Everyone was laughing except me. At this point, I had pasted a smile to my face, which now felt stiff and wooden. I probably looked like a monkey, tightened lips spread in a parody of human emotion. I’m usually pretty good at faking things, but it was all bubbling so closely under the surface that day.
“I went back and told her, ‘Uh uh. That’s not a raise: that’s a cost of living adjustment,’” Sophia proclaimed, straight-faced. “Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate a cost of living adjustment. It’s great. Really. But, you know, let’s just call it was it is.”
This followed a discussion of her husband’s signing bonus, which with an instantaneous calculation proved to be double what I netted in a year. A bonus.
We were on the patio at a good friend’s baby shower. It was perfect early spring in Southern California weather. Blossoms floated from the flowering trees onto the table in a delicate snow, alighting in our hair, perching on our mini-quiches. For a while, it felt like being in a Shakespearean comedy; one where everyone gets married at the end and the Don John gets his comeuppance.
When the conversation turned, however, the patio rearranged itself in an Escher-like maze, a seat of anxious nightmares disguised as a delightfully temperate day. Everyone’s face looked like a Venetian carnival mask; curves at impossible angles, faces smooth beyond human capacity, eyes dark holes. The black coffee I sipped out of the pink cardboard cup thrummed through my twanging veins, but it kept me from wanting to rush over to the drink bar to spike it with some of the champagne kept on ice by the berry lemonade and the water, so I kept sipping, smiling as the conversation wandered over from signing bonuses and raises to salaries and retirement savings.
At this point, I wanted to dissolve where I sat. I already felt invisible; why not just compound the feeling by actually becoming one with the wooden folding chair? Or I could flee to another corner of the house; bring my purse and compulsively reapply chapstick while scrolling through Facebook updates. My legs refused to move, afraid it would look like flouncing off in a prissy huff.
“You’ll want to set aside $2,000 each year from about age 22 on if you want to have enough to retire on. That doesn’t sound like much, but you know, the interest compounds.” A flutter of a chiffon-clad sleeve, a wave of a manicured hand.
Teaching underserved college students to read and write. My work, which everyone agrees is “so important” (but not important enough to earn a living wage). How am I supposed to feel about it? How am I supposed to set aside that kind of money?
“I love my job,” I repeated mechanically, over and over that day.
What are you doing now? Oh, that’s great!
I casually leave out the thirteen months of unemployment. Sometimes I include one of the three layoffs, though, to add a drop of truth to the surface tension that could feasibly break over the weight of my glossed-over version of reality.
I do love my job. But I’ve got to eat. My phone bill doesn’t pay itself. My car needs gas just like yours.
The blooms keep falling to the ground. I keep the smile on my face.