The summer after my freshman year of college I took a job in an office that dealt with real estate law. I subsisted on the bottom of the food chain there, doing a lot of filing and the most basic secretarial work. I think my job title was actually “typist.” I saw the lawyer who ran the place only in fleeting glimpses. I had my desk changed practically every week. I typed a lot of letters. I don’t entirely remember what they said. I disappeared into the records room, a poorly-lit dungeon of filing cabinets, for silence and solitude whenever I could. Each day I was expected to eat my lunch in the conference room with my exclusively-female coworkers, all of whom talked endlessly about their diets. Prior to then, I had not known any women who actually did this. I thought it was an offensive stereotype. But it seemed unavoidable. Leaving the office for lunch was actively discouraged. If I did, I had to listen to a hail of sneering questions about where I’d gone and whether I had enjoyed myself. I guess the point was that enjoying yourself at all during working hours was not allowed.
I lied to take that job -- I said I wasn’t sure if I was going back to college in the fall, when I knew full well that I was. I justified this action by telling myself that the job didn’t really matter, that it was work that could be done by anybody, and there was probably a high level of turnover, that they could replace me in a day. Also the money was more money than I had ever made in my life. I was making $300 a week, pre-taxes, and it felt like inconceiveable wealth. This was 1996. I don’t know where all that money went, as I was living at home rent-free. I probably spent it on CDs, band t-shirts, and all-ages shows.
The office shared bathrooms with all the other businesses on the same floor of the building. The bathroom was done in pale blue, with white tiles extending two-thirds up the walls. There was a bank of six or seven stalls facing a row of sinks and a vast mirror. I hid there too, when I’d run out of reasons to be in the records storage room. I’d take the last stall and and sit fully clothed on the toilet seat and press my right cheek against the cool tile wall and close my eyes and breathe. I would sometimes spend part of my lunch break in there, happy for my colleagues to believe I had some kind of persistent gastric problem if it meant I could avoid the enforced sociability sitting around that conference table.
Back in the eighth grade I spent many a tragic lunch hiding in a bathroom, during that time when my friends were particularly vicious in the way that eighth grade girls can be. The bathroom felt safe, because there was a door I could close and lock behind me, even if it was only a stall. My coworkers were nowhere near as nightmarish as my middle school clique, but still, there were rules and expectations and a hierarchy and some days it seemed easier to just opt out rather than continue to mess it up all the time.
I wrote a screenplay that summer -- did I mention I was a film student? -- and the screenplay was about a young, quirky fat woman in a mind-numbingly boring job and a mind-numbingly boring long-term relationship who had an affair with her married, conventionally attractive boss. The woman was me (minus the long-term relationship), but the boss wasn’t my boss, whom I never formally met and who likely didn’t even know my name. The boss was just an invention to daydream about in between being so bored. Sometimes he looked like Christian Slater, sometimes like Harry Connick Jr. I called the screenplay “Muzak,” after the canned music system that played in my real-life office, and imaginary elevator-ized versions of popular 80s songs played a significant role in the plot. “Voices Carry,” “Every Breath You Take,” that sort of thing. It was my own Mary Sue fiction. It was Fifty Shades of What Am I Even Doing Here.
One day, driving home after work and daydreaming about plot developments, I rear-ended a woman’s brand new BMW with my car. She was very nice about it. I thought, I can never tell anyone why I was distracted. I made up a story about looking down for a moment to reach for a pack of gum, and whoooops, crunch! Until now, I’ve never told anyone the truth. That I was, in fact, imagining an awkward elevator conversation about socks taking place between two people who did not actually exist.
I spent that summer feeling like a tourist in adulthood. I was pretending to be grown up, to need money for things other than imported CDs or comic books. I was playing a role that my middle class upbringing had turned into a caricature of Real Life. I had seen Working Girl and 9 to 5 and Baby Boom and a bunch of other 80s movies about “career women” wrought from the pop-feminism of the era, all of which portrayed work-focused women as a strange and unpredictable new species of dubious morality. Nobody I worked with was anything like those women.
That was the first job I ever did exclusively for the money. I'd had part time jobs as a teenager, but I always genuinely enjoyed them; this was the first time I did a job just because I wanted the paycheck. It wasn’t the last. But at the time I had no doubts that I would get my degree and become A Famous Screenwriter, that the retail gigs I took in between were only ever going to be temporary and short-lived. And then when graduation approached and I realized the long odds of making it in Hollywood with my weird, patently non-commercial screenplays about insane people and the ghosts of dead children and the one that was a musical about a disease that makes people break out into song and dance in public -- I was so terrified of becoming one of those office people for real that I went to graduate school. Twice.
Grad school didn’t stop the inevitable. I would eventually spend just shy of ten years as an office person. It gets better, but that’s not always a good thing. I settled in to the comfort of a desk and a computer, of lunch breaks I could stretch just beyond the hour, and eventually into a chronic half-hour-lateness every morning. I did it for the money. I worked to live, instead of the other way around. I stopped caring three years in. When a chance came to leave that life behind, I leapt at it. I might have done so sooner, if only I’d been less cozy.
But I'm still struggling to figure myself out. I always thought that adulthood would happen like flipping a switch -- I’d reach a certain age and a certain level of responsibility and there, I’d be a grown-up. A cursory internet search finds that Brittanica.com calls adulthood “a period of optimum mental functioning when the individual’s intellectual, emotional, and social capabilities are at their peak to meet the demands of career, marriage, and children,” but that’s kind of a bullshit definition, reliant as it is on certain social milestones, and simply put, there are a lot of adults who are unmarried and without children who are unqualifiedly grown up, and a lot of parents and spouses who seem more like kids. And, I mean, “optimum mental functioning”? What the fuck even is that?
I used to think that there was something wrong with me, that I still don’t feel like I’ve achieved proper adulthood status in my late 30s. I thought that everyone else knew what they were doing all the time, and that my feeling like my life was constantly evolving and growing and changing was a bad thing, that it meant I didn’t get to think of myself as an adult yet, because adults have everything worked out and are essentially finished objects. (When I have made this observation to either of my parents, they laugh, because I guess this keeps going on forever.)
Still, every time I buy a dress with ice cream cones on it or a package of balloons just to blow them up and bat them around the house with our cat for fun, there’s a little voice that tells me I’m failing somehow, that the only reason I should have a house full of toys is if there is a kid in it too, and there’s not, except for my husband and me.
But then I remember when I tried to meet the arbitrary standard of "adult" I have in my head, and I didn’t really like it. Don't misunderstand, I have a strong appreciation for paying my bills on time and tending to life responsibilities. But I think, approaching 40, I am abandoning any expectation or desire to feel like I have "finally" grown up. I’m just growing into myself, and I think that suits me better.