So I started a new job a couple weeks ago. Don’t ask what I do, because I’m still not sure myself. No orientation. No this-is-how-our-jobs-are-all-related. No this-is-how-you’ll-divide-your-time. No this-is-what-the-last-person-did.
The boss is leaving at the end of the month and a few of us are thinking that’ll be a great time to wipe the slate clean and start anew. Why I’ll be here six weeks before starting anew, I’ll probably never know. Or comprehend.
During all this dead time I’ve been browsing the Internet and listening to some of my old CDs. Any of you remember Jessica Andrews? Any of you surprised, like I am, how far in the past 1999 is? Her first album, Heart Shaped World, came out then.
Always the critic, I didn’t buy a copy until a couple years later. It’s one of those albums you knew you’d never love but, because you only listened to it during that time when you bought it, it seems to hold within it all my memories from that time.
I listened to it a lot in 2001, during the last quarter of the year, after 9/11. There’s no relevance; that’s just the way it was. I was working part-time at the JC Penney call center, off I-24 at the exit just before the Hickory Hollow Mall. Every weekday for about four months I wasted away at the world’s shittiest job — this is why I’m not too bothered to be where I am now: the confusion I work under now is heaven, by comparison — and, at the end of the day, I’d find my way down I-24 to spend another four or five hours answering calls from people ordering from the JC Penney catalog.
I don’t know about you but, even back then, I was surprised to find they still made catalogs. I was surprised to know people called their order in, too. It all felt very retro-, very pre-Internet. I always sat beside a girl who was a student at TSU. I’m sure I’ll remember her name in a few days when it won’t matter. Anyway, we sat side-by-side and laughed and passed the time together between calls. She had a really deep voice, her hair in dreads, a math major: by all accounts we had nothing in common except the job.
And there were so many calls. Again, it may have all changed now but, back then, folks didn’t hesitate to order clothes, drapes, all that stuff you kind of want to be present to purchase.
All my time at that shitty day job and this not-so-crappy evening job took me away from my gym. I’d been going there, back in 2001, regularly since the start of the year and, only a few months earlier, the cutest guy in all of … well, Hermitage, suddenly found himself consistently in my line of sight. This is, in so many ways, such an embarrassing story to tell.
Not only was I going through my "too cool for school" phase, but I’d also grown to feel I was the only gay in that end of town. To find myself the object of his glances and smiles was, at the same time, humbling, exciting, terrifying, liberating, excruciating.
I think his name was Pete. He had one of those higher pitched Southern drawls that most boys outgrow. Not a hint of gay in him — and I’ll be damned if that wasn’t the hottest part. He seemed so at home in Hermitage and, to my eyes anyway, distinctly not in Nashville. I’d spent pretty much all the years I lived in Hermitage only stopping at the grocery store and gas station locally — working either downtown or midtown — so it seemed so humble, so earthy, so reminiscent of my childhood, to find someone so comfortable outside the parts of town where most, whether we choose to or not, pose and put on our little show of cool.
He drove a big truck that looked much bigger because he couldn’t have stood more than 5’8", medium build, tanned — I caught him walking into the neighboring tanning salon once and found myself shocked at even that small degree of narcissism. Tanned so good. At first glance, he resembled a boy I knew growing up here at Tyendinaga.
He was one of the bad boys in my tiny little grade school, and I was probably too young and ignorant to have been intimidated by him at the time. After a few years, he was sent to a detention center for kids and I’d not heard anything of him until about ten years had passed. It seems he hanged himself, in an adult prison by then, only one day before he was to testify in court against — a surprise to me — the man who sexually abused him years earlier.
Being at home now, and listening to this CD with these divergent memories flowing, is causing a massive mash-up of something that involves history, fantasy, truth and whatever form of that truth I’ll choose to live by. I fell for the guy at my gym, back in Hermitage, partly for the same reason. We never spoke, never met, and given where I am now, it seems that was for the best. Better to engage the myths of these strangers so they’ll never outrun the stories I’ve created for them and the seeming circularity of these characters in my life, especially when so little is at stake, than risk it all collapsing.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20. I’d have traded any one of my family members, back then, to gain the cojones I needed to get my shy, semi-closeted self to just say hi.