Sunday, September 4, 2011

No One Can Get to You Here

Hey Rainbow Groupies! It's a beautiful, sunny Sunday in Chi city, and seeing as how it's Labor Day weekend, and Obama's talking to us about jobs (or the lack thereof), I thought it was a good time to take another blast from the past.

I wrote this essay a little more than a year ago, right after moving back home to my dad's house. Nothing will kill a lady's self-esteem (and bank account) like not being able to find a job, and at the time when I wrote this, I was feeling pretty damn defeated. But at the same time, I was still clutching the last strings of hope. Barely, just barely. I also laid awake at night in my childhood bedroom, heart racing, worrying that I'd still be there when I was 40.

Maybe I'm still struggling to really be a "grownup," but I made it back to Chicago, and drove a new car here. I felt like total, complete shit when I got rejected from that job (and countless others). But the thing is, if I had gotten that job, I'd never have made it back to Chicago. Who knows what might have happened?

It's tough out there. But if I can do it, YOU can do it. uggh, that was cheesy, but whatever. I meant it from the bottom of my little heart.

So! Read this essay! (After the jump.)

No One Can Get to You Here
I am sunburned in stripes. One stripe down my left arm, one stripe down my right. The stripes on my legs start in different places: One stripe down my left leg, starting at the knee; one stripe down my right leg, starting at my upper thigh. It looks like someone haphazardly swiped a paintbrush down my limbs. 

I’ve spent the last two afternoons sitting on the back porch reading my mother’s old Philip Roth novels. At least I read one yesterday. Today, I just stared at the words and turned the pages when I was supposed to, not absorbing one single word.

I found the books upstairs yesterday, my second day alone in the house where I grew up. Side-by-side on the top shelf upstairs, purple and yellow: Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint. I imagine they are books my mother read before I was born. I had never read a single word of Philip Roth until yesterday, although I have probably allowed someone to think I had read Philip Roth.

The yellow one, Portnoy’s Complaint, caught my attention first. Mostly because I had no idea what that meant: Portnoy’s Complaint. Both books are the sorts of editions that infuriate me—paperbacks from the 70s with no description of the actual book on the back cover. Only things like: “OVER 3,000,000 COPIES IN PRINT!” and quotes from The New York Times. I can’t stand to start reading books like that, even if I already have an inkling of what they’re about. It’s like driving down the country roads by our house with no destination in mind.

Nonetheless, I picked both books off the shelf and carried them downstairs, then out to the porch. I flipped through both as I squinted from the sun and propped my legs up on the railing of the porch. Although the yellow one had drawn me in first, I put it down, on top of my New Yorkers that I knew I had no intention of reading that afternoon.

I was 29 pages in to Goodbye, Columbus before I realized it was a novella. I had flipped back to the front for a second, and saw that the book contained a novella and several short stories. I thumbed forward to the Table of Contents. Sure enough, Goodbye, Columbus would only go on until page 99. I knew then I would read the novella in one sitting.

It was good. I loved it, in fact. I continued reading as I took a break from the sun and the back porch to go inside to eat lunch. I sat at the kitchen counter, eating chicken salad on white bread and drinking milk, and I read my mother’s yellowing Philip Roth book with the purple cover. I felt like a kid again. I never buy white bread or chicken salad from the deli. It was good. I half-expected my mother to pull into the drive at any moment, or to call in from the screened-in porch to ask me to bring her out a popsicle. But she didn’t, because my mother is dead and I’m not a kid anymore. So I went back outside.

Once I got to page 99 I knew there was nothing left to do but go back inside. My legs were starting to glisten in the sun and had that familiar tingle from the first time you expose bare skin in the almost summer sun.

I walked around the house for a couple of minutes feeling lost. It didn’t cross my mind to read the short stories in the purple book. I had to put it away. So I walked up the black spiral staircase and put it back on the shelf, exactly where I had found it. Had I been reading one of my books, in my apartment, I’d probably leave it sitting on the coffee table for a few weeks, or lay it on the shelf anywhere. But not with my mother’s books. It’s important they go back exactly where I found them. She always knew the exact location of each book in the house. That’s not something I’m willing to fuck with.

I moved back into the house I grew up in last week. Since then, I’ve either felt how I did as I was reading Goodbye, Columbus—at home, like I had never left—or, like I did when I finished Goodbye, Columbus. Lost, like I no longer belonged here. Everything is the same. Everything is different.

For the last two years I’ve lived in Chicago, where I also have pretty much felt one of two emotions: exhilarated, or lost. Sometimes I felt both at the same time. But it’s strange. Even my perfume and picture frames look more at home on my dresser here than they did in Chicago. It’s the same dresser. Yet here it looks nicer, cleaner than it ever did in Chicago. I keep staring at it, wondering what’s different.

I am more careful with things here than I was in my apartment in Chicago. I keep placing everything in neat stacks around my room—New Yorkers, journal and Netflix movie in one stack; sweatshirt and purse in another. In Chicago, I threw my clothes on the floor as I took them off, sometimes not picking the piles up for days. I’d stack dirty dishes in the sink, one on top of the other, until my mother’s old dishes were balancing precariously over the edge. Her dishes seemed wrong in my apartment. Even if I’d actually cook, and I’d set placemats on the table—the same table that had been in our house my entire life—the dishes looked wrong there, like they were playing a part. Mostly I felt like I was playing a part, but I couldn’t figure out what role.

But I loved—love—Chicago. Even as the city continuously sucked the money from me as soon as I’d get it, my wads of cash folded in my wait apron and then almost never making it into the bank. One electric bill, a vodka soda here, a pad thai there, and there it goes.

Waiting tables was beginning to break me, though. Each shift, when I got my first table, I’d feel my heart sink into my stomach. By my last couple months, once I knew I was about to admit defeat, I had to fight the urge to sprint out the doors of the bar instead of taking that first drink order. I couldn’t even muster up the courage to say the part, “Hi, my name’s Alison.” Actually, come to think of it, I almost never did that. I hate telling my name to customers. Because I know they don’t care. Why should they? I don’t care what their names are, and if they told me, I’d forget by the time I approached the next table. Maybe even before.

I can’t seem to find a well-paying job that makes me happy. I can’t seem to find a low-paying job that makes me happy. Last Friday, the first day back home since the move, I had an interview at a marketing firm in Bloomington, Indiana. It would be a good opportunity, and I knew I had to make the best possible impression, so I could get the job and turn my life around. Save some money. Get a new car. Find an apartment. Be a grownup.

Even though I lived in Bloomington for six years prior to living in Chicago—four as a student, two working for the university—I got lost on the way to the interview. I knew I was right around the corner from the office, but I couldn’t find the street. I stopped at the gas station. The attendant looked at me blankly. Then her co-worker pointed and told me to turn right at the stop sign. I still couldn’t find it. The air conditioner in my crappy car is broken, and I was starting to sweat. Not wanting to be late, I called the office and explained. I still made it on time to the interview, but from the tone in his voice on the other end of the phone, even though he was friendly, I knew it before I walked in. I’d already blown it.

He kept yawning throughout my interview. It made me both uneasy and exasperated. He was going through a list of questions on a sheet of paper. Next to that was a printout of the initial email I had sent expressing my interest in the position. I wished I couldn’t see either of those papers. I wished he would quit yawning. Part of me wanted to jump up and say, “I seem to be boring you, and it also seems that I’ve finally gotten my appetite back, because now that I’m here, my stomach perpetually seems about to growl.” Instead I folded my hands on my lap and smiled.

Then he asked me this: “How would you figure out how many jelly beans fit into a 747?”

I panicked. I had absolutely no idea how to answer this question. He was just sitting there, staring at me! All I could think was, When in this lifetime would I ever need to answer that question? When? Why jelly beans? So I laughed nervously and said something that I knew was wrong.

He looked back at me with an unreadable stare. Maybe it was sympathy for my nervousness. Maybe it was pity for my inability to answer the question well. Maybe it was boredom. But as he wrote something on his sheet of paper, I looked down at my folded hands and shook my head.

I wasn’t going to get this good job with benefits. I wasn’t going to get my new car. I wasn’t going to be a grownup. Because to have good jobs with benefits and buy new cars and be a grownup, you have to know how to get to an interview without having to call for directions first. You have to know how to answer ridiculous interview questions and pretend that those questions, and how you answer them, are an actual reflection of who you are as a person.

When I checked my email last night, I was surprised to see a response to my “thank you” email so soon. It was only Monday. My interview had been Friday afternoon. The email said: “I spoke with the team, and unfortunately, we will not be inviting you to the next round.” Then he proceeded to tell me I could reapply for a position at the company in four to six months, should I still be interested, with tips on how to improve my chances.

I read that line over and over: “I spoke with the team, and unfortunately, we will not be inviting you to the next round.” What did that mean? What did they say about me? “Well, she seemed nice enough, but her stomach kept growling.” And, “She seemed like she had potential until she got lost on the way to the office. Then she couldn’t even figure out the jelly bean question!”

I imagined they were standing around, holding their Monday morning coffees, guffawing at this poor girl who couldn’t even figure out the jelly bean question, whose face turned red as she answered questions about herself and whose stomach growled uncomfortably loud in the quiet office.

The thing was, as soon as I had walked in that office, I knew I couldn’t picture myself working there. As he told me more about the actual work I’d be doing, I tried to envision myself sitting in a cubicle, analyzing data in spreadsheets and talking to clients on the phone, and I couldn’t. All I could think was: When would I ever get to write?

But I didn’t want him, or his “team,” to not be able to picture me there! I wanted to come across as intelligent, confident, self-assured. I wanted him to meet me and immediately think of what an asset I’d be to the team. So after I read that email, and I walked out of the computer room of the house I grew up in, I felt like I’d failed. Again.

My dad walked out of his room right as I was walking by to get to my room. “I didn’t get the job,” I said, crumbling into tears like a 15-year-old. I barely heard what he said to me as I fled into my childhood room. My heart felt like it was sinking. I felt like I was sinking.

I just want to be feeling one emotion consistently. Since I’ve come home, or maybe since before I even left, back when I was 18, I’ve been a jumbled confusion of conflicting thoughts. I feel like I’ve projected this to my two cats, Mufasa and Layla. The one, Layla, was at home almost instantly here, despite the dog and cat already here. She runs around as if this was her childhood home and she’s been away for years. She almost seems happier here than she has at either apartment I’ve lived in during her short cat life. Mufasa, on the other hand, is alternately terrified, anxious, and comfortable. For the first two days she hid under a bed upstairs. Then she moved on to a closet. She’s doing better now, but still completely skittish. The only time she’s completely herself is at night, when I shut my bedroom door and it’s just the three of us in here.

She knows no one can get to her, here in my childhood bedroom with the door shut.

I look at her and Layla sleeping contentedly, at my dresser that looks nicer here than it did in Chicago, at my mother’s yellow Philip Roth novel whose words I can’t seem to absorb, and at the red stripes down my arms.

I am home.

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