I spend a lot of time thinking about choices. How you make a choice to do something that leads you down one 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.
I came upon a photo of myself in third grade and on the back, in black sharpie I’d written “Jessica Abrams: Artist.” It dawned on me that my choices have somehow, consciously or not, sprouted from that proclamation. My not doing the things normal people do (and, frankly, I don’t even really know any “normal” people since my choices have never led me to them) has helped forge my identity so that I can fulfill a destiny as prophesied by my third-grade self.
But to continue with the metaphor, two years ago I was feeling as if I’d gone from tree trunk to branches to a flimsy twig which at any moment might crack and cause me to plunge to the ground and break my neck. Despite being caught up in a whirlwind of activity of auditions and classes and OK Cupid, certain areas felt stuck. Money. Relationships. Money.
So, when offered a job to work as a field interviewer for a social science research company which included ten days’ training in Washington, D.C., I said yes. Not much information was given. I knew I’d be interviewing households for a study on national issues. Who else would be with me and if they were the kind of people who used words like “circle back” I did not know. Also, the break in my routine (did I have a routine?) was terrifying.
But I knew I needed this. Because in addition to that hackysack game going on in my mind, my body was experiencing its own chaos: that seismic shift from woman to woman-of-a-certain-age. My sleep was interrupted nightly when I was waking up in a body that couldn’t possibly be my own because MY body hadn’t run a marathon which was the only reason it could be drenched in that much sweat. And while all this was happening, I lay gripped by a sense of doom unmatched by anything I’d experienced in waking hours. This was causing me to feel as if reality and I were co-workers on opposite sides of the floor, mumbling hello as we microwaved our Trader Joe’s frozen chimichangas in the office kitchen.
I was scared. With little idea of what it looks like in Los Angeles, I was scared of getting old. Scratch that – I freaking out.
So I wasn’t exactly bringing my “A” game when I arrived at the Hilton Hotel in Rockville, Maryland and checked into a room the size of my entire apartment and the next day reported for duty.
Let’s just say the study involved reading a narrative to perfect strangers and asking questions about it. I welcomed the warmth of the National Field Director, Anne, who had a maternal quality and hailed from Minnesota. She told us that the company was investing money in us not just for this study, but for others down the line. I was not used to a door being open like this. Skeptical though I was, I wanted to walk through it.
Whatever. That first night in my room, I freak. Is this some bizarre form of punishment for turning down that job in the CBS legal department? Putting me in a grand ballroom for ten days straight? I’m an artist, for God’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 are really just the burning up of old ways so that we can move into the next phase of life. Like their PMS predecessor, they’re a way of forcing our shit under the spotlight so we deal with it. I like the idea but realize it puts the burden of responsibility squarely on my shoulders.
I get to know my fellow trainees. About 50-something of the 60-something are women. They come from all over the country having survived divorce and child support battles and, in the case of one we nicknamed “Detroit”, attempted murder by her ex-husband’s girlfriend. Many look their age, many don’t; but almost every single one possesses a grace and fierceness that is oh-so refreshing. There is sixty-two year-old Rose, an out-of-work librarian, mother to five cats, and self-described pagan. There’s Carolyn, whose ex-husband cleaned out her accounts and who is entering a new phase of life which does NOT include taking care of everyone, 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 cardboard and use it to fan my face furiously like a worshipper in an overheated church in Alabama. You know the image.
But I am in good company. Most of 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 my dewy forehead up to bad ventilation. I am swimming in a sea of estrogen deprivation and wearing a designer life vest.
I go to the hot tub in the hotel every night to relax. 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 the job. I avoid things I would ordinarily lean on in times like this: lattes. Milkshakes. Mojitos. I continue to ask the Universe to release me from this deep-seated sense that if I’m not a working writer or actress, I’ve somehow failed at life.
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. The freedom I feel as I leave the arctic grand ballroom and emerge into the balmy Mid-Atlantic evening makes walking down the consumer circus that is Rockville downright joyous. After we’ve all given the server our orders, we share stories. One night, in Ruby Tuesday’s, it hits me: my own life, the one that landed me in this fresh hell, doesn’t sound so bad when told to this rapt group. My auditions, rejections, my emotional highs often followed by quick lows remind me of one key fact: I’m living the dream – no irony intended. In fact, sitting there in the booth, my sweaty legs sticking to the faux leather, I fall in love with my choices all over again.
When we get back to the hotel, I go into the hot tub. Tonight a family has taken over the pool area. They have a cooler and a boombox. Fuck, I think as I enter the hot tub – people. And sure enough, within seconds, the whole family descends. 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 vision, it is.
But then The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” starts playing on the boombox and something happens. I put aside my idea of how things should be and I see these people for what they really are: truly happy – in this crappy hotel pool with faux stone siding and threadbare towels. This fact hits me so hard that all of a sudden tears start streaming down my face. It’s not sadness I feel as I get out and bury my face in a towel; I honestly don’t know what it is. Loss over one chapter ending and a new one beginning? Maybe. An invitation to experience genuine happiness? Maybe that too.
I pass the main certification. I learn everything I need for 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 (and eventually write and star in a web series about the job and make friends that may very well last a lifetime, but who knew that then?)