Most people would assume that their family and friends really know them. But that is not always the case; at least it isn’t with me, not anymore. They only know what used to be my reality—and oh, how I wish it still was. But things have changed, and the truth is, even if I wanted to explain in all the ways in which my life is different, I wouldn’t know where to begin. I can barely make sense of it myself.
“Mom, you’ve been working hard enough. Please take a break now.” I pleaded for what seemed like the gazillionth time while fiddling with my tiny camcorder.
“I’m okay, Jennifer. This needs to be done, and I want the new occupant to be happy,” she replied, and continued wiping down the marble slab of my kitchen counter. “I like all your cleaning supplies. Everything I wipe sparkles. I’ve never had marble in any home I’ve lived in.” Yes, you live a more modest lifestyle than me, Mother. I get that. “By the way, where are the kids, and the baby?”
“They’re with Rafaela, over at the new house. She’s getting them all settled in.”
“You’re so lucky to have such a good nanny, dear.”
“Au pair, Mother.”
“Okay, au pair, whatever. It’s the same thing, really. I was talking to my friend Mary Ellen about it and she said it is very difficult to find a well qualified one. You’re very lucky to have found one through that service of yours. Make sure you treat her well.”
“I plan on it. We really appreciated Nunya, and I’m sure we’ll appreciate Rafaela as well.”
“By the way, is that refrigerator staying?” Mom pointed to my beautiful Sub-Zero refrigerator in the corner.
“No, Mother. That one cost me six grand, and I’m definitely taking it. The movers will be here in a minute to move the remaining boxes, and my refrigerator.”
“I’ll stick around to make sure I clean behind it.”
“You think it’s dirty back there?” I asked.
“It’s just inevitable, dear. Don’t take it so personally.”
I laughed. “I won’t, but I just don’t want to work my mother to the bone. I can do that stuff, or hire someone to do it.”
“That would be silly. After all, I’m perfectly willing.”
My kitchen looked cleaner than it had looked in a long time, and I scanned it, feeling sad for a bit. I’d designed the kitchen and picked out all the appliances myself. It had been an all-consuming and exciting project for me. Now, it was time to move on to my new kitchen. It was beautiful and grand, yes, but it wasn’t designed by me. I was a bit surprised that I felt so attached to a kitchen. Ed would have a good chuckle if I confessed that one, or remind me that I’d told the kids that they’d love their new home and rooms. I’d feel the same way.
My camcorder was finally on, and I left Mom to her cleaning and began walking around the house. I went toward my master bedroom, the place where Ed, the kids, and I had spent many fun Saturday mornings laughing, watching cartoons, and chatting. It was my favorite time of the week because we could all be together at the beginning of the day and not running around like a bunch of lunatics—at least for an hour or so. I started videotaping, capturing the elegance of my creation. I wanted lots and lots of memories of this house; it had been our first big symbol of financial success. I already knew I had lucked out with my husband and kids, but the house represented a lot of hard work and dedication to my career too.
Ed and I used to joke that our house was one big remodeling project, and that we’d never be happy with it until the day we moved. Now, as I walked through the nearly empty rooms, I realized for the first time how true those words had been, how much I loved the house, and that I was far more connected to it than I ever would have imagined. Making this house what I envisioned it was a huge project. Let’s just say that I knew the layout, as well as every nook and cranny of Home Depot and Lowes. If they had a plaque for customer of the month, I could have won every month for a good many years. At the time, I had felt overwhelmed, yet somehow the thought of moving into a new home, with need for improvements of any kind, made me a bit melancholy.
I continued my tour, my trip down memory lane. I pointed the lens of the camcorder at every object, talking about what it was, and what it meant to me. “Look at these faucets. A combination of brass and gold. All American Standard. The shower, a big head on the roof, two on each side, the wall is of beige Italian marble. The counter. It’s called emerald green marble, though it really looks black, and it’s an exact copy of the one I saw in an Architectural Digest.”
I left the master bath, having discussed every aspect of it down to the reason for the color of paint, then walked back through the bedroom and out the double French doors to the veranda. It was adorned with stately pillars and balusters that gave it a regal look. For the past ten summers, this place had been my sanctuary. I remembered watching the kids play down below. Most of the time, they didn’t even know I was there, and they were so happy and carefree. It always brought a joyful tear to my eyes, and reminded me of just how precious life was, and how very fortunate I was to have the one I did. Then there were those times when I went out on the veranda just to be alone and decompress. It always helped ground me, and made me realized that I was blessed to do what I loved, making me appreciate my opportunities in life. Now you’re moving on, Jennifer. You’ll be making new memories there, and they will be equally wonderful.
The movie of my memories abruptly ended when I heard Mom calling out for me. “Jen, the moving guys are here.”
This was their second day of moving my family to our new residence. The five heavily-built men were lighthearted and polite, probably because they had already moved all the heavy furniture— a major project in itself—the day before. Today was the light day, and I’d be willing to bet their muscles were thankful for that. Heck, I’d only packed boxes and moved a few things here and there and my body felt it. All that was left today were the things that Ed and I had accumulated over the past ten years. When we’d moved into this house we didn’t have a lot of extras, but that had changed apace with our climbing salaries. There were boxes for seasonal clothes, purses, shoes, handbags, toys, sports gear, and jewelry, not to mention the safes for important documents and other valuables. And then there was the mega shed, which was mega full of every type of lawn tool one could imagine—more specifically, that Ed could imagine. If it had been up to me I would have hired a lawn service. But for him, lawn work was time to wind down and get some fresh air after a long day at work. I couldn’t begrudge him his toys, or the time he spent with them, because he was so amazing to me and the kids.
I pointed the movers to a closet and told them it was full of boxes. I’d had to keep them out of sight of Caleb, my third child, because he was a handful and kept unpacking everything. I think I repacked that one box of toys at least ten times. It was frustrating at the time, but now I found it endearing, and that, from his perspective, really made a lot of sense. He didn’t get that those toys would be unpacked at a new house with a play room three times the size of the current one. He would love it when he saw it, I just knew it.
After the toys had been loaded onto the truck, I told the movers which boxes were fragile. They estimated it would take them about two hours, which meant that in two hours I would be saying goodbye to the home that had helped build my family, and had given me so much joy.
The buyer’s realtor arrived next. I felt jealous as her slender hand grabbed the chrome handle of my Monogram oven to inspect the inside. “Looking good,” she said, clucking her teeth, and my mother beamed with pride. She had obviously done a wonderful job cleaning—no surprise there. I handed the woman the keys as per my realtor’s request, and we shook hands. She wished me much happiness in my new home. It made my eyes well up with tears, which I carefully hid from my mom.
Well, that was it. One chapter of my life was down, and another was about to begin. Mom and I pulled out of the driveway, and made our way to my new home. I wondered how Ed had felt this morning as he left, knowing he was leaving the house for the last time. Knowing him, he was much less emotional about it than I; he was always looking forward to the future.
Don’t get me wrong. I was also very excited about the move, and looking forward to showing Mom the new house. We drove the twenty-five minutes from my old address on Parker Street to the circular driveway of my new home in Tassajara Hills. This was the status home, the one that showed that Ed and I had really arrived. Our new neighbors would include the richest of the rich in Silicon Valley, including CEOs of Fortune 100 companies and NFL and Sharks players. Our Parker Street neighbors were well off, but they certainly didn’t have the sort of wealth we’d be surrounded by now.
“Oh my God!” my mother exclaimed as we pulled up to the house. I looked at her casually, thinking her reaction was everything I’d expected. And hoped for. It was the same reaction I’d had when I first saw this house. It was a house that dreams were made of, the sort featured in magazines like Better Homes and Gardens and Architectural Digest.
Ed’s car was already there, and my daughters, Emma and Emily, on the side of the house, wide-eyed as they explored their new territory. I could already see the games they’d play forming in their minds—tag in the enormous yard, hide and go seek among the rocks of the perfect landscaping. Rafaela was a few steps behind, carrying baby Caleb and watching the two run wild. They’d just made their way into the garden, and were shouting out that they wanted to plant some pumpkins. Hopefully they don’t think I possess that skill.
From the other side of the circular drive, Ed waved and hollered hello. The lead mover was standing by him, obviously wrapping up the details of the move, so I left him alone. My sights went back to my mother, who was so filled with joy and big smiles that I could practically hear her unspoken thoughts. My dear daughter. My dear Jennifer. My very successful daughter.
Mom and I walked through the massive double doors, both taking time to pause and look around. The foyer made quite an impression, with a chandelier that was larger than my old walk-in closet, and that was pretty large. To the right was a huge spiral staircase adorned with wrought iron railings, topped with rich mahogany wood. The stairs themselves were wide, thick, and majestic, with a runner of lush wine-colored carpeting running up them. To the left was a study area, which had an entire wall of rich, walnut built-ins. It was beautiful, and I remembered how Ed’s face lit up when he saw it.
Even though I had seen it all before, I was speechless—as was my mother—as we took in the beauty all around us. Straight ahead was a very wide hallway, which led back to the kitchen, dining area, living room, and recreation room. As far as I was concerned, the back of the house was the crown jewel. It was made entirely of glass, and overlooked a large backyard with a zero edge pool, rock formations, and a play system that was larger than the ones at most any park. And then there was the outside kitchen and living room, just to the left of the al fresco kitchen. I imagined fun holiday events out here with all of my favorite people. We’d laugh, talk, and the kids would run around screaming. It would be absolutely magical.
Finally Mom broke the silence, with another, “Oh my God, Jen!” I’d been looking forward to her shock, but now I really didn’t know how to respond to it, so I didn’t say a word. Instead, I decided to save the back of the house for last and silently led her up the grand staircase to the bedrooms. My mother breathed in deeply, a sure sign that she was calculating what she planned to say. “Dear, I know this house is grand, but I hope you didn’t pay the asking price. Were you able to negotiate?”
I was dumbfounded when Mom asked that. She’d always preached that our finances were our business, and she would never overstep her boundaries. It was odd, but explained easily when I looked in her hand. I realized that when I pulled into the circular driveway, the FOR SALE sign was still there. Mom had grabbed one of the flyers and was staring down at it.
“O-Of course, Mother.” I hope she didn’t detect any uncertainty. “But just a little bit. I know it’s a buyer’s market right now, but the Bay Area is not affected by the ups and downs of the housing market. You know that. It’s immune to this bad economy. Come, let me show you around.” I showed her the upstairs, and then took her downstairs to the media center, and the small theatre off to the side. Then there was the game room too, plus a sauna off in the corner. Mom entered each room with another gasp, another Oh My God! What would she think when she saw the back of the house, the yard? I had a pretty good idea.
I was an exceptional time manager, but nothing could prepare a woman for entertaining two families on a few weeks’ notice, especially when you also have to unpack, plan, and work. But as usual, I was aiming for perfection and not willing to settle for anything less. From the day we moved in, I made sure that I was effectively using every minute of my time wisely. Poor Ed, he had doubts, but knew better than to express them to me aloud. That was one of the things I loved about him.
After several days of running myself ragged, I had to concede that there was more to do than a twenty-four-hour day allowed. Ed smiled when I decided to take some vacation time from Tri-Tech, my employer for the past fifteen years. I rarely took time off and had accrued plenty of days, along with various bonuses for my dedication. This was the first time that I could remember that I needed a vacation; usually I just wanted a day or two.
Still, with everything I had to do, I knew I was extremely fortunate. I was married to one of the best chefs in the Bay Area, who worked at one of the finest restaurants, and I especially appreciated this during the holidays. Whereas most chefs had to work through the busy season, Ed had enough clout to stay home and cook for us. He brined two twenty-five-pound turkeys overnight, and prepared a feast of mashed potatoes, a divine pasta salad, garlic bread, sweet yams, dinner rolls, cookies, and eggnog—all from scratch. Me, I threw together a green salad and bought pumpkin pies and a case of wine at Costco. There had never been any doubt that Ed was a master at the domestic stuff, while I was…not. I know, shame on me, but I enjoyed our arrangement, and he did too.
Words quickly spread about my grand domicile, making our families anxious for the party. There were even a few distant relatives added to the mix. My parents arrived first. They were with my cousin, Beatrice, who was visiting from Southern California. Then my in-laws and Ed’s seven siblings, all of them married with children, arrived, followed by my brother and his own wife and kids. I saw lots of jaw-dropping as soon as they entered, and it did embarrass me a bit. The look was something that I wasn’t quite used to, yet.
“What’s over there?” Cousin Bea asked.
Oh-oh. Think, Jen, think of a good excuse. I raised both my hands to give a stop sign. “That part of the house is off limits for now. We have a contractor repairing the floor and fixing a massive glass wall. It’s very messy.” The truth was, there was something about my living arrangement that I would rather not reveal.
Bea stepped forward as if to ignore what I had just said. I grabbed her by the shoulder. “No-no! It’s dangerous there.”
“I just want to peek,” she said, pointing at the glass window.
I spread my arms to stop her… them, actually. “Sorry, that glass is unstable. If the kids see you looking in there, they’ll want to too, and it really isn’t safe.” Thankfully, Bea finally nodded her head and walked, somewhat reluctantly, away. I knew she thought I was acting just a little bit crazy, but I really didn’t care. Beatrice was loud, obnoxious, and likely to try to either embarrass me or dominate the conversation.
An hour later, after we were finally done touring my palace, dinner was served. My formal dining table, one similar to those you see on Americas Castles, sat under a massive crystal chandelier and seated twenty people. Ed had arranged other small tables and chairs for the little ones. The kids’ table had always been a big deal when I was young, and I was glad to see that Emily and Emma had also embraced it. Rafaela, bless her heart, had said she’d eat at that table too so she could watch over everyone. I’d offered her a paid holiday, silently pleading with her not to turn me down. I was glad to pay the fat bonus rather than worry about keeping an eye on all the kids.
“Geez, Jennifer,” Beatrice said, “If you used me to handle your loan I would have made tons of money. And you know, I would have been happy to split it with you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said curtly. “But we used Ed’s cousin. She lives close by.”
I knew she was trying to make me feel guilty. I’d forgotten she was even in the business, but the truth was, I wouldn’t have used her anyway. I had never gotten along all that well with Beatrice. I hardly ever saw her and didn’t even think of her unless my mother brought her up.
Beatrice shrugged, then reached to pluck a plump grape from a bowl of fruit. “So, how much did you slash off the price?”
Ooooh, I wanted to strangle her. She was the nosiest people I’d ever known—always had been. The worst was when Ed and I got married; she’d had a million questions, beginning with how much we had spent on the wedding and ending with how much Ed and I made, saying she had the right program for saving for our first home.
“Oh, I had a great realtor,” I replied, a bit brusquely, hoping to avoid further questions. “She handled all those details. Now, let’s enjoy this amazing Christmas Eve, shall we? ” I sipped my red wine, trying to indicate that the conversation of my house and finances was over.
I thought Beatrice had gotten the hint, but no. The inquisition continued all night, under the glow of the massive chandelier. “I hope you got a good rate for your loan. How much is your monthly?”
I don’t usually wish harm on anyone, but found myself gazing at the chandelier, thinking if it fell on her, I wouldn’t have to deal with anymore questions. But since that wasn’t going to happen, I’d have to find another way to shut her up.
“Huge. I won’t be retiring anytime soon.” I forced a smile. “Mmmm, isn’t this a juicy turkey.”
“Yes, yes,” everyone else chipped in. I had a feeling that they were sick of Beatrice’s incessant questioning too. Why couldn’t she take their lead? Thankfully, my distraction technique worked. Everyone started talking about what happened to them this past year, the food, and sharing stories from Christmases long ago.
Later that night, while I was enjoying my red wine, feet on the ottoman, Beatrice sat next to me. Oh, My Lord, why won’t she just go away?
“I’m so glad Auntie Adelle invited me here. I really wanted to see your mansion.”
“I’m glad you made it, Bea.” I lied, and sipped some of the red liquid, hoping it would keep me calm. Nosey bitch.
“I want to tell you about this new program where you don’t have to pay your mortgage. All you need is ten-thousand dollars and you’ll own your home. It has to do with patenting your land by declaring sovereignty. I took the liberty of doing a land check on this place before I came over, and it appears that you’re not listed as the owner yet. That is pretty serious. You need to protect your property.”
“Why would you do that, and what are you talking about?” My mind drifted to the living arrangement that I did not wish to discuss.
“You’re my cousin, Jen. I try to look out for you.”
I smiled, not buying it for a second.
She continued. “A land patent ensures that if you ever hit hard economic times and can’t sell your home, you cannot be foreclosed upon. It takes priority over any mortgage, property taxes, or other liabilities that may be out there. It’s becoming increasingly common now due to the tough economy, especially here in California. Can you imagine if you lost your home because you didn’t take advantage of this simple, completely legal, protection?”
I felt my heart begin to pound. I think I even stopped breathing for a moment. It was like Beatrice had just placed a lump of coal in my Christmas stocking. I looked at her, mouth open wide like a dead fish at the market, unable to say a word.
I got up and gave my parents tight, grateful hugs. “’Night, Mom, Dad, Merry Christmas, and please say hello to Uncle Brandon for me.”
I hugged Bea quickly, barely patting her back. “It’s good seeing you again, cousin.” Then I turned my head before she could respond and moved on to my other guests, who were ready to leave as well. As I kissed them one by one, I managed to put Bea’s words out of my mind so nobody would see I was rattled. Ten minutes later the last guest left and I closed my massive mahogany front door, locking it and putting on the security system. Finally, it was just me, Ed, Rafaela and the kids. I sighed with exhaustion after the long day and relief that I hadn’t let anything slip about my big secret.
I heard Emma ask, “Mommy, how is Santa going to get in if you have the alarm system on?”
I smiled down at my sweet little lady and without missing a beat, said, “I sent him the code, dear. He’ll be just fine. Plus, the chimney doesn’t have an alarm in it.”
As usual, I had all bases covered.
“Wow. And to what do I owe this surprise?”
“Just for being you. Can’t I cook for you?”
“Umm…not usually,” Ed joked, leaning in to give me a kiss.
“Very funny. I’m serving up the food. You get the coffee, okay?”
“No problem.” He walked towards the counter, to the coffee maker. “Don’t you have to go to work today?”
“I’m working from home this morning. I thought I’d finally take advantage of that flex schedule they’re so proud of. We’ll see how it goes, but I’m kind of attached to my office, you know.”
“I do know.” Ed placed the mugs of coffee and the dining table and sat down on the chair. “Well, I have to eat fast. I have to get to the restaurant early and start experimenting for the fall menu. I need to have it set by mid-August.”
“Oooh…I love experiment time. I always benefit from it.”
Rafaela brought Caleb in, and we all sat down together, enjoying our breakfast and laughing as he dove into his cereal and green grapes. He was so cute and chubby, and definitely loved to eat. Rafaela would take him to a play group in about an hour, just before my conference call was set to start. As soon as she took him upstairs to get dressed, I turned back to Ed.
“Oh, I know what I forgot to tell you. I called RCI earlier and it doesn’t look like we’ll be able to go to Spain this Christmas. Maybe next year. Or do you think we should try a different time of year, one that is less busy? There were only one-bedrooms left, and fitting us all in one room wouldn’t be much of a holiday.” I smiled ruefully.
“I think we should just put Spain on hold. There is so much going on, and we both agreed that our priority is the credit settlement so we can get back on track, start saving, and buy a house sooner rather than later. Even with your points, we’d still have to pay for airfare and spending money. That sure isn’t cheap.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But I am not accruing vacation time anymore, and I don’t want to waste what we’ve worked so hard to earn.”
“Can you sell them? Our points?” Ed asked.
For a brief moment, my heart sank. Goodbye Spain, but then I realized that once again Ed was right, and selling that vacation time would be a smart move. “That’s a good idea. That’ll give me extra cash for paying down some of the bills, and maybe even a little extra fun money if I’m lucky.”
“Remember, if that happens we should save it for a down payment.” Ed stared at me from across the kitchen table.
“We need a plan,” I said, grabbing a pen and my notebook that was lying on the edge of the table, refusing to accept that I may have to give up fun. As for the conveniently placed notebook, I’d developed a habit of keeping it close by so I didn’t forget the things I needed to tend to in my busy life.
“Hon, I called the debt settlement place that we talked about,” Ed blurted. “I spoke with them before we left for Lake Tahoe.”
I looked up at him, surprised at his statement. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wanted you to relax and enjoy the weekend. That’s all.”
“Okay then. So what did they tell you?”
“I found out some information on how it works. Here’s the deal. They get copies of all our debts, especially the credit cards, and then they will contact the debtors on our behalf and try to negotiate the best settlements. They charge a fee for this service, depending on how much we owe. We put our money in a fund which they have access to, and they disburse them according to the agreements.”
“Do you think that’s wise to trust someone else with our finances?” I asked, realizing the folly of my question. I certainly hadn’t done a great job of it.
“They are the professionals. Plus, it doesn’t negatively impact you the way bankruptcy does. We could be done within a year and start rebuilding our credit. They also mentioned something about the house in Las Vegas when I explained that situation.”
Ed took a sip of his coffee. “They said it’s better that we short sale it at the same time we set up the payments with them. That will give us the maximum time to rebound and start building our credit back up.”
“And you think this is all a better idea?” I pursed my lips, then continued. “What about if I borrow from my 401K to pay the bills down?”
“We can’t do that. We already blew through the investments I had. We need something to retire on, and with the penalties I think you’d have to wipe out over half of your retirement to make a positive dent in it all. You don’t want to eliminate fifteen years of hard work.”
I’d started researching short sales a bit after the message from our Vegas realtor, and from what I understood, they were not as detrimental as a bankruptcy. I guessed if it had to be done it was better to do it now and not procrastinate. It’s like ripping of a band-aid. The quicker you do it the sooner the pain is over. Plus, after the settlement we’d have nearly two years to repair our credit and prepare for home ownership again.
As soon as we were done with breakfast, we drafted our plan:
Purpose: To buy a house in two years:
Things to do now:
Well, that was it. Our simple precise action plan. Ed left for work feeling relieved about what we’d agreed to. I was preparing to have my conference call, and as soon as it was done I’d call Laura to get the ball rolling with the short sale, and then I’d inquire RCI about selling my vacation points. If it didn’t work there, I’d put it on Craiglist or one of those timeshare sites. Something would come of it.
Two hours later my meeting wrapped and I was calling Laura, eager to let her know that we’d taken her up on her advice. I couldn’t wait for this to get going so we could get it all over with.
Imagine my surprise when our simple new plan, barely two hours old, immediately became complicated. It turned out that Laura didn’t do short sales. She referred us to the “short sale queen”-- her words-- Marlene Tobias, to whom I relayed the sordid details of my lousy financial picture. The queen informed me that short sales were not as easy as 1-2-3. They were more like a math equation for nuclear physics.
Marlene forwarded me a link, and told me to get back to her after Ed and I reviewed it. I looked it over briefly, realizing that I had to get to work for the afternoon. It was going to be a long day. I was nervous, edgy, and didn’t know if I could keep my cool until Ed got home and we reviewed it together. My mind was working faster than my eyes, and even my hands. It was single- handedly the most unproductive Monday I’d ever had in my life, including when I was pregnant with Emma, past my due date, and waiting to go into labor.
That night, after the kids were in bed, Ed and I gathered around the computer in the office. Ed clicked on the link and began reading. The first step was to have the lender review our personal information to see if we fit the criteria for a short sale. We could print the form online, and start the entire process electronically. I liked that because I didn’t savor the thought of having that paperwork sitting around someplace where it may accidentally be seen by someone.
The next step was to transition the management of the property from the property manager to Marlene. We learned that we would have to pay the management company an early termination fee, and there went the first two months of savings. It sure was expensive to get out of debt.
I stared at the completed form, ready to check that I read and understood all the terms. After that, it would be pressing the submit button and everything would be started. It was with great pain that I checked that small box because it acknowledged that Ed and I would be able to pay 6% of the closing costs for recurring and non-recurring costs associated with the short sale. Those included unpaid association dues, homeowners insurance, and property taxes, plus some of the title escrow company costs associated with handling the transaction at closing. Nevertheless, we proceeded with a vengeance, we were that committed to getting out of this mess.
For the next few months, Ed and I were overwhelmed with paperwork from every angle. We needed to keep sending monthly statements and other documentation to the short sale company. We needed to keep filling out information for the debt settlement too, something else that was more detailed than just handing information over and letting them roll with it. One thing was for certain, it was not a joy to get the mail, or to see the green post-it note attached to our front door that said we needed to go to the post office to sign for something. Those were the worst. I’d eventually created a letter briefly explaining the circumstances of our hardship in brief to send in response. They never caught up with the right number, and the credit card companies were very shifty in having various departments call. Miraculously, they never saw the letter and would ask me to send it again, or they never got the settlement information. As far as the Vegas property went…our lender didn’t care about our intentions; they just wanted their money. They would not stop calling, but I could certainly stop answering. I had their number programmed in on my cell phone under “yuck”, and it was also “yuck” on the speed dial caller ID on the home phone.
What a difference six months made. We were safely ensconced in our new home on Lakeshore Drive. The rent was more affordable, and I was continuing to make payments toward the debt settlement. In fact, I even knocked off a couple of the debts already. The day we got the notification that the first one was squared away, Ed and I were on Cloud Nine. I’d also managed to reign in my spending bug, and I actually felt like I was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It still wasn’t to the point where I could go and enjoy the amazing art festivals, and wine tastings that started happening early this summer, but that was okay. I could skip those things, and the temptations they brought, for one year. Next year I’d be able to double up and have a grand time. Ed was the lucky one, because he often got to attend the wine-tastings so he could pre-order the best selections for the bistro. I was happy that at least he got to enjoy these things, and decided to keep my eyes on the prize: the day when we could once again buy our own home.
I booted up my computer and took a sip of my coffee, organizing my thoughts for the day and thinking about my role in the teleconference later that day. I heard Joshua’s phone ring.
“This is Joshua… Oh, hi, Kelsie.”
Kelsie! Oh, shit! I instantly felt a wave of nausea. I sat frozen the whole time Joshua was on the phone. Although I couldn’t hear Kelsie’s end of the conversation, Joshua’s silence seemed to say it all. I wasn’t the only one thinking it either. Andrea’s head had popped up from her cubicle, her eyes meeting mine. I knew we were thinking the same thing. Josh’s last words on the telephone were, “I got it.” Then he hung up and materialized at my doorway, and from the look on his face I knew that our hunches were accurate. He had been canned, downsized; he was the latest casualty of RIF.
Joshua broke the silence for us though. He said, “Let me tell you something. I’m not sure what’s going to happen with you guys. But if you’ve been offered the voluntary separation, take it. Because eventually you might find yourself part of the RIF, too. Plus, when it is a voluntary separation you get more on your severance package.”
“So, you were given an option?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, then breathed in deeply, trying to keep his emotions in check. “I’m sorry guys, I wasn’t expecting this.”
Andrea waved away his apology. I just realized that she was in my cube now. “When is it official?”
“In forty-five days.” Joshua sighed. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go call my wife and give her the news. I think it’s a conversation best had outside.” Joshua didn’t say another word, just turned and headed down the corridor with the slow, somber pace of a defeated man.
“He really didn’t expect this,” Andrea repeated.
“Obviously,” I said. Normally, whenever there was lay-off talk, Joshua was the one to calm the rest of us down. Now, he was the first one to be let go. “This sucks.”
Andrea nodded absently. “I can’t believe it.”
“I know, especially considering the amount of work we have right now.” Thank goodness I’d been given the new project.
“Yes,” she nodded again, “I just got the guidelines for a new cloud computing project. First meeting is tomorrow morning. How about you?”
“I’m on Maru’s team for a new project. It’s supposed to be a year long. We started on…” My phone buzzed. This time I didn’t bother to just think Oh shit in my head. I blurted it out.
Andrea and I stared at my buzzing phone as if it were venom. The name Kelsie Eaton was displayed on the screen, and I knew what was about to happen right then and there. My first instinct was to run and not answer it. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with what Kelsie—or The Axe, as I had begun to think of her—had to say. However, this was one thing that would definitely not go away just because I chose to ignore it. “Hello,” I said, realizing that my voice sounded both quiet and shaky.
“Hi Jennifer, Kelsie here. I’m sure you’ve heard about the reduction in force that is going on.” She paused, and I thought for a minute she would say something to soften the blow. She didn’t. “But… I’m sorry to tell you that your position has been affected… The VSP criteria were not based on performance… It was based on age and years of service… Your official date of termination is in forty-five days…”
My heart racing, I placed the phone down and went into analysis mode. Suddenly everything was quite clear. I had forty-five days to update my resume, pound the pavement, and get a new job. I was very qualified, and Tri-Tech was certainly going to give me a favorable letter of recommendation. I knew that I could keep working here, doing everything that had assigned to me for the next forty-five days, but the reality was that no one did that. Most people who spent their last month at the office were more of a reminder to everyone else that they could be next on the chopping block. They were fearful of what to do next, and how to go about it. I could not let that happen.
A sudden determined look came over my face. Or maybe I was just trying to appear brave because I knew Andrea had heard. When I looked up she was staring at me, her face tense, like a grimace.
“Oh my gosh,” she said after a moment. “I’m next.”
I didn’t respond; after all, she was probably right. This was awful, and to make matters worse, it had been one of my “up” days, when I was certain my job was secure. Now, despite my outer look of confidence, I was deeply shocked.
Andrea got up and walked into my office, sat down across from me. For a few moments we just sat there in silence, and the whole time I kept wondering, why me? Why now? I could see that Andrea was waiting for her telephone to ring next, and the anticipation was killing her. She kept going back to her desk, and then coming back into my office. She was so nervous that she couldn’t even focus, and I was sitting there trying to think of what to do with the day. I hardly had the spirit to be a part of my afternoon teleconference. What the hell did my input matter now? Still, I didn’t want to do anything to make my departure on bad terms. I’d need these guys for positive references, the kind that helped me get a new job, and quick.
With a fresh cup of coffee in her hand, and now moving on to idle chit chat, Andrea looked down at her watch and realized that it had been a half hour since my call. Her telephone still hadn’t rung. In fact, no other phones had. Joshua hadn’t come back in yet, and I hoped he was doing okay. I wasn’t about to call Ed and give him the news, but I needed a plan first. That would make me feel better…at least, I thought it would.
At 10:15, Andrea’s team leader called her to an emergency meeting for her cloud computing project. She gave me a quick supportive hug, then rushed out, clearly relieved—and surprised—that she still had a job.
For several minutes after she had gone, I just sat there, staring blankly at my surroundings. It was like a scene from a movie—everything taunting me in slow motion. I had worked in this cubicle for more than a decade. The building had been part of my life for the last fifteen years. I had given it my all, and never complained. Tri-Tech had been like a second home, but now it felt as empty as I did inside. I’d lost the job that I loved, and the people who had become like a family to me. Plus, I was still two classes away from getting my degree—a degree that would be critical if I wanted to get a similar job with a comparable pay scale.
I had been so proud of my accomplishments here over the years; now, I suddenly felt washed up, useless, like none of those contributions mattered. With another glance around my office, I decided that there was no sense in delaying the inevitable. I found an empty box in the supply cabinet, and started packing up all my personal belongings. It seemed like all I had done for the past year was pack, first homes, now this place. Tears rolled down my face as I looked at family photos, handmade pictures from the kids, and even a dried rose from Ed—from the bunch he’d sent me on our first wedding anniversary. It crumbled in my hand as I touched it, symbolizing just how fragile everything truly was.