As I entered with my head down to my knees, my husband knew it. I wanted to cry and wail but comforted myself with the thought of my leaving a butter croissant in the fridge in case this happened and I would be eating it soon. That also reminded me of the tub of Neapolitan ice cream that was in the freezer. For a minute all my worries seemed to have evaporated into thin air, to never return again.
But then I thought I should milk this as I have milked my situation thus far and make faces and pretend I’m deeply affected.
“Well, you are deeply affected”, Mind reminded me.
“Of course she is. But if truth be told she didn’t particularly care for the bathroom. It was very stinky”. Heart cajoled me.
“That’s true”, I turned to Mind, wondering how to convince it that I was deeply affected but not really and that like always it had failed to understand me as well as Heart, when I saw her.
Of course, people, my enemy was sitting there. In a world of millions of people, most of whom are my dear acquaintances and close friends, the one person who had to be here on the evening of my failure when all I needed was for my husband to feed me bonbons and validate my opinion of the world “having it in for me”, my mother-in-law was paying a visit.
How do I describe my relationship with my mother-in-law?
Because friend she is not!
A well-wisher, may be? If a well-wisher is a person whose company incites anxiety and resentment then yes, she’s a well-wisher.
I tried to walk past her but my dear husband could see that I had bombed yet another interview with a prospective employer and so embraced me like Neil Armstrong was embraced by his fellow men when he came back to earth and told them that the moon is indeed a beauty to behold from a distance only and there was absolutely no need to see it up close and that everyone wasted his time and weight over a matter of limited use to the human race.
“You didn’t make it, did you?” The very question that the angel who will welcome me at the gates of heaven will ask someday.
I tried to warn him by narrowing my eyes that I didn’t want to discuss it in present company but bless him for never getting what a woman wants. He looked at me with agitation, pity and sympathy. He sighed. He drew a few long breaths. People might think that he was doing this for dramatic effect but I know that this is his way of empathizing. He’s a true millennial in the way he showcases all his emotions for the most menial things.
By now mother-in-law had become curious even though she’s stoic and in control of her feelings usually. Her interest in my life has always been cursory unless it is to criticize the ways in which I spend my money or leisure time.
She turned to me with her usual X-RAY vision and said, “What happened, dear? Were you not going to say hello to me?”
I spluttered while throwing daggers at my husband for drawing attention to me while I was carefully climbing daintily over her crossed legs to get to my room,
“Hello, mother-in-law! I didn’t see you”.
Ordinarily this greeting would make people happy. But not mother-in-law. She takes everything as it was meant to offend her .
“I don’t assume I’m so little or insignificant to be ignored by someone who is climbing over me to get to the other side of the room”.
“I didn’t mean that”, I stammered again, “I did see you. I was just so enthralled to see you and planned to impress you with a new dish that I’ve learned to cook that I completely ignored saying hi. I’m sorry”, I quickly added to end the torture sooner.
She looked satisfied. This is one of her better traits. She is almost programmed like a machine and once you know how to get around her, you are pretty much golden.
But soon she found something else to be critical about.
“Dear!” She addressed my husband. “What is causing you this aggravation? Is everything alright? Is there something going on with my daughter-in-law?”
My husband is speechless. Like all responsible wives I have taken numerous opportunities over the year to mention to him of how disagreeable I find his mother. He knows I don’t trust her with classified information about my life and therefore, in that moment, he was afraid to open his mouth. But open his mouth he did, eventually, with a slightly frightened look under his mother’s unyielding stare.
“My wife has been looking for a job, Mother Dearest”, he stammered while trying to impart as little information as possible while sounding thorough in his response.
“And?” She inquired imperiously.
“And?” He laughed nervously, his eyes darting at me and returning to her after seeing the cold fury in my face, “There’s no and. That’s it. She’s looking for work”.
Mother-in-law clicked her tongue disapprovingly. She took one long look at me before reverting her attention to my poor husband who was fast turning a shade of eggplant that’s been sitting in the fridge for too long.
“There’s an and. Of course there is. Why is she looking for a job? What’s the reason? What type of job is she looking for? Is she expecting to get paid? Is there some resistance from prospective employers possibly due to her termination at the last job she held?”
Oh, she had to mention that, of course! She never lets go of a chance to embarrass me.
But even though I was indignant at her cavalier mention of my termination from the last job, I felt like butting heads with her over this won’t work. I just had to be calm and cool when she insults me.
“My dear mother-in-law!” I began most respectfully, “Of course I expect to get paid. Why, that’s a tad immature of you to assume that anyone could have my services for free. I’m expecting a salary from whoever will employ me and also expect a serial raise. And I can assure you that even though I was terminated against my wish from my last employment, I had been contemplating changing jobs then anyway. So really worked out for me quite serendipitously. I went with you to Europe and traveled as your companion. A greater honor I have never known. Regarding the reasons behind looking for a job I’ll have to get back to you. The reasons aren’t truly clear to me. I feel I’m on this journey of searching for my true self and wonder if true fulfillment of that journey and that most honorable purpose is actually achievable through a salaried position as someone’s secretary”.
For once mother-in-law was listening! For one she was appraising me with respect! For once she hadn’t interrupted me. Until she heard the word “secretary”.
It was like she woke up from a bad dream. She stared at me and asked in a voice that seemed to have cost her some effort,
“You want to be a secretary?”
“Why? Do you have any formal training in it?”
Once again she proved that she didn’t know me. Hadn’t she seen me bringing coffee for my husband when he was hunched over his laptop trying to finish his work from home because I asked him to come early and open a jar of jam for me? Hadn’t she seen me taking down notes at lightning speed when my best friend was telling me about spa deals over the phone? Had she never seen me obediently agreeing to her mundane ideas of proper and prim and how it should be? Frankly, my entire life seemed to have been lost on her in that moment.
“Mother-in-law!” I started patiently, “I wouldn’t think that you’d consider me so far gone in my uselessness that you wouldn’t even consider me worthy of being someone’s secretary”.
Mother-in-law stared at me. She has a clear gaze and as per some women, is a strong women’s advocate. But why has she never advocated for me? Actually she has but we haven’t been able to see eye to eye with each other usually so most of it is kinda moot at this point .
“I don’t think that at all! I just don’t think that a secretary’s job is so easy that any woman could up and do it. Have you had a chance to interview for this job anywhere?”
So then I had to explain to her that I had interviewed at many places and they hadn’t asked me back because they hired the prettier girl who had had some experience in answering phones. My experience had been in sales and therefore I was more about in-person dealings and hadn’t answered many phones.
Mother-in-law listened with what I thought was a judgmental face. When she spoke, it was another question,
“So it sounds like secretaries are meant to make coffee, keep appointments, answer phones and do some domestic chores even for their bosses these days ?”
I told her that that was basically what the twenty first century secretary jobs that I was going to had been asking for .
Mother-in-law was silent. Her silence is dangerous. It usually bodes nothing well. She then said,
“I only wish you luck, dear. I’d like nothing more than see you be successful and hold your own”.
Well, that’s a strange wish, I thought. Which secretary has been successful in the history of office secretaries? And which secretary has been able to hold her own ever? If she knew what happened to secretaries who held their own, she’d know that they’re usually fired with bad termination letters.
But I thanked her all the same and she left .
I had another interview the next day and therefore I woke up in the morning, four hours before I had to get out to get ready.
I had already been told that my outfit wasn’t pretty enough and that I should see how young secretaries dressed like! I had already been told that I talked in a monotone and may be inject some lighthearted humor to win prospective employers over. I had already been told that I looked very nervous at job interviews and that I needed to do better.
So naturally, I needed to get up early after I had rehearsed being assertive and strong and nicely dressed the whole night.
I practiced the coffee again, just in case.
I also had bought a new pair of earrings that looked casual but professional.
I had a different feeling about this interview. It was like I was finally coming to a close. It was a feeling of unprecedented growth and momentum and power and new horizons and success and….
“I have had so much diarrhea since last night”, my husband groaned next to me and I was unkindly pulled back from my delicious thoughts .
“Huh?” The juxtaposition of this sentence with my thoughts had me baffled for a second but then I recovered and asked what he was complaining of .
“Honey! I’ve called my mother to accompany you. She’ll pick you up. I know you don’t like to drive to your interviews”.
I huffed silently. I didn’t drive to my interviews because the first one I drove to and bombed it. I am not superstitious but in an attempt to stack the odds in my favor I avoided everything I did at a failed interview. This has led to the early discarding of many brand new clothes, shoes and make up. But it made me happy that I had a plan.
Mother-in-law is prompt. Of all the things that she could be sloppy at, she’s sloppy at almost nothing. She promptly showed up and I had to sit in the car with her.
“Good morning, dear”, she said crisply.
“Good morning, mother-in-law”, I said in a dead voice, wondering where on the board of superstitions should mother-in-law’s drop off to my interview should go.
“Are you nervous, dear?” She asked kindly.
I gulped and felt a lump in my throat.
“Good. You’ll be fine. If it helps I think you look very put together”.
“Did you have breakfast?”
We drove in silence. I saw mother-in-law surreptitiously glancing in my direction a few times.
After mother-in-law had dropped me and said good-bye she casually told me that she’d be waiting for me in the parking lot.
“But it will take time”, I protested.
“It’s okay, dear. I don’t want to leave you without a car”. She smiled kindly.
Tears came rushing forward but I blinked them away. Mother-in-law is hardly ever nice and that day her niceness was just so needed by me but because we both can’t swallow our pride when it comes to acknowledging each other’s feelings I said lightly,
“It’s up to you. I appreciate it all the same”.
I waved to her and headed towards the impressive-looking building that was frightening me as I got closer.
I entered the waiting area. A slightly deranged looking woman offered me a chair. I sat on the edge, feeling my stomach tying up in giant knots.
I looked around. Women of different ages, each more dressed than the other with expensive looking outfits and purses to match, each avoiding eye contact, each lost in her own thought while not losing poise for a second. I looked at myself. I had never worked for a big corporation and this one was as big as they come.
Some girls stole looks at me too. They had open dislike for me in their eyes. In an era where employment is tough to obtain, it’s hard for people to like people going after what they think is their dream job.
I saw one girl going in after the other, each coming out with a mixed expression of confusion and anxiety peppered with doubt and worthlessness.
Soon my name was called.
I should’ve known by the waiting room that the office would be grand.
It was a majestic suite with five high-backed chairs lined against the wall, with a mahogany desk in front of them.
Sitting in the five chairs were five men, ranging anywhere from young to very old, dressed impeccably.
It was intimidating. It was also bewildering. Five people for a secretary interview? Five important-looking people?
The oldest of them said in a high-pitched voice,
“Sit down, dear! We are a friendly crew”.
The other men smiled. I smiled too. Nervously.
The youngest of them was staring at me like he was sizing me up like I do when I’m buying meat for steak. His stare annoyed me.
He was also the first one to speak. He had a young face, may be in his late twenties, likely much younger than me but when he spoke he had the panache and authority that I’ve failed to ever have. He looked like he was born for this role.
“So why did you opt to interview here?”
I contemplated this question for a bit before answering. I had already done a phone interview and was sure that this had been asked.
Since I didn’t remember my answer to the phone question, I hazarded a guess,
“Because I need a job”.
He consulted a paper,
“Yup. You told us that on the phone too”.
Why is he cross checking my answers? Is this some sort of “catch the thief?”
The gentleman next to him fired off the next question,
“So why were you fired from your last job?”
I winced at the word “fired”. That’s such a disgusting word to me that I never use it in reference to my termination. I normally say “they let me go”. But to this gentleman I was honest in the reasons .
“Well, I let many of my friends and family use the employee discount. Many others did the same. It was a small business and couldn’t take the loss. They let me go after they declared bankruptcy”.
I saw curious faces now around the table. The man sitting next to the last questioned asked me, somewhat harshly,
“You do realize that makes you a liability, don’t you?”
What? Me? A liability? Is he insane?
“Well,” I tried to explain like he was a child, “How could I potentially sink your business? Is there anything to buy in this office? Shopping is my passion and my hobby. To be perfectly honest, it’s also a big motivation for me to find a job. I think I should be buying things for myself and not ask my husband for money.”
“Hmm”, he said philosophically without removing his eyes from my face.
As I focused on the guy next to him, the last guy in the row took me by surprise,
“So, young lady, what can you do for us that another woman won’t be able to do?”
I looked at him. He didn’t look like he was the oldest of them. He looked like he was in his fifties. He had a shrewd air about him and he had a very intense gaze. He also seemed to have kept the most distance from the rest of them on the desk. He spoke clearly and almost like he didn’t expect me to understand on the first go.
His question was strange. I had seen and reviewed and read many job descriptions that can come under a secretary’s designation. They had sent me their own job description that involved keeping appointments, attending the phone, being available for guests when business meetings were in progress and making sure the office was duly cleaned by the house keepers. I thought I could do all this. In my mind I could do so much beyond this. I would make their appointments with important people and while chit chatting with those important people I’ll strike a huge business deal or two. Something that was so hard to come by and that they would have been trying to finagle for ages. I would become indispensable. I would be promoted almost every day until I’d be the CEO one day and sit here and interview another…….
“We are waiting. We don’t have all day”, The same man interrupted me as I was mentally climbing the ladder.
I was irked by this interruption but didn’t let it show and promptly answered,
“I think I’m a great team player”, I reeled off the points I had prepared with my husband the night prior, “I’m very professional and never let personal problems come in the line of work. I am a very organized person and almost obsessive about my job responsibilities. I make sure that people feel my value through my work and……”
“Save the speech…..I’m sure you’ll need it again soon”. He said mockingly, then looked at his colleagues and winked. I stole a glance at the other men at the table and they were all smirking .
“Sweetheart!” He addressed me again, “I think you’ll be happier at a smaller place. Somewhere where organization and professionalism and value through work are mentioned on the job description. We want someone who can accompany us to business dinners and doesn’t have a husband to rush off to”.
He smiled at me smugly. I felt like the whole world crashed down on me. All I could think of was the embarrassment that I was facing in the company of several men. None of them stood up for me. No one stopped him for belittling me. No one came to my side.
But I’m a tenacious little thing, my husband will tell you and this man had provoked me.
They had all turned towards each other, engaged in conversation after having dismissed me in their own way and the youngest was on the phone asking the woman outside to send the next lamb in.
“But that’s not mentioned on the job description”. I said, hesitantly.
The quiet whisperings abruptly ended.
“Yes, dear?” The oldest-looking asked me with a quizzical expression in his eyes.
But that wasn’t the one I was speaking to. I turned to the man who had so condescendingly spoken to me and looked like he had conquered me by disarming me with his stupid questions.
“You didn’t mention that I’d have to go to parties with you and that I should be unmarried”.
If looks could harm, he would’ve caused me bodily harm. He stared at me with an icy stare and then said evenly,
“Get out of my office”.
“It’s not just your office”, I said stubbornly. “You can’t order me to get out. I would like to know why I can’t be your secretary”.
He looked dumbfounded. It looked like he hadn’t been spoken to like this before. He had open hatred in his eyes and he looked ready to unleash his wrath on me.
“I said GET OUT”, he yelled.
But I stood my ground. I wouldn’t be a woman if I didn’t tell him that calling me young lady and sweetheart was actually extremely unprofessional of him and probably unethical too. Also, he might be handsome but I’d much rather marry the grandpa-looking guy who hadn’t screamed at me so far.
“Don’t yell at me”, I said more calmly than I felt. “We can end this peacefully”.
“There is nothing to end here. You’re a moron who doesn’t understand a no. Let me tell you the truth! You’re a blithering idiot who got fired from her last job for being a blithering idiot. And you’re getting dismissed now due to being rambunctious. You’re an agitator and a trouble maker and I don’t like you”.
Idiot? Agitator? Rambunctious? Trouble maker? For a woman whom he had just met he sure had a slew of judgement for me that ranged from idiot to trouble maker? How could I be this wide spectrum of things?
“I don’t like you either”, I said, my voice going up slightly, “I think you’re pompous and poorly mannered. You’re rude and condescending. And you’re not that good looking either”.
I turned on my heel and left .
But as with my whole life, the effect of this whole debacle started taking over my courage as I came closer to the parking lot and knew that I’d be facing MIL and later my husband. I wondered what they’d make of this. I was particularly afraid of mother-in-law.
I found MIL quietly listening to the radio in the car. She smiled at me and asked in a pleasant voice,
“All went well, dear?”
I won’t lie, I don’t like mother-in-law all the time. Actually most the time. She is intrusive and judgmental. She’s quick to observe and comment. She likes to point out mistakes that escape me easily. But in that moment, a familiar face brought on emotions that I didn’t know I was feeling.
The constant drudgery of the past few weeks of looking for a job, the repeated disappointment, the preparation that preceded every interview, the loss of time, my own worry that the lapse between two jobs is harder to explain with each passing month, the dressing up, the turning down, the excitement and hope, the sadness and despair! It was all a lot and I started crying.
Mother-in-law took me in the building. A good thing about her is that she lets people talk and cry in peace. She never interrupts when people are engaged in either of these two.
She got us some coffee and sandwiches and we ate.
After I had eaten she asked,
“It didn’t go well”.
“Did you answer all the questions correctly?”
“I think so”.
“What do you mean you think so?”
So I told her about my fight with the CEO.
Mother-in-law’s eyes flashed for a moment. Then she said,
“I’m very proud of you”.
My hiccups stopped. I stared at her with eyes as wide as saucers. She smiled at me. Then she said,
“Why do you think five men were interviewing for a woman who would just be accompanying them to business dinners?”
“It struck me as strange too”, I admitted, “They posted the job as a very light office work job which is why I was so attracted to it”, I suddenly realized I was being too truthful, “But that wasn’t the only reason. I liked the company too”. I salvaged the situation.
“It’s very strange unless…..”.
Mother-in-law looked into space. I followed her gaze but no thoughts came to my head. She finally said,
“Let’s go upstairs and have a word with them”.
“No, mother-in-law!” I cried and fell further deep into my seat, “No way! I won’t go there. They’ll call the police to kick me out”.
But mother-in-law had my hand in her palm and was looking at the directions and hitting the elevator button and we were there in what seemed to be seconds.
She marched into the waiting area and politely asked the woman at the front desk,
“May I please see your boss?”
“Sure. Your name?”
Mother-in-law gave her my name. The woman looked at me strangely.
Then mother-in-law abruptly said,
“May I please have some water? Could you get me a cup? Please?”
I didn’t know mother-in-law was capable of saying please but it was nice to hear.
As the woman left to get water from the cooler at the end of the room, mother-in-law walked into the office, much to the amazement of the men in there .
“I’m Gertrude Davenport”, Mother-in-law began in her most impressive booming voice.
“How can we help you?” One of the older men asked, looking at me with wary eyes.
“I believe my daughter-in-law was here to interview for your position for a secretary? Is that correct?”
They all nodded in unison. That’s actually a mother-in-law effect. She makes people speechless.
“Can I ask what it was that led to a on-the-spot decision about her competence to be a part of this phenomenal corporation that she had so dearly wanted to be a part of?”
Look at how she makes fancy sentences.
“We didn’t think she was right for it”, the man who had spoken before, spoke again.
“Why, may I ask?”
“Because, dear madam, she’s an idiot”.
I winced. It was the same man who had been so rude to me. He was now being rude to mother-in-law and I felt a strange sympathy for him. This wasn’t going to end well for him.
“She’s an idiot?” Mother-in-law asked calmly. “What made you think that?”
“Instead of seeing the door after the interview, she asked us why we weren’t hiring her”. He replied haughtily .
“I’d say that’s a very intelligent and brave question. She didn’t challenge your wisdom in not considering her suitable. She merely asked for feedback”.
“She insisted on it which is not necessary at all. If I feel like it I can give her feedback. If I don’t feel like it, I don’t have to”.
“Hmm, interesting”, mother-in-law said thoughtfully, “I’ve never lived my life how I felt like so I wouldn’t know what you meant by that. Being a woman, I never had the choice to say that I didn’t feel like it. But is that how you expect people to respond to you? Like you’re the weather? You’ll do whatever you please to do and people will just have to carry an umbrella or pack a bathing suit? And if they come unprepared for your anger and unjustified treatment of fellow humans, then you’ll unleash your fury on them? Is that how you expect the world to revolve around you, sir?”
Mother-in-law’s eyes are flashing and underneath her calm demeanor I can see her anger and frustration for this man.
“One might wonder,” mother-in-law continued, “that a job where the object of having a woman is for ornamental purposes only would be a simple hiring process. One might wonder why five men needed to be seated around a table, some twice the age of the young women passing through these doors, to interview a job that you yourself describe as something that many women wouldn’t aspire for. One might wonder what this careful vetting process is for an arm candy by men who are either married themselves or at least in relationships. Aren’t your significant others good enough to accompany you to business meetings? But I digress. One might wonder why a secretary who is expected to be your partner at important business meetings isn’t supposed to tell you of her work ethic, professionalism and organizational skills. One might wonder why a man found it within right to yell at a woman. One might wonder what he felt threatened by. She’s not in a position in this society, world or this office to be a threat to you in any way. She has never been in that position. All she asked for, saying from the experience I have of knowing this exceptional young lady as the love of my beloved son and by your own admission , was feedback in a non confrontational way. Can’t she ask you that? Are you so much smarter than her that you can’t even dignify her question with a formally and properly worded answer? Or could you not answer that question because you are a dimwit?”
My head jerked up. I could hear hot anger in her voice and cold hatred in the man’s face.
He was silent and seething .
“Answer please, sir, because if you don’t answer you’re a dimwit to me who couldn’t answer two questions in a row today”.
He looked like he was going to have a heart attack .
Mother-in-law took my hand.
“She’s a hardworking woman. She went to school, paid her way through college. She married my son when he didn’t have two pennies to rub together. With her he has found love and success. I’m sure your own significant other couldn’t say that much about you. You disrespected a woman who is held in a lot of esteem in many people’s eyes. She stays up all night preparing for these generic interviews even though she has been on at least twenty. Yet she prepares for each one with a renewed vigor. It’s very easy to be brave behind that desk. It’s very difficult to be brave standing here, facing five men, none of whom is an ally. It’s very hard to be rejected every day by men like you who reserve the right to post a job, then collect a hundred women in the name of an interview and laugh at their expense. It’s very hard to smash patriarchy standing here. But today, I will smash your head with your own loved and celebrated patriarchy”.
They were all dumbfounded. Then the oldest man spluttered,
“Dear lady! We’d like to give this young lady a chance as the secretary. I’d like to know your daughter-in-law more. She sounds amazing”.
“I don’t want to work here now, mother-in-law”, I whispered in her ear.
But mother-in-law seemed to know what I would say because she spoke before I had finished my sentence,
“I’m sorry but my daughter-in-law has a great life ahead of her. She deserves employers who love her and respect her. I’ll take your leave now, gentleman! You’ve been most kind in giving us your time and listening to my grievances. I hope you will change the way this office works. Please be warned that I will be sending a letter to the editor of the Daily Mail about this experience. I will also rate your business everywhere I can on the internet. I will, however, be the first person to drop a favorable review if I hear you’ve changed your ways in the future. You’ll find me a woman of my word and integrity”.
We came out of the office. I was shaking slightly. I realized I had euphoria from what I had witnessed. Mother-in-law was in full form and that’s not rare but it’s definitely a sight.
As mother-in-law was dropping me back home she said it again,
“I’m very proud of you, my dear!”
“That’s the second time you’ve said it today, mother-in-law! But I don’t feel proud of myself. I feel like I got you and I into trouble”.
Mother-in-law looked at me with her black-blue eyes. She must have been pretty in her time, I thought. But this is her time too, I realized. She continued to look at me and I felt a warmth in her face that I hadn’t seen before. Through the cracks of her skin I could see the history of her pain. As I looked at her longer, her face continued to relax and finally it was one smooth face of an uncomplicated woman. A woman who wanted to be heard and wouldn’t back down just because she was threatened by authority. But that’s kinda like me, it struck me. I mulled over this similarity for a little as I held her face in my eyes.
In the evening sun her eyes had little specks of gold. There was sometimes the image of a storm in her eyes. But tonight her eyes had the color of the morning sun, on the horizon, painting everything a color of its own choice.
“Always be proud of yourself, dear! Be the most proud of yourself. So what if a few men got ruffled? You stood up for all the girls who went there before you and for all who will go there after you. That alone is the best thing to be proud of”.