Down Time This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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   I work in a supermarket. Temporarily, that is, until I graduate high school in five months and my parents ship me halfway across the country to some institute of higher learning. I'm not too excited or anything. I like having my own room. I don't want any changes in my life right now.

Brenda says I'm fearful. I know it. I have this fear stuff all balled up inside - it keeps me locked into behavior patterns that don't work for me and keep me dreading the future. Nights spent working at Pathmark have become my greatest security, and I don't want to leave them. Enclosed in my three-foot register cubicle, I know that nothing and no one can get me. Occasionally I'll encounter a customer irate over a dented can or inflated price or a lack of selection in Produce, but I'm learning to scale those mountains as they come rather than let myself be consumed by the anxiety of "What-ifs." What goes on in Produce or Deli or Customer Service is beyond my control. It's not that I don't care - just that I'm working hard now at not assuming responsibility for the world any longer.

Brenda says I put other people's needs before my own. She's right about that, too. Actually, every conclusion she draws from analyzing me seems right. I don't know whether it's the Ph.D. after her name, or that wise look that gleams in her eyes when she's deep in concentration, or the simply the fact that I've been slipping her forty dollars a week of my Pathmark salary for the past three months, but something about her commands this magical kind of respect that I just can't ignore. I don't know if my sessions with Brenda have helped. Usually I just sit on that couch feeling like the biggest piece of junk in the world, but I don't tell her that. I don't want to hurt her.

My parents have gotten suspicious about where my money's going. Twenty hours a week times $5.15 an hour always seems to come out to forty dollars more than I bring home. Gas money, I tell them, but afterward I'm overcome with guilt. Lying isn't something I've ever been able to do. Half the time as I'm dragging cans and bottles and boxes through the scanner, I decide I'll just quit seeing Brenda altogether, since it's killing me to lie and I don't have any actual proof that my visits are doing me any good. I never go through with my decision. After three months with Brenda, I still feel dead half the time. I still can't get myself optimistic about college and I still can't brush certain sections of my hair when my father yanks them hard during a fight and I wake up the next morning to find parts of my scalp puffy and sore. Brenda doesn't know the whole truth about my dad; if she did she'd have to break confidentiality and do a whole stupid child abuse investigation and then that would really screw things up, especially since what happens to me isn't ever that bad on the outside. I'm almost eighteen years old; I can stick up for myself.

Tonight I'm supposed to work 'til ten, which stinks since I have this huge history test tomorrow, and even if I study for about five hours I'll still end up resorting to multiple guessing. Luckily it's really slow tonight, and I have my notebook sitting on the little shelf under the conveyor belt so that in-between customers I can sneak a look at my illegible notes. If only I understood history! I've got to be the only high school senior in America who can't tell you why the Civil War was fought or who Napoleon was. Honestly.

It's so cool when I get the old people! They're always so nice. There's this adorable, shriveled old man hobbling in my direction. He's coming closer ... yes! He chose my line! I ring him up without giving my hands the simplest hint or instruction. Toilet paper, dental floss, ginger ale, soap, Alka-Seltzer, oatmeal, after-shave. The guy gives me this real genuine smile, the kind that strangers are usually afraid to show each other, and goes on his way. I realize I'm still smiling. That man just made my day. It's the truth, but it's so simple I'd feel stupid letting anyone in on it.

Why is it that old people always buy so many toiletries? You'd be surprised what I've seen here. People buying forty-seven of the same thing, people with two-for-one coupons for every single item they plop on the belt. This one guy once tried to give me a dollar for making his two-year-old stop wailing as we packed his brown bags. Working this job, you learn how many nice and how many not-nice people there are in the world, and you learn how to deal with all of them. I really do learn a lot.

My history's floating out of focus, and I know it. It's not worth fighting for concentration now. I'd rather let my mind wander and just enjoy this quiet time. I wonder if that means I'm somehow sick or maladjusted. I mean, here I am, using Pathmark time, to examine life's great moral issues, to ponder my future, to analyze even the most minute and microscopic things. Should I be more like Michelle and Rob and Kathy, huddled outside in the dead of winter just to sneak a cigarette, turning my ten-minute breaks into fifteen minutes and twenty minutes and "I-think-I'm-getting-the-flu-so-I'm going-home-sick" routines? Even on the snowiest days when the place is dead I don't mind staying hours at a stretch, but that scares me sometimes.

It's aspects such as these that I sense myself dying. Life has never before seemed so finite, as though graduation from high school means The End, a graduation from childhood and from all I've ever known. There is nothing I truly want to happen afterward. I've been comfortable enough as just a high school kid and I haven't had any real dreams or motivation since junior high. But I can't stand this type of thinking; all it does is depress and confuse me. If I don't distract myself, I'll get caught up in negativity for the rest of the, night.

Tuesday is my mother's birthday, so I decide to take my break now and get her a card at the drugstore. I could have gotten it back at Pathmark in Aisle 12, but crossing the dark parking lot in my checkout-gal apron and red plastic "LEIGH" tag makes me feel more independent. I'm wondering how in the world I'll settle on any one ready-made card when all of them express cookie-cutter sentiments I don't have for my mother. How about "To a Real Controlling Mother on Her Special Day," or "I Love You, Mom, But Why Do You Treat Me Like Just Another Obstacle in Your Path to Perfection?" I tell you, since I've started therapy I've seen a side of myself evolve that seeks an almost-revenge on my mother, that wants to let her know how much she contributes to my never-ending episodes of self-criticism and depression. If I can't find a store card without too many sappy lies, I guess I'll make my own.

I start car-gazing. Blue Volvo, white Mazda, huge brown boxy station wagon ... I wonder if the families packed into those giant family cars are just as Brady Bunch as they seem. In the distance I can just barely discern the profile of someone in the front of a dark teal car. The car looks familiar, and as I approach I grow certain I know the girl in the front seat. She goes to my school. It appears she's spreading out a blanket across the two front seats, and just before her head disappears from view I catch sight of the edge of a pillow. I tap on her window and jokingly ask if she's camping out. She sits up slowly, but I know from her face that I've said the wrong thing.

It's a variation of my own routine, and yet I'm overcome with disbelief. She tries to shove an ice pack under the seat, but she knows I see it and evades eye contact. There aren't any whites in her eyes, only veiny pinks engulfing all but the pupils. Crying 'til your eyes ache will do that for you, but going to sleep with a cold, wet washcloth over your face usually makes you convincingly presentable for school by the time morning rolls around. Balled-up tissues on the floor, traces of blood crusted on the edge of her nose, her sleeve is rolled up to reveal a blotch above her elbow, exacerbated by the ice pack to an angry neon pink. I ask how long she's been in the car, and she insists she's fine. I ask who did all this to her, but she keeps struggling to sweep the tissues under the seat and crack her lips into a smile. I know she doesn't trust me, and I don't blame her. It's not as though at eighteen you want everyone to find out that major sections of your life are out of control. I part my hair at the spot in the back that twinges as I test my fingertips against it, leaning the tender mountain of bump between the few inches of open window space she's allowed me.

"Feel," I say, "my dad did it," and that's all it takes for her to open the door and clear me a space. We share the few remaining Kleenex; I forget about finishing my shift. I have a more important job now. I think I can help her. Then I think I may be ready to really help myself. 1


This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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