By Laura Dennison
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
My classmates always had lofty goals in response to this question. They wanted to be equine veterinarians, or paleontologists, the President of the United States or multimillionaire major-league baseball players, maybe all four of these things. I, on the other hand, wanted to be a cashier when I grew up. I guess you could claim I was a seven-year-old realist.
Lucky for me, unlike most of my peers, I’d fulfilled my lifelong career goal three times over by the tender age of twenty-one. Cashier gig number three was at a convenience store/sub shop on the campus of the college I attended. At 3 a.m.—the end of my shifts—I could walk home on streets that were clear and quiet save for the occasional possum or straggling drunkard. I wanted nothing more than this—to deep-fry frozen mozzarella sticks (even as speckles of the hot oil splattered back on my face); to grill steak-and-cheese subs and layer the meat with slices of the soon-to-be-oozing gooey, white American cheese I’d never eat myself; and to slide the change—the seemingly worthless pennies—through my index finger and thumb and into the cupped hand of a waiting customer.
The chaos of getting all the orders cleared off the overhead screen, the changing in and out of the dozens upon dozens of pairs of greasy disposable gloves, the thud of the roll of quarters breaking in half as I slammed them against the sharp black edge of the register—in this nightly grid, the store pulsed with an energy so strong it left no room for my own pulse to sail too fast and fill me with worry. In those moments, the makeup of meats in an Italian sub was far more important than my brain’s neurochemistry and whatever might’ve been worrying me that day.
And so, as far as I was concerned, working as a cashier was still ideal. The thought of jobs where I’d be in power—where I’d lead or be responsible for the lives of others—left my stomach turning, my palms sweating, and my mind willing me to go toast breast for a BLT. Because despite occasional customer complaints that could sometimes seem the contrary, nobody dies if the bread is too crusty. If I could rent an apartment and visit the dentist regularly on gas station clerk’s salary, I’d be the first one to sign up, graveyard shift or not, and bachelor’s-degree-be-damned. My seven-year-old realism has turned into what could be perceived as twenty-one-year-old laziness or lack of ambition. I realized that a woman graduating from a four-year college should perhaps purchase a pant-suit or a pair of slacks and a matching argyle sweater so that, upon graduation, she could take a job behind a wooden desk, where she’d write important emails and take phone calls.
“There’s just one problem, if you want to make it one: For years, I didn’t need to pray I’d die before I got old. I had a solid plan. Suicide at twenty. No need to worry about the future. “
But here’s the truth: in between my first two cashiering jobs, I’d spent a few nights in a psych hospital and dropped out of college. Instead of returning to what now seemed like pointless, antiquated, stuck-up study of English literature, I decided I wanted to do something with my life that would actually help other people in the way that the nurses and attendants at the hospital had helped me. And so I enrolled myself in a three-week crash course to become a licensed nursing assistant. This is what I considered “the real world,” and the real world had done nothing but scare me.
My first glimpse of the real world was at the Work ‘n Gear store, where I purchased the white scrubs all student-nursing assistants were required to wear while in training.
“Be sure to wear nude underwear with these,” the gray-haired cashier told me with a wink as she rang up the scrubs. “Any other color will show straight through—even white.” She flashed me a nicotine-stained smile and I let out a stab of a laugh, then stuffed a handful of crumpled one-dollar bills into her hand as I thanked her.
“Rookie mistake,” she added.
The three weeks that followed could also be described that way—rookie mistake. Our class met in a nursing home basement, and our RN teacher informed almost all our learning, sans the state exam, would be hands-on. Soon, the hands I’d once used to take notes in Brit Lit with perfect penmanship turned clammy and tremulous as I tried to shave a grown man’s beard with the same model of cheap, disposable safety razor I’d used to cut myself with in the dorm bathroom less than a month earlier. My once-crisp white uniform was soiled daily by a rainbow of body fluids—blood, bile, vomit, diarrhea, saliva—you name it, I wore it.
In the eight-hour days I spent dunked into “the real world,” my eighteen-year-old self learned about the human condition and aging. I worked with another woman to shower the shriveled, leathery body of an Alzheimer’s patient who could no longer stand. As we rubbed soapy washcloths on his shoulders and underarms, we tried to ignore his erection poking up from the shower chair. My LNA partner-in-training bent down to scrub between the delicate, peeling purple skin of the man’s diabetes-riddled feet.
“Ooh, scrub a little harder,” the man moaned. I locked eyes with my partner and she shrugged. I glanced out of the shower stall, over to the patient’s waiting wheelchair. It was only sometimes that, back in his room, he could lift the black-and-white photograph at his bedside and tell me—with confidence—that the young woman standing and grinning beside the young man in the photograph was his late wife. I wondered what it would be like to want for someone or something you couldn’t remember you missed.
But I couldn’t wonder for long, since there was lots to do in the nursing home. Bottoms to wipe, for example, and diapers to change. If we were caught uttering the word diaper, though, we’d be subject to a write-up, because such language was thought to rob the residents of dignity. Only I learned quickly that dignity can be damaged in ways far deeper and more haunting than a few brown smears left accidentally on the bedsheets overnight.
Jane, for instance. She hated the nursing home. She had a photo album tucked away in the drawer of her bedside table, and she’d once shared the album with me. I turned the pages in awe as I realized how she’d shrunk. Once maybe over two-hundred pounds, she’d shriveled to mere bones encased loosely in thick, molasses-like ribbons of yellowing skin. She was starving herself to die. The head nurse had told me so.
“Make sure she eats her breakfast,” she’d told me one morning. As she spoke, her eyes were fixed on the next room down, where the resident has pressed her call button. She hugged her clipboard tight across her chest. “She’ll fight you; don’t give in,” she said before disappearing down the hall.
I felt connected to Jane, maybe because we’d both had thoughts of opting out. And maybe also because of that mutual understanding, I hated to make her eat. I’d sit the back of her bed up and set her breakfast tray in front of her and she’d whimper.
“No, not today. Not today.”
But usually she’d eventually choke down some orange juice and a mouthful or two of toast. And it would usually come right back up, into the kidney-shaped pink basin I’d hold in front of her to spit into. I’d rub her back as the saliva and bile slithered up her throat. It got to a point where the body fluids stopped bothering me, but Jane’s determination to leave the nursing home in whatever way possible? That never did.
Then there was Mae, who, according to her files, was only 67. The head nurse had us practice changing colostomy bags on her, and Mae would watch and utter something as I snapped off the bag, cleaned her puffy, pink intestines of any residual poo, and snapped a new ostomy bag back in place. It was only after a few rounds of doing this that I came to understand her slurred syllables.
“Thank you!” she’d cry out through one corner of her stroke-riddled mouth. I’d learn to wave and smile, but it still hurt. Because here was a woman, unable to control her own body, controlling her manners better than I did half the time.
Each day at the end of the course, I’d return home to shower and try to cleanse myself of the atrophy and decay of the place. Then I’d say a quick prayer, hoping I’d die before I got old or ill.
When the three weeks were up, I went to take the state test and passed all of the nursing board’s requirements. I didn’t use my license once. The next available semester, I reenrolled at a four-year college and signed up to be an English major. I wanted to be nobody’s keeper, nobody’s caretaker—to touch paper rather than flesh.
There’s just one problem, if you want to make it one: For years, I didn’t need to pray I’d die before I got old. I had a solid plan. Suicide at twenty. No need to worry about the future. Now I’m living at twenty-one, a few months shy from graduating with a bachelor’s degree, staring into the big, hollow vortex of time. The future’s like a black hole. Once it sucks matter in—once it sucks me in—there’s no escaping. Nobody knows much about it, either. Even to the frat-bro business majors and those girls who knew they wanted to be equine veterinarians since they were four years old, the future is ominous and uncontrollable. And when I start to gravitate near it, it threatens to swallow me whole.
The trouble is, the future’s spinning ever closer, and I have no idea what I want to do come graduation and summer. Or the rest of my life. At my parents’ urging, I sometimes log on to job-search sites and scour for administrative assistant type jobs without much luck. I have noticed, though, that there are plenty of nursing assistant jobs available—hospices, home-health aides, assisted living facilities. All I’d need to do’s renew my license.
It’s been years, but I still remember exactly how it felt when Jane—the same patient who was intentionally starving—would forget who I was even if I was standing right in front of her.
“Have you seen Laura?” she would ask me, shivering under a thick layer of quilts. “I had this nice nurse named Laura. Where’d she go?”
I would turn from her and try to subtly flip my name badge over temporarily, so that the block lettering that read L A U R A wouldn’t give me away. The goal has always been the same: don’t think about Laura. Just move onto the next thing. When Jane got confused, I’d try to distract her. I’d grab the earring holder by her bedside and have her pick out which pair she’d like to wear for the day. She once chose a pair of turquoise studs, and after I’d fastened them to her ears with gloved hands, her smile quickly drooped to a frown.
“My daughter gave me these,” she said, one hand reaching for a stud. “I think.” She scrunched up her face. “Oh, I’m not sure. She never visits anymore.”
It’s this memory, more than all the others, that stop me from applying for any of these types of jobs, even if they’re right there for the taking, listed on the black-and-white of the screen.
Another truth: every time I search for post-college jobs, I start to cry. People have stopped asking me about the future because of this; it's only tolerable so many times. The tears are involuntary, like all tears are, I guess. But scrolling through those listings gets my heart racing, my mouth dry, my head hazy and fuzzy until I see the computer in triplicate and then I shut it off.
As always since the hospital, I try to take things a day at a time to get by. The trouble is, too many days have passed. Sixteen years of schooling, and I still feel like I have no skills. I don't know a thing about Microsoft Excel, still look at fractions like they’re an alien life form, and would be clueless if I had to pitch a tent. When I describe my accomplishments, they’re all in the past tense. I have this plastic running trophy in my bedroom at my parents’ house that I won when I was fifteen. I can’t bring myself to take it down. Draped around it are my high-school National Honor Society cords, my Varsity letters, a Top 25 ribbon from a cross country race, four half-marathon finishers’ medals, and old notes from teachers encouraging me to pursue writing in college.
I speak in the past, my mind living in reruns: “When I did this . . . When I did that . . . Remember when? I wish I still . . .”
* * *
There are only a few weeks left of my job in the University’s convenience store, and until my graduation. In my dining-hall uniform cap and blue t-shirt, I pass the hours straightening out the inventory on the shelves, dusting them off, and pulling all the products forward. Then there is the constant motion as we make the food that fuels the drunken droves. I fold a quesadilla on the grill and cut it into thirds. I think nothing of myself, just the orders off the monitor, and this is when I am happiest—exhausted.
Of course, the cash register slides open with a clunk. I grab the change and count it back, sliding the coins from palm to palm. It seems like nobody ever wants their change, though. They leave it behind, in the leave-a-penny take-a-penny jar. Without a thought, they walk away. Funny thing is, I would take that change if I could. That is, if I were allowed to. The rules dictate that dining-hall employees can’t take tips, so I usually don’t. I get so afraid of such simple little risks.
But sometimes, when nobody is looking, I take the change anyway. I slip it into my pocket to put in my piggy bank for later. There’s no harm and low risk in making myself twenty-five cents richer, and I figure if nothing else, all of this slow change has to add up to something substantial eventually.
I do these things meticulously—slowly—so that nobody catches on. But I do these things deliberately, so some part of me must think that I am worth of this change.
If someone were to ask me today, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I might not reply “a cashier!” anymore. I might just say, “I don’t know.” What I really might mean by that is, “Judging from everything I’ve seen, I don’t know how to go on.”
At night, I still think of black holes pummeling toward me, a collision course.
But for now, I’ve found the rhythm, and living—avoiding the future—is easy enough. Making change out of twenties, refilling the gigantic vat of mayonnaise, counting out the number of chicken fingers to shove in an order box. Until 3 a.m. rolls around and I walk home to the black holes barreling toward me, closing in on either side, twisting like tornadoes, I’m safe from time.
Eyes shut for just a second. Deep breath. Open the eyes and smile. Now the long line at the register doesn’t seem so bad.
Laura Dennison is a graduate of The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.