Richard is Luther. Ellen is Roberta. The truth feels so obvious, it slots into place with a quiet, unobtrusive click. I think about the script I fell in love with; I think about Ellen’s strength and their bottomless devotion. It didn’t convince me that love like that was waiting for me, but it gave me hope that it could exist. After feeling nothing for years, it was enough.
“So you sold me to save him,” I say numbly.
Sam opens his eyes, and I can tell from his expression that he hates the way I’ve put it. But he gives another quiet “Yes” anyway.
“Would you do it again?” I ask. “Knowing that it hurt me, knowing how much my life would change?”
Sam tilts his face to the ceiling, and I watch as he blinks quickly, his cheeks growing red with emotion. “I don’t know how to answer that.”
“You answer with a yes,” I say, “or a no.”
“We got another ten years with him.” He looks me squarely in the eye. His are red-rimmed. “So, yes. I would do it again.”
I don’t know where we can go from here. I turn to leave, but he stops me with a hand around my arm. “Tate. Don’t walk out after that.”
“We have to get back on set.”
“Devon will come get us. Just—” He gestures to the chair again. “Sit, please?”
I lower myself back in the chair, still feeling shell-shocked. We sit in tense silence for several long moments.
“I didn’t lie about anything I felt in London,” he says, and a painful spasm turns something over in me. “Leaving you the way I did really wrecked me, and it’s okay if you don’t believe me. But I loved Luther and Roberta with everything I have. They’d given me everything.” He pauses, and in the silence I can practically feel his turmoil. “I want you to know that.”
The truth is, I do know that. It’s evident in every word of his screenplay, in every nuance of the dialogue. Their voices come through so authentically; it could only have been written by someone who loved them beyond measure.
It makes it really hard to hate him, but anger isn’t so quick to diffuse in my blood. The relief that it hadn’t been planned from the moment I spilled my secret expands, taking up space before I’ve really made room for it. It makes it hard to breathe, like the air in my lungs is under pressure.
“Is there anything else you need to know?” he asks.
Through the chaos of my thoughts, the only questions that press forward with any clarity are ones that sound so young and selfish. Did you ever think of trying to find me? Was it easy for you to just disappear?
But I’m also wrestling with feeling obtuse for not seeing the truth from the second I knew Sam wrote the script. Even if it’s set in Iowa not Vermont, the story is so clearly Sam’s. I’m fighting the fear that I’m no more than a stepping-stone to every man who has ever meant anything to me. I feel small, and silly, and strangled by the realization that the longer I stay angry, the pettier I seem.
“I’m just trying to figure out how to feel,” I admit.
“I’m sure.” He clasps his hands, pins them between his knees. “I guess I assumed you figured it out—about Roberta and Luther—once you saw me on set.”
“I probably should have.”
“Maybe not,” he reasons. “You never met Roberta.”
Our attention turns as we hear Nick yelling something down the trail. I have a fondness for Nick—especially for Nick as Richard—that is starting to feel the way I might for an old lover, for someone I want to forever keep in my life. I think about Nick’s eyes when he’s staring at me, as Ellen. His hand when it engulfs mine. It feels so real, so intense. Was this what it felt like for Sam to grow up around Luther and Roberta? Witnessing a love like this all the time?
I know my love for this script has always been intense, even for someone who’s been looking her whole adult life for the perfect role, but I get now that it’s not only about being Ellen. It’s about wanting to know, for certain, that this kind of love exists.
But then it occurs to me . . . where is Sam in this film?
“You never come live with them,” I say. “There’s no character that’s your dad, either, when Ellen is younger. The script ends when they’re in their sixties, but you’re not in it.”
“The story is about how they fell in love in the middle of one of the most tumultuous times in our country’s history. They didn’t need me or Michael for that.”
I study him, trying to puzzle it out. Finally, he shrugs, and his smile is boyish. “It didn’t make them any more heroic at that point to have her be a single mom or bring in a three-year-old kid when they were empty nesters.”
Despite everything, this makes me laugh. “Artistic license means you cut yourself out of the story?”
He nods, and his shoulders seem to ease at the sight of my smile. “Can you believe me, though?” he asks quietly. “That the worst thing I ever did was for the best reason I ever had?”
His words spear through me, stabbing into a tender spot. Only for Sam Brandis have I felt such a complicated ache—devotion, desire, hurt, and envy of the wife who gets to puzzle out the man who, if what he says is true, would sacrifice his own heart to save someone he loves. Who could see true love so clearly in front of him and translate it into words on a page.