New Year

As I walk into the doors of my part-time job, I see many recognizable faces. I see my boss, Christine, who’s chatting with a customer. I see Linda, trying to figure out which shoe goes in which box. I see that woman in charge of security who never acknowledges my existence when I pass her. I’ve been at my job for five months now. I don’t hate it, but I don’t love it. I just keep on clocking in, doing my work, and going home.

Tomorrow, a brand new school year will start. Everyone will be awake before dawn. Students will be yawning during first period. Teachers will be handing out new textbooks. I used to be the one that was awake before dawn, yawning, and saying I want to go back to bed. Recently, I find myself, diploma in hand, staring at the mirror and wondering, “What will it be like without me?” Will it play out as every year does? The volleyball team will win a few games but never go to the championships, as opposed to the basketball team which will take the gold. There won’t be more than ten students at homecoming or prom. The ones that do go will pick out a table far in the corner and sit down to chat all night. I’ll probably never understand why anybody wants to go to a dance to do the exact opposite. There might be a couple new faces in the halls and there will probably be a few missing. The girl who’s only friend was a senior now walks to class alone.

Do I have it all wrong? Maybe the volleyball team will go to the championships and win like they did five years ago. Maybe more people will go to prom. I just can’t seem to stop myself from wondering what I’m missing. Here I am, the valedictorian of my graduating class, working in retail while the juvenile halls forget the soles of my shoes that strode across them. Here I am, ringing up a floral top and a long black skirt, while the gossip whispered by tenth graders is left unheard by my ears. Here I am, convincing a woman this purse is a great brand for reasons X, Y, and Z, while someone else’s car kicks up the gravel of the student parking lot.

Tomorrow will be the first morning that I don’t find myself tearing into a new pack of pens that will probably be lost in a week. It will be the first morning that I don’t step out of my Buick and see all the high schoolers walking to class. I won’t see that tall kid with the orange hair that always said hello and called me “Miss Emily” which in return I’d scold him and say, “I’m not old enough to be called ‘Miss,'” although I always secretly liked feeling authoritative. Soon enough the school dances will come around and I will not be there to decorate the gymnasium with tacky streamers and dollar store table clothes. I won’t look around to see the middle schoolers hanging plastic stars above the doorway nor the one girl who’d ditch her star-hanging friends to create the cutesy table centerpieces. Instead, I’ll be at my not first but second job, folding t-shirts and trying to sell more handbags.

Soon enough, the soles of younger shoes will meet the halls I once walked through. New students will receive the bone-shaking lectures of our principal a few times throughout the year. Nobody will be taking the headmaster seriously, and they never will. A new teacher will make the yearbook and a new graduating class will be featured in its pages. I might stop by one day to visit my favorite English teacher and the faces I don’t recognize will be trying to piece together who I am and why I am there. The faces I do know will wonder why I ever came back. They all will be trying to remember the answers to their tests or cheating off their neighbor’s paper. I’ll keep on selling handbags.

Hair Clip

We grew up together. Our relationship was basically pretending to know each other without really knowing anything about each other. I met her in the fourth grade. We were best friends in the beginning. We played with a basketball during recess on her first day. Standing on the sideline of the basketball court, we passed a basketball back and forth. I guess I wasn’t really paying close enough attention, or maybe her toss was a bit too hard, but my pinky finger on the right hand got jammed that day. It must not have been too bad, though, because it healed correctly without me even doing anything to it. You know, sometimes my memory doesn’t serve me correctly. I might have done something to fix it. After all, I do remember carrying a broomstick to school as a crutch when I pretended to twist my ankle. I remember that because I left the broomstick at school and my parents made me sweep the floor with a feather duster.

Apparently she had a lisp. I can’t recall ever noticing she had a lisp, but everyone always tells me they heard it. Now, I do remember when she would talk in this pitch that we called her “baby voice.” It was sort of like the pitch you’d talk in if you were talking to your dog, but we put this spin on it to make it sound more babyish. I don’t know a better way to describe it. We were kids and kids do weird things like that.

We didn’t really start to drift as friends until middle school. We had assigned seats at lunch because everyone got too rowdy and it upset the lunch lady. She sat with a group of girls in the grade above us and instantly hit it off with them. I don’t really know about her life during middle school. We didn’t talk at all, or if we did, it usually wasn’t about her. We did have a reconnection in the eighth grade. Whether or not that was because everyone else hated us, I don’t know. I revealed my deepest secret to her that year and she told me it was okay and she would always be my best friend no matter who I had a crush on.

She started wearing glasses with black frames and a gray jacket with black leather on the front in ninth grade. I think she started smoking weed that year. I only know because I asked her that summer if she’d ever tried it and I told her I had wanted to know what it was like. Maybe even try it for myself. I never did, and I still haven’t. “I only smoke it when I’m stressed. I keep some in my room all the time,” she said. I don’t know if that was true. I always felt she kept a part of that from me. She made friends with people that year that I’d never meet. She made friends with college kids or college dropouts. I don’t know what happened to her the next two years. She went to a lot of parties and talked about them in school. I heard the same stories over and over again as she told anyone that would listen. “This kid showed up and was doing donuts in her yard! People were jumping over the fire!” She’d say. She always smiled really big when she talked about the parties. She always said she hated alcohol and had no tolerance for it. Something else had to have been in her system those nights. Maybe it was weed. Maybe she just felt alive.

She never caught me up on her life. During senior year, we both took Calculus. It was a small school and we were the only two in the class. She poured her heart out to the teacher and I almost every day. One of those days was the first day I’d seen her cry. She had been talking to her boyfriend or ex-boyfriend outside and her eyes were wet before she even came into the classroom. Every time she rambled about her feelings to me it felt like a new hole opened in my heart. Where had I been all this time? I was never there to help her through any of it. I was never there to keep her on the right path. I was never there at 2:00 A.M. for her to tell me the things she never told anyone and I was never there to give her advice. I was never really there for her at all. Here I was, growing up with a girl I didn’t know anything about. Every day that she poured her heart out, every day that she told me things in private, they never could add up to the time that I already missed.

At the very end of the year, during the senior luncheon and graduation rehearsal, we sat next to each other and didn’t say anything. I never really understood what was going on that day. She tried to tell me what happened, something about her boyfriend, but she spoke quickly and not clearly. Her eyes seemed to be permanently looking at the floor. I didn’t know if she’d be able to smile for a week. She even disappeared for twenty minutes that day and our teacher sent me to find her. I found her outside standing by her boyfriends car, talking to him while he sat in the driver’s seat. She was crying so much and trying so hard to make it go away. She was always really strong, even in that moment of weakness.

She took her hair clip out of her hair that day and attached it to the strap on my purse. I reminded her it was there before she left, but she never got it back. That brown faux suede purse with the brown fringe is hanging on the hook on my bedroom door with the little black hair clip still attached. Two of the teeth on the clip are broken off. One on either side. Maybe that’s why she took it out of her hair. Maybe that’s why I’d never really know her. Maybe that hair clip is the reason she bottled everything up inside. Maybe it’s the reason she didn’t keep things bottled up.

Video Games

Something about the way he sat in front of the television day in and day out turned her stomach. Her little boy, nine years old, hadn’t spent more than three hours away from his games when you don’t include sleep. If he slept. He was so good at turning down the volume to just the right notch that his mother couldn’t hear the heads of bad guys being blown off or the constant cursing of the protagonist. Sometimes, though, she would stand in the doorway when he accidentally left it cracked and peak in at his game. Everything about it terrified her. His character, whom she could not see as the game was in first person, used a shotgun and spat swears every other word. Her little boy, on the floor, controller in hand, repeating them. “I’m gonna blow your mother fucking head off!” He’d whisper at the TV. What could she do? She tried to take his games away. He always found the place she hid them and took them back when she wasn’t around.

On his twelvth birthday, Daddy bought him four video games along with a new gaming system. It wasn’t the one that he wanted. “What the hell, Dad? I told you I wanted an XBox 1, not a damn PlayStation 4!”

“Don’t use those words,” he tells his son, who doesn’t listen. Everything mom and dad say goes in one ear and out the other. There’s no point scolding him anymore. No amount of trips to the psychologist or the guidance counselor will work. “He’ll grow out of it,” Mom tries to console her husband. “It’s just a phase.” She knows what has always been going on behind their son’s door, and what always will, but she keeps her hope. He storms upstairs to his room and hooks up his new system anyways. The old system stopped working two days ago, and he was starting to feel withdrawal. His hands shook when he went to bed at night and he experienced anxiety over every little thing. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t want anyone to know.

Christmas day, four years later, he locks himself in his room. His wireless controller has died five times. He plugs it in until it’s charged but he never stops playing. Nobody even knows what he’s playing anymore. “Honey,” his mother hesitates to try and speak to him. “We’re leaving your gift in front of your door. We think you’ll really love it. Goodnight.”

Most of the time his parents pretend to walk away so they can see his face again. This time they didn’t. He still waits until sometime around 3:00 A.M. the next day to open his door. A shoebox sized gift wrapped in blue paper with smiling snowmen on it sits in front of him. He looks around, picks it up, and shuts his door. He doesn’t expect to find what it’s contents are. An instructional packet, a small black earpiece, an adjustable headband, some strange circular pads with wires connected to them, and a long rectangular bar with cushion on one side all sit in the box. He picks up the instructional packet and thumbs though it, half reading the whole thing. By 6:00 A.M. he has it all set up. At 9:00 A.M. he is playing his video games while eating breakfast with his parents. There is no screen in front of him, except for the black bar across his eyes. “So, you like your gift?” Dad asks. “We figured it would be fun to have at lunch when you go back to school,” His son says nothing. He quickly eats his eggs and returns to his room. The next morning, his mother pours salt on his cereal. He doesn’t notice and scarfs it down. He even drinks all the milk.

It isn’t a holiday and a holiday neither has come or will come. Not because the calendar says so, but because he has been lying in bed in three days straight and they didn’t know until now. It wasn’t unusual for him to skip breakfast and dinner as they always kept snacks in the house and assumed he’d eat when he was hungry. He didn’t this time. But the starvation didn’t cause his death. He never even felt the tightness in his chest. His mother blames herself for convincing her husband to buy him that game and all the games before it. Her husband is relieved. They no longer carry the burden that was their son.

In the Cracks of the Sidewalk

Overcast

The weather was nice

His skin golden and ready for more

Never seen him before

Says he’s in my class

Must be sitting behind me

Overcast

Disappointment in the sky

But in the cracks of the sidewalk

Pollen piles up

And a tear in the sky reveals warmth

I am as sad as the sky

Because I didn’t meet his eyes sooner

They were blue enough

To fill the atmosphere

And banish the gloom

So I smile at the pollen

In the cracks of the sidewalk

It doesn’t occur to me

That I didn’t ask his name

Because it’s overcast.

Settling Down

I put the key into the ignition and as it clicks into place, anticipation radiates from my 2005 Buick Century. Cars may or may not like driving. This one, and I know this is true, likes the way the breeze moves against its sides as it cuts through it like the sharpest blade in the knife block. Nobody ever stops feeling thrill, not even my car. But it definitely has seen better times, and it slowly but surely is coming to its end. It doesn’t matter. I love driving my car.
The coffee pot on the counter beside the microwave has a two hour automatic shut off. I live with someone who wakes up exactly one hour and fifty nine minutes before me every morning. Three cabinets on the wall above the coffee pot hold nothing but different brands of the same coffee. For some odd reason, we have too many mugs to fit in the cabinet on the far right yet we put them in there anyway. Two mugs sit on top of the microwave and make small vibration sounds as I cook grits that came from a pocket of recycled paper. Sometimes they don’t vibrate, because sometimes the newly installed bar of light nailed to the underneath of the cabinets on the opposite side of the kitchen make strange popping sounds as if it’s settling or melting slightly when the heat from the bagel in the toaster rises. Those times are better. I can just move the toaster. I have nowhere to put the mugs.
I’ve only read 1/3 of the books on the bookshelf in my room but if you’d ask about it I’d say I’ve read them all twice. The closet doors belonging on the frame of the random depth in my room aren’t even there. They lie in the attic where it is too hot for me to bring them down. I never wanted them anyways. I read five articles I haven’t read before about how to find a career or how to chose one or how to make money. Does every college student do that? Am I even a real college student yet? Anyways, I sit in front of my laptop trying to find the answer to a question that never has and never will exist. Nobody can plan your future for you. I think about how I don’t have a defining moment and I don’t know if I should be worried about that. I wake up in this bedroom in the same bed I’ve been sleeping in since grade 3 and I go to work every day. I’ve never been raped or arrested or fired or in love.
Every day, around 5 but sometimes 4 because I work two jobs and one of them gives me more hours, I’m leaving my house. “See you later,” I say to my mother upon leaving and “Hey, dad,” I say to my father upon arriving. She says “drive safe” or “see you later” or “love you” or all three. He always just says “hey, Emmie.” He only comes in the house three times in the afternoon. Once at 5 when he comes home, once between 7 and 7:30 to make dinner, and lastly at 10 to fall asleep on the couch. This is where he is when I come home.
4:57 P.M. is when I step out of car into the heat of summer and walk roughly forty steps to the front door and then another forty to get to the break room where I let out a heavy sigh and punch in at 4:59 P.M.. “Hey, girl!” Most employees say to me. They don’t remember my name. Most don’t want to. Forty steps back to the front of the store. A sheet of paper with times of day written all over. Emily: 5:00-10:30. Break: 7:15-7:30. Register 2.
I follow its orders and log in to Register 2. The first shitty person of the day walks up to me and probably is on the phone and won’t answer my questions or they want another markdown on something that is already marked down or they interrupt me. Same three questions, over and over again, for five hours. “Hi, how are you today?” “Did you find everything okay?” “Would you like to save 10% and apply for our credit card?”
Over and over and over again until we close. The trash gets taken to the back with the security tags I removed from clothing all day. I straighten the shelves whose only purpose is to make people buy things they don’t need. The soda cooler gets filled with drinks. I might help out in a different department. As I take the trash to the back, I’m riding the cart like a child because usually my foot hurts too much to walk or I need something fun. Tanya is on the aisle with the towels and she’s folding the blue ones. We finally go home and I drive down the road, take a right, another right, go straight, take a left, go straight, take a right, take a right, go straight on curved roads, watch out for wild animals trying to cross the road, take a left, take a slight left, take a right, take a left. My dog sniffs my tires. I wash my face and go to bed. I write a bit or read sometimes but most times I go right to bed.
The day comes that I finally quit my job and start doing what I love. Maybe the articles did help. I don’t make a lot of money but I will if I write five novels a month. Two hundred-sixty novels a year. No more settling down. No more normal life. I don’t even care that I’m broke as hell. As long as I am far away from customers and cash registers and that deer in the woods by my house that always stares at me when I come home. I don’t know why but I always felt as though we were alike in some way. Who am I kidding, it’s just a deer. It’s nothing but an animal I almost ran over. I’m too happy and poor now to care. Now I wear a huge puffy coat in December instead of a thin sweater. Both were gifts.