I inhale, long and deep, my eyelids fluttering in tandem with my heart as I watch the sign in front of me get larger and larger.
I walk ahead, still in utter disbelief as I near the acclaimed building.
I’m actually here.
For real, for real here.
After a relatively smooth, twenty-minute commute, I arrive at the physical pinnacle of my dreams over an hour early thanks to the trial run I did yesterday.
I’m wired even though I barely got any sleep. My nerves shot to hell. My skin buzzing. I reach for the door with a shaky hand, my breath stuttering as I suck in all the air around me, as if I’m afraid to touch it. As if the moment I make contact, I’ll realize that this is still all a dream and wake up to the most disappointing, mundane reality in all of existence.
My eyelids drift closed with another inhale, my fingers wrapping themselves around the handle.
I swallow, standing still as a statue for several seconds, like I’m waiting for it to happen; for this incredible, lifelike fantasy to come to an end.
When I open my eyes again, the building is still in front of me and my hand is still on the metal bar, gripping it tightly. I stand there, both afraid to pull it and let go, struggling to come to terms with the magnitude of this moment.
My fingers twitch when I finally jerk the door open, removing the last of barriers of this new frontier. Literally.
I make my way inside, eyes eagerly roaming, scanning every micro-section of the immediate interior. Expectedly, I’m required to clear a security checkpoint before proceeding. What’s unexpected, however, is just how thorough and extensive the screening is, easily matching what you’d expect at airports. X-ray conveyors. Metal detectors. Biometric scanners. Manual inspection. The works.
It takes a good while—and a whole lot of my patience—to pass through, eating away at a large chunk of the time I’d hoped would go toward actually getting set up.
What the hell is this, the damn Pentagon?
Once cleared, I look back on the security post—more like, series of posts, really—in disbelief all over again, wondering how in the world folks are supposed to start work on time when everyone has to go through this extreme, serial pat-down every single day.
A central lounging area greets me as I walk further, preceding the main reception up ahead. I inhale deeply as I approach it, trying to appear more confident than I feel, but I have to steel my nerves against the sudden spell of anxiety that pours down on me.
A slightly older woman sits behind the curved desk, the tawny waves atop her head clipped away from her face, enhancing the column of lines across her forehead. She’s on the phone, evidently stressed, barely registering my existence. When she finally looks up, she seems almost surprised to see me, as if I snuck up on her like a ninja when I’ve actually been standing here for a whole minute.
“Can I help you?” she asks, sounding somewhat indifferent, the question coming off as more of an afterthought.
Not the warmest reception for a receptionist but I decide to ignore it.
“Uh, yes, I got selected for the internship program this year. When I called in, I was asked to see Ms. Hillmer?”
“Just one second,” she replies, picking up the landline again. She punches in a number, holding the receiver to her ear as her eyes dart up to mine once more, like she’s trying to make sure that I actually am who I say I am.
“Hi, Jeannie,” she says as a muffled, indecipherable voice comes through on the other end. “The new intern’s here to see you.”
More correspondence follows; clipped, brief exchanges, like a tennis match but, unlike one, the conversation is over quickly.
“Okay, thanks,” the receptionist finally says, hanging up and turning her attention back to me. “You’re going to want to head to the fourth floor. Office four-o-one.” She gestures behind her. “Elevator’s up ahead.”
“Thank you,” I nod, walking in the direction she points.
Four lifts punctuate the connecting hallway, two pairs standing opposite each other. I summon the one closest to me, looking around as I wait for it to arrive. The main area seems empty. Quiet. But I anticipate an outpour of people with the typical morning bustle soon.
I glance at my watch, mildly annoyed. Thirty minutes have already gone by and I haven’t even located the main office.
The elevator to my left dings open first, its metal doors sliding away from each other. Even though the motion is a trivial, mechanical action typical of such an appliance, I can’t help but feel like this is a rite of passage; a grand gesture, welcoming me into its sanctuary.
I step into it, inhaling deeply as I hit the button for the fourth floor, nervous all over again when the doors close shut and the lift ascends.
I’m slightly surprised no one else is in here. I know there’s still half an hour left but there are usually a few early-birds in every workplace. Nonetheless, I’m grateful that the small, momentary privacy allows me to freak out—and subsequently compose myself—without inhibition.
The elevator comes to a stop and slides open again a moment later, revealing another hallway. I step out of it with a surge of excitement-slash-nervousness, vaguely registering the sound of its doors closing behind me as I advance.
In a way, I feel like Alice when she first fell into Wonderland; treading lightly, keeping a close eye on everything so I can find my way around this uncharted, magical terrain.
My gaze drifts to the corridor lined with offices on my right, latching on to the number beside the very first one.
Here we are.
I regard the bold, block letters on the glass door.
PROTOCOL AND ADMINISTRATION
It’s slightly ajar, but the shutter blinds on the windows are still closed. I knock on it softly, like I’m scared I might break it, anxious all over again.
Unexpectedly, silence ensues. I repeat the action, a tad less gentle. When I’m met with the same result, I push it open slowly, poking my head through, as if I’m lost.
My eyes immediately fall on two men and a woman, so immersed in what they’re individually doing that they don’t seem to have heard me knock—or notice that a strange woman’s head is currently protruding through their door.
“Excuse me,” I blurt, clearing my throat when my existence continues to go unnoticed.
All three of them look up from their devices, their collective expression a mesh of slight confusion and surprise, much like the receptionist downstairs. You’d think they had noise-cancelling headphones on or something.
“Yes, come in,” the woman beckons, peering at me beneath dark, tapered bangs, setting aside the tablet and stylus she was seemingly hypnotized by just a second ago. “You’re the new intern?”
“Yes,” I confirm, stepping inside.
“Do you have your signed acceptance letter with you?” she asks, getting right to it, clearly too busy for introductions.
“Ah, yes…” I reach into my bag, taking out the document in question. “Here,” I smile sheepishly, slightly embarrassed by how crimpled it now looks as I hand it to her.
She slides into one of many seats, her gaze flitting between a computer screen and the letter as her fingers tap across the keyboard. It’s the only sound for several seconds, somehow adding to the bizarre awkwardness in the room.
The two men go back to being quietly engrossed in whatever it is they were focused on before my arrival, saying absolutely nothing. The atmosphere is…strange. Almost…tense. And I’m not sure why. Like I walked in on a massive, passive-aggressive argument or something.
Maybe this is what the early-morning drag is like here?
“Your department’s on the third floor,” the woman finally says, breaking the silence. She hands me back the acceptance letter, along with another document. “That’s a temporary employee form. Read over all the terms, stipulations and conditions. Then fill it out and sign at the bottom. You’ll need to see Dave Schapiro in 319. He’s the head of your unit. He’ll have to sign it, too. Then bring it back here.”
“Alrighty,” I nod, smiling to myself at the mention of the familiar name.
I walk out, leaving the door ajar the way I found it and head back to the elevator. Normally, I’d take the stairs for just a single floor, but this is new terrain and I can’t afford even the smallest delay. Not on my very first day.
I make my descent to the third floor, my stomach twinging with the drop, but I know my nerves are far more to blame for the sensation than gravitational pull.
We’re almost there…