Because my dad and I were not the type to take vacations, I have never been to the ocean. But it’s always been so familiar in my dreams, as though I was one of those kids raised surfing, celebrating birthday parties on the beach, who bragged about swimming before they could walk, about saltwater running through their veins, an ancestral and undeniable affiliation to place.
In reality, I was raised days away from the ocean, in a suburb that was sensible and chugging along. Each night, my dad drove twenty minutes to the industrial park to clean factories because he couldn’t clean them during the day while the machines were on and the workers were working. He left me alone in my bed because I “never woke up anyway” once I was sleeping, though a neighbour looked in on me at 11pm just in case. It was Mrs. Gallagher from upstairs. She gave me her granddaughter’s hand-me-downs.
When I was eleven years old, my dad started bringing me along to help, both because the arthritis in his hip was getting so bad that he walked with a limp, and because I had been asking for an allowance and he believed I should work for it. I had the easier part of the job because while the factories were grimy and never really clean, despite how hard my dad tried, the offices could be put into order.
First, I would dampen a rag with all-purpose cleaner that smelled like oranges, that my dad had bought in concentrated bulk and watered down into spray bottles. I used it to dust the desks and shelves, tidying piles of paper while I went so that everything was left at right angles. I would pay special attention to keyboards and telephones because they were greasy from fingers. Then I would empty the small trash cans into a big, black garbage bag and stow it by the front door. We would either take it with us in the station wagon, or haul it into a dumpster in the back when we were done. Next, I would plug in the vacuum. This was the best part of the whole job because vacuuming required no thinking. My mind could wander, and it went so far away.
The offices were bland and sparse. The only interesting things they contained were family photos, vacation shots holding one man and one woman, one boy and one girl. And everyone in bathing suits. And behind the family, the ocean. Every few months, a new photo would appear, the children growing bigger, the ocean behind them remaining as it was. I would wipe down the frame and stare at it for a minute, looking for something.
It was not like the ocean in my dreams. This ocean was fake smiling, as though being coerced, brainwashed. This ocean had Stockholm syndrome for tourists. It did not want to provide the sunny backdrop for a family photo, but it thought that it did. Nobody but me could see that this ocean wasn’t happy.
The ocean in my dreams was self-assured. I always went to it at night, because that is when an ocean can be itself, when it is cold, almost too cold, exactly cold enough to wake you up. And the stars in the middle of the ocean are bright — almost alive — and there are whales that sing so that you’re alone, but not really alone. It is peaceful, but not really peaceful, because of the waves, bigger than anything else you’ve ever seen in your life, and because of the roar, louder than anything else you’ve ever heard. And even though the ocean is always the same, night after night, it is never dull because above all else, it is peculiar to find yourself in the middle of the ocean in the middle of the night. It is peculiar and it is dangerous. Nobody belongs there, even if they do have salt water running through their veins.
The ocean in the family photos was neither peculiar nor dangerous. It was not free at all, not living up to its potential. But I put it back on the shelf anyway, angling it just so, thinking that it was nice those families had their vacations, but I knew better.
And then the office was completely clean.
Between one job and the next, my dad would take us to the McDonalds Drive-Thru for Extra Value meals and we would eat them in the parking lot, facing the quiet industrial street and listening to talk radio. There would be hardly any cars, both in the lot and on the street. Instead, every few minutes, an eighteen-wheeler would pass and I would wonder how far it was going, or how far it had already come.
“Maybe I should be a truck driver when I grow up,” I said once. I expected my dad to nod, absently, to say, hm or maybe, like a shrug. But he didn’t say anything.
“Dad? Is that a good job? A truck driver?”
My dad took a sip of his coke. “Well it’s not a good job for you,” he said.
“Because of the truck stops. Remember those?”
We had spent some time in truck stops, back when I was very little and we moved around a lot. Once, my dad paid to use the showers but they weren’t very clean so he washed me in the sink instead.
“I only remember what you told me,” I said. Aspects of the story made the truck stop seem pretty great. We always left with a bag of Cheezies, plus a can of tomato juice for the vitamins.
“Well maybe you don’t remember,” he said, “but there were no women in those truck stops.”
“Because women don’t want to hang out at truck stops.”
“Some of the men there are creeps,” he said. “Because there are no women around. So, if a woman shows up, they direct all that creepiness towards her.
“Creepiness?” I said.
“Comments and stuff,” he said with finality, like maybe the conversation could wrap up right there.
“Well, if they made comments at me, I’d just say, ‘Screw you!’”
“I don’t think that would make them stop, though.”
I sipped my Sprite so hard that my cheeks sucked in. “Then I’d just say it louder.”
“No,” he shook his head. “If you’re the only woman at the truck stop and you just shouted, ‘Screw you,’ at a bunch of creeps, what are you going to do next? Are you going to actually take a shower? Let’s say you buy some food and a pop—”
“Coffee,” I said.
“Coffee, alright. And then you go back to your rig and shut the door and you’re relieved to be alone again away from all those creeps. And you eat your food and drink your coffee and settle into sleep in the back of the cab.”
I stared out at the industrial road, waiting.
“And then you hear a knock on your door,” said my dad.
“Who is it?”
“It’s one of those creeps. What are you going to do?”
I thought for a second, really trying to put myself into the story. What would I do?
“Why are they knocking on the door?” I asked.
My dad turned away from me and sighed loudly, shaking his head.
“What?” I said. “Why are they knocking on my door?”
My dad wouldn’t look at me. If he had, he might have seen that I already knew why they were knocking on my door. Or, I kind of knew. It was something I needed some clarification on. It was something I saw in blurred images, that made me feel a little bit sick.
I looked at my last bite of McChicken and thought that I no longer wanted it.
“I’d lay on the horn,” I said quietly, pulling a limp piece of lettuce from my sandwich and flicking it onto the wrapper.
“That’s good,” he said. “That’s the right thing to do. Or you could keep a baseball bat in the cab.”
“But there wouldn’t even be enough room to swing it.”
“You’d make room.”
This was the end of the conversation. Now I understood what the lesson was: laying on the horn was the right thing to do. But was I prepared to do that every time I stopped for a nap? Stopped for a coffee? The problem was that nobody wants that kind of life. The problem was that I was a woman, or at least was soon to be. The problem was that I wanted things that were not for me.
We finished our pop and drove to the next job, a carpet glue manufacturer. My dad went into the back to clean the factory and I started with the offices. When I got to the vacuuming part, I found myself turning to look behind me every couple of minutes. Sometimes I stopped the vacuum altogether and paused, listening for sounds. My dad was so far in the back that I couldn’t hear him at all. It was like I was completely alone in the whole building. It was like I was completely alone in the whole industrial park.
Leaving the vacuum for a moment, I went to the front door. The lobby was made of windows and I stood in it, cupping my hands and peering outside at the empty parking lot and the darkened factories across the street. I felt like a sitting duck, like I would have no idea if someone was watching me. I would have no idea if they were planning something.
I left the vacuuming unfinished and walked to the back of the office section where there was a locker room, which led into the factory where my dad was supposed to be cleaning. It was so big back there that I couldn’t see my dad or hear him. There were massive ceilings and rows of machines, all turned off and quiet.
“Dad?” I said, not very loud, but my voice filled up the room. Then, when it completely diffused and was gone, everything was quiet again. But it wasn’t really quiet, because I was scared.
At night, an empty factory is like the middle of the ocean. There is a roar, even though all the machines are off. There is a roar because of the bigness and because of the danger. And because it’s peculiar to find yourself there, when all the workers have gone home, when the lights are only half on. Even the parking lot is empty. Even the whole industrial park. If you stop what you’re doing and keep perfectly still, but let your eyes travel up to the ceiling of the factory that it seems like nobody could ever reach in their lifetime, then the roar is deafening.
© Emily Thomas Mani
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Emily’s interview]