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"The Garden of Eden" by Thomas Cole

"If I were him, I wouldn't let you go alone" is what a business contact said yesterday upon hearing I was in Atlanta for a trade show. Him = my husband. Little does this business contact know I do not have to ask permission before leaving the house. Although I did have a professor who was not able to buy a TV in England the 70’s because she was unaccompanied by a male. She was escorted out of the shop, in fact. I thought about this as I step into the hotel breakfast room wearing sweats and an old workout shirt.

I immediately regret leaving my ring upstairs but only did so because the plan was to to run to The Corner Bakery (seemingly never on a corner) and then lift weights in the hotel gym, but was thwarted by the rain and then attracted by the smell of waffles wafting into the lobby. Waffles which I didn’t end up trying because I was distrusting of the fat free syrup.

My booth neighbor pronounces both the name of the distributor whose show we are attending and Aspartame incorrectly, which is interesting because he sells a gum that has “KICK ASPARTAME” prominently at the top of the package. But he is from Canada and has a slight accent to my ears so perhaps I am pronouncing it wrong to his.

I felt my left hand particularly naked because I enter to find eight tables for one, all middle-aged men in business attire. I set down my book on the first table I come across, making it nine. All the while I feel very aware of just how dark and how curly my hair is, wishing I had made time to straighten it. An eerie silence descended upon the breakfast room as the last bit of human interaction fades (it was the checker shirt man and large rolling bag man both apologizing for reaching for bagels at the same time).

Two men enter the room together with identical company names on their badges. The silence is replaced with their talk of their company’s bonus structure. One of them looks like another neighbor at the trade show and I make eye contact to say hello only then I realize that it isn’t him after all and that my hope of seeing a single familiar face in this place was silly to begin with.

When my booth neighbor and I spoke yesterday, he said he heads all global sales; I tell him I “do sales” yet I soon find we have the same amount of people and brokers “under us” (a phrase I would never use). As Sales Director, I have set up distribution in Central America, the Bahamas, and Canada, navigated NAFTA forms, sold product to South Korea, and am in the process of setting up export to Malaysia. Global sales is something I do, too, but it is a truth I will never have the audacity to be truthful about.

Why tout such a presumptuous title when I can instead be “child labor” or “bread peddler” at my family’s bakery? When it comes to accomplishments and status, I learned long ago that us women don't have the luxury of full honesty because it comes at the price of likeability. Furthermore, if honest about accomplishments, we must remember to sprinkle a healthy hint of self-deprivation to remain overall palatable. I realize this is especially true for me, a 26-year old woman.

My chain of thought is interrupted as one of the old white men with some sort of trade show name badge sees the well-built young black man refilling coffee and asks him why he isn’t “out playing ball” instead of “here doing this crap”. If only it were that easy. I decide that if I were to ever to make eye contact with this older man, I would scowl at him in disapproval of his typecasting thinly veiled as inspirational small-talk. I then remember I will avoid random eye contact of all types with all people here because I don’t want to give him the wrong idea, especially since I don’t have my ring.

A woman appears from the elevator. Finally, backup. I am disappointed to see that she is also in workout clothes. I think about how either we are painted as Type A’s up early for a workout, or perhaps just Plus-1’s. (“He had a work trip in Atlanta and I had never been in Atlanta so I tagged along to do some shopping while he works!”) I look around at the room as they all watch her enter and fear the latter.

I finish eating and see that it is time to get ready for the trade show. I dread another day of selling - standing cornered at a booth with buyers constantly trying to cut deals that involve free bread and no investment on their end. They tend to get their way with amenable young women who are eager for a solution that will make both parties happy. I was once one of these women, justifying my state as “happy” after the fact in the name of compromise. I have now learned to withstand the discomfort, be kind yet assertive, and stand my ground. If only these buyers spent the same amount of time haranguing the older salesmen about how best to “invest in relationships,” and “build a thriving business,” they might not have as much energy or time to go after me.

Not satisfied with my breakfast, I walk toward the elevator rather hastily because I am not sure if I should have taken this apple to-go. It was also one of two remaining red apples in a basket of green so perhaps it is of higher value? As I hold it, I realize it doesn’t seem too fresh so maybe they are glad to be rid of it? If I am caught will I tell them I am a Honors Club member? Or is that a program anyone can sign up for? Do I need to say that I have reached a level equated to a certain precious metal? Aspartame-free gum man said that when they tried to charge him for bottled water at the front desk, his retort included his Diamond Level so maybe I could do the same. What is it again for this hotel chain? Gold? Platinum?

As I nervously wait for the elevator I glance at the lobby TV and see the top high school recruit picking what college to attend. He will doubtless inspire countless. His triumphant, well-earned smile makes it look easy but hopefully doesn’t make a hotel employee think less of his path or foolish in his goals should they involve pursuing something as audaciously stereotype-defying as academics.

I then smell four different freshly-applied colognes (or perhaps one is hair gel?) from the next batch of badged breakfast-goers who just stepped out of the elevator. I realized I don’t smell like anything fancy (not even sweat), feel alone and afraid for no real reason, look like some suited man’s accompaniment, and don’t posses a diamond on my finger or to my membership status -- just this apple that’s similar to one other, but not at all like the rest.

I step into the elevator, alone. The TV is the last thing I see before the door closes. I think of my professor, how far we have come, and how far we have left to go. I decide I am tired of being afraid, push the button for my floor, take a bite of my maybe-forbidden apple, and ascend.

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