INT. BACKSTAGE. NIGHT.
Nikki stood backstage watching the current performer and trying to ignore the butterflies swirling around in her stomach. If she leaned slightly to the left she could just see out past the stage and into a portion of the room, packed full of celebrities, millionaires and politicians, all reminding her how big tonight and the gala was.
A sound man approached her and helped put on her earpiece. She glanced back at Vanessa who was standing a few feet off, typing away into her BlackBerry. Nikki sighed and looked away, her nerves temporarily offset by a confusing feeling that something was missing.
The song ended, the singer bowed and exited stage left. Nikki mentally shook herself, struggling for focus. This was it. This was the moment and she had to do it and do it right. She could. She had the ability she just had to use it.
The stage director signaled to her. She pulled on a smile, kept her knees steady and walked out onto the stage.
A desperate thought of panic flashed across her mind. What was it she was supposed to do? What would make it a success? Sure she’d won an audience over many times before, but she’s lost them before too. What had she done right? How could she repeat it? Maybe it was all just luck?
She silently snapped at herself to shut up and sing. Keep it simple and authentic, that had been Clint’s advice, and he hadn’t steered her wrong yet.
She stepped up to the microphone, and nodded to the musicians behind her and just let herself sing.
Somewhere into the first chorus she forgot the gala, she forgot Vanessa, she even forgot Clint. She sang, and it was fun and it was natural. She was confident. She felt strong.
And then it was over. She barely realized she was at the end until the last note faded. People were clapping, she was beaming, and she could feel deep down in her very bones that it had been good.
She gave a small wave, bowed and left the way she had come on. Vanessa greeted her eagerly, shaking her hand enthusiastically.
“Well done Nikki! That was wonderful!”
Nikki grabbed a water bottle out of a mini fridge and took a long gulp as she and Vanessa retreated further backstage. “Thanks! I think it went okay. They seemed to like it.”
Vanessa held up her phone. “There already been a couple of comments on social media. This was definitely your night! Anyways, there’s the table out front for the performers. Have a fun evening, but remember this is a great opportunity for networking.”
“Let me just freshen up.” Nikki ducked into her dressing room and sat down in front of a mirror and started to reapply her makeup. She took out her earrings and slipped them into her purse, they were heavy and uncomfortable and she didn’t want to wear them for the rest of the evening. She put in an extra bobby pin to keep her hair in place and then exited. A coordinator waiting outside the door for her, guided her out front and to her assigned seat.
The other performers who had already been on stage, greeted and congratulated her and then she settled down to watch the other acts. Afterwards the dinner was brought out and plates set down at each place. As everyone chatted and ate, several people came over for a few words with Nikki, complimenting her performance and a couple of them commenting she should give them a call soon.
It felt exhilarating. It felt in some way like it used to, when her career was first on the rise except this time there seemed to be an added respect. Yet as the evening ticked on something felt off. Nikki couldn’t quite put it into words. She felt an urge for something but didn’t know what. There was just something missing, something nagging at the back of her mind…
It was halfway through the main course, when she abruptly dropped her fork. The person to her right glanced over and asked if what was wrong.
“Nothing. I just figured out…” She shook her head and then reached for her fork but stopped and pushing her plate away instead, picked up her purse. This was suddenly the last place in the world she wanted to be. “It was so good to see you again,” she said, nodding to a couple of the people at the table. “I’ve got to go.” She stood up, ignoring their confused looks, and made her way hurriedly towards a side door.
She came out into a hallway and took it back towards the rear of building and the back exit. It led out into a small alleyway. She turned down it, away from the front of the building and the photographers waiting there. She practically jogged down two blocks, excitement, nerves and a voice asking her how stupid could she be to not realize this sooner, urging her on. She reached a large street and stood on the corner, trying desperately to flag down a taxi. One finally pulled up to the curb and she got in and gave an address.
She watched out the window as they drove along. Vanessa was going to kill her for dashing out. There’d be a lecture about the lost chance to restore some connections, not to mention the lost publicity for avoiding the photographers on the way out. But she honestly couldn’t care. She’d learned to tune Vanessa out ages ago.
The taxi pulled to a stop and she pulled a wad of cash out of her purse and threw it across the partition into the front seat.
“Keep the change!” She called, already leaping out of the taxi.
She was outside a tall, rather nondescript apartment building. She pulled out her cellphone to check the apartment number, and then headed inside and took the elevator up to the sixth floor. She bounced on the balls of her feet nervously as the elevator rose up and when the doors slid upon she burst out of it like a shot.
She practically ran down to apartment 30D and knocked loudly and persistently on the door.
The door swung open. Clint stood in the doorway, a beer in on hand and some cash in the other. He blinked at her in surprise.
“Oh. I thought you were the pizza,” he said, holding up the money. “Uh…anyways…” He placed down the beer and money on a side table and looked back at her, looking very confused. “What are you doing here? I was expecting a call-, did it not go well?” he asked, suddenly concerned.
“No,” she shook her head quickly, and beamed at him. “It went great. I was great…if I say so myself,” she added a little sheepishly. “Everyone seemed to like it and I talked with some big people in the music industry and even Vanessa was happy with the performance.”
“Great,” he smiled at her. “But I thought you were staying afterwards for the dinner?”
“I was,” she said. “And I was there, and it was really great. So many people came over to talk to me. People, who haven’t given me the time of day a couple years now, were falling over themselves to say how much they loved the performance. The president of IAA even came over in person to thank me for appearing. It was all fantastic. But,” she added, slowing down a little, “It felt wrong. I wasn’t having quite the fun I thought I would. I couldn’t really enjoy it and I suddenly realized why.”
Clint continued to look at a loss.
Nikki clutched her purse nervously, but refused to look away from him. “You know so many people have told me what to do. Ever since my first single people have told me how and what to sing, what to wear, how to act, what not to do, what to do. The label has told me, my publicist, my last manager, my family, the talk shows, the tabloids. They’ve all told me. So many people keep giving me advice, and you know what? I ignore them. I’ve always ignored them. Sometimes they were really stupid and sometimes they were probably right. Sometimes they sugarcoated it and sometimes they tried to tell me like it was. But it never made a dent. And then you come along. And suddenly I’m doing exactly what you tell me too. I throw out over three fourths of my wardrobe. I completely ignore most of my friends and barely go out anymore. And I take every piece of career advice you give me. It doesn’t make sense. You’re not a professional. You don’t work in the industry. You’re a photographer. People keep wondering why it’s you I’m listening to. Vanessa sure as heck wonders. You’re right, you’ve been right, your way is actually working but of all the people I was finally going to listen to, why on earth was it you?”
Clint’s eyebrows were raised and he was looking torn between amusement and confusion. “I…don’t know?”
“I do. I figured out tonight, when I was at that gala, and it was my night and it still felt all wrong. And you know why it was wrong? Because I didn’t want to be there celebrating with them, I wanted to be celebrating with you; because it wasn’t my night at all, it was ours. And the second I figured that out, I figured something else out too. Exactly why it was you.”
“And why is that?”
She grinned. “You’re really not as smart as you think you are.” Nikki took a step forward and wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. For a moment Clint was frozen, just standing there unresponsive, and then he was kissing her back, his arms were wrapping around her. Without breaking the kiss, he pulled her back into the apartment, and shut the door with his foot. When the delivery man knocked on the door five minutes later, they both ignored it.