When I attended graduate school in Vermont, I trailed around campus in an almost constant state of irritation, because I was in Vermont. There is little else to do there (no baseball, no sweating, no cutting of taxes or trees) except to be irritated and perhaps graduate, which I did, stupidly.
Now I want to go back to Vermont.
You know what was beyond Vermont? Life. Life was beyond Vermont. And it turns out (this never seemed to come up in college, not in Victorian Literature, not in Gender Studies of Ancient Cultures, not once) that life consists of words like calendar, save, backup, carburetor, cellulite, void, quota, lease. Since matriculating in college, Fey Theatre Major Guy, Beret-Wearing Poetry Slam Girl and I had been surrounding ourselves with bright, happy words: lexicon, paradigm, Eurocentric. But now: dividend, premium, fax machine, overdraft. Life is where matriculation goes to die.
When, exactly, did I lose control of this situation?
I was supposed to be famous by now. By my 25th birthday I was to have slammed — slammed — The New York Times bestseller list, started construction on the sprawling summer home in the Colorado foothills and exchanged morning bons mots with my extremely good friend Regis.
I am, instead, 26 and surrounded by stale Cheez-It crumbs, many printer errors and hydrogeologists who actually say things like “Time to make the doughnuts!” as the elevator doors slide open. When the change of address form arrived last week from my alma mater, I wrote “Freelance Writer” in the “Profession” blank because there was no box to check for “Health Insurance Whore.”
The hydrogeologists were never part of the Rich Famous Writer Plan, which has been in effect since I was 14. I announced an early-decision engagement with Saint Mary’s College because I was told that little girls who want to become big girls, literarily speaking, attend tiny liberal arts colleges with lousy volleyball teams and huge English departments. When I completed my Master of Fine Arts in nonfiction writing at Bennington College, I fully expected my magna cum laude birthright of a healthy 401K, a box of 500 business cards and eight to 12 pending book deals.
I am not good for much else. Everyone around me knows better than to ask me to add in my head. I can’t sew, sing, hit, throw, catch, cook or even drive very well. I never could dissect the frog without hurling. I do not know my right from my left. Extended contact with children makes me want to die; extended contact with people in general makes me want to die. From an employment vantage point, this leaves writing, and wobbly crop-circle creation.
And yet there isn’t a tremendously large market for 17 pages detailing precisely how much I hate Shania Twain. If there must be a day job, I decided, I would sell myself out to an industry that would nourish rather than drain my tortured writer’s soul, withered these past two years by such part-time pursuits as selling museum admission tickets, a job I not only hated but which hated me as well. “OK, you’ve got a $700 discrepancy,” was not an uncommon thing to hear at cash-out time.
The bothersome scientific aspects of it aside, I fawn over the American space program — for those who can’t, lust. I moved to Florida to take a job in education at the Kennedy Space Center, where it became immediately apparent that the ability to recite the seven Mercury astronauts in flight order means absolutely nothing when a pharmaceuticals salesman from Topeka demands to see the room in which the moon landing was staged.
Every single shuttle launch costs approximately half-a-billion dollars; I was paid 10 bucks an hour. I put groceries and gas on credit cards and sold roses at bars to bear the full cost of three different prescriptions. “My master’s degree and I thank you,” I would say to customers, stuffing singles and fives into my plunging uniform bodice.
Once, as I stood at the front of a moving tour bus with a microphone in one hand and a tiny pair of solid rocket boosters in the other, a fifth-grader in the very last seat dumped an entire box of jawbreakers on the floor. The red and orange and green and purple spheres cascaded down the aisle, skittering through gift shop bags, tubes of suntan lotion, bottles of $2 water. “This,” I thought as the candy hailed against my feet, “this is exactly what my professors had in mind for me.”
Then Columbia lifted off whole, circled the Earth and came back home in horrible fiery chunks. The subcontractor I worked for kept the doors of the Space Center gift shop wide open as stunned tourists filed back to their rental cars parked in lots named after spacecraft: Atlantis. Discovery. Endeavor. Columbia. For weeks of milky aftermath, I slept 12 hours a day, otherwise sitting very still and staring a lot.
And then for the first time in a year, I sat down to write. I wrote a letter of resignation. On the day I walked out, my manager, flanked by a security guard, stopped me in the parking lot to search the bag I used to tote around my allotment of the company’s meager education equipment.
“It’s empty,” he said, acutely disappointed.
“So are you,” I said, and left.
I fled to an engineering firm in Orlando, where I landed a very nice tech writing job with a very nice desk and very nice dental plan. At the end of the interview, I gazed down at the company brochure before me, a visual assault of evenly cropped, sharply colored engineers beaming at one another and the wastewater treatment plants they had wrought. This, then, was how it was going to be: lunch meetings, kicky screen savers, and long, spellbinding conversations concerning the backup on I-4.
I moved into my own office with a life-size standup of Obi-Wan Kenobi and an armload of swing music. The walls, empty and thick, echoed when the phone rang. Somebody announced that it was Amy’s birthday and brought by a card for me to sign. I had no idea who Amy was, could not recall meeting her, knew absolutely nothing about her save that she was apparently a Pisces, but sent warm salutations anyway, failing in the process to use the word “paradigm” in any way, shape or form. The engineers, wary of this verbal object, came to my door, took in the framed 12-by-12 picture of Jimmy Buffett, and backed slowly away. The feeling was mutual.
I do not walk around my workplace; I hurtle. Hurtling lends a touch of realism to whatever internal fantasy life is circulating blood to my heart that day. It is the only way I know of to safety-valve away the untapped creative energy screaming through me as I dutifully cut and paste corporate resumes. Every trip to the ladies’ room, each coffee refill becomes a life-or-death dash through the hallways. Others see me striding purposefully about to ferry grant applications; I am actually, however, rushing to the side of Indiana Jones because I and I alone hold the antivenom for the snakebite he’s just received, and the machete-wielding savage behind me knows this all too well.
When I return to my office I make observations for magnificent essays that rarely grow past the Post-it Note stage and sit in mortal fear of blasts from the intercom, for this may announce yet another cost-benefits table to be formatted, another sewage district for which to force fascination. I fling my arms out on either side, struggling to maintain equilibrium as eight hours heave and lurch beneath my ergonomic rolling chair.
Florida is a state of storms. It happens every single day in the summer months: bright morning, climbing humidity, swirling winds at lunchtime, then blam, the cable goes out. In my windowless office on the 10th floor I jump at the thunderclaps, stealing when I can into the heavily draped boardroom to face down high angry clouds as rain blanks out parking garages and fleeing tourists. The rain slams against the window I’m peering through as my business-attired reflection is superimposed over wind-torn Orlando. By the time I go home the storm has spent the both of us; most days, I check my email, type a couple of exhausted paragraphs, then tear off my pantyhose and sink directly into bed, the blank screen pulsing in the creeping dusk.
I heard an interview with National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens as I drove to work one day, one high-heeled shoe pressing the brake as I negotiated toll booths and monstrous, rumbling dump trucks. Stevens discussed the ideal form of the American jockey, the immobile, “sits chilly” posture he must strike as he balances on two inches of boot while his thousand-pound mount flies along. You should be able, he said, to “set a glass of champagne in the middle of my back at 40 miles an hour and not spill a drop.” The very best jockeys, it seems, stay out of the way of the very thing pulling them into the money.
Mary Beth Ellis (’99SMC) writes and hurtles in Orlando, Florida. She currently runs a weblog at BlondeChampagne.com.