In July of 2008, I lost my job. This was one month before my wedding (a fact I knew at the time), and two months before the stock market crash (an unknown variable). Within a few weeks my Washington Mutual bank branch would cease to exist, half my parents’ lifetime of 401K contributions would evaporate, and my neighborhood would become a desertscape of half-built townhomes and screaming FOR SALE – SHORT SALE! signs.
But at the time, in my boss’s office with the door shut and the HR director clutching my last paycheck, the devastation seemed markedly personal.
“We’re eliminating your position,” my boss told me. She seemed ill-prepared for me to break into uncontrollable, manic sobs. She didn’t understand—I wasn’t that girl, the one who got fired from anything. I was the lifetime overachiever, the class commencement speaker, the college honors queen. The only people I had seen get fired in my very short business world tenure, from my first high school intern gig in 2000 to this (now eliminated) Marketing Communications Manager position at age 23, were as follows: Sam, a guy caught jerking off to Internet porn five cubicles down from where I sat. Nancy, who decided coming into the office every day was an optional requirement. Angela, caught stealing company cell phones and selling them on eBay. If you weren’t a fraudulent, lazy sociopath, I had gathered, you weren’t going to be here—quarantined after lunch on a Friday afternoon and given a packing box.
The decision wasn’t personal, my boss assured me. Sales were down at the land line phone company, and my job was considered window dressing. Designing postcards mailers, picking out which pens to print our logo on. They could march on without the fluff. “And we won’t challenge your unemployment claims,” she added, as if this were some extra-special perk.
What I was in store for was nine months of joblessness, of feeling like I’d gotten lost in a tunnel with no light or end. Every day I would roll out of the empty bed—my husband mercifully kept his job through all of the Great Recession—and start my morning by combing through the Craigslist job postings. My expectations fell spectacularly, from hoping to snag another Marketing Manager position to begging for anyone to let me file their folders: Office Admin. Executive Assistant. Personal Secretary. The interviews, on the rare occasions I was called, consisted of corralling into a lobby with the twenty or so other people (90% of which were women) all trying to land the same $30,000 per year entry-level position. There were some women around my age, but most of them were in their forties, fifties, sixties; vastly overqualified to be playing this game again. The job requirements for such positions—Bachelor’s degree, 1-3 years of office environment experience, a friendly personality—seemed insulting to people with decades of work to their names. You could read frustration on every face. These women should have been in the home stretch before retirement, not dueling with this new batch of twenty-somethings to start over again.
And yet, I battled. I met with the HR directors and middle managers, and smiled the shit-fake smile of Miss America contestant teetering down a runway in a swimsuit and heels. I pretended to be super-excited about global networking synergy and contributing dynamic solutions to a team. I would think I’d nailed it, that I could go back to living a normal-person life of getting up and going to work every morning again. But my phone refused to ring, and the stock “we’ve hired someone else” email would pop up.
In the meantime, I tried to stay busy and contribute. I put out an ad on Craigslist and papered the dying neighborhood with flyers, offering to do personal chef work. I brought home a little cash this way, catering a dentist office grand opening and baking cheesecake for those hit less hard by the crisis. The next year I claimed these small victories on our household tax return, though it was not enough income to qualify as taxable. Looking at the photos from this era, I can see a physical change in myself. My shoulders begin to slouch into an eventual hunch. My hair grows stringy and uneven, like a cartoon crazy cat lady. For the first time in my life, my smile changes from a huge, gummy grin into a tight, tepid wince. There is a giant gap of not-me time, not even looking familiar. Desperation and uncertainty takes a toll, fast and harsh and physical.
Because I was eligible for unemployment benefits, my husband and I were able to keep our apartment. My $300 a week was the small save that kept us from losing our cars, from defaulting on our bills, from going hungry. The benefits were the fumes in our engine that kept us afloat for nearly a year, until I was back at a desk. Three years later, and we are back as the 53% of income tax-paying Americans. We own a small home. We were able to finance my grad school tuition (thank you, student loan programs). We shop at farmer’s markets and donate to disaster relief funds; all those nice little things a strong middle class can do. But we are still one asteroid of bad luck away from the brink—a plant closure, a bad stock forecast. One whim from corporate and we’re back in the tunnel. This is what I remember every second Friday, when I examine my payroll deductions. That tax was my safety net from the brink. Someday it could be the net for my husband, or neighbor, or sister, or mother. There’s only 3 percentage points between us givers and takers, after all.
Tabitha Blankenbiller is a recent MFA graduate from Pacific University living outside of Portland, Oregon. Her work has been featured in Owl Eye Review, Sliver of Stone and Brevity.