By Rae Pagliarulo
Lauren smiled a little from behind her half-moon desk, running her hands over my resume, my writing samples, and my list of references. We had spent the last hour going over everything I could have wanted to know about a job—work/life balance, office culture, and maybe most importantly, at least in the nonprofit world, a compelling mission. If I was going to commit to raising money for a living, I wanted it to be for something I believed in myself. People can smell a snake oil salesman a mile away. This was a place I could really get behind, though. The director seemed like the kind of woman who wanted to see other women succeed; the kind of boss who understood that her successes were her team’s successes. I was slowly falling in love with the idea of being employed here. “So, don’t feel like you have to answer, but … what exactly happened with your last job?” She rested her eyes on the gap in my work history, then brought them up to meet mine.
I smiled and measured the words building in my throat. Which ones to let out, and which to leave out? I had to be careful, diplomatic, but, above all, honest.
Almost one year before, at noon on a beautiful, bright spring Wednesday, I was called into the office of Greta, the headstrong, no-nonsense director who reviewed my grant proposal drafts and splattered them with Xs and question marks. My supervisor Jill, who reported to Greta, followed close behind and shut the door to the office as I sat down at the cheap beige particleboard table. At that point, I had been working at the small but venerable arts organization for less than two months, still getting my bearings, trying to decipher the acronyms, and laughing my way past the unrecognizable names that were dropped at my feet. Oh, did I see Smith Von Lichtenstein’s new one-man show that was staged in a refrigerated meat truck under the Ben Franklin Bridge? Totally. I was out of my depth, a fish on a bicycle, but I was employed. I had worked at far worse jobs for far less money. At least here, I had a desk to sit at and regular bathroom breaks.
“What’s up, ladies?” I had no immediate reason to be worried. Sure, things hadn’t been going great—the jump from my long-term, albeit limiting position at a very large nonprofit to a higher position at this more modest organization had been anything but smooth. I had decided to leave my first real job after almost four years acting as everyone’s de facto assistant. It was a great place to work in that it was a resume-builder, but in actuality, I was sick of fetching coffee, submitting invoices, and collating binders full of information for the people doing the real work. I hugged my coworkers, who had become like family, packed up my note cards and photos and figurines, and did what you do when there’s nothing more to do. I left.
My new colleagues, mostly arts administration lifers, possessed the welcoming spirit of ice sculptures, and all the original writing I submitted—the crux of my job responsibility, in fact—was struck through with red pen, condemned for being “inconsistent with the organizational language.” My co-workers ate lunch at trendy restaurants without me and exchanged gossip just outside my door; several mornings, I entered the tiny, badly lit office I awkwardly shared with Jill, only to find her perched at the edge of her swivel chair and ready to ask me if I had “a moment to chat.” (This, for those who may not know, is nonprofit-ese for “You’ve done something stupid, and I’m trying to find the nicest way possible to tell you to stop.”)
Even my interest in musicals—which, at my culture-less high school had been deemed an obsession—paled in comparison to the show tune–whistlers that one-upped each other on obscure Tony Awards trivia and prattled off Bernadette Peters’s roles in alphabetical order for fun. That I was consistently missing the mark was no mystery to anybody. But it takes a while to adjust to a new place, my friends kept saying. Just stay the course and trust your instincts. I remembered the fights I’d have with my parents every time I left another thankless retail job in my early twenties. Impetuous, impatient, flighty, they called me. Can’t stay in one place for long, they said. Make up your mind, they chastised. I wasn’t ready to quit this one yet. I hated it, but not as much as I hated disappointing people I loved.
“Rae,” Greta sighed, “I think we all know this hasn’t really been working out, on both sides. You and Jill have spoken a few times about this, right?”
“…Right.” I pursed my lips, afraid to say anything that might incriminate me. My gut started to drop, and I could feel my pulse in my throat. Could they see the vein in my neck, I wondered?
“We’ve discussed it, and, well … we think it’s best if you leave.” Oh, God. No no no. “We’re happy to issue you a severance, and we’ll plead no contest to unemployment compensation.” Unemployment? Wait, did she say I’m unemployed? “Now, why don’t you head back to your office and pack your things, hmm? Jill will walk you out.”
My ears filled with a fuzzy static. My eyes locked in on her mouth as the words dripped out, in slow motion. I couldn’t even hear myself ask her, Now? I only knew that I had finally spoken out loud when she said to me, straight faced, “Yes. Now.”
The next few moments merged into a nightmare montage. Did I pack my lamp and my photos before or after I landed on a bench outside, crying into the afternoon sun? Who did I call first, my mother or my roommate? Why did Jill place her hand on my back as she led me outside, as though I might spin around and strike her? Did she secretly like me—did she feel bad? Did I cry on the train? Why was that damn sun so bright?
Like a tiny ten-car pileup, everything after that happened so fast. What felt like only minutes later, I was in bed with my laptop, Googling unemployment forms and blubbering. And then my new routine began: Collect paltry benefit checks. Go out drinking with girlfriends. E-mail every contact I have to ask for part-time work. Obsessively check job boards. Work shifts at the coffee shop for tips and free sandwiches. Continue drinking with girlfriends. Send out resumes. Send out resumes. Send out resumes.
The interviews and phone calls came easy enough—but so did the rejections. Everyone was so sorry. They wanted me to know how nice it was to meet me, how very qualified—even overly so—I was for the position that they had so easily given to someone else. A few times, I even made it to the second or third round of interviews, meeting with more and more people, answering harder and harder questions. I found myself heartily defending my commitment to nonprofit fundraising, a line of work just a few years prior I hadn’t even known existed.
Pulling myself up out of bed got harder and harder, the weight growing on me with every month. I started writing little Post-It note reminders to myself and sticking them all over the place—voices that would speak back to me as I went about my day. On my way down the stairs: LIFE IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU’RE BUSY MAKING OTHER PLANS! As I brushed my teeth in the bathroom mirror: NOTHING IS PERMANENT, EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE! Inside the kitchen cabinet where I kept the cereal: DON’T KILL YOURSELF TODAY! MOM WILL NEVER RECOVER! I was constantly convincing myself to keep going, to turn the other cheek while the struck one throbbed hot. But at the bottom of my relentless interviewing, my hopeful monologues, the peppy Post-Its, I was so angry.
I was angry with myself for turning my back on predictability, security, and professional boredom, for the moving target of bigger, of better, of more challenging or meaningful or true. I was angry at every employer in Philadelphia for emailing me back, chatting with me jauntily over the phone, inviting me into their offices, smiling as I answered questions in their conference rooms—telling me not this time, not this job. I was even angry at Greta and Jill—even though I would have quit that stupid job, had they given me a chance to secure a landing pad—for not giving me a heads up, not even an hour or two to get used to the idea that by lunchtime, I’d be made redundant, totally afloat, rationing out the handful of change I had to my name.
Someone once told me that the best thing about your thirties is “productive anger.” When you’re younger and something devastates you, destruction is the next logical step: you rage, get drunk, leave livid voicemail messages for people who don’t deserve them. You want everyone else to hurt as much as you do. But once I realized that a couple of months of consistently unrewarded effort were closing in on half a year, “productive anger” was sorely needed. The ugly, unrelenting fire in my gut pushed me right out to the door and to the big conglomerate gym a mile away. I convinced my mom to front me the ten-dollar-a-month fee, and I spent almost every morning chugging away on elliptical machines, perfecting yoga poses I had forgotten, and pushing increasingly heavier weights away from me, above me, and behind me. I turned the Beyoncé and Biggie Smalls and Girl Talk in my headphones up loud and locked my eyes on Fox and Friends, Maury Povich, the Rachael Ray Show. Every ounce that fell from my frame made me feel a little less keyed up. I could feel myself getting lighter.
My creativity even benefited from this burst of usefulness. I enrolled in a couple of writing classes, held at community writing centers in neighborhoods that I’d hardly visited. The change of scenery was stimulating—suddenly the inertia and boredom lifted, and I couldn’t stop writing. Every story I submitted for workshop vibrated off the page, each word having landed there after fighting its way through my clenched teeth. But my jaw slowly loosened, and the little wrinkle between my eyebrows smoothed itself every time I sat with those people—the nurse, the retired schoolteacher, the émigré cook with a bum hip—and let my focus drift away from the pile of resumes, the dwindling money, the mind-numbing tedium.
The more anger I fed into my pursuits, the less there was to draw from. The pool of it got more and more shallow until my fingernails dragged along the floor, finding only the sediment, the good stuff, the concentrated trust in myself that was left behind. I could see that I had almost drowned trying to get down there, but once I did, I found what I was truly made of—what kind of person I was in the face of ruin.
“So … your last job?” I cleared my throat, brushed the hair from my forehead, and smiled at Lauren knowingly.
“You know, sometimes things just don’t work out the way you think they will. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity they gave me, but the culture, the people … I knew I belonged somewhere more collaborative, more supportive. And I’ll be honest—this summer was hard… more than half a year without consistent employment really does a number on a girl, you know?”
She laughed, nodded slowly. “Oh, I know. Trust me. I really, really know.” We smirked at each other like two friends with an inside joke. “And collaboration, support? I totally get it. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t run an organization that believed in those two things. So don’t worry. I think you’re in the right place.”
I felt hyper-charged and tranquil all at the same time. I didn’t know whether to do cartwheels or cry uncontrollably. Maybe later, once I knew something official, I’d do both. But in this moment, in this room with Lauren, after an hour of talking and laughing, after the longest year of my life was almost safely behind me, all I could manage was, “Yeah … I think I’m in the right place, too.”
All names have been changed except Rae’s. —ed.
RAE PAGLIARULO is an MFA Creative Writing Candidate at Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Daedalus: A Magazine of the Arts, Full Grown People, Ghost Town Literary Magazine, and Philadelphia Stories, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is also the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. She works and lives in Philadelphia.