Adventures in Wonderland. How appropriate, Della sighs, considering the theme of this years Met Gala. Wonderland…a world of make believe where chaos, superficiality and disorder reign. There are no rules here, no sense of right and wrong. Standing in the center of the museum gallery, she surveys the assembly of well-known personalities from the worlds of art, fashion, film, music and the crème de la crème of New York’s high society, a feeling of dread washing over her.
Thank God she didn’t have to walk the red carpet this evening! In a gesture of compromise, Owen snuck them into the gala through a service entrance with the waitstaff and caterers. The very thought of posing for an army of cameras, stacked like a house of cards behind the red velvet rope and fielding the inevitable questions about Jake Wheeler, was enough to make her want to crawl into bed and never get out. There’s nothing wonderful about Wonderland.
Why am I here? she asks herself for the hundredth time in the space of twenty minutes. Della vowed she’d never attend one of these media circuses again. From the corner of her eye, she catches sight of bright lights flashing non-stop across the spacious room and is transported to another time and place. Stumbling down the crowded steps of City Hall, being pushed and shoved by dozens of paparazzi clamoring for pictures, the flashing lights blinding her. Her heart begins to race at the memory and she recognizes the first signs of an anxiety attack threatening to overwhelm her…tingling limbs, a vice slowly closing around her throat.
Breathe, Della! Count backwards and take deep breaths. Ninety-nine…ninety-eight…ninety-seven… She closes her eyes and continues counting, wishing she had a cigarette or a Valium to soothe her nerves.
Growing up in small town America Della couldn’t possibly comprehend how unsettling and limiting fame can be. Flipping through the pages of glossy magazines, the lives of stars appeared so glamorous and full of adventure. World travel. Beautiful clothes. Wealth. Parties. Recognition. She wanted what they had. Until it was hers. What seems like unlimited opportunity and freedom is a prison of its own. Celebrities are just people with a different set of problems, and having experienced fame up close and personal…it’s not worth it.
While senior editor at one of the nations largest women’s magazines, she lived on the periphery of Wonderland, a comfortable distance from the unpleasant side of fame, but close enough to enjoy the perks. Her virtual rolodex was filled with private cell numbers of the rich and famous and glitzy events like this gala were a significant part of her life.
Dealing with celebrities, their egos and entourages became the norm, and she enjoyed her work, until she suffered through a very painful, public breakup of her own. Della’s done with being photographed and having her life pried into by relentless, cold-blooded journalists. There are enough intrusive pictures and videos of her posted on the internet to last a lifetime. Standing vulnerable and exposed in the spotlight, Della got a taste of her own medicine and it was a bitter pill to swallow. After over ten years in the business, she grew to loathe the media in all its forms. A decision had to be made and she knows without a doubt she made the right choice.
Tonight, her goal is to blend into the scenery and remain anonymous. Wearing a long sheath of heavy black satin, she decided against jewelry and swept her long, dark hair up into a simple, unadorned twist. Looking down at her dress, she wonders if perhaps she made a mistake. Maybe the absence of dazzling jewels and extravagant evening wear has made her more conspicuous? A bullseye in a sea of ostentation. Well, it’s too late now! All she can do is plaster a smile on her face and pray no one recognizes her.
Gripping Owen’s hand tightly, Della takes another deep breath and reminds herself, I’m here for him. Sometimes, you have to stand in the scorching hot sun and water the garden when you’d rather lie in the comfortable air-conditioned bedroom and read a book. Being here tonight, Della’s watering the garden. And she’s feeling the heat.
Owen wraps his arm around her waist and she smiles up at him. He’s a good man, kind and patient. He knows how difficult it is for her to be here tonight and has been protective. After her last relationship fiasco, it’s refreshing to be with someone dependable and considerate. I don’t deserve him. In the year they’ve been together, she’s held him at arm’s length, mentally unable to get too close. And now Owen wants to take their relationship to the next level. But how can she make that commitment when big chunks of her heart are spoken for? She’ll never get those pieces back, but she can try harder to be worthy of the love Owen showers upon her daily. She can open up what’s left of her mangled heart to him.
Owen looks especially handsome this evening in a classically tailored tuxedo, his thick, wavy sun-kissed hair brushed into submission. His glasses have slid down his aquiline nose and in a familiar, endearing gesture, he pushes them back into place and continues discussing his plans for the museum with a major patron. Della holds her head up, having regained her composure, and attempts to follow their discourse, but finds her mind wandering back to the unsettling conversation she had with Jake Wheeler yesterday.
When she found out Jake had accepted his invitation to tonight’s gala, Della was forced to pick up the phone and call him for the first time in ages. She’s fought hard to take back control of her life since their parting, to make it her own again. But his very public plea for forgiveness a few days earlier stirred the pot and the media has been sniffing around her like a dog in heat.
She won’t let Jake strip away her privacy again. She could not let him ruin this important evening for Owen, who was recently promoted to the museum’s Director of Exhibits. He’s required to attend the gala and mingle with its donors. It’s important to his career. This event means nothing to Jake.
After the interview, Della tried to convince Owen it would be better if she didn’t accompany him tonight, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
“Sweetheart, I want you by my side,” he pleaded. “Please?”
Owen asks nothing of her, and after Jake’s revelation on television the other day, she couldn’t refuse him this one thing. Della’s hand was shaking as she dialed his number and prayed she’d get his assistant or an answering service. But no, Jake answered the phone on the first ring, catching her off guard. Hearing his voice, she held her breath for a moment and almost hung up…but Jake knew it was her. It was as if he’d been expecting her call.
“Hi Del,” he said softly.
She played it as cool as she could, under the circumstances.
“Hello, Jacob. Umm…so…I don’t want you to go to the Met Gala tomorrow night.”
“How are you, Della?” he asked, ignoring her request.
“I’m fine, Jake. And you?” she replied, formally.
“Della…” he sighed. “We need to talk.”
“It would mean a lot to me if you stayed away from the gala,” she whispered, feeling tears sting the back of her eyes.
An uncomfortable silence saturated the air around her, but it was preferable to the alternative. There are so many words left unsaid between them…words she would prefer remain unspoken. You broke my heart. I miss you. Why wasn’t I enough? Her heart sank realizing how strong a hold he still had on her heart, how much hurt remains, how low her resistance to him after all of these years.
“I won’t go on one condition,” he finally relented.
“No conditions,” she breathed. “Just don’t go. For me, Jake. You say you care about me? Do this one thing for me.”
“Just meet me for a cup of coffee, Della. That’s all I ask. One hour of your time.”
“That’s a bad idea…” her voice trailed off.
Another long silence followed before Jake responded, “Then I’ll see you at the gala tomorrow night.”
“That’s not fair, Jacob,” she snapped.
“None of this is fair, Del,” he murmured. “Meet me at the coffee shop in an hour.”
“I won’t meet you in the city,” she hesitated, chewing nervously on her bottom lip. If they’re going to meet, it’s going to be on her terms. “Upstate. The Garden Café. Friday at noon.”
“How do I know you’ll be there?”
“You don’t,” she replied.
When she hung up, she stared at her phone, a million memories and regrets washing over her. I don’t have to go, she realized. Jake can’t make her do anything. But it’s inevitable they will see each other. She can’t put it off forever. One way or another, Jake will force the issue. If that’s the case, she needs a controlled environment; someplace private and safe, not this very public arena. Not tonight at the gala! The sight of them in the same room would have caused a media tsunami. Upstate, no one will bother them. Her upside-down days in the nonsensical world of Wonderland are over.
“Owen,” she whispers in his ear. “I’ll be right back.”
“Are you okay?” he lowers his voice, his eyes filled with concern.
“Absolutely,” she forces a smile. “Just be a minute.”
Della weaves through the crowd, avoiding eye contact with the other attendees. She hasn’t told anyone what she promised Jake in return for his absence this evening. Owen would be devastated. Her close friends would tie her to a chair! They’ve witnessed her suffering at Jake’s hand and wouldn’t let her go without a fight.
Christ! I want a Valium! It’s been a while since she needed the aid of medication to calm her nerves. When she was with Jake, she popped them like candy, but not lately. Life has been smooth with Owen, no crazy highs or debilitating lows. He’s a boat floating peacefully on a placid lake in the sunshine; Jake’s a dingy lost at sea during a hurricane.
She digs through her clutch again, hoping to find an old pillbox but comes up empty. Tonight, alcohol will have to do. While she waits impatiently at the crowded bar for a glass of champagne, a woman dripping in diamonds and dressed in a ruby red, floor length Calvin Klein gown embroidered with white crystal hearts approaches Della. She can’t help but admire the woman’s regal bearing, the confidence she exudes, declaring without a sound, I belong here.
Della studies the dress, and her fan made of playing cards, and smiles. The Queen of Hearts, indeed. Vicious, vapid, vain. She recognizes her as Bitsy Allerton, a high society dame, the most frightening of all women in her experience. Ladies in Bitsy’s social sphere eat people for sport. Croquet anyone?
Standing beside Bitsy is her eighteen-year-old daughter, Keira, a paparazzi favorite. Is she supposed to be the White Rabbit? Her long white gown is decorated with what looks like miniature bunny tails. Della bites her lip to stop from laughing and inadvertently catches Keira’s eye. The girl tilts her head in contemplation, then raises an eyebrow with the dawn of recognition.
Oh, shit! She’s kept her head down most of the evening for this very reason! Della sighs with resignation, bracing herself for either the onslaught of questions or the common and mildly hostile refrain…How could you leave Jake Wheeler? This question is always followed up with a baffled stare, which quickly turns into an anger-tinged glare. What they have to be angry about, she has no clue. Because they believe she broke Jake’s heart? Or is it jealousy? They want what Della had…and she walked away?
These women have no idea what it’s been like for her, the hell she’s been through because of Jake. They only know what his handlers allow the public to see, and this image bears little resemblance to reality.
“Don’t I know you?” Keira asks, her back against the bar.
“I don’t think so,” Della replies and turns away, searching for Owen or anyone familiar to save her from yet another inquisition.
“Aren’t you Della Stone?” she persists, tapping her shoulder.
Taking a deep breath in, Della peers into the girl’s pale blue eyes and shakes her head slightly, then grabs her champagne flute and attempts to squeeze through the throngs of people crowding the bar. Enough already! This is not how she wants to live her life! Dodging questions, evading the press, steering clear of Jake’s fans. Is it too much to ask to live her life in peace? She never wanted any of this.
Until Jake gave that interview that other day, her life was beginning to feel normal. Her work, her boyfriend, everything! Della created a stable environment after the chaos of their tumultuous relationship. She could walk down the city streets in blissful anonymity once again. Then Jake flipped her world upside down in the space of thirty minutes with his appearance on The Beth Larkin Show.
The interview! That god damned interview! Why did he share so many personal details about their relationship? Why? It’s nobody’s business! Owen was very upset by Jake’s revelations and she can’t blame him. She should have told him certain things a long time ago. But that’s a chapter of her life she thought was over. Della believed she was finally free.
How naïve! I won’t ever be free of Jacob, will I? Della’s a fly caught in the web of their shared past. She’s furious with him for thrusting her back into the spotlight. And sad, she has to admit. If only he had come to these realizations years ago, if he hadn’t fallen victim to the illusory world of fame, their lives would be so different. There would have been hope for them. She would have stayed. God, I loved that man like a fool!
“You are Della Stone!” Keira declares, grabbing her arm rather forcefully.
Startled, Della yanks her arm away from the young socialite and shoots her a withering glare, one that would send her underlings scurrying at work, but has absolutely no impact on the girl standing before her. Jaw clenched, Della turns to leave and finds she’s surrounded by several of Keira’s friends, with no escape in sight. She’s Alice, swimming to shore after treading water in a sea of her own tears, only to find herself surrounded by annoying little woodland creatures. She closes her eyes and sighs. And so it begins. Again.
“Oh my god! Are you insane?”
“He is the most beautiful man. What’s wrong with you?”
“How could you do that to him?”
“You cold bitch.”
The last remark gets her blood boiling. I’m a bitch? She feels the heat rushing to her face, her hands involuntarily clenching into fists.
“Darling!” Oskar’s voice beckons, and her body sags with relief. Her dearest friend clasps her shoulders, turns her body toward him and kisses her on each cheek. “Flee, little people!” he orders, and the crowd of socialites disburse. “Are you okay, my sweet?” he asks, steering her into a relatively quiet alcove off the cavernous lobby. Della wraps her arms around him and cries. “There, there, darling. You’ll ruin your makeup and my beautiful clothes!”
She clings to her knight in shining armor, or in this case, a velvet suit from his own collection. Oskar Dario is a well known fashion designer, and the first real friend Della made when she moved to New York City. They were both in school at the time, Della earning her master’s degree in creative writing at The New School, Oscar studying design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. They met waiting tables at a bistro in Greenwich Village and have been inseparable since.
“Here,” he says, handing her a handkerchief. “Aren’t I gallant? Now, clean up. There’s nothing more hideous than a woman with mascara running down her cheeks.”
“I can’t take this anymore, Oskar,” she whispers, wiping away her tears.
“Shame on Jake,” he mutters. “Declaring his undying love for you to the world.”
She frowns and he raises an eyebrow, a corner of his mouth turning up, and for the first time in days, Della smiles.
“Shut up,” she giggles, throwing the used handkerchief at him. “Who are you supposed to be, anyways?” she asks taking in his crazy calico outfit.
“Why, the Cheshire Cat, of course,” he grins and turns to reveal his tail. Of course he’s the wise cat! No one understands the inner workings of Wonderland better than Oskar. Together, they sit on a bench and he wraps an arm around her shoulders. “Darling, I think it’s time for you to take a vacation,” he says. “In a few weeks this will have blown over and the next big story will usurp the headlines. You’ll be yesterday’s news.”
She thinks about the huge billboard of Jake in Times Square, the bus shelters lined with posters of him, the multiple magazine covers he’s gracing at every city news stand, not to mention the tabloids with old photos of them together. She can’t go anywhere without being reminded of him anymore. Jacob shoved her back down the rabbit hole and the only way out is to escape. But I promised him…Della remembers, her heart sinking. She’s supposed to meet Jake in Woodstock in fifteen hours. Well…tough shit! She doesn’t owe him anything. Not one damned thing.
Oskar is right. It’s time to take a break. In a few weeks this will have blown over and she can get back to living her life. Jacob Wheeler free.