The roar of the audience faded into a gentle post-show hum as the curtain fell and stayed closed for the final time that night. The atmosphere backstage was electric as usual; the audience had been fun, the rigging had worked flawlessly, and everyone had had a great time. Two weeks into the pre-Christmas run of Hairspray, and already the vibe was good. The show was a sell-out nightly, and the rush line was always packed to bursting from three in the morning. New York approved of the show, and for good reason. It was a cheeky take on the classic Hairspray, all the same songs, but the script had been rewritten for a modern audience. It was a huge hit, especially after the horrors of a year-and-a-half-long shutdown thanks to the pandemic.
Jessica removed her bouffant wig and ran a hand over her damp forehead. Alex’s hand had slid from hers, but the intent was there and her palm and fingers sizzled from his touch. The tension between them both had been palpable since they’d met at the auditions, put together for the shortlist to perform together. He’d been cast early on as Link, and they’d spent an age trying to find a Tracy that had a chemistry with him. Jessica had been just that.
As the rehearsals went on, the tension between them had increased, although the rest of the cast didn’t notice anything because both Jessica and Alex were staunch professionals.
That, and Alex was married.
But that only served to distract from the stolen moments as the curtain closed each night, the lingering looks to each other from the wings, the gentle touches on stage that the audience and cast took to be stellar acting. The final kiss always had the audience screaming hoarse, but no-one knew just how real that kiss was.
“You were amazing tonight, as always.” Alex stood in the doorway of Jessica’s dressing room, his hair damp – yet still glued in place with hairspray and gel – from the performance. Jess had unwrapped her own hair from her wig cap, and had removed her mic and wiring.
“As were you,” Jess murmured, colouring slightly. Her throat went dry.
“I don’t have a lot of time, Jess.” He stepped inside and closed the door. “I need you. Soon. Please. I can’t do this anymore. Not like this.” His heart hammered in his chest.
“You think it’s easy for me? A single kiss at the end of every show... that’s what I’m fucking living for. It’s the only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning.” Jess’ British accent was a stark contrast to Alex’s soft, gentle American. She stood and moved to him. Both of them were still damp with sweat, neither of them had changed yet. The dressing department would be looking for them both soon enough. She took the front of his shirt in her hands and kissed him. “But what about Claire?” She took his hand and looked at his now-vacant ring finger, where his wedding band usually sat. “She’ll be heartbroken if she finds out.”
“It’s not working, Jess. It was a mistake as soon as we both said ‘I do’.” Alex kissed her again. “Dressing is looking for us both. Think of something? You’re a better planner than I am. I need an out.” Jess nodded.
“We have a break tomorrow. I’ll think about it.”
It was almost Christmas by the time the moment came. Jess and Alex had had their usual kiss, the post-show hand-holding, the slightly-too-long hug. It was too much to bear any longer. The audience had gone wild again, standing for them, applauding so loudly they thought the lighting rigs up top would give out. They never did, though. Applause like this was normal.
The party that evening was in full swing by the time they got there. Cast members, swings, and all the behind-the-scenes crew were there, laughing and eating and drinking. Stolen glances here and there as Alex and Jess drank a little more champagne, ate a little more food, scooted a little closer to each other… the atmosphere and the cosiness of it all was almost so unbearable, Alex nearly kissed her then and there. But he didn’t, because they were surrounded by seventy people who adored his wife. To be reckless now would be to destroy everything, and destroying everything wasn’t the right way. Especially not if Alex and Jess wanted careers on the stage to continue well into the future.
“I need to get away from here, fast.” Jess’ voice in his ear was bliss. Looking around the place, most people were already quite drunk, or heading out. Sharing a cab to the same area wouldn’t be too random… But Alex didn’t get a chance to discuss a plan with her. She stood. “Guys, I think I’m going to head home! I have a physio in the morning and I want to be somewhat fresh for it!”
“Come on, Jess! Stay!” Cindy, who played Penny, whined melodramatically. “You never stay out!”
“It’s already one, Cin! And I’ve a seven o’clock appointment!”
“I should probably go home too, actually,” Alex said, stretching. He feigned being a little more drunk than normal. But he didn’t linger to say goodbye. He left for his coat.
“He’s so drunk,” James, who played Seaweed, grinned, shaking his head.
“It’s alright, I’ll make sure he’s not passed out in the street when I head out. I’m going to go say goodbye to the others. Stay safe, guys! Merry Christmas!”
Outside, Alex had already started walking along, away from the club. Away from prying eyes. They climbed silently into a cab together, and as soon as the door was closed, Jess was on him, kissing him softly. The cabbie, used to that kind of thing, didn’t pay them any attention as he drove towards the Upper East Side, to the beautiful apartment overlooking Central Park Jess had. Once they were there ten minutes later, Jess handed a note to the cabbie, told him to the keep the change and have a Merry Christmas, and wasted no time pulling Alex into the apartment complex.
In the elevator, Alex pressed Jess against the wall, his hands cupping her entire head as he kissed her deeply, entirely lost in her. He’d never had this, not with Claire. Never this kind of passion. Claire had been a safe bet, since he’d been with her so long. But the lust and romance had been lost on her. She was too safe. And safety… it had been boring. But even just kissing Jess, with the anticipation and build up that had been happening for months, since they’d been cast… it was like a drug, like electricity. Every time he went home, he realised more and more that the idea of marriage he’d been fed was like eating stale plain white bread, knowing there was a huge, decadent chocolate cake on offer.
The elevator dinged and the doors opened. Jess pulled him out, along a corridor where there were only four doors. This complex was huge, soundproofed, and Jess paid only half what she usually would, since her mother worked in the business and had purchased the apartment to live there for two or three months out of the year. That meant Jess only had to keep up with the bills and taxes.
“This one,” Jess whispered, struggling with her key in the lock.
“Hey… calm down…” Alex whispered, pressing himself against her back. He kissed the side of her neck, taking the key from her. “Relax… we’ve the entire night… and most of tomorrow…” his words were heavy and sent a shiver down Jess’ spine. He noticed and laughed softly, taking the key from her trembling hand. He unlocked the door and let them both in, his hand at the base of Jess’ neck, fingers tangled in her hair. No sooner was the door closed, both of them were on each other, struggling to get skin onto skin.
By two-thirty, as the city lights glittered outside the large window, Jess’ body arched in a beautiful silhouette, glistening with sweat as she shivered and surrendered to her third climax. Bodies on fire with exertion and overstimulation, Alex watched her in awe, spent beneath her, his trembling hands gripping her hips. He caught her as she slumped forwards, encasing her in his arms, both their chests heaving.
“We just made things a lot harder, didn’t we?” Jess murmured, tracing little circles on his soft stomach. That’s what she liked about Alex. He was cuddly, soft, not a wall of solid muscle. He had talent, and his eyes made her melt every time they looked at her.
“I mean, it was harder pretty much as soon as I was in that taxi.” Alex’s chuckle was deep in his chest. Jess batted him lightly. She looked up at him.
“You know what I mean.”
“You don’t regret it, do you?”
“Absolutely not… but that’s the thing. I’m not attached to anyone.” She took his left hand and spun the wedding band around his finger. “You are.”
“I won’t be. Not for long.” Alex kissed her knuckles. “It hasn’t been working, Jess. I thought maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough with her, but…” he closed his eyes. “Marriage isn’t what I thought it would be. And I hate it. And I don’t think I should really hate it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean…” he pressed his lips together. “My parents married young and had me. They have the ideal relationship. They’ve passion, though. Claire and I haven’t had that since… God.”
“Since God?” Jess’ attempt at humour got her a wry grin. “I get you.”
“Do you?” Alex shifted a bit, resting his arm behind his head so he could see her. “I bought into that institution for years. I couldn’t wait to find the girl of my dreams and get married and have kids…”
“Maybe she’s not the right person. I think that’s a pretty large part of it.” Jess lifted her hips so he slid out of her, the sensation making her gasp a little. “Sorry.” Alex stroked her cheek. “My parents are happily married too, but my mum married twice before she found my dad. Once when she was way too young, and the second time was to some abusive prick.” Jess gave a shrug. “They had me when they were in their mid-thirties. And I was so glad to leave home, because my God they were at it like no-one’s business most nights.” She shuddered.
“So… what you’re saying is, it shouldn’t matter how many times?”
“I mean…” Jess spread her fingers out across his chest. “Yes, it should matter. Because marriage isn’t just some piece of paper like pessimists think. It’s a whole other thing. It’s committing to live with someone and build a life together. My mum told me only to marry the person I’d trust to make a good judgement about turning off my life support if the time came to it.” Alex burst out laughing. “What? I think that’s a fair assessment of if someone’s fit to marry you.”
“I’m laughing because it’s actually the best way I’ve heard it described,” Alex chuckled, wiping his eyes. “But that’s the thing. I think I would trust Claire with that.” Jess’ heart and stomach dropped. She couldn’t lose him. Not now. Alex looked at her. Her face betrayed her. He took her chin between his thumb and index finger. “But… I realise it’s in the same way I’d trust my mom. Because she’s been there since forever and she’s like a best friend. But she probably should have stayed as a best friend…” He gave a shaky sigh. “I just don’t know how anyone will take it when I tell them I want a divorce. I guess I thought being locked in with her during the pandemic, it would have rekindled something.” Jess rolled off him and made her way to the bathroom. Alex’s eyes tracked her lithe body. How someone like her had fallen so hard for someone like him…
“What, like those couples who did the dirty every day for something to do? Quarantine babies? Lockdownborns?” Jess’ voice echoed slightly from the bathroom. There were the sounds of running water, and then she appeared with a toothbrush stuck in her mouth, two hair ties around her wrist.
“Sure. But nothing happened. It was much the same, day in, day out… I mean, I don’t blame her for that, but it really wasn’t what I’d hoped for. I thought some time together would help, but since she wasn’t really able to do her job from home after a few weeks, she got irritable.” Jess nodded. Like Alex, she’d had the benefit of voice acting through lockdown, and both of them had held some online acting workshops to keep up morale, both as Broadway’s poster couple du jour. Those brief chats with her had been the highlight of his entire week. Texting her and quick, chaste phone calls or video calls with her while he took Kevin on a walk for some air… it hadn’t been enough. He’d spent his time wishing Jess was locked down with him, not Claire. He told Jess as much as she rinsed out her mouth.
“Well, you know what you need to do, then, don’t you?” Jess said softly, without malice. She felt bad for Claire, stealing her man. “It sounds to me like you’d already made your mind up even before lockdown, if you were questioning it.”
“I guess I had.” Alex gave her a rueful smile. “I just don’t know how I’m going to face telling them all I want a divorce, because I’ve found someone who actually gives me a little bit of pep…”
“Someone who’s revived your faith in the institution of marriage?” Jess purred, tying her hair back in a high ponytail. Alex’s eyes flashed with hope, and Jess crawled over the large bed towards him.
“That’s all you want me for, isn’t it?” Alex smirked. “A ring?”
“Mmm, if that helps you sleep. I mean, really I’d rather just know that I can scream from the rooftops that you’re mine, because keeping this a secret is going to absolutely kill me.” She straddled him and kissed him. “It killed me through the lockdown, too. I hated being alone… trapped up here in this glass fucking cage.” She kissed him again. “Seeing you kept me sane.” Alex reached up and took hold of her hair. “Be careful, doing that.”
“Oh? Why?” Alex murmured, tightening his grip.
“Because we have to leave here at two to get to the show on time… if you start with all that… well, you’ll have to figure out why the title stars are lacklustre…” Alex tightened his grip again and pulled her head back slightly, kissing her throat.
“If that’s what you’re into, baby… then let’s play.” Jess looked at him, her pupils entirely blown, before moving down his body and taking him in her mouth. Almost two years of pent-up sexual tension and energy kept them going again and again, every which way, until they both fell asleep around five, and woke up at eleven. A quick shower together (with, of course, a ‘final’ round to cut more of the tension), and then breakfast delivered from the local deli, and Alex realised he still had his clothes on from the night before. Jess said nothing, smirking.
“I guess you’re having the walk of shame banter today, then, love.” She straddled him in the armchair.
“There’s half an hour before we need to leave…”
“Better make it count, then.”
“God, I love you.”
“I love you.”
Alex and Jess kept their relationship quiet for a few more months, meeting in secret whenever they could. It wasn’t unheard of, since they were both the lead roles of the play, but that time was spent doing anything but rehearsing. Alex filed for divorce from Claire, who’d at first spat vitriol at him and informed him with complete and utter certainty that she’d been sleeping with others who actually made her feel something, and who had actual jobs, rather than some soon-to-be washed-up Broadway star trying to cut his teeth making it big. But when her usual insults didn’t work (Jess informed him that it was in fact abusive, the way she spoke to and treated him), she changed tack, and begged him to stay.
But the damage was done, and Alex realised that the gut feeling he’d had since he’d completed his vows and signed the registry had been true. Claire had been seeing other men, and the institution of marriage that he’d respected as a young man had dissolved around him as he handed over the fully-signed divorce papers to his attorney, Jess waiting outside for him.
“Done?” Jess asked, as Alex came out of the office. Alex nodded.
“Done. Now, you said something about screaming it from the rooftops?” he pulled her close and kissed her softly, his deep hazel eyes sparkling into hers. He was naturally upset, but he had her. And Jess adored every facet of him. Claire left the attorney’s office too, and saw them both lost in each other.
“Didn’t wait so long for the rebound, then?” Claire spat bitterly. “Or have you had auditions for the next Bateman Broadway Babe?”
“You should start acting too, Claire.” Alex smiled at her, his arm around Jess firmly. “You’d win a Tony for how fast you switched from ‘I’m cheating on you every week’ to ‘please don’t leave me’.”
“At least it would be an actual win, rather than a nomination.” Claire’s eyes flashed. “I have to go. Have a nice life.”
With that, Claire stalked off, and Jess turned to Alex, who smiled broadly down at her.
“Dinner?” she asked. “My treat, to celebrate your freedom from Elphaba.”
“Our freedom,” Alex smiled. “And Elphaba had a redemption arc.”