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In One Moment
One Girl's Self-Journey
It's not like I'd planned to be a checkout girl at the Red Dot supermarket for the rest of my life. But, like so many things do, it just happened.
It was never assumed I'd go to college - in fact, after graduating from high school I had no desire to. What did I have in common with those snotty rich kids? Nah, it was the real world for me. And somewhere between unsuccessful job interviews at some local offices and a cousin whose boyfriend was the manager at Red Dot, my brilliant career path was blazed.
It wasn't so bad at first - it was kind of nice greeting people every day. But after the first year the monotony started to wear on me. I applied for other jobs in the neighborhood, but never got them. I even applied to be head cashier but they gave it to Amy O'Connell who, I was informed, was sleeping with the (married) assistant manager. Made her easy to hate. Which I did, silently for a while, until I suddenly just stopped caring altogether. That was somewhere around the second year.
By the middle of the third year I developed an odd habit of staring at young women about my age who looked like they had happening careers. I would imagine their fabulous lives while sneaking glances at them on the bus: model, executive, dental hygienist. What must that be like? To not have to apologize every time someone asks what you do for a living. To actually - dare I say it - be proud of your job. Hah! Like that could ever happen to me. If there were a job feeling sorry for yourself, I would have been a shoe-in.
One day at work Susan Fleming walked in. Susan Fleming was snotty and thought she was better than everyone else. She was a teacher. I used to fantasize about being a teacher - until I got realistic. You had to be smart to be a teacher. Smart and...different than I was. Different in exactly what way I wasn’t entirely sure, but different.
I studied her as she perused the produce aisle. She was pretty, about as pretty as me, I guessed, with brown hair and brown eyes. She carried a purse and a leather briefcase. Showoff, I thought. She answered her cell phone and talked softly as she shopped. Probably some important teacher call, I figured. No one ever called me for input on my job. Tammy, what do you think of kumquats on sale for 59 cents a pound this week? Nah, didn’t happen too often.
The funny thing was, Susan and I had been friends once upon a time - when we were around 10 or 11 - and I remember her as actually really cool. We used to play school together, and we always took turns being the teacher. We had a lot of fun together back then. But then she went to a gifted Junior High School and by the time High School rolled around, she was in a different crowd. The smart crowd. I still said hello to her in the hallways, but it wasn’t the same. Then my friends told me how stuck-up she’d gotten so I stopped even saying hello.
She was approaching my register. Still on the phone, she didn’t notice me at first. I contemplated running to the ladies’ room, but before I could move she was in front of me.
“Hi, Tammy.” She was smiling. Patronizing bitch.
“Hi, Susan.” I tried to sound off hand.
“How have you been?” What kind of question was that? How did she think I’d been? Bagging groceries and having a blast all these years. Don’t be jealous.
“OK”, I mumbled as I scanned her canned peas.
“Good...well, it was nice seeing you.” I saw something I thought I recognized in her eyes for a moment.
“Uh-huh”. I squeezed out a smile.
“Take care, Tammy.”
I felt embarrassed to the core. I’d been embarrassed in front of old friends because of my job before, but never like this. It was crazy, because I didn’t even like her anymore, but I was mortified for Susan to have seen me in all my supermarket cashier glory. I could just feel her looking down on me, eager to get back to her smart teacher friends.
My friend Stacy, who worked the next register, thought I was crazy. “What the hell do you care what that bitch thinks? I heard she was pregnant.”
For the next few weeks, I had a nagging feeling that got worse whenever I saw commercials for colleges on TV. Could I...? But no, that was for the people in the commercials, not me. Smart people, not me. I knew I wasn’t smart because I didn’t go to the gifted Junior High School. Because my parents always talked about how smart my older brother was. Because I...to be honest, I’d never exactly applied to the gifted Junior High School. All my friends were going to the one in my neighborhood and besides, I wouldn’t have gotten in anyway. Right?
I tried to stuff down the weird feelings I was having. I started going to the local bar with my friends more. That worked - for a while. My friend Cindy asked me what I was thinking about one night over Bud lights.
“I dunno, I’m just...so sick and tired of bagging groceries,” I lamented.
“So why don’t you get another job?”
Like it was that easy. “I would, but the last supermodel slot was just taken.” I tried to be funny, but it came out more bitter.
Cindy looked at me critically. “Tam, I’ve been meaning to say this to you for a long time - I never did because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings, but I should have.”
I stared back.
“Sweetie, did you ever think that maybe it’s all in your head?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Your whole poor-me-I-have-a-shitty-job thing. I hate to say this, but it’s getting old.”
I downed the rest of my beer and picked up my pocketbook.
“Don’t be mad at me. It’s just that I think maybe you could change things, if you really wanted to. You can do whatever you want.”
I didn’t know why, but that got me furious. “I have to work early tomorrow,” I mumbled as I slid off the bar stool and walked out.
Over the next few months, I stopped going out altogether. I began developing a disturbing affinity for infomercials, especially one called LifeChoice. It was for a seminar given by this woman in her 50s who had lost everything in a fire and had no insurance, so she’d had to completely rebuild her life. I fantasized about being one of the smiling, glowing testimonial-givers, telling the TV camera how Dotty Smith’s course had turned my life around and that I had learned to “Make The Choice.” Then I would go to the freezer and eat a pint of ice cream.
Eventually, my malaise turned into full-blown depression. It started seeping into my demeanor at work. I noticed that my regular favorite customers were starting to avoid my checkout line. I couldn’t believe it and, of course, blamed them. Stacy said I shouldn’t worry. “So? Who cares? Less work for you!” I tried to smile, and nodded. But I sensed even she didn’t really mean it. She just didn’t know what else to say.
One Tuesday I walked into work and as I started getting ready to start my shift, my manager called me over.
“Yes, Vince?” My heart started pounding in my throat.
“Tammy, you know we all like you here - “ he began, clearing his throat one too many times.
“Uh-uh,” I replied.
“It’s just that...we...feel like you’re not happy at Red Dot any more.” How sweet of them to care, I thought for one crazy second.
“The...customers...feel that way too. There have been some complaints about your attitude. I’m really sorry, Tammy, but I’m going to have to let you go.”
My mouth dropped open as my eyes fixed on his dark brown mustache. For some reason I just couldn’t look away from it. “But...what do you...”
“Tammy, here is your last paycheck, plus a little something extra. I recommend you find something you really enjoy doing.”
I had the strongest urge to punch Vince right in the face. I knew I was shaking, and turned away before he could see the tears in my eyes. I didn’t look up, not even at Stacy, as I all but sprinted out of the store.
Through a sheer miracle, I had managed to save some money, so I was okay for the next few months. Well, okay financially. I was devastated. How could they do this to me? Now I wasn’t even good enough to be a supermarket cashier??? It was beyond humiliating. To top it all off, I was walking to the bank one day in my now usual uniform of sweats and an XXL Mickey Mouse shirt (no makeup, of course) when who should I run into but Susan Fleming. There was no way I could escape her.
“Hi, Susan. How are you doing?” Like I really cared.
I could swear I saw tears in her eyes. “Not so good, Tammy. I got laid off.”
“R-really? Me too.”
For no reason, we both started laughing. And then the weirdest thing happened; I suddenly didn’t hate her anymore. “Would you - want - some coffee? I mean, would you want to go and get some coffee?” I couldn’t believe the words had just come out of my mouth.
“I’d love to,” she said, looking grateful.
We wound up talking for 3 hours. I felt ashamed for the way I’d treated Susan, even though she had no idea. And I started wondering where Stacy had gotten the idea she was such a bitch, and not liking the thoughts I was having about Stacy. It turned out that Susan hadn’t really changed at all from when I’d known her in grade school. Still sweet, still interested in what I had to say, still fun. I wondered whether it was me who had changed, not her.
“So what are you going to do,” she asked me over scones, “now that you can do whatever you want?”
“Well, I can’t do whatever I want...”
“Why not? What do you want?”
“Tammy, you know I was always jealous of you.”
“WHAT?” She had to be kidding me.
“Yeah - you were always so great with people, so great in front of a crowd. I was always terrified to get up in front of a group. I had to take classes to overcome that so I could be a teacher. Of course, for you it would be no problem. You could be a teacher easily.”
And then another weird thing happened. It was like all the clouds in my head parted and revealed a bright, shining idea. Teacher! I realized that’s why I had been so resentful of Susan. I had secretly wanted to be a teacher myself, but always assumed it would be impossible.
“Susan, are you serious? But don’t I have to be...”
“Have a great personality?”
“But isn’t it...”
She looked at me. “Tammy, I don’t know what you’ve been telling yourself, but please believe me: it isn’t true.”
Now I was the one with tears in my eyes. I batted them back furiously. “Susan...” and as we looked at each other, it was as though years of insecurity and frustration just fell away. Maybe I could actually be a teacher!
Over the next few weeks, Susan helped me land a substitute teaching job and apply for night classes in teaching at the local college. Turns out I was somehow “gifted” enough to qualify for a special financial aid grant.
About a year later, I had to pick up some oranges and headed for the Red Dot Supermarket out of habit. I thought about the weird looks I had been getting there since becoming a teacher - especially from Stacy, even when I tried to talk to her. I tried to show I was still me, but she wasn’t buying it. And then as I was coming up the block, it hit me - I wasn’t the same. I was a different version of myself - a better version. I had believed in myself enough to take the risk and work hard, and I now had something to show for it. It was not magic. I was not given a special life. I chose it and went after it myself, and accepted help when I needed it. No wonder Stacy and those girls were giving me the cold shoulder. They weren’t ready to do that yet - and might never be. They were me, a year ago.
I turned around and walked to the Shop Rite.