by Sarah Spoon
I started dying my hair when I was seventeen because my adolescent crush once mentioned that he preferred brunettes. It's been twenty years, and though my crush waned in 8 months, I still lack the self-confidence to let my natural hair color come back. I estimate that at an additional sixty dollars per haircut every six weeks for the last two decades, perpetuating the sexual preference of a boy who grew up to post vaguely militaristic rants on Facebook has cost me $10, 380. Five years ago, I developed a mild allergy to a chemical component of the hair color and violently itch for the three days following each cut. I have spent, therefore, more than half my life, three month's salary and 1,032 tablets of Benadryl pretending to be someone else.
That is how I came to be at Central Drug on the corner of SW 4th Avenue two years ago when I saw my husband walk past the windows with his arm around the waist of our neighbor. She's thin, blonde, and probably doesn't change into a stained shirt and sweatpants the minute she gets home from work. I cared that he was fucking someone else, but not enough to risk change. The emotional contrail of seeing my husband with his mistress faded quicker than you'd expect. The walk home was a blur, but by dinner time, I had decided to end my marriage.
It's not that I think I'm better than him.
I lie to my therapist. I make myself sound only fractionally neurotic and then hope that his advice based on my fictional life will still help me self-improve. I clean my desk three times a day because it makes me look like I'm in control of my life and my career. The rest of the day I spend hoping my coworkers fail so I don't have to try as hard to look good. I think my best friend's kids are breathtaking, and not in the good way. I don't like to hold anyone's baby and spend the entire time hoping it starts screaming so I can hand it back without looking like an asshole. I exaggerate my business expenses to reduce my tax burden while admonishing politicians that won't vote for higher taxes to support social programs. I want to punch Al Roker in the face for no good reason, and I selfishly hope he gains all of his weight back. Watching him flail like a rag doll in hurricane force winds is my favorite part of a waning summer. My husband died two years ago and I spend every minute of every day pretending like I miss him, but I don't. I was too much of a coward to ask for a divorce, but now I have to awkwardly grieve when other people fawn over me, all while hiding the fact that my dominant emotion is still relief. I'm not proud of any of that but it's the truth. I'm otherwise a good person.
Every time I'm in my therapist's waiting room, I feel better about myself. The three other people in here consist of a man who smells like sour milk, a woman who barks between sentences and the wife of our mayor who tries to disguise her identity with Jackie O sunglasses and a hat. I would pity her self-loathing if I wasn't too busy basking in it. See what I do? I try to make myself unlikeable to avoid the risk of intimacy. That's what Peter would tell me.
"Mrs. Fitzgerald? Dr. Peter is ready for you."
I hate that he refers to himself as Dr. Peter. It's the way he tries to develop a personal relationship with you while still reminding you of his power differential. He wants me to think of him as a peer while still asserting the fact that he's more accomplished than me. I bet he would have liked my husband.
"Welcome Katherine. It's good to see you."
"Good morning, doc." I manage to say, with more joy than I've felt in a few weeks.
"When we left off last week we were in the middle of discussing your job. Is there more you'd like to discuss regarding that or is there something else on your mind today?"
"The problem is, there's almost nothing on my mind these days. I spend more time trying to numb my thoughts than I do listening to them." I like making cryptic comments in his office and following them up with dramatic pauses. I'm tiring of therapy in general and it passes the time.
"I see. When was the last time you listened?" Peter always sits with his legs crossed. Once he stood up to shake my hand and fell right over because his leg had gone to sleep, and he worries that I'm the one not listening to myself.
"When I admitted to myself that I didn't love my husband. Everything after that hurts too much to believe. Now I just calculate every action to live a life that doesn't require me to think much at all." It doesn't even sound like my life when I say it. The luxury of losing loved ones is that you can make outrageously detached statements and people let you get away with it. I get away with a lot of things these days.
"I see. You know, Katherine. A lot of people lost husbands and children in the earthquake. You're not the only person overwhelmed with pain; it's normal to feel some sense of detachment."
"I didn't say it was the day Simon died. I said it was when I admitted that I didn't love him anymore." Peter loves to dissect how I felt about my husband and I just set myself up.
"Tell me about the first major fight you and Simon had."
"We were in San Francisco during the 1989 World Series. He had too much to drink and admitted that he slept with my roommate shortly after we started dating. I had never felt so violated in my whole life. Everything started spinning, he was apologizing for the transgression but everything went blurry. I just looked at him, speechless. I used to have a long fuse and the rage took me by surprise. My whole body felt hot and every part of me started to shake. I threw my engagement ring at his face, but before we could argue any more, the Loma Prieta earthquake started and we both ran to the door jams in the hallway. The aftermath was so intense, we never ended up resolving the argument but neither of us wanted to revisit the topic so it just bubbled under the surface for 2 decades."
"Tell me more about Simon's issue with infidelity. Were there more women?"
"Maybe next time." But I know it won't be next time, I'm just placating him.
"Are you just placating me?" After two years of sessions, I guess you get to know someone's patterns no matter how hard they try to hide them.
"I'm just placating you. Can we talk about my job now?" The next 40 minutes pass quickly and I don't remember a single thing that happened.
The walk back to my office never takes as long as I want it to. It's pouring, as usual, the kind of rain that John Cusack always cries in after he gets dumped. It doesn't make me walk any faster, I'd rather get drenched than spend an extra second at my desk. Esther, the receptionist, looks up as I walk in and then goes back to hunting for stories on the upcoming VH1 reality show. She has some weird habits for a sixty year old woman, but I don't judge, because she's kind and doesn't expect too much of me.
It's my boss whose attention I try not to draw. He introduces himself as Jay Kolevan, Vice President of Academics, because he wants everyone to know his title. Other reasons you might choose to hate my boss: He likes to publicly criticize me for my errors, but has no trouble taking credit for everything else I do. He likes to look at himself in the mirror that he keeps next to his desk. He keeps a mirror next to his desk. He has a luscious head of hair but spends all of his time running his hands through it. He loudly discusses his favorite flavor of protein shake every morning while he drinks it in the hallway. He likes to talk about his failed dates as though the women were beneath him and never acknowledges that maybe he wasn't the attractive one at the table. He actually wears bike shorts while he bikes to work and then doesn't change into work clothes until everyone has had the opportunity to see his prized legs. He habitually likes his own Facebook status. Okay, I don't know about that last one for sure, it's conjuncture, but I'd bet my money that it's true.
I tell people that I assist potential students in following their dreams for a living. My actual job is selling for-profit educations. The dirty truth is that I saddle lower income men and women, who finally had the courage to follow their dreams to culinary school, with outrageous student loan debt that they'll never be able to repay as a line cook, if they're lucky enough to even find work in the industry when they graduate. I set people up for failure as a career. I'm good at it, too. I like to say things like "I come to work every day hoping I'll get to help someone like you," and, "Wow. I can tell that you're going to be a successful student, because you're exactly the type of student we're looking for." What they don't know is that the type of student we're looking for is one with a pulse that can qualify for federal student aid. Don't be confused, I hate myself for being good at this job. If I was smart I would leave here and pursue something I can actually feel good about when I'm alone at night, but I'm scared. I don't even know what I want to do because every hope I ever had died with my family.
Jay peeks his head around the corner of my door. "Katherine, do you have a minute?"
"Sure." I say, while I finish the thought in my head. I'd love to give you more ideas to claim as your own.
We don't go to his desk, because he sits in an open cubicle in the middle the workspace. It's supposed to make him accessible for us, but it's all a ploy to watch our every move. In the President's office, he gestures to sit down next to the HR Director. Oh, crap. The HR Director. "Katherine, I want you to know that we love you. You're one of our family at Portland Culinary Institute, and this is something none of us want to do. Unfortunately, we have to let someone on your team go." I don't know if I'm pissed off or relieved. It's not the first time I've been conflicted this way. "We spent a week trying to determine the fairest way to do this. Please know that we appreciate how hard you work. We know that you've done everything we've ever asked you to do and that despite significant personal tragedy you're still one of our top performers. But the easiest way for us to decide, is to let the person with the least amount of seniority go. And that's you. We've prepared your final check and added in a month's worth of wages to help you bridge the gap. Of course you'll be eligible for unemployment and don't hesitate to use us as a reference, we'll help you in any way we can."
My mind settles on anger and then relief. "You son of a bitch, Jay. I hope you get chlamydia." It's at this point that I hope I never need his reference, but now that I know I can't ask for it, there's no point in stopping short. "The only thing everyone notices when you prance around here in your bike shorts is your shockingly small dick." I suddenly realize I should have waited to say all of that until after I packed my personal effects. On the way back to my desk, I pick up Jay's "Employee of the Month" plaque and slam it against the giant statue sitting on the file cabinet above his chair. There was no point in holding myself back now, and even the smallest bump or shaking of the cabinet would knock it right onto his chair. The next twenty minutes are awkward while Jay watches me pack up business books I never even opened, a tin pig statue, cookbooks that sent the message "I care an appropriate amount about food for someone that works at a culinary school," and thank you notes from students that hadn't yet come face to face with the fully amortized amount of their student debt.
"I know you're just upset and shocked, Katherine. The whole PCI family truly wishes you the best. Please stay in touch with us and ask for help when you need it."
"Fuck you, Jay."
I carry my box to my Toyota Camry and set it down in the trunk. At least I have something to talk about next week at therapy. I am so filled with discontent when I arrive home that the ground shakes beneath me. I pause at the step up to my front porch and cling to the support beam. If I close my eyes and breathe deeply enough, the ground will calm, just like it always does when I'm ready for the earthquake to end.
But it's not always so easy to breathe. The shaking moves from my insides into the earth. Anger always causes the earthquakes.