Suddenly Unemployed

Mussels in Beer

“It’s just not a good fit,” she says matter-of-factly.

I’m in my supervisor’s office, completely floored by this simple sentence. I’m suddenly queasy, and my mouth tastes bitter, as though I’ve eaten a soft cheese a few days past its prime.

She assures me during our short meeting that I’m quite capable and a pleasure to work with. “It’s not you; it’s us. It’s…this place,” she says, fluttering her hands above her head. “It’s just not a good match for your many talents.”

It’s not you. It’s me. It was a crappy excuse when Danny Kramer used it to break up with me in high school. (The boy was so deep in the closet, he’d often stumble into Narnia.) And it’s a crappy excuse now, when it’s used to let go of a dedicated, overqualified, devilishly good-looking employee. But that’s just how it goes. (On the plus side, Danny Kramer later gained 40 pounds. Here’s hoping there’s a corporate equivalent.)

What’s worse—or, if you’re one of those nauseating glass-is-half-full people, what’s better—is that I completely agree with her. It isn’t, er, wasn’t a good fit. I’m an experienced nonprofit office manager with a master’s degree and 10 years’ experience. They need a bank teller, preferably one they can pay five dollars less an hour. I just wish we’d all arrived at this conclusion months ago, before I left a feel-good gig I adored for a more “adult” position that looked smart on paper and lured me with health care and other things we’re encouraged as adults to pursue, even at the cost of our own happiness.

I exit my supervisor’s office in as jovial a mood as I can muster. After handing over my keys and giving one or two hugs goodbye, I cross the parking lot and crawl into the privacy of my car. The second the door shuts, I begin to sob, suddenly grateful for the first time since high school that I got the windows tinted.

Twenty minutes and a soaking shirtsleeve later, I pull myself together enough to call my husband and am promptly reminded why I married him. His response is anger at my employer (“those uppity sacks of [REDACTED]”), tenderness toward me (“I love you, and we will get through this”), and sarcasm at large (”this experience will at least make you a better writer”). He assures me that between his job and our savings, we won’t starve. “Plus, there’s unemployment insurance. You’ll finally get the opportunity to try government cheese,” he jokes. “You can see if you can make a fondue recipe out of it or something,” he adds helpfully.

We hang up, and I steel myself for feelings of shame, guilt, fear, and self-loathing. I do my best to banish them to the same part of my mind where I’ve buried my memories of middle school and the fourth season of Felicity.

That’s when I see them. Faces. Staring at me from the passenger seat. There must be a dozen framed photos of loved ones in the personal effects I collected from my desk and piled into an empty copy-paper box. I want nothing more than for the people in those pictures to offer me consolation, but no matter how much I will them to do so, their photos do no such thing. And it’s too soon to call anyone. Telling any of these people what’s happened feels like an admission of complete and total failure. Can’t have that. I keep my phone in my pocket. I’m just not ready to talk to anyone besides my husband.

Instead, I console myself with what I know these individuals would say. Mom would tell me it’s God opening a window. My friend Jill would begin job-hunting for me. My writing partner, Stephanie, would curse and threaten to hack my former employer’s computer systems.

A full hour after I crawl into the car, finally calm enough to drive, I suddenly realize that I’ve been parked in sight of my old office for my entire breakdown. I turn the key, ready to go home at 11:30 in the morning.

I would’ve thought that during such an emotional haze, my source of comfort would be bed, my two overweight cats, my corgi, and maybe a package of Oreos. Strangely, I end up driving not home but to the local fine-foods market. Shows what I know. Comfort, for me, apparently, can be found at the fish case of Taylor’s Market. Learn something new about yourself every day. I instinctively buy two pounds of ebony moules.

Cheap and easy to prepare, mussels always bring me back to a familiar place when life gets crazy. Then I grab a six-pack of Belgian beer, some pancetta, a boule, and a few other ingredients I need to recreate a dish I was once served at a local restaurant. I’d made it at home before, and it’d quickly become a comforting weeknight staple. Garlicky, bitter, and with the bite of mustard, it demands your attention. All of your attention. And if there’s one thing I want at this moment, it’s to give all my attention to anything. Anything at all.

Once home, I dump the mussels in some ice water, pop open a beer, and take a swig. Normally I have a firm policy of never drinking alone, but the mussels are there with me—my own personal pity party. Besides, I gotta say, I’m more than a little proud that I’ve so quickly learned to legitimize drinking at one in the afternoon.

As I drain the moules, the cold water having seduced them into giving up their sand, I realize something. She was wrong. My supervisor, that is. This is about me. Or I should say, it’s gonna be all about me. This is my chance to not take just any job offer. This time I’m going to further my career. Positive thinking floods in, yet strangely, I don’t feel like hurling. I silently declare that I’m going to own this next stage of life. I drain the mussels, dump some ice on them, and set them aside till later. Then I sit down and bang out a résumé that glimmers like bone china. That’s better.

“Sorry, guys,” I say to the mussels. And with that I banish my pity party, tossing them into a pot fragrant with onions, stone-ground mustard, ale, and too much garlic for anyone of a delicate constitution, “But thanks for having a drink with me.”

Preparing mussels is simple cooking at its best, requiring only a smidge of attention and a modest layering of ingredients before the mussels’ saline liquor mingles with the porky cologne of pancetta and the aroma of pungent garlic. To me, this is the scent of rejuvenation, the taste of anima—of life—that satisfies the soul.

A few minutes and a flurry of chopped parsley later, my revivification is served straight from the pot with some of that boule to mop up the juices and a fourth bottle of beer. Whereas the mussels and mustard seed–flecked broth are an easy fit for anyone, for any occasion, for any reason, I am not. I understand this. And I’ll come to accept that soon. I tell myself that this is an opportunity to find where I’m going to fit and where my talents won’t go to waste, fluttering my hands in the air, each clutching an empty obsidian shell for emphasis.

I take one more look at my résumé, my broth-soaked fingers dampening it with palomino stains. Reading it through one more time, I affirm to myself that I’m not a loser. I even begin to believe myself just a little. I imagine there’ll be another teary breakdown in the next day. Food, even your favorite food, doesn’t necessarily fix anything. It’s food. It’s not a dream job or a fix for marital woes or a new transmission for your broken-down car. It can, however, sufficiently buoy spirits to make even an untenable situation more manageable, to find an excuse for joy in even the most dire situation.

As I see it, there’s nothing more to do but to approach tomorrow with tenacity. After, that is, I pluck a few more moules from their shells.

[Editor’s Note: We, like you, have been wishing Garrett well and hoping he’d landing himself a good gig. And we’ve some swell news to report. Garrett just updated us with the following: “I have a new job in admin and development at B Street Theatre in Sacramento. It’s a nonprofit theatre that brings the arts to school children and pediatric wards. It’s pretty damn awesome, especially as we’re often the only arts program that the kids get for the entire year.” Moral of the story, we guess, is that if you need a new career, perhaps you should consider eating more obsidians….]



  1. This piece should be in a collection of essays about unemployment and finding a new path: contemporarily relevant, witty, meaningful, and beautifully written.

  2. Love it. I’ve been faced with this situation in my life, and its always the “It’s not you, it’s me” BS and you do just have to put everything in frame and realize “HEY, I’m going to be fine, it really was me, I was unhappy and I’m glad they let me go!” Congrats on the new job!!

  3. I’m so in awe of your writing. You’re such a storyteller! And I’m so happy that you got a new job. Good luck! And bring on the mussels! 😀

  4. Love your writing and congratulations on your new job. This reminded me of a patient years ago we had. She needed two surgeries – right away. No way, she was going to Hawaii, eat lobsters and come back a week later. She didn’t care what we said – she was going. A week later, she returned, checked in – lo and behold some things improved, she only needed one surgery (not 2). She made a believer out of me that in time of stress, take a deep breath (or go to Hawaii), find foods of great comfort (mussels, lobsters or great chocolate cake with a big scoop of ice cream) and life will begin to look up again.

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