I don’t remember going down the office stairs, or pushing through the big glass door, or even wrestling the heavy file box into the trunk of my car. I do remember glancing up at the second-floor office windows, though I knew no one had watched us leave. The survivors were focusing hard on their oversized screens and savoring their own ecstatic relief, the same thing I’d done after the last layoff.
Somehow, I was back on the freeway, heading south, while the commute flowed past me. The whole thing had taken less than fifteen minutes, and if you didn’t know better you’d assume the people packing their things were just headed out on some sort of long-term assignment. No tears, no yelling. It was remarkably quiet.
That's because we knew the drill: envelopes holding our final paychecks had been placed on keyboards the night before, as if some diabolical tooth fairy had visited. New white file boxes sat on our ergonomic chairs, warning us, don’t even think of sitting down. Our now-former coworkers huddled grimly in the break room, the hush there broken only by the hum of the microwave.
I was in shock, wasn’t I? What my dad would once have called my “situational awareness” was just...gone. I had suddenly re-entered my body while operating a motor vehicle at high speed on the freeway. I tried again to focus, but my thoughts sprinted for the exit.
I’d made it through the first two “headcount reductions” at the Drewitt Group. The first one, in December, hit swiftly after the mortgage meltdown. Then came July’s. Since I’m so good at magical thinking (an expert, actually) I thought this made my own head immune to reduction—like a video game where your powers and your score increases as you evade ever-faster, more epic forms of destruction. But there was no defying the laws of business gravity: marketing budgets are always the first casualty of a downturn, and this was way more than a downturn. No one in our office even pretended to know where the bottom was.
The coup de grace for our company (their company? I needed to reset my pronouns) happened two weeks ago. Our biggest client, MoshRoom Labs, closed its doors without warning. I’d made the discovery myself when I arrived for a meeting at the “Moshpit” and found the door locked, the parking lot emptied of its shiny Porsches, BMWs and Land Rovers, as if there’d been a Rapture for luxury cars.
None of us on the staff could ignore the series of loud, panicked meetings that followed, in the glass-walled executive conference room. They rattled the office like earthquakes. We sat there in our cubes, islanders waiting for the tsunami.
It hit this morning. Twelve more of us were washed away, as Trevor Bennett, the managing director, took shelter in his office with a Starbucks. Trevor sat there sipping and blinking and texting while we filled up our file boxes, our little job-coffins. The oversized Drewitt “d” logo that was etched into the glass of his office window floated over him like a watermark, and when I glanced that way, I couldn’t help but think that it must stand for 'dick'.
The Hamilton Avenue exit came up quickly and for a moment I felt an impulse to just keep driving. If I kept going, over the mountains to the end of Highway 17, I’d wind up in Santa Cruz, at the beach. I pictured myself barefoot in the cold, foamy surf, wind rinsing my face and tangling my hair, looking hopefully toward the horizon, to my brighter future...
Then the tiny part of my brain that was still attempting to perform executive functions suggested that changing out of my work clothes first might be a good idea, and with that, the impulse evaporated. Up the offramp I went. Toward the house that I could barely afford yesterday. Toward the house that I could not remotely afford now.
When I turned onto Fuller Street, to my dismay, I spotted my neighbor Florence Kneipp, kneeling in her immaculate garden on a little foam cushion. She wore pink nitrile gloves and matching kneepads, the uniform for her daily botanical contact sports. I pulled in across the street and parked my car over an archipelago of oil spots on the driveway. This was one of many moments when I wished we’d never converted the garage into an art studio.
Things were starting to unravel inside me. I needed to get into the house before I completely lost it. But as soon as I turned off the ignition, I wilted over the steering wheel. My body felt too numb to operate. The car hummed and ticked and settled down around me.
Two soft taps on my window startled me upright. Mrs. Kneipp was peering into the car, alarm in her eyes. I lowered the window.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Jennifer, I didn’t mean to frighten you!” she exclaimed, in her faint German accent.
I gave her the best smile I could manage, which probably looked like rictus.
“Are you all right, my dear?” she asked.
“Yeah—thanks...” I stammered. “I—I have a migraine.”
She took a step back.
“Oh dear,” she said. “Can I bring you anything?” The tiny grandmother had plied me with casseroles after my husband Clay moved out. In gratitude, I brought her iris bulbs and geranium cuttings, tomato starts this past spring.
“Oh, I’ve got what I need,” I said quickly. “But thank you, Florence.”
Fine lines of doubt filigreed the skin around her eyes. Florence Kneipp didn’t miss much. She nodded politely and returned to her yard.
I got out of the car and cautiously opened the trunk, positioning myself so she would not be able to see the white file box. I couldn’t let Florence witness my Walk of Terminated Shame. I’ve never been comfortable being comforted. I OD’d on it as a kid, and withdrawn from it abruptly as a teenager. I didn’t touch the stuff anymore.
Could I smuggle my things in a little at a time? I lifted the lid of the box. The jumble of items inside already looked like artifacts. I pushed aside my matching stapler and tape dispenser, the vivid lime-green that had been the Drewitt Agency’s one approved accent color in our all-white office. I gingerly pulled out the framed photograph of my nephew, taken ten years before, at his sixth birthday party, and I heard a little crunch.
Shit. I must’ve broken the glass, throwing stuff in the box. But Cole’s big hazel eyes were still visible, wide with excitement, his little blue-and-white madras shirt smeared with chocolate frosting. I’d taken the picture seconds before my sister swooped in and carried him off to change the shirt. A six-year-old should be allowed to cover himself in chocolate frosting at his birthday party. Later in life, that kind of stuff doesn’t go over nearly as well.
For a moment, I stood there, unable to figure out what to do with the photograph. And then I just put it back down and stuck the lid on the box. I’d deal with it later. Later sounded good. Later wasn’t now. I shut the trunk and walked toward the front door, which felt like it was two hundred yards away.
My dog popped up in the curved bay window, where he kept his daily vigil. Grifter’s blunt terrier tail ticked wildly, like a metronome run amok. I’d barely opened the door when he flew out, sailing past me and landing in the yard with a superhero leap from the porch. He spun around to face me, bowed, and barked.
“I’m home early,” I said, as brightly as I could.
We walked inside and I shut the door behind me, but I didn’t get past the foyer before I sank down on the cool tile floor and started to cry. Grifter, alarmed, scurried over to lick my face. He’d seen me do this plenty of times, but crying on the floor was a new low—literally. I felt his soft little tongue move frantically from my forehead to my salty cheeks.
It’s nearly impossible to keep crying while a dog licks your face. Guilt sets in quickly: no one wants to freak their dog out. And that small part of my brain concerned with practical matters reminded me that dog saliva made my skin break out, and if I was going to any job interviews in the coming weeks, it might be to my advantage to not show up with a face full of zits.
I stopped and made myself sit up. There were more comfortable places to cry, anyhow. Like my bed. Bed sounded good. I went into the bathroom, turned on the water, and splashed my face. So it wasn’t the Pacific Ocean, but the cold water felt good—refreshing and oddly reassuring in a get-ahold-of-yourself-woman sort of way.
I was just about to take off my dress, and glancing longingly toward the tangle of my unmade bed, when the doorbell rang. On a messed-up day like today, that seemed like a bad omen. At best, it would be UPS, delivering something I shouldn’t have purchased.
My little Jack Russell faced the door in his fiercest guard-dog stance, feet braced, head low, teeth bared. Though I knew it was coming, at the sound of his sharp-edged terrier bark, I flinched. I got to my feet and crept to the peephole. A fish-eyed Florence gazed serenely back.
Reluctantly, I opened the door.
“Here,” she said with a little smile, and carefully handed me a lasagna.