From Now to You — 9

Nov. 8th, 2018

For most of Stephanie’s adult life, she worked on stamping down her emotions. Sentiments only led to heartache and regret — deep, unrelenting regret. Most of her college years were spent learning how to live day by day without feeling too much.

One of the first things she did was stop painting. It was clear to her that creating art was the strongest trigger of emotions for her. The act brought sentiment out from within her very being, gathering and lifting until it splashed onto the canvas in an explosion of bright, unyielding color. If she wanted to live a life of subdued sensibilities, then she could never pick up a paintbrush again. When she hauled her well-worn collection of paints and brushes out to the dumpster behind her dorm, she felt it was a small price to pay for peace.

That had worked for a while, but months later, she found that the color she surrounded herself with — on her bedspread, the paintings on the wall, her wardrobe — was starting to cause a stir within her. Simply seeing the beauty in art and, especially, color was beginning to coax out the same joy that she felt when she painted. She did not want to feel joy. It brought with it uninvited memories, like barnacles hitching on the belly of a ship.

She was staring at a reproduction of Monet’s Water Lilies that hung above her bed when she came to the conclusion that she had to limit the color she let into her world. She had just opened her eyes on a chilly Sunday morning. The painting was the first thing she saw. A smile had graced her lips and the feeling of happiness bloomed within her as she took in the colors and the intricate brush strokes. Then, suddenly, she thought of a conversation she had with her mother about Monet, both of them defending their favorite work to the other. It was a playful debate that ended with a shared bowl of ice cream. Her vision had blurred with tears as she was overtaken by guilt and heartbreak. She sobbed into her pillow and stayed in bed until her roommate had coaxed her out of the room hours later. Remembering her mother always had the same crushing effect on her and it had to be avoided at all cost. That same day, the paintings all came down. Soon after, her bedspread was replaced with a dull gray quilt. Then, slowly, her wardrobe transformed to consist only of neutral colors. She considered this a fair trade as well.

This preference extended to her current living space. The apartment she shared with Vanessa was bland. Often, the only color came from the produce in the kitchen. She let Vanessa keep her bonsai when she moved in. It provided a bit of green by the window against the backdrop of dark gray drapes.

As Alice caught her first glimpse of the office, the first thing she noticed was the lack of color. It was so unlike the Stephanie she remembered that she wondered if Jackie had led her to the door. But then she saw her. Blonde hair, so much longer than she had ever seen it, was in a painfully tight ponytail. Not a strand was out of place. A constricting high-waisted skirt hugged her hips and an unforgiving white button-down clung effortlessly to her torso. The only splash of color on her was the slight flush on her cheeks and pink on her lips. Alice wouldn’t have recognized Stephanie if not for the familiar way she moved. The spastic way she was compulsively jumping between the sofa and the chair was unmistakably Stephanie. The scene made her laugh, loud enough for Stephanie to hear her.

Instantly, Alice clamped her lips shut and silently cursed herself. She had hoped for a few more moments of observing the woman she hadn’t seen for years before she had to face her. It was too late, she urged herself to say something quickly to ease the tension on Stephanie’s shoulders as she stood with her back to Alice.

“I didn’t realize we’d be playing musical chairs. I don’t think I have the right shoes on,” she said and then immediately rolled her eyes at herself. It was certainly not what she imagined her first words to Stephanie would be. And she did imagine, frequently, what she might say to the blonde when they finally saw each other again. It was the only thing she could think about for weeks ever since she found out that her novel was picked up by Arrow Books. Alice imagined melodramatic scenarios of hearts pouring out as words, speeches of adoration and gladness, on-the-spot sonnets about finally being complete after so long, rambling heartfelt apologies and groveling. She imagined all kinds of potential first words she would speak as much as she imagined not speaking at all and instead rushing into each other’s arms. She imagined so much, but she never imagined her first words would be that.

Alice took two steps into the office just as Stephanie was turning around to face her. She stopped dead when she finally saw those honey eyes again after so long. Just like she remembered, they gave away exactly what Stephanie was feeling and right now, it was plain shock. There was a moment of quiet between them and Alice took the opportunity to study the blonde’s face. She looked the same as she remembered — she never did forget — except that she was now lacking the youthful roundness of her cheeks. She was more beautiful than she had ever been.

Stephanie stood so still that Alice was convinced she wasn’t breathing. She decided to break the silence and snap Stephanie out of it before she passed out. “Hi,” she said shyly. Her voice was quiet and apprehensive of how Stephanie would react to seeing her. Especially considering that she had been purposely deceptive to get to this place.

Stephanie said one word, “Alice,” with such awe that, for a moment, Alice had hope that their reunion might end up resembling the scenarios she thought up after all. Light brown eyes dragged from her hair down to her feet, taking in her red blouse, dark blue slacks and dark blue pumps, and then back up again into her blue eyes. It was as if all the color had hypnotized her. Then the blonde seemed to snap out of her stupor. She watched as her expression flashed through a myriad of emotions before finally settling on disdain.

“I-I don’t know what you’re doing here or what you want from me, but now is really not a good time. I have an important meeting in a few minutes and I really need to — ” she trailed off and looked over Alice’s shoulder where Jackie was holding out a white mug.

“Here is your tea, Miss Lewis,” she said, oblivious to the tension in the room. Alice sighed inwardly. She had hoped to ease Stephanie into the fact that she was actually Allison Lewis, her “important” meeting. She took the mug from Jackie and nodded her thanks.

Stephanie scoffed and said, “This is not Allis-” and then she froze again with her mouth still open in the shape of the next syllable. Her eyes glazed over for a moment and then abruptly sprang to Alice, clear and sharp as ever. She had figured it out. “Oh my god.”

Jackie still standing one step behind Alice watched with open curiosity. “Miss Riordan?” she said when neither woman spoke.

“Thank you, Jackie, please close the door on your way out,” Stephanie said with a quick glance at the assistant.

Reluctantly, Jackie nodded her consent and backed out of the room. As a testament to her uncanny ability to anticipate Stephanie’s needs, she flipped a switch next to the door and the glass wall of the office turned opaque, a frosted white hid the interior from view, including the door which had settled shut behind Alice.

It was another few seconds before Stephanie spoke again. “You’re Allison Lewis.”

“Guilty,” Alice answered, cringing slightly at how true that word actually was.

The blonde pinched the bridge of her nose and shut her eyes tightly. “How?” Stephanie breathed out. She began pacing in front of Alice who remained still as a statue by the door. “I mean — why? Why here? Why me? How long have you been in the city? Do you live here?”

Alice sighed and let Stephanie continue to spout question after question. Her pace was increasing at every pass. Alice recognized this as Stephanie’s way of comprehending a difficult concept. In high school, there were countless late nights of studying for a test when she watched the taller girl do exactly this. Her experience taught her that there was no point in trying to answer any of the questions being asked and instead moved over to the coffee table to put the mug down. She didn’t dare take seat, not knowing how welcome she was. She stood by the table, hands clasped demurely in front her as she silently watched Stephanie pace. It was a good opportunity to once again observe the blonde. Alice noted that she would never have imagined Stephanie in a setting like this, not to mention an outfit like that, but she couldn’t deny her ex-girlfriend looked gorgeous, like she stepped right out of the cover of a fashion magazine for business women, if such a publication were to exist.

Alice swallowed visibly when Stephanie stopped pacing and turned around to face her. She looked distraught and Alice felt her heart clench at the sight. The blonde looked like she was unraveling. Her breathing was ragged and her ponytail had loosened and now drooped weakly at the back of her head. Alice wondered what her hair would look like if it was let loose. Her fingers ached to reach up and find out. Instead she kept her distance. The two women were several steps away from each other.

Stephanie’s mouth opened and closed twice before words were finally formed. “I can’t do this,” she said, her voice shaking despite her obvious attempt to appear calm and collected. “I don’t understand what you’re doing or why you’re doing. I don’t know how this happened. I don’t know anything and I don’t want to know. All I know is that I can’t do this. I won’t.”

Alice’s heart sank with each desperate word. “I’m sorry,” she said with her eyes downcast, “I didn’t mean — “

“I don’t care,” Stephanie interrupted in a strong voice before sighing deeply. “I’ll tell Arthur that he should give you, I mean, your book to Paul. She scoffed and cursed silently. “He’s going to have a field day with this…”

“OK,” was all Alice could manage. She noticed the thick stacks of paper on the coffee table and picked one up. When she fanned the sheets with her thumb, she noticed that there were handwritten notes throughout. Alice instantly recognized Stephanie’s handwriting. “OK,” she repeated and stepped toward the door.

Before she reached it, she rounded on the blonde and spoke firmly. Anger flared within her seemingly out of nowhere. Suddenly, she was feeling slighted. “Just so you know, I didn’t mean for this to happen. It just… did. And I’m sorry. I should have said something when I first found out that you would be handling my book, but I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to see you again,” she paused, illustrating her point by looking the taller woman up and down. “Maybe I thought I deserved it. Maybe I thought I deserved an explanation. Maybe I thought I deserved to see you and talk to you,” she scoffed and shook her head. “Apparently not.”

With that, she yanked the door open and strode out of the office. She passed by Jackie’s desk without a glance. Her face was expressionless, hard and tight like stone as she fought back her tears. The white-knuckle grip she had on the copy of the manuscript let up when she was out of the building, but she continued to hold it against her chest all the way home.