‘She’s a stranger,’ I think, staring at myself printed on a semi glossy magazine cover, leaning against a wall with my arms casually crossed; a woman smiling as if she’s got it all figured out. I’m seated in a sparsely furnished hotel room with a magazine in my lap and a cooling, untouched cappuccino balancing atop a stack of magazines on the coffee table.
I’m unsure how I believed that success would transform me; that I could become the self that I so meticulously get dressed in every morning, and be allowed at last to discard the doubtful, fearful creature within. That becoming successful was not so much a moment in time, but a finality, an existence that when reached, would also be maintained. I thought ‘making it’ in the eyes of others would feel much like reaching a summit, gazing down upon all the others still bickering along the uphill climb, meanwhile exchanging celebratory handshakes and nods with the other successful ones stood on their respective pedestals.
Instead of waking up and getting dressed in the skin of the woman of untapped potential, I now get dressed in the skin of someone who has made it, leaving the skin of the old me in the closet. Within this new, paper-thin guise still crouches The Doubtful, Fearful; a gnarling creature, louder and more vicious than ever, warning me that now there is not only more to aspire to, but that there is so much more to lose. There is self-loathing woven into the fabric of this new guise, sprung from the failure of my transformation – a butterfly entombed in its cocoon.
I imagined all would become clear when I reached my goal, that all noise of everyday life would fade, and that it would feel natural and right that I became someone people sought for advice and inspiration. Instead I’d become a false prophet, conceitedly believing that I was embodied by elevated insight to help others in reaching their own goals – and that it was my right to offer it to them – to sprinkle it down the mountainside like water in a drought.
My assistant pops his head through the door, a smile already on his face. He’s a man fuelled by youth and belief in his own potential, a climber in the infancy of his journey. He reminds me of an appointment for an interview, and I thank him. He glances at the full cup of now cold coffee that he had procured upon my request, and I pick it up and cradle it as if it still holds warmth, and he seems contented. When he leaves I put it back down, accidentally spilling foam over the side that dribbles down onto the topmost magazine, distorting my smiling face. I don’t wipe it off.
We all have climbs to undertake and the greatest deception of all is the notion that there is an end to be reached. The human urge to expand and improve is a curse dressed in blessing, and we all fall victim to it. Somewhere enjoyable will never feel like the end of a line. Not only do I remain a captive of my insecurities, I now have more to lose, and there will be an audience for when it happens. Defeat no longer feels like a possibility, but an inevitability – no longer, ‘if it comes,’ but ‘when it comes.’ My fear of failure no longer crouches beneath my bed; rather, it sits at my bedside.
Following a quick sequence of sharp knocks, my assistant enters again, trailed by a woman dressed in a grey business suit. She carries a clipboard with empty pages in one hand and a tape recorder in the other. She makes quick, dainty steps in her bow kitten heels in a way that makes me think she believes it will make her more endearing to me. They both smile the smile I curse myself for having worn so readily in the past. It is the humble, strained smile of a climber; antelopes entering the lion’s den, unaware that I, too, am an antelope, dressed in the pelt of a lion. I think about all the offices I have entered, believing that those within were somehow elevated kinds of people with a clearer view of life’s meandering chaos than the rest of us.
If I wanted to, I could tell them. That I am still climbing, too, and that I have no answers to give. I could tell them that all of life is swamped with uncertainty and that they won’t find the happiness they seek by abandoning themselves in the climb. I could tell them that whatever they feed The Doubtful, Fearful will only make it louder, that it mustn’t be satiated, it must be starved.
But I don’t. I’ve come too far to give up the act.
Instead, I stand up and pull my hand through my hair with a trained air of je ne sais quoi that I know will not go unnoticed. My disguise fits so snugly over The Doubtful, Fearful, that also I can sometimes believe that they are one. I shove the cold coffee into the hands of my assistant, mumbling something about the sweetness of it. He apologizes and leaves shortly, and I sit back down in my chair as I gesture for her to take the chair opposite. I can see her hand is trembling as she works the buttons on the recorder, and in a sick sort of way, I take enjoyment from it. The frustration from reaching the summit only to realize it is a pit stop is dulled by kicking pebbles onto those below.
“To what do you owe your success?” she asks.
I flash my most brilliant smile before pretending as if my rehearsed reply is a product of the moment, my cocoon hardening with every word.