Picking at a stubborn piece of quinoa stuck to the bottom of the display case, I laughed without restraint at Rebecca as she mimicked the snooty customer she had to wait on just before close. In an over the top impersonation, she swayed her lower half back and forth, a towel still in one of her hands as she pressed them firmly at her hips, “Excuse me, but I asked for five ounces of prosciutto, not seven,” she imitated the lady with a snobby tone, turning her freckled nose upward. A bob of blush and rosewood colored hair bulged out the back of her hat, strands and strings falling as she marched in front of the case in a dramatic production. She committed fully to the act, a natural performer. Adlibbing in the same posh voice she feigns, “you see, if I eat those extra 2 ounces I may get a ring of fat around my waist like you,” she’s pinching her sides now lowering her voice in a mocking disgust, “and I certainly cannot have that.” Her light eyes twinkle and her mouth contorts into strange shapes as she tries to keep from giggling at her own performance. From behind the counter where Kate is scrubbing the floor with a deck brush, she yells, “those extra two ounces aren’t for eating, they’re for you to wrap around your cucumber so it feels more like flesh.” The whole team busted with laughter. Kate, resuming her work on the floor adjusts her sweat soaked tank top and merely grins at herself without looking up. She always knew how to take it one step too far. I could not remember the last time I had let go and laughed that freely.
This store I transferred to was much older and broken down than my previous one, but it was new to me. When I arrived to this place, my mind and soul were empty, as they had been for some years. I had since sealed up the crack I once carried in my emotional infrastructure after the wreck Brandon and I had been in a couple of years before. We were living together now, though we may as well have been on separate planets. I had numbed myself to feelings. I had no interest in any hobbies, in making friends, in caring about anything. It was a humdrum existence. I went to work, made food, did the dishes, called my little siblings once a week, saw the family on occasion, but mostly, I slept. When nothing was required of me, I drew back the curtains, burrowed into the dark hole inside myself, and stared blankly at nothing in particular until I fell asleep and dreamt of endless blackness. No one knew – not Brandon, not my coworkers, no one in my family, of my secret shadowy desolation. The months I had spent consciously and intentionally rejecting thoughts of my mom, of doubt, of God and religion, and of grief had worked. I no longer thought. I no longer felt. I was unable to understand a purpose to anything, incapable of envisioning a future. I was caught in a perpetual state of nothingness. When the idea of transferring stores was presented to me, I felt I had nothing to lose. I was great at putting on masks, one I was best at was being the diligent and dependable Work Kayla. I did not foresee any qualms to fooling another group of people.
With the regular nightly urgency as any retail environment has at closing time, I scoured and sanitized the department rapidly, watching my teammates do their individual parts as well, working around one another like a dance to complete it all. I was still learning this new dance, deciphering which tasks each of my fellow coworkers preferred. Music was playing, people were laughing together. The work we were doing was dismal and often disgusting, but we had a sense of togetherness and made it fun. For the most part, every individual carried their weight. Without warning, I found myself settling in here. All of them openly welcomed me without pausing to ask questions. I was part of a team, one that got me talking again, laughing again, participating in my own existence once more.
When the job was done, we threw the soiled coats and towels in their proper bins and punched our respective ID #s into the time clock. I was walking alongside Eric towards the employee parking lot as I looked up at the full moon. I allowed myself to feel awe, to purely observe nature while all other oppressive perceptions faded away. Eric towered over me, watching me take in the sky. Pulling my gaze from the moon and stars, I got an unclouded peek into his eyes, a deep shade of walnut. Hidden inside them were dark secrets, pain, wanting, but they were also flooded with compassion and insight. He began recanting some theories about the moon and its impacts on the Earth and on people. He was well versed in the science surrounding our universe. More so, he spoke with an unbridled passion for it, for the facts that are still unknown, for the work being done to know them. I was fascinated, gripped. We stood in the parking lot, emptied of all but his car and mine, for several hours, past midnight, in the crisp and cool unobstructed autumn air discussing philosophy, spirituality, science, religion, outer space; no topic was off limits. It was as if neither of us could speak quickly enough, as if there would never again be a better point in time to pour out every inner speculation or belief. Under ordinary circumstances, standing alone with a man who is a near stranger, who is tall and strong enough to easily overtake me, in a dark parking lot behind a building late into the night would’ve scared me, but with Eric, the world was safer. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew him somehow already, perhaps from another time. Conversing with him felt like discovering I had a home after all. He was family. He stood casually in blue jeans and an old T-shirt, a black backpack slung over his right shoulder as we discussed history, consciousness, and the secrets of the universe. From a distance, he might appear common; up close and engaged in a dialogue with him about only the most important conditions of life, he was anything but. The atmosphere around us altered, enveloping us in a bubble of clarity encouraging the transfer of intellect. I wanted to stay there forever, drinking up all his knowledge, his willingness, and hopefulness.
When I finally arrived home that night I didn’t indulge my habitual despair by turning off my mind and sleeping; instead, I turned the lights on, and with a new fire burning inside my soul, I read. I researched. I thought. With a hurried excited zeal I thrust myself into a world of information, of every philosophy and religion I could get my hands on, desperately trying to absorb as much material as I was capable, to make up for all the lost time I wasted in obscurity. There was so much undoing to be done. Christian indoctrination was started on me at a very young age; now, I realized instead of pushing it all down and pretending it didn’t happen, I could educate it away. I was oblivious that I had been waiting for this exact divine conversation for years, an opportunity and a gentle universal push to finally think my way out of the darkness.
We all have those defining moments, the ones we look back on and see ourselves growing or morphing into the person we truly are. For me this was one of the most crucial. I walked out of work that night and despite being tired, gross and sweaty and smelling like vegan nuggets and sanitizer, I felt accomplished, felt a part of something bigger than myself, part of a team. The acceptance from everyone, the joy and openness they prodded back to life inside of me primed me for the awakening of that midnight conversation. I am forever indebted to and grateful for that strange but genuine group of individuals. I knew then I would never again allow myself to step backward into an obsolete existence.