Their eyes are all on me. It’s nothing new, feeling like twenty gazes are boring into me from all sides, but most of the time I can convince myself it’s in my head. Most of the time I can remember I’m dressed exactly the same as everyone else: dark blazer over white button-down, conservative pencil skirt over itchy panty hose, heels just low enough to make me shorter than the men and just high enough to make walking uncomfortable. Today I know I stand out.
My big day, the day I’ve been building up to for weeks, and I know I look like a mess.
Don’t know how I overslept the alarm. Maybe I was too caught up in anxious dreams, dreams where I walked into my boss’s office and found myself swallowed by quicksand, or sat down and shattered the chair in front of his desk, or opened my mouth to speak only for slugs to fall out. When I finally panicked myself awake I had no time to shower or eat breakfast, hardly time to pull on my clothes (blazer and button-down unironed), and only enough time to pull my tangled hair back into a ponytail before rushing out to catch the bus. I came into the office half an hour late and felt the eyes lock onto me immediately.
I drum my fingers restlessly on my desk. From this seat I have a narrow view through the window to where Percy sits, and he’s on the phone at the moment; when he hangs up, I’m going in.
If it’s a good time, I wanted to discuss something with you. I’ve been working here a long time now, I think I’ve shown my dedication to the company…
I can see his face so clearly in my mind. It’s cut into sharp-edged lines that always look vaguely disappointed, even before you’ve said anything. It’s always teetering right on the verge of a scowl. My hands sweat at the thought of his eyebrows drawing closer together, shocked and annoyed and scornful all at once, when he puts together what I’m asking for.
As though I don’t deserve a promotion. My fists clench. I’m smart, I’m qualified. I’m a hard worker and I’m loyal. Oh, why did today have to be the day I came to work looking like a hurricane’s just blown through me?
I look up. Brian Dentsch is frozen passing my desk. His suit is so pressed it looks like a preserved artifact in a museum; I swear his slicked-back hair could be made of glass. His eyes flicker over me like they’re viewing a train wreck.
“What happened to you?” he asks.
My eyes drop. My voice is barely audible. “Overslept.”
His gaze is burning a hole in me. He’s going to whisper to his neighbor when he reaches his desk, and his neighbor’s going to whisper to someone else, and they’ll shake their heads at my lack of professionalism. And then they’ll turn to their desks and start tapping out emails with machine-perfect precision, and speak into their phones with their their glass-smooth voices, and go the whole day without getting a single wrinkle in their shirts.
“All right,” says Brian, with barely-concealed amusement. “Well, try to avoid in-person meetings today, will you?”
It’s not as though I’m dressed in my pajamas. It’s not as though I’ve come to work suddenly bald. But I can’t help the heat pooling in my cheeks as he walks away. Everyone always looks immaculate here - how can I hope to get ahead looking like this?
Percy’s still on the phone, but I think he might be wrapping up. Any minute now it might be time for me to go.
My heart is beating harder. I rub my palms hard on my skirt. Oh, what was I thinking? He’s going to fire me just for the nerve of bursting into his office like a walking natural disaster and daring to ask something of him. He’s going to laugh me right out of the building. I’ve never seen Percy laugh, but he’ll make an exception for how stupid I’m about to make myself look.
I squeeze my eyes shut. No. I’ve been here practically since I left college, and I deserve this.
A muted giggle sounds from somewhere behind me. My head snaps around before I can stop it, and there’s Theresa Coleman, turning away a second after I see her staring. Her ponytail bounces in slow motion, every hair of it in perfect position. I catch a glimpse of her smirk before her back is to me.
Don’t they have anything better to do than make fun of me? I’m loyal. I’m hardworking. I deserve to be here.
Percy hangs up the phone. My heart rate jacks up.
Why did this have to happen today? Why couldn’t I have humiliated myself a week from now, when I could have had my own office and at least a little privacy? Though I know jealousy only gets people looking harder at you here. The pressure for perfection only goes up. If by some miracle I get this promotion I’d better not ever oversleep again, better not arrive a single minute late with a single imperfection, or I can’t imagine what they’d do to me.
I swallow hard and stand. My throat feels like sandpaper, my heart still going like a hamster wheel, but my breath is steady. I cross to his office door and knock.
I think I could contribute more to this company in a role with more responsibility. I’ve never asked for a promotion before, and it might be that some of my accomplishments have flown under the radar, but I can demonstrate…
“Come in,” says Percy shortly.
When I push open the door his eyes are already locked on me. I wobble in my vanishingly low heels - not quicksand, but the terror creeping up into my chest is exactly the same as in my dream. I stumble the rest of the way to the chair and sit hastily. Percy hasn’t moved a muscle, except his eyes. They follow my progress dispassionately.
I almost wish I could sink through the floor. I want to do anything that will get me out of here.
“This had better be important,” Percy says. He sounds like he’s already unfathomably bored with whatever conversation is about to take place. “I have work to do.”
I’m sweating so much it must be visible somewhere. Along my scalp, under my arms, pooling clammy in my hands. He’s wearing a dress shirt so white I’d swear it glows. He looks like he just stepped off of a factory line for perfect plastic replicas of businessmen.
I’m here, he’s here. I’ve been working at this company for longer than almost anything else. I should just say it.
Except he’s looking me over, now, and there’s just a slight look of contempt on his face, and it makes me feel like I’m wearing a collection of rats’ nests.
I want a promotion, Percy. I deserve a promotion.
My mouth opens but nothing comes out. The silence is worse than slugs.
“Well?” says Percy, tapping his black-and-gold pen on his desk.
They’ve been laughing at me all morning. They don’t pay me an atom of attention when I arrive on time and do my work and earn and earn and earn year in and year out, but now when my hair’s out of place they sneer.
I’ve poured my life into this company, and I want it to start taking me seriously.
“I…” I lick my lips. “I came in here to say…”
“I don’t have all day.” He rolls his eyes.
I can’t do this. I can’t begin to think I’m worth anything here. I can’t feel I’ll ever measure up to these flawless machines with their perfectly-honed sneers.
Nothing I’ve ever done, messy hair or neat, has ever been enough for them.
I shut my eyes again.
You don’t treat me well here. You and all your employees. You’ve never appreciated me. I deserve better than this.
“Just spit it out,” says Percy, and he’s already looking out the window. “If you’re going to deliberate, do it outside where you aren’t wasting my time.”
It’s time for me to make a change.
“I quit,” I say.
He blinks. His attention is back on me, and it’s not disappointment or disdain in his eyes now; it’s real, clear surprise. “What?”
“I quit.” I stand up. My legs are no longer wobbling beneath me. “I’m leaving.”
“You’ve -” he frowns up at me. “You’ve been offered a job somewhere else?”
I don’t answer. I’m entirely silent, but it’s not the squirming, mortified silence of a moment ago. It’s a solid, powerful kind of silence. I turn to the door and yank it open.
My heart is beating faster than ever, but it’s not from fear. Another kind of warmth is rushing out from my chest and straight to the tips of my fingers and toes. My heels click on the floor as I march to the elevator, and I know heads are turning now, but I find I don’t care at all.
I find I’m at the front door and then I’m emerging into a blindingly bright spring morning. I find there’s a gentle breeze that stirs my hair. I pull out the pinching ponytail and I find my hair is soft on the back of my neck.
I’m smiling suddenly. I can’t stop myself. As I hurry to the bus stop I think I must be glowing; I think I look better than I’ve looked in a long, long time.