Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Humiliations Galore

Will and I like to play a certain game when we’re out in public – restaurants, bookstores, theatres. It has no official title, but here’s the gist of it: we get points whenever someone recognizes us. At the end of the night, the person with the fewest points wins.

This game was my brainchild, forged during an anniversary dinner where no less than four people (coaches, parents, athletes) stood at the side of our table and chatted up Will, for an average of five minutes each. At the end of the night, I commented bitterly, “Will: 4, Paula: 0.” Then I put in a formal request for eating meals out of his jurisdiction.

My husband, for seventeen years, was a journalist at a daily paper with a circulation of around 90,000, give or take. For the last dozen years or so, he was on the high school sports beat, which put him in regular contact with the coaches, parents and athletes at about fifty-five high schools, not to mention potentially thousands of other readers who read his daily articles and weekly columns. In 2000, we decided to escape California for a European vacation. With Dad D. and Heather as my witnesses, we were in a hotel lobby in San Francisco when I said, “The best thing about this vacation is that for a month we’re not going to see anyone we know.” And then the elevator door opened and a husky guy (wrestling coach, I later learned) stepped out and said, “Will!”

Fast forward a decade.

Will and I were at P. Wexford’s Tuesday night, well into our second pints of Guinness and a punishing trivia loss, when I leaned across the booth. “Do those people at the next table look familiar?” I’d been watching them out of the corner of my eye for a half pint now; I was sure I knew the man from somewhere, and the woman had a friendly, could-be-familiar face.

Will squinted in their direction. “Yeah, but I don’t know from where.”

We continued to answer trivia questions wrong. Apparently we should have brushed up on our Puxatony Phil knowledge, and one of these days I need to memorize birthstones by month.

And then suddenly, the man leaned over. “Will! I don’t know if you remember me… Steve Garfield*.” (*Name has been changed to protect my fragile ego.)

Ahhh, shit. Suddenly, it all came back to me.

A while back, I interviewed for a part-time English teaching job at a local high school. This man was the vice principal; he led the interview. To tell the truth, it was the salary I craved, not the job. Right now I’m substitute teaching and finishing my thesis… I can’t imagine what life would be like were I to bring home a few hundred essays a week to boot. But at the time, I was completely committed. I wore a suit, sharp heels, carried my most expensive purse. I fielded questions like a pro. I rattled off my accomplishments as if they were nothing – six years of yearbook, four years as department chair. I have a cleared credential. I am CLAD certified. And then… I didn’t get the job. Actually, I didn’t even get a phone call saying I didn’t get the job, I had to call them.

“Look, I probably didn’t get the job,” I said by phone after four days. Steve had mentioned that a decision would be made within two or three days. “And that’s fine. I just figured if I did get the job, I needed to start planning right away. That’s just how I work.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “We can’t divulge the status of employment applications. That’s an issue for the HR department.”

“I’m not going to come down there with a gun or anything,” I said. “I just want to know.” After all, I’d waited for an hour for my appointment (English teachers do love the sounds of their own voices), then interviewed for another forty-five minutes. An hour and forty-five minutes of my life, and I wasn’t entitled to a quick “yes” or “no” by phone?

Tonight, at Wexford’s, I suddenly prayed hard for invisibility. I was wearing jeans, flats, sparkly lip gloss. Maybe I wouldn’t be recognized?

“Oh, and I remember you,” Steve Garfield said, nodding at me. “Paula interviewed for an English position,” he announced to his companion, to Will, to the world at large.

I smiled back, took a drink. “Yes – hello.”

He made small talk with Will. I checked my cell phone, pretending I had a busy social life.

And then, inexplicably, the conversation came back to me. “You were really good in that interview,” Steve Garfield said. “You know, I think we interviewed” – don’t say it, please – “about a dozen people that day. Very competitive.”

I smiled. Will paid the bill.

“Nice to see you again,” Will and I said in chorus, standing. We shook hands all around.

“Keep us in mind, Paula, if you’re ever looking for a job,” he said.

I smiled again, held in my words until we were outside, out of earshot. And then I let them fly. Keep us in mind???

But on the way home, we laughed. Will pointed out that there could be one person on earth that you just don’t want to see, and sure enough, when you turn a corner, there he is. Why is that, exactly? Why doesn’t the universe serve up a dose of a long-lost childhood friend or a college roommate now living half a country away, someone who could cheer me up or remind me that I’m not such a bad person after all?

We left with a tied score tonight. The me from a few months back would still be burning with humiliation as I type these words. But the me from today shucks it off her back. I’m a writer now, after all.