I smooth my hands down my pencil skirt and gray tailored jacket before touching up my dark lipstick in the hall mirror with a look of resignation. My eyes scan and check my tawny hair is neat and sleek in its high bun, and I scrutinize my reflection again to make sure it’s precise. Sighing once more, I take a steadying breath, trying to ready myself, pushing down the gnawing ache of anxiety and nerves deep inside my gut.
I look as good as I know I’m capable of, and I’m mildly satisfied with what I see before me: a cool, efficient image of cold poise and gray tailoring that exudes authority, with no hint of the turmoil of emotion inside me. I narrow my eyes to look for any flaws in my immaculate armor, any stray hairs, specks of dust, or creased fabric and find none.
I’ve never been a lover of my own reflection with my youthful appearance, cool blue eyes, and pouting lips, but nothing is out of place, and I look right for my new role as personal assistant to my very high-profile boss. I look professional and capable on the outside, which I guess matters: calm and uncompromising with every detail in place and clothes flawlessly neat. I have always been good at shielding the truth about how I feel inside.
I slide on my stilettos with a slow, careful motion, keeping my balance with one hand on the wall. Hearing the movement in the room behind me, I check the mirror in response.
“Morning, Ems. God, you look professional as always.” Sarah stifles a yawn as she wanders from her room and rubs her eyes with the back of her fist childishly as I watch her in the reflection behind me. It’s unusual for her to be up this early on her day off; Sarah’s never been a lover of mornings for as long as I’ve known her.
She’s wearing her baggy pink housecoat, and her messy, short, bleached blonde hair is sticking up at all angles from her head, casually loveable as always. I am warmed with affection for that bundle of happy energy. Her bright blue eyes are heavy with early morning fatigue, and she’s watching me closely with a silly smile on her face. A little too closely for my liking.
“Good morning, Sarah,” I smile lightly, trying to ignore the way she’s looking at me, and straighten up to stand tall. I turn, lifting my briefcase from the floor in front of me, and head forward into our open plan apartment. I’m ever conscious of my grace and mannerisms under scrutiny, even in front of her, and I push out the sense of tightness from my nerves today, swallowing down the listlessness, trying extremely hard to curb the swirling of my stomach.
“Remember, you need to be here for ten o’clock … the boiler repair,” I remind her as she shuffles along behind me to the living room area, trying to distract her from the open gawking she seems to be doing. Running through my schedule in my head like a mental checklist gives me something else to think about besides my uneasiness today.
“I know. I know! You left me a memo on the fridge, remember?” she giggles childishly and throws me a patient look, raising a brow with an almost indulgent expression. She looks much younger than her age, and sometimes I forget we went to school together. I’m more like her guardian than her roommate nowadays, but maybe I always was, if I am being honest. I sigh again, pushing down the tight knot of apprehension growing inside, and give her a small smile of bravado.
“Don’t forget.” I sound stern, but she doesn’t react; she’s used to my serious tone and the endless organization of our lives. She knows this is the way I do things; my need to control and have everything just so makes me feel more capable.
“I won’t. I swear. I’m not working until tonight, so I’m going to stick around and chillax … watch some back-to-back Netflix.” She moves lazily through the bright white and gray kitchen to my side and begins making herself a coffee. With another sleepy bright smile, she lifts the mug I washed earlier this morning from the rack for herself. I watch her casual, confident movements around the space, her domain when she’s at home, and it gives me a sense of calm.
Sarah was always good at making me feel a little saner when I needed it, never aware of how I drew from that uncomplicated, relaxed manner of hers when I had to ground myself.
“I’m going to work.” I walk steadily into the small hall by the side of the bar, which juts out into the lounge and lift the few open letters from the counter I’ve yet to deal with today. I know that I’m lingering and acting indecisively compared to my usual efficient routine. Normally I’d already be walking to the subway station, despite being early.
“Oh, here,” Sarah says, sliding a white envelope out from behind the toaster and holding it out expectantly for me to take, a blank look on her face. “Before I forget … I know you’ve probably already taken care of them, as usual.” Her sparkling eyes flash at me with affectionate amusement.
“What is it?” I look at the long envelope, taking it from her slowly with careful fingers, eyeing it up with a frown, seeing no writing on the front.
“My half of the utilities and the rent. I got paid early.” She smiles brightly and sets about making herself breakfast, pulling a loaf of bread open and sliding slices into the toaster.
“Right. And yes, I’ve taken care of it already … thank you.” I take it and slide it into my bag to bank at lunch, mentally noting down a memo to do so. I ritually pay our bills at the start of every month when I’m paid; having a very good wage in a great company with many perks makes it effortless to make sure we are always up to date.
“No surprise there then,” she mumbles and throws me another affectionate look, all cute eyes and gentle sighs as she regards me with a sideways glance that I clearly catch. I shake my head at her, fully aware that she prefers that I take control of our living expenses and always has. She’s never been good with money, and I doubt she would remember to pay the rent on time without my ever-efficient presence to do so. Taking care of things is how I like it; it gives me purpose, control, and a focus in my life that I so desperately need to thrive.
“I won’t be home until six o’clock, Sarah. I presume you’ll be at work by then, so have a wonderful day.” I move away from the breakfast bar and head for the main door of our apartment, lifting my warm jacket as I pass the dining table, and turn with a smile when I reach the dark slate door.
“Oh, wait … good luck on meeting your super-hot boss for the first time, Miss Anderson!” she beams at me excitedly, raising her eyebrows, leaning out across the countertop, so all I can see is her head popping out from the kitchen at a funny angle. She looks messy but cute and far too awake for her today. I smile back emptily, not wanting to give my feelings away or show any weakness.
“Thanks.” My face heats slightly with the rise of nerves hitting my stomach hard again, but I ignore the sensation, swallowing it all down with the expertise of a seasoned actress.
“Are you nervous?” she probes with a little furrow of her brow, still leaning out a little too far to watch me adjust my briefcase handle and pull my outside jacket on over my suit. I frown back at her question, the tightening knot in my stomach intensifying somewhat, but I shake my head ‘no’ in reply. If I admit it to her, then I admit it to myself, my nerves will get the better of me, and I’ll lose my edge.
That wouldn’t do at all.
“Of course, you’re not. You never are!” she adds quickly with a grin and slides back into her little culinary world, oblivious to anything amiss in my behavior today. I smile again as I watch her recede and turn with a wave of my fingertips before heading out the door on my mission to get to work.
Sweet Sarah. She’s so sure of my capabilities and calm, outward confidence that I sometimes wonder if she even remembers the old me at all, if she even associates me with the girl I was when we met so many years ago?
I close the door behind me quietly, holding onto the handle for a second as I take a deep, steadying breath and take a moment to be still, refusing to let emotion get the better of me and crack my armor. Looking down at the cool silver knob as a way of calming myself once more, I steady that creep of inner nerves and push down all my anxiety and fears.
I can do this.
It’s what I’ve been working so hard for; finally, my abilities are being recognized after years of hard work and climbing the corporate ladder. I need to push down the inner doubts and the final traces of my adolescent Emma to focus on the tasks ahead of me and the responsibilities I’ll be taking on after today. It is heady and overwhelming, but I steel my nerves inwardly, stilling my hands against me as I’ve practiced a million times in the last ten years. Every day I’ve worked toward this person I’ve become, this cool and confident persona known as Emma Anderson.
It takes a moment to be able to walk away from the door, but as I do, the armor slides up, and the mask fully connects with my face. Each step strengthens my resolve, back to my usual practiced demeanour and inner me, finding the willpower and continued strength to pull this off day after day. I head to the subway station.