Everything was fake, right down to my pantyhose, which weren’t even pantyhose. They were trouser socks and I was beginning to have serious regrets about accepting this job interview. Austen & Son Air Filtration Services, “a leader in HVAC and air filtration systems, providing solutions to indoor air quality issues in Essex County, NJ and the surrounding areas for over 40 years,” was not my dream job, per se, but rather, as my mother called it, a means to an end, which sounded so final that I wanted to cry. Things had barely begun for me. “Just to get you settled into it,” she had said. And by it, I was sure she meant adulthood.
“I would say my biggest flaw is that I’m over-organized,” I said, just like the temp agency trained me. Take a positive and make it seem like a negative. Ms. Lauer-Baines, a thin woman, older looking than me with frizzy hair and a fuchsia pantsuit, introduced herself formally as Ms. Lauer-Baines. She asked me questions about my organizational skills and personality and I spat out my rehearsed answers while worrying about my appearance. Worrying if they could tell I was fake, too.
I didn’t have proper work attire, so I was there in the suit I wore practically five years earlier in my college production of Annie. I played Grace Farrell, Daddy Warbucks’s faithful secretary. I thought the outfit was a good choice. It was a smart look in a wide-shouldered, Great Depression kind of way. The temp agency I worked for sent me to a seminar about landing a permanent job, and I learned that being overdressed was a sign to others that I was enthusiastic and orderly. But there I was in a costume, playing the part of an enthusiastic and orderly potential candidate for the position without proper pantyhose. The suit, which used to fit nicely, was now awfully snug around the hips and a little rumpled. The skirt hit mid-calf, so the trouser socks appeared to be pantyhose when I was standing, but for most of my interview I was seated, my bare knees jutting out beneath the conference table like two thick turkey breasts.
Ms. Lauer-Baines jotted notes down in a folder and we made small talk about the spring weather, but all I could think about was how unreal everything seemed. The room itself. Wood-paneled walls, a framed photograph of an unspecific mountain, faux-oak table, fluorescent lights, carpeting that looked like tile. Me in this job interview in my Grace Farrell suit.
“So, what would you be doing here?” Ms. Lauer-Baines asked.
“Oh, I guess organizing and scheduling and—”
“No. That’s a rhetorical question,” Ms. Lauer-Baines said.
“It’s fine. No one ever knows when I’m being rhetorical.” She might have seemed a little sad. “Right, so I’ll tell you what you’ll be doing.” And she went on to tell me about the job requirements, the day-to-day, listing important particulars that I perhaps should have been noting, especially when she’d wink, a punctuation to her statement, but my knees were so distracting. I kept feeling a breeze skimming by, but there was no open window in the room. The windows, of course, were not real, not ones that could open up on a beautiful spring day and air a place out. Lauer-Baines could have been telling me that one of my responsibilities was to bleed virgins so the boss could bathe, and I was just agreeing, nodding and making vague affirmative noises, to whatever she was saying, trying to mimic her ersatz enthusiasm.
“You got all that?” she asked as she looked up from her folder and shot me the phoniest smile I’d ever seen.
“Yes,” I said, returning the sentiment. “I think I do!”
She said great and excused herself from the room.
The entire situation was a lie. It felt like the moment you realize you’re dreaming. Inevitably, the dream is over, because, what, did you actually think you could fly?
“This,” Lauer-Baines announced, “is Reuben Kennedy,” introducing the hunched man in the brown slacks and tan blazer who was following her into the room, his head leading the way as if he were a cat asking for a scratch. “He’s our top salesman here, leading the company in system sales, filter replacement, and extended warranty promotion for twenty-three years. Reuben,” she tilted her head down to speak to him, “this is Catherine Greco. She wants to be your new assistant.”
I stood to greet him, tugging my skirt over the awkwardness of my hips.
“Greco? What’s that? You’re Greek?” Kennedy asked.
“It’s Italian, actually,” I said, trying to laugh.
“Eye-talian? Really?” Kennedy said. “Doesn’t sound it. I had a buddy once, last name of Benedetto. This real Eye-talian guy. A what do you call it? A goombah, you know? He owned a butcher shop. You know what I mean?”
I nod. I’m certain he’s talking about the mob.
“Well, O.K.! The Eye-talian Stallion. Rocky. You remember?” he said, turning to Lauer-Baines. “We just had a Spanish girl in here, huh?”
“She was Dominican, I think.”
“It’s like a regular United Nations today.” Kennedy laughed and moved toward me. “I’m just teasing!”
I put out my hand for a real go-getter handshake. He took the tips of my fingers and wiggled. He smelled like sweet pine and told me to call him Reuben.
“Okay. Cathy Grecco. Let’s sit,” he said.
What an assumption. No one ever called me Cathy. For a year in college, I went by Cat and my high school drama guild friends called me Reeny, but never Cathy. I wanted to correct him. Catherine is my name, but he had already begun his presentation on the quality air filtration systems that I might be lucky enough to assist him in selling. “We’ve been a leader in HVAC and air filtration systems, providing solutions to indoor air quality issues in Essex County, NJ and the surrounding areas for over 40 years.”
“Yes, I read that,” I said, trying to sound impressed and prepared.
He continued, “Part of being my assistant will require some overtime in the busy season.”
“Spring,” Lauer-Baines said. “Starting around now.”
“Right. However, in the two years or so since 9-11, we've had an uptick in full system replacements. And it is still necessary. Make no mistake…” He spun a crooked finger above his head. “Particles all swirling in the air. Blowing in from the city. You could smell it, right?”
We could smell it. Days and weeks after that deep-blue day that we stood at the top of our suburban New Jersey street and watched, we could smell that sour, acrid, rubber smell. And it was hard to stop smelling it even after downtown New York City had stopped smoldering, after the plume disappeared from our horizon.
“All still in the air. Still everywhere,” he warned.
“Busy season,” Lauer-Baines continued, “is usually April through June. That’s when the air quality seems to bother people. Changing seasons, changing filters. You’ll be helping Reuben with scheduling, typing and faxing, and swift order processing. You’re good on the phone?”
“Um,” I said, “I guess so, yeah, sure,” then recognized that that was not the correct answer. “I mean,” I said, “Yes, I am great on the telephone. I enjoy talking to people.”
“Good,” Lauer-Baines said. She told me that Reuben spent most of his days driving around. “He visits clients, goes on sales calls, and although he doesn't need to, does some door-to-door!” She winked.
“It’s how I started in this game. It’s very energizing. Keeps me sharp!” he said.
I imagined him driving around on a sunny day, drinking a coffee and eating a fast-food burger while consulting a worn map of the area. I pictured him in a long and wide sedan, his big smooth hands guiding the wheel, cruising leisurely just below the speed limit. I saw myself back at the office filing papers and typing letters, taking messages on a steno pad, wearing crisp, work-appropriate dresses and heels, my hair done up nicely, playing right into the myth of beauty and success. But it was just another role to play.
Reuben looked over to Lauer-Baines. “Did you explain to her about the conditions?” he asked.
“No, I did not,” she replied.
“Well, why don’t you then?”
“O.K.” Lauer-Baines turned to me. “I assume the agency filled you in, but just so we’re clear, this would be, at first, full-time temporary. Six months or so.”
“Yes, they told me.” I had been with my temp agency for three years since graduating from college, gone in and out of temporary situations while trying to build a freelance film career, which I never fully committed to. The agency had always encouraged me to try a “temp-to-perm” job, but I’d always resisted until now. I’d been broke before, but never like I was this. Never candlelight only during the week to save on electricity, boiling tap water to drink, eating SpaghettiOs twice a day kind of broke. I had even stapled the hem of my Grace Farrell skirt when I noticed it had fallen.
“It’s eighteen an hour. Then, if you’re right for the job, it would turn into a permanent position. Thirty-five K to start with benefits.” Lauer-Baines pushed up the sleeves of her jacket revealing a small butterfly tattoo. “They said you have some college under your belt?”
I had a 3.8 GPA, won two scholarships, had a lead role in the Spring musical which I also did P.R. for, and won one of the top prizes for my student thesis film, but no one ever cared in the real world. “I have a Bachelor’s degree.”
“Oh! Good, then.” Lauer-Baines opened up the folder in front of her. “Business major?”
“Ah, sorry. This isn’t you.” She was reading off the wrong resume and thumbed through her stack looking for me.
“Communications,” I said.
She perked up. “Oh, me too!”
I clarified. “Filmmaking, actually!”
“Right,” she said. “I was more on the theater side of the department.”
“I did some theater, too!” I said straightening my lapel, hoping she wouldn’t notice it was a costume. “A lot of theater, actually. It was my first love.”
“First loves hurt the most, don’t they?” she winked. “So hard to make a living in the arts, huh? When did you graduate school?”
I purposely left my graduation year off my resume, feeling embarrassingly unaccomplished in the last three years. “Oh.” I started to answer.
“Wait! I’m not supposed to ask you that in an interview.”
“I worked freelance a little bit on movies and some television.” I wanted her to understand that I could have been successful at it if I really wanted to and if I wasn’t afraid of going into the city, of bombs going off inside the Lincoln Tunnel, of the bridge collapsing, my body on fire. “Mostly independent films.”
“Oh, interesting,” Lauer-Baines said, seemingly not at all interested.
“Cinema!” Reuben joins the conversation. “The movies! Bet that was exciting! Very glamorous! Wasn’t it?”
“It sure was,” I said, thinking about that production manager on this low budget indie who made us clean an alleyway in Chinatown. She handed us a bottle of bleach and a box of fifty garbage bags. We wore the bags on our hands as gloves in order to pick up rotting, rat-infested garbage and broken bottles. I made a hundred dollars a week for that gig.
“Good for you!” he said. “That's a real passion! You gotta be passionate about what you're doing, I always say. What do you think, Cathy?”
I wondered if he’d always talk to me like that.
“Hey, have you ever seen the one, that movie, with the funny fellow?” Reuben asked. “What’s the name of that picture?” He turned to Lauer-Baines. “Jenny? What’s the movie with the funny fellow with the rubbery face?”
Lauer-Baines said she wasn’t sure. Reuben continued giving clues. “With the pets, and he solves the crimes? Came out a while ago. No, not too long ago. It’s on television all the time. Boy, that’s one of my favorites.”
Lauer-Baines shrugged and cracked a half-smile.
“You really can't remember the name of that film?” Reuben asked. “Either one of you?” Lauer-Baines and I both shook our heads even though I did know and I had to assume that she did, too.
“Well, I'm surprised you're not more up on all that.” Reuben glanced over at Lauer-Baines and pulled my resume from her pile. “Jenny is our resident thespian here!” Reuben said, holding the paper out to focus. “You know, a thespian? Not lesbian. Don’t confuse it with that!”
“OK,” I said. “I won’t confuse that.”
“I’m married,” Lauer-Baines said, wiggling her ring finger. “To a guy.”
Reuben laughed and told me, “She’s always got some performance going on. Theater plays and such. We should put her in a commercial, huh?”
We all kind of chuckled and I told them that I could be in the commercial, too, maybe even shoot it, apparently jockeying for the part, trying to fit in, be a team player.
“Are you married?” Reuben asked me.
“No, I’m not.” I stopped myself from telling him I had recently broken up with someone. Charlie was my college boyfriend, and we moved in together after graduation, because I was not going home for anything. Going home was failure, wasn’t it? We used to take walks at night through our old neighborhood, holding hands and speaking French, picking through people’s bulk trash for treasures. We broke up in the Short Hills Mall parking garage when we definitively decided we were not getting married, not moving into his mother’s, and not having the baby. Sometimes, I wanted to feel his hand in mine so badly, my chest ached. “I’m not married,” I said, though, I didn’t think Reuben should’ve been asking that question.
Twenty minutes had already passed since Reuben came into the room. He sighed and got back on track. “So, indoor air pollution happens when chemicals and particulates, gases and such are released in the air and creep into the building.” He was on. Commanding, even. He spoke in a way that made me sit up tall and turn to face him. No wonder he was the top salesman. As I turned in my chair, Reuben caught a glimpse of my fat turkey knees. He paused his lecture about the horrors that lurk in air ducts and the value of a filtration system.
“Right. Particulates,” I said. I couldn’t tell if he found my trouser socks arousing or peculiar.
“So, all that nastiness, it gunks up the works.” He really had charisma, and he somehow made air-filtration urgent and exciting. He folded his hands in front of him and continued. “Mold, bacteria, and fungus spores. Radon is still an issue. Especially in this area. Formaldehyde. They all cause serious health risks.”
“Yes,” I said loudly, noticing a plastic rubber tree in the corner of the conference room collecting dust and probably mold spores. Definitely mold spores. I thought about plastic, all the plastic, just giving off gases that we were practically eating. And the air, all the filtered, fake air.
I felt like I had unknowingly wandered into a parallel universe—one where I worked at Austen & Son, had a small part in their local commercial and grew even fatter and unhealthy and paranoid about air quality, and died one day on the couch all without ever making the choice to have lived that life—and doubting if I could find my way out of there.
“Okay, Reuben!” Finally, Lauer-Baines cut him off. “I think you’ve overwhelmed her a little with the sales-pitch.” She looked to me. “Lots of information, huh?”
I nodded thinking of the plastic in our bellies and our bones. Wondering if it melts at high temperatures. Reuben and Ms. Lauer-Baines thanked me for my time and said they’d be in touch. We all stood. I said that I looked forward to hearing from them.
Reuben came towards me, grabbing both my hands in his, said, “That’s good to know. Real good.” He was such a salesman.
In the parking lot, I breathed in the real, cool, unfiltered air. Spring was suddenly happening. It was familiar. The young trees lining the street were budding, the sun was warm. A promise that things were happening. I climbed into my car, slipped off my shoes, peeled off those fucking trouser socks and rubbed the marks left by the elastic. I had no other plans for the day.
I started the car to open up the windows and the same CD that had been playing forever came on with a song that reminded me of home. Of cold high school mornings, smoking cigarettes in the back seat of a Toyota, stopping for bagels and mint Snapple, smoking pot off a crushed Pepsi can.
It was already one o’clock in the afternoon. My entire morning had been dedicated to Austen & Son Air Filtration Services. Could that be my every day? Could I sit and eat my lunch in the car, parked in front of those trees every day?
I thought maybe I should just move back home, all the way back down the Garden State Parkway, back onto our beach town island, back into our cornflower-blue house, into my old bedroom. I’d work at a casino or sell real estate. Go to happy hour for the Jimmy Buffet cover band. I’d do chores, make baked ziti with my father, paint my nails with my mother on a Sunday night, have family movie nights. But our parents had just separated. I did go home for a couple months after Charlie and I broke up. I felt like I was such a disappointment. Home again with nothing to show for my efforts. My little sister, Lilah, who had blue hair and a nose ring, had told all her skater friends that I’d practically directed a season of The Sopranos, when actually, I only worked that gig for two days during which time I sat outside of the location guarding the grip truck. I let her believe what she wanted. I just wanted to be sisters, and we tried, but hanging out together was a disaster. The CD started over with a Charlie song. I finally hit the eject button.
I looked across the parking lot and noticed Reuben a few spaces over. He was in his car—a gold compact—holding a sandwich with two hands. A little food fell out of his mouth and he tried to dab his chin with a napkin, but dropped that, too.
I got out of the car and walked barefoot over to his, knocked on his window and gave a little wave. He looked over to me like I was there to give him a religious pamphlet.
“Oh, hello, there!” he said, manually rolling down the window. The smell of tuna fish wafted from the car, his heat blasting.
“Ace Ventura,” I said.
“What's that?” He looked at me quizzically.
“Ace Ventura!” I smiled. “The name of the movie you were trying to think of.”
He shook his head, dismissing the whole idea. “No, I don't think so.”
“I'm pretty sure it is,” I said, confident.
He furrowed his brow and suddenly he snapped his fingers in the air. “I got it!” he said. “Pet Detectives! It’s Pet Detectives. You've seen that one?”
I told him, “Yes!”
“Funny stuff,” he said. He nodded, pleased with himself and took another bite of his sandwich. Tuna slipped out onto his shirt. It was a real mess. “Goddamit. Do you have a napkin?” he asked and looked up at me, quite helpless.
“I think so,” I said and went back to my car to dig around for something to help and for some reason, looking through the years’ old junk in my car to find something for the pitiable old, misogynistic, racist man to wipe the tuna fish off himself made me realize that I couldn’t go back to South Jersey where everyone had expectations of me, the New York City filmmaker, the actor, the bohemian. And yet, I couldn’t see how being the assistant to Reuben Kennedy was the better choice. My father would have said it wasn’t forever, but goddamn, the interview alone had been my entire morning. My father also used to say, do what you love, love what you do, but that hadn’t really panned out for me. Pet detective, I thought. That would be a fun job.
I found Reuben a napkin in my glove compartment and I returned to him and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
“What's that?” he asked.
“Air filtration is not my passion, and I really can't spend all this time assisting you with your needs.” I was over articulating and I might have put on a slight old-time movie accent.
“Oh.” Reuben wiped his mouth with the napkin and cleared his throat. “I see. Well,” he laughed a little, “the truth is that frankly, you're not right for the job, anyway. You're kind of a gloomy gal, huh? You ought to smile more. Lighten up.”
And with that, I drove away. I felt lighter already.
I hurried back to the tiny apartment my parents were helping to pay for. I started to remove my Grace Farrell suit vowing never again, but paused. I wanted to remember myself on this day, so I buttoned up the jacket as best I could and got my camera. I had two pictures left on the roll. I retrieved my trouser socks from the car, pulled them back on and stepped into my shoes. I stood in the full-length mirror, smiled and clicked.
I used to stare at this tree out the window of my old attic apartment I shared with Charlie, and I was always so surprised when I noticed it had changed. Time moved liked glaciers in that attic. Seasons stretched for years. It seemed the tree had always been green until one day, out of nowhere, it was orange.
I stripped out of my clothes, stuffed the suit, the shoes and the trouser socks into a garbage bag. I glanced in the mirror at myself wearing only a pair of pink cotton underwear and a white bra. I felt that feeling in my gut, like the moments spent backstage waiting for a cue to enter the scene, or what it felt like on a movie set as the camera was rolling, each second buzzing with anticipation. Time was about to speed up. I knew it. Life was just about to happen. The next time I would look it would be a year and then three and then two more and there would be a job and another apartment, a career and a friendship, a first date, a house and a husband and a girl. There would be love. And each time I’d looked at myself I’d want to burst and I’d be constantly surprised at how fast time had moved.
Le temps est l'amour, I said to myself, not quite knowing exactly how that translated, but wanting it to mean time is love.
I ran my hands down my rib cage, into the deep curves of my waist, out over my hips, up across my stomach pausing there to wonder what if I had stayed pregnant, then brushed my hands down and back up my legs trying to filter out the particulates, all the plastic. I smiled in the mirror, looking down at my turkey knees, dimpled, round, and strong. I picked up the camera and took the last picture.