Same Thing, Different Day

By Courtney Colwell

Every day is the same when you’re unemployed, and I mean when you are seriously unemployed. Not the “I’ve only been unemployed for four weeks and I’m still enjoying my time off” kind. No, I mean the out-of-work-for-four-months debilitating and desperate kind. The kind that wakes you up in the middle of the night with the rapid breathing of an anxiety attack, leaving you wondering into the wee hours of the morning why no one calls for an interview, how you will pay that growing pile of bills, or even what day it is.

Sometimes, though, a minor event can become quite significant and provide the means for distinguishing one day from the next. Last Monday I did something different and never got out of bed. This morning, as I reached for the toothpaste, I accidentally grabbed a tube of hair product and conditioned my teeth instead.

My friends tell me I really should appreciate my time off. I think they say this so that they can feel better when complaining about their jobs and drinking Grey Goose and Tonics as I sip the club soda the bartender gave me when I told him I was the designated cab hailer for the evening. I argue that sleeping all day is a reasonable form of appreciation.

“No, you should go out, see things, do things. Do all the things you’ve been wanting to do but haven’t had the time,” Amy tells me, and for two whole minutes I’m inspired by her interest in my golden opportunity. The possibilities race through my mind: I could learn a language, craft faux antique leather bags, or start a foundation for underprivileged shoe addicts like myself. Then she asks me what I did today, and I lose my excitement with the realization that Amy must be drunk.

What did I do today? Oh, that’s a good one.

I hate this question because it puts so much pressure on me to have actually done something. I used to try to be creative, tossing out such engaging anecdotes as: “Today, I saw Ron Howard on the street and almost spoke to him.” Or “I attended a political rally for citizens opposed to something. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but their passion for the cause was pretty infectious.”

However, I lost my interest in make-believe daily activities about the same time I lost recollection of actual ones. I’d start telling Amy about Oprah’s interview with Joyce Carol Oates, and she’d stop me with: “Courtney, you told me about that interview yesterday.”

“Oh… It was a two-part interview. Joyce had a lot to say.”

“I doubt it.”

Eventually, I decided to take Amy’s advice and make a list of things I have wanted to do but did not had enough time for:

1) Travel to Foreign Places.

I’ve always loved traveling, domestic or foreign. As proof of my wunderlust, I’ve accepted far too many positions that promised travel. I’d later resign when the company-sponsored trips to Sweden and four-star accommodations I had anticipated turned out to be weekly visits to Framingham, Massachusetts, and weekend stays in the castle-shaped Sheraton Roadside Inn, home of the medieval sports bar and its desperate divorcees.

As much as I would love to use my considerable free time to travel around, I realize that this is one of life’s Catch-22s. When I had money, I didn’t have time. As a pauper, I have nothing but time.

My substitute was an extremely domestic form of travel called “exploring my city.” My destination? Brooklyn. It’s an inexpensive subway ride to get there, and it’s fairly foreign to me.

However, as soon as I stepped out of the subway station, I realized that I made an egregious error in not planning ahead. In my more worldly adventures, I had always prepared itineraries complete with pop-up maps and back-up routes. Now, standing on a corner in Brooklyn, I had no idea where I was going. I slowly walked towards the Manhattan skyline, stopping when I reached the water. I stood there for a full five minutes, taking in the view and musing that perhaps my aimless wandering had brought me exactly where I needed to be. Maybe I needed to stand here, captivated by the skyline, and find some inspiration in the powerful urban scene before me. Maybe here, I could finally find some answers.

Instead, I gave answers. I gave the answer “no” to a Mr. Clean look-alike who stopped me on the sidewalk to ask me if I would 1) come watch his boxing practice, or 2) let him color my hair some time. Apparently my regular stylist wasn’t experimenting enough with my red undertones.

2) Train for the marathon.

I always thought it would be quite an accomplishment to say that I’ve run in the New York Marathon. Of course, it would be an even bigger accomplishment to actually run in it.

I thought that with all my time off, I could now shake my ongoing excuse, “Yes, I would run the marathon, but it’s too late to start seriously training,” as if I even know what constitutes serious training. But then I realized that there was a reason for that excuse, which is that it sounded better than just admitting that I am a lazy hypochondriac, prone to imaginary torn ligaments from just running across the subway car to an open seat. My excuses are a defensive measure, meant to protect me from injuries, both real and fantasy. No, my time would be better spent training some new excuses.

3) Design my own clothes.

I think that for lack of anything better to do, I’ve been inflating my own ego. The idea of me designing clothes is a good example because it relies on two critical assumptions: that I possess good taste and that I possess talent. Dressed in the same ripped jeans and Jimmy Buffet t-shirt that I’ve owned since puberty, I’m definitely questioning the former, and the latter is a complete misconception. I quickly discovered that I cannot sketch even the most basic elements of clothing. My slacks were rudimentary at best: misshapen squares with a vertical line splitting their bottom halves. I could perhaps pass that off as my vision for a single pair, but certainly not for the entire spring line. When I finally resorted to tracing the clothes in catalogs, I decided this plan was hopeless.

4) Write a novel.

Here’s yet another a goal that requires self-discovery of well-hidden talent. However, I had considerably more confidence in my writing abilities. As an undergraduate student, I repeatedly (read “once or twice”) heard my screenwriting professors praise my abilities to capture dialog, develop characters, and propel the plot, regardless of how bad the plot was. My screenplays may have been campus-bound and formulaic, but what I lacked in originality, I made up for in my technically brilliant use of language and mise en scene.

I convinced myself that my gifts had been hampered by my lack of life experience. My professors advised us to write what we know, but what did we know? I might have been a budding William Goldman, writing my Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, if only I had ever been to the Wild West. Instead, my characters went to the frat house. With this novel, though, I would overcome those previous challenges. All I needed was something to write about.

I wandered the apartment for hours looking for an idea. Maybe there was an idea in the world outside the window? I could just watch people passing by until I saw a spark in some passerby, something that called out, “Here is an interesting character. What’s his story?”

Unfortunately my friends’ apartment only faced another building. Unless someone went side-stepping down the narrow alley or sat perched in the kitchen window across the way, I would not find my hero out that window. So I watched television instead, hoping there might be a movie-of-the week I could rip off. I cursed my friends for not having a view, but then took back my curse when I tripped over all of my stuff lying all over their apartment.

I would not give up, though. I really like the idea of writing a novel, and not just because it is the only idea I had left. During the time I should have been concentrating on a story, I had come up with plenty of ideas of what I would do once I became a best-selling author. I could see it so clearly: multiple appearances on Oprah and Conan, the New Yorker begging me to submit something – anything, and Matt Damon calling to say he loves my book – could we get together sometime, you know, to talk about it? He says he’s interested in making it into a movie, but I’m not so sure that’s his only interest. That picture of me Herb Ritz shot for the cover of Harper’s did look good.

But not this week, Matt. My book tour is in full swing, and I’m in a bookstore in San Francisco, where people who waited two hours in line just to have me sign their books. My ex-boyfriend is next in line. He looks at me expectantly, wondering what I might write to address his need for acknowledgement. “She loved me once,” he’s been telling people, who nod politely though they think he’s full of shit. I open the front cover, sign my name, and hand him back the book.

“Oh, that’s personal,” he says, gritting his teeth.

“Do I know you?” I mouth, trying to be earnest and smug at the same time.

Throughout all of this, though, I maintain my humility. Sure, people mention names like “Nobel” and “Pulitzer” in the same sentences as mine, but what does it really mean? I’ll tell you what it really means. It means having to be the center of attention at all these damn parties, where people stare at me as if I’m supposed to entertain them somehow, as if witty epithets just roll off my tongue. Don’t they understand that I am not one of my characters?

I may be the toast of the literati, but I will remain the same, good friend to those who know me. Whatever money is left from my royalties, after the world-wide travels, multiple homes, and new wardrobe, I’ll gratefully give to my friends for letting me sleep on their couch for five months straight. And counting.

Waking up on said couch, I am a little disappointed to leave my dreamworld. But at least with my imagination warmed-up, I had an idea for a story. I would write my Old West story about a cowboy named Roy who rides over the wide-open plains on his trusty steed Trigger. And where the brave but not-so-bright sheriff fails, Roy succeeds as he rides day and night hunting down the desperadoes who robbed the Orient Express of its gold and young women of their virtue. With his shiny Glock nine-millimeter, Roy saves the day.

Of course, as in any well-constructed drama, there is the denouement, and in this story of western fortitude, the moment comes when the town mayor is sorry to inform Roy that even though he had spent the past few months risking his life, working long hours, and breaking social commitments just to bring back the gold, the town will not be able to pay him. You see, Roy, we have these creditors…

Never one to show his emotions, Roy simply rides off, never looking back. Except to shoot the mayor between the eyes.

After a couple more attempts, I realize a few weaknesses: I cannot construct an acceptable plot line, the action is always falling never rising, and my characters are not at all heroic. However, I decide to accept my creative limitations and write about what I know. I thought long and hard about how to infuse optimism into my story, and I made one more attempt: A young woman becomes a best-selling author, and in between photo ops and publicity appearances, Matt Damon calls.