The room in the church annex is small and smells of burnt coffee. Someone has thoughtfully hung the wood-paneled walls with inspirational posters promoting Courage, Teamwork, and Perseverance, and in one corner there is a disturbing painting of Jesus kneeling over someone shooting heroin. A toddler story-time is happening next door, and every minute or so I hear an explosion of maracas and the phrase “Shake that silly boo boo!” I’m sweating through my clothes; my bra is wet against my skin. It’s ten in the morning, and the temperature’s almost a hundred. Goddamn Tucson.
The flier promised refreshments. I suppose a half-eaten box of animal crackers hastily dumped onto a paper plate technically qualifies as food, but I don’t know that I’d call it refreshing. There are about a dozen other job-seekers hovering near the cookies—wistful, unpretentious people who look much more alive than I do this early in the day. I hear snippets of conversations about television, barbeques, and college basketball. Pleasantries. It’s so easy for everyone else. They seem like nice people, I bear them no ill will, but we have nothing in common. I want to run.
My mother forced me to come, badgered me until I gave in, promising I’d get a lead on a job or at least find comfort in the company of others. “Better than holing up in your room,” she said.
“I like my room,” I said.
“It’s not healthy.”
“Neither is that Diet Coke.”
“Are you smoking marijuana again?”
“With what money?”
“Go to the meeting or I’m taking your car.”
Folding chairs are arranged in a semi-circle, and I grab the one closest to the door. As I’m chewing on a cuticle and trying to divine shapes in the brown grain of the carpet, a guy about my age sits next to me, and, in between guttural attempts to clear his throat, I hear a wet clicking sound that I identify as a tongue ring being rapped against teeth. Cringing at each thwack, I slouch lower in my seat, hoping he’ll take the hint.
He doesn’t. “Hey,” he says. I ignore him, so he tries again. “Hey.” He jabs an elbow into my arm. “Do I know you?” I look at him without blinking, but, undaunted, he tries again. “Did you go to Marana? Class of ’02?”
“No,” I say, “I didn’t go to Marana.”
“Do you know Pokey? Worm’s little brother? Did you used to party over at their place? Or the Pita Pit—did you used to work at Pita Pit?”
I sit up straight and face him, too under-caffeinated and over-stressed to continue this line of questioning. “I don’t know you,” I say. “I don’t know Pokey or Worm or the place where they used to party. Please let me be alone with my thoughts.”
But he only shakes his head and sits back in his chair, pulling out his phone. “Nah, dude,” he says. “I know you. Imma figure it out. Don’t worry.”
Mercifully the door opens and an older woman with orange fluffy hair and red paisley pants strides in and asks us to sit down. My seat companion pockets his phone, and I resume chewing my cuticle, praying we won’t have to give introductions.
“Welcome, job-seekers,” says the woman with a smile. “My name is Paulette. Before we get started this morning I want to give you one piece of advice.” She reaches for a binder under her chair and removes a piece of paper. The word “BREATHE” is written across it in black marker. She holds it forth like the eleventh commandment and nods while we take in the power of her message.
“I want to tell you, right off the bat, that I know where you’re coming from. I was a legal secretary for seventeen years and was laid off following a merger. I searched high and low for another job, but at my age”—and here she points to her head so we can all see her gray roots and know she’s deliberately chosen carrot-colored hair—“at my age, it’s hard to convince employers to take a chance on you. So I started coming to church…”
Here I tune out for a while. I told my mom this meeting was a thin ruse to pack the pews on Sunday, but she wouldn’t listen.
“…and Jesus led me here, and I’ve been running these workshops for the last three years.” Paulette finishes her spiel with a quick glance heaven-ward and says, “Now let’s get to know one another, shall we?”
A thin man, fiftyish, with long, scraggy hair, stands and fingers his tie, looking as if he’d feel more comfortable in a shirt with a monster truck on it. “My name is Randy. I’m originally from Kingman. I sold wheelchairs for twenty-five years, but I’ll start anywhere.” He looks to Paulette for approval. She nods and motions for him to continue. “My brother-in-law’s got a power-washing business, so I’ve been helping him out with that, but it’s not very steady. I don’t do computers too much. Oh, and I can play the flute.” He sits down.
Next a woman in a tracksuit speaks. “My name is Dara. I was late because my ex forgot to pick up my daughter for school.” Her body is thick and powerful under her thin cotton clothes. She shakes her wrists and rolls her neck from side to side as if she’s getting ready to enter the ring. “Two months ago I was laid off from the airport. I was a baggage-handler for five years, but I’m trying to get into cosmetology.” She holds out her hands so we can admire her manicure, and it is impressive: red tapers into pink, with streaks of silver glitter bisecting each nail. “I can’t afford the tuition for beauty school, so I’m trying to teach myself, but no one’s hiring anyway. I hostess sometimes at the Smokehouse on Campbell. But damn, it gets to you, being unemployed. You start thinking, like, you’ll never find a job.”
The others stand, one by one, give their names and sad situations: laid off, downsized, redundant, restructured. As my turn approaches I fight the urge to flee. Not that I care about making my mother happy—I told her I’d go; I didn’t say I’d stay—but I only have two dimes in my purse. Where would I run?
The guy with the tongue ring is next. He’s wearing white Pumas and the kind of denim pants that inhabit the strange, unnamed sartorial category between shorts and capris. His goatee tapers into a thin line that connects with his sideburns and, though he’s dressed in “athletic apparel,” his physique suggests many late nights spent at the Taco Bell drive-through. “What’s up,” he says. “I’m Chasen. I work at Safeway. I used to do sheet-metal fabrication, but I got fired.” He pantomimes smoking a joint. “I like working on cars, and, uh, I guess I’m a people person.” He looks at me and winks, and I’m so embarrassed I can’t even roll my eyes.
It’s my turn. I rise and face the room. Besides Chasen, I’m the youngest by at least twenty years. And looking down at my flip-flops and the Princess Jasmine t-shirt I slept in, I think the age difference must be apparent to everyone else in the room too. “My name is Mona Lange. Eight months ago I graduated from the University of Arizona, finance major. I got recruited out of college to work at an investment bank in New York, but that kinda fell through. So here I am.”
“Which bank?” Paulette asks.
My face reddens. “Bannerman,” I say, addressing the floor.
Another murmur. Dara whistles and lets out a low “Shiiiiiiit.” Paulette tsks, and her face falls in pity. I enjoy the reaction; truly my story is the saddest of them all.
“So you’re looking for something in finance?” Paulette asks.
“That’s the plan,” I say.
“I may have a lead for you,” Paulette says, rummaging through her binder, and my heart races for just a second. “How would you feel,” she asks, holding out a brochure, “about selling car insurance?”
I take the brochure and stare at her, unsure how to explain, in under a thousand words, the vast differences between investment banking and property insurance.
When we’re finished I grab my purse and try to exit before Chasen can speak to me again, but I’m blocked by the other job-seekers lingering to chat. In my haste to leave I drop my keys on the floor, and when I come back up to eye level Chasen is there, arms folded and a smirky grin across his face.
“I figured it out,” he says, and my heart sinks as I realize I can’t leave the room without pushing him over. “You’re that peanut-butter chick, aren’t you?” He punctuates his question by sucking saliva through the tongue ring and then, getting a little too much at the back of his throat, coughs and almost doubles over from the effort.
My face burns. “Peanut-butter chick.” I’m definitely never going to that grocery store again. “I don’t know you,” I say, trying to move around him.
“Yeah, they got you on camera,” he says, moving with me. “My boy put your picture up in the break room. You had all, like, mascara down your cheeks. Mad funny.” He starts to chuckle, so I glare at him until he clears his throat and looks at the floor. “But the manager made him take it down.”
I used to like going to the supermarket. I thought about buying groceries as much as I thought about flossing my teeth or the situation in Myanmar—that is to say, not at all. It was an easy Sunday-afternoon chore, the thing I did in between getting my eyebrows waxed and filling up my car. And after graduating from Arizona and trekking the eight miles back to my parents’ suburban hacienda, after suffering the tripartite humiliations of being jobless, penniless, and friendless, after reattaching myself to the parental teat through which flowed food and air-conditioned shelter, I enjoyed the quiet dignity of buying my own groceries. A small, weekly victory in a sea of failures. Then they stopped making Nutty Tyme, the peanut-butter that’s “Delicious, nutritious, and oh so vicious,” a spread so calming that eating a spoonful of it was like eating a hug. And that wrecked my routine.
Now my behavior at the store was, admittedly, a tad extreme. Standing in the peanut-butter aisle for an hour picking up jars and putting them back down, comparing ingredients and weighing claims, was not how I wanted to spend my day. But have you ever counted how many different kinds of peanut-butter there are at the grocery store? Forty-seven. Peanut-butter is peanuts, sugar, salt, and oil. How do you get forty-seven variations on four ingredients? So I went to the store, strong in my belief that I could buy an alternative to Nutty Tyme. The crush of options was overwhelming. Did I want more nuts? Or had I come looking for fewer nuts? What was most convincing to me as a consumer: testimony from moms or doctors or kids or skateboarding dinosaurs? Was I watching my waistline? Did I worry about grams of sugar? One jar said it was free of growth hormones—I hadn’t even known that was thing I needed to avoid. Nothing made sense anymore.
And then I did something I hadn’t done in a long time: I had a panic attack. My face flushed, my pulse raced. I tugged at my hair until tears came. Everywhere around me people were happily buying groceries, making decisions and getting back to their panic-free lives. Everyone had it figured out but me. I had to make the right choice. I couldn’t walk out of there a failure. My entire life hinged on my ability to choose a jar of peanut-butter, defeat my forty-seven foes, and walk out of the store a happy customer. How can anyone stand up to pressure like that?
The scream was out of my mouth before I could stop it. “Goddammit!” echoed off the shelves, bounced off the jars of Fluff and the plastic bears full of honey, and seemed to hang in mid-air for eternity, one frustrated shopper’s plea for a simpler life.
In a panic I left my basket of groceries on the floor and ran through the automatic doors, my head hung in shame and tears staining my cheeks. I must be the first person in history to lose their composure over a condiment. How the mighty have fallen!
“Don’t worry,” Chasen says, “you’re not the most fucked-up person to come into the store. There’s this one dude who stands in the bread aisle and whips his dick out at little old ladies. The manager keeps chasing him out, but he always sneaks back in. And another time I found this chick smoking crack in the deli. She had her feet up on the counter, dropped her purse on top of the ham, and had her crack pipe out like it was nothing.”
“Thanks, I guess.” I suppose I’m relieved to know I’m less crazy than the deli crack-head.
The path to the door has finally cleared. I excuse myself and long for the isolation of my car. “You gotta be happy,” I hear Chasen say behind me as I head toward the sun, “it’s a beautiful day.”
My dad gave me forty bucks to fill up my car, so I spent thirty on gas and used the rest to buy a fifth of bottom-shelf tequila. “Colima” is the name on the bottle, and there’s a little sleeping Mexican man stenciled on the label. Soon, my friend, I think, we’ll both be passed out.
In my bedroom, with my tumbler of tequila and orange juice, I scan the headlines on my laptop. Inflation is up. Jobs are scarce. There’s a drought in the Midwest; horse starvation rates are through the roof. I read an article entitled “Millennials More Narcissistic Than Previous Generations.” The author says that millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000, my generation, are “lazy, illiterate, slack-jawed phone-jockeys addicted to the morphine-drip of social media validation.” The rebuttal I write in the comments section is so good I post it on Facebook. While there I scroll through photos of my friends—smiling, successful people in Oxford shirts grabbing drinks with co-workers or spending newly acquired paychecks on gadgets and cars. It should have been me.
I apply for my 477th job, something called an FP&A Specialist. I have no idea if I remembered to change the objective on my résumé from my last application. Not that it matters.
Before I crawl into bed I turn on CNBC, only to turn it off a moment later. When Bannerman Financial Services filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, they were carrying a debt-to-equity ratio of 60 to 1. The anchors enjoyed a good chuckle about how Bannerman’s demise could be turned into a scary story that investment bankers would tell their kids around a campfire. I fantasize now about firing a gun straight into the TV, the crackle and hiss of exposed wires and the silent malevolence of mercury gas filling my bedroom, but satisfy myself instead with hurling the remote control into a pile of dirty laundry.
I’m unemployed, I’ve never had a boyfriend, I live with my parents in the most boring town on the planet, and I hate myself. These are the thoughts that torment me every night in bed. I started the list with good intentions. I thought that if I could name my problems, catalog my failings in one concise mantra, I could tackle them one by one. But eight months after graduation I’m still here, still stuck, and the pain only intensifies with every repetition. I’m unemployed, I’ve never had a boyfriend, I live with my parents in the most boring town on the planet, and I hate myself. My shame is so intense it turns physical, a cold, silvery pain that flows through my bones, down my spine, and into my joints, making my whole body ache. I press my hands into my eyes until I see spots, hoping that by some magic of brain chemistry the spell will pass.
Finally, admitting defeat, I throw off the covers and go to my desk. The scent of chocolate hits me when I open the drawer—soaps shaped and scented like Godiva truffles spill out of their box and mix with pens and paper clips. I reach all the way back, past the graphing calculator, past the blank CDs, and feel the cold vinyl of the pencil case. The red chalk face of Leonardo da Vinci looks out from the top of the case, past me and off into the distance, perhaps a little sad that his image has been reproduced and printed on thousands, millions of identical pencil cases and shipped out to stores across the globe.
He is the pin to my grenade, the Hoover Dam to my Colorado River. I open the case and lay out my materials: rubbing alcohol, gauze, new razor blades. I take a deep breath and begin the routine. My pulse slows, my hand steadies, my mind clears, and the warm assurance that very soon I’ll feel better wraps around me like a hug.
I am Mona the Mutilator. Mona of the Lancet. Mona, High Priestess of the Clan of the Tiny Cut. I’m hunched over my leg, working, telling myself all along that I’ll just make one more cut before I’m done. The only sounds are my low, steady breaths and a motorcycle idling somewhere down the street. I can’t feel the carpet under me; I feel nothing except the bitter steel of the razor and a sensation of falling through air, rushing downward to a safer place.
In ten minutes I’m back in bed, if not fully restored, at least with the boil reduced to a simmer.
The first thing I see every morning is my trophy wall. Opposite my bed, from about two feet off the floor up to the ceiling, is a shelf holding every major award I’ve received since the first grade. Some notable highlights include Outstanding Delegate in Model UN, first place in the Junior MBA Club’s Emerging Entrepreneurs Expo, Blue Ribbon in the Arizona State Science Fair four years in a row, Best Oil Painting in the Southwest Young Artists Showcase, and—my personal favorite—fourth place in the National Spelling Bee, just three spots shy of the big prize (amnemonic was the word I went out on; I can’t remember what it means). I blink, my brain still dull and disturbed from bad dreams. In one sweep across the twelve-by-ten-foot space I can relive my entire childhood, and know that I’ll probably never reach those heights again.
Getting out of bed is always a frightening proposition: you never know if you have a hangover until you stand up. Sometimes I lie in bed for fifteen minutes, stock still, trying to suss out what hurts. Today I hold my breath and decide to do it quickly, rip off the covers and put my feet on the ground and maybe outrun the headache, the nausea, the sour stomach, and get some coffee into my system before I assess the damage.
I’m dizzy. That’s a bad sign. My head doesn’t hurt, though. That’s good. I drape my comforter over my shoulders like a shroud and pad to the kitchen in my socks, hoping I’ve missed my parents. I peer around the corner at the coffee-maker. No one.
I’m working on an itch inside my armpit, with a cold tortilla hanging out of my mouth, when my mother appears in the doorway like Jacob Marley come to bring ill tidings.
“Good morning,” she says, though she’s already moved past the greeting and is looking around at the counters, making sure I haven’t left crumbs or upset the stacks of journals she and my father have left at intervals throughout the kitchen and dining room. She takes off her glasses and rubs the bridge of her nose. Her close-cropped brown hair, unchanged since my childhood, looks dull in the gray morning light.
“Hmhmm,” I say, pointing to the food in my mouth.
“What’s on your schedule today?” she asks.
I sigh. “Price is Right” at ten, “Dr. Phil” at eleven, long shower, cocktails, “Oprah,” staring wistfully out the window, the evening news, some self-loathing before dinner, obligatory family interaction, a few more cocktails, and then cat videos until I fall asleep with my face mashed against my keyboard. “I’m applying for jobs. Same thing I do every day.”
“Is there anything I can do?” she asks. “Is there a class, maybe, that you could take? I can get you books or find out if there’s a networking seminar through the university. Why don’t you send me your résumé again?”
“I don’t need books. The unemployment rate is, like, twelve percent. It’s just a crappy time to look for a job, especially in finance.”
“Your brother could go with you to a networking event. You know he’s graduating soon—it would be a good idea for him to start making contacts now.”
“That’s not going to happen.”
“What about volunteering? You might feel better if you did some community service.”
“Yeah, I’ll think about it.”
She sighs and says, as if we haven’t had the same conversation a thousand times, “This is a problem to be solved. You should approach it the same way we always have: form a hypothesis, test it, and if it doesn’t work, amend your hypothesis and begin again.”
My parents are medical researchers specializing in Alzheimer’s and have been on the faculty at the University of Arizona since the seventies. Last spring my mom achieved her dream and was named Director of the Gerontology Lab. Being a woman of science, she’s a big believer in formulas, recipes, and directions that produce predictable, repeatable results. She undoubtedly saw my youth, spent in accelerated classes and extracurricular activities, as a portent of success, Step One in a list of instructions that would culminate with me joining the tenured faculty at Harvard. How frustrating it must be for her to see me here every morning, shuffling around the house in dirty socks, my future curdling, and everyone, especially her, powerless to stop it.
“If you leave the house, please take my library books back.”
“I love you.”
I wait to see if she’ll force the issue. She doesn’t. Blackberry in hand, she leaves for her busy day out in the world of people with jobs and deadlines, self-respect, fulfillment, interesting conversations, and the leisure to say, “Ooh, what about crêpes for lunch?”
The only sound in the empty house is the grind of the icemaker and the cubes falling into the catch. I linger in the hallway, tracing my finger along various knickknacks, not wishing to begin another fruitless day.
When you’re told over and over what a smart kid you are, and when you win every science fair, every essay contest, it doesn’t just go to your head—it defines you. You become what people say you are: a winner, a genius, a singular talent. Losing isn’t an option because you don’t lose. A loss becomes an abstract concept, like infinity or world peace. You could think about it, but to see it or live it—that wouldn’t compute. And that’s the phrase that’s been pinging at the back of my head for months: does not compute. I didn’t expect my life after college to be a glittering pony parade, but if this is adulthood, I feel terribly, terribly gypped.
I started this novel when I was home taking care of my infant daughter, writing the rough draft during her naptimes. If she fell asleep on my shoulder, I would just type with one hand while she slept. The novel has nothing to do with parenting, but for me it is inextricably linked to that uncertain time in my life, when I didn’t know if I could write a novel or be a good mother.
Uncertainty is a large theme in Mona at Sea. When the novel opens, we are in the depths of the Great Recession and Mona Lange is many months out of college and still unemployed. A student at the top of her class, she received a coveted position at the country’s largest investment bank, only to see her job eliminated before she can even arrive for orientation. Now adrift, Mona joins the ranks of the chronically unemployed as she tries and fails to get anything resembling the plum future she imagined was waiting for her after graduation. As the narrator, Mona reveals herself through her caustic wit. She takes aim at the institutions that failed her and others in her generation, and at herself as she struggles with the contradiction of being an academic star and an emotional wreck. Mona is also a cutter, channeling a long-buried passion for art into a portrait of the Mona Lisa she is carving into her thigh, a preoccupation she realizes is far from healthy.
Eventually she lands a job at a call center and meets Duncan, an aspiring photographer whose positive outlook counterbalances her morose tendencies. They begin a relationship, and Mona begins to see that the life she’s led is different from the story she has told herself all along. Eventually she begins to make peace with her failures. She begins painting again and is finally able to put down her razor for good. By the end of the novel she is happy and fulfilled by her art and her life. She has a reason to get up in the morning, and she realizes that this is all anyone can hope for.
The novel is loosely based on my own experience with long-term unemployment during the Great Recession and addresses themes of boredom, fulfillment, the price of privilege, and the lie behind the American Dream. It was my hope in writing it to create an honest depiction of someone who followed all the advice, did everything she was told, made all the right choices, and still fell flat on her face. I think that story will be familiar to a lot of readers.
Elizabeth Gonzalez James lives in Oakland, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Tishman Review, Foliate Oak, and elsewhere. Her short story “Cosmic Blues” was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2016 Short Story Award for New Writers, and she was nominated for three Pushcart Prizes in 2018.
Embark, Issue 8, April 2019