I Am Not Your Mirror Image
I have a friend named Cora. She likes to give me the state of the union assessments on my life in broad, sweeping generalizations; sometimes I don’t like what she has to say. She tells me that people like her and me (she’s in her sixties and has never been especially successful, vocation-wise) don’t get the luxury of following our dreams, since if it was going to happen, it would have happened by now. I’ve never been very clear on what the “it” is that she’s referring to. I suppose “it” is the “ah-ha” moment that everyone knows leads to a musical montage of hard work and stick-to-it-tive-ness that culminates in whatever lofty climax one wishes for.
For a long time, I believed her — at least partially. I’m used to being the one to put myself down, and it’s odd to feel indignant when someone else does it, too. I was afraid for many years that whatever chance I had at being successful in any capacity had slid away — as if I had missed a bus or train that only came around once in a lifetime. Having missed it, I would be forced to sell matchsticks and candy bars to all the other people waiting around for their Success Trains to come along, sure of their ability to follow their ambitions and reach their goals. Once safely ensconced on the Track to Success, they would be unstoppable, and I would be left behind once again to breathe the fumes and make do selling goods to the next batch of people.
What’s more, according to Cora, I should be grateful for that fact that I’m employed at all. What I have now is about as much as people like her and me can hope for. “We need to be very grateful every day for the gifts we have” — even if those gifts consist of ringing up dress shirts for ten dollars an hour day after day, or for being cajoled into the company cheer every morning. It wasn’t our place to yearn for anything else. Once, when I told her that I thought I was wasting my intellect at Macy’s, she became angry and raised her voice at me. “What, do you think you’re anything more special than your coworkers? You need to be humble!” she said, and I fell silent, wondering if I should feel ashamed of my audacity or not.
When another friend finally convinced me that I should apply to university, and celebrated my success when I was accepted, Cora told me that I should put off attendance for a year so that I could keep my retail job. “Now that you have your foot in the door, it would be a shame to quit,” as if folding sweaters in the men’s department was a prestigious job to hang on to at all costs. I reminded her that my manager at Macy’s had hired me over the phone after having talked to me for fifteen minutes, so it wasn’t very difficult for anyone with a vague command of English, and the ability to stand upright, to get hired there. Still, Cora wasn’t comfortable with my leaving my job to go to a university. “What for?” she asked. She scoffed at the idea that I just wanted to get my degree for its own sake, and that a better job could come with a bachelor’s degree. After all, people like her and me need to be grateful for what we have already, and leave success to others.
My therapist thinks that Cora is projecting her own insecurities on to me, and there’s some “conflation” going on between her life and mine. Something like this may have manifested itself in an odd conversation I had with Cora one evening. We were talking about the Trump presidency, and she mentioned that she had never much liked the Republican party. “When I first came to America, that asshole Ronald Reagan was running. I almost turned around and went back to England! I liked Mondale.” She then asked me if I had voted for Reagan. I was taken aback. “Are you asking me if I voted for Reagan over Walter Mondale? Back in, what, 1984 or so?” When she confirmed that that was what she meant, I laughed and said, “Well, I was seven at the time; so no, I didn’t vote for either one.” This comment gave her pause, and she needed to take several seconds to process it. I tried to make light of the awkward moment, saying that I just look like I’m much older than I am.
It’s always difficult when someone breaks away from the set track, and no one wants to be left behind. I felt it when I watched other people leave Macy’s because they had finally saved up enough to go back to graduate school, or to start the business they had been dreaming of. I saw it in others when I, too, gave notice. Some of my coworkers stopped by my register in dribs and drabs to let me know in veiled terms that I would be back — but this time, I’d be heavily in debt. Then they’d laugh jovially. To this day, some of my coworkers on the wait staff delight in telling me that I’m wasting my time and money at a private university. I mean, my god, whatever am I going to do with that kind of education? Who do I think I am? “Obviously, none of us are geniuses, or we wouldn’t be here, right?”
It’s true; I’m not a genius. But it would be ridiculous for me to stop striving for something beyond the entry-level jobs I’ve held for the past several years, even if I do wind up manning the chafing dishes after graduation, or arranging undies in a fan pattern (that will immediately be put into errant disarray again). The success, for now, is in the striving.