"Wow. That was a fucked up dream."
I said this out loud as I sat up in bed, feeling the heavy weight of my head strain on the weak stem of my neck as I tried to lift it upright. I put my hand against my temple and massaged the dull ache there. It wasn't the kind of pounding you get when you've spent days crying over an ex-lover or hours completing a rigorous standardized test. Rather, it was just a faint ba-dump… ba-dump… ba-dump, striking hard enough that it was bothersome, but not with so much force that it was agonizing. For a few moments, I just sat there contemplating the ache with a bewildered look on my face.
Accompanied by my faint headache, was a sense of how surreal my room seemed. The bookshelf, the bureau, and the pile of clothes all swam in the sweep of my vision. I could picture them levitating off the floor, undulating in the air, dissipating and reappearing as tiny molecules. Even the sheets that surrounded me in deep waves of cloth seemed immaterial – weightless, intangible, unreal. There seemed to be a magical presence inhabiting the room, although I couldn't put my finger on what it was exactly. Undoubtedly, it was an extension of the unbelievably weird dream I just had, but my brain just hadn't caught up with my return to the normal, physical world.
I blinked a few times and stretched my arms, hoping a little blood to the brain would ground me back in reality. As I took a deep breath, the room relaxed and all of my floating furniture settled back down on the floor. My view sharpened, and I could feel tingling through my arms, legs, and shoulders. I suddenly became aware of my ability to hear.
Mom was downstairs; the pipes whispered as water travelled through them to the kitchen sink, where she was undoubtedly scrubbing away at some pots and pans. I could hear the clanking of plates and silverware going into the dishwasher, as well. The new puppy the family got while I was gone whinnied, and then the older dog barked. The patio door slid open, and the leash outside jingled against the pavement. My mom coughed as the door slid shut again. The laundry room door creaked open, a pause, then shut, the furnace kicked on, and the coffee maker beeped. All this I could hear from upstairs.
I took another deep breath, staring down at my sheets. What a dream. That was all I could think to myself. I'd occasionally had strange visions in my dreams before, but this was by far the most unusual – not for the fact that it was filled with literate turtles, tarp-less tarps, and a mystic, chocolate-eyed goddess – but for the fact that it seemed so completely disconnected from my reality. I was used to my dreams reflecting my subconscious, the little things that nagged my brain during the day, whether they were upcoming tests and papers, trips and tangles in my friendships, excruciatingly expensive car repairs, pressing job interviews, or the emotional torment associated with my romantic partners. When I was a little kid, for example, I dreamt that a dinosaur – a T-rex to be specific – had taken residence in my family's sitting room, and every time I decided to walk past the balcony railing in the upstairs den, I would have to be wary of its snapping jaws. Now, this may seem as disconnected as my dream about the goddess, but in fact I had caught a glimpse of my parents playing the Jurassic Park video game on the Sega the night before, which I had been forbidden from playing myself for the exact reason "it would give me nightmares."
Indeed, I'd had a variety of dreams in my lifetime – jumping into oceans, running into brick walls, showing up naked to school – but this was by far the strangest. I'd had the habit of writing down my dreams in the past, even if it meant jolting out of bed to grab a pad and pen, and usually it was worth it. If I wrote everything down before I forgot, I could go back with the sobriety of mind to analyze all the bizarre details.
So, despite my initial wooziness, I sifted through my belongings in their various suitcases and bags to retrieve a pen and notebook. Quickly, I jotted down everything I could remember. My pen clicked against the page as I scribbled away in a frenzy. And when I was finished, I gave a great sigh and tossed my notebook aside, no longer interested in all the weirdness of my sleep.
Breakfast downstairs was typical. The puppy and the dog were energetic, bouncing on their paws and whining for treats. Mom was darting back and forth between rooms, half-finishing one chore after the next, all the while complaining about my father, her hair dresser, and her next client. I sat at the kitchen table quietly, eating a bowl of Life cereal and checking my e-mail. Nothing too interesting in my inbox except a reply from the local K-mart.
"Ohhh," my mother squealed, as she walked by with an armful of laundry and noticed my screen. "That looks promising. What does it say?"
"They want me in for a job interview," I said dully.
"Ohhh, that's wonderful," she said. "What's it for?"
"Well, that's still good!"
"I guess so," I muttered in reply.
"Hey, it's a place to start. It's better than being unemployed, right?"
"Not exactly what I had in mind after four years of going to college." I could taste the bitterness of my own voice. Not just four years of going to college – four years of excelling in college, working just as hard as the overachievers and nearly twenty times as hard as the frat boys who partied on the weekends. What did I have to show for it? A potential job at a retail store, which I probably could have landed without even finishing high school.
"Well, no… but does that mean you're going to give up?" My mom put her hands on her hips and gave me a plain look that told me what my answer had better be.
"No." I bowed my head and pouted. What was I? Ten years old again?
"Alright – then cheer up! Go to that interview and show 'em what you got!"
She skipped out of the kitchen, seemingly energized by her own pep talk. With a sigh, I returned to the e-mail and sent a reply confirming my appointment for 12 o'clock that afternoon.
"Says here you lived in Maine for three months… is that right?"
I was sitting in an office that looked like it had been excavated from a log cabin in the northern woods and plopped into the electric lights and white tiles of a retail store. The room was sparsely decorated, with two filing cabinets, a calendar with sad-looking dogs wearing party hats, and a laminated poster that read "10 Things Not to Do in Mabel's Office," which enumerated charming and pithy statements like "Don't fart in Mabel's chair," "Don't piss on Mabel's leg and say it's raining," and "Keep your potty mouth out of Mabel's office and in the crapper."
Sitting at the desk across from me was Mabel herself, a woman in her late fifties whose face reminded me of a troll doll's – which would have been fine since I was the kind of person who found troll dolls oddly adorable, except that instead of sporting a goofy grin and fluorescent-colored hair, this lady was looking about as friendly as Chucky wielding a blood-spattered stabbing knife. And instead of screaming in fright, I had to continue to perform my role as the pleasant and attractive sales professional, smiling with contentment from ear to ear and responding to hard-hammered queries with confidence and eloquence.
I was usually pretty good at fielding interview questions. I'd been through enough of them at that point. It had actually started with the one in Maine, but I always got stiff when I was asked about it.
"That's correct," I stated clearly. "After I graduated from college, I took about six months off to travel the Atlantic coast. I went from Canada to New York to Maine to New Hampshire to Masachusetts. I visited Niagara Falls, Acadia National Park, and Hampton Beach."
"Did you do any work while you were in Maine?" Mabel looked up from her interview notes and gave me a peering look.
"I did," I said. "I worked on a contract basis for the New England Seafood Festival in Portland."
"The festival can't have been more than a week," she said sharply. "Did you do any other work while you were there?"
We stared each other off for a moment. I could feel her eyes drilling into my own. But there was no way I would ever admit to her about what happened at my first job. I was applying to be a cashier, for fuck's sake. She didn't need to know my life's story.
"No," I said firmly.
Mabel looked at me a little longer before pursing her lips and returning her attention to her interview notes. I kept my own eyes on her, mentally daring her to keep questioning me. I wasn't afraid of not getting this job, even if it did mean staying unemployed. I could tell already I wouldn't like working there.
"Then you worked in retail in Massachusetts?" she asked.
Clearly, she was no longer interested in Maine.
"For two months," I said.
"Customer Service Coordinator?"
"Why'd you leave that job?"
"Because the relationship I was in turned out to not be a healthy one so I made the decision to come back home to Michigan and try starting over." I didn't express myself with the greatest eloquence, but I didn't need to spare anymore details as it was. If she wanted to know all the gruesome details, I'd be happy to share my pitiful story with her, but unless she asked for them, I wasn't in the mood to talk.
"Hmph," she grunted, looking uncomfortable. It seemed she had stretched her emotional capacity to its greatest extent. This must have been her demonstration of "compassion."
"You have experience pushing sales, Dorothea?" She used my full name, and over pronounced each of the vowels with her thick Midwestern accent. She gave me a skeptical look, clearly waiting for the intimidated response of another sixteen-year-old new to retail.
"The reason I got promoted in less than a month at my last job was because I could got more e-mail subscriptions out of customers at check out than any other associate." I paused briefly for effect. "I'll have no problem with sales here."
Mabel pursed her lips again. I knew I trapped her. Unless she wanted to wander back to Maine, she'd run out of territory to grill me on. I relished the sense of internal satisfaction.
"Well, Ms. Temple, looks like you'd be a good employee for our store," she said with a resigned sigh. "Let me tell you a few things up front, though. We have a strict attendance policy for a reason. One tardy without an excuse and that's all your permitted. Show up on time, or you'll be in this office again. I usually don't like seein' people in this office again before their yearly review. Typically trouble makers or slackers. I don't have the patience for it. Don't waste my time. Your base pay is $7.90 an hour, and you'll be workin' at the service desk. Kitty will be teachin' you the ropes up there. God knows she's been there long enough, so listen good to her. You get about 20 hours a week to start, but you can get more if you prove you've got what it takes. Any questions?"
"None at all!" I smiled my customer service smile, feeling the tug of the muscles ache in my jaw. I was sitting as upright as possible in my seat, my quadriceps waiting to lift off like a rocket and get me out of that creepy cabin-office. I forced my hands in my lap though, so as not to look too eager.
"Alright then. Orientation is Friday at 10. Get your drug test done before then at this place here." Mabel pushed a few pieces of paper for me and highlighted an address at the top. "It's just down the road. Shouldn't take more than five minutes; you'll take a pee in a cup and then they'll send the results our way in 'bout twenty-four hours. Once we got you oriented, then you can start work Monday. Still no questions?"
"Well, congratulations Ms. Temple. You've got yourself a job." The old broad managed to pull those tired lips into a smile and extended her hand. I shook it, returning her grin, and wished her well.
I left the office emotionless. I walked through automated sliding doors without any skip in my step. When I had been hired to work in Maine, all I could feel was elation. Now, I was left without really any feeling at all, except perhaps a slight sense of anxiety and itchiness on my forearm.