Sunday, March 28, 2010

Cake

You’re pretty sure it’s not January anymore because the grey, rutted pavement outside your apartment window is no longer stained with road salt. But it’s still as cold as a stripper’s smile. And the trees are just as bare. The sky is stuck on the color of lead, and your neighborhood resembles a Soviet-era housing block.

You let the curtain fall back over the window and head to the kitchen. There are three cans of diet soda, a tub of margarine and some chicken stock in the fridge. Eggs. Some wilted green onions in the vegetable drawer. But no coffee. You’re cold and tired and irritable. Yes, life can really suck sometimes. Deeply and truly suck.

It sucks like one of those five-hundred dollar Dyson vacuums that remove dirt you can’t see at a price you can’t afford. Life is seemingly all four AM hip-hop and malfunctioning appliances and sick family and a looming sense of hopelessness. A sinister and nocturnal parade of problems that take your closed eyes as a signal to begin.

There is a cup of coffee left in the coffeemaker, and you heat it in the microwave. Luckily, the microwave still works. You don’t take things like this for granted anymore. You log on to the computer, which also still works. You’re in the middle of a 261-question personality inventory when it happens.

A small plate appears, held by two delicate hands. On the plate rests a still life; a confection of sliced apple and raisins and bits of walnut sautéed in butter and rum and lightly dusted with cinnamon. A fork is offered. You take it.

Your taste buds swim in a sea of flavor, delving through layers of them, one after the other. Each is vibrant and clear. Your eyes convey the questioning of one not able to cook with such delicacy. She smiles. “It’s good?” she asks.

You kiss her. You’re afraid to hug her as hard as you want to because you’re afraid she’ll break. (The washing machine already has.) You hold her and close your eyes, feeling her against you. You kiss her hair and feel the soft warmth of it against your face.

If only you and her could just be. If only all you had to do was hold her and kiss her and watch her eyes go wide with a child-like sense of wonder you have mostly lost. Something wells up in your throat.

You love her. This woman who gives a fuck about you when it seems the rest of the world is doing its best to throw you away.

In a spasm of optimism, you buy a lottery ticket later that day. Rather predictably, it is not a winner. But you’re lucky. You likely are luckier than you realize.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Interview

Interviews don’t happen very often. When they do, you greet them with the frantic enthusiasm of a plane crash survivor after nine days of tree bark and melted snow. You review your favorite advice and conduct imaginary ones. You sizzle. You shine. You’re slaying them.

Then the interview happens.

They’re like the outdoor skating rinks you frolicked on as a child. The ones with the patch of frozen (and exposed) dirt. Everything is going along swimmingly until you hit the part without ice.

Technically, you’re capable of thinking on your feet. You do it all the time at the supermarket. But it’s a different story when you’re sitting in someone's office.

The last interview was in late-February. You girded your loins and convinced yourself you really wanted the job at an inner city blood bank. You were stoked like one of those old coal-fired locomotives.

You cleared the first hurdle, which was not answering the salary question with a number, but by responding that you were open and that it was negotiable. Check.

Next was the waiting. The interview was scheduled for ten, but it’s ten-twenty and you’re still eyeballing the characters shuffling in and out of the lobby. This is a test. Stay focused. You want this. Go get it. Check.

A technician in a white lab coat reads your name off a clip board like she’s reading the ingredients of processed cheese spread: Monosodium Glutamate, Artificial Coloring, La Piazza Gancio.

You stand. You follow the technician through the security doors, the lab and all the way to the back and an office on the right. There, a small man with a limp handshake asks you to sit down.

He starts the interview by asking you to tell him about yourself. Which you do, eagerly reciting the relevant experience of your life, education and work in tidy sound bites John Boehner (R-OH) would be proud of.

You remember to imbue your words with inflections that impart enthusiasm and a positive outlook. Check.

When you’re finished, he looks up from his desk. He asks you if you have any concerns about working with and around blood. Syringes. Stuff like that. Are you squeamish? Will you faint? Are you prone to vomiting?

Hoping to tread the fine line between appearing as a third-rate vampire and as someone with a less-than-stellar constitution, you respond that you are—quite literally—full of it and have a healthy regard for the role it plays in what has been until then your body’s ongoing functionality.

He looks up from the papers on his desk, holds up his hand and says “No joke. No joke. This is serious stuff.” and looks back down. You realize "No" would have sufficed. Strike one.

He goes on to explain the company, the training, and the job. You ask interested questions. He asks about your education again. He asks you where you are currently working, and whether they may be contacted for a reference. You respond that you are seeking employment.

“You’re unemployed? For how long?” You tell him. There is a long silence. The mood in the room is changing. He continues to scrutinize the papers on his desk. The part in his hair is remarkably straight.

Without sounding desperate, you remind him you are volunteering at ___________, and are learning new computer skills while you reinforce existing ones at the local community college. You are keeping busy, staying productive.

It's not enough. This is a deal-breaker. Your words disappear without a trace into a stony, impenetrable silence. The man with the limp handshake is ending the interview.

You hear an umpire call strikes two and three as he dials an assistant on the telephone and asks her to show you the remainder of the lab. Which is just a nice way of showing you the door.

You’re fuming as she outlines the operations. You try and ask pertinent questions.

But your head is swimming. Why didn't the man with the handshake see your resume? Why wasn't the person who set-up the interview the same person who conducted the interview? Why didn't the people involved consult with each other and decide what he/she/they were looking for in a candidate before they wasted their/your time?

Your girlfriend tries to cheer you by noting that working for a humorless paper-shuffler like the man who interviewed you would have been a perpetual struggle. And that anyone so obsessed with one aspect of an applicant is, to put it nicely, a little dim.

All true.

But you’re still jobless. You have no money. You are staggered by the realization that everything you are, everything you have done, pales in comparison to a job gap. This is what defines you. This is what you are. You have adult-onset cooties.

You wish vile and hideous things upon the man who has punished you for being unemployed. You hope he is soon to understand that unemployment is its own reward. That no further action is required.

Most of all, you hope you survive.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Giving Care

I guess you could call it reconnecting. After spending time with your father and brother mostly in tidy, digestible six-hour nuggets for the past two or three decades, you’re again living with them.

Twenty-four hours a day. Seven days a week.

You’ve forgotten how utterly slovenly your brother is. Where the phylum housekeeping is concerned, your brother is a genus unto himself, with no known connection to the remainder of mankind.

You wonder why there are two rolls of toilet paper on his bathroom floor, but a bare cardboard cylinder in the wall-mounted dispenser. You wonder what the black stuff creeping up the sliding glass shower doors is.

And you wonder what he thinks a towel rack is for after you spy a mound of towels (interspersed with dirty laundry) heaped on the bathroom counter. The ring of facial hair that circles the sink is revolting.

Your regard for humanity prohibits you from detailing the condition of the toilet.

You peer into his bedroom.

After successfully locating a government-issue Haz-Mat suit, you venture inside. You find yourself subconsciously developing a business plan for a second-hand clothing store after taking in the closets-full of clothing strewn about.

You believe this room is carpeted, but are unable to find a patch of floor not covered by the ephemera that has fallen, leaf-like, from the tree of your brother’s life.

While you have the back-up discs for your computer’s operating system carefully stored in paper sleeves in a small file box, your brother has seen fit to let them lie where they fell or were dropped. They lie alongside the CD-Rs of music you laborously compiled and labeled for his listening enjoyment, and innumerable discs of once-important data.

Some are even unscratched.

There is enough change on the floor to buy a new car. You want to pick it up and pocket it, but the Haz-Mat suit prohibits this.

And the laundry hamper your sister bought and labeled with a sign reading DIRTY CLOTHES GO HERE stands empty, as forlorn as a clearance-priced Christmas ornament that has lingered on store shelves into late-January.

Yet he won’t touch the sponge in the kitchen sink, and instead grabs three or four dozen paper towels to gingerly, almost delicately, wipe the remains of a lasagna dinner from his dinner plate because he knows, with unshakeable certainty, that the sponge is laden with deadly bacteria and fatal viruses.

Upon getting up in the morning, you can trace the path of his nocturnal eating forays by the trail of cellophane, half-empty cookie boxes, glasses and empty soda containers scattered throughout the house.

Albert Einstein would reportedly become so involved in his calculations he would forget to eat. You aren’t that lucky.

You find tolerance more-easily for your father, he having recently survived a year-long bout with C-diff, the installation of a pacemaker, unsuccessful knee-replacement surgery and the mild dementia that is the byproduct of his advancing years.

Yet you are forcibly returned to adolescence when you take him to the doctor, and discover anew his ability to discern upcoming potholes, road debris and to measure the distance between you and the car ahead of you.

Without access to the speedometer, he can assess your speed and the threat it poses to Western Civilization. Even more remarkably, he can calculate the g-forces you generate as you corner and brake.

After several trips, you are tempted to suggest that he seek employment with a car magazine, as his ability to perform these calculations internally would surely save them a great deal of money on testing equipment.

Then there is the issue of food. It is a big one.

Your father, being the product of a certain generation, is essentially helpless in the kitchen. Conversely, he lives to eat. This creates a sizeable quandary when, for the first time in your parent’s marriage, your mother is hospitalized.

But between hospital visits, setting-up in-home after care, shopping, chauffeuring, cleaning and fielding a myriad of phone calls, all while trying to perform a job search and maintain a suddenly long-distance relationship, you are only marginally inclined to cook.

By dinner time, a bottle of beer and a frozen entrée are pretty much all you’re able to muster. You wonder how your mom did it.

While your vision of hell frequently involves either employment or the lack of it, your father’s is nine straight days of prepared food.

His stoicism soon turns to grousing and finally, a form of pleading, which wears the unmistakable scent of desperation. You relent and dine out. You make a mental note to at least sprinkle some basil and tomato on the next frozen pizza.

You smile at the irony of having told your father, in the gentlest manner possible, that money doesn't grow on trees.

But you eventually realize it’s not all fear of sponges and back seat driving.

Evening frequently finds the three of you together in the quiet repose of a good book, or held captive in the flickering light of an absorbing movie. It is an experience not frequently known, and one that silently joins the three of you.

Certain personality traits have resisted time, like the cap rock atop mesas and buttes. They endure, like stubborn sentrys.

You make your peace with them, because they are you, and you are them.