Derek Wills was in withdrawal. He could recognize the symptoms from when he had quit smoking twelve years ago. The headache, anxiety, and most of the craving so strong it woke him in the middle of the night. This time though, it wasn't a drug that he was trying to get out of his system, it was a person. Karen Cartwright to be specific.
Ivy words had haunted him on the taxi ride back to his apartment, and into the wee hours of the morning when he'd tossed and turned on his 1000 thread count sheets. It hadn't helped that they still smelled like Karen.
That night he'd tried to convince himself that he was overreacting, that Ivy was being dramatic in her interpretation of his feelings for Karen. Just because Ivy had said that he…felt a certain way, that didn't mean it was true. Despite these self-assurances, he'd felt uneasy, so he did what any rational man would do in his situation: he avoided her.
During the first two days of his Karen fast, Derek had gone out, on the prowl as it were. He'd visit a Manhattan bar, locate a gorgeous woman, and seduce her until she was ready to go home with him. Then he'd leave, without the woman, to go to yet another bar and repeat the process. His experiment had taught him a very disturbing thing; he just wasn't interested in other women. He'd go after type after type, but it didn't matter; the desire just wasn't there.
He'd tried to explain it away as a result of being overworked, but deep down he knew. Maybe he'd always known, way back to the days of Rebecca Duvall, when he'd been having actual hallucinations about Karen serenading him. "Our day will come," that was what she'd sang, or rather what his sub-conscious had sang to him. That day was here, he was, God help him, IN LOVE with Karen Cartwright. Only problem, she was IN LOVE with her idiot boyfriend. Fantastic.
Indecisive was not typical a word Derek would use to describe himself, but it definitely applied in this case. How was he supposed to act around Karen now? How could he be her friend when he felt like this? How did he stop himself from doing something that would make her hate him forever? Should he try to seduce her? Should he try to sabotage her relationship with the idiot? Should he be honest about his feelings? No, definitely no, to that last one. That was all he need to get the 'Let's just be friends' talk from Karen. He was in over his head and he did not like it.
Today's rehearsal had been nightmarish. Karen was completely off her game, and he knew that as her director and her 'friend' he needed to say something to her. He'd put on his best poker face and broke faced Karen for the first time in four days. To say she was displeased would have been understating things.
"You need a word? How about two? Good night." Karen yanked her arm from his grasp and tried to side step by him, but Derek blocked her path. He glanced over his shoulder, to see if anyone was lingering in the studio. Sam and Tom seemed to be hesitating by the door, but the look Derek shot them seemed to be enough to send them from the room. He turned his scrutiny back to Karen.
"What's wrong?" Karen's chin jutted out defiantly, and she crossed her arms over her chest.
"According to you, pretty much everything about my dancing." Karen's voice was the spikiest he'd ever heard it. This obviously would not be an easy conversation, yet he was determined that they would have it.
"Today it was, yes. You're stiff, your timing's off, every movement is forced, and you're smiling like someone's stuck a fork into your leg." It was such a departure from her usual grace and ease that he'd found it impossible to even notice anyone else's mistakes.
"I heard you the first dozen times you screamed at me. I got it. I suck." Derek didn't attempt to contradict her or soften the self-criticism. It was true; today she had sucked, at least in comparison to what she was capable of.
"And thus my question, what is wrong?" There was something behind today's rehearsal. Everyone had the occasional off day, but this had not been that. An off day was two or three mistakes, not two or three dozen.
"We already went over this. I'm stiff, my timing-"
"No, those are symptoms, not your ailment." Karen's entire performance had been so below her usual level that something had to be amiss in her personal life.
"Don't worry about it. I will be back on my game tomorrow. It won't affect your rehearsal." Is that all she thought he cared about?
"Karen, I am not asking you as your boss. I am asking you as your friend." Karen had accepted him as her friend, and as such he was well within rights to be concerned about her emotional wellbeing.
"My friend? My friend who suddenly doesn't want to have lunch with me? Who doesn't want to talk to me? Who has been actively avoiding eye contact with me?" Oh yes, he'd nearly forgotten that Karen had picked up on his distant behavior. She obviously hadn't guessed the correct reason behind it. He couldn't decide if he was more grateful or disappointed for that.
"You don't understand." Her anger told him that whatever conclusions she had jumped to were wrong. Still, she couldn't honestly think that he wanted to spend this time away from her.
"I don't understand? You're right, I don't. I don't understand why someone who claims to be my friend suddenly started dodging me like I've contracted the plague. Care to explain?" There was no good response here. If he lied, she'd know, and if he told the truth, she'd become the one who avoided him.
"Karen, it's complicated." He winced even as he said it. Derek mentally cursed all the men who'd used the phrase when it didn't really apply. Karen scoffed in disbelief.
"Let me un-complicate it for you. Meeting my parents made you realize just how small town Iowa I really was. You decided I'm not sophisticated enough to be friends with." Karen was so far off base that Derek had no idea how to respond.
"You're so wrong I can't even begin to tell you how wrong you are." Did she honestly think where she came from made the slightest bit of difference to him? It had all been part of making her the extraordinary person she was today. In point of fact he envied her upbringing.
"Right, like it's never occurred to you that I don't really fit in with the rest of your friends?" Clearly Karen had some major misconceptions about his life that he'd need to clarify.
"Karen, I don't really have friends." There it was the blunt, rather sad, truth.
"Yeah, right." Karen rolled her eyes in disbelief. He imagined it would be hard for her to comprehend. Karen had always been popular, genuinely popular, not just feared and envied. She must have dozens of people she counted as friends.
"I'm dead serious. I have people I socialize with from time to time, but they're not friends."
"What is the difference?"
"Someone you socialize with will come to your parties. Someone you're friends with will stay to help you pick up the mess." He didn't just mean the literal mess. Derek knew there were masses of people willing to drink his champagne and eat his food. Some of them might actually have even enjoyed his charm. But if everything went to hell, if he lost his wealth, if he was no longer a success, the Great Derek Wills, he wouldn't trust even one of them not to abandon him for greener pastures.
"And you don't have any people in your life like that?" He'd like to blame it on the business he was in, but the truth was it was his own fault.
"Not for a very long time."
"Why not?" He studied Karen. She had uncrossed her arms and was looking at him with genuine curiosity. She seemed considerably less angry than she had been a few minutes ago. If he kept going she'd either become disgusted with his past behavior, or she'd understand why it was so important to him that he not screw up whatever it was he currently had with her. Silence was clearly not going to suffice, so he'd have to chance it, and hope for the best.
"I found out that despite the myriad of talents that I have, I'm terrible at being a friend." There he'd finally said it, out loud. Not to the person who most deserved to hear it, but he'd still said it.
"What happened?" Derek thought back to all those years ago, before he was the colossal success he was today. Back when he was just starting out, young, ambitious, determined to prove his father wrong about him.
"About ten years ago I had a friend, a best friend. He was fantastic: funny, loyal, and smart. We had big dreams. He was going to be a great composer, and I was destined to be a brilliant director. Then we did a show together and it flopped." Ten years and it still pained him to remember the negative reviews, the low ticket sales, and most of all, the looks on the audience's faces. That horrible numbness, like their faces had been given shots of Novocain.
"And that was it? That's what drove you apart?" If only. A minor speed bump like that won't have cost him his friend or his conscious.
"No. I wish that was it. I took someone's advice and did something dishonorable and unforgivable to save my own career." Weak, was what he had been. At the time he'd convinced himself the opposite was true. He'd told himself that it was how the strong protected themselves; by not letting personal loyalties get in the way.
"What did you do?"
"I blamed the show's failure on him, on his songs. I said he was unstable and uninspired and I justified my behavior using the review of one critic and the fact that 'Daddy made me do it'."
"Wait, your father? The famous flutist? The one who didn't want you to have a career in theatre in the first place?" In hindsight he should have known better than to listen to that miserable misanthrope. The follies of youth.
"That's the one. He condescended to tell me that this was why I never had the slightest chance to succeed in the business. I didn't have the stomach to do what needed to be done. I certainly showed dear old dad. I stuck a knife in the back of my best friend. I failed him because I was a selfish coward. I don't want fail you too. So please Karen, tell me what's wrong." Karen didn't say anything for ten long seconds, then she walked past Derek, toward the door. Derek didn't try and stop her this time; he just turned to watch her go. He'd revealed his most shameful memory and it hadn't been enough.
To Derek's surprise Karen stopped at the table where Linda recorded the stage direction. She plopped her bag on the table and took a seat in one of the chairs. She didn't say a word, she didn't look at him, she just stared at her bag. Cautiously Derek walked over and sat in the chair next to her. They sat in silence for two full minutes, before Karen opened her mouth to speak.
"Dev moved out this morning." Her eyes, which were still fixated on the bag, filled with unshed tears. She blinked to keep them back.
"He moved out? But I thought…What did he do?" Derek's head was reeling with this new information. He'd thought that the boyfriend had patched things up with Karen.
"What did HE do?" Karen sounded surprised at his assumption that Dev had been the one to cause the break. No other version of events made sense to Derek. No man would leave Karen of his own volition, so naturally Dev must have done something to get himself thrown out.
"Well he must have done something, for him to have upset you like this." Karen's tears were flowing now, in two silent rivers down her cheeks. The sight of Karen crying was doing strange things to him. He was fighting two intense and conflicting emotional impulses. The first was to take Karen in his arms and tell her everything was going to be alright. The second was to find Dev and beat the living daylights out of him.
"He did. He proposed." Derek's brain was yet again thrown into chaos.
"Oh. I take it you didn't accept." She must not have, given she was here crying about the whole thing. Usually it took much longer than that for people to regret saying "yes".
"What is wrong with me?" If Karen was looking to him to list her flaws, she'd come to the wrong person. In his eyes, she was perfect.
"Nothing. There's nothing wrong with you." There were many things he could name that were wrong with Dev, but he figured this was not quite the right time to recite them.
"Then why don't I want to marry him? I love him, I know I do. He's wonderful, smart, funny, supportive, and kind. He believed in me, when nobody else did. Why isn't that enough for me?" Derek was stumped himself. If Karen believed all those things about Dev (personally Derek didn't), and she believed in marriage and happily ever after, etc., then why had she said no?
"I'm afraid only you can answer that question. What I can tell you it that you have excellent instincts, and if they told you that you shouldn't marry Dev, then you were right to listen to them." He hoped that wasn't just his own selfishness and distain for Dev talking.
"If I was right, then why does it hurt so much?"
"Because you live your life courageously. You're not afraid to invest your heart in things that might not work out. Doing that leaves you open to pain." Cynics like him were much safer from life's emotional trauma.
"Maybe I should stop."
"No. Never say that." The last thing he'd want in the world for Karen was for her to become like him.
"Because life, like theatre, means nothing if there aren't stakes. You don't want to live your life feeling numb." Detachment would kill someone like Karen. She drew her strength from her emotions.
"Numb sounds pretty good right now." Unfortunately what sounds good for us and what is good for us is rarely the same thing.
"Of course it does. It sounds like relief. It sounds easy. But nothing worth anything in life is easy." Take Derek's relationship with Karen. In a single week he'd run an emotional gambit, feeling more in seven days that he'd felt in over seven years. It was confusing, and frightening, and exhilarating and he wouldn't trade it for the world.
"I miss him."
"I can't go back to the apartment. It's so empty. I can't face being alone right now." Her voice cracked in a way he had never heard before.
"You're not alone." Slowly, carefully, he reached out and put his arm around her shoulder. She tensed for a moment, and he thought she would pull away. Then she started to tremble, like there was an earthquake taking place inside of her, then it the floodgates gave way.
Karen was sobbing, uncontrollably weeping. Derek had never felt more helpless in his life. Not knowing what else to do, he pulled her closer, until her head was resting on his shoulder. She didn't resist as he brought his other arm around to complete the embrace. As he held Karen, he whispered the only words of comfort he could offer. He whispered them again and again, long after her last shuttering sob, "I'm here. I'm here. I'm here." He was and he always would be.