I am amongst various adults throughout the week, myself not included. Sometimes they’re in hoards and other times in positions much more confrontational. There’s the FOH staff at my waitressing job, my therapist once a week, and librarians at my desk job. On a micro level, there is the woman with the star studs (or the man with the Snowden glasses) that I order my cappuccino from, my landlord’s superintendent that installed a lock on my door last week, and the couple who works in sports and don’t cook for themselves.
And several times during the year, I am (we are) inadvertently and forcefully haunted by our youth, or lack thereof. It lurks in often timorous instances: the “kids” table at Thanksgiving, Easter eggs in April, going a week without speaking with a friend, calling your Mom.
Somewhere along the span of our lives, no longer are we swimming in the buoyancy of life—just wading in low tide.
The Thursday after Halloween, I was sitting at my desk job in the library. My supervisor Aaron, being a supervisor, dutifully starts with one of his many opening gambits: “how’s your week been?” And of course, due to the big holiday the night before, “how was your night?” And of course, recognizing our generational gap, “do anything crazy? Any crazy parties?”
I answer no to all three questions and we start talking politics. Aaron’s a very diffident man. Somehow forcing these conversations onto me—always ensuring he start and end them—has come to be his preferred authoritative assertion. I humor him for 10 minutes a day because I don’t have anything better to do, anything else to do really.
“You know how you know you’ve become an adult?” he leans back out from his office. “Every Halloween I’d ask for candy and then there came one Halloween where I got a step stool and placed the candy basket atop the fridge. I realized that candy-high in children lasts two, three days max. I figured if I put them out of reach, my kids would forget about them. And they did.”
“One year I was excited by candy and another, I was doing that: eating candy two days post-Halloween, on top of a step stool at 10 o’clock at night.”
Yesterday, my friend sat me down, told me that her friend had attempted suicide this past summer.
“Why are we allowed to be happy but made to be so fearful of sadness?” she asked.
“Actually, that is exactly why I am sad, because I feel as if I’m not allowed to be.”
I felt indifferent about the event—the suicide and all. The aside had come up over fries and tea and we’d been talking about something stupid. Then, as if preprogrammed, she bombs the conversation into the dark, abysmal land of confronting one’s demons: therapy, mental asylums, ugly truths (or convincing lies.) In fact, the night had already teetered off balance early on, when I ordered fries and she ordered tea, and then I ordered tea and she ordered meatballs. There we were: eating fries, slicing up meatballs, rinsing oil with tea, wondering about life and what happens if we don’t live it. One large, overly seasoned mess.
“I went to visit her a week after the incident,” she said.
“I had to push through two heavy doors, then round a sharp corner to finally arrive at this big, round room.”
“All the patients wore large blue shirts and thick yellow socks, like ducklings.”
“Oh, and before all that I had to sign my name, my reason for visiting, my relationship to the patient onto this piece of paper. Boyfriends, brothers, mothers, mothers, mothers, friends—the papers of signatories piled thick.”
“I wanted to be better than all of them though, so I wrote in best friend.”
You & I, my friend & her best friend, the library manager & me, childhood, adulthood, all that stays constant are our accounts, reports of what happened, what we hold onto and choose to remember—life anecdotes. And we all sort of plod along as latent testimonies to the accounts of others. We do so collaboratively; evidence of something can only exist if there is something for it to exist through. We listen attentively to another.
I’d like to think my role in this grand symphony of life doesn’t change much, always at consistent tempo, like Muzak.1
Until, of course, someone asks “And what about you?”
“What about you? How do you know you’ve become an adult?” I knew by now that my manager was feeling a bit overwrought about his age. I’d just turned 22, he was probably nearing his 50’s—it wasn’t as if I was going to offer him some anecdote that’d prove helpful. I told him I had to pay $500 for a new registration on my car, from tip money waitressing. The actual car was around $30,000—I didn’t pay for that.
That was it for me, really. I could have told him that I was 22, and had borne witness to plenty of lives, some lived and some just kind of, both before and after me. I’d be happy to share those but I couldn’t share much more about mine; I don’t have any more stories.
“And what about you? Do you ever feel sad like that?”
1 Muzak is a brand of background music played in retail stores and other public establishments. In 1981, Westinghouse bought the company and ran it until selling it to the Fields Company of Chicago, publishers of the Chicago Sun-Times, on September 8, 1986
My heater, periodically, goes KLINK KLINK KLINK. As if signaling: I’m letting out heat now. The heat isn’t evenly distributed and the wallpaper, left with a subtle gradient, trickles down to a mild yellow.
Throughout the night, I will wake up thinking someone is at the door. Or tapping on my eardrum. I’ve learned to sleep through most of these disturbances, even finding the klinks charming. As if I were sleeping with various other creatures together in this room big enough for just one.
KLINK KLINK KLI—a dagger shoots across my benumbed senses.
My apartment is dressed in red, its neighbor in grey. This time of year, fall sheds its leaves onto the asphalt skirt that rounds my house and with a bit of the wind’s generosity, the leaves color our building’s grey approximate. This is the first morning I’ve scanned it up and down—a house is enlivened by so much that I hardly notice its actual coating.
But today I walked out of the house fuming with an anger—the kind first prefaced by dejection. I didn’t feel particularly restless or melancholic so I kind of just stared up and down at my building. I wondered how much a house could hold, what secrets it kept, and what I might re—KLINK KLINK KLINK.
The house will continue to pulse.
I have learned two things being around adults most of the week: fragility never escapes a person, rather it’s just transformed into varying applications and growing older might not be something of growth but of shrinkage. Whether it is a house, a person, or a holiday—growing is always more synonymous with losing, with wear and tear.
Yesterday, at another one of my jobs—oddly, the only job where I don’t feel entirely encased between full-fledged adults—AK takes scream breaks downstairs, JJ takes time off work to fondle with his new phone, DK stays in bed up until her shift at 5pm, PO makes-out regularly with co-workers in drunken fits—I received an odd call from a previous professor I had. A customer, rather than a professor in this setting.
“Hello, uh it’s Professor Graha—uh, Eric Graham.” “How can I help you today?”
“My wife likes to eat early. We would like to make a reservation for a table within the next 30 minutes.”
“Certainly, we’re not too busy tonight—that shouldn’t be a problem. Can I get a number and a name for the reservation?”
“Yeah, uh, Erik. Erik. Professor Graham.” “Thank you, Erik. We’ll see you soon.”
I’d wanted to sit in on a class with Erik two semesters ago. He responded yes and signed off with “Erik”, and 4 minutes later, sent another note: “Btw, always refer to me as Professor Graham.” I doubt he’d remember my voice.
I faked a bathroom break when 6:30 came around, to avoid the impending greeting with “Professor…” I wondered if he recognized me and if so, what would happen if I had addressed him as “Erik.”
The days are outnumbered by festivities towards the latter half of the year. October: Halloween; November: Thanksgiving; December: Christmas. If you look deeper, almost every day of the year has been tagged with some significance. If you count sentiments, every day becomes worthy of a celebration. October 2nd: first loose tooth; November 15th: first time driving on the highway; December 29th: Grandma’s death.
For most, holidays translate into both an ineffable gratitude and an equally unutterable agitation, even anger. It’s 4 P.M., Thanksgiving dinner is scheduled for 5 P.M., the turkey won’t fit right into the oven, the timer is falsely calibrated—there are enough hands to move mountains but no one will help you get over this tiny mound.
For me, Thanksgiving, Christmas, any celebration at all only commenced four years ago, when I began university studies and couldn’t bare the plane ticket and 7-hour travel back West. Since then, I’ve had the great pleasure of joining a surrogate family for these events, one that feeds me and asks only that I offer my able pair of hands at need. All I know of festivities are from traditions borrowed; I’m indebted to the generosity and the good faith of friends.
Regardless, the benisons of these borrowed traditions are cloudy. How is it that I am left longing for a home that I cannot have, traditions I could never pass on, celebrations I am only ever a visitor to?
My parents, whenever we do travel, prefer to rent homes that have been lived in—BnB’s over hotels always—and that come equipped with a kitchen and eclectic, pre-owned furniture.
Sometimes when I wake up in a slightly creaky bed, drink coffee out of a cup engraved with initials, I almost forget I am longing for these things to be mine, that they aren’t mine.
If we long for things we don’t have, what is longing when most of our lives are made up of things not ours?
On Monday, I’ll return to my desk job. I’ll kick my feet around and exhaust the spin on my chair. My supervisor Aaron, being a supervisor, will dutifully start with one of his opening gambits, this time being: “how was thanksgiving?” To which I will answer “Fine. Thanks, and what about you?”
He will probably tell me a story or two about his kids, or his ex-wife. Definitely about his ex-wife. “You know when I realized that people can’t be trusted?”
Or he might just return with an “okay” or “good” or “not too bad.”
I’m hoping he opts for the former.
Allegra Hyde did the visual portion of this collaboration, but she primarily works in prose. Her debut story collection, OF THIS NEW WORLD (University of Iowa Press, 2016), won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. She has received three Pushcart Prizes, as well as fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Montalvo Arts Center, and the U.S. Fulbright Commission. Currently, she teaches at the University of Houston.
J. Wen Zhuang was born in a coastal town on the Northern coast of China and now lives in New England. Most recently, she’s worked for A Public Space and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. She’s finishing up her undergraduate studies in Photography and Literary Arts. She loves sitting in movie theaters, parks with tall trees, and is always trying her best to keep small moments safe.