They told me that in time, I'd grow accustomed to the nauseating paint
fumes of the lighter factory
and the headaches would go away. "In time
" was rather vague however, especially if during this time you're nauseated, and I considered quitting this summer job
after two weeks passed with virtually no relief. But I lost all awareness of the fumes in the place the first time I caught his eye
I was stationed on "The Big Machine" that day, compressing plastic cases over lighters into packs of four by the pull of a heavy lever. The steel's huge heave-- it's chop-thud beat-- ruled the factory whenever it was in use. I worked the lever in a rhythm and he was amused by this, grinning at me from across the room.
I packaged green lighters that afternoon. I'd worn my peridot that day and I took pleasure in the contrasts of the greens and lusters. All the refractions of light. His prolonged stare switched my attention to his body. How the color and hardness contrasted with mine.
I began working this station more often, started squeezing my toes in pleasure each time he passed by me smiling, rubbing by my body even though there was plenty of room to walk without even getting near me.
He was the only one who clocked in every morning before eight, always in his battered black boots and always pressing the meat of a cigarette between his lips.
I was on the rebound with a freshly broken heart, struggled with being socially awkward much of my life, and thought I knew suffering. I wore T-shirts emblazoned with black butterflies and romantic flower-printed Ralph Lauren blouses to work. This, along with my notibly more upbeat attitude made me really stick out at the factory.
So this would be my place the summer before my last year of college, this local factory with this local man's first marriage infidelity.
She worked a nightshift at the 24-hour bowling alley on the other end of town. This would help make covert operations very simple. I saw her during a lunch break once just before he and I started up and remarked on how beautiful I thought she was while he and I scrubbed ink from our hands in a basin the next day. He pointed out the design formed from a group of fissures in a corner of the basin. My fingers ran red and splashed pink over the pattern of a horse, and I was silent. We used the sink again two weeks later after closing.
Both he and his older brother had been working there for close to a decade, I learned, and almost everyone else had been employed there the same length of time or longer. Hour after hour each day spent mute, smacking Budweiser frog stickers to countless lighters moving along a belt... the thought of doing this for more than even two months deeply frightened me.
He occasionally stole "special design" lighters from a separate wing of the plant to give to me, and he liked how it felt the first few times he slipped notes under my car's windshield wipers. The seemingly perpetual look of fatigue he'd always worn had entirely left his expression. It made me feel so good.
He enjoyed telling me stories about him and his brother and the wild things they used to do in the past, when both of them drank a lot more. He mentioned his love of curacao one night while we shared a drink at an out-of-the-way bar. He said Shelby loved it too and that she always drank it on the beach they went to every year for their anniversary. They'd shared six trips to the beach so far.
The fatigue had already begun to return to his face that night. He went home with me, but looked very alone lying next to me in bed.
Always smelling of smoke and ink, he wasn't aware that by then I found it pleasurable, and I breathed it in with his skin on mine one more time that night.
At its end, I felt good. Content and completely without guilt. With less than three weeks left at the factory, I worked through each day quietly and efficiently, eagerly looking forward to returning to school.
I'd forgotten about her even existing at all until I saw her setting a hot pink bowling ball back on the main rack at the alley late one night, four days before my job working with her husband would end. I was there with a few friends playing a drunk game two lanes down, but other than us the place was empty. She looked tired and alone and never seemed to notice me staring.
It was about 2 a.m. when I threw my silver cat-shaped lighter into a trashcan in the women's bathroom.
The next day, the much larger plant next door to us were having some sort of disaster drill, and a group of us got to watch a good portion of the unusual event during breaktime. Smoking our cigarettes and drinking our sodas, I found myself just as silent as the others while a bit of chaos unfolded across the street. Many there, it seemed, were instructed to feign illness or an injury of some sort, and a number of people fell onto the ground yelling in agony as a man with a bullhorn attempted to give instruction.
"Five minutes, victims. All rescue personnel, remember this is not a blast simulation. Your victims are overcome but not traumatized..."
What exactly was in that plant to warrant such a drill? When did a day at work spent pretending to undergo severe trauma become so enjoyable? Just who did I think I was?
" Victims, go limp. And remember you're not here to scream or thrash about. This isn't New York or L.A. Soft moans will suffice."
I felt warm tears beginning to brim, but I quickly haulted them from going any further.
Important not to exhaust oneself if one can help it. After all, next year things could get worse.
The title and distaster drill quotes were borrowed from Don DeLillo's "White Noise."