You're never supposed to quit. I never thought I would in any case. I've always been taught that you build. You grow. You never tear down. And yet, that's exactly what I did, the second I booked that ticket. I prettied it up in my head, living in denial as I was. But I knew then, almost as clearly as I know now.
I'm not sure why I did it. Well I'm sure part of me knew damn well, but it's hard to admit to yourself that you are that kind of person. And what kind of person is that? A person who admits to themselves that there may be dreams out there that they can still live. That there are still emotions yet to feel?
I hunched my red coat up around my neck, the cool breeze and my own self doubt were combining to make me shiver. I'd bought this coat on sale, a cropped red thing that I never would normally have worn, because it was too bright and too attention seeking, and I'd spent so many years hiding away. There was a delicious naughtiness even in trying it on.
And of course once I bought it I realised it went with nothing in my drab, ill fitting wardrobe. A spectacular coat to wear with nothing. So I shoved it in the back of my wardrobe, hidden behind the beige like a spring bulb under the snow.
The day I decided to buy the ticket was the day I had seen it in my wardrobe. A flash of crimson, hidden there amongst the ugliness. A siren song in the middle of the mediocre. And it called to me, split open that tiny rent that had been in the fabric of my life. I wanted colour. Needed colour.
I had pulled it on over my ugly black dress, and as I had done up the buttons, I'd glanced in the mirror. It didn't match, and the dress was still a matronly ugly length, but my eyes. The flush in my cheeks and the light in my eyes. I have never been beautiful, have always known that it didn't apply to me, and hidden under my heavy hair. But right that instant, looking at those eyes, I wanted more. I wanted colour in my life.
So I booked it. A simple flight. The same as thousands of others booked every single day. I looked at my life here, my room full of ugly clothes, the career I'd built up for years and years and the email I'd printed out from my boss just to drive home the point
As I'm sure you can understand, this is a very busy time of year and although we always endeavour to accommodate requests for leave, as a family friendly company, priority must be given to those with family commitments. We would be happy to discuss a leave period next month if this suits.
And that was it. 9 years of working hard, nose to the grindstone, never ever saying no. Never asking for something out of the ordinary, and every year working Christmas because all the other smug bastards had kids. And smiling cookie cutter wives. And I am Elena, and I had no one.
I could have cancelled the ticket. On receiving Eric's confirmation that I would not be granted leave I could have pushed it back a month. If it had been any other year I wouldn't have bothered to book the ticket in the first place, would never have dared to make plans. But this time I did, and as I snuggled into my red coat, a tiny smile started to play over the corner of my lips. A little bit of soul breaking free.
I'd walked into work this morning towing Dad's ugly green hardcover suitcase behind me. And every single cube dweller had swivelled a bit as I walked past. Not because of the suitcase, even though the squeaky left wheel would have drawn attention on its own. No, they were looking, for the first time at me.
In a dress of zigzagging stripes, in a seasonal candylike colour. At nude legs instead of my customary 70 denier tights. Pretty girlish heels from another era on my feet, instead of my usual sensible navy shoes, that were neither pretty nor girlie. The women recovered faster and smiled, or complimented audibly, while the men gaped. Not so much at my cleavage, though for a change there was a hint of that on display, but at my face. My plain, boring, unremarkable face, that for the first time in years was framed by hair instead of obscuring it. Light touches of colour that I had only learned to apply yesterday, sitting in a department store while a beauty therapist orgasmed at the delight of a sizeable commission as she puffed and stroked and lined. My hair in soft shining waves down to my shoulders.
I had smiled as I walked up to Eric's desk, watched his comical double take, so cliched and yet so fitting as I stood calmly in front of him and announced my resignation - handing over the simple typed letter in its simple white envelope before turning around and walking out.
I had made it to the elevator before I realised what I'd done, my heart threatening to jump out of my chest at my audacity. I'd given it all up. All those 9 years and for what? For a dream. For something that may not even exist. I had lain awake all those nights and pictured it, but never had I felt this gut searing panic. What if I'd chosen the wrong thing? Who ever throws away 9 years of solid hard work on a gleam?
It had lasted all the way to the airport. I'd listened in a fog as the cabbie had droned on and on and on, seemingly not noticing the lack of replies. Checked in immune to the bubble of excitement building around me, that air that always tickles around the huddles of travellers. I'd nearly walked out, halfway through the line at customs, knowing that they were going to ask me the purpose of my travel and feeling my feet sink into my toes as I knew there was no way I could answer that honestly without flushing with shame.
I stood there, undecided, torn, trying to imagine the humiliation of begging Eric for another chance, when I saw my reflection in the mirrored feature wall to the side. A mirror I'd not noticed previously, until a flash of scarlet had caught my eye. And it was me that was reflected. A girl with a battered green case and shiny black hair and a dress that floated to her knees. A girl who looked like she had dreams and would follow them, and I'd stuck out my chin, straightened my back, and got on that goddamned plane.
And now again, standing in the hubbub the doubt was back. What was I doing here? Do they all realise that I'm faking it? That this beautiful dress and this glorious coat really ought to belong to someone else? Someone more sure, someone who actually does things like casually jumps on a plane to chase a dream? I was lost, bewildered. I looked for a sign, something, anything, to tell me I'd made the right choice. That you should always chase the Gleam, when I felt it, right between my shoulder blades. A stare of an intensity such taht I was sure it had burned a hole right into my skin. Branding me.
He'd watched me walk out from Arrivals, the only red coat on the plane: a flash of colour amongst the neutral palate. He'd watched how tightly my hand gripped the handle on the case. Saw me suck my bottom lip with indecision, my vividly expressive face betraying my every thought. He watched as I half turned, the indecision clear. The rigid fearful set of my shoulders, the glistening of my golden eyes as I turned, drawn by the heat of his gaze.
He watched as comprehension dawned on her face, and felt the tug of satisfaction in his chest that she was here. That she was here for *him*. That for all their playful banter, for all their increasingly personal chats, that it was more than just friendship. Because looking at her this second, with her beautiful slightly mussed hair, and that startling blood red jacket, she was more than just someone who amused him, who made him laugh. More than someone about whom he'd had fantasies that even he couldn't voice. She was the woman he loved, and she was here. And it was all he could do not to shout in triumph.
I watched the complex interplay of emotions over his face and didn't understand it at all. I bit my lip harder and hesitantly started towards him. That damned squeaky wheel following me, tracking my progress across the ugly airport carpet. I had given up everything. Had chanced everything. What if it was the wrong choice? What if meeting me here I didn't live up to that woman that he had professed such strong desire for? Why was I here at Christmas? Why hadn't I chosen a low key weekend trip to meet him? What if this was all wrong? Why does he say nothing? Can he tell that I'm faking it too? That I don't belong in these beautiful clothes? I'm not the type of girl who chances everything on something as ephemeral as love.
I stopped about a metre in front of him, my suitcase giving one last arthritic yelp before I set it upright next to me, my eyes glancing up quickly at all six feet five inches of him. Even in my heels I barely came up to his shoulder, and without tilting my head, I had to peer through my lashes as my face blushed almost as deeply as my coat. I started to mumble, needing to break the silence "Hello" I started, trying to sound breezy and cheerful and as if this was not the most laden, emotional word I had ever squeezed between my lips. My chest heaving with the effort of it as he moved closer, daring to intrude into my personal space, raising his hand.
I fought the instinct to step back, forcing myself to wait as his hand reached my cheek, sliding across the flushed skin, his finger brushing back a lock of hair that had fallen into my eye. My eyes flashing again in panic, realising how dishevelled I must look, straight off a plane, and confused as to why he still hasn't spoken, that strange look in his eyes. Tilting my head back, his hand still cupping my cheek, to look full at his face, seeking something, anything! Some sign that this is not one sided. Brows drawing together, a troubled expression that made him want to laugh.
"Hello" came the reply, lazily, amused, playing along my taught nerves like a bow. I relaxed infinitesimally as his thumb moved along my jaw, erasing the doubts, erasing the thoughts, erasing everything but my awareness of him, his scent, his heat, his big hands touching my face. My eyes involuntarily closing with pleasure so that I didn't see him dip his head. Until the pressure of lips on mine, firm and insistent melted into my softness and I lost myself, veins running thick and golden and warm as I found the Gleam.