Two years ago around this same time, I found myself back in California looking for a job. I had just returned from a long weekend trip in Carmel, celebrating my Uncle Louis’s second, for-real retirement (at the eyebrow-raising age of 70) from an aerospace company. Before Carmel I’d been in Asia for a two month-long “waiting” period in much the same vein as I now await graduate school admissions decisions (more on that later) though back then it was for a Fulbright. The Fulbright didn’t come through and I went home to celebrate my uncle’s retirement and mourn my own entry into corporate America, hoping companies wouldn’t ask what I did immediately out of college.
“Well, I was banking on getting this scholarship thingy that would allow me to continue dicking around Asia.”
I clawed at my face, “What does this mean?” I asked my friends, most of whom were well into graduate studies or about to be or had been working full time for a while.
“Get a job,” my friends said, “Get real.”
I didn’t panic, but rather listlessly sent my resume out to random, underpaid Craigslist listings with job titles all containing the word and or variations of ‘assistant’ which I have now come to recognize as a synonym for ‘underpaid, sometimes severely.’ For a few weeks, nobody called. My parents knew the hunt was hard – it was hard for their friends’ children, most of whom were more accomplished and goal-oriented than their daughter – so it was perhaps wisest to inquire politely from time to time and give me no further pressure unless I started looking at plane tickets again.
One evening, having sent out two dozen or so resumes and cover letters (do people even read those things) to companies that I knew vaguely about, I shut my computer down and went to the living room where my father sat with his feet up on the round glass coffee table, watching the Taiwanese news. He did this every night and mostly did not like it when I tried to speak to him over the pretty news anchor with the light but forceful, staccato voice. I needed an ego boost, something my father, he of the “you could stand to lose about ten pounds,” or “don’t stand like such a man,” or “girls who roll their eyes at their fathers usually stay single forever,” was unlikely to provide, but he was a working man and more importantly he supported me with his work. As of late, having sent more than a hundred resumes out into cold black cyberspace and hearing only radio silence, I realized the possibility that he’d need to do so for a few years more. I needed to know that my father would be okay if I were to be unemployed forever.
“What,” he said, not bothering to look up from the TV screen.
“The job hunt.”
He looked up, and kudos to him, read my face, “Not going well?”
“Not at all.”
He sighed, “I’ve been telling you and telling you. Nothing in this world is easy. You’re the only idiot your age who didn’t rush into the job hunt out of college. You should have started looking in school.”
“I was applying for a Fulbright!” I sputtered, incredulous though not deservedly so, (applying for a Fulbright is quite different from completing a Fulbright or discovering a cure for Lupus), “I didn’t want to get the job and then get the Fulbright and have to be like, ‘Oh sorry, psych! I have to go and be a Fulbright Scholar now, ha ha.'”
My father shook his head, “Who cares? It’s always easier to say ‘no’ to a job offer than say ‘yes’ to nothing. You should have started looking a long time ago.”
This was not the ego boost I was looking for. I did not want the conversation to continue down this particular path, nor did I want to go back to my room to continue the job hunt, but to do anything else would have seemed frivolous. Apparently I should have been making up for lost time and been trolling job postings 24/7, but at that moment, I wanted my dad to make me feel better. Mostly because my mother wasn’t home. She was playing badminton. If anything, I could have used a pep talk and decided to prompt one.
“Sometimes,” I said grandly and with as serious a look as I could muster – so serious that it was borderline comical, “Sometimes I just want to marry a rich man.”
My father looked up at me with a sudden, grave interest. He leaned forward and turned off the TV, something he almost never did unless we were arguing and I yelled at him to turn it off. I was mildly surprised and I thought, “Here we go, here’s where Dad goes, ‘Hell no my daughter won’t think like that. I raised her to be a smart, independent woman who will work hard and not have to rely on anyone else to take care of her.” I braced myself, it was a fatherly monologue I needed to hear.
Instead, over the barely audible buzz of the darkened TV cathodes, my father nodded and say, “That’s okay too.”
My father nodded at me, “I said, that’s okay too.”
“Dad!” I looked at him with a confused grimace and he at me with eyebrows raised and eyes wide, a strange, hopeful smile on his face as though I had just presented him the solution to the world’s oldest riddle.
“No, I’m not joking,” he said, “some girls don’t aspire to much, at least career wise.”
“I have aspirations!” I said.
“You say you want to write! You’ve said that forever! But I don’t see you writing!”
“I do!” though in fact at that point, I hadn’t, not very much, and not very seriously. I was saving my creative juices for the Fulbright, though in fact I just needed an excuse to not do anything at all for a while.
My father shook his head, “Look, that’s beside the point. I know you don’t have huge career aspirations. But Jesus, look at you, you don’t even have huge feminine aspirations! You want to marry a rich man but where are you going to find him? And how are you going to find him looking like that?”
He waved at my person, tsk-tsking at my limp hair and pajamas (uniform of the unemployed), sallow, uncared for skin, and just general lack of feminine mystique. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but then again, I am my father’s daughter and it seemed more appropriate to laugh.
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“Invest in yourself if you don’t see yourself investing too much in a career,” my father said, “Go buy some makeup! Lose some weight and get some new clothes!”
“Dad,” I said, “You’d have to pay for the makeup and clothes.”
“Okay!” he said, getting more worked up as he spoke, “It’ll be an investment! Make yourself pretty and for God’s sake go out more with your friends to where young people go. All you do is sit around at home and eat and tell me not to eat. You think you’ll meet a rich man loafing at home all day in your pajamas nagging your dad?”
I did not, but I was also still stunned by the conversation in general. What had happened to all that talk before about hard work and self-reliance? Did something change in me or in him? Did my father see (or not see, perhaps) something in me that made him think “investing” in my physical appearance would somehow lead to a more secure future?
“Do you think I’m incapable of supporting myself?” I wasn’t angry, just curious to know. If my father was anything he was honest.
He leaned back into the couch and turned the TV on, though kept the volume low.
“I don’t think you’re incapable,” he said, already beginning to tune out, “My daughter was born capable. But I’m saying you need to set some goals and work towards them. Don’t waffle. Don’t wait. Act. Act now, act fast. You want a job, you prepare for it, right? You want a rich husband? Well, there are preparations for that too.”
I lay on the couch and watched the news but didn’t listen or register any of it. I was thinking. Slowly, the volume crept back up and five minutes later looked at my father’s face; his eyes were back at their usual after-dinner diameter.
I pushed myself up, and looked back down at my father and smiled. He smiled back.
“Thanks Dad,” I said, “I’ll go invest in myself now.”
“Good. You made a decision.”
I did, but not fully the one that was implied. As my father began to nod off, I walked away smiling to myself with the memory of the time in the sixth grade, when all the cool girls were wearing Lucky Brand jeans that cost $60, an obscene amount of money to spend on jeans, especially when most of my clothes were hand-me-downs.
“I’d really really really like a pair of these jeans that everyone at school has,” I had said to my dad, whose clothes are almost exclusively from Costco (polo shirts) or JC Penney (trousers and Hush Puppies), “But they’re kind of expensive.”
“That’s okay,” my father said, taking out his wallet, “Go buy yourself a pair. How expensive can they be?”
Before I could respond, he took out a twenty dollar bill and pushed it into my hand with the self-satisfaction won from being a father who knows he can always provide for his daughter, “That should do it, no?”
Back in my room the computer stayed off. The job hunt would continue, that was for sure – better to invest with my own funds than shock my father with the brutal truth of what beauty and its upkeep cost – but for now, I needed my beauty rest. That was free.