“The very last one. Finally!” Milly thought.She placed the empty cardboard box in the tiny hallway. She would take it to the dumpster downstairs later. There hadn’t been that much stuff to move to her new apartment, but unpacking had taken a lot longer than she had expected.
Milly looked around the small living room. Her new home still didn’t look like a place she wanted to spend a lot of time in. Luckily, she probably wouldn’t. She would come here to sleep and that was about it.
She also didn’t like to complain. Not even to herself. Her parents were hard-working people. The sacrifices they made to support Milly’s career were substantial, and Milly didn’t want to seem ungrateful.
“You’re here, and that’s the most important thing,” Milly told herself.
She clapped her hands together – a way of making herself focus on the task at hand – and walked to her tiny bedroom. It was time to change into her sports gear.
Today was Monday, which meant she had to go on a long run. Central Park had that wonderful, NYC summer feel these days. She would work out there and sit on a bench to get some sunshine afterward.
Milly grabbed a light yellow T-shirt and a blue pair of shorts, humming softly. “Ah,” she mumbled and looked down at the Fitbit on her wrist. She had forgotten to charge it last night, but it still had enough battery left to track her progress today.
After she had changed, Milly walked into the kitchenette to grab a bottle of water. While she was there, she studied the contents of the fridge.
She groaned. She would need to go grocery shopping after her run. That meant it was going to be a long day. She still had a lot of studying left to do tonight.
Take-out food wasn’t an option, though. She didn’t have the money, and getting some cheap pasta would probably only add to her waistline, despite her workout.
“Better hurry,” she thought. She closed the door of the fridge and quickly headed for the door. While she tied up her shoes, she silently wished she wouldn’t bump into any of her new neighbors on her way out.
People liked to chat around here and Milly had little time or patience for small talk. All she wanted from her neighbors was for them to be quiet and orderly.
The conversation she dreaded the most was the “So, what do you do for a living” chat. The times Milly had replied truthfully, people usually had gaped at her for several long seconds.
Once, a guy had blurted out: “But you’re not fat! Aren’t you supposed to be huge?” Just thinking about it made her shake her head every time.
Milly quietly opened the door and peered into the corridor. The coast was clear, for now. She locked the door and made her way to the staircase. Less chance of running into someone on the stairs than in the elevator after all.
Just a minute later, Milly was walking to the park. The August sun was still shining brightly at 5PM,
and she urged herself to relax a little.
She had been feeling nervous lately, anxious even. Now and then, but only for a minute or two, she had been able to enjoy the sense of hope that comes with new opportunities.
But then she thought of all the hard work she had put in. She reminded herself of all the sacrifices her parents were making every day.
She reminded herself how slim the odds were she would ever make enough money to move to a better apartment, even if she did have a successful career.
As a classical singer, she had chosen a life of hard work and discipline. The glitz and glamour were for the lucky few. Then again, every singer hoped for that kind of success in the end.
It took a special kind of ego to want to step into that spotlight every night, she had heard an old teacher say a long time ago. Milly had to admit her teacher had been right.
She liked to think of herself as a pretty modest person, especially when compared to other artists, but she knew she was as ambitious – and even could be as vicious – as the next diva.
The northern entrance to the park came into view. Milly pushed her sporting earbuds firmly behind her ears, took in a deep breath and started running.
Maybe she would put in some extra effort and make it a 90-minute run today.
“Never settle,” she thought. “Never ever settle.”
Milly turned to fluff her pillow. She was lying on her bed, scores and pages with notes scattered around her. The muscles in her neck were sore from peering down for hours.
She leaned back and ran a hand through her hair. She had studied enough for one night and would continue tomorrow morning, she decided. She just wanted to get a good night’s sleep now.
In less than a week, she would attend her first master class at the Lincoln Center, the home of the Metropolitan Opera. By then, she needed to be rested, and well-prepared.
The day Milly had heard she had been accepted into the Met’s Young Artist Development program, had been the most important and happiest day of her life.
Thinking about her upcoming schedule, made her restless, though. She would soon be attending countless coaching sessions to improve all aspects of her singing.
Every single one of these sessions was worth more than a winning lottery ticket to Milly. She would be learning from some of the best and most famous artists in the industry. It was the path to becoming one of the best herself.
The stress of finding an apartment and making her budget work, had used up much of her energy these last months. For a while, Milly had thought she might not be able to pull it off.
Her parents had had to cough up a considerable amount of money to help her move from the Juilliard’s dormitory to this tiny apartment in Harlem.
Being a professional opera singer wasn’t cheap. There were the bills everyone has. But she also needed to buy expensive evening gowns and an endless collection of scores to study.
Luckily, she had caught a break. Apart from being allowed into the Met’s young artist program, Milly had also been selected as the beneficiary of a grant by the Emsworth – Leroy foundation.
This grant not only covered all the costs for the program at the Met, it also came with an added bonus. The Emsworth – Leroy family was famous for being personally involved in the careers of the artists they supported.
Milly hadn’t met the family yet, but she had heard wonderful stories about the old Mrs. Leroy. Meeting this wealthy, elderly woman was a daunting prospect for a middle-class girl from a small town in Maryland.
Mrs. Leroy was famous for her stores with ridiculously expensive chocolates. It had been her late husband, Henry Emsworth, a successful Wall Street banker, who had set up the foundation. After his death, Mrs. Emsworth – Leroy had taken over.
Milly had learned all of this by googling the family when she had been applying for the grant. It had been one of many grants she had applied for, and she had never allowed herself to dream of actually being accepted.
Then, she had received a surprise letter. The foundation had selected her as their beneficiary for the coming two years. Milly had been stunned. She hadn’t even been called in to audition. It was the most bizarre thing.
After contacting the foundation to ask if there might have been a mistake, she had been informed that yes, she really was accepted for the grant, and that someone would be in touch with her soon.
Milly didn’t know what to expect. Having a good relationship with the family would be a valuable asset, her contact at the Met had told her. Milly had asked him if he knew why and how she had been selected. He didn’t.
Milly hoped she would get a chance to ask the Emsworth family what had made them choose her. She wondered when exactly she would hear from the mysterious Mrs. Emsworth – Leroy for the first time.
“Oh!” she said, her eyes widening, after realizing she hadn’t checked her email recently. She had been so focused on unpacking and studying, she had forgotten all about her inbox.
She pushed aside the remaining papers and got out of bed. She had gotten a new phone a couple of days ago – and she hadn’t added all of her email addresses to the device yet.
Milly walked back into her small living room and plopped into the couch. Her old laptop was resting on the coffee table. She opened it, pushed the power button and waited for the login screen.
She smiled at the desktop picture that popped up after a while. It was a picture of her performance at her graduation recital. She had worn a dark blue evening gown.
Her brown hair had been elegantly pulled back in a low bun. The makeup artist had added some extra glitter for the occasion. Her father had said he had never seen her looking so radiant.
Milly looked down at her bare legs and smirked. What a difference with how she looked right now. She pulled up her old T-shirt and sniffed it. Her mother’s favorite, flowery washing detergent still lingered in the fabric.
Milly entered her password and opened a browser window. The sudden bright, bluish light of the screen hurt her eyes. She blinked a couple of times while she clicked the email icon.
Milly held her breath while she scanned the new messages. There were emails from friends, newsletters from various opera news outlets and then one sender whose name she didn’t recognize. She opened it.
A quick glance at the email address told Milly this was the email she had been waiting for. Mrs. Leroy’s personal assistant, a Miss Charlotte Williams, had sent her a message to set up a time for an introduction dinner.
Milly gaped at the screen. “Dinner? Oh my God.”
She had imagined meeting her patron at an opera house reception, a rehearsal studio or maybe some fancy hotel bar. Anything but a restaurant. It seemed a little intimate for a first meeting!
Milly let herself fall back onto the fluffy pillows of the couch. She imagined sitting in a stuffy restaurant in the Lincoln area with the elderly Mrs. Leroy. Her palms went sweaty just thinking about it.
What would they talk about? What kind of questions would she have to answer? Was Milly eloquent enough to impress her benefactor? Oh my God, what if she got something stuck between her teeth?!
“I won’t order anything green or leafy,” she decided there and then. Milly giggled. This was ridiculous, she realized. “They’re already paying for my training. It’s not an audition or an exam. Right?”
“Maybe it’s even worse,” she thought and wrinkled her nose. This would be the first time she would meet a stranger who literally paid for her education. Not an institution with judges, but a single woman with a fortune.
What if this Mrs. Leroy in some way felt like she owned Milly? Like some sort of cultural pet? Would Milly be asked to perform at private parties, or birthdays? She certainly hoped not.
Milly hid her face in her hands. These thoughts weren’t helping. She had to focus. Years of intensive training had taught her to let go of things that didn’t support her goals.
When she sat back up to reply to the email, she noticed something she had missed before. While this Charlotte clearly stated she was the assistant to Mrs. Leroy, she later referred to her as Miss Emsworth – Leroy.
“Can you please let me know which of the following dates suits you for dinner with Miss Emsworth – Leroy,” the message said.
“A typo?” Milly wondered. Probably. Or autocorrect. Even personal assistants made mistakes, right?
She scanned the list of dates, checked her calendar and was pleasantly surprised to see none of them overlapped with events organized by the Met. This assistant was good at her job.
Milly wrote a polite email thanking her and Mrs. Leroy for the invitation. She listed the dates she was available. Then, she quickly sent it off before she could worry if her email was polite and proper enough.
She got up and raised her arms into a lazy stretch. A glance at the clock on her laptop told Milly she desperately needed to go to bed if she wanted to have a full night’s rest.
She slammed the laptop shut and took the few steps to her bedroom. Milly doubted she would actually be able to fall asleep any time soon, but she would give it a try. She always gave it at least a try.