The Summer I Became a Teenager Again
I was feeling very adult. I was 25 years old with a sales career, I was in grad school, and I was buying a condo. I felt like a regular ol’ responsible grown-up human. Then, the week after I moved into my new place, I realized I was out of money.
Not out-of-money out of money. I didn’t have $0 in my bank account, but I was definitely over budget. With my mortgage and HOA dues, utilities, groceries, gas and (oh yeah) wine, I had underestimated my costs. Furthermore, I had been counting on a raise that wasn’t coming, and after some extra home repair costs, I was already dipping into my savings.
I wanted to tell myself that I could just save a little more by clipping coupons and eating all meals at home, but who knew how much that would help? I could save pennies all I wanted, but it wouldn’t do much when my car broke down. I needed a buffer; just a little extra in my account so that I wouldn’t panic the next time I got my water bill.
What I needed was a part-time job.
My full-time sales job was a normal Monday to Friday gig, so the only times I had available were Friday nights and on the weekends.
I applied all over the place from restaurants to retail. I wasn’t picky. I ended up taking the first job I was offered, at a movie theater down the street from my new place. It seemed perfect. Free movies and popcorn, plus a little extra cash.
Hopeful and optimistic, I showed up for my first day of training in my official uniform: a branded T-shirt.
But even from my first day of putting butter (coconut oil) in the popcorn machine, I knew I was different from the other employees. They were young, with fast metabolisms and freckles underneath zits. They used slang and bragged about drinking alcohol from their parent’s liquor cabinet.
Most of the kids were about to start their senior years in high school, and just a few of the older ones were in their first or second year at college. I found out that one girl had gone to my old high school. She said she’d graduated that past June, and when I told her I finished in 2009, her face dropped in shock.
“Wow. You’re old.”
Age wasn’t the only difference. In the beginning, I would strive to do my job as quickly and efficiently as possible. I checked bathrooms to make sure they were clean every 15 minutes and I checked each theater every 25 minutes (as we were supposed to do).
Meanwhile, the “kids” I worked with would hang out by the popcorn machine or sit in an empty theater and call out “theaters are good” or “bathrooms are good” over the radio after a certain amount of time passed.
I found myself getting annoyed. Here I was, actually working, getting things done even after a long week of work at my sales job, and these kids were lounging around for the same $10 an hour. Some of them even struggled to come to work on their scheduled days—or, god forbid, show up on time. When I asked one of the managers, a cool college kid with a pixie cut, why everyone was always late, she essentially said that a start time was more of a suggestion. If employees showed up within 15 minutes of when they were supposed to, that was just fine.
But I couldn’t let it go—why were these kids so lazy? I tried to remember what I was like ten years ago, when I was a teenager. I worked at a pizza place, eating cold pizza cheese and black olives off my fingertips. I cleaned off tables only when I absolutely had to. I can’t remember if I was supposed to check the bathrooms for toilet paper or paper towels, but I never did it once.
I started to realize that maybe I was doing too much, working too hard. This was a part-time, minimum-wage job, and I was treating it like a career. If this minimalism was what was expected of me, so be it. Maybe, just maybe, I could be a teenager again.
When I went to work the next weekend, I wore no makeup. My hair was unbrushed and pulled into a pigtail. Just for kicks, I painted my nails neon pink—which was something I hadn’t done in 10 years.
Suddenly, I felt like Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed. With my new makeover, I definitely looked younger; 20, maybe even 19. I felt like a spy, going undercover to learn about teens. I learned their lingo. I started saying “fire” and “savage” when I would have said “cool” or “oh snap.” I learned about the food these kids ate (mostly just Starbucks and boba tea) and the places they went to hang out (they seemed to have a rotation of malls). I learned which teachers were too strict and which older brother to call to get a fake ID. I was making friends with the other employees and immersing myself in their world.
And I was having a lot of fun.
Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday I put on my nametag and looked forward to becoming a teenager again. I got brain freezes when I drank blue slushies from my seat at the ticket window. I kept myself entertained at the concession stand by shaking pretzel cheese or cinnamon flavoring onto handfuls of popcorn. True story: the cinnamon sugar makes popcorn taste like Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
Soon, I started watching movies during shifts. I started looking for loose change more than I looked for trash in theaters. One time I found an unopened package of Oreos on a theater seat and ate them. Another time I found an opened package of Sour Patch Kids in a cup holder and ate that too.
Only a tiny part of me ever stopped to wonder: What was happening to me?
A month ago, I was exclusively buying groceries with the USDA organic seal. Now I was eating used candy. But who cares? I was a teenager now. I was young and foolish. I was fun and immortal.
And besides, the other kids thought I was cool.
One morning, I woke up with a massive hangover. I had been out to dinner with my mom, of all people, and drank too much. Maybe I could look and act like I was in college, but I sure couldn’t drink like that any more.
After a long game of back and forth I’M GONNA THROW UP/no I’m not/YES I AM, my stomach decided that I got to keep my breakfast of nachos.
Suddenly, I’d come to the part of being younger that I didn’t miss. The terrible aches and migraines that only come from complete cluelessness about mixing alcohols. In my old life, the one where I only enjoyed red wine if “we get a bottle for the table,” this never would have happened. But somehow I had forgotten everything I knew. I was back to being wild and reckless, living without concern for the future.
But the future came anyway. I started driving, slowly, to the movie theater for a shift at noon.
I wore my pajama shirt on the drive there, in case my stomach changed its mind and I puked in the car, but I was safe. At work, I clocked in and changed into my T-shirt. For the rest of the afternoon, I walked around the theater with my broom and dustpan, taking each step as carefully as I could so as not to shake my sensitive stomach.
It was a hard day. One guy who was supposed to work with me called in sick that morning—possibly for similar reasons—so I was on my own. Still, despite my pale skin and profuse sweating, I was pulling through. Not wanting to hear people’s voices for fear of aggravating my headache, I focused on work. For the first time in a long time, I was being a really good employee.
That afternoon I took a lunch break to get a muffin at Panera and when I came back I was told that one of the managers wanted to talk to me. I was hoping he had noticed that I was sick and was going to let me go home.
Still holding my stomach, I rode the elevator upstairs to the manager’s office. The manager, whom I’ll call George, told me to sit down. Unlike some of the other managers, George was in his 40s and did not care whether his employees thought he was cool.
“Do you know how late you were today?” he said.
“Eight minutes,” I said proudly. I was proud to have remembered and also proud I had ONLY been 8 minutes late. Maybe it was the teen in me with low expectations, but the fact that I had shown up was a success, and being less than 30 minutes late was even more wow-worthy.
“Eight minutes,” he repeated back to me. “So I’m giving you this.”
With great flair, he put a single piece of paper in front of me. A written warning.
I wanted to protest, to remind him that someone else didn’t show up at all that day, and I had picked up his slack. I wanted to point out that I was obviously feeling like shit and working through it. For the first time in a month, I was actually working at my potential.
I also kind of wanted to scream.
But before I could say anything, he pulled out another sheet of paper.
“But then I looked through the security footage outside the break room and saw that you didn’t just clock in late. You clocked in, then, after you were on the clock, went to the bathroom to change into your company shirt. You have to come to work dressed and ready for work before you clock in.”
Now I was pissed. And pretty creeped out.
To go through security footage to catch me walking into the bathroom was super weird. Besides that, I was only changing there because I didn’t want to have to work in a puke-splattered shirt if I went over a too-big speed bump in the road.
And Jesus Christ, it took a whole 10 seconds.
The adult me, the real me, couldn’t believe how ridiculous this was. Here was this manager, trying to make me feel bad at this minimum-wage movie theater job. I know good managerial process, and this wasn’t it. If he had been working on the floor or checking in on his employees, he would have noticed my pale skin and damp hair and asked how I was feeling. He could have expressed concern. Or, if being late was so important to him, he could have implemented a system where employees were held accountable for their clock-ins, instead of giving me this warning after another manager had told me that being a few minutes late was okay. He could have cracked down on the minimal work we all put forth.
I wanted my angry, graduate-school-educated self to give him a piece of my mind. That’s what I would have done before. But now, after three months of practice being a teen, I couldn’t think of what to say. I felt young and small. I started to cry.
George shifted in his chair, confused. This wasn’t what he’d expected. Maybe he wanted me to argue with him, or maybe he wanted the satisfaction of reminding me that he was a manager and I wasn’t, but this was too much.
I was so angry, so sick, that I couldn’t do anything else but sit and cry. Not even the dignified silent cry of a professional, but the wails of a cheerleader that didn’t get homecoming queen. The desperate gulps of air of an honor student that didn’t get into her first choice of college. The tears of an awkward teen getting in trouble for the first time at her first job.
“Are you okay?” he asked gently.
After another minute or two of my crying—while George just sat there wide-eyed—I stood up and walked out of the office without saying a word.
I ended up going back downstairs, deciding to finish the last hour of my shift. After all, we were still a person short and the other kids needed me there.
Just before I clocked out, I went to the cool, pixie-cut manager, told her what had happened, and said that I was resigning. She nodded, listened, and asked me to sleep on it. “Why don’t you go home, think about it, and if you still want to quit, let me know next week.”
I shrugged. Maybe I was being too hasty. I had gotten this job for a reason, after all.
I went home and thought about the day as I lay in bed. Maybe this was a case of a tragic manager. I imagined George as a miserable 40-something still working for $13 an hour as a movie theater manager, taking out his frustrations on the grad student with a “real” job.
But… maybe I was just a lazy asshole. I’d tasted youth, and everything that came with it, and got a little too into it. I had, in fact, shown up to work late, hung over, after months of doing the bare minimum.
And to think, just a few short months ago, I’d been so proud of myself for being so mature.
By the next morning, I knew I had to quit. Whether it was a case of bad leadership or bad choices, my time was up.
That Monday morning, I woke up in my new condo, getting ready for my professional job that paid significantly more than the minimum wage, looking forward to starting my second year of grad school in a week. I didn’t want to act like a teenager any more. Even if it meant taking out an extra loan or sticking it out until I got a higher-paying sales job.
I wanted to be myself, even if that meant I had to grow up again.
The next Friday night, I went into work. A manager I didn’t know very well was the only one working that evening. I don’t remember what her name was, but this manager never smiled.
I’ve quit jobs dozen times. All the high school and college jobs I worked at over the summer and weekends ended the same way. There is always some anxiety as you prepare, a little awkwardness, listening to a half-hearted “it’s been nice having you work here” speech, and then relief.
When I told that manager I wanted to resign, she turned to the computer at the box office and clicked into the internet.
“You go to this website, here,” she said.
I wondered if she heard me correctly. Maybe she thought I had asked for something else. She clicked around a few more times.
“I want to quit,” I said slowly.
“And then you click here.” She moved the mouse around, ignoring me. “And then just select your last day in this drop-down menu. Okay?”
Then she walked away.
So she did understand what I wanted. Clearly, she saw a fast turn around here.
I clicked on a date two weeks later, thinking I might as well leave on good terms. I did, after all, want to be mature about it.
I saw George maybe once or twice in my last few shifts, but we never spoke. I spent my last weekends watching Star Wars and Bad Moms; seeing all the movies I could while I still got in for free, and enjoying my last few days as a teen. I figured I should at least try to enjoy it while it lasted. On the last day, I made sure I had all the other employees’ Facebook and Instagram info, telling them we would keep in touch. We didn’t.
Now, a little more than a year later, it seems like a distant memory. I remember working at the theater the same way I remember working at the pizza place at age 16 or the frozen yogurt shop the summer after freshman year of college. I remember having a good time, making friends, but I couldn’t tell you the details or the names of any of my former coworkers.
Sure, there’s something in me that still yearns for that time, that remembers how it felt to be young and irresponsible. But once we grow up and move on, we can never truly go back again—and maybe that’s a good thing.
Jilly Pretzel is a fiction and nonfiction writer from Southern California. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and now teaches writing at California School of the Arts in San Gabriel Valley. She has recently written for The Penny Hoarder, Love TV, and Orange Coast Magazine.