This slightly fictitious story follows my previous posts, Tales of an Adjunct, and continues to explain what it’s like to ascend through the ranks of academia.
On July 17, the morning sickness ended. That evening we watched the movie Rudy, feeling an obligation since it takes place at Holy Cross, right next to Saint Mary’s, my soon-to-be employer. Near the film’s end, the Notre Dame crowd chants, “Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!”—and that’s when my contractions started. By the time Rudy was being carried on the shoulders of the other players and “Touchdown Jesus” was in view, I realized I was in labor. I’ll take that as a sign. Il segno. Segno di Dio.
Labor lasted 37 hours (17 of those hours hurt, and the last five were spent pushing). My hair was disheveled, my body dripped with sweat, I lay in blood-soaked linens and ripped flesh throbbed. I don’t remember screaming or speaking at all. I couldn’t; no sound would come out. The waves of pain fell over me like the wind, snow and seas in Turner’s painting Snow Storm—Steam-Boat Off a Harbour’s Mouth. It was as if I was strapped to a mast in a vortex of pain without grounding or a horizon.
With Roman Catholic murmurs worrying about babies ending up in limbo, the nurses hassled me about giving the baby a name the next day. In my post-Catholic view, one needs to take a minute to make sure that you aren’t going to ruin someone’s life with a bad name. Nevertheless, I thumbed through the book 1,000 Baby Names as fast as possible. The baby didn’t look like the names we picked out in advance. To try to lighten the mood, family and friends offered the worst first names to go with the last name of Bowles, including but not limited to Rose, Tidy, Cereal, Toilet.
I felt like my body was an incubator when I was pregnant, like in the movie Aliens. The baby would roll around inside, and it would look like she was going to break out of my stomach like a cocoon ripping apart. The post-childbirth recovery felt worse. My breasts were painfully engorged and rock-hard and often spontaneously leaked milk. It dawned on me how stories of religious statues are conjured. I imagine St. Margaret of Antioch, patron saint of childbirth, in some godforsaken church in the hinterlands of France spurting milk and people proclaiming a miracle had occurred. It’s not a miracle; it’s real.
To add insult to injury, John’s mother arrived from Alabama to help. Her idea of helping me was to cook for John (not me) and wash his clothes (not mine) while I was writhing in pain from other postdelivery complications (too graphic to describe here). I found some of my clothes in the garbage thanks to her “cleaning.” Afterward, she presented me with a gift—a handmade, hideous, Southern Living–inspired, hand-decorated puff-paint teddy-bear appliquéd sweatshirt. I thought, Is this who I’m expected to be now?
A month later, I started work at Saint Mary’s. Being a spouse, mother, part-time worker and artist is an exercise in always disappointing someone, not the least of all myself. The guilt. Always the guilt. I imagine myself in a confessional: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; it has been one month since I gave birth.” And the deep voice of a shadowy figure behind a screen would query, “What are your sins, my child?”
Between ugly sobs, I would hysterically choke out, “I can’t keep the house clean or keep up with the laundry. My cooking is crap. I don’t bring in enough income. My child keeps getting ear infections. I was late picking her up from the babysitter. I argued with my husband about spending money on art supplies. He says I spend too much time at work. I made a typo in the press release at work. My clothes don’t fit. I spilled the breast milk I had just pumped all over the floor.”
The priest would command, “You should say five Hail Marys and five Our Fathers.” But I don’t have the time, the energy or the mental capacity to concentrate long enough to say even one of those prayers. And besides, there aren’t enough prayers in the world to help me now. My body is no longer my own. Mine is inexorably tied to my child’s—feeding, sleeping, waking, holding, bathing, soothing, tending to bodily fluids, watching, worrying, wondering. I will never be by myself again. It is a haunting sense of otherness. I will never meet all the expectations of all the roles I need to play.
No job is really part-time; just the pay is part-time. Trying to get an exhibition up is a race against time. The galleries were a disaster. All the walls were littered with holes and marks from moving art, pedestals and whatnot. I asked the student assistant (name withheld) to touch up the walls, and she told me there was not enough paint. Holding up what looks like a plastic spatula, she says, “I think we need some new brushes.” In the other hand, she holds a curved metal object that looks kind of like a horseshoe and adds, “A new hammer, too.” Oh my god, how does someone bend a hammer like that? What were they using it for?
I tell her to go ahead and spackle the holes. A moment later, she returns, shaking a plastic container like a maraca. “Um. The spackle is all dried up.” Jesus Christ. I make a list of supplies and order the paint over the phone, so it will be ready when I arrive. No problem. I pick up the five-gallon buckets of paint and all the supplies at Lowe’s. I hate Lowe’s. Male employees always approach me to ask me if I need help; when I say what I need, they tell me it doesn’t exist in the most condescending tone. Then, I find it myself, and when I show them, they say, “Huh, that’s interesting.” So infuriating I feel like I’m going to have a thrombo. Lowe’s should be called Blowe’s. It blows.
I pull my car into the loading dock, put on my flashers and unload. These five-gallon buckets of paint are heavier than hell. There is no way I can carry these buckets. How will I get these from the loading dock to the gallery? Where is the flatbed cart? I spend about 30 minutes roaming the building looking for it. I found it near the broken “Balls of Saint Mary’s” sculpture in the crawl space. It does look like gigantic testicles. I’ll keep that thought to myself. I don’t think my colleagues would be amused.
Finally, back at the gallery with all the supplies, I asked the student worker (name withheld) to spackle the holes and touch up the walls. I go into my office and work on typing and formatting the exhibition labels. About 20 minutes later, the student (name withheld) returns and says she’s finished. Wait, what? There is no way she could be finished and cleaned up in that time. I say, matter-of-factly, “OK. Let me check to make sure everything is completed.”
We walked into the gallery. Holy shit. If I had been able to speak, I would have been fired for what would have come out of my mouth. There were slathers of spackle on the walls like Fluffernutter on Wonder Bread, which she had already painted over before the spackle was dry. And the paint touch-ups were not only a different color, whiter than the white walls, but a glossy finish instead of matte. It was wall after wall of faux Malevich paintings gone wrong.
Damn it. Once again, Lowe’s blows. They gave me the wrong paint. Why didn’t she notice and stop? Then, I realized she hadn’t used a drop cloth, so there were drips of paint across the floor—a trail of woe—ending up at the tray where the paintbrush was fully submerged, handle and all, in the paint. I thought I would lose my mind, but I gathered myself and repeated in my head, It’s just a teaching moment. It’s just a teaching moment.
In my best Stepford wife voice, I ask the student (name withheld), “Have you ever prepped a gallery wall before? Doesn’t the touch-up paint look a little different than the wall paint? The spackle looks a little thick. You need to use just a little … only enough to fill the little holes. Did you forget to sand it before you painted over it?” She looked at me blankly.
“OK. Well, today, I’m going to teach you how to use a sander. We need to sand down the spackled areas so they are smooth and sand the glossy spots so we can repaint with the right paint. But first, you’ll need to clean up the paint on the floor and wash out the tray and brush before they dry. Dump the extra paint from the tray back into the bucket. Then, go clean the tray and brush in the drawing room sink. Be careful not to make a mess; Sister O’Kelley will be upset if you do. The water should run clear when the brush is thoroughly cleaned. Next, get some shop towels in the closet. Wet a few with warm water and squeeze out all excess water. Then scrub the floor until all the paint is removed. Next time, we’ll put down the drop cloths. Come get me when you are finished.” She looks like she might cry. I hate making students cry. Ugh. I try to comfort her: “It’s OK. Don’t worry about it. Let’s start over. It’ll be fine. After lunch, we’ll work on sanding when everything is dry.”
Except now, I realize this teaching moment will put us off schedule. It’s back to Blowe’s to buy enough paint to cover all the walls. Then repaint all the walls to make them look right. Now I want to cry. I am so tired. John will be mad because I need to work late. I can hear his complaints: “I’m tired of going to work all day and then coming home to cook and clean. You don’t get paid to work full-time.”
Several hours later, the student (name withheld) returns to my office and sheepishly tells me she is ready for the sander. I teach her about the different grades of sandpaper … how to load the sandpaper on the belt (also reminding her to do this when the sander is unplugged)… how to connect the extension cord so it doesn’t come unplugged when you move around … and how to hang on to the sander, applying even pressure while using it so it doesn’t gouge the wall’s surface. She seems appreciative and says, “Thanks for helping me. I never knew power tools were this easy to use. My father never let me. I always thought you needed to have physical strength.”
I respond, “Nope. Men would like us to think that way. But you can do anything you put your mind to doing. Power tools are power. And fun.”
The year after I started working at Saint Mary’s, Sister O’Kelley decided to retire. I was asked to teach the figure drawing classes she had taught for decades. Maybe this was a gateway to getting a full-time position.
Up next: Tales of a Lecturer and Director, Part 3: Sister O’Kelley’s Tips for Teaching Nude Figure Drawing