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.
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.