Vomiting at the Unemployment Office


“I won! I finished dressing first!” I was so proud of myself for being the first one in the house ready to go out. I could never understand why it took my mom so long to get dressed until the first time I witnessed her whole routine. Sitting cross-legged on her bed, elbows on my knees, I watched in awe as she expertly applied layer upon layer of makeup in a procedure seemingly as complex as turning Robin Williams into Mrs. Doubtfire. The moisturizer, the foundation, the pancake, all smoothed to perfection before the colors were applied. The Clinique samples, spread out on her cherry dresser, thankfully covered the dent I made when I accidentally dropped her prized Lalique perfume bottle, the one I knew better than to play with. Mesmerized by her daily routine, I prayed she wouldn’t mention my transgression again as I sat there, watching, learning.

After the lipstick, the rouge, the eye shadow and mascara met Mom’s approval, we were ready to go. I wasn’t sure what to think or where to look while standing in the unemployment line with my mother. Staring at my black patent leather Mary Janes, I clung to my Mom’s side as she proudly stood in her high heeled pumps, sporting her favorite herringbone suit she probably bought out-of-season for 75% off Bloomingdale’s suggested retail price. I can picture her leather pocketbook wedged tightly in the crook of her arm while we waited patiently to pick up her weekly check.

I’ll never forget that smoke-filled room with its paint chipped walls and orange plastic chairs bolted to the floor. Many of the people in line wore Levi’s and faded tee shirts emblazoned with team names like the one I wore at my summer day camp. Others donned skirts or slacks with crisp white shirts. Mom wouldn’t let me sit down or touch anything. She said the seats were dirty. I wasn’t allowed to make eye contact with anyone, but they stared at us. I felt different.

I sensed heads turn toward us when it was my mom’s turn at the counter. I stared at my shoes as Mom politely answered the woman’s questions. “Yes, I’ve been looking for work.” I wasn’t sure why I felt so uncomfortable at the time, although I knew I didn’t want to go back. After she received her check she explained to me that she had paid into the system and now it was time to get her money back.

With the check securely locked in her purse, we spent the afternoon at the Short Hills Mall. She shopped and treated me to ice cream. Before returning home Mom reminded me, “Don’t tell your father what we bought. I’ll hide the bill when it comes in the mail.”

Years later I felt like I was following in Mom’s footsteps when I found myself in the unemployment line soon after the Pittsburgh Press proclaimed: Record Unemployment. Calling me into his corner office, I assumed my manager wanted me to feel special as he sat me down and told me, “You’re not being fired. You have been chosen as the employee we need to lay off.” “Why me?” I asked, surprised. I hadn’t seen this coming at all. “Mary complained you are making faces at her.”

How could I defend myself against this accusation? I was being let go because, apparently, I have no control what my face does. There are laws against discriminating on the basis of race, creed, color, age, disability, national origin, religion, military duty, genetics or gender. But to my knowledge, making involuntary facial expressions is not a protected class. Could it be a disability? I’ll need to find out.

My second week on unemployment I begged the nice woman in front of me to hold my place in line while I ran to the ladies room to vomit. Wondering if it was the fish I’d had for dinner or the thought of the taxidermist I passed on the way to unemployment, I had no clue. I knew this visit would not end at an ice cream parlor.

The following day, while fitting me for my first pair of contact lenses, my eye doctor stepped back while I unceremoniously passed out in his chair. Surrounded by all the machinery for fitting glasses, I found myself awakening to the smell of ammonia just like a fainting scene in a period movie . Where am I? What’s going on? “Don’t worry,” my eye doctor assured me. “Some of my most successful contact lens wearers pass out their first time. Maybe you’re hungry.”

After I returned to the eye doctor after polishing off a huge pastrami on rye with extra pickles, I couldn’t help but think the vomiting and the fainting were more than a coincidence. I couldn’t be pregnant, could I? I had been trying ever since my involuntary job lay off. My brain was spinning. In those days, before the convenience of home pregnancy tests, women wanted to be pretty sure before we ran to the doctor to get the news. At home that night, obsessing again about making that doctor’s appointment as I dipped my kosher dill pickle into ketchup, I started worrying what the doctor would say if I wasn’t pregnant. What if he thinks I’m crazy? Or worse, what if he said, “relax, it’ll happen.” Doctors always belittle my concerns.

Finally, after throwing up every day for nearly a week, convinced I had a bad case of the flu, I finally made that doctor’s appointment to find out what was wrong with me. Yes, the rabbit died! The following week I fully expected to vomit again at the unemployment agency.

Life is not always fair. I should not have been laid off. However, in the grand scheme of things, stuff happens for a reason. Looking back, this was meant to be.

Have you ever been unjustly “let go”? Please share.

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