The blinding sting of rejection has the power to strike even when we thought we had avoided getting our hopes up, and carefully curtailed the stalwart advance of legion dreams.
In between papers and piano practice, Claire had carefully woven herself into the edge's of Paul's social network, building off their spontaneous beach trip several weeks ago. Some of his friends she didn't care for, as she found them to be lacking in subtlety, but she was certain that Paul's radiant embrace was worth a few dozen mediocre college kids who preferred parties with exclusive guest lists.
Paul had invited her to a Saturday-evening gathering at his apartment, which he shared with a few other chemistry majors. She wasn't really sure how many people she would know there, but she took it as a good sign that she had been included in the email invitation. And though the invitation had indicated that she was free "to bring along a friend or two - just not an entourage," she had come to the conclusion that the initial social comfort that a friend would provide would get in the way of the closeness she perceived developing between herself and Paul.
She stood in front of the full-length mirror attached to the inside of her closet door, and mercilessly scrutinized her appearance. Having set aside her usual simplicity and practicality in matters of dress, she had added both a solid three inches to her height with a fantastic pair of heeled sandals borrowed from a girl across the hall, and a solid layer of lipstick and eyeliner. A frilly green tank top and dark, tight jeans complete the ensemble. She looked good, but if Geoff had seen her, he would have asked who she was trying to make fun of. Stuffing her room key, ID, lipstick and phone into a tiny purse, she grabbed a jacket and set off into the night, letting the door slam shut behind her.
Outside, the remains of the season's last tropical storm washed over the campus. Rivulets of unseasonably warm water ran down the street, unable to access the drains that had been clogged by the fallen leaves. The footing was treacherous, and there was no cutting across the quad as it entirely covered by the thin shiny film that the saturated ground refused to absorb; she would have to go the long way around.
Claire arrived at Paul's apartment soaked. Her small umbrella had been completely incapable of protecting her from the wind-driven rain, and the borrowed shoes were coated with mud and dead grass. She smoothed her hair as best she could, and knocked on the door. His roommate Ben answered it, the chatter of the other guests and the sound of a cork being pulled from a wine bottle issuing from behind him. He looked at her questioningly.
"Hey, I'm Claire...Paul invited me." She offered him her wet hand.
"Ben, nice to meet you." He shook her hand, then wiped his on his jeans. "C'mon in, let me see what Paul is up to."
She stepped inside, then back out to leave her distressed umbrella in the hall. Ben waited patiently, holding the door. Hopping back inside, she smiled at him appreciatively, and began to look about the room, unable to recognize anyone. Everyone else seemed magically dry, as if they hadn't been outside in the last two days.
"Paul!" Ben hollered. "Your friend is here!"
Claire heard his footsteps approaching, and inhaled deeply as her heart caught a little. His smooth, deep voice always caught her off guard.
"Hey, Claire! You're soaked. I should make you sit on a towel!" She reddened, too flustered to say anything. "I'm just kidding," he said, giving her a warm hug, "make yourself at home. Drinks are in the kitchen, what would you like?"
She sighed slightly, as she followed him toward the group around the kitchen table. "A glass of wine would be nice, white if you've got it." After getting her drink, he introduced her around. There were only about a dozen people, but she forgot every single name as soon as it was said; she only cared about one of them.
As a few more people straggled in, the group migrated to the living room, where there was more space for the entire group to sit. Claire manouvered herself so as to be able to sit next to Paul on the big sofa. It was meant for three, but a fourth person joined them, pressing Claire slightly into his side. He swung his arm up behind her along the back of the sofa, awaking in her the strong temptation to lean against his shoulder. She resisted the urge, for the moment.
The conversation continued, brisk, and increasingly fueled by the consumption of alcohol. Laughter grew louder and jokes cruder, and Claire found herself jostled closer and closer against Paul's warmth. His arm was still behind her on the sofa, and the touching of their bodies was natural and magnetic.
Around 11, there was another knock at the door. Ben started to get up from his seat on the beanbag chair in the corner.
"That must be Maddy," said Paul, standing up abruptly. "I'll get it." He strode over to the door, passing a strong hand through his floppy, collegiate, dirty blond hair, and opened it, ushering in a petite girl with a dark brown pixie cut, blue eyes and a small, sweet mouth, which he kissed lightly.
Claire's heart rate tripled: competition. "Maybe I saw wrong," she thought, "maybe it was just a kiss on the cheek."
"Sorry I'm late," Madeline chimed, her delicate Oxbridge accent cutting through the beer and raucous laughter.
Paul put his arm around her, turning to face the group. "Hey everyone, this is my girlfriend Maddy. Maddy, meet my roommates and friends."
Claire stared recklessly, stricken with feverish hopelessness. Maddy was adorable, and there was no way she could compete with a British girl. Then, she realized that there was no competition, Maddy was real, and Paul was just a friend. As the sweetheart in the black dress with tiny white dots circled the room, getting acquainted with everyone, Claire's jealous, proud brain went into overdrive. She had to know how, why, what happened. How did this work?
Suddenly, she was shaking Maddy's hand, staring at the mouth that had kissed Paul's. (It had, in fact, been a real kiss, she finally admitted to herself.) "Nice to meet you," she smiled innocently. "How did you and Paul meet? I had no idea he was seeing anyone." She tried to sound pleasantly surprised, like a good friend would.
Maddy laughed brightly. "Oh, we met while he was doing the Oxford program this past summer. I was already planning to spend this year here as an exchange student myself. So...here we are! It's worked out really nicely so far, I have to say."
"That's so cute. And Paul's graduating in the spring, so then he can just follow you back to England!"
Maddy laughed again, and rolled her eyes playfully. "We'll see."
Claire didn't even notice the awkward pause opening like a chasm between them, as she calculated the fact that this girl would be here, barring disasters too evil to wish for, until both she and Paul left college for good. Opportunity had been killed by charm, and none of her efforts had even been noticed.
The room took on a drab appearance, as the fluorescent lighting sallowed faces reddened by drinking, and every roll of laughter directed itself at her gullible, deflated hopes. She stared down into her half-empty glass of wine and tried to think of a reason to leave now, to go somewhere safe, with trees, water, books, music and all the things she knew and loved and loved her back.
Another hour dragged on, with Claire trying to join in the conversations with other clusters of people around the room, all the while watching Paul and Maddy delight each other as only the young and infatuated can. Around midnight, she said thank you and goodnight to Ben, and that she had a lot to do tomorrow, and slipped out the door.
As she sloshed through the quad carrying the shoes and her useless umbrella, the streetlamps grew blurry in the warm, salty rain, and with every heavy step a great, flooded chasm opened up in the sodden field behind her.