I look at the wig in my hands. The hair is the color of my own, rich brown locks perfectly cut and styled. It is the perfect executive hair cut, if I ever saw one. And the thought unleashes a bubble of laughter from my throat.
I got back last night from three days in New York. I’d love to say that it was a trip filled with walks in Central Park, shows on and off Broadway, and views from the top of the Empire State building, but it was three solid days of meetings. My meetings had meetings, and the glamour that is New York seemed lost on the people marching around with sticks up their ass at Spencer Jacobs’ head office. This is not like me. I tend to live on the positive side of the work continuum. I see it this way – you have choices in life, due to a series of choices in my life I have this great career that my friends and family think is glamorous. I work in an office with a window on the 22nd floor of an office tower in the centre of downtown in a great city. Hell, when I was 20 I thought this was everything I could ever want. Lately, though, I’ve been wondering what the hell I really want.
I walk into my boss Jeff’s office for a meeting to debrief my meetings in New York. I had been at the head office to meet various executives to “determine what the next role for Anna Emerson would be”. My meetings included time with the Vice President of Human Resources – she had reported back to Jeff on my performance in our meeting. Sometimes I feel like a show horse and performance is subjective based on the judges. Or maybe a figure skater and the Russian judge has paid the French judge, and this poor Canadian skater was never meant to win… Okay, maybe I’m being a bit dramatic.
Sally – the VP of HR – only started with Spencer Jacobs two years ago. Before that Sally was at the competitor schilling the company line to prospective and promising talent on that side of the street. Today, I wonder what side of the street Sally is going to sell me to.
I’m sitting in Jeff’s office and it’s hot. It’s a blistering day today, and all those windows that everyone wishes they had on the 22nd floor of the office tower are not always a good friend to the people inside. First of all, most of the time you have to keep the blinds closed because otherwise the sun bounces off your computer screen – so forget ever enjoying the view. My view is on the bad side of the building anyway, overlooking the rail yard and an old homeless shelter.
Even with the blinds closed the sun’s heat seems hotter today. They say you are closer to heaven up here; but isn’t the hot one hell? I have removed my black blazer and am seriously considering removing my pantyhose when Jeff walks in wiping his face with a McDonald’s napkin. “I’ve asked Jay to call maintenance about the air conditioning, Sammy passed out from the heat. We’re going to have to send people home if this continues.” He grabs a manila file folder with my name and sits down across from me at the meeting table.
Jeff’s office is bigger than mine, substantially. It’s like a dance hall to my janitor’s closet. But I worked hard and am proud of my little closet with a window overlooking the rail yard. His office has a large mahogany desk with a leather chair that is both ergonomically pleasant and nap worthy. There are two additional seating areas in his office. In the corner, surrounded by windows he has a brown leather couch, two matching chairs and a coffee table that looks like someone took a slice from a California redwood. It is polished and holds one copy of the latest Harvard Business Review, and I can’t think of a time I have ever sat in or seen Jeff sit in this area – let alone open the Harvard Business Review. We are sitting at a round meeting table in the opposite corner with a painting resembling an owl made of psychedelic gummy worms overlooking our proceedings. This owl haunts my dreams.
Jeff stands up, grabs a tissue from the box on his desk and blows his nose so loudly I think I can feel the floor shake. For all the greatness that Jeff is – gregarious, charismatic, kind, and eager – there are some things that make me shudder. My closet office is on the other side of the wall from Jeff’s, and I can hear him blowing his nose almost hourly, and I gag a little each time. He, like me, has removed his suit jacket, and is wearing a light purple shirt with dark purple sweat stains, at his pits and his manboobs. He has beads of sweat that have congregated on his forehead to form a river threatening to breach the damn that are his eyebrows. His rotund frame spills over the sides of his chair, and it’s days like this that I worry that he is on the verge of a heart attack.
“How was the big apple?” He asks, flipping open the folder with my name on it. It’s not a mystery to me what is in the folder. We have had many conversations like this one. It’s been good, being the golden child for the last couple years. I have moved quickly through the ranks at Spencer Jacobs. Starting as a phone agent and working my way through the ranks at the mega-consulting firm. Now after eighteen months as the Senior Manager of Consumer Marketing Relations (even I didn’t really know what that means) it was time to consider my next move to a junior executive position in New York. I mean, New York – who doesn’t want that?
I open my notebook and fidget with my pen, “It was good, I met with Sally, Mark, Jorge, and Jack’s team. I made lots of connections, and we talked about different opportunities that might be a good fit. What have you heard?” This was standard, I would give the quick overview and allow for Jeff to launch into the feedback he had heard. He would usually ask a few questions to get me to self-reflect on the experience, we would document some notes in a “coaching” document and each go back to our respective corners to put out the fires that always sprung up in our day.
Jeff is nodding his head, “Good things, Anna. Really good. Sally talked about how much you have grown over the past year. She really thinks we have done a good job with you, she feels like you are getting more and more polished.”
I could sense the but, and I wasn’t going to give it to Jeff, he would have to say whatever it was that would make me polished to the Spencer Jacobs head office standards. And what does he mean, the work they’ve done with me, like I was some passive participant in a makeover challenge.
“There was one thing…she mentioned, well…” Jeff flipped through the pages in the folder and I could see a printout of an email communication from Sally. A drop of sweat escaped the damn and landed with a splat on the page. At the top I could see the “To” line was addressed to Jeff, Lauren – Jeff’s boss, and Sheldon – Lauren’s boss. The subject was my name: Anna Emerson. Butterflies started to not only flutter in my stomach but take nose-dives, exploding little bombs of anxiety and causing me to shift nervously in my seat.
“What was it?” I asked. I wished for my glasses, I couldn’t read the body of the email, but I saw many bullet points.
“Well, maybe I’ll just read this to you.”
“Sure,” I replied. Just get it over with Jeff, come on buddy.
“This is from Sally:
‘I met with Anna today. WOW – she has really come a long way from the shy, quiet young woman I met a year ago. Lauren and Jeff, you should be so proud of her. I see her in, and support her to any:
- Junior executive role in marketing
- Senior Manager role in cross-functional businesses
- Junior Director in marketing or a like business line
- Senior Consultant
As different roles become available let’s discuss how we approach this to ensure the right thing for Spencer Jacobs and for Anna. I think it would be beneficial for Anna to spend more time in New York getting a better understanding of the corporate office culture. While Anna’s definitely become more polished over the last year, thanks to your great coaching and leadership, she should see a stylist and ensure that she has a professional, executive hair style.’”
Silence. I’m silent, Jeff is silent, the air is silent. The only sound is the sweat sliding down his face. I can’t stop staring at one particularly determined bead, making its way along his jaw line, waiting to drip, drip, drip.
Let’s be clear here, I had pixie short hair and decided to grow it out. It doesn’t look bad, but is maybe in the awkward stage where you either cut it all off again because you don’t want to deal with the awkward stage or you suffer through until it gets to the next length where you can actually do something with it. I started running my hands through my hair, smoothing it down to make it less obtrusive. In this moment, and humidity, it feels like my hair has ten times the volume than normal and is filling this entire ballroom sized office. I want to die. And then, I no longer want to die, but to kill someone.
“Really?!” I demand. “She wants me to cut my hair. My hair is what might stop me from moving up with Spencer Jacobs.” Memories of being in junior high and having long, obnoxious hair and being called horse because of it, creep into my mind. I didn’t call it bullying at the time, because the bullies were my ‘friends’, but of all the things someone could comment on, my hair is so off limits. I can feel the heat – more like lava because I’m already so hot – rising in my cheeks.
“I didn’t really want to bring it up, Anna. I’m sorry,” Jeff says. He is squirming. No shit he didn’t want to bring it up, how fucking awkward for him. It’s like the day I had to tell my employee, who I just met that she needed to go home and change because I could see her underwear through her white skirt. Or the day I asked an employee if she felt like her deodorant was effective because I was getting complaints about her body odour. And now, someone was talking to me – about my hair. Ironic how things had come full circle.
“I’m growing it out, it’s at the awkward stage. Ok, whatever, so I get an executive hair cut – what the hell is an executive haircut by the way?” I stammer. I’m just getting warmed up.
“Well, I think, maybe just more styled, than it is now,” says the man with the sweat stains and bald spot. Hypocrite. And then I take a breath. This isn’t Jeff’s fault. This is my fault for not getting a hair cut, and this is Sally’s fault for being a bitch.
“Thank you Jeff. I will take care of it. Just one thing.”
“Yeah?” He looks scared by my lightening mood shift.
“If they are talking about my hair, what else are they talking about?” I ask. I look him square in the eye.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Jeff says. To his credit, he looks truly puzzled.
I look down at myself, and shift my eyes to him and his girth, “I was twenty pounds lighter when Sally met me the first time. I’ve allowed this job to take a toll on my weight, and if they are talking about hair, I can’t help but think that they are talking about other things. That’s all. And honestly, I don’t know how I feel about that – but it isn’t good.”
“Anna, I don’t think…” Jeff trailed off.
“I do, but you know what, that’s fine. I’m glad in every other area I am more polished and supported to all these different roles,” my voice, and face give away my disdain.
“Aunty Anna, dad wants to know if you are coming up for breakfast?” Josh calls through the closed bathroom door, shaking me back to today and the wig still in my hands and my bald, peach fuzzy head starring back in the mirror. I’ve taken care of most of the bags under my eyes with enough make-up to last the entire run of Wicked on Broadway.
“Yeah, I’ll be up in a few minutes.” I don’t wear a wig everyday. I’ve gotten used to my baldhead, usually wrapped in a luxurious silk scarf. I’m lucky my head is a decent shape. There are no major bumps or crevasses. I look at the shaving cream on the counter; maybe today is the day that I give my family a look at my new executive haircut. I lather the cream into my scalp and run the razor over my smooth head to remove any stray peach fuzzes that have cropped up or lingered. It doesn’t take long, there isn’t much there. My hair started falling out in clumps after my first round of chemo. At first I thought my hair might be spared, the first few days with the drugs pumping through my system caused every other side effect, I thought my hair was safe. But then in the middle of a meeting, as I ran my fingers through my hair, they came away filled with tangles of brown locks. I thought my team was going to faint.
The upsides of being bald are many. I used to buy expensive salon shampoo and conditioner, now I just use my coconut body wash.
After towelling off my head, and wrapping a beautiful purple and orange silk scarf around my head, I examine myself in the mirror and realize I can’t do this. Not with Matt and Katie’s kids upstairs. I need to talk to Matty first. I can’t just walk upstairs bald head, scarf, and announce that I am living with someone new, not someone I particularly love, but we are joined at the pancreas.
Off goes the scarf. On goes the wig.
Breakfast is loud. And if it’s loud for me, it must be unbearable for Matt and Katie who are both nursing hangovers. Erica is grumpy because she wanted waffles not pancakes. Josh has music pulsing from his headphones and Becky is firing off a list of questions.
“What are you doing today? Did you see Aunty Jess last night? Where is the wedding? Do I get to wear my purple dress, I was thinking the blue one, but I think purple will be better? Do I have to go to school today with Aunty Anna here? Erica pancakes and waffles are the same thing, just cooked differently, you’ll like them if you put the apple sauce on them. Daddy do you have to work today? Aunty Anna can we ride bikes when school is out? Why are you so skinny? When are you going to have babies? Did you know you don’t need to have a husband to have a baby? Miss Green had a baby and she doesn’t have a husband.”
“Becky, enough,” Katie snaps. She takes her coffee cup to the counter and refills it. “You don’t even allow anyone to answer one question before you ask another. And peppering Aunty Anna with this many questions this early in the morning isn’t polite.”
“So I can ask them when I get home from school? Since I’m guessing I have to go to school, since you never answered that question,” Becky asks. Her face is stone serious and I have to turn away to hide my face and hold my breath so she doesn’t see me laughing.
“Josh, turn off your music and participate in this family breakfast. You’re being rude,” Matt says, pulling the headphones away from Josh’s ears.
Josh rolls his eyes, takes the headphones off and slumps over his plate, shovelling pancake into his mouth.
Breakfast continues like this for a few minutes, until Josh scrapes his chair back from the table and grabs his bagged lunch from the counter, “Come on Beck, we’re going to be late.”
“Straight home today Josh,” Katie says as she watches her son disappear down the hall and the door slam. “I don’t know what his problem is lately.”
“Trista Kearcher dumped him,” Becky reports, grabbing her lunch from the counter and giving her mom and dad a hug.
“I didn’t know there was a relationship to be dumped from,” Matt laughs, giving Becky an extra squeeze.
“It didn’t last very long. But he really liked her and she decided she wanted to date Brad Kowalski instead,” Becky replies.
“You are quite the fountain of information Miss Becky,” I say, standing to give her a hug and walk with her to the entrance as she puts on her coat.
“Don’t worry, Aunty, if there’s anything you want to know, just ask me, I have all the deets.”
“Good to know,” I chuckle, handing over her backpack and watching Katie walk her out the door.
As I return to the kitchen table, the Erica meltdown over as she spoons applesauce directly into her mouth, she no longer is bothering with the pancakes.
“How do you look so fantastic this morning? I feel like someone is running a jackhammer in my brain,” Matt looks at me.
Excellent, wig and mask in place. Check. “Oh, you know, I spackled on the make-up this morning.” I watch as Katie argues with Erica to go get dressed and they head up the stairs to Erica’s room. “There’s something I wanted to talk to you about. Do you have time to go for a walk?”
Matt looks up quizzically, “Yeah, of course. I’ll just let Katie know that we are heading out.”
I can feel my heartbeat. I recognize that normally you can’t feel your heartbeat, you just take for granted that it is there, constantly beating, ensuring you are alive. But there are certain moments, when the beating is louder, pounding really, as if reassuring you that yes, your existence is still real. You are still alive, and yes you need to face the dragon that lives in your mind.
As Matt and I make our way down Thistle Lane I turn down the lane that will take us to one of the gravel roads out of town, toward the cemetery. I feel the need to be close to dad for this conversation.
“What did you want to talk about?” Matt asks, kicking a pebble down the road.
Deep breaths. I haven’t really figured this part out. I practiced in my mirror the other day, and it all sounded stupid.
Matt has stopped in front of me and is looking intently at me, “What is it, Annalou?”
I look down at the ground, kicking the gravel at my feet, “A few months ago I got a diagnosis, that is pretty permanent. It started in my pancreas, and has spread. And…” I pull off my wig, “Well, fuck, I have cancer.”