I hate when dinner party guests tell stories of weird jobs they’ve had, because relating over their mutual suffering brings them so much collective joy. And, I hate to hear them laugh at their former selves so freely.
I’ve never had a weird job.
Which, turns out, is weird.
And, all along, my goal was to not be weird. Which, turns out, is even weirder.
See, at age twelve I decided I wanted to be the first lady president of the United States of America. From that moment I began carefully crafting all my life choices so I wouldn’t be embarrassed during the live, televised, electoral debate I imagined happening in 40 to 50 years.
With this goal in mind, I not only needed a resume of purely respectable jobs, but I had to carefully consider all my life choices – like: I did not double pierce my ears because a lady president only has one hole in her ears, and she wears pearl studs… obviously.
I didn’t get a perm because I didn’t want my future self to be embarrassed at a luncheon with other female dignitaries — all of them talking about the bad hair and style choices they made as kids. I wanted to give “future me” the gift of being able to say, “I did not make those bad choices. I was perfect. You can follow me as a leader. I make good choices.”
This doesn’t mean I didn’t do some of the normal stuff teenagers do like drink, try drugs or experiment with sex. I just did them in ways that could not be reported back to the press in half a century.
“Why is Kate puking, she doesn’t drink?”
Kate is puking because she secretly downed a half bottle of Bacardi in the hotel bathroom at Junior prom. Kate doesn’t know she only needs an ounce of rum to get wasted.
“Why did Kate disappear at the rave?”
Because Kate is secretly tripping on acid, and she’s hiding in the bathroom watching the world through a fish-eye lense her mind created.
Or when “making out” with a boy I’d never actually go to any of the well-defined bases: kissing, boob touching, etc. Instead, I would initiate hours of erotic wrestling that would confuse, and I can only imagine, frustrate my wrestling partner.
Maybe that sounds strange, but is Adam Baird going to tell the press in 2042 that we “rolled around” one night sophomore year — sorry but that’s pretty un-quantifiable, Adam Baird. Good… ah-luck…
What’s worse, not only did I spend my life focused on not having any “flaws,” I kept a mental file on everyone else’s “flaws” that I’d been collecting since kindergarten.
As I passed people in the hallway I’d pull up their file and enjoy reveling in how “not perfect” they were:
Jackie Evans: Got kicked off the cheerleading squad for coming to a football game drunk – never gonna be president.
Landon Davis: got warts on her knee from borrowing some girl’s razor at summer camp – not a mistake I’d ever make. Not a mistake a president makes.
Emily Henkle: Got caught by her mom giving a poor boy a blow job. Who’s gonna vote for her? Poor people? Sorry Emily, they don’t vote.
Don’t get me wrong, I was aware I had a few things in my file:
In fifth grade, at my friend Alissa’s birthday party, I was trying to impress some girls from the rival elementary school and said, “I’m horny, but there aren’t any guys around.”
The girls quickly exchanged looks and silently, but collectively, deemed it not cool, and I watched them slip the moment into their mental-filing-cabinets-of-judgment.
But, I felt like I had lived that one down by adamantly never being horny again, and only “wrestling” boys I liked.
And then, in eighth grade, in the Spirit Squad photo for the Junior High Year Book, I did the middle-splits and a tuft of my fairly new pubic hair poked out from the corner of my skirt.
However, I felt like I had most people convinced it was a shadow – a broken-up, patchy shadow. “It’s just a shadow!”
I’m sure the people I went to school with could list more humiliating moments that I’m choosing to block out, but those were the two I’m, apparently, willing to process.
By Senior year I was Student Council President, had been a Varsity Cheerleader, and was voted “Most Representative” three years in a row, so I felt pretty good about myself. And by “pretty good,” I mean I felt better about myself than I thought other people deserved to feel about themselves. Which is a really healthy way to determine self-worth.
Then, came college.
In late August of 1992 I flew from San Antonio, Texas to Middletown, Connecticut to attend Wesleyan University.
I was really excited. Everyone said college is where you make your real friends – where people finally “get you.” And since I owned a pair of Doc Martins, I was basically a hippie at my Texas high school. I figured at a New England, Liberal Arts College, I would be adored.
Excited about meeting my new best friend for life, I participated in a roommate-matching program. We were asked to write a short essay about our interests. I wrote an eight-page essay about my deep love for Impressionist painting.
I was given a single.
That was okay. Having a single is cool – my room would just be the party room. Sweet. Now, making friends was going to be even easier. And, as I looked around the dinning hall, at these nerds in their tacky down vests, I knew I was going to be the coolest kid in no time.
So, I set out to build my fan base the only way I knew how – the Texas way: “Hey y’all!”
The New England–Liberal-Intellectuals recoiled so palpably I could actually feel the wall of ice hitting me in the face.
I figured they were probably just intimidated by me, seeing as how they’re nerds, so I gave them space to warm up to me – like you might do with a scared animal. I confidently sat at the only table that was totally open to demonstrate I was a leader, not a joiner. It happened to be the table with a naked chick covered in fake blood sprawled across it, playing dead, in protest of the consumption of meat. But, I thought sitting there showed great confidence — others would see my inherent leadership and follow.
No one did.
I wasn’t worried – they just didn’t understand how amazing I was, yet. That would all change tomorrow when I planned to nail my interview for the coolest, most esteemed work-study job on campus – that’s right – working in the school president’s office, you heard me – the president… of the whole… university.
I dressed up in a blazer and slacks for my interview with President Douglas Bennett, and was a little surprised when his secretary’s secretary interviewed me instead.
She was a sweet old lady with thick glasses and one of those perpetual toothy smiles - like a donkey in an old cartoon.
“Well, aren’t you dressed up,” she commented.
“Thank you.” I said, rolling my eyes at a chubby lesbian walking past us in her down vest.
The old lady’s first question was if I had ever stuffed envelopes.
“Well, not really – but there was this one time, during Student Council Period where Mr. White – that’s the school’s vice principal – and our Stu. Co. advisor – asked me a huge favor – if we would help him stuff some envelopes for a parent/teacher mailing. After tri-folding a few I said, ‘There has got to be a quicker way to do this.’ Mr. White said they did have an old machine that tri-folded paper, but no one had been able to get it to work consistently. I said, ‘How ‘bout this, we’ll have a race? I bet I can get that old machine to work faster than the rest of you can finish stuffing these envelopes.’ And, it was on. In the end I got the machine to fold one piece of paper, just as they were finishing stuffing – but of course the paper it folded was all wonky and weird and we all had a good, big laugh. Afterwards Mr. White took me aside and said, ‘Kid, that was some great leadership in there – you took a not fun task and made it fun.’ So, you know, that’s the kind of stuff I have to offer.”
She looked at me and smiled and said, “So, you have stuffed envelopes?”
I got the job, and my ticket to having people want to be my friend.
“Yeah, I got a job in the president’s office – yup – the school president’s office. I get to run his mail around, and get coffee for his secretary’s secretary…. So… You know…”
Never before had I experienced that moment where the person you’re trying to impress looks at you, and then just gets up and walks away. It’s really painful. But, there she went – all naked and covered in fake blood. I watched her crawl up onto another table and plop herself down in front of some black DJs from Brooklyn – all who sprang up in disgust, and headed with their trays to the dump-trough.
Then, for the very first time, something came over me – something called, “depression.” Although, because I had never experienced it before, and because I had such a strong bubble of delusion, I had no idea what was happening to me.
“Why am I wearing pajamas to class? I don’t know, but it’s fun! College is great! I love college so much! I never want to go home. That’s why I’m crossing off all the days on the calendar until I get to go home – ugh, but I don’t want to! College!”
Back on the job in the president’s office, the sweet old lady would look at me with sad eyes — but still with that donkey smile — as I struggled to fight off depression-sleep. Her eyes would then drift over to the stack of invitations to a dinner at the President’s house going unstuffed by my head.
She really didn’t know how to handle it, but tried to as kindly as possible. She would ask me gentle leading questions like, “Are you sick – maybe you want to go home?”
“To Texas?! No, I love it here! I’m doing really well – really well – REALLY WELL!”
At the end of the first semester she tried to coax me into saying I didn’t want to come back, “You know, college is about trying different things, and you’ve tried this job, maybe you want to try another work-study job next semester.”
Lifting my head off the desk I said, “No, I would never abandon you. I love you.”
“Yeah, but just for fun, maybe try another job, and then you can come back here next year, maybe, if you want… we’ll see,” she said.
It half dawned on me that I might be getting fired.
This is where I should have realized that something was wrong. That I wasn’t as happy as I pretended. That other people could see it. That what was making me unhappy was that I felt I had lost my value because the value system had changed on me. And, that what I needed to do was stop investing in value systems outside myself, and instead build one from the inside. I needed to figure out who I was, love that person, and be honest with the rest of the world about who that person was, and not be hurt if they didn’t accept her – if they didn’t like her, because I loved her.
But, what I did was walk into town and bought myself a down vest.
Kate Purdy writes for TV. She’s written on Cold Case, Mad TV, and Cougar Town.
**Above photo courtesy of her high school yearbook.