Me in a corner of my own choosing at the coffee shop down the street. It is spring now, and I am almost as old as my mother was when I was 10. I keep thinking about failure. Some days I want to submit to failure and give up any delusions I ever had about having financial solvency, a meaningful career, or a family of my own. There is a freedom in not trying anymore. The air changes. The weight of the not-yet disappears into the ether. Some mornings I wear my aspirations like a coat. Others, I succumb to that light bearing, that gauzy disregard for achievement.
My first job after passing through the Ivy league was at Bloomingdale’s SOHO. I sold underwear to rich women so I could keep a roof over my head while I took an unpaid internship at a literary agency. One day a classmate of mine came in, shopping in the dress department on our floor. She was surprised to see me. I saw the awkwardness in her smile and the thought that flashed briefly across her eyes: I thought we were equals.
Nas on the speaker box:
I know I can (I know I can)
Be what I wanna be (be what I wanna be)
If I work hard at it (If I work hard at it)
I’ll be where I wanna be (I’ll be where I wanna be)
I am temping now. I know that many of the jobs I do to support myself would not even be considered by my colleagues from school. They would hold out for something better. I do not blame them. I have had better before, too, if better means more money, means real respect from peers when telling them what I do for a living. It is a strange time in my life—an in-between of sorts—as I walk towards what’s next, and I am not averse to menial tasks. When I think of my most successful friends, I often wonder if they do not feel as suffocated or as false in offices as I do. I wonder if it is easier for them to quiet their laughter or if they are fortunate enough to enjoy the costume of business casual. Maybe, really, it is just the culture of linear advancement that I despise—everyone competing with each other in pretend congeniality while marching in the same direction. Or maybe it is that I have always had a hard time believing in institutions, and consensus, and belonging.
When I was six we went to early church instead of the usual 11 o’clock service one Sunday because our mother was playing in the bell choir. Dad was in the pulpit. My sister and I sat in the pews, tending to ourselves. She fell asleep. I didn’t realize the order of service was different than at 11 o’clock, and so at the assumed time, I got up from our pew and went to the altar railing for the children’s sermon. The service continued without pause. I became embarrassed and didn’t know what to do. Considering that the altar railing was where people prayed, I bowed my head and closed my eyes for a minute, and then got up and walked back to my seat. After the service several adults came up to my parents and told them how inspiring I was for getting up in the middle of the service to pray, how pious I must be. It was my first lesson in theater, and the first time I doubted God.
I have believed in many false idols over the years: money, respectability, beauty, the future. Politicians stand before us and proclaim the merits of all, and like them, we cling to the hope that each has some inherent worth. We want to believe in them because we require comfort. Meanwhile, Baltimore burns. I do not mean the storefronts that have already been broken, or the buildings that have been hollowed by neglect and time. I mean the hearts therein, seething with desire: let us be equals. Let us rise.
I am going to be honest. I do not know if we, as a nation, are capable of justice. I do not know if we are willing to privilege the belief that all men are created equal over our national myth of meritocracy, or our continued commitment to the delusion that our nation is classless. We want too badly to believe that people are deserving of what comes to them, even as we attribute intelligence to those with the right accent, right skin color, and idiocy to those with the converse. We mistake material success for goodness, and poverty for inadequacy. We have built ourselves an empire of absurdity from the myths of marketing firms and focus groups, and we have convinced ourselves we are powerless to change it. Meanwhile, the best among us stand ashamed for not wanting more power, while narcissists, sociopaths, and cultural kleptomaniacs are exalted for their greed.
I, too, have been greedy. Greedy of my time. I am a single, fornicating, thirty-something woman, childless, educated and in debt. Some people might think I am a lot of wasted potential. A failure, if you will. I am sympathetic to this view, although I am not settled on the definition of waste, and the more I think about it, the more failure seems like just another word for contrarian. Often my Mondays feel like a revolution, just because I am. But the tug remains: work, aspire, accumulate. Acquiesce to the charade. So I do what needs to be done.
I go to work. I bow my head. I close my eyes. I do not pray.
Laura Jean Moore is the 2014 winner of the Cobalt Review’s Zora Neale Hurston Fiction Prize. Her poetry, essays, and stories have been featured or are forthcoming in FLUX WEEKLY, VICE, [PANK], the EEEL, the Brooklyn Rail, ENTROPY, Corium, and Change Seven. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Reed College. She is suspicious of most things.
Read All Columns by Laura Jean Moore
- On Greatness
- Whiteness, A Study
- New York
- American Dreams
- Body Talk
- Habits, Simple and Austere
- On Love