My Year with Eleanor
By Noelle Hancock
Copyright © 2011 Noelle Hancock
All right reserved.
Your life is your own. You mold it. You make it.
All anyone can do is to point out ways and means
which have been helpful to others. Perhaps they
will serve as suggestions to stimulate your own
thinking until you know what it is that will fulfill
you, will help you to find out what you want to do
with your life.
I was lying on a beach in Aruba, mulling a third piña colada, when
I received a phone call announcing I'd been laid off from my job.
The call came, ironically, on my company cell phone. I'd brought it
with me to the beach in case something came up at work.
Something came up.
"They're shutting us down!" squeaked my coworker Lorena.
"The whole website has been closed down." She sounded like she'd
been crying. "We're all out of a job."
I sprang forward on my lounge chair and struggled to free my
butt, which had sunk between the vinyl straps. "What are you talking
about?" I shook my head in disbelief.
"They called us into a meeting and announced it this afternoon. It
took everyone by surprise."
"Why didn't anyone call me?"
"They've been trying, but the office has some kind of block on
international calls. I'm calling you from my cell," she said, dropping into
a low, conspiratorial whisper. "I thought you'd rather hear it from a
"But this doesn't make any sense. We're doing so well!" Our online
readership had been steadily climbing. Just last week, our website had
drawn a million page views in one day.
"Something about cutting costs." Her voice was a little loose. I
listened closely and heard loud conversations and Bon Jovi in the background.
"Are you at a bar?" I asked, confused.
"Yeah, the whole staff is at that Irish pub across the street from the
office. Listen, I have to get back. I'll call you later, okay?"
When I hung up the phone, I saw my freshly tanned fingers
tremble slightly. I stared straight ahead without really seeing anything.
"Who was that?" Matt asked from the lounge chair next to me.
"That was the office," I said dully. "I've been laid off."
"Waitwhat?" Matt threw down his newspaper. He swung his legs
around so he was facing me.
"They've shut down the entire company," I continued in that odd
emotionless voice. "Announced in a meeting this afternoon."
"Oh, baby, I'm so sorry. Is there anything I can do?"
He grabbed my hand and I felt the faint squish of sunscreen. Still,
I couldn't bring myself to meet his gaze. I was stuck in one of those
trances where it appears some invisible hand has smeared itself over
your world. And, in a way, it had. It could've been an impressionist
painting: Girl Without a Job Sitting by the Sea, oil on canvas, 2008.
A ringing sound jerked me out of my daze. I turned and watched
Matt grope inside our beach tote for his cell phone. As a political re-
reporter for the most highly regarded newspaper in the country, Matt
was also accustomed to answering work calls while on vacation. Just
as he found it, the ringing stopped and a chime sounded signaling he
had a voice mail.
He peered at the caller ID screen under the glare of sunlight. "Crap,
it's work. My editor probably wants me to make some calls for that
story that's running tomorrow." He ran an anxious hand through his
thick brown hair.
"I'll be fine. Go call him back. I need a moment alone to process
"Don't be ridiculous. I'm not leaving you like this."
"Like what?" I said, forcing what I hoped was a convincing smile.
"Sitting in a tropical paradise? Seriously, go make your call."
Matt scurried off toward our hotel room, casting a few worried
glances over his shoulder. When he disappeared around the corner, I
let my smile fade. I felt as though I'd been riding in a car and the driver
had unexpectedly slammed on the brakes. Everything had stopped. I
was shocked and confused, but also embarrassed for the person I was
a few minutes ago who didn't see this coming.
My eyes drifted to the stack of celebrity magazines next to my
chair. The one on top was splayed open, Aruba's aggressive trade
winds flipping its pages, creating a mini moving picture, the famous
Jessicas, Jennifers, and Kates of the world morphing into one other,
much the way they do in real life. I'd been reading the magazines for
work. For the last several years, I'd worked as a pop culture blogger,
churning out stories on a half-hourly basis. In turn, celebrities provided
me with constant material by getting married, getting divorced,
getting arrested, getting too fat, getting too thin or just leaving the
house for coffee. Yes, the job was fairly absurd, but at nearly six
figures, so was the salary.
Twenty feet away, palm trees waved fiercely. We'd been told not
to put our chairs under them because coconuts can drop and bonk
people on the head, knocking them unconscious. I had a sudden urge
to move my chair over there. Instead, I stood up and crunched through
the sand toward the hotel. I marched down the steps of the hotel pool
and plowed through the shallow end, bouncing from leg to leg, like a
moon man on a spacewalk, until I reached the swim-up bar.
This vacation had been a reward to myselffor those days I
arrived at the office at 6:00 A.M. and didn't leave until 9:00 P.M., for
working on Christmas Day, for making myself care who won The
Bachelor. For the first time in months, I'd started to relax. That was
obviously shot to hell now. I needed to get out of my head for a while,
and I needed reinforcements. Settling in on one of the submerged
stools, I waved over the bartender who'd been taking care of us for
the last few days.
"Okay, Hector, we have a situation," I said. "Bring the bottle of Jack
Daniel's and a shot glass." I briefly relayed what had happened. He
nodded understandingly and poured a shot for me and one for himself.
We held our tiny glasses in the air.
Clink! The liquor burned a fiery trail down my throat. He immediately
poured a second shot. Next I adopted a large family of piña coladas,
forcing Hector to add rum until they turned brown. Forty minutes
later Matt found me passed out on a lounge chair wearing Hector's
baseball cap that said, "Aruba: The bar is open!"
Three weeks later, I'd traded swim-up bars for coffee shops. Every
day I went to some local café and trolled the classifieds for job openings.
The economy had imploded seemingly overnight. Economists
predicted the country was on the brink of a long recessionthe Great
Recession, they were calling it. No one was hiring. Not even the coffee
shops. I'd already asked.
This morning I'd chosen a coffee shop where all of the baristas had
facial piercings and tattoos. I got the impression they were judging me
for ordering a latte. I placed my aging laptop on a table near the window
and it groaned to life as though annoyed at being woken up at this
hour. While the computer booted up, I snapped open the newspaper. A
headline on the front page blared "80,000 Jobs Lost in March." I had
been laid off in March.
It felt weird, doing nothing. I once spent fourteen hours a day
cranking out blog posts and hysterically checking about thirty celebrity
websites to stay abreast of breaking news. My BlackBerry had vibrated
endlessly with gossip tidbits from fellow reporters. One time I
took a ninety-minute flight and by the time we landed I'd received one
hundred nineteen e-mails. When I wasn't at work, I was recovering
from work. I felt so available most of the time that in my downtime I
wanted to make myself as unavailable as possible. This meant going
straight home after work every night, flopping onto my IKEA sofa, and
watching people on television do the things that I was too tired to do
myself. Within months, I was closely following the lives of about fifty
fictional people, yet I had no idea what was going on with my friends.
Even the thought of socializing had become exhausting. I'd started
rejecting most of the invitations that came my way: brunches, birthdays,
dinner parties, even a morning hike. Although I stand by that decision:
friends don't make friends walk uphill before 11:00 A.M. I'd begun
communicating primarily via e-mail, text messages, and Facebook
status updates. I'd stopped wanting to meet new people at all. It was
Matt who gently pointed out one night that I hadn't made a new friend
in the three years we'd been dating.
"But I barely see the friends I already have," I'd sputtered. "I can't
just go adding new ones to the mix or then I won't see any of them and
I'll end up with fewer friends than I had in the first place!"
"Are you hearing yourself?" he'd asked.
"No," I'd replied, turning up the volume on the television.
For the last year and a half, Matt had been living in Albany, reporting
on state government, so it had taken him a while to catch on to how
much of a shut-in I'd become. I hadn't wanted him to worry about me,
so sometimes when he called I'd turn up the TV about fifty decibels
and shout into the phone, "Hey, babe! I'm out to dinner with friends!
I'll call you when I get home!" I made up stories about what I was
doing at night, and eventually I had trouble keeping my fake social life
straight. What movie did I tell him I saw with my friend Jessica the
other night? Whose birthday party had I supposedly gone to? I'd had
to come clean after he caught me in a few lies and began to suspect I
was seeing someone else. I'd told him I could never do something like
thatit would require getting off the couch.
Matt thought that after losing my job, I'd use some of my endless
free time to start socializing again. But your job is your currency in
New York. "What do you do?" is often the first thing people ask upon
meeting you. To tell people that you do nothing is like saying "I am
nothing." It can actually stop conversations at parties. I'd rather skip
those awkward exchanges altogether. Matt had been understanding,
but I could tell he was weary of trying to haul me out of my apartment.
He was tired of making excuses to his friends as to why I'd bailed out
on yet another social occasion. I sensed he was waiting for me to
return to the fun-loving, social person I was when we started dating.
And that part of him worried this was simply who I was now.
These were the thoughts that occupied me as I stared at my computer.
My screen, once so frenetic it could've induced epileptic
seizures, had gone still. But that stillness was somehow more
overwhelming. For the first time in my life, I had no idea what to do.
Where did I go from here?
When I'd returned from Aruba a few weeks ago, I'd been ready to
make a new life plan. I didn't want to blog about celebrities anymore.
I'd enjoyed writing about A-list stars, but the celebrity landscape
had changed in the last few years. More and more I'd found myself
writing about reality stars, teenagers, and celebrities' babies. I was
reminded of a conversation I had a few years ago. I'd been interviewing
Joaquin Phoenix for a freelance article when he'd stopped me
and asked, "Is this really what you want to be doing with your life?
Writing about people who do interesting things instead of doing
interesting things yourself?" Now, Joaquin went on to have something
of a nervous breakdown. He grew a long beard, began wearing sun-
glasses indoors, changed his name to J.P., and quit acting for three
years to pursue a career in hip-hop. Then he claimed the entire thing
had been a "hoax." So he doesn't have a lot of room to criticize my life
choices. Yet his question stuck with me. The truth was, I didn't mind
writing about people who do interesting things. What I couldn't abide
was spending my life writing about people who don't do interesting
So when I got back to New York, I'd created a Microsoft Word
document titled "My One-Year Plan," where I could list my goals for the
next year. No job meant my future was wide open. Too wide open, as
it turned out. Weeks later, the document was still empty. Looking at
the white screen now, I felt I was looking at my future. Blank. The
cursor blinked impatiently, like someone tapping a foot. I glanced
again at that headline in the newspaper. I knew I was one of the lucky
ones. No family to support. A degree from Yale. I'd gotten a pretty
decent severance package and had some money in the bank to keep
me going for a while. I had a wonderful boyfriend in possession of all
his hair. I should have been rejoicing in the endless possibilities of
my future. Instead I felt paralyzed, lost.
As soon as I logged on, an instant message popped up on my
computer screen, breaking me out of my reverie. The merry IM tone
echoed through the café, and I scrambled for the mute key. The
message was from my friend Chris (a.k.a. GayzOfOurLives). As a blogger
for New York magazine he was always online, so it had become a ritual
for us to check in with each other every morning.
GAYZOFOURLIVES: Whatcha doing?
NOELLENOELLE: Besides wondering who in my general vicinity
has a WiFi network called "penisface"? Nothing.
GAYZOFOURLIVES: Listen, I've been thinking about your state
GAYZOFOURLIVES: I believe you're having a third-life crisis.
NOELLENOELLE: A what?
GAYZOFOURLIVES: Well, you're too young to have a midlife
crisis and you're too old to be having a quarter life crisis.
You're turning 29 soon. So, assuming you'll live into your
late eighties, that would make this a one-third-life crisis.
And there was that.
Excerpted from My Year with Eleanor by Noelle Hancock Copyright © 2011 by Noelle Hancock. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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