2019 Nonfiction Prize Winner
Part One: My Real Application
Has, like, seven drafts.
And none of them is the final draft.
Final requires a kind of hindsight that the flurry and haze of what’s next, of up and at it, of he who hesitates is lost blocks entirely. Final form is a privilege granted only to the luckiest who are willing to do the most at the exact right time. And so the search is as frantic as it is neverending—a deep sigh and a JobzNow! search bar efresh, just once more before the end of the day. A panicked Jobz4U! refresh mid-deep-conversation, like, has the time warp pulled me so far away that I’ve accidentally waited too long? Missed the window? Had it closed while I was turned away, rapt attention on eyes and mouths whose futures aren’t on the line?
My real application was written with my breath held, between sloppy drunk desperate jokes (how is it possible to make connections to others while my ability to meet any of my own needs dangles so precariously?). It was written over heated-up leftovers, two-days too old, over the last glass of wine–a bottle that seemed full of so much more than slurred, defense-mechanism jokes when it was first opened (“y’all, y’all, we need to put this shit together into a listicle—27 lies on every millennial resume and a subsequent time they were caught in them”).
It doesn’t have a final draft, but it has a middle one, where the wind speed plummets before launching itself off the charts, where the maximum capacity for stress was reached, where the engine stalled before finally overturning. A lull where it occurs to me that I can’t care this much non-stop, that the body is neither a weather event nor a machine, that at some point the breath has to deepen, has to slow, the muscle has to relax—
An interruption, like a vision or a dream: An op-ed about a woman whose job hunt lasted six months (spurt of panic/category 5/suppressed immediately) and only ended when, with her apathy at a record high, she spent her last grand on a runway bag. At her very next interview, her future employer commented on it in shocked interest. She gave a blasé shrug and responded that she had liked it, bid her interviewer farewell, and arrived home just before the job offer lit up her inbox. She then sat down to write an article that my mind synthesizes/paraphrases/traps in amber as an excerpt: “blatant need repels prospects: how showing that I didn’t really need a job ended my job search.”
There’s a convention to applications. There are words you use and don’t use, questions you have to answer, a format you have to follow. Such strict regulation reminds me of being young enough to have to raise my hand to use the restroom, and so my mind transports me there: I think of my father leaning in, trying to explain to me urgently that the importance of perfect grammar and saying “thank you” is never greater than it is with these things. In that fleeting, bright, glimmer of a second when I am in the presence of opportunity, my father tells me, my resumé is all that I am in this world. And so he pulls me out of the bed Mami has just put me into and sits me bleary-eyed in front of the computer to look at his cover letter again. When I ask him why he says, “because you good, Flaca!” and when, even through the sleep, my mind corrects his “you” to “you’re,” I smile to myself in satisfaction and begin to type.
That satisfaction didn’t age well. Now, bleary-eyed and wrapped in the same blankets that weren’t heavy enough to keep me in the bed I put myself into an hour ago, my laptop glows. The words on the page become more and more and more perfect, but my name sticks out (which of my names do I pick to sound least ethnic and most educated?). My interview clothes are ironed to within an inch of the dingy, thrifted fabric’s life, but my hair sticks out (will a $70 blow out be worth it if it gets me a job that doesn’t pay retroactively?). I speak fluidly, with a musicality that makes my father say “you good, Flaca!!” in genuine wonder, but my laugh sticks out (“oh come on, you can’t think I did that on purpose! That’s just how my laugh is!!”). I am not set apart in the way I was promised. I am not impressive to anyone but my own parents, and no matter how beautiful my words are, time runs out on them. Opportunity doesn’t stay long enough to consider me past the first letter on the page I have become (“okay but we don’t know for sure that it’s racism”–a laugh, too loud again–“I mean, okay. We can entertain another option if you want, but like, only if you can name a white girl who’s name starts with a Y in 5 seconds–four–three–two–”)
It doesn’t work in my favor–time. (“Working six days a week and barely over the poverty line? Why would you even consider that?”) Even the number of breaths I take are counted–always too many or too few–whichever fits best in the equation that tells me I’m short on the grace period, late to the evacuation, running but never covering ground. Running, but down, like a timer, or running out, like the ill-prepared, racing a clock set by a bank account that never stays in the black past rent–
Another interruption: I had asked my previous boss what made her want to start her own business. She looked at me like I was making up a language. That was the only way she ever looked at me so it held little weight until she said, “I have a lot of skills with a lot of value. Why would I use them to make someone else money when they can make that money for me?”
I must be nearing the middle of the search/application draft number. I can tell because that’s when I’m most susceptible to losing stamina. Losing traction, losing steam–a hurricane over land. I’m losing too much and so I start to do the math on things that don’t help, (is buying groceries really saving me money or can I save more by buying an egg and cheese, eating only half for breakfast each day, skipping lunch, and then–). Start to count and measure everything, maniacally, myopically. Start to use spreadsheets to keep track (“Why do you call it your anti-resume?”–a scoff, quieter than a laugh but with more punch–“Bitch, how else am I supposed to stay sane? My shit is Rejection Central,”) and just before I give up, before I hit max capacity, before I put my real application on the internet for everyone to see–red wine and grease stains and typos and all, long before the opportunity for a final draft is even afforded to me, the muscles relax (I can’t keep caring this much forever), the winds slow (now downgraded to tropical storm), they come to a stop. The breath deepens and–
My inbox lights up.
I can’t call it a pause because that wouldn’t be a real enough measure of time, but maybe the suggestion of one is more accurate. A two-second-eye of the storm because then it’s:
But what is the job (immediate start, no time/no funds for reprieve). What are you doing for yourself (no benefits, medical or otherwise), what are you doing for your community (“giving back” i.e. a package wrapped in unpaid/mandated emotional labor, and thinly veiled neocolonial ideas of betterment). What are you doing so that your progeny (I said I don’t want kids, bitch–“Yo, why you gotta call everybody a bitch? Chill!”) don’t end up in your exact same shoes. What are you really doing there?
Well, I say to no one, because no one is ever around to hurl their criticisms in person, but I have to respond aloud to remember that I have a voice: I teach. Why don’t you ask my students what I’m doing for them?
I play Beyoncé in the background so that my words sound less empty. Not an interruption, not a dream. More of an underscore, emphasis, clarion call. I write out the quote as a block-lettered reminder for myself:
That’s a lot of brown children on your Forbes list.
It’s a rough draft of an idea, but I’ll take it.
Part Two: My Real Resignation
Is written on a Friday night. On my work computer because in my teary pant-less haze I grab the nearest thing with a real keyboard and cannot be bothered by the fact that google docs will record this in a drive that they have access to. (Except that I do, ‘cause I at least spare a moment to open up a Word doc instead.)
It’s written on a Friday. It’s written as a letter to my white boss. My very lovely (but) white boss, who I called evil for the first time the day before yesterday.
My real resignation will not be handed in to her;
It will not be handed in to her;
It will not be handed in to her.
It goes: I don’t know how close you’ve ever been with a Black girl. I don’t know if you pass or used to pass as someone that could have been once close enough to a Black girl to have ever been told this, but: there this thing that has happened to all of us, I’m pretty sure. It happened late for me.
I’ve always been a late bloomer though, so that’s normal. I’m, like, one of the people that that caveat is always made about. The one on the sex-ed slideshow that says: any time to hit puberty is fine (except if you haven’t reached puberty by your 17th birthday, go see a doctor).
I didn’t go because I couldn’t afford a doctor at the time, but it happened that late for me. After 17. So it makes sense that other things happened late for me too.
I was at my last job. I was trying very, very hard to be very, very cool with some pretty illegal things they were doing because of the budget. I was being so cool I was letting them not pay me. Then, I found out my boss was taking the money they “didn’t have to pay me with” as her bonus. When I found out, I was lucky. The nurse—Yohana, I’ll never forget her—she happened to be in her office with the security guard—both Black women, both my friends. They both happened to be there when I came in hysterically crying. Nobody else saw me. It was such a lucky thing. So, so lucky. They sat me down. Talked me down, rubbed my back down until I explained the theft, the shock, the hurt and the surprise that it was 2018, but it may as well have been 70 years sooner the way I was having to make a case for why my labor was not, could not be, free. They were so wonderful, and supportive, and warm and consoling—and then they told me to stop.
Yohana’s face got so serious I did what she asked without question. She said, you have 30 minutes left of your lunch. Stop crying. Clean yourself up. Give yourself time for the swelling to go down. Do not go back out there until your eyes aren’t red, until your back is straight, until you’re completely composed. And when my shock subsided enough for me to ask why she said, because you can’t let these people see they broke you.
It happens to all Black girls eventually. In a deeply scary and very low moment, someone like you but older will remind you that you absolutely cannot trust white people. Especially the ones you think you can trust. They don’t know how to love. Or maybe they do, but you’ll never be the one that knows that from experience. Because in order to love you have to give, and when it comes to you, white people will only take. They will take from you until there’s nothing and after that’s over they somehow still will not be done. They’ll seem completely unintentional about it every time you try to bring it up. This will make it worse.
We all know this. I knew it late, but even I know it now.
Other things I know:
A resignation letter has a minimum of
two sentences, one date, and one thank you.
Some state reasons for leaving.
pursue other opportunities
This was a difficult decision to make
wish there was another solution
the strong people remaining/sticking it out/doing the lord’s work
will be fine.
They say thank you;
They say thank you;
They say thank you.
They don’t take a flaming match
to the very latest (but not last) bridge;
watch it burn.
Resignation letters don’t say
They don’t say
you didn’t help me;
they don’t say
I am sorry (but mostly I am a sorry person).
Unless they do.
But usually it’s a better phrase:
I learned far too recently not to let white people see me break to present this letter to you. I can’t do the pants-less hysterics in front of you,
But I might. I might tell you that I can’t hand this to you for real but I can read it in a last-ditch attempt to succeed in something I came here to do:
You’re going to have another Black woman like me as an employee after I leave. In a position that you don’t care about like mine—a teacher in a subject that doesn’t matter like science or history, a mail carrier, or DMV attendant that you manage. Or more accurately, a maid, or someone who doesn’t get paid at all, like an intern—because more often than not that’s what other people think we’re worth, and when you do
When you do, I’m gonna need you to remember this. Because it’s going to be impossible for her to explain how she can’t simply come to you with an issue. How she has to suffer in silence. How insulting it is for you to shrug your shoulders when she loses her ability to hold it together one day and say that she should have said something sooner, because you can’t help her if she doesn’t say anything, you just can’t. Don’t tell her that lie. We all know that it’s a lie–that you care for and about other people—white people—so easily and attentively, and that those white people rarely have had to explicitly ask you for help.
And anyway, how is she supposed to say something?
Forthright? (read: “too blunt”)
Logically? (read: “emotional”)
Clearly? (read: “extra”)
Calmly? (read: “not taking this seriously enough”)
Professionally? (Read: Rude/Short/uncouth)
Passive aggressively? (Read: aggressive aggressive/Mean/Violent/a threat)
So how can she come up to you when a micro aggression has been dropped into the fabric of her existence like a stain in silk–so ugly when it happened, but after a haphazard wash
(her hands, bathroom sink, tired Wednesday) now seems small and like it was maybe never really there? How about after the third? Fifteenth? Eighty-seventh? The shirt is dingy now but wasn’t it always? Weren’t they all always dingy? Isn’t she just a Dingy-Shirt-Ass-Bitch?
I know there’s a right answer. And I know what it is:
She’s supposed to say something like she cares but not too much, right? Like upset but still solutions-oriented? Like with the right number of jokes and smiles but not too much or she’s clowning. Like holding herself up tall but not too tall. Not so tall it looks like she’s trying to intimidate you. Hurt but not like limping, and certainly not like crying. Oh, heaven forbid she cry, and your suspicions that she’s actually an immature, incompetent child be proven right all at once.
I know the right answer and so do you.
I want you to let go of the pretense, to be a human thinking about another human, to understand how impossible that will be for her—would be for anybody (but especially someone who’s been told by a Black woman older and wiser than her at a formative moment that ultimately, she can’t trust you to do her anything other than ultimate harm, so what would the point be?). I want you to remember me saying this. I want you to ask her how to help but then actually help. I want you to keep doing that, not just once early on. I want you to know why you must keep doing that, and why you must hold yourself accountable for doing it. I want you to understand that you must do this on your own because nobody in charge of you will ever care enough about Black women to tell you to do it. And I want you to be someone who will.
Apologies have a convention too.
You never say “I’m sorry you”
You always say “I’m sorry I”
But I am just like the world that made me:
I see Black girls and my structures break.
I’m sorry you will hurt.
I’m sorry you will know it was preventable.
I’m sorry you will see me there, in that memory.
I’m sorry I let it happen.
I hate to resign because I came here for a reason. I wanted to be a role model for young Black girls, but I am a young Black girl and I can’t do it. I am failing us/them now and I have failed us/them already and this is why I do not want to fail us/them again.
I do not want to fail them again when they’re older, and they’re the ones working for you, and they need this understanding from you and you don’t have it. I don’t want them to trip home on a Friday, strip their pants at the door and frantically write this resignation letter on their work computers. I don’t want them to have to do what I’m doing now because I want them to have been heard by you, because you heard and remembered me. I want to hand in this resignation instead of the two lines, with the thank yous, the date, the reason, the regret. I want to hand in this one because the other one would be me failing them again.
I don’t want to fail them again.
But if I do, I know that they’ll forgive me.
They’ll forgive you, too.
And their partners who won’t listen or help them make the decision—who expect them to be strong enough to do it on their own every time. And their fathers who won’t be there for them, whether they want to be or not, whether they’re present or not. And their children who (best case) will grow up and leave and never thank them enough—if they’re lucky, if they’re allowed that. They’ll forgive and forgive and forgive and forgive and
By the time you see them again in some other interview room, in some other dingy shirt, they’ll be so well trained in forgiveness that that will be all they truly know how to do.
And you’ll hire them because you know that.
Yamilette is an Afrolatinx writer and educator based in Brooklyn. She is the 2020 Oyster River Pages Creative Nonfiction intern, and was a 2020 Tin House Winter Workshop attendee. Her work can be found at The Offing, -ismo magazine, and Watermelanin Magazine. Depending on the time of day, she can either be found over explaining the life cycle of moss to her students, or to her best friend’s cat.