After I lost my job, I measured my time in coffee. When I made my last cup of coffee from my coffee stash, that’s when I knew it was bad. That’s when it was time to panic. And not the watered down, mild version of panicking I’d been doing over the last six months, real panicking, where am I going to live, how am I going to eat type of panicking.
That morning, I woke up to my cat stepping on my head and meowing at me, rudely asking me to get up and feed her breakfast. After five minutes of trying to pet her into submission, she won. I stood up, put my glasses on, and went into the kitchen. And after I fed Snickers, I made myself my last cup of coffee that I’d been hoarding over the past six months of unemployment.
My apartment was tiny, but it was so empty now that it felt huge. Last week I’d sold my couch. The week before, I sold my TV. I still had my laptop, but I’d have to put that on Craigslist soon too, unless a miracle happened and I finally got a response on one of the hundreds of resumes I’d sent out and job applications I’d filled out.
I sipped the last cup of my cheap Folgers coffee and opened the refrigerator. It was sparse, but it had never been this empty before. A half gallon of milk, an apple, and some cheese. On the counter, there was a loaf of white bread and a jar of peanut butter.
Before I was laid off, I didn’t eat bread. Back then, I didn’t eat carbs or cheese. I ate lean protein, chicken and fish and vegetables. I wore contacts, not an old pair of glasses. I belonged to an expensive boutique fitness studio, where I attended classes five times a week, clad head to toe in lululemon workout clothes. I did my grocery shopping at Whole Foods. I bought iced nonfat lattes from Starbucks twice a day. And I could do all of this and live this life because I had a job, a well paying job with an office and a huge, shining oak desk. I had a deep sense of pride in my work, and without it, I felt like an empty shell of a human. It was the one thing I had that was completely mine, me doing this for me, and now I had nothing but an empty apartment and a mattress on my bedroom floor. Life looked different back then, and I wouldn’t recognize myself now if I didn’t already know who I was.
Now, I barely left my bed, let alone the apartment. For the first few months of unemployment, I was motivated and determined. I applied to any and every job that was even slightly relevant to my chosen career path. I was focused and diligent. And at first, the situation wasn’t dire. I had a decent savings account that I’d been adding to since I’d started working after college. So, while I canceled my gym membership and started grocery shopping at Aldi, I could still pay my rent and bills. Each morning, I’d wake up, brew some coffee, sit down at my desk with my laptop, and peruse Monster and Indeed and LinkedIn, keeping detailed notes on what jobs I’d applied for and when I’d applied for them, pros and cons of each position, and my interest level in each job on a scale of one to five.
I’d been on exactly one interview in the last six months, and that was two months ago. It seemed to go well at the time. I wore my perfectly fitted gray suit and put my hair up in a twist. I gave the right answers to the interviewer’s questions, and she smiled and nodded and seemed to like me and my answers. When she’d asked what had happened at my last job, I tried not to show any emotion in my face as I told her that the company was downsizing. I left out the part where I was the one who was laid off because my sales numbers were the lowest. It wasn’t, as my mother called it, “need to know information.”
One week passed after my interview. Then another. I spent those fourteen days refreshing my email and staring at my phone, willing it to ring and give me good news that would set my life back to normal. Eventually I couldn’t stop myself anymore, and I followed up with my interviewer in an email, restating my interest in the position.
We’re sorry, the response I got two hours and thirty-eight minutes later said. We’ve selected another applicant who we believe is more qualified for the position. We wish you luck in your job search.
I stared at that email for a long time. Something shifted in me then. I lost hope, I thought to myself now. That’s when I realized that no one would hire me. Who would want to hire me? Me, a recently laid off 25-year-old woman-child who couldn’t afford her rent and had gotten too fat to fit into her expensive gray suit.
That’s when it all went downhill. My savings account was now completely empty. Without my fancy gym studio classes and living off cheap but filling processed meals, my weight climbed. I began selling my things to make enough money to keep my water hot and my electricity on, but I had to ask my mom for a loan, and then another loan, so that I could pay my rent.
I snapped out of my sad reverie when my phone rang. It was my mother’s morning call. “Hello,” I said when I answered.
“Good, you’re awake,” my mother said. I could hear her shuffling papers in the background. She was at work.
“Yeah, of course I’m awake,” I said. She was always surprised when I wasn’t sleeping my life away. “What’s up?” Lately it was best to get straight to the point when speaking to my mother. She wasn’t happy about my life situation, and she didn’t even try to hide it anymore. Her phone calls were all business now, like I was her employee instead of her daughter.
“I’m sending you some money,” she said. “You have an interview tomorrow morning. Go buy a suit that fits.”
“I do? Where?” My heart pounded with anxiety at the thought of going on an interview.
Mom gave me information about the position, the address, and the names of the people I’d be interviewing with, which I scribbled down on a post-it note that I had on the counter. I didn’t want to tell her this, but the position sounded pretty close to perfect. “Don’t be late,” she said. “And take a shower. Wash your hair, shave your legs. I shouldn’t have to tell you these things.” She was exasperated with me again, although I hadn’t said more than ten words since I’d picked up the phone.
“I know how to bathe myself,” I said defensively. “I don’t think this is a good idea. I’m not prepared at all.”
“You’ll figure it out. Use Google,” Mom said. She paused, and when she spoke again her voice was different, softer. “Jessie, you have a real opportunity here. I need you to try. You can do this. Get your normal life back, get out of this depression.” She sighed. “I hate seeing you like this.”
“Yeah,” I said, sighing as well, in agreement. “I know.”
Mom was right. After months of hopelessness and silence, I had to get back out there and be a person in the world, not a shell of my old self. Even if I didn’t get this job, maybe it’d put me back in the mindset of starting fresh, of trying to have a real life, not a life of sitting in my apartment with the lights off, not speaking to anyone but my cat.
After I hung up the phone with Mom, I took a shower. I caught a glimpse of myself, naked, in the mirror, before I got in. I looked the same, but different at the same time. I was heavier in my midsection, my hair hadn’t been washed in a few days, my skin was pale from being inside so much. In the shower, I scrubbed my scalp and washed my body twice, letting myself stay in the shower longer than I normally would, enjoying the warm water and the smell of my shampoo. When I was done, I felt almost like a new woman.
After my shower, I dressed and went outside to my car. Over the last few months, I tried not to go anywhere I couldn’t walk so that I wouldn’t have to use gas, but today there was no other option. I stopped at a gas station on the way and put $5 of the cash I’d gotten from selling my TV in my gas tank, and then I drove to the mall.
It had been a long time since I’d been out in public, longer than I’d realized. Being around crowds of people was a shock to my system. Parents wrangled their kids into stores, clusters of teen girls whispered and giggled together, mall employees stood in line at the food court, looking blankly ahead. Being there after being alone for so long felt strange, like an out of body experience. It was the classic experience of feeling alone in a crowded room.
I went into one of the big department stores, possibly the same one I bought my gray suit from all those years ago, but I couldn’t remember. I walked purposefully to the women’s professional dress section, a girl on a mission – a mission to not look like a hot mess on this interview, I thought to myself.
The options were endless – skirts and pant suits and jackets, in navy blue, gray, cranberry, tan, even one that was a shimmery pale pink that I wouldn’t dream of wearing to an interview for a job I didn’t want. I grabbed a few different options and headed to the dressing room.
I didn’t have time to get anything altered, so whatever I bought had to fit as close to perfectly as I could possibly get. The navy blue suit’s jacket fit awkwardly, the arms were too long and made me look like a little girl trying on her mother’s clothes, and the skirt was too long, making me feel overly conservative. The maroon suit was the opposite, the skirt was too short and the jacket was too tight, making my boobs look much bigger than they actually were, like I was auditioning for a role in a porno instead of a professional job in an office downtown.
Last, I tried the black suit, and to my immense relief, it was perfect. The skirt fell to the exact right length at my knee, not too short and not too long, and the jacket fit well in the body and the arms. In the mirror, I could almost pass for my former self.
On the morning of my interview, I woke up early. I showered again, and took my time shaving my legs and underarms. After my shower, I carefully applied my makeup – foundation, eyeliner, eye shadow, mascara, lip gloss, and then I blow dried my hair so that it fell straight and smooth. I put on my new suit and a pair of heels, and it was most polished, put together, and professional I had looked in months.
I drove to the interview in silence, leaving the radio off. I was in a kind of trance, lost in thought, trying to push negative thoughts from my mind while also trying to remember how to sell myself, running through my professional personality selling points in my mind – I’m a hard worker, I’m eager to learn, I’m a team player but I work well independently too. I felt an odd combination of extreme hopefulness, the kind of hope that makes your chest tight because you want something so badly, but I was also weighed down by self doubt, with a side of your typical interview jitters.
I arrived about fifteen minutes early. I sat in my car for a few minutes, checked my makeup, reapplied my lip gloss, fixed my bangs. I noticed that I’d forgotten to take off my nail polish. I had painted them a childish shimmery purple color a couple of weeks ago when I was at home and bored, but now they were completely chipped. Nothing I could do about that now but hope that my interviewers wouldn’t look too closely at my hands.
When it was time to go in, I gathered my bag and the folder of copies of my resume that I’d printed last night. I fixed my bangs one more time in the reflection of my car before I started to walk toward the front door. My heels made a satisfying click-clack sound on the pavement. It had been awhile since I’d worn shoes that weren’t flip flops or sneakers, and I was genuinely worried I might trip over my own feet.
I opened the door, walked inside, and approached the front desk. The receptionist was a young blonde girl wearing a white silk blouse and a pencil skirt. I suddenly felt old and frumpy. “How can I help you?” she said pleasantly.
“I’m Jessica Morris. I have an interview with Mr. Pearson and Ms. Hill at ten o’clock,” I said, trying to sound more confident than I felt.
“Of course. I’ll let them know you’re here. Have a seat,” she said, gesturing toward the chairs in the reception area and picking up her desk phone.
“Thank you,” I said. As I walked away to sit down in one of the plush, upholstered chairs, I heard her say my name in a low voice to whoever she had called.
As I waited, I couldn’t stop jiggling my foot nervously, and I fought the urge to take out my phone and scroll through social media to take my mind off my nerves. There was no one else in the room, and it was quiet, save for the blonde receptionist typing quietly. I tried to position my body so I looked more professional when my interviewers entered the room – I sat up straight, crossed my legs at the ankles, placed my bag and my folder neatly on my lap. My hands were cold and clammy, and I was already embarrassed to shake hands with my interviewers and have them literally feel my nervousness seeping out of my body through my hands.
A few more minutes passed. I started to get even more nervous. What if they’d decided to cancel, but had forgotten to call me and tell me? What if the position had already been filled? What if they were right now interviewing another applicant who was more qualified and better than me in every way? My heart started to beat faster. I clutched my folder of resumes.
Then, a second before I was about to ask the receptionist what was going on and if I should leave or reschedule, I heard from behind me, “Jessica Morris?”
I closed my eyes briefly, exhaled, stood up, and turned around. “Hi,” I said, smiling, and extended my right hand. “I’m Jessica. It’s nice to meet you.”