The office door swung open, letting in a blast of cold January air. Flora’s stomach lurched as Eric stepped in, one great wall of starched pinstripe from head to toe, his grey eyes glistening behind his horn-rimmed glasses. She put a smile on her face, but she knew it would only be a matter of minutes before he discovered what she’d done.
So far there had been nothing remarkable about that morning other than to say it was bitterly cold. The dark-haired secretary, swathed in layers of wool and pinstriped polyester, had weaved her way carefully through the early morning foot traffic crowding the sidewalks on West 44th, heading resolutely towards the St. James Theater. She had paused in front of the theater, shifting her hands restlessly in the deep pockets of her white overcoat. Casting a nervous glance over both shoulders, she had darted inside, only to come out again a moment later with a cream-colored ticket envelope which she hastily tucked into her purse before ducking into a bystreet. At that moment she had wondered what Eric might think of her for what she had done, but she had pushed the thought from her mind and continued on her way.
Two subway exchanges and a fifteen minute hike later, Flora Brennan had climbed the stairs to the Upper East-Side law office where she worked. After shedding her coat and trading her walking shoes for stilettoes, she had clocked in and sorted the mail. There was a letter from the Bar Association’s main office. Flora had examined it, momentarily puzzled. Suddenly remembering, she had checked the calendar of Eric’s upcoming appointments. Her heart sank. She had forgotten about the conference.
Trembling, she had slipped into the break room to put on a pot of coffee. Not for her own benefit: she hated coffee. But Eric would be in soon, and he didn’t like to have to wait long for his first cup of the morning. Today of all days she would need to stay on her toes.
“Good morning, Flora.” Eric’s greeting snapped her back to the present. He was standing by her desk, thumbing through the mail.
“Good morning, Eric,” piped Flora, sitting up a little straighter, trying not to watch his fingers as they shuffled through the stack, getting closer and closer to the Bar Association’s letter.
“Ah, ah, ah,” said Eric, wagging his finger in a teasing reproof. “Remember what we talked about, Miss Brennan.”
Flora kicked herself mentally. She had forgotten their discussion the previous week about maintaining a professional atmosphere in the office, despite the recent developments in their relationship. She needed to be on her best behavior, especially now.
“Sorry, Mr. Withers,” she said, rolling her eyes as if mocking her own forgetfulness. “Your coffee is ready.”
“Thank you, Miss Brennan,” he said with a grin and a wink. He strode into the break room, and Flora heard the sound of a spoon clinking against his mug. She watched as he left the break room for his office, pulling the door behind him with a click.
Flora let out a little sigh. She hadn’t noticed that she had been holding her breath. Slowly, she pried the stiletto heels off her feet and stretched her toes, relishing the relief. She had been flattered when Eric asked if she would wear those shoes more often, telling her how professional they looked. As glad as she was to please him, she missed the flat shoes and sandals that she used to wear. She slid the stilettoes off whenever she knew she’d be sitting behind the desk for a while.
She set into the wearisome task of sorting through the files one of Eric’s clients had left on her desk the evening before. Half of her attention was on the paperwork, but the other half was wondering what was going on behind Eric’s closed office door. After an agonizing five minutes, he swung the door open and looked at her, his eyes gleaming.
“Miss Brennan, would you step into my office for a moment?”
He had read the letter. Judging by the look on his face, she knew that the report must have been favorable. Her stomach tightened even more.
“Flora,” he said softly, once the door was closed behind him, “I have received some marvelous news.”
She decided to play dumb. She did that a lot these days. “What is it?”
Eric’s eyes held the same gleam they had when she had agreed to be his girlfriend: a gleam of restrained excitement; gleam of acquisition.
“I am inches away from the biggest promotion of my professional life.”
Flora stretched a smile across her face. “Darling, that’s wonderful! How big is the pay raise?”
“Big enough to set us both up for the rest of our lives.”
She gave him a congratulatory hug, hiding her face in his shoulder so that he wouldn’t see her flinch at the word “us.”
“Now, now,” he said, pushing her away. “I haven’t made it just yet. All I have to do is attend the conference in Chicago next week, conduct a few sessions, and the promotion is mine.”
“Wonderful!” Flora repeated. He was looking at her as though he was not quite finished. She knew what was coming next.
“You’ll go with me, won’t you?” he said.
There is was. Flora’s heart sank. Her mind went back to the envelope of tickets in her purse. She should have remembered about the conference when she told her sister what night she could come to see the performance. Eric always wanted her to tag along to his meetings and events—why should this conference, made so important by the impending promotion, be any different?
She looked up at him, her stomach tightening again. “How long does the conference last, Eric?”
“Monday through Saturday. You know that; you keep my calendar.”
“Ah,” she said nervously. “Eric—why do I need to come?”
He leaned a hand on his desk with the air of a principle grilling a delinquent student. “Why wouldn’t you want to? I thought you’d be behind me all the way.”
“Of course I am! It’s just that—” She hesitated. He wasn’t going to like this. “It’s just that my sister’s play opens next Thursday, and she’s asked me to come.”
A crease formed between his black eyebrows. “Opens?”
“It’s the first time Hello Dolly’s been performed in years,” she explained, her voice growing higher and faster. “Eileen’s playing a major role and she really wants me to be there. She saved me tickets—I can’t switch them for any other night since the theater has completely sold out. I asked for two of them so you could come as well.”
Eric lowered his head and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. Flora’s stomach churned at this ultimate sign of disapproval.
“You knew about the conference, Flora. You knew that was coming up, and you planned on going to Eileen’s show anyway?”
“I had no idea you’d want me to go to the conference with you.” She was playing dumb again. She hated herself for it. “What good could I do?”
“A world of good,” Eric said, clasping her small, hot hands firmly in his cold ones. “You’re my other half. I need you by my side.”
Flora felt a pang of guilt. As her boss and as her intended, he had every right to ask her to be there. But her promise to her sister weighed heavily on her mind. She searched Eric’s face anxiously, wondering why being engaged meant that she had to split her heart between her love for Eric and her love for her family.
“You know how I feel about the theater, Flora. It’s a dirty, hypocritical business. You know why I say ‘hypocritical,’ don’t you? It comes from the Greek word—”
“Hypokrisis,” Flora said. She had heard it all before. As always, he described how the word was used to describe both Greek actors and dissembling cowards—and how he doubted there was any difference between the two. He talked about how the theater was a house of liars, and why would she align herself with those kinds of people? Then came his assertion that there was nothing real about the theater; how the theater is nothing but wooden painted backdrops and people in costumes pretending to be something they’re not.
“This law firm is real, Flora,” he said, winding down to his usual conclusion. “The money we earn, that’s real. The theater business your family is so deeply ensconced in, however, is nothing but a business of lies.”
“It’s all in good fun, Eric,” Flora said defensively. “And my sister—”
“Was very kind to reserve you some seats,” Eric said, completing the sentence for her. “But you’ll just have to tell her you’re sorry, but you have more pressing things to attend to.”
Flora felt her face flushing. “Eric, I promised her I’d be there!”
“She doesn’t need you to be there. What is it that you theater people say? ‘The show must go on’? Besides,” he added, folding his arms across his pinstriped chest, “you’re a grown woman. I know that acting was important to you once, but the days of playing pretend are over.”
Flora chose to ignore this slight upon herself and her sister. “Perhaps she doesn’t need me to be there. But she wants me to be. Besides,” she said, forcing a smile, “you can do well enough on your own at the conference, can’t you?”
Eric looked up at the ceiling the way Flora’s mother used to do when she and her sister were being particularly difficult.
“You may make your own decision,” he said finally. His face was the image of fatherly disappointment. “Let me know after lunch.” He turned on his heel and returned to his seat behind the desk. The conversation was clearly over. Flora went back to her receptionist’s desk, feeling defeated.
Several minutes passed before the office door whooshed open and she heard a sing-song voice call out:
“Good morning, Fabulous!”
She looked up and smiled as Maisha breezed in, her bangles jingling as she waved in Flora’s direction.
“You’re here awfully early, Maisha,” Flora said wryly. “It’s only 8:59.”
“Hush, girl,” she replied in mock reprobation. “I got held up at the ticket office. The line was unbelievable.”
Flora’s thin smile barely concealed the sadness beneath it. “The ticket office?”
“Don’t act like you don’t know why! Honey, you used to be knee-deep in the theater business! Don’t you know that the Hello Dolly Broadway revival is opening next week?”
“I’ve heard it’s going to be good.” She glanced down at her purse, thinking of the little white envelope hidden in its depths.
“Then go, child!” Maisha exclaimed, giving Flora’s desk a slap for emphasis. “And take ol’ Withers with you! That man could use a little variety in his life, if you ask me.”
“I don’t believe anyone did, Ms. Mukunda,” said Eric. He had opened the door to his office. Flora jumped a little in her seat.
“Sorry, Mr. Withers. But why not?” she said, smiling at her boss and her coworker. “Why not make it a date? A night at the theater! It don’t get much better than that!”
Flora looked at Eric. He was smiling, but there was tenseness to the smile that perhaps only she could detect. “Not everyone is of that opinion, Ms. Mukunda,” he said. “Now if you don’t mind….” He waved in the direction of Maisha’s desk, still smiling his thin smile.
“Right, right, I know. You’re not paying me to run my mouth.” She flounced over to her desk and sat down, catching Flora’s eyes for a moment before plunging into the mound of paperwork on her desk.
Lunchtime found Flora wandering through the paths in Central Park, her untouched sandwich keeping her tickets company in the bottom of her purse. She was watching the couples walking hip-to-hip through the nearly deserted park, taking advantage of the excuse for closeness the cold weather offered. By the way they were talking and laughing, she could tell they were happy. She wondered what it felt like, that happiness. Was it the same as what Eric told her they had?
Flora noticed a woman and her two daughters waiting at a hot dog stand. The family wore clean, but shabby winter coats that had probably been gleaned from the bottom of a thrift store bin. The mother looked tired, and her waitress’s uniform hung loosely on her thin frame. The two little girls, their impish faces covered in smears of ketchup and mustard, were bouncing up and down and pointing towards the park’s carousel. Though the food in their mouths muffled their excited pleas, Flora could tell that they wanted a ride.
Flora watched the mother look over to the carousel, then back to the expectant faces of her two daughters. The woman had yet to order her hot dog, but she held a few bills in her white fist as she hung in a moment of indecision. Finally, she pocketed the cash and shepherded her children towards the marry-go-round, the little girls chattering excitedly.
Flora watched the two little girls squeal with delight as the wooden horses went up and down, up and down in a never-ending circle as their mother looked on. Eric would have called it a childish and simplistic diversion.
Childish, yes. Simplistic, yes. But Flora had never seen two children more delighted. Entranced, she walked closer. Their mother’s eyes, like two diamonds in her thin face, shone with joy as she laughed at her children’s laughter. Up and down and around they went, cheering as if it were Christmas morning.
Creaking and groaning, the merry-go-round ground to a halt. The two girls protested in disappointment and turned their flushed faces towards their mother. She patted her pockets and shook her head. It occurred to Flora that the woman gave up her lunch just so her daughters could ride the merry-go-round.
Flora wasn’t sure what prompted her to do what she did next. Perhaps it was realizing the mother’s lunch had been sacrificed out of love. Perhaps it was the expressions on the girls’ faces, so suddenly disappointed after being so happy. Then again, perhaps it was a spark of her old self—her less polished self—that felt just as disappointed as the two little girls.
“Wait!” Flora was almost startled at the sound of her own voice calling out to the small family. Her hand plunged into her purse as she trotted towards the carousel. Pulling out her wallet, she fumbled around for carousel fare for four and plunked it onto the attendant’s counter.
“One more ride,” she said breathlessly. “For all of us.”
She jumped on the back of a white wooden horse, its frozen head reared and its stiff mane curling down over its back. With a groan, a whir, and the chime of a carnival song, the carousel launched its little herd of steeds into motion. The girls were laughing again, and Flora’s laugh soon joined theirs. Up and down, around and around Flora went on the painted wooden horse, feeling strangely new, as though she were no older then her friends on the horses behind her. Strangely new, strangely light, and free.
When the ride ended, the four of them tumbled from the carousel, the two small ones overjoyed that they had gotten one more chance to ride. Their mother thanked Flora and shepherded her girls away.
Flora almost thanked the woman in turn. She almost thanked her for showing her what love looked like. But she missed her chance, for soon the threesome was out of sight.
Flora had forgotten the cold, the tickets in her purse, and even that she was supposed to be at her desk fifteen minutes ago. All she knew was that her mind was made up.
She must’ve looked a sight, charging into the grey reception area with her hair windswept and her face flushed with energy and decision. The startled Maisha jumped in her seat and gawked as Flora strode across the room and marched into Eric’s office.
“Good afternoon, Darling,” she sang. “Sorry I’m late. I needed time to make up my mind.”
Eric’s thick eyebrows jutted towards the ceiling. Then he smiled. “Good. I’m sure your sister will understand.”
“Oh, no. I’m going to the play, Eric,” Flora said, feeling as light as though she were still on the back of the wooden horse. “I promised my sister I would be there, and a promise is a promise.”
Eric’s eyes told her that there was much he wanted to say but didn’t. “What led you to this conclusion?” he asked darkly.
“A walk in the park and a ride on a carousel.”
“What?” he said incredulously.
“Eric, there’s nothing wrong with simple pleasures. Simple things are beautiful when shared with people you love.”
“But the hypocrisy—the fakeness of the theater—”
“Yes, Eric,” Flora replied calmly, finally prepared with a speech of her own. “There is hypocrisy in the theater business. There’s hypocrisy in the law business. There is hypocrisy everywhere. But I would think myself a hypocrite if I didn’t follow through with my promise.”
Eric clearly was not accustomed to hearing Flora speak her mind. His face turned a startling shade of red, and Flora doubted it was from embarrassment.
“I am disappointed in you, Flora. I thought you were better than that.”
Flora looked at her fiancé as though seeing him for the first time. All these months, she thought that surely the man who could recite the law books backwards and forwards and break words down to their Greek roots would know the value of a promise. But now the truth was out, and she would be lying if she said she wasn’t disappointed.
“I could say the same of you,” she replied.
There was a palpable tension in the air as Flora and Eric faced each other. She could not, nor did she wish to imagine what Eric was thinking. All she knew was that her own thoughts were perfectly clear. She didn’t have to be torn between her love for her family and her love for this man anymore.
Finally, Eric looked down at the paperwork on his desk and waved his hand dismissively. “You may leave.”
“Thank you, Mr. Withers,” Flora replied. “I think I will.”
It only took her fifteen minutes to gather her things haphazardly into a box. She was aware of Maisha eyeing her in amazement from across the room. It was only when Flora began furiously scribbling a note on a sheet of paper that Maisha finally spoke up.
“Girl, what in heaven’s name are you doing?”
“I’m going to the theater,” Flora replied. With that, she grabbed her purse and her box and walked out of the room, leaving behind her a pair of stilettoes, a resignation letter, and a ring.