Today's Daily Writing Prompt was about dreams. I think this is going to have to be a two-parter, because it's never until I start talking about them that I remember how fucking bonkers my dreams are. I have often come to work or class late, bemoaning that I overslept. Sure, Netflix and poor time-management skills are to blame, but to be honest I wish I could classify my intensely overwhelming dream life as a mental illness because it's literally fucking exhausting.
I have almost always experienced lucid dreaming.
It’s funny, I was talking about this with my sister the other day, and she mused that perhaps our parents accidentally taught us how to lucid dream. When we had scary dreams (and we often did), our parents used to always say, “Just change the channel.”
People often think this means that we can change the course of our dreams, like we can just start flying around on clouds of ice-cream whenever we want. But in my experience, the moment I try controlling them is when I wake up. Like if I become too conscious, I ruin the magic. I can always feel the sensation viscerally: I have a moment to look around my dream and think, “Oh no, it’s all going to disappear now, isn’t it?” And then I’m awake. For me, lucid dreaming has just meant that when I dream, I almost exclusively always know that I am dreaming. Which took away some of the fear as a child, because I could convince myself that this wasn’t real. But it didn’t wake me up out of nightmares, it didn’t change the outcome; I just had to ride the story out and see where it would take me, fully aware the entire time that it was a dream that I had little control over except for my reaction towards it. It can be fascinating. It can also be horrifying.
I have had a few reoccurring dreams, of sorts.
When I was younger, I always dreamt of this big yellow bathroom. It looked a lot like the bathroom at the top of my elementary school, the mostly abandoned single-stall with ancient floor, wall, and ceiling yellow tiles. It sort of looked like a Hitchcockian insane asylum, but it’s corners were shrouded in dusty spider webs and nests of daddy long-legs. Sometimes my best friend and I would sneak there right before the bell rang and bounce all our collectible bouncy balls in there at the same time, which was extremely fun until one inevitably fell in the toilet.
My dreams in the yellow bathroom were less fun. Someone was almost always chasing me, and I had to duck into the bathroom to hide from them. I was usually at a gymnastics or a swim meet, and the front half of the bathroom would be all changing rooms and shower stalls. I’d run through the steam, trying to find a stall to lock myself in and hide, but as I started running I’d realize it was The Yellow Bathroom.
The place was a never-ending maze. Some stalls would be huge and have a tiny toilet inside, some stalls were tiny and had a huge toilet inside. In some dreams, I’d desperately have to go to the bathroom, but all the toilets would be clogged and filthy. Sometimes I’d pull down my pants and sit down, only to look down and realize the toilet was growing gigantic and swallowing me whole, or shrinking beneath my body until I fell over. It was like a chaotic, sweaty Alice-in-Wonderland fever dream, and I’d always wake up panting. And needing to pee.
Sometimes I’ll be dreaming about something completely different - one of my restaurant nightmares, or a random regurgitation of whatever TV show I watched the night before - and I’ll walk by a room that I don’t recognize. I’ll push open the door, only to realize with overwhelming dread that it’s The Yellow Bathroom.
One time I had a dream where I was a nurse working in a futuristic Hospice Center floating in outer space (no idea what prompted that one) and was desperately trying to track down an escaped dementia patient. I thought she had fallen down one of the terrifying, windy tunnels in the bowels of the ship that led to the outside, and was clamoring around calling for her. I finally heard her howl back in pain - she had fallen into a tunnel, as I feared - and I crawled down to get her. At the bottom of the tunnel I picked her up and she apologized… she had defecated herself in the confusion. I said it was fine, I would clean her up. As I took off my coat and wrapped her up in it, I noticed the floor looked different. I’d never realized the bottom of the tunnel was tiled… I looked up, and saw steam billowing over the top of the tunnel… I wasn’t in a hospital spaceship, I was still in that goddamned Yellow Bathroom, I had just gone much, much deeper inside than I’d ever been before. When I laid in my weird white sci-fi pod bed to go to sleep that night (yes, still in the dream), I heard voices in the dark look through the window on my pod. “Is that the one?” I heard one say. “Yes. She knows too much.” I saw glowing red eyes flash at me, then my pod filled with gas. I woke up feeling incredibly calm.
I used to frequently look up dream symbology, but it’s all so subjective and abstract that I rarely get a satisfying answer. There is one recurring sentiment that seems to indicate bathrooms often represent shame, or a secret. Still not sure what The Yellow Bathroom is trying to tell me.
There is another location-specific reoccurring dream I’ve had, but it’s much broader and more grandiose, and it is a little different every time. It almost always starts in water - I’m at a waterpark on one of those automated log-rides that splashes you at the end. But then about halfway through the ride, the river gets wider and wider. The water gets darker, murkier. There are real birds floating overhead. The mechanical nudging and jerking of the automated track disappears, and is replaced with the gentle push of a natural river. Somehow, the ride becomes real. It’s peaceful at first, until the rapids begin. In the dream there are always people in the boat, and they are scared. I become their leader and tell them it’s going to be okay. I lie, and tell them it’s still a ride, it’s just really realistic. They always all believe me. I’m the only one who knows it’s real, and I have to be terrified alone.
The rapids get worse. We crash into rocks and the boat fills with water. There is always a waterfall, just like the movies. Sometimes, we go down the waterfall and at the end of it, we’re back on the amusement park ride. We are surrounded by the smell of plastic and the jarring, overly-cheery faces of the people who work there, unbuckling us from our safety seats and ushering us out the exit line. I am always incredibly perplexed when this happens, wondering if I made the whole thing up.
…But there’s been a handful of times where the dream keeps going. We go down the waterfall, and some of us survive. We crawl out of the pool of water and onto the land. We are surrounded by a jungle, and we aren’t alone. There is some kind of native tribe in the jungle and we are trespassing. I do my best to keep the people in my group safe, trekking through in a desperate search for some kind of path out, leading back into civilization. Night falls, and we do our best to keep calm and rest. But not me. I stay awake, to protect them… and also because I know what happens next in the dream.
The tribe descends upon us at night. They’re kind of a mix between the Lost Boys from Hook and those Mongolian mountain tribes that hunt with hawks I’ve seen in National Geographic. I don’t know what happens to the rest of the group, and I don’t really care. The chief kidnaps me and takes me back to his people. I am in his hut, and he is speaking to me over a fire. “Where have you been?” He says. “We have been waiting for you for so long.”
(There have been times where I have the dream and we’re on the part of the ride where it becomes a real river, and I see the Chief wandering on the river banks, watching me from the trees. It’s always incredibly frustrating when this happens and the dream ends with me back in the amusement park.)
I think the Chief is my father, but I am not me anymore. I’m not a white 28 year old woman who was born in France and raised in California and Hawaii. I’m someone else. I don’t think I’m white anymore, but to be honest I’m not sure. I know that at this point in the dream, I always get much bigger, stronger, and taller. I think we’re giant people, but it’s not until I’m back with my tribe that I “grow into it.”
The jungle becomes more of a forest, and it gets colder. We are on a much larger mountain, and we need to climb to the top. I have had this dream a few dozen times, and I often wake up halfway through the climb, which is incredibly frustrating. I have only reached the top of the mountain twice.
The first time, it was incredibly cold. The forest became freezing, snowy, arctic. (I have wondered if I have tapped into some kind of ancient, ancestral subconscious, like my ancestors from millennia ago back in the time of Pangea and the Ice Age.) I get to the top of the mountain, but it’s not the cartoon triangle top I was picturing… it’s a whole new land. It’s enormous and it’s round and it’s frozen, but the sun is shining on me. I am alone; the others are far, far behind. I think the frozen water is the edge of a lake, or the edge of the world, I’m not sure. I start running across it, I’m so happy that I’ve finally made it to the top. I’m scared that the ice will break underneath me, but it just makes running across it all the more exhilarating.
Then it’s like I pan out… I was dreaming this in the first person perspective, but now it zooms out and I’m seeing everything as a whole… the flat, frozen body of water, the snowy forest, the jungle, the river - and I see that far, far ahead of me, on the other side of the frozen stretch, is another person, and they are running just as fast towards me. There’s something in the middle of the lake. It looks like a wheel, like the old steering wheel of a pirate’s ship. It’s made of wood and it’s sticking out of the ice, and I know that I have to race to it and turn it or something terrible will happen. The person running towards me isn’t alone, he has an army. Thousands and thousands of ancient looking warriors are coming to fight me, and me alone. I have a fleeting thought, one that feels like it isn’t mine: “If I don’t get there in time the humans will win.”
(At this point, I’m almost positive this is a scene from Lost? Am I making that up? Doesn’t Locke turn some weird wooden wheel in a chunk of ice at some point? What did it even do? I don’t remember, and I had these dreams years after Lost ended. Funny how images still roll around in your head like that.)
But I don’t get to the wheel in time. I have a terrible thought - what if I could fly? I could get there so much faster. I jump up in the air and it works, sort of… I am able to sort of make these huge leaps, and land safely back on the ice each time. But the harder I try to make myself actually stay in the air, my consciousness becomes too involved. I can feel the world get dimmer and dimmer beneath me, like I leapt too high and can’t come back down. I groan in despair, I know what’s happening. There is a blinding light that surrounds me, and I wake up, devastated.
The second time I made it to the top of the mountain was entirely different. It was very hot, and dry, like a cartoon - the edge of the snowy forest immediately ended, and it’s like I stepped over a line into a whole new scene. It looked like an African Sahara, a wide and desert-like expanse with nothing to see for miles around. I could hear packs of lions in the distance, but I was not scared. I remember thinking I needed to look for the wheel, to turn it again, but there was no sign of anything like that around. I walked for miles and miles and miles, and was amazed that I didn't get tired. At some point, I looked down at my feet. They were not feet, they were paws. I think I was a lion. I started to run, to gallop, and it felt fucking incredible. I heard the Chief’s voice in my head: “Don’t forget what you came here to do.” I think I see something in the distance, and I started running towards it. It looked like an enormous crevice, maybe like the one the wheel was in? I approached it carefully, afraid of accidentally falling in. I think I am a girl again, I’m not sure. I’m definitely not all the way human (I think I’m like a neanderthal?). I leaned my head over the precipice as far as I could, overwhelmed with curiosity about what’s at the bottom…
I can see it, but there is no bottom. There are miles and miles of the same sandy, rust-colored rocks, then miles of gray stone, then a faint layer of what looks like snow… slowly the scenery fades into a frozen, icy tundra. I can’t quite explain what happened next - it was similar to the abrupt, third-eye-view that happened the first time, but this was like an extreme zoom deep inside the crevice. I think I fell into it? There was a deafening magnetic sound, and intense vertigo. I know that the crevice led to the other side of the world, and the other side of the world was the frozen lake from before. As I fell into it, I landed back upright on the side of the frozen lake. I was a different girl again. Who was I? But I knew the “other me” was still in the desert too.
I woke up with an intense migraine.
So I signed up for Shaunta Grimes' Daily Writing Prompts (thanks mom!) and today's was to create 10 characters. They could be as descriptive or brief as you liked, just 10 original characters and who they are. So these are mine. Sharing out of deep and terrified boredom. Tell me which you like best and maybe I'll write more about them, Idk.
A millennial painter/artist/social media "influencer" living in Logan Square. There are succulents in every window, and she collects foreign records from the $2 bin at the store down the street, which she plays on her record player from Urban Outfitters. She wears her dad's "vintage" leather jacket, but doesn't know he got it at Macy's on sale in the late 80's. She mostly paints her feet (using her iPad, of course) or "abstract interpretations" of vulvas. Is a vegan but eats chicken nuggets when she's drunk. Hashtag sex positive.
Long blonde hair. Never wears make up but is drop dead gorgeous. Born and raised in Kentucky, works on her grandpa's dairy farm. Likes to go out drinking with her "guy friends from church" who all desperately want to fuck her. She's terribly dyslexic and only has about an 8th grade education, but charmed her way through high school. Believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible and meant to vote for Trump but genuinely forgot what day the election was. When she prays she pictures kneeling before the blonde-haired, blue-eyed painting her grandma always still has hanging above the fireplace. She has nightmares about the rapture because she worries about who will look after the cows when she's gone.
A thirty-two year old, second-generation Indian immigrant. His father was a dentist, his mother was a librarian, and he finished top of his class from NYU but people still ask him if he drives a taxi or works at a bodega. Born and bred in Brooklyn, but his folks live in Queens now so he barely ever sees them. This is just as well, because it would be hard to explain to them how he can afford his gorgeous, sunny, penthouse apartment. They think he works for an iPhone app start-up, but he actually has an incredibly lucrative career writing erotic queer fantasy/sci-fi books online. He secretly identifies as asexual, but he loves writing about 17th century gay mermen fucking.
Sweet, petite, little hummingbird of a lady. Lives with her dumb but handsome and well meaning husband, Robert, in a modest suburban home just outside Evanston. She works at an upscale infant clothing store at the mall, not because they need the money but because she loves talking to the expectant mothers. Robert and Deirdre never had children; she couldn't get pregnant after complications from an abortion. She tried talking Robert into fostering, but he says he's "too busy with his landscaping company." Deep down she knows it's because he's afraid they'll end up with a black child. She tells herself it's "just how he was raised." Deirdre thinks all babies are beautiful. No one knows (except for Robert) that she was in a sex cult from ages 18-30.
A Hassidic Jewish man living in Vermont, who has always secretly dreamed of becoming an Olympic trampoline jumper. He snuck onto a trampoline at a street fair once and it was the closest he's ever felt to God. He's been chasing that feeling ever since...
A banker from St. Louis, Missouri. He played the gay scene when he was in college and liked to party, but now the most action he gets is flirting with his spin instructor at the gym once a week. He has one sister in Phoenix but they rarely speak. Lately something has been feeling "off," a feeling he hasn't had since he was a little kid. He started buying women's clothing, just to try it on and see how it felt. Sometimes, when he's extra brave, he'll wear a smaller item under his clothes to work... Late at night he dreams sometimes that he is a woman, and he lives in a cottage in the woods with a husband and their kids. They grow herbs and have a chicken coop and sheep named Oscar the Grouch. She bakes bread for the church potluck and everyone wants her recipe, even Cynthia, that bitch who always comes early and sits in the front row. But it's a sign of flattery of Cynthia hates you. In these dreams, her name is Philomena, the Catholic Saint of Roses. Philip wakes up, and wonders if the spin instructor likes roses.
He’s secretly thrilled the prom and graduation are cancelled due to the pandemic. He hates large crowds, and he didn’t have a date anyway. He’d rather stay at home and play video games. He likes how straightforward they are: a good guy, a bad guy, a mission. Some of the newer ones are more complicated, with harder decisions to make, but he likes those too. It’s just him and his mom, and she works two jobs. He wishes she’d play a game with him sometime, he thinks she’d like the escape as much as he does. But he knows she never will. One night he overhears his mother on the phone talking to his aunt. There had just been a school shooting, and his mom was crying. “Every time this happens and they describe the shooter, all I can think is how much they all sound like Oliver!” He’s never told her that he heard her that night. But he’s also never forgotten.
8 ) Layla
Her family thinks she’s a bit of a failure - late 20s, overweight, acne, single, works at Walmart, still lives at home - but none of them know she’s “internet famous.” She plays the ukulele on YouTube and is known for her covers of Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, and Iron Maiden, although her most recent cover of a My Chemical Romance song almost got a million hits. Her handle is Uku-Lay-Lay and she dreams of going on America’s Got Talent and getting the golden buzzer.
26, mother of 1 year old twin boys, Liam and Lucas. Every morning she takes them out for a 5k run by the lakeshore. Her husband, Tommy, didn’t seem to notice or care how quickly she lost the baby weight, but he sure loved showing her off at the office Christmas party. Sometimes she drinks too much Chardonnay for her Prozac prescription and starts ranting, and it’s always about the same thing… saving the bees. She stays up late every night reading about how the world is going to end because the bees are dying, and she wants to set up a flower box in their apartment window, but Tommy says no because of his “allergies.” She bought a beekeeper's suit once while drunk-Amazon shopping. Tommy doesn't know about it, but it makes her feel better knowing it's in the closet anyway.
He's a seven year old who lives outside Chicago. His mama, Renee, moved them in with grandma after his big brother Andrew was shot and killed. Renee works at a nail salon in the mall and has a wicked drinking problem. She makes Toby sit on the hard, uncomfortable chairs while she finishes her shift. The smell of the chemicals hurts his head. Sometimes he wanders through the mall to eat the free samples from the food court. The teenagers at the pretzel place are always mean to him, but the nice older ladies at the Korean and Chinese places give him extra. Toby’s favorite thing to do on the way back is snoop by the small designer kid’s clothing store and watch the woman behind the counter. She looks so warm and friendly.
I don’t think I really exist in other people’s lives. A boy accused me once of “being one of THEM,” one of the pedestrian everybodies, those terrible people who I thought we were mocking and judging together. “How can I be?” I told him. “They don’t really accept me either.” He used to tell me he was red, the only True color. And the Others, they were blue.
If anything, I was like their pet. Something they kept around for amusement, for comfort. Something they talked to without every expecting or desiring a response.
I fill a particular void in people’s lives. I am a distinct flavor they only indulge in when they’re craving something salty and a little bad for them. I am the junk food of people, always there on a rainy day, excellent after a break up or family crisis, a generous caregiver during a hangover. I am nostalgia of the time before you counted calories, I am the guilty pleasure, the once-in-awhile luxury. Not because it’s too expensive or hard to find, but because you’d get sick if you had it everyday.
I am the snarky comment you wish you could’ve thought of but would’ve been too afraid to say out loud. I am the one who asks the questions, not the one who has the pleasure of answering them. I am the friend who shows up two hours before the party to help set it up, but leaves when all the guests arrives; or shows up six hours late when they have all gone, and stays to help you clean it up.
On occasion, you might find yourself bragging that you know me, or find yourself telling one of my stories to a group of friends and pretend that it’s your own.
I am the weird thing you bought at a flea market one time on a whim, imagining for a fleeting moment that you could be the type of person who wore hats like that or could find a use for an antique branding iron. But I only looked good in the store, and once you brought me home you realized I didn’t really fit in with the rest of your stuff. The eccentricities always end up gathering dust in a corner under the pile of books you’ve been meaning to read, or forgotten in a box with your ex-lover’s sweaters. I’m the ukulele you bought because it was going to be so easy to learn, and you already knew how to play a few songs on it… but tuning it was such a pain in the ass, and you got bored with the songs you knew anyway.
I’m a high maintenance plant, the kind of orchid you purchase to prove to yourself that you can handle the responsibility. You invest diligently for a month or two, proud of your accomplishment in keeping me alive. It’s not that hard! You tell the orchid. I can’t believe all those other people gave up on you! But not me. This is easy.
But then the edges of my leaves begin to curl, the petals recoil. Was it always this difficult? Just a light mist of nourishment, a minute or two out of your week, and that was enough. Now it needs more?
You watch the orchid whither away on your window sill, but you keep it there - a vestige of its failure, not yours. Your friends come over and laugh with you. “I had an orchid once,” they say. “But mine died too. It was too much work.”
Why couldn’t it have been like the cactus, or the succulent? They’ve been with you since college, and you never remember to water them. We should be rewarded for our resilience.
One day the orchid is gone. Did you throw it out? Did your mother? Your drunk roommate? Did she slink off on her own? You can’t remember, but every time you hear the name, your lip curls into a sneer. The only kind of person who could keep that thing alive must be crazy.
I am a time machine, a vestige of a different era; too weird for everyday use, but too cool to throw away.
I told him I was Purple.
I can’t wait for the day that I look down at my own body and feel at home.
I cannot actually remember the last time I felt “at home” in it. Or if I ever did. There were flashes, moments maybe, as a child, but what sticks out the most are the memories of feeling “stuck” in it. Running at a birthday party, and realizing all the other kids were so much faster than me. Playing soccer on a field, and stumbling over my own feet. Squeezing into clothes that didn’t fit in a sweaty dressing room, panicking, hearing voices comment on “how big I was for my age.”
Curling in agony on a public bathroom floor, pressing my hot face against the tile and wishing for death. A prisoner to a chronic pain that I was told for years was "normal."
I suffered from disassociation for a long time. I think part of that just has to do with growing up in religion: “You are not of this world.” You never know when the end of the world could come. No point in settling in with that kind of thinking. Why paint the walls if we might be moving?
I did everything I could to deceive myself from the world I was in, and the world closest to me was my body. I was a fast runner, but not as fast as my thoughts. I was a diligent starver, but the hunger only created more monsters. I was a creative self-harmer, but the scars that once promised escape turned out to be anchors, landmarks on a map that always got me lost.
When I revisited them, I covered their tracks in ink. But there are some days I look at those too and feel estranged. When did those get here? Who put them there? They are flagpoles in the dirt of a war torn country. Things happen to my body. I am a body that things happen to.
Perhaps it’s not the ugly way the flesh has grown over, or the unfamiliar sensation of skin and fat that didn’t used to move that way. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel a sense of belonging even if my arms were clean. It wouldn't look like me anyway.
I used to black out every night, and wake up in strange places...
A basement with wood paneling and a green velvet couch.
The overgrown grass of a friend's backyard, a muddy dog licking my face.
Pavement, a hardwood bench, and a stranger's boot.
Getting older feels the same: I fall asleep in my bed, and wake up in a strange house every morning; the walls are my body, and I never know who’s home.
I think I’m getting soft in my old age. I remember huddles of grown ups warning me of this as a child, whenever a sympathetic bank commercial played or a teary-eyed celebrity thanked her mother in a grandiose acceptance speech. “Someday you’ll understand,” they’d say to me, carefully dabbing beneath their mascara. “Someday you’ll cry at silly things too.”
But I was resilient. I refused to believe that I, too, was vulnerable to their weaknesses. Even as a kid I was aware, however subconscious, that betraying emotion negated worth. This would be reinforced later, in the workplace, in relationships, even in the theatre. Only amateurs admired the ability to cry on command; only neophytes were full of so much water that the smallest of prompts could wilt them, like vases filled up to the top. True actors were made of steel, disciplined. Whatever proud soul emoted the most but cried the least was the actor who won the respect of the room.
To cry was to lose the stitching of that human fabric weaving us all together, to reveal your tears was to mine for your most precious treasure - like a deep sea diver recovering pearls from the briny wombs of stubborn oysters. It was the highest card in the hand, and the timing of its play was crucial.
I once loved a man who never cried. In his darkest and cruelest of spells he would boast that he was “too soft” for this world and that I “couldn’t understand,” as if there was a riddle to life that only he knew the answer to. The same man who could reap a harvest of obscenities from the fields of flowers I sewed with my trembling tongue… “How can I believe you if you’re crying?” He’d say, and in the same breath I’d be accused, “It can’t have hurt that bad, you’re not even crying.”
Tears became currency, the same way sex did. The gods of “gender” demanded different prices; for the dom and sub in each exchange there was a unique balance of worth. In his eyes I had too much water in me to be trusted... so I drowned us in it. He was “too soft” to swim, bloated with poison, and the river dried around him.
The water is still in me, but now it’s a well, and anger is the only vein in my earth that has access to it. I can maneuver and absorb the greater sadnesses of life - like rain on a dead flower, the dirt spilling over the edges of it’s round clay pot, the little white beads floating in a murky black puddle - there’s nothing growing in there, so there’s nothing to kill.
But anger is alive. Her thrashing current has only grown stronger, and louder, with time. She is the river and the one who moves me. It comes over me slowly, starting in the throat. The air in my lungs gets warmer and harder to breathe. Roots grow over my neck, I can hear the earth around them fall on my collarbone as they reach higher and higher, digging into my skin, tightening under my jaw. My words come out stilted, like a record skipping, or a song switched off. All I can think is no, please, not now… And the feeling is hot, patchy, like sunburned freckles; a slippery pinch of flesh on the wrist in a sprinkler-soaked summer, testing your resilience to pain with the milky-limbed neighbor boys, their voices taunting, their eyes already leering. “I bet you can’t,” they say. We used to call them “Indian burns” and see who could endure the most without flinching. I always used to win.
But not anymore. One grimace, one heartbeat in your eye, and you’ve lost. You’ve given up your defense. Because nobody believes you when you cry. Even if it’s from anger. Look in the river… the rocks at the bottom are the softest.
I am haunted by the quiet spaces of comfort in my life. They creep up on me and envelop my body, like a warm blanket that smothers a child. I had a rough few years there, and I have to joke about them sometimes to steady my breathing; it's somewhere between the hiccups of an asthmatic teenager and the rhythmic chant of an OCD schizophrenic.
Making lists helps, so I mark most of those dark nights of the soul with the unusual places that I slept:
- a lot of curbs
- a few park benches
- under a bridge
- a motel filled with bed bugs and a sad stain on the ceiling
- that one time on top of the abandoned Hooter's
- the couches of strangers who become friends
- the beds of friends who treated me like a stranger
If I'd known the story I was going to end up having, teenage me would be so jealous of all the juicy things I could sensationalize. But now I torture myself until the birds beg me to rest, and it's still too hard to write down. It's too quiet, and these blankets are too soft. I have a fridge with food in it and a lock on my door but I still feel like a kid with my thumb in the air begging for a ride to the bar. I can feel myself get that lost look on my face sometimes, and people ask me if I'm sick or tired or pissed off. It's hard to explain that I'm just remembering how goddamn lucky I am to be here, and how it knocks the wind outta me sometimes because it all still hurts so much. Now that I'm not just surviving, now that I'm living, I feel removed from all the sparks that used to keep me fighting. All that time I was fighting to get HERE. And now I'm HERE and all that fight has nowhere to go. I'm a grown up now. Grown ups know when to use their inside voices.
That boy who saved my life a lot used to shake his head at me and say, "Oh shut up kid, you're five-star homeless," as he pulled off my mismatched socks and duct-taped boots while I tried to grab one more beer, black-out drunk and throwing fists into the darkness. I had a lot of nightmares then, and I didn't always know where I was going to sleep. So I'd keep my body awake, but let my brain take a rest, impressing at least a handful of crusty regulars that I could drink with them shot for shot. That's how my face found the curb, more night than one. Not from anything so glorious as a fight; the only fight I lost was to keep my goddamn eyes open.
I drink a lot less now, and I always spend the night in my own bed. I have my own bed now. But I still can't sleep. Sometimes I think I slept better on the curb.
My life was about to change forever. I had said goodbye to him, and we knew, just like that. We would never see each other again. I had gotten onto that plane with a dress in my bag for his funeral, but he never could keep his promises. Although it was not the goodbye I was expecting, it felt like a death all the same.
I hailed a cab back home in the middle of the night. The only person who would've picked me up at that hour was the one I'd just said goodbye to. An old Lebanese woman was driving, and there was a young boy in the front seat, but she motioned for me to hop in anyways.
Me: Can I smoke in here?
Cab Driver: You're such a pretty girl, why do you smoke?
Me: Bad habit, I suppose.
Cab Driver: I know why you smoke. It's because you think too much.
Me: You know what, you're absolutely right.
Cab Driver: You should do what I do.
Me: What's your secret?
Cab Driver: When I start thinking too much, I just go to sleep. You cannot think when you are asleep.
There was a freedom in knowing I had lost everything. The reason no one was picking me up from the airport in the middle of the night was because I was about to be kicked out of my home. It doesn't feel right calling it "home," I suppose, since it never really felt like one, despite our best efforts. I'd made my bed and now I had to sleep in it. I had fucked up the bed, and now I wasn't allowed to sleep in it.
I was intrigued by the boy in the front seat. I thought for a minute he might be the cab driver's son. I asked where he was going.
Boy: To the Jersey Academy.
Me: Where's that?
Boy: Boarding school, in South Bend.
Me: Why a boarding school?
Boy: I got expelled from my last school.
I couldn't help but chuckle. I'd secretly always wanted to be expelled.
Me: That's so punk rock.
Boy: (Crooked grin) Yeah, I guess.
Me: So what'd you do?
Boy: (His face darkens) ...Just pissed a lot of people off, I suppose. Mom sent me out here.
Me: (Getting the hint) Gotcha.
There was silence until the cabbie dropped him off. He pulled out his one large suitcase and began dragging it to the front of the dark school. How did 16 year old boy and a 22 year old girl have no one but this cab driver to pick them up in the middle of the night?
It gets better, kid. I promise.
It's the only thing to say, when you've reached that age where you know it won't. He nodded as I got in the front seat.
Just one more. Before I go to sleep.
The funny thing about "rock bottom" is that it's not an event, it's an action. It's that feeling in your gut when you miss a step walking downstairs, but that feeling goes on, and on, and on... and then you wake up. That's rock bottom. It's a sharp whack on your shoulders, a wake up call by cops as you're trying to sleep on the sidewalk. It's curling up in a sleeping bag stained with liquor and tears on the roof of an abandoned Hooter’s restaurant. It's sleeping in an teenage waitress’s car after nodding off at IHOP, and it's driving 45 minutes on a scooter in the pouring rain after getting off work at midnight only to find out that homeless shelters have curfew. That was my rock bottom. Not to be aimless, or even homeless. It was to be truly... unwanted.
When I was a kid, I thought I'd already been there, to the rocky place. Then I found out that things can actually always get worse. This is a good thing to know: because it makes you start fighting. Fighting to be happy, instead of fighting to convince everyone in the room that you've suffered the most. Fighting to be healthy instead of manipulating your body to feel anything except what you actually feel. When you don't know how you're going to eat that day or where you're going to sleep that night, suddenly the struggle to live becomes much more real. You can't afford to overthink that one offhand comment and wallow sensitively for hours, anymore than you can afford that teener of shitty cocaine or the $40 bar tab that will let you blackout and have a moment of peace.
I not only underestimated just how cruel life can be, I underestimated how kind it can be too. I have gotten piss drunk and blacked out and woken up on friend’s couches who paid my tab, drove me home, held my hair while I puked, took care of me, and never made me feel the fool for it. I have hitch-hiked in the bitter hours of the morning after sleeping under a bridge because my bicycle got stolen, and had a tattooed truck-driver pick me up and with tears in his eyes say, “I have a daughter your age. I’d give her a good talking-to if I knew she was hitch-hiking in this part of town at this hour. You ain’t my daughter so I can’t say nothing, but – I’d want to know my kid got home safe.” Then squeezed my hand as he dropped me off at the crack-den motel I was living in. “It gets better, kid,” he said.
Two local bartenders took me in and let me live with them when they found out I had nowhere to go; gave me a bed to sleep in, and took off my shoes when I was too drunk to walk. I will forever be indebted to the passing strangers in my life who had the decency to let me wrestle with my demons, and even more to those who had the graciousness to tell me, "Grow the fuck up. You're stronger than this. I love you."
My advice to the sad ones, the tender the ones, the dark ones, forever curious about the limits of human suffering: go to rock bottom. You will meet the demons that were to evil for Sodom and Gomorrah - I know, because I used to drink with them. And on your crawl back up, you won't be fighting to be happy, you'll be fighting to survive - and in that fight, as the sinews of your muscles flex to make it through one more day, one more night, may you meet your Good Samaritans just as I did, on many a highway road, thumb out, heart on sleeve, tear stains streaking a dirty face. It is in those gracious moments that I found happiness - scarred, bruised, and delirious, fighting to live, experiencing more from humanity than I thought I could bear but there, beating still, my heart was alive. I was still here. I was going to be okay. Existing is a quiet ecstasy.
It's no secret that people in the food service industry tend to be, well... dirty. Perverted, alcoholic, workaholic, foul-mouthed, violent, drug-addled filth-mongers who deserve to reap what they have sewn in their bar-brawl-bruised clenched fists, sitting alone in a chain-smoked cloud of bad decisions and regret. I have a theory that the reason they - the reason we, for I am one of them - are this way is because we are literally always dirty. Drink spills, food splatter, dishwater, spat out gristle, puke, sweat, and occasionally even blood: these are our regular work hazards.
It's hard to ever really feel clean when you work in a restaurant. No number of showers or trips to the dry cleaner's can get rid of that smell, the grease, those stains. And when you feel dirty all the time, it's easier to find yourself doing dirty things... Stealing food, booze cash; fucking the bus boy, the line cook, your boss; taking an extra smoke break, getting high in the walk-in cooler, snorting lines off the bar top with your manager after hours...
...And the drinking, oh the drinking. People chastise the cocktail waitress for spending all her money at the bar each night, but that's just to mentally absolve herself from the six hours of molestation, degradation, and abuse she endured for $2.13 an hour. And to the customers, who see our little theatre from behind a two-way mirror: Your food was three minutes late because your server was begging the babysitter to stay a little later. Your steak was over-cooked because the chef's wife left him this morning and he's popping Vicodin just to keep it together. Your hostess is paying more attention to your toddler than to taking your to-go order because she's barely spent any time with her own kid in months. The reason your appetizer came out at the same time as your entree is because the fry cook found out his girlfriend, your server, boned the grill cook last Friday, and in his broken-hearted fury he's trying to make her pay for it by tricking you into leaving a shitty tip. Maybe the reason that General Manager seems like he's being a prick by neglecting his servers and making them stay ten minutes late while he hides in his office is because he's on the phone with his incoherent, elderly mother, suffering the beginnings of a chapter he's not ready for, and he doesn't want his employees to see how heartbroken, helpless, and terrified he is. And maybe the reason your bartender pushed you to get the fries even though you didn't really want the fries is because that bartender was homeless, and knew you wouldn't eat all your fries, and that was her first meal of the day when she cleared your plate, carefully hid it in a to-go box in her suspiciously large knapsack, and slept in a cardboard box by the dumpsters after work that night.
One day I'll tell you. I'll write the whole goddamnned story of how in one year I was dumped, fired, kicked out, ruined a marriage, dealt drugs, attempted suicide, nearly caused a good man's death, came to terms with addiction; was slandered about, robbed, raped, beaten up, and left for dead (more than once) finding myself 22 and homeless and at the mercy of the kindness of strangers I've come to call my family - and lived to tell the tale. I'm going to write the whole goddamn story down and call it "Kids These Days." ...But until then, just promise me you'll be nice to your waitress next time you go out.
My sister and I used to run cross-country in high school. It was a miserable routine of 6+ miles a day, usually across treacherous terrain, and in tropical humidity. But our team bonded over the pain, and our commiseration was a community of its own. One particularly rainy day, our coach, a fierce and competitive young woman, whispered - “You know what? Let’s just watch movies about running today!” We ran inside and flopped on the couch, breathless and giddy, promising not to tell anyone about our secret day off.
Later that night, back at home, my sister looked down at her dinner plate and sighed. “I just don’t feel like I deserve to eat,” she said, laughing. “It’s like I didn’t earn it.” Rampant eating disorders in high school aside, I knew what she meant. It’s like we hadn’t suffered enough to earn a reward, even though that “reward” was a basic human necessity.
I noticed this pattern more and more as I got older. In college, during the never-ending nights of writing papers at the last minute and cramming for final exams, we used to off-handedly brag about how little sleep we got. It’s as if there was a secret hierarchy of suffering, and we were all desperately trying to one-up each other. No one would ever dare boast, “Oh yeah? Well I planned out my schedule and I stuck to it, so I’ve been getting at least eight hours of sleep a night PLUS eating meals regularly, and I feel well-prepared for the end of the semester.” And why not? Why did we attribute heroism and admiration to whomever was the closest to collapsing from exhaustion? Shouldn’t those people have been embarrassed to admit that they had poor time management skills and took on more than they could handle? We should have admired the students who were eating healthy, sleeping eight hours a night, socializing appropriately, succeeding, and actually enjoying life, not the ones who were barely surviving.
But that was college, just a phase, an adolescent experiment in maturity and adulthood. Surely the real world would be different. …To be fair, I can’t really speak for any sort of experiences in the “real world,” because I have been working in the restaurant industry since graduation, and it’s an occupation far from “normal.” I’m not proud to say that I’ve thought more than once, This feels just like finals week in college. …Except there is no final exam, there is nothing you’re actually working towards, no promise of feeling accomplished. It’s simply one agonizing hour after another, crawling towards the end of your work week, then collapsing in exhaustion and sleeping through your days off until you have to force yourself awake and do it all over again. There is no cycle, no break, no progress. You don’t get graded, there is no end-of-year performance or showcase. The promotions are ultimately lateral, the management is as powerless and underpaid as you are, and the increase in responsibility comes with no corresponding increase in authority.
Perhaps in this industry more than any other, there is the added pressure of the party culture. Where we once used to brag, “Oh yeah, I haven’t slept since Thursday, but I got that paper in on time!” Now I hear, “After working that sixteen hour shift, we went out to that 4am bar and then back to my place. I haven’t slept since Thursday!” Maybe it’s different for the chefs, who in varying degrees actually love what they do, and are working the field they are passionate about. But I don’t know a single person who’s dream career is to wait on tables. And that’s not to say it’s a bad profession - there are numerous benefits to the industry, and although there is a subliminal American pressure to work in one’s “dream job,” I find no shame in working a job that fits with your personal schedule and affords you the time and money to pursue other endeavors while still making rent. But I think that’s the problem: this industry is supposed to be just a job that pays our bills, and allow us the freedom to do what we want in our off hours. Yet for most of us, there are no real “off hours.” We work 11+ hour days and then spend all our “free” time recovering. The politics of maintaining your preferred schedule would require an essay all of it’s own, but let’s just say it requires an enormous amount of negotiating and sacrificing one’s boundaries to feel any sort of job security, and even that is a fickle illusion.
It’s gotten to the point where when I do have a day off, I don’t even know what to do with myself anymore. I feel like I’ve become a cog in the machine, and if I stop moving, I’ll cease to function. I can feel myself getting stupider. The longer you work in any sort of customer service, I’m convinced, the less you are able to read things like sarcasm or subtlety. You must take everything at face value. The customer is always right. No one ever lies. You are the face of the kitchen, the bar, and the company, and it is your responsibility to communicate with all the hierarchies while facilitating perfection. I am an emotional escort, offering a meticulously detailed experience with the expectation of flawlessness - and each guest’s fantasy is different, often changing several times throughout the evening. It is my job to keep up, to give them what they want before they know they want it, to read their minds, to make them feel superior without acting like a servant, to be flirtatious but not a flirt, to never sweat, and to do it all with a smile.
I skipped the eighth grade, I was my high school’s Valedictorian, I graduated Summa Cum Laude in four years with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting. I’ve written a book and been Juliet twice. I’ve worked at restaurants where the Bar Manager and dishwasher attended the same distinguished University. .. But the apron fits us all the same. Perhaps my theatre training served me better for this career than for anything else I’ll ever do, because no phrase has been truer in any profession than “The Show Must Go On.” I’ve been to shows where the stage manager had to abruptly announce that they had to pause or end early due to an emergency, but in this industry, I’ve seen raging gunmen outside the doors, toxic sludge flooding the drains of the bar, and fecal water dripping from the ceiling over the dishpit - and not once has service wavered or come to a halt. The show must go on.
The performance happens every night, with a rotating cast of 1,000, and you’re the last one they’ll remember. Your bow at curtain call is replaced with a monetary assessment of how valuable you are as a human, and it’s usually scrawled incoherently on the tip line at less than 20%. At the end of the day, it’s easier to bury yourself in work, to have the luxury of complaining, “I worked until 4am last night and now I have to work from 10am until 6pm!” than it is to come home, set your aching and bruised body down, and listen to the nauseating drone of tinnitus as the silence swallows you whole. “What’s new with you?” Suddenly becomes the most terrifying question, because every time your panicked heart searches for something to say, the answers become shorter and shorter.
And to top it all off, when you serve food all night long, you oddly just don’t feel like eating anymore. Whether or not you’ve “earned” it.