The enormous black backpack, stuffed to bursting, bumped into Therese for the third time as its owner, a dishevelled-looking hipster type with straggling blonde curls, stepped back into her again as he talked away animatedly on the phone. He noticed this time, quickly holding up his free hand and muttering a quick apology to her before returning to his conversation.
The packed subway train rattled around her. Her earbuds blocked out most of the noise of it, but she could feel the vibrations, the sharp jolts, the pressure of the movements pushing her this way and that. She stood with her feet slightly apart, planted firmly on the ground, keeping herself steady. The chunky block heels of her boots were surprisingly reliable, and she made a mental note of this as she watched the glamorous woman by the opposite doors struggle to stay upright in her stilettos. High heels weren't exactly in Therese's wheelhouse, but she'd work up to them, she'd decided. All the other girls in the office seemed to wear them. She noticed it the last time she had been there.
At 42nd Street-Port Authority, the doors slid open with a creak, and Therese pushed her way through to slip out onto the platform, turning right into the steady stream of people headed for the stairs like a car pulling out at a junction. Sometimes walking in the city could feel so much like driving, especially on a Monday morning in midtown Manhattan. She waited in this human traffic, shuffling across the platform and up the stairs, until they all emerged into the sunlight and parted ways.
It was mild for February, the sun strong, hanging low in a small patch of blue sky, a break in the billowing clouds. It was still cold, of course, but not so biting as it had been in recent weeks. Therese fastened another button of her grey peacoat, and gently shook her head from one side to the other, letting her chocolate brown hair fall over her ears, warming them in its waves.
She turned back on herself as she left the subway, in the direction of lower Manhattan, from where she had come. She had done the walking part of her new commute back in Greenwich Village, a short 10 minute journey from her apartment to the subway. Now, she strolled easily down the street, hands in her pockets, keeping in time with the pace of the majority around her, letting others overtake her in a hurry, until, just a minute later, she arrived.
Therese stopped outside the enormous, glassy building, allowing herself a moment to take in the vastness of it, to look up and watch the endless windows stretch up into the sky until she couldn't see them at all. She pulled out her earbuds, the low voice of Fiona Apple interrupted suddenly, dissolving into the open air, into the noise of sirens and the heavy rumble of a bus driving by, the honking of car horns and loud conversations into cell phones and headsets.
She had never felt so small in her life, she thought, at least physically. So shrunken by the atmosphere of the city and that tall, tall building that towered over her. And yet it was so awe-inspiring. That Therese, an ordinary 26 year old, professionally inexperienced yet undeniably streetwise, working class but with high hopes, had managed to find herself a space here.
THE NEW YORK TIMES, read the giant sunscreen.
Therese smiled to herself.
Florence was waiting for her in the back of the bright orange lobby. People crossed the room from every direction, but the secretary hung back by the elevators, exactly where she said she would be. Therese recognised her instantly, having met her briefly on the interview day. Her style was prim and proper, hands clasped delicately in front of her, dark blonde hair swept into a neat updo that made her look older than she really was.
Therese scanned herself in at the barriers in the middle of the lobby, swiping her ID card for the first time ever, a spark of joy igniting in her chest as she did so. She caught Florence's eye and gave her a quick wave, to which the other woman smiled thinly.
'Therese', she greeted her as she approached, her tone somewhat indifferent. There was something haughty in her demeanour, discernible from the way she seemed to look down her nose at Therese, either out of scepticism or spite.
'Hi, Florence', Therese smiled warmly in response, desperate to make a good impression regardless.
'I'm sure you remember the way to the office, but I'll take you today in case you've forgotten'.
'That's kind of you, I was actually a little worried about getting lost', Therese admitted. Of course I don't remember how to get to the office, she thought. This woman really expects me to know how to get around the Times building after one visit?
She followed Florence dutifully to the nearest elevator and squeezed in next to her as a group of waiting people filed in, before the doors slid shut in front of them. An awkward silence fell over them all, expanding in the small, enclosed space until it reached all four walls. Florence didn't say anything to Therese, just waited in the quiet, staring up at the ceiling as though she could see something there that was undetectable to anyone else. Therese did the same, as if there was nothing better to do than imitate the secretary. She found her own spot on the black ceiling and stared at it, feigning absentmindedness.
At the 18th floor, the elevator dinged and the doors slid open, and the two of them exited, Florence leading.
'Floor 18', she reminded Therese, without even turning around to make sure she was following.
'Right', Therese confirmed, trailing behind her like an obedient puppy. She hated how pathetic this made her look, but at this point there was really no alternative.
They walked down a long corridor, walls painted bare white, which, at it's end, opened out into a large, bright office space with floor-to-ceiling windows covering the two outside walls. Therese recognised it right away, the memories of her standing here as a terrified interviewee rushing back suddenly. There were maybe 50 people in the room, now, workspaces separated into smaller sections of three desks in a loose triangular formation. Four smaller offices ran along the front of the space, separating the managers from the other staff by glass walls and doors. An energy seemed to hang in the air, as present as the hum of voices from across the room. It was one of chaos, but perhaps the controlled kind, Therese thought, the kind that inspires urgency to get a job done. And from everything she'd ever heard about Manhattan office workers, she was fairly confident in her assessment.
'Come with me', Florence instructed.
Therese gave a curt nod and did as she asked, following her to the second manager's office, where she knocked twice on the door. Her new boss lifted his head, and gestured for Florence to come in.
She opened the door a crack. 'Therese Belivet for you, Mr Aird', she called to him, then turned to leave, disappearing as quickly as she had come, Therese staring after her in disbelief.
The man smiled, rising from his desk. 'Therese!' he approached her, hand outstretched.
'Mr Aird', she greeted him, shrinking back into herself a little as she shook his hand.
'Please, call me Harge', he said, waving a hand dismissively. 'It's great to see you again!'
There was a warmth in his voice that Therese knew was more than just politeness. He seemed genuinely happy to welcome her, and it put her at ease. She smiled up at him. Harge was tall, a lot taller than her, with dark brown hair and a classically handsome face, like an old Hollywood movie star. Maybe she would have been interested in him, that is, if she was interested in men at all.
'It's great to be here again', she assured him, hoping her shyness wasn't too obvious. 'I know I told you already on the phone, but I really am incredibly honoured that you chose me'.
'Well, I'm glad to have you on the team. First things first, I'm gonna show you to your desk and we can get you all set up, does that sound okay?'
'Yeah, that's perfect'.
Harge nodded, and held the door open for Therese. 'Your co-workers should be here already', he murmured, more to himself than Therese, as he checked his watch. He briskly led her to the right-hand corner of the room, and through a low partition that revealed a trio of desks, much like any other section of the office. Two of them were occupied - one littered with paperwork, one pristine and orderly - and the other, the one beside her on her right, was bare, except for two sleek flatscreen computer monitors.
Therese's new co-workers looked up.
'Morning, you two', Harge greeted them both, leaning casually on the partition. 'This is Therese Belivet, I know you haven't had the chance to meet her yet'.
The owner of the messy desk, an attractive young man with sandy blonde hair and sharp, angular features, immediately jumped up from his chair and came bounding over to them with all the excitement of a schoolboy.
'This is Jack Taft', Harge introduced him.
Jack took Therese's hand in a firm handshake, grinning. 'Hi, Therese, we're happy to have you with us!' he exclaimed.
Therese smiled back. 'Hi, Jack', she said, both grateful and a little surprised at his enthusiastic welcome after the rather frosty reception from Florence.
Harge then turned to the other desk. Behind it sat a woman with long, luscious black waves of hair, dressed in a pale blue silk shirt that seemed to match her eyes exactly. They were so bright and sparkling that they almost demanded attention, and Therese had to tear herself away.
'And this is Genevieve Cantrell', Harge said.
The woman rose gracefully from her chair, extending a manicured hand, which was cold to the touch as Therese shook it.
'Hi, Genevieve, it's nice to meet you', Therese said timidly.
'Likewise', she said in a low, almost monotone voice. 'It's about time we found a replacement for that useless Fred'.
Therese noticed her accent right away; it was cut-glass, the Queen's English, and it made everything she said sound even more biting.
'You're British', Therese commented stupidly.
Genevieve raised a dark eyebrow. 'Really?' she said with a sardonic smirk. 'I hadn't noticed'.
Therese opened her mouth to respond, but was interrupted by a snort of laughter from Jack. Harge rolled his eyes.
'Don't mind Gen', the boss assured her. 'She's harmless, really'.
Therese turned back back to Genevieve. The older woman smiled sweetly at Harge, waiting until he looked away to shoot Therese a flirtatious wink.
Therese could think of nothing else to do except stare at her, both a little bit awe-struck and little bit intimidated. Genevieve, with her glowing skin, her Louboutin high heels, her diamond rings . . . she looked at Jack, returned to his desk, and now found it impossible to ignore his slicked back hair and the tiny Ralph Lauren logo embroidered across the left breast of his shirt.
Therese felt pathetic suddenly, like a little kid playing pretend. Her simple white shirt, black cigarette trousers with her boots, and the peacoat over the top, was her best, most professional outfit, and yet they made her look almost shabby in comparison to the elegant, expensive clothes of her co-workers. Now she held the same job title as both of them. Maybe that would suggest they shared the same rung on the career ladder, but in truth, Therese felt she had miles still to climb before she was anywhere near.
'So I have a meeting starting in a couple minutes', Harge said, pulling Therese out of her dismal thoughts. 'I'm gonna leave you here with Jack, he'll start with the basics, and I'll come check back with you in an hour or so. Does that sound alright?'
She plastered on a false smile. 'Okay', she nodded, swallowing the lump in her throat. 'That's no problem'.
It had started to rain during the course of the day, and now the light shower swept along the grimy sidewalks of Therese's neighbourhood. It was perfect umbrella weather, the rain not too heavy and the breeze not too strong - not that she had remembered to bring her umbrella. Instead, she held her bag over her head, droplets gathering in the creases of faux leather and dripping down the sides, along her wrists, dampening her coat sleeves. Idiot, she cursed herself, for what felt like the hundredth time that day.
Okay, so maybe she was being a little hard on herself. No one's first day at a new job is entirely smooth. And she hadn't exactly done anything wrong, but, with Jack easily fixing her every error in a mere few seconds, and Genevieve regarding her from her desk with those icy blue eyes, her little mistakes felt like huge failures. Therese was a perfectionist, there was no denying that, and she had always found it difficult to give herself a break when things didn't go to plan. But she hadn't done anything wrong, she kept reminding herself. The daily tasks would become second nature to her soon enough, she just had to be patient.
Of course, those feelings of imposter syndrome that had been creeping up on her, the devil on her shoulder, hadn't helped matters. Perhaps that was the real reason she was so hung up on her imperfections.
I need to relax, she told herself.
Therese arrived at her building, slinging her soaking wet bag over one shoulder and trudging up the four flights of stairs. She stopped for a moment to fumble in her pocket for her keys, the sound of low voices seeping out into the hall, mingled with the smell of frying chicken. Her brothers were home already.
She opened the door. It was Dannie at the stove tonight, Phil sitting at the table, leaning back with his feet propped up on another chair, a half-empty bottle of Modelo in front of him. Both of them turned on hearing the creak of the door.
'Here she is, the Times's best new junior photo editor', Dannie said, smiling proudly.
Dannie and Phil McElroy weren't really her brothers, not biologically, but they were the only family she'd ever known, the family she'd chosen for herself. After spending her early childhood moving from foster home to foster home - some of them unsafe, all of them unloving - she'd arrived at the group home where the two boys had lived for the previous couple years. She'd been 13 then, Dannie 14 and Phil 16. A friendship had developed quickly, and Therese learned to trust in people like she never had before; these two brothers had her back, and until, one by one, they aged out of the system, they were inseparable. When Therese finally left the group home, the three of them rented a cheap apartment in Little Italy while Dannie and Therese barely scraped through college, and afterwards moved to Greenwich Village, once all of them were in full-time employment. The life they lived now was stable, though they still weren't exactly comfortable financially. More importantly, they were happy. It was a life they had always wanted.
It was also one that had often seemed unachievable for people like them. Therese still carried the weight of her past on her shoulders, a burden made of bricks that had been piled upon her the day her parents abandoned her in their run-down apartment in Queens. It had made her stronger, from the years of carrying it, but, on days like this one, it felt so unbearably heavy that it almost crushed her where she stood.
If anyone could understand that burden, it was her brothers, and yet they were smiling at her with such hope on their faces that she almost felt anxious that she might let them down.
'So, how was it?' Phil asked eagerly.
'Yeah, tell us everything', Dannie encouraged.
Therese shrugged awkwardly. 'Well, there's not much to tell', she said dismissively as she dropped her bag next to the radiator by the door. 'I don't think one day is enough to gauge how I feel'.
'No, I suppose you're right', Phil murmured in agreement.
'Are the people nice?' Dannie asked, reaching a hand into the fridge for another beer.
'I think so', she shrugged, going over to sit opposite Phil at the table. 'Harge seems cool. He's my boss. But the office is pretty separated. Apart from him, I only really met the two people I'm working with'.
'Well, what are they like?' Phil prompted.
'I think Jack and I are gonna get along well. He was really helpful today, happy to answer all my questions. He's been working in the department since he was 18, he said. His dad's one of the top reporters'.
Dannie looked smug, placing a cold Modelo in front of her. 'See, I told you! Nepotism is the only way to get into journalism in this city!'
Therese rolled her eyes, still reluctant to admit he might be right. It was a friend of Dannie's in the finance department who'd helped get Therese the interview in the first place.
'And the other person?' Phil questioned.
'Genevieve'. Therese took a swig of her beer. 'She's a little scary'.
'Oh, she's just really fancy and glamorous', she replied flatly.
Her brothers nodded in understanding. They knew by now that these qualities, in women especially, were among the most intimidating to Therese. And there was, of course, an obvious extension to this problem.
'Is she hot?' Dannie asked.
'Very', Therese admitted. 'But it's not about that, it's about . . .' she looked at the floor. 'I don't know, I guess I just feel out of place with someone like that. With Jack too, even. I feel inferior. I am inferior'.
'Why do you think that?' Dannie asked, frowning.
'Isn't it obvious?' she smirked.
Phil shook his head. 'You've gotta stop with that attitude', he scolded her. 'We've spoken about this before. It's why so many kids from the system end up in the shitty situations they do'.
'I know, I know', she sighed. 'It's just . . . I was fine this morning. I was good. But when I got there and I saw the people I'd be working with . . . I felt different'.
Dannie shrugged, as though this was no news to him. 'We're always gonna feel different', he said matter-of-factly. 'We are different. But what does that matter if you can prove your worth on the job?'
'You passed the interview', Phil added. 'They obviously saw something in you, even if you can't see it yourself'.
'Exactly', Dannie agreed. 'You earned it, Tee. Same as Jack and Genevieve. There's nothing else to it'.
Therese looked from Dannie, to Phil, both of them unwavering. She smiled, comforted, though not entirely convinced.
Still, why shouldn't she believe them? Both of them had gone through these same things in their own careers, but they hadn't let their past cause them problems. Maybe it was time Therese learned to do the same.
The hardest part was over already, she'd gotten the job. Now all she had to do was keep going.
'Thanks, guys', she said sincerely.
Phil raised his almost-finished beer, clinking the glass neck of the bottle to his sister's. 'To Therese, and all her new success'.