As the last of the pin-stripe brigade filtered out of the room, the blond called out: “Elliot, may I speak with you?”
Elliot turned from the door. He tried to muster a poker face, but it came across as resignation. He sat at the opposite end of the conference table. “Sure, how are things with you by the way?”
“That’s sweet,” the ice-white blond, Antonia, said dryly.
“Well, I try to take an interest in the people with whom I work.”
“No, it’s sweet of you to act like you care about my general well-being,”
Antonia said. She continued to stand, but her face softened. “You know, people think I’m mean—oh let’s not sugar-coat it, they think I’m a bossy bitch—but really I am just shy.”
Elliot stared, unsure where this was going.
“When you are self-conscious and insecure, you can either blend into crowds and pray no one sees you or you can overcompensate by feigning strength,” she explained. “The latter is a skillful act that takes years to master.”
Elliot nodded. This was awkward.
“Still a third option is to wake yourself up from your woe-is-me nightmare and make a change. Stop being a pussy. Unleash the person you were born to be.”
“Do you mean…” Elliot said, but Antonia raised her hand to cut him off. Clearly, she had not finished her point.
“As for myself, I spend years trying to blend in,” Antonia began. “I was a social misfit. I was self-conscious of my appearance, of my expressions, and of how I interacted with people. It’s like I was hooked up to a lie detector, but it detected insecurity, not truth.”
Elliot nodded again. He could relate.
“But then, I got tired of feeling weak. I was sick of feeling subservient to more-confident people. All that unwarranted arrogance,” she scoffed. “I refused to take orders from people with half of my skills and double my confidence.” She paused, reliving specific and poignant moments from her past. “I liken it to an overweight person who, after years of feeling bad about himself, resolves to lose weight mainly as a ‘fuck you’ to all the people who have fat-shamed him.”
Elliot, who was nervous at the beginning of this exchange, found himself relating to Antonia in a way he’d never imagined possible. “That, I understand,” he said.
“So the question now, Elliot, is which one are you,” Antonia asked, “are you blending in, are you faking it, or are you ready to wake up?”
Elliot knew the answer, but he wasn’t sure how to reply. Was Antonia trying to belittle him with a speech about feeling belittled? Was she trying to bond with him before asking the tough questions?
It was true, Elliot was tired of being the punchline to a never-ending joke—one that stretched through the days and years of his tenure at the company. Elliot realized that, despite the whole “being reprimanded” vibe of this conversation, this was the most seriously anyone had taken him in years.
Elliot sat up. “Most people discount quiet people. How can they be a threat if they can’t even find the courage to speak? But what they fail to realize is that quiet people’s strength lies not in speaking, but in listening. We hear everything.”
Antonia smiled. “I couldn’t agree more—and I’m listening.”
“So with that, I think I am ready to wake up,” Elliot said.
“Don’t think,” Antonia scolded. ” ‘Think’ is a weak word. It’s filler. Either you are ready or you aren’t.”
“I am ready to wake up,” Elliot declared.
“Good,” Antonia smiled. “I’m glad to hear that.”
Elliot wondered if the smile was part of an act or if it was sincere.