I’m trying to remember; when did I know my life was about to flip upside down?
The letter that came down from corporate that morning was, sadly, just like many others that had come down the pike before it. Newspaper ad sales slipping. Revenue falling. Hate to do it, but there’s going to be layoffs. And if you have any questions, please feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There’d been more letters like that in the past three years than anyone cared to count. Our newsroom, which had something like 24 reporters when I had started eight years ago, now had eight. The Living section had been gutted. The copy desk was on the verge of being shipped out to some center in another state, cutting even more jobs from a newsroom that was now so empty it had easily twice as many chairs as people. People used to fight over the good chairs in that room. Now, you could have two or even three of them to yourself. They were crap, of course, falling apart and stained, but you could have them.
But this email. It was greeted with the usual round of groans and gallows humor. It’s how we’d always greeted doom. There was a sense in pride in having the darkest humor in the room. The axe was going to fall on some of us, but on how many? We’d heard it all before, but this time, for some reason, I heard it differently.
I must have known something. I took a look at the files on my computer desktop and copied the ones I wanted to keep onto an email that I sent to myself. At lunch, I went down to the post office and mailed off, finally, the paperwork needed to get my therapist limited license. I’d graduated a month earlier, but a cancer scare (benign, thank god) got between me and sending out the application. Now, with this email, today – I knew it was time to get it done.
But I didn’t really know, of course, until my editor put his hand on his shoulder shortly after 5 p.m. and leaned in to me. “Dickey wants to see us.” That wasn’t right. In the six years he’d been there, I don’t think my editor had touched me. Ever. And while we’d been hauled off to the executive editor’s corner office before, it was never announced in a hushed tone.
I pretended not to notice eyes watching us make the march of shame, but I could feel them. An editorial assistant caught my eye; I gave a helpless shrug. When I entered the office before my editor, who quietly closed the door behind him, there was no more guessing.
I took a seat and a breath. Dickey turned around in his chair. The death was swift and clean. There was no hemming and hawing, no dancing around it. Just a simple, “we’re eliminating your job.” I don’t remember what other words there were, because frankly, they didn’t matter. I let them wash over me and dumbly nodded my head at the appropriate times.
“Do you have any questions?” Both he and my editor stared at me, waiting for me to do something.
I was looking over Dickey’s bald dome and out the window, where a warm afternoon sun was starting to cast the world in golden hues and where life was still going on like my world hadn’t just collapsed. The American flag was fluttering in the wind. Cars were ferrying state workers back home, where there would still be time to barbeque or kick back a cocktail on the deck before night set in.
I shrugged again. “It’s summer,” I observed, as though that meant anything.
“You’re taking this better than I would,” Dickey said.
If I had known then that this was not going to be the only bomb to fall in my lap that day, maybe I wouldn’t have taken it so well. Maybe I would have cried, yelled, made a fuss. I heard that someone else who was laid off that day at a different newspaper took a shit in the publisher’s bathroom. Wish I had thought of that, because soon a place to shit and take a piss was going to be hard to come by. But more on that later.
At that moment, all I could think to do was to shrug again. What else was there to do?
Nothing, but follow my editor down the stairs to the human resources department. I knew that dozens of gawking and greedy eyes had watched us make the trip, and I knew the rumors would now be flying. Journalists. Nosiest bunch of bastards around, except maybe for teachers. Journalists. I used to be one.
“How long did you know?” I asked him.
He looked tired. Fed up. “Trust me, I didn’t,” he said. “I only found out when they told me I was being moved to assistant metro editor and getting a pay cut.”
In that moment, I felt worse for him than for me. I knew this meant that he would be expected to be subordinate to the lumbering hulk of a mouth-breather that had been dressed up to look like a metro editor. This was fundamentally unfair, stupid and insulting. My editor was, by far, the brains of this outfit.
He knocked on the door of the human resources director, who opened it a crack and whispered, “I’m on a phone call. Sorry, I’ll be off in a moment.”
Really? Really. My world had just gone to hell and I had to wait for her now. But I just shrugged again, because what else was there to do? My editor offered to wait with me, but I told him to go. “It won’t matter if you’re here or there,” I noted. And so I sat there with a mind full of swirling thoughts and waited alone.
Ten minutes later and the HR director managed to squeeze me into her busy schedule. The long and short of it: eight weeks severance pay and eight weeks of continued benefits at my current deduction rate. And I can call her whenever I have questions. Maybe she can make someone else wait outside her door when she is on the phone with me.
At some point I started tearing up – finally – and she reached for the box of Kleenex that had strategically been at the ready. I waved it away. “No,” I said. “I’m not.” Because I knew if I started that now, there would be no stopping, and the hardest part wasn’t over yet.
Back to my desk. That was the hardest part. The editorial assistant I had walked past in what seemed like a lifetime ago – a friend – threw her arms around me and gave me a hug. I wasn’t going to cry. “It creates some problems,” I said. “It solves some other ones.”
Stoic. Let me be stoic. Just a little while longer.
Back at my desk, everyone was looking at me with pitying eyes. This must be what it’s like to have people gathered around your deathbed, I thought. This is why some rather die alone.
“Don’t,” I warned my coworker as she started to look weepy. “Don’t you even start. Don’t look at me. Turn around if you’re going to do that.”
It’s not that I wanted to be a bitch. I even tried to find dark humor in it all. There wasn’t much to be found, granted. “The stapler’s good,” I said. “The chair’s a nice one. You might want it.” The final disposition of my goods. The last will and testament of a deceased career. A shuffle of papers. “I’m just going on to a better place. My suffering is over.” No. I would not cry. “Good riddance to this goddamned computer network.”
The people I’d worked with the longest wanted to talk or hug. God, how did I keep it together? But I did.
“It could be worse,” I told them. Truthfully, I wasn’t actually sure how it could be worse, but I would soon find out.
Finally, it was time to go. What a strange feeling, walking through the parking lot one last time. No, I will not cry. I won’t.
Life was going on. I had things to do. I volunteer at a crisis center and it had been my turn to be on call. I had to hand over the pager to the next on-call volunteer. Somehow, I managed to keep my appointment for that. Joel, our center coordinator, who had been in touch with me earlier that day on Facebook and knew about the corporate email, looked at me questioningly. I dragged my thumbnail across my throat, mafia style. Bumped off. Iced. Knocked off . Control yourself. Don’t start yet. Not now.
Then there was Killian to pick up. She was taking classes at the community college and was in the computer lab. Normally, I sent her an instant message when I was ready to leave work and get her. I hadn’t done that today. Not just because I got locked out of Gannett’s computer network forever at 6 p.m., but because there are just some things you don’t announce by email. She didn’t know yet. In her world, everything was still fine.
So I parked the car and found my way to her classroom. I had to remind myself to be deadpan. I had to force my chin to lift and my face to be impassive. Why? Because if I didn’t, if I didn’t…
But here was Killian’s computer lab. I walked in. She was sitting where she had been the only other time I had seen her there. She looked up, surprised. “Why are you…”
I don’t know what sort of face I made then, some sort of mutant half-grimace half-smile. My head shook. There were no words. Now, finally. Now I could fall apart. Just a little.
I first held my breath as long as I could, because if I didn’t breathe it didn’t hurt as much. And when I could no longer hold my breath, I tried to let it out and breathe back in as quietly as I could, but the air moved through me in jagged gasps. I collapsed into a chair. There was nothing to say.
Killian packed up. As we left the room the tears came in such a torrent that one of my contact lenses flooded out of my eye. It would be quite the day for flooding.
I don’t remember much of the drive home. I know my mind was working in rapid-fire thoughts, but I couldn’t hold on to a one of them. Fear. It was mostly fear. Fear of how to make the house payment. Fear of telling my family. Fear of never finding work again. All-consuming fear. Fear interspersed, blessedly, with moments of numbness. And then more fear.
At home, she took me to bed and lay me down. I stared at the ceiling a while until I realized there would be no sleep. I got up and decided to phone my parents.
As usual, my mother sniffed out tragedy just from the way I said hello.
“What is it?”
“I lost my job today. Laid off.”
And then I cried. Hard. I can’t remember what was said, but it was all good. My parents love me in a way that I’ve never deserved but for which I am immensely grateful. And I have Killian. Killian, who loves me with an intensity that makes no sense, but without whom I would have been utterly lost in this moment. She is a true friend, the best one I have ever had and will likely ever have. I have them. And that’s a lot.
It was about that time, after hanging up the phone with my mom and dad, that I heard the furnace blower acting strangely. It was turning on and off, on and off. It had done that once before, when the thermostat needed replacing. I went to check it but it looked normal.
“When was the last time we replaced the filter?” Killian asked.
Normal tasks at such an abnormal time. I headed down the stairs to the basement to have a look.
That’s when bomb number two went off.
“Kill? There’s water in the basement.”
“I mean, two or three inches of it.”
As though my day hadn’t been surreal enough, there was now a wading pool in my basement. Things that could float were doing that. A body pillow. A plastic bowl. Everything else sat submerged in ice cold water.
I dipped a toe in, expecting to be zapped by an angry electrical current. Because why not? But there was none. We waded through the lake past the mattress set now soaking up the deluge, into the furnace room where the home’s heating center now had its own cooling pond, up the two steps to the back of the basement, the ancient part of the home, toward the dirt crawl space. And that’s where I heard it. A waterfall that had not before existed in our basement.
Because why the fuck not, right?
We had a home warranty, and I called them. They said they’d have someone call us. Two hours later when no one called, they said to go ahead and get someone out immediately. We did.
“You see here,” the plumber said, shining a light toward the bottom of the basement wall. “It’s coming in here, from outside. There’s nothing I can do for it, not in the middle of the night. You’ll need to call the city.”
Which I did, around 1 a.m. The city guy came out and looked things over. He turned off the water feed at the sidewalk and the leak stopped.
“That means the problem is between our water stop and your house,” he said. “That means it’s on you to fix it.”
Whatever stoicism I had mustered earlier that day was now gone, depleted, used up. I had lost my job. My basement was now a wading pool. The water to my home was shut off. And now I faced a repair that would cost several thousand dollars.
I wept. No two ways about it, I just stood there and wept.
He looked confused.
“Are you going to be OK?”
“No.” Wasn’t that obvious? “I was laid off today.”
I turned away from him and sobbed. Killian took over because I couldn’t carry on. He took her outside and showed her something, while I just stood there and cried and cried. It was too much. I couldn’t handle it. I just /couldn’t/.
I wandered off to bed, broken, defeated. Killian joined me. I don’t think we said much, because even with all the things that had just happened, there still wasn’t much to say. I wished to fall asleep and not wake up. My old, familiar thoughts, returning to me a like a long, lost friend. I’d had enough.
I’d woken up that morning and taken a shower without thinking about it. Brushed my teeth and flushed the toilet without a second thought. I drove in to town and went to my job, because I had a job to go to. It was a job I hated, but it was mine, and having it made me somebody and let me know that I would be able to pay my bills in the coming month.
Now I lay in bed in a house that had become unlivable, no job to go to and not even a tap I could turn on to wash the tears off my face. In the old days, they might say I didn’t have a pot to piss in. At least I had pots, and I might soon need to piss in them. If I hadn’t been hoping to fall asleep and never wake up, I might have even laughed.