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I forced myself to give the clock another glance, and yes, it was still six-thirty five. I was planning to leave at seven o’clock despite the interview starting at eight and the office being a short 15-minute walk away, to save time for emergencies. Today was too important to risk messing up with mindless mistakes, so I needed extra time to deal with all the hypothetical disasters that I had conjured up in my frazzled head. I still had a bit of time left, but I knew that if I sat idly in my house for another second, I would burst. I considered reviewing the more complicated topics of discussion to ensure that my memory was still reliable and I hadn’t completely lost it, but I stopped myself because I knew that if I went on this way, I really would mess up the interview. So, I picked up my carefully packed briefcase, double checked its contents, attempted to fix my already perfect tie, and looked in the mirror one last time.
“It’s time to go,” I thought. I opened the door, and was instantly greeted by New York’s brisk chill. I’d gotten used to it despite having lived in California for most of my life, but today, the cold instantly penetrated my protective layer of body heat and made me feel vulnerable. Once again, I regurgitated the mantra that I’d been trying to convince myself of for all this time, “I’ll be fine.”
As I trudged through the slushy streets and pushed my way through the endless crowds of busy New Yorkers that never ceased to be hurrying around, I missed my hot cup of coffee that I always had in my hand on the way to work. However, today was a different day; it was a career-make-or-break day. I couldn’t risk having coffee spilling on my freshly ironed suit, which was one of the catastrophes that I had prepared for. Nonetheless, my daily dose of coffee calmed me down, and the lack of its warmth and splendidly bitter taste unsettled me.
I wished for someone to tap me on the shoulder and inform me of my fate so I would be relieved of this pounding anticipation. For the last few weeks, I had been completely absorbed in preparation. Even when I wasn’t physically working, my mind was whirring away incessantly, creating new ideas and reviewing the old. Everything else became a second priority. I guess you could call me an obsessive workaholic, but I can’t help it. My job is my life. It’s all I have.
Before I felt even close to ready to tackle the interview, I found myself already standing in front of the office that I knew too well. It was a giant silver monolith with a few signs of life in the windows here and there, but I knew it would swallow any signs of weakness or fear. It was merciless; it was apathetic. It was a dog-eat-dog world, just like the city I lived in. I had to be strong, so I took a deep breath, taking in the biting cold air, and mustered up as much confidence as I could. It was time to step inside and start the interview.
There’s that feeling that everyone is well aware of, the prickly feeling of being watched. And especially today, when my senses were polished and sensitive to every minute detail, I felt it thickly piercing my spine. I let the heavy door thud back into place, and turned around, facing the wet streets and sullen people walking quickly by. One woman was shouting obnoxiously into her cellphone, which was tucked between her ear and shoulder, and she was fumbling with her bag as she scurried by. I didn’t see anyone who seemed the least bit interested with watching me; they were all too absorbed in their own busy lives. Thinking that it was just my nerves kicking in as usual, I started to turn back to the door and walk into the room that I had been nervously dreading for so long. However, my gaze fell upon someone a bit farther down the street path who was wearing a white trench coat that was painfully familiar to me. The trench coat came down to her knees, and it had three large buttons down the middle. My eyes traveled up, past her tightly crossed arms and thin, pale, fingers, past the bones that formed a very prominent V along her neck, and fell upon the face of my daughter.
For a few moments, all my thoughts seemed to blur with my surroundings. My mind completely emptied, and the worries I had about the interview vanished into the dreary sky and became one with the hazy atmosphere. I couldn’t see the people; I couldn’t see the taxis and the towering buildings. All I could see were the lines of her face and her cold, cold, eyes, even colder than the chill of New York that I could no longer feel. It seemed as if all the plumpness and beautiful rosiness that I remembered she possessed had slowly decayed and been eaten away, leaving behind these haunting remains. What had she become?
I didn’t know how to deal with the myriad of emotions that were finally hitting me, but confusion and guilt overpowered most of them. Why had she come here, to the opposite end of the country, especially when she knew I’d be here? Should I try to talk to her? Did I have the right to? I tried to read her face, but it was impossible to see past her stone cold exterior.
I knew I had to try; I needed to take the chance to see if she would be willing to talk to me. She was willing to look at me, which was a start, even though there was raw hatred seeping through her gaze. There had to be a reason our paths collided after all these years; of course I had to reestablish our bond. She was my baby girl. Maybe if she knew I still loved her…
I had made my decision. I started to approach her, never shifting my gaze. I was afraid that if I looked away, she would disappear again, that I would lose her again. As I came closer, her eyes became more vivid, and the pain and detestation that emanated from her gaze became more real and apparent. A sharp stab of pain pierced my heart as I saw the kind of emotion that she was capable of. I had done this to her.
Soon, I realized that I was standing right in front of her. She hadn’t moved an inch this entire time; it felt like an eternity but really it couldn’t have been more than a couple minutes. Her arms were still crossed tight, her hair pulled back, her face very openly and clearly hating me. She didn’t avert her eyes or soften her gaze even through my silent tears. If anything, she grew colder.
“Katarzyna?” I asked. My voice echoed in my ears; I sounded like a timid little boy. Her eyes that were once staring so intensely into me, immediately shifted when she heard her name. She shivered, but I knew she wasn’t cold. She couldn’t contain her anger. But I needed to do this; I needed to try. I didn’t have anything to lose.
“Katarzyna.” I repeated. I tried to sound like the perfect dad she remembered, the dad that took care of everything, the dad that she would run up to and kiss before bed. She still said nothing; she didn’t even move. She was like a statue, frozen with thoughts of disgust and hatred embedded permanently in her brain. If only she would say something, anything. The words were insignificant; I just needed the reassurance that I was still worthy of them.
“Katarzyna, I’m sorry.” I breathed. How pathetic. As if “sorry” would change anything, even though I meant it with every fiber of my being. I didn’t know what else to do.
That’s when she finally looked up. The expression in her eyes didn’t seem to change; in fact, I think it became worse. I wanted nothing more than to embrace her, for us to somehow magically return to the warm, loving father-daughter bond we once had. But the power in her eyes pushed me back; how could my daughter hold so much hate in her pure, precious heart? Before I could say anything more, she roughly adjusted her bag, drew her trench coat in closer to her frail body, and shoved past me. I stumbled back from the shock, and caught my balance. I turned and opened my mouth to call out to her, but she was already gone.
I stood there for a few moments, staring off in the direction that she had walked off in. I could no longer see the contrast of her white trench coat against the bleak background of a street with people too busy to care, people too busy to search for happiness. The screeches and horns of cars, the splashing of puddles, the shouts of irritated New Yorkers with not enough time, all surrounded my ears but I couldn’t hear any of it. All I could hear was the echo of the words that her cold, cold eyes spoke to me.
Her silent anger burning my ears, I slowly began to walk back towards the doors of my office building. I opened the door, and stepped into the constant seventy-five degree temperature that the building stuck to. I walked through the corridor, stepped into the elevator, and clicked on the “nine” button. I had never stepped on the ninth floor. The doors opened, and I walked out and looked around. This floor was vastly different from floor three; we didn’t have flourishes such as bowls of fruit on wide, polished glass tables and separate rooms for lounging. Was there really time for lounging? I walked past these luxuries, looking for Room 176. After realizing that I was going in the opposite direction, I rushed back the other way as professionally as possible, fighting the clock. There, Room 176. I stopped in front of the door and took a deep breath. I smoothed my suit and adjusted my tie. I turned the doorknob, and cautiously walked in.
The room was divided into two equal parts: a large, spacey area with no windows and a table with two very different chairs, and a cozier working area with a few large windows and several neat cubicles for each individual. In front of the lone table on the left side of the room sat a tall man on with a slick dark suit and slick black hair, talking quietly into a cellphone, but with purpose. I couldn’t see his face for he was facing away from the door, but his body language was brusque and precise. I waited patiently by the door, holding my briefcase with both hands to keep them occupied, feeling very small. Around the time my legs became prickly, the man finally finished his conversation and swiveled around in his fancy chair to look at me.
“You must be here for your interview; Mr. McCallister is it? Hello, I’m Mr. Robbs, and I’ll be conducting the session. Yes, have a seat in front of me please and we can begin. Your resume was quite impressive, I must say; I believe that the amount of experience you’ve accumulated will be of great benefit if you do end up working for us. Now how do you suppose that your brief involvement with corporate financing…”
He asked me questions, and I answered them. Any anxiousness or insecurities that I previously felt started to diminish. In fact, I became numb. I answered his every question, even the supposedly intimidating ones about my fallbacks, with prompt confidence. I was a machine with carefully programmed answers that swiftly popped out of my mouth when beckoned. However, the last few words that he spoke caught me off guard.
“…huge blocks of time for most everything. How much priority and importance will you be able to devote to the project?”
For the first time that day, my lips cracked into a smile. It was plastic, but that didn’t matter. No one in this building could expect a genuine smile anyway.
“Actually Mr. Robbs, I doubt I’ll be able to devote as much time as you ask. And as for the project being my main concern, even outside the office, well, I’m afraid that won’t be possible for me.”
Mr. Robbs raised his eyebrows and his expression changed. This was considered talking back, because no one ever diverted from the norm of enthusiastically agreeing with and accepting everything shot their way in interviews here. No one followed through with all the initial promises after getting the job and the executives knew it, but it was still an unsaid rule that interviewees were supposed to be complete yes-men and worship the company and only the company, at least during the interview. It showed their desperation, and the executives loved it.
“Mr. McCallister, you are aware that your failure to devote the sum of time we ask of you may result in no future phone calls from us? This is your only chance.”
I smiled another beautifully plastic smile, scooted back my chair, and stood up. The shrill squeak of metal scratching hardwood floor caused every worker on the opposite side of the room to turn.
“Be sure to bundle up when you leave work today Mr. Robbs. It’s cold outside.”
I lifted up my briefcase with one hand and walked across the wooden floor, my slick, black shoes clacking the whole way. I opened the door, and left without looking back.