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An Unconventional Wall


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Chapter 1:  The Flight

Sara was a bundle of emotions - nervous, excited, curious and unsettled - all at the same time.  She had been selected among many of the new hires to attend a large convention on the west coast.  She hoped it was because she had proved herself as a hard-worker, putting in many extra hours and practically exhausting herself in her first year at the company.  She knew that she was well-respected as someone who was both dedicated and loyal to the company's culture.  

Equally exciting was the other new hire that had been selected to go was Amelia, someone she had worked with on several projects recently.  The company continued to place them on a team together because they were very collaborative yet had different strengths, resulting in some great presentations to receptive clients.  Their working relationship was an interesting study in personality to their superiors.  Fiercely independent midwestern-born Amelia was more stoic and assertive.  She could come across as brusque as she saw things in a black-and-white fashion and was very fact-based yet professional in her views and presentations.  Perceptive and sensitive Sara was from the south.  She brought to the table the ability to read into clients' emotions and feelings, giving each presentation the aesthetic feel that brought it to life.

Both were young and very much eager to learn and improve - driven some would say, possessing the grit it takes to draw new clientele with their fresh, combined perspective and ideas.  

The two had become fast friends, and working long hours together and solidified a fast-growing trust and deeper friendship.  Each had dated since joining the company almost a year ago, but neither had much time to pursue much of a relationship because of work demands.  To be attending the large prestigious convention together, knowing there was plenty to enjoy and downtime as well, seemed like a reward for their hard work rather than just another part of the job.  They had decided to forego separate rooms for a larger suite option the company offered for employees who traveled together.  

Sara was especially happy that they were going to be together as Emily and been on leave over the last month after having surgery to repair a deviated septum.  Her last project had been with a seasoned employee who dominated the project, leaving very little room for Sara's creative input.  She had missed working with Amelia.  She checked on her often during her recovering, bringing meals for them to eat together during the recovery and venting about her lack of creative freedom in working with someone else.  She was also fascinated by Amelia's surgery as she had a bit of a "thing" for noses and sneezing.  Amelia was glad she had someone she could talk to about her recovery who didn't seem squeamish about the details.  Sara was someone she had grown unaccustomedly close to, as she generally was cordial, but kept people at a distance.  Her reasons were complicated and something she didn't discuss.

The morning of their departure, the two boarded the plane for the early cross-country flight.  While neither let on about their feelings, both were excited to be upgraded to first class.  As the flight took off, they had the convention agenda in front of them, deciding on which sessions they should attend together and which ones they should split up so that they could maximize the information they could bring back for their company inservice presentation in a few weeks.  They paused only to nibble on breakfast pastries and drinks provided.  

About an hour into the flight, Sara noticed that Amelia was rubbing her nose and pressing on her face with the palms of her hands off and on.  She was also wrinkling her forehead, as if in discomfort.  

"Amelia, are you okay?  You look like something is wrong."

"I'm fine.  This is the first time I've flown since my surgery.  I just feel a lot of pressure in my head.  It's not painful, more annoying," Amelia replied.

"That's no fun!  Do you need anything?  Maybe you should take a break and rest your eyes," Sara stated, wondering if she sounded too empathetic for Amelia's liking.

"I think I'm fine, but let's take a break anyway.  I'll rest my eyes and listen to some music,"  Amelia responded.

Sara noted that Amelia was reluctant to show weakness of any kind.  She had become a bit more trusting right after her surgery, as Sara noted that she didn't really seem to have anyone who was checking in on her.  Perhaps she was willing to confide in Sara because she didn't seem to have anyone else.  Even so, she had seemingly returned to her regular overly independent persona now that she was back at work.  Sara rested her eyes and decided to listen to her audiobook from her daily commute.  She napped off and on for over an hour, being tired from the long hours she had been working and her late night of last minute packing.  When she woke, she was a bit dazed at first, and realized they had begun their descent.  Glancing over at Amelia, she realized that her friend was stifling sneeze after desperate sneeze.  They were almost completely silent, though keeping them that way seemed to require every muscle in her body to tense.

H'ngkT  h-H-ngKT  ah-h-H'NGkt.  The sneezes were hitting about every 2-3 seconds making Amelia almost breathless.  

"Amelia, honey!  Bless!  How long have you been sneezing?  Please don't hold back on my account.  That has to be uncomfortable!" Sara said, touching Amelia's arm.

Amelia tried to reply, but the sneezes made her usual direct responses not quite as efficient.  "Ah-eh-H'ngKT......J-ust a few eh-HHH-H'NGKTX minutes h-h-H-AH'NGKTXX s-since we started Ah... Eh.... to descend," she rushed, grabbing a tissue before finishing off the attempt to stifle, that she was obviously having trouble continuing.  

"Bless you again.  Sweetie, let them out.  You're making yourself miserable.  Your face is all pink!  Relax!"  Sara realized that Amelia would probably later mention her habit of calling people honey and sweetie when she was worried about them.  She admitted that she had trouble dropping some of her southern habits, though she did try to avoid using those terms in the work environment or when they may be misconstrued.  She would never use them with anyone she was not totally comfortable being herself in front of, but she also realized that there were times that Amelia seemed to glance at her to see if she was being genuine or sarcastic.  She had mentioned before that it was a bit unnerving at first.  Sara had to assume that "at first" meant that she now understood that it was only because Sara trusted her and felt close to her that she used those words now.  Sara was, to be clear, just being Sara.  Her corporate persona was something she tried to leave at work as it was not really who she felt she was inside.

Whether she wanted to let the sneezes out or not, Amelia did give up on stifling for a few of the sneezes, but buried her head into a tissue as well as her elbow so deeply that the sneezes were barely perceptible to anyone not sitting on their aisle.  She escaped to the front lavatory, only coming out as the captain asked the flight attendants to be seated for landing.  By then, she had gained some control over her sneezes.  She seemed a bit embarrassed by her lack of control over her own nose, Sara noted.  

After a couple of minutes of silence where Amelia rummaged through her carryon bag, Sara quietly queried, "Hey, are you okay?  You're probably just more sensitive to altitude and pressure changes now.

"Yes. I'm fine. Nothing to draw attention to," Amelia responded, a bit more curtly than Sara felt necessary.  She tried not to feel hurt by her friend's blunt response, though she knew Amelia could often sound more harsh than she realized.  Some of this was her fierce independent midwestern streak, but Sara had also sensed that Amelia had a wall up that often kept people at an arm's length.  Perhaps she felt the need to protect herself and not be seen as vulnerable.  Sara had sensed this after Amelia's surgery when she went to visit her.  At first, she insisted that she had planned carefully for her recovery and needed nothing.  Slowly over the course of time, the wall started coming down brick by brick.  Some of this was due to Sara's persistence in bringing over treats after work - take out dinners to share, movies to watch, and insisting that it was her southern upbringing that lended itself to the "flaw" of overdoing in the name of friendship.  Amelia seemed to allow some doting for this reason alone, though Sara noted that she did seem to enjoy the attention once she made it known that it was unsolicited.  She guessed now that Amelia was back in work mode, the wall was back, though hopefully only temporarily.

Deciding that she needed to let this go and allow Amelia to find her comfort zone, Sara watched out the window as the plane landed and began to taxi to the gate.  Amelia sneezed a couple more times, stifled, of course.  Sara resisted the urge to bless her, pretending not to hear or see her body stiffen and pitch forward slightly, trying to give her the space she needed.  She did purposefully work to maintain a pleasant demeanor and facial expressions lest Amelia sense her slightly bruised feelings.  By now she knew that overreacting to her rebuff would only make that wall higher due to a feeling of defensiveness.  She wanted nothing more than to bring that wall back down to where it had been.  She would be careful to approach the invisible boundaries until Amelia found her comfort zone again.

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I have tried to edit to ask for feedback, but I can’t find a way to do that, so I’ll just post again and ask!   

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Chapter 2:  The Spa


The two colleagues lost little time gathering their luggage at the baggage claim and finding their shuttle to the hotel.  Upon arriving, they checked into their suite.  The two had made small talk and agreed that, on this day when others would be arriving late into the night, they would take advantage of the more laid back pre-convention day.  Their plan was to visit the spa first thing, as they knew they would have to wait for their room to be ready, and each had packed a carry on bag in anticipation.  

As they entered the spa, the feeling was immediate relaxation for Sara.  She loved the gentle greens and blues in the decor, the plush towels, the abundant tropical floral arrangements and the many luxury spa options available.  They decided to first get massages followed by visiting the hot tub area and steam room.  Finally, they would shower and put on the clothing the had brought.  Hopefully by then their suite would be ready for them to unpack, take a nap if they wished, and grab some lunch before visiting the exhibition area before others began arriving and it became more crowded.  But today was mostly about relaxing, planning their convention time, finalizing the one short presentation they were doing for their own company, and adapting to the west coast time zone.  

After changing into their robes, Sara noticed that Amelia was sniffling slightly, but seemed to be fine otherwise.  She hoped that the tension she felt coming from Amelia after the plane ride would subside with their spa visit.  They came to the massage area and treated themselves to hour-long massages.  Sara fought off the urge to sleep as she wanted to enjoy every minute, but the lavender essential oil they used seem to lull her in and out of consciousness.  Amelia had opted to avoid too much aromatherapy with her massage, telling the masseuse that she feared it would bother her newly sensitive nose.  Both emerged feeling much more relaxed, albeit, a bit sleepy.  They donned swimwear, grabbed some infused water and headed to the hot tub area.  

It was amazing to both that they were the only ones in the spa.  Apparently many had opted for later flights, so it was nice to be doted on by the staff before the crowds arrived.  Amelia took note that the tickles in her sinuses were becoming a little more obvious.  Luckily, she was still a bit stuffy from her sneezing fit on the plane, which seemed to be playing in her favor.  When they exited the hot tubs and entered the steam room, she did note that her nose became less clogged as the steam broke through the congestion.  This was probably a good thing, she figured.  

Sara had noticed that Amelia still seemed to be fighting the congestion to some extent, but felt it best to pretend not to notice.  That changed as they exited the steam room, with Amelia's nose now free of the congestion she had previously.  The cooler air hit her hard, and she began to sniffle.  As they were getting ready to shower, one of the spa employees showed them the fresh robes available for after their showers, brought them luxury toiletries and fresh plush towels.  

The showers were luxurious.  Sara hoped she could find time to visit the spa later in the week.  After taking as long as she felt she could, she turned off her water, realizing she could no longer hear Amelia's shower and wondering if Amelia was fully dressed and waiting for her.  To her relief, Amelia was sitting outside the shower area still in her post-shower robe, hair in the towel when she exited.  What didn't seem right was that Amelia's shoulders were shaking, head buried in the sleeves of her robe as if she were sobbing.  Sara was totally taken aback.  She tied the belt of her robe and put a towel around her dripping hair as she tried to make sense of what she saw.  What was upsetting Amelia like this?  It was very uncharacteristic of her to show emotion, much less cry.

Sara cautiously walked over to her friend, searching desperately for what to say, "Amelia?  Honey?  What's the matter?"

Amelia lifted he face from her robe sleeves, red-rimmed water eyes making the blue look bright.  Her face was red and swollen.  Sara instinctively put her arm around her friend's shoulder.  "Amelia, talk to me.  Tell me what's wrong.  Let me help.  Why are you so upset, sweetie?"  

For a second, Sara detected a tension return.  Amelia pitched forward burying her head into her sleeves again with her body producing a slight jerk.  Then it hit Sara.  Amelia was having another sneeze attack.  There were no tissues in the shower area, only in the outer area, and she as desperately sneezing silent stifles into the sleeve of her robe.  

"I-hh-I--h-h-h NK I can't talk. NK  Hhhh NKt."  Amelia was breathless from working so hard at silencing her relenting sneezes.  Sara knew her friend would be mortified by the attention this would bring if they left this area and the doting spa staff saw her in this condition.  She also knew that asking Amelia if she could help or what she could do was pointless.  She needed to act, with or without Amelia's consent.

"Honey, you stay right here.  Let me handle this."  If Sara didn't know any better, she could almost feel Amelia's silent protest that she didn't need her help and could handle this herself.  "Too bad," thought Sara.  "You're in no condition to protest.  You can just be mad at me later."  She quickly peeked her head out the door and asked a spa worker for a box of tissues and if someone could inquire about whether their room was ready for them.  As the employee walked away, she slipped out and grabbed  couple of glasses of the infused water.  The kind lady assisting her returned with tissues in hand, stating that the room was indeed ready.  She asked if there was anything else she could do.  Sara paused, wondering where to go from here.  

"My friend that is with me, she had sinus surgery a few weeks ago and is apparently really having some strong reactions to something off and on since our flight this morning.  She is very self-conscious about whatever is going on, so I am trying to figure out how to get to our room amidst her sneezing attack that has hit again without drawing too much attention to her."

"Oh, that should be no problem at all.  We have an elevator in the spa that bypasses the lower floors and only goes to the 2 floors that have suites.  She can just keep the robe on.  You can get dressed and gather both of your things.  If you stick your head out and let me know when you're ready, I'll grab the elevator and use the spa key to make it go nonstop to your floor." 

Sara was relieved for Amelia, though she was unsure how her friend would react to her intervention on her behalf.  When re-entered the shower area wit the tissues and water, Amelia was just as Sara left her, though more breathless than before.  Sara opened the tissues and pulled out 3.  Gently, she said, "Amelia, I have some tissues for you and some water if you can manage to take a sip.  I'm going to get dressed.  I have a way we can get to the room so we can regroup and get settled."    

Amelia lifted her head, the sneezes seeming to spread out by a few more seconds since Sara left, "Th--h--Hh--Thank you.  I- - h - - h --- h - can hardly catch h-- NGKT - h-- NGTx - my - - Hhh - eh-- breath NGTX NGCHT," she sneezed a barely stifled double at the end.

Sara's heart went out to her friend.  Amelia was too independent for her own good.  She was SO afraid of showing weakness.  She so badly wanted her to let her guard down, at least with her.  She gave Amelia a quick hug, towel dried her hair so she could leave the towel at least, and went to gather their things from the locker area, closing the door behind her.  On her way to the lockers, she told the spa employee, whom she had come to know as Patricia, that they would be ready in about 2 minutes.  She asked her if it was okay to send the robes and Amelia's towel back down once she got Amelia back to the room and comfortable and she could get dressed herself.  Patricia assured her that was fine.  She seemed concerned about Amelia, and decided to do something unobtrusive that she hoped would help in some way.

After gathering their belongings from the locker area, Sara saw Patricia just outside the shower area with something in her hands.  She had slippers for both Sara and Amelia to wear upstairs and key cards to their suite.  She handed Sara a plastic container just before she entered, "Here.  This is a hot towel with just a tiny dab of lavender essential oil and eucalyptus essential oil.  I know your friend is sensitive to smells right now, but this will help with the sneezing.  If it is okay,  I will have someone come up in about half an hour with a spa lunch.   I hope you friend feels better.  I have the elevator waiting.  All you need to do is get in and release the emergency stop button.  It will go straight to your floor, and your room is near the elevators.  

Sara couldn't help but hug Patricia.  While she didn't hug strangers on a regular basis, she was thankful that motherly Patricia was there and was understanding of the situation.  Patricia smiled, feeling a kinship to her similar to the daughters she had that were the girls' age that she wished she could see more often. 

Amelia was looking up when Sara came into the room, having just finished a series of unstifled sneezes.  She looked a bit embarrassed having been caught sneezing unrestrained, but it had helped the sneezes slow further.  Sara pretended not to have heard.  "Amelia, come on.  Our room is ready, and we have a straight shot to get there, hopefully without seeing anyone."  Amelia stood shakily, no doubt exhausted from the fit that had wracked her body.  They walked quickly the short distance to the elevator.   On the trip from spa to room, Sara sneezed only 4 times, silencing each one the best she could, breathing heavily between.  She allowed Sara to guide her with her arm around her back without resistance, and made sure she kept tissue pressed to her nose at all times with one hand as her other held the box of tissue for security.

As Sara opened the door, she saw a comfortable sitting area with a cozy looking chair.  "Amelia, if you want to, you can....."  but Amelia had run into the bathroom and shut the door.  Sara heard her blow her nose endlessly, sneezing between blows.  As she waited for Amelia to emerge, she opened her suitcase and began unpacking.  

Sara wondered why she was allowing Amelia's feeling of insecurity to affect her own confidence.  She couldn't decide if she should just leave Amelia in the room and go to the exhibition area this afternoon so she could be miserable by herself or try to stay and take care of her obviously miserable friend who seemingly wanted to be left alone.  As she pondered what to change into and what she what she would be doing, she felt annoyed.  Suddenly, Amelia opened the door to the bathroom, wearing a hotel robe instead of the spa one, and ran to the sofa where she quickly lay down, hands to her head and breath hitching wildly again.

"Sara, eh-ah-hhh-HHH NGKcht-- I'm NGKTch NGKTCh NGKTch ch HATCHOO---I - I - ah - I feel sick."  

Sara's feeling of being annoyed quickly dissipated.  There was a hole in this wall Amelia had built around her.  She walked over to the sofa, brushed Amelia's wet hair away from her red face and asked, "Sweetie, what can I do to help you feel better?  It's going to be okay, I promise."

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