It used to be, when I introduced myself, I'd say my own name very softly and my company's name very loud. My company has made a name for itself, developing computer graphics; our founder had his picture on CNN and in Newsweek and a lot of other places. I'd been with him from the start, hired right out of art school, and soon he had me pretty much running our office. Working long hours, I paid the suppliers and supervised the invoicing and loaned the designers petty cash when they'd spent all theirs on European magazines. I'd been trained as an artist, but eventually, the whole business side of the company was in my hands. People in our office knew me because I was only a couple of years out of college and because I was their boss, and because I wore red lipstick and the prettiest shoes in the office, and because our founder, who is barely 30 himself, trusted me with everything. When it came time to buy a big computer system, the office was crawling with salespeople. I was the only one who knew what he wanted. Later, when we needed money to develop our own software, and he was debating whether to sell equity to a Dutch company, we spent a lot of late hours in the office arguing the points. I voted in favor of it. They seemed nice.It was the Dutch company, in the end, that changed everything. First, they moved us into their office tower on Third Avenue; then, they added their name to ours. Three months after they bought in, they decided to have our work done by their own accountants and get rid of our business office entirely.It was a Thursday morning. I still think about it, every single Thursday of every single week. They brought us into the conference room for what we thought was a coffee break and told us we were all let go.The Dutch guys gave a speech thanking us for all our hard work and wishing us good luck in the future. They were surrounded by security guards. My boss wasn't anywhere around. I don't think I could have faced him. The people beneath me didn't look at me at all. We weren't allowed to go back to our desk, for fear we'd take revenge by messing up the computer systems. They did let us go to the bathroom, and the women went in the women's room and cried, and the men went in the men's room and busted up all the fixtures. The guards were supposed to escort us out; someone else was going to pack up our stuff and send it to us. I went past my desk and saw all my things there, the lipstick on the coffee mug, smudged lipstick on my typewriter keys, lipstick on the end of all my pens. A guard unlocked the bottom drawer and gave me my purse.Forty-five minutes after the start of the coffee break, I was standing in the rain on Third Avenue. My umbrella was still in the office closet and I couldn't go back to get it. I went home and watched daytime television through a blurry veil of tears. There was nothing on except game shows and an old Joan Crawford movie.
.The day after I was let go I didn't go out at all. I just lay on the couch, thinking as every hour passed what I would be doing if I were at work. Nobody else was home in the daytime, and I left a half-dozen messages on answering machines. The Joan Crawford movie turned out to be one in a whole series of Joan Crawford movies, a festival or something, with Joan acting strong-willed and arching her eyebrows at things. I wished my boss would call, but he didn't. That afternoon I tried to tire myself out cleaning the apartment. I kept coming across stuff with our corporate logo on it, t-shirts and frisbees and a Queen of Overtime beer glass, which fell on the floor and shattered. The rest of the stuff I put in a box, and I put the box in a closet. Later, I took the box out to the corner in the rain.I was waiting for people to get home and start returning calls, but no one did. Maybe they were sour about how I hadn't seen them for awhile because I was so busy at work. I watched Joan Crawford play the same role in every single movie, always struggling and fighting and winning. I'd struggled, too, and it seemed like I'd turned into a loser overnight.
.The first person to actually call me was Tatiana, who'd also been in the painting program at art school. She'd kept up with it, the only one among us who had. She paints so much she has no place to put her pictures and gives them away to anyone who will take them. I've seen them in her laundromat, in the pet store, in the bathroom of the restaurant where she works. She leaves them behind her like a trail."It's awful, losing a job that's supposed to be secure," Tati said. "Do you want me to see if there's something at the restaurant?"I couldn't tell her that I didn't want to wipe tables and beg tips for a living, like she did. "That's okay," she said. "We get severance pay. I'm not desperate.""What are you going to do?""I don't know," I said.Saturday night Tati took me to a party full of financial people, though I would have rather stayed home and watched more Joan Crawford movies. The party was crowded but everyone ignored me, as if they knew I wasn't important any more. Some guy with one big eyebrow, extending from one side of his face to the other, told jokes to Tati. I was thinking about my boss, my old boss.When Tati went to get drinks, the eyebrow guy turned his attention to me. "What do you do?" he asked.I started to introduce myself, by telling about my company, and then I realized I had nothing to say.Without even telling Tati, I left. I fled back home in the rain. I felt so alone without my company behind me. I didn't know what I'd done to make this happen, I didn't know what I could have done differently. I would have never let it happen. Because there was nothing special about me except the company I worked for. My job wasn't mine, it was me.I spent the rest of the evening in bed, videotaping Joan Crawford movies as I watched them. I hid beneath my comforter while Joan faced adversity with her shoulders squared.
.I read every other section of the Sunday paper before I could approach the Help Wanted ads, and I cried as I read them. I cried so hard my head hurt, then discovered my only bottle of aspirin was still in my desk at work.Without a sweater or lipstick, I went out to buy some, and the sky was still dove-gray. Everyone huddled inside their jackets and no one looked at me at all. I smiled at the man in the drugstore, but he didn't smile back.On the way home, I passed a second-hand clothing store, which had racks of its cheapest dress shirts and overcoats out on the streets. I guess I looked at the coats because I was cold. Midway through the rack, I found a black coat with a fur collar and huge, padded shoulders. Joan wore a coat just like that.I put it on, although it was too warm for the weather, and felt stronger immediately. I walked differently on the way home, and people did come out of their jacket hiding-places and look at me. Walk like a star and you'll be a star. I think Joan said that in one of her movies.
.When I got home, I pulled the shades over the gray daylight and got back into bed. Sleeping was becoming my favorite thing to do. After a while, I woke up and watched one of her movies all the way through, then started it again and fell asleep on the couch. I slept in my coat. It was cold in the apartment, anyway, but I felt good inside my coat. The phone started ringing while I was asleep again. I picked it up and heard bar noises, a crowd and a juke box, and above them a man's drunken, shaking voice. "I'm so sorry," he kept pleading. "I'm so sorry."
He hung up before I could say anything, or even try to keep him on the line. It was my boss.
.I spent Wednesday morning in a bookstore looking through all the books they had on Joan Crawford. I ended up buying one in hardcover with a lot of pictures, and I brought it home and read it right away.Later that afternoon, I propped up the book by the bathroom mirror, to see if I could do my makeup like Joan's. The eyebrows were the hardest: Joan's seemed to have been shaved off and then drawn back on again. When I got the lips right the resemblance was amazing. I used some gel to make my hair into her kind of pompadour. I was reading the book again when Tatiana came over that night, bringing Mexican food from the place where she works. "It's cold in here," she said. The heat was off so I could wear my coat. Tati glanced at my hair and at the fur collar, then flopped onto the couch."I'm so tired," she said. "I was working on a fruit still-life last night, and the orange was wrong. I couldn't go to bed until I got it right. It's for a delicatessen.""Are they going to pay you?""They'll put it up where everyone can see it," she said. She was looking in the direction of the television, which had three of my Joan Crawford videotapes on top. I wasn't sure if she saw them or not. She yawned."You should paint again, now that you have more time," she said.I didn't answer. Tati picked up my Joan Crawford book from the floor, and then looked at me again."This isn't like that time in college, when you turned into Audrey Hepburn, is it? This isn't happening again, is it?"I took the book away from her. "Remember, when you beat that guy in the oils competition and he called you a shrew? You got all thin and elfin-like, and you kept walking around with that book about Audrey Hepburn. All of a sudden you turned into this little doelike thing. All those head scarves and shift dresses.""No," I said, trying not to remember. "This is not like that at all.""You're not going to movies and talking to the screen?""No," I told her."I'm glad," she said, sitting back. Tatiana stayed for hours after that, although I wished she would go. She turned on the TV and the room grew dark around it. I gave up my stupid painting because I didn't want a life of suffering and rejection. I gave up my selfish dreams to be successful, to be a part of something. I bought into someone else's dream and I guess that's all over now. But I can't let go of the way things used to be.I buried my face in the fur collar of my coat. I will have to learn to take charge of the situation, the way Joan did. And I will. I just don't know how.