The Problem with Unemployment Offices - Uncharted

The Problem with Unemployment Offices

By Anna Stacy

The problem with unemployment offices is that the people who work there, who are supposed to help you get jobs and figure out how to be employable, they work at the unemployment office, so it’s not exactly like they’re experts or anything. It’s a fundamentally flawed system. As I sit in the waiting room, staring at a framed poster outlining the ABCs of a good attitude, I think about how the fairies would have done it, not that they would ever have a concept like unemployment anyway. I picture a healing circle where each fairy sits on the ground and speaks their private fears and their perceived inadequacies, guided by community elders who have already realized their intrinsic self-worth and therefore have no reliance on external metrics of success, everyone breathing and listening without judgment or ego, and then the group casts an affirmation spell together to seal the deal before breaking for lunch.

But that might not have worked on me either because my problem isn’t that I feel unmotivated, or uninspired, or incapable, or inadequate – not about finding a job, anyway. The problem, as I’m trying to figure out how to explain on my intake form, is that I have a gap in my resume the size of Ragnok’s forearm and knowledge of my field that’s seven years out of date. But the form only has a space half a line long for me to say this, so I just write “Unhireable.”

When my officer brings me to her desk, I hand her the form and watch her look it up and down slowly, disinterestedly through thick-rimmed reading glasses. Then she frowns and points at the paper. “What does this mean?” she says.

“Oh,” I say. “It’s just. I was taken by fairies a few years ago, and I just got back, and it’s been a bit—.”

“You’re that Josh Romero?” the officer says, but not like she’s excited to meet me and not like she actually recognizes my name, more like it’s a nice excuse to not have to do work talk for a second. “I heard about you. On the news.”

“Oh,” I say again. “Um, yeah. Probably.”

After seeing the New York Post front page with that old picture of me stoned in Samir’s living room – kind of sort of implying that that’s what I looked like when the fairies let me go – next to the headline TINKERBELL, BACK FROM HELL, I decided to stop seeing what the news is saying about me.

The officer scrutinizes her nails. “My sister, she goes on and on about how the media’s full of crap these days – which it is. But I think it’s important to stay informed.”

“Mhmm,” I say, not knowing anything about the media these days.

She picks up my form again. “So what’s the problem?” she asks.

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “So I’ve been, like, applying places since I got back last month – I’ve been on LinkedIn, Glassdoor, Monster, all that, but nothing, I haven’t heard back from anywhere about anything. I was taken 7 years ago, so I think the problem is when companies look at my resume they see that I haven’t had a job in like almost a decade and that’s obviously, like, really deterring, but the bigger issue, I think, is that I don’t know any of the new coding stuff that happened while I was gone – like no one’s working in HTML anymore and now they’re getting rid of Flash? Which is just. I – I’m a coder, I used to work in tech. So yeah. That’s been. The issue. I think.”

The officer types something into her computer with the tips of her long pink nails, but she doesn’t say anything.

“That’s basically it,” I say, in case she’s waiting for me to keep going.

She’s still looking at her computer. For a second she looks frozen in her seat, like she’s had a stop-time spell cast on her, her eyes staring lazily ahead, her mouth slightly parted. But then she turns away from the screen and looks at me.

“Okay,” she says. “Looks like there’s a resume-building workshop on the 9th, I want you to go to that. And I’m printing out a list of free online coding classes you can try, you can pick it up from the front desk on your way out.”

“Cool,” I say. “Thanks.” She doesn’t move. Neither do I. “Is that it?” I ask.

“Hm?” she says. “Yeah.”

“Oh,” I say. I stand up and make for the door. “Wait,” I say. “Did I qualify? For unemployment? I have an exemption letter for the work period from the Department of Labor, they said it would be on file—.”

“Oh my god,” she says. “Yeah, sorry, yeah. It is. You did. Qualify. You’ll be getting something in the mail about it. Is the address we have still correct?”

“Is it —?”

“28 School Street—.”

“No,” I say. “That’s my mom’s. I’m at 236 West—.”

“West 125th,” she says. “Yeah, we’ve got it.”

“Great,” I say. “Thanks.” And I turn to go.

“Hey,” the officer says before I get very far. “Can I ask you something?”

“Uh. Sure.”

She looks at me hesitantly for a second before asking, “Was there weird sex stuff?”

I think about what had gone down with Elyon last solstice. Was that sex? Sort of more of a cosmic communion between our bodies and nature. I shake my head.

The officer reminds me about the resume-building workshop and tells me to come back in a month for a check-in. And I finally leave to meet up with my friends.

There are so many people at the restaurant that I don’t know what to do with myself, so I just stand there, hoping someone will tell me where to go. And thank the Great Lord Elrak, Lena spots me through the crowd waiting outside for their tables and stands up. “Josh!” she waves, even though we’ve obviously made eye contact. “Over here!” I wend my way back.

I know maybe half the people at the table: Lena, of course, who’s swapped her septum piercing for a crisp white blazer; Carly, who’s dyed her hair pink and is somehow pulling it off; Theo, who looks exactly the same as ever; and Samir, Samir, who breaks into a wide grin when he sees me, who stands when I approach, who smells like amber and sunlight, who pulls me into a deep, tight, close, safe hug. For a moment, we just hold one another, my hands around his waist, his arms around my shoulders. And for a second – only a second – standing there, being held by him, breathing in his summer smell, I almost – nearly – almost – fall apart. But then the hug ends, and I’m fine. I take the empty seat next to him.

“Josh,” Samir says, gesturing to the chair at his other side. “You remember Neil?”

“Hey, Josh!” says Neil. He’s wearing a muscle tank. “Welcome back, man!”

I nod at him, which is a pretty solid greeting considering we’re not really friends, then surreptitiously raise an eyebrow at Samir, like What the hell is he doing here? so we can laugh about it later.

The waitress brings us bright red drinks in mason jars, and everyone coos excitedly.

“What is this?” I ask Samir quietly.

“Dunno,” he says. “Some cocktail.”

“Cocktail?” I ask, bewildered. The last time I’d seen my friends, the night I was kidnapped, we’d all been out at a house party where we’d taken turns doing keg stands, and then Carly barfed in Lena’s hair, and Theo left early to go hook up with some way-too-old guy in Queens. And Samir and I took the long way home, both of us drunk and daring one other to make a move. He did, and he left me dazed and stupidly thrilled under a street lamp. The closest thing any of us had to a cocktail back then was jungle juice.

“I know.” Samir smiles, then explains, “The whole point of brunch is to day-drink. One of the things you definitely haven’t missed out on.”

I start to tell Samir that it wasn’t at all the day-drinking that surprised me, but Lena stands up and raises her jar, and the side conversations stop.

“Okay,” she says. “Obviously, to Josh for getting back safe and sound—.”

“Hear, hear!” says Theo.

“—And also to Devonte, who just finished moving into his gorgeous loft,” she continues, gesturing to a man in a floral button-down. “And to Krista for finally getting that well-deserved promotion!”

Everyone grins at a woman who looks like Anne Hathaway in that she’s white and brunette.

“So anyway!” Lena says. “Cheers!”

“Skaal!” I cry and throw my jar to the floor. It shatters beautifully. A perfect toast.

It takes me a few seconds to realize that no one else has done this.

“Oh my gosh,” I say. “I’m so sorry, I forgot that’s not how you…how we do it here.”

No one says anything.

Then like it’s something he does every day, Samir lets his jar fall to the ground. “Skaal!” he repeats, and beams at me.

And somehow, that saves it. Everybody sits down like nothing’s happened and chats over their menus, the waitress comes by and Samir explains that we dropped our glasses and that we’re so sorry for any difficulty that might cause her, and we listen to Carly tell a story about this guy in her building who brings his ferret downstairs with him to get the mail.

The person sitting to my left introduces herself as Jade, one of Lena’s friends from work. I have no idea where Lena works these days so this means essentially nothing to me.

“How long since they released you?” she asks.

They didn’t so much release me as let me go, but that’s splitting hairs, so I tell her, “Just over a month.”

“That must be so weird,” she says.

I nod.

“We don’t have to talk about it,” she says, quickly.

“No,” I say. “It’s really fine. No one’s really asked me anything about it. But I don’t mind.”

Jade’s face lights up like the Winter Oakfire, and I wonder if she’s also going to ask me if there was any weird sex stuff.

“Do you have any idea why they took you?” she asks instead.

“Oh my god, Jade,” says Lena from across the table. I hadn’t realized she could hear us. “Just read the Wikipedia page!”

“No,” I say, “it’s cool, I don’t mind.”

Jade leans on one hand and sips from her jar.

“So they prophesied this storm that was supposed to happen in May,” I tell her. “Years ago, the Auspicious Elders predicted a storm was going to wipe out their sacred grounds, and that they wouldn’t be able to stop it on their own without some kind of help. So they decided they needed some sort of talisman to help amplify their magic.”

“And that’s you,” Jade says.

“They thought it was,” I say. “They thought I was special somehow, that by casting spells through me, they’d be able to stop it. Like I could enhance their magic. So they put me through drills all the time, every time it rained, trying to get me to do something, but I never could. And then the storm just didn’t happen. Varahaad thinks it was some sort of climate change thing, like the storm changed course or just didn’t happen at all because of global warming or something. And they realized I wasn’t special at all, so they let me go.”

“After all that?” Jade asks.

“Yeah,” I say.

“Wild,” she says, and takes another deep sip of red drink. “What were they like?”

Like light, I think. Cold and beautiful and gentle and terrifying. “They were really nice,” I say. “They were always really nice to me. They tried bringing me all sorts of food just because they wanted me to be happy, even though they don’t eat. Some of them even tried learning to speak because they thought it would make me feel more comfortable, but by the time they did I had already gotten pretty used to their think-speaking.”

“What is that?” Anne Hathaway asks.

I look up. Everyone at the table is listening to me.

“The fairies don’t really talk,” I say. “It’s more like they think, and the thought appears in your brain? Like you don’t hear it, you think it. I dunno, it took some getting used to. And then it was just easy.”

“So Devonte,” says Lena. “What are your neighbors like?”

“Oh,” says Devonte. “Fine, I think. I haven’t met many yet. The person who lives next door to me is a drummer, though, and it’s like they’re waiting for me to fall asleep every night to start practicing. They have incredible timing. Probably why they’re a drummer.”

“Oh, man,” I say. “That’s just like – okay, I had this friend, Glortan, he was a star-hanger, you know? And every night he was on shift, he would do this thing where he would make a star shine at me like over and over, you know, to mess with me, and I’d be like, ‘Glortan, dude, you gotta knock it off, I’m trying to sleep—!’”

“Josh, honey.” Lena’s smiling a weird smile at me that doesn’t match her eyes. “We’re soooo glad you’re back and that you’re safe, we really are—.”

“We are,” Theo and Carly agree.

“But it’s just that, you’ve been doing a lot more talking than listening, and it’s really important for all of us to be cognizant that we’re sharing the mic—.”

Carly stops nodding. “Wait, Lena—.”

“—So that no one person dominates the conversation.”

I feel my face redden. “Oh,” I say. “I’m really sorry.”

Lena laughs like I’ve just said something ridiculous. “What?” she cackles. “Oh my god, no, sweetie, don’t be sorry! It’s just that we’ve gotten a lot of fairy talk today and everyone here has a lot going on too and I just want to be sure that we’re leaving space, you know?”

“Yeah,” I say. “Of course. Sorry.”

I sit as quietly as I can and listen to everyone chatter around me as our food arrives. Lena is holding court on her side of the table. On the other end, Theo says something that makes his crowd roar with laughter. He spots me trying to listen in and says, “Okay, Josh, settle a bet.”

“Okay,” I say.

“Which of the two of them,” he says, pointing at Neil and Samir, “is more likely to forget their anniversary?”

“Neil,” I say, and Theo and Carly crow.

“He hasn’t been around for seven years, and he knows that!” Carly says.

“I didn’t forget it!” insists Neil. “I was a day off!”

“That is forgetting it!” says Samir.

“I had the whole thing planned!” says Neil. “Just for the 25th!”

“Isn’t your wedding day supposed to be the best day of your life?” teases Carly.

“No,” Neil says. “The best day of my life was when I saw Nick Jonas at Déjà Brew. He ordered a large oat milk latte.”

Theo snorts.

“You’re married?” I ask with a conspiratorial smirk at Samir.

“Two years,” Neil says.

“And a half,” adds Samir.

“Oh my god,” Neil groans. “I know the date, I swear!”

“To who?” I ask.

Neil and Samir look at one another, and I know the answer like lightning an instant before Theo says, “Wait, Josh, did no one tell you?”

My hands are numb. “No,” I say.

The rest of the meal goes by in a blur. The plates are cleared, the jars are drained, and we all head outside to part ways. Carly and Theo each give me a tight hug and tell me to call. Lena and her friends say goodbye and head downtown. Neil makes to follow them but stops when he realizes Samir hasn’t moved.

“I’ll see you at home,” Samir says and kisses Neil easily on the cheek, like it’s something they do all the time because it probably is. Neil bounds off, and Samir turns to me. “Can I walk you home?” he asks.

My heart lurches. “Sure,” I say, and we walk through the park. He falls into step beside me.

“Where are you living these days?” he asks.

“Subletting this place uptown. Very temporary. Some grad student’s apartment; he’s away on summer break.”

“Grad student,” says Samir. “So like, no furniture.”

“Like none,” I say, and he laughs. He has a star of thin lines at the corner of each eye. They crease, and I feel something in my chest swell.

“I was staying with my mom before,” I tell him. “But she was – well, you know my mom. Kooky as ever. More interested in her birds and her puzzles, totally unfazed by the whole kidnapping thing. She said she always expected I’d come back so she wasn’t like freaked out or anything. I mean she’s glad I’m back, obviously, but we’re just back to the same old, like I was never gone. So that’s been whatever.”

Samir shakes his head. “Classic Clarissa.”

“I know,” I say. “We don’t even talk about it like at all.”

“Well, I want to hear everything,” he says, but the way he’s smiling at me suddenly makes me remember I’m mad at Samir, and I don’t want to talk about the fairies anymore.

“What?” he says.

“Why didn’t you tell me you got married?”

He lifts an eyebrow. “I did,” he says.

“Only because Theo brought it up,” I counter.

Samir laughs again, but his eyes don’t crinkle. “What was I gonna do, go ‘Oh hey Josh, so glad you’re back after being kidnapped, hope that went okay, also guess what, I got married?’”

I nod like yeah, obviously, that’s what he should have done.

“Okay, great, next time you return after being stolen by fairies, I’ll make sure to do exactly that.”

I can feel myself getting prickly, but I don’t want to fight, so I take a deep breath and try to explain. “Whenever I got lonely that whole time I was over there, every time I was scared, I’d think about coming back. I’d think about you and how you’d be there—.”

“Damn, that’s a lot of pressure,” Samir tries to say like he’s kidding, but he accidentally puts too much truth into it. We both hear it, so he blazes on, “What, so I was just supposed to just wait around for you for seven years?”

“Yes!” I bellow, even though that doesn’t make any sense.

Samir shakes his head. “Come on,” he says.

“Come on?” I echo. “You come on!”

A group of tourists stare at me. I don’t care.

“You married Neil,” I say.

Samir takes a breath. “Yes,” he says, even though I hadn’t asked him a question.

No-nipples Neil. You married no-nipples Neil.”

Samir gives me a look, a look I’m used to seeing him give other people. “Don’t call him that.”

I hear a big fat HA drop out of my throat, even though nothing at all is funny. “That guy!” I spit. “We make fun of that guy! Come on, Samir. Why that guy?”

Samir looks at me again, and it’s like he’s a fairy because I can almost hear him thinking Please, I’m sorry, and Let’s sit.

For a second, I debate, not giving him the satisfaction and just walking away so he’ll have to chase me down and apologize for – for what? Then I realize he might not chase me down. And that would be it. So I sit down on the bench.

Samir sits next to me. We’re angled toward one another. Our knees touch.

“Josh,” he says gently, somehow making my name sound not so stupid. “You weren’t here.”

I want to argue, but I’m afraid I’ll cry if I open my mouth, so I keep quiet.

“You weren’t here,” he goes on, “and you were gone for so long, and it hurt for so long that I just – I couldn’t, anymore. And we weren’t. We weren’t. Together. Not really.”

“Kind of,” I say, like a little kid.

Samir shakes his head. “I’m not going to pretend like we didn’t have…something,” he says softly. “A good something. Years ago.”

“What once was always is,” I interrupt.

Samir knits his eyebrows at me. “What?”

“It’s something the fairies say. What once was always is.”

“What does that mean?”

I can’t believe I have to explain this to him. “It means that there’s no such thing as past or present or future, like time is nonlinear and everything that happens leaves its mark on what’s yet to pass?”

Samir nods slowly. “Okay,” he says.

“So if you ever loved me,” I say, recklessly, because the damage is already done. “Then a part of you must still love me.”

Samir stares at me open-mouthed. But the moment lasts too long. He doesn’t know what to say, and for some reason, that’s what makes me realize it’s really dead. Whatever it was. Samir keeps searching for the words. My own mouth is dry.

“It’s okay,” I say. I hurt like a thunderstorm.

We sit there on the bench in silence. Around us, the park goes on being a park, which feels crazy.

I think about how Ragnok and I used to fly into hurricanes to practice, the rain against our faces like glass, the wind whipping all around us like crazy, and they’d look at me clinging tight to their back and think, Are you ready, Joshua?

“No!” I’d scream back. “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing!”

You do not need to do anything, they’d think as we swooped into the dark belly of a cumulonimbus. You have already done everything that has made you who you are right now. You are Joshua the Talisman. That is enough.

Samir stands up. “It’s starting to get dark,” he says. He’s right, sort of – the sun is just starting to sink, glowing and tangerine.

“I should get home,” I say to let him off the hook.

“How far uptown do you live?” he asks.

“Pretty far up,” I say. “It’s okay. I’ll take the bus from here.”

“You sure?” he says, and I can tell he really means it.

“Yeah,” I say. “Don’t worry about it.”

I expect him to tell me he’ll see me soon and then leave, but he keeps standing there. He’s hesitating. Not like him. Then he shakes his head and smiles.

“I’m with him because I love him,” he says. “That’s why.”

And then he turns and leaves.

I walk to the bus stop.

It’s been a long day. One of the longest of the year. A week to the solstice, when the fairies used to take me up to the clouds to try to maximize my potential power. But it’s been a cloudless day today, and it’s on its way to becoming a cloudless night. The kids playing in the streets and on the sidewalks disappear one by one and are replaced by fireflies.

I catch one in a fist and peer at it from between my thumbs. The orange stripe down its back, its soft wings gently open. The long antennae brush my fingers. A firefly, for sure. I let it go.

The bus is late.

The hardest thing to get used to has been being alone. With the fairies, I was never alone, even when I was by myself, I could feel them all around me, connected by breath and light, in every gust of wind, in the very air. I imagine my sublet, nearly empty, in the dark. When I get there, I’ll turn on the light, and I’ll stand in the kitchen, not knowing what to do with myself. And after a while, I’ll go to sleep in a room with no windows, in a bed that isn’t mine, and dream vivid, powerful dreams that will disappear when I wake up.

The problem with unemployment offices is that they’re like waking up. They remind you that whatever you’d set out to be when you were young and dumb and bright, you hadn’t done it, that you’re small and insignificant and unspecial, filling out the same paperwork as everyone else and going to the same brunches as everyone else and waiting for the same buses and losing the same loves and feeling just as lonely as everybody else. The problem with unemployment offices is that they remind you that the world kept on going, doing its stupid busywork routines even though you were missing, that nothing stopped functioning just because you weren’t around, that no one was really that worse off without you.

A car idles at the intersection, then sputters off into the night, and I’m alone.

The sky is small. Boxed in by buildings so that I can only see a square of it. Almost purple in the pollution, but sort of beautiful.

And directly above me, through the plexiglass roof of the bus stop, through invisible clouds of cigarette smoke and smog, right above the insignificant speck of my upturned face, a light twinkles, blink, blink, blink, shining on and off, like it’s waving at me.

Maybe it’s an airplane. Or a firefly. Or a satellite.

And I hold my breath.

For a moment, the fairies thought that I was special.

What once was always is.

I hold my breath.

About the Author

Anna’s writing — short fiction, poetry, and essays — has appeared in Calyx, Carve Magazine, The Festival Review, the Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly, Perennial Press, Passengers Journal, Olney Magazine, Intima, and Academic Emergency Medicine, among others. Their short story “The Problem with Unemployment Offices” was shortlisted for the Uncharted Magazine Short Story Award.

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