She’d shake me awake in the dark. Not bothering to shower, I’d twist my hair into a bun and follow her to the car. The women in my mother’s family all worked in some kind of nursing capacity. They also share a painful legacy of miscarriages. My initial aversion to bodily fluids and human beings suited me best for clean-up crew. The extra hours meant no breaks but it also meant I’d have enough to pay the part of tuition my loans didn’t cover and still keep up with rent. Living on the Vineyard, land of opportunity, required a collective effort, with some qualified exemptions. For whatever reason I’ve never found myself on the exempt list. My perception was that other people had caveats, ‘yeah but’s’, forgivable exceptions, or special exclusions as to why less could be asked of them. All they have is money; isn’t that sad? She can’t because of her allergies. His mother wasn’t a very loving person, you know that. He’s in a wheelchair. She doesn’t know any better. It’s just not his thing. Well, her father died in that horrible accident. She’s always been a very scared and insecure person. Some people just choose to be miserable. The external projections sometimes felt like a cattle prod. I didn’t want to fall under those ugly categories of judgments; people deemed useless, pathetic, whiny, wimpy, selfish, greedy, mean, fat, sloppy, stupid, lazy. But I also didn’t want to live off a trust fund, scared and devoid of a purpose and identity. The culture and character of class extremes are equally fraught with hunger. Maybe it was a New England thing. Maybe it was an heirloom. Either way the message I heard was do, give, think, be more. There was no such thing as arriving at complete and certainly not in the effortless way a stream flows or a season evolves. It felt like I went to sleep one night and the fight of a person I’d never met seeped into my skin and possessed me. If I found something easy I should assume it meant I wasn’t trying hard enough or it was a trick, things wouldn’t work out and it’d be my own damn fault. The theory being, merciless efforts will make you impenetrable to vulnerability. But, no.
Briar Hill was an historic estate overlooking several acres of brackish salt marsh and the Edgartown Harbor. The main house featured an atrium, two dining rooms, gourmet kitchen, modest library, conservatory and two stories of resident suites, most of which had balconies or decks with water views. The facility owner and her two, teen aged sons lived in private, attached quarters accessible through the narrow staff stairway off the kitchen or from the walkout finished basement which had been converted into a formal games room. The entire private house had wall to wall ivory carpeting, including the bathroom which featured one wall made of sliding glass and the other made of mirrors, ensuring the inhabitant was fully visible to themselves or the world at all times. Also, you could fit a full sized bed in their tub. Usually I was tasked with cleaning the resident estate; dusting the beloved bookshelves of a man who repeatedly sang Spring Spring, beautiful Spring, listen to the birdies sing, mopping miles of hardwood floors while a German woman followed me with her cane pointing out the spots I’d missed or sweeping the perpetual trail of breadcrumbs left by a sometimes topless, former socialite who dropped them for her blind Bichon Frise, Coco. The house chef was required to make Coco her very own medium rare filet or pan seared pork medallion. I had the honor of clearing the vomit. Tres chic. There were over 7 bathrooms which were cleaned incessantly between stripping mildly urine scented sheets, switching untold loads of laundry (I once, accidentally shrunk a cashmere sweater because what the hell was cashmere? The English director cried from the laundry room “Who puts cashmere in the dryer!? Honestly!”) and gathering gardens of mysteriously damp tissues. I went from one task to the next directed by my mother, her boss, other staff or the house residents until someone determined I could leave. Sometimes I counted the hours of pay in my head. Slacking off or hiding was never an option; my shadow is an invisible moral critic, occasionally made flesh in the form of ads, inherited tapes of mistakes, warnings or moments of misplaced efficacy. We also catered their events and holidays. I don’t think you’ve truly lived till you’ve mummified your arms in Saran wrap and churned warm macaroni salad in stainless steel vats. So, the job had perks.
Aiden and Lev both had sandy blonde hair, huge teeth, rangy bodies and massive hands. They were a couple of years behind me in school and had prospects of becoming one: an artist and architect, and two: an engineer or lawyer. Their rooms were littered with drafting tables, legal books, oil and watercolor paints, actual trash, game consoles and used condoms. They discarded girls too but typically the girls left on their own. Due to the ivory rugs I cleaned their suite in my socks. “Hey maid, find my glasses.” They knew my name but this was now a demonstration for a guest who’d stuffed himself into a black leather bean bag from which he vaulted insults and requests, ” Hey you. Where you born here? Probably not. Vineyarders don’t clean houses; they own them! Huh. Hey, hey maid, get us more snacks.” No one made eye contact with me. The frustrating part was I recognized, fully and sometimes with compassion, their behavior was fueled by shame and insecurity but the difference of our positions gave me no foothold; like rape. I tolerated the situation by reminding myself of the goals I was funding as a result of their handicap. Someday I might become the kind of person people did look in the eye but they might never know how to get down on their knees and face their own shit. Needless to say, I wore rubber gloves.
Perfunctory prophylactics aren’t enough sometimes. Fear and status are two other kinds of protection, but they’re exhausting to maintain. I hadn’t learned boundaries yet and since the question was never asked, no wasn’t a viable answer yet. A given take. Chronic feelings of worthlessness kept me an easy target. Someone recently reminded me we hadn’t been graced with a foundation of innocence. I didn’t mind chopping wood and carrying water if it were all I’d been carrying. I hated the stuck and dirty feeling; the 1 ton backpack full of phobias super-glued to my shoulders. My yoke is easy, my burden is light. I didn’t want to drown in cocktails hours or self-importance, but I also wanted up and away from crusty apartments and bricks of cheese in the cardboard box stamped “Impotent Dependent”. I wanted to be more than nothing and less than something else. Once, in front a psych unit I heard a voice, nagging me; ‘oh bologna, knock it off, you don’t have time for this, get up and go, go, go’. I was smoking and just wanted to be left alone with my favorite addiction and broken heart, like any ordinary person in the midst of a divorce; so I turned around and yelled out loud, “Back off!” Incidentally, I was on staff at the time. Beyond cigarettes and cheese, I wanted safety, protection, a permanent way to feel good and the comforting luxury of never again having to worry about anything; you know, inner peace and maybe a couch. Somewhere between the angst and lofty goals was the balance waiting in faith. Scripturally speaking, I got it, which is probably why I always cry in church. Come to me all who are weary and I will give you rest. Getting to the place where you give yourself permission to do less and experience this promise of more is as simple as determining your audience. I gave people and my past too much power, initially because I hadn’t been given a choice. I think this is why people stay where they are using hate and hurt as the paddles to row their life-boat; recognizing the space to make different choices is like learning to read waves.
One summer our family went tuna fishing off Charlestown Beach. We had an aunt and uncle who’d bought a motel and decided to open every room out to our extended family for a weekend. I don’t remember who all went out in the boats but a multitude of cousins stayed on the shore with the aunts building Rhode Island’s grandest sand castle. When the boats came in my father was buoyant from the rush of a big catch. A happy beach day. “Let’s go surf, Bump.” “We don’t have surf boards.” “Your body’s the board, come on!” This is the man who taught us to swim by throwing us over the side of our boat. My mother had a small heart attack. The water was so cold you could feel the path of your own breath into your belly. It made me know I was alive. Technically we had a choice. Needless to say we didn’t sink. He led us out past the break, explaining as we swam that my job was to watch the waterline as it rolled in closer and when it hit a certain sweet spot, swim under and way out in order to pop up in the right place, turn back towards the shore and kick, kick, ride, kick, smile all the way back in. My father had a kind of magic intuition when it came to the elements, so I trusted him. I couldn’t believe the size of the waves we were riding and how easy it was to crest into shore floating on top of them. After several waves we started feeling like we were part of the whole ocean, completely in sync with the rhythm of a massive, liquid body. “You gettin’ tired? No? More? Ok, one more.” And that’s when his face changed and his voice turned from play to foreboding instruction. Shit. I couldn’t see what he could see, which was a band of successive waves that weren’t going to give us time to swim out and under. The tide had all of sudden begun to surge in quickly and loudly. He raised his voice;“Bump, when this wave comes ride it in but save your kicks because the next wave is gonna land right on top of us and try to pull you back out. When it crashes, listen to me. I’ll tell you when to hold your breath and then you’re gonna have to kick hard and swim towards the shore. I’m right here.” He tried holding my hand while we swam but as the first wave crashed the force of the undertow pulled us apart and me down and out. For the next several minutes I heard fragments of his voice and the burbles of churning water. I attempted thrusting myself up but dove my head straight into a sandy bottom instead, only to then feel my body being forcefully breached up to the surface and swallowed back down, hard. Kicking, pulling, spinning, reaching and gasping till I finally just gave in. I softened my body and being and hoped for the best. I was all kicked out. Eternal moments later dripping snot, puking salt and laugh-sobbing, I wobbled out of the backwash towards my family, each of whom was having a different reaction. Sometimes the pursuit of more means taking an unforeseeable risk that leaves you searching for your bathing suit and maybe your dignity. In this case, letting go probably saved my life.
The rest beyond the rest is up to us to figure out. I think it’s called free will. God says we’re worthy while the western world feeds our discontent and for a limited time only, solutions. Act now. I thought I needed to learn to fight better or look harder for the secret proprietary recipe to living a more honorably-mentionable life. I didn’t give up. I gave in. When you think of garbage, think of Akeem! A series of unfortunate events helped me realize my garbage was actually great fertilizer. The substance I’d been searching for was waiting in a bucket of composting memories.