May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
November 30, 2007
I didn’t plan this type of life. I’m always punctual; I always do things well. But Monday my second week at the job, I’m still scurrying around the bathroom at 8:56 AM—a quick rinse with Scope, a swipe with the blush, when I jab myself right in the eye with mascara. My eyes start tearing—the brown-black mascara is everywhere.
I splash my eyes with water and then dab at the black with toilet paper. The mascara’s about gone—just a smear under my right eye. The mirror, still streaked from last month’s tenants, smudges bits of my face in the reflection: my chin and left eyebrow both blurry. I look more tired than usual, my face thinner, longer. Behind me in the mirror hose hang off the shower rod and last week’s newspaper sits on the back of the john. “What a dump,” I think, but it’s exactly what I want: two rooms in an old house, a town of unfamiliar faces.
I’m about to finish the job with cotton swabs. My eyes are deep set and shadows catch below them, but I see mascara in the curve and the slight indent below the eye. I slow and touch the spot with a finger. This seems important: the dim light in the bathroom; the way I can’t hear if I’m breathing, not as if I’m alone, but as if I’m not here at all. Slowly, I blend the mascara into skin to make a soft grey and then dab foundation over the top. If my right eye matched the left, it’d look like lack of sleep. It’s that subtle. I practice looking down, looking suspicious, looking nowhere.
I think of carefully folding tissue into my bra at age thirteen. I held my breath for ten seconds before tiptoeing down the stairs into the kitchen, cold-shouldering Mom’s oatmeal, her quick-clipped talk, the way she sipped her coffee as if inhaling the only good in the world. I avoided her eyes and let the screen door clack shut as loudly as possible. I slouched like a spy the whole twelve blocks to school, but once there I loved being ordinary. Back arched, chest out, I strutted past lockers and the secrets they held, glad to be like everyone I’d ever known: average. Only Carla Ortella noticed the slight rounding of my breasts.
I think of spending babysitting money on turtleneck after turtleneck. Every color imaginable: pink, chartreuse, fuchsia, and berry red—colors to hide the marks of pretended passion, colors to hide that there was nothing to hide. Some weeks I’d pinched my neck before tugging on a sweater, just to know something was there, something that shouldn’t show.
And I think of winter: standing on the porch in a snowstorm and eating an apple, biting right into the bruise, hearing no crunch. The bruise of that apple. The shadow below my eye. I wash my hands and try to forget, to think of nothing. But when I head downstairs and walk around the corner, the bus is pulling away.
It’s 9:40 by the time I slip into the office. The copyeditors are staring at their desks, pretending to think in complete sentences, carefully punctuating everyone else’s dreams. They sit poised, ready to delete paragraphs and restructure thoughts.
This wasn’t a job I wanted, but it’s as good a place as any; it isn’t where I was before. Here I can delete things that aren’t important—things that aren’t rugs under someone’s feet. Here a question mark has never seen How will I live? or Where will I go? And therefore is only a word, a transition without plans.
I think of the way children cry when you’re leaving, in gasps, trying to breathe in the last of you. Then I think how much it can hurt to breathe, the weight on your chest, and how all of this has nothing to do with now or here or with people I barely know within arm’s reach day after day.
By the time I settle in for my second week, the editorial staff is well into the third chapter of a 300-page book tentatively entitled The Great Fake Out: Religion in the Public Arena. On the bulletin board above my desk, my coworker, Luanne, has thumbtacked APRIL 21, the book’s deadline. It’s February.
Not till after I get coffee and pull my chair close to the desk does she nod and look at her watch. She blinks her eyes slowly, brushes hair from her forehead, and then she winks and hands me a doughnut. “A worm for the early bird,” she says. I think maybe this is supposed to be a joke, but now she’s frowning. I can tell she hates me—that they all hate me. No doubt they finished their coffee and were reading copy by 9:05, all in a row like this, looking meticulous, stereotypically neat, efficient. They look at me like I’ve really screwed up, as if my absence has caused the deletion of whole chapters, as if the first page of the book will now read “Chapter 3: Recognizing Wolves,” and an errata will be glued, book by book, to the back page: “Due to an illness beyond one copyeditor’s control, Chapters 1-2 have been omitted.”
In a passage describing co-hosts on Bible talk shows, I change She ruins her life to He or she ruins his or her life—more awkward yet more accurate. I removeyou must surrender and wherever submission appears, I cross it out and write repression. I’m starting to get into this: add something here, take something else away.
But by eleven o’clock, I’m getting restless and a bit ticked off that no one’s noticed my handiwork. I turn to Luanne, “You think this should be a semicolon or a period?” Then I start to read: “Actually, it’s easy to tell the difference between the two; for example, the charlatan—”
“A period,” Luanne interrupts. She looks at me, at the page, and at me again, touches her own eye, and incorporates the gesture into brushing back her bangs. “Or a semicolon,” she apologizes. What she means is: It’s not worth fighting over. It doesn’t matter.
* * *
Tuesday I get up by six thirty and apply my makeup slowly; this time a little darker. I brush brown and pink eye shadow onto my lids, use eyeliner with a steady hand. I trace my lips with a dark plum gloss and then smack them loudly. The dress I wear is the color of rain.
I get to the office early, sip my coffee black, and spend a half an hour humming to myself and concocting excuses: “I ran into the corner of the cupboard door” or “The ten-year-old brat next door was shooting rubber bands again—just missed my eye.” I don’t mention fists or belts or broken plates, but I think them, think them so loudly they fill my head, shatter all over my face. When the others start trickling in, first the receptionist, then Luanne, then the guys in shipping, then my boss, Doug, I sigh dramatically, “So much quieter,” as if I’ve just escaped from a Kiss concert. Nobody nods, but they notice me. They know that I live alone, that I just moved here, and that I have no friends—I don’t need any.
The guys in shipping cluster around me. They are all six foot or taller and wear Extra Large. There’s no way out. They shake my hand in jerks, bark “Dave, Paul, Vern, Deano, Dan,” and demand that I remember, not mix them up. I keep my hand as limp as possible, smile only slightly, and stutter my name. They look me up and down three times, and then ask me if I made the coffee; they tell me it’s bitter.
On the way to our separate offices, Doug, a big man with a wide tie, follows me. By my door he’s suddenly awkward. “Doing a good job,” he stammers, “coming right along.”
I look away. “Yeah, it’s coming OK,” I say without any conviction whatsoever. Then I leave him standing in the hallway, just where I want him. He doesn’t know where to look or what to do.
Later, when Luanne surprises me and asks if I want to go to lunch, I surprise her back. “I’m meeting someone,” I say. I don’t even look up.
But I spend the thirty minutes of lunch alone at the drugstore makeup counter. Cosmetic companies don’t know anything; all of their names are stupid:blushing beige, ravenous red, passionate pink. What about abuse-me apricot? Spit-at-me-with-your-stale-breath salmon? Won’t fit on the labels? Too much for the average housewife? I take a felt-tipped pen from my purse and think of drawing lines straight as arrows through the adjectives provocative, tempestuous, and sexy, leaving the colors not strong but by themselves: peach, turquoise, silver. Instead, I line the air and then trace the lifeline on my palm.
When I check the price of some foundation, the ink smears on my hand like a cut and comes off on the bottle. I move to the register, hand the clerk $16.30 for burnt-orange blush, tawdry-tan foundation, and three shades of lipstick, all dark. The girl, a teenager, looks me right in the eyes. She knows.
The rest of the week, I decide to dress up, wear my makeup heavy, and consistently arrive fifteen minutes late. I stop at shipping on the way in, steal stamps and scissors, and tie string around my middle finger. I ask for zip codes to Xenia, Fort Knox, and Three Mile Island or the postal rates to Hiroshima and Dachau. When one of the shipping guys looks at me to see if I’m kidding, I stumble over a box and then lean on his arm.
I make sure I’m the last one to finish my coffee. I make sure everyone can tell that I’m nervous and shaky. And then I drop my cup in the hallway. I pretend to try not to cry, and instead I whimper, softly as if under blankets, pillows, as if I can barely breathe. I’m in the corridor by the coffee machine; the others are at their desks. They poke their heads outside their doors and ask, “Have you seen Doug?” or “Have you seen the cover artwork?” or “Does a colon go in or outside of quotation marks?” I answer, “no,” “no,” and “outside,” dabbing coffee off of my blue suit, the one that hangs too loosely on my frame, looser now than ever. I act as if picking up broken pieces of mug is the most natural thing, as if I’ve done it every morning of my life, as if I’m glad the mug didn’t hit me in the head.
I pretend to be embarrassed and look down, and then I suck the blood from a cut on my finger. The piece of mug in my other hand says “THEN YOU DIE.” I throw it away with a loud clunk and go back to my desk. Ten minutes later, I realize I’ve spotted the copy with blood, and I try, unsuccessfully at first, to cover the splotches with white-out.
Everything’s going OK when I come to the passage “let not your adornment be merely external, braiding the hair, wearing gold jewelry . . . ” I draw a thin line through the letters. In the margin, I write Ye shall know a book by its cover; act accordingly. After the phrase “let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit,” I insert and the mentality of a doormat. I think of writing Chinese fortunes for a living, crediting stray thoughts to a mystic. I imagine poking pieces of paper between the crisp folds of a cookie. I imagine writing A stranger will change your life and having someone—a young man, a girl, an old lady—wait not in terror but in hope, wait patiently with faith. I partly retract what I’ve done, writing STET next to my changes. Later, when Luanne goes over the page, she erases the markings, corrects the spelling errors I missed (insubstantel, inigma, renagade), and doesn’t say a word.
I try to work for an hour or so, but things are too quiet, so I put my head in my hands. When Luanne asks if I’m OK, I say “No” and head for the bathroom. In the stall, I stare at the freshly painted door. I touch it with my fingers, my palm. Then I take a nickel from my pocket and scratch out a sentence. It’s several minutes before I can remember my new phone number, remember which one it is. When I do, I carve the numbers an inch high, watching as the paint chips float, tiny as snow, to the tile. I think of sneaking into the men’s restroom and scratching my address, my social security number, and my measurements into the wall beside the urinal. Instead, I clog the toilet with paper towels and watch as it overflows. I move to the fluorescent-lit mirror, reapply my lipstick, and accidentally bite my lip. Blood dries on my chin in a thin line. I don’t wash it off.
From then on, someone asks me to lunch everyday. They ask about work, sports, and the weather. I answer as cryptically as I can, “Yes, there were six kids in my family, and we never once fought,” or “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” or “70% of all married women cheat on their husbands within the first five years.” They don’t know what to say. They try to laugh, but can’t; they try to look sympathetic. Usually they shift uncomfortably in their seats, slurp soup, and say, “Did you see that miracle shot of Bird’s? Just try to stop them now!” or “Heard it’s going to hit fifty tomorrow. About time.”
* * *
March I start hanging out with the guys in shipping. At work they poke their heads in my office, grin, and ask me how I’m feeling this fine morning. We’ve got the routine down to a T. After work, we stop at Tony’s, buy a couple of rounds, and maybe a few of us wander over to the Wayside. When we walk in, they steer me toward the bar. I learn everyone’s drink and how to carry four pitchers of beer at once. On good days, I can dance like this between tables. I can sing. I make up lyrics and pretend they’re old. I add my name to the songs, the names of the guys. Some nights I call everyone Joe.
The second week, I start surprising them: cream them in darts, slaughter them in pool. For fun, they try to make me nervous and wolf-whistle every time I lean over for a shot. One asks me my favorite color of ball. Another says to knock ’em hard. As soon as my arm is cocked, someone bumps against me, pretending he’s drunk. And always they swear at my last ball as it banks and spins toward the corner. We play snooker, cutthroat, and nine-ball for hours; eight out of ten games I win. All the while, the guys are smiling, waiting. I try to see myself in their eyes, but they move too quickly and won’t stand still.
Some nights I look up to see I’m dancing with the wrong man, someone I don’t know and haven’t met. He knows everything about me: my birthday, my mother’s maiden name, and what I like most for breakfast. Sometimes across the bar, I see a woman nodding. She touches her lip, her eyes, incorporates the gesture into brushing back her bangs. She nods again, doesn’t smile.
* * *
Most nights, I stay out till five o’clock and come into work late with shadows under my eyes. Instead of getting angry, Doug becomes friendlier and more relaxed. He touches my arm in passing and gives me rides home in his new Ferrari. He slips opera tickets in with my paycheck and tells me to take a friend. Some days he calls me into his office, locks the door, and refuses to take any calls. It’s then that he asks me about the others, about job morale—do they like him? Are they happy? What do they do for fun? How much do they drink? I play dumb and smile, and then I wink the way the guys in shipping taught me. I start to call him Douglas, holding out the second syllable for two seconds and smiling when I say it. He tells me about his cousin, a stripper on the South Side who changed her name to Lola when she was eighteen. He gives her extra tips to help her out and make her way through college. He tells me a guy in shipping is a voyeur who steals pink lingerie from Sears; the receptionist has had three abortions; Luanne was once a call girl at the Ritz. It’s a joke, I think, and I laugh.
On Sunday, Doug wants me to meet him at the track and not tell the others. He’s an hour late and swearing. I win $50.70 on an exacta. But his horse loses, so he tears my ticket in half. I try to piece it together with clear fingernail polish, but it doesn’t hold. Still, when Doug asks me to his apartment to watch ball, I go and hope that his team will win. He throws potato chips like confetti in the air, slaps me on the back, and screams louder than anyone I know. I cheer with him, though I don’t care who wins.
The next week when editing finishes half the book, it gets its own electric pencil sharpener—”for a job well done.” I get tickets to a charity ball and a $100 bonus. For nothing, absolutely nothing.
I buy myself a silk short-sleeved blouse, ash gray, and wear it to work the next day. “A present,” I lie just to make them self-conscious, eye me over a bit more than usual, “from some man I met last week at the Purple Sunset. I’m talking to him, right, for about ten minutes—big guy with a great tan and muscles like a construction worker, only he claims he’s a surgeon—and he hands me a package, says, ‘Here, this ain’t my size, anyway . . . ‘” Of course, by this time whoever’s listening knows I’m lying my head off, and they laugh nervously. I see them, though, after lunch or just before quitting time, glance shyly at the bruise below my sleeve. (It only shows when I raise my arm.) Other days, I see their eyebrows twitch at the scratch on my neck, the burn on my lower wrist. I shrug, tell them “tennis, cat, iron” before they can ask. Or, to get them off my back, I say the impossible and wink: “Butch dropped in again. I made his coffee strong, and he socked me.” Or “Look, I didn’t want to tell Sam about us, but he had this cord around my neck and . . . ” They roll their eyes and groan. I get the reaction I want.
The next Monday, after we’ve worked together for over a month, Luanne gives me her number and tells me to call her, so we can get together for a movie, hang out, chat, hit the clubs. Alone in my apartment, I try to dial the number she gave me, but get the crisis hotline. I hang up before they ask me my name. I check the paper, number by number, and try again in a half an hour, and then an hour.
* * *
In April, the whole staff works late on the book. Some Saturdays we come in by nine o’clock, wear jeans, and order out for pizza. I roll up my sleeves so they won’t get in the sauce and eat six pieces in one sitting. In the hallway by the coffee machine, I teach Doug to do the tango. He grabs my hand too tightly and won’t let me lead. Luanne and I do a line dance and kick out our legs. We make up funny rhymes about the book and other people in the office and then chant them as loudly as we can. Our co-workers clap. We bow and bow again. When we settle down, we work quickly and get twice as much done.
Once, when the others are gone, Doug massages my shoulders and leans over the desk. “This passage here, at the bottom,” he says brushing against me, “weakens the entire argument, don’t you think? Can you make it stronger? More believable?” I look at him to see what he means and he’s laughing. About what? He raises his hand to his eyes, brushes back his bangs. “. . . then this pilot says to the stewardess . . .” But it’s too late; I’ve missed the transition.
He starts asking me questions that aren’t his business: where I’ve lived, why I wear long sleeves when it’s seventy? I start coming in earlier, staying later. I keep a running record of everyone’s errors, including my own, and then leave the list on Doug’s desk at the end of the week. I make up charts and timetables, redo style sheets. For hours I sit at my desk and hear nothing but the scratch of my pencil. I start getting to the office by seven o’clock to make the first pot of coffee. When I spill hot water and scald my hand, there’s no one there to see it, to tell.
* * *
In May I wear summer suits and no underwear and keep my makeup light. I sit outside at lunch and try to get a tan. I smile at only certain people and am promoted. By mid-month, I forget the names of all the guys in shipping, but remain civil—when I see them at wrestling matches, I wave. Twice a week I bring in gourmet coffee and jelly-filled doughnuts. I eat half the doughnuts myself and give the others to Luanne. I tell them I know a secret and, though they ask me again and again, I won’t say what it is. On payday, I stay late with Doug, drinking bourbon, breaking every pencil exactly in half, burning old copies of books, laughing. When he tells me to sock him in the stomach as hard as I can, I do and I know that I’ve hurt him. I wait for him to hurt me back. I wait.
Marjorie Maddox is a professor of English at Lock Haven University and an assistant editor at Presence. She has published eleven collections of poetry, including True, False, None of the Above, which was published in the Poiema Poetry Series and was an Illumination Book Award Medalist; Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation, which won the Yellowglen Prize; and Perpendicular As I, which won the Sandstone Book Award. She also published the short story collection What She Was Saying, four children’s books, a contemporary poetry anthology, and over 550 stories, essays, and poems in journals and anthologies. Please see www.marjoriemaddox.com. The cover image for this poem, Asphalt Heart, is used with permission by the photographer and activist Karen Elias.