Penny's breath didn't even catch as she ran up the three flights of stairs.
"Leonard!" She called, still outside their apartment door. "Leonard,Leonard,Leonard!" Penny jammed the key in the lock and flung open the door. Her husband sat quietly at his desk, gazing at the computer screen. He swiveled his chair around when she entered.
"Hey Penny. Where've you been?" Leonard greeted.
"I just had the most amazing audition." Penny gushed, closing the door behind her.
'Did you get the part?" Leonard began to smile..
"No." Penny dropped her keys in the bowl by the door. Sheldon's set was still there and she paused just for a moment like she always did until she remembered their presence meant he wasn't coming back not that he had returned.
"And we're happy about this?" Leonard's eyebrows climbed up his forehead.
"Yes!" Penny enthused, turning toward him. She walked over and straddled him in the chair. Leonard grinned and clasped her waist.
"The part I auditioned for today was a small walk-on with a handful of lines." Penny explained. "The director said I was all wrong for it but…" She let the word hang in the air. This next part would be tricky; Leonard would have to totally be on her side. Penny paused to kiss him deeply, to roll her hips against his and snag her fingers in his curls.
"There is a lead role in a new sitcom he could totally see me in." Penny broke the kiss.
"Great!" Leonard pressed his lips along her throat. Penny's eyes fell on the Batman cookie jar; she quickly closed them.
"Penny, did you hear me?" Leonard had moved down to the top of her cleavage.
"Sorry Sweetie, what did you say?" Penny threw her head back as Leonard's hands cupped her ass except the image of the cookie jar still danced behind her eyes. She really needed to put the jar and the keys in the closet.
"Where and when is the audition?" Leonard was trying to pull up her shirt.
"Um…it's next Thursday," Penny let out a slight moan as Leonard's hand stroked her breast. She rocked against the hardness beneath her as his groping continued. "In New York."
Leonard lifted his head, "As in 'City'?"
Penny nodded; Leonard sat back in the chair. The rush of cool air didn't just come from the sudden lack of body contact. For the last six months, she and Leonard had been experiencing these moments of disconnect. They would be chatting amiably and suddenly run out of things to say. Arguments would spring up over the minor infractions or they just couldn't agree on what to do and so would end up staying home with Penny curled up in Sheldon's old spot reading and Leonard playing video games or watching TV.
"Obviously, you told him you couldn't go." Leonard said.
"Not exactly." Penny climbed off. "We never took a honeymoon and you could take a long weekend…." Her voice trailed off as Leonard continued to frown.
"And what happens if you get the part? My work is here. Our apartment is here. This is a marriage, Penny. You can't just make unilateral decisions like that."
Penny bit her lip to keep from screaming. She glanced over at the vacant left hand side of the couch. She could almost hear Sheldon tsk –tsking, pointing out that if he were here he could settle all ties. Her action was not lost on Leonard.
"You know, he's not going to materialize no matter how many times you look over there." Leonard snapped. "And we are in the middle of a discussion."
'We are?" Penny retorted, completely ignoring his jibe about Sheldon. Just like they ignored the fact that Sheldon had left right after their wedding ceremony, leaving only the briefest of notes and a revised roommate agreement with Penny's name replacing his on the lease "I thought a discussion implied we each listened to each other but, according to you, I am making 'unilateral decisions' here."
"Penny, be reasonable." Leonard tried again. "We're still newlyweds. This is not the time for you to be flying back and forth across the country…"
"Hold on a sec," Penny interuppted. "What exactly is the problem here? Is it that you actually don't want me to be successful? Is it you think our marriage can't handle a little separation?" She crossed her arms and tilted her head; Leonard gave a small shudder at the familiarity of her actions. "Because I'm a little unclear."
Leonard stood up, "Don't be ridiculous. When we met, you said you wanted to be a movie star. As far as I know, California is still the movie –making capitol of the country and I don't exactly have the type of job where I can pick up and leave."
"You do research, Leonard!" Penny shouted. "Research in a field you yourself said hasn't changed in thirty years. I think they can spare you for a weekend!"
"You just don't get it, do you?" Leonard rolled his eyes.
"Oh, we're trotting out the 'Penny is too stupid to understand' argument again!" She threw her hands up in the air. "That never gets old, does it?"
Leonard picked up his sweatshirt, "I'm going to get dinner. We can talk about this more when I come back."
Penny dropped into Sheldon's spot once the door closed behind her husband. What was happening to them? Marriage seemed to be driving them apart rather than pulling them closer. She had no idea they wanted such different lifestyles. She sat back against the couch cushion then turned her face into it. The faintest scent of talc remained there and Penny inhaled.
"You'd understand." She said quietly. "At least the part about pursuing something relentlessly if nothing else." Penny sat there for another minute before getting up to change her clothes. While she washed her face, she realized with dull surprise that Leonard didn't ask her what she wanted for dinner.
Penny is sitting on the couch from scene three, hugging one of the circular pillows to her chest when Paul, her director, walks in
"Penny!" He cries, walking forward from the wings. She jumps at his voice and runs her hand across her cheeks.
"What are you doing here?" He continues. "You don't do the matinee shows. Is Elizabeth ill?' Elizabeth is Penny's understudy and performs on Wednesday matinees and Sundays; Penny shakes her head. Paul walks over to her and sits on the right side of the couch. Penny remains curled up on the left side.
"Why are you crying?"
Penny gives him a watery smile. Paul is a big bear of a man, so different from the many effeminate types or matinee –idol men who exist in the world of theater. His beard is rust colored and wiry. He has a bit of a paunch but it makes him seem cuddly not slovenly. Most people assume Paul builds sets or is part of the back stage crew but, once an actor worked with him, he came to see he was one of the finest directors on the circuit with a clear vision for story portrayal and a deep love for his actors.
"I'm a terrible person, Paul." Penny sighs.
"We're all terrible people, Penny. It's human nature. Did you forget to tip your dresser?"
Penny laughs at the most important rule in the theater world. Having once relied heavily on tips, she makes sure her dresser is well compensated.
"I was supposed to meet someone for breakfast today and I blew him off." She finally admits. Paul raises his eyebrows; Penny is one of the most conscientious actors he has ever worked with. "The worst part about it is," She pauses to massage the ball of her foot. "I don't even know why. I wanted to go last night. I wanted to see more of the person he had become and I wanted to know if I'd be different because he was different. Then, this morning, I just couldn't face him." She purses her lips, "Not him but what he represents. I've known him for ten years and I didn't even have the decency to tell him I wasn't coming."
Paul is quiet beside her, letting her unburden herself. He knows quite a bit about Penny. Hers is the story that all girls from Nowhere, USA imagine- plucked from obscurity after years of struggle to a slow building success that is usually the harbinger of a long, well respected career. He also knows there was a failed marriage so he takes a stab.
"Was it your ex-husband?"
"Leonard?" Penny shakes her head. "God, no. Leonard very appropriately contacts me on my birthday, Christmas and whenever he sees my name attributed to some accolade. Besides, he is remarried with a couple of little Leonards." Penny stares out at darkened audience. "It was Sheldon- Leonard's former roommate. I used to live across the hall from them."
"Was this the guy you wandered off with last night? Alexis was practically hysterical." Paul asks. Alexis is Penny's agent who called her cell about a thousand times while Penny and Sheldon were having dinner or whatever it was they did last night. Neither one of them really ate but there was food. When Penny returned to her hotel, Alexis accosted her in the lobby, shrieking that she was "this close" to calling the police to report Penny kidnapped by a deranged fan. Penny nods in reply.
"Did you enjoy seeing him last night?" Paul inquires.
"No. Yes. I mean, no one ever really enjoys seeing Sheldon. It's just something you endure, like getting your teeth cleaned."
Paul roars with laughter, "I am going to write that down. If I ever write a play, it's going in." His smile fades a bit. "Alexis said you were gone for hours. Most people don't spend hours with someone they just have to 'endure'."
Penny chews on her lower lip. She knows Paul has to get ready for the matinee performance. This fireside chat of theirs is eating up his valuable time but she needs help sorting out the tangle of her feelings. He is a director; she needs direction.
"Sheldon was…" Penny runs her hands though her hair. "He and Leonard had these two other friends- Raj and Howard- and they were all super brilliant, like IQ's way past genius level but they were all really sweet in their own ways. I was their friend, part of their "social circle", Sheldon used to say. Once upon a time, Sheldon was the most important person in my life."
"But you married Leonard." Paul clarifies.
Penny nods slowly and clicks her tongue. "I did." She sighs.
Penny kept walking, increasing her pace but he was right behind her. She dodged between people and signs but still he kept up with her.
She glanced over her shoulder. Her heels clicked in rapid succession but she couldn't put any distance between them.
"Penny! Just listen…"
Fingers brushed her sleeve and she whirled around.
"What, Leonard! What do you want?"
The two of them glared at each other as they caught their breath.
"I had no idea you could walk so fast." He finally said. Penny rolled her eyes.
"Leonard, I have to catch my flight."
Leonard stepped toward her. He picked up her left hand and ran his thumb over the diamonds perched there.
"I'm asking you not to do this." He said quietly. Penny pressed their foreheads together. Leonard's right hand cradled the side of her face.
"You asked me once before and I gave in." Penny whispered; her nose was beginning to run. "I can't pass it up this time, Leonard. The director remembered me from two years ago. How often does that happen especially when it's someone who has got any experience like me?"
Leonard kissed her. His tongue slipped between her lips so easily, "Penny, our life is here. We had plans. What about a family?"
People passing them observed a young couple in an emotional embrace, reluctant to part from each other. Penny tugged on Leonard's forearms to encourage him to let her go but he only held on tighter. Finally she stepped back. Leonard's brown eyes were filled with bewilderment. He had been so good to her- not a perfect husband (was there such a thing?) –but good enough to not deserve this.
"I'm sorry, Leonard." The tears began to spill along with the truth. "I just want this more."
Sheldon is outside Penelope's Café at 9:45Am. He walks inside at 9:55 and requests a table for two and the brunch menu. Penny is due to meet him here at 10 which really means 10:15. The waitress smiles at him and Sheldon gives her a slight twitch of his lips.
"Cool shirt." She winks. Sheldon looks down. He had dressed carefully this morning: purple and grey striped long sleeved t- shirt topped with his Shazaam shirt and grey pants. Penny often said his outfits made her retinas bleed and he wants this meal to be a pleasant experience, unlike last night.
He takes the menu from the waitress, concentrating on its contents instead of the slow-moving hands of his wristwatch.
"Coffee, sir?' The waitress returns. She has black hair and dark brown eyes. She beams another smile at Sheldon. He blinks at the whiteness of her teeth. She is attractive ( the complete opposite of Penny actually) yet Sheldon does not find her unappealing. When the door opens, he jumps to his feet and her smile vanishes. A father and his toddler stand at the hostess station.
"No. Thank you." Sheldon murmurs. "Just a glass of water." His first sip is at 10:05.
At 10:10, the door opens once more only to allow the entry of a young couple. Sheldon has narrowed down his brunch choice to the Farmer's Market Omelette or the Nutella French Toast and requests a second glass of water.
He places the small bouquet on the table at 10:15. Penny should be here at any minute. He snipped the blossoms last night from the plants in his apartment. The white daisies, white tea roses, the orange blossoms from his Calamondin orange which immediately fill the restaurant with their scent. He hopes she appreciates that he remembered the flowers exactly.
BY 10:25, He has no choice but to order something so he chooses a chocolate chip scone.
"Will someone be joining you?' His waitress asks. He notices her smile more the longer he sits alone.
"Yes. Any minute now." Sheldon replies.
The waitress brings the scone and a fresh glass of water. He silently chants that he is the master of his own bladder; instinct tells him that Penny will appear the second he leaves to relieve himself. He crosses his legs and fusses with the iridescent ribbon on the flowers.
At 10:35, Sheldon is halfway through the scone and enduring dirty looks from people waiting for a table. He sprints to the restroom and back but the chair across from him is still empty.
Sheldon pulls out the money to pay for his scone at 10:45. His waitress appears.
"Do you need change, sir?"
Sheldon shakes his head.
"You seemed to enjoy the scone." She tosses her ponytail. Sheldon looks at his plate. He hadn't actually eaten the scone, more like pulverized it. "I work every day but Thursday. Perhaps you'll come back for brunch next time?" She winks at him.
Sheldon looks her over once more. She is taller than Penny. Her sensuality a bit more pronounced. She is standing far too close to him but her eyes sparkle when she smiles. He sees her name tag.
"I commend you on excellent service, Laura." He says, handing her the bouquet and a five dollar tip. "but I shall not be coming here again."
Sheldon picks up his messenger bag and leaves the restaurant. He walks toward Columbia University. The June sunlight begins warming the concrete; by noon the city will be sweltering. Nevertheless, Sheldon feels the cold right in his bones.
Penny leaned forward eagerly to kiss Leonard once Howard had pronounced them husband and wife. She closed her eyes, hearing the soft hiss of the waves on the sand, the cries of the gulls. Leonard's lips pressed gently against hers; Penny parted hers slightly and felt Leonard's arms slide around her waist. They broke the kiss and Penny wrapped her arms around Leonard's neck to embrace him. Her eyes were still closed as she inhaled the mildly spicy scent of Leonard's cologne. It was a sold, secure scent, easily remembered. The cologne of a man who wanted to make his presence known in a subtle way.
Leonard rubbed the small of her back. Sheldon didn't wear cologne- he didn't need extraneous trappings to be remembered or noticed. Her eyes flew open at that thought and scanned the group before her. He should be easy to spot; the rest of them were all so small. Her brows drew together when she realized there was no Sheldon looming in the background. She placed her hands on Leonard's shoulders and stepped back from their embrace.
"Where's Sheldon?'" She whispered out of the corner of her mouth. Leonard looked around and then he and Penny both beamed at the photographer in front of them.
"No idea." Leonard replied quickly; his hand still gripped the curve of Penny's waist.
Penny caught Amy's eye and gestured with her chin. Amy (Thank God!) immediately looked around. She turned back to Penny then shrugged.
Leonard led Penny down the makeshift aisle. They were due at the reception hall in an hour and the photographer was eager to capture the light at the beach. The reception! Of course! Penny had seen a taxi in the parking lot- Sheldon must have gone ahead- the ceremony probably exceeded his quota of outdoor time for a month.
This is the most important day of my life, she thought as she followed Leonard and the photographer to the waves. Where else would he be?