Saving Face

I wake up early to face the mirror. The dread of a new battle. A new job. All good reasons to locate my war paint.

Ever since middle school, I have been the make-up queen. In my dewy-smooth twenties, I worked as a make-up artist. If you had a tattoo across your forehead, I could cover it up. If you were 40 and wanted to look 25, I could make you look 30. They say joy is the best make-up; no, that would be Chanel.

 Joy is the best make-up? Well, we’re straight up out of stock on joy.”

I head to the train and into the fray of rush hour, armed with my pencil skirt and high heels, uniformed for corporate America.

This is a job I am taking to “assist executives” at a high-end architecture firm. It is a low-end life choice. In a huge conference room, I sign away my better judgment in exchange for the insurance and the money.

  • Are you proficient at Excel?
  • Are you efficient at connecting conference calls?
  • Can you manage an online scheduling system for men who only look at you when they need something and rant if you make one mistake?

You’ll have to keep the kitchen clean and stocked and make coffee. The glasses and mugs must be uniform at all times. No glass may extend above the lower level on any computer.

Sir, yes ma’am! I thrive in a fast-paced misogynist environment.

My job is to sit at a 20-foot long red lacquer desk to answer phones and transfer calls while sipping coffee from my tiny toy mug.

The only other comrade in the floor-to-ceiling glass lobby is a sleek black Steinway piano. My bosses order me to schedule ongoing tunings so it can sit, in silence. A muted conversation piece of the obscenely rich. It is the only beautiful thing in the office and holds all of its music to itself. I sit in this cavernous lobby staring at the piano, my only friend.

“What are we doing here, Steinway? We do not belong here, Steinway. You are perfectly tuned, Steinway. I have a master’s degree, Steinway.”

I cannot imagine music or fun here. Drinking, yes. Every time a team finishes a million-hour project at the sacrifice of lives, they let loose in the evenings with a Veuve Clicquot Johnny Walker Black bender that leaves the kitchen a high-end tiny glass frat house disaster. When I arrive in the morning, I do my job. I assist executives, swabbing up the hangover fallout.

And I hold in every human emotion all day long.

I say to myself, “You can cry at 6:30. Just make it until home at 6:30.”

One of the perks of being a slave to tall buildings is free drinks. Diet Coke and coffee all day. And then the La Croix. Everyone has his or her own flavor of the fizzy water and I must order on demand. Apricot, Melon Orange, Pamplemousse (just call it grapefruit!). Marc likes Lime. There’s just never enough Lime to satiate Marc. Also, Marc thinks the refrigerator temperature should be colder so every night he changes it, but because HR insists, I keep it at a specific temperature. Every morning I change it to warmer again. It’s a climate-controlled battle – colder, warmer, colder, warmer. I approach the architectural marvel of mini fridges stacked on top of each other. One is at eye level. It is this one I am stocking when it happens.

On this one particular day, Marc thought his Lime La Croix should be very, very, very cold. So here’s a fizzy science lesson for aspiring executive assistants. When carbonated drinks get very, very, very cold, they expand. And then with one brush of the hand, bam. They explode.

So Marc’s Lime la Croix rockets out of the fridge like a fire hose, power spraying all of the makeup off my face, smacking me in the eye and breaking a blood vessel. It also opens the floodgate with which I have been suppressing every dark human emotion. Without any control left, I break down into a fully realized crying jag in an office that has never seen a human emotion. It makes them so uncomfortable to see it that they don’t look up from their desks.

I rush out of the office to assess my face.  Joy is the best make-up? Well, we’re straight up out of stock on joy. So I take an early lunch and walk of shame to the Chanel counter on State Street. The perfectly coiffed and airbrushed women take one shocked look and immediately descend.

It takes an artistic village, but the mask is rebuilt and enforced by the finest blush and powders and eye shadow. I buy all of it, my whole paycheck, totems of my rebirth from the women of my nation.

I walk out into the street. My war paint back on, I’ve saved face. I head back into the fray, the tall building, skyward to the penthouse. Inside the elevator’s sleek four walls, the mirrors reflect that I am an executive assistant.

I walk into the ever-empty lobby, and look toward my fellow POW. I sit down at the bench at the edge of Steinway, slide that heavy black cover into its perfectly designed pocket and defiantly press one finely tuned creamy key. The note hangs loud in the air with tense, melodious potential. I stand up slowly, heading back to my station while the rebellious cry resonates through the office.

Jill Howe is the founder of Story Sessions in Chicago, a showcase featuring true stories and live music.  She has told stories on numerous Chicago stages, teaches writing retreats and presented a Tedx Talk on vulnerability.
Photo by Mary Ellen Sullivan