressure on myself, and thus underperform academically. I am more interested in the world of emotional experience and personal pleasure than I am in money or success.

If you think the above paragraph paints my family as jerks, you should know that they grew up in the Soviet Union. Food was not always a given, and the education people received from the state was, for the large majority, skill-oriented. If you ever saw a mental health professional of any kind (though the ones in the USSR were unlikely to resemble anyone you’re familiar with), your chances of getting a job were close to none. My family’s upbringing placed them an ocean away from the West and its values. An ocean is a long way to swim.

Still, their perception has motivated me to advance myself with as little help from them as possible, to become financially and socially independent in order to reject a set of cultural values I find conflicting. My desire to achieve without them is hypocritical: they have already helped me by being white, wealthy, and willing to invest in my education—or, rather, invest in me as a sort of business, which they eventually hope to get returns on. Their expectation of me is that I’ll earn enough money to support them, and anybody else in our family’s “in-group.” Those on the outside—meaning those who aren’t already wealthy, secure, and well-connected—are not their concern. For my family, capitalism is the only functional system, which is understandable since they were forced to live through perhaps the most well-known failure of socialism. Even within this socialist system, the underground market flourished, and it's their familial privilege that has continued to allow them to become financially successful—a fact that they fail to acknowledge.

I can’t help but fixate on this, but at the same time I want to resist it: it feels unfair to have my birth predetermine my success. Capitalism teaches me to use my circumstance to my advantage, while everything I’ve learned since beginning to deconstruct the values I inherited from my family teaches me to hate capitalism. If I don’t take advantage of my social position, capitalist ideology tells me I will end up broke and unfulfilled, since I won’t have the resources that I’ll need to do the work I love. It’s an ethical double bind, one I can’t seem to find a way out of yet.

The high school me thought that college might help find other routes to self-fulfillment, so off to Colorado College I went. Back then, I imagined college as a career guarantee; by my senior year, I thought I’d know exactly what I’d want to do with the rest of my life. I’d walk into the Career Center one day, show them my resume full of various mostly-unpaid internships––hypocrite me, yet again, since I can afford to not get paid because of my family’s support—and walk out with multiple job offers.

Fast forward to now: I’m nervously biting my nails on the couch, scouring Handshake (CC’s job-search platform) for post-graduate job opportunities, desperately hoping to find a company that might at least read my application. I know that this is most likely a complete waste of time: according to a recent survey, over 85 percent of jobs are filled through networking. Companies within the creative industry don’t exactly cruise around colleges looking for potential hires. Instead, they get thousands of applications online and in person, most of which they likely don’t read, unless they already know your name.

The rational part of my brain tells me I should be asking everyone I know and their mother about potential opportunities, politely and over coffee. That’s the path any career-finding resource emphasizes to the extreme, But since I’m 22 and haven’t exactly acquired a wealth of useful connections of my own (in this regard, my college experience has been less helpful than I’d hoped), I will most likely have to rely on my parents’ network.

The reality that I will probably have to leverage my unfair privilege feels uncomfortable, but the fact is, it’s not about me, or the 68 percent of CC’s population that pay full tuition. Rather, it’s about those to whom the shimmering American Dream still beckons. Those are the people who spend months traveling over 2,000 miles north, only to be tear-gassed steps away from their destination; the people who spend hours in detention centers and embassies, or who walk across miles of desert in the hopes of crossing the border. The Dream—the idea of becoming anyone you want to be with hard work—guides their path like a lighthouse, but the few who make it to the end find themselves in front of a simple house lamp, which turns off when the electricity bill gets too high. This Dream—also known as America’s favorite invention and its founding ethos—is also what encourages people to bleed themselves dry to pay for their children’s college degrees, since the presumption is that their sacrifices will pay off.

Unsurprisingly, this Dream is just what it calls itself: a dream, as far from reality as a bus ride to the moon, your online data being private, or the U.S. government caring about the planet. The U.S. is currently one of the most unequal Western countries in terms of wealth distribution, far behind most of Europe, New Zealand and Australia, and trailing behind even places as historically unequal as Turkey. Now, get ready for some upsetting statistics: in 2013, the top 0.1 percent of the U.S. population owned the same percentage of assets as the bottom 90 percent. We’re told that we’ll have the opportunity to become richer than we were to begin with, but social mobility has drastically decreased since the 1970s. In many cases, people even fall down the socioeconomic ladder—in 2016, almost half of American 30-year-olds earned less than their parents did when they were the same age. The average U.S. income grew by 77 percent between 1970 and 2014, which, at first, might give some weight to this capitalism-is-nailing-it idea, except for the fact that almost all of that growth went to the top one percent of earners. This, combined with the lack of social mobility, keeps the upper classes incredibly insular.

In our competitive world, putting family before anyone else makes perfect sense. They are our biologically-determined in-group. In America, the love for family extends significantly into the job sphere: according to data from the last U.S. census, by age 30, roughly 22 percent of men will be working at the same company at the same time as their fathers. A total of 28 percent work for an employer that their father had recently worked for, but left (unsurprisingly, historical data on nepotistic mothers is pretty much nonexistent). In total, that’s over a quarter of the U.S. male population. Still, as with almost everything else concerning American existence, the statistics vary drastically between income groups; if your father is in the top 10 percent of earners, you are 150 percent more likely to work for the same employer as he does, than if your father is in the bottom 10 percent.

In general, the idea of working with (or for) your family doesn’t seem inherently unfair. In my own choices as a consumer, I often gravitate towards products made by family businesses, because this label leads me to believe my dollars are going to actual people, people who hopefully need them, rather than into the 0.1 percent abyss.


I would undoubtedly have less of an emotional problem with nepotism if I had a closer relationship with my parents. I’d also have less of a problem with it if the “family first” rhetoric didn’t hinder people whom we as a society have repeatedly left out—people whose families don’t have food security, or access to good education and health care. It’s impossible to blame people for looking out for their families. Capitalism requires competition, and we are biologically and socially inclined to define ourselves as “inside” a group. Since we mostly still exist within binaries, if there’s an “in,” there must be an “out."

The American Dream promises the people on the “out” a way in. If you work hard enough, it whispers, you can achieve anything. It’s this enough, though, that looks entirely different for someone like myself—someone who has access to an incredible education and a wealth of cultural and social capital purely through being born into it—versus someone whose upbringing didn’t allow the space to even think about that kind of capital because their basic survival was not guaranteed. Unsurprisingly, the countries with the smallest wealth distribution gap are Scandinavian; the same countries that are famous for having extremely high taxes and for using those to create successful systems of social welfare. Those nations essentially guarantee each of their citizens the same baseline access to food, shelter, and education, which allows everybody at least a similar chance at success.

Supporters of capitalism say that social welfare de-motivates people from working; for a very small number of people, that may be true, but when your circumstances are stacked against your survival, I imagine that getting basic needs met is what’s really at stake. That kind of thinking, though, to me further underscores a huge problem within the capitalist framework: it assumes that we are, or should be, driven to work in order to consume, rather than for any sort of fulfillment.

This is the framework that my family wants me to internalize. Any time I’ve voiced my interest in a purely creative sphere (in my case, mostly writing), they dismiss it by telling me that I don’t have the talent. To mitigate the harshness of the comment, they follow it up with something about the extreme rarity of talent in general, something along the lines of, “There’s only a single Dostoevsky in each generation.” I cannot blame them; after experiencing the Soviet Union’s version of communism, it makes sense for them to throw themselves as far as they can towards the other end of the spectrum. Still, their values are in a never-ending headlock with mine. I have been in the West long enough to see that money alone does little to make you happy. But as I’ve gotten closer to entering a career, I’ve noticed myself gravitate away from the spheres I find endlessly fulfilling but less lucrative, and towards the kinds of careers that provide a slightly larger (though by no means definite) guarantee of employment. I disagree with the values my family holds, but they still seem inescapable. If I ask my family for help in finding a job, which seems more and more inevitable the closer graduation looms, I will be validating the free-market impetus to “do anything to get ahead.”

In one way, my awareness of just how flawed the system is has been liberating. My parents tend to call my perception of institutional injustice “radically leftist.” But shockingly significant statistics back me up. Acknowledging these truths means I have to make real-life choices. To whom do I owe my loyalty: to my family, who have done everything in their power to ensure my survival and success, or to the people whose network the system subjugates? The question of my personal responsibility, though, I can’t answer in one sweeping sentence, because it asks me to make an impossible choice.

Blue Issue | February 2019

The In-Between

The first time I learned about the in-between, I should have been sleeping. I should’ve been tucked into the trundle beneath Sylvie Hammond’s twin bed, dreaming of the purple-haired fairies decorating the sheets. I should have been sleeping.

“C’mon Sarah, wake up. Let’s go spy on them.” Sylvie reached over and shook me awake.

By “them,” Sylvie meant her older sister, Heidi, and all of her friends stationed in the basement. Heidi, seven years older than Sylvie, was celebrating her 18th birthday. We were in the fifth grade as Heidi was sailing into the limbo of legal, yet wholly un-adult, adulthood. All of those tall, sure bodies in the basement itched for lives in which they did not have to ask for a bathroom pass, while Sylvie and I were still enamored by recess and gold stars, not yet even wearing training bras. I only pretended to be asleep for a moment before abandoning those fairy sheets for my other favorite mythical creature: the teenager. With their full breasts and broad shoulders, their not-yet-grown, grown-up energy beat through the floorboards. Their presence terrified and comforted me; I was just as swept up by their delusions of invincibility as they were.

We sat at the top of the basement stairs as they fell on top of the couch and one another, succumbing to toxic liquids we’d never tasted. They laughed at everything and nothing, but I couldn’t see what was funny, even though I desperately wanted to. We watched the girls bend over with locked knees and toss their hair over their shoulders. Their ruddy red cheeks screamed words they felt were unnecessary to say, words like “touch,” “more,” and “yes,” words they would come to realize they needed now more than ever. We watched them wanting to be wanted. And, not knowing the implications, we wanted to be wanted, too.

Once they were all settled into the couch, Heidi swung her hips over to the DVD player and slid a disc into the machine. “American Pie Presents: Beta House.” The words slid across stock footage of a bucolic college campus, all greenery and backpacks and weathered brick buildings. We sat on the cold, wooden stairs and watched the boys on the screen pull at their groins beneath comforters and salivate over women with breasts larger than watermelons. We watched them drink beer until they couldn’t talk and call each other virgins like it was the worst thing they could be. I hadn’t known what a virgin was before that. I didn’t know I was one. Sylvie sat next to me, knocking her shoulders against mine at every dick joke and embarrassing moment.

“Should we really be watching this?” I whispered, keeping my head down.

“It’s fine, I’ve seen this a million times,” Sylvie dismissed me. “Don’t be such a wuss.”

I didn’t say anything for the rest of the movie.

We watched the girls in the movie romp around house parties in bras and underwear and let boys pour beer on their chests. We watched them be talked about, but never talked to. They shrieked and giggled and cried like those were the only things they could do. Like they were wind-up dolls with three-setting dials on their backs.

I didn’t realize when I was 10 that the girls were just props. They had long legs and hair and boys who would jump off rooftops for their attention. I wanted all of those things. I wanted to be a goal, something to achieve.

All of the boys in the movie were loud and mean, but no one cared. The older girls on the couch laughed at their cruelty, so I laughed too. It was just a joke, after all. It didn’t really matter.

I had never known the in-between before that night on the top of Sylvie Hammond’s stairs. I knew children, and I knew adults. I knew that I was young and taken care of and that eventually I would be older and have to take care of someone else. But I hadn’t known about the in-between; that there would be a time in my life when I wouldn’t be a child, but I would still be young: when I wouldn’t be taken care of, and I would have no one to take care of but myself. I met the in-between that night. I saw it in the movie and in Heidi’s low-cut top and in the pixelated boys’ curious hands. And now, even as I swim through the thick of it, this no man’s land, I’m still sitting on the top of those stairs. Trying to understand. Pretending that I do.


For the first month of college, I had no friends. Meeting your “friends for life” was not as easy as the movie made it seem that night eight years ago. My roommate didn’t speak any English, so our room was always overflowing with loneliness. Mine and hers both. I thought it might have begun to seep out from under the door frame, since I never saw anyone in the hall. All of my classes had hundreds of people in them, and I held my breath the entire time. I tried to sit next to someone new every day, but I couldn’t talk to anyone, so it didn’t really matter. I never even set foot in the dining hall.

As I walked to another class I couldn’t remember the name of, I realized I hadn’t spoken in two days. I had not said one word since I hung up the phone with my mother on Tuesday afternoon, and now it was Friday morning. I opened my mouth to speak, but I had no one to talk to, so I closed it again. I kept walking across the quad and past the student center. It was 10 a.m. and every square foot of the campus was covered in people. I watched the others and tried to figure out which screw or switch was missing in me that allowed them to breeze through their days flanked by laughter and words that hadn’t moved past my lips in 48 hours. I wondered if I had contracted a contagious disease, and the doctors had remembered to tell everyone except me.

Filing into the lecture hall between salmon streams of chatter, I sat down in the second to last row, farthest to the left. I told myself I sat there so I could easily slip out of the lecture early, but I never left early. I never had anything else to do. The real reason I sat there was because of the girls who sat in the last row: Genevieve Watkins and Thalia Bell. Girls named Genevieve and Thalia have parents with office jobs and SUVs and reason to think their daughters are destined for success. So they name them Genevieve and Thalia. Unforgettable names for girls not to be forgotten. Very different names than Sarah.

They did all the things I could not. I mean, so did all the others, but they seemed to do them better than anyone else. They spent every minute of class whispering about boys and drugs and which party they would say yes to tonight. They scoffed at the sorority girls with neon highlighters and matching travel mugs at the front of the room. Their eyes rolled to the back wall every time a boy even looked their direction. But the air grew tight and still whenever they walked into the room, like they were what we were all here for, even if the class had begun 45 minutes ago. Genevieve and Thalia were the main event. They always left early.

My crumbling Latvian grandmother always described my grandfather, who died before I was born, as having something called kvorka. Gasping between each word, she would say, “He wasn’t pretty or smart or rich or nice. But I couldn’t stop loving him.” Thalia and Genevieve had kvorka. They glided through their lives with the world wrapped around their pinky fingers for no good reason at all. Sure, they were pretty, but not showstoppers. Thalia’s eyes sunk deep into head and her cuticles were constantly bleeding. Genevieve couldn’t seem to find a way to wash the grease out of her hair and sometimes came to class in yesterday’s clothes. Yet, every girl still wanted to be them and every guy to be with them, like the girls in the movies who always end up covered in mud or without a prom date. We’re supposed to hate them, but we don’t. We liked the movie better when they were on top.

That day was like all other days. I listened to the professor drone on about things I already knew in a way that made me feel like I didn’t. Thalia and Genevieve snapped gum between their teeth with their feet on the seats in front of them. I typed mindless notes.

After about 40 minutes, Thalia sighed loudly enough to cause at least 12 people to turn their heads. Then she stood up and grabbed her things; Genevieve attempted to follow suit.

“I can’t find my phone,” Genevieve whispered to Thalia at a pitch louder than her normal speaking voice, dropping to her hands and knees. Thalia sighed again and tapped her foot. Then she looked at me. We caught eyes, and I couldn’t help but hold hers in mine for a second too long. She raised an eyebrow and pursed her lips, forcing my gaze back into my computer screen, mortified and childish. Then, before I could process what was happening, my computer was slid from under my palms, snapped shut by Thalia’s raw fingertips, and carted out the door.

I looked up and around and under the seat and at my lap. I wasn’t sure if I had just been just robbed or invited.

Either way, I had to get the computer back. I found Thalia perched on the concrete steps up to the building with Genevieve pacing in front her. They were both already halfway through a cigarette.

As I panted down the stairs, Thalia caught me with a glance over her shoulder.

“Listening to you pound on your keyboard like that was giving me a migraine.”

She greeted me with an outstretched cigarette between her bleeding hangnails. I had never smoked before. I took it anyway. So stealing my computer had been an invite, not a burglary, and I was in no place to reject invitations. I sat down next to Thalia and she held a lighter up to my face. I slipped the cigarette between my chapped lips and worried about setting my hair on fire.

“I’m Genevieve,” she said. I pretended not to know. Her legs were so much longer standing up. She took slow drags on her cigarette and blew the smoke out of her nose in thin wisps. I held it between my cheeks and swallowed every cough.


I don’t remember what they said after that, but I know I didn’t say anything. We worked like that from that moment forward. My girls with their queen names adopted me without a word. They told me my silence made me sexy, mysterious, like a woman with a secret. I told them I didn’t have a secret. They told me I’d find one soon. We went to parties with red wine-stained mouths and used them on boys whose names we couldn’t remember in the morning. We shopped for tiny clothes that made us feel what we were told was sexy. We smoked joints in the middle of the day and laid in the grass like we had nothing to do. I fell into the glory of the in-between, its nauseating current lulling me into a stupor.

“If I want to fuck, I’m gonna fuck. And I don’t give a shit what anybody has to say about it.”

We chanted these words, in their various forms, like a mantra. Each syllable took back the sting of boys’ grabbing, relentless hands and told us that liberation meant forgetting how to hurt. Our mantra erased nagging thoughts. It told us we were always in control and reminded us to forget the instances in which we were not. It was just a joke after all. It didn’t really matter.

One Sunday morning, Genevieve climbed into bed with Thalia and me, cradling her heels from the night before. She shook us awake and told us about the boy in whose bed she had slept. She remembered his name: Ricky Alvarez.

“It was the best lay of my life.” Her sleepless eyes were still bright despite mascara-stained dark circles. “He fucked me like he loved me.”

“But he doesn’t love you,” Thalia murmured, her eyes still closed. “They never do.” Then she rolled back over and we all fell asleep with the bitter taste of reality settling on our tongues.

Two days later, Genevieve started getting zits. And Genevieve never got zits. We knew because she told us every two minutes while furiously reapplying thick, pasty concealer. The angry, red bumps crowded the corners of her mouth like cold hands over a fire.

Five days later the zits kept coming. Getting angrier and angrier with every passing hour, they each developed crusty yellow peaks. Corks on volcanoes.

Six days later.

“Genevieve, you need to go to the fucking doctor. You look like you’ve got the clap. It’s embarrassing,” Thalia snapped one afternoon, replacing compassion with shame.

“I don’t have the clap, you idiot. It’s just a breakout.”

“Then prove it.”

Eight days later, drunk off cheap beer and empty stomachs, Genevieve told us the zits weren’t just on her face. She laid on the floor of Thalia’s windowless dorm room and spread her legs. We looked at the ferocious red between her thighs. The sea of leaking bumps coated her deepest parts, dripping blood and pus like hidden tears. Each bump stood as a painful reminder of the real world’s shadowy fist banging at the entranceway of our lives. I imagined what Genevieve felt when she walked. The chaffing of unwanted mistakes; the sting of regret with every step. It was the first time I saw her cry.

Nine days later, Thalia and I sat in the health center’s waiting room in chairs bolted to the ground. We stared at posters about mental health and sexual safety, refusing to actually read the words. We silently prayed that Genevieve was right.

She busted through the swinging, knobless door.

“Just impetigo, bitches! Not even sexually transmitted,” Genevieve shrieked, not caring who heard. “I told you! Don’t ever freak me out like that again.”

Thalia threw her head back and laughed at the paneled ceiling. “But it was sexually transmitted! There’s no way that guy didn’t give it to you.”

“But it’s not an STD! It’s totally curable. Just, like, a fluke accident. He’s so sexy. I knew he couldn’t have had an STD.”

I kept staring at the posters. My little sister had impetigo once. She got it from a toilet seat. Genevieve’s face and thighs were coated with an infection a public bathroom gave my little sister, and she was still calling that boy sexy. I thought about the girls in “American Pie.”

Once Genevieve’s topical cream dried up, any remnants of our fear and fragility did too. It was like nothing had ever happened. We partied and smoked and wore last night’s dress to breakfast. We lived our untethered lives uninterrupted.

One Friday night, when all of the music was bad and the boys uninterested, we surrendered early to Thalia’s room. Early as in 2 a.m.: our version of early. We sat on her floor and sipped whatever would put us to sleep. Someone banged on the door.

Genevieve got up to answer it, stumbling on her way there. She looked through the peephole and gasped.

“It’s Ricky Alvarez!” She whisper-screamed in a single breath, rushing over the mirror. She finger-combed her hair and wiped makeup from under her eyes.

“You’re still trying to fuck the guy who gave you an STD?” Thalia said, laughing with her whole mouth open. “Did you invite him here?”

“No. I don’t know what he’s doing here. And fuck you. You know it wasn’t an STD.” And with that Genevieve ripped open the door.

“Oh shit!” I heard a male voice belt from the threshold.

Genevieve feigned a sexy surprised face and threw her hair over her shoulder, immediately in character. “What are you doing here?” Her voice went up two octaves. She grabbed his hand and pulled him into the room.

He was short and dirty and drunk. His greasy, dark hair fell into his eyes; he looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks. He was holding a bottle of Captain Morgan.

“Well, this was my room last year, and I just wanted to make sure the current owners knew how to party.” He snaked a hand around Genevieve’s waist. “But I already know they do.”

I could taste his thick, alcoholic breath all the way across the room and wondered how it felt on Genevieve’s neck. It couldn’t be good.

Thalia invited him to sit and pass the rum. Genevieve, Thalia, and the boy chatted about how much he drank last night, and his fraternity, and how he didn’t have to worry about getting a job thanks to his “unbelievable trust fund.” They laughed when nothing was funny.


And so I found myself back on the top of the stairs. Watching and never knowing. I didn’t understand Genevieve. I didn’t understand Thalia. I didn’t understand this boy. And I didn’t know why everyone was laughing. He said it would be hot if the two of them made out, so they did. They moaned artificially into each other’s mouths and grabbed at the other’s breasts. They rolled around on the floor, pretending to want. They made good props, even with the dirty hair and fuck-you attitudes. And I did too, staring with an open mouth and hollow eyes.

It was about us, but it wasn’t. Nothing really was. We acted like we did what we wanted when we wanted; like we governed our own in-between. But nothing we did was on our terms. We didn’t even have terms. We had what they told us and showed us. We had American Pie.

Bad Issue | December 2018