The Art of Holding Back

office

Photo Credit: Craig Garner

Looking back, I’m not sure why I was so nervous. Maybe it’s because it was my first “real” job after rehab and the wounds of alcoholism were still too raw, my self-image tender and peeling. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t worked at an office in three years, since getting laid off right before the recession. Maybe it was being one of two women in a roomful of construction men who bandied about casual insults like they were NERF balls.

In any case, I was the low woman on the totem pole and grateful to have work at all after nine months scrambling frantically for any scrap of employment that didn’t involve dancing on a pole for singles and five-spots.

The men did most of the talking as I ate my yogurt. They talked shop. Which competing contractors got which jobs, who was checking on the crew working on Highland. I digested this information along with each spoonful of the tart, honey flavor, mastering the new art of hanging back around the crowded lunch table.

During a lull, my manager, proud of her new hire, announced, “Natalie’s finishing up her Master’s Degree.”

“Oh, really?” the Boss said. He danced upon the vague knifepoint of middle age, where arriving at a precise number becomes guesswork. An imposing man, he spoke in a brusque way, a trait I’d come to find typical of white male CEOs of blue-collar businesses. He took more care with his dress though, sporting crisp pinstripe shirts garnished with sharp silver cufflinks.

As I nodded I felt my cheeks flush.

“How much more do you have to go?” he asked.

“I graduate this summer,” I said. “I’m finishing up my last class and working on my thesis this semester.” Words crowded at the foot of my mouth, details about my subject matter and what I planned to do with my life, which didn’t involve filing papers and answering phones. I wanted them to know that taking this job and being grateful for it didn’t mean I wasn’t smart.

“That’s great. Good for you,” he said, nodding his head. “What subject?”

“Literature,” I said, and as the words passed my lips I felt how foolish I sounded. A silly girl with girlish dreams.

“Literature,” he repeated. “What are you going to do with that?”

My heart raced. I didn’t want them to think I was just killing time at this job until I graduated, but at the same time who grows up dreaming of being an office administrator?

“Oh, I don’t know yet…” I half-lied, trailing off dumbly. After all, who knew if my chosen profession would even exist after (or if) the economy cleared away the wreckage of the past two years. Further explanations backed up inside, threatening to rupture against all efforts at self-control.

Big mistake.

He laughed. “So, you’re just…”

Gestured up-and-down with a loosely grasping hand, a cartoonish look of idiocy masked his face. I burned even more, the flush creeping around my neck and ears. No one had ever made that crude of a gesture to me.

I laughed weakly and protested, mouse-like.

By then the conversation across the table had diverted his attention from me. Thank God, because at that point I was ready to spill, laying it out on the table with equal crudeness. Literature professor. Defunct hopes of a PhD. Laid off. Lost everything. Alcoholism. Barely a year sober.

I’m glad I didn’t waste my words.

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Comments

The Art of Holding Back — 71 Comments

  1. I love the way you write, Natalie. When I was walking dogs to help pay for law school, I very frequently had to refrain from saying things like, “Ha ha! I’m really in law school, I’m not just the help. Oops, hold please while I wrangle your dog’s feces.”
    Quinn recently posted…Dusting off the tango shoesMy Profile

  2. Wow, what a jerk! I’m glad you saved your words for here where we could appreciate them :)

    For some reason, this made me think of when I was searching for a job after I had a baby and the company I’d worked for had closed down. There was an admin assistant job posting where my dad worked (he’s an electrician.) He tried to nicely explain the kinds of pigs who worked there and how he wouldn’t be able to quietly listen to their comments. I decided not to apply for the job.
    JannaTWrites recently posted…The Power of ZeroMy Profile

  3. Ugh, I can just feel that burn right along with you. Back in collIeshe, I mastered the art of keeping those things that matter to me well hidden for fear of having them ridiculed. Of course now I put it out there on the internet where anyone can see but somehow that’s different. You know what I mean.
    Ellen recently posted…SabotageMy Profile

  4. It’s funny how many “self-made men” have no self-awareness of their ego. I’ve dealt with this kind before, and when I was young or vulnerable, like you were in that situation, I bit my tongue as well.

    But I’m too quick witted and too sick of taking it to not react now. I don’t save my words for anyone. Which is why I probably get myself into trouble. But we can’t let assholes run this nation. We need dreamers and art majors, and writers and historians to document the human experience. Otherwise, the CEOs will write their own stories, and we know how full of holes their lives really are.
    Chris Plumb recently posted…British Television My New Cup of Tea–I’m Off My TrolleyMy Profile

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  6. Beautifully written, Natalie. Congratulations on your win! I enjoyed the honesty and straightforwardness of this piece.

    Loved this line: “He danced upon the vague knifepoint of middle age, where arriving at a precise number becomes guesswork.”
    Karen recently posted…“S” is for StalkerMy Profile

  7. Ugh. What a horrible, horrible person.

    I like how you added the details of your yogurt. It’s funny how, when involved in intense situations like that, those details stick out in our memory. I dunno. Maybe it’s because we’re trying to focus on something other than the disturbing reality going on around us?
    Ericamos recently posted…New BeginningsMy Profile

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