On the day of your annual review, you make sure to time your meals just right, so when you go to sit in the too-warm room across from your manager for the better part of an hour, you won’t be uncomfortably full or so hungry that your stomach grumbles in that mutually embarrassing way, and you won’t have to get up to use the bathroom. You eat small portions of safe foods and you skip your second cup of coffee.
You don’t expect anything to come of it, really, a cost-of-living raise, maybe, nothing special—but who can know with these things? When you arrive for the meeting, your manager is wearing a smart-looking blazer and you mentally kick yourself: Why didn’t you wear a smart-looking blazer? You have been sweating for the past six hours and under your arms are two matching half-moons.
Your manager says there have been some complaints. Not related to your performance, that’s consistent enough, but related to, how to say this, general office culture. Like how you can give people a hard time about following process, and sometimes you forget to greet your desk neighbors good morning when they come in. And you don’t go to many of the company happy hours. Those are just examples. Little things, but they add up.
The wet moons of your sweat stains wax and wax, growing into perfect circles on the fabric of your shirt. Itchy fabric. Suddenly, the fabric is itchy.
You hear a grumble and instinctively cross your arms across your stomach—the best-laid plans. Wrapping up your list of offenses, your manager says: Look, think of it this way. I’d like for you to try to bring your best self to work every day. Every day, the best you that you can be. Do you think you can do that?
And you think: My best self? Why didn’t he say so?
When you get home, you go straight to the closet in your spare bedroom, where all your other selves are neatly arranged on wooden clothes hangers. There are rows of empty selves—fleshy, sagging shells—some hanging by the shoulders and others folded in half and draped over the center bar like a pair of dress pants.
Some of the selves have skin that’s tan and plump, and it bounces back quickly when you press a finger into it. On other selves, the skin is lighter, discolored from years of wear, and wrinkled, because you were lazy or negligent.
You rifle through your collection of selves all the way to the back of the closet and think you really ought to organize them sometime, just set aside an afternoon and do it. Chronologically, or by hair color. You find yourself at 23 with the purple hair and the hip tattoo you were still hiding from your parents. That self you should probably donate, you think. You don’t have the occasion for it anymore. You’re certain it won’t fit. But what is it about these things that makes them so hard to part with?
You try to remember what your manager said back at the office: that you can come off as harsh or uncompromising. That your coworkers are worried they’ll offend you. That when Simon hums loudly at his desk, which is right next to your desk, or absentmindedly bounces his leg, shaking both his desk and yours, or snaps his gum, he swears he can feel you glaring at him. You are too obvious about it. These things don’t go unnoticed.
Maybe a past self with a kinder, more expressive face, you think, and you find you at 15 and a half: lovely looking; wild, unplucked eyebrows; fresh belly button ring stuck in a permanent state of infection. Your teeth were so straight then, just out of braces, before they had time to grow crooked again or become yellowed by your twice-daily coffees. This self isn’t guarded around strangers. She is flirtatious and quick to smile. You think a little of that might help you.
But when you reach for the hanger, her beautiful, deflated face turns toward you and, with its so-straight, so-white teeth, bites you on the hand. Ow, you think. And also: Serves me right.
During the meeting, there was a tall stack of papers on the table that your manager didn’t look at once. It’s hard to explain, he explained. Your manager made a lot of eye contact. It would be good if you could be laid-back, he said, but, like, authentically laid-back, instead of visibly stressed out but trying to appear laid-back, if that makes sense? It makes sense, you replied, careful to remove every edge from your voice. Good, your manager said, it’s just that we can all see you trying.
When you ran out of clothes hangers, you started doubling up, so some have two or three selves layered one on top of the other, the closet rod bending and splintering in places under the weight. You search for your best self: the one people might describe as “a pleasure to be around.” The one that would get invited to lunches and maybe even promoted one day.
The you at 42 is self-assured and knows the importance of talking face to face and nurturing relationships. But is she too no-nonsense? She long ago stopped dieting and her belly is softer and rounder than you at 23, with a light scar where the piercing used to be.
At 34, you are really into blogs about homesteading and slow, simple living. This phase involves you learning to sew and then dyeing your clothes in a big pot on your kitchen stove using the boiled pits of stone fruits. This version of you has long tufts of hair under her arms and thinks well of everyone, but how would slow living gel with a fast-paced workplace environment?
You pull your selves off their hangers and lay them side by side on the bed, then on the floor next to the bed. Their vacant eyes stare up at you, each a different shade of green, but none, you decide, any nicer than the rest.
At the end of your annual review, as you were gathering your stuff to leave, your manager suggested taking a presentation skills class with the local women’s networking group—said it would help you speak with more presence and power.
Now, you stand in front of the mirror and try on the selves, one by one. You slip your arms into their arms, step your legs into their legs, finding the elbows and knees, aligning your nostrils with their nostrils and your mouth with their mouths. But none of them fit quite right, and some are itchy at the neck.
You try to take your manager’s advice. You force 19-year-old you over your shoulders and try to imagine her under a tailored blazer, commanding authority in a way that’s assertive but not threatening.
You want to bring your best self to the office. To everywhere, really. But none of these will work. In one way or another, you have outgrown them all.
Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer of short stories and poetry. Her work can be found in b(OINK), Jellyfish Review, FRiGG Magazine, The Awl, Drunk in a Midnight Choir, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize nominee, Kristina lives in Oakland, California, with her dog, Shapka. See more at kristinaten.com.