When I Woke Up

When I was floating between jobs in the 1990’s, I worked as a reader. Breadwinner for my young family, and all I could scratch up were the lousy crumbs from a temporary job scoring high school essays, which were part of Ohio's standardized assessment exam.

I had to score the essays on a scale of zero to five. A zero meant there were no words written. A five was stellar, as if perhaps this should be published in a literary journal. A score of one meant they had written something, a word or two, typically some permutation of “This sucks,” or “Fuck you.” Judging by their essays, teenagers in the urban core of Cleveland, Ohio were brimming with hostility. Like most things in life, it was the essays in the middle that got messy. What was the difference between a two and a three, or a three and a four?

Most of the essays began verbatim, using the writing prompt, “One morning I woke up and discovered that I could fly.” What often followed was a quotidian trip drifting through the neighborhood as jealous friends exclaimed, “Hey, you can fly!!” Many of the girls flew to the mall to go shopping with their friends, or to Hollywood where they employed celebrities in cameo appearances. Brendan Fraser often appeared in a loincloth, fresh from his role in “George of the Jungle.” They would “make out,” but it rarely progressed beyond first base. Even in uncirculated print, teenage girls fretted about being called a slut.

Then there were the essays where girls drifted up to bedroom windows and secretly witnessed stepfathers committing some type of abuse, or boys flew into closets and stole guns. These were unscored and forwarded to my supervisors; middle-aged women, who poured over the words, with knitted brows, as they tugged at their sweaters, pulling them closed.

The essays were read twice by two different scorers. If we wanted to keep our jobs, we had to maintain a high accuracy rate with the tandem reader’s score. As my rate flailed, I worried that my temporary job would become a zero. Many mornings when I woke up, I wished I could fly away.

“Look, if the word ‘Slumbering’ is used in an essay, that’s an automatic four,” one of the readers confided to me in the break room. She was heating up her lunch, a single sweet potato, in the food-splattered microwave. It was the same thing she brought in every day. Karen was thin with stringy brown hair and paper-white skin with a slight blue sheen. She had the unsettling habit of staring at my forehead during our conversations. When she caught me looking down my nose at her shriveled-up potato, she glanced at my ham sandwich and said, “I think meat tastes like dried blood.”

“A four for slumbering?” I asked, patting the hair on my forehead, checking for fly-aways.

“Well, they have to write more than that, but you get the gist. More syllables and better word choices equals a higher score and vice versa.”

As my accuracy rate grew, so did my friendship with Karen. We shared the tidbits of our lives over lunches of sweet potatoes and ham sandwiches. Karen’s dream job was somewhere in the wilds of Wyoming where she could live and work on a ranch while writing and paying down her Grand-Teton sized school debt. Mine was to become employed full-time at a job that offered benefits; it was a three, though at the time I would have scored it a five.

Here is the thing about dreams. When life is a one or a two and you’re just trying to make ends meet, to be like everybody else, a three—somewhere in the middle—sounds pretty damn good. A five is unfathomable.

Every once in a while an essay deemed exemplary would be read aloud by a supervisor, giving us a break from the monotony of kids flying to the ubiquitous mall shopping trip, or drifting above the popular crowd and dropping egg-bombs. The first essay I scored as a five resonated deep in my marrow for reasons I could not then understand. I handed it to my supervisor, chest puffed out, as if I had written it myself.

“This is good,” she said. “Beautiful use of language and imagery, but I’m afraid it’s only a high three, perhaps a four.”

“But, she used the word slumbering,” I protested, “See? Right there.”

“It’s poetry, really, but how did the writer change? What do we discover about the narrator in the end that we did not know in the beginning?” she asked.

In the essay, the girl drifted above a handsome boy she loved, a honey-colored moon in his inky black sky. While he slumbered, she tugged at his tides and painted his face with her moonbeams. She was forever trapped in his orbit.

After I read the essay to Karen, she put down her fork-full of potato and asked, “Have you ever been in love like that?”

“Not yet,” I replied.

Her eyes fluttered for a moment and then her gaze drifted down from the bulls-eye on my forehead to the tears rolling down my cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“It was just such a beautiful essay,” I said, waving my hand in the air, brushing it off. But, while I was dreaming about life in the middle, this teenage girl from Sandusky, Ohio burned a hole through my forehead, pulled out a five and held it up for me to see.

On Monday morning, Karen didn’t show up for work. Later in the week, I received an e-mail from her. She woke up Sunday morning and decided to start driving. We shared fat e-mails about the dusty ranch and the colorful characters in her new Wyoming town, how the sky was so big, you could see a storm coming from a hundred miles away and how at night it grew so cold that when she went to the toilet, she was afraid her stream would freeze up.

I became employed full time at a company that offered benefits. I don’t know what happened to Karen. Our lives got busy and somewhere along the way, we lost touch with one another.  I imagine her steely gaze looking up at the windswept clouds racing over the Tetons. I lived in that messy middle for many years, moving up the ladder, hoping each fresh job in every new city would offer a benefit that the previous one did not, authenticity. When I finally figured it out, the storm of divorce kicked up and then it passed. 

Here’s the thing about dreams, you don’t necessarily have to fly away in order to make them come true, but you do have to wake up.    

I got up, brushed off the dust and became an IT Director for a prestigious consulting firm with stellar benefits in Harvard Square. Even so, sometimes at night, I lie awake, worrying about the college debt my children have amassed and wonder how I'll make ends meet. Then I’ll look over at my new husband Paul slumbering, as the full moon paints his face. A sense of lightness tugs at me and pulls me up. I am forever, happily trapped in his orbit. I found my five.


Lost and Found in The Land of Mañana

The waiter cradled two menus in his arms, like fraternal infant twins. I was certain the one I could not read listed the most delectable delicacies and the other one, the less attractive sibling, contained watered-down, Anglicized versions of Spanish dishes. He sized us up, by which I mean he mentally placed us on a scale, measured our weight in kilograms and then inquired, “Ingles or Español?”

His expression was the same one I had seen on my doctor’s face when he rhetorically asked if I “really understood what a healthy plate of food looks like?” The answer was obvious, though I could not seem to give it.

“Ingles, por favor,” my colleague Dan said.

It was then that j'ai regretté studying French in high school. I fell for the romance of the language, the way the S’s and vowels snuggled up to form liaisons, like two lovers clinging to one another on a misty, black and white Parisian afternoon. I thought if I learned the language of love, I might understand my internal version of it. But, simply analyzing a map versus walking the twisted lanes and secret side streets of a foreign city are like dining from the dollar menu at a Taco Bell and calling it tapas.

I didn’t expect everyone in Madrid to speak English, as if I had stumbled into the Disney Epcot version of Spain where the scrubbed down facades and cobblestone sidewalks did not offer up the occasional acrid, urine besotted scent. But, I also did not anticipate feeling so ill-prepared and let’s face it, so American. Not that I was un-proud of being American. I was just keenly aware of Europeans’ distrust in our politics. Never was there a more accurate warning label than a Donald Trump bumper sticker.

“I can’t make out the prices. These wines seem so expensive,” I whispered.

The older gentleman sitting next to us, so close that I could count the comb marks in his white hair said, “That’s not the wine list. It’s just the cover of the menu. They’ll bring an iPad if you ask.”

“Gracias,” I said, even though he spoke with a crisp British accent. And then I actually began to count the comb marks—in Spanish, but when I got to diez, I reached the upper limit of my knowledge.

I learned a handful of phrases on my trip to Madrid. I could say good day, thank you and ask where the bathroom was, but if anyone answered in Spanish, I would have been lost.

When I told our waiter the paella was muy bien, he smiled and said “Bueno.” I smiled back. I considered this a small victory until Dan explained that the waiter was correcting me. I had told him the food was very well, as if he were inquiring after my elderly aunt.

That evening, the language app on my iPhone indicated with a triumphant chime that I was one percent fluent in Spanish. Being one percent of anything does not strike me as something to crow about. I’m used to giving it my all, of working sixteen hour days in order to move a data center in Spain; of taking a sharp left in my early forties and tossing out the map while actually walking through the twisted chambers of my own heart after my first marriage to my wife imploded.

If you were to question my perseverance, I would tell you how I drove through a blizzard on a road I had never travelled to dine with the man who would become my husband. We met at a Mexican restaurant called “On the Border.” It straddled the state line between Massachusetts and New Hampshire. After dinner, I could not stop kissing him in the front seat of his car as the snow piled up. When I drove home, the landscaped was so altered I thought I’d never find my way. Here's the thing. Falling in love is like learning a new language; the only way to do it is to immerse yourself and risk becoming lost.

I may have only known a few Spanish words on that trip to Madrid, but mira, I made a decision. I would make them the most auténtico sounding phrases a Spaniard had ever heard. So, I listened closely and it seemed to me that Madrileños cast off their S’s the way Bostonians drop their R’s. No hypersexual French S’s rolling in zee hay with any proximate coquettish vowels.

After Dan and I finished setting up the new office we decided to take a walking tour of Madrid. When we approached the tour guide I said, “Buenos Dias. ¿Qué tal?” I barely acknowledged my S’s.

“Ah, si, Español,” he said.

“Ingles, por favor,” I replied.

“Well, your greeting was very convincing.”

After the tour, we walked through the heart of the city, along the twisted side streets and uncovered its secrets hidden beneath the cobblestone lanes and behind the Palacio walls. I turned to Dan and said, “I will give you five euros if you can find a Mexican restaurant.”

We sat outside at a table on Calle de las Hileras and ate Guacamole, tacos, tamales and quesadillas while sipping dos cervezas. It may not have been the healthiest plate of food in the world, but on that moonlit night in Madrid, it was the Spanish I knew snuggling with the Spain I was beginning to love.

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