Gwendolyn is very watchful of Mildred and her habits. She silently keeps track of how many meals she sees Mildred eat and how many she skips. She knows when Mildred has gotten enough sleep and when her nightmares have smudged even darker circles under her eyes. She notices when Mildred takes honey in her tea and when she adds something a little stronger because her nerves have her mind working too quickly to think straight.
Gwendolyn knows that Mildred's monthly cycle is five days long every thirty days, like clockwork.
Mildred has never said as much outright, of course. And it took her a few months to pin it down, but even without Mildred's explicit confirmation, Gwendolyn is observant. Once she was perfectly familiar with every golden curve of her lover's body, the increased swell of Mildred's breasts about a week before the start of her cycle was quite obvious. That, paired with Mildred's breathy requests for Gwendolyn to be gentle whenever affectionate, wandering hands found her breasts during that time, confirmed Gwendolyn's suspicion. Then there are the five days. Five consecutive days every thirty days that Mildred seems to avoid her touch as much as possible.
The first time it happened Gwendolyn was sure she had done something to upset the other woman. She had asked Mildred multiple times what was wrong, to which Mildred assured she was just tired. Or she had a headache. Or her back was bothering her a little. Gwendolyn tried offering her some aspirin, which Mildred consistently refused. It wasn't until day three that Gwendolyn noticed the familiar little wads of toilet paper in the bathroom wastebasket. She would have seen them sooner if not for the fact that they seemed to have been specifically tucked and hidden discreetly under one thing or another. Gwendolyn almost asked Mildred about it but decided against it. This was the first period Mildred was having in her home (really, their home, but she knew Mildred didn't see it that way) and she was clearly embarrassed enough to feel the need to hide it. Gwendolyn didn't want to embarrass her further by confronting her about it.
On the sixth day Mildred had been overly affectionate throughout the day, finding excuses to touch Gwendolyn whenever possible, as if to make up for lost time. Not that Gwendolyn minded feeling Mildred's calf sliding against hers underneath the breakfast table. Or Mildred brushing her fingertips along the nearest bit of exposed skin whenever she passed by Gwendolyn, seated and reading a book, as she tidied the living room. Nor did she mind when Mildred pried the book from her hands and straddled her lap to kiss her, one hand cradling her face while the other softly massaged her right breast, thumb grazing over a hardened nipple. She did, however, mind when Mildred got up, righted herself, and left the room with a soft hum, clearly pleased with herself. Mildred had spent the whole day like that, occasionally inserting herself in Gwendolyn's space and kissing her senseless, each time her hands getting bolder and leaving Gwendolyn even more breathless than the time before. Until finally, in bed that evening, Mildred ravished her, and Gwendolyn, in turn, buried her face between Mildred's thighs until she was sweaty and writhing and begging for release.
Day six had made Gwendolyn forget about the five days prior until they came around again.
And Mildred seemed no more comfortable than before, still covertly hiding every used Tampax in the bathroom waste bin and shrugging off Gwendolyn's attempts at coaxing the problem out of her or comforting her. It's this month that Gwendolyn realized she hadn't actually seen the Tampax box anywhere either. With the radiation treatments, Gwendolyn no longer had any use for sanitary products so a fresh box would be impossible to miss. And that was the point, she realized. Mildred couldn't blend her tampons in with anything preexisting under Gwendolyn's sink or in her linen closet so she just refused to put them there. Which added yet another hoop Mildred was forcing herself to jump through to keep this part of herself tucked neatly away. When day six rolled around, Mildred was just as insatiable and needy as the month before. And while Gwendolyn was willing and happy to give her love whatever she needed, Gwendolyn's usual high accompanying their physical intimacy was marred with an almost constant concern she was unsure how to voice without making Mildred uncomfortable.
She had hoped that part of Mildred's drive to secrecy was just being in a house where a part of her felt like she didn't belong, and moving into a home that was theirs in Mexico would help to ease some of those behaviors.
The stark difference in Mildred's behavior for the five days of her cycle is what worries Gwendolyn the most. She shudders to think how Mildred must have been treated as a young girl when she first got her period for this behavior to be so ingrained in her. The way she shies away from her touch. This seemingly compulsive need to hide the evidence of her body's natural cycle, and ignore the symptoms. Gwendolyn knows Mildred must be in pain but she won't admit it. Or at least she won't admit why.
And for all the help and support Mildred has given to her since the start of her chemotherapy Gwendolyn will be damned if she can't return the favor.
Gwendolyn almost always falls asleep before Mildred and nearly always wakes up after her. Mildred doesn't sleep nearly enough and treatment is undeniably taking it's toll on Gwendolyn. Though she knows this and knows that she will not wake before Mildred drags herself into the bathroom for a hot shower on the first morning of her cycle, Gwendolyn does feel when Mildred gets out of bed and wills herself not to fall back asleep.
She needs to do this.
Gwendolyn listens carefully for the opening and closing of the shower curtain followed by the change of water pouring from the tub faucet to the shower head. Once she is sure Mildred is in the shower, Gwendolyn slips quietly out of bed and retrieves a small, rectangular, woven wicker basket from underneath her side of the bed. She had tucked it away a week ago in preparation for this very task. Inside the basket, Gwendolyn has placed an unopened box of both tampons and pads. She hasn't seen any evidence that Mildred even uses sanitary napkins, but she knows she shouldn't be sleeping with her Tampax in so she picked up the pads anyway. All in all, it's nothing extravagant. It's a small gesture that Gwendolyn hopes will convince Mildred to realize, at the very least, that Gwendolyn is well aware of her body's natural cycle and is not afraid to acknowledge its existence. Gwendolyn sets the basket on the mattress. She snags a notepad and pen from the drawer of her bedside table and writes a short note:
Feel free to keep these wherever you like,
but there is plenty of room for them below the sink.
Tea is ready for you downstairs whenever you're ready.
I love you.
She contemplates the message for a moment and draws in a small heart after ' I love you,' before tearing the page from the notepad. She tosses the pad and pen back into the table drawer then takes the written note and wicker basket in hand and approaches the en suite. Quietly, Gwendolyn steps into the bathroom, sets the basket and note atop the closed toilet lid, and slips back out again.
As the older woman dresses then goes to the kitchen and sets about putting on the kettle, her heart hammers in her chest, and she thinks how ridiculous that is. She wonders what Mildred's reaction will be and as much as she hopes it will be positive, her hands tremble at the thought of her love retreating even further within herself, cold and inaccessible. God, she hopes, she prays she hasn't overstepped. But she couldn't just stand by and watch the woman force herself to jump through hoops to conceal something that is not only painful enough as it is, but so natural.
Once the water is boiling, Gwendolyn pours it from the kettle into her her favorite ceramic teapot, and arranges the set neatly on the breakfast table, steeping and awaiting Mildred's arrival. While she waits, Gwendolyn retrieves the morning paper from the front doorstep and skims the headlines. She had intended for it to be a distraction but instead finds herself listening intently as the running water comes to a halt. She's not even sure what she's listening for, really, as if Mildred would make her reaction known in a way Gwendolyn could decipher from her seat at the breakfast nook.
When Gwendolyn finally does hear Mildred's footsteps padding closer from the other room, the woman forces herself to look busy in her newspaper in an effort to not make Mildred feel immediately on the spot. She wants Mildred to come to her. Only when the younger woman steps into the kitchen does Gwendolyn shift her eyes from the newspaper she was never reading to being with. Brown eyes hold her own for a moment as Mildred crosses the room and gingerly takes her seat across from her.
“Good morning,” Gwendolyn offers gently. She folds her newspaper and sets it down on the edge of the table.
“Good morning,” comes Mildred's soft reply. Her brow is furrowed just a touch and her posture is stiff. Gwendolyn can see she's in pain and watches as Mildred chews the inside of her cheek. She wants to say something. Gwendolyn pours her partner a cup of tea and pushes it over to her.
“Thank you,” Mildred says, resting both hands on the teacup presented to her but not yet lifting the cup to her lips. Her gaze shifts from the teacup to Gwendolyn's all-too-penetrating gaze and back again.
“For the tea?” Gwendolyn prompts with a tilt of her head, trying to give Mildred the opening she needs to start this conversation. Praying she'll take it. There's a silence that hangs in the air for a moment and Gwendolyn watches Mildred fight with herself, closing her eyes the way she does when she's searching herself for something.
“Thank you,” Mildred repeats, refusing to meet Gwendolyn's eyes. “For the... basket.”
Mildred doesn't see the relief wash over her love's features that's then replaced with a sympathetic fondness that radiates from within. Gwendolyn reaches across the table to lay her hand gently atop Mildred's wrist and can feel the brunette tense immediately.
“Darling, you're allowed to talk about it with me. In fact, I wish you would.” She squeezes Mildred's wrist lightly, hoping to get through to her. Mildred does finally meet her gaze once more and Gwendolyn aches for the uncertainty and pain she sees in those wide brown eyes.
“I can't. I--” Mildred's voice wavers and she pulls away from Gwendolyn's touch, folding her arms around herself. “It's disgusting. I'm disgusting,” she whispers.
And God, that admission breaks Gwendolyn's heart.
“ No! ” Gwendolyn responds so abruptly and so fiercely it visibly startles Mildred. And the anger sparking in blue eyes when Mildred dares to meet them makes her breath hitch, and she immediately looks away again. “I'm sorry,” Gwendolyn says instantly, voice and eyes both softening. “I'm sorry, Mildred. Please.” She pushes the tea set to one side so she can reach for Mildred with both hands across the table. Mildred stares, frozen, at Gwendolyn's hands. So when that doesn't work, Gwendolyn pushes up from her seat and takes the couple of steps to kneel beside younger woman, who now appears to be fighting the urge to flee.
“Mildred, sweetheart, listen to me. You are not disgusting. And nothing about you is disgusting. Your menstrual cycle,” Mildred turns her head away and squeezes her eyes shut against the words, “is perfectly natural. You don't have to hide any part of yourself from me, certainly not this.” Gwendolyn puts a hand on Mildred's knee which lures Mildred's eyes back to hers. Gwendolyn stares at her, sure and pleading. “I can't stand to watch you suffer because you feel like you can't talk to me about this. You know by now I'm just as much a woman as you are.” She can't help the slight smirk that graces her features, but it dissipates quickly beneath Mildred's responding frown. “I want to help you, Mildred. Let me .”
Mildred places a trembling hand atop Gwendolyn's and the older woman is quick to sandwich it between her other hand. Mildred uses her free hand to wipe at a tear making its way down her cheek.
“I want to. I just--,” Mildred begins unevenly, “I don't know how. No one's ever--.” She heaves in a breath, stifled under the weight of her past. Gwendolyn squeezes her hand for reassurance. “When I was in the system, when I first... started, I bled through my dress on the dining chair cushion. I didn't notice it at first. The man of the house did. And he was so angry he slapped me hard enough to throw me off balance.” Mildred's tone is breathy and higher than usual, a quality Gwendolyn has noticed typically accompanies her love's recants of past memories. “He dragged me by my hair to the bathroom and locked me in. He called me a filthy whore for defiling his furniture with my... like that. His wife came for me some time later, maybe hours. She showed me what to do and how to wash the blood out of my clothes. And she told me never to let anyone see that I was on my cycle because it is unclean and improper to talk or leave evidence of such things.”
“I'm so sorry, darling,” Gwendolyn murmurs, causing Mildred to blink out of her memory fog. She swallows and offers Gwendolyn a small, grateful smile.
“When I became a nurse and went to war, some of the girls talked about their cycles amongst themselves, but I...” Mildred shakes her head. “Then there was always a shortage of supplies so none of us could ever take anything for the pain. And there were always plenty of soldiers in far more pain than any of us for us to complain. I suppose I got used to it. Working through the pain, I mean.”
“And how is your pain right now, darling?” Mildred blinks at the question.
“I'm... cramping a little bit, but it's not bad,” Mildred offers slowly, getting used to the feel of the words as they exit her mouth and exist in the open air. Gwendolyn brings Mildred's hand up to her mouth and plants soft kisses against the brunette's knuckles.
“Okay.” Gwendolyn carefully stands and returns to her chair across from her love, not yet letting go of her hand. “Thank you for trusting me.” Mildred offers a small, tense smile in return, still not comfortable, but trying to be, before returning to her morning tea.
Over the next couple days, it seems as though Gwendolyn's gesture and their morning conversation has really prompted Mildred to turn over a new leaf. She is more forthcoming about her pains and even takes an aspirin once after Gwendolyn offers it.
On the evening of day four, Mildred insists upon doing the dishes herself, adamant that Gwendolyn should rest. Though she wants to argue, Gwendolyn relents and makes herself comfortable by the bedroom fireplace with the book she's been reading. She only makes it through a page and a half before she hears a shattering in the kitchen followed immediately by--
“ Damn it! ”
“Are you alright?” is Gwendolyn's quick call. She waits a beat for Mildred's response but is only met with silence. She sets her book aside without a second thought and gets up so she can lay eyes on her.
Upon reaching the kitchen, she sees Mildred standing amidst glittering shards of glass on the floor, pressing a towel into her right hand.
“Are you alright?” Gwendolyn repeats.
“I'm fine. It's just a small cut, really. You need to be resting, I can take care of this. It's my mess.”
“Nonsense, darling let me help you. Don't move, I'll get the broom.” Before she can even make it to the pantry, Mildred is brushing past her, towel still pressed to her palm.
“I told you I'll handle this.” Mildred plucks the broom from the inside wall of the pantry before Gwendolyn can even reach for it. “Please go sit down. I don't want you to cut yourself.” Gwendolyn nearly scoffs.
“I'm sure you can see the irony of that statement. Mildred--?” Gwen catches Mildred by the wrist as she attempts to skirt past her once more, this time with the broom in her hand.
“Do not touch me!”
Gwendolyn flinches and jerks her hand away. The words ring the same way day did those months ago outside the women's bar, and despite the time and love in between the two instances, they still hurt the same. Perhaps even worse. And when she meets Mildred's eyes, the brunette quickly averts her gaze, spinning in place so Gwendolyn is left staring, watery-eyed at her back. Gwendolyn watches her carefully in the painful stillness of the moment. Mildred's shoulders are slouched forward, her head lowered. Gwendolyn sighs. Just like with the first time those words were launched like weapons at her, she knows it's not her fault. Not really. Because sometimes, Mildred is not the strong, brave, confident, endlessly compassionate woman Gwendolyn knows and loves. Sometimes, Mildred is a frightened, traumatized, wounded animal, cornered and snarling to defend herself.
Mildred sighs, then quietly,
"I'm sorry." Her knuckles are white, wrapped tightly around the broom handle. "Please, just let me do this. It's my mess." Maybe it's the way she says it that makes Gwendolyn's heart sink into her stomach. Like it means something else. There's a stillness that's only broken by the marked rise and fall of Mildred's shoulders with her very nearly labored breathing. Gwendolyn thinks she's waiting for the other shoe to drop. Or the other glass, as the case may be.
Gwendolyn manages to swallow down the pain that had settled in her throat.
"Okay," she cedes.
Against her judgment, she leaves the other woman to tend to the shattered tumbler and resituates herself by the fireplace. Her book lays open in her hands but even as her eyes scan the page, Gwendolyn can't pull her focus away from Mildred's words. Do not touch me. The flicker of anger turned to fear turned to shame that so quickly flashed in brown eyes before she could turn away. Her trembling accusation of herself. Gwendolyn's first instinct is always to talk through these things immediately, never wanting to watch Mildred punish herself. But no matter how much it pains her, Gwendolyn's learned the hard way over the last several months she can't force Mildred to do anything she isn't ready to do. And sometimes Mildred needs to castigate and repent in whatever way she knows how for whatever perceived error she's committed before she can ever begin to explain why. And truthfully, Gwendolyn is so tired nearly all the time,-- chemotherapy will do that to a person-- so she's also learned to pick her battles carefully. This is one she will have to wait out until Mildred is ready to come to her. Thankfully, she doesn't have to wait very long.
As soon as she hears them, Gwendolyn pulls her gaze from her book toward the sound of Mildred's sandal-clad footsteps approaching. She's carrying the first aid kit she had insisted upon them having once she discovered Gwendolyn's decided lack of one back in California. Gwendolyn thought some of it was a bit of an overkill, but Mildred assured her they could never be too prepared. She never said it but Gwendolyn can guess why.
Gwendolyn sets her book aside, grants Mildred her undivided attention. Not that her attention has really been anywhere else. And Mildred, for her part, approaches wordlessly, eyes fixed on the ground until she nearly at Gwendolyn's feet. There, at the foot of Gwendolyn's armchair, Mildred settles to her knees, a cloth still firmly pressed into her palm. Finally, she meets the blonde's tired gaze. A soft, apologetic smile tugs at the corners of Mildred's lips. Gwendolyn's expression is soft but she elects to remain silent, waiting for Mildred to speak. Mildred swallows.
“I cleaned it with soap and water but I need some help getting it bandaged.” She holds her hand close to her body still as Gwendolyn studies her. She can tell it's more of a request than a statement and, of course, she would never deny her love this assistance. But still, she pauses, noting the way Mildred is still shrinking in on herself, making herself as small as possible, eyes shifting from Gwendolyn to her lap and hesitantly back again. And it breaks Gwendolyn's heart. “Please?” Mildred adds, and the slightest tremor in her voice is not lost on Gwendolyn.
“Of course, darling. Here, give me your hand.” Gwendolyn places her left hand open on her lap and Mildred sucks in a breath before placing her injured hand, palm side up, there. Slowly, Gwendolyn peels back the cloth pressed into the other woman's hand, revealing the inch-long gash originating in the center of her palm and extending into the meaty part of her thumb. It's still bleeding. “Oh, Mildred!” Gwendolyn gasps softly, tries to quickly tamp down her worry. Mildred winces.
“It looks worse than it is, I think,” Mildred says quietly. She fiddles with the first aid kit with her free hand then passes Gwendolyn the bottle of alcohol. Gwendolyn puts the towel in her lap underneath Mildred's hand and opens the bottle. She carefully but firmly holds Mildred's fingers open which pulls gently at the wound and Mildred lets out a pained hiss. Gwendolyn's brow furrows with concern as she hovers the alcohol bottle over Mildred's palm.
“This is going to hurt,” Gwendolyn says. Mildred nods and balls her free hand into a fist in her skirt.
This isn't the first time Mildred's had alcohol poured on an open wound and she's sure it won't be the last but it never gets any easier. The second it makes contact with her open flesh, she whips her head to one side to bite down her pained expletives on her shoulder, both of which practically shoot up to her ears.
“I'm sorry, I'm sorry! It's okay, you're okay!” reassurances tumble out of Gwendolyn and as quickly as she can, she presses fresh gauze against the cut to dampen the sting. Mildred takes in a long breath through her nose and straightens her posture. Using a generous amount of self adhesive wrap, Gwendolyn secures a thick padding of gauze to Mildred's palm. Gwendolyn moves to press a chaste kiss against the fingertips of Mildred's bandaged hand, but Mildred takes her hand back. Gwendolyn mourns the loss of her with a quiet sigh. One that draws Mildred's attention back to her lover's eyes which reflect back so much care, exhaustion, and hurt that shame once again claws at her chest.
“I'm trying,” she says, hugs her arms around herself, still on her knees at Gwendolyn's feet. “You... are so good to me. And sometimes I--,” Mildred falters. “I'm sorry.” She doesn't know what else to say, isn't sure how to find the words to explain the deep-seated self loathing that latches itself onto her during these five days every month. That she feels so tainted that she doesn't want Gwendolyn to touch her for fear of contaminating her. That she feels so unclean that Gwendolyn's soft and loving touch that normally feels warm like sunshine, burns like alcohol.
“I know, but I don't need you to be sorry, Mildred. I need you to talk to me. I need you to tell me what you need before you snap at me. I'm not a mind-reader. And I'm not your enemy.” Gwendolyn's eyes shimmer with pleading tears.
“I know that. Please believe I never ever mean to hurt you.” Gwendolyn reaches for her, but stops in her tracks when she sees Mildred freeze up again.
“I wish I could touch you,” she says softly, her voice cracking. She swallows against the tightness in her throat. “I know you're struggling and you're hurting and I just want to hold you. Show you that this time of the month doesn't change anything for me. I want to feel you in my arms just as I always do and I want you to feel safe.” A tear drips from Mildred's chin onto her lap and she hangs her head.
“I just feel so dirty,” she whispers, dangerously close to sobbing.
“You're not, darling, I promise. I wish there was something I could say or do that would make you believe that to be true.”
“Your menstrual cycle is perfectly natural and beautiful. You have nothing to be ashamed of, Mildred. I will tell you that as many times as you need to hear it until you start to believe it.”
Mildred is well and truly sobbing now, albeit silently. She hugs her left arm tighter around herself, nails scraping at her ribcage, covers her face with other hand. For Gwendolyn, resisting the urge to kiss away her tears is nearly unbearable. She doesn't know what else to do. Normally, while Mildred never likes unexpected contact, she does cling to Gwendolyn like a life raft when the flood waters of her past threaten to pull her under. Reassuring the traumatized woman with kind words only soothes so much whereas an anchoring touch serves as a steadfast reminder that she's no longer alone in this. But right now Mildred is being dragged below the water by an invisible storm and Gwendolyn is helpless to do anything but watch. What use is a life raft when the person drowning refuses to grab on?
“I'm sorry,” Gwendolyn says finally. That gets Mildred's attention. She looks up at her with a furrowed brow, sniffles and dabs beneath her nose with the back of her wrist. Gwendolyn grabs a tissue from the box on the table by her chair and passes it to her.
“For what?” Mildred asks, baffled.
“A lot of things,” Gwendolyn admits. “But right now, I'm sorry I grabbed you like I did in the kitchen.”
“No, Gwen I shouldn't have snapped. That's not your fault.”
“Maybe not entirely but I'm observant. I've noticed how you avoid touching me when you're bleeding and I shouldn't have touched you without your permission, especially when you were already upset, and I'm sorry.”
Mildred sits with her words for several moments. Finally, she extends her good hand and grasps at Gwendolyn's forearm.
A considerable amount of tension that Gwendolyn didn't realize she was holding left her body at Mildred's contact. She closes her eyes and flexes her fingers against Mildred's skin, basking in the feel of her, uncertain how long this will last.
“I love you,” Mildred breathes then sniffs and wipes at another stray tear rolling down her cheek.
“I love you,” Gwendolyn echos back with a sniff and swipe of her own. Mildred lets out a short laugh at her mirrored motions. It's quiet and wet but the smallest sparkle shines in her eyes; it warms Gwendolyn's heart and she can't help but laugh too. After a few quiet, serene moments, Gwendolyn speaks again. “I don't know about you darling, but I'm exhausted. I think I'm ready to lay down for the night,” she pauses, gauging Mildred's unreadable stare. “If you'd care to join me.” It takes barely a second for Mildred to nod with that soft, endearing smile of hers.
“I just need to change into my night clothes and I'll be right there.”
When Mildred finally does crawl into bed beside Gwendolyn half an hour later, Gwendolyn startles awake briefly before regaining her bearings.
“Oh I'm sorry,” she mumbles. “I didn't mean to fall asleep.” She rolls on her side to face Mildred as she settles beneath the duvet.
“I didn't mean to wake you. You need your rest.” Gwendolyn hums in response as her eyes fall shut again. Despite her best efforts, she can't keep them open. The last thing she feels before drifting into unconsciousness is Mildred, holding her hand.