Confessions of a Summer Intern
Looking Back on a Summer Internship in New York
The last time I was in New York City was for a three-month summer internship with Simon and Schuster, as a publicity and editorial assistant. Basically this meant that I spent my afternoons cold-calling bloggers, begging them to review our newest beach read. (“Well is it any good?” one of the reviewers demanded during my first set of calls. “I don’t know,” I accidentally admitted, “No one ever asked me to read it.”) I was twenty years old and had never had an office job. A lot of times, I would find myself in my cubicle, making actual forts out of the hundreds of packages I had to mail to various reviewers. My bosses would walk by, see me slowly disappearing behind stuffed envelopes, and ask in loud concerned voices, “Um, how’s it going in there?”
“Only one trillion more to go!” I’d call, my voice slightly muffled behind a wall of beach reads.
Sometimes, in the middle of the day, I’d go down to the subway to smoke weed. It made me afraid of things like cold calls and filing, but it let me forget about my boyfriend at the time, who, really, I rarely thought about anyway—not because I was too busy, but because he was too nice to me, I felt, which made me feel guilty. I wasn’t very used to romantic kindness: it made me feel antsy and congested, like my head was floating high above my body. He was doing some kind of volunteer work in Argentina for the summer, helping kids at hospitals. He was good looking and saint-like. He would write and Skype me every day and more than half the time I would ignore his attempts to communicate.
At the time, I was living in Chinatown with two strangers and a friend from college, in a small room with a headless mannequin. The person I was subleasing from was some kind of dressmaker and rented two rooms in the apartment; my friend was subleasing the actual bedroom, so I was in the “sewing room,” on a borrowed mattress that ended up getting infested with bed bugs. If I smoked a lot of weed and sat on the fire escape, it all felt very romantic—until cats started fighting in the alleyway and the smell of blood drifted up toward my window. I didn’t know much about self-care—I’d learned the year before to use soap in the shower instead of just washing my hair. I ate a lot of beans and hotdogs, and sometimes my friend would feel sorry for me and bring home take-out that he’d written off on his expense account. He came home late and left early, and mostly it was just me and the mannequin. A lot of times it was like living on another planet.
More and more I considered getting in touch with my ex, who’d since become pretty famous in the city for his writing. We’d broken up because he kept asking me things like, were my boobs ever going to get bigger and would I be fat some day like most people from the Midwest? He would have tantrums about his career that I didn’t know how to deal with—he would lie on his back and stare unblinking at the ceiling, clenching his fists and screaming through gritted teeth; or else he’d have me read piece after piece after piece that he’d written, and storm off to rattle pans if I didn’t laugh long enough. I loved him but I never told him—and eventually I broke up with him because I was afraid he’d leave me. I thought about it all the time.
In Chinatown, people dumped fishy water on the sidewalk and hawked loud loogies into gutters. It was crowded; at night, you could look out our third story window and see what looked like entire families climbing into multi-level bunkbeds, their nighttime activities illuminated by a single light bulb. Every morning on my way to work, I passed by store windows crowded with dead chicken and pig parts hanging from the ceiling. The pig’s head was usually displayed front and center among the birds—its eyes gone and its teeth gritted and mostly shattered. I imagined this happened during a last-second wincing right before the deathblow
I both loved and hated the Chinese people who lived on my street. “Hated” because whenever I waved hello to them, they thought I wanted “designer handbag” or “banana, five dollar.” I loved them because I felt like we were in on this together; a lot of times, I felt like an immigrant, too.
The steady combination of diet coke and hotdogs and marijuana was doing weird things to my brain. At work, I counted the number of illustrations in a storeroom of books and reported the findings to my boss. Or else I stood at the copy machine for way longer than necessary—occasionally thumping it with my palm in a “you stupid broken thing!” sort of way (it was never broken), in case my boss walked by. Or else I sat at my desk and filled cyber shopping bags with clothes I never bought, because I’d looked around too much at lunchtime—all those bright summer dresses and jangly bracelets—and had come to loathe the clothes I’d spent hours carefully selecting for their “conservativeness” from the Ann Taylor sale rack. A lot of times I felt like everything outside was moving very fast, and I was stuck inside an anti-gravity chamber.
“Well I go to meetings sometimes and listen to them talk about the saleability of historical romance,” I explained to my dad, when he asked about my work. “Mostly I try not to draw too many of my squirrel cartoons on the meeting notes.”
“You need to stop drawing rabid squirrels.” He sighed. “It was fine when you were little, but now it actually makes you look crazy.”
He suggested I find a way to exercise more, and so I joined the Harvard Club gym, which was surprisingly cheap for students. They had free shampoo and free towels and free showers and free combs and free tampons and free lotion. It was like heaven. After a while I stopped using the ellipticals entirely, and would instead go straight to the lady’s locker room, where I would sit completely naked on the real leather couches sipping cucumber water, and watch hours of cable on the flatscreen TV.
One evening after work, while replenishing my cucumber water at the refreshments table near the medicine balls, I ran into someone I sort of knew from school. This happened occasionally (though, somehow never when I was naked on the barcaloungers) but at this point I was so hungry for human company that I assaulted her with an inappropriately long hug, and breathlessly began trying to commiserate about how the city was turning my boogers black. She offered to meet me in the lady’s steam room, where we could talk more—and perhaps this should have seemed strange, given the fact that we barely knew each other, except that I was desperate for a heart-to-heart. (Later, when she removed her towel in said steam-room and unfurled her ginormous sand-bag sized breasts so they were resting on her knees, I forgot everything I was going to say and hyperventilated.)
The next evening, I ran into her again—and before she could ask for a follow-up steam-room session, I proposed we watch cartoons on the barcaloungers, and trotted off to wait for her. Just as I thought she was coming around the corner, I took a thing of complimentary lotion from the counter and made a smiley face across my naked chest, then leapt out to scare her. (This seemed like a friendly thing to do, and a way to make up for my anxiety at her giant nakedness the day before.) Only the person I scared turned out to be another female stranger—someone I vaguely recognized as the new girlfriend of a boy I used to hook up with. She stared at me, saying nothing while I attempted to cover myself with my very small hands. “Sorry, I thought you were someone else,” I explained, and slunk off to the towel racks.
I was slowly realizing that I had never been lonelier in my whole life.
One day, my publicity boss invited me to sit in on a “cookbook conference call.” “It’ll only take like, two hours,” she said, beaming at me. I’d been working on this particular cookbook for the last few days, turning the British English into American English. I wasn’t sure what kind of things we’d talk about for two hours, but the thought of sitting in as the author discussed her ideas for the table of contents or how to make the soufflé photos glossier made me want to go take a nervous shit and then smash my face against the toilet. I nodded and nodded to my boss, but as soon as she left I decided to hide. The book fort had been demolished by a recent visit to the mailroom, so I had to be creative.
Later, while crouching on all fours under my desk and listening to my boss and another assistant call my name, over and over, I wondered what would happen if they came around the corner and spotted me. Could I pretend to be sleeping? Was it possible to fall asleep in such a position? They couldn’t prove anything, I reasoned—maybe I just happened to sleep like a horse. Maybe that was just my thing.
That afternoon, I called up my ex. Later that evening we met up near the Harvard Club, where I’d been washing my hair over and over again in frenzied anticipation with the free shampoo. It was the first time I’d seen him in almost year, and my gut and heart-parts were doing all sorts of acrobatics at the sight of him. But he was too busy staring at his own reflection in the Bank of America window to notice me waving from across the street.
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