At the end of 1981, I discovered that I was not a musician. This was a complicated thing, because I was enrolled (at great expense) in a Conservatory of music nearly a thousand miles from home. It was difficult to separate the realization that I had no heart for musical performance from the fact that my “boyfriend,” an oboist named Patrick, had told me that he was gay. He had shown me the toothbrush he carried to breakfast in his pocket, fresh from an overnight with a Boston Symphony Orchestra flutist, and listened to me plead and cry for as long as he could stand it. Early one morning in November, I went to the payphone on the corner and called my parents, collect. I told them I wanted to leave the Conservatory, that I could hang on until the winter break, but that I would not return in January. My parents said that was fine. My parents said “just come home; we’ll sort it out.” My parents, thousands of dollars i nthe hole, for something that they had told me not to do, never said “we told you so.”
After Christmas, we made a plan. I would apply to “regular” schools as a transfer student. I could just make the deadlines to apply for admission in the fall of 1982, and, while I was waiting, I could take courses to fill some of the requirements that would not possibly be met with a transcript reflecting my proficiency in Keyboard Harmony, Jazz Improvisation, and Solfege 101. It would also be a good idea, my parents suggested, if I got a job. No matter how generally shattered I might be, I could see that it was the least I could do. I toughened up, I looked around, and across the field near my parents house I saw my answer: The Burcham Hills Retirement Center. I could walk there, which was a good thing since I had no car and both of my parents worked. Many people I knew had worked there in high school, mainly in the dining room, so I knew it had to be fairly easy work. Best of all, if they hired me, I wouldn’t have to drive around interviewing, or look through the Classifieds, or think about it any longer. It was a job, literally, right in my own back yard.
I was hired by Ginger, a vision in a lavender suit with a lace blouse, and hair that resembled apricot cotton candy. She showed me around the dining room, furnished in a kind of Faux Provincial, but clean and pretty, filled with elderly people and the smell of lunch room food. I saw young women bustling around in hideous gold polyester zip-front tops with matching babushkas, and men in gold vests, white shirts and black bow ties. I smelled canned green beans, perfume, and a faint hit of urine. I filled out forms. Ginger gave me an Employee Manual, called somebody “in laundry” to bring me a uniform top and “kerchief,” and told me I was “going to be on the schedule starting Monday so please remember to come in fifteen minutes before your shift and find Bikkhu, who is your direct supervisor. Do not forget to clock in, people do not remember to clock in, and it causes all kinds of problems. Please remember to check the schedule and write down your shifts. People are not good about that. Please remember that you can come in early and have a meal, but you have to be finished and clocked in on time. If you smoke, you have to smoke on breaks. It’s all in the Manual, there. Questions?”
I had no questions, and besides, it was “all in the Manual.”
On Monday, I showed up 30 minutes early for my lunch shift, wearing the black polyester pants I had bought for the occasion, a pair of white Adidas left over from high school, and the hideous, gold waitress smock. I chafed at the babushka thing; I had a round face, and didn’t look good with my hair pulled back, let alone hidden under what appeared to be a cloth napkin. In the dining room I found Bikkhu, a guy I vaguely remembered from high school. He was part of a huge immigrant family living in my neighborhood, a family in which everyone had at least one job, and relatives were regularly imported to the United States from, was it Pakistan? He was friendly, going into his slip of an office to locate my newly engraved name tag, and introducing me to my new co-workers as they arrived to fill plates with something called City Chicken, which was, apparently veal covered in a viscous and shimmering layer of gravy. I met Cheryl, blonde, pretty in a pinched way, snapping her gum. I met Chuck, her boyfriend, wiry and antsy, his shirt collar and bow tie too large for his neck. I met Jen, who had vivid, cystic acne and a greasy ponytail with tiny, sparkly barrettes holding her bangs back. In turn, they acknowledged me, took plates filled by the “chef,” and moved to the un-clothed table nearest the kitchen door.
Although I had already eaten a far more appealing lunch of yogurt and an apple, I followed their lead, took a hot, wet, white plate and held it out to be filled with brown glop, white glop, green things and tan gravy. I had never had a real job before. I was smart enough to see that my new co-workers were not, in all likelihood, between The New England Conservatory and (with a little luck) Oberlin, Dennison or Grinnell. I wanted them to like me. I wanted them to help me. I wanted to succeed at this, after failing at everything else. I knew that I was not part of their group, that none of their talk or laughter had anything to do with me, or anything I knew about. None of them were dying for my company. I also knew that it would be social suicide to sit, alone, at another table as if I were better than they were. Even if it was really just because I was terrified. I carried my plate of congealing industrial food to the table where they had gathered; conversation stopped as I sat down.
“Hi,” I opened, hopefully. Chuck didn’t look up, busily cutting his City Chicken into pieces the size of BBs. The girls both looked at me, assessing me, neither friendly nor hostile.
“College student?” asked Jen.
“Actually, I’m between schools, I-” Cheryl giggled, and I could feel a bump as she kicked Chuck under the table. ”
I heard them from the kitchen as I set up after lunch, swiping cloths and napkins from the tables, carrying a load to the giant wheeled hamper near the kitchen, and returning for more. “Actually, I’m between schools,” in a fake English accent. “Actually, I’m a princess. My name is Umbria…”. They laughed, the dishwashers clanked giant pots and pans, my face burned, I felt hot and sick and furious and sad and galvanized. It was not novel for me to be teased about my vocabulary or manner of speaking, but I had been away from it for more than a year, safe among music nerds who were not threatened, and did not tease. This was like a return to public school, but I was determined not to fail this. I would be cool, this time, I would make them like me.I finished, clocked out, pulled the kerchief from my sweating head and walked home, across the field, analyzing where I had gone wrong.
We were allowed to listen to the radio while we set up the dining room for the next meal. The next day was a dinner shift. “Jack and Diane,” “Hurts So Good,” then “Tainted Love” played as we grabbed folded tablecloths, smoothed them over tables and went back for napkins and silver. Plates and glasses were delivered on our trays, full of whatever a resident had ordered (unless what they ordered conflicted with the dreaded Dietary Cards). There were new people working with me, in addition to Cheryl and Jen. There was Bikkhus’s younger brother, who stayed near Bikkhu and seemed to do twice as much work as any of us in half the time. There were also two other girls, one small and sallow and one large and frizzy-haired. Bikkhu, in a great hurry, told me that the smaller girl was Ida, and the larger was Kara. For a moment, watching Kara lumber through the room, bumping into tables and swearing under her breath, I had a “better than” fantasy. She was heavier, frizzier, clumsier than I was; wouldn’t they prefer me? Couldn’t I effectively remove her as a pawn, and advance closer to Cheryl and Chuck, clearly our own “Jack and Diane?”
This fantasy was short-lived. The second the last table was prepped, they all disappeared, except for Bikkhu and his brother (Salim? Raheem?) who remained in a corner, heads together over a clipboard. I approached them, hating to interrupt. “Uhm, where did everybody go? I mean, am I supposed to be – should I be-”
“They’re smoking in the break room” said the brother. “You can go down, if you want.”
“Show her, she’s new” said Bikkhu, returning his gaze to the clipboard. Reluctantly, as if he hated to be be separated from Importamt Managerial Business, the brother motioned for me to follow him into the kitchen, through a door behind the steam table, down a flight of cement block stairs. I could hear them behind a heavy metal door, talking and laughing. My heart beat faster, and I stared at the knob.
“In there,” the brother said, a little impatiently. He turned back towards the stairs. I turned the knob, cold metal, and pushed it open to reveal the four of them sitting at a laminated, rectangular table. The room was filled with smoke, and each of them held a cigarette, in various stages of completion.
“Oh, hi,” said Kara, raising her cigarette to her lips and taking a long drag. “You smoke?”
“Maybe she’s the Smoke Narc,” suggested Jen, darting her black-rimmed eyes to Cheryl for approval.
“We’re allowed to smoke in here,” said Cheryl in a tone of aggrieved weariness, rubbing out her stump in an ashtray, “Ginger said.” She looked down at her uniform top, pressing her chin tight against her neck, picking off specks of ash with long, metallic pink nails. I noticed that they were chipped. “She don’t smoke, she’s a goody two shoes.” She looked up at me, and four pairs of eyes bored into my pathetic, goody two shoes soul. I needed this to work, I needed to do the opposite of whatever I would have done before, I needed to show them that they were wrong about me. I needed to smoke.
“I do smoke,” I lied, hoping that I sounded smooth, adult, maybe a little bit like I had smoked a pack of unfiltered Camels daily, since middle school. “I forgot we could smoke here. I don’t have any on me.” In my head, I mocked myself. “I don’t have any on me. Seriously?!”
“You can have one of mine,” said Cheryl, reaching into a gigantic, shirred tan bag and pulling out what looked like a glasses case. She opened it, and pulled out a cigarette. I took it, sure that the end with the band around it was the mouth end. She pulled a lighter from the case, flicked it and held it out. I sat down next to her and leaned in, holding the cigarette and thinking fast, thinking that I could do this. I held the tip against the lighter flame, as if it was a candle.
“You sure you smoke?” she asked, raising a tragically denuded eyebrow. From the corner of my eye I watched the little one, Ida, strike a match, hold it to the end of a cigarette decorated with some kind of vine, and suck.
“Yeah. Shit, I’m not used to having someone light it for me.” I liked that “shit.” Worldly, bold. Not something a goody two shoes would say. I leaned in again, cigarette in my mouth, and sucked until I felt smoke fill my mouth. It was acrid, mentholated, oddly clean. “Thanks” I said, leaning back. I tried to remember how people smoked in movies. The gangsters who roamed the streets with Cagney held them between thumb and index finger, other fingers raised up, and away. Women, as I recalled, held cigarettes as if cradling them in a peace sign. I settled on the latter course, trying not to inhale deeply enough to make me cough, quickly seeing that no one tapped off their ash until it was so long that it appeared likely to fall under its own weight.
As I studied, they resumed their conversation. Chuck, according to Cheryl, was a “dickhead” because they were supposed to go out and see a movie (“48 Hours”), but he”got shitfaced with his dickhead friends and then he couldn’t drive because he already had two DUIs” and she couldn’t drive because it was his brother’s car and he didn’t like other people driving it. Little Ida commiserated; her mom was supposed to watch TJ and the baby, but she cancelled because “that asshole Roger” called and acted like nothing had happened, and she wanted to see him. It seemed unwise to report that I had spent the previous evening reading Dorothy Sayer’s “The Mind of the Maker” for a 300-level religion course, and then watched some “Masterpiece Theater” with my parents.
That night, after work, I walked to the 7-11 and bought a package of Salem Lights, which was what Cheryl smoked. In my food-flecked uniform top under my open coat, I felt authentic, a Real person stopping after work to buy a pack of smokes. I asked for a pack of matches, and the ancient, Elfin guy behind the counter told me that they didn’t give matches away; I had to buy a lighter. I bought a lighter. I had a pack of Salems and a lighter, and I walked home, across the snowy field, having a practice smoke. I inhaled some, stopping by a stand of birches to steady myself as my head swirled and my stomach flipped. It passed, and I continued to puff as I walked towards home, where my parents (both of whom had quit smoking before I was born) were innocently waiting. At the edge of the field, I bent down to extinguish the cigarette in the snow, considered flicking it away, and then thought better of it. That was polluting. I put it in my pocket and continued to the house, where I had planned to drop it into the trash can, but what if my dad saw it? On the back steps, I fished the sodden butt from my coat pocket and stuffed it into my purse; once inside I said quick “hellos” and rushed into the bathroom where I threw it into the toilet and flushed it.
Every day, in every way, I became a more proficient smoker. In a day when Prozac was just a gleam in Eli Lilly’s corporate eye, it calmed me, smoothed things over so that my mind stopped racing and my heart stopped pounding. I loved it, no matter how well I knew the dire warnings about cancer, heart disease, emphysema, bad breath and social exclusion. I loved it. Gradually, I became a part of the conversation during Burcham Hills smoke breaks carefully editing my own story so that it would play well. I had heard enough about “fags” from Chuck to understand that my true, sad story would not be greeted with sympathy; I changed it to a garden-variety breakup, a dramatic parting, the need to “get away” from that place and that man. They got this. They thought I was funny, and they started to ask me things because I was smart – could they really fire you for not wearing your name tag? Was it really against the law to take your own food into the movies and eat it? What about a flask?
Finally, I had done something right.