Chapter 5 – Love and duty, eternally at odds.

~~**~~**~~

There was a time when China cried with fire. Any family with power, money, or status was ripped down. 

Orphaned babies lined the streets. It was the Chinese Civil War, and men like my father were to fight, flee, or die.

My father was a young man, and his family fled to Taiwan for sanctuary.

He met a beautiful Taiwanese girl there, and he fell madly in love, they say.

And, like so many in his generation, he had another waiting for him at home. His story is not so unusual. Love and duty, eternally at odds.

~~**~~**~~

When Chandler finally got home, he didn’t feel like going into the house right away. He sat on the front porch, watching the sun gradually push its way up to light up the neighborhood, his mind running in circles around the night. He breathed in the cool, crisp air, trying to reserve this feeling.

He had finally dropped Ella off at nearly five in the morning. His poor driver had been dozing off as they had talked in the back of the car for hours. He had never met anyone like her, and he thought he probably never would again.

When he finally decided to go into the house, he found Landon and Maya sitting at the kitchen table in their bathrobes, holding hands and having morning coffee.

“So was it a success?” Maya looked up at him.

“Umm… I guess. I think.”

He caught a look at himself in the mirror. He had an expression of uncontainable happiness that betrayed him. He had never felt this way before.

“We have news, too,” Landon announced. “We got married last night. Well, we still need to go to the courthouse and make it official.” He leaned over, grabbed Maya’s face, and kissed her deeply.

Maya looked a little embarrassed and pulled her bathrobe closed tightly. She smiled at Chandler, breathless.

“It was an eventful night.”

“I can see that.”

Chandler looked at Landon, who winked comically. Maya made a shocked sound and hit him on the back of his head.

“Anyway,” Landon said exaggeratedly slow. “We’re going to register for a marriage certificate soon. We need a witness. Would you be my best man?”

“Wait, what about me?” Maya chimed in. “I don’t know any girls here.”

“How about your new girlfriend, Chandler? What’s her name?”

Chandler was having a hard time taking this whole scene in. And his head was still reeling with her name.

“Ella,” he said. “Ella Page. And she’s not my”— He paused. He wasn’t really sure. He did know he wanted to see a lot more of her. And if he knew anything about women—anything at all—she did, too. “I… guess I can try asking her tomorrow at school.”

~*~*~*~

After class, Chandler ran over to the practice rooms where Ella said she’d be. He peeked into each room as he searched for her. When he found her, she was in the middle of playing, so he decided to sit outside on the floor and wait.

The door opened and Ella almost tripped over Chandler.

“You are such a creeper.”

“Just waiting for you.”

“Some would call it stalking.”

“You told me you’d be here.”

She looked at him for a moment and finally conceded a smile.

“Lucky for you, I think you’re sweet.”

“I wanted to ask if you’d come with us on Friday.”

“For what?” Ella asked.

“My roommate Landon and his fiancé got married last night and they need a best girl when they get their marriage certificate.”

She raised one eyebrow, a tiny smile on her lips. “It’s called a bridesmaid, silly. And I do love weddings… but I don’t know them.”

“But you know me. And Maya just moved here, she doesn’t know anyone, so it would really be doing her a big favor.”

She looked at him for a moment, then started walking toward the main door. “You are a strange guy,” she said.

Chandler followed her. “Will you come? Please?” he begged.

She stopped and put a hand on her hip. “You’ll pick me up?” she said.

“Yes, yes.”

She opened the door, smiling coyly, and said, “What do I wear?”

“Wear red. Red is for weddings.”

“I don’t think—“She paused. “Okay, fine. See you then.”

“I’ll pick you up at 9 a.m.”

Chandler got in his last word before Ella disappeared out of the hallway.

~*~*~*~

Chandler got up early and found a red shirt and a plaid red bow tie, which he paired with a vest and a dark gray suit. He regarded himself in the mirror; his face betrayed his excitement. No one had ever asked him to a marriage ceremony and he wanted to make sure he did everything right. He’d even called Mr. Butler to ask what he should wear. He paced around his room until there was a knock at the door.

“Ready to go?” Landon asked.

“Yes, yes. We need to pick up Ella.”

Chandler walked out of the room with sweat on his forehead; he hardly even noticed Maya.

“Vintage,” she said in the car.

“Huh?”

“It’s vintage. Took me forever to find it.”

“Find what?”

“The dress, idiot. It’s my wedding day. Stop being so self-absorbed.”

Chandler flushed, but she had a smile on her face. Sometimes he didn’t understand American humor.

“You look… beautiful,” he replied.

And she did. The light sundress hit her calves and the eyelet fabric hugged her body in just the right places. Her hair curled and spilled around her face in a way that looked accidental—but Chandler was pretty sure it had taken her a lot of time and effort to get it that way. Girls were like that. Spending an hour on their makeup to make it look like they weren’t wearing any at all. At least that was what Maya had told him.

She’d also hinted at the implications of Ella’s appearance—or at least what he’d told her—always impeccable, always casually perfect. He wondered how long it took her to get ready in the morning.

To Chandler’s surprise, Ella was already waiting outside her sorority house.

“Look at that,” Landon said as they got in the car. “They’re in matching red. Looks like that’s our color, Maya.”

She laughed. “I always did like red, I guess.”

Landon pulled a red rose out and put it behind her ear. “Good thing,” he said. “They’re having a rose sale on campus. Half off.”

She hit him on the shoulder and they flirted while Chandler and Ella looked at each other a little awkwardly.

“You didn’t tell them?” Ella said.

“Red is for weddings,” he said, shrugging.

She gave him a strange smile. “Yeah. So you said.”

People paused to look as the group walked through the courthouse. Maya had a slight blush on her face as people stopped her over and over again to compliment her dress. While Landon finished some paperwork, a woman approached Chandler and Ella.

“Are you here for the ceremony?” she asked. Then, without giving them a chance to answer: “I love the matching red. So lovely! Follow me and I’ll help you check in.”

Ella’s face turned pink. She looked at Chandler, not seeming to know what to say.

“We’re the best man and maid of honor,” he said quickly. “They’re the ones getting married.”

He gestured to Maya and Landon, who—luckily—weren’t paying them a bit of attention. The woman looked embarrassed and returned to her desk. Ella smiled uneasily.

“Makes sense, I guess,” she said. “Look at us, matching like dorks, and they just look pretty normal.” She snorted. “Who wears blue to a wedding, anyway?” she gestured to Landon’s blue tie.

“Right. Red is”—

“For weddings. Listen, Chandler, have you never heard… something old, something new, something borrowed….”

She trailed off as he looked at her blankly.

“Gosh, you’re really… not from around here.”

After the ceremony, the four of them went out to lunch to celebrate and toast the new union. Chandler didn’t know how or when, but somehow Ella’s hand ended up in his.

To his surprise, Maya and Ella actually hit it off. Maya was impressed when she found out Ella wanted to be a concert pianist.

“Ella, I’ve got to hear you play sometime.”

Ella blushed. “That’s really nice, Maya. I do have a recital at the end of the semester. Maybe you guys would want to come?”

Chandler glanced at his phone—almost 3 p.m. He had a little surprise he’d been anxious to share.

“You guys had better get going,” he interrupted.

They looked at him, confused. He grinned.

“Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Gartner. I got the honeymoon suite reserved at the Hilton for the weekend for you. Wedding gift from me to you.” He paused. “Check in time is three.”

“Oh, Chandler!” Maya exclaimed.

The way she said it, Chandler wasn’t sure if it was a thanks or a chastisement.

“Wow,” Landon said quietly.

“Unless you had other plans for a honeymoon?”

“I don’t know what to say.”

Chandler couldn’t stop smiling. “The car’s waiting outside. Go have fun!”

Maya frowned, looking stressed. “Well, we need to go home and get our stuff, our clothes”—

“Maya, I don’t think we’ll need any of that,” Landon grinned at Maya and her face turned bright red.

“Landon’s right, you don’t need it. The hotel has toothbrushes, soap, pajamas, robes….” Ella was giving him an embarrassed look that he didn’t understand, but he continued. “And I can send whatever clothes you need to the hotel if you just tell me what you need.”

“Chandler,” Ella talked over him. “Why don’t you get a cab and take me back to the house and show me where you live?”

He looked around at Landon waggling his eyebrows, Maya with her face flushed, and Ella squinting at him like he was a child.

“What?”

“Come on, big boy,” Ella said, pulling him from the table.

As they left, Chandler heard Maya whisper to Landon:

“They are a nice-looking couple, aren’t they?”

~*~*~*~

Back at the house, the first thing that came out of Chandler’s mouth was, “So what do we pack for Landon and Maya?”

“Oh, Chandler,” Ella said.  She patted his hand. “They don’t need anything.”

He looked at her in disbelief. She gazed at him hard, as though she were trying to say something silently to him.

“Clueless,” she murmured, seemingly to herself. “What do people do on honeymoons, Chandler?”

He paused. Then he hit himself on the forehead. “I’m an idiot,” he said.

“The biggest,” she grinned. Then she looked around. “Well, Chandler, why don’t you make me a cup of tea and show me around?”

“I…. Umm, I don’t know how.”

“To make tea? Seriously? Aren’t you both Chinese and British?”

He smiled sheepishly.

“Travesty,” she said. “You’re an embarrassment to both races.” She grinned. “But you’ll fit in great here. Closest thing most people come to tea here is diet Coke.”

She went to the kitchen and started opening cabinets looking for tea. “Let me show you,” she said.

Learning from Ella was a step above Maya’s teachings. Where Maya would laugh at him when he made a mistake and correct him, Ella would touch his hand softly and smile sweetly and sometimes bring her lips close to his neck where her breath would tickle his ears.

Soon they were sitting in the living room drinking tea with Chopin’s Nocturnes playing in the background—Chandler had bought the music as soon as he heard Ella playing it in the practice rooms. He found it calming and wondrous. Sort of like Ella herself.

“You remembered,” she said quietly, her smile warm and soft.

Chandler put an arm around her and rubbed her arm. “I heard some Chopin while I was in school in Britain. But never played like you did. You’ve got…” he considered for a moment. “Passion.”

She shrugged. “I’d prefer talent.”

“Talent is a dime a dozen. It’s what you do with it that counts.”

“Others might disagree.”

He shrugged. “I find you wonderful, Miss Ella.”

“Ella,” she corrected him. She bit her lip and looked at him for a moment. She took a deep breath. “Do you want to dance with Chopin?”

He took her hands. “I want to dance with you,” he said.

They moved to the middle of the living room, their fingers intertwined and their bodies pressing close to each other.

“This music makes me sentimental,” she said. “I’ve been trying to play Chopin since I learned Chopsticks.”

She put her arms around his neck and ran her fingers through his hair. Her eyes locked on his, looking bright and full of dreams. Dreams he was excited to hear and learn and share with her. He felt strange, tingly…. Like something bigger than him was happening. Maybe it was sentimental, maybe it was plain stupid. But to Chandler, Ella was the only girl who existed anymore. On the whole planet. In his whole heart.

They danced and talked and touched with tenderness until the world disappeared around them. Ella never left the house that night.

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