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A Misunderstanding

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Eight Months Later

Rindy’s babysitter is a sweet girl named June with a wide, open smile and a penchant for charming 7-year-olds. She also happens to be Paige’s cousin, which means she’s never looked twice at Therese and Carol living together in the Madison Avenue apartment.

Well, she doesn’t look twice at Therese, anyway. She often looks twice at Carol, who Therese is pretty sure has enamored her without even trying. Therese can’t blame the girl, especially on a night like tonight when Carol comes breezing out of the bedroom in a coral sweater and matching hat, lipstick brilliant, eyes luminous. In the sitting room she dons her fur coat, and she looks so regal and gorgeous that for a moment Therese is distracted from her anxiety about tonight. She and June both stare at her, besotted. If the girl weren’t just a girl, Therese would feel downright miffed about it. Instead, she’s only passably irritated.

“All right, slow poke,” Carol finally laughs, observing Therese’s no doubt dopey-eyed smile. “You’re the woman of the hour. Shall we go?”

Therese shakes herself out of it, assuring a similarly dazed June, “We’ll be back by eleven. There are popsicles in the ice box for you and Rindy.”

“My favorite!” Rindy cries.

“Be good, pumpkin,” Carol kisses the top of her dark head.

“H-have a good night, Ms. Ross,” says June. Therese nearly rolls her eyes at the stumbling voice.

“We certainly will,” Carol beams, and then she is guiding Therese toward the front door with a sly smile.

The elevator is empty, and that smile becomes downright devious as Therese looks at her with a sullen pout. “You shouldn’t encourage her.”

“Encourage her!? She’s barely sixteen.”

“You’re a menace to younger women.”

“Mmm, yes, to my great benefit.”

“I’m very cross with you.”

Carol throws back her head and laughs, throat on display, earrings catching the light. “If that helps you, Darling, you be as cross as you like. It’s a welcome change from watching you pace around in a panic these past few nights.”

Therese blushes. “Have I really been so bad?”

The elevator doors open into the foyer, and Carol pauses only long enough to murmur, “You’ve been perfect. You’re always perfect.”

This time the blush is for an entirely different reason, and in a fluster she follows Carol out of the building to where her car is parked on the street. She left it there this afternoon, after going out for an hour or so on some mysterious errand that Therese has not been able to suss out of her. Once they climb in, Therese waits for her to start the car, but instead Carol just looks at her.

“What is it?” Therese asks, wondering if something is wrong.

“Look under the seat,” Carol tells her.

Surprised, suspicious, Therese reaches under the seat and immediately feels some kind of package, square shaped. A box. She takes it out, noting the lovely red and green wrapping paper. It’s almost Christmas. Why would Carol give her a present now?

“Open it,” Carol urges, and there’s a touch of nervousness about her, very intriguing.

Therese opens the package—and gapes.

It’s a camera. A brand new Canon camera, top of the line. Exquisite. Therese of course owns a camera, but she’s had to have it fixed twice in the past year, and every time Carol has badgered her about getting a new one, only to demur when Therese says, ‘I will when this one finally gives up.’ No doubt Carol has known that the choice to refrain was financial, but Therese never dreamed that she would buy her such an expensive present.

“Oh, Carol,” she breathes.

“Is it all right?” asks Carol, still nervous-looking. “I simply couldn’t wait til Christmas.”

“It’s—I don’t—I don’t know what to say. You didn’t have to!”

“I know, but I wanted to. I’m tired of watching you deny yourself the best things. You deserve a camera that’s worthy of your talent.”

Therese looks at her, eyes shining with unshed tears, the camera gripped between her hands. “I wouldn’t say that I deny myself the best things,” she murmurs.

Carol’s look is soft, moved. She chuckles shyly. Then hastens to explain, “It’s got film in it already, and I have a couple extra rolls in my purse in case you need them. I thought you might want to take pictures tonight!”

“Oh, I certainly do,” Therese grins. She then proceeds to wind the camera, holding it up to place Carol in the frame. Her lover laughs, half exasperation, half amusement, and Therese snaps the shot.

There was a time that Carol responded to having her picture taken with an indignant squeak, but over the past year Therese has overcome that shyness in her. It began shortly after Therese moved in, when Carol was helping her with some boxes, and a few things tipped out. They dropped to their knees together to clean it up, and that was when Carol saw it—slipped from between two other old prints, a photograph that Therese had kept hidden until that moment. A picture she took on one of their first nights today. Carol, asleep in bed, head turned to the side, hand by her face. She had looked so beautiful in the moonlight, Therese couldn’t help herself, and when Carol saw the photo for the first time Therese was terrified that she would view it as a violation.

She had been surprised, yes. And then, to Therese’s unfurling delight, that surprise gave way to pleasure, and arousal, and they made love on the floor in the apartment, Therese whispering to her all the ways she wanted to talk her picture, all the angles of her body that are perfection, all the images she holds of her in her mind.

Since then, Carol has been amenable to having her picture taken.

When Therese is done, they grin at each other.

“Shall we go?” Carol asks.

“Oh, I’m terribly nervous!”

“Darling, don’t be. You’re going to shine.”

They drive off. It’s a lovely evening, the streets full of bright lights and holiday window displays, the spirit of Christmas suffusing everything. What can it make Therese think about, except that first party at Carol’s? Where in so many ways, this love of theirs began—even if it was with a terrible misunderstanding.

It takes about half an hour to reach Bushwick, and then The Church looms before them, lit up like a Christmas tree and crowds outside already walking in. The art show was set to begin just a few minutes ago (with Carol, one is always just a touch late). It looks as though there will be a real audience! Therese feels slightly sick.

Then Carol’s hand is squeezing hers (there’s something remarkably sexy about how she parallel parks with one hand) and Carol is telling her in her generous, tender way, “It’s going to be just fine. I’ll be with you through all of it.”

“I have a better idea,” Therese declares. “There’s a hotel nearby. What do you say we go find a room and you let me try out my new camera?”

Carol gives an indignant squawk.

“You naughty thing. I will not be distracted from getting you to your big night.”

Therese sulks. “Don’t tell me I’ve already lost my touch for getting you to do irresponsible things with me.”

A laugh. “Oh, Angel—you haven’t lost your touch at all.”

They grin at each other, and Therese knows they are both thinking of last night, after Rindy went to bed. Even all these months later, Carol can be hesitant about making love with Rindy in the house. She worries the girl will hear something and somehow it will get back to Harge. He may have resolved himself to Therese being in Rindy’s life, but Therese suspects he only manages this by reassuring himself that his ex-wife’s live-in lover is more like a roommate. After all, Harge surely would not view anything they do as real sex. Perhaps he thinks they just kiss each other and go to sleep. The truth might give him a heart attack.

Last night would have given him two heart attacks.

The trick to getting Carol to submit to Therese touching her was reassurances of quiet. How better to keep Carol quiet than to put her on her knees, ass in the air, head down? Oh she made lots of noise last night, shuddering and whining and crying out as Therese’s fingers and tongue worked her from behind. But all those sounds were muffled in the pillow where she buried her face. Just the memory of her sweating, flailing body, of her sex spread open for Therese’s pleasure, is so blisteringly erotic that Therese considers advocating for the hotel again.

But she doesn’t get the chance, for Carol is opening her door and stepping out of the Packard, and Therese with a sigh must follow. 

Inside The Church, Abby and Lou have outdone themselves. The vast space is beautifully decorated, with Christmas trees and wreathes and garlands. But more spectacular still is that the room has been transformed into an art exhibit, with walls covered in paintings and photography, and crowds happily exploring. Right away Therese recognizes the work of some of her friends, painters and sculptors who reserved a spot to showcase their talents for this gathering crowd. And those talents are prodigious, everywhere a stunning onslaught of color and movement and imagery.

Therese saw everything yesterday, when she came to set up her own exhibit, but it’s different now with so many people here, and the lights sparkling. Suddenly her unease morphs to panic. How can she bare to see people looking at her photographs? What will they say? What will they do? What if the wrong sort of people come in, and see the photographs, and throw fits? Lou has been pretty clear that this is an invite-only affair (indeed, they had to give the doorman their name before he let them into the Church) but there’s still a chance, right? That people like Harge could come and see and—

“Dearest,” Carol’s voice is soft, gentle at her ear. “Just breathe.”

With a swallow, Therese obeys, and then Carol is taking her by the hand (they can hold hands here, she reminds herself) and leading her into the thick of the displays.

Therese would like to really admire the work of the other artists, but even if she could concentrate enough through her nerves, Carol is a woman on a mission. They move briskly passed the divider walls that Lou has set up, which paintings and photographs adorn, and move toward the opposite side of the Church. They run into dozens of people, and there are quick hellos and air kisses and exclamations about Therese’s work, but Carol is never deterred from her destination, which they come upon quite suddenly. The divider walls seem to part, and then Therese is standing before the entire back wall of the church. A wall completely filled by her photographs.

Even after spending yesterday putting up the display herself (Gen and Jodie helped), Therese still finds herself gob smacked by the result. The photographs are hung with all the tenderness and care and beauty their subjects deserve, frames carefully selected for their clean lines that do not distract from the photos. Photos which display to Therese nearly a year of work, of conversation, of joy. Before her hang the lesbian and gay men of Greenwich Village, and quite a lot of others as well, including Lou and Abby, and Carol’s friends Maurice and Henry, and others who Therese has met through the various subjects she has photographed this year.

Women in coveralls working on cars.

Men buying sandwiches at Pat’s coffeehouse.

Women playing tennis, sweaty and laughing.

Andrew, Carol’s coworker, grinning at her as he takes a phone call at his desk.

Abby and Lou, clinking drinks as they gaze hotly into each other’s faces.

Maurice and Henry, dressed in tuxedos and dancing.

Men getting fitted for suits.

Dolled up drag queens, exquisite in their beauty and bravery.

Women in dresses smoking cigarettes inside restaurants.

Lovers in the country holding hands, because they are safe.

Lovers dancing in bars.

Lovers laughing, scowling, smirking, crying—touching each other.

Yes, here is a woman kissing her sweetheart’s cheek. And here is a shy-looking boy, snuggled into the arms of his man. Here they are on couches, at kitchen tables, on hay bales, in cars. They are everywhere. All over this magical wall, this magical place.

Sometimes you can see their faces; sometimes you can’t. Therese was very careful about that. She knew that certain of her subjects would never consent to be photographed like this if they were recognizable, and so she found a way around that. Learned how to position bodies, faces, hands. Learned the value of a good prop. Learned there was something naughty and perfect about keeping the held hands, the tangled legs, the bare breasts—out of frame. So that the photo might be Paige and her girlfriend’s faces side by side, laughing, but Therese knows, and they know, she photographed them nude. Or a photo might show two men in their swim trunks, utterly innocent lying side by side in the grass, but she knows, and they know, the men live together in an apartment above a butcher’s shop, and have loved and will love each other til time runs out.

Is it pornography? By certain standards, yes, some of it is. When any love between two women, any love between two men, any drag king or drag queen, is by its and their very existence considered pornography, then yes, Therese is a pornographer. Could the police arrest her for it, if they wandered into the Church and discovered this community-led art show? Yes, of course. Though they’d have to find her first, and with her pictures signed by someone called Claire Morgan, and everyone who knows her sold heart and soul to her protection, she doesn’t think it’d be all that easy for those police officers out there to track her down.

And if they did anyway? Well, fuck them. Therese stands before the labor of her hands, and for the first time since any of this started, she feels nothing but overwhelming pride.

But what she is truly unprepared for, is the look on Carol’s face.

Her lover is staring at the wide wall, the panoramic view of Therese’s art, with an expression of stunned amazement. For a split second Therese isn’t sure what this means, and her pride quails before a hit of fear—

But then Carol looks at her, eyes swimming with tears, her beautiful mouth spreading apart in a wide, happy grin.

“Look at it!” Carol gasps. “Look what you’ve done! Oh, Darling, Darling—I—”

Carol is not one to flaunt what they are in public, not even safe public, but as Therese beams up at her, the older woman suddenly folds her into her arms, into her warmth, her scent. Therese breathes her in, tears pricking her own eyes as she feels Carol gather her close. Safe. Loved. She is loved. By the woman that she loves. Oh, can there be anything like it in the world?

But not long after, they find their embrace broken by a crowing Abby, “Ha! I always knew I’d be famous by association!”

Carol and Therese break apart, wiping their eyes, grinning at their friend, and at Lou who is ever at her side.

Abby carries on, playfully berating Carol, “And to think you were almost too chicken to see it through with this one! Well, aren’t you glad that cooler heads prevailed?”

“How exactly is my relationship with Therese your doing?” asks Carol dryly.

Abby huffs. “I believe my very firm support of this little adventure is well-documented. And everyone knows what a good influence I am on you.”

Therese giggles helplessly, Lou looks amused, and Carol rolls her eyes with good-natured humor, leaning in to give Abby a quick kiss of greeting. Then they are all kissing and hugging and greeting each other, and Therese exclaims, “Lou, it looks incredible.”

The whole idea for a community art exhibit was Lou’s idea. Still determined to use her father’s church to the best possible ends, she proposed gathering the best of the queer artists in New York City, giving them a place to display and even sell their work.

Therese says it again, “Everything looks so incredible.”

“Good art will do that,” says Lou with a wink. “You may have noticed that yours is causing quite the stir.”

For the first time Therese pauses to consider the other people around them. This is when she realizes the crowds gathered to her wall of photographs are by far the largest, and that everyone is talking and chattering and excited. There is something electric in the air, as if Therese’s pride in her work has fed a current through the entire Church, fed pride into all these women and men who have come to see their community represented. Looking around Therese also realizes in delighted surprise that dozens of her subjects are here. People going up to their photographs and pointing them out to friends, to lovers, all with expressions of joy. Many people see her, and wave and come over to say hello.

For the next half hour, it’s almost overwhelming. Therese hardly draws breath, and if it weren’t for Carol’s thoughtfully getting her a drink at the bar, she’d probably be too parched to keep talking. But everyone wants to talk to her, to tell her about her courage, to ask about her inspiration, her training, her vision. Therese thinks of herself at the girl’s home after her mother abandoned her. And now, look where she is!

After about forty minutes, things reach a bit of a lull, with people leaving her in peace to explore the rest of the exhibit, and the new crowds not recognizing her quite as readily. She’s relieved. Carol is by her side, and she finds herself leaning into her as she takes another grateful swallow of her wine.

“This is going to go straight to my head,” she says wryly.

“Don’t worry,” Carol returns. “I’ll make sure you don’t end up in a gutter somewhere.”

“Do you really think everyone likes the pictures?” Therese asks with a return of anxiety.

Carol’s look is fond and teasing. “Darling, I think you’re the belle of the ball.”

“And looking like one, too,” a new voice croons.  

They turn, and Therese’s throat closes with distaste at the sight of Jennifer.

She looks spectacular, of course. Beautiful curvy, the very stereotype of the vamp, with Andrew coming up behind her with one of his genuine smiles. Therese focuses on him, gives him a quick hug. She can feel the tension rolling off of Carol, and wants to distract her.

“Andy! Have you seen your picture yet?”

“Just about to find it!”

“It’s right over there,” Carol points. “You look devilishly handsome in it.”

He preens, then hurries off, not even asking his wife if she wants to come, and with a put upon sigh Jennifer eyes Therese up and down. “You didn’t ask me to be a part of your famous photo series.”

But where Therese expects something waspish in the comment, she’s surprised to hear nothing but humor. Still, she doesn’t trust Jennifer within six miles of Carol, and makes a show of slipping her arm around her lover’s waist. A pointed statement that she isn’t interested in photographing someone who’s seen Carol naked. Well, someone other than Abby, anyway.

Jennifer just laughs.

“And you, Carol?” she asks. “Are you up on the wall?”

Carol’s tension has faded, but her tone is a fascinating alchemy of feigned warmth with chilly undertones when she chuckles. “Oh—I’ll never tell.”

“Well, I’ll look for you anyway.” Then, with a flirtatious smile for Therese. “Congratulations, honey. Looks like everything’s coming up roses.”

Therese finds it in herself to be magnanimous. After all, she did get the girl.

“Thank you, Jennifer.”

“Ta-ta, ladies!”

And off she sweeps, stately and seductive and no doubt the centerpiece of someone else’s fantasy, but Therese has got everything she wants right here, leaning into her side. For a moment they stand in peaceful quiet. Then—

“I wonder if Lou’s bathroom is open to the public,” drawls Carol.

Heat flashes through Therese, but she gives her lover a chastising look. Carol’s eyes are full of desire and merriment.

“We’re not doing that again. Especially as you’ve got no excuse to be jealous this time.”

“Does one need an excuse, with you on one’s arm?”

Therese snorts a laugh, grinning up at her. “We did agree not to be possessive, remember?”

“Well, I have every intention of possessing you until you can’t move once we get home.”

Therese feels pleasure swirl in her belly, anticipation and joy and desire. But she can’t help her own dig, “That’s generally my line.”

Carol’s cheeks pink. Last night, rearing between them again. It really was awfully good. Ever since Therese moved into the apartment, even with Rindy around half the time, it feels as though the sex between them has reached another level. Not of pleasure, exactly, for they had already learned to give each other the most exquisite pleasure either has ever imagined. But of intimacy. Safety. Honesty. There was a part of Therese that had worried that when she moved in the bloom would be off the rose. They’d grow used to each other, even tired of each other.

Quite the opposite.

When Rindy is with them, they do photography projects and painting projects. When she’s not with them, they cook together or read or listen to music. More often than not they make love, there in the expansive kingdom of their shared bed. A whole world that is theirs and theirs alone.

Every day is better, because she knows that at the end of it, she gets to come home to Carol. On good days she’ll be able to tell her everything wonderful that has happened. On bad days, she will receive comfort and reassurance. And she gets to offer that same comfort to Carol. To praise her when she makes an important sale. To rub her feet when they’re sore from a long day. To hold her when she struggles through the continuing ups and downs of negotiating parenthood with Harge (at least he is married now, and Barbara is pregnant. He’ll have less time to make their lives difficult). Whether it is a good day or a bad day or a wholly unremarkable day, they are together. And that makes her feel like she can do anything. And she will.

Now, looking up into Carol’s sultry bedroom eyes, seeing the way that delectable mouth curves with promises for later, Therese asks, “Shall I distract you from ravishing me for a moment? I want to show you our picture.”

Carol’s eyes widen. “I thought you had decided not to show it!”

“I found a different one, of us. Don’t worry. Come see.”

She leads her toward the far end of the wall. They get stalled a couple of times talking to people, but finally they end up in front of two photographs. The one on the left shows a woman in a large fur coat, seated in an armchair, with a younger woman in her lap. Their faces are turned toward each other, the dark head of the girl obscuring her lover’s face except for a halo of blonde hair. The blonde has a hand resting on the brunette’s thigh, and the brunette has tangled her own hand in that golden hair. There is not even a glimpse of their faces. Nothing to confirm whether they are kissing, or only looking at each other deeply. Their moment is private, intimate, erotic. The fur coat seems to swallow them both into their secret world. It is a photograph of exquisite composition and lighting, one of Therese’s best, something that shows all that she has learned. The little title card underneath it reads, “The Artist and Her Lover.”

Therese casts little nervous glances at Carol, who is standing with both hands on one hip, head raised and chin pointed, every bit the connoisseur observing a specimen. Therese begins to be a little nervous, wanting to make excuses, or ask for forgiveness. Perhaps Carol didn’t mean it when she said Therese could hang a picture of them. Perhaps this isn’t what Carol wanted. Perhaps—

“It’s perfect,” Carol whispers. Then she looks at Therese, her eyes full of admiration and love and amazement. She says softly, “How I wish I could kiss you right now. You brilliant girl.”

Therese feels her dimples pop into view, her pleasure at the reaction singing through her with joy. Then—

“I’m so glad, Dearest,” Carol says, still whispering.

“Glad?” Therese asks.

“That you took a chance on me.” Therese’s belly flutters, and Carol goes on, “That you waited for me. I wonder sometimes how you had the patience for it.”

Therese wants so badly in that moment to take her in her arms, to hold her close and kiss her and damn the whole world if it’s watching. Instead, she hooks a pinkie finger through Carol’s, tugging.

“It was easy, my love,” she tells her. “You were always what I was waiting for.”

Carol’s eyes shine at that, moved and happy—she is so happy! Because of Therese. How is it possible, to be the person who can make a woman like Carol happy? But however it happened, however it is still happening, Therese is determined to never take it for granted. Not in a world like theirs. Not in any world.

Then, with a cheeky smile Carol says, “I do think, though, that this is only my second favorite photograph.”

“Oh?” Therese asks in surprise. “Which is your favorite?”

At that, Carol gestures to the second photograph, the one the furthest down the wall, tucked away out of modesty and nerves. But of course it is the one Carol likes best. In it, Therese stands facing the camera. She has a second camera in her hands, held in front of her. She is looking down into the lens, though her face is visible. She looks focused, dark hair framing her face. She looks serious, committed. She is gazing at the subject of her lens with calmness and love and respect. She is gazing at you.

 

The End