03 :: GLASS
— Grace —
THE REAL PROBLEM with self-loathing is not so much in the actual hatred of oneself, per say, but rather in the insightful state of mind of the self-loather. In my twenty-four years on this planet, I’ve never realized just how much of an ego boost my own self deprecation can create. It’s almost revitalizing. I keep having to remind myself that I’m the actual worst, a thought which is almost guaranteed to be immediately followed by gratification at the acknowledgement. My logic goes something like this; I must be a saint, because this level of humility doesn’t come around very often. Or something.
This conundrum completely envelops me for at least a good ten minutes as I’m slouching over a magazine behind the register. It’s the slow hour, the time of day when either everyone is still stuck at work or otherwise trapped in the Starbucks drive-thru. The little bell just above the door dings suddenly and I instinctively perk up, slipping the magazine out of sight. The guy is cute, a devoted indie soul by the corduroy looks of him. Inadvertently tucking a strand of hair behind my ear, I watch in horror as his beautiful brown eyes are drawn up to the humiliating inscription on my visor. I can see the cursed yellow lettering in my mind’s eye as he reads.
Java Jamboree: Coffee for the Faint of Heart & the Grammatically Impaired
My theory is that it was meant to be a metaphor. Maybe a hyperbole. Or maybe the genius that founded this faulty institution was just having too much fun with the whole literary coffee shop idea. In any case, I have bigger things than cute millennial customers to worry about: like how I’m supposed to work the register until six and close up for the day when the first shark feeding at the aquarium is scheduled for 5:45.
I take the guy’s order and amuse myself with presumptuously imagining what his long-distance girlfriend might look like. Lisa Kudrow circa 1994, I’m sure of it. Possibly even a Liv Tyler. Something about the eyes. He must go for girls with blue eyes, and if they’re not blue, they’re definitely some type of majestic because he most likely deserves majestic.
As I brew his coffee, I snap out of it, remind myself why I’m thinking in a state of perpetual discomfort. There’s no winning when you’re at war with yourself.
I remember to smile as I slide the guy his cup across the counter, but it’s a futile effort when I catch the next incoming customer in my peripheral. Mason almost breaks the bell as he enters. I quickly lose track of corduroy boy exiting the shop.
“Hey,” he says, exasperatedly tripping up to the counter.
I clear my throat and conjure up a smile. “Hey, what are you doing here?”
Mason does this thing with his mouth when he’s agitated. It’s his tell. The left corner twitches up in this little half smile that turns the tone of the conversation faster than I can gauge it. He likes playing this game.
“What do you mean? I wanted to come see my girl at work.” Rooting his palms on the counter, he barricades the entire bar, tracking me with his eyes.
“Oh,” I fiddle with a few random buttons on the register screen, moving so he can’t see my face. “I just thought you’d be busy today.”
Before I can stop him, Mason slides his entire body up and over the counter in one swift motion.
I open my mouth in protest, “No, no, Mason--”
“Shh,” He moves towards me as I back up to the wall. I can almost taste the alcohol on his breath, turning my head away as he presses his face into my neck. “Hey, hey, baby, it’s okay.”
I struggle against the hold he has on my waist, but to no avail. “Mason, I can’t, seriously,”
His hands are exploring now, squeezing my arm so hard tears spring to my eyes, moving to press against my ribcage till I can almost hear my own bones snapping, traveling down to my thigh, moving until his fingers are sliding under the hem of my skirt. Everything happens so fast. A sudden upwelling of panic rises up in me, a great tremor through my entire body underneath his weight. Then I am shoving him away with an unexpected surge of strength, “Get off!”
The trembling stops after a few breaths, and he still looks golden standing there, backlit by the afternoon sunlight breaking in through window glass.
“Oh, come on, Grace,”
“I’m working.” My voice sounds desperate, though I don’t mean for it to.
Mason shakes his head in frustration, swings back over the counter, and turns back to me before he leaves the shop. “You’re fucking kidding me, right?”
My skin is burning as he slams the door behind him. It’s all I can do to remind myself to breathe, let alone stand up straight. My knees almost buckle, but a few customers breeze in before I get the chance to completely fall apart. The counter serves as a welcome support for the next few minutes as I take their orders, and all the while I’m wondering how it is that I came to this. To this despicable state of mind.
The aquarium has closed already by the time I pull into the parking lot a half hour later. I rush in through the back entrance, switching my barista apron for a lanyard and pulling the aquarium uniform button up on over my long sleeve. I sprint to Shark Alley, turning the heads of Brianna the instructor and several other interns as I stumble into the hall. I mutter an apology and quietly join my friend Valerie at the back of the group.
“Hey,” I whisper. “What’d I miss?”
She looks up from her clipboard, readjusts her glasses, and nods towards my head with raised eyebrows. “You forgot something.”
I groan, tearing the Java Jamboree visor from my head and stuffing it hurriedly into my side bag. Valerie shakes her head. I can tell that she’s mocking me, but Valerie isn’t the type of person to lose her cool, especially in the so-called workplace.
“She’s been going over portion sizes for, like, twenty minutes.”
“Anything crucial?” I ask.
Valerie sighs. “No, but you’re getting docked.”
“I figured.” I can’t hide my disappointment. The loss in points will undoubtedly hit me hard at the end of the semester. This isn’t the first time I’ve been tardy. I deserve it, though. If I could just get up the nerve to talk to Mr. Jacobson, the regional manager for Java Jamboree, about my shifts, maybe I’ll have a better chance at actually passing this course.
I try to swerve back to the present as Brianna shifts topics, explaining the feeding schedules and what tools we are expected to use. The group follows her from the main exhibition hall through a black door that reads EMPLOYEES ONLY in bold red letters.
“What’s up with your shifts anyway?” Valerie asks. “I thought you said you were getting that fixed.”
“I’m working on it.” I deadpan.
Valerie shakes her head, “You’re always working, Grace.”
I click my pen aggressively, implying that the conversation is over. Valerie complies easily enough, taking the evasion as a sign that now is not the time to chastise my poor judgement. The back room smells like rotting fish, humidity hanging like a ghost in the air. The glass in here is closer than out in the exhibit hall, close enough to touch. Ralph, one of the largest sandbar sharks in the aquarium, slides up against the side, as if to greet us. I press my palm to the glass, entranced. It’s second nature to follow him with my fingers. There’s so much life in that box.
“Hey, big guy,” I breathe. Ralph drifts along the side, moving in slow motion. The white light refracts turquoise on the sand and coral, pulling us all in until it seems as though the bottom of the ocean isn’t such a foreign place. Miscellaneous fish twist in and out of sight, drowning any existential cares and worries. My world is theirs now, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Brianna grants the group a moment of wonder, and then it’s back to business. We climb a set of steep metal wire stairs till we’re looking down into the massive tank.
“Alright guys, I want to see a line. You’re each going to get a turn at the pole.” Brianna whips out a tall metal rod with a hook on the end of it, raising it high for everyone to see. The group of interns mumbles out obligatory oohs and ahhs. Brianna nods her head in approval, and proceeds to explain the simple but risky maneuver. Feeding a three hundred pound carnivore with nothing but a glove and a pointy stick is not a job for the faint of heart. I watch Harvey, the National Aquarium’s largest sand tiger shark, explode out of the water and devour a hunk of mackerel the size of my head. This time, the awed gasps and laughter that rise from our group aren’t forced. We applaud as he drags his meal down under. Brianna takes a bow, and continues on with an enthusiastic lecture about vitamin supplements.
My mind wanders elsewhere, diving into the tank with all of its strange and wonderful creatures. The surprising thing is, rather than suffocating in this underwater daydream, I find myself adapting to the lack of oxygen.