Thursday, July 23, 2009

Barely Legal and Not Loving It

Summer is definitely the most nostalgic time of year for me. Some people have Christmas or Thanksgiving; I have sticky, steamy summer memories.

I was 18, and had just finished my first year at Smith College. I was a little shaken that it had ended. I felt changed. Most of my friends were on the east coast for the summer, cocktail waitressing on the Cape or cleaning houses on Martha's Vineyard. I didn't know anything about Martha or her vineyard, but it certainly sounded romantic.

But I was back home in Orange County, blinking in the ridiculously bright sun, wondering where all the trees went. None of my siblings had left home yet, but I had been gone for nearly a year, and definitely felt like an interloper now. I didn't know the rhythm of the household anymore, and I resented not being able to sleep until noon and order pizza at 2 a.m.

My parents were firm on one point: if I lived with them, I had to get a full-time job, right away. I wasn't sure what I was qualified to do, but then my dad suggested temping. I can type, so I made some appointments at agencies, where I would spend an entire day proving I could spell and taking endless tutorials on now-extinct word processing programs.

It wasn't long before I got a call, though I didn't know then that this job would define my summer. I don't quit things much; I'm sort of dogged and determined to a fault. Plenty of things I should have quit, but a combination of loyalty and inertia kept me rooted. My first temp job was probably one of those instances.

It was the lowest of the low in the temping world. No, not data entry. Not answering phones all day. Not even copy girl. File clerk. And if that wasn't bad enough, for an auto insurance company, and not a major one. A teeny-tiny insurance company, in Laguna Niguel, in a warehouse park out past where the lions used to roam (that part is not poetic license--there was a place called Lion Country Safari out there, but they shut it down.)

My boss, Kim, was a platinum-blonde spitfire about 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Because she was pregnant, possibly with quads, from the size of her belly. She was very tan, had a smoker's voice, and pulled no punches. You didn't mess with Kim, or her unborn child would kick you, just like in that movie trailer.

There were four "adjusters," as they were called for some reason, lined up in cubicles along the left wall. They were the heart and soul of my department; I mostly filed for them. And they needed a lot of filing. They were on the phone all day, in various states of false cheer and fury, depending on how "the insured" was behaving on the other end of the line. And there were lots of these insureds...and none of them was very happy when they called. Which made me realize something at a very young age: Hardly anyone is happy when they call their insurance company. Which is why working in insurance is not fun. Luckily, I didn't have a phone. Just a bunch of cabinets. There were the cabinets in each adjuster's cube--they were each responsible for part of the alphabet. And then there was a whole wall of files near the front door.

I really am a very good alphabetizer, but as I learned, an even better sleuth. The biggest risk of the job was getting an insured on the phone whose file had vanished. That's when I became the Monk of the insurance world, scanning the crime scene for clues that would lead me to a precious manila tab folder. Had it fallen behind a desk? Inexplicably landed on Brenda's chair over in accounting? Disappeared into the dark maw of the archives in sector 11? Been filed under the insured's first name? Middle name? Name of their car? Didn't matter--whatever the mystery, I could solve it. Eventually. And I became known for my skillz. People in other departments started summoning me to work my magic, because in those days, all the records were paper and nothing could get done until that @#$%& file was found.

I developed intricate relationships with all four adjusters. There was cheery Darcy of E-L. She had warm brown eyes and a high, flutey voice that was the least likely to be yelling. She and I laughed together, talked about school, her crazy dating life. She had more patience than the others. Then there was Brian, of A-D. Brian was the settled family man of the group, though he was young, too. He had an unflattering mustache and wore ill-fitting suits, but had hair that reminded me of one of the Cassidy boys. He had little kids, which made him seem ancient, and he spoke to me gently, almost tenderly. He was so organized he rarely lost a file. Marla of S-Z was a brassy blonde in tight, short skirts and a deep, Demi voice. She was usually the one actually screaming into the phone, sometimes slamming it down in a rage. Her cube was a hurricane of thrown files. She was quiet and sort of intense, but she often asked me to lunch, peeling onto the sidewalk when she didn't want to wait for traffic.

Then there was Jeff. Ah, Jeff. His cubicle name plate said Jeff Scott, but I later learned that was actually his middle name. He didn't use his last name, because it was the same as the owner of the company. I'll give you one guess why. His license plate had his real initials on it. Jeff wasn't a big guy, but he was beautiful. He was tan with feathery hair and sea-green eyes, the kind you can fall into. He had the cutest little nose I'd ever seen, and beautiful teeth. He always dressed well, and while he was friends with the other adjusters, the whole place treated him with a noticeable reverence. It took me longer to get to know Jeff than the other three, but let's just say that eventually I was finding a LOT of filing to do in M-R. Yup, somehow those Martinezes were ALWAYS out of order, and I couldn't rest before they were set to rights. But it wasn't one-sided. Jeff would come find me for "special" assignments, often ones that had to be worked on in his cubicle. We teased each other and called each other names. I remember one time he summoned me, whipped around in his chair and thrust a letter in my face. "What do you make of this, S?" I stared at the badly spelled letter. "What do I make of it?" I said slowly, staring into the afternoon tides in his eyes. "I think I've seen more punctuation on your license plate." I smirked, turned on my heel, and sashayed down the hall, not missing the appreciative look on his face as I went.

But I never really thought about getting with him. He was older than me, I knew, but I was never sure how much. And did I mention he was beautiful? I'd never dated a man prettier than me. Also, one day when I was sweating over the front file case, Jeff came in with a girl. "That's his girlfriend," the other file clerk hissed. I studied her. She was dark and smooth, with pounds of glossy, black hair that she seemed to be carefully balancing on her shoulders. Her eyes were wide and black, like she'd recently been startled by something. She had a teeny-weeny waist and big other stuff, all encased in a skin-tight pink dress, teetering on high pink shoes. I looked down at my flowered skirt and smudgy t-shirt and my ballet slippers, and caught a glimpse of my "I'm growing out an unfortunate hatchet job another student who fancies herself a hair stylist gave me in the dorm kitchen, trying to minimize the damage with this banana clip" hairstyle and sighed. Jeff Scott was definitely not going to be my boyfriend.

The weeks went by, and Jeff tormented me about how I would be "going back to Massachusetts soon, just picking up and leaving us, like you never even cared" and I grimaced, lost for a comeback, because it was true. The whole reason I could show up cheerfully each day, submit to Kim's militaristic 8:00 line-up, carry my dusty stacks of files from cubicle to cubicle, was knowing that in six weeks, I'd be back in Neilson Library, reading amazing books surrounded by gorgeous architecture that had been standing since 1871. I could afford to love my insurance life because it was not going to last. Brian, Darcy, Marla and Jeff would still be shouting at the insureds when I was 3,000 miles away, no more alphabetizing for me.

Then one Tuesday, there were rumors. Rumors that all the temps over in accounting had been let go that morning, to save money. As the day went on, the rumors spread. And finally, the rumor that every temp in the company would be fired before the day was through. I was worried, but my people were beside themselves. What will we do without you, I heard from Darcy, Brian, Marla, and all the rest. Jeff kept quiet. After all, he might have known about this before any of us.

Sure enough, Kim approached as it neared 5:00. "I'm sorry, Sam, but this will be your last day. Bring me your time card. It's been a pleasure having you here this summer." I don't think I cried, though I do things like that. But there was a buzzing, hollow feeling in my head. I wondered what I would do now. But mostly, I wondered if I would ever see Jeff Scott again.

He caught up with me as everyone was leaving. We chatted, awkwardly at first. Eventually, we were alone, and we sat on the curb in the August heat, staring at our shoes and talking about life. I don't remember what we talked about now. We were very close, almost touching. But not quite. The whole summer, we never once mentioned his girlfriend. Finally, it was starting to get dark. I wondered who might be waiting for him, and what he would say about where he'd been. I wondered if my mom was worried, but probably not--ever since I started college, she'd been very lax about my comings and goings. We drove onto the freeway together, and he pulled up alongside of me. I was listening to Aretha Franklin; I remember that much. We started racing each other. On the freeway, at rush hour! Crazy kids. I was laughing my head off, and we were weaving in and out of traffic. And then it was my exit, and we waved, and he was out of sight. I never saw him again.

I spent the rest of the summer doing data entry for a medical company that sold heart pumps. Except for the woman who signed my time card on Fridays, I never spoke to a single person.

6 comments:

Caroline said...

What a wonderful story. I was half in crush with Jeff Scott, just reading it. And not just because he has a very similar name to my books' protagonist. ;) I had a file job like that, too, but there were no beautiful boys. Just big, sweaty men.

Ever Facebook Jeff Scott Lastname to see what became of him?

Sam said...

No, C, I never thought of that...but I'm thinking about it now. :)

Aunt LoLo said...

Hey, we had the same job! Only...mine was an agent, her secretary...and me. The Pooper Scooper. I filed, pulled, culled, wrote form letters, then made each form letter so personalized that I could never see the point to having a form letter. Why not just a list of points, to remind you what to say?

And that hollow buzzing? I had that, too. It went away right after I realized I could go home to my new husband, start a family, and never file another form letter again.

Sam said...

Max, it doesn't sound like you had Jeff Scott at your job. ;)

And C: I FBed Jeff Scott Lastname. Nada.

Myrnie said...

Ah, what Max didn't say is priceless: she was fired just after getting married. Her boss had nursed a secret ambition for 6 years that she would marry her son. Think there's any correlation? :) Good thing we're all friends still! (And yes, it's just a silly story, but isn't that what we do here?)

erin said...

After my divorce I lived with my parents briefly, it was so strange coming back into their world. I'm the oldest of five and three were still living there, so I felt completely out of the loop.

One whole month of it and I thought I was going to go totally insane.