His eyes opened a crack, registering the sounds issuing from the TV momentarily, before a fresh wave of fatigue washed over him. The temptation to just succumb to his heavy eyelids, however, was trumped by the angry rumble of hunger he felt.
With what seemed like the last of his reserves of energy, Sohail slowly swung his leg over the couch he had collapsed on with a groan, absently noting that he had a sock on in one foot, but not the other. He looked about his apartment, trying to gather his fuzzy thoughts into some semblance of coherence.
“Am I feverish?”, he vaguely thought as he made his way to the kitchen. The few steps might as well have been a trek. He poured himself milk and cereal and sat down on the breakfast bar, only dimly aware of his aching body. As he gratefully took in spoonfuls of food, his thoughts drifted to the week that had been. The rumors of lay-offs, the anxiety, the sleepless nights, the panicked calls with immigration lawyers, the confirmation of the lay-off, the frantic negotiation with his manager, David, and finally, today.
He felt the phone buzzing on the coffee table, cutting though his muddled thoughts. It had to be Ashima, at least he hoped it was her, the one person he could muster the energy to talk to.
“It happens, man. It’s not that bad. You have skills, very good experience, you’re in the Mecca of the tech world being in the Bay Area… How hard could it be to land a new job?” Ashima was saying.
She had spoken for nearly all the 45 minutes it had been, since Sohail had met up with her at The Oak Barrel, for a beer and some much needed air. She talked about various contacts, updating his resume and LinkedIn, the job sites she had had good experiences with…
Sohail took a long sip of his beer and did not respond.
Her voice seemed to fade as his mind drifted to the moment the full weight of the situation had hit him, when he handed over his badge and laptop at the HR desk. He could practically hear the 60 day countdown that had begun ticking, all the way home.
The lay-off had been very amicable, he had been given full severance pay and his manager had offered to support him with letters of recommendation. As far as lay-offs go, this was the least bad way it could have occurred, for others.
But they didn’t give him the one thing he needed most — Time.
Ashima looked up, startled, from the chopping board when she heard the sound.
From her kitchen, she saw Sohail had slammed the laptop shut and was pacing anxiously in the living room, talking non-stop words gushing with a force that was alien to her, coming from him.
Why wouldn’t they just fuckin’ give me a month’s notice instead of the damn severance?!?”
“These folks really don’t give a crap, do they?”
“Why do we immigrants accept this, man?! After working so hard, one lay-off and we’re done”
This was day 25, week 4.
Since his layoff, every day now had a number, counting down to 60 and each day, was the same — Up at 6:30, calls and texts to friends who could provide a referral, in-mails to old professional contacts from the LinkedIn Premium subscription he had newly acquired, applications to jobs online through job boards, scheduling and attending phone interviews, following up on interviews he had given, tips from people in roles he had applied for, practicing questions for interviews.
Ashima called him on her commute back from work, cajoling, sometimes even forcing him into coming to her place for home-cooked dinner a few nights a week. She looked at her friend, hoping he wouldn’t see the concern clouding her face.
This was so far removed from the spontaneous, fun, chilled-out guy she knew Sohail to be. The stress was so palpable, she felt it like seismic waves emanating from the living room.
In the past few weeks, he had been a vortex of conflicting emotions.
Panic alternated with summoning confidence. Anxiety and optimism played with his thoughts. Hope and disappointment came in turbulent waves, following positive emails, ghosting HRs, all accelerating in intensity with every passing day.
There were days she simply couldn’t convince him to take a break. She had dropped in “to say hi”, but really to check on him only to see that he hadn’t bathed, stepped out and or eaten anything but snacks.
And yet, it was what Ashima could not see, that had started dominating Sohail’s thoughts.
Will I have the time to sell my car?!? Should I give notice on my apartment? When do I tell my parents? When to I start actually considering booking my travel to India? What will I do about bank accounts, insurance accounts? How will I pay back my student loan?!?
Each passing day brought him closer to having to leave everything he had worked so hard for, and depart for India and nothing could cushion that reality. Nothing.
She glanced at him as he took his first few bites. She had cooked his favorites today — Palak Paneer and paranthas, with raita.
“It’s nice”, he said softly, his tight smile not reaching his sleep deprived eyes, looking not so much at her as past her.
“Ma, I wanted to tell you something”. This was not a conversation Sohail was looking forward to.
“Haan, Sohail, how are you, beta? Is everything okay?”
“Well, I was laid-off from work about a month and a half back. Don’t worry, don’t worry… I got another job offer today.”
“What?!? Why didn’t you tell us? You think you are so grown up that you will keep such important information from us?”
“Ma, you don’t understand. I had to find a job within 60 days. I couldn’t have handled your anxiety at that time on top of my own, okay? There was just so much going on, I was stressed to the point of losing sleep. Keeping you calm in the midst of all this just wasn’t something I could have done, alright?”
“Oh, good though. You found a new job and everything is okay. Say a prayer and go to the temple this weekend. Everything happens for the best, beta. Don’t worry. You’re all fine now, na?”
“Yes, it all worked out. I’m fine, I guess.”
Ashima quickly glanced at Sohail.
She was driving him for a celebration dinner for his new job, his favorite Thai place with that awesome shrimp in green curry that he would routinely devour…
“Let’s do this another night, Ashi. Just, not in the mood…” his voice trailed.
“Sohail, you’re okay, right?” she inquired, the worry in her voice apparent.
“I’m fine… I guess.”
Background: A lay-off is not pleasant for anyone. But to a legal immigrant, losing a job is an existential crisis because their ability to stay in the US legally, is tied to their employment until they establish Permanent Residency. This is their reality for decades, especially for citizens of India and China, who have disproportionately long wait times for establishing Permanent Residency (aka “Green Card”) in the US. Every job loss comes with steep immigration consequences that carry the risk of potentially losing the life they have built and lived for years.
And yet, there is absolutely no recognition of this silent struggle by the government, corporations or the voting public. In fact, until 2017 there was no grace period at all for unemployment on an H1-b visa, that is, a visa holder could not be unemployed for even a day, strictly speaking. That co-worker of yours from India that you enjoy working with, may have undergone this very same thing, for all you know.