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Her show must go on. That was what Ella Mancini told herself when she saw the flowers in her dressing room at the historic Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, South Carolina. The vase of her favorite hothouse blooms was from her old boyfriend, Hank Rogers. The (Former) Love of Her Life is what she secretly called him.
Ella was the star of her own life, and no ancient love affair was going to weigh her down, especially ten years after the breakup.
It had been an especially good night, the final night of the play’s run, and an especially good audience, she thought as she inhaled the heady scent from the flowers. Maybe Hank hadn’t appreciated her as much as she’d wanted him to, but tonight’s audience certainly had.
She opened the card that came with the delivery, her fingers trembling a little. Dear Ella, the note read. I hope you’re well! I need a huge favor. Please call me. It’s not an emergency or anything, but it would mean a lot if you could. Hank.
He’d left a number she didn’t recognize. Of course, he’d have gotten a new one since the last time she’d seen him, when he’d been penniless and had a flip phone. Now he was a big movie star and probably had a flip phone again—this time to protect his privacy.
Was he still single? He was in the tabloids all the time with different women, and yet he’d never been committed enough to one that rumors about an impending elopement or marriage had been passed around. Nope, every story was just about Hank loving life, a beautiful woman always on his arm, a new movie script in his back pocket.
Ella was a muddle of emotion, as she always was at the conclusion of a play’s run and after each night’s performance. She was spent, her vocal cords exhausted. But tonight she felt removed from the whole scene in a way she never had before. She didn’t know what to think. She couldn’t latch onto a single, clear feeling.
And it was all Hank’s fault.
Why had he done this? Why had he contacted her?
Ella pressed down the hurt, the confusion, the simmering anger. He didn’t deserve her attention. At all. Ever again. She refused to go back there, to the most painful—and yet the most glorious—time of her adult life.
The door to her tiny dressing room opened.
“You know the drill,” the props master said. “Leave everything hung up in your dressing room.”
“No prob,” said Ella. “Are you going to come see me at Two Love Lane? There will be cookies, mint juleps, and sweet tea. Not to mention Miss Thing. She’s always a hoot.”
Miss Thing dressed like the Queen of England and was the office manager at the matchmaking agency Ella owned with her other best friends, Macy and Greer. They’d both recently married after whirlwind courtships—Macy to native New Yorker Deacon Banks, and Greer to Englishman Ford Smith. Miss Thing, Macy, and Greer were as close to Ella as her own sisters.
“I am,” said the props master. “I promise.” She’d broken up with her long-time boyfriend a year ago and told Ella she was thinking about becoming a client at Two Love Lane. She pulled the door almost shut, then pushed it open again. “Who are the flowers from?”
Ella forced herself not to roll her eyes. “An old friend.”
The props master shot her an amused look. “That’s cryptic. Is it something complicated?”
They both grinned, then the props master finally shut the door behind her.
Ella sank down on her castered vanity chair, closed her eyes, and took a breath. She pulled her cell phone out of her purse and saw that she had ten texts from ten different people, all wishing her well, including her sister Jill and Jill’s new husband Cosmo, a famous tech mogul. Miss Thing had also texted. She’d seen Ella in five performances of the play already (Greer and Macy had come three times with various friends and family), but Miss Thing hadn’t been able to come tonight because Pete, their dear friend from Roastbusters, the coffee house up the cobblestoned alley from Two Love Lane, had asked her to fill in at the shop while he was recovering from minor surgery.
Reluctantly, Ella put Hank’s number in her phone. It was the polite thing to do. “But I won’t call him,” she said out loud to her reflection in the mirror, and entered Ancient as his first name and History as his last name into her contacts list.
What was that like for him, being famous? Ella would never know. But she was okay with that. She had a good life, a great life.
Inside, though, she felt a twinge. It sometimes came out in dreams about the old days in New York, when she’d been working so hard to make it as a professional actor.
But it’s okay, she reminded herself. It really is.
She closed her eyes and tried not to think of “Bring Him Home,” the most moving, tear-jerker of a song she knew … from Les Misérables. But it was there—in her head. Instantly, salty tears flooded her eyes, which she clamped shut to stave them off.
Why did that song come to her now, crashing into her brain like a runaway train? Of course, it was because before he’d left, Hank would lie with her on the couch, and wrapped in each other’s arms, they would listen silently to “Bring Him Home.” Their love of music, of theater, was what had drawn them to each other in the first place. They’d been two struggling artists in awe of the beauty of songs like “Bring Him Home.” Those special moments felt more sacred to Ella than any spoken vows of love. Without a word, they’d known they were made for each other.
After Hank left, Ella used to hope beyond hope he’d come home. To her. She’d stand in the shower in their tiny apartment, tears pouring down her cheeks, “Bring Him Home” running through her head.
But that was ancient history.
“Ancient history,” she stressed to her reflection. Now she put the phone down. Turned it all the way off. Really looked at herself in the vanity mirror rimmed with naked, round bulbs. Her entire body felt rigid with hurt, still. It shocked her that it did. She felt pain. And sadness.
After all these years.
And she’d thought she’d been so happy. She really had believed it. All the wonderful things she’d done in the ten years since she’d dated Hank, things she could be proud of … they did matter, but so did her heart.
And it obviously hadn’t healed yet.
She swallowed back the lump in her throat, glad she’d turned her phone off. In fact, she didn’t know if she’d ever want to turn it on again.
She stood. Slid out of the sleek wedding gown. Briefly admired the old-fashioned corset in the mirror. She’d never get to wear it again. And her legs—they looked gorgeous in thigh-high stockings and garters, if she did say so herself. Her underthings were important parts of her costume. At one point in the story, a chorus dancer slid Ella’s skirt up and exposed one sexy leg all the way up to her garter belt. And in the same scene, a chorus member buttoned her up in her wedding gown, Ella’s back to the audience, her corset laces exposed.
Those scenes had happened before she’d known Hank would have flowers delivered to her dressing room. Did he remember all the times they’d made love and he’d run his hand up her leg and told her how beautiful she was? Would he think she was as beautiful now as he’d thought she’d been then?
“I don’t care,” she said out loud to her mirror.
But the truth was, she did. Very much.
Copyright © 2018 by Kieran Kramer