It was cold and gray, with clouds stretching horizon to horizon. I was driving through town waiting for the sky to open and pour down gray sooty snow. The pavement and buildings were gray too, and every third or fourth building was empty. I didn’t need any of that to remind me that it was December, that I had spent 18 months unemployed or embarrassingly employed.
Under all those cold gray clouds, an old man stood, alone, waiting for the bus. His clothing was thin and the bag in his hand sagged like his shoulders, like his head. I drove by and I watched him in the rearview mirror. I had to watch because eyes are attracted to sadness. Then he was gone and I didn’t need to think about him – didn’t need to question how long I could live in my mother’s house, where my life was going, if I would end up out in the cold, hunch-backed and poor.
Eighteen months ago, I was just the run of the mill graduate of the first or second best business school in the U.S. Eighteen months later I am special because I’m the only one of those graduates unemployed. Sometimes, as a joke, I call myself the One Percent; but this One Percent suffers so everyone else can enjoy success. After all, someone has to be the bottom wrung to make the rest of the ladder look good. Forget about me. I was already in the water when the tide started to go out.
Nights are spent at home, TV droning, glasses of water and ibuprofen, empty bottles of beer accumulating. Going out had become a minefield of awkward questions. Questions too awkward to continue answering.
“Hey,” they’d say. “How are you?”
“I’m great. What are you up to these days?” Then I’d realize the error. Then I’d realize –
“Well I’m working for…” And I wouldn’t even be listening. I’d just be waiting for him to stop talking, waiting for him to ask his question, formulating the least embarrassing things to say.
“Yeah. I’m working on a web series. We’re not very good right now but we keep getting better, so you know…Yeah, I’ll send you something, but I’m going to wait until our next video comes out because we keep improving so much, you know… it’s – it’s, you know…”
“Yeah, definitely. What else is new?”
“Well I also work with the developmentally disabled.”
“That must be nice.”
“One of my clients is on suicide alert.”
“So what’s the web-series about?”
I admit there are times when I think – or to be completely honest, times when I fantasize – about the gas station owner in Poughkeepsie who blew a shotgun into someone’s chest and then hacked the head off the body. The police didn’t press any charges because the man was trying to rob him. I guess they thought his actions were understandable. If I could find whoever did this to me, find the personification of the forces that left me well educated, talented, energetic, directionless and poor, I would do what the gas station owner did. Except, I would hack the head off first. That seems like it would be more satisfying. They would write about me in newspapers and probably on reddit but no one would understand. It wouldn’t matter, they could press charges and it would still be worth it.
I could live with the questions and with the embarrassment. It’s the waiting, the hope, the dreams that get me. Because I am dreaming again. For years it was nothing but black. Now it is extensive swathes of Charlottesville and the paths I used to walk in England. The dreams are becoming obsessive, surreal. Charlottesville includes this palatial Egyptian style art museum. You should see it – it’s beautiful. The entrance is filled with stone-figure columns 30 feet high, supporting this cavernous ceiling decorated in the light green, yellow, pink and orange familiar to Ancient Egypt – you see I know these things, I understand these tropes, hire me.
Is it any surprise that I can’t wake up in the morning? Nine or ten hours dreaming in bright colors, then suddenly off-white walls, old yellowed-white carpet, and rolling clouds through the window. Wait didn’t you do this to yourself? No, no, no nonono. Yes you did. You turned down a job. No, I turned down another interview. They told you it was a formality. I…I thought at the time a different offer was coming.
The repetitiveness of the dreams, the obsession, fills me with this compulsion to go back, to prove to myself that it wasn’t that great, that nothing was ever that great. I have come to know what it is like to need to burn down the colors of the past and to embrace the gray of the future. I know what it’s like to drown slowly.