I’m going to tell you what I did this weekend. I know that’s a terrible opening sentence, and I hope you will forgive me. It creates no suspense, or incentive to continue reading; there is no inherent outrage, mystery, or beauty. I am simply going to tell you that on Friday night, I drank too much wine with a friend over dinner, and I woke up on Saturday morning, with a packed bag for a five-hour drive. I was scheduled to speak to college students at my alma mater, to sit on a panel discussing careers in the arts.
I buy a coffee. I get in the car. I am on the New Jersey turnpike, and I hit a slight bump in the road, and instantly the car is shaking and roaring, an immersive awful sound that envelops everything with such intensity that I turn to see what other car has been so badly damaged before I realize that it is my own.
I am shaking and I pull to the side, turning off the car and opening the door. I am wearing a dress and a red floral scarf that whips around in my neck and my hair, and I don’t know what it is that I am looking for, but I can’t find it, there on the side of the highway, crouched underneath my car. Everyone is driving so very fast. The tires are fine, the car looks fine, there is no smell of burning rubber or coolant, no dead giveaway to explain anything. It’s a good car, one that I pay for monthly, with four fresh tires and a new oil change, and I have to pay for this car because the old one kept falling apart, and I am angry, suddenly, that the basic truth of “something can go wrong at any time to anybody” happens also to apply to me.
I try to breathe. If I turn the car back on, and it works, I can get to Massachusetts with an hour and thirty-five minutes to spare. I’ll make it. It’ll be okay.
I turn the car back on and begin to accelerate on the shoulder. It rattles. It roars. It shakes. I cannot drive the car. I realize I am crying.
I turn the car off. I call Triple A. I call my boyfriend. I email my contact at the college, asking for his phone number.
I think about the people at the college who are waiting for me, professors and mentors that I haven’t seen in the eight years since I’ve graduated and made a different life for myself. I remember that my professor is cooking dinner for the panel guests, and that he is a fantastic cook. I wonder if he remembers that my favorite pie is cherry and peach, and it is only my favorite because he once baked it for me, which is how I discovered that it is the best kind of pie in the world. I remember that cherries and peaches are not in season. I remember all of this while waiting for a tow truck to arrive. I remember all of this while the hazard lights are on, clicking and clicking and clicking and clicking.
The tow truck arrives. I feel so vulnerable, suddenly, at realizing that my safety is in the hands of a stranger. He is my age, maybe, thirty or so. I watch him hitch my car to the back of his truck, and I fear the usual fears as I step up into the front: I hope that this person will not hurt me, because I have no way of fighting back.
He is listening to Nickelback in the truck bed. It is loud. There is Mountain Dew, unopened, in the cup holder. He drives me to a garage at the next exit off the Turnpike.
If they look at the car and solve the problem instantly, I could get to the college with forty-five minutes left to spare.
As I am filling out paperwork, the tow truck driver sees my eyes well up a bit. He turns down the radio and says, softly, “Sorry about the angry music. It’s been one of those days for me, too.” His eyes are kind. He wears a belt, a detail I notice as he bends down to inspect my car, which I like. I feel suddenly vulnerable again as he leaves me in the parking lot.
I explain my situation to the mechanic. There are other cars ahead of me, but they’ll get to me as soon as they can. If I left right now I could make it there with ten minutes to spare. I comb through my email archives on my phone until I find the phone number and call my former professor, shame burning through my throat. He is nice and understanding, tells me that being late is fine if it’s still possible, and it’s all that I can do to shout, irrationally and in response to my own worst self-critique, “I am responsible! This should not have happened! I am not the same person that I was at twenty-two!”
If I left right now I would be fifteen minutes late.
If I left right now I would be forty minutes late.
If I left right now I would be an hour late.
I call my professor and I tell him I am not coming. I open my banking app and transfer money from my savings. I am suddenly so very, very, very, very, very, very tired.
The mechanic comes to find me.
There’s nothing wrong with the car.
He found a small piece of debris in the undercarriage, and a theory: the bump lodged the object, and in response, I hit the brake in just such a way that it triggered the anti-lock system to kick in as I drove at seventy miles an hour down the highway. The car just needed to calm down, so to speak. The mechanic dislodged the debris that hadn’t already worked itself out, and told me I was free to go.
There will be no bill. He asks me to sign a piece of paper, saying that there is no problem with the car, and therefore no charge. He has kind eyes, too.
If I left right now, the panel would be over. I am feeling partially grateful and mostly angry as I drive back towards Philadelphia, torn between gratitude at not having to spend money I didn’t have on a repair, and irrational anger that something so random and stupid could ruin my day so badly.
My stomach hurts. My head hurts. I pull off the exit towards Philadelphia, driving through Cherry Hill, looking for a place to eat. You can’t turn left on those roads in New Jersey. I pass three diners, all on the left-hand side of the road. The horns are loud. Traffic is bad. The mall is to my right, and I have to pee, and I hate myself and I veer into the parking lot.
There are no parking spaces to be found, and I circle and I circle and I circle and I circle and I really have to pee and my head really hurts and in a moment of desperation I pull up to the Valet Parking stand that is attached to the mall’s “fine dining” restaurant, one of those places that looks like a blandly corporate hotel lobby, and I hand him my keys in utter resignation.
This is how I came to find myself alone in a fancy mall restaurant with a puffy face and an upset stomach, watching waiters in black shirts and black ties maneuver past artificial trees and overstuffed chairs. The other women eating here all have nice manicures. I have, instead, a near-pathological need to be liked by members of the service industry. I’ve been a waitress, a ticket salesperson, a house manager. Most of my friends work in the service industry, because they are also making art and in crippling student loan debt and this is how you survive. I can’t afford to eat here as a habit. I feel this whenever I sit in a nice restaurant, but particularly here, a place that feels unnecessarily formal and stuffy: a creeping urge to let everyone on the staff know that I am one of you, not one of them.
My waitress comes by. “How are you today, Katherine?” she asks.
“How did you know my name?” I ask.
She gestures towards the front, a subtle acknowledgement that, yeah, it’s a thing we have to do. “You gave it to the host. Also, it’s my name too,” she says. We spell it differently, but there she is, right there on her nametag: Kathryn.
“How are you today?” she asks, again.
I start to say, I’m fine. But I don’t want to.
I’m not fine. I’m having a shitty day. I drank too much wine last night and my head hurts now. I was supposed to see old friends. I was supposed to talk to students, which I love to do. I was supposed to walk around a beautiful campus, and marvel that I ever spent four years of my life here, and secretly regret not doing much more with that time. Instead, my car broke on the way there, which is as good a metaphor for a career in the arts as anything. I am sad. I am tired, Kathryn, who shares my name, Kathryn, and I know my problems are not spectacularly interesting, and I know that they are not problems compared to those of the rest of the world, but Kathryn, I am sad and I don’t feel well and it could be much worse but it could be much better too, and Kathryn, I’m only here because I couldn’t be in Massachusetts on time and then I couldn’t find a damn parking space, Kathryn, please, I am not even supposed to be here right now.
So instead that’s what I tell her. I’m not fine. Today is shitty and I hate it.
Here’s the thing that feels remarkable, in a place that is so clearly filled with artifice and preening, so designed to cater to this desperate illusion of wealth and opulence: She laughs. She says, “That sucks.” She’s a real fucking person with me, and she listens. I ask how she’s doing, and she tells me that she’s only okay. She isn’t supposed to be here right now, either. Someone got sick, and so she’s here. Her day kinda sucks, too.
She disappears, and then comes back with a hot coffee and a glass of ginger ale with bitters stirred in, for your hangover, just trust me. I order some food. We shoot the shit about Triple A. My food is fine, but the ginger ale with bitters is the exact right thing I need.
She asks if I want anything else, and I hesitate for a second, and then I say, No, I’m fine. She disappears, and reappears with a small chocolate cake topped with caramel and espresso, her favorite.
She asks what I’m going to do, now that I have the rest of the day free. “The aquarium,” I answer. I have no idea why I’ve said this. The nearest one is fifteen minutes away, in Camden. I’ve never gone. She tells me to go to Baltimore, even if not today.
She sets my bill on the table, and it is eleven dollars. She’s charged me only for the food: not the drinks, not the coffee, not the dessert.
I tip her $25 and leave her manager a note on the receipt, telling him to give this woman a raise or a promotion. I leave her a note too, that says I know you don’t get paid enough to listen to people, but I’m really grateful that you listened to me today.
This is how I came to take this picture of a jellyfish. I drove about fifteen minutes and pulled into the parking lot of the Camden aquarium, about an hour before they closed.
It’s kind of a lame aquarium, to tell you the truth: more of a food court and a gift shop with some fish and frogs on the side. I fought through a maze of small children and strollers. It’s all loud and sticky and crowded, a big candy-colored echo, with no one having nearly as much fun as they’ve paid for.
But I wandered and I walked and I explored past sharks and fish and turtles and frogs and penguins before I found the jellyfish tank, and it was quiet, at least enough that I could block out the noise, and for about forty minutes, I sat and I watched some jellyfish.
Here is this picture I took of a jellyfish swimming, when the adrenaline had flooded out of my body and I gave myself the gift of enjoying the unexpected time to do whatever the fuck I wanted with the rest of my day:
This is a picture that I took as I stared at a jellyfish and thought about how a bunch of strangers had done me a big unbelievable solid that day, and this is a picture that I took as I stared at a jellyfish and I remembered some of the people that I had helped in my years and years and years of customer service. The woman that I helped when I worked at the Halloween store, who had lost a hundred pounds and needed me to zip her into a costume and admire the way that it looked on her body and celebrate her achievement. The woman I caught as she fell over in the lobby, sipping water together as we waited for her dizzy spell to pass, discovering as we talked that we both had roots in the same hometown. The man who had called the box office asking for a refund on his tickets, because his wife had died and she no longer could use them. I thought about how very often the skill that I was best at in all of those jobs was the emotional labor, and I felt so very grateful that the universe had repaid me with that tow truck driver, that mechanic, and that waitress.
I thought about what I was going to tell those kids at the college, which was essentially good luck and be nice to everybody that you meet. I want so badly to believe that they understand that “everyone” means “everyone,” not just “the people that you think will be able to help you,” something that I think most people haven’t quite figured out.
I stared at some jellyfish and I thought about how afraid my boyfriend had sounded when he heard “I’m on the side of the road” and how relieved he sounded when he heard “Everything is fine, and I’m safe.” I watched the jellyfish moving, tendrils of white lace-like skin rippling and bending, curling and uncurling, a pulse and a heartbeat. I watched some jellyfish and I realized that I had the rest of the evening to spend however I wanted, and decided to just accept that as a gift. I watched some jellyfish and remembered how afraid I was earlier that day on the side of the road, and thought about how I take a lot of things for granted. I watched some jellyfish and planned to call back that professor and volunteer to lead a workshop with those students, because I’m a damned good teacher and I think I would love to teach in the place where I once learned. I watched some jellyfish and I felt my stomach settle. I watched some jellyfish dance, not really going anywhere, just exploring the same territory in slightly new ways, over and over and over again. I watched some jellyfish and was ready to drive home.
Did you like this post? This is usually where I ask you to donate to my blog. Maybe if you’ve made it all the way down here, just do something extra-nice for someone in the service industry, instead.