When I was twenty-three I packed all of my things into an Isuzu Rodeo and moved to Austin. My boyfriend at the time helped me pack. I did not know anyone out there, and I had never even been to Austin, but I needed a change. I found an apartment online and put down a deposit. At the last minute my mother decided to ride with me, which made me feel slightly less independent, like a petulant child who wants to run away to prove a point, but her mother insists on helping her load the car and then riding in the passenger seat.
We got to town at night, and as we drove in on Highway 290 and crested a hill, the city appeared like a lite-bright display sprawled across a black canvas. I spent the first few days getting settled. My apartment was in a central location near a mall and a home for the blind. I bought a bed at a Sam’s Club and blew up an inflatable chair for my living room. I put my mom on a Greyhound back to Florida and then meandered through Dillard’s department store on the way home from the station and was promptly hired to work in the bathing suit department. Maybe it was because I was from Florida. The job mainly sucked. Bathing suits are not meant to be on hangers.
I made some good friends working there, including one girl who would later become my roommate. I also worked with a bright girl from Egypt, who I made laugh, and a serious woman from Ethiopia, who I made nervous. Looking back, I should have taken the job more seriously when I was on a shift with that woman. She had people to support. I just used the paycheck to cover my bar tabs.
I was helpful to the customers to a point. One day a lady asked me if we had a size 8 in a particular suit and without moving from my spot at the cash register, I said that we did not have an 8. I have an excellent memory, which can sometimes get me in trouble. It is not a quality men are often looking for, as if what they want most is someone who makes them laugh, gives great blow jobs, and remembers every word they have ever told her. I worked in that swimsuit department at least five days a week, racking the same bathing suits. I knew every size and style we had.
“You didn’t even look,” she said.
“We don’t have an 8,” I repeated without looking up.
“You need to go look,” she repeated authoritatively.
I just stood there. “I am not going to do that,” I said. Inside I was shaking a little, but not from nervousness, from the thrill of what I thought was a win.
Eventually, I got a job as a file clerk in a law firm and then a position as a legal secretary for a little man who specialized in tax law. He had a group of clients who got in some trouble for embezzling money, and they were most likely going to jail. I delivered some documents to their office, where their equipment had been seized, and tables and chairs were in disarray. Loose cords were coming out from walls and surge protector strips and connected to nothing. Untapped power.
I hated the job. He was a person of exactness, numbers and legalities, and I was a person of rebellion, short skirts and two-hour lunches. I also had an attitude, and I did not pretend to like him or that I wanted to be there. My actions confused him; as a middle-aged, successful tax attorney he did not know how to handle my belligerence. Then one day he told me that I needed to take the back-up disks home with me each night because that would protect all of his files in case of a force majeure. I told him—laughing—that if the building burned down or was wiped away by a giant twister, then I would not be coming back. He fired me and put us both out of our misery.
Before moving to Austin, I was working for a law firm in Tallahassee and failing out of college. I was also in a Frankenstein-esque relationship that was consistently reborn as a more sinister version of itself each time we broke up and then somehow found ourselves having sex again on his couch. It seemed like my life in that space was unsalvageable and had become a dangerous and self-destructive piecemeal version of what it should be, and the best solution was to just give up and move to Texas.
I don’t regret the experience, but it was mostly, more than any other emotion, lonely. This city had so much to offer, and I tried not to let being alone keep me from doing things, like seeing shows or dining out, but sometimes it did—sometimes the town held untapped power because I lacked the crowd to experience it. I saw Lyle Lovett play with his large band at The Backyard, and I purchased my single seat in the middle of a long row. I bought a beer in a giant plastic cup and then made my way scooting sideways to my seat as people curled up their legs in succession like dominoes. Maybe nobody noticed, but I remember being somewhat self-conscious because what twenty-four-year-old woman goes to a show like that alone unless she is a reporter or a suicide bomber?
But the show was spectacular. The large band under the stars. I went back and saw Robert Earl Keen, but at least it was general admission, which made it easier to blend. I went to see Patty Griffin at a bar downtown, where she sang on stage with just an acoustic guitar, and I stood on the side stairs, as if I had just wandered through the crowd and landed there mesmerized. I went to a show after work one night at Antone’s with the alcoholic secretary from my office and went home with a guy who was going through a divorce. I see that now as foreshadowing.
His name was Rocky—maybe I do agree with Lee Gutkind that I cannot make this stuff up. He was the perfect metaphor for recently divorced/not really divorced guys everywhere. He adored me for about 48 hours. He took me out to a fancy dinner, and then we came back to my apartment, had sex, and I never heard from him again.
After my forced retirement from legal secretary work, I landed a good job, especially for a girl with no college degree and minimal work ethic, working for an insurance company in the human resources department. Then the company was bought by Allstate and dissolved. I was laid off, and I took it as a sign. A force majeure. I packed up all my stuff, and just like with any trip, the items never fit back into the suitcase the way they did on the way out there. I went home with more baggage.
When I got back to Tallahassee, I somehow talked my way into the creative writing program at Florida State. Yes, I had failed out of multiple schools and my GPA was well below average for acceptance as a transfer student, but I sit here before you and tell you my story, and I am not leaving until I am heard.
During the spring semester, I wrote a short story for a fiction workshop about a girl in her early twenties, living in Austin, working as a file clerk in a law firm. She was lonely and desperate, and the main qualities she looked for in a friend were a heartbeat and a shared enthusiasm for happy hour. She befriends a strange set of characters, including the alcoholic secretary from her office and a blind guy who was constantly starting bar fights while his Pit Bull guide dog sat on a barstool drinking directly out of a pint glass.
My fiction class hated it. During our workshop they commented that it seemed “Sad,” and I don’t think they meant in the sympathetic way, but more in the way that sad becomes a synonym for loser. They also had difficulty finding any significance to the story. One student, after a long explanation about why the story didn’t work, concluded, “I mean, who cares?”
I sat quietly, pretending to make notes on my draft. I knew the real reason the story didn’t work was because I was trying to pass off my nonfiction work in a fiction class. As if it never really happened. There is more that separates nonfiction from fiction than just facts. Taking ownership of events becomes the thread that holds the story together, and without that connection it is just a pile of words that you can sift through, letting the letters fall through your fingers into a pile of ash. The significance to the story was the twenty-eight-year-old undergraduate student sitting across the classroom nervously clicking her pen.