[The following is an excerpt from the novel They Don’t Like Me: A Love Story.
The narrator is Haley, who is barely holding it together after a break up with her boyfriend, “Vanagon.” Vanagon cheated on her with his ex-girlfriend, a woman named Theresa Gibson. Haley found this out while she was at her best friend Dan’s wedding. She has plunged into a spiral of depression, and is desperately searching for a way out…
Note: These characters are not real people from the author’s life. This is fiction.]
Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville.
Searching for my lost shaker of salt.
Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame,
But I know it’s my own damn fault. – Jimmy Buffet, Margaritaville
Things were bleak. I spent an inordinate amount of time staring at my ceiling. I thought about Vanagon and Theresa. Constantly. I imagined them on an Island, coasting down zip lines, and having amazing sex outdoors. They’d be fucking on boulders and shit. Fireworks and glitter and perfect lighting. Total ecstasy, straight off the cover of one of those Fabio novels. Then I would think about blowing my brains out. But only for a second.
After staring at my ceiling for most of the day, I’d finally drag myself off the couch and consult my calendar. I’d flip through the pages, measuring out exactly how much of my life I had wasted in that relationship. And how much longer it was going to take to wade through this miserable aftermath. They say that it takes half the time of your relationship to get over the relationship. This was not good news. I didn’t know how much more of this I could take.
I couldn’t eat. Sometimes I would pour myself a bowl of cereal, but I could only manage to choke down a couple spoonfuls. My best and most consistent course of action was a daily regimen of vodka and Ambien, consumed immediately after work. The goal was to lose all traces of consciousness until the following morning. Then, I would wake up and drag myself to work. After work, I would come home and start the whole cycle over again. This break up was hitting me harder than I anticipated. Besides the nightly blackouts, the only thing getting me through it was my resolve to NOT call Vanagon. Unfortunately, whatever satisfaction I was getting from my resolve was canceled out by my disappointment that Vanagon wasn’t calling me either. It was an insult. Really.
Morale was at an all time low.
The first day that I trudged into work after the whole wedding/break-up debacle was rough. Upon entering my cubicle, I was face to face with the picture of Vanagon at the gas station, wearing his marigold necklace. I let out a deep sigh and yanked it off the wall, wadding the picture up in my hand, and quickly dropped it into the wastebasket next to my desk. I stared at my computer screen. Ah, the monotony of work. The hum of fluorescent lights … slowly killing what was left of my soul.
And this too shall pass. And this too shall pass. That was the only hope I had. It can’t be this terrible forever, could it? I remembered Dan after his breakup with Yoga Jenny. He barely left his house. He grew a beard. He wore the same sweatshirt every day for weeks. I totally understood now. I totally got it. But now that Dan was happy and married, I didn’t feel like calling him up to share this new-found sympathy. He was fine. He had made it through. I, on the other hand, was shriveling up inside.
Months passed, but the pain did not subside. I realized that I was going to need something drastic to rocket me out of this dark place. What would it be? I scrolled through my mental Rolodex of things that put me in a happy place:
So far, at best these had provided only fleeting relief. At worst, the one time I tried to combine all three, I ended up with froyo puke stains on my new silk parachute pants. The salesgirl was a complete bitch when I went to return them, but when I made enough of a scene, she finally took them back just to get rid of me.
Anyway, finally, one day out of the blue … like a miracle… the solution appeared on my computer screen. It was an e-mail from Human Resources. The subject line read:
New Position Available. Applications due Wednesday.
This was it! A SIGN.
Obviously, what I needed was a new career. PROBLEMS SOLVED. I would forget all about Vanagon and focus entirely on myself. That seemed fairly straightforward. Why hadn’t I thought of this sooner? I met with Dan for lunch to discuss my new game plan. He was not as enthusiastic.
“Why do you want this new job, anyway? Does it pay more?”
“No.” I didn’t know much about the new job that I was applying for. All I knew is that I needed some momentum in my life. Something DIFFERENT. Even lateral movement was good. MOVEMENT AWAY FROM THE OLD ME. No more vodka Ambien cocktails at 6 PM. No more nightmares about Theresa Gibson sledge-hammering away at my potential for love and happiness.
“WHAT exactly is the job?” Dan asked.
“Not totally sure.” All I knew was that the job was in the same firm, but it was on a different floor. The person doing it before me had quit. Or moved away. Or got promoted. I wasn’t exactly sure.
“Let me get this straight. Your interview is tomorrow and you don’t know anything about the job?”
Dan put his sandwich down. “Haley, I know that you’ve been through a lot lately. I know the break up has been rough, but this seems like a pretty rash decision… Don’t you think?”
“It’s a good idea, Dan.”
“I know you think it’s a good idea. And usually I just sit back and watch you do what you’re doing and fuck things up. Partly because you never listen to me anyway, and partly because I find it amusing.” He flashed his trademark smirk. I scrunched my face up into my own smirk, attempting to mock him, but he immediately turned serious again. “Well, this is where I intervene and give you the COLD HARD FACTS. Are you ready for me to do that?”
I eyed him warily. “All right,” I said and leaned back, bracing myself.
“I honestly don’t know how you’ve even managed to stay employed this long. It’s kind of like the eighth wonder of the world. I would say that your ability to remain solidly employed for the last eleven years is probably your greatest asset. I mean, have you looked in the mirror lately? No offense, but it looks like you haven’t been sleeping.”
“That’s actually not true. I’ve been sleeping. A LOT. I found a new trick – I bumped up the Ambien and I don’t waste time putting my pajamas on… I just go to sleep in my clothes.”
“Right. Sounds like an excellent plan. But listen, it’s possible that you may have just been flying underneath management’s radar. In other words, this interview may bring you to someone’s attention. Someone who might FIRE you.”
“Well, is anyone else applying for the position?” he asked. I put my fork to my lips and thought for a minute.
“There is one other applicant, but I don’t know her. She works in another office. I’ve seen her. But I can guarantee you, there is no way this other woman is getting it.”
“She wears turtlenecks.”
And, as far as I was concerned, that was the end of the discussion. Turtlenecks. Case closed.
“Turtlenecks? You can’t be serious.”
“You don’t even know, Dan. I know.”
“But you don’t work in a department store, Haley. You work in a law firm.”
Dan was aware of how badly I was taking the breakup, and he was trying his best to treat me with compassion. The kind of compassion that you show people who are losing their minds. But, maybe he was right. Perhaps I was a tad overconfident about getting this job.
But the mere possibility that The Turtleneck would get this job instead of me was mortifying. How many turtlenecks did this woman own? Maybe she was just having a bad day. Maybe she needed to do laundry the day that I had seen her. What if it was dark in her apartment and she had accidentally grabbed a turtleneck that morning? Maybe she had grabbed that turtleneck instead of the gauzy silk blouse that she had pressed the night before? What if I had too much riding on this turtleneck business and this woman was some sort of genius?
When I got back from lunch, I knew that I needed to investigate. I dropped by to visit Miranda in Human Resources.
“I heard that you and your boyfriend broke up,” she said.
“That’s right.” Was it that obvious? It’s true I had lost about fifteen pounds. And there were dark circles under my eyes. Occasionally, I was wearing parkas indoors. And sometimes, sunglasses.
“I’m applying for that new position. It’s part of my campaign to get my life back on track.”
Miranda nodded. She looked sorry for me. And I was going to roll with it.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
“THE OTHER CHICK APPLYING FOR THIS JOB?”
Miranda sighed. “Judy,” she said.
“That’s it? That’s all you got? Judy? What do you know about this woman?” I leaned across Miranda’s desk until we were almost eye-to-eye.
“Um? She’s young…” She leaned back slowly, raising an eyebrow. “She went to school for journalism.”
“What?! Young? How young? Do you mean ‘bad young’ or ‘good young’? JOURNALISM? Like a young Katie Couric in a turtleneck? Is that what we’ve got on our hands here?” Miranda got up from her desk. She was definitely starting to get irritated. I looked over at the picture of her little Dachshund.
“He sure is cute,” I offered, trying to get back on her good side.
“I’ve got a meeting. Good luck with your interview, Haley,” she said.
LUCK?! What did she mean by that? Would I need it?
And journalism! That was the worst possible thing I could have imagined. Journalism made the turtleneck make sense. In fact, the turtleneck was giving Judy’s journalism degree a lot more credibility. I imagined Judy in her grey turtleneck, deep in the library stacks, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Judy had discovered a factory that was poisoning the drinking water of a small rural community somewhere in Middle America. (Yes, just like Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich!)
This terrifying vision spurred me into action. I immediately scrawled out a list of things I would need to do in the next 24 hours to get ready for my interview:
1. MAKE FRIENDS AT WORK
2. FOCUS ON MY PERSONAL APPEARANCE/INTERVIEW WARDROBE
3. SABOTAGE JUDY
Making friends with my co-workers with only four hours left in the workday was a tall order. Especially since no one liked me.
So basically, my office is India. Yes, it’s a large, confusing and utterly terrifying place. Yes, it’s filled with people who practice yoga and wear baggy clothes. But mostly it’s India because it is divided into a caste system. If you sit in my office lunchroom for an entire day (which I have done on occasion) a person will quickly realize that there are hard, uncrossable lines that separate the social tiers in my office. Never the twain shall meet. NEVER. The castes are as follows:
The Sudra. AKA: The Lower Tier. (“Unskilled workers.”) The members of this caste are united by a deep and abiding love of Buffalo Wild Wings, Lean Cuisine microwave meals, Disney themed clothing, stuffed animal key chains, and sweat pants. The Sudra do not trouble themselves to ride their bikes during the lunch hour. In fact, it is likely that most of them wouldn’t even be able to balance their massive frames on a tiny bicycle seat in the first place. And they don’t pretend that fast food isn’t delicious. They talk about things like family, their children, and sporting events. And they try as much as possible to avoid the Vaisyas.
The Vaisyas. AKA The Upper Tier (“Merchants, skilled traders, and minor officials”) Generally the Vaisyas do not eat lunch during the lunch hour. Instead, they go bike riding, running, or do yoga. Similar to The Sudra, the Vaisyas wear workout attire during the lunch hour. Unlike the Sudra, this attire is only worn during the lunch hour. (Example: Conrad is the consummate Vaisaya and I always know that the lunch hour has arrived by the sound of Conrad clicking on his little bike riding shoes. Gerry from the mailroom is a Sudra, and I have never seen him without his grey sweatpants and striped tube socks pulled halfway up his calves.) Vaisyas firmly believe that they are more sophisticated than the Sudra, but they are too politically correct to ever say so out loud. Like the Sudra, Vaisayas talk about: family, their children, and sporting events.
There is one caste that both the Sudra and the Vaisyas can unite in openly looking down upon:
The Pariahs. AKA The Untouchables. (“Social outcasts.”) There was only one Pariah in my office. ME. I didn’t bring a microwave Lean Cuisine to work. I didn’t bike at lunch. Or do yoga. I never watched sports. I didn’t have kids to talk about. I lacked any common ground whatsoever with either the Sudra or the Vaisayas. But that’s not the reason I ate lunch alone every day at my desk.
How do I know this? One time I tested this theory by microwaving a 350 calorie lasagna and sitting in the lunchroom, pretending to participate in a conversation about little league. I nodded my head and laughed when everyone else laughed. I even made up a little coming of age story about me, as a burgeoning young ten year old, nearly losing my innocence to a rugged divorcee Little League Coach named Douglas. My coworkers appeared to be riveted by this story, but even after lunch, no one invited me to happy hour. There had to be a reason no one liked me, but I couldn’t figure it out.
In order to get this job, I’d need to get to the bottom of this unpopularity problem. I decided to call Dan for more clarity. He was briefly employed at my office years ago. He had no problem making friends while he was there. He was even nominated to dress up as Santa Claus for our office holiday party.
“Hi Haley. Nice talking to you again. It’s been so long … what, forty-five minutes?”
“Dan, I need your help. Why don’t they like me?”
“They? You mean, everyone in general? Or just your co-workers?”
I waited for Dan to answer my question. I had my pen ready so that I could take notes.
“You take personal calls at work, talk too loud, you wear that parka all the time, and a lot of times you don’t seem…”
“Approachable” he answered, though I’m not convinced that’s the word he was initially searching for.
NOT APPROACHABLE? Ha. Well, now I had a PLAN. My Plan to Win the Approval of My Coworkers and Gain Upward Mobility and Out of Untouchable Status = BRIBERY. Simple. Easy. Why hadn’t I thought of this before?
The high rate of obesity amongst my co-workers was a clear sign that FOOD was appreciated in my office. My co-workers put candy bowls next to their desks. It was the unspoken code of office hospitality.
I walked by desks, grabbing a Milky Way there and a Payday here. But, NOT ONCE had I reciprocated by bringing candy to the office. Shameful. No wonder I didn’t have work friends! That must be it. Could working my way out of untouchable status have been as easy as a basket full of Three Musketeers bars?
I marched over to Rite Aid and bought three of the biggest bags of chocolate bars that I could find. Back in the office, I poured them into a giant glass vase and placed it at the edge of my desk, where no one could miss it. I sent out an e-mail to the entire office. The subject line of the email read: SNICKERS, HERSHEYS, NESTLE CRUNCH – to grab the reader’s attention.
The body of my e-mail didn’t matter, as long as it relayed the information that the candy was at my desk. Once I lured them into the realm of my cubicle, I’d have to do some serious wheeling and dealing. I’d quickly have to assess what their concerns were and somehow convince them that if I got a new job, their needs would be met. I WOULD GET CREATIVE.
The first person that came to my desk was a middle-aged member of the Sudra named Frank. He was balding and a chronic chain smoker. He walked by my cubicle at least thirty times a day on his way outside for a smoke break. But he had never stopped by for an actual conversation. This was a momentous event! I was delighted that my plan was working, but now that I was face to face with Frank, I had absolutely no idea what to say to him.
Just as I was about to give up on being able to start any kind of conversation, I was saved by a sudden stroke of brilliance: I remembered that Frank’s wife was in the hospital last fall.
“Frank! So glad to see you! Please, help yourself! Yes! Doesn’t Nestle make a delicious candy bar? God, I practically survived on them when I was in THE HOSPITAL,” I said.
“You were in the hospital?”
“Last year. Yes. I know, I didn’t tell anyone at work about it. The doctors said there was only a 30% chance that it was terminal.” I let that last sentence linger in the air. The only sound was a muted crunching, as Frank took his final bite of the chocolate bar.
“Terminal?” Frank asked. His eyes widened. He looked extremely concerned. BAM! I had hit the jackpot on this one! It was remarkable how easily the lies were coming. It was as if all the hardship I had been through with Vanagon had stripped away any and all unhelpful emotions. No more guilt, honesty, or annoying barriers hindering me from making friends. No more annoying “moral compass.” I LIKED THIS NEW ME. This new me was capable of so many things. Perhaps I would actually survive this breakup and come out of it improved. A new career. New friends. Frank had only been in my cubicle for about ninety seconds and already things were looking up. Way up.
“Cancer,” I whispered. Frank’s eyes grew even wider. Less concern, more abject terror. “I’m fine now though. It’s great. My life has totally opened up for me. So much to live for. Like chocolate,” I said, handing Frank another candy bar. “So glad, just to wake up every day and smell the nougat. Get it? The nougat?”
Frank nodded, smiling weakly. I continued my rhapsodizing. This was fun.
“We take so many things for granted. What I needed was a close call like that to really make me appreciate life. Don’t know if you heard, but my boyfriend was cheating on me with his ex-girlfriend…”
Frank shook his head. No. He had not heard that.
“Well, he was. And you know what, Frank? That sucked. But I’ve been through a lot of tragedy and … you know… what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! Right? And now I have the opportunity to apply for this job … everything I ever wanted in my WHOLE life, Frank.”
He perked up.
“Oh, that’s right. You’re applying for that job?” I’d never seen anyone so happy to change the subject.
“Yes, I am applying for it. And I really want it, Frank.”
“Well, I hope you get it!” he said. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. Frank left my cubicle with a handful of Snickers and a smile on his face. A POSITIVE RESULT. The terminal cancer thing had worked so well on Frank, that I decided to try it on several other co-workers. After getting a legal secretary to cry a little bit, I realized that telling people that you survived “terminal cancer” is a great way to connect.
Miranda from the Human Resources stuck her head over my cubicle.
“Hi Haley,” she said.
“Hi Miranda.” I was immediately nervous. I had spent the morning begging Miranda for information on Judy and now she wanted to see me again. Was she onto my scheme?
“I saw your e mail and I am starving,” she said. “I’m going for a Snickers. I can’t help myself.” I exhaled a huge sigh of relief and watched as Miranda mined through the candy bowl to find a Snickers bar. When she did, she held it up to the fluorescent light. “Victory,” she declared.
Ah, Miranda. It seemed like we had already been through so much together. She knew about my Internet dating advice column addiction, my break-up. She knew TOO MUCH.
Telling Miranda that I survived cancer wasn’t going to work. She worked in HR and that meant that she knew about things like medical leave and sick time. Shit. I had to have Miranda in my corner. This Snickers bar was a foot in the door, but I needed insurance. I needed something that would seal the deal with HR. That’s when it struck me. THE FACE OF THAT LITTLE DACHSHUND!
Fact: MIRANDA WAS A DOG LOVER. Based on my experience with Champ and Mark, I knew that Dog Lovers had an absurdly irrational emotional connection to dogs. This would always be their Achilles heel – these dog lovers.
I started talking about my dog, Mark. A poodle. Diagnosed with cancer.
“It’s so sad,” I said.
Miranda’s eyes watered. She looked around my cubicle.
“You don’t have any pictures of Mark up?”
“No. It’s too sad. I couldn’t handle it,” I said, plunging my forehead into my hands. “I mean, first the break up – which I am totally over. But I just can’t take this cancer news with Mark. It’s JUST TOO MUCH TO HANDLE.”
“Oh god, I know. My little Pucker had cancer and my stepdad put him down… it was so hard!” she said.
“That’s terrible. Absolutely terrible.”
I was so committed I almost felt like I could squeeze out an actual tear or two for Mark and Pucker.
“Isn’t there something that can be done?” she asked, dabbing her eyes. “I mean, a surgery or something?”
“Yes, but it’s very expensive. Of course, I’ll totally pay for it… I mean if there’s any chance that I can get a few more moments with Mark on God’s Green Earth, I’ll do anything … ANYTHING.” Miranda nodded as if what I was saying made sense. “That’s actually why I am applying for this job. You know? The extra money is going straight toward Mark’s vet bills.”
Miranda perked up. She wadded up her tissue, threw it in the wastebasket, and patted my shoulder. She didn’t say anything, but I was sure she was going right then to write a heartfelt e-mail telling management that I was supremely qualified for the new position.
[End Part 1. Stay Tuned for Part 2, coming soon!]