It was an inane practice, having parent-teacher conferences days before winter break. They were meant to serve as some sort of last-ditch effort for parents to get caught up with their kids’ standings before the semester ended in mid-January. Harper didn’t have a clue as to the logic behind it— how much could be salvaged over the course of four weeks?— but she always felt pressured to go, to not seem like a mother that didn’t care. Why Rindy had a C in biology was of interest to her, too.
And, of course, conferences were presenting her with the opportunity to finally meet Carol’s girlfriend.
Outside Ms. Belivet’s classroom, a handful of other parents sat on chairs that lined the hallway lockers. Harper chose to stand. She was nervous. There wasn’t any reason to be, she told herself. After all, she was there on Official Parental Business. She glanced at her reflection in some nearby office windows.
She and Carol looked alike. They’d been asked if they were twins all through their twenties, despite Harper being 3 years older. Harper was an inch or two shorter, though, and ten or fifteen pounds heavier. Apparently something needed to brand her as distinctly “mom.” It wasn’t something she minded at all. She did have way better boobs than Carol, something for which she could thank Rindy.
The door behind her opened and Harper spun around.
Ms. Belivet’s classroom was simple, if not typical of that of an English teacher. She had a well stocked “take a book, leave a book” shelf, a few book posters, an oversized calendar, and a running list of students’ favorite books “not written by white men.” Harper hoped Rindy would have her next year for English if Ms. Belivet kept that curriculum alive. But they were there to talk about how Rindy was performing in speech class.
Well, sort of.
“You can just call me Therese, by the way,” Ms. Beliv— Therese— started, and pulled up Rindy’s grades. “Rindy is doing very well, which is why I was a little surprised to see your name on the list for conference sign-ups. Usually it’s either parents whose children are failing, or close to failing, or parents of students that have an A-minus when they’d prefer them to have an A. But Rindy has a 97 percent.”
Brushing her hands together, Harper said, “well then, I suppose this Carol thing worked as planned.”
“You’re very lucky Rindy has me as her speech teacher and not Cy Harrison. I doubt if Carol would’ve been as open to helping had that been the case.”
Therese grinned, and Harper was thankful for her sense of humor for a number of reasons. Mainly, she was glad that Carol finally decided to date someone who wasn’t so serious, so stuffy. Abby had been no exception. Even when she was having fun, it still had to be planned and regimented and of a particular brand. If Abby wasn’t in control, she wanted no part of it. It had been exhausting, and as devastating and fucked-up the end of her and Carol’s relationship had been, Harper was beyond glad when it was finally over.
Back to business, Therese told Harper that, barring any major hiccups— if Rindy bombed her final presentation for whatever reason— she was on track to maintain an A for the semester.
With seven minutes still left in her allotted time, Harper considered leaving, letting Therese use the time to jump ahead of schedule, but Therese didn’t seem eager to do so, possibly similarly curious about the life Carol had, so far, successfully kept separate. “You’re a lawyer too, right?”
Harper was also a lawyer. And so was her and Carol’s father. And their aunt. And two of their cousins. Their grandfather had worked for the General Mills plant, so law wasn’t exactly a long-standing family industry just yet. By chance, no one in the family had the same area of practice. Carol had decidedly the most prestigious position of anyone, something with which Harper took no issue. “I work in family law. Divorce, mostly,” Harper pulled out her business card and handed it to Therese. “Here. I’m at Rose, Bloomfield, and Glickman in St. Paul. So if you overhear any of these rich parents arguing tonight, send them my way.”
Therese smiled. She wouldn’t mind overhearing some parent drama, she said, as long as it wasn’t about her class. At least it would add some excitement to the night.
“My fingers are crossed on your behalf. And mine. I can’t be the record-holder for World’s Messiest Breakup forever. Then again, I guess Carol sort of took that honor.”
There was a glint in Therese’s eye, her interest sparked. She asked, “what was her ex like?”
Harper dug in her purse and pulled out a pack of gum. She popped a piece in her mouth and leaned back in her chair. “How much time do you have?”
Well, about 60 seconds, really. Harper’s conference time was ending. She didn’t want to screw up Therese’s schedule, but she didn’t want to leave her with nothing, either. As she got up, she lowered her voice, and told her, “a piece of fucking work. I’ve only just met you, but I can tell that you’re a thousand times better in just about every category. I’m not just saying that so you’ll give Rindy an A, either. Like, you’re on different planets, trust me.”
Before she opened the door to leave, she added that if Therese wanted more information, she could ask just about any woman she came across in either of the Twin Cities, because the likelihood that Abby fucked them was very high.
It was after Carol took her to dinner the second time that Therese thought things could really be different.
As promised, Carol drove Therese home at a reasonable hour. They’d just gotten dinner, a place close to Therese, and stayed as late as Therese’s internal clock would allow. When Carol dropped her off, she put her car in park, waiting so they could finish their conversation. But one conversation turned into another, and in the end, Carol spent the better portion of an hour parked outside of Therese’s building.
Finally, when Therese realized it was well after 9, she muttered, “I really should get inside,” with so much hesitance she hardly believed the words herself. Carol continued to look at her, always seemingly amused. Amused, curious, and delighted. A combination Therese would do just about anything to get more of.
Carol just said, “okay,” and waited.
Therese leaned over the center console and kissed the grin off of her lips— stole it, really— and whispered, “I so wish you could come in with me.” She didn’t give Carol a chance to respond, just kissed her more and more and more and then asked, “when can I see you again?”
Carol smiled, but her eyes looked dark and intense. “Whenever you want.” Her fingers padded along the side of Therese’s neck.
‘Whenever she wanted’ was not entirely true, because when Therese wanted was the next day… and the next day, and the next. But the following Saturday was good enough, Therese supposed.
Holidays were always hard. Christmas, especially. Before Carol, Therese could never imagine much solace, unless the entirety of her family suddenly changed their minds regarding Therese’s unofficial shunning.
It had been five years since deciding that maybe it was best if Therese didn’t come home to visit regularly— a mutual decision, of sorts— but Therese still looked forward to her parents’ calling on Christmas. It was the only thing that helped her feel tethered to someone, anyone. She had friends, but never ones so close they felt like family. There were times if she wondered whether or not it was worth it, if it would be less painful to choose a life of either celibacy or secrecy in exchange for a renewed relationship with her parents.
Five years had gone by since she ended things with Richard, the boyfriend she’d kept through most of college, and she’d told her mother why. In those five years, Therese had only dated two women, and neither very seriously. Was it worth spending every Christmas alone, eating dinner by herself? Watching a movie, and waiting for her mother to call and pass the phone around to her dad, her brother, her aunt and uncle? That was her new Christmas Eve tradition.
Without knowing, Carol suggested, “would you want to hang out on Christmas Eve? Or Christmas Day? I could leave my parents’ house early and we could do something, maybe make dinner.” It was downplayed with a shrug, and Carol added that she just hadn’t heard Therese mention anything about what kind of plans she had for the holidays— the 25th was only two weeks away, after all.
Therese just about melted into her spot on Carol’s sofa.
“I don’t have any plans…for either day, really. So, whenever you’re free…” she trailed off. She didn’t want to sound too desperate, or pathetic. But Carol would never think like that, she knew.
Carol only saw her family on Christmas Eve, she said, and welcomed an excuse to cut it a couple hours short. “And as much as I’d love for you to join us,” she added, it was probably too much, too soon. “I think you’d much rather meet my family any other day.”
There had been one time in five years that Therese had reluctantly gone home to visit. It had been a mostly spontaneous trip encouraged by her brother as a ‘nice gesture’ for her mother’s birthday. To ‘have the whole family together again.’ Her mother was turning 55 and whether or not Therese’s presence at their large family party was even a welcome one was questionable. She certainly didn’t feel like a gift.
Her family had a nice (though modest) house, in a small town in Illinois that was just 30 miles west of Kentucky. There were plenty of churches, an absurd ratio to the meager population, but to Therese’s parents, only one of them mattered. It was the big, auditorium-type, one that lured in followers by disguising their proselytizing with contemporary music and casual clothing. At a young age, Therese was averse simply because the event took up half of her already too short weekends. Once she got older, she hated almost everything about it: the sermons were tedious, the pastor was condescending, and the youth group— the one in which she’d been forced to participate— was a waste of time.
With half of her entire family— her grandparents, three aunts and uncles, and eleven cousins, all just from her mother’s side— packed into the living room and kitchen, Therese did her best to hide among the 55 balloon strings dangling from the ceiling. She hadn’t managed too many conversations that made it beyond “hello, how are you? How’s everything been?” There had been an elephant in the room, and it was Therese herself. At the time, it had been over two years since she’d broken up with Richard, and the reason as to why had absolutely made it to every crevice of her family: Therese “decided” she was no longer looking for a boyfriend.
The funny part of it all was that, unbeknownst to her parents, she’d only met Richard when, after their “Christian Thought” class, he chased her down in the hallway, and told her he thought what their professor said about Christianity and nativism was “fucking stupid, too.” Richard just saying the word “fuck” had caught Therese’s attention; swearing often felt like a rarity among students. She also wondered why he thought she’d disagreed with their professor.
Suddenly sheepish, maybe doubting his memory, he stuttered, and said, “well, I don’t know, I thought because you rolled your eyes…”
Therese had, she just thought she’d been more discreet.
A coffee date for the next day was set up under the pretense of studying, and when Richard asked if Therese wanted to come back to his apartment, she’d agreed. His apartment was still on-campus, though kept under a less watchful eye than the freshman and sophomore dorms. They made out on his uncomfortable couch in his gross living room and he told her, “just to let you know, I’m not a virgin.”
Therese wasn’t sure if it was to impress her or warn her, but either way, she just said, “neither am I.”
It was the truth. She’d had sex once, when she was home for the summer after her freshman year with some guy she'd gone to high school with at a party. It was horrible, but she’d just wanted to rip off the bandaid.
Richard had been shocked, but not in a bad way. If anything, he was relieved; he’d picked one of the few girls on campus actually willing to fuck.
Sex with Richard was also spectacularly awful, and it didn’t take Therese very long to realize why. (Sure, he was 20-years-old and selfishly bad in bed, but any attempts at getting better would’ve still proved futile with Therese.) She kept the truth to herself until after graduation, though.
Therese bet that even if her parents knew all of that, they’d still prefer for her to be with Richard anyway. The invented hierarchy of sins was crystal clear.
Knowing nobody at the party would miss her, Therese slipped into her dad’s study. She scanned the bookcase, the one her mother referred to as the “home library.” Really, it was a perversion of the term, mostly serving as a shrine to Billy Graham and a sprinkling of some other religious doctrines.
It wasn’t that her parents weren’t well-read or uncultured. Far from it, in fact. They’d studied a vast assortment of literature, just enough to be able to dissect all the parts that were morally corrupt.
Therese was only able to enjoy a few minutes alone before being discovered by her 16-year-old cousin, Alicia.
“Are you hiding?” Without giving Therese the opportunity to respond, Alicia added, “I don’t blame you. I’m surprised you even came, honestly.”
Unsure of where the conversation was headed, Therese just turned back to the bookcase without saying anything, feigning interest in the titles she’d seen thousands of times.
Being ignored was apparently not a deterrence for Alicia. “They’re wrong, you know, about you not going to heaven because you’re gay. I’ve read the Bible eleven times— more than any of them, I bet— so I know what I’m talking about.”
Alicia had always been equal parts wise and naive, but in that moment, Therese wanted none of it. She was still part of the family that had persuaded Therese to fly down from Madison— offering a fake olive branch, making her put her life on hold for a stupid party— and then made her feel as though she’d shown up uninvited.
She’d been hurt too many times by them— by her parents, her brother, Alicia’s parents, and so on— and Therese was unable to stop herself from passing it onto the next easy target. “There’s no such thing as heaven, Alicia. God isn’t real. Read a different book.”
Without another word, she’d left Alicia standing alone in the study, walked upstairs to her old bedroom, and went to bed.
In the years following, Therese had often thought about that night. She wondered why some people were allowed to be so blissfully happy in their beliefs (even if ignorantly so, as Therese thought), and others, like herself, were doomed to cynicism, wired in such a way that made finding solace in blind faith impossible.
But sitting in Carol’s living room, on Christmas morning, watching blankets of snow fall while Carol paced around, talking on the phone with Rindy and drinking coffee, Therese reconsidered what she’d told Alicia. She might’ve been wrong. In fact, she was sure she’d been wrong.
Not about God, necessarily, but about heaven, because Therese was already there. She felt like texting Alicia, telling her just that, but she’d probably sound high as hell without providing any context— she hadn’t talked to Alicia since last Christmas, after all. She’d wait for her mother’s call, for the phone to be passed around, for it to eventually make its way to Alicia, and then maybe she’d tell her.
When her mom did call that afternoon, Therese slipped into Carol’s bedroom and laid flat on her back on the bed. She was nervous. She’d decided she would very casually hint to her parents that she was seeing someone. It would, of course, probably not go over well, but even a ton of bricks was no match for the height at which Therese currently floated.
Therese had gotten her parents’ Christmas card a couple days before. The front sported the picture of a snow-covered chapel, the words A Christmas Prayer For You... with the message inside delivering as promised. She thanked her mother, asked the standard round of questions, until finally, her mother asked, “so are you just doing your usual thing? Having a good day?”
“Um, I’m actually at my friend’s place. We’re— they’re—” Therese swallowed heavily, paused, taking a moment to decide how to proceed, not realizing how difficult getting the words out would be. “Her family doesn’t do too much on Christmas Day— they’re more Christmas Eve people— so we’re going to have dinner and go see a movie, I think.”
For what felt like hours, Therese sat in limbo, waiting to hear anything besides indistinct background chatter.
“Well, I’ll hand you off to your dad.”
Therese said, “okay,” but her mother was already gone.
Carol appeared in the doorway, looking crestfallen on Therese’s behalf, obviously having listened in as much as possible from the other room. Therese tried not to cry as she suffered through six more rounds of the same small talk. She decided to leave her last piece of news out, knowing it was likely already traveling down the dinner table anyway. Eventually, she heard Alicia’s distinctive, high pitched, “hey Therese,” said the exact same way, every single time.
There were a series of usual, older-cousin questions through which Therese cycled: what did she get for Christmas? How were her friends? Last year, it was “how’s senior year going?” now replaced by, “how’s college? Are you liking Hillsdale?” Alicia wasn’t, apparently, and said she’d wished she’d just chosen to go where Therese had gone.
“You’d probably like it even less, Alicia. Don’t worry too much. You’ll…get used to it.”
Suddenly, the noise of surrounding voices quieted— Alicia sounded like she went into a different room— and then, in an almost whisper, asked, “so, you’re doing well…in Minneapolis? You’re having a good Christmas with your friend?”
The urge to cry swept over Therese once again, but for a different reason. She looked at Carol— still standing against the wall, waiting, protective and perfect— and smiled, granting her some relief. “I am, thanks. I don’t think I could be much happier, honestly.”
Relieved, too, was Alicia. She exhaled and said, “I’m very glad to hear that.”
Therese could hear the sounds of Alicia being called back to the table, and Alicia said, “okay, I have to go. Merry Christmas. Love you!” and hung up.
Pinching the bridge of her nose, Therese tried to stop what was coming, but couldn’t, and she started crying. Endless, cathartic tears, tinted black from her mascara, crawled over her wrists as she used her hands to cover her face. Carol laid down next to her and kissed her chest and let her cry.
The first chance she got, when it felt like she could say words without choking, Therese apologized. “I’m so sorry. I’m sure this is not what you had in mind for Christmas.”
But Carol said, “the only thing I had in mind was being with you.”
Her family’s rejection was inevitable. Unsurprising. And while Therese cried pretty much every year on Christmas, this year was different. She didn’t care about their support. She didn’t need their approval, she didn’t even need their love. And realizing that was overwhelming and bittersweet and liberating. They didn’t deserve to watch Therese fall nauseatingly in-love, to hear about her happiness. They didn’t deserve witnessing something they were too ignorant to understand.
When her tears turned to laughter, Carol laughed too— but just a little, seemingly unable to commit in case of another dip on the emotional rollercoaster. But Therese’s laughter ended with a sigh. She sniffled and wiped her eyes. “Should we check movie times?”
Carol blinked, still staring, the amused, curious, and delighted stare. And again, Therese had never felt so admired.
Not much could get Carol to leave work early. If she could avoid it, she would. Working from home was just… not her jam when it wasn’t pre-planned, so when she told Jerry, “hey, I think I’m going to finish up this reviewing the rest of this at home and email you some notes later,” he looked scared.
“What’s wrong? What happened?”
“Nothing,” Carol said, but she was sure the tiny, choked coughs stuck at the back of her throat gave her away. “I just don’t feel great.”
Jerry shooed her out of his office and said, “get out. Leave— now. Goodbye.”
Of all the days to be sick, Carol would’ve preferred any other weekend. Therese’s semester was ending and there was no school on Monday. Carol had planned a vacation day so they could spend the long weekend together. She was determined not to ruin it.
But when Therese called later that evening— probably as she danced her way through the school parking lot to her car— she said, “whoa, you sound like shit. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine.” Carol cleared her throat, doing her best to put some energy back into her voice. “It’s just a cold. I’m sure I’ll be fine by tomorrow.”
Therese arrived at her apartment not long after, pity immediately painting her face when she found Carol curled on her couch in a giant sweatshirt and leggings, struggling to read the work she’d brought home.
The back of Therese’s hand rested gently on Carol’s neck, and then her forehead, before carding through her hair at the scalp. “This is not a cold. This is the flu.”
“It’s not the flu.” It probably (absolutely) was, but Carol was in denial. Aside from not wanting to spoil their weekend plans, she also just didn’t want Therese to freak out and leave.
“You’re burning up, honey.”
Carol hated the sound of her voice when she whined. But she did. She groaned and pouted as she listened to Therese rifling through her medicine cabinet, no doubt not finding anything she was looking for. It couldn’t be the flu, Carol said, because they were supposed to get dinner and go to the museum tomorrow and then meet some of Therese’s friends— Dannie and Ruby, the ones Carol had met once before at a New Years Eve party— for drinks Sunday night, and—
“We can reschedule!” She answered from the bathroom, still searching, “why don’t you have anything besides a 1,000 tablet bottle of ibuprofen in here?”
Because Carol didn’t get sick. She just got hungover sometimes.
“Okay,” Therese reappeared and picked up the purse she’d tossed onto Carol’s kitchen island, “I am going to run out and get you supplies, and then—”
“And then you’re going home?”
“What? No. Why would I go home? Unless you want me to, in which case—”
No. No. Of course Carol didn’t want her to leave. She just figured Therese didn’t want to get sick, too. It made Therese laugh. She called Carol ‘so cute.’ Therese wasn’t worried about Carol getting her sick because, unlike Carol, obviously, she’d gotten a flu shot, as she did every year. “Because I work with teenagers who have some sort of aversion to covering their mouths when they cough.”
The last time Carol could remember being so sick was years ago. Back when she was still with Abby. Abby was… not a great nurse, to say the absolute least. She wasn’t a monster; she did her best. But when Carol’s coughing didn’t let up after a couple days, Abby slept in their guest bedroom. Not because she didn’t want to catch whatever Carol had, but because Carol’s coughing was “kind of annoying.” She’d said it with a forced laugh that was meant to hide the comment in self-deprecation, as if she realized her annoyance was unreasonable, but Carol knew better.
That week, Carol had stayed home from work, tried to get as much done as she could, and Abby worked late. Really late.
Looking back, Carol wondered if Abby really was working late.
That was Carol's biggest issue with Abby’s cheating. Losing Abby was difficult, but she could get over it— she did get over it, long ago. The betrayal stung, of course, but hurt less over time. And really, had Abby cheated once, or twice, or even just a small handful of times over the six years they were together, it wouldn’t have been quite as damaging. In fact, Carol might’ve been able to see past it.
But it hadn’t been just a few times, and that was the worst part. It had been years of lies and secrets and deceit that tainted every single memory of that time period. Carol couldn’t even think about having the flu without wondering if she’d missed something, if Abby’s “working late” that time had so obviously been something else. Or maybe it hadn’t, maybe she’d told the truth that week.
When they’d gone to Iceland for their four year anniversary, had Abby really been calling her mom every day, or was she calling Genevieve? Or maybe Elizabeth? Or someone else? Because there were several others.
More than that, Carol felt like an idiot. She was a lawyer, for chrissake, yet somehow allowed Abby’s infidelity to slide right past her for three years. Reminding herself that it was hard to find something she hadn’t been looking for did help, but it didn’t stop her from spiraling into a black hole of what-ifs.
Namely, what if Abby hadn’t yelled at her assistant? Would Carol have ever found out?
Abby didn’t often get angry. At least, she didn’t have much of a temper. Carol always felt a bit more explosive in comparison. But Abby did get angry over odd and unexpected things, like when her assistant, Tessie, booked her a room at the wrong hotel for her upcoming business trip. A simple fix, but it must’ve just gotten to Abby for some reason, and she berated the poor girl.
Before quitting at the end of the day (knowing she’d obviously be so fucking fired anyway), Tessie walked back to her desk, called to change Abby’s reservations, and then sent an email to Carol.
It was simple, and there were no explicit accusations, but Tessie told Carol that, for the past year she’d worked for Abby, all of Abby’s business trips lasted at least one day beyond what the schedule required— if Abby’s last meeting was Wednesday, she had Tessie book the hotel room until Friday, and Abby worked from her company’s office in whichever city she was in regardless of needing to be there. Abby frequently had Tessie make dinner reservations for two on nights when work dinners weren’t scheduled. Tessie wrote that when she’d first started working for Abby, she noticed Abby would throw away keycards that sported the logos of hotels in Minneapolis. The list went on, and Tessie included that she was quitting at the end of the day, but she just couldn’t leave “without saying something.”
That was the last time Carol remembered leaving work early.
At first, she’d scanned the email, her vision blurry as she tried to make it make sense. She was going to delete it. Tessie was obviously disgruntled and acting out. Immature and not realizing how bad it was to burn bridges, especially in such an inflammatory way.
Her finger hovered over the button on her mouse, ready to send Tessie’s final words into the virtual abyss…but then she stood up. Carol closed her laptop, hurriedly gathered her things into her bag, and said, “I have to go,” to Fred as she passed his desk, leaving him confused and worried.
It was stupid, she’d told herself the entire drive home. So impossible. Crazy. But it was only 2:45, and if there wasn’t any traffic, she’d make it home by 3.
She tore the house apart.
Not knowing where to begin, Carol had just started hunting through drawers (too obvious), logged on to Abby’s personal email on their desktop computer (too reckless), and figured she’d finally lost her goddamn mind when she was sitting on the floor, looking at strips of paper that had gone through the paper shredder (pointless).
Abby texted her saying So my assistant just quit?? Anyway, I’m going to be home a little later than usual. When do you think you’ll be home?
It would give Carol time to put the house back together. She hadn’t decided whether or not she was going to mention it to Abby.
Sorting through the mail, Carol’s eyes settled on a bank statement. It was for Abby’s checking account, the one linked to her debit card. She knew she shouldn’t open it. It was none of her business, and, obviously, she’d fallen for a vindictive prank of some sort.
But she tore it open anyway— a last bout of what she knew was just paranoia— and scanned.
Every two or three days, withdrawals. $60 here, another $80 there. Deposits, and then withdrawal, withdrawal, withdrawal. And it was weird, because Abby didn’t carry cash. Whenever they needed it, she’d turn to Carol expectantly. If she took out so much cash, where was she spending it if not with Carol? And why not just use her debit card?
It didn’t necessarily mean anything at all though, Carol told herself. But then she looked up from the piece of mail, and glanced around her home: scattered papers, open drawers, and dirty laundry in piles on the ground.
Abby was cheating on her.
Carol didn’t bother to tidy anything. She sat, nearly motionless on the sofa, the only occasional movement made to drink from the enormous glass of bourbon she’d poured herself, and waited for Abby.
When Abby had finally arrived home, she was confused, at least for a minute, and asked, “what’s going on?” in response to Carol sitting and doing nothing, dejected and despondent and surrounded by a mess.
“How long have you been sleeping with other women?”
It was a bit irritating that Abby was so stunned into silence— she’d been so arrogant in her cheating that she hadn’t bothered to think of what to say if Carol found out. Because it was probably always an “if” for her and not a “when.” She thought she could get away with it for how long? Forever?
She squirmed, and managed a “what are you talking about?” with zero conviction.
The most Carol had gotten out of Abby that night was, “I don’t know, Carol, but why will knowing how long make you feel better?”
Over the course of the next few weeks, as Fred and Jack helped her move all of her stuff out of her and Abby’s place and into a sublet, she’d squeezed a little more from Abby. It had been at least three years, but Carol couldn’t rule out longer, and with at least six people, but Carol suspected that number was far, far higher.
So, no, Carol didn’t miss Abby; she missed not questioning her own judgement. Not second guessing herself. And for the longest time, she wasn’t sure if figuring out how to be in a relationship again was even worth it. Her life lended itself pretty well to the occasional hookup. Maybe a two or three week fling, when she was feeling particularly ambitious.
Therese, though...she’d stopped Carol in her tracks. With every intention of making Therese another quick and casual escape, it became wildly clear within just a few minutes of their first date that wouldn’t be the case. Therese was addicting, simply put. Quite literally so. Her doe eyes, her soft but confident voice, her clever grin punctuated by those devastating dimples— how could Carol ever get enough?
It’s how she found herself, nearly three months later, lulling in and out of sleep on her sofa, waiting impatiently for Therese to return, likely with far more medication than a silly little cold (flu) required. Carol felt delirious when Therese appeared above her, sliding to sit next to where Carol laid. Maybe it was the fever— the one she insisted she didn’t have— but Therese looked angelic, a light in the otherwise dark surroundings.
As Therese opened a package of NyQuil, Carol extended her hand, wanting to brush her fingers through Therese’s hair, but she was just barely out of reach.
“I love you, Therese.”
Carol was thinking it— she’d been thinking it and saying it in her head every time she was graced with Therese’s presence, every time Therese was on her mind— and hadn’t intended on saying the words out loud. But there they were, hanging in the air.
Therese stopped fiddling with the box in her hands. She stopped moving altogether, and Carol wondered if she’d ruined everything, if she’d send Therese running like a spooked deer. After several seconds that lasted an eternity, Therese looked over and into Carol’s eyes. She leaned down, her face so close to Carol’s that it was the only thing Carol could see, and then she whispered—
“Say it again.”
Through the foyer window, Rindy watched Aunt Carol’s black Mercedes pull into the driveway. But she still waited for her aunt’s “here” text, not wanting to get caught. Her phone chimed and Rindy shouted, “mom, I’m leaving! It’s going to be super weird! Wish me luck!”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” her mother’s disembodied voice answered from another part of the hosue. “It won’t be weird. See you next week!”
Her mom and her mom’s boyfriend, Alex, were going to Cabo for a week to celebrate their anniversary (gross), leaving Rindy, of course, with her aunt. But the week before, Aunt Carol had called her and asked— with great hesitance— if Rindy would be opposed to ‘Therese’ also being there, “just for the weekend, maybe even just Friday night. Her apartment is getting torn up because they’re installing new air conditioning. If you’re even the slightest bit not okay with the idea, I really won’t mind. She can find somewhere else to stay.”
Truthfully, Rindy would’ve preferred literally anything else. She was happy that her aunt’s relationship was going so well— Rindy was the catalyst, after all, how could she have been anything besides elated? But actually having to spend time with Ms. Belivet outside of school was a stipulation she’d gravely overlooked. As cool as she was, she was still a teacher at her fucking high school.
In her most convincing tone, Rindy had muttered, “uh, no. Yeah. No, that’s fine. I don’t mind.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, completely sure.”
Madison made her promise to not spare any details. And in real time, when possible.
5:13pm: carol is picking me up now. gonna kms.
Rindy opened the front door and did her best to hoist the oversized suitcase her mother insisted she pack out the door with her. Aunt Carol’s window was down and she scoffed, “I’m sorry, are you moving in?”
“Ask your sister. She basically made me bring everything I own.”
After loading her suitcase and closing the trunk, Rindy sighed, not sure if she was mentally prepared. But there was no backing out now. She slid into the backseat, and Ms. Belivet turned around and smiled. “Hey, Rindy.”
“Hey, Ms. Belivet.”
Carol laughed so hard that she stopped herself from putting the car in reverse. Ms. Belivet groaned and turned back to Rindy again. “Please call me Therese. Otherwise I won’t hear the end of it.”
Technically, Ms. Belivet wasn’t even her teacher anymore. It had been a couple months since the semester ended in January, and the most she saw of her was the occasional pass in the hall.
But Rindy knew she should get used to seeing her like this: as Therese, with her aunt, in her aunt’s car. Wearing her aunt’s sweatshirt, Rindy noticed. It was a sweatshirt Rindy wanted— her Iowa Hawkeyes one from law school— but her requests to steal it were always denied. Once, when Aunt Carol had asked why she didn’t just want her to buy her a new one, Rindy said, “because yours is vintage,” which was not a good answer, and further solidified that Rindy would not be gifted Aunt Carol’s circa-2006 sweatshirt.
She didn’t have a chance to feel even a twinge of annoyance, though, because even if Therese was wearing the sweatshirt Rindy so wanted, she was doing so while sliding her hand behind Aunt Carol’s neck, her aunt smiling the second she looked over to Therese. They giggled about something Rindy didn’t quite understand— clearly some sort of inside joke— and Rindy couldn’t remember a time when she’d been genuinely nervous that her aunt might get into a car accident because she was laughing too hard.
No, it was really difficult to be annoyed with Ms. Belivet. With Therese.
At her aunt’s apartment, everything was normal, except cleaner. When Therese answered a call and stepped onto the balcony, Rindy pointed it out. “It’s very clean in here.”
She’d stayed with her aunt just over a month before, and it certainly hadn’t looked like this.
“Therese is very tidy. She’s been here the past couple of days. You can thank her for that.”
So Therese had already been there, at her aunt’s apartment, for days. A wild thought. Just Aunt Carol being with somebody again after so much time was not the easiest concept to grasp.
There was a restaurant Rindy liked to go to when she stayed with Aunt Carol. It was always crowded on the weekends and they’d kill time at the record store next door while they waited for a table. Rindy suggested it and Therese shrugged, saying, “anything is fine with me.”
Rindy didn’t have a record player, but she wanted one. She was pretty sure her aunt was going to get her one for her one for her fifteenth birthday, because she’d started buying Rindy records and when Rindy grumbled that she had nothing on which to play them, her aunt would said, “maybe you will one day.”
If she was feeling really bratty, she probably could’ve convinced Aunt Carol to just buy her one for no reason, but even for Rindy, that felt like too much. For Christmas, her aunt had gifted her concert tickets, three eye shadow palettes, a really expensive pair of shoes, and the promise to help Rindy learn to drive, “just not in my car.”
In the car, Rindy synced her phone to the bluetooth and tried choosing the music. Aunt Carol locked eyes with her in the rearview mirror. “No way. It’s my turn.”
Rindy groaned. She liked her aunt’s taste in music sometimes. But other times, it was just like…no. She was happy to hear a similar noise of irritation come from Therese in the passenger seat. Finally, a tie-breaker.
Not that Aunt Carol would back down easily, of course. “Excuse me, but out of the three distinct music eras being represented in this car, I’m not kowtowing to the two generations that have openly embraced a depressed preteen mumbling over some piano chords.”
Billie Eilish. She was talking about Billie Eilish. Rindy just scoffed, but Therese seemed prepared. “That’s cute coming from you, the person who, just last week, openly admitted to enjoying Weezer at a point in your life, so your credibility on this issue is completely shot. Also, let’s check the usage of ‘kowtow’ in that sentence, because I get where you’re going, and it isn't necessarily wrong, but I think we can find a stronger, more suitable word.”
Aunt Carol’s mouth just hung open— and so did Rindy’s— not used to getting back what she gave. Rindy was very much enjoying the turned tables. “Um, I can’t believe I just witnessed a murder. I’m probably going to have PTSD from that. Jesus.”
Eventually, Rindy’s aunt managed to muster up a mumbled, “I hate both of you,” and still stubbornly— with even more determination than before— picked the music.
In a quick text to Madison, Rindy wrote: ok so i think we love ms belivet
At the record store, Rindy watched her aunt slide a stack of records out of Therese’s hands, kiss her on the cheek, and buy every single one of them for her. And that’s how Rindy learned Therese had a record player.
Which was…okay, pretty cool, she could admit it.
Over dinner, she learned that Therese didn’t talk to her family much— she called them zealots— and that she had to go to a Christian college, per her parents’ request. She wasn’t homeschooled though, “oh god, no.” She drank some cocktail with whiskey, and then switched to white wine. She wanted a dog, but her building didn’t allow pets. She’d never been to California, and thought Rindy should make her dad take her there the next time he had to go for work. She called being forced to teach The Great Gatsby “cruel and unusual punishment.” Her favorite book recently was An American Marriage, her favorite book always was “the Bible. No, I’m totally kidding. Middlemarch.” Her favorite movie was Kill Bill, and her favorite person was Carol.
Therese didn’t actually say the last part, but Rindy could just tell, because she looked at her aunt like she’d hung the fucking moon, and Rindy had the feeling that Therese would be around more and more often, and for a very long time. Forever-long. It was a feeling that Rindy liked.
The only part of the end of the school year Therese wasn’t looking forward to was packing up her classroom. She always started with enough time, and then lost track of schedule, saving the majority of the room to be cleaned out with just days left. Having Carol there made it easier, though. Sort of.
Her company was always appreciated, whether her contributions could be accurately described as “helpful” was certainly up for debate.
Initially, she’d taken on the task of sorting through Therese’s dry-erase markers. When Therese looked back over, she was just drawing on the whiteboard. She was about to say something to get her back on track, but she wrote, “I love you,” so Therese kept her mouth shut.
Ever self-aware, Carol sighed and said, “I’m sorry I’m not doing much. I have a lot of work to do over the weekend and I just can’t focus on much else.”
“Go home, baby. I’m almost done for the day, anyway.”
“Are you sure?” Carol tossed the marker into the trash can, claiming it was almost out anyway. Plus, she was going to buy Therese a truckload of new supplies and wouldn’t be taking ‘no’ for an answer.
With a little more urging, Therese convinced Carol to leave, promising she’d meet her at her place in a bit. She just needed to put a few more boxes into her car and then swing by the student advisors’ office.
To her luck, Ruby was still perched at her computer when Therese poked her head into the room. Ruby had a chipper, high voice and permanent smile. When she saw Therese, she stopped typing and waved her inside.
Along with Dannie, she’d been one of Therese’s closest friends from work. Ruby had been there to show her around when Therese had first started back in August. The principal and vice principal had been welcoming, but apparently too busy to help Therese get settled, and for whatever reason, Ruby was assigned the task. Which seemed strange, considering she was just the academic advisor for students whose last names started with A through D, but Therese was glad it had worked out that way.
On her tour, Ruby introduced her to one of the other English teachers, Dannie, and found herself being told, “hey, you should come with us to get drinks tomorrow! It’s just going to be us and the only other two people that work here who actually like having fun.”
Therese sat on the other chair in Ruby’s office and Ruby asked, “so are you done? You’re taking off?”
“I’ll have to come back tomorrow, but I’m leaving for the day right now, yeah.” Therese leaned over Ruby’s desk and drummed her fingers, smiling and excited to tell her just why she’d dropped in. “So, before I forget...”
Ruby narrowed her eyes. “Yes…?”
“I do need you to make sure there’s a block put on Rindy Aird’s class selection so that she can’t have me as a teacher— unfortunately for her— because I’m moving in with Carol in July and it would probably be—”
“—very inappropriate. Shut up! You’re moving in with Carol? To her place, obviously, right?”
Ruby’s grin widened as Therese nodded.
It wasn’t a very exciting story. The decision didn’t come with some big, dramatic question. Carol didn’t really even ask her. She just…told her, in a way. Therese had commented on how she wished she could own a place, a house, a condo, anything, but felt doomed to rent forever, hampered with student loans and the pressure to get her master’s degree. Carol said something along the lines of, “good luck with that teacher’s salary,” and laughed when Therese pouted.
“Oh please,” Carol rolled her eyes, “don’t act like my generational wealth won’t feel pretty nice once your lease ends this summer and you never have to deal with a landlord again.”
Therese had hoped. She spent so much time at Carol’s place already, and when she wasn’t there, she spent her time wishing that she was. She’d hoped— that Carol felt the same and that she’d ask Therese to move in.
“So what do you think?” Carol added, with far less attitude and far more shyness.
Therese was blushing, she could feel it and didn’t try to hide it. “Of course I want to live with you.”
Great, Carol said, she’d hire movers so Therese didn’t have to worry about too much while she was teaching summer school. The only packing she wanted Therese to worry about was for the trip to Napa they were taking before the end of summer break.
Ruby clutched her chest when Therese told her that part, and said, “god, I am so jealous. Carol’s condo is insane. You’re so lucky. If you ever need a house-sitter...”
Maybe Therese was lucky. But her life had been a series of decision that had often left her feeling just the opposite. Lucky was Rindy being in her class that first semester. But everything else— moving the Minneapolis, a city where she knew nobody, moving to Madison before that, breaking up with Richard, tell her parents she was gay, going to college to get the hell away— those were all choices Therese made, risky ones, hoping that one of them would come with a reward, anything that would signal to her that it would all be worth it in the end.
And it took so long. But not too long, because waiting for Therese when she left school, after she got into her car and drove past the exit for her soon-to-be old neighborhood and headed downtown to her soon-to-be home, was Carol.