A friend quit his editing job and found a new one. He described work with ironic pretension, but we understood each other. It’s a dialect we’ve shared for years. “I’m done being precious over the brands I work for,” he said, “It’s time to put myself in a new tax bracket.” We were twenty-two.
We’re driving down the coastal road one night, listening to a folk rock song, singing every word. It reminds us of another time. “Been down some dark alleys… in my own head…” The words pull my senses into reverse.
It is now four minutes past nine a.m., I am driving to an office building on a highway, somewhere I don’t belong at all, under a glaring sun, applying mascara in the rearview mirror, at 45 miles per hour. My hair is waist-length and messy against a blazer.
I was promoted and moved to my own office, my boss’s old one. His things- cough medicine, business cards, proposals long since leafed through and rejected, still littered the desk. One day while researching e-mail marketing strategies, I pulled at a drawer to my right and found a pair of men’s underwear, tossed as if just removed. There was only one man in the office. The underwear looked at me and I thought “fuck this place.” I closed the drawer and went to the health food store for lunch.
I wore my blue sundress the morning I lost my job. My boss looked me straight in the eye and said “Sorry for the shitty timing, but we’re laying you off.” I must have raised an eyebrow at him, his bald head, his unremarkable face. It was the first time I felt relief and panic all at once. My heart rose instinctively, only after did I consider rent.
I called my mother from the parking lot. She rallied my brothers and sister to get lunch. The oldest sister, an hour into unemployment, needed consoling and togetherness. It was the middle of September, still warm, and we ordered sandwiches from a good deli. Everyone had their own bottle of water. Later, my best friend took me to the boardwalk and bought the cocktails. The sky was pink and our vodkas held sprigs of lavender. It turned out to be a great day.
Selling vintage clothes was an idea that became a lifeboat. I started an online store a few days later, and floated just above the surface when I opened my pop-up shop, once in late November, once in early June.
I have a paranoid delusion that my best friend hates me because I work from home. “I’m a writer,” I say, half joking. “I put pen to paper.” I’m technically unemployed with one freelance assignment to complete, updating a blog for the retail store. She works full-time as a reporter for a small newspaper and struggles with the pettiness of it. All the local politics, issues with the police department.
I could not always recognize who was flirting with me when I began working at the store. It was impossible to miss, large white stands holding locally made ceramics and jewelry in the center of Convention Hall. Then there was me, dressed in a black skirt and Frye boots, merchandising the goods, locking up at the end of the night. “Everyone in here is going to hit on you,” said a friend, leaning against the cash wrap, my fortress. He knows me well, remembers who I was at 13 years old. I shook my head “No way.”
One man, despite ample warning, charmed me with a look as he walked back and forth each day. Before I knew it, the year was new and we were spending all our days off together. It was the dead part of winter, very cold.
I woke up with a headache and you were sketching. A creative project, a small business idea you had in mind, and as you explained it I imagined you never, ever completing it. That morning we had the kind of talk that culminates in “I’m not in a position to be anybody’s anything,” and that was that, until it wasn’t.
There was a photograph taken the night before. I’m posing with three other women but my head is turned and hair is covering my face. “I hate this picture,” I told my roommate, glaring at the laptop screen. She replied “Of course you do. You’re faceless, not yourself. A faceless form.”
The next day at the store I organized scarves that reminded me of Christmas. There were appealing words I used to describe them. Silk, hand-dyed, shibori, indigo. Why had nobody bought these as a gift? It was now March, and holding them made me sad. You called and wanted to talk. We decided nothing but felt better. Two days later you called again. We drove to the hardware store and bought matching houseplants.
I’m having a zero dollar week. It’s okay, as I just returned from a few days in San Fransisco and Big Sur. It was glorious, blissful, traveling with girlfriends. I love them so.
Listening to Norwegian Wood many times in a row because the first few notes give me goosebumps. It’s beautiful to hear while remembering redwood trees. “As if I’ve never heard this song before,” you said, unimpressed. Like china dropped on the floor, my moment shattered. Small, but not inconsequential.
I was hired to assist with an event on the boardwalk, a summertime vendors’ market with live music. It was a Friday night in June. Circling booths of local makers and artists, I finally felt aligned with my work. You had a shift that night, at a bar downtown, but stopped by to see me interviewing vendors and snapping pictures. “Look at you.” Another photographer took our photo while we talked, leaning against a rail with the sun behind us. “I wish we weren’t working so much,” you said, watching the summer fair across the street. Blinking lights and ferris wheels- a fluorescent promise, a transient good time, a night out in New Jersey. That was the first night you left me a house key.
“Oh, Miss Devine fix her hair today, now she think she’s boss.” A group of high school girls draped over auditorium seats in study hall are mocking me. They’re right- I straightened my hair before showing up to be their substitute teacher today. Lately I’ve been wearing my hair long, with the kind of natural waves another person’s hand can give. “Oh, it don’t look like Miss Devine made it home last night,” I just hope to avoid. One student is breakdancing on the stage. I watch him, impressed with his agility, while also feeling glad there has not been a fight yet today. “You’re a great dancer.”
The students aren’t thrilled about the warming weather. “People start smelling funky this time of year, like they just jumped out of the garbage can.”
The secretary called me because my assignment was changed. I was down the street, at a familiar house drinking coffee with a man on his porch. We weren’t saying much, never did. The weather had finally broken. It was one of the first days I felt guilty spending any amount of time inside, so I opened every window in the classroom when I returned. For now on, I’ll attribute our incompatibility to differing approaches to windows. Mine are always open, yours are closed.
I’m waitressing a few nights a week at the restaurant by the sea again, a place I can always return to, that I know too well. “Look at all you college girls, going away to school then coming back to work at my restaurant,” the owner says proudly. We don’t mind, we adore her. She taught us how to work, scared the shit out of us, and took care of us at the same time. Many of my friends have worked here, one summer or another. Tips I’ve made here sent me to Spain, paid rent on my home.
“I’ve given away my waitressing apron three times thinking, glad I’ll never have to use that again, but I’m always wrong.”
“Thank you for the excellent service.” “Your welcome, I’ve been doing it for years,” I nearly replied, but caught myself. Oh shit.
I had a woman at a table who reminded me of someone I once knew. I felt a closeness to her. There was something about her hair, or maybe her husband. His thick arms were covered in faded tattoos, left over from a time when tattoos signified more. He pulled at his short sleeves.
After their first course, the woman became irate over a bread basket. She was rude to me, and I finally woke up. My dreamy curiosity misplaced on a stranger disappeared into the air. The familiarity of this restaurant has me thinking too deeply.
It wasn’t her, it wasn’t anybody.
It was me, doing my work.