by Nina Kossman
In one of my classes at Hunter, I meet a young fellow who tells me he’s a New Zealander. He also tells me about two things he has—a motorcycle and a great job. The great job is watering plants in rich people’s homes only two hours a week, and when I hear about two hours a week and that the pay is enough to cover one week’s rent, I ask him if I could get such a job, and he says sure.
He says maybe I ought to learn about plants first, and he offers to take me with him on his motorcycle next time he goes to care for rich people’s plants in their rich homes, so I could learn names of plants and how much light and water different plants like. I say I know about plants because my mother was a botanist in the Soviet Union and I wanted to grow up a botanist like her and I always watered our five or six potted plants.
I bet you never watered the kinds of plants you’ll see in these rich people’s homes, he says. And you don’t want to fail a quiz some of the plant companies give you when they interview you for a job.
A quiz and an interview? Just to water a bunch of potted plants in rich people’s homes? I would have gone with Chris anyway, but the quiz and the interview are a good pretext, and I don’t mind telling my parents about going off for a day on a motorcycle to study for a plant watering job quiz but my parents just shrug their shoulders, skeptical and unconvinced.
Next week I go with Chris to watch him water plants in rich people’s homes, and a week later I get a job at a plant watering company, not quite the kind of job Chris told me I could get, but still, it’s a job, and I say to myself let’s see what happens, don’t always think your bad thoughts about everything.
There are three of us in the van: a black girl, a Hispanic fellow, and myself. Josho, the Hispanic fellow, is at the wheel, Takisha is next to him on the passenger’s seat, and I’m also on the passenger’s seat, squeezed in between Takisha and the door. Josho and Takisha know a whole lot more about the job than I do but they try not to show it because they respect everyone, they say, and they don’t want the white girl to be left out on the account of her race.
But I feel left out anyway.
It has nothing to do with Josho and Takisha, it’s not their fault that I’m so immersed in my own thoughts, that I can’t climb out of them and join their conversation, and only days later, when it no longer matters, it dawns on me that they think that I think I’m white and they’re not, that I’m number one and they’re God knows what numbers behind me…. While the truth of the matter is that their conversation, although it seems quite open, is closed to me, and not because I’m white and they’re not, but because they have friends in common whose names I never heard before, and also because they’re real New Yorkers and I’m not.
I want to tell them, Look, I’m sorry I don’t participate in your conversation, please don’t take it as an offence, it’s just that I’m an introvert and I’ve always been like that, always thinking my own thoughts, I get inside them and I just stay there, you know, like a pupa in its cocoon, that’s just how I am. But I’ve been silent for too long, so now it’s hard to break through my silence, and I’m too much of an introvert to apologize for being an introvert. And so we ride on, my silence so audible I’m no longer even embarrassed by it.
We arrive at our destination, a long office complex, all glass and aluminum, in the middle of what looks like a waste land, and we take out our huge watering cans, two cans for each of us, and I follow Takisha and Josho because they’ve been here before and they know where to go and I don’t. We go past a long row of front doors and then in the back of the building we walk past another long row of back doors until we stop by one that says Boiler Room and we ring and ring and wait a long time until a boiler room attendant opens the door and gives Josho and Takisha a cursory look and then his eyes stop on me.
He says, I see you’re in charge here.
The one who makes all the decisions.
He thinks my white skin entitles me to being in charge, and I want to tell the rosy-cheeked attendant that he is wrong, that Josho and Takisha are much more in charge here, I don’t know a thing, not even how to turn this huge faucet, or maybe I’m just too weak to turn it, yes that must be it, because Takisha comes over and turns it for me and fills my two watering cans but she wants to lighten my burden so she fills them only half full, even though hers and Josho’s are filled to the brim with water, so you do see now, attendant, that I’m neither in charge nor anything else here, and I wish you would take your words back. But Josho and Takisha act as if they haven’t heard what I heard and I feel that asking the attendant to take his words back would bring unnecessary attention to his very unworthy words and so I say nothing, and staggering under the weight of my half-full watering cans, I follow Josho and Takisha out of the boiler room and into the bright fluorescent light of the infinite office space.
The office space is partitioned into endless cages, and in each cage, there is a desk, and behind each desk, a chair with nobody on it, not because we’re late but because this is a lunch hour, and we come at this time on purpose, so our humble bustle does not disturb the mighty office minds from pursuing their lofty white collar thoughts. Only a couple of secretaries are still here, and when I ask one to please move her chair so I can go and water a rubber plant at the side of her desk, she pretends to be so consumed in re-arranging a pile of receipts on her desk that she doesn’t bother to respond. Which is fine with me, I can easily squeeze through the opening between the partition and her desk, it’s only my watering can that’s a problem.
The secretary does not grant me the honor of seeing her face. I’m allowed only to hear her voice, and the voice is full of fury and arrogance; the voice wants to know how come I don’t ask before I barge in with my whatchamacallit, kitchen utensils.
But I did ask.
When you people ask, you ought to remember to say please and may I.
I want to say, But I did say please…
You people. English may not be my native language but I know enough not to like being addressed as you people, not even by this young woman with painted nails who has been admitted into the kingdom of paper and who has a desk of her own in a cage of her own, while I’m only a humble plant waterer, the lowliest of the low.
I’ll tell you a secret, I say. I’m an artist.
Ah, is it so?
Yes, I say modestly, that’s what I am. Not some fake celebrity but the real thing, even though I appear before you in a plant waterer’s garb.
My goodness, she exclaims, I’ve never been so close to the real thing!
Yes, I say modestly, how fortunate for you that I—
At this point the secretary interrupts my daydreaming with a shout.
You people don’t even know how to water plants without dripping bits of the Atlantic Ocean everywhere you go!
True, there’s a small puddle around the rubber plant I’ve been watering but it doesn’t deserve to be called the Atlantic Ocean.
My cheeks are on fire as I walk through the immense office space with a mop, even though I know that most of the cages are empty, and even if they weren’t, it doesn’t make any difference because most of the office workers have melted into their chairs and become one with them.
As I mop up my mini ocean, I ask myself why does it always happen to me, time after time, at one job after another. What’s wrong with a little daydreaming, I say, with adding a little color to this grey life?
Back at the plant company, I see Josho and Takisha with the manager, talking, gesticulating, arguing. Surely, they must be talking about me. About how I slighted them with my silence from the beginning to the end of our van ride. About how I made the Atlantic Ocean puddle on the plastic floor of that plastic cage. If that’s what all this gesticulating is about, let them. I don’t care. I know there wasn’t a drop of racism in my silence, and as for the Atlantic Ocean, big firing deal, just a mishap, if they want to fire me for that, I don’t care.
I’m so convinced that I’m being fired that I can hardly believe when nothing happens, and the Atlantic Ocean remains a secret between me and the brightly painted secretary who may never even know what a piece of luck befell her today, an encounter with an artist who is not just some passing fad, some fake celebrity and so forth but the real thing. I don’t know it yet but I still have ten days left at this job, and when I’m finally fired, the Atlantic puddle or my silence during the ride with Takisha and Josho have nothing to do with it.
My mother shakes her head sadly when she sees me leaving home every day at five-thirty in the morning dragging a duffel bag with two watering cans, each can half the size of my small frame. She shakes her head and thinks, when will her impractical daughter get some sense into her head and learn to pay rent for her own apartment with money from a job that’s a real job and not an illusion with only two hours of work per week in the future which will never come because my mother doesn’t believe that I’m a grown-up who can negotiate my own hours and make my own business contacts with wealthy people who would want me to water their plants two hours a week and pay me enough for it so I can spend the rest of my time writing and painting. I tell her about my New Zealand friend who waters plants two hours a week and the rest of the time he is free to do what he wants, but my mother doesn’t want to hear about this New Zealand friend, since he’s the one to blame for this dirty duffel bag with these two huge watering cans and for my leaving home at five thirty in the morning and coming back late in the evening, hungry and weak from this menial job which is beneath an educated person like her daughter.
I’ve managed to drag my duffel bag into a subway train and I didn’t get a seat even though it’s too early for rush hour, so I stand staring at an advertisement for a hotel that has the best maid service in the Tri-state area. I don’t pay attention to the name of the hotel but the word ‘maid’ sticks in my mind, maid-maid-maid—it rings a bell, it’s trying to tell me something.
I turn and see a familiar face of an older woman, a student of mine in the days when I worked as a teacher.
A mix of respect and maternal solicitude on her face. I forgot her name but I remember her face very well, a grandmother at forty-four, five children and at least twice as many grandchildren waiting back in Ecuador for their abuela’s weekly parcels with American treats.
Teacher, what in this big bag? Books?
So many books, teacher! Very intelligent teacher. Very heavy books.
Suddenly her name flashes through my memory. Esperanza! She had a window seat in an English class I taught two evenings a week at an Adult Education program in Jackson Heights.
I have to get off here, Esperanza, I change trains at Roosevelt.
You okay, teacher? You look white! I help you carry books, teacher!
Ah no, Esperanza, thank you so much, I can carry my books myself…
I stumble at somebody’s feet and almost lose my balance as the train comes to an abrupt stop. While I’m balancing on one foot, I let go of the duffel bag and it falls on the floor, and a heavyset passenger on his way to a door, steps on it, and a zipper of one bag opens and now everyone can see those aren’t books inside but huge metal watering cans—oh, Esperanza!
I help, teacher!
And so, while Esperanza helps me to zip up the duffel bag, I’m crouching between people’s feet, tucking in the neck of the watering can and forcing the zipper to close, that word from the ad begins to make sense.
Now I know why that word, maid, kept ringing a bell in my head, what it was trying to tell me.
Once upon a time I was a teacher, now I’m a waterer of plants.
I’m a Cinderella in reverse, a princess turned into a maid!
I say a hurried bye to Esperanza and run up to an upstairs platform, stumbling over my duffel bag, my two watering cans clanking loudly. My heart beating, my mind thinking, Please God don’t delay the next train!
God must have heard me because a 7 train rolls in as soon as I step onto the platform.
The rush hour crowd is like an ocean; it pushes me along until I’m aboard, watering cans and all. In my relief, I should not forget to thank God, so He wouldn’t refuse to lend me a hand next time I run for a train to work. I still don’t know whether He exists or not, but who would want to take such a big risk when it’s so easy not to?
I know I wouldn’t.
Because the worst thing that can happen to a princess turned into a maid is to be late and fired.
* * *
But I’m fired anyway, even though I manage to be on time every morning.
The landscaping company has two managers—one for fieldwork and one for office work. It is the job of the office manager to keep from us the exact date and time when the field manager is going to show up to monitor our ability to water the right plants in the right dose without splashing water on important people who sit behind polished desks and make important decisions on pieces of paper. It is the job of the field manager to drive home the point that we plant people must never forget the difference between ourselves and the desk people and under no circumstances are we to act more important than a desk person’s little toe.
Whose little toe?
The field manager isn’t going to explain his toe expression, certainly not now, when his only listener is this girl who probably never even finished high school, judging from the way she can barely follow his little-toe speech.
The field manager is young, thin, not very tall, olive skinned, and speaks with quiet dignity like a person who is on his way up in the world, and if he is lingering here down below with the rest of us, then it is only out of the goodness of his heart. And who can doubt that Angel Fernandez is on his way up? Everybody knows that only two weeks are left until his graduation from a two-year college with an associate degree in management—and then off he goes to higher ranks and better places, maybe even on to managing office people with their important toes.
We are in a Wall Street office, and I am watering rubber trees lined up by a large window, and Angel Fernandez is observing my job performance from a few steps away and I want to ask him to please turn away because when I’m being watched, my hands don’t obey me and I might spill—there, see what I mean?
He says let’s step into the hallway for a little talk.
If he starts talking to me about the spill, what can I tell him? What use is trying to convince a manager whose job is to observe me that when he is not observing me, I don’t spill? I spilled, he saw me, I’m fired.
But when we are in the hallway, he says let me buy you some lunch.
Now we are sitting across from each other at a shiny plastic table in a cheap Chinese restaurant, eating rice out of paper plates, and Angel Fernandez says with all good intentions:
Ah, Tina, you should go to college.
Ah, I say, Angel, I’ve already been to college.
Ah, but you should finish it. Finishing is important. You should get a degree.
Oh, Angel, I’ve already got a degree. Two actually.
The manager looks at me to see if I’m joking because he can’t understand why anyone with a college degree, let alone two of them, would work as a junior plant waterer for the Flushing Landscaping, Inc.
He wants to know what my degrees are in, and I tell him one is in literature and the other is in linguistics, the first one useless, the second one also useless but not as much. I tell him that with my Master’s in linguistics I got a teaching job at a community college, forty-five dollars per hour.
Angel Fernandez is finishing his plateful of Chinese food in silence. I sense an uncomfortable edge to his silence, but I tell myself that I hardly know this person, so how am I supposed to decipher his moods or to know what his silence means.
I don’t have long to wait to find out the meaning of his silence because the next morning, as soon as I come in, I’m told to go see the office manager. I do as I’m told, and I find myself looking at both of them, the two managers, the so-called office manager and the so-called field manager, and while Angel Fernandez is intentionally looking away, the office manager rubs his stomach and says that they’re putting me on hold and that I must leave my duffel bag and the two watering cans in the supply room before I leave.
I look at the two of them, the office manager and the field one, and I try to figure out what they mean, and then it dawns on me that I am fired, no more plants, no more heavy watering cans, no more Wall Street offices where I am treated like the lowliest of the low. And on my way out the door I finally grasp it, the meaning of Angel Fernandez’ silence after he heard about my two degrees and the forty-five dollars per hour that I made at my teaching job. I feel like turning around and telling him that even though forty-five an hour sounds like a lot, I taught only one hour a week, so there is no need for him to envy me because, although forty-five per hour sounds good, forty-five per week is not good at all, and therefore there’s no need for him to fire me just so he can feel good about himself and his own achievements.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my many jobs, it’s that once you’re fired, forget it, even if they say they’re just putting you on hold, there’s no appealing the decisions of your higher ups, even if the decisions are based on their mistaken envy of your two useless college degrees.
I hand in my watering cans and the duffel bag and walk out, free, jobless, moneyless, a familiar feeling, the usual thrill of loss.
Nina Kossman is a poet, memoirist, playwright, novelist, translator, and artist. As a Jewish refugee from the former Soviet Union, Kossman’s work has been translated into multiple languages and received the UNESCO/PEN Short Story Award, an NEA fellowship, as well as grants from Foundation for Hellenic Culture, Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, and Fundación Valparaíso (Spain). Nina lives in New York.