Ed. note: Welcome to the latest installment of “Notes from the Breadline,” a column by a laid-off lawyer in New York. Prior columns are collected here. You can reach Roxana St. Thomas by email (at firstname.lastname@example.org), follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook.
It is spring, but the weather has turned cold again. My short-lived job is over; my short-lived relationship is over. One flat, grey day follows another. I am beginning to wonder whether my career is over, too.
A few days after Elisa cuts us loose, Olivia finally returns the phone call I made to ask her whether she had another assignment for me. “Roxanna, hiiii,” she coos breathily. She sounds surprised to find me at home.
“I guess the project ended early,” she says, her voice dripping with faux sympathy. “Soooorrry.” I wonder if she has practiced using this tone to comfort children who have failed to make the spelling bee finals. Or puppies, I think, half-expecting her next words to be, “who’s a good girl? You are! Yes, you are!” But she switches gears seamlessly, her voice brightening. “Well,” she chirps, “it’s probably nice to put your feet up after all that hard work, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I hear myself say flatly. “I worked like … a dog.”
“Then you definitely need a little break!” she effuses, sounding relieved. “Did you have a good experience, though? The people over at the Big Law firm are just great, aren’t they?”
I hold the phone out from my ear, wondering whether the caller I.D. will identify Olivia’s location as Bizarro World. In Bizarro World, “great” and “insufferable bitch” must be interchangeable terms. “It was really interesting,” I tell her, trying to sound upbeat. “In fact, I don’t even need a break. I’m ready to get right back on the horse!”
“Ohhh,” she says, as though I have asked her to lend me money. She tells me that she may have another “potential” project coming up, and has some “really interesting and exciting possible opportunities” for contract work. There is silence while, I assume, she pretends to look for exciting possible opportunities on her computer. For all I know she is scrolling through Craigslist or Law.com. I have an urge to ask her whether my friend, the troll, has found an exciting possible opportunity. Finally, I tell her to take her time looking and call me if anything comes up.
I need to do some errands, but the task of showering and getting dressed suddenly seems insurmountable. But why bother with proper attire when you have a long down coat? I think, and put it on over the ratty t-shirt and sweatpants I’m wearing. I glance at my disheveled hair in the mirror and decide that God made hats for many reasons (only one of which is cold weather), and that he probably also made Crocs for the members of his flock who are too unmotivated to look for their shoes. My outfit complete, I strike out.
Follow my adventures, after the jump.
The day is sunny and bright despite the cold, and the people I see on the street are dressed in light jackets, as though their optimism will bring spring weather. I wish cantankerously for rain, or a sudden snowstorm — anything that will make it okay to lie down and sleep until I feel better, or the market changes, or lawyers become employable again. As I trudge to the bank, I notice that people are looking at me strangely and giving me a wide berth on the sidewalk. “What’s the matter?” I feel like snapping. “Does unemployment look too yucky?”
When I walk into the bank, two young employees are standing near the front door, looking ready to pounce. They are probably only slightly busier than I am. “Can I help you with something today?” one, a woman who looks to be about twenty, asks eagerly. I wave her off, wishing I was invisible. A moment later, I realize that I am; as soon as I have turned my back she resumes her conversation with the other employee, who is also young and freshly-scrubbed. He is asking her about college courses she is taking.
“I’m gonna go to law school when I finish?” she says blithely. “I think I want to do, like corporate law?” Like most people her age, every thought is articulated as a question.
“Oh, yeah,” he says enthusiastically. “You can make mad phat money doing corporate law. Where you wanna work?”
“Oh, I could work anywhere,” she says. “Maybe like, a big office or a company or some shit?”
I drop my pen and turn around. “Don’t do it!” I want to shout. I want to tell her that it is a pipe dream; that the idea that law school will ensure a lucrative job or a secure future is a fantasy, or pure bullshit. The girl catches my eye and looks at me expectantly, but before I can say anything I catch a glimpse of my reflection in a shiny window. It is forty-five degrees out, but I am dressed in the functional equivalent of a sleeping bag. I can feel myself sweating in the overheated bank. When I look down, I realize that one leg of my sweatpants is tucked into my sock. And I am wearing rubber shoes. In short, I look crazy.
Your best laid plans may lead you here, I want to tell her, to the verge of ranting at a stranger in the bank while dressed in your pajamas and winter coat. I decide to say nothing.
I trudge home, feeling unfit to circulate in the general population. My mood does not improve: in fact, over the next few days, it worsens. I try to keep myself busy, sending out resumes, applying for jobs online, calling recruiters to remind them that I am still here, still waiting, and still jobless. After one such conversation, the recruiter tells me that he will keep me in mind if anything comes in. “Please don’t forget about me,” I say, and am surprised by how plaintive I sound, and how little hope I feel.
One day, I get an e-mail from a solo practitioner who has seen my resume online and wants me to come in for an interview. I call him and schedule a meeting for the following day, feeling faintly optimistic. When I arrive at his office, which is in one of the old, ornate buildings near Grand Central, my spirits are buoyed by the momentary sense that I am part of the bustle of commerce. A gilded chandelier in the lobby hangs over polished marble floors, and when I get out of the elevator upstairs my footsteps are cushioned by thick, red carpet. It feels anachronistic, but vaguely comforting.
But when I arrive at the suite I have written down, a door opens on a shared office space that is distinctly less grand. In fact, it reminds me of the war room I recently occupied, and I half-expect Mr. Potato Head to pop out from behind a plant, trailing a string of sausages. I try to ignore the sinking feeling that creeps through me as I sit in the reception area, waiting.
While I wait, the feeling grows stronger. Or maybe it just grows, like tumors do if given time and left unattended. Ten minutes pass, then twenty, then thirty. My irritation blossoms, and I find myself thinking that, if I were the Incredible Hulk, this inconvenience would push me over the edge. I picture my suit straining and bursting at the seams, and imagine a monstrous green version of myself storming through the wall and into the tardy lawyer’s office, leaving a Roxana-shaped hole in the Sheetrock. Then I would pick him up and toss him like a boomerang, bellowing, “Roxana MAD!! Lawyer no keep Roxana waiting!!”
Instead, I remain human. When the lawyer, a thin, cadaverous man who looks as though he escaped from the wax museum, comes out to fetch me, I quickly determine that I probably could toss him through the window, even without superhuman strength. He extends a limp hand and introduces himself as Asa, a name I have always associated with donkeys.
Once I am seated across from his desk, he tells me that he is looking for one associate to assist him in his solo practice. He takes out my resume and begins to pore over it. Silence descends. Minutes tick by. He tells me that he handles a lot of regulatory matters for shipping companies. Have I ever worked on such matters? No, I answer, not specifically. How about admiralty? No again. Well, he says, as though trying another tack, he also does some T&E work. Still nothing, I feel like saying. Between questions he scrutinizes my resume – probably, I suspect, trying to remember why he called me in for this interview. I think about how sometimes, when people are shopping, they try on clothes that they would never actually buy. I wonder if Asa is mentally twirling before the mirror before he decides to put me back on the rack. Maybe I make his ass look fat.
As Asa studies my resume, I stare out the window. Stay focused, I repeat silently, even as I feel myself drifting off. The sky is dark and ominous, and it looks as though it will pour any minute. I’m so sick of this shit, I think wearily. I’m sick of interminable waits in reception areas, and of sitting across from people like Asa. I’m sick of these meaningless interviews, and the cycle of hope and disappointment. I’m sick of working to maintain the illusion that my professional experience amounts to anything. I’m sick of asking for something I probably don’t want, and sick of being turned down when I do. I can see people scurrying into Grand Central, and I have an urge to escape, to go as far as I get can get from this miserable office.
Asa interrupts my reverie to ask if I have any questions. “No,” I say, smiling. I tell him that it has been a pleasure to meet him, and offer to show myself out.
By the time I get to the lobby, it is pouring. Two older men, one of whom is beautifully attired in a three-piece suit complete with a pocket watch, have just come in and are shaking themselves off like ducks. “Wait!” he says. “Don’t go out there, dear! You’ll get soaked.” He holds out his umbrella. “Take this. You can give it back to me another time. I’ll give you my card.” His kindness catches me off guard.
“That’s okay,” I tell him. “I won’t be coming back.” I walk out into the rain, and, within seconds, I am drenched. A clump of construction workers, hovered under an awning, whoops as I walk by, applauding. “Roxana no like being objectified!!” I picture my Hulk doppelganger yelling, tossing them aside like paper dolls. But I don’t care. I go home, peel off my wet clothes, and crawl into bed.
A few days later, my friend T.J. invites me over to his house. He knows that I love the TV show 30 Rock, and he has two seasons of it on DVD. As we watch, my mood lightens; I’m happy for human company — which I have been avoiding — and it feels good to laugh. Then we get to an episode in which the Tina Fey character, Liz Lemon, has a fight with her friend Jenna. In true sitcom fashion, they make up in the last scenes of the show. Although there is nothing serious about it, I feel an inexplicable lump rising in my throat. Moments later, tears are rolling down my face. T.J. is laughing too hard to notice at first, and by the time he does, I am crying too hard to catch my breath. “Are you crying?” he asks incredulously, with the stricken look of a man confronted with a tearful woman.
“I … don’t … know … what’s … the … matter … with … me,” I gulp between sobs. “I feel like I’m in a rut, and I don’t know how to get out.” I wipe my nose on my sleeve, feeling as though I am in first grade, and try to explain, but I am crying too hard. Each sentence I begin devolves into snot-choked gasping. “I don’t know if things are ever going to get better,” I wail, starting to hiccup. A wave of exhaustion washes over me. “I’m just … so … tired,” I say, between hiccups. I am tired; I haven’t been sleeping well, and it is finally catching up with me. But more than that, I am tired of living this way; tired of unrelenting fear, rejection, and grinding uncertainty.
“Aw, Roxie,” T.J. says, mopping my face clumsily with a sheaf of paper towels. “You’re depressed. Just remember: there are no accidents. We’re all leaves floating down a stream. Everything will be okay, since the stream always ends up in the same place.” He looks at me expectantly, as though anticipating the voices of the Bavarian Women’s Choir to soar, cueing enlightenment.
“I have no idea what the means,” I finally say. “I might be too tired for an epiphany.”
T.J.’s roommate is not home, so I lie down in his bed and close my eyes. I start thinking about the downhill rock. On the route I run with my girlfriends, there is a long, merciless uphill section, which can feel endless. You make the interminable slog, wondering whether you have the energy to keep running. But, eventually, when you see the rock, you know that the hill is over. The run itself is far from done; there are still several miles to go once you pass it. With the knowledge that the steepest part is behind you, however, they fly by. And, sometimes, just knowing that the downhill rock isn’t much further makes the hill that much easier to run up.
Where is the downhill rock in this situation? I wonder. If only I had some sense that things would get easier, I could keep running up this hill, fighting to breathe. If only I had some sense that there was a downhill rock … maybe I wouldn’t be so incredibly tired.
I close my eyes, waiting for the last few hiccups to pass. T.J. comes in and turns off the light. “Go to bed, Roxie,” I hear him say. “I’ll check on you in a little while.” I nod gratefully. Within moments, I am asleep.
Roxana St. Thomas is a laid-off lawyer living in New York. You can reach her by email (at email@example.com), follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook.
Earlier: Prior installments of Notes from the Breadline