The word itself is a vacuum, having stolen the last shreds of my identity. At the same time, it was my choice to add this new title to my name.
I didn’t want to wear that label for long, though, so I applied for jobs. Jobs that sounded like they matched my skill set. Jobs that I never knew existed. Jobs I didn’t really want to do, except that the label of “unemployed” felt like it was stamped across my face, hanging over my head in a visible thought bubble…and anything would be an acceptable substitute.
I would go on interviews when I could get them. I wore nice clothes, right down to the shoes.
Shoe choices for interviews are a trade-off. You can look nice or you can feel nice, but you can only pick one. I’d always heard that wearing closed-toe shoes was very professional, and being a Southern girl who hadn’t interviewed in a while, I had very few of those in my closet. I stood in front of classrooms for nearly a decade, and my inclination was to find something close to a neutral color that was comfortable enough to withstand long hours on my feet. For interviews, though, I never anticipated being on my feet for any longer than it took to get from the car to the building, so I began to search for more stylish options.
One of my interview outfits was a beautiful light gray suit that had no matching shoes. I needed to fix that. I put myself in the unfamiliar position of shopping for shoes in a department store instead of a discount outlet.
The saleswoman looked like someone who knew shoes well–immaculately dressed, every blonde hair in place, dark nail polish to match her wine-colored lipstick. I described the suit to her. She went back to the storeroom and found a pair of stunning light gray shoes. They were leather with stiletto heels. The “stiletto heel” part scared me the most, but I reminded myself that I wouldn’t be standing on them for eight hours at a time. As I pictured the suit in my mind, I knew they were a perfect match as long as they had my size. She brought back three different sizes for me to try on, and each time she watched me walk, she offered advice about the fit.
“Your toes shouldn’t be visible at all, and if your feet slide around, they’re probably too big,” she explained.
I found a pair that worked based on her description. They were labeled in a size that I hadn’t worn since junior high school.
“Oh, they just run small,” she reassured me.
Then, she closed the deal.
“They look great on your feet.”
I’m a sucker for a compliment, and she had me on that one.
“I can walk in these,” I said. “I never walk in heels but I can walk in these, and they feel fine.”
I took them to the register.
“You know how the sizes run now and you said that pair was pretty comfortable, so you can come look at other colors if you need another pair,” she said as the dollar signs flashed across the screen in front of me. I sighed and ran my debit card through the machine.
I took my new shoes home, removed them from the box, and placed them next to the light gray suit.
I bought them just in time. I had an interview a few days later.
The first hint of a problem I noticed was while I was driving. The weather was hot—it was July—and my feet began to feel trapped. However, I knew I just had to wear them long enough for the interview, and I had brought a pair of flip-flops to wear for the drive home.
I didn’t get the job. I doubt the shoes had much to do with it.
I alternated my interview suits, not wearing those shoes again until I took another interview in early August on a college campus.
This is where I really screwed up.
Instead of picking out one of my other suits that I could pair with more comfortable shoes, I sent those suits to the cleaners and opted to wear the light gray one. I didn’t stop to consider that it’s a rarity to find a parking space close to anything you actually need on a college campus. I packed an extra pair of shoes—to keep in the car for after the interview—and looked at the campus map before I left.
Everything looks closer on a map than it appears in real life. I learned that in Vegas. The casinos on the strip look like they’re inch wide on paper, but until you’ve walked the strip, you don’t understand their massive size. Why I didn’t transfer that knowledge to this situation, I’ll never know; apparently, everything that happens in Vegas does stay in Vegas, including lessons learned.
I took the stairs to the bottom of the parking garage and surveyed the landscape. According to my map, I was a mere two inches away from the interview location. Being the mathematical genius that I am, however, I still didn’t believe it was actually closer to a half a mile away. As I looked around and began what would equate to a death march, I noticed that my feet were already sweating and the tiny little heel was getting caught in every minuscule crack in the pavement. The more I began to sweat, the more my feet moved around inside the shoes as I slowly inched my way towards the building where the interview would take place.
In a word, I felt PAIN.
I followed the signs on campus, and each time I passed one I hoped that it would have a giant bullseye on it saying, “YOU ARE HERE! YOU MADE IT! SIT DOWN!” Each new step felt like a cheese grater to my toes. I still had two large buildings to pass before I made it, and I would have to climb stairs once I arrived there. I took a deep breath and continued the slow, steady pace.
Another issue surfaced that I had not anticipated—the placement of the price tags. They had been on the bottoms of the shoes, under the toes. When I removed the tags, the soles underneath were still sticky. As I lurched forward like a three-legged donkey, little pebbles I picked up along the way scratched the concrete. The scratching sound echoed off of every building within a mile. Students all around me rode by on bicycles, jogged in their running shoes, and generally enjoyed their afternoon while I screamed silently to myself.
When only one building stood before me and relief from the hacksaws on my feet, I shook off a few pebbles and willed myself to go past the last hurdle and up the stairs. I was directed to a seat until I was called into the room to begin my interview. They offered me a bottle of water, which I gratefully accepted.
The main interviewer said I’d be in the room with their panel for an hour, then another panel for half an hour, to which my mind replied, “Perfect! I can rest my feet for an hour and a half.”
I thought I did well with the first part of the interview. I rose to shake hands as they left, managing to hide the pain that the act of standing induced. The main interviewer said he would be back in later to wrap up things.
Then, he added something.
“I don’t know what your schedule is like this afternoon, but if you have time afterward, I’d like for you to see the actual facility where the job is housed.”
I was unemployed. I’d have been crazy to say, “No, thanks. I’m good. I don’t want to see this place where I’d likely spend most of my waking hours if you guys want me to take the job, and my lack of interest in seeing this facility will probably guarantee that you won’t hire me anyway.”
Of course I wanted to see it. And as we left the office walking towards another building, he made the comment that “it would be a bit of a hike” back to the parking garage from there.
Just what I needed to hear while I was wearing a pair of really cute torture devices.
He walked. Quickly.
I followed. Quickly.
In my brain, the pain signals from my feet were registering “FOUR-ALARM FIRE.” I somehow managed to keep walking and keep the conversation going with little to no evidence of my situation. If I fell and broke an ankle, it might have ended my suffering. Alas, I stayed on my feet and made it to our next destination.
After a fifteen-minute tour of the facility, I was still standing. I mentally prepared for the “bit of a hike” back to the car.
As I exited the building, I stopped and winced. I wished that I had slid those six-dollar flip-flops into my briefcase so that I could exchange them for the hundred-dollar bear traps on my feet. I found a bench and hobbled over to it to examine the damage. As I unstrapped my right shoe, I expected raw wounds and all kinds of blood stains. Instead, I found large blisters that were still intact. I thought about my situation for a moment, slid the shoe back on, and continued my quest.
I made it back to the building where I had begun my interview before my next break from the excursion. I hoped no one was looking out a window, because the next thing I did went against every instinct in my body, especially on a hot summer afternoon.
I reached down, removed the shoes, and started walking barefoot across campus. Most of the concrete was in direct summer sunlight. I power walked, jumping to the shady spots as fast as I could. The last thing I needed was burn wounds. I scampered past two more buildings barefoot, and when I was close to the parking garage, I slid the heels from hell back on my feet. As I climbed the stairs to the second level of the garage, a student passed me like I was an old woman trying unsuccessfully to escape from the retirement home.
The bottoms of my feet were black when I breathlessly crawled in the car, and my flip-flops were white. As stupid as it sounds, I was terribly self-conscious about leaving marks on the flip-flops. That’s when I remembered the bottle of water they had given me, and a paper towel in the backseat.
So, there I sat in the parking garage of a major university, washing the bottoms of my stained, blistered feet with bottled water and a paper towel and thinking about how far I’d fallen in life. I put my head on the steering wheel and sobbed, releasing several months’ worth of frustration. After a few minutes, I pulled myself together and drove away.
I didn’t think it was wise to let the blisters go untreated given that my method of cleaning didn’t include infection control, so I stopped at a drugstore in the city before I left.
Bandages and ointment. Nine dollars. When you’re unemployed, you keep track of every cent.
I had climbed back into the car and started dressing the wounds when a man rolled down his window and tried to get my attention. He had obviously been working on his “I-need-money” story, and a woman in a nice business suit must have looked like she had cash to burn.
I was spent.
I simply looked down at my feet, then looked him in the eye, and responded honestly.
“I’m sorry, sir. I really can’t help right now.”
“Ah, okay, ma’am. Thank you anyway.”
I shook my head, smirking to myself.
Sara Garland is a former high school band director turned administrative assistant living in Collierville, Tennessee. She is also an award-winning photographer and classically-trained trumpet player. Sara holds degrees in Journalism and Music Education from Arkansas State University. Her short story, “Dangerous and Armed,” won Best in Show in the Adult Creative Writing division of the Arkansas State Fair in 2015.