Rubber Duckie, you're the one. You make bath time lots of…
"Alright, duck. I'll level with you. You aren't the best bath time companion, and I don't know if I would jump right to 'fun' when describing you. Actually, I was creeped the hell out when I found you and your big eyes stuck to my bathroom wall. But, right now, you're kind of my only friend, so let's talk."
I sink down deeper into my bath, staring up at the giant rubber adhesive duck stuck to the shower wall above my head. It was there when I moved into my new apartment three days ago. It is one of the many reasons why I will now advise people to never move into an apartment they haven’t seen. I didn’t really have much choice, though. The first day of my new job is tomorrow, and the move from Virginia to Pennsylvania was rushed, to say the least. I was so excited by the guaranteed PR rep position waiting for me here that I started packing before I even realized I also needed somewhere to live. Turns out a big element of moving to a new city is having a place to move to, and that's not easy when you have less than two weeks to pull it off. Enter this little apartment and my new waterfowl friend.
The landlord left the key under the front mat for me. That should have been my first clue. I told myself it was welcoming and homey. Now that I’m here, it’s more likely that he took the deposit I mailed him and went into hiding before I had a chance to realize this place is nothing more than a glorified efficiency hotel room.
"There is no way I’m going to tell my brother that I didn't meet the landlord or see the apartment before mailing in the deposit. This is the kind of yuppy behavior he's warned me against since I was old enough to first consider moving away from home. Since our parents died when I was in high school, it’s only been the two of us, so I try not to worry Joe too much. This impulsive decision might not have been the best for that."
My rubber duckie buddy, still smelling faintly of the bleach I doused him with after discovering how comfortable he is with his spot on the wall, looks receptive to our conversation, so I continue.
"I have to make this job work. It's my dream job. I've been waiting almost five years to land it. Since I first got out of college. The boss seems impressed by me already. At least, I hope he is since he gave me the job. But, that’s just one person. I have to impress everyone else in the office, too. I have to be on my game from the second I walk in there and show them that I'm worth the leap of faith Mr. Bronson took when he hired me." Rubber Duckie's eyes seem to meet mine questioningly. "Why? Because I burned more bridges than the Vikings when I left Virginia. I went on an I'm-better-than-you tour that stopped just short of me dancing topless, proclaiming that I was off to a grand and glamorous life. I refuse to crawl back to those people. If I'm not fantastic at this job, it will only prove that all the people who told me I'd never amount to anything after Mom and Dad died were right. Joe has been taking care of me for years now. He shouldn't have to keep doing it. I'm an adult now, and I need to do this on my own."
I glance down at my fingertips, which are wrinkled and pruney now. Pulling the plug out of the drain, I stand to climb out of the tub.
"Thank you for listening."
I slip into a pair of boyshorts and an oversized t-shirt that serve as my pajamas and slip between my sheets. It's not so much a bed yet, as it is my mattress lying on the floor with my box springs tilted precariously against the wall. Eventually, I'll get around to putting it all together. Over the last few days, I've had other priorities take up most of my time, like getting my kitchen organized, wandering around the neighborhood to orient myself, and finding clean underwear in my hastily packed boxes.
Setting my phone alarm to wake me up three hours before I need to be at work, so I can be early, I tuck it under my pillow, close my eyes, and will myself to get some sleep.
The next morning...
"Excuse me, what?"
I stare at the blue-haired receptionist behind the desk in the gleaming marble lobby of the office building. The look was a touch startling when I first walked in. Not that I haven't seen blue hair before. More because it sits atop a very stern-looking middle-aged woman, and I have trouble reconciling her look with the concept of a business dress code. This is not the blue of the little ladies who sit in the beauty shop back home and gossip while their scalps pickle in the same dye they've used for decades. This is a shade never found in nature, reminiscent of a blueberry slush.
Now I couldn't care less if she was sitting there naked. I'm staring at her hoping I've heard her wrong.
"I don't have your name on my list," she repeats.
I blink at her.
"Can you please check again?" I ask.
She looks at the computer screen in front of her and makes a feeble show of clicking her mouse a few times.
"Nope," she sighs.
"I don't think you actually looked," I snap.
"Miss, I’m sorry, but I know what I'm doing here. Every appointment that happens in this building goes through me first, and I didn't put a Julie Jacobs down for an appointment at any point, much less today."
I stare at the woman, whose name she never bothered to offer, for a few more seconds, before I collapse against the counter.
"Can you please just check one more time?" I beg. “I can’t believe this.”
Something in the back of my mind and the bottom of my gut is telling me that getting my curling iron stuck in my hair this morning, in an ill-conceived effort to give my stick-straight hair more personality, is not the worst thing that will happen today. Blueberry Slush is looking at me like I might as well still have the curling iron attached to my head, but finally, she turns back to her computer monitor. I watch carefully to make sure she is actually reviewing her list, and my stomach drops as I see her shake her head.
"You aren't on the list," she says. "There is no appointment listed for you today, this week, this month, or in the foreseeable future."
I'm starting to feel desperate.
"This isn’t possible,” I say. "Mr. Bronson himself gave me the job. He told me to be here today."
"I don't know what to tell you," she says, but the look on her face tells me otherwise.
Somehow, I feel this isn't the first time a woman has come to her desk and proclaimed herself the new hire but didn't show up on the all-important list.
"I moved here from Virginia three days ago," I say. "Literally everything hinges on this position."
"I'm sorry," she says. I see something that resembles compassion in her eyes. "Maybe there was some sort of miscommunication. I'll call Mr. Bronson and have him come down here to meet you. He can be a little forgetful sometimes, so if this all happened that fast, maybe he just didn't tell me."
She reaches for the phone on her desk, and I let out a long breath. I know she's lying to humor me. But if she calls him to come down here, at least I’ll have a chance to talk to him and remind him of our conversation.
"Yes, Mr. Bronson," she says into the phone. "If you have a minute, could you come down here? Yes, it's important." She pauses for a second. "Thank you."
As soon as the phone is back on the cradle, she turns back to the computer, keeping her eyes away from me. Time slips past silently. Finally, I lean forward toward her.
"I'm Julie," I say.
Her eyes lift to me.
"I know," she says.
She looks back at the screen, and I wait a few more seconds.
"What's your name?" I ask.
She looks up at me again.
"Flora," she says slowly as if she isn't sure what's happening.
"That's a nice name." I glance over at the elevator. "How far up in the building is his office?"
"All the way up."
"Oh. That's pretty far."
"Especially when you don't use the elevator," she said.
"Does he not use the elevator?"
"Then why would you say that?"
"Why would you tell me your name when you already have twice?"
I glare at her as I pull away from the counter, resigned to the idea that I will not be adding Flora to my Christmas card list anytime soon. I'm roaming through the virtually empty marble lobby, willing myself to stay calm. Finally, I hear the elevator let out a cheerful little ding, and the gleaming bronze-colored doors glide open. Mr. Bronson walks out, heading directly toward Flora.
"What do you need, Flora? I have a busy morning ahead of me today."
"That's actually what I called about," she says.
I see her nod toward me, and I take a few steps closer to him.
"Good morning, Mr. Bronson."
He turns to look at me, and I see a distinctly empty look in his eyes.
That can't be a good thing.
I can almost hear the gears turning in his head as he searches for some shred of memory of me.
"Julie," I say. "Julie Jacobs. From the picnic?"
There's another few awkward seconds, and then his eyes widen. The watery green orbs seem to bulge slightly, and I can only imagine he remembered stepping up behind me in the buffet line at the alumni picnic a week ago. He struck up a conversation with me as we both reached for the fried chicken, and by the time we got to the little individual cups of strawberry shortcake, he was regaling me with stories about his successful PR firm in Philadelphia.
"Oh," he says, and I notice a flush of color seep through his thinning hair, then disappear. "Yes. Good to see you, Julie. What brings you to the area?"
I feel like I've been punched in the chest.
"I have an appointment with you," I say.
"Are you on the list?" he asks. He looks at Flora. "Is she on the list?"
"No," Flora says.
"You're not on the list," he says.
I really tried to keep it together since I first walked into the lobby and was told I didn’t have an appointment. I really did. Now, though, I've heard the word 'list' just one time too many, and my curling iron headache has returned. I take three long strides toward Mr. Bronson.
"What do you mean, I'm not on the list? I don't care about any stupid list. You told me to be here today to start my new job."
"Your new…" his voice trails off, then his face cracks into a smile. "Oh, Julie. I can't believe you actually came."
Mr. Bronson moves his somewhat wobbly body toward me in a movement I can only describe as a half-swagger.
"You're so sweet," he says. "You really thought there was a job for you here, didn’t you, Sweetheart?"
"Let me tell you something, Jules," he says as he closes the distance between us to less than a foot. "Girls like you with big dreams come a dime a dozen. You're so innocent and trusting. You say you're strong and independent, and that you want to take care of yourself, but in the end, you all want the same thing."
I can feel hot anger burning in my stomach. I hate when people call me Jules.
"And what do you think that is?" I ask.
"A big strong man to remind you what you should be doing."
He reaches forward like he's going to stroke my face, and I recoil from him.
"What's that supposed to mean?" I ask, disgusted.
"Most cute little career Barbies will do almost anything that might give them a shot at a successful future. I have to admit, I thought you were going to be an easy source of entertainment that night. You don't exactly strike me as the kind of woman who dates much."
"I'm not following you…"
Mr. Bronson laughs.
"Usually the girls who I mention jobs to are so excited, they hop right into my lap. Then I let them down easy. I've never had anyone be upset. Like I said, I remind them of what a woman is supposed to do."
"You promised me a job," I hiss through gritted teeth. "You said it was guaranteed."
"No," Mr. Bronson said. "Not at all. You'll remember I mentioned to you that I own a PR firm. You said you always dreamed of being a PR rep, and I asked if you could start on Monday."
"And I asked if you were offering me a position."
"And I told you I guaranteed you would love the position I had in mind for you."
The smirk on his face makes my stomach turn as the realization of what he actually meant sank in. What a creep.
"Why didn't you say anything when I walked away from you at the picnic?"
"I figured you didn't feel like playing after all, so I turned my attention to finding another midnight snack to pass the time before my early flight back here. I never thought you would actually show up today. Honestly, I completely forgot all about you."
I'm stunned. Never in my life have I felt speechless before, but at this moment, I am so angry and sickened that I feel like I've lost touch with all socially appropriate words in my vocabulary. The only words that come to mind wouldn’t sound too great echoing off the marble around me.
"You can't be serious," I finally manage to say. "Do you know what I went through to take this position? I liquidated all my savings. I sold almost all my belongings. I moved into a piece of shit apartment because it was the only thing available on such short notice."
"Well, Jules, I don’t know what to say. Welcome to Pennsylvania."
He flashes me a smile and turns toward the elevator. All I can do is give a mirthless laugh.
Just wait until Rubber Duckie hears this shit.
Five days later…
"Are you going to sue him?"
The girl in front of me, smacking her wad of gum, looks like she should be in first-period Biology right now. She's intently fascinated by everything I say and seems to think the two of us live in a made-for-TV movie where I’m the heroine, standing up against the evils of humanity. She also happens to be my new coworker, Bindi.
"No," I say.
"Why not?" Bindi asks.
I finish filling the coffee maker and wipe my hands on my apron.
"What should I sue him for? Embarrassing the hell out of me? Putting me in a shitty financial position? Making me feel like an absolute fool?"
"Don't you think he should pay for what he did?"
I don't even want to think about what he did, much less talk about it. I don't know why I even told her in the first place.
"Honestly, he didn't really do anything. He was creepy, but I'm the idiot who picked up my entire life to move here without having anything concrete."
"You shouldn't be so hard on yourself."
I want to believe her, but it's hard when I’ve had to swap my business professional attire for ill-fitting khakis and an apron, just to sling coffee for minimum wage.
"Look, I'm really angry at what he did. It sucks. It was a slimy, disgusting move. But I can't spend a lot of time thinking about it."
"Because right now, I'm more preoccupied with surviving. It's not an option to go back to my hometown. I didn't leave there on the best terms, and I definitely didn't receive any support or well-wishes on my way out. I've got to make it work here. I thought that was going to mean my dream job. Instead, I have embodied one of my least favorite words in the English language. I… am a barista."
"Well," Bindi says, her round, blue eyes starry and sincere. "At least you're working in a big office building."
She's right. I do work in a big office building. The coffee shop in the lobby of a big office building.
Every day I watch busy, important-looking professionals shuffle through the lobby in their power suits and heels, carrying their leather briefcases, and chatting away on hands-free headsets. Who has such intense conversations this early in the morning? They sweep through the coffee shop, get their morning hit of liquid energy, and head off to their powerful roles in the offices right above me. I'm supposed to be one of them, not the one misspelling their names on the side of coffee cups and pushing them into purchasing baked goods that in no way fits into their trendy diets.
A cluster of them burst into the cafe. We've only been open a few minutes, but the Suits are acting like they’ve been waiting for hours. On one hand, it's invigorating. I can feel the energy and urgency radiating off them, drawing them up to their desks to tackle the day. On the other, it's frustrating as hell because I'm the one they're glaring at. I'm dispensing coffee and adding foam as fast as modern technology will allow. I sweep my gaze over the group, trying to remember the names of the few faces I recognize from the three shifts I've worked here. I'm debating whether the blonde at the front is Ashton or Ashlyn when I notice a new face come through the door.
The man is wearing a well-tailored suit like the other customers milling around the shop, but something about him sets him apart. He doesn't give off the same vibe as the rest. Instead, his massive shoulders and broad, muscular chest seem out of place in his pristinely-tailored midnight blue jacket, and his wavy dark hair doesn't have the same professional polish. The expression on his face isn’t tense or rushed. Instead, he looks unhurried, almost amused, at the rush of activity around him. I stare at his chiseled face for a few seconds as a flicker of recognition rushes through me. He looks so familiar. Something in his crystalline blue eyes strikes a memory just far enough in the back of my mind that I can't pull it all the way forward.
I glance over my shoulder to find Bindi and see her moving through the customers with truly impressive speed. Stepping up to the counter, I start jotting names on the cups, trying to connect them with each of the customers as I do so. I've seen the way the customers that Bindi recognizes and greets by name toss cash into the tip jar, and I can use every single cent I can get my hands on. The faster I can pad my bank account a bit, the faster I can regain control of my life.
The line continues to weave its way toward the cash register, and I wait for the man to take his turn. When I look at the end of the line again, I realize he's not there anymore. The man he came in with reaches Bindi and makes an order for two cups of drip coffee. Straightforward and classic, exactly like I drink it. Rather than Bindi taking his name, or the name of his companion, she dispenses the coffee herself and hands it to him. I busy myself wiping the counter, so I can make my way closer to the table where the man in the blue suit has sat down. Unlike the others who took their coffee and left the shop so fast it was like it was like they were never there, these two seem to be settling in for a conversation of sorts.
I watch them for a few seconds before they suddenly stand and exit the shop.
"Well, that was abrupt," I say.
Bindi looks up from where she appears to be organizing the coffee stirrers by some unspoken qualification. Her expression is surprised as she realizes the wave of customers has left.
"That happens," she says. "There must be a lot of clients coming in today."
"Clients?" I say.
I realize I have no clue what types of companies fill the offices above the lobby.
"Yeah. There are a few different businesses, but most of the people who come in here are lawyers or from the PR firm."
My ears instantly perk up.
"PR firm?" I ask.
"The third floor is a PR firm. The last guy I gave coffee to runs it."
"PR?" I ask. "PR like public relations?"
She nods again.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"You didn't ask," she mutters, sounding slightly bewildered.
"I told you I've always wanted to be a PR rep. I just told you about the job that brought me here – why I'm working at this shop. This whole time you didn't think to maybe mention to me that I'm working in the lobby underneath a freaking firm?"
"I thought mentioning it might upset you. I thought it might be a, you know," she leans closer and lowers her voice to a whisper even though we're completely alone in the shop, "trigger."
I glare at her.
"How old are you?"
"I'll be twenty in three weeks."
I sigh, rolling my eyes.
"Of course, you will." I hang my head. "How could I not know there's a PR firm in this building? I thought I researched every firm in the area. There isn't even a sign anywhere."
"Well, it seems to me that it's a pretty small firm. Just a few reps. I don’t think it’s been open long. I think the owner defected from another firm to start his own." She smiles. "But you still got here to the shop. Of all the coffee shops in the whole city, you ended up here."
I don't want to tell her that after my humiliating run-in with Mr. Bronson I was so angry I could barely even see straight, and it wasn't until I got to this building and smelled coffee wafting out the door that I came to my senses. I saw the "Now Hiring" sign, and now I'm here.
"You know what? You're right. I could have ended up anywhere, but I came here."
Bindi smiles broadly and returns to her attempt at organization. I try to concentrate on cleaning up after the rush, and refilling the pastry case, but my mind is focused on what I just found out. Maybe it was destiny. In my blind rage, I really could have wandered anywhere and applied for a job. Instead, I made my way here. I'm determined to find a way to learn more about the firm and make this my dream move after all.
A week later, it seems I might be on the edge of making that dream come true. I just finished handing the last morning customer her cup of complicated coffee when I notice several of the men have sat down at a table. I automatically look for the man who looked so familiar last week, but he's not there.
Suddenly, I hear the word I hoped I would.
Grabbing a towel, I walk quickly to the table a few over from the men. I wipe far more slowly and thoroughly than necessary, especially considering no one had even touched the table that morning. I try to listen to the conversation as subtly as I can. I don't want the first impression they have of me to be eavesdropping on their morning conversation.
"She didn't even give notice," one of the men said, staring forlornly into his coffee.
"Well, would you?" another asked. "The way Lawson talked to her was ridiculous. I would have smacked him upside of his head with my purse."
There was a brief beat of silence.
"I don't know whether I should ask you if you frequently carry a purse, or if I should make fun of you for sounding like Thelma Harper dealing with a mugger."
The Mama's Family reference takes me by surprise. Mrs. Livingston, my neighbor and recent addition to my friend roster after the duckie adhesive, introduced me to the show recently during an evening I spent at her house when the power in my apartment went out. Hearing someone else mention it out in the real world strikes me as unexpectedly hilarious, and I try to cover my laugh. Despite my best efforts, I only manage to squish it into a snort instead.
The men at the table turn to look at me. My cover is officially blown. I straighten and grip my towel in both hands as I take a cautious step toward them.
"I'm sorry," I say. "I didn't mean to overhear." Lies. "I was just laughing at the reference. I love that episode." They continue to stare at me. "You know, when she's sitting at the bus stop… and the guy tries to mug her… but she's been taking self-defense classes? And she… hits him with her purse?"
I don't know where to go from here. I intended on wowing them with my sparkling personality, convincing them to welcome me into their fold as a stunning PR rep. Instead, I'm staring at four men in suits that cost six months' rent, giving a play-by-play of a TV show older than me. And quickly remembering that I have no sparkling personality.
"I'm sorry," I finally say. I turn around and start to walk away, then turn back. "It's just… I overheard you mention the opening in your firm, and I wanted to let you know that I am extremely interested. Public relations is my dream career, and I actually moved here from Virginia to pursue it. If you would give me the opportunity to interview, I’d love to discuss my qualifications."
I'm not sure the words came out of me at a speed intelligible by humans, but finally the man Bindi pointed out last week as the owner of the PR firm gives a slow nod.
"Your dream career?" he asks.
"Yes," I say. "It's all I've ever wanted to do."
"Perfect. I'll see you for an interview tomorrow morning." He glances over to where Bindi has returned to her post behind the cash register. "That is if you can get the time off."
"I can," I say. I have no idea if that’s true or not. "What time?"
"First thing," he says. “Eight.”
They all start to stand up, and I notice no one has finished their coffee. In all likelihood, they are trying to escape before I try to connect with them over more episode storylines.
"Great," I say. "Thank you so much."
I feel like I’m walking on air as I return to the counter. I don't know how my manager is going to respond to me asking for the morning off less than two weeks after my first day, but I don't care. I'm going to be at that interview tomorrow morning, and when I land the job, I'm not going to need to pour another cup of coffee or pull out another pastry ever again.
The next morning…
It turns out, my manager was not terribly receptive to the idea. Fortunately, Bindi had the morning off and was willing to step in and trade shifts with me. As I sit here in the waiting room outside the owner of the firm's office, I know she's downstairs dutifully organizing cheese danishes, and scribbling names on cups in bubble letters with tiny hearts dotting the I's. Andy, the part-time barista, is likely leaned against the corner of the counter, fiddling with a mobile device far too complicated for someone whose life revolves around coffee and freshman year at a community college. I'm surprised to realize I’ll miss Bindi and her ridiculous handwriting if this works out. This doesn't make much sense considering I've only known her for two weeks, and our interaction is limited to the shifts we share at the coffee shop, but it’s comforting to know that I could still see her in the mornings before heading up to work.
I look up and see the man from the coffee shop smiling at me from the door to his office. Nodding, I smile at him.
"Yes," I say. "That's me."
Why did I say that? Of course, he knows that's me. He's the one who offered me the interview.
I somehow resist the urge to facepalm myself and stand instead, following him into the office. He sits at a large glass top desk before gesturing toward a molded blue plastic seat across from him. I can imagine the furniture is supposed to look modern and edgy, but all it does is give me flashbacks to elementary school. I'm still trying to find a comfortable sitting position in the plastic chair when he extends his hand toward me.
"I'm Jason Slidell."
"It's nice to meet you, Mister Slidell. Thank you for giving me this interview."
"Absolutely," he says. "I wasn't really looking forward to the process of finding applicants, so it will be really fantastic for me if you fit my qualifications."
It sounds like one of those things powerful men say when they think they’re clever, and I'm not sure if I should laugh or not. Fortunately, he fills the silence between us by flipping through the first couple of pages of the resume I've handed him and making sounds of approval as he reads.
"This is all very impressive, Miss Jacobs," he says.
"You can call me Julie," I say.
"Julie, then. It looks like you did extremely well in school. In fact, I would venture to say you're overqualified for this position."
I'm not sure what he could mean, but the hesitation in his voice is enough to spark panic in my chest. I shake my head and lean slightly toward him.
"No," I say. "Definitely not overqualified. In fact, I don't believe in being overqualified. I believe a person can never be too prepared for any challenge that comes their way in life and should never be so arrogant that they believe a task is beneath them. Everyone has space to grow and improve in anything they do, and I believe even the simplest and seemingly most straightforward and easy of tasks can often be the clearest opportunity to do so."
I've completely made up every word that just came out of my mouth as I said them, but Mr. Slidell has a slight smile on his face as though they were the exact words he needed to hear. Closing my resume, he extends his hand to me again.
"I think I've heard enough," he says. "Thank you, Julie, for saving me the hassle and frustration of looking for other applicants for this position."
"Does this mean I got it?" I ask.
It's a painfully obvious thing to ask, but this time I need to hear it. I need confirmation there's a job waiting for me in one of these offices.
Mr. Slidell gives a soft laugh.
"Yes," he says. "You're hired. Let me introduce you to a couple of people and show you where your desk will be."
I'm doing my best not to grin stupidly as I stand and follow him out of the office. We've only taken a few steps down the hallway when a woman in a floral dress and perfectly matched navy heels comes around the corner. She smiles at Mr. Slidell, then looks me up and down curiously.
"Good morning, Miranda," he says, then looks at me. "Julie, this is Miranda, one of my top representatives. I've seen her take complete unknowns and transform them into the next big thing in the blink of an eye."
"It's nice to meet you," I say.
"Miranda, this is Julie. I just hired her to be my new secretary."
I feel the smile drop from my face.
"Wait, what?" I croak. Mr. Slidell and Miranda both look at me with confused frowns, and I backpedal faster than a circus unicycler who's drifted dangerously close to the tiger ring. "I mean, yes, that's what happened. Happy to be here."
There's another awkward moment, then Miranda smiles.
"Well, welcome aboard. It's great you were able to fill this position so fast, Jason. The other secretary only left a couple days ago."
I stretch my face into a painful smile and nod.
"Yep," I say. "It's like it was fate."
My mind drifts back to Bindi with a sinking realization. I walked in here this morning thinking that I was finally going to land my dream job, having paid my penance for being fooled by Mr. Bronson, but somehow managed to talk my way into being a secretary. Now I definitely won't be slipping in to visit her in the mornings. I’ll still be working weekends with her, and probably swapping shifts with her so I can work evenings. A secretary salary alone won’t be enough to pay my bills and build my savings up enough to make me comfortable and confident again. I'm going to have to continue working at the coffee shop. Damn.
Thank goodness my goodbye tour there wasn't nearly as cocky and disastrous as in Virginia.
But I'm not sure Bindi is anywhere near as endearing now that she's back to being my coworker.