There's this woman that works in Walgreen's down the street who is so deeply unhappy it stuns me.
It's the thing you notice first about her, that and her size. Then you notice her voice, nasally and depressed. When she speaks, it drops an octave or two at the end of every sentence, as if she's let it go into a deep dark well and doesn't care if she ever hears the splash. She just doesn't care. I think she feels that way about her whole life, really, as if it were an unwanted and diseased baby and someone dropped it on its little head and she doesn't care to pick it up, to comfort or to heal it. I can't tell if something bad has happened to make her this way, or if she is this way by nature, born to be miserable and not wild at all.
Sometimes I worry that I am secretly as morose as she is, but then I laugh and shake my head. Once, maybe, when I was 17 and pregnant, rising at 5:30 a.m. to go to work at Dunkin' Donuts, I appeared that miserable. I was exhausted and worried, serving people with such tiredness and lack of care about what I was doing, not looking into the faces of my also weary customers. One brave woman reprimanded me at 7:15 a.m. one Thursday morning, she really did: "Can't you smile?" she said sharply. "We come in here for our coffee," and here she looked around at her fellow coffee getters, "a little pick-me-up before work and we don't want to be greeted by your unhappy face." Or words to that effect; it was such a long time ago who can remember the exact words, but it stung and embarrassed me and stuck with me for a long time.
She must be, if I have to guess, in her mid-20's, this woman in Walgreen's, but her energy, her movements, are of a tired old woman who has seen so much of life that it's worn her out and now she's just waiting for it to end. Even her hair is tired, some thinning no-color grayish blonde. I can't tell if she dyes it or was born with it that way, the sense of listlessness endemic to who she is.
I say the polite thing as I get to the check out counter: how are you, I say, being casual and a bit wary, because I know how this goes. "By tomorrow at this time," she sighs, "I will have worked 33 hours this week," and she looks into my face for some response. I just look at her. What should I say? Any sympathy I might genuinely have for the many hours she's been on her feet is swallowed up, is swamped by her oozing self-pity. I feel no sympathy for her, because she has too much for herself. She wants you to commiserate with her, co-sign her displeasure at life. She never asks how I am, she just sighs and tells me how she can't wait to get out of work and go home.
She never once has anything hopeful or cheerful or cheering or enlightened to say. She is never anything but tired and unhappy and self-centered. I hope I am never like that, not for two lousy (additional) minutes, ever. She's asleep on her feet, sleep walking through her own life all the time, and she doesn't even know it, she can't see it. I want to shake her, tell her to snap out of it, to wake up! This is your life, honey, for God's sake, no one but you made it this way, all those little choices you make every day make it this way. Do something about it if you don't like it. Get up tomorrow morning and be a different person if you want, a cheerful person, one with hope and a sparkle in your eye, a dream in your heart and a kind word for your neighbor. Do what Hitch said and start every day like you mean it, with passion and pride and intention. Fake it if you must, my dear, until it becomes real. And smile once in a while. Just try it -- it won't hurt, I promise. I bet it won't hurt one tiny little bit at all.
August 27, 2009