Sandy climbed the stairs to her apartment in a distracted state of mind. She unlocked the door and routinely, almost mechanically, placed her hat on its hook and hung her coat and scarf in the minuscule coat closet. She hardly paid attention to what she was doing: something unsettled and sad had bedded down in the pit of her stomach and would not let her look back on the afternoon with any degree of contentment or rest.
“What do I want, anyway?” she demanded of the four walls. “I should be ecstatic!”
Her boss, whom she respected, esteemed, and yes, yes, yes, loved had just asked her to accept a promotion to associate architect in his firm! “He runs the best damn design practice in Wapatomekie, and I’m going to be his first associate! And I’m only twenty-eight!” It would bring amazing new opportunities, not to mention an increase in pay, all tied in with the fact that Eric Baumann thought she was worthy of the position. “Ecstacy” certainly should be the word.
But she was not ecstatic. She felt flat, empty, and painfully at odds with herself.
“What’s wrong with me?” she cried aloud as she kicked off her shoes and drew herself up on the sofa. “I was horrible to him! There at the exhibition, and later on in the car! Why can’t I take a compliment from a man I care about with any sort of grace? Would it have killed me simply to say ‘Thank you’ and get it over with? But no, I have to throw it back in his teeth and twist his words!”
But it wasn’t just that. Any other woman, loving a man and wanting to lead him on to love her, would have skilfully laid hold of that compliment (“You look like an Old Master,” he had said, and she had known exactly what he meant: the ensemble was one of her favorites; she knew it became her, though it was too good for office wear). Any woman would have made of his words a golden cord to bind him to her and make him her own. Any woman, that is, but herself.
She was sure Leah Matthews would have taken full advantage had Eric so complimented her. On the thought, she stopped. “He probably has said such things to her.”
But so what if he had? The point wasn’t what he had or hadn’t done, it was what she, Alexandra Marie Beichten, had done and had kept on doing to him.
Painfully, she recalled every word of their exchange over the El Greco.
A self-justifying voice within her spoke up: “Well, there was no meaning in that, anyway. Totally silly for him to talk about giving you something neither he nor you could ever own. Talk is cheap. Easy enough for him to go on like that, when he’ll never be called on to back it up!”
But the contrary voice died away, suppressed by what she knew was the truth. For what Eric had offered her there in the Spanish gallery was not a priceless Old Master painting, but the assurance, much more valuable, that he could be aware of her wishes and desires, and in some way desired to fulfill them. No, he was not aware of everything she desired– not that, not the impossible That– but to the extent her wishes were right and fitting given their present relationship, that certainly was how he felt.
He’d shown it when he’d offered– no, given– her the position as associate architect. He had known that was something she wanted before she had been willing to see it for herself. The thought had crossed her mind over the past few months, but she had always repressed it as a dim, distant, impossible dream. But Eric had known she longed to handle projects on her own, to make a greater contribution to their mutual effort. And at some cost to himself he had given the opportunity to her.
And how had she reacted?
"I practically turned my back on him in the car! I acted like I had nothing to do with him, the office, or our work. Did I really have to make him spell it out for me as if I were a stubborn kid in the slow learners' class?" But that's what he'd had to do before she would stop putting words in his mouth and consent to receive what he would give.
And then in her heart she had impugned his motives.
"'He's trying to see less of me', that's what you automatically thought. All your life since you were a kid you've wanted to stretch your architectural wings and fly, and now you're saying 'Feed me, coddle me, don't make me leave the nest'? He's going to give you more freedom, and you know how hard that must be for him, he's such a strong designer himself. And your first thought is to think he's deliberately being cruel to you? Where is your self-respect, Alexandra, your good sense, your-- your gratitude?"
She should have been happy about how things had turned out; happy, joyful, and relieved. But she wasn’t yet and as yet she couldn’t be. “What is wrong with me?” she demanded again.
Then, “I should call him. He’ll be home by now. Things seemed better by the time he dropped me off, but I should apologize for being such a shrew before that.”
But she knew she wouldn’t even pick up the phone. She knew why she wouldn’t, and she knew what had driven her to act the way she had.
It was fear.
Fear crouched like a shrivelled loathsome gnome visible to her mind’s eye, grinning in her face, mocking her. She got off the sofa, put on the kettle, and made herself a cup of tea. Maybe that would break its grip on her and she could go on with her evening as she had planned. There was an orchestra concert on the radio she was looking forward to listening to. And maybe she would draw a little on the sketches for her dream house.
But twenty cups of tea would have been no charm against a demon so long in residence. And the question of how her prospective kitchen should relate to a possible family room was nothing compared to the problem of how she had gotten to this point in her life and what she should do about it. And she had to do something about it, or her career (she would not allow herself to say “more than her career”) might be in jeopardy.
She pushed back her hair from her face with both hands, as if trying to clear her sight. “Why,” she whispered into the silence, “why do I act like this? Especially towards him? Why am I so afraid?”
Especially when for so long in her life there had been no need to be?
by Catrin Lewis, 1983, revised 2013 & 2014, all rights reserved
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