To: Casey Maitland (Financial Analyst)
From: Molly West (Human Resources Representative)
Meeting Subject: Quick Touchbase!
Time: Monday, August 28, 8:30–9:00 A.M.
The meeting invitation appears on my cell phone screen when I’m halfway up the subway staircase. I pause midstep to read through the details, eyes widening in alarm as I process the date (today), the current time (8:07), and my own translation for what HR really means by “Quick Touchbase!”
In twenty-three minutes, one of two things is going to happen:
Molly will tell me I got the new job.Molly will break my heart.The heart in question thunders, blood beating rhythmically against my eardrums. I didn’t think I was getting this news today. Shouldn’t Molly have given me twenty-four hours to mentally prepare? And besides, what if I’d been late to work?
We were going to offer you the new job, Casey, but you were late, so we gave it to Mike from Design. He’s never late.
I’m never late! my internal monologue stubbornly protests.
Which is … probably why Molly scheduled me for an eight thirty.
Someone bumps my shoulder, and my phone nearly slips from my palm. The culprit throws me a glare as he passes. It’s my Subway Nemesis: another Brooklyn Heights resident with whom I share every minute of my morning commute. His daily breakfast is a homemade granola bar, which always triggers my airborne allergies. I once thought about forgiving him for this—after all, how could my Subway Nemesis know I’m allergic to almost everything?—but then I learned he’s the type to read lengthy New York Times articles about air traffic control, and that just seems too boring to forgive.
Taking the last few steps up to the sidewalk with the crush of bodies unleashing its wrath on the Financial District, I dart sideways out of the foot traffic.
I need a moment to get my bearings.
So. Today is the day, then.
Today is the day, today is the day, today is the day—
I suppose—now that my stomach is twisted up in knots, and my breath is coming short, and my brain is going DEFCON 1 on mental health—Molly did me a favor by waiting until the last minute to send that meeting invite. I would have been an anxious wreck for all twenty-four of those hours I wanted.
It doesn’t help that I’ve already had three cups of coffee, brewed in the rose-gold French press I’ve had since college, which now resides in the apartment I share with my childhood best friend. My heart feels feverish and highly caffeinated.
Also, Aaron Carter is still playing through my AirPods.
The early sunlight grabs me, bouncing off every reflective surface in sight. I press the edge of my palm against my forehead, squinting against the golden beams licking across the city in between scattering clouds. Today’s train was just as suffocating as ever—the air hot and stagnant, bodies pressed much too close for even the brief distance we had to travel—but now the aroma of coffee grounds and wet tar roots me in place. I put my hands on my hips and breathe deep, calming gulps into my lungs.
My nose wrinkles, catching the faintest scent of the breakfast burrito I ate this morning. I sniff my hair, drop my bag to the ground, shuffle around until I find the Completely Clean deodorant (clinical strength), an empty bottle of hypoallergenic perfume, and some Listerine strips for good measure. Today is not the day to show up at work smelling like a breakfast lover’s wet dream.
Standing, I swipe the deodorant as surreptitiously as I’m able and pop a Listerine strip into my mouth. I quickly sweep my hair into a bun with a clip, then turn toward my building with a renewed sense of confidence.
A coffee vendor is staring.
She leans an elbow against her cart and gives me a perfunctory once-over. I tuck my chin down, because I might as well examine myself while she’s at it?
I’m in a beige linen pantsuit I got for fifteen bucks at a Reformation sample sale, and fine, it’s a bit wrinkled, but isn’t linen always? Maybe she’s eyeing my Pima-Maricopa hand-beaded earth earrings, clearly visible, since my unruly golden brown hair is now temporarily tamed back. Freckles dust my sun-kissed cheeks. My shoes are black, boring, heinous, but hey, I haven’t gotten blisters in months.
All in all, I look the same as always, thank you very much.
The coffee vendor says something aimed at me. I take my AirPods out and say, “What?”
“Do you need some perfume?” she all but screams, lifting her purse into view through her service window.
I toss my own empty bottle into the trash can. The last stragglers from the subway pass between us, completely unfazed.
“Thanks, but I’m probably allergic to that.” My voice comes out unused, a guitar with strings that need changing. “I might keel over and die, and what would that do for business?” I say it with a half-hearted chuckle at the end to let her know I’m joking (kind of—honestly, the worst that’ll happen is hives erupting all over my neck and wrists), but the woman doesn’t laugh. Doesn’t even crack a smile. She just stares at me like I’m a travel influencer who asked for seventeen photos by the 9/11 Memorial.
Whatever. Today of all days, she can’t get in my head. There’s no room left that my anxiety hasn’t claimed.
I start walking, my gaze aimed at the skyscraper where I’ve spent the last two years busting my ass. In front of the building, Manhattan’s latest crop of white-collar workaholics mill around like grazing cattle. The lower-floor windows glisten with dewy raindrops. The building is so tall that it’s half masked by clouds right now, hanging low from this morning’s heavy downpour.
Like “Jack and the Beanstalk,” I think about boarding that elevator every workday and reaching a kingdom in the sky.
Copyright © 2023 by Clare Gilmore