Not That Good at Breathing In
by Emma
Please note: MP3s are only kept online for a short time, and if this entry is from more than a couple of weeks ago, the music probably won't be available to download any more.


Courtney Barnett - "Avant Gardener"

Last year around this time, I had this job as a receptionist at a massage therapy clinic. The place was a kind of pseudo-spa whose overall vibe hovered somewhere between utility and luxury; it was small, just a few rooms, not super-fancy, but also not the kind of place you'd ever go if you didn't have health insurance. It was up on the second floor of a storefront, above a place that sold fancy hearing aids, in a sleepy/bougie part of town not far from where I lived. My bosses were these two women, a mother and a daughter, who had opened the clinic together for wildly different reasons - the daughter because it had always been her dream, and the mother because she was bored and unhappy and had a lot of money.

I got to know the mother pretty well - let's call her A. - not because she really worked there, but because she'd come in and sit next to me at the front desk on days when she didn't have anything else to do, complaining about all the people in the world who were trying to trick her out of her money or her dignity. She was from the most frustrating and depressing subspecies of day-job boss - the kind of person it would be very easy to feel heart-piercing sympathy for if you did not also rely on them for orders and a paycheque. There was another receptionist too; C., a girl with the breathiest calm I'd ever encountered, who wrote self-help books in her off-hours and whose every spoken word felt edged with a faint glow of quiet strength and spiritual purity even when she was just asking if you could take out the garbage or whatever. Her hair was perfect, and every patient who came in melted at her hi, welcome, and next to her I looked and felt like a tornado or a house destroyed by one. You cannot complain to a person who speaks in pure light about how much your contractor wanted to charge you to knock out a wall - your words will just burn up in their atmosphere - but me, I'm different.

Actually this is, I'm pretty sure, why A. hired me in the first place. I do not necessarily look or act particularly calm or spa-like, but I can listen like a motherfucker, especially when I'm being paid to do so. (You hear a lot, out in the world, about the various indignities of shitty minimum-wage work, but I feel like no one really talks about how easily and often you can end up becoming your superiors' de facto sounding board, psychiatrist.) A.'s unhappiness rang out a strange chord against the rest of the place's hypercalculated, Bed Bath & Beyond-y calm; she'd complain to me about what an asshole her dog-walker was as I replaced the "LAUGHTER"-scented oil in the diffusers, or about her shitty ex-husband while I clicked the salt lamps on and off, or about one of the other employees while I typed up this week's schedule, watered the ivies, stared blankly at the wall hangings that whispered love and patience across the foyer's pale blue walls. I nodded, made nice faces.

I've had a lot (a lot) of day jobs in my short life; many of them have paid better than this one did, and most of them had nicer bosses. But I loved working at the clinic, fiercely and irrationally. I told my friends that it just felt good to do things, to organize stuff, to be part of a machine, and this checked out - I'd spent the year beforehand stagnating on my couch, writing copy for an SEO firm and slowly driving myself crazy, so, like, sure.

I was only supposed to work part-time, but soon I started volunteering for all-day shifts, getting up early to open the place and staying late to close it too. I'd come in every morning clutching a gigantic, scalding hot tea, flick the alarm off and the lights on, kick my boots off and drop my ipod in the dock, blasting Kendrick Lamar loud enough that I could sing along to "Money Trees" in the breakroom while I chopped up lemons for the day's first jug of soothing, spa-like water. (The second I heard the front door ding open I'd have to book it back up the hall in my socks to switch to A.'s "calming" playlist, a disorienting mix of Gregorian chants, soft ambient string arrangements and Michael Bublé.) Then the day would move along in little cycles; there was always laundry to fold, files to pull from the overstuffed cabinets, then later alphabetize and put away. After everyone left, I'd linger as long as I could in the place's quiet emptiness, inventing tasks and chores until I couldn't convince myself there was anything left to do. Then I'd go next door for a burrito. Then, finally, I'd go home.

If you were watching this part of my life like a movie, it would not take much for you to see that I was maybe avoiding a few things in other quadrants of my life that wanted dealing with - or, if you're feeling more generous, that maybe one part of my brain needed time to sift through some stuff while another part, closer to the front, busied itself with the steady morse code push of dopamine that comes from simple tasks in a straight line. You're the audience, though; seeing this stuff is your job. If you'd asked me I probably would have just shugged.

Still, there's only so long you can talk yourself out of yourself. There was this one night when it turned out neither I nor C. could close the place, and when I told A., bracing for anger, she replied in a sweet, high-pitched voice that I had never heard before: it's okay, I'll take the shift. The next day I got a call from C.; A. had left the washing machine on overnight, overfilled; it had flooded, caving the floor in and destroying most of the downstairs hearing aid place. So... are they going to close? I asked C., who just laughed, like a thousand distant, beautiful bells. Nope. They want to stay open. Come in.

They'd already had repairpeople in for hours by the time I got there. Everything in the foyer had been piled haphazardly into cardboard boxes or covered in thick plastic tarp. There were 4 or 5 big weird machines sucking water out of the floor and walls, blaring a thick dull white noise in concert that didn't hurt your ears at first. I remember inhaling and tasting plaster dust on my tongue; I remember A. coming down the hallway, catching my eye, and waving a cheerful "hello!" like there was absolutely nothing going on.

It's strange, surreal moment, when the perspective shifts - when you realize that this whole time you've been a character in someone else's movie and not the other way around. I stayed at that job for another week, shrugging weakly when people would come in and wince at the noise. My last day I stayed even later than usual - shifting boxes, rearranging tarp, trying not to look out the window. When I finally left it was dark outside, and freezing, and I went for a burrito one last time. I didn't want to go back to the movie about me, not quite yet.

[buy The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas]

Posted by Emma at September 26, 2015 6:55 PM

There’s a lot to see on the Internet, but it seems that somebody should stop by and say what a nice piece of writing this is. I guess that’s why I’m here... before I head on back to my own movie about me.

Posted by RPS at October 2, 2015 12:15 PM

What a great pairing. I suddenly feel compelled to investigate my own internal scripting, to check the copyrights of my shortcomings.

Posted by CDH at May 20, 2016 10:32 AM

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Sean Michaels is the founder of Said the Gramophone. He is a writer, critic and author of the theremin novel Us Conductors. Follow him on Twitter or reach him by email here. Click here to browse his posts.

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