“Deeeeep breaths sweetie.” Damon gives my shoulders a squeeze, and hands me my lunch.
“Turkey and cheddar on whole wheat toast. With a little mayo smiley face in the middle.” He smiles his cheesiest grin and I roll my eyes as I take the brown paper bag
“Alas, the bread will have smushed it.” I retort sarcastically.
“You’ll just have to wear the smile instead, then.” He kisses me gently on the forehead, as I pick up my bag of supplies and my purse, and head for the door.
“Are Brian and Britt still asleep?” I ask. “I haven’t seen them all morning.” I look around for signs of life from either, but there’s not even a peep.
“Still sacked out I’m sure. But what do you expect for a lazy summer day! They won’t have many more, we’d better just let them sleep in. Don’t worry mama bear, I’ll get them outside to play some time today.” He gives me one last sweet kiss. “Relax. You’re gonna have a great first day. But you’d better go before you’re late.”
I give him a half nervous smile, and head for the bus stop.
I had memorized my route weeks before my start date, just to be sure I’d gotten it down with time to spare. New York City gets some brutal winters, but snow doesn’t stop the customer service team at 24/7 Timepiece Inc. I’ll be honest, the watch industry never thrilled me, especially in 2019 when everyone has a cellphone with a clock. Though I guess that’s why we cater to more…upscale clientele. Anyway, the pay is great, and beggars can’t be choosy when they have multiple mouths to feed. In any case, it seemed liked a pleasant work environment from the tour, and their staff seems friendly enough. I hate first day jitters. You’d think after 32 years of living, I’d learn to adapt to new environments and social situations by now, but I’m like a kindergartner on the first day of school. Oh god, I hope they don’t do one of those “Ice Breaker” things. Ugh. I shudder a little at the thought.
Two more stops left. I feel my leg start bouncing uncontrollably, like it’s possessed. The woman in the seat in front of me turns, and gives me a dirty look as I try to steady it. I pull out my phone and call Damon.
He picks up on the second ring. “Uh-oh, what’d you forget.” He assumes.
“Damon….I…” I can’t control my breathing as I try to spit my words out.
“Woooahhh okay. I understand. Deep breaths V. In from the belly. Count with me.”
“Can’t.” I squeak.
“Okay. 4 blue things. Go”
My eyes dart frantically from left to right. “Bus seat. Driver’s hat. Freezer bag…” I struggle to find the fourth. There! Poking out from the bottom of the seat across from me. “Yuck…chewed gum.” We both giggle, and I let out a deep sigh. “Thank you so much for being you, and loving me.” I smile through the phone.
“You make it easy, you’re a pretty spectacular woman Veronica Sheppard. You’re going to be amazing, and they’re going to love you. And if they don’t, screw em! But if you’re scared, remember the advantages of being in a new place with total strangers. You can be whoever you want to be, and nobody would know the difference.” I hear some fumbling in the background. “Are you gonna be okay, babe? A certain pair of goofballs are awake, and want breakfast.”
I grin “Just fine, thanks to you. And it looks like I’m at my stop. I love you sooo much! Give them kisses for me!”
“Forever and ever babe. Now go be a rock star.” He makes an obnoxious kissy noise, and we’re disconnected.
Damon and I met in college, right before finals, when my anxiety peaked. He was a psych major, and found me “Way more fascinating than freak”. I had the worst attack of my life when I was late for my literary final and got locked out of the classroom. Damon found me in a heap in the hallway, and taught me that color technique for stopping an anxiety attack, and the rest is kind of history. I never imagined then that we’d have such a great life and a family together, but he’s been my rock for about 10 years now, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The bus lurches to a stop outside my building.
“41 Madison!” Shouted the driver.
“That’s me…” I peep inaudibly, as I gather my things. I step down onto the sidewalk and straighten my skirt. “Deeeep Breath” I hear Damon in the back of my head. I walk through the giant doors, and cross the marble lobby toward the elevators. Each pair of heels makes a distinct *CLACK* across the floor and the sound goes right through me. “Deep breath” I repeat, stepping into the lift.
“Sorry m’am?” A man in a clean blue overcoat, with gold buttons and a matching hat looks at me curiously. He must be the attendant.
“Oh..uh…sorry. 37th floor, please?” I whisper out
“Of course. 37th floor!” He calls as he pushes the button, and the elevator jerks upward.
“First day m’am?”
I’ve never been great at small talk. “Mhm” I nod politely. Then a wave of panic hits me. “Could you tell??” I blurt out.
He chuckles. “Yes m’am, you’ve got all your stuff with you. And since you’re coming, not leaving, I assumed you were hired, not fired.”
I sigh in relief. “Ah, well. Yes. It is my first day. Sorry, I’m just a little anxious.” I give him a nervous smile.
“No need to apologize m’am, everyone gets first day jitters.” The elevator lurches to a stop, and he extends a hand to me. “My name is Fred, and if you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to ask. 37th floor! Good luck m’am!”
I shake his hand and smile, then step off the elevator. I quickly whip around. “Oh! I’m Veronica. It was so nice to meet you Fred!” I call.
He tips his hat, and the elevator doors close. I turn to face a new set of doors. They are tall and made of frosted glass, with an inscription that reads “24/7 Timepieces. We’ll keep you ticking!”
I take a deep breath again, and push them open. The lobby of our office is bustling. A tall, slender, blonde woman in a green skirt suit with matching hat is instructing everyone.
“Please find your name tag on the table in front of me in a timely manner! Training for the new 24/7 calling experts will be in room 105. If you have supplies with you, we ask you leave them near the coat area for now as desks will be assigned later today.” She finishes and maintains her doll-like smile. Yeesh. This lady could be a Pan AM stewardess. Or a serial killer. Britt and Brian…Britt and Brian…I repeat to myself, as a reminder of why I’m here. Everything I do is for them.
I drop my things in the coat area, and head over to Pan AM. I scan the name tags. Samson…Scott…Sheppard. I pick up the “Hi my name is” sticker and stick it on my blazer, then head toward room 105. Despite still being ten minutes from our start time, the room is almost full. A short, middle aged woman with a silver streaked bob waves me over, indicating the empty seat beside her. “Oh lord…” I think to myself. “She’s going to want to be friends.” But it doesn’t look like I have many options, so I make my way over to her.
“Hi there! I’m Sandy!” She takes my hand and shakes it, then motions to her name tag.
“Veronica” I say, with a half-smile.
Pan AM enters the room, shutting the door behind her, and to my relief, cuts my interaction with Sandy short.
“Good Morning everyone! My name is Lisa and I want to first congratulate you on your new position here at 24/7 Timepieces! As expert consultants, we rely on you to keep our valued customers happy, annndddd ticking!” She gives the murderous doll smile again. I think it’s even creepier this time.
“I’m going to get us started with a fun powerpoint on what we’re expecting from you during your time here.” She chuckles at her own pun. I hear Sandy give a soft chuckle too. I keep my eye roll to myself.
Pan…Lisa, fumbles with her computer for a few minutes before announcing the thing I dreaded most.
“While we’re waiting, let’s start with an ice breaker to get to know your new 24/7 family!
No no no…I wipe my sweating palms on my skirt in a nonchalant motion.
Lisa is still making a scrunched, somewhat frustrated face at her computer when she claps her hands and asks everyone to go around and introduce themselves with “Three fun facts about you!” Gag. At least I’m close to the middle. I definitely did NOT want to be first, and last is almost just as bad. A young man with messy, tousled hair and an ill-fitting dress shirt stands up in the first row. He pushes his glasses up before clearing his throat. “H..Hi! I’m Peter. I’m 23 years old and…” Damn. Could’ve fooled me. He looks like he’s 14 and playing office in his daddy’s business suit. “Annndd…Oh! I have two dogs, and a cat!” Peter sits.
Damon and I have a game we play when we’re in public, where we make up a personality for strangers we see out and about. I’m pretty sure we saw it on a TV show. But it helps me relax a little more in social situations. I listen to my co-workers introduce themselves, but I give them their own identities in my head. Loretta, mom of 3, looks more like a Debbie. She quilts in her spare time, and babysits houseplants, not toddlers. Marissa, with her form fitting leaves-nothing-to-the-imagination romper was not a college intern, but a figure skater with a wild side. Tom from fraud protection (a senior rep who was brought in to help Lisa with her computer) looks like he may have spent some time employed as a bouncer, not sales protector. Then I hear a familiar voice that snaps me out of my game.
“I’m Cassandra, but everyone calls me Sandy, like from Grease!” The bubbly soccer mom that waved me over earlier is introducing herself. That means I’m next. I hear Damon in the back of my mind again. You can be anyone you want to be, they don’t know the difference! Who do I want to be? How much did I want to let strangers into my life, my identity? Frankly, I didn’t. “And I love DIY and crafting! You guys can expect homemade goodies for the holidays, that’s for sure!” Sandy giggles, and sits back down, staring at me. I hesitate, and stand up.
“Hi..I..uhm…” I feel their eyes piercing through me. my heart rate picks up speed…anybody you want to be… I clear my throat and straighten myself up.
“Hey everyone…I’m Veronica, but you can call me Ronnie. I’m 35 years old, I have two wonderful kids at home, and I love going to the park and staying active with them!” I smile and quickly sit again, as the introductions move to the next row. Wow. I did it. Granted I wasn’t exactly truthful, but I didn’t need people knowing my business. I can’t see myself staying here long enough to bond with anyone, so I don’t see why it matters.
Lisa has now had to call IT for her computer issues, and I can see the porcelain starting to crack. I somehow managed to make conversation with Sandy, which wasn’t difficult since she was the one doing most of the talking. She was retired. Grandma of 6. Got too scatterbrained and stir crazy during the day so she got herself a job. But damn is she nosey.
“So tell me about your little ones! How old? What are their names? Daddy still around?”
I stammer for a minute. “Uhm. Britt and Brian are…twins. Fraternal. They’re both 8 years old. And yes, Damon is an incredible father and…husband.” I say, smiling confidently.
“Oh very nice, do you have any photos of the angels?” She pries again.
I feel my palms sweating again. “I…uhm…”
Lisa saves the day again. “Okay folks, we’re having some technical difficulties today, but not to worry, we’ll be back up and running in a jiff. In the meantime, Tom here is going to show you where your desks will be, and you can get your things settled in and make this place your second home!
I get my bag from the coat area and follow Tom to the call floor. Thankfully, the desks have been assigned alphabetically, which means Sandy and I will NOT be neighbors. She sees me being pulled to a row several down from her own and shoots me a pouty face and a “heart, breaking” hand gesture. I give her a little wave goodbye. It’s not that I disliked Sandy, over enthusiastic people have always tripped my anxiety. Like how a springy puppy makes an old, tired dog uncomfortable. It’s best just to deal with their peppy attitude until you can find a quiet corner to retreat to. Speaking of, I’ve found mine. By some divine power, I’ve scored a window seat. That means only one neighbor. YES!
The placard reads “Veronica Shepard”. I frown. I’m used to people misspelling my name, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying, and the confrontation to have it corrected is damn near painful. But Tom saves me the trouble. He glances at my tag, then my placard to make sure I’m in the right spot, and does a double take.
“Well, we were close. Promise you won’t hold too much of grudge, eh?” He winks, and I try my best to chuckle, but my “ha” is far louder than I expected. I quickly cover my mouth, and Tom makes that too familiar “Freak alert!” face. I’ve become far too accustom to this look from people who’ve just witnessed my anxiety and lack of people skills at their finest. He takes the placard with him, and I sink into my chair, trying to disappear.
“Hey, Veronica, right?” Nope. Still here, and still visible, apparently. I turn the chair around. A quirky looking girl is seated at the desk to my left. Her bright red hair is braided on both sides into cute little pig tails, and the purple tips match her purple framed glasses perfectly. She reminds me of an American Girl doll, so innocent and sweet. This would be her debut movie, with some cheesy title like “Little girl in the Big City”. Oh, crap. She’s looking at me. Right, she asked my name.
“Oh! Uhm. Yep! That’s me.” I extend a hand to her.
“I’m Abby Scott.” She smiles, waving her name card. “Looks like we’re neighbors! You said you’re 35, right? With kids? I’m 27. No kiddos, unless you count my boxer, Beau. ” She chuckles nervously before averting her eyes to the stained grey carpet.
Wow. She seems just as nervous as me. I might actually like Miss Abby Scott.
“To be honest, I’m 32. I don’t know why I fibbed, I think I worry about people looking down on me because of my age.”
She frowns a little, and I catch myself. “I totally don’t do that though, I know some super genius people in their 20’s, and some real dipshits in their 40’s. By the way, Beau totally counts. Fur babies are real babies!” I’m not quite ready to admit all my fibs just yet, but this seems like a good start, and she perks up a little.
We spend the rest of the day chit chatting and poking fun at Pan AM, who still can’t get her stupid powerpoint up. She tells me about Beau, and I tell her about my “kids”. How one is athletic and the other is lazy. How they both have appetites like elephants. How I worry about them so much while I’m gone because of their ages. I feel like someday I’ll be open with Abby, but for now it’s been a great first day. I gather my things, and head for the bus home.
Damon, perfect creature that he is, is there to meet me at the door to our apartment building with flowers and a kiss.
“How’d it go? We missed you so much! I got a Chicken Florentine started upstairs, hopefully those two rascals haven’t gotten into it.”
He wraps one arm around my waist, and hands me the yellow carnations as we head up to our chunk of heaven in 4C.
“Promising. I even think I made a friend.” I smile at his attempts to hide his shocked expression.
“She’s backwards like me.” I clarify, putting my key in the door.
Damon takes the flowers from me. “Better let me take these. They’re going to fly at you when they see you.”
I open the door, and sure enough, Britt and Brian come charging for me.
I’m on the floor in seconds, with my two blue-nose pitbulls on my chest, being smothered in doggy kisses.
“Damn guys, alright, alright! Mommy missed you too!”