My intern was almost crying by the time I made it to the costume shop. I found her stonily staring into the washing machine. To be specific, into a pile of sudsy, foamy, and extremely pink shirts.
“It’s all my fault,” she said, near-hysterics. “And tomorrow is opening night and oh no no no oh, no. Oh, no. Ohh. No. I’ve ruined everything.”
I grabbed the bleach and tried not to smile.
Of course, there’s a lesson to be learned about carelessness. I know that because, try as I might, I’m not done learning it. There’s a crust of scorch marks on the bottom of my coffeepot that will attest to that. See also: the dye-stained interior of my own washing machine, the bleach stains pinpointing half of my wardrobe, the flat tire that I probably could have avoided if I wasn’t rushing quite so fast past that construction site to get to that meeting. I probably shouldn’t have been carrying all that fake blood in my purse alongside all my important paperwork. My car will never look quite the same after the Great Cherry Syrup Explosion of 2010 … even if those sno cones were delicious.
In college, I begged – begged! — the guy who ran the tuxedo rental place to cut me a deal. I bargained away ad space and sponsorships and made my best plea for responsibility and trustworthiness and a good community partnership with these tuxedos and our eager endeavors, because otherwise, there was no way our student theatre could afford to produce Sweet Charity if we needed to pay full price, and does the classic American tradition of Bob Fosse’s work mean nothing to you, sir? We paid more than I wanted but less than we should have, and I signed my name away in metaphorical blood, and then promptly tossed everything in the washing machine with a rogue purple handkerchief. A soggy, soapy, violet, and decidedly non-trustworthy mess.
The woman who served as the secretary for the theatre department was, and is, to this day, exactly the person you want around in a crisis. Think Florence Henderson, only with a more sly sense of humor and a kind of quiet ballsiness you might not notice at first glance. Not many people can radiate warmth and kindness and superhuman efficiency all at the same time, but then again, not many people are Joan.
She found me, sobbing openly in the fluorescent-lit utility closet that doubled as a wardrobe room, letting loose the kind of gut-heaving ugly-crying that you truly don’t want anyone to see. Our eyes met. I tried for words, but instead I just pointed down into the purple-stained disaster.
Joan looked. She touched her hand to her mouth. She put her hand on my back. She rubbed it, quietly, for about a minute before she spoke.
“Okay. I have two things I need to say to you. Are you ready?”
I nodded, tears and snot everywhere, feeling entirely foolish and yet unbelievably comforted.
“The first thing is that this is probably nothing a little bleach can’t fix. That’s the first thing. We’re going to pick up some bleach and then we’re going to fix this. Okay?”
I nodded. God, how pathetic I must have seemed. How little she judged me for it.
“Okay. Now the second thing. My Patrick just baked this morning. Do you want a cookie?”
I looked at her. Oh, man. I nodded, a big, snotty, whimpery nod. She smiled and put her arms around my shoulders.
“Okay. Okay. It’s gonna be okay. Let’s get you two cookies.”
I took a pretty instant shine to this intern from the first day. Something about her, all of eighteen, navigating a strange city as a college freshman, full of passion and enthusiasm and mostly useful naïvete. Maybe it’s just that she reminds me of one of my favorite summer camp students. Maybe it’s just that she casually referenced writing a play about Eleanor Roosevelt’s probable lesbianism that got her in trouble with the South Carolina school board. Maybe it’s just that she asks smart questions, is engaged with what I’m working on, and wants to know why it is that I do what I do.
Maybe it’s just that she reminds me of me.
On my last day there, as I was frantically trying to superglue a broken belt together while trying not to stain my opening night dress, we made small talk. She asked what I did that day, and I mentioned the basics: laundry, running errands, finishing up the last costume notes, some graphic design project I was working on, writing an article for MTV about feminism. Like a cartoon, googly-eyed and slack-jawed, the words jumped out in a jumbled, excited burst: “OH MY GOODNESS I WANT YOUR LIFE!”
I snorted derisively before I could stop myself. My life? Mine? I’m a twenty-nine year old woman with a dye-splattered wardrobe and a student loan debt bigger than the house I can’t afford to buy. I make messes, literally and metaphorically, that trail in my wake wherever I go. I forget to floss. I don’t check my voicemail for weeks. I need reminders to accomplish simple tasks. I have lousy taste in men. My car is literally still stained from cherry dye. This? Please. Honey. You don’t want this.
And even though I know it would be entirely inappropriate, I almost started to tell her all of this. Except…
Except that it felt great to see myself the way she saw me in that moment. Sat there and thought, yeah, you know what, goddamnit, I DO write for a national news outlet. I get to share my views with the world, I get to try and crusade to make the world a slightly better place in which to be a woman.
I sat there and I saw myself as not such a mess. I saw myself as someone who makes her money doing what it is that she loves, even if that life comes with its occasional challenges. As someone who cares deeply about those around her. As someone who went big, and keeps going.
I saw someone who does a better job masking her raging insecurities than she thinks.
I saw myself as someone who was actually kind of awesome. Someone with passion and guts and potential. I saw myself as someone whose life I kind of wanted, too.
And – okay, I also saw myself as someone who maybe doesn’t have it all totally figured it out, there in my opening night dress with superglue on my fingers and a run in my tights. But then again, who does? And maybe, just maybe – there are worse things in the world than having a mentor who admits that.
I put my arm around her shoulder and we stared into the pink, soggy washing machine. I started the cycle again, filled it with hot water, and un-capped the bottle. “I promise you,” I said. “It’s nothing a little bleach can’t fix.”