First, my plans to move to Chicago fell through. That was majorly upsetting not just because it ruined the fantasy of me moving to a big city and becoming a younger version of Samantha Jones, but because I didn’t have a back-up plan. All the jobs and internships I’d been applying for were in Chicago and I had already charged the U-Haul to my credit card.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t considered the fact that things might not work out. But, for various reasons, I couldn’t picture myself being happy unless I was a major “success” in some way, whether that meant being on TV or living in a big city and sharing my fabulously on Instagram. So when I heard back from MTV that I wasn’t selected to participate in their docu-series and they weren’t interested in the reality show idea I had casually pitched to them (which, if you must know, was completely fab), it felt like any chance I had at a fabulous life — at success, happiness — was gone.
The following summer, I learned that it doesn’t take all that much to be happy and sometimes, life’s more unexpected turns — like spending your first summer out of college in a small town, working retail and living in a friend’s basement, as I ended up doing — can actually be pretty fabulous in their own ways.
Sure, working part-time as a cashier in a small Iowa city’s only Target store isn’t quite what I pictured my first post-college job being, but I was good at it and I actually enjoyed it. Plus, I was doing so much more than that — I also scored a regular writing gig, as a contributor for an online LGBT e-mag, and was working on LGBTeen, my own writing project, which was actually picking up steam. I was also spending time with friends, getting closer to people I knew in college and making new connections.
That’s not to say I was instantly in love with my post-grad life — it took me awhile to fully enjoy where I was at. I actually hesitated to even apply for the job at Target, because I wanted to focus on finding a job related to my major. I spent many days depressed in bed, escaping into Netflix shows (Drop Dead Diva was a major pick-me-up during this time). But once I started working, I fell into a groove pretty quickly. And then one day, exhausted after a long shift spent standing behind the check-out counter and then commuting on my bike, everything changed.
I arrived at my friend’s place to find my roommates and some of our mutual friends gathered around a fire in their backyard, drinking and shooting the breeze. I grabbed a Lime-a-Rita, lit up a cigarette (don’t ever start smoking, kids) and joined them, letting my muscles relax as laid back into my chair. Eyes closed, I exhaled my first drag of the Marlboro Menthol and almost instantly felt a spark inside, bright and warm as the bonfire that was burning in the warm summer night. It came as such a shock, I had to vocalize, “Lauren,” I called out to my roommate, “I think I’m… happy.”
She laughed, smiled at me and said, “Good,” pleased and — apparently — amused that it took me so long to have this revelation.
As I basked in the glow of the fire and that feeling, I realized — what more could I want than to come home from an honest day’s work and be surrounded by people who I love so much, who love me?
Though I ended up leaving Iowa at the end of the summer, that moment allowed me to move forward without fear. Though I enjoyed that time of my life, I didn’t want to spend forever working at a small-town Target. And though, during my time attending college there, I did fall in love with Iowa, many of my friends would be moving from our college town after they graduated. I wasn’t sure what life had in store for me, but I realized that I didn’t have to become an overnight public relations superstar in order to feel successful and — more importantly — happy.
Now, as I find myself unemployed, aimless and — once again — so far removed from the type of life I dream of living (though I’ve adjusted my standards a bit), I hold on to that moment. Because it taught me that no matter what happens in my life, I can continue to have those sparks of happiness along the way.