A beautiful prompt. As always, many thanks to Tess for feeding our Muses. She is a gem!
A CLEANSING RAIN
You just don't get it, do you? The most important people in my life are in that room!
The most important people in my life ...
The most important people ...
The most important people ...
His words echoed in my mind, drowning out all other thoughts, save one -- GET OUT! The rising bile in my throat made the decision for me, and I fled, desperate for fresh air and a clear, quiet head. I vaguely heard the valet ask if I wanted him to call a cab as he held the door for me, but I didn't stop to acknowledge him. I wasn't stopping for anything; not for a cab, not for my wrap, not even for Geoff. Not that he tried to stop me.
The light mist that had accompanied us to the party had changed into a driving rain, but I didn't care. It certainly wouldn't be the first time I'd walked in the rain -- or danced, or splashed in puddles -- and I hoped it wouldn't be my last. Like Cinderella, I paused on the front steps of the mansion to kick off my uncomfortable strappy shoes, leaving them behind for one of those wretched partygoers to find and wonder about, then walked on tiptoe until I reached the cool, wet grass. With a sigh of relief, I took off across the lawn, relishing my freedom from the suffocating evening while at the same time trying desperately not to cry.
Damn him! Damn him and his stuffed shirts and his rigid agendas and his making me fall in love with him against my better judgment. I'd given him a year of my life, twelve months devoted to him, at the expense of others whom I held dear, time unable to be reclaimed. 365 days, give or take, of getting to know each other and changing and adapting our lifestyles to the other person's. Only it seems that I had been the one doing all the changing. I could kick myself for being so short-sighted, for allowing him to slowly but surely take little pieces of me that he didn't find suitable and banish them as if they -- the real Me -- never existed.
I reached the edge of the woods which bordered the Woolsey's property and hesitated, then noticed the well-worn trail, took a deep breath and set off under the dark, leafy canopy. There certainly couldn't be anything scarier living in the trees than that which lived in the resplendent house I'd left behind. Adam Woolsey was a formidable attorney and head of the largest law firm in the four-county region. According to rumor, it was expected that he would ask Geoff to be a partner this evening. If I hadn't spoiled it for him, that is. I walked faster. What did I care if his evening was ruined? My life was ruined because of him.
A bit melodramatic, yes. But, I argued with myself, he used me! And what angered me even more is that I allowed it to happen. Against all reason (because opposites really do attract), against the polite warnings of my friends, even against my own niggling feelings of doubt, I allowed myself to be manipulated and used; I willingly surrendered myself to be sacrificed on the alter of Geoff's Agenda. I had no one else to blame but me.
I slowed my walk, winded, my anger suddenly dissolved. The rain had gentled, and I undid the complicated, salon-crafted updo for which I'd spent hours being combed, teased, curled, pinned, twisted, gelled and sprayed. At the time, I'd been appalled at the extravagance, but now the wasted money was irrelevant. It felt good to let my hair down, to feel the soft raindrops tickle my scalp and wash away all the product which transformed me into someone I'm not. The tears which had threatened their own escape along with mine now fell freely, mingling with the rivulets of rain on my cheeks.
I'd met him almost exactly a year ago when he'd come into the bookstore where I worked part-time; a tall, handsome man in a polo shirt and jeans so new they still had a crease in them. I'd been setting up a display of new arrivals and he'd been looking for a thank you gift for a former professor of his. We'd hit it off immediately. He'd found me quirky and irreverent and refreshingly unlike any woman he'd ever met. I'd thought he was charming and intelligent and ... sturdy. There was something incredibly appealing about a man who knew exactly what he wanted and had set about systematically striving toward his goal. Besides, there had been a decided lack of sturdiness in my life. What I hadn't realized at the time, though, was that while he had liked and maybe even envied my free-spirited attitude, there was no room for 'quirky' and 'irreverent' on his sturdy agenda.
We'd begun dating with my friends, going out for pizza and indie movies and very bad late-night bowling. He didn't exactly fit in, but my friends had been welcoming and non-judgmental, if not a little surprised. Over time, however, we'd seen less and less of them, and had spent more time with his friends, meeting them for drinks or going for dinner at any number of trendy dining spots around the city. At first, his friends had included me in their conversations, but they'd seemed more amused than impressed by me, and their tone when addressing me had been patronizing more often than not. I'd chalked it up to the newness of our relationship, but as time had gone on things didn't improve. Geoff's friends may have included me, but they'd never accepted me, while mine no longer bothered to call.
This should have served as enough of a warning, but I'd been too far gone to listen. Ignored, too, were the red flags when he'd started buying me clothes and encouraging me to get rid of my thrift store apparel. I prided myself on my low-budget shopping skills and on being able to have fun with fashion. I really didn't care what was 'in' so long as I was comfortable and I liked it. But Geoff had seemed a bit embarrassed when some of my clothes had drawn attention to me -- to us. So he'd started dressing me, revamping my wardrobe like I was his own personal Barbie doll.
He'd also found me a job at an art gallery. I'd balked at first, but it paid almost three times what I was making at the bookstore, so I could hardly refuse. He had actually used the word 'respectable' in reference to the gallery job. Perhaps that's why I'd resisted so; to me, nothing was more satisfying than working with a book. But I had a student loan to pay, and a broken down car, so I had reluctantly taken the job, grateful that at least he cared enough to look out for my best interests.
And here we were, a year later. Some days, I barely recognized myself, but I'd convinced myself that Geoff and I were happy and that we belonged together. Sure, I missed my old life, my friends, the bookstore. I missed laughing -- it seemed I didn't do a lot of that anymore -- and pizza and bowling. People in his crowd didn't bowl.
When Geoff had asked me to accompany him tonight for what would undoubtedly be a defining moment in his career, he'd handed me his credit card and told me to buy something spectacular. I'd taken it to heart. But instead of visiting one of those upscale boutiques he seemed so eager for me to frequent, I'd returned to my old haunts: the thrift stores and consignment shops on my side of town. I'd been thrilled to find a vintage gown with matching opera gloves in a blue so blue it was almost black. It fit me beautifully, and I'd spent only a fraction of what Geoff was expecting. A year ago, I'd have considered wearing my red Chuck Jones with it, but I decided to behave and bought a pair of matching navy sandals instead.
I could hear the rush of water as I entered a clearing in the woods. Moonglow filtered through the thinning clouds revealing a stream, its banks swollen to overflowing with many days' worth of rain. I was tired, exhausted physically and emotionally, and I wiped the water from my face only to have the tears surge again as I recalled what a fool I'd been.
The party had been very prim and very proper, the attendees very fashionable and polished, and although I'd felt woefully out of place, I'd been proud to be his escort. He was a rising star and this was to be his night. He'd not commented on the dress, had never even glanced up from his Blackberry when I'd gotten in the firm's limo, but I hadn't really expected him to. He'd stopped telling me I was beautiful when the laughter and the spontaneity had faded away, but I'd gotten used to his emotional distance. This had merely been more of the same.
I'd known he'd been under enormous pressure during the weeks leading up to this party, and it had been obvious that he had other things -- other than me, that is -- on his mind tonight: shaking the right hands, saying the right things, making the right impression. He'd forgotten to introduce me as we'd mixed and mingled, but I'd forgiven him; I wouldn't have remembered all the names anyway. When we finally had a moment alone, he'd sighed deeply and I decided that I desperately wanted to see him smile, just once, just for me.
Of course, that's when the evening fell apart.
It was a game we'd played when we'd first met, where we'd pick a stranger out of a crowd and try to guess things about them, each of us trying to top the other with our outlandish suppositions. I moved to stand directly behind him, leaning into his back so that I could whisper in his ear in a voice that he, and only he, could hear.
"Adam Woolsey wears pink ruffled boxers."
He froze, his glass half way to his lips. But when he turned around to look at me, the smile I'd been hoping for was instead a murderous glare. He placed his glass on the nearest table and grabbed me by the upper arm, dragging me into an unoccupied hallway.
"Ouch! Geoff, you're hurting me!"
"Keep your voice down!" He released me with a shove. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
I was stunned. "What are you so upset about?"
"You know this night could make or break my future."
"I was just trying to make you smile."
"By insulting my boss?" He spit his accusation out through gritted teeth and his eyes were so cold that I shivered involuntarily.
"It was just the Stranger Game, Geoff, that's all. I wasn't trying to insult anyone. You seemed so tense, I wanted ..."
He cut me off. "This isn't a game, Lydia. When are you going to grow up, huh? When are you going to stop acting like the world is one big playground and you can just say whatever comes to mind whenever you feel like it, without consequence?"
"I'm sorry! It was a joke!"
"A joke? I don't need a joke. I need you to be serious. Can't you ever be serious?"
"Don't be stupid! Of course, I can be serious!"
"I'm being stupid??" He was practically yelling now, drawing some unwanted attention from the other room. "I'm not the one making inappropriate comments!"
"Fine. I ... I'm sorry! "
He didn't acknowledge my apology as he ran his hand back through his hair in exasperation. "Unbelievable. You just don't get it, do you?" Geoff pointed behind him. "The most important people in my life are in that room!"
And just like that, my universe was shattered. He hadn't told me anything I didn't already know, or at least suspect. But with that one sentence, Geoff made me fully aware, in no uncertain terms, of who was important and who wasn't, and exactly where I stood in his life. Humiliation made my cheeks burn, and I felt like a traitor -- to myself, to my friends, and to everything I'd given up in the name of love.
That's when I ran.
My tears were spent. On a whim, I carefully climbed up onto a large rock overlooking the stream and spread my arms wide, my face lifted skyward. I lost track of time as I stood there, allowing the rain to wash away the hurt and the shame and the anger, feeling it cleanse my soul. A raven had been circling overheard as I'd walked and I heard it alight nearby. My superstitious grandmother had always told me that ravens were the harbingers of death and that seeing one meant that someone close to you was going to die. In a way, I guess she was right; the person I had become died tonight, along with my relationship with Geoff.
But out of the ashes of death arises new life. The rain slowly lightened to a drizzle, and I lowered my arms and opened my eyes with a new resolve. In the morning, I would call around to all the bookstores and see if there were any openings, then I would call the art gallery and resign regardless. Next I planned to call all my friends, one by one, to seek their forgiveness. If I was lucky, they would let me back into their lives. Finally, I would dig out the box with my old clothes, my thrift store treasures which, unbeknownst to Geoff, I never quite got around to throwing out. Instead, I would fill the box with all the clothes he bought me to make me respectable and donate it to Goodwill.
My gown wouldn't be going in the box; it was ruined, but I didn't care. I peeled the gloves off my arms and tossed them into the swiftly flowing water, startling the raven into flight. I watched the gloves float away downstream and then, with a heavy sigh, I climbed back down off the rock and headed down the path toward the main road and home. My broken heart wouldn't mend overnight, but tonight taught me a valuable lesson, and I had taken the first step toward healing.
It was good to be me again.
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