Rocket Science

Photo by Jenifer Corrêa/Flickr
Photo by Jenifer Corrêa/Flickr

By Kate Haas

They gazed at me impassively, the man and the woman, each carefully neutral face masking—or so I imagined—the boredom of the entrenched bureaucrat settling in for a fifth hour of substitute teacher interviews.

“You arrive at the classroom,” said the guy, reading from a paper in front of him. “You find a vaguely written lesson plan. There are no administrators around to help. No one in the main office at all. What do you do?”

It was an implausible scenario, containing a hole a second-grader could have spotted. I was not here to point that out, I reminded myself. I was not here to be a wise-ass. This was my first formal job interview in seventeen years. I was here to play the game.

•••

Back in the 1980s, yanked by divorce from the stay-at-home life she’d imagined would continue indefinitely, my mother took the first job she could find, writing jacket copy for a major evangelical publishing company. My sister and I snickered at the freebies she brought home from the office: Christian Archie comics; spiritual marriage advice; and our favorites, a series of YA novels by a guy who operated a ministry for teen prostitutes, each book titled with the name of a girl (Vicki, Lori, Traci), its plot detailing her sordid downward spiral from teenage rebellion to the streets, followed by an uplifting finale at the ministry’s safe house, and a tearfully repentant Lori (or Vicki or Traci) flinging herself into the arms of Jesus.

My mother was an agnostic whose crammed bookshelves reflected her highbrow literary tastes: Jane Austen, Henry James, The New Yorker. But the divorce settlement favored my father, a man with a sometimey attitude toward child support. So with kids to raise and bills to pay, Mom peeled from our VW’s bumper the sticker proclaiming the Moral Majority to be neither, pulled on her nylons, and went to work.

“A woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do,” she used to tell my best friend Clare’s mother when they got together on weekends to drink cheap white wine and swap stories about their lawyers and no-good exes.

•••

“It’s not about how good you are,” Clare counseled a few days before my interview. Like me, my old friend had quit teaching years ago. She’d recently gotten back in. “It’s whether or not you can speak the lingo.”

I remembered the acronym-larded professional development sessions back in the day, mandatory powerpoint presentations aimed at tired teachers surreptitiously trying to grade papers and plan lessons while simulating dutiful attention to the flavor of the month in educational strategy.

“It’s way worse now, with all the Common Core,” Clare said. “Don’t get me started. But you remember: redirect, assessment, collaborative learning, ownership, SSR.”

“SSR—shoot, I forgot all about that.” (SSR, for the uninitiated, stands for Sustained Silent Reading. SSR is to regular old reading as “sanitation engineer” is to “janitor”: the same damn thing.)

“Don’t worry, sister, you know what you’re doing,” Clare said. “Just tell ’em what they want to hear. Play the game.”

•••

I quit teaching high school at the turn of the millennium to stay home with my baby. It was a choice I was able to make because my husband earned just enough to support the three of us. But there was another reason I quit my job: I didn’t have the passion. The great teachers had it. Walking past their classrooms, you heard the bustle, felt the energy. Those teachers shone, with a core of dedication that couldn’t be faked. Sure, they griped about the troublemakers. They rolled their eyes, recounting some mouthy tenth grader’s outrageous comment. But their voices—exasperated yet understanding—gave them away. They loved those troublemakers.

I didn’t.

I was a decent teacher. I worked hard and planned my lessons carefully. I told my students that everyone has a story to tell. Real or imagined, we all have that story. I explained point of view, and starting a new paragraph every time the speaker changes, and providing necessary background information. I reminded them, more times than I ever imagined I would, to end sentences with punctuation.

My students wrote stories and essays and workshopped them together, drafting and revising multiple times before presenting their finished work. As a class, we applauded each presentation, and I pinned the finished pieces ceremonially to a special bulletin board with a shiny silver border. The kids acted like all this was no big deal, but it was.

When I informed my ninth graders that they would memorize the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, they didn’t believe they could do it. “Fourteen lines, guys, fourteen lines,” I told them. For the next month, we started every class by standing up and reading the prologue in unison. Sometimes we marched around the room reciting it. My students made a great show of rolling their eyes and muttering. (“Dude, can you believe this?”) But around they went, quietly at first, shuffling on the scuffed floor, then with increasing gusto: Two houses, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene…They had it down in two weeks. It was only fourteen lines, after all.

Sometimes, even at the end of a long day, the thrill of this would hit me: these words, ringing in the California air, four centuries and a world away from their birthplace.

But I didn’t have the passion. I was weary of contending with the core of disruptive students who filled my classroom, angry kids I couldn’t seem to reach. I envied people who were done at the end of the workday. My job was a never-ending slog of lesson-planning, essay-reading, and grading. It ate up every evening, and every weekend, and I couldn’t imagine continuing and raising a family, too. When I quit to stay home, the freedom was exhilarating.

Still, four years later, I felt a pang when my license expired. I didn’t want to teach again, but it was disquieting to realize I couldn’t. The licensing commission had a lot of nerve, I thought. No longer good enough were my master’s degree, years of experience, and the slew of National Teacher Exams I’d passed. Now they wanted coursework before I could renew. That meant going back to school. My children were one and four. It wasn’t going to happen.

But what if the worst occurred? What if I was left on my own, like my mom, to raise my children? All the stay-at-home mothers talked about that. Few of us were in a position to easily re-enter the professions we’d left. Without my teaching license, what job was I qualified for that could support a family?

I tried to ignore those questions. Life insurance would take care of me if anything happened to my husband. As for the other possibility, I tried not to think about that, either. My husband brought me flowers every Friday and sent hand-drawn postcards when he was out of town, even for a night. He wasn’t going to leave me.

Part of me didn’t believe that. It was the part that remembered the wave. That’s what we call it now: the divorce wave, the surge of broken marriages beginning in the 1970s and peaking when my mother got her job with the Christian publisher. By the time those waters receded, not one of my friends’ families remained intact. Forty years later, Clare and I are still sloshing through the ruins, trying to spot the faulty foundations, the unstable beams, to identify exactly which imperceptible weaknesses rendered our parents unable to withstand the tide. Even now, part of me can’t help thinking of divorce the way I did as an eleven-year-old: a catastrophe that strikes without warning, a tsunami on a clear day.

That teaching license was my only route to higher ground. I needed it back.

When the kids were finally in school, I dug out my expired license and called the state to find out how much coursework was involved in renewing it.

“Fill out Application C and send in fingerprints and $225,” said the young man on the phone.

“Yes, I know,” I said. “But what about the education credits? How many will I need?”

“No credits. They changed the law four months ago. All you need now is the application, the fingerprints, and the $225. Do you want me to send you the forms?”

They changed the law.

I was unprepared for the elation that surged through me, the rush of astonished gratitude—all of which I promptly poured forth upon the hapless guy on the phone. It felt, at that moment, as though he had personally intervened on my behalf; if I could have reached through the phone to embrace him, I would have. Then, like Cagney or Lacey interrogating a perp, I proceeded to grill him. Was he absolutely sure about this? It applied to all licenses? Finally, I thanked him profusely, my brain thrumming like a violin string. In the space of a few minutes, with no effort at all, my employment prospects had shifted from service industry to professional grade.

Not that I wanted to teach again. I’d built up a freelance editing business over the years, and it was paying for extras, like summer camp and music lessons. I was done with the classroom. We didn’t need the money. I didn’t have the passion. But now—now I had the option. I was standing on higher ground.

•••

Just ask an English teacher, and they’ll tell you: nothing gold can stay. The easy license renewal turned out to be a one-time deal. Four years later, it wouldn’t be so simple.

“I don’t care what you have to do,” Clare said. “Don’t let that license expire.”

She didn’t need to elaborate. For three years now, ever since her husband left their marriage, Clare had been wading through deep water. From the opposite coast, I’d cheered her efforts get back in the classroom: enrolling in graduate school, taking after-school teaching gigs, updating a resume with a thirteen-year gap. The hardest part was renewing her expired license, an epic bureaucratic campaign spanning eighteen months and involving the tracking down of records in three states.

“Letting the license expire was my biggest mistake,” she warned me every time we talked, a speech that always reminded me of the anti-drug commercials of our youth. “Don’t let it happen to you.”

I didn’t intend to. After a semester of online coursework at my local community college, I possessed the fresh transcripts necessary to satisfy the state licensing commission for another three years.

Now here I was in the district administration building, interviewing for a job. Not that I wanted to be a substitute teacher, exactly. But this time, it wasn’t about whether or not I had the passion. What I had was two teenagers, one of whom would be applying to college in a year. What I had was residency in a city where substitute pay is among the highest in the nation. I could set my own schedule if they hired me here, contribute to the college fund, and still have time to write and edit. What I had, in fact, was the prospect of an ideal side gig. Yeah, I wanted this job.

But I didn’t need it.

My husband’s position at a public agency survived the recession, thanks to a stable tax base. And after his seventeen years there, we’re no longer balancing on a financial tightrope, the way we were when I first quit teaching. The mortgage would be paid on time if I bungled this interview, and the orthodontist’s bill. No one would go hungry in my house if these two didn’t like my answers.

I wasn’t thinking about that—not consciously, anyway—as I explained how I would amend that vague lesson plan on the fly, make it specific. I was focused on playing the game, nimbly referencing stalwarts of the Language Arts curriculum, like Of Mice and Men and Raisin in the Sun. I avoided pointing out that under no circumstance—except possibly the Rapture—would a public school’s main office be devoid of personnel at eight a.m.

Neither interviewer spoke when I finished. They looked at me expectantly.

I’d already described my disciplinary strategies and my approach to lesson planning. I’d talked about meeting each learner at their level. Wasn’t I speaking the lingo? Hadn’t I demonstrated my professional competence?

I launched into another example, this one based on using classroom clues to devise a lesson. Art on the wall indicates a unit on the Middle Ages? I’d have students write a dialogue between a serf and a knight, or an artisan and a priest.

Still no response. What more did these people want?

“I could do dozens of things in this scenario,” I said, perhaps inexpertly masking my exasperation. That was when it happened, when I heard myself add, “You know, this really isn’t rocket science.”

•••

My interviewers flicked glances at each other, then fixed me with identical fishy stares. After a long pause, the woman said “Do you have any questions for us?”

No, I did not.

I berated myself all the way to the parking lot. Substitute teaching is not, of course, rocket science. But Clare, or anyone who really needed that job, would never have permitted herself to say so. She wouldn’t have been so careless, not with the water rising around her.

But we all have a story, and in the one that’s mine to tell, my toes have never even gotten wet. I’m still not certain how to account for it.

At forty or fifty, not everyone is the same person they were at twenty or thirty or wants the same things. No one understands that better than people like Clare and me, who lived through the wave, who watched our fathers—and it was mostly the fathers—decide that, after all, our mothers were not the women they wanted to grow old with. For us, marriage felt like an extraordinary gamble, like stepping aboard a rocket, equipped with nothing to calculate its trajectory but love and hope.

My judgment is no better than Clare’s, or her mother’s, or mine. I haven’t worked at my marriage any harder than they did. Yet in my story, the man who seemed fundamentally decent and kind at twenty-five is still both of those things twenty years on. The young woman who decided to spend her life with him hasn’t changed her mind about that. The waters have held back from us. Which is why I’m standing here on dry ground, secure enough to be a wise-ass at an interview, a writer who doesn’t actually need a day job. Most of the time, it all feels like the sheerest luck.

Maybe they appreciated my honesty. Or maybe anyone with a credential and a pulse was going to get that job. Either way, I was hired. And that felt lucky, too.

•••

KATE HAAS is an editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, OZY, Slate, and other venues. A regular contributer to Full Grown People, she lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.

Read more FGP essays by Kate Haas.

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Stinger

pocket doll
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Lori Jakiela

The scorpion’s name is Cupcake and Cupcake looks pissed.

“Oh, come on,” a zoo official with a walkie-talkie strapped to his waist says. “How scary can it be with a name like that?”

He’s talking to a girl. The girl is on Cupcake’s side of the safety rope. The zoo official is on the other. It’s the girl’s job to pop Cupcake’s carrying case open. Then she’s supposed to reach in and scoop out Cupcake like a gerbil.

From the way the girl is shaking, I’m sure it’s her first time.

I should say, “Honey, are you crazy? Don’t do that.”

I should say, “Sweetheart, how much are they paying you?”

To the zoo official, who is about my age and still wears his baseball cap backwards, I should say, “Why don’t you put your hand in there, dickhead?”

Instead I bring my ten-year-old son over to watch.

•••

How I became this person, I don’t know.

Earlier, I wanted to hang out at the shark tanks. Then on the rickety bridge over Otis the Alligator.

Zoos trigger something primal in me. I don’t pay attention to the cute animals. I’m interested only in animals that, if things were fair and cage-free, would kill me. A zoo visit is about defying mortality, maybe. Most things are. It’s something not to talk about, though, especially with my sensitive ten-year-old son, who worries the snow leopard is depressed, wonders if the komodo dragon is lonely, and likes the penguin house most of all.

•••

We were on our way to check out venomous snakes when I saw the Live Animal Demonstration sign.

How I justify watching:

I read somewhere that most scorpion stings are the same as bee stings.

I convince myself Cupcake is some sort of eunuch, a domesticated nub where a stinger used to be.

I think if someone’s going through the trouble of picking up a scorpion the size of a Pop-Tart, the rest of us should pay attention.

“You’ve got to see this,” I tell my son, who is a more decent person and who would rather not see this at all.

•••

Cupcake’s whole body is a claw. She’s backed into the corner of her carrying case. Inside the reptile house, under ultraviolet light, Cupcake glows like a club kid at a rave. But out here, in the sunshine, she’s so black she’s almost purple, one oil-slick bruise. Her carrying case is pink, plastic, the kind usually reserved for hermit crabs, starter pets. It’s the kind of case kids store Barbie shoes in.

“Look, sweetie,” I say to my son. “She’s going to pick up that scorpion.” I point, like I’ve just said something wise, a life lesson.

I’ve become the muscle-guy from earlier, back at the aquarium. He flexed, pointed to a tank, and said, in a low and serious voice, “What we have right here are fish.” His pretty girlfriend clung to his bicep and cooed.

My son doesn’t coo. He backs up, because he’s not an adult, because the world hasn’t worn his heart to a nub, an overused eraser, because he still feels things.

“Why would she do that?” he wants to know.

The girl is ponytailed, in a powder-blue polo shirt with the zoo logo stitched on the chest. She looks like summer help, an intern, maybe. Maybe she’s getting minimum wage. Maybe this is unpaid life experience and she’s chalking up college credits she’ll have to take out loans to cover.

“Because she’s in training?” I say, and of course it comes out as a question.

“In training for what?” my son wants to know.

•••

I’ve had a lot of awful jobs, terrible internships. “Life training,” people called some of them. None involved handling a scorpion, but still.

•••

Once when I was a flight attendant, a pilot made me hold a door shut during take-off and landing.

There was a mechanical problem—the door wouldn’t lock completely and the handle would start to open on ascent and descent. It was something that would normally ground the plane, but the pilot had a date in D.C. that night—one hot blonde, one strip-club steakhouse, jumbo margaritas served up in glasses shaped like boobs.

The pilot didn’t want a delay.

He said, “Did you bring a parachute?”

He said, “You’ll love the way you’ll fly.”

He said, “Come on, I’m joking.”

He said, “Just don’t let go,” and winked.

I was young. I needed that job. I did what I was told. I pushed my whole weight against the handle and the handle pushed back. I don’t know how dangerous it was really, but I could feel the cold air whistle around the door seal. The steel handle frosted and shook and any minute it seemed the door would burst and I’d jettison out, cartoon baggage, still strapped in my jumpseat and smiling. I’d been taught to smile on the job no matter what. I did that. The door handle inched open and I kept calm and the passengers kept calm. They looked at me like I knew what I was doing and I pretended to know what I was doing.

We went on like that until one guy started hitting his call button. He kept at it through the short flight. He was doing sign language to show he needed a drink, that he might choke and die if he did not get a drink, like this lack of drink was cutting off what little oxygen he had left.

I smiled. He did not smile back. I shrugged and pointed my chin toward the seatbelt sign overhead, which demanded I stay seated, too—sorry, sorry—and that we’d both just have to hold on.

I held on. He kept pressing his call light like a game show buzzer. The door stayed shut. By the time we were on the ground, I was shaking. A red imprint marked my palm from the handle, and the man who wanted a drink was so angry he wrote down my name. He threatened to write a complaint even though I got him snacks and a diet Coke to go.

The pilot heard all of this but pretended not to.

“I think I can, I think I can,” the pilot said. He pulled his pilot-cap low, gangster-style. “Nice work, little engine,” he said, and patted my hip on his way out of the cockpit, off to his margarita-boobs and his blonde and the thick steak he liked juicy and medium-rare.

•••

It’s been a dozen years since I had a job like that, which is maybe one reason I can keep watching the girl and the scorpion now. Empathy is an easy thing to lose, like car keys, like the name of that one actor who played in that movie about scorpions, you know the one.

“You can do it,” the zoo official says as the girl loosens the clasp on Cupcake’s case.

•••

“You forgot what work is,” my father used to say, meaning me and what I do for a living, the way I push words around a page. He meant, watch it. He meant, first you’re on one side of the glass, then the other. He meant, be kind.

He meant, it’s not work if it can’t kill you.

He meant what work does to a body, but work kills people in many ways, I think.

•••

At the entrance to the machine shop where my father worked for thirty years, a sign counted down the days since the last accident. The numbers were flip charts. The numbers didn’t go above two digits much. It was someone’s job to turn those numbers forward and back. Imagine that job.

My father had so many metal shavings in his skin he’d joke that he’d set off metal detectors at airports. He never wore a wedding ring because rings could catch in the machines and take a finger or worse.

“I want to keep all my fingers,” he’d say, “so I can show the foreman where to stick it.”

•••

“I mean, seriously,” the zoo official is saying, “Cupcake?”

It’s a punchline he’s sharing again and again.

•••

When our son was first born, he cried all the time and no one in our house slept much. At first we thought it was colic, but it went on and on and the pediatrician shrugged and said some children are born sensitive like that.

“He’ll get used to it,” the pediatrician said about my son and the world.

My husband worked a terrible corporate job back then. His boss liked to stretch an eight-hour day into a fifteen-hour day too often to count.

Once, after a stretch of six long days in a row, my husband came home and went into the kitchen. He took a serrated bread knife to his forehead. He carved. Blood ran into his eyebrows and down his cheeks. He came out and showed me. He looked proud. I felt sick. But then he called his boss and said he’d been in a car accident and wouldn’t be in to work the next day and maybe the next. I cleaned his forehead with peroxide and we celebrated with drinks and take-out from an Italian restaurant nearby. Everything felt, for a moment, manageable. We remembered we were happy. We remembered we loved each other. Our son slept some. We did, too.

“Most men live lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau said.

A knife going across a forehead wouldn’t make much of a sound.

•••

“In training for what?” my son wanted to know about the girl.

•••

The girl shakes even more now, like she’s about to stick a fork in a toaster. Cupcake’s case is open. Inside, Cupcake flexes her tail, her very operational stinger. I look down at my son, who’s squinted his eyes shut.

The girl tries to breathe. She cups her hand and lowers it into the case.

“Okay,” she says to the zoo official, who’s beaming. “Now what?”

“It’s not what you look at,” Thoreau said. “It’s what you see.”

“Things do not change,” Thoreau said. “We change.”

The girl nudges her hand under Cupcake.

She brings the creature out to show us, a heavy dark heart in her palm.

•••

LORI JAKIELA is the author of three memoirs—most recently Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (Atticus Books 2015)—as well as a poetry collection, Spot the Terrorist! (Turning Point 2012), and several chapbooks. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and more. She teaches in the writing programs at The University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg and Chatham University, and co-directs the summer writers’ festival at the historic Chautauqua Institution. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, the author Dave Newman, and their children. For more, visit http://lorijakiela.net.

Read More FGP essays by Lori Jakiela. 

Unemployed in Paris

By Janet Skeslien Charles

belly
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

JOB OFFER: ACADEMIC PROGRAM IN PARIS has immediate opening for housing coordinator. Bilingual/bicultural skills, experience with Word, Excel & Filemaker. Prefer candidate with middle-aged (or defunct) uterus.

The ad didn’t read that way. But it might as well have.

Jobs for English speakers in Paris abound—if you want to teach business English or wash dishes. The salaries for both are the same, as are the possibilities for advancement. I came to France thanks to a year-long teaching position. Graduate school in my native Montana hadn’t worked out as I’d hoped. We teaching assistants huddled in our offices, hoping to avoid French professors who battled in the halls, and I’d started to hate French. In coming to Paris, I’d hoped to salvage my love of the language, but instead found a different kind of love. I met my husband and decided to stay. For several years, I went from job to job, private lesson to private lesson, metro line one to metro line eight to metro line fourteen, spending more time in tunnels—sometimes an hour between jobs—than I did above ground, and started to dream of having a job with only one daily commute instead of six. I loved my students. But for a tenured position in the French school system, you must be European. So when my contract wasn’t renewed, I decided to write a novel.

I think of myself as on sabbatical. True, this period of enrichment and growth was to have lasted just a year. It is now going on three. “Unemployed” would be the precise term for my condition, but I prefer to be vague.

I apply for jobs. Just this week there was the job at a Jewish NGO, a housing coordinator position, and an editorship for a leukemia magazine. I look at the want ads dutifully and write cover letters so that I can tell myself that although the competition is fierce, I am trying. I send resumes out in the same way children send letters to Santa Claus. Of course, the children eventually wise up. I never seem to.

La directrice of the academic program calls to arrange an interview for the housing coordinator position. I put on my blue suit (only worn three times) and grab my briefcase, bought last year in hopes of making me look professional. My life is so empty that the briefcase is still stuffed with the wadded tissue paper from the store. When I arrive at the office, la directrice smiles and asks if I’d like a cup of tea—she’s just brewed a pot. As we chat, I take in her friendly manner, long, cherry Kool-Aid-colored hair, and pea-green boots and think that she is not your typical director. She asks me to sit down. The office furniture is black. There are no plants. Although we’re both American, she conducts the whole interview in French. It’s strange. She says the salary isn’t great, but employees have three months of paid vacation. They’ll pay for my cell phone. If I want to work only four days a week, that’s fine. The perfect job.

The interview goes well, although near the end, she asks how old I am then notes that I’ve “not passed the child-bearing years.” I stare at her for a moment before answering—she pretends not to notice. As la directrice walks me to the door, she says she feels we’ve clicked. She looks giddy and tells me that there’s another candidate who is forty-nine, which is good on the one hand because she’s already raised her children. On the other, she is not as dynamic as me. La directrice wants me. We’ve clicked, she says again, and invites me back for an interview with la directrice executive on Monday. As I leave, I glance at my watch. The interview lasted nearly two hours. I didn’t see the time pass. For the first time in years, I let myself feel hopeful about a job.

Paris, the city of languorous lunches and long walks along the Seine, has not pounded the need to be prompt out of me. I’d rather be an hour early than five minutes late. So I arrive ten minutes before the 9:00 am interview. I know the building code and hit the numbers on the brass pad. Not wanting to be too early, I wait five minutes in the closet-sized vestibule, then ring the interphone. Once. Twice. Three times. No response. Sigh. It was all too good to be true; they’ve forgotten about me. I consider leaving, then consider my bank account. I stay.

I’ve never gone to an interview in which the interviewer was late. It makes me feel uneasy. I wait five minutes, then five more, then five more. When la directice executive arrives at 9:10, she scowls at me like I am an idiot for being on time. Impeccably groomed and the size of a Kewpie doll, she wears a Hermès scarf. Loosely translated, this word means, “I have four hundred dollars to waste and desperately need people to know that.” She unlocks the door; I follow her up the narrow staircase.

In French, she lectures me on the importance of a gracious welcome. The students—from Harvard, Yale, Stanford—pay almost $30,000 per year, so there’s a lot at stake. La directrice executive mentions the other candidate, “She’s forty-nine. She’s raised her children.”

“How old are you?” she asks.

“Thirty-five.”

“Are you married?”

“Yes.”

“When do you plan on having children?”

Huh?

When I don’t answer, la directrice executive points out that I am “still in the child-bearing years.”

I say my husband and I haven’t discussed it; she looks at me suspiciously.

“But you’re thirty-five,” she informs me, as if I’ve forgotten. “The whole reason people marry is to have children.”

The last person to say this to me was a priest. The day before Edouard and I got married, Father William said he’d refuse to marry us if we didn’t sign the form stating we’d raise our theoretical kids as Catholics.

“Can you promise that you won’t have children?” la directrice executive asks. “Just for the first year.”

I am dumbstruck. The silence makes her nervous. She fiddles with her scarf.

“Not that I’m forbidding you to have any,” she assures me. “I’m a mother. A working mother. I would never deprive any woman of that pleasure. It’s just that now is a bad time for us.” She squints in the direction of my stomach, then she yells, “Tell me when you’re planning on it. When? When?”

It’s so hot in the office that I can’t breathe. La directrice joins us. “Everything all right?” Dazed, I nod. They smile brightly and I know the interview is over. I tell them that the other candidate seems better suited to the job, then thank them and leave as fast as I can.

When I talk about the interview with Parisian friends, they’re surprised I haven’t been asked about having kids—with France’s generous maternity leave, companies have much at stake.

“The next time it happens, pretend to tear up,” one advises. “Tell the interviewer, ‘You’ve brought up a painful topic because I’m sterile.’”

In Courrier Cadre magazine article “Discrimination: Solutions that Work,” Cecile Pincet writes: “Between the ages of 28 and 35, women are often asked ‘Are you planning to have a baby?’ in job interviews. You must respond no. Sometimes, you have to know when to lie.” In the jobs edition of the magazine Femme Actuelle, Amelie Cordonnier and Marion Kressmann note that asking about pregnancy is illegal. “He oversteps his rights, but to remind him of this would be risky. You can respond in all honesty with a minimum of information: ‘Yes, but not in the immediate future.’ You can also turn it around: ‘Is that a problem for you?’ It’s a good way to not fall into a trap and to keep the upper hand.”

La directrice calls to offer me the job. Finally, someone wants me. I sent out dozens of letters and someone responded. We clicked. I thought that I would be happy. She says that her boss loved me and asks how I feel about the interview. I don’t mention la directrice executive’s thoughts on why people marry, or the fact that she asked me not to have kids. Instead, I complain that she was late, and that when she read my hyphenated last name aloud, she said, “Do we have to say it all?” La directrice admits that la directice executive can be… difficult. She, too, has had ups and downs with her boss. Plus, they are both a bit tense after learning their academic coordinator is pregnant. I tell her I felt manipulated when they kept bringing up the candidate past her child-bearing years. In other words, I ruin everything. I’d kept my mouth shut during two interviews, why couldn’t I have kept it shut during one phone call?

La directrice calls to rescind the job offer. She feels that I am volatile and judgmental. Maybe I am volatile and judgmental. I contemplate what bothered me, beyond the invasive questions, beyond the fact that la directrice executive looked at me like I was a liar when I said I wasn’t thinking about having children.

The reason I sabotaged myself is difficult to voice: la directrice executive asked questions I don’t even ask myself. Questions even my mother and mother-in-law don’t ask, though they’re probably dying to. Questions I avoid. Even my husband avoids them. Two years ago, when I asked if he wanted children, he replied it was up to me. And that was the end of the conversation. La directrice executive demanded answers I couldn’t give. When am I going to have a child? When? I don’t know. I keep waiting to feel the desire, some little spark, but it’s been thirty-five years and I still don’t feel it. I don’t think I’ll ever feel it. This is hard to face. So hard to face, I chose to avoid it, until the job interview. Now it’s all I can think about.

I remember an image from the eighties, a woman with foofy hair and too much make-up screeching, “My biological clock is ticking.” I never felt a single tick. If I have a clock, someone forgot to wind it. Until the interview. Now I feel a strange, hard ticking, like a bomb set to go off, making me more and more nervous. “When? When? Just tell me when!”

Growing up, I expected to have kids just like everyone else. I love my husband and know that he would be an amazing father. Why don’t I feel a desire to bring life into this world? Why can’t I at least talk about it? All around me, it feels like people are moving on, moving forward. Friends and family are having babies, having miscarriages, getting fed up with IVF treatments, getting divorced, getting remarried, buying houses, going to recitals, finding better jobs, earning more money, making new friends, having affairs, selling houses, going on diets, reading good books, having deep conversations, making important and not important decisions while I sit frozen.

Two weeks later, I pick up the bilingual job ads and pore over each page like a child making a wish list—project manager for the Invest in France Agency, editor at Datasia, account manager at Azego. I even look at the hotel and restaurant section—Wili’s Wine Bar needs someone, as does the Indiana Cafe.

After my strange job interview, I don’t mind being unemployed. At least in my living room, no one asks personal questions. It’s a relief not to be in that stuffy office with edgy women. (I imagine la directrice executive greeting me in the morning with a birth-control pill and a glass of water.) It’s a relief to go back to not thinking about having kids. Glancing down the page, I spot the program coordinator position at an MBA school. I applied for that job five months ago. Third time this year it’s appeared. Apparently the person they chose didn’t work out. Again. I turn on my computer, click on the cover letter, spruce it up and change the date, then send it to the North Pole.

•••

JANET SKESLIEN CHARLES is the author of Moonlight in Odessa (Bloomsbury), which was translated into twelve languages and reflects her time as a Soros Fellow in Odessa, Ukraine. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in Slice and Pharos. Originally from Montana, she traveled to France in 1998. She interviews writers at jskesliencharles.com and is on Twitter as @moonlightodessa.

Sacked

sacked
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Rae Pagliarulo

Lauren smiled a little from behind her half-moon desk, running her hands over my resume, my writing samples, and my list of references. We had spent the last hour going over everything I could have wanted to know about a job—work/life balance, office culture, and maybe most importantly, at least in the nonprofit world, a compelling mission. If I was going to commit to raising money for a living, I wanted it to be for something I believed in myself. People can smell a snake oil salesman a mile away. This was a place I could really get behind, though. The director seemed like the kind of woman who wanted to see other women succeed; the kind of boss who understood that her successes were her team’s successes. I was slowly falling in love with the idea of being employed here. “So, don’t feel like you have to answer, but … what exactly happened with your last job?” She rested her eyes on the gap in my work history, then brought them up to meet mine.

I smiled and measured the words building in my throat. Which ones to let out, and which to leave out? I had to be careful, diplomatic, but, above all, honest.

Almost one year before, at noon on a beautiful, bright spring Wednesday, I was called into the office of Greta, the headstrong, no-nonsense director who reviewed my grant proposal drafts and splattered them with Xs and question marks. My supervisor Jill, who reported to Greta, followed close behind and shut the door to the office as I sat down at the cheap beige particleboard table. At that point, I had been working at the small but venerable arts organization for less than two months, still getting my bearings, trying to decipher the acronyms, and laughing my way past the unrecognizable names that were dropped at my feet. Oh, did I see Smith Von Lichtenstein’s new one-man show that was staged in a refrigerated meat truck under the Ben Franklin Bridge? Totally. I was out of my depth, a fish on a bicycle, but I was employed. I had worked at far worse jobs for far less money. At least here, I had a desk to sit at and regular bathroom breaks.

“What’s up, ladies?” I had no immediate reason to be worried. Sure, things hadn’t been going great—the jump from my long-term, albeit limiting position at a very large nonprofit to a higher position at this more modest organization had been anything but smooth. I had decided to leave my first real job after almost four years acting as everyone’s de facto assistant. It was a great place to work in that it was a resume-builder, but in actuality, I was sick of fetching coffee, submitting invoices, and collating binders full of information for the people doing the real work. I hugged my coworkers, who had become like family, packed up my note cards and photos and figurines, and did what you do when there’s nothing more to do. I left.

My new colleagues, mostly arts administration lifers, possessed the welcoming spirit of ice sculptures, and all the original writing I submitted—the crux of my job responsibility, in fact—was struck through with red pen, condemned for being “inconsistent with the organizational language.” My co-workers ate lunch at trendy restaurants without me and exchanged gossip just outside my door; several mornings, I entered the tiny, badly lit office I awkwardly shared with Jill, only to find her perched at the edge of her swivel chair and ready to ask me if I had “a moment to chat.” (This, for those who may not know, is nonprofit-ese for “You’ve done something stupid, and I’m trying to find the nicest way possible to tell you to stop.”)

Even my interest in musicals—which, at my culture-less high school had been deemed an obsession—paled in comparison to the show tune–whistlers that one-upped each other on obscure Tony Awards trivia and prattled off Bernadette Peters’s roles in alphabetical order for fun. That I was consistently missing the mark was no mystery to anybody. But it takes a while to adjust to a new place, my friends kept saying. Just stay the course and trust your instincts. I remembered the fights I’d have with my parents every time I left another thankless retail job in my early twenties. Impetuous, impatient, flighty, they called me. Can’t stay in one place for long, they said. Make up your mind, they chastised. I wasn’t ready to quit this one yet. I hated it, but not as much as I hated disappointing people I loved.

“Rae,” Greta sighed, “I think we all know this hasn’t really been working out, on both sides. You and Jill have spoken a few times about this, right?”

“…Right.” I pursed my lips, afraid to say anything that might incriminate me. My gut started to drop, and I could feel my pulse in my throat. Could they see the vein in my neck, I wondered?

“We’ve discussed it, and, well … we think it’s best if you leave.” Oh, God. No no no. “We’re happy to issue you a severance, and we’ll plead no contest to unemployment compensation.” Unemployment? Wait, did she say I’m unemployed? “Now, why don’t you head back to your office and pack your things, hmm? Jill will walk you out.”

My ears filled with a fuzzy static. My eyes locked in on her mouth as the words dripped out, in slow motion. I couldn’t even hear myself ask her, Now? I only knew that I had finally spoken out loud when she said to me, straight faced, “Yes. Now.”

The next few moments merged into a nightmare montage. Did I pack my lamp and my photos before or after I landed on a bench outside, crying into the afternoon sun? Who did I call first, my mother or my roommate? Why did Jill place her hand on my back as she led me outside, as though I might spin around and strike her? Did she secretly like me—did she feel bad? Did I cry on the train? Why was that damn sun so bright?

Like a tiny ten-car pileup, everything after that happened so fast. What felt like only minutes later, I was in bed with my laptop, Googling unemployment forms and blubbering. And then my new routine began: Collect paltry benefit checks. Go out drinking with girlfriends. E-mail every contact I have to ask for part-time work. Obsessively check job boards. Work shifts at the coffee shop for tips and free sandwiches. Continue drinking with girlfriends. Send out resumes. Send out resumes. Send out resumes.

The interviews and phone calls came easy enough—but so did the rejections. Everyone was so sorry. They wanted me to know how nice it was to meet me, how very qualified—even overly so—I was for the position that they had so easily given to someone else. A few times, I even made it to the second or third round of interviews, meeting with more and more people, answering harder and harder questions. I found myself heartily defending my commitment to nonprofit fundraising, a line of work just a few years prior I hadn’t even known existed.

Pulling myself up out of bed got harder and harder, the weight growing on me with every month. I started writing little Post-It note reminders to myself and sticking them all over the place—voices that would speak back to me as I went about my day. On my way down the stairs: LIFE IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU’RE BUSY MAKING OTHER PLANS! As I brushed my teeth in the bathroom mirror: NOTHING IS PERMANENT, EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE! Inside the kitchen cabinet where I kept the cereal: DON’T KILL YOURSELF TODAY! MOM WILL NEVER RECOVER! I was constantly convincing myself to keep going, to turn the other cheek while the struck one throbbed hot. But at the bottom of my relentless interviewing, my hopeful monologues, the peppy Post-Its, I was so angry.

I was angry with myself for turning my back on predictability, security, and professional boredom, for the moving target of bigger, of better, of more challenging or meaningful or true. I was angry at every employer in Philadelphia for emailing me back, chatting with me jauntily over the phone, inviting me into their offices, smiling as I answered questions in their conference rooms—telling me not this time, not this job. I was even angry at Greta and Jill—even though I would have quit that stupid job, had they given me a chance to secure a landing pad—for not giving me a heads up, not even an hour or two to get used to the idea that by lunchtime, I’d be made redundant, totally afloat, rationing out the handful of change I had to my name.

Someone once told me that the best thing about your thirties is “productive anger.” When you’re younger and something devastates you, destruction is the next logical step: you rage, get drunk, leave livid voicemail messages for people who don’t deserve them. You want everyone else to hurt as much as you do. But once I realized that a couple of months of consistently unrewarded effort were closing in on half a year, “productive anger” was sorely needed. The ugly, unrelenting fire in my gut pushed me right out to the door and to the big conglomerate gym a mile away. I convinced my mom to front me the ten-dollar-a-month fee, and I spent almost every morning chugging away on elliptical machines, perfecting yoga poses I had forgotten, and pushing increasingly heavier weights away from me, above me, and behind me. I turned the Beyoncé and Biggie Smalls and Girl Talk in my headphones up loud and locked my eyes on Fox and Friends, Maury Povich, the Rachael Ray Show. Every ounce that fell from my frame made me feel a little less keyed up. I could feel myself getting lighter.

My creativity even benefited from this burst of usefulness. I enrolled in a couple of writing classes, held at community writing centers in neighborhoods that I’d hardly visited. The change of scenery was stimulating—suddenly the inertia and boredom lifted, and I couldn’t stop writing. Every story I submitted for workshop vibrated off the page, each word having landed there after fighting its way through my clenched teeth. But my jaw slowly loosened, and the little wrinkle between my eyebrows smoothed itself every time I sat with those people—the nurse, the retired schoolteacher, the émigré cook with a bum hip—and let my focus drift away from the pile of resumes, the dwindling money, the mind-numbing tedium.

The more anger I fed into my pursuits, the less there was to draw from. The pool of it got more and more shallow until my fingernails dragged along the floor, finding only the sediment, the good stuff, the concentrated trust in myself that was left behind. I could see that I had almost drowned trying to get down there, but once I did, I found what I was truly made of—what kind of person I was in the face of ruin.

“So … your last job?” I cleared my throat, brushed the hair from my forehead, and smiled at Lauren knowingly.

“You know, sometimes things just don’t work out the way you think they will. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity they gave me, but the culture, the people … I knew I belonged somewhere more collaborative, more supportive. And I’ll be honest—this summer was hard… more than half a year without consistent employment really does a number on a girl, you know?”

She laughed, nodded slowly.  “Oh, I know. Trust me. I really, really know.” We smirked at each other like two friends with an inside joke. “And collaboration, support? I totally get it. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t run an organization that believed in those two things. So don’t worry. I think you’re in the right place.”

I felt hyper-charged and tranquil all at the same time. I didn’t know whether to do cartwheels or cry uncontrollably. Maybe later, once I knew something official, I’d do both. But in this moment, in this room with Lauren, after an hour of talking and laughing, after the longest year of my life was almost safely behind me, all I could manage was, “Yeah … I think I’m in the right place, too.”

All names have been changed except Rae’s. —ed.

•••

RAE PAGLIARULO is an MFA Creative Writing Candidate at Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Daedalus: A Magazine of the Arts, Full Grown People, Ghost Town Literary Magazine, and Philadelphia Stories, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is also the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. She works and lives in Philadelphia.

When the Floor Dropped Out

heartonastring
By Beth Hannon Fuller www.studiofuller.com

By Erica S. Brath

The kitchen floor is sinking. It’s not a shock―it’s been failing for quite some time. I step to the sink and feel it give under me. Even worse, when I’m washing dishes and the hubby steps next to me to get something from the cabinet, I’ve suddenly lost an inch.

At first we decided we had to fix it. After all, it’s directly under the sink, meaning we have a leak.

“We have to take care of it, or we’re going to be breathing in black mold, which is unbelievably unhealthy for us and the dogs, who are stuck in here all day, and eventually the floor’s going to drop out,” my sky-is-falling husband initially barked. Back when we discovered the problem. Back when we gave a damn.

Since then, larger, more pressing problems have presented themselves, and like we did with the floor, we’ve pretty much just let them go too.

It’s not laziness; it’s survival.

Three and a half years after we moved into this ancient metal sheet-clad camper that was never, ever meant to be used for more than a few weekends a year, I’m still stepping gingerly atop the spot as I wash a pan from dinner. A chore unto itself.

The hot water heater, located at the back of the camper and yet another problem unto itself, began leaking months ago―the plastic piece that connects the water line gave way, and the new one is back ordered. So, I boil pots of water on the stove, adding a couple of electric kettles’ worth for good measure, to one side of the ceramic sink. I soak the dirty dishes in hot, soapy water, then rinse in cold. It never really gets anything fully clean.

I’ve done all the small stuff, and now I can clean the frying pan. I empty the soapy water, scrub it off, rinse it in cold and place it, gleaming, into the itty bitty drying rack, the words All Clad stamped into its sturdy handle.

The pan is one of a few holdouts from the previous iteration of my existence. Back when I could afford an entire set of All Clad. Back before the proverbial floor dropped out.

•••

“The more you make the more you spend,” a friend admonished recently when I explained that I need a better paying job. I have to admit that was the old version of me: I lived that life, making more and, consequently, spending more. I’d spend entire Saturdays shopping, not content until I came home, arms bulging from my latest retail conquest.

My friend Nora and I used to have a game in high school―we’d try to see who could score the most cool stuff for the least amount of money. It’s a game I continued to play well into adulthood. But unlike in high school, when the cheapest, gaudiest earrings or most sole crushing pleather shoes could rate high on the awesome scale, I later refined my retail love to pretty much only the best, for less.

Which is how I wound up with an apartment full of designer duds, high-end small appliances, and damn near useless bakeware. Not to mention the bright red Volkswagen in the drive. I was expected to live the part of employed professional with a master’s degree. You showed your worth by what you owned.

The problem is, you have to continue to maintain that trajectory, constantly making more. Your belongings denote your status in the hierarchy of common culture, no matter what subset of the culture you belong to. I remember, as an undergraduate working full-time while taking a full load of classes, marveling on my way to work at the black-clad punks begging on Haight Street. Their leather jackets, tattoos, piercings, and Doc Martens cost more than my tuition. They were faux po’, playing the part. They’d scurry back to the ‘burbs during the week, probably troll the mall for more black duds with their weekend beggings. Whereas I was plain ol’ po’, heading to the graveyard shift at the local diner.

I grew up fairly poor, until my father started making a decent salary as an airline pilot when I was in high school. I went from hand-me-downs to a fancy hand-built German sports car in the blink of an eye. But I still paid for my own education, working though my twenties to cover living expenses while earning my BFA. I was the proverbial starving artist, but in those days it was impossible to tell who truly was and who was the trustafarian.

Without a family fortune in my back pocket, I had no choice but to work. That included the usual twenty-something jobs ―barista, waitress, data-entry temp―along with bike messenger, tourist t-shirt designer, and phone warrior for the environment.

I never made much at any of these gigs, but they fulfilled two important aspects to my working life, in addition to paying the rent: a job where I could continue to be creative outside the daily grind and work where I wouldn’t lose my soul.

The problem came after grad school when I bought into the hype of my own superiority, my unassailable right as a member of the educated creative class to make more money than I actually needed to survive. I was told, and believed, that I deserved everything money could buy and more, by virtue of having attended school. Never mind the fact that I financed my degrees to the nines. Never mind the fact that all that learning made me no better than anyone else. I had a piece of paper, but I was still me. I just didn’t realize it at the time.

But that was then and this is now, and my current now is actually not so far from where I was back before my ego got the better of me.

The difference is that even if I wanted to, I couldn’t maintain the ruse. Probably part of the reason the soft kitchen floor doesn’t seem like the problem it really is: there are only so many fires that can be put out before you just don’t care if the motherfucker burns.

So, we just move forward, leaving all that was behind in physical and emotional form. Or at least try.

•••

My husband needed work pants, so we headed to the Goodwill. Browsing others’ cast-offs, I froze in the housewares section. An empty picture frame sat on the shelf, innocuous, seemingly nothing, except for the fact that, in my mind, I could see the photo that belonged in it.

“Oh my god, this was mine,” I gasped.

“Are you sure? Look at the back—was it messed up like this?” he said, turning over the faux stained-glass frame with flowers pressed between glass. It was very poorly constructed, with the lead messily bulging out where some shoddy worker, likely ill paid or, worse, forced labor, hadn’t given a damn.

“I… I’m not sure,” I stammered. I honestly didn’t know. I’d owned the thing for years, but couldn’t remember the back. And why would I? When I put the photo in it, I’m certain I wasn’t paying attention, and I know I wasn’t the day I took it out, shortly before nearly everything I owned in our tiny one-bedroom was left sitting in its place, like Miss Havisham finally gave up and walked away. Or, like us, was forced out for lack of cash.

I think of all the things we left behind, all the things we bought when times were flush, and wonder why. Why the hell did I need all that crap when, eventually, it would all just wind up in a Goodwill somewhere for me to find and not only not need, but not be willing to purchase again?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I’m against stuff. On the contrary. Sure, I lost just about everything in the financial meltdown and what I do have pretty much sucks. My car doesn’t have heat. Or a working radio. I live in a goddamned RV. I live in a hallway, really. But I have to admit that walking away from everything caused me to rethink, well, everything.

Would it have changed the situation if I hadn’t purchased any of it? In the long run, not at all, because we had a significant amount of money in savings as well, which we ran through in practically no time. I was out of work for two years―an amount of time that requires trust fund money, not the piddly bit we’d squirreled away.

Yet my fiscal downfall hasn’t turned me into the miser of my grandparents’ ways. They survived the Great Depression and never really recovered, at least in their own minds. I remember their front door. I remember my grandfather stuffing newspaper in the cracks between it and the jamb each night, placing a bean-filled snake along its base, to keep the draft out.

After they died, my aunt went through the place. She found several thousand dollars in rolled-up small bills, stuffed in corners, under towels, a fifty folded neatly under the statue of a coal miner atop the china cabinet. They could’ve bought that front door dozens of times over with the money tucked away inside that house. But they suffered in fear of losing everything yet again.

Trust me when I say I never, ever want to not be able to buy the little things. I will never willingly don a hair shirt and wander the earth a pauper. I love Sephora far too much. I’m not willing to give everything up. I’m not the Buddha. Being able to afford a cup of coffee when I want one is one of the few pleasures I will never take for granted. I remember taking the bus to work after the car quit right before the economic fall. I sat down, tried to take my bag off my shoulder, and dropped my coffee all over the floor. As I watched it roll around under peoples’ feet, spreading in opposite directions with each turn and jolt of the bus, I quietly cried, because I knew I didn’t have money to buy a new cup. And I had eight hours of non-caffeinated work ahead of me. That was hell.

I still don’t make enough to tuck even pennies away right now, but my determination is that as things get better, I will find balance. My car may be old, but it’s a sturdy Volkswagen. I won’t be trading it on something shiny, cheap and new. No matter what kinds of eye rolls I get when I pull out my old non-smart phone, I won’t give in to new gadget pressure. And I’ll be happy about the fact that the things I did purchase before the fall—the ones we managed to save that are tucked away in a tiny storage space in Philadelphia—were quality enough to last a good long time. The memory foam topped mattress we strapped to the top of the Golf because it was on sale, the Kitchen Aid mixer―the only actual item we got when we got hitched―that will probably outlast me, the espresso maker, my grandmother’s sewing machine.

I won’t live in this disgusting, falling-apart Tin Can forever, but I might get a bigger one. Or not. But no matter what, I’ll remember what matters―having a job, sure, that pays me what I’m worth. And doesn’t suck the life force out of me in return. I am not my job, and I am not my possessions. As much as I swoon over the Vitamix and the perfect smoothies it makes when I go to the grocery store, I can live without it. For now. Maybe one day I’ll find it at a great price and it will end up with the rest of the keepers.

•••

ERICA S. BRATH is a journalist and writer currently living in Ithaca, New York. She has written for publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Weekly, Certification Magazine, and Men’s Health. She is currently working on a memoir about her experience living in a travel trailer full-time. Her website is esbrath.com.

Water from a Well

wheelchair
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Sarah Pape

Roger lived in the kind of house I coveted: a swatch of deep green manicured lawn, the clean white paint of a new development, and high ceilings. The higher the ceilings, the more desirable the home. That’s what I thought at nineteen, living in a two-bedroom apartment where, when you flipped on the light, cockroaches scattered. This was our first place as a family—Rik, me, and our seven-month-old baby, Sylvia. We’d just gotten married and everything we owned was second hand. We would go to yard sales every weekend, holding things up to each other, as if to say, “This? Is this what grown ups own?”

We bought a little tabletop ironing board and an iron so that I could press Rik’s thrift store button-ups and slacks. He was working at a dealership trying his best to sell cars to people who wandered onto the lot. He didn’t have the bloodlust for it and would come home dejected and wrinkled after sweating all day on the blacktop. We were living off of meager commissions and mercy checks from my family, waking up every morning with the dread of having to make another call—either to the bank to argue overdraft charges or to feign a casual tone as I worked up the courage to call my mom or grandparents to ask for more.

Late one night, I picked up the worn Want Ads that Rik had fallen asleep with and began looking for something I could do. I only had one year of community college under my belt, but I could type and write. I began feeding a fantasy of becoming a secret shopper or someone who “makes money from home,” going so far as to pay fifty dollars to get the catalogue for products one could assemble. It turned out to be dollhouse furniture. They would send you the pieces. I did the math and realized it would take thousands of tiny desks and bunk beds to even pay the electricity bill.

Then I saw Roger’s ad in the Personal Services section: “I’m a disabled man in need of light cleaning, grocery shopping, and assistance with physical exercise. Some experience necessary.” We had only lived on our own for a few months, but I was learning quickly how to manage the domestic. I wasn’t meticulous, but we cleaned enough to hold the roaches back. I knew how to shop on a budget. In fact, some nights I would take the baby and go wander the aisles of a store, loading up the cart and then putting everything back. I was rehearsing for the day that we would have enough money and could buy whatever we wanted. That’s what success meant to me then. That’s why I was practically salivating when I pulled up to the white tract house when I arrived for an interview the next day.

•••

People in wheelchairs don’t scare me. My grandmother, who had contracted polio at twenty-five, lived her life—and mine—on wheels. My cousin and I would fight over her chair when she would get into her recliner for an afternoon nap, using a slide board to bridge the distance between the wheelchair and her destination. Careening down the long, marble hallways, we could balance on the back wheels, spinning in circles. As we got older, Nonie needed more help getting in and out of her chair. They eventually bought a nylon sling that hooked to a manual lift. Once you hooked each corner to the mechanism, you pumped a lever that incrementally lifted her into the air. She would hang there in the cradle of the nylon sling as you wheeled her to where she wanted to go.

It was my experience with this that convinced Roger to hire me. He was impressed that I knew what a Hoyer Lift was and that I could easily identify all of its parts. That first day, he showed me around his huge three-bedroom house: the office where he had a massive computer set-up with voice recognition, his kitchen with flats of Gatorade and Mountain Dew, his bedroom with one wall covered from floor to ceiling with jerseys and t-shirts signed by rock stars and athletes. He loved heavy metal. His long red hair was tied back in a loose braid, something that would eventually become my job to maintain.

I met Roger on the decline. The first few evenings when I came to work, he had me help him into his hot tub, after which I would dress him, then hook up the lift and place him into the waterbed. It was an ordeal, but the process promised to bring him some relief from his muscles, strung tight and prone to spasms. Roger had always been afforded any technology or machinery that could help him function independently, but he had advanced cerebral palsy and his body was nearing its limits.

There were a series of exercises and stretches that he needed me to assist him with. He would lie on his back, and I would put one leg up onto my shoulder and push it toward his upper body. It was part porno, part gymnastics coaching. His already contorted face would twist into agonized knots as he slurred for me to keep pushing. Then I would take turns sitting on his thighs, straightening his stiff, bent legs. Most nights, he would fall asleep with me on his lap, some infomercial droning from the TV next to the bed, the remote out of my reach.

And he coughed through everything. After many bouts of pneumonia, he had a compromised respiratory system and he would hack to the point of vomiting. Nothing seemed to help. It would just eventually stop, and he’d lie there panting from the effort of it all.

At midnight, I could go home. I ached toward those illuminated numbers on his nightstand, littered with cough suppressant, bottles of Gatorade, and empty bottles for him to pee in during the night. My breasts would be rock-hard and full of milk by the end of my shift, and I would selfishly hope for my baby to be awake as I maneuvered through the empty streets toward our tiny apartment. Just to take the pressure away. To soften me enough that I might fall asleep, still hearing, in my sleep, Roger’s incessant cough that sounded like dying.

As we worked to get him ready in the mornings, I had to train myself to not ask if he was okay. No matter what coughing, vomiting, muscle spasm that had just occurred, Roger would nod vigorously that he was fine and wanted to move on to our next task, undeterred by physical discomfort that would undo most people. We had more important issues at hand. He relied on me to not only dress him but to make sure he looked good.

“This one?” I would ask, holding up a pressed black button-up shirt.

“Nope. K-k-ke-keep looking,” Roger urged me deeper into his walk-in closet, decades of clothing lining each side.

I held up two more, “Either of these?” Vigorous head shaking. No.

“Wh, wh, what, what would your hus-hus-husband wear?”

I thought about Rik and the pile of faded black band t-shirts he pulled from most days, and then the ironed polos on hangers from his short-lived career as car salesman.

“Probably something like this,” I assured Roger, holding one up with the tags still on, the fabric heavy and liquid over my hand.

“That’s g-g-good then,” he relented, as I bent each of his arms and slipped them through the unwilling holes, buttoning the shirt from the second one down, revealing just a hint of fine red chest hair.

Roger was a two hundred pound man, and although it may be unfair to make the comparison, there was something seamless about my days diapering and clothing my infant daughter and my nights spent cleaning up vomit and squeezing his unrelenting legs into sweatpants. Sometimes, I was there until the day’s end. Others, just to get him ready for school in the morning. He asked me if I might be able to type his papers if he spoke them to me, and I agreed. I said yes to everything he asked, whether I could or not. I needed to be indispensable to him. Every hour meant another $4.25 on my paycheck.

•••

His tract home was near the grocery warehouse. I shopped there after work sometimes when everything but the forklifts had emptied the vast aisles of mealy produce and Spanish generics. At this hour, there was no one around to see me pull out the stack of WIC vouchers I used to pay for our peanut butter, milk, and cheese. Sometimes Roger would give me a twenty to pick up a few things for the next day. Amongst his line of plastic bottled drinks and frozen dinners, I would occasionally throw in a candy bar or Chapstick. I wouldn’t tell him and he never noticed.

Was this stealing? By definition, yes. Yet, sitting in the empty parking lot at one in the morning, breaking off pieces of chocolate and letting them melt slowly between my sore-from-grinding teeth, it felt like a reward. A bonus for getting through another day of a life I had never imagined. I told myself, Roger would give this to me. He often offered me food or a beer. I never accepted his offers, but I took this as permission.

Sometimes, I stole time. I would add twenty minutes to a shift. Not much, but over the course of weeks, would equal to days. I’ve earned this, was my mantra leaving after midnight, sleeping for a few hours between breast feedings, and then getting back into the car to meander back to that big gleaming house. Tiptoeing in, he would often still be sleeping, and I would fear that he had died. Aspirated in a coughing fit in that stretch of hours that I had gone home. But then he’d shift or fart or just be lying there with the TV on, and I’d wheel the lift to his bed, roll him side to side to place the sling, hook in and begin pumping the handle as if getting water from a well. He would fold into a perfect bundle, rising above the twisted sheets and sloshing bed.

I wasn’t the only one who worked for Roger. He had other girls who would do the day or night shift, depending. None of us could work more than twelve hours a week, so I asked for more clients through the agency.

By this time, Rik had been let go from his third dealership and was collecting unemployment. Once a week, he would wake up at five a.m. to inquire about a tree cutting job one town over. Each time they would tell him to come back next week, so he’d drive home and crawl into the California King bed that had been passed down from my grandparents, to my mother, then finally to us. He’d stay there with Sylvia, sleeping, and I would rouse to get to another shift.

Most of the work was bland—helping Joyce, a high-functioning woman with Down Syndrome, to create a budget; making sure Ron got his three-wheeled bicycle to the shop for a new set of tubes; cooking a week’s worth of meals for Susan, a fifty-year-old woman blind since birth.

But then there were cases like Martin, who was so large he couldn’t wipe his own butt and had stains running down the back of his pants. Porn-addicted and developmentally disabled, he’d sit in his oily tan recliner, a gallon of milk in his grip, asking me again and again if I liked “man and woman love movies.” Because the smell was unbearable, the agency arranged for him to take public transport to the grocery store to meet me. I would follow him through the store, listening for his grunts of agreement as I pointed to various foods.

•••

As my clientele was growing, Roger began getting sick more often. He dropped out of school and spent his days at home. I would sometimes stay, off the clock, to watch a movie or listen to some music. It was hard to understand his words, slurred and truncated by gasps and hiccups, but being in each other’s company was simple. In this way, I was escaping from home and what waited for me there. There was no middle space any longer, just layers of need and necessity and care, often beyond what I knew to do or to manage. Like Susan’s face when I attempted to cook eggplant, soggy with canola oil, bitter and tough. Like the unimaginable softness of her shoulders when she would ask me to rub them for her, little hums of pleasure emitting from her at being touched.

I was running late to Roger’s one day, exhausted from being woken in the middle of the night by police. The downstairs neighbors, a reclusive Asian woman and an old man who drove his Cadillac up and down the circular driveway, called the police with a noise disturbance. “There was a report of a baby crying,” the officer informed us. We were bleary eyed, holding our rosy cheeked, feverish baby.

“They do that,” Rik offered, and they apologized, citing our neighbors as having called frequently on past tenants. I had overslept my usual alarm and I knew that one of the other girls was getting Roger up that day. It would take me a half hour to grab his groceries and head over. I dawdled at the store though, completely unmotivated to face the bottles of cold piss on the nightstand to be emptied, the chunks of dandruff I’d have to comb through to tie his hair into a ponytail, or the crusted toothpaste at the corners of his mouth, waiting to be wiped away.

I was readying my excuse for being late when I clicked the lock and heard shouting. Incoherent and muddled as his speech was, I could clearly distinguish, “Help!”

I ran through the maze of hallways and rooms to find him in the bathroom, crumpled to his knees and hanging by one arm from the metal bar next to the commode. His entire body weight was held by the torsion on his upper bicep and bone, both spare to begin with. I tried at first to work his arm out of the tight space, but I realized quickly that the gravity of his body was too great. I’d have to lift him up and slip his arm out from there.

Not thinking, I held him under his arms and grabbed him in a big bear hug, pushing up with all the strength in my legs. I wasn’t strong enough. I could get his upper body lifted incrementally, shifting the point of pressure, but he was dead weight. He said to call 911 and his mother, who lived an hour away. I tried one last time to lift him and felt a terrible wrenching in my back.

The paramedics came and, with the strength of two men, lifted him up and wrested his arm from the bar. I sat on the bed, watching and holding my lower back with two hands, willing myself to stay upright until he was taken away. He was in shock, and from what they guessed, suffering permanent nerve damage. Finally, the house empty, I put the groceries away, left a note for his mother and drove home, wincing with every turn.

Stumbling up the stairs and through the door of my apartment, I made my way to the rocking chair. Rik, surprised to find me home, held a delighted Sylvia out to me. I burst into tears and cried, every sob radiating through my torn lumbar muscles. It was excruciating, but I couldn’t stop. Nothing could stop me.

The threshold of my body was one I had not yet met. Trying to make sense of the calculations it took to make a life in close proximity to the needs of others, I had fractured into too many pieces to hold. Rocking myself that evening, ice pack against my back, I wondered how we would keep everything together despite the limits of our two young bodies, no marketable skills, and the mounting responsibilities of an adult life.

My own parents had had me young, not much older than Rik and I were. I remembered falling asleep to the rhythmic tapping of the electric typewriter as my mother wrote her term papers, working her way through college by day and pulling shifts at Montgomery Wards each night. At her graduation, I was as tall as her hip, on which my baby brother was balanced.

I kept working with clients a few hours a week, but I also signed up for classes at the local community college. Sylvia went to the child development center on the days I went to school and when I transferred to the university, she began kindergarten. This is how we built a life, with paystubs and textbooks piled on thrift store tables, each apartment slightly bigger than the last. No high ceilings, but we have a garden grown by Rik’s two strong hands and a bed bought solely for us. We worked hard. We were lucky.

•••

SARAH PAPE teaches English and works as the managing editor of Watershed Review at Chico State. Her poetry and prose has recently been published in Pilgrimage, The Rumpus, Mutha Magazine, California Northern, The Superstition Review, The Southeast Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Cadence of Hooves: A Celebration of Horses. Her poetry chapbook, Road Z, was published by Yarroway Mountain Press. She is currently working on a book-length manuscript of essays.

Shelving My American Dream

checkers
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Dina Strasser

“You know what I’m going to do when I grow up, Mommy?”

This is a frequent topic of driving conversation between my ten-year-old daughter and me. The acoustics kind of suck in our car, but when we talk about this particular thing, I never pretend to hear what I haven’t heard clearly. I lean my head backwards between the seats and turn my ear towards my daughter, without taking my eyes off the road.

“I’m going to start a bakery named Blue Sky Bakery. I will serve pie and gumbo. Do you need to go to college to start a bakery?” she asks.

“It depends,” I say, smiling. “A two-year college can get you some good training in food prep. But you can also go to a fancier school, like the Culinary Institute in New York City, or Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.” I’ve looked this up. I’m feeling virtuous for already supporting my daughter’s edgy entrepreneurial pie-gumbo fusion career path.

You can do whatever you want, I say.

And then I stop. My jaws click shut, belatedly, on the lie.

•••

In June of this year, I turned down the most prestigious scholarship for doctoral work that my local, nationally recognized university had to offer. It was as generous as you could hope for: full tuition, opportunities for stipends and grants. The gracious professors there, and others who helped me with my applications, spent hours of their own time walking me through the process, writing recommendations; they said, to wit, you were born to be a Ph.D. And I knew it, because I had figured that out for myself in third grade. It was the only lifelong dream I have ever had.

My husband had always, warmly and unequivocally, supported me in pursuing the doctorate. Yet we now had a fairly unusual set of circumstances to consider. He: a Presbyterian minister, where work was increasingly hard to find, poorly paid, and mostly located in the South and Midwest. My only brother: mentally disabled. My mother: widowed. And me: needing exquisite mobility to find the kind of rapidly dwindling tenure-track job required to support my family, most of which were located in places best described as not in the South or Midwest.

It wasn’t adding up. But we tried. We spent three solid weeks, after we knew the amount of the scholarship award, talking to absolutely everyone: friends and family in academia, professors, ministers, finance people, each other. We looked up stats on line, took notes.

Finally, we went to a local diner for breakfast. I brought steno pads. We spent four hours there, the waitress stoically filling our coffee cups over and over as the “Pro” list filled one side of one page of the pads, and the “Con,” six sides. The decision was obvious. I made it.

I spent the next few days befuddled. I wrote apologetic, heart-broken notes, in a fog. Someone had not died; something absolutely had died. I had not lost anything; I had lost everything. I spun like a top on the pinpoint of an invalid assumption: that culture and commerce will part like the Red Sea in the face of your training, your commitment, your talent and desire.

Had I not, like any privileged, educated, self-aware person, identified my bliss? Had I not found and assiduously practiced what I was born for? Had I not fulfilled my obligation to Henry David Thoreau and Joseph Campbell, to step firmly away from the life of quiet desperation, to find and nurture the thing that makes me come alive? Where was the world meeting me half-way? Where, goddammit, was my reward?

“What do you want to do when you grow up?” asked the third grade teacher, and I said, “I want a Ph.D. I want to be an English professor.”

“Why do you want one?”

Because I loved to read and write, and I wanted to teach other people to read and write and to keep reading and writing myself. This was my castle, under which I had thought I had built all the right foundations.

Nearly thirty-five years later, I heard Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame in a TED Talk, quoting a farmer he’d met. “Following my dreams,” the farmer said, “was the worst advice anyone could have given me.”

•••

My grip on the dream had loosened by the time my husband and I decided to have kids—but only to the degree that I felt I could not physically have children safely by the time I finished a doctorate part-time, as our financial situation then dictated. I counted myself lucky to know the statistics in that regard, thinking of my brother, and the steep, cold slope between the chances of having a kid with Down’s in your earlier versus later decades of life.

So kids came first. My priorities were asserting themselves, so nascent as to be practically dripping with afterbirth of their own.

I didn’t see the grace in this at the time, although I wanted children very much. It was only what I needed to do, somewhat grumpily, without the power to simultaneously exist in two different dimensions. I want two lives, I would think to myself. Or three, or four.

You can do anything you want, only not at the same time, said a friend to me around that time. I don’t remember who it was, but in my mind, it was one of my most talented and ambitious soul sisters, and I was blessed to have plenty of them. Magazine editors, advocacy lawyers, dancers. The foment of their lovely lives seemed to lend even more gravitas to the words.

I latched onto this phrase and put it on like water wings. I repeated it to myself with every pang of intellectual hunger. I would do this thing, the thing I was born to do. Someday.

•••

So what has been the result of my decision to say no to the Ph.D.? To stay in a related job that pays double the national average with good benefits, in a decent school district, with marriage and family healthy and happy, in a big blue colonial that houses a fridge, pantry, and medicine cabinet that, by all rights, I should just empty into a cardboard box and mail to Haiti. I should mail the whole house to Haiti. This is not Sophie’s Choice.

And yet I ended up asking around anyway about our culture’s obsession with the dream come true. I nose through books and articles because if I know one thing, I know how to find the answers to life’s deepest questions: research.

My mother is a genealogist, so I asked her what American generation she felt would be most akin to our own: where we looked toward a life for our children that would be demonstrably worse than the one we experienced. “There’s always the Great Depression. But there was also one during The Panic of 1819,” she wrote to me in an email.

The what?

It was the first peacetime financial crisis of the nation. “Your ancestor George Wells got stuck administering his father-in-law Meshack Hull’s estate in New Jersey from about 1816 on, for years,” mom writes. “In 1829, he was actually jailed for being for debt, though he’d been very prosperous before. His wife and children, instead of being able to stay on the family farm, had to leave the county and, in the case of his son, find another kind of work. George disappeared around this time, and it is assumed that he died, whether by his own hand, or naturally, being a question in my mind.”

I also asked my good friend Mary, who has her own doctorate in American history. She has routinely served in the role of perspective-giver in my life: when I was battling through post-partum depression over the deeply non-crunchy-granola C-section birth of my daughter in 2003, she was the one who gently reminded me that in 1803, the baby and I both probably would have died. (Priorities.)

She felt that our closest parallel was the 1970s. “The country was gripped in an economic recession, manufacturing jobs were starting to disappear, the country seemed to be going to hell in a hand basket—Watergate, Vietnam, Iran,” she said. “One thing that historians point to is the number of disaster movies in the seventies. American exceptionalism started to crack.”

Which was interesting. Three historical periods, all different, of wondering how to suck up hardship and hand it to your child. Maybe through disaster films. World War Z, anyone?

I assumed that the American Dream came out of generations actually achieving, to some degree, the American Dream—and no one can deny the general upward trend of the standard of living. But maybe a single life, a sixty-year span if we’re lucky, is not enough to really detect that slow crawl to civil rights and antibiotics.

Could it be that there is a reverse dynamic at work: The American Dream, as panacea for the many, many times—the majority of times?—that dreams did not come true?

Mary and I also talked, at length, about the Ph.D.

She told me that she believed that every doctoral candidate has at least one Stupid Reason for Getting a Ph.D. “Mine was to show the world that I am smart,” said my wise friend. “Why do you want one?”

And I realized that my Stupid Reason for Getting a Ph.D. ran as follows: “To not be lonely.”

And one more truth comes clear, one more layer of scale scrubbed from the eyes.

•••

Something will work out, my mother would say to me after yet another agonized Ph.D. indecision-fest on the phone.

It’s a deeply kind catchphrase. It’s better than the first two I tried. But it’s not enough. It’s only the place where your sequined tutu, your fictitious blue bakery, your unearned doctorate, is honored by people who love you, and who know better than to make you a promise.

•••

I have enough contact with the upper echelons of academia that at times I am still and suddenly wracked with envy. I’ll hear of some lecture, some conference. Discussing Hume as the sun sets seems then to be akin to paradise lost—because that is, of course, is how all doctorates spend their time. This scenario also involves French cheese.

These flashes are decreasing, though. It’s as if the decision actually worked, in one more reversal, to help me not to long for a misplaced future, or a misspent past, but simply, be in the present. I am, in the main, happy there.

Happy, but not content. For I still don’t know how to handle the bliss question with my kids, and that seems to be of paramount importance—especially now, when I’m reasonably certain that at least climate change is going to make many more big decisions for my children than it ever (never) did for me.

When my daughter lays plans for her gumbo from the backseat, or my son chatters about being selected for The Voice, what loving parental slogan do I use? What alternative vision do I weave for my children, in the face of the seductive, beautiful, barren American dream? And how do I do this without crushing their own creativity, their sense of the possible?

It’s not you can do anything you want. And it’s not you can do everything you want, just not at the same time. It’s not even something will work out. There’s a step, a saying beyond this, something at which my fledgling Buddhist practice is trying to aim, maybe. But I’m not sure which slogan fits it best.

There may be no slogan for the control of life’s outcomes. And we do love slogans, this side of the Atlantic. No wonder America has no words for it.

•••

“Why do you want one?”

The last time someone asked me why I wanted a Ph.D., I answered in that way that happens sometimes, when a truth comes out of your mouth without any premeditation. I was older than eight, and I had dropped some of the bullshit—maybe I was ready to articulate the bottom line.

“Because I want to know something that deeply,” I said.

The friend who asked, having begun his own doctoral work that year, nodded in approval, and I felt as if I had passed some kind of test.

But I sense that the real deep knowledge—the real test—is now.

I remember the moments after making the decision finally to let go, looking at that mound of steno pad pages, pushing my cold eggs around my plate.

It felt very strongly like the night when my husband asked me to marry him, twenty years ago— the start, really, of the chain of events that had led me here.

That night, I did not scream in delight, or cry in joy, although I did a lot of that later. I wasn’t even aware, at first, of really feeling anything at all. I was, instead, waiting.

I waited for fear, for resistance, for alarms to sound, doubt to flood in, for my usual inner voices to clang and chime.

Instead, everything went still: as still as a pond before you drop in a pebble, and step back to watch what happens.

•••

DINA STRASSER is a language arts educator of many stripes. She has been published in the New York Times, The London Times Online, and Orion Online, and she runs an award-winning blog on education at http://theline.edublogs.org.