"Over the course of a lifetime a man will overhear a fair number of remarks about himself and learn from them how very wide is the gulf between his public perception and the image he hopes to project. I've always known there's more going on inside me than finds its way into the world, but this is probably true of everyone. Who doesn't regret that he isn't more fully understood?"
~~Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs
One of the first things we were told during training at Burger King (where I worked for most of my high school years) was that old nugget of minimum-wage wisdom "If you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean."
It was my first job and I was an earnest and socially awkward girl, so, in the beginning, I often did clean when there was time to lean--all things considered, scrubbing baseboards in the dining room, crawling under tables and booth seats to scrape away months' worth of built-up burger grease and globs of petrified chewing gum, was a more manageable and pleasant task for me than trying to make conversation with guys and girls my own age.
Eventually, I became slightly more comfortable, having both consciously and unconsciously honed my strategy of self-protection by sarcasm--and I spent less time cleaning and more time goofing around.
Much of the goofing around involved hat stealing or water spraying--occasionally things would really devolve and someone would grab a wad of defrosted, uncooked Whopper meat from the waste barrel and fling it at someone else. All hell would break loose at that point, of course, resulting in flaccid pickles and soggy tomatoes ending up on every exposed surface. Once they'd dried on, they were especially fun to clean off of the lattice work that divided seating sections in the dining room. Turns out tomato seeds come encased in their own adhesive, which few man-made solvents can destickify.1
I remember one very slow night--in the middle of an epic New Hampshire snow storm when we hadn't had a customer (in the lobby or drive-thru) for over an hour--we got into a deep2 discussion on what exactly a portion of defrosted, uncooked Whopper meat should be called--a wad? a clump? Someone threw out "globule," which was somehow gross enough (with its guttural opening "gl," short "o," softly percussive "b" and squishy "ule" at the end) to be perfectly suitable. Added bonus--"globule" was alarmingly close to the sound made when one such portion landed with a plop-slide against the plate glass window and stuck there. Positively onomatopoeic.
Food-related mayhem was surprisingly uncommon, though. Mostly, like I said, hat-stealing, water battles and relentless verbal teasing. At this last, I was a star--the queen of quips, quick with a cutting comeback. It was not just fun and games to me, of course.
Truth was, on the inside I was a quivering mass of hokey pop song lyrics and hormonally-charged emotions. For some reason, it was imperative to me that this information not get out. So vulnerable and raw did I feel on the inside that it seemed impossible to me that it did not show on the outside. Surely, everyone could see through my shield of sarcasm, well-crafted though it was.
One night, I found myself alone in the kitchen with two guys--Tommy and Terry--on whom I'd had alternate and occasionally overlapping on-again, off-again crushes. Needless to say, I was certain (and horrified by that certainty) that they were both aware of my deep3 feelings for them.
It was a slow night and things rapidly degenerated into their usual chaos and I soon found myself in the walk-in freezer while the two of them held the door shut. I struggled against them briefly before giving up and making myself comfortable-ish on a stack of boxes of frozen chicken patties, where I intended to wait the guys out.
It did not take long. As Terry yanked the door open, he remarked, "C'mon Tommy, we better let her out before she lowers the temperature in there!"
They laughed. I laughed. Laughing was the sportsmanlike thing to do--and besides it was pretty funny.
I'm so cold-hearted, I'm going to lower the temperature in a walk-in freezer! Ha ha ha h--hold up a second...
On the one hand, I was delighted--or at least relieved--at this assessment. Maybe the soft and sappy self was safely protected after all.
On the other (utterly paradoxical) hand, I was deeply wounded to be so very misunderstood. The connection between this misunderstanding and my own efforts--some of them made consciously--to obscure my true feelings, to thwart any real understanding of who I was did not immediately occur to me. When, much later, in an entirely different context, it did occur to me how ridiculous it was to feel sorry for myself that no one saw the "real me" when I worked so hard to hide the real me, it was a revelation that did not immediately stick. It was a lesson I've learned over and over again and it's a lesson I'm learning again, still.
I've long nurtured a fascination with the gap between how I see myself and how others seem to see me and if the walk-in freezer moment was not the seed of that fascination, it certainly fertilized the ground it was planted in. I have sometimes hypothesized that the true self, to the extent one exists at all, lives in that gap.
Even the clearest vision of one's self is pocked with murky smudges and blind spots. Sometimes people around us can help bring that vision into fuller focus--but the assessments of others are only as valuable as they are accurate and, at least in part, they are only as accurate as we allow them to be.
All these many years later, I am still, again, mostly a quivering mass of hokey pop song lyrics and hormonally-charged emotions. If I am not yet parading that self around for everyone to see, I am at least a little more comfortable with acknowledging that she exists--and a little less petrified that my secrets might get out.
*Don't feel left out, Larissa. I'm probably one of only ten people on the planet who would get this '80s reference and three of the other nine used to be the Thompson Twins.
1. The thesaurus was oddly unhelpful in finding a synonym for destickify--so we're stuck with it.
2. Did I say "deep?" I meant high-pitched and hysterical as we leapt from booth to booth, running across tables, trying to escape the deadly aim of Jim, Globule Sharpshooter.
3. Did I say "deep?" I meant shallow and fleeting. Not to mention painfully embarrassing.