These days I’ve been thinking a lot about choices. How you make a choice to do something that leads you down a specific path, only to be faced with another choice that arises because of the one you just made. Like branches of a tree or tributaries of a river, every movement of energy spawns another that flows or sprouts from it. And so on.
I came upon a photo of myself in third grade – you know the kind: the mottled backdrop, the fake smile because some failed photojournalist has just instructed you to “smile sweetly, hon” – I grew up in the South – and on the back, in black sharpie I’d written “Jessica Louise Abrams: Artist.” It dawned on me that my choices have somehow, whether consciously or not, sprouted forth from that proclamation. My not doing the things normal people do (and, frankly, I don’t even really know any so-called “normal” people since my choices have never led me in their direction) – Home Depot on weekends, Sunday dinners with extended family—has helped forge my identity so that I can help fulfill a destiny as prophesized by my third grade self. But to continue with the metaphor, lately I’m feeling as if I’ve gone from tree trunk to branches to a really flimsy twig which I’m sitting on praying it won’t crack and cause me to plunge to the ground and break my neck. Or I’m in a creek and the current keeps pushing me up against a beaver dam and I get bitten and scratched by those little fuckers until my face is a bloody mess. Despite being in the midst of an incredibly creative period of my life, certain areas feel stuck. Money. Sex. Relationships. I am lonely. Having spent the better part of my life fighting for time alone, I am now trapped in a never-ending conversation with myself whose hell only rivals that of that other morass: dating.
So, when I’m offered a job of working as a field interviewer for a social science research company which includes a ten-day training in Washington, D.C., I take it. Not much information is given to me about it, which makes me nervous. I know I’ll be interviewing households for a study on national issues. Who else will be there and if they’re the kind of people who use words like “circle back” and “interface” I don’t know. Also, the break in my routine – such as it is – terrifies me. I need a change and fear it. I secretly hope something else will come up – a book deal, pilot sale, another job – that will prevent me from having to spend close to two weeks in a hotel conference room doing something that – let’s face it – could be part of a government propaganda mission. Did I mention the study is sponsored by the Department of Commerce and has to do with the Gulf of Mexico? That sounds awfully fishy to me. No pun intended.
But deep down I know I need this, and it’s not just the money. I need to break whatever pattern is holding me back and causing me to face those beavers. I sense this might do it. Because in addition to that hackysack game going on in my mind, my body is experiencing its own chaos: that seismic shift from woman to woman-of-a-certain-age. My sleep is interrupted nightly when I wake up in a body that couldn’t possibly be my own because my own body didn’t run a marathon which is the only reason it could be drenched in this much sweat. And while this is all happening, I lie awake, gripped by a sense of doom and dread unmatched by anything I’ve ever experienced in waking hours. This causes me to feel as if me and reality are co-workers with offices on opposite sides of the floor, mumbling hello as we microwave our Trader Joe’s frozen Chimichangas in the kitchen.
I’m scared of what awaits me – and not just in Washington. With little idea of what it looks like – particularly in Los Angeles, where I live – I’m scared of getting old. I search for examples of that oft-used phrase “growing old gracefully” and when I see it I want to cross-examine the woman sporting such quality about everything from what night cream she uses to how often she has sex. I worry that my own sleepless nights and the stress they induce are causing me to age at a supersonic rate. Scratch that – I’m more than scared. I’m freaking out
So, you could say I’m not exactly bringing my A game when I arrive at the Hilton Hotel in Rockville, Maryland and check into a room the size of my entire apartment. I wonder what will be required of me in exchange for such deluxe digs. There’s a couch in the room. Should I invite friends? As I scope out the dining situation in the sea of mini-malls that surround the hotel, I’m desperate to spot my fellow field interviewer trainees. Who are they? Are they the drunks at the bar?
The next day I report for duty. There is an aura of secrecy around this study that I gravitate towards. Let’s just say it involves reading a long narrative to perfect strangers randomly picked by a computer algorithm and then asking questions about it. I welcome the warmth of the National Field Director, one Anne, who has a maternal quality and hails from a small town in Minnesota. I am encouraged when she tells us that the company is investing money in us not just for this study, but for other studies down the line. I am un-used to the idea of a door being open like this. I am skeptical and yet I want to walk through it.
Despite this auspicious beginning, that first night in my room, I panic. What the fuck am I doing here? Is this really my life? I mean, yes, maybe my choices didn’t always favor making a ton of money or having stability, but is this some form of punishment for wanting to live life on my terms? Putting me in a grand ballroom all day for ten straight days to be a field interviewer? I’m an artist, for Christ’s sake.
I breathe. I decide – just to try it on for size – not to look for my identity in what I do to pay the rent and keep my cat alive. I read somewhere that these changes – these fucking changes that are wreaking havoc on my health and my sanity – are really just the burning up of old ways of being so that we can move into the next phase of life. That, like their PMS predecessor, they’re a way of forcing our shit under the spotlight so we deal with it. Not later, not in a few years — now. I like this idea but also realize it puts the burden of responsibility for this malaise squarely on my shoulders, which doesn’t exactly help matters. If anything, it makes them worse.
I get to know my fellow trainees. Of the 60-something here, about 50-something are women, with the average age being just that: 50-something. They come from all over the country having survived divorce and child support battles and, in the case of one whom we nicknamed “Detroit”, attempted murder by her ex-husband’s new girlfriend. Many look their age, many don’t; but almost every single one possesses a grace and a fierceness that is inspiring and oh-so refreshing. No apologies, no explanations, no effort to affect a girlishness that seems odd even on a fifteen year-old. There is Sue Sweeney from Colorado who, at fifty-nine, is working three jobs to put her two sons through college with no help from her ex-husband. There is sixty-two year-old Rose, an out-of-work librarian, mother to five cats, and self-described pagan. There’s Carolyn, an actress whose ex-husband cleaned out her accounts and who is entering a new phase of life which does not include taking care of everyone in sight, but may include having a fling with Jim, who is seventy-two. I feel very much at home. I also feel pretty hot.
And not just in that way. At least five times a day my body temperature spikes and I break into a flop sweat. This experience drives me to grab any available piece of heavy paper and use it to fan my face furiously not unlike a worshipper in an overheated church in Alabama. You know the image.
But I am in good company. These women have already passed through that tollbooth of life and are moving down the highway on the other side. I feel no shame or embarrassment, nor do I attempt to chalk the sudden dew on my forehead up to a hot room or bad ventilation. I am swimming in a sea of estrogen deprivation and wearing a designer life vest.
I go into DC twice and visit my sister and her new baby – my nephew – who is all of four months. I clock how distinctly different our lives are, my sister’s and mine – she, with her new family and adorable son and me, where I am, here, doing this. I go to the hot tub in the hotel every night to relax. I soon realize that probably doesn’t help matters because at two a.m. every morning I wake up pretty un-relaxed and stay that way for the next three or so hours. I need my sleep, now especially. At the end of all this training a certification looms, and if I don’t pass it, I can’t do this job. Along the way are mini-certifications, which I also have to pass. I avoid doing things that I would ordinarily lean on in times like this: caffeine. Sugar. Vodka. I need to be at my best when I report to training at nine in the morning. I continue to ask the Universe to release me from whatever this idea is that I have of myself, this deep-seated sense that, if I’m not working as a writer or an actress and making oodles of money, I’ve somehow failed at life.
The first certification is about pacing and reading the narrative so slowly it sounds like Siri reading a set of Ikea instructions. I pass it easily. The second, which deals with the very specific protocol of what we say in the interviews, I almost don’t. The collective stress that surrounds me causes me to get confused and to think this harder than it is. Then there’s the not sleeping. People offer me Xanax, Trazadone, Melotonin – anything to help. Nothing does. I still wake up and re-live the conversation I had with my boss fifteen years ago, or wonder what will happen when it’s time to get social security and I haven’t worked enough to have any. Or if it will still be around then.
We’ve gotten into a bit of a routine, my new friends and I, of having dinner at one of the chain restaurants near the hotel. There’s such freedom I feel as I emerge from the canned air and into the balmy Mid-Atlantic Spring evening. It makes walking down the consumer circus that is the main drag of Rockville downright joyous. And then, after we’ve all agreed on an eatery and given the server our orders, we share stories – of life, love, loss and everything in between. One night, in Ruby Tuesday’s, it hits me: my own life, the one I’m scrutinizing, the one that seemed to land me in this fresh hell, doesn’t sound so bad after all when told to this rapt group that thinks Los Angeles exotic and Hollywood a gilt-laden paradise. My writing, my acting, my neighbors, my friends – many of which are young enough to be my children; my flings – they make me interesting. On its own it starts to seem pretty great, but after hearing about Jim’s alcoholic wife and Carolyn’s painter of a loser ex-husband it sounds like a dream. In fact, sitting there in the cozy booth, my sweaty legs sticking to the faux leather, I fall in love with my life again – with my choices, and the people and experiences they led me to.
When we get back to the hotel, I go into the hot tub. I’ve come to look forward to the folks I meet there, business travelers mostly, from all over, as well as the lifeguard Linda who just arrived stateside from Belarus a year ago. Tonight a family has taken over the pool area. They have a cooler and are playing Bruce Springsteen on a boombox. In my imagination it’s Springsteen because that’s what they should be playing. I enter the hot tub hoping the parents will have the good sense to keep the kids as far from it as possible, understanding, as they should, my need for peace after a hard day. The mother sits nearby, watching the kids, encouraging their underwater somersaults and cannonballs. And sure enough, within minutes, the whole family descends on my turf, a turf I feel is rightly mine after a week of frequenting it. The husband smiles shyly at his wife. One of the kids stares at me, and I stare back, both of us challenging the other to give up and get out. Nearby there’s a guy with a buzz cut sitting in a chair – is this the brother who’s just returned from Iraq? In keeping with my Hollywood-based blue collar vision, it is. But then – and it might be that The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” has just started playing on the boombox – something happens. I put aside my idea of how things should be and I see these people for what they really are: happy. Truly happy – just being together, in this crappy hotel pool with faux stone siding and a low ceiling. This fact hits me so hard that I can’t help myself and tears start streaming down my face, right there in the hot tub. It’s not sadness I feel as I get out and bury my face in a towel – I honestly don’t know what this emotion is. Loss over one chapter ending and a new one beginning? Maybe. An invitation to experience genuine happiness? Maybe that too. I don’t know. I don’t care.
I pass the main certification. I learn everything I need to to do a job that I will do – for now. The idea of it doesn’t matter; it isn’t real. The experience – the good, the scary, the banal and the bizarre – is. And I am so grateful to have had it.
And to begin anew.