The jealousy fades, but the curiosity does not.
Therese can see the way Carol looks at her; can feel the way Carol touches her. Carol gives her thoughtful, frivolous gifts for no reason and brings her to lovely, expensive places where people give them sidelong glances but are too well-heeled to say anything aloud. Carol sends her beautifully written letters via messenger, and listens when Therese tells her things, even if they aren’t very important. There is no doubt in her mind about how Carol feels, not now, not with evidence of Carol’s overwhelming adoration revealing itself at every turn.
But Therese also sees the way Carol looks at Abby, with bright, laughing eyes, and understands that Carol will drop virtually anything – other than Therese – if Abby asks her too. She knows that Carol instinctively turns to Abby for guidance, far more quickly than she turns to Therese, and that Abby’s formidable, steely resolve is the only form of protection against the outside world that Carol can accept without chafing. To Carol, Therese’s desire to help is either endearing or annoying, depending on her mood; it is never comforting in the same deep, steady, essential way as the support Abby provides.
“No one person can be all things to another,” Carol had said one day, apropos of nothing. They were driving out to Abby’s house for lunch, and Therese had been quiet since they’d left the city, and, well – perhaps it wasn’t apropos of nothing.
Therese had looked over and cocked her head thoughtfully. “Then why be with just one person at all?” she asked, genuinely curious.
“Well, one person can be a lot of things. Most things.” Carol had taken one hand off the wheel and put it on Therese’s leg. “You’re the important things to me.”
Therese had put her hand over Carol’s and believed her. She still believes her, mostly. But that doesn’t stop her being curious.
She supposes it has to do with the fact that she has no analogous Abby of her own – not just in terms of romantic history, but platonically too. Carol has had many life experiences that Therese has not – a house, a husband, a daughter – but most of those can be written off by age and money. The absence of close friend from childhood, though; that is harder to explain, and more painful, too.
Therese tries to talk to Carol about it, but Carol does not understand. “Why don’t you spend more time with Dannie?” Carol suggests, distracted by trying to fit a backing to her earring. “Or that girl – what’s her name?”
“Genevieve. And I don’t think she wants to be friends.”
Carol gets the earring on, fluffs her hair. She is meeting Abby for dinner. Therese was invited, of course, but begged off to spend some time developing the photos she took last weekend. “Nonsense,” Carol says, coming over to the chair where Therese is sitting and sinking down onto her lap gracefully. “Who wouldn’t want to be friends with you?”
Therese plays with the hem of Carol’s dress and then slides her hands underneath, enjoying the texture of Carol’s stockings against her palms. Carol swallows visibly, tilting her hips forward, but Therese doesn’t take the bait – mostly because Carol is already running fifteen minutes behind. “I mean I don’t think she wants to be friends,” Therese says, emphasizing the last word in a meaningful tone.
“Ah, I see.” Carol’s eyes twinkle. “That’s not always as prohibitive as you might think.”
Therese raises her eyebrows. “You would know.”
“Friendship is always a flirtation of a sort. You and I were friends, as you may recall.”
“We were never just friends and you know it,” Therese replies, laughing. “Anyway, I wouldn’t want to be cruel.”
Carol shrugs and gives Therese a long kiss before standing up. “I should get going before I’m late,” she says, walking over to the closet.
“You’re already late,” Therese replies, watching her go. “You always are. You’re lucky Abby loves you.”
Carol pulls on her coat and reaches for the door, blowing Therese one more kiss with her free hand. “I’m the luckiest woman in the world.”
Therese thinks about what Carol said all evening in the darkroom, and through the whole next day at work. In the late afternoon, she asks Dannie for Genevieve’s contact. “You gonna call her?” he asks, eyebrows shooting up his forehead. “But I thought – you and –”
“I want more friends,” Therese tells him. “I’m tired of you.”
Dannie balls up the piece of paper with the telephone number and throws it at her.
Two evenings later, she meets up with Genevieve at a bar in the Village. It’s darker than Therese remembered, which she hopes won’t be construed as romantic. Genevieve waves at her from a table at the back, and she buys herself a beer before weaving her way over.
“I was surprised you called,” Genevieve says as soon as Therese sits down. “I didn’t think you were interested.”
Therese has spent enough time with Carol and Abby and a select circle of their friends to be accustomed to a certain level of circumspection – not dissembling, per se, but a roundabout approach to the truth that is both very polite and frustratingly opaque. Genevieve’s frankness sets her back on her heels.
“Well, I’m not,” she says.
Genevieve blinks, and Therese slaps a hand over her mouth.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” she cries. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“How did you mean it?”
“Like – well, like that, I suppose.” Therese knows her face must be crimson. “I mean, I’m not interested – you know – like that. But it’s only because I’m not – it’s just, I have –“
Genevieve takes pity on her. “There’s someone else.”
“Yes.” Therese thinks about Carol sitting astride her lap and gulps. “But I am interested in – in being friends. If you’d like.”
Genevieve regards Therese across the table with a cool, level look that is impossible to read. She takes out a cigarette, offers one to Therese, and lights both. She leans back in her chair. “All right,” she says, finally. “Friends, then. So, friend Therese, tell me about your ‘someone else.’”
They spend two and a half hours at the bar. Genevieve is smart and wickedly funny, and she tells stories that have Therese in stitches, and she encourages Therese to tell her everything about Carol. When they part ways, promising to see each other again soon, Therese practically skips back to the apartment on Madison, giddy with the success of the night.
The lights are all off when she creeps through the front door, but Carol wakes up when she slides into bed. “Hello, darling,” she murmurs, in that low, sleep-soaked voice that always drives Therese wild on weekend mornings. “How was it?”
“Oh, Carol, it was wonderful,” Therese gushes. “We had such a lovely time. I’m so glad you made me go.”
Carol sits up and turns on the bedside lamp, pulling Therese close to her. “Tell me everything,” she insists.
Therese hesitates, not because she doesn’t wish to share every detail of her whole conversation, but because Carol is wearing her favorite negligee and looks terribly beautiful in the low light. “Perhaps I could tell you later,” she suggests, touching the inside of Carol’s thigh.
Carol’s eyes darken, and she puts her hand over Therese’s. “Yes, why don’t you?”
Later, when they’re laying together on sheets still damp with their sweat, Therese asks, “What was it like? With you and Abby, I mean.”
Carol gives her a lazy, lascivious smile. “Goodness, what brought that to mind?”
Therese looks down meaningfully at their naked bodies, and Carol laughs. “I didn’t think you’d want to hear about that sort of thing,” she says.
“Indulge me.” Therese presses closer, kisses the underside of Carol’s jaw. “I’m curious.”
“Curious about me and Abby, or curious about you and Genevieve?”
Therese rolls her eyes. “Curious about you,” she tells Carol. “Curious about your life. People you’ve loved. Experiences you’ve had.” Carol still hesitates, so Therese ups the ante. “You said to ask, so I’m asking.”
“I don’t want to upset you,” Carol admits. “It’s one thing to know generalities; it’s another to hear details.”
“So I won’t ask about Harge, at least not yet.” Therese kisses Carol again, this time on the spot just below her ear that always makes her tremble. “I can handle Abby. I like Abby.”
Carol sighs and props her head on her hand, looking down at Therese fondly. “Very well,” she says. “What do you already know?”
“Something about a broken-down car and a twin bed. Five years ago?”
“Five years ago,” Carol confirms. “Six now, maybe. Harge and I were engaged, and I hadn’t been seeing much of Abby. They always hated each other, from the very beginning. But then, as you know, the car broke down, and it made no sense to go anywhere else, so I stayed with her.”
“Who started it?”
“I did,” Carol admits, a shadow of guilt flashing across her face. “I suppose I was scared – I loved Harge, then, and I wanted to marry him, but I knew how much my life would change. How much it had already changed. And I had been missing Abby desperately, the way I would miss my own arm.”
Therese can only imagine. Carol and Abby work together, socialize at least twice a week, and still behave as though they’ve been kept apart for months every time they’re in the same place. It’s impossible to imagine a version of their lives where they would have had to go for more than a few days without seeing each other.
“So I kissed her,” Carol continues. “And she kissed me back.”
“Wasn’t that frightening?” Therese asks. “What if she hadn’t wanted to?”
Carol adopts a self-satisfied expression that is equal parts irksome and deeply attractive. “Oh, she wanted to. We never talked about it, but it was always very clear that she had no time for boys, and plenty of time for me – and Eleanor, and Margaret, and Betty.”
The way Carol’s face darkens when she says “Betty” makes Therese laugh. “And you? Did you know you wanted to?”
“Not as early,” Carol admits. “I thought it was admiration, you know? Deep feelings of friendship, et cetera, et cetera. But by the night in question, I knew, and had known for some time.”
“So you kissed her.”
“So I kissed her. And she kissed me. And I didn’t have the faintest idea of what I was doing, but she was so kind and so patient, and it – well. Suffice to say it was never like that with Harge.”
Therese grins. “I know the feeling.”
“It’s intoxicating, isn’t it?” Carol sighs. “So of course, we carried on. It was so easy to get away with. No one suspects, with women, not unless they’re paid to notice.” She pauses, frowning, and Therese knows she’s thinking of the horrible detective. She shakes it off, continues: “It was fun, and it felt good, and the absolute best part of it of all was spending time with Abby again – not just the sex, but the talking and the laughing and getting up to all sorts of trouble with each other, like we hadn’t done in years. I was having the time of my life.”
Therese sees the emotion rising in Carol’s throat before she can swallow it back, and she takes Carol’s hand. “What happened?” she asks.
“Abby asked me to leave Harge,” Carol replies, wiping away the first few tears as they come. “She wanted me to break off the engagement. She was in love with me, you see – and I loved her too, very much, but not like that.” Her lip trembles, and Therese can see regret in every line of her body. “And I was scared, Therese, young and scared and weak. Abby, she was brave. You, you’re brave. Me, I was a coward, and I stayed with Harge, and I broke Abby’s heart.”
Carol is crying in earnest now, and Therese scoots closer, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. She lets Carol weep for a few minutes until the intensity seems to lessen, shoulders hitching with a few final sobs. “Even if you’d left him, it wouldn’t have worked,” Therese reminds her. “Not if you didn’t love her the way she loved you.” Carol sobs again, but nods against Therese’s shoulder. “She’s still here, Carol. You didn’t lose her.”
That provokes a fresh wave of tears, but Therese just holds Carol through it until the storm subsides and she regains control of herself. “I’ve never talked about it with anyone,” Carol admits. “Not like this. Harge found a letter I’d saved from her a few years later and put two and two together, but after he’d had his fill of screaming at me, he refused to discuss it again. And Abby – she can joke about it now, but I think it was too painful for her for a very long time.” She shakes her head, then peers at Therese nervously. “It feels good to tell the whole story. I hope it’s not too much for you.”
“Not too much,” Therese assures her. “I like hearing about it. I like hearing about you.”
Carol gives her a watery smile. “I love you,” she says.
At the magic words, Therese feels her heart swell in her chest, beating against her ribcage like a hummingbird. She knows Carol loves her – knows it in her bones and every other part of herself besides. What else could warrant the pulse fluttering on the inside of Carol’s wrist when they kiss; the look in Carol’s eyes when Therese enters a room? What other explanation is there for the way their bodies melt into each other like iron in a forge?
She knows, too, that Carol loves Abby; not in quite the same sense as she loves Therese, but in a way that is no less powerful, and no less important. Whether out of their long acquaintance or some more fundamental gravity, the two of them are always and inevitably drifting toward each other in synchronous orbit, and to attempt to impede that trajectory would be both futile and cruel. Theirs is an ancient tenderness, Therese can see – the primal fidelity of generations of women; a devotion that is at once specific and universal.
On top of it all, Therese knows now that someday, she herself could love Genevieve, or Abby too, or someone else entirely; and that somehow, impossibly, none of that love will subtract from the rest. There will be no need to partition herself; no need to carve away pieces of her heart for this new affection. It will only add to itself; build on itself; grow and grow and grow into something ever more vast and beautiful, like a mountain range erupting from the very crust of the earth, or a piece of crumpled silk drawn wide and open and wonderfully smooth.