Right after college, I took up woodworking.
Sanding wood, building birdhouses, learning how to use a saw. My hands flexed in new leather gloves as I started power tools and crafted little lopsided wooden walls. I read books about woodworking, scoured websites, and went out drinking with my fellow woodworkers every Saturday at 9pm.
I walked with a swagger in my step, digging my heels into the floor wherever I went. Thud-thud-thud whenever I walked into a room. You could hear me coming. I led meetings with my fellow interns at work and rapped my knuckles on the dark wooden mahogany tables of our boardrooms. Some good mahogany, I’d say with a boom of authority in my voice. Solid.
I joined Habitat for Humanity and helped them build houses, putting some of my skills to good use. We crafted frames alongside future homeowners and old retired construction workers who chewed gum and told stories with their Adam’s apples wobbling. Their stories always started with “in my day” and ended with “and then I ran home with the sun in my eyes!”
I developed a perpetual squint from staring down the ends of tools. I had a set of construction and woodworking clothes that always had some dust caught in them, making me sneeze. I began to loathe the sight of those clothes, out of place in my wardrobe of clean business suits.
One day, my boss came up to me and complimented me on my hard work. “Just make sure you tone down that walk, kid, and try not to talk down to people. But you’re doing great. You’ll be a top executive in no time.”
That night, I came home and ripped those woodworking clothes out of my closet, crumpling them up into a little ball and throwing them under my bed. The words “top executive” beat to the rhythm of the blood pounding in my skull.
Three days later, I took up painting.
I wore flowing smocks and always had paint stains on my hands. I painted flowers on small canvases and fruit on bigger ones. I painted peacocks and trees, meadows and valleys, and my old home in my hometown.
I began to walk lightly, my feet barely touching the Earth so that I’d flow as I moved, softly, smoothly, no jagged kick of my heels. I visited local art museums and examined the paintings in minute detail, jotting notes in a new musty leather notebook. Nearly every weekday night, my new art friends and I would sit in a smoke-filled room of someone’s apartment and drink dark red wine from coffee cups. I bought dozens of wooden paintbrushes and watched the bristles wear down as I kept painting. Every night as I brushed my teeth, I would listen to Vivaldi and picture bridges covered in blossoms.
At work, I nodded with an arch to my eyebrows, my face expressive even when I didn’t care. My dark eye makeup caught some glances, but no one mentioned anything. My colleagues only sometimes asked me questions about what I was painting, and I would tell them, hands waving, about my newest painting or art idea.
One day, my boss complimented me on my ability to boost morale and connect with others. “Who knew,” he said, “that art could really open people’s eyes?” He laughed his little heh-heh laugh. “Just don’t forget about what’s important. You’re not going to be any professional painter. All that painting stuff, kid, it’s got your head in the clouds and no top executive has his head in the clouds without his feet planted firmly on the floor.”
That night, I pulled out my newest work in progress, a painting of a bridge, and ripped it to shreds. I carefully packed up my paintbrushes and threw them into the darkest corner of my most inaccessible drawer, shoving it shut with a thrust of my hips. At the sink, before I brushed my teeth, I spent half an hour scraping paint off of my fingernails, nearly scraping off my own nails in my struggle.
Two days later, I took up dance.
I joined a studio where they taught beginner classes for adults, studying modern dance. I couldn’t perform the stretches with the grace of the other dancers, and I sweated and grunted my way through the first class. As we exited the dance studio, the teacher stopped me with a wave of his arm. “Wait,” he said.
I waited, his hand still on my arm.
“No one is born knowing how to stretch. It takes practice, and I can tell that you’ve got drive and skill. It takes a strong person to step out of their comfort zone and try something new, and you never gave up. You gave it all you got, and I want you to know: I’m proud of you. I hope to see you again next week.”
After he finished speaking, I nodded with a smile and ducked out of his grip, making a beeline for the door. The words “I’m proud of you” thrummed in my toes. I walked up to the tired receptionist at the front desk to the studio and added two more classes to my schedule.
I learned how to stand on one leg and shift my weight between my feet. I learned how to hold my spine, not too high or low, no slumping or arching of the back. I learned how to walk, feet placed evenly on the ground. I learned how to leap and turn, floating by focusing on everything else but gravity itself. I felt graceful, even as I panted with exertion every class.
I wore jeans and sweaters and dress shirts and soft worn boots, a sweep of woolen scarf completing every ensemble. I gave presentations quickly, short and sweet. I felt the weight of my words just as I felt the weight of my body – heavy and even, slow and smooth, only held exactly as necessary. My coworkers noticed the change gradually, and one asked me about how I’d learned my posture. More people began to gravitate to me slowly, as if I were a small magnet, even those I didn’t speak to. Co-workers joined me at dance classes, and we grabbed drinks together sometimes after class, discussing work and posture and home.
One day, I saw the boss speaking with his boss in the corridor after a meeting at which I had spoken, and I wondered what they were talking about.
The very next day, however, as I pushed open the heavy glass door to the office, the receptionist intercepted my path to my desk.
“Wait,” she said.
“Boss wants to see you,” she finished. I nodded with a smile and walked to his office. After rapping on the door with one firm knock, I stepped back, eyes fixed on the plaque next to his door.
The door opened seconds later, the boss’s beaming face greeting me.
“Kid, come in, come in!” he said with a smile. I came in and sat down, accepting a glass of water from him, my spine straight. He settled into the leather chair across from me and clasped his hands on his desk, his shoulders twitching uncomfortably beneath his thick suit jacket.
“Well, let’s get right down to it. Kid, we’ve been noticing some really great work from you, and we were wondering if you’d like to level up and become manager. Great position, great pay. Whaddya say?”
“Excuse me?” he asked, eyebrows raised.
I cleared throat. “Excuse my forthrightness, but you said earlier that I was too condescending, and then that my head was in the clouds, but now you want to promote me so soon? I’m sorry; I just want to know.”
He winced and waved a hand. “All in the past now, kid. You had some things you had to work on, and I just wanted to see you do better. But you have taken those comments to heart and improved tremendously—an almost unprecedented amount. I hope you see that growth in yourself,” he added, face suddenly stern.
I tightened my muscles to keep myself from shifting in the chair. The room felt too hot, and I surreptitiously wiped my palms on my pants. “I do, and that answers my question, thank you, sir.” I took a deep breath. “So what would—”
“Just a moment,” he interrupted, holding up a finger. His eyes scrutinized my face. “Can I ask you something, kid?”
“You’ve been improving pretty steadily, already a lot for an intern, but these last few months, I’ve seen a great change come over you. What was different this last time?”
“I’ve always taken up hobbies, little human dreams, you know? I’ve done a lot of things,” I continued, tilting my head in thought. “But this last one, dance, really combined lots of my other interests. I don’t want to go pro,” I added, forestalling any concerns he might have. “But I wouldn’t want to stop.”
The boss chuckled, and I felt a foreboding shiver slide down my spine. “Well, you’re going to have to.”
I locked my eyes on his. “What—What do you mean?”
“You’re not going to have time for those frivolous things, kid,” he began, drumming his fingers on the desk. “You’re on the track to greatness, and silly little side activities aren’t going to get you anywhere.”
For the first time, I let out a laugh in his presence, a full-bellied laugh, and I saw him rear his head back in surprise. “I thought you might say that,” I said after a pause. “I really thought you might.”
He crossed his arms and leaned back in the chair. “Looks like you’ve got a choice to make then, kid. The company or—”
“—or myself,” I finished for him.
“Well, now, we’ve got tons of opportunities to take time for yourself. Work socials, group painting nights, all sorts of great stuff for you to kick back at.”
“That’s not for anyone, and everyone knows that. Last painting night, we all just got drunk and no one painted a damn thing.”
“We’ve all given up lots of little joys to keep this business going strong,” he replied, his tone even but severe, every word slow and enunciated. “This is a great opportunity for you. Don’t blow it.” He planted his elbows on the desk and leaned in. “One last chance: Give me your answer.”
The room went silent as I gathered my thoughts. Finally, swallowing hard, I smiled. “I went from top executive to thin ice pretty fast, huh?” I noted. “That’s how it works. Loyal intern to sad manager to drunk painter to top executive to ‘one last chance’.”
He stood up and stepped around his desk. “This conversation is over until you can screw your head back on right. Dismissed.”
I grabbed his arm and stood up, blocking his path to the door and planting my feet. “I could do your job.”
He resisted my grip. “Excu—”
“You know it,” I hissed. “I could do it in half the time it takes you, probably.”
“You don’t know what you’re—”
“I don’t want your promotion. In fact, I quit. Effective immediately.” With a slow grin, I released his arm. He yanked away, shaking his head in disappointment.
Before he could send me out, I placed my knuckles ono the desktop and rapped on it twice. “Good solid table. Mahogany?”