Where you gonna fall?
When you realize
You just can’t have it all”
“Beautiful Loser” Bob Segar
“Listen,” Jude cut in for the last time, wondering how Denny had managed to make any head way with the stubborn woman, “right now, you are no good to anyone. You’ve worked yourself to the bone. From one woman to another, you look awful. And from a senior partner to a new associate, you’re about to burn out that bright little light. You won’t last a year here, let alone an entire lifetime if you can’t learn to stop and take a deep breath when you need it. So, stop arguing with me and get on the elevator,” Jude commanded a reluctant Alessa, waving her arm through the open door to usher her in.
From the moment Jude had said she was taking her for a drink, Alessa had done nothing but raise objection after objection. Her stamina to argue was impressive, but Macrae wasn’t going to allow her to win this time, and therefore was in no mood to hear her many refusals.
Alessa wondered if she should speak up and admit that her current haggard state had nothing to do with her ability to manage her work load, and all to do with her torment under Denny’s hand. But she didn’t think that answer improved the situation any, and so remained silent as she followed Jude down the street to the small, local bar.
It wasn’t too crowded, as many in the financial district had headed home by that late hour, but there were a few patrons scattered about, drinking their choice unwinder before heading home to familial obligations. Alessa followed Jude to the bar where she ordered a Vodka on the rocks with a twist of lemon. Alessa thought quickly, and remembered the tasty cocktail she had ordered with Denny. But she frowned and dismissed the idea, instead ordering the same as Jude.
In the beginning, they only sat in silence as Jude cast a scrutinizing eye over Alessa, taking in her beauty, but also the weariness, the darkened circles under the eyes, the hair pulled up in a ponytail, and the unease of sitting under the older woman’s inspection.
“So, the easiest question, though perhaps the dullest: how are you liking working at the firm?” Jude began, taking a sip from her clear, refreshing drink.
Alessa opened her mouth to speak, but Jude cut her off. “And since I took the effort to ask, you can at least give me an honest answer, not a canned one,” she preemptively chided.
Alessa looked down at her little glass, watching the condensation slide down the outside like tear drops. “I don’t regret working here, becoming a lawyer. It isn’t always easy or pleasant, but I think I am doing a good job, and I am satisfied with it.” She looked back up at Jude levelly, her expression neutral, but her eyes carrying the balance of both success and the sacrifice required to obtain it.
“But you’re so young,” Jude commented casually. “Don’t the long hours cut into your personal life?”
“I don’t have as much time available to be idle as I’d like, but I believe my time is well employed. And my lack of time only forces me to appreciate the time I am with my family more.”
“How very politic of you,” Jude said with narrowed eyes. “But what about relationships? Surely your boyfriend objects.”
Alessa took a deep breath. “I’m not dating anyone. I’m not looking to date anyone. At the moment, my career is paramount. I’m sure a boyfriend would object to my lack of time with him. It’s only another good reason to not date,” Alessa replied confidently.
“I think many people were surprised when I became a lawyer,” Jude supplied, seemingly off topic. Alessa was finally becoming interested in the conversation as she listened to the senior partner, and former super model, discuss her own private life. “It was probably because everyone thinks models are dumb, or at the very least, if you did as well as I did, surely you don’t really need to work for a living. But the truth of the matter is, I wasn’t ever overly keen of the whole industry, and so only used it for what I could get out of it.
“When I was twenty-five, I had plenty of money, had connections all over the world, had seen and travelled and done. I was perfectly content. Until I realized I was only twenty-five. That was only a quarter of my life. I’d been married for two years to Keith by that time, but I was beginning to not want to be part of the lime-light. After all, I’m actually rather shy when it comes down to it and the fame of being a supermodel and married to a rock star wasn’t an easy side-effect to bear. So I had to decide. What did I want to do with the rest of my life?
“I certainly didn’t want to segue into being a designer or photographer like so many others do when their looks start to go. I didn’t want to be pushed to the periphery of the inner circle, always remembering what it used to be like when I was the center. So I needed something altogether different. Ran, Randol my manager, always said I had killer instincts when it came to working out the details of my contracts. He made me believe I could be a lawyer. He used to work here before he started his own firm and so he got me a meeting with Mr. Mayer. He convinced him I would be worth it, and so Mayer promised, if I got into Harvard, passed within the top ten percent, he’d hire me.” She took another drink, her ice rattling.
“That seems awfully unrealistic.” When Jude raised an eyebrow, Alessa hastily explained. “I only mean that’s an extremely high expectation. Unrealistic, even, especially considering others who have been hired by the firm don’t even come close to that level of success in school.”
Jude shrugged, crunching her ice. “I think it was just his litmus test to guarantee I was serious about law, not just moving on to my next fad.”
And if after two years I made good on my education, he’d allow me to buy in as Senior Partner.
“If anyone thinks being a celebrity is hard work, with grueling hours and endless pressure while constantly being under the scrutiny of the public’s eye, they haven’t seen anything like a first-class lawyer. In a way, I was probably a lot like you. Very driven to do something else. But I did keep three of my most lucrative contracts, and yet managed to graduate fourth in my class and then put in eighty-hour-work weeks here. But that was a lot of strain to keep a marriage to a musician. His band was on tour a lot of the time, and in the end, we lost the connection. Anyway, I went on to have a string of lover’s, and put my hand in at a serious relationship here and there. But no matter how much I wanted them to work, they usually didn’t last in the fervor of my career.
“I’ve never regretted it, though, even after the death of my marriage to a man I still love to this day; even after countless failed relationships and heartbreak; even after not being there when my father passed away from cancer back in Australia.” She let all her losses hang in the air between them as she finished her drink, the thin ice rattling ever so slightly.
Alessa eventually spoke up, her resolve returning to her. “Thank you for sharing. You’ve certainly convinced me.”
Macrae’s eyes narrowed into slits. “And just what have I convinced you of?”
“Well, that relationships can’t work. Not if I want to be successful here. They just turn out to be a waste of time and a source for endless heartache and strife.”
Jude wore a disbelieving, incredulous half smile. “Little girl,” she almost sneered, “my story wasn’t to warn you to not get involved. I said I didn’t regret the effort I put into my career. But that doesn’t mean I don’t regret the effort I didn’t put into my relationships.”
“But if you couldn’t make them work, numerous times, then I doubt it’s possible,” Alessa defended.
“It is if you realize what is valuable and worth the effort and then if you act accordingly,” Jude countered, looking thoughtfully into her empty glass. “As great as it is, love isn’t enough, especially with our high-demanding careers. It doesn’t mean we put less effort into it, it means we put more. I mean, after all, a career isn’t enough. You need something to restore what this job strips from you.”
Alessa made no reply.
“And while I regret making the wrong choices in my relationships, I never regret loving them or being loved by them,” Jude finally concluded, taking Alessa’s untouched drink and downing it for herself. “No. If you love them, then it is worth all the effort it will take.”
The next morning Lou came to sit at Alessa’s desk while she had her mid-morning snack. “You look awful,” she said instantly. “How late did you stay last night?”
“I think I left around one,” she admitted, her voice heavy with nasal congestion.
“Ew, you sound awful, too,” Lou pointed out. “Why so late? Working on a new project?”
Alessa shook her head, too many things wrong and happening to list at once. “I sort of got side tracked.”
Lou grinned. “Really? By what? Or should I say whom?” she teased, hoping to hear something about Denny.
Alessa finally admitted to being taken out for a drink with Jude.
“Macrae!” Lou whispered loudly. “And here I thought this whole time you were simply waiting on Denny to make a move. I didn’t know you were a lesba,” she continued to whisper.
“What?” Alessa was surprised and confused. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Jude took me out because I was in a rotten mood. I’m not a lesbian,” she explained. “Why would you think that?”
“Well,” Lou began, suddenly realizing Alessa must be ignorant of Macrae’s preferences. “It’s just that, well, Macrae is into women.”
Alessa frowned. “I don’t think so. I mean, she was married. To a man. And she said she still loves him.”
“Yeah, but just because she loves men doesn’t mean she can’t also be into women. And I think you’d be just her type, too.”
Alessa rolled her eyes at that and turned back to her paperwork.
“Why were you in a cruddy mood?” Lou asked.
Alessa gave a big sigh and looked around. “I’ve been asked to be part of the date auction at the fundraiser.”
“What! Congratulations! That’s a big honor around here. It means the firm thinks you’ve got talent. They want to show you off.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of. And I haven’t even gotten a dress yet,” she mumbled miserably.
“Then I know what we are doing this weekend,” Lou said with a big grin. “And I also know that this means you must let me do your hair and makeup. Agreed?”
“I don’t know, Lou,” Alessa hedged, not entirely comfortable leaving her appearance into the hands of another. Especially when she was to be put on display, as it were.
Lou wore a wounded expression. “What? Don’t you trust me to make you look beautiful?”
Alessa bit the inside of her lip, thinking. “You’ve seen my blog, right? You know I can do a good job,” she pressed. Eventually, Alessa bent, and nodded her concession.
“Fine,” she muttered, “but you’d better not make me look like a clown.”
“Perish the thought, my good lady. You shall be the most enchanting creature there.” A slow and devilish smile crept across her face. “I even bet you a hundred bucks that Denny asks you for a dance.”
“Shh!” Alessa hissed, looking around. “Will you keep your voice down when you say inflammatory things that can damage my career?”
“I find it interesting you’re not denying it,” Lou replied with a smug smile.
“You’re delusional, and your fantasies are not appropriate for the work place,” she scolded, trying to dissuade her friend that anything was happening between her and her supervisor.
Lou’s generally sweet eyes narrowed in calculation, her mouth displaying a slow and knowing smile. “Admit it,” she said slowly, her determination to know all evident in the strength of her voice.
“I am admitting to nothing. You’re just drumming up nonsense that isn’t there,” Alessa continued to deny.
But Lou wasn’t to be deterred. She knew attraction when she saw it, and her friend’s refusal to even allow the idea that she was attracted to Denny, as he was to her, wasn’t going to convince her otherwise.
“And besides, I can’t go dress shopping with you this weekend. I’m taking my little sister to help me find one.”
“I don’t mind tagging along. I insist on being there to see the dress. That way I can be thinking about hairstyles. So where shall we meet?”
“I had just thought of going to a Sak’s or–”
“What? No, no, no, my dear, simple girl. This is a big to-do. The richest of the rich will be at this party. And the company is expecting them to pay for your time. Big bucks. You can’t just go and pick something off the rack. I know. Leave it to me. I’ll text you the address tomorrow. I assume you’re working in the morning?”
“I’d planned on it, yeah. And then I’ll pick my sister up around one or so.”
“Sounds perfect.” And with that, she promised to text her the following day and left to get back to work. Alessa was thankful Denny was out of the office, and for once, all week long, she was able to concentrate and accomplish quite a bit of work. Saturday followed just the same, and the feeling that some amount of control was restored empowered her stride. She picked up her sister that afternoon as planned. She was able to get away without any degrading remarks from Shelly, and before long the two sisters met up with Lou at the address she had given Alessa. The first shop was a chic boutique done all in white marble and plush furniture in the sitting area.
When all three arrived there, introductions were made and a game plan was formed. Lou’s naturally child-like enthusiasm and care-free attitude, coupled with her love of fashion made her and Octo extremely well paired to take on Alessa and her conservative taste, which they interpreted as boring. Eventually, it was finally decided that everyone could make their own selections, and Alessa agreed to try them all on. Though she obviously had the last word, she promised to sincerely consider their opinions.
By five that afternoon, they had been to four shops, drank five lattes between them, and she had tried on a thousand dresses. One came very close, but something in the white embroidered flowers that lined the top of the bodice and cascaded down to accentuate her breasts felt slightly juvenile, as though she might see it in a prom magazine, and so had passed. Her feet were aching and she was ready to just take whatever fit best at the latest shop she was at. She was taking off her last gown and could hear her sister and Lou laughing hysterically at something out in the waiting room, when the gray-haired saleswoman assisting her knocked and asked to enter.
“I think this might be what you are looking for,” she said, trying to hide a smile. “It’s a vintage piece we had in storage, and I nearly forgot about it. Tell me what you think,” she said hanging the covered garment on a free hook and then unzipping the bag that appeared to be made from black velvet. When she peeled back the sides to reveal the sparkle underneath, Alessa felt her heart leap.
She took a mesmerized step forward. “Oh my,” she breathed, every girly fiber in her being vibrating happily at what she saw. The sales woman helped her into it, zipping up the back all the way to the base of her neck. Alessa moved her torso around, getting it to fit just right.
“As you can tell, women used to be a lot more petite back in the day, but I think it just fits. How does it feel?”
“Divine,” she answered, spell-bound by her reflection in the large mirror before her. She then broke out in a huge smile. “I don’t think I need their approval, but I better go show them which one I’ve chosen.”
“Oh, god! You’re gorgeous,” Lou announced, hopping to her feet when Alessa emerged from the dressing room hallway.
“Alessa, it’s beautiful,” Octo agreed, coming forward to touch the magical gown. “This is it, isn’t it? It has my vote,” she stated.
All three girls stood looking into the mirror at her dazzling reflection. “Well, ladies,” she said smiling, “think I’ll get any bids?”
Everyone, including the saleswoman, unanimously voted on the vintage gown. Alessa nearly choked out loud when the saleswoman rang up her bill and the dress was priced at seven-thousand. Thankfully, she was well paid by the firm and her frugal manners had ensured she saved more than she spent.
Once they had exited the shop, Lou commented Alessa was still in need of a new bra to form a more fitting silhouette in the dress. Octo was eager to go to a lingerie shop, and despite her reluctance, Alessa allowed Lou to drag her to one more store.
Octo was enthralled with the lingerie boutique, wanting to touch all the silky, lacy, strappy pieces she could. And the saleswoman at that shop seemed just as eager as Lou to get the beautiful young woman into some very expensive, very alluring underwear. As at the dress shops, Lou insisted on seeing each piece, arguing it was the only way she could judge which would look best under the dress. Eventually Alessa gave in, trying to convince herself it wasn’t any different from being viewed in a bathing suit. Though, she thought with a grimace looking in the mirror, she never wore sheer bathing suits that so fully exposed her body underneath. And as Lou was going into the dressing room once Alessa had something on, Octo insisted, too. For the most part, the comments were kept to the task at hand, but Lou still managed to slip in a mumbled sentence about wondering if Denny would like a particular piece.
“Who’s Denny?” Octo asked with a grin.
“No one,” Alessa answered with a tired, annoyed sound to her voice.
“Only the man your sister has the hots for,” Lou countered.
“Lou!” Alessa hissed.
“The hots! I didn’t know Alessa got the hots for anyone. Is he a lawyer? Do you work with him?”
Alessa sighed and glowered at Lou as she cackled. “Yes, I work with him. He’s sort of my supervisor. And no, I don’t have ‘the hots’ for him,” she finished, rolling her eyes.
“He must be cute,” Octo said with a grin, wishing she could meet him. “Has he kissed you?” she asked mischievously.
“Cadence Anne! Stop asking silly questions.”
Octo was laughing and pointed out, “Hey, you didn’t deny it!”
Lou was instantly on her feet taking a quick predatory stride. “That’s right, you didn’t,” she agreed, her voice full of tease. She poked Alessa in the ribs. “Come on, now, admit it. You kissed Denny.”
Alessa jerked from her finger, turning her body to shield her exposed and ticklish torso. “Don’t be ridiculous. Why would he do that? You’re letting your imagination run away with you.”
“See there!” Octo pointed out, “she did it again! She didn’t deny it.”
Lou gave Alessa a hard, scrutinizing look, a wicked smile plastered on her pretty face. Suddenly, she burst into movement, her fingers rapidly attacking Alessa’s sensitive flesh. “Come on Cadence! Help me torture the truth from her,” she commanded as she tickled Alessa for all she was worth. “Tell us the truth! Did you kiss Denny?”
Cadence had joined in, and in the throes of laughing at the tickling, Alessa could only writhe away from them, her arms attempting to fight off twenty tickling fingers.
“Stop! Stop! Please,” she begged, beginning to laugh so hard tears were forming in her eyes.
“Not until you give us the truth! We deserve it! You can’t keep something like making out with Denny a secret. Tell us! Tell us!”
“No! Please, stop, please! Okay, okay! Fine! I admit it. He kissed me. But that’s it. Nothing else. I swear. Stop tickling me!” She was sobbing now in her laughter, tears streaming down her pink cheeks. The two attackers at last relented, Lou with her mouth agape and eyes wide while Octo could only smile at their orneriness.
“You actually did it?” Lou asked amazed.
Alessa had sat down on the plush settee to lean against the wall, dying chuckles and harsh breathing causing her chest to rise and fall deeply. She wiped the tears from her face and looked at Lou. The humor didn’t fall away completely, but a seriousness had crept in.
“Yeah,” she breathed at last. “Yeah, he kissed me, and I let him.”
“I was only guessing,” Lou continued on in amazement, sitting down next to Alessa.
“You actually kissed him?” Octo asked with a smile, more pleased than anything.
Alessa took a deep breath, sighing as she faced her predicament. “Denny took me out to dinner one day after we had been out working on this case. I had a bit too much to drink, and we got talking about things…” she trailed in recalling their conversation. “Anyway, he was trying to convince me, and said he could with a two-minute kiss.”
“Of what was he convincing you?” Lou asked confused.
Alessa opened her mouth to speak, but then looked at her sister who had joined them on the little cushioned bench, and only shook her head. “To give him a chance, I suppose.”
“And did you? Is he your boyfriend?” Octo asked, her hand clasping her sister’s, and her head leaning on Alessa’s shoulder.
Alessa was silent the longest time until at last she simply shook her head, a forlorn expression on her face. “I thought that maybe, when he kissed me again–”
“Again? He’s kissed you twice? When did that happen,” Lou asked in surprise.
Alessa was beginning to wonder if saying anything at all had been a monumental mistake, but it was too late now to deny anything. “The other night, Thursday. It was late and I was in the copy room down in the library. He came in and said I had been chosen to be part of the date auction. I’m not certain why, but I was upset with him. Maybe because I didn’t know how I felt about the first time he kissed me. And I think he was deliberately pushing my buttons. Anyway, I had thought he was going to stop this silly game, but he just kissed me again, saying he had never said that he had any intention of stopping.” Unknowingly, Alessa was touching her fingers to her lips, remembering the sensation of Denny against her mouth.
Lou and Octo both silently stared at her. She was still clearly lost in a pleasant memory, and they shared a knowing look. Alessa stood to pace around the small, but luxurious fitting room, and the two girls adjusted their positions, filling the bench.
“You know,” Lou began, “I bet it was all Denny’s doing to get you to participate. That way, he can win a date with you and sweep you off your feet,” she surmised.
“How romantic,” Octo cooed.
“Oh, please. Denny is a work colleague. And regardless of any interest he may or may not have, he is not going to cause a scandal by publicly bidding for me just for a measly date,” Alessa countered. “Okay, now you two, you’ve given your opinion on this piece, though it was hardly necessary. I’d like to just buy it and go, so will you please leave so I can get changed?” she commanded more than asked.
“Sure. Come on, Cadence,” Lou ushered, feeling hungry and ready for food. After Alessa had changed and paid for her items, Lou offered to take the two sisters out for dinner as thanks for allowing her to crash their sister-bonding time. Alessa was going to refuse, but decided if Lou wanted to, she could.
Dinner was fun, and to Alessa’s relief there was no more talk of Denny or his kisses the rest of the evening. Lou entertained the two with her wild stories, and late that evening, Alessa and Octo poured themselves into her bed.
As they lay in dark with the moonlight filling the sky window above their heads, Octo reached under the blanket to hold her sister’s hand.
“Tell me about Denny,” she requested softly, with none of the lascivious interest Lou had displayed. Alessa could hear the interest and concern in her voice, and smiled that her sister cared.
“What do you want to know?” she whispered softly, somehow not wanting to break the magic with her voice.
“What does he look like?”
Alessa chuckled, finding a fourteen-year-old’s priorities to be somehow shallow and meaningful at the same time. “Well, he’s tall with dark brown hair. He has glittering hazel eyes. His mouth is…nice,” she supplied instead of her original thought of ‘sexy.’ “He smiles a lot.”
“Is he strong?”
Alessa smiled. “Yeah, I’d say he’s pretty strong. I’m sure he goes to the gym.”
“Is he smart? What’s he like? Is he arrogant? Do you guys fight?”
“Yeah. He’s very smart. He’s a hard worker, too. And remember, hard work–“
“Is more important than intelligence. I know, you’ve told me a million times.”
“That’s only because it’s true, and I don’t want you to forget it. Anyway, he’s a junior partner. I think he knows Japanese. He’s into architecture. He draws. He’s brave. He’s clever. He’s caring and interested and concerned. He smells warm and spicy. He wears suspenders,” she admitted with a smile in her voice. “He makes my stomach curl like a large wave coming out from sea.”
“And when he kisses you?” Octo whispered.
“When he kisses me…I can’t think of anything or anyone else in the world.”
“Like he was made to kiss you.”
“Yeah, like he was made to kiss me,” she ended in a whisper, her eyes long closed, her head now filled with thoughts of Denny, and oysters, and late nights with kimchi soup.
The weekend was over too quickly, and after a run together in the park and brunch at the local cafe, Alessa drove Octo home with a promise to think about allowing her to come over while she got ready for the party. On Monday, she was back at work early, the knowledge that she was already making a noticeable wave in the pool of the higher ups spurring her on to continue excelling at her work. And though the office climate was abuzz with the upcoming fundraiser, Alessa’s work seemed to continue to pile in; every morning she arrived her task list seemed to have doubled.
Despite her initial repulsion to the idea, her opinion of the upcoming auction began to morph as she experienced an ever-increasing excitement whenever she thought about herself in that dress and her mystery date.
Granted, the idea of the date made her stomach tighten in apprehension, but she always reminded herself that it was no more than a business dinner, and not an actual date. There were no romantic expectations, and it was merely a fun way to mingle and raise money. And though she officially told herself she hoped Hyun-Joong was her highest bidder, her mind, on occasion, would slip into fantasy of Denny paying the most for her. Thoughts of his kisses were never far from her conscious, working mind, and she recognized that she was spending a great amount of her energy roping her attention back to the task at hand.
And though Denny strangely kept a professional distance, he had caught her, on more than one occasion, staring at him. And he knew it too, damn it, knew exactly what she was thinking. She saw it in the just-perceptible turn up of the corner of his mouth and the sparking of his eyes. He knew exactly what her thoughts were, and she couldn’t stop the simultaneous jumping of her heart and burning of her anger.
Octo had texted her nearly every single day, begging to let her come over, until at last Alessa relented and arranged with Lou that if she wanted to do her hair and makeup she would need to come over to Alessa’s. Alessa also stated she would hire a car for them to get to the party. That way, Octo could spend the night Friday and spend the day with her, and their father could pick her up just before she and Lou left for the fundraiser. All parties involved were in agreement, and with a plan in place, Alessa realized there was nothing left but to prepare herself to mingle and dazzle like a glittering cosmopolitan.