by Maurie Traylor |
He looked at my nametag and, for a moment, I thought he might remember me. Instead, he glanced down at his purchase, said a terse “thanks,” and handed me his credit card for payment. I smiled, took the card, and ran it through my cash register.
He looked the same. Crisp shirt. Pressed trousers and hip glasses. He didn’t look tired or weary or broken. If anything, he looked more collected and together. I looked down at my ragged fingernails, my work pants stained with the morning’s coffee, and the string that hung from my company-issued work shirt. I wanted to ask, “Do you remember me?” But I didn’t.
I bagged his purchase and asked him if there was anything else he needed.
He smiled the same tight frown that he had smiled at our last meeting. The one that was both a smile and a frown. The one that said, “Something is not quite right here.” I imagined this was the same expression he used when he chastised one of his employees or when he returned his food at his favorite restaurant. “Excuse me,” he would say. “This fish tastes too fishy.”
And his plate would be swept away with an apology and a smile.
“Receipt?” he asked, not looking up at me.
“In the bag, sir,” I said.
If he remembered me from that day, he gave no hint. I watched him take his package and leave.
Relief spilled over me that I was not recognized.
But then, the feelings of shame that were by now so familiar.
Shame that I was almost fifty years old and stood behind a cash register, making less in a year than what I had once made in a month.
Shame that I had risked so much and failed.
Shame that I could not look someone in the eye and say, “Remember me?”
The beginning of the end of my life had started in his office when he quietly told me the reasons my loan was denied. I sat in my business suit, resplendent with black tailored pumps, in a blue upholstered chair across from his massive banker’s desk. We had been there many times before over the years, as I had built my business. But on this day, I watched him as he spoke with my proposal piled in front of him. I saw the long columns of numbers that trailed down the page away from me. I watched him as he spoke the canned speech. My eyes focused on his moving lips, my own lips bent in a prim smile. A sympathetic smile. The type of smile that said, “I know how hard this must be for you, to turn me down like this.” As I listened, my right pointer finger found a frayed edge of the upholstered chair and I pushed it with my nail. Each time he mouthed something, I smiled, and then pushed my finger through the hole a little more.
“Overextended.” Rip. “Can’t justify this loan.” Rip. “Wish we could help.” Rip.
And then he smiled that tight frown and it was over.
Rip. Rip. Rip.
I don’t remember much after that. Whether I shook his hand or left his office or smiled when I passed his secretary.
But I do remember this: I left a small, frayed hole. Like graffiti on a bathroom stall, or a mark on a prison-cell wall. I had been there. I had mattered.
And so, I did what so many like me did during the days of the 2008 recession. I shuttered my business. I talked endlessly with attorneys. I took a series of small, menial jobs that barely covered bills. I unloaded trucks for retailers, I took care of other people’s children, I ran errands.
Currently, I was spending my days behind a cash register, asking perky questions like, “Did you find everything today?” and “Are you one of our Loyal Customers?” as I feigned an enthusiasm I did not possess. At night, I plodded home to my small house and cuddled with Jackson, my Jack Russell, while I watercolored blotchy pictures, drank too much wine, and watched too many reruns of Law & Order. These were the new constants in my life: my dog, my art, and Jack McCoy, getting the bad guys.
At home, I started tending a small patch of earth that sat outside my door. On good days, I would thrust my head into the scent of tangy tomato vines and sniff my fingers after chopping basil. On not-so-good days, I would sit and watch the green leaves reflect the sun in a thousand shades of blue, green, teal, and chrome. Were the colors talking to me? Beckoning me?
Standing in the cool air, watering the plants, it was hard to imagine that other life. It was difficult to imagine the ceaseless activity that, at the time, seemed so important. Weekend business retreats, flights to Dallas, San Diego. These were the days of suits, pumps, and complicated make-up rituals. Now, those days were replaced with a steady, thin line of worry that underlined my grief. How would I make this month’s rent? When was the electricity bill due? Did I have gas in the car?
But mostly the question: “How could I have lost it all?”
On days when that question haunted me most, I filled another pot with raisin-colored soil, pulled a small lettuce plant or kale plant out of its root and placed it another, larger pot. Then, the sun could hit the leaves and the water would move towards the roots. And I thought, “I am like these tiny, gangly plants, waiting for a new place to call home.”
I knew that I was not alone in the recession of 2008. Every day there were new reports of companies that lost their funding, too. Stories of people out of homes and out of work. So why was my loss so intensely personal? Why was my loss so shameful?
Perhaps my place in history was part of the answer. After all, I was of the generation of women that was supposed to have it all. The legacy of the feminist movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s was mine to make good on. It was not enough to simply have a family and nurture that. No, my generation was given—was expected—to keep a home immaculate with all the household gadgets on the market. We were expected to have children excelling in sports and academics and in our spare time? We were expected to create a company or business that would produce, produce, produce.
I was a grandchild of the Depression era, where lack and poverty co-mingled in my family, manifesting in pallets of green beans stacked in my grandmother’s pantry. On Sunday, after church, my six brothers and I stood in line at TG&Y, a coupon for “Buy One Get One Free” in one hand and a fistful of quarters in another. We then dutifully carried our rolls to my grandmother who waited in the car while she read the Sunday paper.
But even then, I was rebellious and risky. One bored Sunday afternoon, my eyes skipped over the whiteness of the toilet paper aisle into the next aisle. Here, colorful pots of paint mixed with the smell of glue and pencils. When my brothers were not looking, I paced down the aisle, like I was discovering a forbidden world of rainbow papers and imaginative inks. Then, a package of markers caught my eyes and held my attention, like the evil Svengali. I fingered the quarters and looked at the markers.
Green, blue, yellow and red. The colors beckoned me to come near.
I looked back at the heads of my brothers, dutifully in line with their white rolls.
And then, I made my move.
I presented my purchase to my grandmother telling her that the store was “all sold out” of the paper and instead I had purchased these. I held up the plastic-encased package triumphantly, banishing the demons of white-paper-roll mediocrity forever.
My grandmother looked at the package of hard, colored sticks and her eyes hardened, lips forming a thin line. My brothers’ eyes—all six pairs—looked down at their hand-me-down shoes.
She did not make me return them. Instead, she meted out the only punishment that I could understand. She made me use them. After that, my cries of “I’m bored!” were answered with my grandmother’s admonishment. “Well, then,” she said, “get out those markers and make something.”
And so I made scrolls and swirls on the backs of used paper sacks during the hazy, hot afternoons of summer vacation, and searched for my redemption from those dazzling coils flowing from the markers’ nibs, the colors tethering me and rooting me in place, upright and free.
I was the one who was supposed to “make good” on the promises of the Post-War boom. I felt the hopes if my entire generation who might finally break through the political constraints of corporate America! I was supposed to have an immaculate home, be a perfect size eight, have well-behaved children and a six-figure income.
I was supposed to thrill my family with evocative dinners and have long, winding, meaningful conversations with my husband that were always encouraging, always supportive.
And all this without breaking a sweat.
How I tried! I kept to the path of sales conferences and monthly production reports. I read self-help books on improving myself, my sales quota, my life. I packed lunches, attended sporting events, tried new recipes, met with teachers, encouraged my sales staff, and gave lip service to the phrase “having it all.”
Instead, I was bone tired, like a field of packed earth that was spent, exhausted, used up.
The end of that first, exhausting, wearying life ended on a July day in Dallas, Texas. Making my way to the convention center, I stepped into a fist of Texas summer heat. I made my way to the meeting room, filled with salespeople milling about. Up until then, I was a noted speaker and considered successful, at least by the company’s standards.
But that year, I reached the year-end celebration meeting with stones in my heart. My sales “numbers,” which were my professional report card, were not good. I was no longer an up-and-coming corporate star but a tired, worn out, middle-aged soldier marching on a corporate battlefield that was changing with the economic stress of that time. The tension in the meeting room was like a tarp that hung over me. As I made my way to my seat, I felt like I was walking under water, with the weight of my failure pushing me down. I looked up and saw an old friend, Maggie, who looked surprised to see me.
I fled to the bathroom while Maggie followed me.
She greeted me nervously. I knew that she knew. My ranking from the previous year was under the charts, a polite term for saying I had failed miserably in my sales goals.
I laughed and stammered a bit. “I know,” I said. “I should probably be home working.”
Maggie laughed. “We all could use a little more this year,” she said in consolation.
We stood together in the refrigerated air of the hotel. I smiled at Maggie.
She smiled back.
And then, I made my move.
My bags were still unpacked and I called for my car and went home.
“Home” was a home in foreclosure. “Home” was a marriage that was failing under the weight of financial stress and consumption. “Home” was a place where two young adults were leaving to find their own roots, somewhere else.
“Home” was a series of difficult talks and decisions. We would sell the house. We would divorce after our second left for college. I would find some kind of work. My husband and I would stay friends. Of course we would.
In the days following my return, I spent hours in my garden. I walked the gravel path I had built and I wrote in my journal in bright colored inks. I looked for salvation in the waters pooling as I watered. The drops of water on the leaves shimmered back at me, like a wave.
And then, the colors moved. Bright green shoots of leaves pushing up under the dross of last year’s leaves. How could that color be so intensely beautiful wearing the coat of fall? How could the new growth be so hidden, and yet so real?
I have heard the phrase, “Bloom where you are planted.” But to thrive, a plant must be rooted in the right space, in the right light and soil. And most importantly, there had to be room to grow and nurturing. Had I been planted in the wrong place? Was it failure to re-plant oneself in a new place, one more suited to their nature?
Even now, I’m not sure.
But I know this: I can spread my hands upward to the sky in prayer that says, “Here I am, rooted and strong.”