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Had me fooled

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One day the story would go that it started over of a man, and it continued because of the ambition and what not… well, the second part was certainly true. But it was never really about a man.  It could never be with women like them. It all started in 1930s. On Joan’s 30th birthday to be exact.  Now, in Hollywood a working actress over 25 was possible to see, but over 30… not so much. She would soon be considered old a leading lady.

Joan emptied a glass of martini to wash off the bitter taste which that infamous number had left in her mouth.  Her eyes glazed over the room. The bitches barely in their 20s were coming to LA in packs and they all seemed to be here. Blonde, ambitious bimbos who acted as if they belonged, and when all they’ve seen of a set was the crotch of a director or a leading man. Survival of the fittest, she remembered. And no one was more fit then Joan Crawford. She survived the death of silent movies, her 25th birthday, turning 30 was not going to be her end.

Her jaw still hurt of the things she has done for beauty and success. The missing teeth made her cheekbones look like sculpted out of marble (the investment that has been paying off quite nicely). However, age was not something she could stop. She couldn’t extract couple of years and be done with it. The time was running after her snatching parts of her beauty, she was reminded of that every morning when she looked in the mirror. It isn’t that she had no talent for acting. No, she had the talent and she’d be damned if she allowed somebody to convince her otherwise.  But nobody at MGM gave a fuck about her talent and hard work, as long as she’s beautiful. They had Garbo and Hepbeurn to be the whole package. Joan could still survive on being pretty. As long as men wanted to fuck her, she’d be fine.

A roaring laughter echoed the room, briefly diverting her attention to the small group on the far right. A wide-eyed blonde had grabbed the attention of a group of men, and her Franchot had apparently grabbed hers. Joan snickered at the scene.  Everybody knew Franchot Tone had eyes only for her. The plain blonde was no threat. Though when later that evening he jabbered about the talented actress from the theatre, she did feel a pang of concern. She knew of her, Bette Davis. She knew of every girl that has touched the spotlight.  She even went to see that picture after all the critics raved about the performance. And Lord, were they underselling her, she thought after watching ’Of human bondage’.

“Thank you, Fred darling.” she accepted another drink from her costar, forgetting all about the fascinating Miss Davis.

It was nearing midnight and she wound up in the bathroom.  She was staring at her reflection in the mirror encircled by a frame of silver and golden strings. She’d buy the one like that for her new house once her next picture hits theatres. But for now she just had to wait for everything to stop moving. She should have eaten something before switching to white wine. She splashed cold water on her face and fixed her make-up.

Joan was always the one for the crowd, being surrounded by men, drinking in all the admiration. That night, however, she sought a moment of tranquility. She stepped out on the back balcony. The night was dark and only the faint light from the inside illuminated the small space. Joan grabbed onto the railing and breathed in the cool air. She was 30 years old. Had she reached her peak? Was that it? What was she going to do now?  Watch as they start sending her even more ridiculous scripts, offering her menial roles? She’s going to have to fight for scraps soon. The grip tightened until her knuckles were as white as the railing. She wanted to scream but couldn’t. Joan Crawford was always the image of poise and elegance.

“Son of a bitch-“ a grumble startled her.

Only then did she notice she was not alone. There was a female silhouette, a light of a dying lighter briefly revealing her features.

Joan took out the silver lighter from her purse and approached the woman. With a flick of a thumb, she lit up the cigarette of Bette Davis whose eyes shone for that passing moment.

“Thanks.” a brisk response came between two long drags.

She nodded politely and moved to retreat to her solitary corner.

“What’s got you hiding out here?” Bette called after her.

She turned to see the younger woman strutting towards her. With a chuckle, she answered, “Whatever gave you that idea?”

“Maybe sometimes being the biggest star in the room can be a tad tedious.”

“Haven’t you heard? Norma Shearer is here.” Joan reminded her, though Bette’s words did her ego well.

Bette, though, found the response funny for some reason. Her laughter was loud and quite uncommon.

Joan was taken aback by its sincerity and looked closely at the unexpected companion, suddenly finding something attractive about her. Unlike Joan, the persona she had perfected over the years, something about Bette seemed genuine. Her relaxed stance, unladylike laugh, self-assured, clipped tone, the way she smoked.

“What?”

Joan realized she’d been staring. She took the strap of Bette’s light blue dress and moved it back into its place, making it perfectly symmetrical with the other, ”There.” she cordially held out her hand, “Joan Crawford.”

“I know.” briefly, Joan thought she might be left hanging. As she was about to pull back, Bette, head held high, took hold of her in a confident shake, “Bette Davis.”

Those piercing eyes were staring at her, and Joan got the feeling they could read her mind. She moved quickly, pressing the lips against Bette’s.  It was slow and seductive, the kiss she used when testing the waters. The taste of cigarette and wine made for a strange combination. It didn’t take much to realize she might have made a mistake. She’d blame it on the booze later, but now she needed to make a graceful exit.

Somewhat disappointed, she pulled away, “I hope you’re having a pleasant evening, Miss Davis.” she said calmly and returned to the party.

*

It would be two months after they saw each other again. Franchot was doing some picture with Davis, and Joan had promised to visit him on set regularly.

She first showed up at the table read at 5 p.m. It wasn’t her intention to intrude, but Franchot did promise they would be finished by then. She apologized, however, everybody was glad the big star was gracing them with her presence. Actually, not everyone. Bette hardly acknowledged her and everybody noticed. Joan might have let that malice slide if not for the rumors flying a week into the filming. Bette was interested in him. Some claimed she’s head over heels. Joan would see her hovering around Franchot, claiming concerns over the script, chatting about theatre, looking at him like he was a Godsent. And whenever she realized Joan was on set, she would find a reason to excuse herself. One time, Joan demeaned herself and asked him about it. He assured her it was nothing. But nasty gossip was turning into snickering behind her back and Joan would have none of it.

The final scene that night was an outdoors shoot. The film had a decent enough budget to put the stars in a tolerable hotel.

She decided to wait for Bette by her door, “Can we speak?”

Bette, visibly tired, didn’t respond immediately. But seeing how Joan had left for no room for saying no, she unlocked the door and let her go in first.

Joan’s eyes landed on a small bedstand littered with papers under a full ashtray.

“You want a drink?”  Bette offered as she’s grabbing a pack.

She wavered, “No, thank you.” finally she decided, remembering she had emptied her flask not long ago. And the stuffy air did not agree with alcohol.

“Then what do you want, Crawford? I’ve had a long day. But you already know that, you’re always on set.”

“And that bothers you?”

“At times.”

“If it is because of what happened at that party, it shouldn’t. I apologize if it made you uncomfortable.” the last sentence was heavy in her mouth, she rarely apologized, “That is actually what I came here to say.”

Bette waged the truthfulness of the words, “It’s fine, Joan. All forgotten.”

“Is it really?”

Her eyes widen even more and she lets the ash from the cigarette fall on the carpet. For a second, Joan believed she pushed some buttons, “Yes. I prefer professional working environment, free from reporters and other intruders.”

“Ah, yes! I’m intruding on you moving in on the leading man.”

“Ha!” Bette croaked, the sound resonating trough the room.

“It’s clear you want to have what I have. To have him look at you the way he’s looking at me. “ she’s losing control, this wasn’t her plan, “You think-“

“For Christ’s sake, you narcissistic woman! Not everybody is jealous of you.”

Despite the popular belief amongst her colleagues, Joan was not good at confrontations. When it came to acting, she would fight tooth and nail but when it came to personal conflicts she would lose her composure and reasoning fast, “That…” she pointed at Bette, her hand is shaking too much for her liking, “was almost convincing. But an actress of your caliber can surely do better than that.”

Bette blinked away the surprise and almost left it at that. Almost. She stomped out the cigarette butt, “And they say I’m relentless.” she grabbed Joan by the arms and yanked her close.

Joan was the one stunned now. Bette kissed the way Joan could have expected. Ardently and hard. As if to prove herself, she pushed into Joan leading her to bed.

Once her legs bumped into the bedframe, Joan broke away the contact, “Are we doing this?”

Bette’s hold relaxed,” I…” she shut her eyes and confessed in a whisper, “Yes.”

“Then let’s get you out of this hideous thing.” she smirked, unzipping the back of Bette’s dress and feeing her confidence getting back.

Crashing into a love affair was not completely unorthodox for Joan. What did make it unorthodox was the aftermath, the fact that Bette resisted the urge to cling to a cigarette and Joan didn’t feel the need to grab a drink or something to fill in the silence. She was lying on her stomach cherishing the sensation of Bette’s nail tracing the line of the freckles on her shoulder.

“What is it like?” Bette murmured, “When you enter the room?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s like the world stops spinning. You don’t say a single word and everybody’s at awe.”

Joan raised her eyebrow. Hidden behind that sense of wonder was slight resentment. She could hear it clearly but she didn’t blame her. After all, women in Hollywood are taught to resent each other, “It’s nice.”

“Well, I’ll be damned… a modest Joan Crawford.”

“Oh, shut up.“ she wrapped her arm around Bette and pressed a kiss on her collarbone, “It’s very nice. Riveting.”

“Now, that I believe.” she giggled, shying away from Joan’s teasing lips.

“What about you? So many people voted for you to win that Oscar over Colbert and Shearer. And you weren’t even nominated.”

“It’s very nice. Riveting.” there was a hint of sadness in her eyes. After a prolonged pause, she forced a smile and added, “But I’m just getting started.”

In a strange flash of understanding, Joan knew she should make a light of the subject, “By stealing my lines?”

“Just trying to make them better, Joan.”

“Allow me then to extend the courtesy and say your pillow talk needs improvement.”

“Maybe… but I tend not to mince words. Plus, I figured us girls should be frank with each other, you know men rarely are.”

“My real name’s Lucille.” Joan said more to the room than to Bette. She knew better than to recklessly confide in her lovers. Although, saying her given name was not a risk per se, to Joan it always felt very revealing. It reminded her of everything she was trying not to be. A poor girl, starved for affection. She got up abruptly, frustrated with her unnecessary frankness, “It’s late. And you’re tired.”

“It is late and I am tired.” Bette wrapped her arms around Joan’s shoulders, “But I’m not letting you leave just yet.”

*

For the first time, Bette wasn’t among the first ones on the set the following morning. Speculation circled among the crew, each theory more absurd than the next. And when she received a small, elegant box the day Joan was not visiting, everybody believed it was from Franchot.

That day was odd, but it became easier after that. The two would meet in the evening in a remote restaurant at the south side of the town. Joan would sit quietly, a hand occasionally placed on her lover’s arm or thigh, and listen to Bette, watch her expressive mannerism as she talk about acting. The passion for acting equaled hers, though she wondered if they would ever be considered equals in that area.

Bette was of different temperament than her, Joan soon realized. It was intimidating at times, dealing with bluntness and impatience. Every movement appeared unrestricted. On the other hand, Joan was always opting for stillness. It was not who she was essentially, but it was the way to be in control, over her every word, every gesture and over her own life.

Surprisingly easily, Joan got accustomed to spending nights in intimate company, away from bustling Hollywood atmosphere.

Bette was sitting cross-legged on the floor, “You can go now?”

“Yes.”

“Then you must…. Because if you stay, it will be too late. I love you.” Bette said, not shyly, not desperately. She stated it as a fact, “You may never love me, but I find you’ll always come back to me…. Each time you return, it will cost you more and more until you’ve spent your career, your ambitions, your dreams… I am- oh, Christ that’s bad.” she groaned, tossing the script away.

“It’s not. Quite the opposite, in fact. Perhaps shorten the pauses.”

“Maybe.” she sighed and took a cigarette from Joan, “I need a break.”

Joan leaned back in her chair and started humming Blue moon.

“I detest unnecessary sentiment, you know.”

“Now, that’s a surprise.” Joan quipped, unsure whether Bette was referring to the script or the song.

“I’m serious.”

“Fine… Does this feel strange to you?” Joan found the courage to voice her concerns, “I mean us, like this.”

“It does. Actresses usually bore me to tears but I find I am quite fond of you.”

Joan dipped her head and watched Bette judiciously, “Are you playing dense or has the picture gone to your head?”

Bette growled and looked away. Joan took her chin in her hand, “I’m quite fond of you, too.”

“Good.” she said, running her hand up Joan’s thigh.

*

Joan was leaving MGM headquarters feeling quite happy. Bette had invited her to dinner and she was absolutely giddy about it. Life was going well for her, she’s about to sign a new picture and her love life was-

A hand pulled her and with a yelp she bumped against a firm body.

“You wound me, Joan.”

She looked up, a charming smile, piercing eyes, “Clark! I didn’t see you there.”

“I know. Have I lost the appeal?”

Playfully, she swatted him, “I adore you as always, don’t fret.”

He pulled her into a secluded hallway., “I should hope so.”

She let him kiss her once (his appeal would always be electric), but then nudged him away, “Behave, Clark. We’re not on set.”

He laughed whole-heartedly, “And that should stop us?”

She shrugged, “I’m afraid that’s the case.”

“I know you’re sweet on Tone-“

“Someone else has caught my fancy, actually.”

He looked her over, examining her in detail, “Oh, Joanie, you’re not giving me a thought… it’ not fancy. You’ve fallen hard.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” she was not, she couldn’t.

“Well, I hope it’s everything.” he gave her another kiss, on the cheek this time, “So when do you think the big shots are gonna let us do another picture together?”

“When they admit there’s no better duo than us. We’re the moneymakers, darling… now, I should go. I have dinner I simply cannot miss.”

*

“How was the interview with the righteous bitch?” Joan asked and leaning in for a kiss, but Bette wriggled away from her touch, “What? The names they call Louella… I’m being nice.”

She placed bouquet of lilies in the vase. It did bring some brightness to the room, she concluded proudly.

“This domesticity shit’s got to stop.” Bette spoke up tautly.

Joan turned in surprise, but she thought that was just Bette’s bad temper. Probably bad day, “Rather uncouth of you.”

“It’s best to be direct in these matters.”

Joan narrowed her eyes. Something was amiss, “I agree.”

“Let’s be realistic. I’m not one of you.”

“Who would that be?”

“You know.” she waved vaguely at her, “Screwing around for sport or parts I can’t get on talent-“

“Fuck you, Bette. I understand this can be scary but-“

“It isn’t.”

“Oh?”

“Agh!” Bette was exasperated, “It wasn’t my intention to hurt you. I’m just trying to make this simpler.”

“So, this is your simple way of discarding me?”

“Don’t be so melodramatic, Lucile-“

“Don’t ever call me that!” Joan roared in her face, finally realizing trusting Bette had blown up in her face, “You’ve just lost the right to that.”

“Christ, It’s not like this meant anything. I thought you’d understand, after Frachot and whoever else.”

She was left with the feeling of dull wonder, surprised that the woman who expressed such tenderness could be so cold and foul, “Well, I suppose unlike in the picture, your performance over the past weeks was Oscar worthy.” she paused, straightening the creases of her  skirt, “Congratulations, you had me fooled.”

Bette tilted her head and gave a tight-lipped smile.

Joan felt a lump in her throat, tears prickling their way out. There was much she desired to say but the words wouldn’t come. She snatched the sash from the coat hanger and stormed out. This would not do, Bette would rue the day she humiliated Joan Crawford.

Bette slumped in her chair, “More than you know.”

An hour or so later, she was still sitting in her chair, still looking at the door, playing with the last cigarette.

She heard a knock, but without waiting for response a man shuffled into her room.

“You fixed everything?” she asked her agent, resignation in her voice.

He loosened the dotted tie and poured himself a drink, “Of course I did, Louella’s a reasonable broad. I had to empty your bank account but let that be a lesson in Hollywood… You know you’re lucky she didn’t go to the studio.  At best they would have made you do all the shitty pictures they wanted. He put his feet up on the table, proud of a job well done, “I don’t have to worry about your dalliance with Crawford anymore? The episode of poor judgment is done?”

Wordlessly, Bette gave a curt nod.

“I saved your career, kid. And probably hers, too. Morality clause is no joke. You should be more grateful.”

“Don?”

“Yeah?”

“Fuck off.”

Chapter Text

 “I cannot believe you did that.” the couple returned home after a long night and Frachot was still exasperated.

“You’ve said that already.” Joan sighed then mumbled, “Five times, if I recall.”

“It’s a big deal for her. All I’m saying is you could have been more gracious.”

“I complemented her frock.” she reminded him, all innocent like. However, remembering their last private encounter, she hadn’t been able to help herself but add, “A cheap, old frock that she probably wore on her prom.”

“She won, Joan. If not for her, than you should be happy for the film. The award means more money for me too, God-damn it.”

“All right. I will send her flowers with a lovely note. Will that make you happy? You can supervise if you’d like. Or will the doe-eyed Miss Davis be responsible for the end of honeymoon phase of our marriage?”

“It’s fine.” he slumped in the armchair, “It would be nice of you to send flowers.”

“Then it’s settled.” she smiled and placed her hands on his chest, “Shall we go to bed now?”

The first thing she did the following morning was buy flowers. Joan had always liked flowers, more to receive than to send them of course. It wasn’t difficult for her to make the particular choice; she opted for roses and daisies. Writing the actual note, however, proved to be a task more difficult. Her practiced hand had written many notes for many occasions, to both to colleagues and others. She knew when and how to sound polite or show a hint of superiority when the occasion demanded. This one would require something else; she could not write some generic words and be done with it. Whether it was her ego, pettiness or just that feeling that wouldn’t go away whenever she thought of Bette, it didn’t matter at the time.

*

It was the most successful night of her life. Her name was called, and Christ, she almost fainted. ‘Yes!’ She thought as she walked to take her award, ‘It’s not another disappointment.’

She thanked the right people and smiled the right smiles. She rushed off the stage right into a hug. She wasn’t sure who hugged her and only when she reached her seat did she get some semblance of sense. Franchot, the delightful man, wrapped his arms around her.

Joan, as if she only noticed her, looked her up and down and made a sarcastic comment. Suddenly, Bette’s confidence vanished into thin air and she became painfully aware of her unfortunate appearance. It ruined her the whole damn night. Not so much her appearance, more the mere existence of Joan Crawford – with her white satin dress, bare back, fierce eyes that almost subtly tried to catch hers. Bette had made a mistake of letting it happen twice that night. One short, polite glance when they had all met up, and second time when it had been announced the best actress category was to follow. The memory of feeling oddly calm around Joan had seeped into her mind, and she had impulsively sought it again. But the decision had been made weeks ago; she no longer expected to have the right to even a fragment of what they’d briefly shared. It had almost startled her to see it when they locked eyes. Through the cracks of the Joan Crawford persona, a reassuring smile had squeezed through.

It all became burdensome after a while, all that crowd and photographers. Bette’s smile turned into something of a grimace, her posture stiffened. She didn’t know why but, ironically, she thought it funny how when the cameras were rolling she could act out every emotion imaginable with ease. But now, her cheeks hurt and the shoulders hunched. The Oscar was surprisingly heavy, but she was clinging to it like a lifeline.

*

It was the following day and she still wasn’t sure if she could ever process that night.  As if it was a regular day, she walked into Warner Bros. studio. The congratulations and awes from every person there were surely a welcomed sensation. It took her almost an hour to get to her dressing room. Not surprisingly, it was flooded with gifts and flowers. She was savoring each and every one of them, signs of admiration and respect. Her feet were propped up on table in front of her, as she was going through the notes. It was well past noon when Jack Warner entered, letting in a deliveryman with more flowers.

“I see you’re enjoying yourself.”

“‘My compliments on the win last night. Your talent and beauty shine through the screen. I’m very happy for you. All my love…’” theatrically, she read out the note attached to a chocolate box, “And there’s more where that came from. So, yes. I am enjoying myself.”

“You brought in big bucks.” Jack bit on the chocolate, as he skimmed over the room, “I hate this European shit. Get me a drink, will you?”

She jumped off her chair and grabbed onto the bottle whiskey.

“Damn it. I told them to keep the fan gifts away from dressing rooms.” Jack shoved a card inside a large bouquet.

Bette thrust the drink into his hands and fished out the card. Sometimes, she despised his attitude toward loyal audience.

She almost dropped the card as she read. She read it again and again.

‘Dear Bette,
this performance of yours was, in fact, also Oscar-worthy. Congratulations. Sincerely,

Lucille’

It seemed like nothing much. A small, personal jab Joan was quite capable of. A reminder of their parting. Bette poured herself a glass and knocked it back in an instant. She was wandering what was going through Joan’s mind while writing it. Did she hope Bette would remember? What feelings did she desire to elicit? Lucille, not Joan Crawford. That threw her off the most. A note that to anyone else said nothing, to her it spoke volumes. Was this how it would be from now on? She didn’t want them to be pals, they could never. She was willing to forget all about the two of them, get back to the time before that night on the balcony. Joan was to be another colleague, a far-away actress whose beauty and success she envied and whose talent she would disparage without a problem. It would have been easier, if Joan would let her be and, as Bette was trying to, pretend nothing ever happened. Admittedly, Bette did miss communication with Joan but eventually she would get used to it. That was the plan. And sticking to it had pulled her away from scandal and right into the exclusive club of Oscar winners. That was what mattered now. She was young enough to build up her career and not settle for second best.

She looked herself in the mirror. She was weary and dejected. The last time she wasn’t, she had been in that hotel room. But then she was not and an Oscar winner. ‘This is enough.’ she thought and after a couple of seconds whispered, “This is enough.”

Jack was still going on about something.

“What?” Bette asked.

“We did good.”

“We did good?” she sneered mirthlessly at his attempt to hijack her merit, “I did good, Jack…actually did great. I made the picture what it is. You did just a tiny bit more than necessary.”

“And it got you your first Oscar.”

“It would have gotten me my second one, if I hadn’t acted like your well-behaved puppet last year.”

“Oh, so all this time you were biting your tongue?” he waved the refilled glass of whiskey at her, “Honey, I don’t think you want to go there.”

“Oh, I sure do. Yeah, I was great in this one, but in ‘Of human bondage’…. I was fucking brilliant. And you didn’t back me in the Oscar run because I wasn’t glamorous enough for the studio.”

“What do you want me to do? It’s how the show business works.” Jack turned to his reflection in the mirror and tried to rearrange his thinning hair.

“I want backing, I want better parts and I want some input in my fucking career... I want an Oscar that says ‘you deserve this, now’ not a fucking consolation prize for shunning me the year before.”

“God, you can be such an ungrateful cunt at times.”

Nothing that man said she let get to her. She pushed her chin up and flashed a smile, “A cunt who knows what she wants. And I will no longer settle for second best. I sacrificed enough to be here today and I don’t want to look back one day wondering if it was all worth it.”

“Don’t soar too high, Bette. You might get burnt.”

Bette was left alone, heaving, craving the calming taste of nicotine. Joan’s note was still in her hand.

*

Jack’s prescient remark soon came back to haunt her. Bette fell into over a year-long glitch, starring in one mediocre picture after another. Her performance was valiant as per usual, but it wasn’t enough. She tried to focus on the good aspects of collaboration, especially with Bogart who was surely to become the next big thing. She reached a boiling point when she went to Venice film festival. Winning an award made her realize if she wanted to remain in the rank she deserved she needed an incredible script. So she refused to return to America and obey Jack Warner. He threatened to sue for breaching contract. Obstinately, she decided to sue back. She lost in the end, naturally, as one did against big shots.

She returned to Warner Bros. penniless, yet still determined to prevail. She had to give it to Jack, though, he was aware of who she was and decided to renegotiate her contract. To add to everything, she was dealing with the divorce, which often appeared to be the last thing on her mind. In her husband’s opinion, the main problem was that she would always put her career first. In her opinion, the main problem was that he couldn’t suck it up and deal with it.

Desperate for a change of scenery, Bette returned to theatre for a while, touring with a single quality play.  They toured the East coast, performing only in renowned theatres with the premier and the closing night set on Broadway.

In between the performances, she would read scripts for hours, well aware that her next choice had to be something memorable. Being particularly generous, the studio had given her a month to choose. On that specific day, she was left with nine more days.

Returning from a morning rehearsal (she was always the perfectionist and that one scene in the second act just wasn’t right), she opted for brunch in a recommended restaurant. Tired and still a tad frustrated, wearing casual pants and shirt she looked nothing like a Hollywood girl.

A young man in white shirt and red west opened the door for her. She walked through the foyer and stopped by the dining hall entrance. She scanned the half-full area in front of her. Businessmen were discussing the situation in Germany and bored ladies from high society were chattering about their oh-so-happy lives. Standing out from the group was a woman in the left corner by the window.  Sunrays were falling on a hand which was playing absentmindedly with the unlit cigarette.

Bette’s eyes grew wide and for a moment she truly believed she was petrified. Later, she would debate on meaning behind that reaction. Feeling sensation returning to her body, she shuffled through her large bag in search of a pack. She lit a cigarette, only two more left, and inhaled. The smoke entered her lungs but cleared her mind.

She had options laid clearly in front of her, best of which would be to simply not acknowledge Joan’s presence and enjoy her meal. Obviously, that was the only option she gave no second thought to. She was watching her flip over the pages of a magazine, waiting for the beverage to cool. Her crossed leg was swaying leisurely to the song playing on the radio.

Looking at the pale reflection of herself in the ornate glass door, Bette fixed her shirt and reapplied her lipstick, inwardly cursing herself for that action.

In her distinct manner, she walked over to Joan’s table, letting her strong, clear voice be heard, “What in the living hell are you doing here, Crawford?”

Joan finished reading the sentence and looked up from the magazine, “Dining. Or hoping to do so any minute now. You?” she replied without letting a hint of surprise show.

“I have a play, here on Broadway. Is your set near? You’re playing another modern girl?” she placed her palms on a chair. There was some inherent ridicule in her voice she simply couldn’t get rid of.

“I am not. I’m taking a little break, actually.”

“Shame, you look the part.” Bette pulled the chair, a gesture that asked the obvious question.

“I always look the part.” Joan stated an apparent fact and pointed at the empty seat, giving Bette a sign of approval, “I’m stigmatized as box office poison, Bette. I haven’t much to do these days.”

“How defeatist of you.” she sat across from Joan, forcing a casual tone. She knew full well it had to be a major blow for Joan.  The one, if being completely honest, Bette’s career would have hardly survived at that point.

One of the main savories in Hollywood had always been feeding off on other people’s misery, and one article had given people just that. A month or so before that infamous article had been published, rumors had started flying around Hollywood that someone was making a list of profitable and unprofitable actors and actresses, those whose stardom was waning and those who were on the rise. It had created a panic frenzy, nobody felt safe.

Bette had it good, being listed as underpaid, the fact she wholeheartedly agreed with. Like everyone, she had been asked for a comment.  Having already established reputation for being unapologetically blunt, she had said it had been high time someone admitted real actors, not only pretty faces, deserved real money. She had been expected to say something like that, people loved her for it regardless whether she truly believed in her own words or not. She thought what she said, most of it. She would always remember those pitying looks actresses would give her as they would walk past her as if she was unworthy. Joan had been among them, she didn’t remember surely, but Bette always would.

“Are you now actively seeking to mock me in my face?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Joan. When have I ever done that?”

“I read the papers.”

“So do I.” Bette retorted, “You and that new gossip girl have become quite the chums, haven’t you?”

“Hedda? She’s all right, she knows the meaning of ‘off the record’. And she can be quite considerate.” considerate would be an exclusive right which had to be earned. She was known to have buried and launched quite a few careers in a short time, “She is a worthy rival to Luella. They are in sort of a feud, apparently.”

“So are we.” Bette flicked the cigarette, “Apparently.”

Joan waved the waiter over, “You should try ceaser salad, it’s divine.”

Once the waiter came, Bette pointed to Joan’s mug, “I’ll have the same. And the chicken.”

They continued to smoke in silence, a staring match of sorts going on between them.

Joan’s eyes were ablaze, the only thing restless in her otherwise restricted demeanor. She was looking Bette up and down. Not the one to back down, Bette was starring right back. The cigarette was burning between her fingers and the ash was about to fall on the pristine, white tablecloth. She became known for her expressive eyes, Bette, but Christ, Joan was looking at her in a manner that could easily make her forget herself.

“While we’re on the subject of feuds, how’s married life treating you?” Bette asked, shaking the banned sensation off. She was unsure of why she asked that question. Perhaps it was the joke about rivalry over a man put on by the press, but perhaps a small bit of her was genuinely curious about Joan’s happiness.

Joan laughed, thinking of it as jest. And like most things about her that sound seemed like film magic, “Quite well, I must say.” Joan lied, aware that it would be a miracle if the marriage survived another year. Marrying just to spite the third party, was bound to end in catastrophe, “He’s in LA now, working with Robert Montgomery.”

“Good.”

The waiter brought the food. Bette should have ordered the salad, the chicken was too dry. Refusing to let it show, she ate it with gusto.

“Are you going out much? Theatre? Metropolitan museum?”

“I haven’t had the chance yet. You?”

“Not so much. You should come and see my play. Tonight’s the closing night.”

“If it’s not sold out by now, it doesn’t sound like it’s worth a see.”

Bette cackled, “It sold out two weeks ago, but I’ll get you Ham’s ticket. My apartment’s three blocks from here. Or I could leave it for you at the box office.”

“I doubt your husband would take kindly to me taking his place.”

‘It wouldn’t be the first time’ a replay came to mind, but instead she said, “We’re getting a divorce, you know? So, I doubt he would care.”

“Hmm.” Joan chose an indistinct remark and called the waiter to pay.

Bette reached for a wallet but Joan stopped her, “It’s my treat. After all, you are providing me with this evening’s entertainment.”

They agreed to walk to her apartment. It was a lovely, late spring day. The streets were bustling; people from all over the world were creating an atmosphere far different from the alluring one of Hollywood.

They rode the elevator in silence. Bette wrapped her hand around Joan’s elbow as they walked her into the apartment.

“We could-“ Bette halted once she saw her mother in the living room, “You’re here? Still?”

Her mother looked over Bette’s shoulder and walked over to the guest,” I’m Ruth, Bette’s mother.”

“Joan Crawford.”

They shook hands, “I believe we’ve met briefly. You were there when I came to visit Bette on the set. It was a few years back, you probably don’t remember.”

“Of course I do. It is lovely to see you again.”

“Likewise, dear. Shall I put a kettle on?”

“She’s here for the ticket.” Bette interjected, “Not to meet you.”

“What ticket?”

“For my play.” she handed Joan the ticket, “It’s at eight.”

“But that is Ham’s ticket. I don’t think-“

Bette gave at her mother a glare, “It’s the ticket I can give to whomever I chose.”

Ruth only smiled in response.

“I should…” Joan looked back.

“I’ll walk with you, dear. I have some errands to run anyway.” Ruth insisted, “Let me get my purse.”

Joan watched after Bette’s mother. Once the woman was out of sight, she said to Bette, “It wasn’t so bad? Our little run-in?”

“Not at all.” she took Joan’s hand, “And we’ll get the chance to see each other again tonight.”

“Maybe have a drink afterwards?” Joan asked almost in a whisper.

“I know just the place.”

“I look forward to it.”

“As do I.”

Bette’s mother came back and she and Joan were off.

Bette was excited to do the show well. She stepped onto the stage and breathed in the air of pure delight that oozed from the audience. As she was uttering her first lines, she searched the auditorium. There she found her mother, gripping to her fan in excitement. Bette stumbled over her lines first time in a while once she realized that the seat she had left for Joan was empty. That seat was staring her in the face for the whole two hours. She got standing ovations in the end, undeservingly she knew.

*

“You’re back early.” Ruth commented, momentarily removing her focus from writing a letter.

“Yes. I didn’t feel like staying at the after party.”

“We could have returned together.”

Bette pulled the coat off and tossed it on the chair, “I’m tired.” she dragged herself to the bed and shut her eyes. Foolishly she thought Joan was simply late and would meet her after. She thought she would be waiting for her in her dressing room. Then even more foolishly, she hoped she was waiting for her outside. In the end, Bette went home angry mostly at herself. She convinced herself she hadn’t appeared too eager and that it had been Joan’s plan all along to make her believe things she shouldn’t. A small but quite effective act of revenge. That was what Bette decided to believe. It made sense to her.

She felt the bed move, as her mother sat by her side. Smoothing Bette’s hair, she asked, “What is the matter, my dear?”

“Nothing.”

“A mother knows her child.”

“Do you think… can I have it all?”

Her mother remained silent, waiting patiently for more.

“Will I ever have someone who’d stand with me on this road?” her soppy thoughts and feelings were making her sick to the stomach.

“I’m here.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“You shouldn’t go through with divorce. Ham’s going to be so happy. And so will I.”

Frustrated, Bette sat up, “That’s over with, I’ve told you already.”

“You’re not going to find a better match.”

“You know… acting’s my true love. I wouldn’t leave it for the world. And he can’t deal with that.”

“And you think some actor will?”

“I was willing to take a chance at it… make amends.”

“What amends are you talking about? Are you talking about that actor with mustache?”

“It doesn’t matter, mother.” Bette buried her face in the pillow, “Leave me, I want to sleep.”

Ruth returned to finish the letter to her life-long friend.

‘Bette’s just returned from that tiresome play. She’s been acting strange all day, really. She came home with that actress she doesn’t like. Joan Crawford. You know, just a few months ago I had to beg her to go with me and watch ‘Strange cargo’, and now she’s friendly with that woman. I love watching her and Clarke Gable on screen, but there’s something wrong with a woman like that. Her illicit behavior is well known, I hear people talk in Los Angeles. Bette insisted she come see her play, they even agreed to see each other afterwards. Can you believe it? It was a miracle I managed to stop it. I told that woman it was Ham’s ticket and he’d planned to surprise her. Thank lord, she believed it. Of course, I didn’t pass on her message to my daughter.  Bette’s difficult as it is, she doesn’t need friendship with some immoral diva… sometimes I cannot understand my daughter. She’s blind to anyone but herself. She’s leaving that wonderful man, and all he wants is a child and for her to welcome him after work once in a while…’

Chapter Text

Twenty seven days have passed since she took him away; reclaimed him like he was lost luggage. A whole God damn year and suddenly she’d decided she wanted him back. She had given him up. He was her son. Those thoughts were swarming Joan’s mind still, again and again. She couldn’t bring herself to be at home too long. To walk past the room where the boy slept, her son, now back in the hands of a woman who didn’t think twice about cashing him in. So, instead Joan was loitering around the studio.

‘She gave birth to him. She has legal rights.’ her husband had tried to be rational and she’d thrown a vase at him. It wasn’t fair she knew right away, he was as devastated as she was.

Joan only wanted to be his mommie again. She was willing to provide the children with everything she had lacked, and that above all else included a mother’s love. She felt she had bonded with him more in those couple of months than she had with her daughter in two years. The realization made her feel horrible and she was trying to justify it with the fact that he was now gone. “God damn it.” she cursed aloud and flicked the cigarette onto the pavement.

Having been lost in thoughts, she wasn’t sure where she was exactly. She was new to Warner Bros., still transitioning still waiting for them to give her a proper role, she must have missed her way. She was walking back past the sets hoping the dressing rooms weren’t far. Suddenly, she heard racket. Somebody was filming, she thought and carried on. However when Bette, fuming and yelling about ‘fucking idiotic script’ marched past her, Joan realized something else was at play. She rushed after her and couple of people including Sherman, the famed director.

If nothing else, it got her to her desired destination. Once she caught up with the small group, Bette was nowhere in sight.

“Crazy bitch!” a man shouted as he hurled the notebook at the door of Bette’s dressing room.

“What is happening here?” Joan asked Sherman as she joined him at staring at the door plate with the actress’ name on it. She could hear the clear sound of breaking coming from the inside.

“Ah, it’s…” the flustered man didn’t know what to say. His shirt was missing two buttons, “She needs to simmer down.”

Joan was standing still, eyes moving from Bette’s door to hers. One could say they were neighbors now. The amount of time each spent around studio was usually longer than they would spend in their respective homes.

So Joan fixed her hair, straightened her pegged pants and marched towards Bette’s door. Perhaps she was looking for a fight, all that pent up anger and sorrow over her son (‘He is not your son anymore’, she reprimanded herself again) had to come out somewhere. She slammed the door behind her, cutting off the warning pleas from Sherman.

The room was in chaos. Trinkets from vanity were on the floor, pearls (part of her elaborate costume, no doubt) were scattered all over. The gift she’d sent her last week as a sing of peace and good will was still in the trashcan.

“Look Vincent, I’m not gonna let those–“ Bette was circling like a caged animal. It stunned her to see who entered her room. Her eyes were misty, “It’s you… can’t you read? Your dressing room is next door.”

“Are you all right?”

“Swell.” she pulled a smile and pointed a cigarette holding hand to the door, “Out then left.”

“You were making a scene. That isn’t like you.”

“Whatever’s necessary to get it through their thick sculls. They are incompetent and unprofessional.”

“But you are professional.”

“I’m surprised you understand the meaning of professional.” the venom was mistreated and she couldn’t care less, “What do you want?”

“For you act like it. Control yourself, damn it, at least while you are working.”

“Oh I’m sorry my husband went for a walk and dropped dead. I guess it’s quite an inconvenience on the crew!”

Joan wanted to apologize but she doubted Bette would accept anything that even resembled pity. Bette moved to get out, but Joan blocked the exit, “Call it a day, Bette. I know losing someone can-“

“I don’t want your manufactured care. You’re meddling in things that do not concern you because you’ve nothing to do. Jack gave pocket change for you and realized he still overpaid.” Bette let out an uncontrolled cry. She felt helpless, unable to govern herself. As if she was the silent spectator, watching her sad self on screen make one mistake after another. She took hold of Joan, squeezing her forearms, “You’ll remain a has-been, watch your career dwindle. Fading and unloved.”

Joan felt shaking from the inside, and she thought her heart just might explode. She crashed her lips into Bette’s. The kiss equaled a slap, only it hurt more. It was silent, the world has finally stopped moving. Her teeth sunk into a bottom lip. It lasted long enough for Joan to taste the salt of tears. She relaxed and tore herself away.

“Call it a day, Bette.” Joan repeated.

Bette squeezed Joan’s arms once more before letting go. She turned away to wipe her cheeks.

Only when Joan was in her own dressing room did she realize the tears might have been hers as well.

*

“Wait, wait, wait.” Bette entered the shot, waiving her hands.

“What?” irritated, Joan stepped away from Dane.

Bette addressed Dane, “Is that really how you dance? I get she’s married and you play a nice guy, but for Christ’s sake she’s a looker and you’re a man.”

“It’s good Bette, leave it.” the director piped from behind the camera and Joan agreed, “It’s a close up. Look through the camera.”

“I see fine from here. And it all should look good, no matter if camera captures it or not.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“Is this a fucking joke?” Joan protested futilely. She was more than happy to do the small scene but she didn’t think Bette would be unable to control her need to be involved in every little thing. Joan was a perfectionist as well but she didn’t nitpick.

Bette was already on the move, wrapping an arm around Joan’s waist.

Joan yelped but allowed Bette to take her other hand.

Bette turned to Dane, “You see? When you’re standing closer, it looks more natural when you move.” they spun and Joan’s back were turned to her costar. “and when she whispers into your ear.”

She looked at Joan, almost bumped into her. With ease, she could discern the freckles emerging from under her makeup. Her hair was longer now and Bette wandered if, when uncurled, it fell over her shoulders. Joan let out a small strangled sound which drew Bette’s focus back into the reality.

The picture had some of the biggest stars making cameo appearances. Whenever one would have their scene, extras would all gather to watch. At that moment, Bette was positive, over fifty people were all staring in utter silence at the two of them. Were they waiting to witness the things gossip columnists speculated about? Were they hoping for a clash between two divas?

Joan was the first one to react. She looked at Bette in what seemed like in passing and turned to the director, “Mr. Daves, while Miss Davis is in no hurry to return to an empty house, I have children at home I would like to see before bed time. Will you, please, do your job and allow me to do mine so we can get this over with?”

Bette snagged a cigarette from a cameraman, “That depends on how convincing you two are.”

“I’ll listen to your tips, Bette when we do a scene together.”

“I’ll be working with you when hell freezes over, Crawford.”

“I look forward to it.”

It took three tries and two camera angles to wrap the scene.

There was a large, shared dressing room improvised within the building. Joan sat at the vanity, fixing her make-up. She was set to go home; she just needed couple more moments of peace. Like she could hear her thoughts, Bette chose that particular moment to barge in.

As per usual, she acted like she commanded the place, “You’re still here.”

“I’m really not in the mood, Bette.” Joan exhaled and dropped a cotton pad, “Not today.”

“Relax, Joan. I left my cigarettes here.” she took the pack out of the locker and was on her way out. ‘Don’t do it. You don’t care.’ There was a clear warning in her head, “What’s got you so huffy? You’re bitchy in an unusual way.”

Joan looked in the mirror. Bette was leaned casually against the door frame, freshly lit cigarette in hand, staring at her, “And you’re infuriating in a usual way… I’m tired. We were screen testing today for a young actress to play my daughter.”

“Ah.” Bette nodded knowingly. Playing a mother to a teenager, that was one of the reasons she rejected the role, “Age’s got to you?”

“I’m not as vain as you’d like to believe.” was all she said, before packing up her things.

Bette was actually stunned by the taut reply. Joan would not just discard the opportunity to measure against. Then it dawned on her, “Oh, right. It’s Curtiz, isn’t it? You’ve never worked with him before.”

Joan halted. That was it.

Bette knew just the thing. She took two glasses and filled them with liquor, “I wanted to kill him first two times we worked together.” she tossed the pillow on the floor and sat down.

Joan was in two minds. Why confide in Bette? Then again, there was nobody else to talk to. Hesitantly, she sat on the far end of the couch. It was old and uncomfortable, somebody should replace it, “He hates me.”

“He hates all actors. Drink.”

“He loves humiliating me.”

“Drink.” Bette ordered again.

Joan took a long sip. She came to appreciate the dulling sensation of pure vodka.

“Now, talk.”

“As I said I was screen testing today with the girls for the role of Veda. I came in a simple costume for the first part… well, you’ve read the script. He was muttering under his breath the whole time until he strode towards me yelling about my dress and…” she pressed her lips tightly, looking away, “It’s ripped now, beyond repair.”

“Christ, Joan. I can’t imagine…” she managed to utter after a pregnant pause. Curtiz had a reputation for working his actors like slaves, but he never assaulted anyone like that.

Joan chuckled at Betted dazed expression, “Oh, no. I’ve had my fair share of encounters with sexually aggressive people. I can deal with that. No, he thought I was wearing shoulder pads; he threw a fit in the middle of the take and decided to rip them off.”

“And you weren’t?” Bette was still concerned over the ease Joan spoke of the possibility of the assault that came to Bette’s mind.

Joan shook her head. She was dragging her finger over the rim of the glass. It was making a horrible, unpleasant sound, “He ran off and I was left there in my undergarments for men to gawk and young girls to snigger at.” she almost burst into tears then. She was on the verge now. Being neither the place nor time, she composed herself.

Bette sat next to Joan. It was meant to be a gesture of understanding and reassurance, “Screw him. You fight back, show him you’re good.”

Like it was that easy, “But am I?” the question was directed more at herself.

“You got the part, didn’t you?” Bette was never the one to cater to somebody’s ego, she truly believed what she said, “And by the end, he’ll be singing your praises.”

“You seem oddly confident.”

“Look, I’ll tell you something. It’s not a tip, relax.” she clasped her fingers around Joan’s wrist, “He was trying to show me how to slap same guy, it was our second picture I think, and he was grinding me for hours. We were screaming at each other until I got it right.”

“How?”

“I slapped Curtiz so hard it rang in his ears for three days.”

Joan burst into laughter.

“He wanted authenticity.” Bette smirked, “What else was I to do?”

“I can’t imagine doing that.”

“Find your way to hold ground, is all I’m saying.”

“Careful, Bette… that sounded a lot like tip.” Joan warned, a hint of teasing in her voice. She sounded younger, more relaxed, like a woman Bette remembered.

Bette found herself smiling. ‘Kiss me’ she longed to say or just pull the other woman in. However, she wasn’t sure if the flirtatious tone and inching a tad closer was just the way Joan was or it was meant to be genuine. And the memory of their previous year’s confrontation was still too much at times. She patted Joan’s hand, “I’m keeping you, and you said-“

“I did.” Joan sprung up and checked her make up in the mirror, “I really ought to go.”

*

“I think I’m seeing you for the first time in my life and you’re cheap and horrible.”

“You think just because you got a little money, you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady. But you can’t, because you’ll never be anything but a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing. With this money I can get away from any rotten stinking thing that makes me think of this place or you!”

Was it obvious to people still? Was it impossible to rise above her background? She felt it surface, an occasional slip of the tongue, the way her vowels rolled, the way she would catch herself bite nails.

‘You’re lucky, Billie.’ Her brother, Hal, would tell her whenever he snatched money from her. To remind her he knew who she deep down was and always would be, he used that now heinous childhood nickname. When their mother died a few years back, she was relieved. She wept for there still remained Hal as a living link to her miserable existence before the life on screen.

She would smile and pretend he was right. But she’d never been lucky; she’d been a damn workhorse. She’d been working tirelessly on the way she spoke, the way she moved, on keeping her opportunistic brother at bay… for every single penny she earned, she had to pay double price. Could they see through it? Would the ivory tower of her life come crashing down in a single moment of carelessness?

“Joan?”

“Hmm?” she looked up from the pages. The whole table was staring at her.

“It’s your line, Miss Crawford.” the young actress, Ann, supplied the answer.

“Oh, yes.” she skimmed over the page and found her next line, “I apologize.”

“Don’t apologize just read your fucking lines.” Curtiz commanded, “Nobody’s leaving this table until we go through every single page.”

“But the Hollywood canteen-“ Ann began to protest, but Joan put the placating hand on hers.

“Veda. Give me that cheque.” she uttered her next line and the director postponed his angry remarks. It was the courtesy Joan rarely extended to other actresses. The girl would have to learn to pick her battles. This situation called for humility. Keep your mouth shut and do what the man says. That was how she got the role. She knew when to fight who she could, when to wait patiently and when she was told to come for a screen test (something only a nobody would to do) because Curtiz believed she wasn’t good enough to pull off the role of a struggling mother, Joan swallowed her pride and did it. Now, she only had to think of the way to deal with Curtiz every single day.

*

“All right, ladies.” Bette announced happily as she was drying the last of the plates, “Let’s finish this up and join the party.”

“We sure deserved it. Half of them are jingled already. I think Joan’s singing something French.”

“Which Joan, Livvie?”

“My sister sings like a dying cat. It’s your Joan.”

“Christ!” Bette tossed a cloth away and was ready to storm out, “She stole my part, now she wants the spotlight at my damn party.”

Olivia held her back, “Don’t be mean, Bette. She’s filming 'Mildred Pierce' because you didn’t want to, remember. And she’s simply contributing the atmosphere before Sinatra takes over.”

Bette huffed. She would never say it but maybe she shouldn’t have impulsively rejected Mildred. It’s a fine script. Maybe that schoolteacher role she took instead was not the thing she needed. Shit, what if she missed out. “I’ve told you not to call her ‘my Joan’.”

“I simply meant I have my Joan whom I am said to hate and you have a Joan whom you are said to hate.”

“Yes, but in my case, it’s the truth.” her lips curved upwards, “Deep-seated and heartfelt.”

“We all have huge egos and insecurities, Bette.” having, or better yet not having, a relationship with her sister had given Olivia perfect insight, “That is why my sister treats me in the most ungracious manner. It may resemble hatred but It’s plain sibling rivalry on our part.”

“It’s plain she-is-deluded-into-thinking-she-can-ever-outdo-me on our part.”

“You are so alike.”

“Yes, my seven Oscar nominations with two wins and her zero are a proof you’re on to something.” Bette quipped sardonically.

“In that indomitable character, I mean. God, I hope I’m wrong but I think she’s the only person in the world who could match you.”

Bette pushed the smoke out of her lungs, “I can see why your sister doesn’t speak to you. You say the craziest things.” she left through the swing door.

Bette heard Joan singing something about lost love. A long time ago Bette had asked her why she hadn’t sung more. Joan had replied that it wasn’t perfect. ‘It’s real.’ Bette had commented but Joan quickly changed the subject.

Bette spent some time mingling before she accepted a slow dance with William, a man who’s been courting her for weeks. Her head rested on his shoulder and she watched the party develop. John Garfield was entertaining his wife. New star of the Warner Bros., Gregory Peck, was still looking surprised to be in such group of people. The youngest Barrymore was chatting with Carson. Shame… for most people here, best acting was always done after the cameras would stop rolling. Bette turned her head, only to spot a flamboyant hat in the crowd, navy blue feathers sticking high over everybody. Hedda Hopper was in her natural habitat, a hunting hound out for blood. Though Chaplin was her primary treat recently, nobody could relax in her presence. One wrong move and she wouldn’t be above labeling you a Communist.

She was talking to Joan, who during their short exchange had chugged two glasses of champagne. An artificial smile (as Bette had seen the genuine one she could easily make the distinction) was plastered on Joan’s face. Once she slipped into the crowd, Hedda scribbled something in her little notepad, sly smirk on her lips.

Later, Bette saw Joan staggering around, clearly drunk. Sinatra was singing ‘I couldn’t sleep a wink last night’.

Bette pulled her into the back room. It was cramped; it slipped her mind that it served as storage. They had cleared all the extra tables and chairs to make room for the party.

As they entered, Joan knocked into a table, “Now, look what you did!” she shook the alcohol damped sleeve.

“You shouldn’t drink.”

“I’m thirsty.”

Bette snatched the glass and put it away, “You’re being ridiculous.”

Despite the confined space, Joan managed to pull her closer. Perhaps, Bette thought as the hands were holding her waist, she needed something to keep her steady, “I’ve never spoiled a party, you know.”

“And you’re not gonna start with mine.”

Joan was looking at her with strange curiosity that was making Bette uncomfortable, “I’ll admit, I’m a jealous woman.”

“Let’s not argue here.” Bette tried to put a stop to a subject, which for whatever reason had sprung to Joan’s mind, but Joan wouldn’t hear.

“At times, I’m jealous of you and that’s my issue, I suppose.” she continued, looking far away, though everything and into her own world. Then she looked back at Bette, honest and intoxicated, “But more often I’m jealous over you. And what right do I have to be?”

“Lucille…” she hasn’t said that name aloud in years. The sound was uncharacteristically warm for Bette’s resonating tone.

Joan shook her head.

“I’m sorry.” some fluttering ache ran through her, “I forgot myself.”

“It’s making me remember those moments that weren’t real. And why remember things that could only hurt you?”

Bette stared, pleading her sense not to abandon her. A mixture of emotions was stuck in her throat. She was miserable and bitter over everything that had happened with them. What prevailed however was lust for those lips with somehow always perfectly applied lipstick. She blamed it on the fact she was alone for too long. A simple biological need, she thought, as Joan leaned into her, “We better get out before I do something I might be very sorry.”

“Like what?” she asked, voice vibrating against Bette’s neck.

Bette inhaled sharply, “Christ…” despite the high level of self-control, she let her fingers run up Joan’s red wiggle dress, “You’re gonna drive me insane.”

With those words Joan was enticed into action. She would kiss like never before, reminding Bette that every moment they spent together was new and exciting.

Bette heard nothing but Joan. Only when she slipped away, did she realize someone was about to enter.

“My, my… what do we have here?” Hedda’s tapping of the pen against that notepad was the only sound for a few long moments, “A battle royal perhaps?”

Bette’s heart was thumping so loudly it was almost drowning the sound of everything else. The belt around her waist was undone. Her hand was on her neck, covering the possible marks left by Joan. And what if Hedda were to see and reach the right conclusion? Would it be so horrible? To be able to do whatever they were about to do and more?

“Why, Hedda where would you get that idea?” Joan seemed to have sobered up first, “Bette and I were simply discussing doing a picture together.”

Joan turned to Bette who let out a muffled sound of confirmation.

“What?! Two stars of your statures finally in the same orbit. A spectacular supernova is on the horizon.”

“That’s not how supernova works.” Bette found her voice.

“What was that, Bette?”

“It’s early to tell.” Joan remarked, “When there is something substantial you’ll be the first one to know.” She wrapped her arm around Hedda’s.

“You go ahead, Joanie. I want to chat with Bette first, now that I finally cornered her.“

“Goodie.” the sarcasm in Bette’s reply was palpable.

Reluctantly, Joan left the two women alone.

Hedda turned the leaf of her notepad and clicked her pen.

Bette made a gesture that said ‘ask away’.

“Well, there was buzzing of your quarrels on set.” in mock worry, she tilted her head and placed a hand on Bette’s shoulder, “Are you still distraught about your husband’s untimely death?”

She kept perfectly still. Her hands felt restless, one was still clasping to her neck and she sunk her nails into the skin, “I’m quite well, thank you. And your…. bee friends should talk about this picture, not spread rumors.”

“Ah yes. The Hollywood canteen is your baby, so to speak. What does this picture mean for you?”

Oh, now she was easing her in. Fine, but Bette wasn’t dumb enough to let her guard down, “The canteen is one of the few accomplishments in my life that I am sincerely proud of. This is simply another testament to this noble pursuit. And those Crouts will lose soon, so our boys will be back just in time to enjoy the picture.”

“How… patriotic. All of us here, doing our best for the cause.”

“Clearly.”

“So, Joan and you working together? That should be interesting.”

“As she said, you’ll be the first one to know. Now, you’ve got your quote and I should go back to the party.”

“Something’s going on with you two.” Hedda commented lowly but loudly enough for Bette to stop in her tracks.

“Is it?”

“I can smell something juicy, something… ah, I can’t tell.”

“You are in the storage, Hedda.” derisively, she responded. Her voice sounded more confident that she really was, “What you smell is oranges.”

Hedda guffawed, “I raise careers from dead and I bury them. I know to trust my gut.”

“Is that a threat?” Hedda could easily do it and Bette wasn’t sure if she could live with that.

“You’re a hoot, Bette. I’m only having fun.”

“How nice.”

*

Joan couldn’t possibly go to the ceremony. She knew what they all thought of her, just a flapper who got in on her looks. They never looked at her as a serious actress, no matter what. If she were to lose, nobody would be surprised, but would laugh for thinking she actually had a chance. Nobody would say she was snubbed. Stressing too much about what could happen and what would everybody say, she worked herself into a state of high fever. It worked well as an excuse, she supposed. And if she did win, she would be ready in an instant. She would be memorable and perfectly unique.

On the other side of the town, Bette was enjoying backstage, indulging herself in the small feast now that her presenting job was done. She would never say it out loud bus she did see 'Mildred Pierce'. Bette would have done it differently, the costume, the voice, the movements. Joan’s performance choices were diametrically opposite of hers, yet Joan as fiercely overprotective mother was convincing and quite good. So when she was announced winner, Bette chuffed with a smile, “Hell… she did it.”