VIOLETS ARE BLUE
I stood in front of the mirror smiling, practicing a few opening lines. “P-p-professor Hirshfield, g-g-good to see…” No, I should use nice to see you. Gs are always tough. “Nice to see you. I love your new office s-s-space.” No need for space. Just say I love your new office. That works. Keep it simple and keep practicing.
Mother would be proud; although she thinks me awkward, graceless, socially challenged, but always has hope for improvement. I’m not quite so harsh, and consider myself critically shy. Is there such a diagnosis? I’ve learned I do best when I can control limited social encounters. That’s why I’m better working alone, in a world I’m comfortable and familiar with; the study of soil, seeds, gardens, and grasses.
But yesterday that world fell apart for me.
I’ve been working as a research assistant for Dr. William Hirshfield. After finishing up my masters at UT in Austin, I gratefully found my hidey-hole at the UT School of Environmental Sciences. After being hired, I realized the perfect spot had opened for me. For a year now we’ve been collecting data and running experiments on soil absorption, attempting to come up with a microbial substance that will turn arid, dry lands into potential blooming fields of agriculture. All well and good for me in my cozy research lab, but even better with the added bonus of perhaps helping save the planet.
Yesterday, I was surprised when Hirschfield's assistant called me to schedule a meeting with the professor in his office. We normally only met every two weeks for consultations on experiments. Last night, I’d practiced my opening lines. Today, I got through them without much agony. Usually, he was the one that did most of the talking. I sat down nervously across from his desk, with sweating palms gripping the arm rests of my chair. As with most people I conversed with, I found it difficult looking at Hirshfield when he spoke. Today I found his floorboards especially interesting.
He nervously coughed and then said, “Violet, I must say your work has been exemplary, but…”
Oh shit… The proverbial but after a compliment. I internally winced, if that was possible.
As I continued to be intrigued with the wood content of his floor, Hirshfield said, “I’m afraid I have some bad news to share.” He coughed again. “I’ll just get right to it. I hate to tell you this, but our next year of NIH funding has been cut. They haven’t renewed the terms of the project at our previous level and claim our results are not going as quickly as we initially projected.”
He seemed to be talking to himself now, explaining his problems to the ceiling as my eyes nervously flitted up occasionally to watch. “Seems our study is on the low end of the priority scale regarding research grant money. Therefore…” He coughed a third time. Nervous tick or avoidance? Either way, not a good sign. “I’m having to cut out most of my research staff, including your position.”
Please no. My eyes immediately grew moist and my body went cold. I had finally found my place in this chaotic world; my comfy, musty den. Where I could reach my fingers deep into sandy soil, disappear into another world within my microscope, clock in for hours of uninterrupted work, eat a sandwich over my work station in solitude, and interact with others only regarding information I was knowledgeable about. Now apparently, all that was gone.
And what remained? Going home to Mother, with her looks of disapproval, her hopes of turning me around, fixing me, with her desires of making me more than I am. I was devastated.
“Dr. Hirshfield, I c-c-c-could w-w-w-work part-time. T-t-t-twenty-five hours a w-w-w-week?”
In case you missed that, I also have a noticeable stutter, becoming much worse in times of stress. Finding work as an eloquent lecturing professor is probably not in my future.
“I only wish that were possible, Violet. The grant has been downgraded to only include lab equipment, supplies, and compensation for just a few key personnel. I’m so sorry. This has all come as quite a surprise. So, having to make adjustments immediately, I can only keep you on another next two weeks. I wanted to let you hear it from me, personally.”
Message received. “Thank you,” I mumbled, and asked something about a possible reference, then stood up and walked out with head down, making a quick exit before he had to shake my cold sweating hand.
It had been five years since I’d actually lived at home with Mother. I’d been living in Austin; three years while earning my bachelors and another year-and-a-half for my masters, comfortably surviving in my small, quiet efficiency. In contrast, Mother’s home was a luxurious prison in Dallas, sitting on a green oak-studded hill, overlooking White Rock Lake.
I spent the next few weeks desperately attempting to find a position with another research team within the department. There were several available for volunteer and credit work, but all paid positions were staffed up. Although my educational credentials were excellent, my interviewing skills were obviously negligible. Customer service positions had never seemed a good match and I truly wanted to continue in some aspect within my field of study.
At the end of the two-week period, I decided to call in the cavalry. Via email, I sent Mother news of my change in job status, then followed up with a request of funds to keep me in Austin while I continued to look for work. No go. She insisted I return home and search for something within the Dallas area.
So sorry to hear about your job loss. I know you’ve been happy with your research. But sometimes these little hiccups work out for the best. I personally think you need more stimulation and interaction in your work. When I visited, that lab and job seemed so sterile and lonely. I’m sure I can line something up for you through some of my contacts. Come home darling. I’ve redone the guest quarters recently, so you’ll feel like you have your own place. It’ll be fun hanging out together again. Shall I call Lexi and see if she can open up her schedule and set aside some sessions for you? There’s so much I want to talk to you about. What day can I expect you?
Well I could; wait awhile, that is. Was I being an ungrateful little bitch? Sort of. But I knew I’d have to deal with her incessant smiling face of Botox, popping in without warning. The false cheer. Her urging to conform.
I wanted to drag out my move. Although my bank account would quickly drain away to nothing, I felt no incentive to rush home to Mother, knowing what lay ahead: struggling through painful job interviews, and the clothing issue between my mother and me. Yes, still a problem at age twenty-four. Then, once again, I’d start my sessions with speech therapist, Lexi. It wouldn’t take long; within a few weeks Mother would assert dominance, pushing me into attending achingly boring and nerve-wracking philanthropic luncheons where the young social set decided on where to hold their next charity bash. They rarely touched the food, but met instead, primarily to show off their new clothing and jewelry acquisitions. I got jumpy just thinking about it.
Unfortunately, research assistant’s pay was low, Austin rents were high, and the guest house at Mother’s was free. Economically, it all made sense. Emotionally, I was an unhappy wreck.
And who could I complain to? Call 911? --My mother is inviting me to move back into a lovely small home sitting directly behind her even lovelier large home surrounded by a lake. Put her on trial? --My mother is insisting I try on beautiful new clothing suggested from her personal shopper at Neiman’s. Lock her up? --She’s offering me therapy for a debilitating affliction which seems to have become worse.
I was a pathetic whiner. Time to pack it up, get up, and get going.
I pulled my Subaru into the long circular drive, trailed by an attached U-Haul holding all my worldly possessions. The drive had gone smoothly despite the never-completed construction delays on I-35 and a quick stop for the guilty pleasures of kolaches in the town of West. I took a deep breath, stretched my legs, and unlocked Mother’s front door.
I called out in the echoing foyer, “I’m home.” There were voices in the sunroom. I walked in that direction. “M-m-mom, I’m here.”
“Out here darling, come say hi to the girls.”
By ‘girls’ she meant her bridge playing pals of the age fifty and up crowd. On cushioned white wicker, amongst the dwarf palms, ferns, and bird-of-paradise, Mother sat with her gaggle of card-playing girlfriends. I stood at the entrance of the room, slightly frozen.
Waving me over, she said, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Violet, come over and say hi. You know the girls. Viv, Jan, Chris. Violet’s come home for a while. We’re gonna see if she can crack the job market here in Dallas. Give your mom a hug.”
I immediately walked over and leaned in, giving her an awkward cheek pass and a pat on each shoulder. “Hello, ladies. G-g-good to see you ag-g-gain.”
“Vi, your key to the guest house is on the bar. Go ahead and get yourself settled in. We’ll go out for a nice dinner tonight. There’s a new place I want to take you to.”
“Thanks M-mom, s-s-see you later.”
Of course, I heard their whispers as I exited. I’m sure they were patting Mom’s arm in sympathy for her cross-to-bear, the awkward stuttering adult daughter. Screw them, a few sessions with Lexi and I would be back in the saddle, speaking with minimal spraying of word bullets. Ms, Ss, and Gs: all trouble spots in the alphabet for me. Too bad both mom and mother started with that tricky M.
I pulled around to the back. On the opposite side of the pool from the main house, was my new home, for now. I unlocked the French doors and looked about, impressed with the recent update. All walls were painted a clean white, with a king bed on the left side of the room, all dressed in white, like a soft cushy cloud. There were numerous shapes and shades of throw pillows in muted colors, with a large abstract painting on the wall above, reflecting those same colors. I stepped onto a thick rag-rug woven with those same nude colors, and approved of a white chair and ottoman opposite a generous book case with a flat screen. Lining the wall on the opposite side of the room was a stone kitchen counter top with updated appliances and a rustic farm-style table and chairs. The bathroom was simple, spacious, and modern. Mom must have given the decorator carte blanche. I could do a lot worse.
I went to the U-Haul to begin unloading. Within a few hours I had all clothing hung, bathroom accessories in place, a few kitchen utensils put away, and my vast novel and textbook collection stacked on the shelves. To accommodate them, I pushed Mom’s newly collected objects-of-art off to the sides. As I was emptying my final box, Mother opened the door.
“All settled in? What was that U-Haul for?”
“S-s-stuff…clothing, b-books, b-bathroom-junk, life.”
She looked anxiously about the space. “OK, I see. But these shelves, Violet. Don’t you want the sculptures to stand out more?” She picked up a pale pink swirl of something. “This infused-glass piece is a beauty. You’re hiding it with the books like this, baby.”
“J-j-just had to find place for everything.”
She went across rearranging the shelves, pulling out the collected art objects, showing them off to their advantage. “Much better now, see?”
“Sh-sure. Looks g-good.” I had no energy for an argument.
“So, dinner tonight. The place is casual. Wear something nice but comfortable. Let’s meet at six. So glad your home, Vi.”
“Yeah, m-me too.” I braced myself and thought, take the bad with the good. Dinner with Mom; good food filled with a minefield of conversation. I let out a deep breath. I’d eaten little in the last few weeks. I needed to have a healthy appetite or she’d think I was bulimic again. Now, a chance to nap for an hour and then pick out some clothing that wouldn’t have Mom calling up the fashion police before leaving the house.
At six sharp she swung her Range Rover in front of my door, just as I finished throwing a scarf around my neck that would hopefully help camouflage the basic tee shirt and black pants I was wearing.
I stepped out. “P-p-prompt as always, M-m-mom.” I had to laugh. “Th-th-thanks for the lift.”
“Well, I know that drive way can be a real climb sometimes. So… in the mood for Turkish?”
“I g-g-guess…don’t know if I’ve tried it before, but I’m g-g-game. Actually hungry.”
Oh, it’s Mediterranean, sort of like Greek. But I loved it last week. You’ve got to try the Iskender. I’ll order for you. It’s to die for, especially if you’re hungry. I’m so glad you mentioned that. You are looking really thin, Vi.”
I shook my head. Here we go. “I’m f-fine. Just b-been b-b-busy.”
Soon we were seated at a small round table, lit by candle light, drinking a deep red Cabernet, complimenting an enormous plate of beef and lamb, served over soft pita bread, topped with a type of tomato sauce and hot liquid butter. It was exquisite. Chalk one up for Mom.
“Now, baby, let’s talk jobs. By the way, that scarf looks good on you. Plays up your eyes. You should do that more often, play up the eyes. They’re beautiful, you know. You favor me in that regard.”
“OK, now jobs…”
“Actually, if you don’t m-mind, I’d like to do m-my own s-s-search first.”
“Well, a little push and a head start certainly never hurt. Remember, in job hunts it’s who you know more than what you know.”
“I a-p-p-preciate it, b-but g-g-give m-me some time to check.” Good job, Violet. Assertive but not ungrateful.
Later that evening, I plugged in my laptop and did some searches at UTD, UT Health Science Center, SMU, and some commercial labs. There were a few promising openings as I filled in online applications, attached my CV and personal statement, pressed send, and then got a bout of stomach cramps. Nerves or rich food? I couldn’t be sure.
After my new spotless bathroom had a full workout, I stood in front of the mirror, practicing normal, casual, human interview banter. I was pathetic. Ss were hissing. Ps were popping. Who could listen to that? I was seeing eye rolls and embarrassment looking back at me in the mirror.
Perhaps Mother was right. A friendly reference with a job introduction would make everything go smoother, easier. Reconsidering her offer, I typed out an email request to Mother. Was I taking the easy way out? Was my stutter and anxiety that bad? I had strong academic credentials. Didn’t they count for something?
With determination, I went back to the mirror and practiced my lively interview banter again. Ugh, even worse. I returned to my laptop, read through my email to Mother and pressed send.