A Study in Cluelessness

1985

Like many of my peers, the summer I was fifteen I entered the beyond-babysitting workforce. I had two jobs, a stint filling in for a secretary on vacation, at the office of two lawyers my dad knew, and one scooping ice cream at my town’s Baskin-Robbins. My first week on the job at Baskin-Robbins I worked three days, learning the in’s and out’s of making the various cones and sundaes. One kindly patron, after watching me struggle for ten minutes to get a wad of grand marnier into a ball, asked, “Are you new?” The other staff members, though more seasoned than I, were also a bunch of teenagers. Everyone stuck plastic spoons into the tubs and ate the ice cream when there were no customers or managers around, and one girl did whippits off the empty whipped cream cans.

Filling in for the secretary, I worked with the office’s other secretary. I learned to file papers, work the photocopier and answer the phones. One of the lawyers heard me on the phone once and told me to answer more cheerfully. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I thought my flat, tired tone could get the job done just fine. This wouldn’t be the last time, in years of boring jobs, that a boss would tell me to be friendlier to customers. I had the triple-problem of lacking a bubbly personality, of succumbing easily to the malaise of understimulating work, and having zero clue as to how I was appearing on the outside.

Another day at the law office I had to make a number of photocopies of maps of a neighboring county, Butte County, and I kept calling it “Butt County,” until finally the other secretary corrected me. Despite my flaws, the lawyers told me I was doing a good job—they even hired me again, and for longer, the next summer—and the secretary asked me if I wanted to be a secretary when I grew up. Raised in a petri dish of Northern California 1970s feminism, I scoffed and said, no way, I was going to be an archeologist. This might have been an appropriate response had I been asked the question by my high school principal, and not by the professional secretary at an office nice enough to employ a kid who didn’t know the difference between Butte and “Butt” County. But no, clueless again, I had to turn the moment into an insult. I wish she had gone on and told me that if I was going to be an archeologist, maybe I could just go on a dig in Butt County.

The first Friday of my job at Baskin-Robbins was an evening shift, and in the day I went to my office job. Part way through the day I started feeling slightly ill, as if I had a cold coming on. It was only my third day at Baskin-Robbins so I didn’t want to call in sick, even though by the time I got there I was feeling decidedly worse. Since it was a Friday night, and Baskin-Robbins was a happening place, it was crowded and there were lines out the door. Two of my friends came in to laugh at my uniform, and order peanut-butter-chocolate, which was the hardest flavor to scoop, and I thought they did it on purpose.

I was fatigued and achy, but I knew I could make it to the end of my shift. What were these blisters on my hands? I wondered, picking at them between orders. When I went to bed that night it must have been 90 degrees out. We had no AC in the apartment where my dad and I lived, and I guess he’d never heard of a fan, but even under a pile of blankets I was freezing. I shivered and shook, and in the morning I had a fever and a full-blown case of the chickenpox. This was way before the chickenpox vaccine, and what I didn’t know then was that those little blisters (the newly emerging pox) were concentrated virus bombs. I must have infected a hundred people that night.

I called Mr. Right, the store owner, the next day to tell him I’d be out for a week, and he was nice about it. He told me to stay out of the light. The next week I laid around while the virus ran its course, watching TV and cutting up my dad’s old Time magazines into pointless art projects. At one point, going stir-crazy, I stripped naked in front of the bathroom mirror and drew a diagram of my whole body, front and back, mapping out each red crusty blister. Then I named them all. There was one called “Radar O’Reilly,” so you can guess what one of the TV shows I was watching was. At another point I had a freak reaction to the virus where I started laughing for no reason, and couldn’t stop for fifteen minutes. I was sitting on the couch, laughing even though nothing was funny, and my dad kept stepping out of the kitchen to peek at me. A few times I tried to stop laughing, and I would succeed for one second, then it would start up again.

Regrets

The following week I was back to work, and everything was fine. But the week after that they changed the schedule at Baskin-Robbins and didn’t tell me. Apparently they changed the schedule every week, but no one told me that at the beginning, and since I hadn’t yet worked two consecutive weeks, I was still unaware. It was Monday morning and I was at home, expecting to go into work at 2:00, like I had done the previous Monday, and the phone rang. It was Mr. Right informing me that I had not shown up for my 10:00 am shift. I stammered that I thought I was supposed to start at 2:00 like last week, but he wasn’t having it. “Bring in your uniform, and let’s be friends,” he said. That was it, I was fired.

There are some moments in life I wish I could go back to. If I could go back to the moment the secretary asked me if I wanted to be a secretary, I would try not to be such an asshole, but, though I regret it, I’ve never lost actual sleep over that one. But funnily enough, there was one moment, during one of my six working days at Baskin-Robbins, that stands out among all the moments in my life I wish I could go back to. It was a moment when someone came in, a middle-aged woman it took me a minute to recognize.

Here’s the backstory:

            For two years, in the 6th and 7th grades, I had a close friend named Leah, who was two years older than me and had cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that mostly affects the lungs. Hanging out with Leah I learned a lot about CF, especially the fact that, since this was the 1980s, and treatments being what they were, she was likely to die in her teens. Leah lived with her mother and stepfather, and younger sister Nicki, who was my age but went to a regular school. Leah went to the hippie school, Mariposa, that I went to, because at regular school she got teased for being so skinny, a typical effect of having CF. Skinny or not, Leah had no problem attracting boys. She probably had ten boyfriends in the time I knew her, which was interesting to hear about during our many sleepovers at her house.

One of the Mariposa teachers once commented to me that he thought having a lot of boyfriends was how Leah dealt with being sick. I remember thinking, well how else is she supposed to deal with it? Plus, it wasn’t like she went after the boys. It was a moth and flame situation, and she was the flame.

Leah knew she was going to die young. At that time, the oldest someone with CF had lived was thirty. Thirty years old seemed very far away to me, at that age, and I could only hope that Leah would at least live that long. But most people with CF didn’t. Leah went to summer camps for kids with CF, and so, during the school years, she heard regularly that another one of her friends had died. Really, how were you supposed to deal with that?

And how would someone deal with it as a parent? Leah and Nicki talked sometimes about their mother’s drinking. I remember Nicki picking up a water glass her mom had left in the living room and sniffing it. In all the time I spent at their house I never saw any evidence myself that their mom, Julie, had been drinking, but it was something Leah and Nicki worried about. Now, a parent myself, it’s unfathomable to me how one could cope day to day, with treatments and medicines and grueling stays in the hospital and life in general, knowing their child would likely die in just a few short years. Bring on the booze.

The summer I was thirteen and Leah was fifteen she went into the hospital for the last time. I hadn’t seen her for several months, since we’d both gone to different schools the previous year, and I went to see her with my mom. She was there in a darkened room, leaning forward propped up on pillows, with an oxygen mask, and barely able to breathe. Julie was sitting next to the bed in a chair, gently petting Leah’s hair. My mom and I sat there for a little while and I don’t remember saying anything. When we got up to leave, I said, “Bye Bea,” my nickname for her—she called me “Benny B.”—and she struggled to say “Bye” also. She died a few days later, and not long after that the family moved away.

The point is…

Fast forward two years, Julie came into the Baskin-Robbins, and as I said it took me a minute to recognize her. She looked so much smaller and thinner than when I had seen her last. She said to me, “Is your name Jenny?” She had recognized me first. I was a kid the last time she had seen me, and I had changed a lot.

“Oh, hi!” I said. I would have said how are you, but I didn’t dare. She might have asked me if I remembered her, and said that she was Leah’s mom, and I probably said, “I know!” and then didn’t know what the hell else to say.

And then she said, “Thank you,” flat out. “Thank you for being Leah’s friend.”

Then she left, and I never saw her again.

So if I could pick a moment in life to go back to, that would surely be one. Because I wish I had asked how she was. And I wish I had stepped over to her side of the counter and given her a hug, and told her how much being Leah’s friend had meant to me. What a good friend Leah was. And that I missed her. And that I was so sorry for what happened. That it wasn’t fair. And that I hoped she (Julie) and Nicki were ok.

What I hope is that Julie could have guessed all that, being far older and wiser, and not the clueless kid that I was. But either way, I’m glad that the moment happened at all. It might easily not have. I’m grateful for that two-week job at Baskin-Robbins, because thanks to that, we crossed paths, and I believe that what Julie said was an extraordinary kindness. That moment is a treasure to me, flawed and painful and afflicted with regret, but a treasure just the same.


Jenny Jaeckel is the author of the forthcoming novel, House of Rougeaux. To learn more about her book, click here. To learn more about Jenny, here’s her bio.

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