I sit with my chin on the steering wheel and watch the stars wink out over the office, slowly stifled by sly hues of violet and then suddenly smothered by angry slashes of pink that just as quickly fade into pale swaths of blues and golds.
I love my job.
I love my job.
I hate my job.
The truth creeps into my morning monologue yet again.
I’m parked in front of the squat brown building where my dreams are dashed day-in and day-out against the poster-slathered walls, where my creativity is cursed to curdle in the confines of an airless grey cubicle, where my jaw-clenching masquerade of polite professionalism is maintained only by the promise of another paycheck.
I’m here. I’ve made it this far.
I’ve dragged my unwilling body out of a warm cloud of blankets.
I’ve brushed my teeth without looking in the mirror to avoid my own eyes.
I’ve shrugged on the fraudulent uniform of an adult.
Corporate Storyteller. That’s my job title.
Corporate Sell-out. That’s what I really am.
Somewhere along the way passion was severed from profession by the allure of benefits, money, and security. I can feel the dismay of ten-year-old Nikki leaching from past to present, as if she’s peering into her nine-to-five future of microwave line-ups, florescent lights, and pit-stained cardigans.
Where was I?
Today will be a good day.
Today will be a great day.
Today will be bullshit.
God damn. Well, I have at least another 7,280 work days to get it right.
My colleagues, who I assume are equally secretly cynical, make the resigned shuffle in from the fading shadows, hunched against the dawn under the burden of laptops, lunches and lassitude.
I give up on my personal pep talk and yank the rearview mirror to inspect the premature brow crease that I can no longer camouflage. I try to smooth it out with my thumb but it only makes the line red and angry.
I’m dabbing on another layer of powder, as if that will help anything, when a BANG on my passenger window startles me into dropping my compact case with a puff of nude dust.
Ben grins in at me, the dreadful portrait of a morning person who probably exercises early and puts spinach in his shakes. Sweet naïve Ben. He glows in the golden morning with line-free youth and hums with go-getter enthusiasm for the paid internship courtesy of his dad and a golf course agreement.
He hasn’t yet realized that he’s caught in the corporate shackles of pensions and promises, although I suppose the irons don’t feel so heavy when C-Suite assurances are more than placatory.
His cube is only slightly smaller than mine, and right next door. Despite my valiant efforts to deter his attachment, he’s clearly decided to designate me as his best buddy.
I make him wait, gathering my bags, my coffee, my keys without hurry.
“Good morning sunshine!” he crows when I finally greet the morning air, “It’s a beautiful day!”
I grunt in minimal acknowledgement. I have to save every ounce of oomph for inside.
“How was your weekend?” he springs along beside me over the curb and across the pavement.
“What did you get up to? Did you end up trying that new Italian restaurant by your place? Oh,” he doesn’t pause for my answer, “No, you said you were going out of town, right? Your nephew’s birthday party? How was that? How old is he?”
It’s so hard to resent the guy and his puppy dog zest for life. I try my best.
“Four-year-olds are so cool! Is he into trucks and stuff? My cousin…”
We approach the building and I tune him out, square my shoulders, and plaster on my pleasant face. He gallantly holds the door open and his chatter follows me all the way to our cubes.
“What’s on the docket today?” he asks as I hang my coat.
“Creekview pitch this morning.”
“Cool! Any chance I could sit in and watch you rock it?”
I shrug. “I guess.”
“Right on! Want a coffee?”
“I’ve got—“ but he’s already disappeared around the corner, and before I can assess the state of my inbox he’s returned with my favorite mug, coffee with hazelnut creamer, and a packet of sugar on the side.
I offer a grudging thanks; he beams and disappears into his nest of motivational quotes.
At 10:55 a.m., he’s sitting beside me at the conference room’s ridiculous mahogany table.
“Hey Mr. Stuart!” He jumps up as the first VP saunters in.
“Benjamin!” Wally greets him like an old friend, wringing his eager hand. “Good man, good man indeed.”
The rest of the decision-makers (dream-shatterers) file in, all just as over-the-moon to see Ben at the table. I receive cordial nods, and can’t keep my eyes from rolling into my brain though I’m pretty sure no one notices.
“Well, let’s get to it,” CEO Brad Mackermole leans back in his chair and brandishes a paw in my direction.
It may be my best work yet. I’m over-prepared and my presentation is stellar. It’s clear. It’s concise. I’ve considered every countermove to every conceivable angle of attack.
“Any questions, gentlemen?” I call the room back to attention. Not even my best work can captivate this audience.
“Very good, Ms. Hansen,” Wally sniffs and puts his phone down on the table. “But I’d like to know what Benjamin thinks.”
Don’t get defensive.
Don’t get defensive.
Man I cannot keep myself in check today.
All eyes rest on Ben’s wide-eyed but good-humored face, mesmerized.
“I think what Nikki has put together is solid,” he says. “We’d be mad to mess with it.” He throws me a conspiratorial smile, as though he’s one of them throwing me a bone.
He means well.
I refrain from strangling him.
“Well then,” Brad announces like a god, slapping his hand on the table like a gavel, “Approved to proceed, Ms. Hansen. And add Ben here to your project team, nothing like having the best people on the job.”
They lumber out to make their noon reservations while I stand spine-stiff, lips pinched behind the table.
“Enjoy your lunch, Ben.”
I close my eyes and when I open them he’s gone, but there’s a note on the table.
I’m sorry :( Grab you a sandwich from Ponko’s. Hold tight! Xoxo Ben
For fox sakes. Maybe best buddy is the wrong label for what he’s designated me. I hover between irked and flattered and then fold up the note and put it in my pocket.
I grab the dry-erase marker and squeak off the lid.
Don’t do it.
Don’t do it.
In big sweeping letters I write I QUIT - NIKKI on the whiteboard.
But by the time Ben is back with my pulled pork sandwich, the janitor has wiped away my meager declaration of protest and I’m plugging away on the next project.