Paula gets a very bizarre phone call one morning, a little on the early side.
"It's a producer in England," her assistant says. "Something about song rights?"
Most calls Paula gets from producers tend to be about using her songs in a film. Sometimes she gets asked to choreograph for films. She just did American Beauty and a couple years before, Jerry Maguire. It keeps her in the loop in Hollywood, anyway. She's not completely gone even though her name looks awfully small in the bottom half of film credits, even on a big screen. After seeing her name in lights, after headlining her own tour, well. But she never says no. So she takes the phone now.
"This is Paula," she says. She's in bed, again. Recovering from surgery, again. She's entering the second week of bed rest, which she submits to only because she has no other choice. Standing up hurts too much. She goes to the bathroom and that's about it. There's a chair in her shower so that she doesn't have to stand for so long.
"You're strong," her doctor tells her. "And if you heal properly, you'll be stronger."
So, she stays in bed. She has a TV, she has books, and she has an assistant to bring her anything she requests. She holds the phone to her ear with some effort.
"Paula Abdul? My name is Simon Fuller."
"Hello, Mr. Fuller," she says. "What can I do for you?"
"I produce a show called Pop Idol. Have you heard of it?"
"No," she says. "Am I to understand this is about a copyright issue?"
"Let me tell you about the show. It's an interactive talent competition in which young men and women audition to become Great Britain's next pop sensation," Fuller says.
"So it's Star Search," Paula says.
"No, it's much more than that. The audience, the viewers decide who stays and who goes," Fuller says, clearly trying to sell something.
"So it's Star Search Karaoke," she says.
"What is it that you need from me, Mr. Fuller?" she asks. Her neck hurts and it's never the right time for transatlantic phone calls from strangers.
"The kids are singing your song, Miss Abdul," he says. "In order for us to air it, we need your consent."
"This is a conversation for my lawyer, Mr. Fuller. Please feel free to get the contact information from my assistant," she says.
"I will thank you. There was one more thing. The show is going to be a smash hit. We'd love to get you out here to do a guest spot,"
"Oh?" she says.
"My associate, Simon Cowell, can contact you about that. Expect his call?" Fuller says.
"Sure," she says.
She remembers the name for a few days, tells her assistant to watch out for the call.
The call never comes.
There is much fanfare and tooting of horns when American Idol finally comes to an end. They do what they always said they would, they go out on top. They find a good winner, they throw an insanely expensive and entertaining finale and they hug and cry and Ryan says goodnight from the stage for the last time. But at the end of it all, it's just a custodian sweeping up confetti and Paula is once again out of a job.
The next day Simon kisses her cheek. He's leaving for the airport to fly to London.
He says, "See you later sweetheart." She waves goodbye and it's not until he's already gone that she realizes she isn't sure when that's going to be.
Turns out, it's about fourteen months.
There are phone calls at first, for a while. Terri says hi and I saw you in People and I heard that you got that award but as time passed, those tapered off. Once in a while she'd e-mail him but it was a shoddy way of communication because he wasn't a computer person.
And then it is a year. It is May again, her first May without a finale in almost ten years and she wants to call him but there is so much space and time between them that she doesn't. She never thought this would happen but it has. Life without Simon is commonplace and even though she can't seem to call him, she hopes he'll call her but he doesn't.
It's not an affair, exactly, because they weren't dating other people, but once you're in your fifties, anything that doesn't end in marriage just feels a little sordid. Plus, they never actually told anyone so it was sordid and secret.
Seven months isn't a long time but it feels like seven months and ten years and Simon only came back to L.A. to do press on the new film he was producing not to stay through the winter.
He didn't call, the bastard. He never did. He just appeared at her house. She'd sold the old one and was living in a one story sprawling mansion in Calabasas now. The stairs were just hell on her back and this was all tile and hardwood floors, much better. The pool was bigger and the dogs loved the yard. She'd made a mint on the sale of the old house, too.
He knocked on the door like a salesman and she answered because her staff was small and part time now.
"Simon?" she'd said.
"Nice house," he'd said. He was holding tulips, clearly from the hothouse because it was not at all the season for tulips. They were pink, blush really and she hadn't known that tulips came in that color.
"What are you doing here?" she'd asked.
Twenty-five minutes later he was kissing her. Forty minutes later they were in bed.
Maybe she should have asked why. Maybe they should have talked about their relationship – even acknowledged that it was a relationship. Instead, they just mostly slept together. They never went out. She didn't tell her sister or her dad. He went back to London for a week at a time and then flew back. He worked out of his L.A. office and told the press it was because he missed the sunshine.
And then, after seven months, something didn't work quite right anymore. He snapped at her and she began to cry and they fought and then he left and didn't come back and she didn't go after him and that was that.
As the months pass, she thinks about calling him but they both know how it ends.
The tide of missing him is starting to overwhelm the tide of hating him. Well, the truth is she doesn't hate him but she did, for a while, hate herself for letting him get to her.
"Maybe no one else knew but I did," he says. "Why don't you just call him?"
"I'm old, Ryan. I don't have another fight in me," she says. "Some things just don't work."
"Do you want my advice?" Ryan asks.
"Not really," she said, rubbing her forehead.
"You did the whole love affair thing. You did the boyfriend thing and the marriage thing and everything in between. Why don't you just be with the person who makes you happy now?"
"In this little bit of advice that you're doling out here, am I to assume you think Simon is the one who makes me happy?" Paula asks.
"Um," Ryan says. "Yes?"
Paula hangs up the phone.
Paula has a dream that Simon comes back and when she wakes up alone in her bed, she begins to cry.
It's the morning of her 55th birthday.
In only hours her family will descend on her house. She no longer goes out for elaborate and expensive dinners. She's been off TV for years now and though her album did moderately well, especially on the dance charts, she never did tour and she doesn't have another album in her. Maybe she could do it, but for the first time she doesn't want to. She just wants to... be 55 and play with Austin's new baby girl and go to the occasional charity ball when she feels the need to wear something sparkly.
Her mom and dad always play nice for her birthday. They are both extremely old. Her mother is in a wheelchair now and her father comes over mostly to nap in her easy chair. No one has the energy for snippiness. Austin's wife, Lauren, is only 25 and makes Paula feel even older. She's tired and trying to pretend she's not while the baby is wailing in her arms.
"I'll take her, honey," Paula says. Lauren allows Paula to take the baby in her arms and then collapses into a chair in the quietest place in the house – the front hall. The baby is only four months and mostly just sleeps and cries and eats. Austin appears with a bottle.
"You don't have to, it's your birthday," Austin says.
"This is all I want to do," Paula assures him. The baby quiets with a bottle in her mouth and Paula keeps moving, always humming and walking, making a lazy loop through the open rooms of her house. She takes off her shoes before she enters the front room so her heels don't wake Lauren. The baby lets the bottle fall from her lips – she is sleeping. Paula sets it on a round table next to a blue vase filled with roses. They are from Alex who moved last year to New York, who never manages to get away. She is proud of him anyway.
The knock on the door wakes the baby only for a minute and doesn't even penetrate the fog Lauren is under. Paula is hushing and cooing when she pulls open the door. Outside is hot and bright but even with the backlight Simon's silhouette is painfully recognizable.
"Happy birthday," he says, softly.
"Thank you," she says, after a beat. She doesn't know what to say and so she falls back on etiquette.
"I know we haven't been speaking very much but you having a baby doesn't merit a phone call?" he says, trying his hand at a joke to ease the tension.
"This is Abbey, my grand-niece," Paula says. "Would you like to come in?"
"Paula I didn't just drop by to say happy 54."
"55," she corrects. "Then why are you here?"
"I am here to come back," he says.
"I don't understand what you mean," she says.
"If I come in right now, I'm not leaving again," he says. "Do you want me to come in?" In her arms the baby hiccups and starts to cry. Lauren comes to her side, out of her chair in a flash at the sound of her daughter's voice in distress. She looks at Simon but says nothing, just takes the baby from Paula's arms.
"Lauren, this is Simon Cowell," Paula says.
"Hello," Simon says from the porch.
"Lauren is Austin's wife," Paula says.
"Pleasure," Lauren says.
"Lauren, Simon wants to know if he can come inside. What do you think?" Paula asks. Lauren pats the baby's back in soft little circles.
"I thought you wanted a family only party," Lauren says.
"I am family," Simon pipes in and Paula gives him a look for interrupting.
"I used to watch you on TV," Lauren says. "When I was a teenager. Before I met Austin."
"You and every other 14-year-old," Simon says. Lauren narrows her eyes. "I am family, right?"
"Yes," Paula says. "In a way."
"You know, I think Abigail needs a change so I'm just going to..." Lauren excuses herself, fleeing the situation. Paula sighs and squints at him.
"In a way?" he asks softly.
"I don't know, Simon. What do you want me to say?"
"I want you to say yes!" he says.
"You broke my heart," she admits. "It's still broken. It can't handle another blow."
"I didn't come back to hurt you," he says.
"Swear?" she says.
"I promise," he says. "I swear."
"Okay," she says. "Come inside."
She thinks that they'll pick up right where they left off but it's completely different. He's open and he's confident and they go out with friends and he moves into her house. He comes back in June and by May she has a ring on her finger. It's her third marriage and his first. She marries him an ivory suit in her backyard and they're happy and it's wonderful in a way she never thought it could be.
She loses Simon in the spring even though she's the one fighting cancer. She goes to the doctor at least once a week and usually he drives her but this morning he felt tired and she drove herself. When she comes home, she's tired and she just wants to lie down for a while.
"Simon?" she calls. "Honey?" It's strange that he doesn't answer, stranger still that he isn't downstairs to greet her the moment her key slides in the door.
She goes back to the master suite to see if he's there and she finds him still in bed.
"Baby?" she says. His eyes are closed, his shoes are on and when she touches him to shake him awake, his skin is cold and clammy.
He's alive when they put him in the ambulance but he doesn't make it to the hospital. The doctor tells her he had a massive heart attack. Years of smoking and drinking; a high stress life style and a serious love of red meat.
"What do I do now?" Paula asks the doctor who only looks at her with sad but final eyes.
So Paula continues to do what she always does but now, she does it alone. Both her parents have long since passed and she lost Wendy two years ago in October from the same cancer that Paula herself is losing the battle to.
The thing of it is, since their marriage, they never spent a night apart and now she climbs into bed and can't fall asleep. And when she does, she wakes up and reaches for her husband but he isn't there.
It's a long year and she finally decides to decline any more chemotherapy or radiation. When she lost her husband, she lost herself. She can't find herself anymore and what's the point of that?
Sometimes, when the agony becomes too much, she calls Simon. She continues to pay for his cell phone service just for the ability to call his phone and hear his voice on the answering service.
"Simon," she says, at the beep. "I miss you."
But of course, he never calls back.