The Emergency Glasses

The Emergency Glasses

By Madeleine Cain


No, no, no. Please no.

Gillian wondered if she was cursed. She'd almost missed her flight out of Boston due to a combination of a dead car battery, horrible traffic and an inordinate proportion of cranky people at airport security. Her rental car reservation had been mysteriously lost, and her hotel room was next to the ice machine. Now this.

It's no use.

She flopped onto her bed, closing her eyes and wishing herself in Cancun. She had been through every piece of luggage twice, every pocket, every little zipper compartment that was even large enough to hold a lipstick, and it was time to face the harsh reality.

She'd left her contact lenses at home.

This isn't happening.

It wasn't as if she was here in Detroit for anything important. Oh, no. Nothing important at all. Just the final meeting with the clients whose opinion would make or break her firm's third quarter profits. It was only her job to sweet-talk and hand-hold them into signing the contract and accepting the new campaign. It wasn't as though she had to look her best or feel as confident as possible. It wasn't at all a disaster that she'd left her contacts in Boston and would now have to wear...

Oh God. The Emergency Glasses.

Gillian did own two other pairs of glasses, a set of stylish horn-rims and a pair of flattering rectangular tortoiseshells, both of which made her look attractively intellectual. Naturally, she hadn't thought to bring either of them. Which meant she was stuck with the Emergency Glasses, living in the archaeological sub-basement of the bottom of her purse in an ancient, torn-up hardback case.

The Emergency Glasses were not flattering, nor were they new. They weren't intellectual or stylish or anything anybody would want remotely near their face. They were huge, owlish and hideous in a Dustin-Hoffman-in-Tootsie kind of way.

Well, it's this or walk into walls all day long.

Gillian retrieved the Emergency Glasses. If possible, they were even uglier and nerdier than she remembered. To make matters worse, the time she'd wasted hunting for her contacts meant that she didn't have time to do her hair. Being late would be a far more egregious transgression than appearing with her hair in a bun, so it'd have to do.

She looked at herself in the mirror and sighed. I look like the nerdy girl in a romantic comedy before she gets a makeover and walks slowly down a staircase in a fabulous gown. I'm Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality. Before she enters the pageant.

I'm hideous.

Nobody was waiting to meet her at the client's company headquarters, which was unusual. She'd been there five or six times, and someone was always waiting at reception to escort her upstairs. She told the lobby receptionist that she'd arrived, then took a seat to wait, hoping it wouldn't be long. She was supposed to give her final presentation to the board in fifteen minutes.

She straightened her clothing and once again cursed her carelessness in forgetting her contacts. Maybe it'll help. Aren't people with glasses perceived as smarter and more trustworthy? That might have been true, but at the moment Gillian didn't care about looking smarter or more trustworthy. She didn't feel like herself in these glasses. She imagined she could feel people looking sideways at her, wondering why on earth she'd choose to go out in public looking like Bette Davis at the beginning of Now, Voyager. Self-consciousness would not help her with this presentation.

She looked up to see Michael Burns, her usual contact here, standing at the reception desk. He turned and looked over the lobby; he glanced right at her and his eyes passed on by. Frowning, he started to turn back to the receptionist. "Michael!" Gillian said, rising to her feet.

He turned and jumped a little, covering it quickly with a wide smile. "Gillian! I didn't recognize you! I mean... uh..." He stammered a bit, flushing. "I mean, you're so small, I didn't see you there! Have you lost weight?"

Ha. Nice recovery, Gillian thought, shaking his hand. They set off for the elevators.

"You, uh... look a little different today," Michael said, keeping his tone carefully neutral.

Gillian sighed. "I forgot my contacts at home. I'm a little off my game." She felt she could confide in Michael; he wouldn't be in on the decision-making, and they'd been on enough business lunches for her to consider him something of a friend.

He smiled. "You look great. Very... college professor."

She snorted. "More like spinster librarian." Michael's attempt to cheer her up notwithstanding, if anything she felt more ill-at-ease than she had before. He hadn't even recognized her in the lobby. It was worse than she'd thought.

They got off the elevator, and Gillian was pleased to see Anne Harvey, the other designer her firm had sent to Detroit, waiting for her at reception. Michael headed on into the conference room while Gillian made a beeline for Anne. "Is everything set up?" she asked.

Anne nodded. "Just point and click." She cocked her head. "You're wearing glasses."

"Don't remind me. Forgot my contacts."

Anne didn't seem fazed. "Dave Ellington is very anxious to see you," she said, waggling her eyebrows.

Gillian cringed inwardly. Ellington's eyes tended to wander, and he always seemed to be a little more ... forward than was strictly necessary. "Is the old man going to be here?" she said, keeping her voice low. It wouldn't do to be overheard discussing their clients in such a candid manner.

Anne nodded. "Yes, he's sitting in."

"I don't know why he bothers," Gillian said. "He never looks me in the eye and won't talk to me. He listens to the presentations, reads the proposals and then calls Marty if he has questions."

"Oh, you know him. He's old school. He still thinks women should be swimming in the steno pool, not pitching million-dollar ad campaigns." Anne's voice was laced with the everyday cynicism of a woman fighting for her place in a boy's club. "I wouldn't be surprised if the door to his office had a 'no girls allowed' sign."

Gillian hesitated. "Anne... maybe you should do the presentation."

Anne's eyes widened. "What do you mean?"

"Well, you look great."

"You're overreacting. You look fine."

"I don't feel like I look fine. I have to be totally confident up there! Not wondering if everybody's thinking what a shame it is that I've let myself go."

"That's a slight exaggeration, Gillian. It's not like you gained fifty pounds and showed up in sweatpants, you're just wearing glasses... and your hair in a bun..."

"Yeah, all right, I get the picture." Gillian took a few deep, centering breaths. "Well... here goes."

Anne grinned. "Relax, it's only your job."

They entered the boardroom, Anne trailing behind. Gillian put on her best, brightest "I am confident and you should buy my ad campaign" smile, although it had never felt more fake. She was ready to shake hands and brush off Dave Ellington's advances.

As luck would have it, the man himself was standing near the door. Lurking, one might say. He turned at once, grinning rapaciously. "Gillian!" he exclaimed... then blinked and hesitated. "Uh... hello!" He shook her hand. He isn't ogling me. It's a breakthrough. "Good to see you," he said. He gave her hand a few quick pumps then released it and moved on.

Gillian was amazed. What, no comment about my clothes? No digs about how I'm breaking your heart? No questions about whether I'm lonely in my big empty hotel room? She glanced back at Anne, who looked stunned.

Of course he isn't flirting. I probably remind him of his third-grade teacher. Gillian mustered some composure, more self-conscious than ever. She didn't have much time to recover; the other board members were greeting her as she made her way to the front of the room. She saw old Mr. Simpson, the firm's aged patriarch, sitting right up front, looking at the campaign specs she'd sent ahead, not paying attention to anyone.

Gillian set down her briefcase and took a seat at the head of the table. "Before I start the presentation, does anyone have any questions about the specs?" she asked, once everyone was settled. Ugh. "Specs." Bad choice of phrase.

"Yes, I have one."

Gillian didn't let her surprise show on her face. "Yes, Mr. Simpson?"

He looked up, right at her. "Could you comment on your market research studies? I'd like your opinion on the results."

"Yes, of course," Gillian said. "I think the findings of the study are sound, but that they're overly constrictive. We need to target your advertising to that demographic, but not limit ourselves to it." She kept talking, but in the back of her head she was amazed that Simpson actually wanted her opinion, and was actually paying attention to her when she gave it.

Maybe the glasses aren't such a disaster after all. She considered this. Nope, they're a disaster.

She and Anne went out for a celebratory cocktail after leaving a dinner with a few of the board members.

"Here's to your huge bonus," Anne said. "You deserve it. You've slaved on that contract for months."

"Only to nearly blow it at the last minute. God, I really botched that presentation."

"It wasn't that bad."

"Bad enough. I couldn't get a coherent sentence out, and I skipped two slides without realizing it."

"They signed the contract anyway."

"No thanks to me. Stupid glasses."

"Well, look at it this way. Dave Ellington kept his wandering eyes off you, and old man Simpson actually took you seriously."

"Small consolation." She took another drink, shaking her head. "You know, it shouldn't matter how pretty I look, or if I'm wearing glasses, but it does. It even matters to me, look how much it put me off my game! It wouldn't matter if I were a man."

Anne nodded. "What we look like is more important than what we do, and that is a hard fact of life." She shrugged. "Maybe frumpiness has its advantages."

"Maybe. Not enough to outweigh the fact that the most important thing in these meetings is for me to feel confident, and I didn't today. It was like working with one hand tied behind my back."

"So the take-home lesson is: don't forget your contacts."

"From now on, I'm stowing a couple of extra pairs in my purse at all times." Gillian grinned. "And some pepper spray for Dave Ellington."

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