My Perfect Little Life

Tarn Wilson


       The summer I was twenty, I worked in a factory soldering circuit boards for Chrysler LeBarons. I hadn’t a clue how a circuit board functioned. Electricity was, and still is, a mystery to me. Resistors. Transistors. Capacitors. Words from a language I’d never understand. And no one bothered to explain.
       This is what you should know: I loved the work. I went to the supply room for my stack of green circuit boards, punched with holes and crossed in copper tracks, and my tray full of components. Black rectangles with curved legs like centipedes. Pretty striped beads with wires, stamped with little numbers. I loved them like, as a child, I’d loved my mother’s jar of brightly colored buttons.
       I followed the instructions, matched number to number, and wiggled-snapped my components into place. From the top, the board looked like a city, like flying on an airplane and looking down at the crisscross and curves of streets, at the rectangular roof tops, oval tracks, and green baseball fields. I was a god, looking down on a perfect little world.

       I’d gotten the job through a temp agency. I wanted to try something new, something that scared me a little, something physical. So instead of checking administrative on my application, I checked light industrial. I almost marked both, just to make sure I’d be employed, then stopped. One look at me—female, neat handwriting, barely passing for sixteen—and I’d certainly be locked in a cubicle for the rest of the summer.
        The factory wasn’t in Boulder, where I was staying with my mother, that charming, Colorado mountain town spilling with artists, college students, outdoor enthusiasts, and ex-hippies. Instead, I drove twenty miles east to the dying mining town of Frederick. Drove into the Great Plains, that stretch of flat land extending all the way to the Mississippi. Drove into dead grass, tumbleweeds, dust, and the faint scent of sage. Drove till the mountains were postcard-distant and hazy.

        After I placed the components, I flipped the board to the underside where the ends of the components, the leads, poked through the copper circles like a strange, metal forest. I held the iron in my right hand, like a pen, and the soldering wire in my left. I pressed the iron and wire together on the copper circle, called the pad. Instantly, the wire dissolved into mesmerizing silver liquid, a growing orb.
        It was careful work. Press the iron too long on the pad, and the pad peels from the board. Press too long against the wire, and the molten lead spills its boundaries and forms a bridge with its neighbor. Don’t press long enough, and little holes form. Your components rock in their sockets.

       Maybe there was another reason I took the job. Every summer in my childhood, my sister and I would fly from Colorado to Canada to visit my father, whose work was as inscrutable to me as circuit boards: felling trees, teaching computer science at a community college, computer mapping the ocean floor, building robotic arms for remotely operated submarines. And every year, he was more absorbed in his work. Perhaps I wanted to touch his computer-mechanical mind, where he now lived most of the time. If he couldn’t come to me, I’d go to him. But I never understood the boards as electrical flow. They were always the roads and rooftops from the airplane window on our way to see him.

       My first day on the job, I showed up in plaid shorts and sandals, my hair curled around my shoulders. The floor supervisor shook his head as if the agency had sent him a monkey. “Don’t you know you can burn yourself? Tomorrow. Pants and closed-toed shoes. And pull your hair back.”
       From the first training, I loved soldering. So I only half-noticed the group of floor supervisors huddled together, shaking their heads. Half-heard the whispered words let her go and. . . talk to her . . . should we . . . make any difference . . . no you . . . you. Finally, a manager slowly approached and showed me I was under filling the joints. I was embarrassed. They could have showed me earlier—it was an easy fix—but they were as wary as if I’d been an unpredictable stray dog or developmentally delayed.
       But I got it. And then boards were Legos, Tinker Toys, and building blocks. But for real. My work would make time blink, mileage flash, the gas tank level blaze.

       This is what you should know: I was full of hope.
       I’d been raised by a single mother. She was intelligent and resourceful, had started on welfare and carved a career for herself as a paralegal, but her internal demons kept her on the run. I went to twelve schools and lived in twenty-five houses before I left for college. Always, she imagined the next town would be better. Always the demons followed, and we teetered on the edge of poverty and chaos.
        But now, age twenty, I could build myself a different life. After high school, I’d earned a place at an idyllic college, a campus that looked like an English Village, poised on the bluffs of the Mississippi. I’d always been a slow, if enthusiastic, cross country runner, but my freshman and sophomore years I’d done the impossible and run a marathon. Spring of my sophomore year, I’d traveled abroad to study literature in the British Isles. Spring of my junior year, my best friend Debbie and I hiked Virginia and West Virginia of the Appalachian Trail. We had no backpacking experience, no mentors, and little cash, but we’d researched, trolled second hand stores for cheap gear, and mailed ourselves bulk food. Away from my mother’s house, I could find a bigger and more orderly life.

       My hopefulness irritated my mother. She could be tender and generous—could say just what I needed to hear—but she was also beset by black depressions. That summer, she was in the midst of a quicksand darkness, which wanted company and sucked at me. My college, she warned, wasn’t the “real world.”
       “You and your perfect little life,” she’d spit at me, an accusation she’d repeat many times in the years after.

        A deep and inarticulate part of me feared my mother was right: most of us were doomed to sad, small lives. If so, I’d go down fighting. For example, I could see working in the factory as another adventure. One that could teach me to be a writer. There, like Walt Whitman, I’d learn more about America. Like him—with his beloved mechanics, carpenters, and masons, each voicing their varied carols—I’d hear America singing.

        This is what you should know: the women in the factory were not singing. They were gossiping, and they didn’t like me. Most of the them were in their twenties and thirties, mothers, many single. They huddled together at their tables, speaking fast-Spanish in a tone intimate and bitter. I heard one say the word Barbie, toss her head toward me, and hiss.

       On the Appalachian Trail, Debbie and I met a woman running a laundry mat in a small, rural, dying Virginia town. We chatted a bit as we tossed our hiking clothes into the machines. She stared at our muddy boots drying in the corner. “Boots,” she said. “All you need is a pair of boots, and you are walking right out of this town.” She shook her head at the possibility dawning on her, at its simplicity. That’s the lesson I wanted to believe. All you needed was a pair of boots and you could walk right into the life you wanted.

       I’d always aligned myself with the underdog, been the scrappy girl crawling up from the bottom. But to the factory women, I was something else. The white, blonde, English-speaking college girl. I’d stay for a couple of months and waltz back to opportunities they might never have, by virtue of nothing other than the privileges of my birth.
       Slowly, I learned the temp workers, as poorly paid as we were, earned more than the regulars, the ones who’d been there for years, the ones who’d trained us and fixed our mistakes. Every month, management didn’t order enough materials, so the first few weeks were painfully slow. When the supplies did arrive, all permanent employees had mandatory overtime, without overtime pay. We worked ten to twelve hour days. Mothers couldn’t get home to their children or men to their second jobs. One mother, after she paid for childcare, was left with twenty dollars a month. “Why don’t you just quit?” I asked, “and stay home with your kids?” She needed the twenty dollars that much.
        At the end of that summer, I’d get my hair cut. While waiting, I’d take a survey in a women’s magazine, Will your child be born with a birth defect? I scored the lowest score in all categories. Smoking. No. Drinking. No. Regular exercise. Yes. Vegetarian. Yes. Then, Have you soldered circuit boards in a factory without proper ventilation or safety equipment? So many points, I was instantly catapulted into high risk.

       This is what you should know: I had no friends in Boulder. And Debbie and I were no longer speaking. After twenty-four hours a day together in the woods, we’d exhausted each other. My mother had left a trail of mangled friendships, so I didn’t know healing was possible, that Debbie and I would soon recover. I felt only a flat grief I tried to ignore.

       So it was a relief when the factory men patted the empty stools beside them. Unlike the women, who seemed thrown too early into adulthood, the men seemed stuck in perpetual boyhood. Steve was wiry and talked non-stop. He had the premature wrinkles of someone rough-worn by outdoor labor and hard partying. His dry, blonde hair stuck up every which way. We argued about the influence of genetics on personality. “You’re stuck, man. It’s all in your genes. You got what you got.” I argued we can be bigger than what we’ve been given.
       After I told them about the Appalachian Trail, they shared their stories. Wacky road trips. White water rafting. Encounters with wild animals. Someone at the table asked where I went on my lunch break. I told them I ran at the high school track, that I was on the cross-country team and had run marathons.
After the men boasted a few more stories of their athletic feats, Steve added, “Yeah, I ran a marathon.” Excited, I asked some questions. His answers were vague and his finish time close to impossible. The men moved onto other stories: the time someone foiled a robbery—committed one. Finally, I leaned toward Steve.
       “Did you really run a marathon?”
       “No,” he answered. Without pause or shame.
        No one missed a beat. The stories continued. I was embarrassed as I’d been the first day. I’d missed the unspoken code. In a world where men spent long summer days in a windowless room under dim fluorescent lights, a good story was more valuable than truth.

       One day, Steve was sitting at a new table and a stool was open across from him. I plopped down with my boards, prepped my iron, and introduced myself to the man next to me.
       Ed seemed different from the others. While their skin was sun-leathery, his was pale and smooth. Their hair was dry and dirty; his was shiny, thick, and black. They were drug-wiry; he was tall and his stomach rolled a bit over his jeans. They wore ragged plaid shirts; he wore dark T-shirts or collared shirts. When he talked, the others listened. He’d read piles of books and used words they didn’t understand.
        He began to tell me his life stories. He’d been a prisoner of war in Vietnam. As he talked, images from movies rolled through my mind. Rambo. Apocalypse Now. He described the hut where he’d been kept. I could feel the humidity, the suspense as the captors approached for the next interrogation. As he talked about his escape, the table and circuit boards disappeared, replaced by the rubbery trees of the jungle. The barbed wire ripped against my skin. He’d been in the jungle for days—but they’d caught him again.

       This is what you should know: I’d just lost my boyfriend. We’d been together for five years, since my junior year of high school when I moved in across the street from him in Colorado Springs. Sam was a year older than me, a stocky soccer player. Not the delicate, haunted artistic type I usually liked. He was solid and aimed for ordinary things: children, a luxury American car, a house in the suburbs—things that seemed, at the time, little prisons. So I’d always thought of him as temporary, but even as we went to different colleges, we’d stayed together. I’d had adventures during the summers, my winter breaks, and he’d begged me to come home. Over and over, we’d broken up and made up. Just that year I’d begun to admit to myself I loved him.
        This is what you should know: I was afraid of the future. The great abyss of my adult life spread out in front of me, just a year away. My college was a fantasy in the middle of the cornfields with no town to absorb me. No job waited. With the way my mother moved, I had no real home. Slowly, a new picture of my future had begun to grow, one with Sam in it. He was predictability and comfort. He’d been attending CU Boulder, so that summer I’d intentionally returned to him, to the man I thought would become my husband.
       Several weeks into summer, we were driving home from a date. With no preface other than ordinary small talk, he blurted, “I don’t want to marry you.”
My world swirled. The vision I’d finally begun to solidify of my future, melted into a void of emptiness. And it touched my deepest insecurity, that I wasn’t worthy of love. My father withdrew from me because I wasn’t good enough for love. Sam had only pretended to like me, and I was a fool.

       The next day, Ed told me he worked as a photographer for National Geographic. A dream job. My dream life. As we worked, I asked him question after question. Finally, I was curious about why he worked in the factory. He was divorced and because of his travel, spent most of the year away from his two children, so he took summers off to be near them. Their mother would only let him see them a few hours a day, so he took a job to keep himself occupied.        
        That night, I told my mother. She’d already heard the prisoner of war story and was suspicious.
        “Are you sure, Tarn?” Why she didn’t call him a liar, I don’t know. “That doesn’t sound very likely.” Maybe the conviction in my voice threw her. Maybe she didn’t want to admit to herself that her daughter, the one she depended on to be intuitive and intelligent, could be so gullible. Maybe, she was being gentle with me. Her doubt seemed reasonable, and my belief teetered.
       But the next day, in Ed’s presence, under the fluorescent lights, ten hours with soldering irons pressed against boards, I believed again.

       Unlike the other factory men, who tried to impress me by interrupting each other with more outrageous stories, Ed listened.
        He asked about my relationship with Sam. I told him our history. Though I’m sure the weight in my voice revealed more than I’d intended, I put a positive spin on the story: “It’s probably for the best. We didn’t have that much in common.”
        Ed stopped soldering and watched my face. “He doesn’t sound like your type. Why’d you go out with him?”
       I didn’t yet understand all the complex reasons, so I answered as honestly as I knew, “I thought he was cute.”
       It was true. My mother had moved us again, this time to an ordinary suburban community, and I’d made a commitment to myself to pretend to be a teenager for the two years before I graduated. I’d go to football games and out for pizzas. I’d date the cute boy across the street. He’d be a temporary experiment.
        Ed looked at me, with those serious, probing eyes.
        “That doesn’t sound like you.” He was implying I was a woman of depth, of character. Mature. I was flattered he understood me so well.
       “I was young,” I answered.

       Ed and I had both done reading in metaphysics, psychic phenomena, and the power of the mind. But I believed if such powers were real, we should only use them for unselfish reasons.
        Ed had a different view. “I wanted you to sit here,” he told me weeks after we’d met. “I willed you to come and sit in the empty seat next to me, and you did.”
        Maybe I did feel an irresistible pull to that seat. Part of me was flattered he wanted me near him, but mostly I was worried. Worried his will could interrupt my own.

       Although I don’t remember the conversation, I know by asking questions around the question and observing closely, he figured out I was a virgin. I don’t remember if he teased me, if the other men at the table knew. But he knew something intimate about me, a line had been crossed.

       Several days later, we stumbled upon the topic of lost innocence. I don’t remember the context, only that Ed believed innocence, once lost, could never be recovered. I began to argue, but Ed didn’t rally his usual, intellectual counter attacks. For the first time, he was wordless. He slumped. Shadow images passed across his face and then evaporated. He couldn’t look at me. He’d disappeared down a dark and silent path I couldn’t follow.
       I spoke to him with great, fierce confidence, “Innocence is something we can gain.” I believed it. I believed in transformation and regeneration. I believed we could shed the burdens of the past, no matter how heavy. Finally, he looked at me, with a child’s fear. I think he wanted to believe me. And he didn’t believe me. Or a very tiny, hopeful part of him believed me.
        I reached my foot out to his stool, pressed my shoe against his—against that sorrow that seemed so dark and hopeless and bottomless. Electricity buzzed between us. I left my foot there for the rest of the shift. Felt his weight and warmth press back.
        Before we left, Ed suggested we think of each other at nine that night. That felt wrong, taking our work intimacy home, rolling it into evening hours, into the same house where my mother lived. Made me feel afraid, but electric-excited, too. I didn’t feel I had power to resist. So that night, at nine, in my bedroom, I wrapped my thoughts around him. Held his image in my mind. Thought about his innocence that couldn’t be lost.
        The next morning, Ed said nothing about the night. Just chatted his ordinary chat. But more boring than usual.
       “I thought of you at nine,” I finally said. He didn’t answer. “Did you think of me?”
       “Nah,” he said, using the wick to soak some extra solder from his joint. “I was too busy. Reading that history book I told you about. I forgot.”
       I felt small and stupid. Manipulated. Rejected. Sam’s rejection. My father’s rejection. I wasn’t worthy even of a thought.
        But I also noticed Ed wasn’t looking at me. His conversation was rushed and surfacey. Maybe he had thought of me, but wouldn’t tell me. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it had to do with power, to admit he’d thought of me was to yield something to me.
        I also felt safer. I’d been opening to Ed, but the opening had closed and I knew it wouldn’t open again.

       It wasn’t until the end of the summer that I knew for certain Ed was not a National Geographic photographer. A woman in the factory was acting oddly around me. Emotional. Snippy. Near me more than usual, but also ignoring me.
I’d liked her. She was kind. An outcast from the gossipy women, lowest on the factory totem pole. She was young, but already haggard. And unnaturally skinny. Her legs were long, and her jeans too short. They hung loosely where her bottom should have been. Her stringy brown hair was already thinning, and not all her sentences made sense.
       Finally, someone explained. She’d dated Ed before I’d arrived. All the women had seen my foot on Ed’s stool and were rallying around her. I was profoundly embarrassed. People had seen. I’d hurt her feelings.
        I was also perfectly clear. Had Ed other options in women—as a National Geographic photographer certainly would—he would not have chosen a drug-addicted, slowly disappearing, circuit board assembler.

       And it wasn’t until this writing this essay that I wiggle-snap a new understanding into place. Maybe it wasn’t a power play that made Ed say he hadn’t thought of me. He knew how easily he could manipulate me. Maybe he was trying to protect me from his darkness. He couldn’t restore his own innocence, but he could preserve mine. This feels like a relief. Some sad shame lifting.

            This is what you should know: in the last three years, both my mother and father have died and I’ve separated from the man I married when I was twenty-two. Like that strange transition between college and adulthood, when I soldered circuit boards for a summer, the future is an open void. “You and your perfect little life.” In some ways my new life is small and perfect. My small and lovely apartment. My job and friends I love. But the future is also wide and frightening and exciting. I feel the same tensions again, the pull toward safety and the stretch toward possibility.
        This also remains: I love the work.
       I have not soldered since. But the work I do now, this writing, this assembling, is much the same. The pages shaped like circuit boards. My memories piled on top of each other in a tray. I pull them out. Try to wiggle-snap them into place.
I solder connections. Why did I believe Ed? I was young, I answered. Press too long against the wire and the molten lead spills its boundaries and forms a bridge with its neighbor. I link him to my absent father, my trapped mother, my lost boyfriend, my irrepressible hopefulness, my fear of the future, and the deep loneliness I couldn’t admit to myself. My fear of being made a fool--and the inevitability of it.
       When the story is assembled, always imperfectly, always a few under or overfilled joints, I look down from the top, as from an airplane. The little buildings and roads. For a moment, I hold my summer, a tiny world in my hand. It’s not the quality of our adventures that’s important, but how we assemble what we have. The truth is more important than the story, but the story can help us find the truth. If I’ve found the right pattern, made the right connections, an electricity I don’t understand will make the story live.

        return to nonfiction

Tarn Wilson started her work life in sixth grade as a dog sitter—watching TV every afternoon with a manic standard poodle who chewed holes in the legs of her jeans while she ate spoonfuls of peanut butter.  Her adult work is similar:  high school teacher.  Her recent essays have been published in Brevity, Gulf Stream, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Inertia, Life Writing, Ruminate, and The Sun, among others.  She is a graduate of the Rainier Writing Workshop and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.