She’s Everything I’m Not But Expect Myself To Be.
I sneak into a dressing room to take a back at my side gig! selfie. I tilt my head, suck in my stomach, suck it in some more but that only goes so far before asphyxiation starts. So I turn this way then that way. Now it’s taking too long. Get back on the sales floor. As I try to hide my belly bulge and downplay my Covid enlarged ass, I recall those memes that remind people (women) to speak kindly to themselves, so I give up and get back to work.
This was not the plan. To be the older sales lady. The graying one wearing sensible shoes so her back can still bend when her shift ends. The cute shop girl, no longer a girl and too old for cute. I’m a menopausal woman. There’s fresh growth around my middle, like that layer of hardened fat on the skillet after bacon grease cools. Except it’s not hard and can’t be scraped off. My middle is soft and here to stay. I know there’s surgery or suctions, freezers, freezings, melting — whatever the fuck that is. But slicing off fat like I’m a piece of meat feels contradictory to a lifetime spent demanding I not be treated like a piece of meat.
So here I am. Trying to shut Gwyneth up. I call my critical inner voice Gwyneth because she’s tall and blonde and thin and perfect and has a solution for all that ails me. She’s everything I’m not, but expect myself to be.
At 40, I trained for a marathon. I injured myself on the 18 mile training run and would not heal in time for the race. I desperately wanted a 26.2 tattoo on my foot, so when I was old and demented, someone in the nursing home would know I ran a marathon. Oh well. That year I also left my career as a clinical social worker to pursue my long deferred dream of being a writer. For money. A real writer.
While success didn’t come right away, it trickled in. I had screenplays optioned, producers hired me to write films and television, magazines paid me for essays and opinion pieces. But the thing about starting a career at life’s halfway point is, by the time mile 18 arrives, you’re tired and you don’t heal so quickly. You give fewer -if any- fucks (the best part of aging). And the road ahead looks different. There aren’t miles to go. Each day matters anew.
Before getting vaccinated, my friend’s 88-year-old mother stopped social distancing and began seeing her friends. “I have so little time left. I can’t use it up like this. I need to live.” Her words replay in my mind. I’m 53. What am I doing with my life?
Forever I dreamt of writing a movie or television show that was produced and shown on screens big and small. My husband is a successful film producer. I’ve watched him from the sideline. The thrill when he sees his name on billboards and posters. The excitement when he pauses a show to take a picture of “Produced By Nicolas Stern.” His friendships with famous people. I wanted that for me. Give me all the trappings! I stopped dreaming of earning respect for my work and instead longed for the bullshit. The stuff that fucks people up.
Four years ago, I wrote an original movie for a studio. This is it! Finally! It’s going to be me paying the mortgage and meeting the people and reaping the praise and walking the red carpet! It will be my name in lights! Take that, haters! I imagined the witty and brilliant things I would tell Elvis Mitchell when he interviewed me on his radio show, The Treatment. I imagined Fame.
None of that happened. Instead, the work dried up, my agent fired me, my kids left for college and I was alone with myself, depressed, clinically and spiritually. Medication helped with the serotonin shortage. But what of my soul? My spirit? How did I lose my way?
When I was little, I closed my bedroom door and sat on my bed or on the floor of my darkened closet writing stories, poems, and confessions in my diary. In school, I prayed for essays instead of tests. I wrote anywhere, anytime. Writing transported me. I had to find my way back to that little girl in her closet, notebook resting on bent knees, imagining a world far from hers. Writing just for herself, escaping reality, returning to life calmer and happier. Time spent in my imagination, creating new worlds or reimagining my own, provided me respite. It made real life bearable.
So two years ago I got a part-time job in a clothing store. I know. It’s hard to imagine servicing the women of Beverly Hills as a respite from anything. But it was. Engaging with strangers, I was the well dressed, confident, happy-go-lucky cool older woman with perfect highlights Gwyneth approved of. My coworkers did not ask me to make them dinner or do their laundry or require I pick up their shit from the backyard. I loved it.
And it was humbling.
Retail work is a brutal grind. In a five-hour shift, you get a ten-minute break. You cannot sit down while on the sales floor. Customers often treat you like dirt. If you work for a big corporation, you’re being exploited. Earning just-above-minimum wage, working in retail is far from my husband’s Hollywood reality. And galaxies away from what I thought I wanted. But as the saying goes, sometimes you get what you need, not what you want.
I loved writing again.
On my days off, I wrote more -and better- content than I had in years. In part because I was so fucking tired, I couldn’t move to do anything else. But also because events and people from work inspired ideas. My mind freed up to write about personal issues like depression, anxiety, adoption, and motherhood. Working at the store and writing whatever I wanted healed me.
Then came Covid. I lost my job, and for 13 months I was in a time machine. Children returned home, dogs shit more than ever, so much food to cook, dishes in the sink multiplied like horny bunnies. How do you make every day matter living life in fear, anxiety and isolation? At the beginning, I longed to go to work. But as time dragged on and cases worsened and Covid killed more people my age, I stopped imagining going back to work. I stopped imagining all together. Like most of us, I existed in a non-stop loop of an endless today.
Then something funny happened. They just made the movie I wrote four years ago. They will release it this year. People will see my name on screens and on posters, and it will be me who pauses the show to take a picture of my credit. I got what I wanted.
Then I got what I needed.
Two weeks ago, a few days after being vaccinated and 13 months after leaving, the store manager called. “Mindy, we miss you, we need someone part-time. Are you available?”
I imagined myself in a mask servicing the women of Beverly Hills with my new menopause-Covid 10 pounds and gray roots. I imagined dealing with a rude customer while Gwyneth shouts in my head, You look like shit so tell that bitch about your movie, let her know who you are! And I imagined me saying, Shut up Gwyneth.
So I told my manager yes, I’d love to go back to work.