The Outskirts of Lubbock, Texas
What Hanne loved about Nina was how all-encompassing she was. The scent of her, the feel of her, the way she dominated the room. At the moment her half-brother’s wife was regaling a tale around the kitchen table. Hanne’s dress was simple but it still scratched at her skin. She felt so constricted, her long hair pulled back into some semblance of an updo.
Nina looked the perfect housewife, on the other hand. All generous curves and soft belly, her face round and delightful. She commanded a table effortlessly as she flattered Hanne’s father. Jarl Brum. Hanne felt awkward at the table - Nina was everything her father wanted her to be. Womanly, in the home. White. She glanced down at her skin. Years of refusing to go outside had turned the rich russet brown to a dusky tan color that at least made her pass enough for her father. Her thick brown hair with coppery undertones was forced back, even if she missed the long plaits her mother would put into them.
To a discerning eye, they would know immediately that Hanne was not white, but having such a powerful man as her father was the strongest protector. She took a bite of her food as Nina exaggerated a story about chasing after the kids. The picture perfect life.
Matthias took after their father in all the ways Hanne didn’t. Sure they were both tall and strong, but Matthias had his blonde hair and blue eyes, square jaw, and all-American bearing. He was allowed to do all the things Hanne wasn’t. He was allowed to kiss who Hanne wasn't.
She shoved her feelings and thoughts into a box as memories from her childhood reared their ugly heads. Instead she listened and nodded and when it was time to clean up she volunteered to do the dishes. Everyone else went outside and she breathed a sigh of relief. She didn't dislike her family. Most days she even loved them. But days like this were difficult.
Hanne heard the noises of men laughing and children playing outside when she felt a hand on her shoulder.
"I'm glad you could make it," Nina said. She smiled that brilliant beautiful smile and Hanne felt herself melting. How could she ever be so resentful? "I miss you."
"I miss you too," Hanne confessed. Before she knew it Nina leaned forward and their lips softened against each other. Sweet. Soft. Just like Nina herself and the nights they stole together, Hanne tracing her fingers on Nina's soft skin and digging into her curves. The scent of Nina in her sheets when she woke up. "When can I see you again?"
"Matthias leaves on a business trip tomorrow. I'm sure the kids would love for Aunt Hanne to visit for a few days." Nina traced a hand down the side of her face, trailing down to Hanne's neck where her pulse fluttered, and to the subtle v of her neckline. "Will you stay?"
"Of course," Hanne whispered. And then Nina was gone. She took several deep breaths, clutching the kitchen sink edge as the memory of Nina’s fingers trailing her collarbone burned itself in her mind, as she dreamed about Nina’s cherry red lips smearing lipstick on her mouth playfully. How Nina would tell her Matthias never touched her that way, didn’t know what she liked the way Hanne liked. Hanne’s entire life hinged on those magical nights together. They made everything feel worth it. Lifted the heaviness of her past.
It helped that she absolutely loved Evelyn, Iris, and Samuel. When she packed her trunk, her father was sitting in the living room, reading a paper. She kept her head down and walked as quietly as she could but there was no way to avoid the thumping of her trunk. Hanne flinched as she heard the paper fold down. “Are you off to your brother’s?” he asked.
“Yes sir,” she said.
“Good family,” he mused. “Good American family. Make sure you don’t act like a savage around those kids while the man of the house is gone.”
“Maybe someday you’ll marry a man like that. Hardworking, red blooded. You’re only 24, you have a couple years left.”
Shame burned under her cheeks. “Yes sir.”
“I’ll give you a ride. It’s not ladylike to walk that distance you know. I hate when you do that.”
Hanne missed the days when she had run outside, when she had rolled around in the grass free-spirited. The muscles in her legs and arms and shoulders had long gone soft. She kept her head down as her father brought her trunk to the car and opened the door for her. She muttered her thanks and flinched again when he slammed the door shut.
Jarl spent his time talking about how great it was that Matthias already had three children and a pleasant stay at home wife. If only you knew, she thought, as she glanced at the crucifix on the dash. Her father could recite the bible backwards and forwards. One of the many hypocrisies. Hanne forced herself not to think about it again - the painful memories of her mom. Of everything.
At the Helnik house, the kids were in their matching clothes and Hanne ran up to hug them. Iris was the oldest at eight years old. Nina had married Matthias, her high school sweetheart, at sixteen. By seventeen she had Iris. Then she had Samuel, then Evelyn. Hanne had known Nina then too. Nina had been her first kiss in high school, after her father deemed her appropriate enough to move in with him.
But instead Nina married Matthias, and Hanne looked forward to the weeks when Matthias drove out of town for work, when she could pretend it was them having this life.
She let go of her nieces and nephew, thanking her father for bringing in her trunk. “If you ladies have any trouble and need a man you just give me a ring, you hear?”
“Of course Dad,” Nina said with a big smile. “Thank you for bringing Hanne. You know I just get so nervous out here by myself.
Hanne zoned out, looking at the decorations. The house was nice - bigger than most people around them had. The kitchen was lovely and the sunlight streamed through the windows - the furniture was comfortable. Nina was a terrible cook but that was okay - Hanne often came over to help them. It was the only “woman quality” she had, according to her dad. She was too tall, too dark, too athletic. He didn’t think so during the summers they spent together before, teaching her to ride horses and shoot guns. Now he regretted it all.
Probably regretted her.
They spent the evening playing games on the lawn, and then sitting around the radio listening to the story hour. Hanne made them a filling stew, and she was able to pretend. Nina, of course, never showed her affection in front of the kids. In front of anyone, really. The crucifixes adorning the house made it obvious how Matthias would feel. But when they went to bed, Nina removed the one that hung over the headboard as she slipped into her night shift.
“You’re gorgeous,” Hanne said. “Perfect.”
Nina grinned as she crawled onto the bed. “You’re beautiful too. I wish I was good at poetry so I could write an ode to your lips and all the things they make me feel.”
Heat rushed to her face as she looked at Nina. They whiled the night away in each other’s arms, falling asleep as the sun began its hazy ascent.
Hanne smiled as she washed and got dressed in the morning, feeling more hopeful than usual. She decided to put on one of her pairs of trousers instead of her dress. She could run after the children more. Play more. Be herself. Nina walked up to her and buttoned up Hanne's shirt, her fingers like sparks of electricity whenever they brushed on bare skin.
Hanne enjoyed the work she could do for Nina. Lifting, painting, reaching high places, opening cans. Sure, Nina could do it all herself. But now she wasn't walking on eggshells around her father, scared to breathe too loudly. Where she wasn't confined to the walls of their home, even when the fresh air was within reach.
Music played in the kitchen as Hanne prepared snacks for the kids. Cab Calloway warbled and she danced to herself. Nina walked in, in all her glory. Nina perched herself between Hanne and the counter. "I can't reach the jar of peaches up there," she motioned. "Can you help me?"
Hanne rolled her eyes as she reached up, Nina hooking an arm around her waist as she did so and leaning forward to kiss Hanne's neck briefly. Before Hanne knew it she had Nina lifted against the counter, smiling as she traced a tongue on Nina's lower lip before catching it between her teeth, Hanne's hand moving up the outside of Nina's thigh.
A loud crash brought Hanne down into her body and she whipped around to see the last person she expected. Her father.
His face was drained of color as he looked at them, his mouth opened in shock.
"Papa, I can explain -"
"Shut your mouth you whore," he said, cutting her off. Shock gave way to his face distorting, becoming an ugly purple. Nina had scrambled away and he gripped Hanne's jaw painfully between his thumb and index finger, digging into her skin. "Coming into your brother's home and acting like a man."
Hanne closed her eyes as he spat at her, tears welling in them. She tried to do what she normally did and move away from her body. He slapped her hand away as she tried to wipe her face and she looked over at Nina, who was looking away. Silent. "You'll return home at once."
The next time Hanne was allowed outside the house was a month and a half from when she was caught. Her bruises had faded and she was given a constricting dress in a nearly Victorian style to go to church in. Matthias had visited but Nina was mysteriously ill every time he came over with the kids. The car ride was silent and Hanne looked down at her hands the entire time, only glancing up when the car rolled to a stop in front of the Colored church.
"I'll pick you up when the service is done," her father said in a low voice. She quickly looked down at her hands again. "You will be waiting out front. I'm still considering sending you to be a cook at the school."
Her throat constricted. "Yes sir."
Hanne kept her head down as she walked through the crowd of people who looked like her. Tejanos, Black Americans, and Native Americans attended this church from far and wide across the rural panhandle of Texas.
Most gave her friendly smiles and waves but she looked down at her feet instead. There was food available, being doled out by a black woman in a clean, simple linen dress. Most of the people had the gaunt look of malnourishment and Hanne felt guilty. She wasn't starving despite the depression. Wasn't one of the people scrounging for dandelions to boil into water.
The woman looked up and smiled at her. She had dark skin and a flushed face, even if she was lean her cheeks were round. "Come have some please. It's from my farm."
Hanne thought about the tasteless gruel her father had literally shoved into her face that morning, and how she had to clean the waste of food off. "If you don't mind," she said.
"I'm Leoni Hilli by the by," she said, extending her hand.
"My name is Hanne. Hanne Alvarez," she said, using her mother's last name. She didn't want to be associated with her father.
"Welcome Hanne. It's modest but it's what I got. Your first time here?"
Hanne nodded. "Yes ma'am."
"None of that ma'am nonsense, we must be the same age."
Hanne smiled at her, and was surprised at the warmth in her chest at the kindness. "Thank you, Leoni."
"Are you here by yourself?" She asked.
"Yes," she said. "My father goes to the white church a couple miles down."
Leoni raised her eyebrows but if she had opinions, kept them to herself. "You stick by me, Miss Hanne. I'll make sure you're taken care of. You'll want to avoid the first three pews that's where all the judgmental families sit. Now I thought we were called here to witness for Him not to judge but what do I know. Miss Hazel has the best peaches and Miss Loretta is nice to everyone except Señora Anita."
Hanne enjoyed Leoni's chatter about the congregation. There didn't seem to be any ulterior motive as Leoni passed her unsweetened tea and Hanne found herself able to relax a little. They sat several pews back, the church chilly in the Texas winter, even if the sky was a flawless blue color with only threadbare clouds in the sky.
She dutifully waited for her father at the end of the service, a pamphlet Leoni had given her tucked into her decolletage.
Hanne started going to church religiously, even if she never felt religious. The voice of the Tejano preacher was comfortable and she even brought food to giveaway alongside Leoni. The woman was kind, even if she was private beyond private. There was no wedding band on her finger and she never mentioned family other than a cousin in Alabama. But each week Hanne saw that she was tired and worn out, no matter how much she tried to hide it.
One Sunday, her father actually trusted her. Said he needed to stay at his and Matthias's church longer, so she would "need to keep herself busy" for an hour. So Hanne approached Leoni, who was sitting under a tree on top of a small blanket. She was gorgeous in her checkered purple dress, her tight coils rolled and pinned.
Hanne forced her sinful thoughts to the back of her mind. "May I join you?"
Leoni looked up, registering Hanne, a wide smile overcoming her face. "Of course," she said. She scooted over, making room for Hanne on the blanket. "Sorry Miss Hanne, I was just thinking."
She tipped her head back to catch the sun and Hanne's mind raced at the image. Her father thought Negroes were unnatural, facing discrimination because of some offense to God. Hanne never believed that - and there was nothing unnatural about Leoni. "What were you thinking about?" She asked.
"Real boring stuff." She gave Hanne a cheeky grin. "Economics and agriculture."
Hanne saw her opening. "I love farming," she said. "Although my father only lets me have a small garden I would love to do more."
Leoni regarded her with big, dark eyes. Hanne felt heat rush to her face as Leoni looked her up and down quickly. "Pardon my language. Your father is an ass, I'm well acquainted with him."
Hanne looked down. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. You clearly aren't him." Leoni sighed. "My farm ain't doing so well. The men I hire don't respect me since my folks died, and living alone terrifies me. The Klan getting mighty bold these days and it's only a matter of time before I ain't quick enough to get my gun at night."
Hanne's eyes widened at the calm frankness Leoni spoke about her own death. "What about men here? From the church?"
"They help when they can but times is hard Miss Hanne.What if you helped me? I can't pay much but I can offer some fresh milk, meat, to supplement it. I can have the pastor here convince your father. We got a passing fellow," she said. "You look strong. And a hard worker. Am I right?"
Hanne had tried to be as meek as possible after being caught with Nina. To make herself small and weak - and Leoni saw straight through it. "Yes," she answered truthfully. "One condition," she said. "I want to move there. I'll sleep in the stable if I have to."
"Nonsense, I have a spare bedroom." Leoni extended her hand. "It's a deal Hanne Alvarez."