Monday, April 23, 2012

Dishin' It Out

***This was based off a prompt about learning through pain or something of that sort. I know, I'm really bad at remembering the exact wording of the prompts, but you get the point. I will forewarn you: this staggeringly personal. And yes, I am voluntarily sharing this to the world wide web. But that's just the type of crazy I am. 

P.S. I dedicate this essay to my younger sister, Julia: young and strong. 

            I am too smart to wash dishes. It was the only coherent thought that I could process at the moment. I washed one cup, then a plate, a spoon, and fork. I washed another cup, a plate, a spoon, and another fork. I found comfort in the routine, in the rounds of dishes and forks and spoons. The warm soapy water is soothing in an odd sort of way. Like a blanket. It’s the literal warmth of the water that pushes me further - one tear falling after another. Faster. I am too smart to just wash dishes. I add another word, my thought is trying to evolve but it’s as far as I go. I bend over the sink and try to find a breath. You cannot, can-not, cry here. Another thought! I’m so excited for this one that I almost forget the deep depression that’s assembling in my heart.  Wait.


            Like any other college graduate I rushed back to school or at least the comforting future of a school. I could go for another two or three years learning more, putting off the inevitable fright of being in any sort of “real” world. Give me a library and a classroom; give me a reason to stress and drink absence amounts of coffee; give me grad school.
            I knew I wanted to continue to write. A minor in creative writing was a teaser to what a Master’s in creative writing would teach. 
            It was expected of me after earning my Bachelor’s in English.
            That - the expectation - would be my downfall.

            I picked eight. My guide to applying to MFA programs told me to at least do eight, twelve was preferably if your budget could allow it. I did eight.  Despite the help by my very supportive parents, I didn’t want to put them out. I should have paid the fees on my own, but with two jobs I still lived paycheck-to-paycheck. I made sure my eight counted; I went big or I went home: Michigan, New York (three different schools), Iowa, Indiana, Chicago, and Pennsylvania. On average, each program accepted four students per genre. 
            I’ve always been this way: going big, my ambition larger than myself, direct and fearless. Bee-lining to next great goal I could accomplish, my target was not only fast, but it was aggressive. Hungry too. 

          (I will tell you this: it hasn’t change. Am I intimidated by it most days now? Yes. Am I aware of the contradiction of being overtly ambitious and scared simultaneously? Yes. I am alone? Definitely not.)

            I graduated college on a four-year plan. Never going off track by changing my major or failing classes, I left San Diego State right before the Cal State system began to crumble financially. My close friends had a different fate, needing to stay an extra fifth year to obtain the classes they needed to graduate, especially with heavy cuts in the curriculum. All this is bittersweet, though. I’m still making coffee and still at the coffee shop on campus, and still even using the messenger bag that once held Milton’s Paradise Lost and various other used paperback novels. Only in my “fifth” year, I’m carrying merely a wallet, Chapstick, and my cell phone. Yes, I graduated on time but it feels too early, especially compared to the busy schedules of my friends still in school; there is an envy I do not know how to process. The extra space in my messenger reflected all too well what was going on inside of me. 

            That’s the thing about higher education; you spend four years, or more, filling your brain with information every day or every other day for at least six hours. Those numbers add up fast. However, you take it all for granted because on Tuesday night when you tried cosmopolitans for the first time, and had seven, Romantic Literature at nine-thirty in the morning is just downright painful.

            Only a month into the new school year that did not have Andrea Galvez registered, I began my yearlong excursion with applying to grad school for creative writing, fiction. I packed my messenger bag with my guidebook, a binder filled with lists of application items to each school, my laptop to begin my writing portfolio, my wallet, my chapstick, and my cell phone. The weight on my right shoulder felt familiar and exhilarating. I went to work and recited to all my regulars that “yes, I graduated, but I’m applying to grad school to get my Master’s in creative writing.” The sentence ran dry in mouth after my first morning shift and I rested the words in the back of my heart till the next morning when I would wet them once again on my lips and smile them out to another batch of regulars, friends, and colleagues. I had a purpose and my ambition was satisfied.

            I wrote my longest short story to date for the main piece to my writing portfolio. I was proud and surprised. I sent it off to a handful of trusted friends to critique and edit. I asked my favorite and most influential professors for letters of recommendations, I charged $60, $75, and $95 to my Visa for application fees, I wrote highly about myself and personally stated why each program would be better with me in it. Invest in me, I wrote between the lines. Believe in me.
             I stamped, sealed, and sent eight large manila envelopes to eight states far, far, away, and I waited. Seven months later from the first day of school, I waited while everyone else began to wind down towards the glory of graduation. 

            I worked two jobs in order to make all my bills on my own. Graduating college meant I needed to take care of myself without the financial security of my parents. With no realistic potential of a rise in my current barista job, I took another coffee gig inside a bookstore.
            Working at a coffee shop in a bookstore seemed like a perfect combination to a reader-barista like myself.  Match made in heaven, I thought. But “heaven” was quickly broken into hell.
            Hell, incorporated.
            The corporate expectations and structure made all the difference and a little bit of “me” died every time no one cared to make direct eye contact. It was the worse timing mixed with the worse place that had me in the middle of impromptu breakdown in front of a pile of wet dishes swimming around in soap that smelt like nothing.
            Literally nothing.
            Half-hour before, I gunned it to the backroom for my lunch. Falling into a cold, metal chair and dusting off chocolate from my black pleated skirt, I listened to Alex’s voice as it told me that two letters came in the mail today: University of Michigan and Sarah Lawrence.
            “Give me a call back when you get this. I love-“

            I dialed before he could finish and he answered after the first ring.
            “Hey, you want me to tell you now or do you want to wait till you get home?

            I had two more hours till my shift was done. Another hour on the trolley till I got to San Diego State and twenty minutes till the bus dropped me off near the apartment and ten minutes till I walked to the door. These numbers-there were too many. I needed zero minutes till I could make my fantasy of crying and jumping up and down in joy come true. I wanted to jump up and down. My feet were locked in springing position. I was half way off the chair as I answered to Alex,
             “I want to know now.”

            I heard the ruffled of Alex’s big fingers ripping through the first envelope.             
            Paper unfolding.
            Anxiety has a way of heightening the senses. I believe I heard everything in the background of that phone call.

            “I’m sorry sweetie. Michigan said no.”

            The first blow.

            Rip, unfold, unfold, cough –

            “And a no from Sarah Lawrence…I’m-
            “That’s fine –“ I caught him off.
            “It’s fine. I gotta get back to work.”

            I don’t remember his goodbye but only hanging up. I stood, both feet planted on the ground, and walked back to work. The dishes were piled high and dirty in the back and I wanted to avoid, if only for awhile longer, any insincere social interaction. I could barely help myself; furthermore, a customer craving to be “bad” and finally having that whipped cream on their mocha.

            Fuck: it was as though it was scrawled in black marker all over the tiled walls. Heavy and each letter bigger than the next, Fuck is all I could see. I grabbed a plate, bent over the first sink filled with the nothing-smelling soap, and scrubbed.

            A cup: my hand circulated with the sponge, the bubbles settling and then dispersing.            
            A fork: I hugged the sponge along each spike and ended with a final stroke for the handle.
            A spoon: I circulated again. I get through one more spoon, and I cave.

             Huddled over the sink I began to break. Wet balls dropped against my cheeks and I sighed. It’s the kind of sigh that’s so heavy to drop out of your mouth. A sigh that built itself in your stomach and soaked itself in your nausea, flows upwards to be lodged in your throat and strips away any voice you can use. It tightens your vocal chords as it grows bigger, and proceeds to travel behind your eyes where it explodes. Popping as fast as a balloon, my sigh broke through my mouth and ran from the corners of my eyes. It settled in my head and ached.
            It would still be there, waiting for me when I got home.

            My sense of failure planted a seed in my heart and I vow to initiate change in my life. I accept that grad school may not be here now rescuing me from washing dishes but I can. I can change my environments, change my approach, and drop any expectation of what should be. My path is curving and the straight road ahead is nonexistent - meant for someone else’s life. This clarity is what I possess today. But back on that day, I went home all ninety minutes after leaving work and I screamed.             Yeah, full out screamed.
            It’s all we ever want when we hurt, to know why: a very simple request that we anguish and tear our voices apart calling out for it. We’re messy with tears and our faces - unrecognizable. We are hurt and wounded, never sure if it’s our hearts or our egos that we need to mend. Writing exposes us, makes us come out of the backroom and cry in front of an audience. But nevertheless, we come. We stop washing dishes, even if it’s just for story’s time.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Pool Incident

***I can't recall the prompt that this essay was inspired by so I suppose we can call this the wild card. As I'm posting these one pagers, I realize that a lot of my essays are based on my childhood and family and home. Perhaps because my book is about other people and work and my professional self, I sub-consciously find it refreshing to narrow in on very personal memories. Or maybe I'm just conceited. Who knows. But I've never considered myself to have good long-term memory and yet, writing, has helped find memories I thought I lost. It's been interesting to explore this type of memory exercise.

I drowned once. For a few seconds. I was five. My older sister was nine. My father was thirty-two. My Abuelita was house sitting for one of her clients she cleaned for. She invited my sister and I to the house, told my dad that we could have some fun in the pool. There was a slide. I was sold. We lived in an apartment and the sprinklers were what we knew of summer fun. A large pool not populated by the entire community was beyond our dreams.

A whole pool?!

To ourselves?!

I was overjoyed.

A slide?!

I was pissing my neon biker shorts.

As my Abulea and my dad sat inside in the kitchen, Karla and I ran to the pool. Karla immediately headed to the slide and did a freefall into the deep end. I, on the other hand, took my big toe and placed on the first step leading into the shallow end of the pool; I shrieked and giggled. I dared to put my whole right foot onto the step and Karla teased me to just get it over with. I was never easily swayed, even as a child. Firm and stubborn, I did the same toe-then-foot process with my left side and was at waist level when I saw Karla make another slip down the slide. She had both arms up in the air, her hair like a flying kite following behind her. Her wide-open grin was infectious. I splashed the water, applauding her joy, the slide, and the fact that we had it all to ourselves.

I’ve never been one to watch from the sidelines. I had my eye on the slide and I wanted to feel the same exhilaration my sister did. There was no way she was going to hog all the wild giggling to herself. I stood from the shallow end and waddled my way to the slide, marking my path with moist footprints. Karla yelled reassuring things to me as she already saw a mixed expression of fear and excitement grow on my face.

“You’ll be fine Georgi! It’s so much FUN!”

I smiled back at my sister and began to climb the three steps to the top. There was not much time that passed before I was at the top and then I was at the bottom – of the pool.

I don’t remember sliding. I do remember hitting the water and realizing that all my kicking was getting me nowhere near the top. I needed to breathe; I knew that much. I wanted to cry but the water wouldn’t let me. I didn’t know how I could breath as my arms moved aimlessly around my sides hoping to push me upwards. Nothing.

I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to be here anymore. If I closed my eyes for a little while maybe I’ll be at the top, I thought.

I felt his arm wrap around my waist: large and strong. I was pulled away and I felt the sun and felt the air in my mouth. I gasped and coughed.

The next thing I remembered was my father bent over laying out his one-dollar bills and his fives on the concrete next to the pool. The sun was still bright and I could see his clothes were already close to being dry. I remembered seeing my father, delicately placing out his money, his hunched back facing me and feeling incredibly guilty.

I got Daddy’s money wet.

He’s going to be so mad.

After the last bill was arranged, he turned to me and put his hands on my shoulders. We locked eyes and he told me in Spanish that I needed to be careful - that he loved me and I needed to take care of myself because he loved me.

Don’t do foolish things, he urged me, think about what you can and cannot do. Don’t be angry if you can’t do what your sister can do yet. She’s older and soon I would be old too, but no matter what, you take care of yourself and understand when something is not right - that it doesn’t feel right.

He kissed me, and I hugged him.

Looking over his shoulders, I hoped his money wouldn’t be ruined.