The first thing I did when I arrived in New York was get a job. The second thing I did was get fired. It was the longest firing anyone has ever experienced. My boss couldn’t find a replacement so I kept having to go into the office and pretend it hadn’t happened. This charade was wearing for both me and her, and she often—without explanation—would leave in the early afternoon or usually not come in at all.
The office was located in Koreatown which, if you have a short attention span and are in any way easily seduced, is where you want to be. The day I got fired, I went to the local salad place and puzzled over what had gone so horribly wrong. One minute my boss and I were happily discussing which of her clients was an alcoholic, the next minute I was jobless. It was something involving a stamp. She said watching me move around the office was ‘upsetting’ and I said I understood. Still, it hurt. I had been uninterested in things in the past, or I had been forgetful, but I had never actually failed at something.
The salad place was dark and resembled a nightclub—every place in New York must be two places at once or else it is a disappointment—so it was good for moments of introspection. I sat pushing a tomato bleakly around with a plastic fork, while listening to terrible, thumping techno, and wondered why I was here. Despair, the crushing of all my hopes, anxiety: it was the sincere American experience. The Korean beauty shops sold a series of face masks that were made to resemble animal faces. In a moment of desperation, I bought a panda one to cheer myself up. I bought the lot actually—lion, zebra, cat. I thought it would be impossible to see something so novel in the mirror and still be upset and frightened but no—I can clarify, it is entirely possible. After I did all the face masks, I was still fired.
I suppose I should have confirmed what the job was early on, because I was never totally sure. Ostensibly, I was an assistant to a literary agent but the position was a lively mix of fact and fiction. The fact was I had a job, I had somewhere to go during the day. The fiction was anything that happened once I got inside the door. It reminded me of an improvisational exercise, one where a quirky, shoeless teacher would hand out three props and gesture around the room expectantly. Here’s a computer, a printer and the fridge is down the hall. Now, make it up. We shared a floor with another company but I had no colleagues. There were people I apologised to if I used the microwave for too long, but that was about the height of all my interactions. A man from one of the mysterious other floors once asked for my business card and it seemed ridiculous to me, like many scenes had happened in my life and I had somehow missed them all.
And yet, this was my dream job, if those two words are allowed to appear together in the same sentence. Except that it wasn’t. My boss rarely came in and I spent my mornings sending her emails to which she did not respond. The rest of the day was spent lying to her clients about her presence in the office. I learnt many new and interesting ways to lie—which became useful later on when I told everyone I had quit.
The worst part of all this was that, in the beginning, I believed I could do it. I got dressed, I put on make-up and, embarrassingly, I persevered. When my boss actually appeared in the office I alternated between feeling deeply ashamed—for no reason I could identify—and trying to discern her mood. If she was being restrained she would just look at me in a way that said: if I had hired a person to be incompetent I couldn’t have found anyone better. If she was in a warm and affectionate mood, she would catalogue my mistakes, circle errant commas, let me know, by whatever means possible, that she thought I was sluggish, slow, an utter moron.
It was inconceivable that I might do anything right—it was a waste of time to finish a manuscript, irresponsible not to finish it—as anything we agreed upon could change instantaneously. The situation was unfortunate—I was an idiot but I contained all the secrets of the universe. That her office also had a computer was a mere coincidence, an aberration, as she did not know how to use it. On the days she arrived in I could hear her behind me, assaulting the keyboard, demanding with every violent tap that it was the mid-nineties once again. If I was afraid of her, she was equally scared of slight technological breakdowns —anything that might unmoor us from the rest of the book world. When the printer broke I was too spineless to say the words: ’The printer is broken.’ Instead, I made surreptitious pilgrimages to the other side of the office.
Occasionally she would just sidle up to me and administer bizarrely instructive gifts—vouchers for blow-drys, a copy of Primates of Park Avenue, the book made famous for its mention of the ‘wife bonus’. I read it standing up on the subway, terrified she was going to quiz me on the ins-and-outs of the cash rewards gifted to the wives of the extraordinarily wealthy, and I finally understood the meaning of the word ‘alien’. I was on a different planet.
Out the office window I could see a children’s playground on the roof opposite. Every afternoon the children would come out and run around rambunctiously, probably frustrated by the lack of items to knock over. I thought: ‘What a small patch of land to learn how to be a child. Poor things.’ In truth, those insightful, big-city children were probably staring back up at me, as I ran around in more convoluted, administrative-based circles, thinking: ‘What a small patch of land to learn how to be an adult.’
I emigrated because I wanted to look like I was doing something. I could avoid serious conversations just by looking sadly into the distance and whispering mournfully about ‘opportunities’. I had a number of stock phrases I threw out. A favourite was, ‘There is no room for growth in my field in Ireland’—because it implied I had a field of interest, and that, in some unspecified way, I wanted to grow. I also liked the word ‘career’. I liked to use it. It called to mind a woman who had mastered the art of steady eye contact.
Up to this point, my ‘career‘ had included publishing internships and a job in a card shop where I worked for twenty hours a week and complained bitterly about the ‘regime’. It wasn’t a stimulating job but I liked it more than previous positions—a supermarket cashier, a waitress, nine flashy months as a coat-check girl—so it was really a question of figuring out how to stay without them noticing. I managed two-and-a-half years. Every month my name appeared on that roster. There seemed to be no reasonable way to stop it. There were a huge number of cards in this shop, and everyone took extraordinary pride in our choice and selection. When people commented on it we all smiled modestly as if it was a group effort. Really, I had no idea where those cards came from and I had no idea where they were supposed to go. They seemed to move of their own accord. When a rare customer came in I would shrug helplessly as if to say, ‘Your guess is as good as mine.’ Christmas was the worst time as avoiding customers was absolutely imperative. It was difficult because, although well-stocked, the shop was tiny. If I moved away from the till the customers would just follow me, something in my manner or expression suggesting this invasion of space was totally fine. Usually they would ask if we wrapped gifts to which I would respond ‘yes’ and then wander off, hopefully never to see them again.
I stayed at the shop until I reached the exact position of authority I had always wanted—it was a beautiful mid-point where I could happily distribute the more annoying tasks but I didn’t have to participate in the elaborate window displays that took on the drama and scale of theatrical productions. Once I reached this pinnacle of achievement, I left. As a thank-you for my time and hard work I received the world’s smallest box of chocolates. Although it was beautifully presented, it contained only three chocolates. I imagined my manager buying a normal box of chocolates and ceremonially removing the ones she felt I did not deserve, until there were only three left. I ate them all on the bus. By the time I got home it was like I had never worked there.
In New York, there are thousands of sophisticated, well-dressed women whose appearance is achieved through a sheer concentration of will. When I first met my boss I was impressed by her unnaturally white, wrinkle-free outfit. It suggested she lived in a glass cage, or that no sane, thinking person would ever dream of touching her. I realised the effort and labour involved in her life when she took two bites of a cookie and threw it in the bin, when she took exercise classes that cumulatively cost more than my salary. One of her clients wrote the book that inspired the television show about four women living stylishly, unbelievably in Manhattan. It appeared on the shelves in the office—covers depicting cartoons of skeletal-looking women, holding champagne flutes as if their lives, the very fact of their existence, was something to celebrate.
When I was fourteen I read a book by this author. It was age-inappropriate, silly and nothing happened plot-wise, so naturally I loved every page. I could say it was then, as a teenage girl, that a boring desire for beauty and glamour crept into my soul. Or I could confront the grim problem of having always wanted to impress people. Long ago, friends had stopped asking me about any kind of work in the fear that unemployment was airborne and contagious. Now, just by the very nature of being away, I was exotic. (And what was so exotic about any of it? The fact that I didn’t do anything useful? Or that I could slip easily from Monday to Friday without speaking to a single person?) I took the lift each morning and I sat in my chair and, with amazing speed, I lost any ambition I ever had.
But by evening there was a palpable sense of relief in the air. People in the building were abandoning their screens, leaving work unfinished, rubbing their exhausted eyes, shutting down—to go out, have dinner, and see people they liked. I was new to the city and that fact came with its own dull and obvious loneliness. After work I went home to my bedroom, which was all corners and contained exactly two pieces of furniture, and I didn’t mind. I thought I was an utter fool for trying, but I really did not mind. I told myself this was what I had always wanted, what I had been working towards since university, and it was better than the alternative: unemployment—its endless, unaccountable hours, its unique feelings of worthlessness. I wasn’t desperate but I was nearby. I was in the neighbourhood. So when I asked my boss if I could take a book and she said, ‘Take it, read it, burn it. What do I care?’ I answered ‘No problem!’ It made no sense, but a lot of what I said during this time made no sense. They were just words I plucked from the sky to fill the silence between us. I would have agreed to almost anything.
When I was twelve I won a traffic warden contest. It was an odd competition, I still have no idea what the judging criteria was, but it utilised my main skill: standing perfectly still. I won a bicycle. To celebrate I spent the entire summer cycling around my garden. My parents suggested going farther, past the front gate, but I knew the road safety handbook inside-out and didn’t think it was worth the risk. Anyway, I was perfectly happy with the round trip. I was exhilarated by this route, always finding something exciting to grab my attention—the cat’s new position, the washing-line blowing in a slightly different direction. I didn’t need much.
As a child, I was terrified of nearly everything. I had a book that I liked to read called—and if this is not its exact title it is close—Bad Things are Going to Happen to You. Despite it coming free with a magazine, and it carrying pictures of stressed-looking women, women tenderly aware that their marriageability was reducing by the second, I totally believed in it. To avoid danger it advocated not doing anything, and this sense of inaction has haunted me since—my ‘career’, any writing I have managed to throw together. ‘Yes, but when is something going to happen?’ people would ask. I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t guarantee anything of significance would ever happen.
In many ways my childhood prepared me for the life I was going to have. Nothing sets you up for a future of sporadic employment like growing up in a small town where you are taught, from birth, how to stretch the most simple and basic tasks to last hours. And that book, despite its hysteria, its ‘true life’ stories that sounded nothing at all like true life, did contain maybe one truth: women are not allowed to fuck up. Or more importantly, they are not allowed to be seen to fuck up.
I made the decision to go to New York because I was lost in Dublin. I was directionless, as they like to say now. I did not know what I wanted to be and I just skipped from one place to another, cheerfully eliminating things as they came along. ‘Farewell!’ I would say as I waved goodbye to all my viable job options, making a big show of leaving them, like they were children at a crèche—and off I went, without even the slightest intention of picking them up again. I wanted to work in publishing, or I wanted to work with books, and it was looking increasingly unfeasible. Leaving was a risk and, like all risks I have ever taken, I was hyper-aware of it. Before I left, strangers kept reassuring me that I would have a delightful time over there, that the people would love me. What they would love was vague. My maddening inability to get to the end of a sentence without getting distracted? At the airport, I gave my family an artful, carefully chosen card that said something along the lines of: ‘Thank You For Having Me’.
Writing about the sacrifices entailed in putting a life together, George Saunders wonders what our jobs cost us in ‘terms of personal grace’. I’ve thought about it in regards to my own situation and the answer is: a lot. In one particular instance my boss made me write an email about myself that ended with the words: ‘I apologise for my assistant. She’s new and doesn’t know what she’s doing.’ Typing those words, colluding in this divorce from myself, was confusing but oddly cheering. I maintained a jolly distance from myself throughout the whole thing—there were days, whole weeks when I was barely there at all. I imagine a different sort of person wouldn’t have written that email, they probably would have said no, sensibly refusing to cross the threshold into total self-loathing. But I am not a different sort of person, I am completely who I am, so I smiled and said, ‘Sure! What font would you like?’
Still, as much as I tried, and as much as she insisted I apologise for being brazen enough to be alive, I could not hate her. Occasionally I even went to the extreme lengths of liking her. If this vitriol hadn’t been directed at me it would have been a joy to watch. She was so prodigiously good at it. We weren’t alike—she spoke at a much higher volume, she had complete confidence in her own judgement, she took up so much space—but there were similarities. We were both obsessed with appearances, we were both dramatically insincere to each other, and we were both hemorrhaging money. I was spending mine, all the money I have ever earned in my life, on a room above a tyre shop, where everything was, magically, coated in a thin film of dust. She was spending hers on auspicious signs of affluence—the car service, the restaurants, the clothes. I had full access to her accounts and those numbers made me sweaty-palmed with panic: I cost nothing but she could barely afford me.
I have been an intern in the past and I know that the point of an intern is to be invisible, to be there while not being there at all. But this was the first job I had where visibility was a requirement. It was the only requirement. I was a symbol, confirmation to herself that she mattered, that she was still too thrillingly important to answer her own emails. I was the girl who stood at the front of the shop—although in this case the shop was on fire—and said, ‘Hi!’ If you ignored my untidiness, my sleepless face, I was just about the best window-dressing you could find.
But the futility of the job brought an increasing sense of unreality. I would send an email from my account, open it in hers, read it and think, ‘Yes, that is what I meant to say’ and close it again. Once, in the absence of what she probably considered as charm or elegance in the office, she instructed me to order a flower. The florist’s website was so perfect, so organised and streamlined, I wanted to cover my eyes. These flowers didn’t just have names—they had personalities. According to their descriptions, they were more well adjusted and high functioning than nearly all human beings. On the phone I tried to imitate an expensive person. The flower arrived. It cost close to $100. I looked at it for crazy amounts of time. Was it going to do something? Dance, sing, earn its keep? No. It just sat there, silently mocking, as if to say, ‘If pushed, I could probably do your job.’ Then I threw it in the bin.
When I was growing up, my mother worked in an office. I knew nothing about the layout, whether it was open-plan or private, if she had a door, a window. She left early in the morning and usually returned late. I used to listen to her morning routine—cosmetics being moved around a counter, heels on a hardwood floor. These were exciting, important sounds. This was a woman on her way to work. After school, I spent my evenings with local women who were huge and unknowable, and less fascinating because they lacked the accoutrements my mother possessed—the heavy winter coat, the depthless handbag. When I saw her at the end of the day I would follow her down to her bedroom to tell a rambling story that went nowhere, and she would take off her jewellery, her lipstick and become normal, vulnerable. If she was tired, if she found the long commute boring or lonely, if there were a hundred other things she would have preferred to have done with her hours, her days, I don’t know. She never said. She made it all sound so interesting, so effortless and funny. It was how she told it—how easily she could laugh at this place that sounded vast and terrifying, how she could laugh at herself.
So I tried to do the same. I told anecdotes about my job like it was endlessly comic, like it was a sort of work theme park. In truth, it was the worst I have felt about myself in my admittedly short life. And that’s what actually kept me going: I reminded myself that there was probably more terrible debasement to come, experiences that would make this job seem like a series of lighthearted days out. These thoughts were not as comforting as I expected them to be.
For a long time, I did not know I was being fired. I noticed we were having a conversation, and that the conversation was going in a way I did not particularly want it to, but I didn’t understand the reason I was there. My brain—occasionally I am so grateful for it—has a tendency to shut out bad information. So when my boss said, ‘I think you’re a great reader’, I heard only that and disregarded the ‘you will no longer be working here’ part. Like all rejection I have experienced in my life, I considered this an exciting startingoff point. I think I might have asked, ‘So where do we go now?’ in a hopeful way. At no moment did I intend on leaving the room. I would have had to be dragged out I was so absolutely convinced I could rescue the situation.
I don’t consider myself a particularly capable or dynamic person, but there is one thing I am and that is youngish. (I am twenty-six.) The youngish people I know don’t get fired. They get promotions. I thought firing was something that happens after a huge nervous breakdown in a car-park, or after decades of tiny, irritating mistakes as your hair sadly thins. As an explanation, my boss offered this: ‘I know people like you, you tell them to go upstairs and put on a jumper and they can’t do it.’ It was an unfortunate analogy as I was wearing a jumper at the time, a jumper I would look at in a few weeks and think: ‘I lost my job in that jumper.’
As further explanation, she said, ‘My daughter is like you. You just don’t have straightforward minds.’ That was the final blow. She already had someone she perceived as chaotic and lacking in her life; we were not going to be able to reach an arrangement. Don’t think I couldn’t see this from her point of view—I could. There I was, self-pitying, snivelling on her white leather couch, probably encapsulating everything that is wrong with my generation. The problem was this: the only thing I had ever considered myself any good at it, that I had any drive or motivation for, I was being told that I was not good enough at. There’s not a whole lot you can do during that sort of experience. I just looked at my hands a lot. As a sort of reassurance she told me she liked me, and that she liked ‘what I was about’. That was nice, as I had been wondering what I was about for a while. Sadly, I never got any clarification. It was maybe too late for questions.
In New York, ever single literary agent’s assistant is a young female. That’s not a surprise: we have superb phone voices. There was a network of them, a web of worried, nervous women I spoke to via email. I never met any of them. They all had the same concerns as me, a slight frenetic edge to their correspondence. We organised lunch dates for our bosses, endless chains of conversations with minor time differences. We talked about events or rights or obscure figures and, occasionally, we read something, and maybe that made everything worthwhile, or maybe it didn’t. I imagined they were like me, good students who had done all the right things and now waited—dusting lint off their pencil skirts, trying to look prepared—for their rewards. I could see their outfits—tidy, inexpensive, impeccable costumes. I had a friend who worked in a publishing house who told me about the office intern who took selfies in the bathroom mirror and hash-tagged them hilariously. #Work. #Publishing. I laughed at this woman and her desperate need to be present, to participate, as I ghosted in and out of my own life. And where did these women go? I had an interview with a literary agent who told me what he required most from an assistant was a ‘nice presence’. Plants also have a nice presence. Why not be a plant? It made me curious as to what would happen when we lost our nice presence. Maybe, like when we misbehaved in school, they would just turn us to face the wall. Maybe they would deprive us of light and water.
One of my predecessors had left publishing and taken a secretarial job in a school upstate. She didn’t even come back to collect her belongings, which included a tension ball, relaxing tea and headache tablets, all of which I used, sometimes simultaneously, thrilled by her level of organisation. I marvelled that she had bought all these things, had them at hand. Apart from this drawer of treasures, my most poignant relationship in that office was with my mug, which was in the shape of a duck, chipped, ugly and underused in that painfully clean space. That cup always spilled more liquid than it ever held. Just navigating it took up half my day.
In a happy low-point, I had to train my replacement. I was excited about how much I was going to dislike her: how, in comparison to myself, she was going to be lacking certain qualities. It didn’t work out that way—she arrived in, eager, with her hair slicked back like it was her first day of school, and it was suddenly impossible. Anyway, I was tired, as if I had just climbed a steep hill and was now on my way back down. She told me she used spreadsheets for everything in her life and asked me if I did the same—to which I nodded, hoping to infer with this gesture that I was on great terms with the entire Microsoft Office Suite. I found an article she wrote online about punctuality. For a while I wondered if we were part of a strange social experiment. In between me teaching her the little I knew and taking whatever stationery I could from the cupboards, we went out for yoghurt together. I feared we might become friends, in that worrying way people thrown together in odd situations often do. And I overcompensated wildly for my initial hostility, for having a rotten core and pockets full of stolen paper clips, by being my nicest self. We didn’t become friends, but I acknowledged, with some envy, that she was going to be better at this than I was.
I would like to say the whole experience made me braver, more certain. Isn’t that what happens? People grow and change in all sorts of new ways? But, it didn’t. It was one of those life-changing events that didn’t change my life. Of course, I told everyone I quit. I had some remaining pride, shivering naked in the corner, and there were a hundred other things I would have preferred to admit—prostitution, human trafficking, murder. I think I could have passed them off as youthful folly, or at least they would have showed some determined action on my part. I could, if all else failed, blame them on falling in with a bad crowd. In truth, I felt like I was the bad crowd. Though the version of myself that I invented in these stories was incredible: I wanted to meet her.
My friends were supportive. They told me to be happy, and applauded my ‘bravery‘. But now here I was, back to the shuffling dance I knew step-by-step— back to rounds of interviews, back to taking lifts to new spaces and sitting on new couches, back trying to anticipate what kind of woman they want you to be, and getting it wrong. Back to stupid optimism, scrabbling around, overdrafts; back to convincing yourself that it is all completely worthwhile, back to internships, back to giving opinions no one will listen to for no money, back to ignoring questions, back to running into people you have never met before with with jobs you, briefly, thought were yours, back to trying to engage in normal activity but not feeling one bit normal. Back to borrowing—not just money, but things, stories, parts of people’s lives because they are better, faster than your own. And on a basic level—wishing you had a job to get dressed for. And then back to trying to find anything beautiful or absorbing enough to distract you from the knowledge that your life is not your own—it is frozen, suspended.
My mother employs the same organisational structure as me: none at all, not even the attempt of one. As a child, helping her clean out the handbag in which she could easily amass six months’ worth of stuff was a serious activity. Receipts usually filled it. They were scraps of papers for mundane things— soups, teas, lunches out—and I didn’t think they were important then, but I do now. They were proof of her life when it wasn’t bound to her family’s. And to be able to buy something, even if it’s small, with your own money, money that you have earned, is amazing.
A few weeks after I finished up I came across receipts for a package I had sent home. Here it was: evidence that I had walked somewhere with a purpose and walked back with a vague sense of accomplishment. And at work, the post office had always been the best part of my day. There was a sense of camaraderie in that building—how much the staff liked each other seemed to be in direct proportion to how much they hated us, the customers. They were in agreement about it. They even had several post in-jokes, which I enjoyed overhearing as I struggled daily with the American currency and argued about the price and weight of packages. All these interactions were short, and conducted through an inch of plexiglass, but it was still a reprieve from the empty silence of my desk and it was—in its own weird way—good, calming.
One of my last days in the office I came in to find a man sitting in my chair. I was proprietorial about that chair. In the absence of somewhere to sit, I stood as he—suited, fake-tanned, unusually rockstar-like for someone in finance— explained that he was the new accountant. The previous accountant had been ‘quietly excused’. He spoke in idle jargon, expressed compassion for the numbers—as if it was not the money’s fault it had been spent, as if we had no clue who had been spending it. Here was yet another trait my boss and I shared: hope so blind and useless it bordered on delusion. A new assistant, a new accountant, a whole new fantasy.
When I was in college my mother lost her job. The word ‘lost’ is apt here: that is what happened. It was outsourced somewhere cheaper; put in a place she couldn’t find. I like to think that as you get older every loss affects you less and less, but it is probably not the case. My mother’s time slowed. It must have slowed to an incredible pace about which I had no idea. Because, for me, things accelerated—I finished college, I graduated, I graduated again, I dithered, I did paperwork, I went to New York. I wound up on a bad Skype line to her, her voice far away but full of mercy and kindness—both of us so grateful that we didn’t have to look at each other—as we tried to talk graciously about failure.