Whenever Ellen meets someone new these days, it seems like they always have the same two things to say. The first will be some compliment on some performance they saw: "Your Titania this season was…" or "I saw your Desdemona back when and…" Something nice, but basically meaningless (especially when lauding this year's Dream, which she finds revolting), and usually an excuse to bring up what they really want to talk about. The less subtle ones even bring up Hamlet right off the bat, so that they can ever-so-neatly segue right into:
"So what really happened with Geoffrey Tennant?"
Ellen has perfected her answer over the years. She sighs, and smiles sadly, and shakes her head just a bit. "That was very sad, wasn't it?" she asks, misty-eyed. "I'm sorry, but I really don't like to talk about it. Sorry."
Then, if it's a man, she probably tries to sleep with him. If it's a woman, she probably finds the nearest available man and tries to sleep with him. If there's no one to sleep with, she goes home and yells at her stupid iguana until she feels better. Because really, it's infuriating that after seven years, this is still the dominant story of her life. Geoffrey Tennant. Geoffrey bloody mad horrible crazy sword-wielding lunatic Tennant.
And it's not as if there's much to tell, not really. They want their romance and mystery, and she lets them have it. It's not as if the truth would do her any good. They wouldn't understand. No one does.
What would she even say?
All right, the thing is...
Ellen's most die-hard detractors would never believe it of her, but she honestly didn't notice it right away. No, she was just about as star-struck and google-eyed as the rest of them, that first day on the stage. Years later, she still sees it in excruciating detail, like an embarrassing old slide: her, sitting on the side, poring over the text with her roommate -- elated at the idea of playing Juliet, actually Juliet, at a real theater festival -- when up he strolled, New Burbage's own Amadeus in the flesh.
"Good evening, everyone," he pronounced with a shallow bow. "I'm Geoffrey Tennant, and I'm afraid all the rumors you've heard about me are true. Shall we?"
She was instantly in love.
As was just about every other girl in the cast, of course, and half the boys. That was what it did. But that turned out not to matter when they got to the table reading and even from across the room, from his first if I profane with my unworthiest hand, the air between them positively hummed. They slept together that night, the show went on to brilliant reviews, and everything seemed magical.
"We're just like them, without all that adolescent tragedy," Geoffrey murmured one night after a rehearsal had turned into more than. Once, Ellen would have laughed at that, and much later on, she does, and bitterly; but at the time, she just smiled and pulled him close.
In retrospect, it's really kind of unbelievable.
But no, she'll insist, if anyone ever asks: she really didn't notice it until much later on, after they'd begun to cycle through all the lovers. She'd picked up the latest reviews and seen Ms. Fanshaw is an excellent Kate, but it's Geoffrey Tennant who steals the show as Petruchio, and something -- maybe she'd been ignoring it, or maybe it was just that, dammit, her Kate had been brilliant -- clicked. She'd gone to the vanity and pulled out her scrapbook, all her reviews carefully collected. And now that she saw it, there it was, plain as day:
Ellen Fanshaw is a wonderful Beatrice, but Geoffrey Tennant as Benedick is the standout...
Ellen Fanshaw's portrayal of Helena is brilliant, but Geoffrey Tennant manages to turn Demetrius [Demetrius, for Heaven's sake!] into a surprising scene-stealer with his...
Ellen Fanshaw shines as Juliet, but the true star of this production is--
That was when she started hating him a little.
Once she saw it, she really couldn't not. The entire world was in love with Geoffrey Tennant, and it was monstrous.
Here was Darren, whose declarations of loathing and snide comments were only slightly less than painfully obvious. She wonders if he's ever asked himself why he kept coming back.
There was Oliver, taking any bloody opportunity to sneak into a costume fitting. "I'll make stars out of you both," he said, not looking at Ellen. "You're so wonderful."
Even that damned stage apprentice Maria liked him, and she hated everyone. She'd hated Ellen from the start for no reason at all, totally unjustifiably! What did that say?
And the audience—oh, the audience. Ellen could make them cry, she could make them swoon, she could even make them love her for long enough, but it was Geoffrey they went away talking about. Even if she'd been able to deafen herself to that, Basil and his cadre of reviewers proved it well enough for her.
Geoffrey, Geoffrey, Geoffrey. The entire world was having a love affair with Geoffrey Tennant, and Ellen didn't enjoy sharing either of them.
Sometimes, Ellen thinks Geoffrey never said anything because he thought she really was that wonderful. Because he believed in her that much. Because he didn't care what anyone else said. Because they were Geoffrey and Ellen, not Geoffrey and Ellen.
But mostly, she thinks he was just as stupid and blind to the whole thing as everyone else was.
It was both worst and best when they were on stage together. He would be out in the lights and deliver a line with a flourish or weight that made everyone sigh. And if Ellen wasn't watching -- she did love to watch him, truly, but if she wasn't watching and sighing with the rest, she might roll her eyes and go back to trying to stuff herself into her idiotic corset, or navigating around a barrage of props (or horses or midgets or puppets, if Darren was around and trying to insinuate his "vision"), and maintain her disaffect.
But then would come her entrance, and two steps out into that hazy world everything else would vanish, and there would be nothing but them. Nothing but him, and she could love him so, love him safely, there where nothing else mattered but the words and them.
And whether they lived or died that night, it would be enough to carry her through till they were panting in her bed, twined around each other. "My Rosalind," Geoffrey would breathe. "My Viola. My--Ellen..."
Then, it was enough.
This all sounds very dramatic. It wasn't as though it was all so bad. They were in love, and the world was in love with them. Mostly with them. They were happy most of the time, and if they weren't, it was almost never about it. They would have wall-shaking fights about this comment or that broken dish, but Ellen never brought it up. Maybe, maybe that much was her fault, she supposes.
But they were happy, she was happy, really. It was just that it would creep up on her time and again, no matter how much she willed it not to, that if it came to choosing between the two of them, there wasn't a soul out there that wouldn't throw her off a bridge in favor of Geoffrey. All he seemed to want was a world with her and the Bard in it, but she had no illusions about the rest of them.
It was the little things. Geoffrey would do something typically brilliant, and Ellen would tell him so, only to find out that everyone else already had. Basil would catch her in the hall or on the street and ask her to pass on his bloody regards, as if either of them cared about him.
Once, Darren asked her to tell that overbearing blunderbuss that if Geoffrey Tennant thought that Darren Nichols would stoop so low as to something something something... She stopped listening about halfway through, but it was more than enough to make her take it out on her costumier later on.
It was when things got bad that the sex actually got better. At her worst, Ellen felt the need to mark him, to claim him as physically as possible. It was less about telling the world he was hers, and more about carving out a space where, for a while, she was the only thing in the world. She wanted him to look at himself in the mirror and think not of Hal or Iago or scripts or lights, but her. Every time she raked her nails down his chest, she said, Remember me and only me.
That was when she discovered that there was at least one thing she was better at than Geoffrey.
It's a power she uses more and more, these days. The nights get lonely, and just as she feels more unloved than she ever thought she could, she escapes to the theater bar and finds someone. Someone susceptible. All she has to do is get him to her door, and the rest all but takes care of itself. Then, for a few hours, she is young and at the center of the universe again. It's not like having Geoffrey back, but then again, what could be? It's as much a relief as it is a pity.
It's strange to think it, because theater is her life, but it was almost best when they weren't anyone but themselves. When they were between seasons and had nothing else to obsess over, they started a home together. She cooked and he fixed all the things that kept breaking, and for a while things were actually sort of normal. They went on vacations. He bought her earrings. She bought him scarves and ties he didn't wear.
For a few weeks every year they lived like real people, arguing over grocery lists and linens, reading the paper together in the mornings. They tried to install a VCR and gave up when it ate the first three tapes, and settled for reading books like grownups. Simple, domestic. They had Oliver over in the evenings for dinner and drinks. Some nights, he even managed to love her just as much as he loved Geoffrey.
It never lasted long. By the end of their vacations, both of them were always chafing at the bit, ready to dive back into lives they'd never lived. She grew to love the off-seasons all the same, over the years. She never told anyone, but the weeks just before Hamlet were the best of her life.
She hadn't expected Oliver to understand. But when she showed up at his door in her lowest-cut dress, he raised a brow and said, "I'd placed a bet with myself on this. I suppose I won."
She still imagines that Geoffrey doesn't know what happened. He probably thinks it was the proposal, which is sort of halfway between right and wrong.
She's not going to say it wasn't petty. She's certainly not going to say she was right. But watching him on the stage, that first night, going from brilliance to immortality somewhere around Act 3, she stopped thinking clearly. She was pretty sure everyone did. And living in that moment -- caught up as much as everyone in the incandescent star of Geoffrey Tennant -- and knowing with absolute certainty that nothing she did would ever be as known or loved as this single performance... Well, they all said that playing Hamlet drove him mad, but she thinks she got there a little bit ahead of him. And really, can you blame her?
Incidentally, she might take the opportunity to point out that Ophelia isn't exactly an easy part either.
But this is about Geoffrey, as usual, Geoffrey's Hamlet, Geoffrey's shining star. And of course, he couldn't turn off at the end of the show. No, they had to go to the bar, and as he got drunker and drunker, it blazed up in him until everyone wanted to touch him, or just talk to him, like some patron saint of New Burbage. She was equal parts dazzled and terrified just looking into his eyes, so much that she barely heard him at first. In retrospect, she wishes she'd ignored him, and maybe nothing would ever have happened.
No. Geoffrey would make himself heard, and Geoffrey wanted to get married. He wanted to have babies. He wanted to make her Ellen Fanshaw, wife and mother. How could she tell him it was bad enough being upstaged by her boyfriend, much less an infant? How could she tell him he'd already ruined everything enough by just being himself?
After everything is over, she tells herself she won't go to see him. The crazy bastard, coming to her house with a knife! Then, she tells herself she loves him, and if she loves him she'll go every day and wait by his side, like the wife at the VA hospital, until he's better.
In the end, she goes once. It's less of the romantic torture chamber she imagined and more like the movies: clinical, boring, chilly. It's not the place for him, she thinks. He'll be out soon.
But when she gets to the rec room he's there, skinny and disheveled, but as massive as ever. He's torn up someone's uniform -- she spots some poor man sitting shirtless -- and thrown it around his neck like rags, and he's repurposed a blunted pencil as a scepter, and he's holding court to a rapt audience of fellow inmates. Bellowing lines in full Shakespearean, darting around in the text like he wrote it himself.
Lear, she realizes. He's doing Lear. But her head is swimming, and she can't remember if he's doing the fool's part or the king's or both.
"He's very good, isn't he?" the nurse at her side says, blushing. "He's a little hard to talk to, but the others just love him. I hope you don't mind, but sometimes I ask him to do the sonnets."
Ellen spends five seconds wanting to claw her to death. But instead, she pulls her coat on and smiles. "Why would I mind, dear?" she asks in what she thinks of as a bright and friendly tone. "I'm not feeling well, I'm going to go home. I'm sure I'll be back later."
She will, she tells herself. She'll come back when she's ready. She'll come back when she can stop hating him. She's still telling herself that seven years later, when she sees him in the hallway and bursts into tears.