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Authors: Noelle Hancock

My Year with Eleanor

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My Year with Eleanor

A Memoir

Noelle Hancock

Dedication

For “Matt,”

who was my rock throughout

this entire process,

For my loving parents,

who showed me the importance of

staying down-to-earth,

And for Eleanor,

who taught me to fly

Chapter One

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.

—ELEANOR ROOSEVELT

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.

“W-what?”

“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 friend first.”

“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.”

“Wait—
what
?” 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 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 this anyway.”

“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 moonman on a spacewalk, until I reached the swim-up bar.

This vacation had been a reward to myself—for 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!”

T
hree 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 recession—the 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 that—it 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 sunglasses 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 things.

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 of affairs.

NOELLENOELLE:
And?

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 quarterlife 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. My twenty-ninth birthday was next week, and I knew my thirtieth would follow with startling alacrity. Yet another source of pressure. It can still be considered charming if you don't have your life together in your twenties, but when people find out you don't have some sort of direction by your thirties, they're a little embarrassed for you.

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