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.


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