Best Picture Countdown #3: Roma

“We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.”Marina de Tavira as Sofía in Roma (2018)

Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical drama Roma has become the Awards season darling over the last few months, racking up heaps of praise from critics and audiences alike – though many viewers never had the chance to see it on the big screen. Despite a limited theatrical run, Roma, currently streaming on Netflix, has dominated the awards circuit and steamrolled over films once considered favorites for Oscar night. Though, as someone who had to watch it in her living room, perhaps a film that is so personal and evocative is best seen in a more intimate setting.

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Roma is a film that looks simple on the surface – following the life of a housekeeper and her interactions with the family she works for in Mexico from 1970 to 1971 – but, as it unfurls onscreen, develops into a deeply nuanced film with a multi-tiered message that audiences are free to interpret how they see fit. Some might relate to Cleo’s struggles, some to Sofía and her troubled marriage, some to Teresa as a concerned spectator in the lives of loved ones, some as the children who are unaware, yet so intrinsically involved in events they have no control over.

The only reason this film doesn’t rank higher for me personally is that I found parts of the narrative to be aimless – naked hotel-room martial arts included. I mean, I’m all for films that don’t follow a standard story structure, as it allows for a more thorough exploration for the viewer, but this film didn’t hit quite as hard for me as other Best Picture nominees. Still, after the credits rolled, I fund my mind dissecting and rolling over the events of the film, trying to piece together moments I might have missed, and lining up motivations that perhaps evaded my notice, so, even if it wasn’t my favorite, Roma lingered in my mind in a profound manner. So much of this film is revealed through subtleties and in what is left unsaid. The screenplay’s universality, crafted with love and precision by Cuarón drawing on events from his own childhood, makes it a front-runner for the Best Original Screenplay award.

Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio’s performance as Cleo is a triumph, as she exudes an earnestness that makes the character both sympathetic and relatable. Keeping the character grounded gives her an honest quality, one that makes her compelling to watch, and invests the viewer in her journey. However, facing Gaga, Colman, and Close will be a tough battle to win, though Aparicio, if she walks away with the gold on Oscar night, is 100% deserving. Same goes for de Tavira, who gives an understated performance as the suffering matriarch who aims to keep her family together as she feels her life falling apart.

However, since I interpreted the writing as one of the strongest facets of this film, I also found myself connecting more with the “behind the scenes” efforts. The cinematography is excellent, as is the production design, and I won’t be surprised if it nabs trophies for both. It might sound superficial, but a film that is already beautiful in its writing and performances is often buoyed even more when it looks beautiful, too, and Roma is no exception to that. And Cuarón, the favorite for Best Director, wholly deserves to take home that honor for the extensive work he put in to make this project what it is.

Whether or not it takes home the Best Picture gold – and I’m pretty sure it will – Roma is basically a shoo-in for Best Foreign Language Film, and is virtually guaranteed to score multiple awards on Oscar night. Seeing a project that Cuarón put so much effort into earn so many accolades is rewarding in itself, especially because he is a filmmaker who comes across as someone who connects deeply with, and is steadfastly dedicated to his craft. And the fact that this film was made for Netflix count have a big impact on the way films made for streaming are treated by the Academy. As it currently stands, I believe this stunning film will go 5 for 10, but I won’t be surprised if it takes home even more.

Oscar Nominations: 10
Best Picture
Best Director (Cuarón)
Best Actress (Aparicio)
Best Supporting Actress (de Tavira)
Best Original Screenplay
Best Foreign Language Film
Best Cinematography
Best Production Design
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing

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Best Picture Countdown #4: A Star is Born

“Music is essentially twelve notes between any octave. Twelve notes and the octave repeats. It’s the same story told over and over. All the artist can offer the world is how they see those twelve notes.”Sam Elliott as Bobby Maine in A Star is Born (2018)

Early into awards-speculation season, Bradley Cooper’s highly-anticipated directorial debut A Star is Born seemed a clear front-runner for some big trophies, but as awards season reaches its peak, the film has become more of an underdog. The latest in a string of four remakes, A Star is Born chronicles the turbulent love story of rock star Jackson Maine and aspiring songstress Ally – played by vocal powerhouse Lady Gaga – as they struggle to balance the pressures of fame and their personal demons while preserving their relationship and passion for music.

220px-A_Star_is_BornThis film manages a monumental achievement in telling a story that has been told before, yet still making it emotionally engrossing for the viewer. I personally had some issues with the ideas presented in the film – such as the message the last song (as beautiful as Gaga sings it) seems to be giving – which spurred some disappointment. But disregarding my little quibbles, the narrative strikes familiar beats and treads well-known ground, and yet, feels fresh and new, in large part thanks to sizzling chemistry between Cooper and Gaga. Their mesmerizing performances make this film.

Despite what might be a career-best performance by Cooper and a thrilling big-screen debut by Gaga, the competition in both Best Actor and Actress categories is fierce – probably a little too fierce. Jackson Maine has to battle both Dick Cheney and Freddie Mercury, and Ally must take down a wife and a queen. But even if there are 99 other nominees in the room that night, I’m sure B-Coop and Gaga would pick one another to win.

And as much as I would LOVE for Sam Elliott – who is egregiously underrated, despite having one of the best narrator-voices out there – to take home the gold for Supporting Actor, Mahershala Ali’s performance in Green Book has been stomping over the competition all season, and that train doesn’t seem to be stopping. If Elliott had a bit more screen time it might be a different story, but despite it all, he gives an excellent performance as the growly-voiced brother of Cooper’s troubled crooner.

Obviously, at least one award is essentially guaranteed for this film, and that is Best Original Song for “Shallow.” I had chills the first time I heard a snippet of it in the trailer. It’s a great song and fully deserves the victory, end of. Cinematography also has a fair chance – it’s a gorgeous film, which makes it all the more shameful that Cooper is not nominated for his brilliant directing – but Adapted Screenplay has become a bit of a long-shot as the season rolls ahead. The other awards are all more or less toss-ups, too.

Even if it has become an underdog, and the blazing praise it received upon release has petered out to a respectable glimmer, A Star is Born cannot be fully counted out – not when it has resonated so deeply with audiences, through both the music and the story. It is a film born of passion, and that shines through onscreen – but I have my doubts it will take home the ultimate prize. Still, I am predicting that the film will go 2 for 8 on the night, though I’m hoping it will get 3.

 

Oscar Nominations: 8
Best Picture
Best Actor (Cooper)
Best Actress (Gaga)
Best Supporting Actor (Elliott)
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Sound Mixing
Best Cinematography
Best Original Song

Best Picture Countdown #5: Black Panther

“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”Chadwick Boseman as T’Challah in Black Panther (2018)

In a world where audiences are growing weary of superhero movies in spite of their box office dominance, it is difficult for comic book films to break free from formulaic constraints and genre tropes. But Marvel’s Black Panther defied the odds by subverting expectations and earning the first ever Best Picture nomination for a superhero film.

Black_Panther_film_posterBlack Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, chronicles the rise of T’Challah as the titular hero as he seeks to protect the ones he loves and the country of Wakanda from a foe who threatens to expose their secrets to the world. It is one of the first Marvel movies to think “beyond the cape,” as it features a unique world and culture, a fully three-dimensional villain with motives that mark him more man than monster, and gorgeous effects, costumes, and music that combine to weave a powerful story while maintaining Marvel’s trademark spectacle, heart, and humor. It is also probably one of the Marvel films that audiences can connect with the most, and helped to reinvigorate weary audiences and amp them up for future films.

Though Black Panther did not garner any acting nods, I will not be surprised if it scores wins for both Production Design and Costume Design; particularly the latter. The costumes are all fantastic and gorgeously designed, though The Favourite will be a tough contender to beat.

Ludwig Göransson’s score is also up, but it will be a challenge to take down the likes of returning champion Alexandre Desplat and Terence Blanchard, but it could be anyone’s game, especially since Göransson’s efforts helped set the tone of the film and gave it a distinct, rich sound. Less likely is a Best Original Song victory for “All the Stars,” simply because ASiB is almost guaranteed to win.

At first, I understood the opinion of those who believe this film is unworthy of such distinction, even though I didn’t agree. After all, I don’t think Black Panther is the best superhero film ever, and many deserving films (*cough* The Dark Knight*cough*) have been unjustly ignored by the Academy in the past. But Black Panther‘s nomination isn’t about those snubbed films. The Academy has changed over the years, and the fact that it is finally acknowledging the profound effect of superhero movies on the world of cinema is a monumental step forward for “popular” films. In what seems to be an endless stream of films featuring masked crusaders, multi-hero team-ups, and high-stakes battles to the death, Black Panther is commendable for producing a fresh, engrossing story featuring relevant real-world issues and introducing characters that have already become some of Marvel’s most fully-realized and compelling.

Regardless of its massive and well-deserved success, I don’t think Black Panther will be able to topple the other favorites in the race for Best Picture this year. It is a great film – and a phenomenal superhero film – but T’Challah and co. will be facing the fight of their lives on Oscar night. But I sincerely hope it does not go home empty handed, and am predicting it will go 2/7 on the night. I am also looking forward to seeing the stunning cast on the red carpet, representing this fantastic film!

Oscar Nominations: 7
Best Picture
Best Original Score
Best Original Song
Best Costume Design
Best Production Design
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing 

Best Picture Countdown #6: Green Book

“You never win with violence. You only win when you maintain your dignity.”Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley in Green Book (2018)

Several of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees have endured significant scrutiny and controversy, and the Peter Farrelly helmed Green Book, which depicts the relationship between African American pianist Don Shirley and his driver Tony Vallelonga as they tour the deep south in 1962, is not exempt. But while critics clash over just how accurate the “based on true events” tagline is – resulting in valid criticism being levied at the film- this comedy-drama has been racking up a fair amount of awards this season.

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Much like Vice, this film, while it might not depict 100% true-as-they-happened events, contains elements of truth that shine through to deliver a valuable message. Green Book is carried by the powerful chemistry between the leading actors, Viggo Mortensen as crude, but affable Tony Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as poised yet conflicted Don Shirley. As I’ve said many times before, I could watch Viggo Mortenson spew obscenities and eat fried chicken for two hours and not be bored, and Mahershala Ali is utterly entrancing in every role he’s in. Two actors with boundless talent placed opposite one another in the same movie is basically a recipe for success, but while Ali is clear-cut favorite for the Best Supporting Actor award, my man Viggo, as much as I adore him, will likely have to wait a bit longer for Best Actor Gold. Still, the duo is so effective it makes me wonder if this film would have garnered so much praise without them on the cast. I remember seeing the trailer for the first time, and, as soon as I saw their names attached to it, my reaction was, “SIGN ME UP,” and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

The screenplay – which is more or less a letter of admiration from a son to his father – is a strong contender for Best Original Screenplay, though the category is a tough one this year, and Film Editing is up in the air. But really, Green Book‘s strength is in the relationship depicted between Ali and and Mortensen’s characters. Watching their connection to one another evolve from begrudging partnership to genuine, if unlikely friendship in an era of tenuous race relations is the heart of this film, and likely the reason it has resonated with so many people. At times both humorous and heartwarming, there’s plenty of drama to combat the levity, and an earnestness to the film that keeps it from straying into “sappy” territory.

As much as I personally enjoyed this film, the controversy swarming it’s validity and the overwhelming competition will almost certainly keep it from securing the ultimate prize on Oscar night. Regardless, I am predicting that Green Book will go 2/5 on the night, and do recommend that skeptics at least see the film before forming opinions about it.

Oscar Nominations: 5
Best Picture
Best Actor (Mortensen)
Best Supporting Actor (Ali)
Best Original Screenplay
Best Film Editing

Best Picture Countdown #7: Vice

“I can feel your recriminations and your judgment, and I am fine with that. You want to be loved, go be a movie star. The world is as you find it. You got to deal with that reality, and there are monsters in this world.”Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice (2018)

 Of all the films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, Vice, directed by Adam McKay, might be the most divisive. Depicting the rise to power of former Vice President Dick Cheney and his involvement in several critical moments in American political history, this film is at parts an illuminating look into the elusive “perhaps this happened” and also a bleak, almost nihilistic approach to exposing corruption of power when it is placed in the hands of a “monster.”

Vice_(2018_film_poster).png I personally went into Vice not expecting to see “true events” depicted verbatim, especially considering the film is classified as a “dramedy,” not a straight-up biopic. Treading the line between fiction and reality is precarious for filmmakers, and that seems to be what much of the criticism of this film is based on. Obviously, since Cheney himself was not involved in the making of the film, the audience needs to take it with a grain of salt and an open mind, regardless of political affiliation. But watching it, I found parts of it eerily compelling in the same vein as a car wreck – because, although we may never know exactly what went on behind closed doors, the very possibility is terrifying. I might dare to suggest many elements came across as plausible, though that might just be a testament to McKay’s writing, which is deservedly nominated. Films do not need to be “accurate” to be “true.” And maybe, some folks don’t like exploring the mere possibility that our elected officials have hidden agendas. But, I don’t want this to turn into a political tirade, so…

Much like Bohemian Rhapsody, this film is buoyed by a transformative performance by leading man Christian Bale, who is at times utterly unrecognizable as Cheney, with no small thanks to the makeup and hairstyling team, which are a front-runner for the Oscar. It looks to be a two-horse race between Malek and Bale for the Best Actor gold, with Bradley Cooper a semi-distant dark horse, but I won’t be disappointed by either result. Amy Adams turns in a sharp performance as Lynne Cheney, but, as much as I’d love to see her take home a victory for Supporting Actress, I think the odds are stacked against her this year. Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush is riveting (and almost cartoonish) to watch, but it is not likely enough to elevate him above the fierce competition in the supporting actor category.

Now, the real strength of Vice shines in the editing. Some critics may not agree, but Hank Corwin masterfully maneuvers this film through rapid switches in tone (there’s a Shakespearean exchange between the Cheneys, a marvelous scene where political officials are ordering “dinner,” and important conversations inter-cut with scenes of Cheney fishing) in order to keep the film from flying off the rails. Precise editing also prevents the film from losing the messages it’s trying to deliver, and when placed in conjunction with McKay’s writing, the combination makes the editing a standout. It’s already gotten a BAFTA for editing, so that momentum might carry over to the big night.

As much as I personally enjoyed Vice, as a critique, an exploration, and an artistic approach to uncovering “truth,” I won’t deny that it is problematic for valid reasons, and, as a result, I doubt it will take home the ultimate prize come Oscar night. However, I am predicting Vice will take home two awards, and end up going 2/8.

Oscar Nominations: 8
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actor (Bale)
Best Supporting Actor (Rockwell)
Best Supporting Actress (Adams)
Best Original Screenplay
Best Film Editing
Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Best Picture Countdown #8: Bohemian Rhapsody

This is when the operatic section comes in.” – Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

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Bringing up the rear in my Best Picture countdown is the Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, directed by *redacted* and Dexter Fletcher. It’s earned a boatload of money all over the world and is both a visual and auditory spectacle, but when stacked against the other nominees in this category, this film strikes a bit of a sour note.

Of course, the major highlight of this film is Rami Malek’s eclectic and electric performance as Mercury. It’s clear in every nuanced look, flamboyant movement, and subtle – or not so subtle – gesture that Malek poured his heart and soul into this role, and his Oscar nomination is no great surprise. At this point, it seems to be a two-horse race between Malek and Christian Bale, with dark horse Bradley Cooper not far behind. It’s only a shame that the overall film – despite excellent supporting performances and brilliant editing, and, I’m sure, no thanks to production issues – does not quite elevate itself to the same level.

Bohemian Rhapsody is not a bad film – but, it’s not what I’d call great. While Queen’s music and Freddie Mercury’s legacy have endured for decades, this film is, by contrast, almost forgettable. It doesn’t even play like a biopic because it glosses over and adds a saccharine, almost stereotypical sheen to several of the depicted events, which makes it feel fictional and disingenuous. There are times where the film feels raw, and intense – the Live Aid performance in particular, which is also an astounding accomplishment in editing – but at other points, it feels… fake. Fudging dates and swapping facts might come across to some as taking creative license, but, it can also read more as an attempt to revise history, and inject needless drama into what is already a compelling story.

Beneath the flashy costumes, legendary music, and Malek’s incredible performance, this tale of a band’s turbulent rise to stardom fails to dig as deep as it should. Historical inaccuracies and director controversy aside, I will be stunned if it takes home the gold on the 24th. A win for Malek, though, would be well-deserved. All in all, I’m predicting Bohemian Rhapsody won’t go home empty-handed, and will go 1/5 on the night.

Oscar Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Actor (Malek)
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Best Film Editing

Hoping and Coping

After letting recurring depression/anxiety issues fester for the majority of my late adolescence and early adulthood, I have sought help over the past several months. I don’t want this to be a “woe is me” post, so I’m going to avoid delving too deep into the nature of those issues, but my mental state has impacted the decisions I make in life, and now, with assistance, I am seeking to make change. I am hoping to make change.

But making change is HARD. Especially when your life has been fairly stagnant, and your comfort zone has become a small, enclosed area that will be difficult to break out from. I recognize that it is something I must do, but some days, I doubt that I have the strength to do it. I have been working at the same place for ten years. I have lived in the same house for twenty-two, save for the 3 year period I was at college. There is very little variation in my life, day to day. While others have moved ahead, and progressed, I feel stuck in a fog. I have settled into a routine, and while it is mostly comfortable, and familiar, I don’t think I like it.

Since I don’t handle change well, I’m curious to know how others cope with it – and how others are able to inspire change in their life. My issues are possibly rooted in the fact that I also fear the unknown. When new possible scenarios pop into my life, my mind instantly latches onto all the things that could go wrong instead of all the potentially wonderful outcomes. One might say that I am prone to self-sabotaging behaviors and negative trains of thought, and I struggle to steer myself onto a more positive track once I start spiraling into all the “what ifs?”

When change is on the horizon, in my grasp, my first instinct is to pull away – and I don’t want to turn back anymore. I want to be excited by change, thrilled by the idea of moving forward, even if the road ahead is dark and my lantern casts only a feeble glow. I can’t rely on guarantees, wait for “sure things,” or respond only to certainty. It’s not even that I don’t like change – it’s that I find the whole process of change overwhelming, and sometimes, that’s too scary for me to overcome.

I know that change is often positive, and struggle leads to better things. I was terrified of going away to college, and really struggled with being away from home in the first months. I battled homesickness on a constant basis, struggled with making friends, hated both of my jobs, and didn’t feel like I belonged at school. I didn’t really connect with my core group of college friends until a study abroad trip after my first year. From then on, it became much easier to adapt, and I settled into a groove. But the whole process behind those changes was a challenge, and any time I think of going through difficulties like that again, my motivation stalls. It was worth it that time, yes – but is it always?

The question is – when you are prone to overthinking and doubt – how do you overcome those dark clouds looming overhead? How do you cope with change when you fear the unknown? I’d love to hear any insight.

Dark Blue

(TW: Death)

I was afraid of the deep end of the pool for most of my formative years.

I never passed level 3 swim lessons because I wouldn’t dive into the deep end of the pool. I would sit on the end of the diving board, cross my arms over my chest, and cry while my frustrated coach stood on the sidelines, begging me to take the leap and try. After about fifteen deadlocked minutes, she would relent, and allow me to crawl back to safety, clinging to the wobbly board as though it were my last link to salvation.

I didn’t know what was down there, lurking in the 12 foot-deep, chlorine-rich water. The water was much darker than the shallow end. The waves from jostling limbs made the water ripple like taunting laughter. The dark blue water was home to a monster—I wouldn’t even dangle my toes in it. It’s an almost comical twist that years later, I became the manager of my high school swim team in a desperate attempt to rack up some extracurricular activities for my college applications after a knee injury sidelined my athletic career for good.

I was out in the lobby drawing up timing sheets for the new head coach, so I didn’t see what happened. I didn’t see our coach pull her limp body from the pool. After the initial commotion, I slipped out the side door to flag down the oncoming ambulance, shivering as the biting flakes of the first snow of the year landed on my skin. Steam rose off the water as the November air clashed with the steamy humidity of the pool deck. It settled like a fog over the linoleum.

I only looked at her once. Her arms spread out crucifix-style. Her lips had turned blue. Dark blue, like the deep end of the pool.

I didn’t know her. Maybe I passed her in the hall once or twice, her face drifting along amidst a sea of other faces. I can’t even picture her because the only time I ever saw her was when she was laying on the slick tile of the pool deck and her lips were blue.

I don’t know if there is some sort of standard regulation to follow when something like that happens – if there is some code to abide by, when death abruptly snatches a seventeen year old girl out of the deep end of the pool. I don’t know what to say to people who are sobbing over the loss of someone. Over the next few days the swim team struggled to understand how their sanctuary had become a tomb, how someone so young could be whisked away so fast, and remembered how excited the girl had been to start her first year as a member of the high school swim team, and wondered how it could go so horribly wrong?

They sent one of those standard pre-printed letters home with us the day after, about how grief counselors would be available for kids to talk to, and friends were welcome to attend a memorial service and would not be penalized for missing classes. My mom asked me if I was okay (of course I was) and if I wanted to talk about it (I said I was fine). Because what was I going to say? That I have the image of a girl’s dark blue, oxygen-deprived lips stuck in my head?

What do you say when you don’t know how you feel? When you know that it doesn’t matter how affected you are by some traumatic event, because the fact of the matter is, a girl lost her life – you didn’t know her, and others are grieving around you and you are useless to help then and you don’t even have the right to grieve a loss that isn’t yours.

I didn’t say anything. I went to practice the next day, put in the lane lines, sat in the lobby and did my homework, and wondered how long it would take for the monsters in the deep end of the pool to go away.

Rena

(Here’s a short story I wrote a few years ago and have always been fond of. Hope you enjoy!)

Grayson Hightower did not understand what it meant to be happy.

He was not a superfluous man. He was a businessman. Forty-five, living in a posh penthouse overlooking the harbor—and he had yet to spot a grey hair. But after a slew of unsuccessful relationships, he couldn’t help feeling that millions of dollars and a huge building in the center of the city branded with his name were not the right ingredients for happiness.

She was a serious investment, but Grayson thought that Rena was worth it.

She fit all of Grayson’s requirements. Honey blonde hair, porcelain skin, wide, curious blue eyes. Her figure melted perfectly into every dress he bought for her. She laughed at all of his jokes, even if she didn’t understand them. Her features were so delicate she looked like she would break, but her smile was enough to enchant the darkest hearts.

He debuted her at a gala that was thrown in his honor—a celebration for his 25 years of service as CEO of Hightower Enterprises. His coworkers seethed with envy when they saw the gorgeous young blonde on his arm. “How’d you manage to wrangle a girl like that, Grayson?” Felix Fortescue—one of the older board members, and a friend of Grayson’s late father—asked with a wag of his bushy white brows.

Grayson smiled, looking over at Rena. She was sitting at their table, eagerly watching the couples on the dance floor, politely declining any offer to dance from other men.

“Just lucky, I suppose.”

He excused himself from the conversation and approached his date.

“Would you like to dance, Rena?” He offered his hand to her.

She grinned, and slipped her hand into his. “You’ll have to teach me. I’ve never danced before!”

Rena was a natural dancer. She moved mechanically, as though programmed to complement every move of Grayson’s. But after a few turns around the floor, Grayson’s knees grew tired and he allowed Rena to continue dancing with some of his colleagues while he stepped out on the balcony for some air. It was summer, but the night was cool, and the breeze felt nice on his flushed skin.

“You look happy, Grayson.”

He turned. Miriam Hayworth—head of the Product Development Department, and his former fiancé—had followed him onto the balcony. The ruby-red wine glass in her hand matched the fire of her hair and the bright color of her lips. He had not seen her since she broke off their engagement four years prior, though every work-related email she had sent since then had been very brusque.

“Miriam. It’s good to see you.”

The woman moved to stand beside him. As she came closer, Grayson could see that the makeup she wore had shaved a few years off of her face. From far away she could pass for thirty. “I see you’ve found yourself a new plaything,” she commented, taking a sip from her glass. “A bit young, isn’t she?”

“Jealous?” Grayson asked lightly.

Miriam snorted. “Hardly.”

Grayson peered inside. Through the glass balcony doors he could see Rena waltzing with an obviously tipsy and very ecstatic Felix. Rena was practically steering him around the floor, a vision of beauty in her dark blue gown.

“She’s the talk of the evening. You’ve impressed everyone.” Miriam remarked. Grayson noticed that she was sporting an impressive ring on her left ring finger. He had heard rumors that she had taken up with Mason Malbrook, head of Advertising. He must have been willing to give Miriam what Grayson hadn’t.

Grayson shrugged.

“Rena’s an impressive girl.”

“It’s a pretty drastic change, isn’t it?”

Startled, Grayson glanced over at her. She was avoiding his gaze – looking inside at the crowded ballroom, playing aloof. Miriam had always been overly-perceptive, something he had both admired and loathed about her. He cleared his throat.

“Maybe that’s what I needed. A drastic change.”

Rena certainly was a drastic change.

“Are you truly happy, Grayson?” Miriam asked quietly. Her green eyes observed him over the rim of her glass, as if searching for some cue in his eyes or on his face that would indicate that he was lying. Grayson sighed.

“Yes, I am. Very happy.”

“Grayson?”

Rena had crept out onto the balcony. Her eyes flitted between Miriam and Grayson, as though trying to process the situation. Miriam chuckled dryly. “I’ll leave you two alone,” she said, patting Grayson on the arm and heading for the door. She re-entered the party, her fire-red hair soon lost in the crowd. Rena walked up to Grayson, a broad smile on her face.

“I came out for some ‘fresh air’ too!” Rena informed him, looking up at the night sky. “It’s so beautiful—there are so many stars.”

Grayson looked up as well. Thousands of stars twinkling like jewels in the sky—and not a cloud in sight. He had no reason to doubt her, but he felt compelled to ask.

“Rena, are you happy?”

“Yes.”

“Honestly?”

Her eyes, almost perfectly round, were full of stars as she looked at him.

“If you are happy, I am happy.”

That was all he needed to hear.

♦          ♦          ♦

It took Grayson a while to get used to Rena’s warm smile welcoming him home every day.

He didn’t have to rely on take-out from the city’s finest restaurants or dinners from the company cafeteria anymore. He could smell her delicious home-cooked meals, the scent growing stronger as he rode the elevator to the 24th floor, guiding him.

“Welcome home, Grayson!”

Every evening she met him at the door with her illustrious smile and a kiss on the cheek. And every day he could see his own smiling face reflected in the depths of her bright blue eyes.

“I made your favorite today. I hope you like it!”

They sat together at the dining room table and she eagerly watched him eat. “It’s wonderful, Rena,” He praised her, after several savory bites. “You really are a wonderful cook.”

Rena beamed. His compliment had practically made her glow.

“I guess watching all of those cooking shows during the day paid off.”

Grayson sometimes wondered what Rena did while he was at work – he supposed she watched television, tidied up the apartment, or just sat and waited for him to return. Several of his past relationships had met their end due to the issue of his ‘spending too much time at the office.’ To Grayson, there was no such thing. The CEO had to dedicate himself entirely to his work.

Rena never once complained about being left alone all day while he was working. She fit her role seamlessly. That was all Grayson had ever really asked for.

♦          ♦          ♦

Three months into their relationship, familiar storm clouds formed.

Rena enjoyed going for walks. She didn’t get tired of walking. Some nights she would ask Grayson to take her clear across the city, every step of her feet as lively as the last. Grayson complied with her requests, despite a few aching joints. Rena could chatter on and on about everything she saw. A bluebird in a tree. A neon-accented billboard. Even a pile of month-old garbage held wonder for her.

One night, during a walk, Rena stopped suddenly. She was staring at a playground. Dusk was fast approaching, but children were still playing under the watchful gazes of nearby parents. Their peals of laughter rang out in the late-summer evening.

“Are you alright, Rena?” Grayson asked.

Her eyes were transfixed on the children.

“They’re so… small.”

Grayson had never been fond of children. They were loud and fussy and not worth the trouble. Miriam had loved children.

Grayson sighed. “They won’t always be that small. They grow up. Everyone does.”

Rena’s hold on his arm tightened.

“Was I ever that small?”

Grayson glanced down at her. In the dim light, he couldn’t read her expression.

“I don’t know, Rena.”

She stared at the children with clouded blue eyes until Grayson gently steered her away. He wondered what Rena was thinking. She wasn’t meant to wonder these things—wasn’t meant to question quite so much. He had thought Rena would be different from the others.

They walked home in silence. Something cold and familiar began to form in Grayson’s heart. It made him feel like he was on a bicycle traveling too fast downhill.

He wondered if Rena felt it too. She had to. If he did, then she did.

♦          ♦          ♦

Grayson started staying late at the office as the summer came to a close. Hightower Enterprises was entering its busiest time, and it was necessary to put in long hours, ensuring that every aspect of his business was moving smoothly.

Some nights he wouldn’t even return home. He usually informed Rena when these nights were—either by calling or telling her before he left in the morning. He assumed she would be fine since she never complained about his absence. So the one night he forgot to call, he thought everything would be fine.

He wearily entered his penthouse after midnight, and was surprised to see the light on in the dining room. Rena was there, sitting at the table in her floral-print apron. At Grayson’s place there was a plate of food that had long since grown cold.

Rena offered him a weak smile.

“Welcome home, Grayson. I made your favorite today. I hope you like it.”

Grayson didn’t understand. Had she waited all that time, watching the hours pass by, for him to come home? His hands clenched into fists at his side, and he quickly turned from the scene. Without a word to her, he stormed into his room, dressed for bed, and crawled under the sheets.

He had begun drifting off when he heard his door open. Hesitant footsteps entered the room.

“Grayson?”

Her voice sounded different. Tired, almost—which Grayson dismissed as a trick of his over-exerted brain. He did not open his eyes to look at her. He didn’t want to see her—still in her apron, looking at him with that childlike innocence.

“It’s late, Rena.”

He heard her move, and was startled when she reached for his hand. Her skin was ice cold. He struggled to keep his eyes shut.

“Are you happy, Grayson?”

She whispered it, as if it were a secret for only them to share.

It took Grayson a moment to respond—to untangle his conflicted emotions, and settle on an answer.  He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze, but the effort produced no warmth from her glacial skin.

“…Of course, Rena. Are you happy?”

Rena sighed and withdrew her hand.

“If you are happy, I am happy.”

He heard her leave the room, closing the door behind her with a faint ‘click.’ His hand—the one she had held —felt so cold, Grayson had to tuck it under his pillow to warm it up.

♦          ♦          ♦

Grayson was not on good terms with any of his exes, so his options for consulting advice were limited. On his lunch hour one afternoon, he picked up the office phone and dialed down to the Product Development Department.

She answered the call with a dry chuckle.

“Well, this is certainly a surprise. To what do I owe the pleasure, Mr. Hightower?”

He got straight to the point. “Miriam…why did we break up?”

There was a pause on the other end.

“…Let me guess. Problems with your new toy?”

Grayson rolled his eyes. “Just tell me, Miriam. Why did you end it?”

She sighed into the receiver. He could picture her expression—it was most likely one of exasperation. That face had made many appearances toward the end of their relationship, when the age had begun to show in Miriam’s eyes, and on her face, and in her voice.

“Simple, Grayson. You ask for too much and you don’t give enough.”

Her tone was sharp. Grayson felt it pierce his chest like an arrow.

“You’ve always sought the same thing from relationships, but they always end the same way. You’ve been chasing after something that doesn’t exist.”

Grayson gripped the phone tightly. He wanted to reply, but the words were jumbled in his throat.

You remember at the gala a few months ago? You said you thought you needed a drastic change. I agree, Grayson. But I don’t think you’re willing to change what actually needs to be changed.”

Grayson didn’t want to hear anymore. Miriam didn’t understand how it was supposed to work—didn’t understand the recipe for happiness he had invested so much time and effort and money into. He slammed the receiver down and returned to his paperwork.

♦          ♦          ♦

The weather report hadn’t called for rain.

Grayson stood at the window, watching the droplets race one another, sometimes joining as they streaked down the glass pane. The harbor looked dismal, boats bobbing woefully in the gloom. He had promised to take Rena out on his boat before the weather got too cold to do so.

Rena had said that she wanted to experience the sea, and feel the motion of the waves beneath her feet. He could give her that, at least—he wanted to give her that. But nature disagreed.

“We can go out on the boat some other time, Rena.”

His comment was met with an unusual silence.

“…Rena?”

He turned from the window. Rena was slumped over at the kitchen table, her hair covering her face. Her white arms dangled at her sides, fingers slightly curled – reaching for something that was not there.

He walked to her, and gently brushed the limp blonde tendrils away from her face. The blue eyes were wide and empty, drained of all the former wonder. Her skin was cold, the cherry-red lips parted slightly, a thousand questions frozen perpetually on her tongue.

Grayson tried to close her blank eyes, but they wouldn’t budge. He swept her hair back over her face to hide them. He didn’t want her to stare at him like that.

He wondered if she had suffered. If she had known that things had changed.

She probably had. If he did, she did.

After a moment, Grayson walked into his bedroom. He opened the drawer of his nightstand, rifling through it until he found what he was looking for. He had discarded it months ago, not thinking it had any importance.

He opened the thick booklet to page one.

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REMEMBER: As long as you’re happy, she’s happy.

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