After reading the message on the screen for what had to be the third time, she dropped her phone. At that exact moment, the horn blew, alerting travelers they had arrived at their destination. Passengers on either side of her pushed and shoved to exit the powerful machine of steel. Feet trampled over her phone as she bent down to grab it. Once she did, she re-read the message again. Unfortunately, the words were the same. Grabbing her luggage, she exited and thanked the porter as he helped her down.
She observed the sea of people going this way and that to find loved ones waiting on them as she entered the station. Finding a secluded area, the first thing she did was request an Uber. The second, was to call the person responsible for her sudden angst. He answered on the second ring.
“Are you serious?” she asked.
“As a heart attack.” He responded.
Her mind began to race. “Okay, I have to go.”
“Why so soon?”
"I…” she stuttered, “…I have to figure out what I’m going to wear.”
“I thought you already had an outfit picked out.”
“I did, but now this changes everything.”
“Why?” He asked.
“Because she’s going to be there.”
There was a pause before he said, “So?”
“Hello? Do you not remember who she is?” She yelled.
Standing outside Amtrack was loud and busy. Even with the noise in her background, she was still able to make out his loud sigh.
“How long has it been since you’ve even spoken to her? Five years?”
“Six.” She corrected and raised her arm when she noticed the silver Toyota Camry slowing in front of her.
“Okay, six years. She could be a different person now.”
She snorted before making herself comfortable in the backseat.
“I’m serious.” He insisted.
“Are you going downtown?” The uber driver asked.
“Elyse, are you listening to me?”
“Not really. Look, Jamison, I’m on my way home. I’ll call you later.”
She hung up the phone and looked out the window as the Uber proceeded to her apartment. For the first time in a long time, she noticed the scenery. A variety of trees stood confident and proud.
Are they confident and proud? Or are they hiding behind a masquerade?
Closing her eyes, she leaned back against the headrest and allowed her mind to wander to her dear old friend.
They had known each other since elementary school. Isabelle had transferred from another school during 5th grade. Elyse and Isabelle found they had a lot of things in common, including their love for Destiny’s Child and mac and cheese. Becoming fast friends, they did everything together; sleepovers, shopping, and even going to the junior high football games to flirt with boys.
It was a well-known fact in their class that Isabelle was smart. Not just average smart, but straight-A’s, smart. However, both of them had been named co-valedictorians of their middle school class. It was when they entered high school that Isabelle seemed to go from friend to foe.
Elyse had always considered herself smart. That was until that one day. It was near the end of their freshman year. Two boys, Brandon and Samuel, made the comment that they already knew Isabelle was going to be the Valedictorian at their high school graduation. That comment vexed Elyse. How could they say such a thing? They had three more years of high school. So what that Elyse had made a few B’s, while Isabelle had maintained a perfect 4.0-grade point average. Anybody could end up being valedictorian.
But not anybody had ended up as Valedictorian; Isabelle had. Not only had she graduated at the top of the class, but she had also been voted Senior Class President, Homecoming Queen, and Prom Queen. While Elyse had graduated Salutatorian, Vice President of the Senior Class, and the Senior Class Maid for Homecoming. She had ended in the number two spot every time.
After high school, they attended different colleges, yet had taken similar routes in their career. After college, they both attended ballet school. Elyse attended a ballet school in Philadelphia, while Isabelle performed in New York. Although they didn’t talk anymore, she would still see pictures of Isabelle on social media and hear about how she was doing from mutual friends, such as Jamison.
Today, Elyse worked as the Artistic Director at a profound dance theater. The performances of her dancers had resulted in several awards, recognition, and becoming the most well-known dance theater in the St. Louis area. Last she’d heard, Isabelle had to quit ballet after only four years due to an injury that resulted in surgery. Although the surgery went well, Isabelle had been informed that she wouldn’t be able to dance again. Finally, Elyse was number one.
Exiting the Uber, Elyse raced upstairs to change for tonight’s event. One of her dear friends, Blair Woods, was hosting an event in her honor. The party was to celebrate the accomplishment of the dance theater becoming the number one ballet school in St. Louis. Consequently, Elyse would be celebrated as well for all of the work she’d done to ensure her dance theater’s success. While she knew many of her friends were coming, finding out that Isabelle would be there made the night ahead just that much sweeter.
A few hours later, Elyse stood in front of her full-length mirror. Her makeup was flawless, bringing out the features of her honey brown skin and almond-shaped eyes. Her hair was perfectly coiffed in a classic updo for tonight’s occasion. She was pleased she’d chosen the long, strapless, black and white polka dot fit-and-flare dress. It was slender in the waist and extended at the hips. Her ensemble was inspired by Lucille Ball, whose style of dress was the epitome of elegance and class. That is how Elyse wanted to be perceived. Elegant. Classy. Confident.
Satisfied with her look, Elyse headed out the door.
At promptly, 8:05 pm, Elyse entered into the grand ballroom of the Hyatt Regency at the St. Louis Arch. The 18th floor showed a lovely view of the St. Louis Arch hovering over the Mississippi River. The sun had set, and the sky was mixed with shades of purple and blue, dancing together like two people in love.
Elyse began mingling with the guests. Most of them she knew, but there were a few unfamiliar faces. Several people came to her and offered their congratulations. Turning her attention to the stage, she saw a picture of herself lit up from the projector on the blood-red curtains. Below her face were the words: Elyse Norwood: An Exquisite Artist. It felt good. No, it felt better than good. It felt fantastic.
As Elyse searched for Blair, she was approached by several people who stopped her to congratulate her on all of her accomplishments. After what seemed like forever, she finally found her friend.
He stopped, mid-bite of stuffing his face with a shrimp eggroll, to see who called his name. Jamison looked handsome in his navy and gray suit. It complimented his warm caramel skin well. When his eyes fell onto her, he tossed the eggroll into his mouth and began walking her way.
“Elyse,” He kissed her cheek. “You look great.”
“I know.” she replied with a laugh.
She looked out at the crowd of people.
“Looking for someone in particular?” He asked with a knowing gleam in his light brown eyes.
She shrugged her bare shoulders. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He eyed her incredulously. “Are you the same person I spoke with a few hours ago? Admit it. You’re dying for her to be here.”
Elyse couldn’t stop the smile the crept onto her face. She and Jamison had been friends for years. As such, he knew her better than anyone. Still, she didn’t want to admit to him that he was right.
“Everything looks great, doesn’t it?” she asked motioning to the room.
“Yea. Blair did a great job.”
The atmosphere was lively. People were eating, drinking, and chatting. She glanced at the time on her phone. The event had been going on for almost half an hour. When she felt a tap on her shoulder, she looked into the face of the woman she’d been looking for.
“Blair, where have you been?”
“All over, child, all over.” Blair said with a wave of her hand before hugging Elyse.
“Hi, Jamison. It’s nice to see you.” Blair greeted him with a hug and a warm smile.
“You too, Blair. I was just telling Elyse how great everything looks.”
“Thanks, doll.” Blair returned her attention to Elyse. “Are you ready? This is your show after all.”
Elyse searched the room again. She didn’t see anyone else of particular interest so she replied, “Yes, I’m ready.”
Blair nodded and took to the stage to stand behind the podium. “Good evening, everyone! Thank you so much for coming. Tonight, we celebrate, Elyse Norwood and her dance theater.”
Everyone clapped as the video began to play. Lights dimmed, the voiceover boomed, and yet Elyse’s mind began to drift. Looking around, she saw a familiar face. The woman sat looking at the screen attentively; smiling beside a handsome man. Even in the dimness of the light, Elyse recognized her.
After the viewing was over, Jamison found Elyse.
“Elyse that was great. You should feel so proud of yourself.”
Ignoring his compliment, she whispered, “She’s here.”
Jamison raised a brow and begin looking around. “Who?”
Elyse returned her gaze to where the woman sat. She was gone.
Before Elyse could respond to Jamison, one of his friends caught his attention and he told her he would be right back. Since he’d deserted her, she headed to the appetizer table.
She turned around, and her eyes locked with Isabelle’s. She stood beside the handsome man she was sitting next to earlier. Isabelle moved towards Elyse to hug her, but Elyse didn’t return it. She didn’t move. She couldn’t. When Isabelle stepped back, she introduced the man.
“This is my husband, Jerry.”
Jerry extended his hand and took Elyse’s small hand into his.
“Elyse, it’s so nice to meet you.”
“Likewise, Jerry.” She lowered her gaze and noticed Isabelle’s stomach.
“Wow, you look f…” she stopped herself. Remember. Elegant. Classy. Confident.
Isabelle looked at her expectedly. Elyse painted on a smile.
“I mean you look fabulous. You’re practically glowing.”
“Oh, thanks.” Isabelle said, rubbing her protruding belly. We’re excited.”
“Yea.” Jerry agreed. “We can’t wait.” He placed his hands on top of Isabelle’s, and Elyse noticed the look of love in Isabelle’s eyes. For a moment, the two seemed to forget where they were as they embraced in a kiss.
Elyse coughed. “Well…” she said hoping to break up their magical moment.
“Isabelle! It’s so nice to see you!” Jamison reemerged and hugged Isabelle. She introduced him to Jerry. Jamison stole a glance at Elyse and asked Jerry if he wanted to grab a drink with him from the bar. Jerry kissed his wife and went off with Jamison.
After they left, Elyse spoke. “So, how far along are you?”
“6 months, and I am hungry all of the time.” She rubbed her stomach again and headed straight for the food. Isabelle loaded her plate with meatballs, shrimp eggrolls, and several cheeseburger sliders.
Elyse poured a glass of wine. “Want one?”
When Isabelle gave her a strange look, Elyse responded, “Oh. That’s right. More for me then.”
After taking a huge gulp, she asked, “So…what have you been up to all these years? I’d heard you’d become a ballet mistress. Although, it’s obvious you’re not doing that now.” Elyse’s gaze again went to the stomach.
Isabelle gave a small smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“No, that um…didn’t quite work out.”
“Oh?” Elyse asked with a raised brow.
Isabelle shrugged, and her smile reappeared. “That’s life. I’m now the high school cheerleading coach.”
Elyse almost choked on her wine. Her eyes widened.
Isabelle nodded; her mouth filled with a meatball. “Yes. I love the girls I work with. They remind me of how you and I used to be at that age. So young. So full of potential. With just the right guidance, they’ll achieve big things for themselves.” She seemed so cheerful, yet Elyse couldn’t understand why. She glanced back in the direction of the bar.
“Well, Jerry seems nice. How did you two meet?”
“At the school a few years ago. He’s a history teacher and the best husband a girl could ever ask for.” Her face beamed with happiness.
Elyse stared at her blankly. The girl that everyone thought was better than her was married to a high school teacher. The one who was once called the most graceful dancer was no more than a cheerleading coach. To top it all off, she was as big as a cow.
“So how does it feel being here?”
Isabelle’s round, blue eyes had a look of innocence in them. “What do you mean?
I mean seeing all that I’ve accomplished. “This event.” Elyse replied.
“Oh, it’s great. I’m so proud of you.”
That was not the response she had been expecting.
“Are you serious?”
Elyse was still skeptical. “Don’t you wish this night had been for you?”
Isabelle frowned. “Excuse me?”
“I mean, don’t you wish your life had turned out differently. That you became the ballet star that everyone expected you to be.”
“Honestly, no. I’m happy with my life now. Sometimes things don’t always turn out how you expect them to, but that’s life. There’s no use in being upset about it. Just accept it and move on.
“But everyone expected so much from you. They expected you to be this huge star.”
Isabelle waved her hand as she threw her plate away. “I’m not responsible for others’ expectations; only my happiness.”
Elyse opened her mouth to reply, but no words came out.
“Belle, are you ready?” Jerry had reappeared.
Isabelle broke eye contact with Elyse and glanced up at her husband, “I am.”
She returned her gaze to Elyse and gave her another hug. This time, Elyse hugged her back.
“You take care of yourself, Elyse. Congrats again.”
Elyse couldn’t muster up words. She simply nodded as Jerry and Isabelle exited the ballroom.
The next morning, Elyse sat on her patio, mentally replaying the scene between her and Isabelle. She couldn’t wrap her mind around how Isabelle could be happy with her life. Elyse was the one who had everything. She had the career, the awards, and the recognition. Isabelle and her husband probably brought home $40k a year combined. Sure, they were having a baby. Big deal. Elyse had esteem. She had status. She had popularity.
The vibration of her phone brought her back to the present.
“So how did it go between you two last night?” Jamison asked.
Elyse gave him all of the details. Leaving nothing out.
“Can you believe that? She tried to convince me she’s happy with her life. “
“What’s so hard to believe about that?”
She rolled her eyes, even though he couldn’t see her through the phone.
“Oh, come on Jamison. Who would be happy with that life?
“Isabelle, it seems.”
When Elyse didn’t respond, Jamison continued, “Tell me the truth, Elyse, why is it that you are so threatened by her.”
“I’m not threatened by her!”
“Well then, what do you call it?”
She sighed with frustration. Of all people, Jamison should understand.
“You know. You were there. She was number one at everything. Everything, Jamison.”
“In high school Elyse. That was a million years ago. Why does this still bother you? When did you convince yourself that you were number two?”
Elyse opened her mouth to deny what he was saying but couldn’t. She thought back to that day in 9th grade. Brandon and Samuel were making jokes about Isabelle being number one. However, Isabelle had never said that. Isabelle hadn’t even been in their class that day. But it was from that moment on that the competition began. When their senior year of high school came, the knife of feeling second best dug deeper into her gut. However, in truth, she was the one who had planted, watered, and nurtured those seeds of self-doubt. The only person who had convinced Elyse that she was number two, was herself.
Jamison was right. Ugh. She hated that.
Later that day, Elyse sat with her thoughts. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and she’d decided on lunch at Café’ St. Louis. As the waiter walked away with her drink order, she thought about her life. It had taken some self-reflection, but Elyse realized that both Isabelle and Jamison had a point. She wasn’t responsible for other peoples’ expectations, and there was no reason for her to be jealous of Isabelle or anyone else for that matter. Her accomplishments didn’t define who she was. She defined who she was.
Looking out the window, she noticed a woman with her hand on her back, wobbling to the entrance. Their eyes met, and she waved her in and smiled. As she waited for Isabelle to come in, she gazed upward and noticed the bright pink leaves on the Scarlet Oak Tree sitting in Forest Park. Shining brightly, they looked how she felt. Elegant. Classy. Confident. At last.