The week after it happens, I avoid the restaurant like it’s my job.
(This is a pun, because this is a story about being fired from a job).
The thing nobody ever told me about being fired — in those talks, the coming of age “getting fired talks” that nobody ever has, ever — was that it feels exactly like being dumped. And maybe that has never happened to me, but I’m sure it will. It’s good to be prepared.
Maybe sometimes you see it coming, but I didn’t see an impending end to this particular relationship. I’m attracted to waitressing, in a sort of dysfunctional way. I like flirting with people, in a very broad, professional way that involves babies, that one man’s golden retriever, the elderly chef that likes PBRs and the couples who are obviously on casual OkCupid dates. I think serving food to people is important, because we all like to eat. I think folding silverware is an art, and when I leave a shift I’d rather my napkins look like Rembrandt’s than Picasso’s, thank you very much. I even sometimes liked the cinematic football moments flashing patriotically across the screen on Monday nights.
Although, some nights when the restaurant was empty and I was behind the bar, I changed it to a different show.
“What the hell is this?” my boss came in one night and demanded.
“Antiques Roadshow. She’s about to find out how much that cabinet is worth. I’m guessing over 5,000 but under 8,000. What do you think?”
He doesn’t say anything and changes it back — for all the invisible guests — to football. I guess that should have been a warning sign.
“I’ll write it on the chalkboard sign outside: “$2.50 PBR night and Antiques Roadshow!” I volunteer. “I really think people will come. It’s a great drinking game.”
But, like all foresight of good relationships coming to an end, I didn’t. The role felt natural: speed-bike after my classics class, sprint in, hang my backpack up, apron on, write something on the chalkboard and then rewrite it eight times because the p in the open sign is unenthusiastic and the g in burger always looks overweight. I’d never been let go from a job, so I didn’t ever think it would happen. And I’m not saying it’s the worst thing in the world, because it’s not. But it’s also really not the best thing. Especially when you’re already having a sad few months and, egged on by political debates that use you, the upcoming graduate, as token example of Someone Who Just Will Never Find a Job In This Economy, Isn’t That Right Mr. Obama, you begin to question your ability to survive in the wild. There are wolves out there.
But, the night I went to the dystopian cello performance, I realized I was about to get fired. I listened to a work voicemail a few minutes before the curtain rose, and the ominous words (“I was wondering if you could come in for a quick chat”) allowed my imagination to spiral down un-logical mires for the next 90 minutes. First: you are going to get fired. Second: if you can’t even serve food, then what are you capable of? Third: nothing. The lights went out in the performance hall.
It was a strange concert, all told: dancers in military jackets writhing behind a gauzy curtain while the cellist bore down (vindictively, beautifully) on her instrument. Lost in a different dystopian future of self-deprecating thoughts, I had no idea what was going on. But every so often the lights would brim up and you could look around and see the way people’s faces really are, when fully absorbed in a performance and unaware other people are watching. And that, honestly, is the best part of any performance: peeking at people’s eyes when they are dilated and wondrous; the separate, communal expressions.
But even the audience’s softened faces couldn’t occlude the downward spiral: you, child of parents that teach you to show up on time and use smiles as punctuation marks, you are about to lose a job and the possibility of rent next month. Loser! Later that night, I cried in a different restaurant bathroom and emerged with giant red splotches beneath my eye, as if bees had suddenly flown into the bathroom and stung me. Two things to check off a life list: weeping in a public bathroom and getting fired.
I went into work the next day.
“I just don’t think this relationship is working out.” She, the other boss, began. I stared hard at the plant in the middle of the table. It needed watering.
“You’re great at details,” she continued. “But sometimes, your great attention to details means that you miss things.”
I’d heard about this part in break-ups: the significant other begins talking in unrelated Rubik’s cube-sentences that begin with great and end with but. On the bike ride over, I’d been practicing spunky come-backs, reciting things that people say in sitcoms when they get dumped. Coasting down past all the yellow sororities, it had seemed simple. So I pulled out my best retort.
“You’re great with customers. Your personal personality is great.”
“Oh.” I said, again. “Ooookay. This has never happened to me.”
“I really like you. I just really think this is going to be good for you, like, a time to do great things.” She said, and I could tell that she was concentrating hard on the plant too. It’s true. It really is a weird green.
There was no further explanation: no complaints lodged, no late clock-ins, no way to quilt-together a way for this failure to not ever happen again, ever.
I walked my bike home. I mourned gossiping with the kitchen staff. I mourned reading horoscopes with the kind bartender and his litany of extended smoke breaks (“You have a secret wife out back in the refrigerator, like in Jane Eyre, don’t you?” “That’s right. And you’re the governess.”) and the checkered floors and the free fries and the grad students. It is impossible to not get attached to these small slices of life. It is impossible to not feel rejected when you lose them. It is impossible to not feel, at least for a few days, like the shabbiest human on earth.
It is also very hard, when you get fired, to recall the unpleasant facts of a job (there are customers that Are Dicks, you do get yelled at, tips are routinely a losing game of Russian roulette) and not just soak in diner nostalgia.
“But it’s alright,” I told my housemates. “This is like, a coming of age thing.”
“Your personal personality is great.” they replied sympathetically.
I winced at the restaurant name. I took alternate routes to get to campus. I avoided cheese fries. I wanted — like that same, ambiguous girl in a sitcom — to say funny things like “I’m going to hang out with my two best friends, Ben and Jerry.” and have a quick rebound. But instead, I just sat on the porch swing eating Halloween candy and feeling worthless. It is amazing, sometimes, to discover how shallow your filter for life is; how easily penetrable the things you find value in are. Like waiting tables. I didn’t feel angry, I just felt confused about something I never even realized I had placed fulfillment in.
It would be obtuse to say that’s the end of things. Because, Week 3, and I land two other jobs and rally at the prospect of new, non-bouncing rent checks. I become, in other parts of town, not Waitress, but Fungal Lab Assistant Number II and Hostess II… which isn’t like the peppy ending of a sports movie, because those are still very humbling positions. And I don’t want to either label mushroom specimens from the 1950s for a living or escort people to their tables for the rest of my life. And I won’t, I don’t think. Getting fired (or getting dumped or failing a test or a day or a year) is not the sum total of personal worth. Really, it’s not.
It’s also obtuse to say that rejection is a one-time coming of age thing.
We will get our hearts broken again by different circumstances — by jobs, by rejections, by Thanksgiving dinners, by lovers — but planets continue to orbit the sun, buses continue to run and Felix jumps from space. The crux we place on failure is, after all, often self-imposed.
I really hope that I’ll stumble onto an Antiques Roadshow night at a bar, someday. I really do.