A couple of weeks after my twenty-ninth birthday, in the spring of 2002, I went back to Texas to visit my parents. Actually, Eric kind of made me go.
"You have to get out of here," he said. The kitchen drawer that broke two weeks after we moved in, and was never satisfactorily rehabilitated, had just careened off its tracks yet again, flinging Pottery Barn silverware in all directions. I was sobbing, forks and knives glittering at my feet. Eric was holding me in one of those tight hugs like a half nelson, which he does whenever he's trying to comfort me when what he really wants to do is smack me.
"Will you come with me?" I didn't look up from the snot stain I was impressing upon his shirt.
"I'm too busy at the office right now. Besides, I think it's better if you go by yourself. Hang out with your mom. Buy some clothes. Sleep in."
"I have work, though." "Julie, you're a temp. What's temping for if you can't run off and take a break sometimes? That's why you're doing it, right?" I didn't like to think about why I was temping. My voice went high and cracked. "Well, I can't afford it."
"We can afford it. Or we can ask your parents to pay." He grabbed my chin and lifted it up to his face. "Julie. Seriously? Go. Because I can't live with you like this anymore." So I went - my mom bought me the ticket for a late birthday present. A week later I flew into Austin, early enough to grab lunch at Poke-Jo's.
And then, right in the middle of my brisket sandwich and okra, less than a month after I turned twenty-nine, Mom dropped the Pushing Thirty bomb for the very first time.
"Jesus, Mom!" "What?" My mother has this bright, smiling, hard tone that she always uses when she wants me to face facts. She was using it now. "All I'm saying is here you are, miserable, running away from New York, getting into a bad place with Eric, and for what? You're getting older, you're not taking advantage of the city, why do this to yourself?"
This was exactly the one thing I had come to Austin to not talk about. I should have known my mother would dig in like a goddamned rat terrier.
I had gone to New York like everybody else goes to New York - just as the essential first step for a potato destined for soup is to have its skin peeled off, the essential starting point for an aspiring actor is to move to New York. I preferred jobs that did not require auditions, which, since I neither looked like Renée Zellweger nor was a terribly good actor, proved to be a problem. Mostly what I'd done was temp, for (to name a few): the photocopier contractor for the UN; the Asian American businesses underwriting department at AIG; the vice president of a broadband technology outfit with an amazing office looking out onto the Brooklyn Bridge, which folded about two weeks after I got there; and an investment firm specializing in the money matters of nunneries. Recently, I'd started work at a government agency downtown.
It looked like they were going to offer to bring me on permanently - eventually all the temp employers offered to let you go perm - and for the first time, I was considering, in a despairing sort of way, doing it. It was enough to make me suicidal even before my mom started telling me I was getting old. Mom should have known this, but instead of apologizing for her cruelty she just popped another piece of fried okra into her mouth and said, "Let's go shopping- your clothes are just awful!"
The next morning I lingered at my parents' kitchen table long after they'd both left for work, wrapped up in a well-worn gray flannel robe I'd forgotten I had, sipping coffee. I'd finished the Times crossword and all the sections except for Business and Circuits, but didn't yet have enough caffeine in my system to contemplate getting dressed. (I'd overindulged in margaritas the night before, not at all an unusual occurrence when visiting the folks in Austin.) The pantry door stood ajar, and my aimless gaze rested on the bookshelves inside, the familiar ranks of spines lined up there. When I got up to fill my cup one last time, I made a detour and took one of the books - Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1, my mom's old 1967 edition, a book that had known my family's kitchen longer than I had. I sat back down at the table at which I'd eaten a thousand childhood afternoon snacks and began flipping through, just for the hell of it.
Copyright © 2005 by Julie Powell
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No Man's Land
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