The details of the story are hazy, but I have pieced together what I believe happened.
He was handsome, strong, smart, and, of course, wealthy. She had the exoticism that comes from growing up on an island of sunshine and spirits.
She was young and restless. Her family was old and on its last legs. They both insisted they were in love.
He asked if she would return with him to China.
They agreed to let her go.
Whether it was out of greed, love, or some other motive, I cannot say. I only wish they had not.
Ella was breathing in shallow gasps. She glanced out from behind the curtain and immediately closed her eyes. Chandler looked out, too. He smiled. Everyone was there—her classmates, her teachers, even Landon and Maya. It was perfect.
She didn’t seem to see it that way.
“I can’t do this,” she whispered. “I really, really… can’t.”
Chandler laughed and rolled his eyes. “You’ve already done it a thousand times, Ell.”
She shook her head. “That was in a practice room. Wearing sweatpants.”
“I seem to remember at least one time wearing nothing at—“
“Really not the time, Chandler!” she hushed him, looking around quickly.
He had never seen her this tense. She was rubbing her arms and blinking and looking around the little backstage area as though searching for a way out. But at the same time, she looked breathtaking. She wore a long red dress that sparkled when she moved. Her hair fell down her back like water. She was something else.
And he didn’t know what the big deal was, anyway.
“Look,” Chandler said. “I’ve seen you do recitals. You are always perfect. And this is one of the last ones. You’ve practiced and practiced, you couldn’t know this any better than you do now. You breathe this stuff. I know. I’ve been breathing it too.”
She smiled and squinted at him. “Other people practice eight hours a day, Chandler.”
“Other people don’t get a sexy Chinese boyfriend who makes them dinner, surprises them with trips to Paris, oh, and cleans up after them”—
She stopped. “Are you serious?” she said. “Paris?” Then she suddenly shook her head and started pushing him out of the backstage area, shaking her head and laughing quietly. “Not tonight, Chinaman.”
—“and puts up with their craziness, and takes them to amazing ballets, and lets them cry on his shoulder because of that one Julia Roberts movie”—
Ella put a finger to his lips. “That’s it,” she said. “I just forgot the whole thing. Your fault.”
He stopped and kissed her lightly. “You’re going to be amazing. Just play like you practice.” He paused. “And I’ll show you the tickets after.”
She looked at him, suddenly serious. It was like she hadn’t even heard the bit about the tickets. “You know I cry almost every time I play the last song.” Her eyes got wide. “Oh, no, this is going to be a disaster!”
“What?” Chandler took her in his arms and kissed her forehead. “What would make you cry?”
“It… it’s this piece that’s just—well it’s about… loss, right?” She started talking fast. “It’s about thinking you have something and it’s right there and you can feel it and touch it, and then you lose it. And it’s beautiful and it’s cathartic, but it’s just full of this—“her chest puffed out and she made a billowing, swelling gesture with her arms, as though her words just couldn’t do it justice. —“this emotion—and there’s only one thing I can connect with on that level.” She paused and looked at him guiltily. “You.”
“Remember when you took me to Swan Lake?”
“You cried like a baby.”
“It’s like I’m her, Chandler. I’m this swan… and you’re this prince, like this prince of China. And you’re not supposed to be with an American swan. So I hide with all the other swans, and… no one can see me but you.”
His mouth gaped open. “That’s crazy.”
“Is it? I mean… does anyone back home know about me?”
“Of course they do,” he said. “Mr. Butler, and…” he faltered. He didn’t really talk to anyone else from home anymore.
She was quiet for a moment. “So… there it is,” she said. “I’m the swan. And that song is about you.”
“Seriously, Ella. You spend hours every day in the practice room thinking about losing me?”
She tilted her head and scrunched her eyebrows. Her voice was high when she spoke. “Maybe….”
“That isn’t healthy.”
She bit her lip. “Well, it’s true. I am scared of losing you. You’re going back to Shanghai after graduation, and… we haven’t really talked…”
A girl in a black dress came up and tapped Ella on the shoulder.
“That was your cue,” she whispered urgently. “One minute.”
Ella’s eyes shot open wide. She stared past Chandler at the wall and her shallow, panicked breathing started back up again. Chandler quickly rubbed her arms and looked her square in the eye.
“Ella, listen to me,” he said. “Everything is going to be okay—more than okay. Great. You’re going to get out there and play your heart out, and think about whatever you have to to connect or get it going or whatever, and afterwards we are going to go out for a romantic, amazing dinner, or out with your friends, or whatever it is that you want to do. Anything. Heck, we can go to Paris tonight if you want. Just know that I love you. That isn’t going to change. We can talk about graduation later. But there is nothing to be scared about. Okay?”
She breathed out sharply. “Okay,” she squeaked.
He hugged her tightly. For a moment she was as limp as a fish. Then she hugged him back, kissed him hard, and turned on her heel. Chandler ran out and barely made it to his seat in time to watch her walk out onto the stage.
Ella looked astonished as she walked out. Her face was pale and she stared at the audience for a moment before making her way to the grand piano in the center of the stage. It was like she hadn’t been expecting this recital to actually happen. Chandler hoped with all his might that what he had said wasn’t making it even worse. He really did love her. He wanted her to know that. No, he didn’t know exactly what would happen after graduation… but that was a year away. He hadn’t even thought about what he was doing this summer. But then again, neither of them were planners. He hadn’t really been expecting a plan.
Chandler’s thoughts were interrupted as Ella’s fingers hit the keys and music filled the auditorium. A muted silence came over the audience. People around him leaned forward in their seats. He couldn’t blame them. Ella was captivating. Her body swayed with the music and her face showed every emotion. She was transformed. She was a goddess. Chandler suddenly felt small and insignificant in the face of the kind of beautiful sadness that lilted from the piano. He felt like he was in a dream.
He stared at Ella. This girl—this woman—who he loved so intensely, with so much fire he sometimes couldn’t stand it. She was the only thing in the world that could make him want to learn how to cook, to clean, to do laundry. She made him want so desperately to be… normal. And yet, she loved all of his “quirks,” as she liked to call them. Of course she didn’t realize that those “quirks” were actually the result of years of careful planning by his father, his teachers, and his entire family… but that was what was so special about Ella. She just saw him.
And she was this normal person with a regular upbringing, and with a dad who went fishing and had taken Chandler out for a beer over Christmas break and called him “son,” and with a mother who like to cross stitch, and with siblings and nieces and nephews, and this whole barrage of normalcy… and yet she was extraordinary.
She wasn’t special because somebody had manipulated her entire life to make her that way. She just… was. She had a passion for life, she felt things with an intensity that made Chandler tired sometimes. She was excited and scared and flashy and quiet and moody and pensive, all at the same time. He didn’t know how she lived, but there she was. Just like a swan—this beautiful, radiant beam of light, and he never knew what to expect from her, but it was always exciting. She made him want to live—really live. He realized that he couldn’t live without her. Not now, not after graduation, not in twenty years…. Not ever. With Ella, he could be the kind of man he always wished he were. He could be normal and extraordinary all at once. If he just had her with him it would be easy. He could do anything.
He suddenly understood what she felt. He didn’t want to lose her. And to think that what they had could just disappear, like a flash of sunlight, was more than he could handle. She had to stay with him. California, Shanghai, Kenya, for all he cared—he had to be with her.
When the recital ended and Ella stopped playing, the last note rang in the air, passing through the audience like a whisper. In a ripple, the applause started. Chandler looked around and saw tears streaming down faces. People jumped to their feet, applauding and whistling. Maya threw a bouquet of roses onstage and Ella gave her a hugely grateful smile. She beamed and took her bow. She caught Chandler’s eye and raised her eyebrows, smiling. He realized that he had tears on his own cheeks. He didn’t bother wiping them away. He wanted her to see.
Chandler rushed backstage as soon as he could and swept Ella into a deep kiss.
“You were incredible,” he said. “I could feel you with every note.” He didn’t care that it sounded cheesy. This wasn’t the time to hold back. “You just shone out there.”
Maya chimed in. “Ella, I have no words. You were truly magnificent.”
She smiled at Maya and started to respond but was immediately rushed by people shaking her hand, hugging her, congratulating her. Her teacher murmured something and Chandler heard the word brilliant. Ella’s face flushed. She held on tight to Chandler’s hand the whole time. He frowned as her grip tightened. She always held her fists tight when something was wrong. Was she upset about the conversation they’d had? Was she mad at him?
He could hardly wait to get out the door. Ella begged him to take her back to his house and just order some food in. As soon as they got inside she went straight to his bedroom, sat cross-legged on his bed, and started crying.
Chandler was horrified. “I’m sorry!” he said automatically. He paused and put his arms around her. “What did I do?”
“Nothing,” she said, sniffling. “I’m just so… embarrassed. This was my chance, I could have gotten into the UCLA orchestra, there were so many people there… everyone who matters.”
Chandler stared. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “Ella, you were incredible. Everyone was crying.”
She sighed. “Not the other piano majors. Not my teacher. Did you hear what she said?”
“Brilliant? I’ve never heard that used as an insult.”
“Okay… what she didn’t say. She didn’t even mention the orchestra, and she didn’t say anything about the actual technical performance. She said I’ve improved.”
She threw her hands up in the air and dropped her head onto the pillow.
“It’s over,” she said quietly.
Chandler hid a smile and rubbed her forehead. “Baby… do you think you might be overreacting?”
She sat up straight and scowled at him. He recoiled slightly.
“You don’t know, Chandler,” she said. “It’s like, every semester I have to perform for this panel and they just get to sit there and judge me, and if they’re having a bad day or I play a note too loud they’re allowed to tell me I have to change majors. And I feel like I’m running all the time just to keep up. And then there are those prodigies who just sail in there and play Mozart and get perfect scores, and the best teachers, and”—
“Ella?” Chandler interrupted. “I realize that you are… a girl. And you can be insecure sometimes.”
She frowned but he kept talking, chuckling a little.
“But you’ve got to understand that your recital was amazing. Your teacher did love it, and you can still talk to her about the orchestra. Listen, you have a gift. Yeah, you practice, and I guess if you wanted you could drop out of school and practice all day, but the reason your recital was so… moving was because of you, not an extra hour of practice.”
Her forehead wrinkled and she looked at him with big eyes, but a small smile played on her lips.
“Do you really think so?”
“If only you could see yourself. You’re like sunshine, Ella.” He paused. “And you’re good at piano, too.”
She laughed and sunk into his arms, sighing. He ran a hand through her hair.
“Okay, I guess I can relax a little bit,” she conceded.
They were quiet for a moment. She rested with her eyes closed on his lap.
“Ella,” he said quietly, “Remember when we talked about going to China?”
“I was a little drunk.”
He laughed. She opened her eyes and looked at him carefully.
Chandler shrugged. He had meant it when he’d asked her to go with him to Shanghai nearly a month ago. But they hadn’t talked about it since.
“Just wondering if it was still…”
She smiled and bit her lip. “Do you want to take me home, Chandler? I guess it’s only fair. You’ve met my family.”
“I don’t just want to take you home. I want… you.”
“You want me to up and leave everything and go with you to China for who knows how long?”
He looked out the window, realizing how selfish it sounded. “I guess,” he said quietly.
She caught him off guard with an enormous smile. “Why did it take you so long to ask me?” she said. “I mean, you’re like a prince over there, right? And I’ve seen pictures of Shanghai. It looks like New York on steroids.”
He grinned. “It’s better,” he said.
“Oh Chandler,” she sighed. “You can’t live without me, can you?” she sat up and stroked his face, a little mischievous smile on hers. “You’re so in love with me,” she cooed.
He laughed as she patted little soft kisses on his neck.
“You’re okay, I guess,” he said.
“One condition,” she said, snuggling up to him and taking off his tie. “You never, ever stop. And I’ll go anywhere with you.”
He grinned. “Anywhere?”
She bit her lip, smiling, and kissed him, playing with the buttons on his shirt.
Chandler grinned and clapped off the lights. He couldn’t imagine loving anyone more.