Around the pool, we are waiting for the races to start. It smells how you’d imagine a high school swim meet would: tangy chlorine and wet towels, the baby powdered latex of swim caps, all cut with the vanilla Bath & Body Works sprays and lotions we teenage girls use to mask all original smells. We wear two bathing suits each, to make us faster. One slathered over the other, pushing any bits of pubescent fat out to the edges. Our already baked faces heat and toast in the late afternoon sun. Our young coach — red-headed and narrow, in a wide brimmed lifeguard hat — approaches with bad news. Meagan’s out with cramps, he says, seemingly to me. You’ve got to swim in her place.
Meagan swims the butterfly, and her race today is the 200. That’s eight laps. I am short-armed; the butterfly doesn’t look good on me. Nor does it feel good. I inhale the chlorinated water when I lift my face to breathe, my shoulders quickly lose power; at best, I can swim three laps, maybe four. My insides burn with panic. Instinctively, I look over the turquoise square of the pool, to my dad. His large hand shades his face, and I can see his expectant grin.
My dad comes to every race, every meet, every game. He paces the sidelines, the edge of the pool, lurks behind goals. His heart beats for sport, and I can feel his longing as I run, swim, or kick: he wishes he was in the game. If I place, or score, or win, I get a hearty pat on the back, a few blunted yet important-feeling words of praise. If I slow, or give up, or lose, I get a silent car ride home.
I cannot swim the 200 butterfly, and I know this. I say so to the lean red coach. It doesn’t matter, he tells me. You have to try. I burn with resentment and feel faint with fear. Embarrassment, failure, the silent car ride... I cannot bear the thought of any of it. My team — the big-shouldered, tan-lined crew of girls who train together every evening, whose muscles ache before bed and whose eyes burn with chlorine and sun — they will all be watching. I will fail. I will flail. And everyone will see me as I sink.
The only option, as I see it right then, is to quit. So I drop my goggles and my swim cap onto the bench, sulk over to my dad, tell him I’m not going to be on the swim team anymore. His big hand leaves his forehead, slaps the side of his stiff jeans. I can literally feel disappointment radiate off of him, hotter than the hot hot sun.
÷ ÷ ÷
I conjured this swim team memory because I quit my job last week, in order to pursue my own writing, and I want to understand it better, this decisive leaving, this choice not to be a part of something anymore. For my job, I wrote advertising copy for a New York department store. For four years I took the subway to midtown east, ate chopped salads for lunch, and wrote about distressed denim and contour bras. Like most people with “day jobs” who are also pursuing a creative career, I resented the cubicles, the hours, the questionable objective of my work: selling expensive clothes to rich Upper East Side women and trust fund teens, engaging deeply in a capitalist cycle I generally disapproved of. On the flip side, the job meshed into my life in a way that felt cozy. It was how I spent my days, how I made my money, where I could use Photoshop for free, where I laughed. When people asked what I did, I did not say I was a writer, but a copywriter. In many ways, the job had become who I was.
Upon walking down the poorly lit halls of the offices for the last time, I got that same post-pool feeling: a wicked mixture of shame and excitement, a giddy guilt, like I’d gotten away with something but sort of wanted to get caught. Though I was greeted by cocktails bought for me by friends, high fives and congratulations from other writers for quitting, I was a bit confused, and even slightly melancholy. I have never been praised for quitting something before, and it felt as if it shouldn’t be allowed. I felt as if I had let down a team — and technically I had, seeing that corporate America has adopted the sports metaphor almost completely, and I was on a “team” of other writers working to score proverbial points for our company. Quitting had always felt slightly immoral to me, or else spineless: you were betraying others, or else you were simply giving up. I also experienced the potent self-doubt that comes along with most major life decisions that favor one’s creative practice over one’s capital worth: Did I deserve this? Was I worthy? The quitting felt like a luxury, like something I shouldn’t be able to afford — literally and figuratively — to do. Why should I be able to slide into the sun-baked leather seat of my dad’s car, warm and relieved of any labor, while the rest of my team slogged and slapped and kicked and breathed through their races, trying for their personal bests?
÷ ÷ ÷
I tried to remind myself that the reason I was “allowed” to quit my job was because I had not quit something else; I had not quit writing a book. Even though there were so many times that I had really really wanted to quit writing a book.
When my agent told me that the second half just wasn’t working
When my agent told me that I needed to cut 100,000 words
When sections of my manuscript failed to make it into literary magazines.
When Eileen Myles
read a chapter of it and made a reference to Sex and the City
When literary acquaintances published their books before me, after having worked on them for a quarter of the time.
When my best friend said, You can always quit, you know
When my best friend was going to the beach.
When one of my characters was being an asshole.
When my day job got really stressful and I didn’t have time to sneak writing in at work.
When weekends didn’t exist.
When I pressed delete
again and again and again.
When my agent told me it was finally time, that we were going to try to sell this thing, and a new worry ran through me: that people might read the book I’d written, which was perhaps scarier than no one reading it at all.
When I thought, so many times: I will fail. I will flail. And everyone will see me as I sink.
But somehow I didn’t sink, and I didn’t quit. Something told me I couldn’t. In this case, for whatever deranged reason, I just kept swimming. Almost compulsively. Almost as if my body was telling me to. Stroke by stroke by frustrating stroke. I could not quit the book, so instead I finished it.
÷ ÷ ÷
What is the difference between quitting something and finishing it? Upon first glance, it seems that there is a violence to quitting, a sharp edge, whereas the finishing is calmer, tied off neatly at the ends. But I think it also has to do with agency. Quitting is inherently an expression of individual agency, and often a dramatic one. When you quit something, you are setting yourself apart from it, raising yourself above it. Whether it was because it was unhealthy or unbearable, or because you had something better to turn to, or because you didn’t jive with the job or the addiction or the relationship or the project or the team, you made an active decision to leave it behind. You are freeing yourself, but you are also ostracizing yourself. There is a severing, and in the quitting, you are alone.
Finishing is the opposite. By finishing something, you are tying yourself to it: the book you wrote, the man you married, the win or the loss you embodied when you completed the race. Finishing is a choice, yes, but it is also, often, an inevitability. You finish something when it would hurt more not to.
÷ ÷ ÷
In the 2005 movie Brokeback Mountain
, Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack, tells Heath Ledger (RIP) as Ennis: “I wish I knew how to quit you.” They are in a clandestine gay relationship that is contained to the Wyoming mountains, shaded by trees and small makeshift tents; conversations or potent silences take place atop the muscular backs of powerful horses. There is something about this proclamation that is particularly heartbreaking; it is the moment in the movie when you can’t help but cry. Because everyone — Jake, Heath, the movie viewers — knows that what these men share is deep and real, not just some bad habit that needs to be kicked, or a job that’s gotten stale. But the phrase, the word quit
, is so tragic because it is the wrong word. It negates the validity of that love by necessity; in this moment, their love is reduced to what the world sees it as: bad, wrong, gross, in need of rehabilitation and repair. The word quit
turns their love into tobacco, heroin, porn, sugar. Going cold turkey might end the pattern, temper the addiction, but even the violence of quitting won’t get rid of what actually matters, which is the hunger of the human heart.
There is a push and pull in this scene that is present in all acts of quitting: one’s knowledge (that it is necessary, for whatever reason, to cut something off), and one’s yearning to maintain connection, to remain unsevered. And it is only up to them, one solitary small person, to make that decision, to set themselves apart, to tear themselves away. Quitting is hard and sad, I think, because agency is hard and sad. It requires a mustering of strength, an individual will — it’s all on you. Easily the quitter might think: I wish I could just get fired
. At least if you were fired you would have an excuse for being out on the mountain alone.
÷ ÷ ÷
Routine, companionship, lists, interpersonal drama, post-its, “higher ups,” dress codes, expectations. These things are all addictions, when I think about it — things I crave and thrive on, things I am afraid to go without now that I’ve quit my job. I imagine myself in my apartment on a Monday morning, sitting at my desk and staring at the wall, no one telling me what to do. I imagine myself clutching my cell phone, thumbing it like a junkie, reaching out into the bigger world, begging for guidelines and water-cooler chatter, free manila envelopes, a request forwarded from someone to someone else and finally to me, asking me to please send them that important PDF.
The foam walls of my cubicle at work depressed me, and the job left me hardly any time to write. It was time to leave; it was necessary. And yet leaving felt so final and so formal: a door locked behind me, a big blade coming down and cutting through something I’d cultivated, something I’d cared for. When I left my job, it would go on without me: I would be the one who’d lost something, whether that something was good for me or not. A smoker frees themselves from addiction when they quit, but they leave behind their alleyways, their coveted breaks on the porch, their little escapes, their ashtrays made out of seashells that collect the beautiful sickness of their ash.
÷ ÷ ÷
After the swim meet, Dad is pissed. He seethes in the seat next to me, his mouth grinding. He doesn’t even open the sunroof. His disappointment is still palpable, the rancid taste of letting someone down. Finally, as we pull over the gravel of our driveway, he says without looking at me, “You can’t just quit things.” Then he leaves me in the warm, safe, dry car to cry. But I just did, I want to tell him. I
just did. It was me who did it. It wasn’t us and it wasn’t you. It was me.
÷ ÷ ÷
There is a definition of “quit” that I didn’t know, or at least didn’t consider, that has to do with repayment of debt. “She was quit of all further responsibilities,” reads the dictionary example. This version of the definition is derived from Middle English, and it goes on to include a piece about being released, discharged, and put to rest. When I consider it this way, that I have been cleared, freed, let go, rather than imagining myself as the brash cutter of ties, I feel more comfortable. I feel like quitting could be closer to finishing than I had supposed, that it could be just as tidy, just as sweet. I also realize that stepping outside of the circle of my team — and of camaraderie and deadlines and office supplies — does not mean I stepped outside of myself. I am not made of the work that I do, the money I make, the laps that I swim. I can choose things, and I can quit them, too.
Right now I am sitting at a café working, writing this. In my notebook there is a to-do list a mile long; I bought myself a highlighter to wield when I finish a task. I am emailing back and forth with my publicist and my agent and my editor: a new, sturdy team. Mostly, though, I am alone. I am not making any money. I feel calm. I did the right thing, the only thing. I know my body and my abilities, and sometimes my heart hurts, but I’m pretty sure I saved myself from drowning.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of Tuesday Nights in 1980
. Prentiss was born and raised in Santa Cruz, California. She was a Writer in Residence at Workspace at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and at the Blue Mountain Center and was chosen as an Emerging Writer Fellow by the Aspen Writers Foundation. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the California College of the Arts. Her stories, essays, and poems can be found in Fourteen Hills
, Wilder Quarterly
, The Aesthete
, and La Petite Zine
, among others. She lives in Brooklyn.