At the end of the twentieth century, I got a job stocking shelves third shift at Meijer, a superstore near my boyfriend's apartment. It wasn't the most creative chapter of my life. Though I didn't think the world was going to end, I knew that the trajectory of my life was about to change drastically. I also knew I'd have to prepare for all-out war, and this occupied most of my thoughts.
My new job was the reprieve. After almost a year of factory work, stocking shelves felt like a vacation. Rather than listening to the news about computing memory limits and the inevitable chaos of Y2K, I had No Doubt or Eve playing on my portable CD player as I worked dexterously to dust off old product with my X-ACTO, extra dust rags, and a pair of heavy-duty gloves lying in wait by my side. I loved the steady silence of my role. There was a rhythm to setting up my station and moving things around, the boxes of product showing up like clockwork.
The best part was getting away from my boyfriend, who was still employed at the factory where I'd previously been a line worker. Without him, the stillness reminded me of who I was. While others complained about the Sunday morning shipment being delayed on a rainy day, I would perk up at the possibility of a longer shift.
First in, first out was our mantra, and because I was smaller than most of the stockers, I lucked into the dry-goods aisle. There were no expiration dates on toilet paper or paper towels, but I pulled the older bags to the front nonetheless, always needing to bogart the one step stool assigned to the fourteen aisles we worked in that quadrant of the store. Every once in a while, customers would ask me to direct them to a product, but other than that, the work was solitary and predictable, and didn't exist outside of the clocked hours.
A few new workers had been hired together, and we worked no more than twenty hours a week; unlike at the factory, we rarely complained of burnout because our shifts were busy but manageable enough to be over shortly after they began, with less likelihood of bodily injury or repetitive strain, except maybe to those assigned to the soda aisle.
The dull backroom was the domain of two thick men who hurled insults at each other as they tossed boxes toward the line of tape that stated the section of the store. "You have an ass like my girlfriend's. Stop bending over like that. You're giving me flashbacks from last night," Mike would yell.
Dan would smack his own ass and say, "Both you and your girlfriend wish she had this ass. Too bad the world's about to end and you'll never have it."
Mike would pause for a minute in mock sadness, then wave his counterpart off. "Fuck you, man. Why are you so slow this morning? We're getting backed up."
"Early-onset arthritis. Hangover. One of them."
"Yeah, me too, man."
Then there'd be a silence, until one of them thought of a new insult to hurl. Even though neither man would acknowledge me most days, I loved them. They seemed only to see or speak or sing to each other, but they always made me laugh. They clocked in and out together, and some of the stockers speculated they were a couple, which I would later find out was not the case. When reality TV became popular a few years later, I'd think back to these two and wonder why the vapid shows always took place in beach houses or the middle of the woods, when the best conversations happened in stockrooms and factories and nail salons.
Most of my counterparts were the last wave of Generation X or new millennials, who had yet to "own" the title. We liked to think we had raised ourselves, latchkey kids whose parents were dedicated to finding and redefining their purpose and whose poets were found on MTV. Our news spoke of AIDS, bankers, tech innovations, skateboard culture, and a pervasive belief that we were all in this for ourselves and might soon die. Individualists, we didn't know that we were preparing ourselves for the entrepreneurship boom a decade later, no matter our station in society now.
I didn't make many friends at this job, nor did I try. I didn't go to any end-of-the-world parties, hoping instead for overtime pay as many of our customers stockpiled foundational foods. Meanwhile, at home, C, the boyfriend, was becoming controlling in ways that I found both evocative and terrifying. Because he was almost a decade older than me, he liked to instruct me about the ways of the world and correct what he believed my parents had missed in raising me.
"No one taught you how to cook. This is crazy. It's not some women's role bullshit either—every human on this planet needs to know how to cook a decent meal, and all you eat is Hot Pockets. Who raised you?" He often asked me this, and at the time, instead of defending my family, I reasoned that maybe he had a point. I was determined to start cooking until I got good at it, but I didn't like the pushy way he taught.
C liked to wear white or light-colored clothes when he wasn't at work. He stood about 5'11" and had a face that contrasted with his personality. While I had a sharp chin, easily irritated skin, and high cheekbones, he had a soft and balanced look that was only marred by his harsh stare and the few wrinkles an extra decade had bestowed upon him. Looking back now, I remember the flatness in his eyes, but I'm not sure that I was aware of them at the time.
His two adorable kids came over every other weekend. I enjoyed playing geography games with them and going over their homework as they, at four and three, pointed and made odd sounds and asked for more cartoons. They also softened C, for the most part. He only seemed to get frustrated when they weren't around, and his frustration could go from neutral to rage in a matter of seconds.
He began instructing me as to how to properly dress (how can you not know how to accessorize? You're eighteen!). He would get impatient. He had grown up with more money and discipline, and he couldn't understand how I could be comfortable wearing jeans and a rotation of simple shirts, no designs.
With that body, you need to wear lighter colors. Khakis, a brown belt, a green shirt. Here—He'd buy complete outfits and tell me exactly how and when to wear them. I followed his instructions happily, because I was getting free clothes and couldn't care less about fashion myself. But if a shirt was supposed to be tucked in, and I left it out, he'd look at me sideways and clear his throat, and if I didn't catch on, he'd jerk me up and tuck in my shirt as though I were three or four years old myself.
He did have an eye for crisp fashion, and I appreciated the fact that he knew how to hem pants, because even petite pairs were too long on me. Being shopped and mended for felt indulgent at times, but when he replaced my favorite shampoo and body wash and insisted on me wearing my curly hair straight, I began to argue, and my arguments weren't well received.
Things, as they are wont to do in such situations, got worse. We no longer went out to dinner after I learned to cook his favorites—potatoes and onions, chicken or pork chops, and a good Midwestern mac and cheese. Instead, he would make dinner on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and I would cook the other four days without question. The food had to be precisely made and served with care. If no steak knives were put out, a drawer would be slammed, or a confrontational stare-down would ensue. If the meat was overdone, a chair might be thrown.
When I was a child, I made an internal agreement with myself that I would never tolerate anyone who made me shrink. At that point, C had never hit me, but he set unrealistic expectations that allowed him to indulge his temper on a regular basis—usually in the morning, or after his fourth beer. He'd yell about the neighbors, his kids, my "sloppiness" when he saw the pile of clothes I'd left on a chair in the bedroom. I was just waiting for the day he took it too far, and I knew it was coming. I knew I'd have to do more than yell back or stand my ground. I'd have to fight, and for some reason I waited for that day before devising my strategy to leave.
My father never hit my mother, not that I knew. But his presence made her ordinarily extroverted vigor shrink into something unrecognizably small. He would enter a room and not acknowledge her presence. Shrink. He'd scoff when she refused to go to the gym with him and finally work on those extra pounds. Shrink. He'd accuse her of being the reason my sister was rebelling. Shrink. She'd get a new shirt she loved and twirl around in it, only to be willfully ignored. Shrink. Women met him after work. Shrink.
After a long shift during which I had traded numbers with Mike from the backroom because he wanted to pick up my shift the following week. C found the number and pinned me to a wall. His kids looked on, wide-eyed, as he held me firmly by the shoulders.
"Let me go, or I'm leaving," I said, but as I looked at him, I saw him clearly for the first time and a wave of sympathy washed over me. I saw the flatness in his eyes. I looked beyond it and saw the fear. He was terrified of not being in control. He was weak, and it was up to me to be steady. I was hardly about to become a victim.
"For Mike?" he asked through gritted teeth.
I spoke calmly. "Mike is a coworker. I'm leaving you because you're too controlling."
And there it was. A pop, fist to cheek, blood vessels broken. In that moment, I became as calm as I'd ever been, calmer even than my superstore stocking persona. I listened to C's son cry out for his daddy to stop, and I slid down the wall, hugging my knees comfortably, feeling more alive than I'd felt in years. I had momentum and clarity now. I was already gone.
The minute that C was out of the house, I'd call Mike and ask him for a favor in exchange for as many shifts as he wanted. I would stow a few extra heavy-duty garbage bags under the bed, and I would wait to pack everything I had—not much—on the day. I'd meet Mike in the driveway, slip the key under the locked door—no note—and I'd move to my mom's one-bedroom apartment across town. The whole scene played out in front of me like a reel as I remained on the ground feeling my face pulse from the energy of his fist.
In the moment, watching C pace and seethe, I was too inert to provoke more violence. I was too still for his anger to reach me again. He could see it, and I could feel the power of stillness. He slammed the front door, leaving me there with his two kids, who were calm now, with confused faces. I put on cartoons and sat in the middle of them, one arm around each, and quietly said goodbye.
It took two weeks to orchestrate everything, but it worked. I lost items I loved; I left the outfits C had bought me. And I forgot my CD player. But what I took with me was enough to restart my life. Mom was willing to put me up until I saved enough to find a place, and my new friend from work, Mike, came through.
I left a job that I genuinely enjoyed. I asked Mike to explain it all to my manager because I didn't have the words. He agreed as he drove me to my mom's apartment on Highland Avenue. Mike stayed in touch after, calling to make sure I was okay.
With the remnants of a bruise still yellowing my cheek, I began a new job search. I scanned bookstores and Google for topics like "self-empowerment" and "independent women". The internet suggested I take a self-defense class and get a college education.
When C arrived at my mother's screen door later that month, knocking loudly and reeking of beer, I told Mom not to answer. She stood at the door, contemplating. She wore jeans and a flower-print shirt, big earrings, and big hair. All the accessories my father would have ignored. And she was beautiful.
C wore all white and a frown. I rushed between them, locking the screen door with the pathetic little piece of plastic available to me. He kicked it open, snapping the lock, and pushed past me. My mother was steady but terrified. I was quiet. He was loud.
As he shoved me out of the way, my heart surged. I had endangered my mother. I was the reason that worry shadowed her face. "What?" I asked him, standing wide-legged on Mom's gray carpet, near an aloof cat who was curled up by the vent. The television was on and the journalists were discussing the Clintons' rocky marriage and a Democrat's chance of winning the next election. The political chatter was an odd, distracting backdrop to C's angry confusion.
Anger, when not responded to, gets confused. I'd learned this when he hit me. So I played my cards and hoped Mom would follow suit. I watched him as though I were a deer, able to blend into the background. I stared and waited as he hollered about how I'd left not only him but his children, how I'd left in a chickenshit way, how I'd left not understanding how much he loved me. He began to cry, and I stood still. He asked my mother what was wrong with me, and she calmly responded that I'd decided what I'd decided and must have my reasons.
It was snowing outside. The internet would rapidly become cluttered by zeros, and the world would never be the same. Information would be lost, and it might drive people insane—the theories were rampant, working to bolster the weight of the political sensationalism that was our constant backdrop. Waiting for C to calm down was like waiting out a storm. I watched, unable to process what he was saying or what would happen next. If he got too close to my mother, I'd throw myself between them. If he got too close to her, I'd indulge the anger.
"You're dirty. You are all disgusting," he said, gesturing around the clutter of my mother's tiny apartment.
"You can say whatever you'd like. I want you to leave," Mom said calmly. A lioness. A leader. In that moment, I snapped out of my daze and delusion that I needed to protect her, and instead witnessed, fully, her protecting me. My mother's screen door may have been kicked in, but she was no longer a person to be minimized. She possessed a quiet strength that shrank everything about C, and when he finally walked out, taking one sharp look back at me, I realized something new about myself. When C was gone, I blurted apologies through my tears, and my mother sat, extending her steadiness to me in a way I'd never forget.
I stayed at home for the new year and welcomed whatever would come. Shortly after the zeros turned over and the world calmed, I received my final check from Meijer and began researching admissions for the local community college. I asked Mom to forgive me as I showed off my new skills in the kitchen.
"Maybe one day," she said with a smile that reminded me of who I was—but I'd soon forget.