February 1939, Hollywood California
Serena collapsed on the couch exhausted, it was a brutal day of filming. She had signed onto a film where her character was a piano player and she had spent eight of the last ten hours playing the same twenty bars over and over again. Her fingers ached, her back burned, and her shoulders were stiff. Last year she and Bernie had purchased a larger house in a more secluded section of the hills. The house was in Serena’s name but with their combined salaries they decided something with a bit more room for entertainment was in order along with a pool. Many mornings now involved a naked Bernie swimming laps while Serena sipped coffee half paying attention to the newspaper. The couch though was Bernie’s idea. A newfangled art deco themed thing that looked pretty but was hell to lay on or sit on. Kicking off her heels she went in search of her wife. She thought of her as that now. A smile pulled at her lips as she pushed open the door that led out onto the wrap around porch that overlooked the hills and the swimming pool.
Bernie sat with her back to her holding a glass of wine in one hand and a letter in another. Serena frowned, Bernie never drank alone.
“Hello darling.” She leaned down and kissed her cheek before settling into her lap. She took the glass of wine from her hand and finished the last swallow setting it on the small table next to the chair. She took in the tight features of her face. “Darling?”
Bernie took a ragged breath and turned her tear stained face up to Serena’s. “Mum’s sick.” She whispered handing the letter to Serena.
The brunette slid her arm around Bernie’s shoulders as she read the letter sent by Bernie’s maiden aunt. It told of a horrible cough her mother had, the diagnosis had been cancer of the throat. The doctors not giving her much of a chance in England had suggested she might perhaps do better with the warm air in California.
“She’ll come here.” Serena stated matter of factually.
“Bernie she’s sick, she is your Mother, we have the extra space, she will come live with us.”
“You don’t understand how she is… how she will view this?” as Bernie hand gestured between them both.
“What do you mean?” She played with Bernie’s newly shorten and bleached hair, the role she was currently playing required her to cut her mid back length hair to a shoulder bob.
“I haven’t spoken to her since I left years ago. She is a hardened woman Serena. I wire her money every month and that is it. She doesn’t approve of my life style, of the sin of Hollywood but has to take the money so she isn’t on the street. I’m not sure she will come.”
Her fingers continued to fiddle with her hair, it was so rare Bernie spoke of her family. “Wire her back and tell her she is welcome.” She kissed her forehead. “It will be alright darling.”
“I don’t want to lose us.” Bernie whispered, her lips going to Serena’s neck.
“You won’t darling. Nothing will ever force me from you. Even if we are apart I pledge myself to thee, till death do us part.” Her words as familiar to them as breathing. Her lips found Bernie’s, her hand sliding up and under her flowing shirt.
1941 Warner Brothers lot
Serena shook herself out of her memories, how wrong she was. Would she be able to resist temptation and not see Bernie while she was in the States? She swore as she stepped on the plane in London she wouldn’t. Now that she was here, her entire being vibrated with longing, she doubted she could resist. It was the only thing on her mind, damn the movie. She craved her, could tasted her, feel her skin under her hands, hear her laugh echoing in her head. Damn careers, damn jail, damn it all she wanted her. It has been so long, too long, exhausting years without a word from her. Would she have kept her promise? In a city like Hollywood promises were not an easy thing to keep. She dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief as the car pulled up into the familiar lot. From the outside it didn’t look like much had changed. She closed her eyes and remembered the last time she walked off the lot.
March 1939 Hollywood, California
Bernie was correct, things were not smooth with her mother. The woman was angry, cranky, and in Serena’s opinion, which she kept to herself, outright wicked. She was upset about Bernie’s living arrangements, living with another woman, both unmarried. They were forced to give up their shared bedroom, Serena moving into a spare room across the hall. She hated the weather, the food, the loud culture, the sun, and the trees. Even with everything she appeared to rally in the warmer air, she took to walking around the neighbourhood leaning heavily on her cane. This was the only time alone they could find, some days just mere minutes both desperate for each other.
Serena held Bernie as she cried into her neck one morning before the nursemaid that came to stay with her mother whilst they were filming started her shift. “I hate her so much Serena.”
“Shhhh darling, she’s just old and poorly. She doesn’t mean it.”
“I don’t know how you can say that! After what she says to you! How she mocks you! I hate her.” She pulled back, tears streaming down her face. “I detest how she speaks to you, I don't know how you let it go so easily.” Her hand threaded into her hair. “You are the most selfless person I have ever met and for her to say those things to you…”
Serena shrugged and pulled Bernie tighter, “We will all be old one day.” Gently kissing her before pulling back as the front door opened. Her fingers rubbed over the emerald ring that adorned Bernie’s right ring finger, a Christmas present from Serena. Inside the ring it was engraved, ‘love always’.
The nursemaid walked in eyeing them both up and down before going into the kitchen to put her lunch in the ice box. Serena’s eyes narrowed, the girl was new, and she didn’t care for her much. With the threat of war, having already broken out in Europe, nurses were getting harder and harder to find.
“See you tonight?” She whispered into Bernie’s ear. She felt her shudder against her.
“I love you.”
“Love you too.”
The next week Serena was walking to her car after stopping at the store when Jimmy, a friend of hers from Sian’s ubiquitous soirees stopped her. He was a newspaper man, a bit on the smarmy side.
She shut the trunk of her car and turned to look at him. “Ernie.”
He pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to her. “This is going to get printed in Sunday’s extra.” He shifted nervously, his beady black eyes darted around the grocery parking lot. “I just…I can’t stop it you see, but I can give you a heads up.”
Serena’s eyes widened at the headline. “Leading ladies in more ways than one!” Below it was a grainy picture of her and Bernie, she squinted, it was their own porch. Serena’s arm was around Bernie’s waist, the blonde’s head resting on her shoulder, their arms around each other looking almost as if they were to kiss. She remembered that moment right before their lips were to meet she heard something crack in the house. They sprang apart but saw nothing. Her face heated as she read the article. It brought up their house, their films, bringing up an old headline from when ‘Sisters’ had come out.
“I just…I don’t want you to be blindsided, and I don’t want either of you to be hurt.” Ernie said.
Serena nodded numbly. “Th-Thanks, Ernie, I owe you. Can I keep this?”
He nodded, “I’d get out of town for a while if you guys can. I’m sorry Serena.” And like that he was gone.
Serena walked back to the store, digging in her pocket she pulled out a dime and called the house. She knew Bernie had an early shoot today, she hoped she had went straight home. She answered on the third ring.
“Bernie…I-I need you to…has Maggie gone home yet?”
“No she was just getting ready to leave.”
“Have her stay for another hour, I need to talk to you. Please. Meet me down at the beach, the one where we first walked.”
“Serena, what’s wrong darling?” Bernie’s voice made Serena’s heart clench.
“Please, please meet me.” She hung up.
Serena paced up and down on the sand, searching the parking lot for Bernie’s car to arrive. Taking off her shoes as they filled with sand, not caring in the slightest. She had to leave. She had to protect Bernie, and acting was her passion, never hers. This would kill her career, it would kill both of them. Any chance of a career was over. She had to take the fall, but how?
Bernie’s Auburn skidded to a halt, with gravel skittering everywhere. She jumped out of the car, her hands went to Serena’s arms. “Are you okay?” Her eyes frantically looking her up and down.
“I’m… I’m okay.” She reached into her trouser pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper, quivering hands handed it to Bernie. She watched as the colour drained from her face.
“That’s our house!”
“I.. Who? The bitch! I’ll kill her.”
“What? Bernie!” Serena grasped her hand, “Kill who?”
“My darling Mother, I’d bet money that she is behind this.”
“Bernie she’s an old woman…surely-“
“If she didn’t take it herself she got one of the nurse to do it! How else would they get in the house? It is taken from the hallway!”
Serena slumped against the car and sighed. “It doesn’t matter who is responsible. What matters is that we can’t get this stopped. It’s going to be published. Ernie said that it’s already printed.”
Bernie leaned next to Serena. “What are we going to do?”
Serena shrugged, “I don’t know.” She rubbed the back of her neck, the waves crashed against the shore in front of them. “I think I should go back to London, maybe my Mother’s family home in the Scottish Borders.”
“What?! No, we don’t leave each other.”
“Bernie, they could make an example out of us.” She gripped her hand. “I’m not just talking about both of our careers being over, I’m talking about jail time. This is going to blow hot. I’ll take the blame, I forced you into my home, into my life… my bed. I took advantage…”
“Stop, Serena, just…stop.” Bernie whispered, tears streaming down her face. “Please, don’t degrade us, degrade this.”
“Oh darling.” Serena pulled her close, her nose nuzzling into Bernie’s shoulder. “You have your mother to think about, you’re just hitting the top of your movie career, all you ever wanted is right here.”
Bernie pushed her away, “You are all I ever wanted! All I will ever want. Serena… please.”
“I don’t know what else to do darling.”
“I could talk to George or one of the executives at the studios they could pull some strings. Serena…They own this town! They can stop this. ” Bernie’s face was ashen. “How could you even think of walking away from us?”
“Darling, my beautiful girl.” Serena pushed Bernie’s fringe out of her eyes. “I would never walk away from us. It would just be for a bit, for this to blow over. For your mother to… heal. I… I don’t know what to do.”
“I don’t want to be without you Serena.”
Serena lifted Bernie’s right hand to her lips, kissing the ring. “I pledge myself to thee, till death do us part.”
The tears spilled down Bernie’s cheeks, “We should go talk to George.”
Serena nodded, pulling Bernie into her arms holding her tightly.
She followed Bernie to a small cottage style house in west LA. They had become good friends over the years George had directed them both in numerous films and had guessed at their relationship. Over the past year he had become a great ally, being higher up in the studio machine it gave them some protection from the whispers and stares. Serena nervously rapped on the door, her hand firmly held in Bernie’s. The door swung open both surprised to see he was in a suit. The look on his face told them he already knew. Ushering them in they both stopped in their tracks when they saw the executive board of Warner’s looking back at them, the article lay center stage on the table.
“Ladies, sit down.”
Serena sat numbly in the car as Bernie drove them both back home. The groceries sat forgotten in Serena’s car parked outside of George’s house to be claimed later.
“I don’t want you to go.”
“I don’t want to go.”
Bernie turned the car off and they both sat in front of their house in silence.
Suddenly Serena started laughing, a loud deep belly laugh. She looked over at Bernie to see her staring in shock, her dark brown eyes large and glistening with unshed tears.
Serena’s laugh quickly dissolved into heaving sobs. Bernie slid over pulling Serena into her arms. “I can’t lose you Bernie.”
“I’ll wait for you.” Bernie whispered. “When this all blows over and you will come back, I’ll be here waiting.”
“I don’t want you to put your life on hold because of me, we don't know if this will ever blow over.” Serena gasped through her tears.
Bernie shook her head. “It’s not my life anymore Serena, it's ours. It became ours once I put the necklace on you.”
Serena nodded looking down at the plane ticket clutched in her hand. “I never thought I’d get thrown out of Los Angeles County at my age.”
“Don’t make a joke Serena. Please not now.”
“I don’t know how to leave you.”
Bernie pulled back and kissed her, tasted their tears, “It's not the end. It’s just a pause.”
“Kiss me as if it was the last time.”
Bernie shook her head, “No, because it isn’t.” She whispered before her lips found Serena’s.
1941 Hollywood, California
Serena didn’t make the rounds, didn’t pop in offices to say hello to those that were still there, didn’t visit the makeup trailer to say “Hi” to old friends, she sat around the table in the read through room. Talking to the director about the script and a potential shooting schedule avoiding any questions about her departure two years earlier. More of the cast began filtering in and she found herself drawn to an upright piano sat in one corner. Sitting down she gently plucked out old songs. Her mind drifted back to the last thing she played in this country; Bernie’s favourite.
Without thinking her fingers drifted to Debussy, the light chatter of the writing crew and director drifted over her as she automatically tuned them out. Half way through the song she heard a gasp and the smash of breaking glass. Her fingers stilled on the keys and she turned on the bench. The hair on the back of her neck standing, as if she knew what she would see.
The room collapsed in on itself, people disappeared into the wall, the young woman kneeling on the floor picking up the broken glass faded into oblivion. The suits and the cigarette smoke blurred. Everything centered in on the tall blonde who stood in the doorway, her hair shorter than Serena had ever seen it. Cut above her shoulders and curled, framing her beautiful face. She had dark circles under her eyes hidden by pancake makeup, her lips were coloured red but they were thinner than she remembered. Stress lines in the contours of her face, absent just a few years prior now shown prominently. Serena wondered what she thought of her. Her curves had disappeared, meat was scarce in England at the moment. Her hair was shorter than it was when she left California now shot through with gray, the thought of dying it no longer held any appeal to her. Although she knew it would not go over well with the studio.
Her fingers twitched with the want to touch, the want to hold, and unsteadily she stood, “B-Bernie.” She whispered. Suddenly the bustle room rushed back in, the noise of the din, the glare of the light, someone was talking but she couldn’t tell who. She glanced down at her right hand, it still held her ring. She felt her heart jump, maybe, just maybe.
Bernie inclined her head towards the hallway she reached out and grabbed the director’s arm. Her lips turned into a sweet smile, Serena never met anyone who could resist that smile. He nodded eyes flicking to Serena as she slipped out the door. The brunette was helpless to follow her.
Serena followed the swing of Bernie’s hips down the hall. The tailored trousers doing wonders for her as her long legs covered ground. Ducking into a side room Serena followed her, closing the door to an unused rehearsal room.
The door clicked shut behind them and they stood in the soft light staring at each other. Serena felt her chest heave, watching Bernie’s hand grasp the edge of the desk to steady herself. She licked her lips, suddenly her throat felt too dry, her shirt felt too tight, the was room too hot. “Bernie.” She said again.
“I-I just sent the telegram this morning… how?”
Serena frowned. “Telegram?”
“Mum… Mum died last night. I had to let you know, I know it violates the…” Her words trailed off.
Serena nodded once, tears welling up in her eyes at the thought of Bernie being all alone having to take on everything. She took a step forward, cautiously approaching, fear that if she moved too quickly Bernie would vanish from her sight. Suddenly, Bernie launched herself at her, arms wrapped around Serena’s waist her nose buried into her neck, heaving sobs were ripped from her throat. “Oh Serena!”
Serena took a step back leaning against the wall taking on Bernie’s full weight. “I’ve missed you Bernie, oh god, have I missed you.” Her smell surrounded her, fingers sunk into her soft hair, her lips kissed the shell of her ear as she let her own tears come. “Oh my darling, I’ve missed you.”
They stood like that for a long time, just feeling each other, holding on to reassure themselves that it wasn’t just a dream. Something that had happened more often than not, waking only to realise they are still alone. Bernie slowly pulled back removing a handkerchief from her pocket she wiped her face and nose. “What…how?”
Serena shook her head, her fingers threading through Bernie’s hair and pulled her down to kiss her mouth. It was as if no time had passed, she moaned into her lips, tasted her lips stick and a taste that was just Bernie. She felt the blonde’s long fingers run through her hair, gently scraping at her scalp. They pulled back breathless, Serena resting her forehead against Bernie’s. “I love you.” She gently pecked her lips.
“I love you too.” A shaky hand reached out and held the pendent around her neck. “You still wear it.”
Serena kissed her softly, “I never take it off.”
Bernie held up her hand, “Me either.” They smiled at each other, eyes beaming. “Where are you staying?”
“How about staying at our house tonight?”
“Are you sure?”
Bernie pulled her to her, her tongue pushing past her lips, pressing Serena against the cool brick wall, “I’ve never been surer of anything, I just want you home.” Her lips trailed down her jaw before she stopped abruptly. “Wait, why are you here?”
Serena smiled, her fingers sliding up Bernie’s arms, her fingers tracing her clavicle. “I’m playing Sam in Casablanca.”
Bernie’s stunned face broke out in a grin, before frowning. “What? The board, they banned you from ever setting foot in a studio again, they said if we so much as tried to send letter they would report us to the police… sue for breach of contract...I don’t…”
Serena shrugged, “I have no idea, and perhaps it’s a trap. If it is it’s one, I’ve willingly walked into and one I won’t regret.” She kissed her again. “I got a call out of the blue from Roger about this script. He was insistent that Warner wanted me since the guy originally scheduled to play him got drafted. I was so worried about signing because I didn’t know how I could come back and not see you.” Her fingers traced Bernie’s cheekbones. “There was no way I could stay away, and then I turned around and there you were.” They rested their forehead together, Serena trying to take in every aspect of Bernie for her hungry eyes. “When I read the script I pictured you as Ilsa, I couldn’t help it. The role just screams you.”
Bernie blushed and looked down. “When I read it I saw us, you as Rick, I could hear the music, I could feel you under my fingers, see you in Paris, see us in the deserts of Morocco…”
Serena closed her eyes, “I would love to play Rick, what a beautiful film that would be.” She opened her eyes tears glistening in them, “No-no I take that back. I wouldn’t want to be Rick, I couldn’t stand to see you get on a plane. To let you go again.”
Bernie intertwined their fingers together. “I’m never letting you go again Serena Campbell. Jail, lawsuit, or no movie, no stage, or no parents, I’m never letting you leave.”
Serena felt a smile light up her face, “I love you.”
“I love you too, but we better get back. They will send a search party.” They wiped smudged lipstick from their faces. “You’re so beautiful Serena.”
She smiled shyly, Bernie seemed more confident since she had left. They walked down the hall arm in arm. “You know, perhaps when this war is over we should visit Morocco.”
Bernie frowned, “Why?”
Serena shrugged, “It’s the place in this beautiful script that brought me back to you. Maybe it’s trying to tell us something.”
“We would have found each other again eventually.”
“True, I’m just glad we didn’t have to wait longer for it to happen.”
They stopped at the door to the read room, both straightened their clothes and took a deep breath. Sharing a small secret smile they pushed open the door they walked in. “Ladies first.” Serena whispered, catching herself right before her palm playfully connected with Bernie’s back side. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing, her hand going to the back of her hair instead. They were ready to face whatever the industry and life through at them, together.
March 1942, Hollywood, United States
Dark eyes fluttered open, winching against the early morning light they closed again. Serena took stock of her body. She felt lighter, the persistent ache that had taken up residence in her chest for the past two years had vanished. A smile tugged at her lips, she felt weightless, a floating feeling as her dark eyes cracked open. Through the open balcony doors the sun had started to rise in the sky in all its morning glory. Serena blinked against the light and pushed herself up on her elbows. She could make out her trousers tossed over one of the chairs in the large master bedroom in the early dawn. The Hollywood Hills were losing their silhouette and beginning to be drenched in warm sunlight.
It was a sight for wearisome eyes, how she had missed this view. She fought the urge to get up and pad naked to the balcony. The bed felt luxurious, the sheets soft against her naked skin, the cool breeze kissing her skin and the woman next to her was enough to keep her where she was. She felt her heart clench at the thought of the person next to her, her mind flashed back to last night. The wine, the laughing, the passion, and the desperation. The pain of loss and the elation of reunion still rushing through her mind. She closed her eyes against the sting of tears. She was finally home. Her eyes left the stunning view of the window, her window, their window. Turning instead to the sleep tussled blonde next to her. She noticed a bruise formed on her collar bone, one lower, on the swell of a breast that the sheet was slipping just low enough to reveal. Settling back down in the bed she turned to her wife, her eyes flickering down looking at the ring on her hand.
“I thought I dreamed you last night.” The statement had been a common recurrence over the past few months.
Serena’s eyes flickered up to Bernie’s face, a wide smile bloomed over her face. “Hello you.” She gently pressed her lips to her.
“Morning” She nuzzled Serena’s nose with hers, their bodies intertwined together.
“I can’t wait to see you in your dress tomorrow night.” Next evening was the premiere of Casablanca in New York, the brass thought having a New York debut would draw more press, they weren’t wrong. Bernie’s gown was gray with a plunging back, sequins covered the front with a white fur stole wrapping around her shoulders, showing off her slim waist. Serena was wearing a tux with tails, and killer heels putting her above Bernie’s height. They would be staying in New York for a few months, Bernie had signed on to read for a play, her love of the stage still held true. Serena had contracted with Carnegie hall to do a few masterclasses with piano students with a tentative teaching position on the table. They were both looking forward to getting away from the studio life for a bit. Warm lips found the blondes, how she wished they could go to the premier as a couple.
“And what, pray tell, should we do until our flight leaves tonight Ms. Wolfe?”
“I have a few ideas.”
“Oh really.” Serena’s fingers slipped below the sheet finding the spot that earned her a kick in the side all those years ago.
Bernie squealed as she rolled away from the touch before pulling Serena’s lips back to hers. “I think we can figure it out.” The long white curtains ruffled in the wind blowing up the valley off of the ocean. They would figure it out together.