We Work in Miraculous Cages
I was one of millions of college graduates trying to pay off student loans and credit card debt on minimum wage. I worked in a hair salon as a receptionist from nine to five, and at a veterinary emergency hospital on nights and weekends. I had a boyfriend, but he kept wanting to take my clothes off in the few hours I could sleep. At the vet hospital, I ran around yanking the cats out of their carriers by the scruff of the neck, weighing the dogs, calling for triage, sorting through mountains of paperwork. Sometimes you turned around and a dog hacked up an organ, or a cat came in on the Fourth of July with a firecracker through its head, or a police dog was being rushed in from a gang shooting, or a ferret had escaped its cage and vomited green all over the hospital.
I was so angry–at myself, at the clients. Angry at the salt of the earth, the farmers who brought in their pot-bellied pigs, the welfare poor’s shaking hands as they handed over their animals. These were most of the people we saw at the emergency vet. People with money, with time, they shuttled their animals to their regular vets as soon as they sensed something amiss. Everyone else tried to wait it out, only brought us the animals when they were near death. I started telling the hysterical owners clutching their dying pets, It will be okay. But after a few months and enough dogs and cats dying, my own life like molecules that would not bind, like the electricity of a heart that fades and will not restart, I knew it would not be okay.
Then I started to say, We’ll try everything we can.
But that was even worse, because everything we could try cost money that less and less people seemed to have, and we had all seen where trying had gotten us.
At the hair salon, I checked people in and out of their appointments, answered the phones, counted cash. I had to stand up behind the counter. The owner had thrown away the stools because he thought sitting made us look lazy, less ready to serve. I also doubled as an office manager because they couldn’t afford to hire a second person. It was a high-end salon, so it’s not that they couldn’t. They wouldn’t. I got a few extra dollars an hour, but it wasn’t enough to make a dent, not when I was paying twice my rent in credit card and student loan repayments.
They would call me into the back to shampoo someone’s head or massage hands if they were in a pinch. These people I shampooed, they were sequins and glitz and glam, fake breasts, balloon lips pinned into smiles, the stretched faces of age artificially preserved, all those people who could afford to spend money just to wash their hair or get their eyebrows arched in just the perfect way. I did not want to hear about their lives. I was content to watch the water swirling and their shampoo bubbling and guess at the viscosity of the liquid. When the person was young, I didn’t mind it. They thought they had their whole life ahead of them, and while I massaged their hands, I wished this for them. With the older women, it was different. I thought about how they had spent not just their lives, but our lives too, gobbled up or snorted up or injected into their faces all that good fortune of the eighties and the dot-com boom, them laying their heads back into the shampoo bowl and me wasting all my understanding about the world on mashing their skin over their bones.
At the vet hospital, a woman brought in a python in a cardboard box, bleeding heavily, chunks missing from his body.
Triage to the front, I breathed into the speakerphone.
How can I help you? I said.
A tech appeared and took the box away from her into the back.
It’s a long story, she said. I feed it live rats, because that’s better for them, you know? I send one wriggling down into the tank, and my python eats it. Well, this week it wasn’t hungry, so I left the rat in there, thinking when he finally got up the hunger he’d pounce.
I shoved the paperwork at her.
She said, The rat started chewing on my python instead.
The rat ate the python? I repeated.
A sobbing girl ran into the hospital, yelling, Someone please tell me if my dog is alive.
Triage to the front, I breathed into the speakerphone, and triage came and stretchered the dog into the hospital. Alive, the tech mouthed as he headed to the back.
So I made this girl and her father who walked in afterwards fill out the paperwork. She was skinny, her eyebrows tweezed to slivers, and you could see every blue vein in her legs.
Then a man came in with a cat that hadn’t peed in days, which meant its bladder would probably rupture. Then a couple walked in with a dog, a big one, seizing and twitching in their arms.
Triage to the front. Triage to the front. I wanted to sit, because my feet hurt, but then I needed to stand because my back hurt, and I wanted to sleep, and for a moment, I wanted to cut my brain from my body, like a sinking ship throwing baggage overboard. I was the python, eaten by a thing I was told I would master.
My boyfriend brought me dinner. He felt apologetic for an argument we’d had the night before. My boyfriend had found a real job at a bank, but we all knew his position was precarious. He was one of the lucky ones. When I mentioned this, he’d huff and argue. He would cover the rent for me for a few days, until the next paycheck came, but he was trying to pay off his student debt, too. It’s not like he was hoarding it, he said. He believed he’d gotten everything entirely of his own merit. But there was not a one of us without merit, so said the certificates mailed to us by the merit-scholarship-this and the merit-scholarship-that we’d had thrown at us during college. He didn’t even have the highest test scores; my best friend Gemma did.
Mostly we had argued about my laziness. I was never home, so I didn’t cook, I didn’t clean, and still I could barely pay rent and my bills. I was driving my car around uninsured.
The night before, I discovered he’d put one of my dirty dishes on my side of the bed. I’m not your maid, was what he said in defense. Clean up after yourself.
I had spent hours cleaning up after dogs that had puked on themselves, cats that had defecated all over their carriers, and undetermined ooze at the vet’s office; plus bowls of chemical ammonia, slick and slime from hair products that crusted the walls at the hair salon. When I came home, I had six hours and counting until I had to be awake again. The very one thing I wanted not to do, I told him, was to clean up after myself, the one thing I had control over in this new life.
Look at me, he said. I have time to cook for myself and clean and run to keep myself in shape.
So I’m gaining weight, I said. You’re the one with all the free time. Would it kill you to clean a dish?
It’s never one dish, he said.
My life is on hold, I said.
He reminded me of my complicity in all that, how I’d spent thousands on credit cards, banking on promises that I would pay it off later with my new job and my education. He said, You put yourself in this position. When you live like a king in a time of debt, you invite the ransomer to come collecting.
What are you, Shakespeare? I yelled.
He liked to lunge suddenly towards an expensive lamp I’d bought using student loans, or the antique chair from craigslist, or the designer clothes that sat on my hangers, as if to tear, break, and smash.
I’m taking everything you own to Goodwill, he said. And that’s the sad part; you wouldn’t even notice they were gone.
Please don’t, I begged.
The truth was I didn’t remember the last time I had turned that lamp on, or sat in that antique chair. I was too busy wearing a uniform emblazoned with some company logo or another to wear my expensive clothes. Smile, said one uniform. The veterinarian’s was embroidered with the EKG line of a perfect, healthy heartbeat. The hair salon’s logo was a kite lifting a boy and a girl up into the air. Underneath, the logo said, Reach for your perfect self.
He wasn’t a bad guy, my boyfriend. I knew he wanted love as much as I did. But I had no time to give him the kind of love we were both convinced we needed. Picnics or long walks in the park, talking until late into the night. The night before, when I came home and saw the desperation on his face, I saw a tick mark adding one more to-do on the list I drowned in. When I smiled at him, it felt like chucking sand down an unfillable sinkhole. Then that’s when I found the dish crusted with spaghetti sauce on my side of the bed. My situation was only temporary, we promised each other when we made up.
So he brought me dinner at the vet hospital the next day. He was apologetic. Often, he brought these elaborate meals with five courses that he had cooked, which I would have to shovel down in cold mouthfuls when my bosses’ backs were turned. I wanted to thank him like he deserved. I could see hurt on his face when I barely had a second to say hi, grab the food, turn around again to the couple with the seizing dog and the black-smiled girl who was screaming at me.
After he left, I calmed down the couple with the seizing dog. I had to pee and I’d been holding it since my shift at the salon. I threw the remaining paperwork at one of the vet techs, Jose, and went to the bathroom. I called Gemma on the toilet, the only way I got to talk to her anymore. She was one of these blonde Hispanics who looked so American, you wouldn’t even know she was born in another country. Smartest one out of all of us. She’d done everything that had ever been asked of her. We’d barely seen each other since graduation.
How are you? I asked, my bladder emptying with relief. From outside the bathroom, I could hear another person hysterical about their animal walk into the hospital. I locked the door.
If I tell you, Gemma said, I’m going to cry.
So we caught up quickly on other friends instead. We were all hitting our heads on ceilings erected after graduation overnight. The more we worked our minimum-wage jobs, the less likely we were to get a real job, the ones we coveted, with health insurance and salary and paid sick days and holidays when we could rest. But it wasn’t factory work, like some of our grandparents; it wasn’t coal mining, like so many of our ancestors thought their descendants would be doing for all of eternity. It was not macheteing sugar cane in Latin America like our parents had come here to avoid. We were not being hunted down by the government. So how could we complain? But we were the valedictorians, the straight-laced, the work-hard-to-reap-our-rewards sort of students, and our parents and teachers had told us we were special, we were stars, we were almost our perfect selves, and so we had expected so much more.
Afterwards, the ones with the seizing dog elected to euthanize it. That’s how I’d been told to say it, election, as if everything we’d come to we had chosen. They were told that epilepsy would cost them thousands. Sure, the dog could have a close to normal life. He was already out of the seizure and kept trying to climb into their laps. But the couple had kids and a mortgage. So they decided to put him down. They were pretty calm about it. It was just like falling asleep, the woman kept repeating. Then, when they were checking out, the woman had one of those moments when you realize what you’ve done. She laid her head down on the counter. It was already too late. Their dog was dead.
I know you think I’m terrible, she sobbed. God forbid anyone would ever make that decision for me, to put me down because of money.
We do what we do, I said, which was not meant to be a consolation.
She straightened up, and her husband pulled her out the door.
The skinny girl and her father were another matter. They’d been told they could save the dog, which had been attacked by a bigger dog from a neighboring farm. But it, too, would cost thousands. IV bags, catheters, antibiotics, surgery with lasers to graft skin and sew together muscles.
Do it all, she said, but I don’t have any money.
Credit cards, I had been trained to suggest.
I have none, she said, but do it all. Save my dog.
Or we can have you fill out an application for credit, I said. Or you can call friends and we can take their payment over the phone.
Then she was hysterical. You don’t understand, she says. I can try all those but even if someone would lend me the money—which they won’t—eventually I have to pay them back and. I. Have. No. Money.
Her father looked on silently. There wasn’t anything to do. She didn’t have any money and I didn’t have any money and we didn’t have any money, and the dog was going to die and I hated the both of us for it. She was crying over the dog that she couldn’t save, her blue veins showing through her skin like the state of the world melting into rivers, and then she was laughing at herself because what else could she do? The dog died.
A few weeks later, a girl came into the hair salon with hair she described as thinning. She told me while I squeezed shampoo onto her head that she was feeling rundown. Her husband had lost his job and she was working overtime to make up the difference. She was barely older than me, maybe late twenties. She said she passed the salon every day on her way to work and finally decided to treat herself.
As I shampooed her, her hair fell out from her head in giant clumps and tangled around my fingers. I was preoccupied in horror and fascination as the hairs slithered down the drain, when she asked me if I’d gone to school to be a hair stylist.
Oh no, I said, I’m not a hair stylist, I’m an engineer, I’m just doing this in-between.
Hair stylists at the other shampoo bowls glared at me and my snobbery.
I will not be here forever! I wanted to yell in defiance. Meanwhile I lifted my hands up from the bowl with a web of this girl’s hair netting between my fingers.
The other stylists shook their heads side-to-side in threatening ways.
Sell her the thinning scalp shampoo, one mouthed.
Another one pointed to the lavender-scented oils we were trained to push on the clients.
But I couldn’t help myself. You should be going to a doctor, I said, and not the hair salon.
The next day, I got called into the salon on my one day off, yet another meeting I wasn’t getting paid for. I thought I was going to lose that job.
We think you have an attitude problem, said the owner.
I couldn’t deny it.
Stop telling people that you do other things during the day, they said. This is now your real job. They’re paying for some degree of servitude. It makes them uncomfortable to imagine their college professor massaging their scalp.
Must my mind be a slave? I asked.
Your mind has nothing to do with it. You are who we tell you to be.
In bed that night, my boyfriend said, You’ve always been tough. You can wait this out. We’ll get through this.
He was massaging my back. I closed my eyes.
What if there is no end to this darkness, I said.
He switched off the light, rolling his hand over my stomach. Next thing I knew, I was asleep. The earth turned under my feet like a tornado. The sky, in between my job in the mornings and my job at night, was a gray blur announcing the physics of pressure and fluid dynamics, atoms and molecules whirling and collecting in giant piles.
On my one day off a week, I slept. If I had an interview, I’d give up my day off and don a suit and try my best to convince someone to give me a salary. I had a degree in Astronautics and I could tell you how in your very own body the molecules methylated, I could build a motor that would take you to Jupiter, I could tell you what love was in the most abstract of terms, and none of that meant anything to anyone. The year I graduated was when the space shuttle program was dismantled. Not that it mattered. Even most of my friends in fields that hadn’t died were searching for jobs.
I ironed a collared shirt and the suit I had bought on loans, when I should have been sleeping, when I should have been cleaning or keeping house or eating. My boyfriend had given up trying to lure me into our bed and lay there, snoring under a moon chugging forward, a locomotive swimming circles around the earth to eternity.
I was called to interview with a stereo company, for a job involving engineering speakers and sound waves. I interviewed twice with an oil company, once as a project manager, once as an engineer. With a technology audit firm, with a cell phone company in R&D, with another company that it turns out wasn’t really hiring. They just wanted to feel out the job pool, apparently. In the cell phone company’s interview, a panel of three men and one woman in their fifties interrogated me from behind clipboards.
When they asked me about my greatest weakness, I said I worked too hard and overextended myself.
Design an evacuation plan for San Francisco, an interviewer said. Go.
How many traffic lights are there in all of Manhattan? Go.
How many quarters would it take to reach the moon?
Okay, I said. I estimated the quarters, the distance to the moon divided by the width of quarters factoring in the latitude position on earth and the time of the month and the time of day for deviation. Figuring all that, I said, you would need 1,042,707,234 quarters to reach the moon.
They nodded. One of them closed her eyes. Another put his feet on the conference table.
However, I continued, that would be about 25 billion dollars. It might take fewer quarters if you used them to buy a space shuttle from the now-defunct space shuttle program, plus staff and research, and used that to reach the moon.
They grunted in approval. An awkward silence slithered between us. The interview ended. They all shook my hand.
We’re really excited about you, they said. You seem like exactly what we’re looking for. We’ll be making our decision very, very soon.
How’d it go? my boyfriend asked.
I always think they go well.
You’ll get through this, he said, and I noticed he didn’t say we.
A few of the interviewers were nice enough to put me out of my misery and tell me that another qualified candidate was selected for the job. Most of them never called, despite polite emails asking when they would come to their decisions. They would all but throw the job into my lap, the interview bloated with promises. I’d be in hoping agony for weeks. Then one day I would wake up realizing they weren’t going to call. I would trudge into the hair salon or the veterinarian and know I would never be anything except a receptionist. I felt like a gerbil in an exercise wheel trying to climb that ladder of quarters to reach the moon, and the wheel goes and goes and goes without the moon getting any bigger.
Months passed, and I couldn’t even tell you what I had done except work. I marked the time in terms of friends that had moved away, looking for jobs in the bigger cities where everyone was crowding. Every weekday I drove from the hair salon to the veterinarian’s across town. The only way I ever saw anyone, if they didn’t walk into my work, was driving past them. I saw some old friends and we honked and waved, and then sped off again because we were late and every second counted. I had to be careful because once I’d been pulled over for speeding and being uninsured. Please, I told the cop, I can’t afford the ticket. He was one of those cops with a smirk. The law is the law, he said. I put that ticket on a credit card. I sped even faster from work to work to clock in earlier so I could pay off the credit card.
One night, I got home and my boyfriend was already asleep. I showered, put on a silk shirt and soft leggings, the clothes I could no longer wear during the day and I had paid so dearly for. My feet throbbed. I slipped between the covers smelling like lavender, and for just a moment I was not ready to sob.
He stirred. His hand reached for my stomach and he said, Mmm, because it was covered in silk.
Not tonight, I said.
His eyes opened. When? he said.
On my day off, I said.
We need to talk, he said.
Now we were both awake and listening to the cars outside, rushing like spaceships towards the moon.
Please, I said, Can it wait until tomorrow? I have a job interview on my lunch break. I have to sleep.
What if you never get the job? How can we live like this?
So we’re going to do this now? I said.
I keep waiting, he said. I keep waiting for the person you used to be, who was wonderful, who was loving. He tugged on my shirt, the silk crushed in his soft hands.
I am that person, I said. This is not me.
He said, There is no such thing as who you are. Only what you do. Over and over. Like bringing you dinner at the vet. Love is a verb.
I love you, I said.
Prove it, he said. He kept tugging at the hem.
I appreciate everything you do for me, I said, too tired to cry.
He yanked, and all the buttons flew up into the air. For a moment I thought they would stay up there, buttons frozen and floating above us. They looked like coins, spinning and glittering in moonlight. But then they came back down and skittered against the floor.
I got out of the bed. I got down on hands and knees to collect all the buttons scattered around the room. I said, Could you even tell me how many millions of these buttons it would take to reach the sun?
Why are we together? he said. What are we doing except subsisting and waiting?
I held my hands out, palms open. I had nothing to offer. I wanted to fight, I wanted to love, I wanted to sleep. I remembered going on a picnic on the university greens, studying together, designing for my thesis a space shuttle capsule to his measurements, both of us standing on the dorm roof ready take the landscape underneath us by storm.
He must have felt guilty. He got out of bed and tried to hold me with my shirt flapping open.
I pushed him away. I said, I have to sleep. I can interview to be your girlfriend soon, but not tonight.
I’ve been meaning to tell you, he said, grabbing at his head with his hands. I’m no longer hiring for the position.
I bet, I said. I poured the buttons into a drawer and collapsed into bed. I closed my eyes.
He began to pack his bags.
I couldn’t afford the apartment, and he knew it. Behind my eyelids, I called triage to the front. I climbed quarters to the moon. Somewhere in the craters, if I kept searching, I’d find a man at rest.
The next day, I crammed what I could in my trunk and threw a sleeping bag in the backseat. I left a note telling my now ex-boyfriend he could take everything to Goodwill. I drove to the salon wound so tightly with expectation that had I been flicked with a finger, I would have snapped.
Gemma walked into the salon. She slapped a ten on the counter. I had to borrow the money, she said, so give me what you can.
I’m so glad you’re here, I said, but why are you here?
I heard you broke up, she said.
I can’t talk about it, I said, or I won’t be able to get through today.
I brought her to the back to give her a hand massage, intending to pocket the cash and give it back to her. I rubbed her palms with my thumbs. For the first time in so long, I wasn’t angry about where I was or what I was doing.
I have something to tell you, she announced. I’m moving back to Venezuela.
My god, I said. You don’t even remember that country. You can’t even speak proper Spanish anymore.
My mom says I have a great-aunt who will take me in.
Stay, I said. I’ll play hooky, and we’ll have lunch.
She laughed softly. I hear there are jobs there, she said.
I knew it was a lie. These bodies were our cages. I wished so hard to be just the cage, this miraculous cage of atoms, with nothing but the wind inside. I wanted Flowers for Algernon but in reverse: the part of me that expected so much more dying and withering into a seed, blooming again into someone who lived the life of work like in it there was sustenance.
You’re shaking, she said. Tell me what happened.
I rubbed lotion over Gemma’s palms slowly. I closed my eyes. I could feel myself emptying. Then I felt her heartbeat with one hand on her wrist, more than just iron and oxygen and cells. I held her hand. A feeling flooded me I’d forgotten how to name.
That night at the vet, a cat’s bladder exploded, a lizard lost its eye, one of the interviewers emailed to say they’d hired another candidate for the position. I called triage to the front, and I tried not to think about the future, sleeping that night in my car. I muzzled the dogs that curled their lips around their teeth with fear in their eyes. It’s like they could smell how expendable they were, despite all the love in the world, despite how many times they sat and fetched and played dead and spun around in a circle. One dog kept standing up then sitting, over and over, and the owner kept saying, That’s a good girl. Good girl. Good girl.
A tech called me to the back operating room. The vet and three techs huddled over a Dalmatian with her stomach flapped open. They pulled little wriggling gelatinous balls from the hole–an emergency C-section.
Grab a puppy, yelled the vet. There are too many puppies and not enough techs.
She handed me one of these hot, gelatinous blobs. Inside the brown mess was a furry creature with its eyes closed. I followed the techs’ lead, using the suction wand to grab the placenta from its eyes and nose and mouth.
Wake it up, the vet told me. Beat it up. It’s what the mother does, swings it around in her teeth and bats it with her paws until it starts crying, except this mother is knocked out from the anesthetic.
So we flung our puppies up and down, we rolled them out like fingers of dough on the operating table, we danced with them. The doctor brought out another brown ball from the stomach, set it down on the table. The doctor said, Leave it. There aren’t enough of us.
But I thought it wasn’t fair that something came into this world in which there just wasn’t enough. So I sucked the placenta from the puppy’s face as best I could with one hand, while shaking the first puppy with the other. I rolled both next to each other on the table, hoping to keep the second puppy warm and that any shaking of the first would reverberate into the second. Behind me, the doctor announced she’d lost the mother’s heartbeat, and she was starting defibrillation. We kept with the puppies. My body, this miraculous cage, its electric atoms, danced. I waltzed with them towards the moon. I shook them. I wanted them to wail for milk they would never get. I beat them up until they cried.
Brenda Peynado’s stories have been selected for the O. Henry Prize Stories 2015 and won prizes from the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, and the Glimmer Train Fiction Open Contest. Her work appears or in The Threepenny Review, Shenandoah, Mid-American Review, Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, and others. She received her MFA from Florida State University and is currently a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati.