Of Dreams & Angels – Joe Meets Claire

Welcome back, Dear Reader!  If you’ve read the first fifteen (it is a novel, after all!) excerpts, feel free to skip this preamble to the meat a few paragraphs down.  If you haven’t, well, thanks for joining me!

These are exciting times for your ol’ pal Jerry – after talking about it for most of my life, I finally put the proverbial money and mouth together and started my first novel, Of Dreams & Angels, in the fall of 2019.  I’m working on the second draft now,but in the meantime thought it would be fun to start putting pieces of it (and thereby my entire soul, don’t you know!) out into the universe.  Maybe you’ll get caught up in the intrigue and start following along too.

The synopsis – well, before we get to that, Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing, wrote that many of his stories can be expressed as a What-if question, and after reading that, my imagination (as it pertained to story ideas) started framing situations that way.  Of Dreams is this question: What if a man started dreaming about a woman he’d never met, but who actually exists; falls in love with her based on what he sees in the dreams and sets out to find her?

Don’t ask me where it came from, and believe me when I say I’m just as shocked as you are that my first idea for a novel – ok maybe not the first idea in the grand scope of my life, but the first one to make it to fruition – was a fantastical love story.  But as soon as I thought of it, *I* wanted to know what would happen, which made me think others might want to, too.

At all rates, here you have it, Dear Reader (also a not-so-subtle borrow from Mr. King, who as you may know refers to us as “Constant Reader”) – another excerpt from Of Dreams & Angels.  In this excerpt – well, it’s what we’ve all been waiting for, haven’t we? Joe finds Claire! I’ve omitted some parts from the book in this excerpt that contain spoilers (as to how he found her, and what comes next), but I figured you’ve been waiting long enough. It was time for some pay-off!  Enjoy, friend.

Joe Meets Claire

The crowd started to disburse, some queueing to speak with Audrey or Miles.  Others headed to the food and refreshment tables.  The pockets of socialization reassembled; wait staff hovering about to quench a thirst or satisfy a nibble, if one didn’t want to break conversation—every one of which appeared engrossing.  Some admired the sculptures, some the paintings on the walls.  Some reached out for friends or colleagues whom they hadn’t spoken with yet. 

Joe searched for only one.

He thought of approaching Audrey, but was once more paralyzed by the thought of what he might say to her.  He knew he’d stick out like a sore thumb, between the accent, the mad-scientist look, and the inability to speak cogently about art whilst at an art show.  He’d keep it in his back pocket; if he didn’t see Claire directly, if she wasn’t here for some reason, then he’d somehow find a way to speak with Audrey.  Hopefully he’d think of something to say.

Claire.  The thought of her knotted his stomach tighter than even before.  If the entirety of supper hadn’t already exited, he thought another trip to the loo might have followed.  Mercifully, the knot merely tugged and that was the end of it.  For the moment.

If he didn’t know what he might say to Audrey, then what on earth was he going to say to Claire?

David.  Was David the open—if dubious—door?  He was clearly the extroverted type and wouldn’t shun conversation with a stranger, especially since they’d bonded over a potential health crisis.

A potential mental health crisis, The Cynic Party spoke up. 

For the love of God—Uncle Peter and the quiet one seemingly spoke in tandem—Even now you won’t shut up?  We’re here, this appears to be—well, whatever it is, it’s happening, right now—and you still have to throw your two cents in?

I’m not the one who decided to show up here, let alone without a plan, Roger replied.

The knot pulled even tighter.

Joe meandered, feigning interest in the various exhibits, keeping an eye above the sculptures or along the half-walls.

Why do you have to pre-plan anything to say, anyway? he thought.  If she’s here, why couldn’t he just approach and make conversation, like a normal human being?  Strangers do that all the time.  You’ve done it all the time, in the name of business. 

And then Uncle Peter’s reminder: Have faith that whatever brought you here will also bring you the words.

He felt a tap on his shoulder, and heard a voice say “Excuse me?  I think you dropped this.”

He knew that voice.

His stomach knotted so tight he thought his abdomen might wring itself free from his torso and legs. 

His breath momentarily disappeared, and came back in sudden and shallow wisps.

And his heart?  For the first time in his life, it leapt.

__________

He turned slowly, as though every minute of his thirty-seven years, every facet of his world to that point, all pivoted—literally—on that moment. 

He also felt an element of fear; somehow he’d turn and it wouldn’t be her—despite the voice—just another stranger in the crowd. 

Perhaps his subconscious would levy the ultimate cruelty: if he moved too fast, maybe he would awaken.  Discover this had all, in fact, been the most elaborate dream yet.

He didn’t wake up.  She wasn’t a stranger (to him, at least).  And this was indeed a new beginning.

Later, in the endless daydreams when he’d return to this time, he’d wonder if there’d been cameras (there must have been, in an art gallery) that captured the moment.  Captured The Day that Changed Everything; logged the expression on his face.  Was his mouth ajar?  Did he look like a madman?  Had he retained any semblance of cool or panache?  Unlikely, but that hadn’t mattered.

It was Claire.  Standing directly in front of him, engagingwith him, looking in his eyes.  This wasn’t a dream; he wasn’t about to wake up and her be lost, once more, to the ether.

Later on, he would also think there ought to be better words for moments that change a life.

She was smiling.  She was beautiful.  She’d arrested his heart, stopped it from beating somehow, and yet it coursed his body with a flow and feeling he hadn’t felt in longer than he could remember.  Perhaps ever.  She was speaking, and somewhere within in his shock something alerted him to the sound, and his hearing flooded in mid-sentence:

“…if I ask; are you ok?”  There was gentle laughter underscoring that beautiful voice.  At least she was laughing, and not repelled, he’d think later.  “You look as though you’ve just seen a ghost.”

Some compensatory mechanism stepped in and helped gather his wits, allowing him to form the first words he ever said to her: “Bad shrimp, I think.”

“Oh my; from here?” she said, her look moving to concern.

Joe cleared his throat, feeling his awareness flood fully back to the situation.  “No, no.  Not at all.  My hotel, I think.  I’m starting to feel better, believe it or not.”

“Well thank goodness,” the smile returned. 

What a gorgeous smile, he thought.  It occurred to him he’d never really seen it directly; sometimes he’d see the crinkles at the corners of her eyes in the rear-view mirror, when she was driving with the kids, but rarely in full-on reflections.  How often do people smile at themselves in the mirror?  It threatened to steal his oxygen and heartbeat once more. 

“The way you dashed to the loo…”  Now she began to laugh; couldn’t seem to help herself.  “I thought ‘this man either really hates art, or he’s catching something on the rebound’.”  She was really going now.  “I’m so sorry!  Pardon the expression, and pardon the laugh.” 

It was the easiest absolution of Joe’s life; after endless nights and lost hours, a real ocean and sea of newspapers, wonder and panic and uncertainty… this was music.

He’d started to laugh too—couldn’t help the infectiousness of it—and looked down, shuffling his feet.  “You saw that, did you?  My mad dash?”

“I did.  I was standing just to the right of you, so it was difficult not to take notice.  And when you spun around and bent over,” she said, raising her hand, “this fell from your pockets.” 

She was holding up the little cardboard folder from the hotel that held his room key.  He’d put his ID and credit card in there as well, so he wouldn’t need to cart around his entire wallet.  He must have dislodged it when he’d put his coat-check ticket in his pocket. 

“Oh!  Well, thank you.  I might have had a bit of trouble trying to manage without some of that.  My driver’s license and credit card are in there.”

“We certainly wouldn’t want that, Mister…”  She smiled that brilliant smile once more, and extended a hand.

“Joe.  Joe Riley.”

“Hello, Joe.  Oh!  That’s fun to say.  I’ve never really known a Joe, directly, now that I think about it.  I’m Claire.  Claire Langdon.” 

We’ve got a mess of last names here, he thought.  Even if he had found something within the reams of newspaper he’d poured through, the connections wouldn’t have been obvious.  I wonder what the story is there.

We’ve time enough to find out, now, the quiet voice replied.

He reached out to accept her hand, feeling both the warmth of hers within his, and the tingle that ran through his arm and chest as they made contact.  In response to her introduction, he’d wanted to say I know.  Well, the first half, anyway.  Instead he elected for “It’s so very nice to meet you, Claire.”  He’d nearly slipped a “finally” in there.

“I would have followed you into the loo with your billfold, lest that look completely scandalous.  That, and I saw my ex-husband rush in after you with that hero act of his.”  Though the words were biting, Joe couldn’t detect malice in her tone.

“You’re here with your ex?”  Though his stomach was still in a partial knot, Joe spied around for another glass of champagne, as the words were starting to become cotton in his mouth.

“No, heaven’s no.  Audrey, the artist, is my sister.  David and I were married for quite a few years, so they’re acquainted, obviously.  And for reasons passing understanding, one evening as he picked up the children she mentioned her show, and gave the polite invite we never thought he’d accept.  But here he is.”  She looked to the side and down a bit, the corners of her smile momentarily softening.  The smile returned and she looked back at Joe.  “But that’s not at all just-met-a-stranger-conversation—and you sound like you’re a stranger to these parts as well, Mr. Riley.”

This was the ultimate, surreal moment.  Having a conversation with someone he’d just met, but knowing these details already (while he hadn’t known the specifics of why David was here, what Claire divulged didn’t surprise Joe in the least). 

How was he supposed to respond to this?  The internal ridicule threatened to return—the lack of preparation for this seminal conversation—yet it had just seemed too improbable.  Too outlandish.

Still, he hadn’t woken up, hadn’t rolled over to discover he was once more in his condo, facing another day at the office.  Here he was, in London, in the flesh.  Claire standing before him.  Waiting for him to take up his cue in the conversation.

“Uhh… yes!  What gave that away?” he said, mustering up all the charm he could locate through a racing mind.  Claire smiled, causing another skip in his heart.  The missing beats were at an all-time deficit.  “I’m from Canada.”

 “Oh!  Lovely.  I love Canada.  Whereabouts?”

 “Near the Rocky Mountains.”

 “Like Banff?  That sort of area?”

 “Yes!  You know it?”

 “I do!  After my first year of university I took a year off, so I was one of the many tourists you find working the shoppes in the Canadian National Parks.  In between a million hikes, I worked at one of the campgrounds near Lake Louise.  I haven’t been back in almost—well, I suppose it’s almost been twenty years now, which feels outrageous to say—but I absolutely adored it there.”

She’d said the magic words, and their conversation fell into an easy, familiar rhythm.  Time evaporated, as they stood in the middle of the gallery like rocks in a stream.  Thoughts of what to say or how to react fell from Joe’s mind; he was taken with that rare feeling of conversation as a river instead of an obstacle course.  

When talk turned to her children or career, he’d heard the muted shouts of The Cynic still trying to get a word in, like a vanquished candidate decrying election results despite a landslide.  While Roger trumpeted feeble claims of deception, Joe listened to Claire as if he was hearing all of this for the first time.  In a way, he was.

(This section redacted as it contains spoilers–ha! You’ll have to read the book to find out. :-))

He was, truly, hearing her speak of children, career, and (failed) marriage for the first time in her words, but he had felt the essence of so many of these things for weeks.  Even if he had already heard these things in her words, he would have remained captive anyway; he would have listened to her read the London directory.

As Claire spoke, Joe also felt a sense of relief, as she filled in details he hadn’t been able to see or find in the dreams.   

Even if I’d settled in the Reading Room for a year, I might never have found you, he thought.  And yet here you are, as real as the air I breathe.  A real-life, literal dream come true.  Yet if William hadn’t insisted on the theatre, I might never have been standing here.  Where was William, anyway?

“Joseph, I see you’ve found a friend,” came the familiar voice over Joe’s shoulder. 

Right on cue, Joe thought.  It’s as though something is going above-and-beyond to drive home the point I ought to stop questioning everything, stop trying to engineer all of it. 

“Uhh, yes, William.  I have.  William, this is Claire.  Claire Langdon,” Joe said.

“M’lady,” William said, taking her hand and offering a muted bow.  “It’s a pleasure to fi—  It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Joe fumbled through the remainder of the introductions, unsure of how to describe either person to the other, having not planned for this either.  When Joe stumbled through a disjointed explanation of his financial planning practice, and how William was a dear (if omitting the part about being a recent) client, the latter gentleman came to the rescue with his usual disarming candor.

“I’d been telling Joe here about not having been to Europe.  I really lucked out when he took me on as a client, as not only is he an amazing financial planner, he’s also quite the backpacker, and thus excellent travel planner—always keeping an eye out for deals.  We got talking about a mutual interest in seeing the United Kingdom, and next thing I know, here we are.”

Before Claire had a chance to respond, another voice piped up.

“Ahh and what’s this—I see everyone’s getting a chance to meet the Mad Dasher!”  Joe watched Claire’s expression immediately sour.  Joe recognized the voice, too.

“I would ask if you two know each other, but I would doubt that, since our Man from Canada’s just arrived—and spent half the night in the loo,” David said. 

Joe knew from the business and sales world that some were subtle in bringing the knives out, and some struck first, without compunction.  Attack first, lest ye be attacked.  He guessed David was the latter, apparently having no qualms about embarrassing a stranger in front of a (gorgeous) woman.  He also guessed he now knew exactly which “lady” to whom David had referred before.

“And I would introduce my new friends to you, David, but I know you’ve already met Joe.  Just as I know your bounds of gallantry only extend so far,” Claire said, her tone adopting that terseness Joe had heard in most of her interactions with her ex.  The ‘my new friends’ set a butterfly in his stomach in flight, radiating a warmth outward that was welcoming.

“Indeed we have.  Joe, nice to see you again, looking marginally better than earlier.  And aren’t you an interesting looking chap!” David said, turning his attention to William.  “David Bradley…Claire, my darling, I wonder if I might have a word.”

“Not now, David,” feigning politeness with a thin smile.  While the forced civility hadn’t dimmed her radiance, Joe thought, the smile was still fraught with the pain of a long history, a denouement of betrayal, and this embarrassing encounter now.  The warmth Joe felt from the new friend comment of a moment ago—and the tingles from the entire conversation leading up to this—was replaced with a pang.  Even from the outside, Joe had become attuned to her pain.  Though he wasn’t experiencing her physiology directly as he would have in a dream, it still transmuted to him somehow.

“It’s about the children,” David continued, skipping over any attempt at subtlety.  Going for the catch-all in any parental conversation: ‘about the children’. 

Sure it is, Joe thought.  It’s really about your ex-wife having any life beyond you.  He kept quiet, however.  For now.

“If it actually is, David, then it’s certainly important enough to have a proper conversation at the proper time, isn’t it?  And right now is not that,” Claire said.  Joe felt that strength from her he’d come to know as much or more than the pain, and remembered she didn’t need him to speak up.  She could handle David just fine on her own.

“It will only take a moment.”

“Then we will take a moment some other time.”  She turned her attention—with that smile of hers returning—to Joe.

“Claire—”

“David!”  A new voice from behind. 

“Audrey.”  David’s tone changed from half-charm, half-desperation, to full-dejection.  Not to be entirely outdone, he quickly shifted gears to the man-of-the-match charm Joe experienced earlier in the washroom.  “Absolutely lovely show.  Brilliant work!  I am so proud and delighted for you.”

“Oh shut it, David, you’ve never cared a lick for my work or anyone else’s, so let’s agree not to pretend you do now, shall we?”  There was the Audrey that Joe had known up to now, stage-fright eradicated and candor back in full force.  “Claire,” a smile now bloomed on Audrey’s face, “why don’t you introduce me to your friends.”  She extended a hand to Joe.

Claire introduced Joe and William, and the four of them also fell into an easy conversation.  Audrey’s running-interference gambit effectively made David the odd man out, both in feeling and in literal positioning: she had unselfconsciously inserted herself in front of him, walling off the intrusion between Joe and Claire. 

Joe watched David from the corner of his eye, seeing the exasperation and calculation on how to handle this latest affront.  Before any spinning wheels had locked into place, Audrey half-turned her head over her shoulder and said “Say hi to Miranda for me.” 

That sealed the deal.  David pretended to recognize someone a few parties over and surrendered in that direction.  For now, at least.

Joe knew Audrey also likely knew her big sister needed no external walling off—could effectively defend herself—but he also knew that when it came to love, one showed up to haul the bricks anyway.  He’d had an appreciation for Claire’s de facto bodyguard early in the dreams—her irascible, sardonic demeanor—but he instantly confirmed his fondness in that moment.

In all the times Joe later longed for a time machine, for all the moments he wished to revisit, this was paramount among them.  He could never remember exactly what the four of them spoke of; few things beyond the pleasantries of a first, getting-to-know-you conversation, but he remembered the laughter.  The ease of the discourse.  The way Claire’s eyes would lock on his when either of them were speaking, staring intently as though this was the only conversation in the world at that moment.  How sometimes, in the space between the words, she’d become just slightly self-conscious of the shared gaze, and for a moment directed her eyes downward.  How some kind of energetic superhighway had opened in the space between them, and how for a time, the rest of the world outside of that circle ceased to exist.

Far from being third-wheels, Audrey and William had somehow enhanced this exchange, removing roadblocks that might normally appear in a first conversation.  The younger sister knew Claire would never “talk up” herself; she was far too modest and self-effacing for that.  Audrey assumed that role with her own brand of subtlety—which wasn’t much, truth be told—but added to the endearment.

Joe had a moment to reflect that in a setting where hers was the name on the bill, they spoke about Audrey the least.  When conversation sojourned in that direction, Joe elected to go with honesty (though the committee had a small discussion on the irony—among several descriptors—of that), professing less-than-novice experience and knowledge of the visual arts.  Audrey handled this with grace, saying “The beautiful thing about art is you need not have studied it to know whether or not you like what you see.  You either do or you don’t.  Even more beautifully, you’re fully permitted to feel either way.  That’s the subjectivity of it.”  She added with a laugh: “But I do hope you like it, at least.”  Joe said he did, very much, and that was also the truth.

For his part, William assumed the role of countering Joe’s sudden modesty and inhibition.  The older man appeared adept at jumping in at just the right moment.  He knew when to insert a subtle platitude concerning his newfound, dreaming friend.  He could sense when to leave space when the man and woman with colour in their cheeks and intrigue in their eyes needed a mutual breath, or a shared glance all their own.  He engaged Audrey in conversation whenever Joe and Claire once more disappeared along their own path of discourse. 

Aside from the moment where William leaned over—as the women debated appetizers—and whispered “Unbelievable,” in Joe’s ear, every minute, every word of the conversation had been perfect.  As was William’s descriptor, unsubtle though it was.  When the sisters turned their attention back upon hearing the false-hushed word, William covered immediately, if dubiously.  “Refillable,” he said.  “I wonder if we’d all like a refill, and ladies, allow me to find whatever it is you’d like for food and drink.”

Refreshed food and drink in hand, Audrey later excused herself, feigning the need to continue schmoozing the other attendees.  And, Joe thought, perhaps run further interference on David, who had been hovering at times on the periphery.  With a smile, Audrey said she hoped enough pens would ink enough cheques that they wouldn’t require the lorries to move any pieces back to her studio. 

“Joe,” Audrey said, extending a hand once more, “it was so very nice to have met you.  I do hope we see you again before you return to Canada.”  As she stepped away, William professed his need to get back to the hotel, as these “late nights in London have kept me up late enough to almost match my bedtime back home.”  William bid goodnight to Claire, and before Joe could interject, their tiny universe now comprised just two.

About his return home, Joe fibbed in the heat of the moment.  The question had thrown his brain into an exhausted scramble; he wasn’t accustomed to lying and did a poor job at it whenever he’d attempted.  He heard the words spill from his mouth before he’d had a chance to consider them: he said he was still in town for another week—many places yet to visit, naturally.  He’d thought about heading up to Scotland or over to Ireland.  The words poured from a source Joe didn’t exactly recognize—driven by a desire to prolong the moment.  To see her again, beyond dreams.

You and William have a flight about ten hours from now.  An expiring hotel reservation.  A budget for an initial two weeks that was blown in about twenty-four hours.  Where does this go, Joe?  How does this work?

And then:

When are you going to tell her how you really know her?  How are you going to tell her?

These thoughts—not exactly The Cynic (though Roger was more than happy to yell from his banishment to the back benches)—threatened to distract from the conversation, from this perfect moment.  The tingles of a first conversation.  The exchange of the unseen, but undeniably felt.  The start, of something.

“…so is your itinerary set?  Are you heading north on a specific day, or….?” he heard Claire say, her eyes searching his.  He pulled his focus away from thoughts of doubt and back to her.

“I don’t really know, to be honest.  Been kind of taking it day by day since I arrived, seeing where the winds take me.”

“I know all about that,” she said with half an eye roll, looking to some distant point in the land of thought.  “Well, Joe, it has been so nice to speak with you.  Despite my profession, I’m actually painfully shy when it’s not a work environment, and it’s rather unlike me to strike up such a detailed conversation with a complete stranger.  I ought take a look around and see some of my sister’s art before I leave for the night.  I told the babysitter I’d be back by ten.” 

She extended a hand, her mouth and face forming into an expression Joe hadn’t seen yet: a half, shy smile.  Eyes that tried to hold his, but would dart away.  Colour that rose in her cheeks.  “I am glad you dropped your billfold, however.”

He took her hand in his, a fire blazing from their touch up through his arm. 

“I am too, Claire.”  And before he had time to think about what he was saying: “I am so glad you were actually here.”

Her expression changed to part intrigue, part amusement.  “That I’m actually here?”

He looked down and let go an embarrassed laugh.  “Sorry.  My mouth is working faster than my brain tonight, it seems.  I just meant I’m glad for an unexpected encounter—with a certain someone—even more beautiful than the art.”

The words surprised him as much as Claire.  The colour that had risen in her face a moment before went into full bloom.

“Thank you, Joe,” she said quietly, looking down.  She looked back to him; they shared a smile and a spark a moment longer.  “Well.  I should—” she motioned over her shoulder, somewhere in the general direction of Audrey.

“Right.  Have a good night, Claire.”

She turned to step away.

WHAT ARE YOU DOING?? a cacophony of voices bellowed.

“Claire?”

She turned back.  “Yes, Joe?”

“I know this is a bit forward, but we’re on a limited timeline.  Would you like to have dinner with me, sometime before I go?”

The colour that had begun to fade flushed back, and her smile broke out into a full grin before her gaze momentarily touched the floor again.  Every movement, every flush, every half or full smile, endearing her to him even more.  She looked up, eyes meeting his, stopping his breath and heart once more.

“I would like that very much, Joe.”

__________

Thanks again for stopping by, Dear Reader!  Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more.

©jaredwrites 2020

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