Chapter 1: Waterloo, Of All Places
The fly wouldn't leave Therese alone. She waved it away with the back of her hand, but it just kept coming back, landing on that exposed patch of skin between the hems of her black cargo pants and her once-white sneakers, tickling her with its little legs. She looked out across the hazy expanse of land in front of her, stretching uninterrupted until it met cloudless blue sky at a flat horizon, and imagined the thousands of insects that dwelled in it. She could almost hear them, the pad of tiny feet across the dirt, the rustle among blades of grass. Swarming towards her.
She slapped her ankle hard, but the fly had already moved. Of course it had. She was destined to be harassed by these nuisances all summer. She'd figured that out as soon as she found the spider on her pillow two weeks ago, almost jumping out of her skin after she'd accidentally laid her head down next to it.
Therese still wasn't used to it. Her inner-city childhood hadn't exactly left her accustomed to the rural world. And this place really was rural. The difference between her old life and this one . . . well, it was vast, there was no other way to describe it. Dannie liked to compare her situation to if a polar bear migrated to the Sahara desert. It was funny, to think of it in such extremes, but it wasn't really the case at all. This was the same side of the same country. And yet, sometimes it did feel like another continent. Another planet, even.
She picked up the plastic cup of water from the concrete step and took a sip. It wasn't cold anymore. She tipped the clear liquid over the dirt, watching a dark patch spread across the surface and fade again as the water seeped into hard soil. How long had she been sitting out here? Sometimes she could lose hours just sitting, daydreaming, and not even realise it. Time seemed to slip away so easily these days. She didn't even wear a watch anymore.
The door clicked behind her, and she heard the rattle of the metal fly screen as Jack stepped outside.
'Hey, Therese, can you get back inside? We have a customer'.
Therese turned to look at him over her shoulder, raising an eyebrow. 'This early?'
'Yeah, I know', Jack smirked. 'Wild, isn't it? But, seriously, can you go, please?'
Therese let out a deep sigh and got up, taking her empty plastic cup and following Jack inside, ducking underneath the swinging metal chains before he let them fall across the doorway. So here they were again, Therese pushed out front while Jack got to slink back into his dad's office to finish up his paperwork, or whatever he did in there. Watch television, probably, that's what Therese thought. Jack liked to talk a big game, act like he was the boss and nag her for not working hard enough, but she mostly ignored him. He was trying his best. He was the same age as her, too young to be worrying over the struggling family business, and if they even had enough money to keep the place open.
And it wasn't that she wasn't working hard enough either. There simply wasn't enough work to do. She spent a lot of her time out on the back step, the June warmth on her face, wondering if she'd be able to count the customers she'd see that day on one hand. Often, she could. Or there were the occasions they'd have a family of four or five with screaming toddlers and off-menu orders, and an elderly couple at the counter complaining about the chaos, and suddenly Therese felt she was as under pressure as a hostess in a Michelin star restaurant. She knew she was just being dramatic.
It was rare, though, that they had customers in nine in the morning. People came for late breakfasts, or a hamburger and fries on an afternoon drive. Therese made her way along the narrow back corridor and leaned lazily against the swing door that led the counter. Entering the main space of the diner, she scanned the empty space - until it wasn't empty. Sure enough, there was a customer, a woman in a plain white t-shirt and faded blue jeans sitting alone at the very edge of the space, tucked away into a booth by the window.
Therese grabbed a menu and went over to her, the woman's features becoming clearer to her as she got closer. She was beautiful, that was the first thing she realised. That wasn't hard to discern, even from the other side of the room. Pale, flawless skin, and shoulder-length blonde hair that curled at the ends. She was older than Therese, by a decade maybe, and when she smiled, noticing Therese approach, it touched her eyes. It almost took Therese's breath away.
She stopped by the table, the woman looking up at her with eyes that Therese could see now were light, almost delicate looking, somewhere between blue and grey, like the morning sky just before the sun sails into view.
'Hey, you wanna take a look at the menu?' she suggested. 'We've got the breakfast special available'.
'No, thank you', the woman replied in a rich, velvety voice, the kind Therese expected she might have. 'Just a coffee, please'.
It was all Therese could do not to swoon. 'Sure thing', she said, trying to sound casual. 'I'll make a fresh pot'.
The woman smiled gratefully. 'That's perfect, thanks'.
Therese turned her back, reluctantly, going to dutifully make her coffee, and she would make sure it was the best damn coffee she'd ever made. She watched this mysterious woman as she waited for the water to heat. She was looking outside, doing nothing. Not scrolling through her phone, or perhaps reading a book. Nothing. It seemed peaceful. Maybe it was, for her. There wasn't much to look at out of the window, just dry, browning grass and the crumbling road. Therese let her eyes drift towards the parking lot, wondering what car she might drive. It was there, parked opposite Jack's - a pristine white Audi. So she had money, then. Enough of it, at least.
Coffee pot in one hand and chipped china cup in the other, Therese went back over to her. Her t-shirt wasn't plain at all, she realised this time. There was a tiny daisy chain embroidered along the neckline.
'Here', Therese said, setting the cup down and pouring the steaming liquid into it. 'Cream? Sugar?'
'Neither, thanks', the woman replied, drawing the cup closer to her. She nodded her head towards the window. 'It's a little quiet around here, huh?'
'You could say that', Therese agreed. 'Just a handful of customers a day. They diverted the road a few years back. That's what my manager told me'.
This information seemed to prompt a lightbulb moment for the woman. 'I knew this way was different!' she exclaimed. 'I thought I was going crazy'.
'I guess you're just passing through', Therese observed, more of a statement than a question. 'Well, of course you are. No one stops in Waterloo unless they're passing through'.
'I came from Chicago', the woman said.
'You're from there?'
'No. I was visiting my best friend. She moved, about half a year ago now'.
'Moved from where?'
Therese smiled. Unbelievable. Even out here, I can't quite get away from New York.
'I'm from there', she told her.
The woman looked taken aback. 'You're from New York?' she repeated, like she had to make sure.
Therese nodded. 'Queens, born and raised'.
The woman regarded her with the whisper of a smile on her lips, as if there was something funny about the situation, something she couldn't quite figure out. 'How does a New Yorker end up in a place like this?'
'So many people leave places like this for New York, so I thought I'd try and balance it out', Therese said sardonically.
The woman narrowed her eyes. 'Oh, really?'
'No'. Without thinking about it too much, Therese slid into the cracked leather seat opposite her, still clutching the coffee pot like it was her own cup. 'I just wanted to try somewhere new. And I don't have any ties there, so . . .' she trailed off.
'Your family aren't around?'
She waved a hand dismissively. 'I never had any. Only my brother, Dannie, and he's not even my brother. Not biologically, at least. We met in a children's home when we were 12. But he has his own life, you know? He just got married, he's got a place. So I didn't feel so bad about taking off'.
The woman nodded, seeming to understand. 'So why Waterloo?' she asked.
'It's not Waterloo, it's any place I want', Therese shrugged. 'Any tiny mark on a map. I live in a van'.
'You're kidding!' the woman exclaimed.
Therese shook her head. 'Not kidding'.
'So you're a nomad'.
'Something like that'.
'How long have you had the van?'
'Just over a year. She's my baby'.
'Have you named her?'
'Yeah, Virginia. That's where I got her. Once I decided to leave the city, I started looking online, and there she was. I had to fix her up a little bit, but now she's mine and she's the cosiest little home ever. Well, except in the winter'.
The woman was looking at her like she'd done something truly amazing. Like she was fascinated. Therese was kind of thrown off by it. Most people thought she was insane, when she talked about her lifestyle. It was so refreshing to someone who actually took an interest, who thought about it with an open mind.
'What's it like?' she asked. 'I mean, how do you store all your stuff, how do you cook . . . how do you go to the bathroom?'
Therese laughed. 'Well, I sold most of my shit in New York, and the rest I gave to my brother to hold on to. I just have the basics with me, they're all packed up in boxes under the bed. I have a little camping stove and a kettle but since I work in a diner, I usually just eat here. The owner let's me bring my own groceries into the back and make my own meals - you know, so I don't just eat junk food every day. And as for the bathroom situation, I live on RV parks. They have restroom blocks'.
'Oh, yeah', the woman realised. 'So, where have you lived, since you left the city?'
'I spent about a month in South Carolina, went down to Louisiana, then Missouri, Nebraska, and now here'.
She exhaled with a whistle. 'Wow'.
Therese didn't know how to take the reaction. 'Not for you, huh?' she smirked, assuming the worst.
'No, I think it could be actually', the woman considered, sipping her coffee. 'It sounds so exciting, just picking out a place and deciding that's where you're headed'.
Relief washed through Therese, hearing her say that. She couldn't quite explain why, because she never usually craved approval from others, when it came to her lifestyle. And yet it suddenly felt important that this stranger seemed to understand her. Perhaps it was because there was something so compelling about her. Maybe the woman felt it too. It was she who'd initiated the conversation, after all.
'It is exciting', Therese agreed, unable to keep from grinning. 'The country is beautiful. I never saw any of it until I bought Virginia. I meet great people, who look out for each other. It's a community, out here. I love it, honestly'. Her smile dimmed a little. 'Not so much the waitressing gigs, though'.
'Not the dream career?'
Therese shook her head. 'I take pictures', she confessed.
The woman smiled. 'What of?'
'Life on the road. The people on the RV parks, people who live like I do'. She leaned her head lazily in one hand. 'It's like, there's a whole different world out here', she said candidly. 'Like I've lived two different lives. I'm just trying to figure out which one I belong in'.
The woman watched her thoughtfully, like she was studying her. 'What a strange girl you are', she said after a moment.
Her eyeline dropped a little, not quite meeting her gaze. 'Flung out of space'.
She picked up her coffee and took another sip, letting the words hang in the air, as Therese waited for an explanation she slowly realised was never going to come. Flung out of space. She didn't know what it meant, but maybe she wasn't supposed to. Those words were like poetry. Had she inspired poetry in this woman? She'd always thought herself far too ordinary for that.
Therese shifted in her seat, trying desperately to ignore the quickening of her heartbeat. 'What about you, anyway?' she asked, eager to move the focus away from herself. 'Why didn't you fly to Chicago and back?'
The woman looked up again, as if it was safe to do so now the moment had passed. 'I like driving', she said simply. 'There's nothing like sitting behind the wheel for 12 hours. I could do it in the dark, even'.
'Don't you even stop to rest?'
She shook her head. 'I couldn't sleep if I tried. I've been struggling with insomnia recently'.
'Yeah'. She shrugged. 'But I'll live'.
'Well, how's life in New York?' Therese asked. 'What do you do?'
'I work for my best friend. The one I was visiting. Abby, her name is. She owns a furniture store, and I do most of the business and finance side of it. It's all remote work, but I still like to get out to Chicago to see all the pieces. That, and to visit Abby, of course'.
'Why did she move?'
'She followed her girlfriend there, when she got a new job. Closed the store in New York and had all the pieces sent to Chicago. They're engaged now. Esme proposed last month'.
Therese smiled. It was a lovely story, but she couldn't help but wonder if it wasn't bittersweet for the woman, to let her best friend go and wish her happiness, even if it meant getting left behind. Therese had been through the exact same thing when Dannie got engaged, and then married. It was a difficult position to be in, wanting all at once to be supportive and at the same time knowing that an era was coming to an end.
'Do you miss her?' she asked.
'Yeah, I do', the woman smiled sadly. 'We used to see each other almost every day. She's my oldest friend. My daughter's godmother'.
'What's your daughter called?'
'Rindy'. Something about her seemed to light up as she spoke the name, like a match struck behind her eyes.
'That's pretty. I've never heard of it before'.
'It's short for Nerinda. But she hates that'.
Therese laughed. 'How old is she?'
'Nine. She seems a lot older though. That's boarding school for you. Makes you grow up fast'.
'She lives away from home, then?'
'For most of the year, yes. The school's in Ireland'.
Therese blinked. 'Wow. That's far'.
'Too far', she agreed.
'Was it Rindy who wanted to go there, or . . . ?'
The woman made a face. 'She didn't not want to go. She didn't choose it, if that's what you mean. Her father did. He always wanted to send her to Ireland. He has family there, on his mother's side'.
'But she's happy, at school?'
'Yeah, she is. She's just so independent now'. The woman chuckled, but there was a hollowness to it, that kind of short laughter that attempts to conceal pain. 'She's only nine and I already feel like she doesn't need me anymore'.
'I doubt that', Therese remarked.
'Thanks', she said, a faint trace of uncertainty in her voice. 'It's just sad, sometimes, to think about it. I haven't seen her since January, and when she comes home for summer vacation, even then I have to share her with her dad'.
'You're not together?' Therese inferred, hoping she didn't sound too excited at the prospect.
The woman shook her head. 'We divorced three years ago'.
'No, it's all good', she reassured her. 'Better off apart. It just means what little time I get with Rindy is cut in half'.
'Yeah', Therese said flatly, unsure of what else to say. 'That's rough. And she's not home yet?'
The woman shook her head. 'The academic year is a little different over there. Summer vacation is July to September'. She sighed then, leaning back in her seat, turning to look out the window. 'Sometimes I feel like I should pull her out of that school and send her somewhere in New York, just so I don't feel like I'm missing out so much', she admitted. 'But I could never do that, not really. It'd be selfish. She's having her own adventure, and she's . . .' She turned to Therese. 'Well, she's like you. The world is her oyster'.
'And she's already realised that', Therese observed. 'You must be so proud of her'.
'I am', she said contentedly. 'She's the greatest daughter I could ask for. It hurts to think that she's not homesick, 'cause it feels like she isn't missing me. But it's better than having her upset because she isn't happy where she is'. She smirked. 'Besides, I don't think my current living situation is the best for her'.
Therese frowned. 'Why not?'
'My roommate's two years older than me but still acts like a teenager', the woman explained. 'She insisted I move in with her, after I got divorced, and I was reluctant, to be honest, 'cause I knew what she was like, and . . . well, now I feel like I'm in college again. Parties on random nights of the week, strangers leaving her room at odd times of the day'.
Therese couldn't help but laugh, realising now that she, at 26, probably sounded old and boring to this woman. Age really is just a number, isn't it?
'Is the apartment gonna be trashed when you get home?'
The woman chuckled. 'Usually, I'd expect that. But since Rindy's coming home, she's probably had it cleaned. She's on her best behaviour around Rindy, fortunately. It works, for now, and it's nice to have company while Rindy is away so much, but if she came home permanently, I'd move out of Genevieve's place'.
'Not a good influence, huh?'
She took another sip of coffee. 'It's not exactly how I thought I'd be living'.
'Expectations rarely work out', Therese said with a shrug. 'Look at me. I never thought I'd be living in a van, but here I am'.
'In Waterloo, of all places'.
The woman remained in a thoughtful silence for a moment, tapping her fingernails against the side of her cup. 'Was it really just a mark on a map?' she asked.
'What do you mean?'
'You didn't plan to come here at all? You just parked up one day and decided to stick around?'
Therese shrugged. 'Pretty much'.
It was simple, to her, but the woman was watching her inquisitively, head tilted to one side, as if she was trying to read her from a different angle. 'I admire you', she said earnestly.
It made Therese bashful. 'Thanks, but I'm nothing special', she said, trying to brush off the compliment. 'I'm out here for now, but some of the people on the parks, some of them will do this forever. I don't think I will'.
The woman opened her mouth to respond, but the sound of her voice was overpowered by another.
Therese turned around to see Jack standing by the swinging door, arms flung up in exasperation.
'There's no one else here, Jack', she protested, gesturing to the row of empty booths along the window. Jack just shook his head, expression stern.
Therese sighed. 'I'm coming', she said, like a sulking teenager, sliding one leg out of the booth, and then the other, getting up as slowly as she possibly could. She liked to perform these dramatic scenes, just to keep things interesting. The other diners and restaurants she'd worked at were too busy to give her a chance to try out the stereotypical young surly waitress role, but here she found she could pull it off quite well.
Jack gave her a warning look, before disappearing back through the door.
Therese looked back at the woman, who smiled sympathetically. 'I'm sorry for keeping you', she said, voice heavy with guilt. 'Please blame me if you get into trouble'.
'I could never', Therese said defiantly. 'I'd sit with you again, if I could'.
Her cheeks flushed with a tinge of pink, or maybe Therese was just imagining it. Either way, she looked genuinely affected, and it made Therese's heart clench. 'I'm glad to hear it', she said.
'Well, it was really nice talking to you . . . I'm sorry, I didn't get your name'.
'Carol', Therese repeated, and it sounded just like a song. It suited her perfectly. 'I'm Therese'.
'I know' Carol said smugly, her eyes dropping to Therese's orange polo shirt. 'I can see it on your badge'.
'Right', Therese chuckled, feeling stupid for not realising earlier.
'Thanks for talking to me'.
'Any time', Therese grinned. 'Have a safe trip home'.
Home to New York, Therese thought, disbelieving, as she turned away, heading reluctantly back to the counter, abandoning the slightly emptier coffee pot and drifting through the swing door into the kitchen. She'd spent 25 years of her life in that city, and all that time, Carol had been there too, an ant in the swarm, unrecognisable and unknowable, like so many other passers-by on crowded streets. And yet, here their paths had crossed, a random intersection in the middle of nowhere. In Waterloo, of all places.
Unable to resist, she tentatively slid open the serving hatch door, peering through the narrow crack. Just one last look. But Carol was leaving already, slipping silently out into the parking lot and into the warm morning. Her hair shone like spun gold where the sun touched it. She looked heavenly.
Therese watched her go, ducking into her car and pulling away into the empty road, disappearing out of sight far too soon for Therese to process it, to accept what was happening. The realisation was sudden, like the ripping off of a band-aid, and now she wished she hadn't looked back, because, just like that, Carol was gone, and it left Therese feeling . . . bereft.
Bereft? Surely not! That was reserved for the loss of a loved one, not the end of a conversation. It was far too extreme a description.
But it was, undeniably, how it felt, when there was nothing that connected them, when a lipstick-marked coffee cup and a crisp five dollar bill laid out on the table were the only evidence that Carol had ever been there at all.
Chapter 2: Aphrodite Herself
Thanks for the lovely response to the first chapter. It's good to be back!
These skies made everything worth it, Therese thought as she wandered back along the road. Every struggle, every worry that played on her mind, every fear that made her hairs stand on end. All of it just dissolved into these skies. Every shade of blue blending seamlessly into one, streaked with lashes of soft pink, and fiery orange to the west, where the sun touched the horizon and set it ablaze, endless fields engulfed in flames.
Therese had never seen skies like these in New York; skyscrapers cut them up like a patchwork quilt, shafts of light painting stripes along the streets. But in small towns across the country, the summer gifted them to her every day. She could spend hours just staring upwards, trying to drink in all that beauty, all those colours. It was an ever-changing painting, and she was sure she'd never get tired of it.
Humidity still hung heavily in the air as she arrived at the RV park, paper bag full of foil-wrapped fast food in hand. Doors were flung open, people spilling out into the warm evening, lounging in deck chairs, sipping on cold drinks. A group of kids were running around with water guns, squealing and laughing, soaking wet hair streaming behind them. Some of the vacationers had already got a campfire going in one of the far corners of the site.
Therese's van was parked over by the campfire, towards the back, next to Jacob's. Then there was Tasha, and Cecily, and Luis, and Omar, and Mario, and Jeanette, to name a few. Therese knew them all. It was a lot like living in a small village, where everyone knew everyone, and neighbours helped each other when they were in need. At least, that's what Therese imagined it was like in small villages; her inner-city upbringing hadn't exactly given her much frame of reference. All she knew was that it was worlds away from the constant chaos of Queens.
The vacationers mostly parked up towards the front, nearest to the road, quick to arrive and quick to leave. They were the families who'd stick around for a couple of days before continuing on somewhere else, a brief stop on a long road-trip. Last night, Therese had been invited to share a bottle of wine with a couple of the moms. They were from the same big group; three families from Delaware, headed out west for the summer. They'd be gone in two days, and the next lot of families would roll in to replace them, a constant carousel.
But Therese felt community with all of them. The year-round nomads, of course, but with the vacationers too, those who lived on the road for only a week or two a year. It was a shared experience that seemed to connect them all, regardless of age, or gender, or background, and it was comforting for Therese, when she thought about how easily she'd found belonging here.
If the park was a community, then Robichek was it's matriarch. She'd been in Waterloo just a couple of weeks longer than Therese, but everybody already knew who she was - even if they didn't know much about her past, or even her first name. It made sense, though. Robichek had been out on the road for nine years. If you hadn't met her already, you'd met one of her friends. It was a network of nomads and Robichek was at the centre, the mother hen of the chicken coop. She was stern, sometimes, and believed in being cruel to be kind, but underneath it all, she cared so deeply about her little chicks, and just wanted to see them be happy.
The grey-haired woman was exactly where Therese had expected her to be, sat in the open doorway of her van, feet stretched out in the grass.
'Hey, Robichek', Therese greeted her as she approached.
She looked up at her, amber eyes magnified through thick glasses. 'Hey, Therese', she said in her gravelly voice. 'You just finished?'
'Yep'. Therese held out the bag. 'I brought you dinner'.
Robichek's face broke out into a smile, and she gratefully accepted Therese's offering. 'You're such a nice girl', she praised, in that motherly way of hers. She opened the bag and stuck one hand in, rifling through its contents. 'Are you having some of this?' she asked Therese.
'No, I already ate'.
Robichek didn't look convinced. 'Are you sure?'
Thereae held up her hands. 'I promise', she insisted. She'd had this conversation enough times before; she knew Robichek thought she was too skinny, despite telling her over and over that she was built that way naturally.
But she seemed placated, this time. 'Well, at least sit and drink a beer with me?'
Therese nodded. 'Okay'.
She reached under the van, where she knew Robichek kept a couple spare camping chairs, and dragged one out, while Robichek leaned back to take two bottles of Budweiser from the well-stocked mini-fridge under her folding table. It was a running joke that that mini-fridge was the real reason for Robichek's popularity.
Therese took one of the bottles off her and sunk down into the camping chair. 'Thanks'.
Robichek just clinked the neck of her bottle against Therese's, and took a first swig. 'So, anything interesting been happening?' she asked, rather absentmindedly.
'Aphrodite herself walked into the diner today'.
That caught her attention. 'Oh, really?'
Therese nodded. 'She was so beautiful', she said dreamily, as the image of Carol's face flooded her mind for what felt like the hundredth time. 'And so nice. She didn't look at me like I was a freak'.
'Why would she do that?' Robichek frowned.
Therese raised an eyebrow. 'Don't you get the strange looks, when you tell people you live in a van?'
'Well, sure, but to them I'm a crazy old lady. You're young and good lookin'. They probably think you're one of these free-spirited hippie types'.
Therese had started idly playing with the ends of her ponytail, something she often did when she was nervous, or agitated. 'I get the looks', she muttered, feeling self-conscious suddenly. 'Trust me'.
'But not from her', Robichek observed.
'Well, who was she? From around here?'
'Unfortunately not. She's from New York'.
Robichek looked surprised. 'Well, I never. And you didn't meet her, back there?'
'In a city of eight million people?' Therese smirked. 'Funnily enough, no, I didn't'.
'It's a coincidence that you both met out here, then'.
'I've been thinking about that a lot, actually'.
'I guess. I don't know what to call it. Do you think we're just . . . supposed to meet certain people, in life?'
'What, you mean like fate?'
'Sure. Do you think we're fated to meet certain people?'
'Well, I don't know. You think you were supposed to meet this woman?'
Therese shrugged. 'I'm probably just being dramatic. But it's crazy, isn't it? So many things had to happen in order for us to meet. I had to decide to leave New York. Her best friend had to move to Chicago. I had to arrive in Waterloo and decide to stay here. I had to get a job in the diner. She had to decide she'd drive to Chicago instead of flying. She had to take a different way home, the way that would bring her to the diner. It's like a chain of events that had to happen in such a specific order. And specific days too. Like, what if she'd stayed one night less in Chicago? She would have gone to the diner yesterday morning. I wouldn't have been there. I didn't start until two'.
Robichek remained in a pensive silence for a few moments longer. 'Sounds like coincidence to me', she said finally, and Therese couldn't help but think it sounded anti-climactic. 'Sometimes things just happen. We just run into people. There's no greater meaning to it. We just get lucky'.
'You're probably right', Therese admitted, a little reluctantly. Then she waved a hand, as if to dismiss the subject entirely. 'Anyway, it doesn't matter. I'll never see her again'.
Therese wished she could go back and tell herself she was wrong. It would have saved her those nights she spent feeling sorry for herself, curled up beneath a thin duvet, contemplating how utterly unjust it was that she and Carol had met under such fleeting circumstances, how unfair it was that Carol had her own life 700 miles away and Therese wasn't in any way a part of it.
But all of that energy she'd wasted wallowing in self-pity didn't matter now. Nor did the conversation with Robichek, discussing whether it was some omniscient force that had brought them together, or if it was just plain luck. It seemed stupid, now. This time it wasn't any one of those vague philosophical terms she and Robichek had debated over. This time it was choice. Carol had chosen to come back.
Therese had grown used to spending a large portion of her shifts at the diner just staring out of the window into the parking lot, to the point where Jack had asked her what she was doing, and she'd quickly made up some bullshit story about seeing a family of racoons out in the grass, telling him she was watching out for them if they came back. Of course, there was only one thing she was watching out for, and when a familiar white Audi turned into the parking lot one Thursday evening, she thought she was hallucinating. Perhaps she'd wished for it just a little too hard, and now her mind was playing tricks on her.
But sure enough, that blonde hair was unrecognisable as Carol emerged from the far side of the car, golden waves bouncing as she turned around, snatching a pair of aviator sunglasses from her face. To Therese, it seemed to happen in slow motion, as she stalked towards the diner, long slim legs clad in navy skinny jeans. It was like a scene from a music video. Therese caught herself staring a little too intensely, and reluctantly wrenched her eyes away, pretending to busy herself by the back counter. Coffee, yes, she thought, flipping the switch on the machine.
The bell above the door rang out as Carol stepped inside, and Therese turned around.
'Hi', Carol said casually, as if her presence was commonplace.
Therese wasn't so convinced. She may have sounded cool and collected, but there was a smugness about her smile that told Therese she was well aware of the significance of her being here. Carol had made the effort, and both of them knew it. She knew exactly what she would find, coming back. She knew exactly who she would find.
Therese tried her best to look surprised, like she hadn't just been watching her through the window. 'Well, I didn't expect to see you back so soon', she remarked, as Carol came to sit opposite her at the counter.
'I had to get another cup of the best coffee in the Midwest'.
'Tell that to Jack, will you? Maybe he'll give me a raise'.
Carol laughed. 'Are you gonna get in trouble for talking to me today?'
'Not when you're sat here at the counter'.
Therese put a cup down in front of Carol, glancing back over her shoulder to check the progress of the coffee. The deep brown droplets that splashed into the bottom of the pot were consistent, but slow. Therese didn't care. The longer it took, the longer Carol would stay.
'Does Jack own this place?' Carol asked.
Therese shook her head. 'His dad does. But Bill fell off his motorcycle in February, and it messed him up pretty bad. He can't work for now, so Jack took over all the admin stuff, and I happened to be looking for a job around the time they decided to hire someone'.
'How's his dad doing now?'
'Better'. She shrugged. 'I talk shit about Jack all the time, but I shouldn't. He's just trying to help his dad out. I think his dreams are bigger than running this place. And I'm just lucky they can afford to pay me'.
'I'd pay you for the coffee alone', Carol assured her.
'Well, fortunately, that's pretty much all I do here'.
With enough coffee having filtered through, she grabbed a cup from the shelf, filled it from the pot, and placed it carefully in front of Carol.
'Thanks', Carol accepted it gratefully.
'Were you already in Chicago?' Therese asked.
'No, I'm headed there. I have a few days free. My parents took my daughter down to Florida for a week. They have a house in Sarasota'.
Therese smirked. 'What happened, you weren't invited?' she joked.
'No, actually', Carol replied matter-of-factly.
Her face fell, mortified. 'Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-'
'Don't worry about it', Carol interjected quickly, like she'd heard enough sympathy before. 'They just don't like me very much, that's all. But they're close to Rindy, so they can do what they want with her'.
'How is Rindy?' Therese asked, eager to change the subject.
Carol smiled then. 'She's great. Hasn't stopped talking since the moment we picked her up from the airport. Harge and I - that's my ex-husband - we took her out to dinner and I swear it took her about an hour just to eat her meal. She has all these stories of her friends, and her teachers, and her classes, and her lacrosse team. Sounds like something from a movie, a lot of the time'.
'I bet she's happy to be home for a while, though'.
'Yeah, she seems to be. I've only had four days with her so far. She was excited to go with her grandparents, but she was devastated when I told her I was coming out here. She's desperate to see Abby. Especially since she learned she gets to be a bridesmaid at the wedding'.
'When is the wedding?'
'In March, so still a while away yet. But Rindy's called Abby six times since she came home, just to talk about it. And Abby's being a Bridezilla already'.
'Is that what you do in Chicago, then? Wedding planning?'
'Yeah. I'm the maid of honour, so I kinda have to get involved'. Her shoulders drooped a little as she took a sip of coffee. 'Lucky me', she said flatly.
Therese laughed. 'You didn't want that job?'
'Well, I thought my roommate Genevieve might do it, for a while', Carol explained. 'Did you ever see that episode of 'Friends', when Rachel, Monica and Phoebe are trying to arrange who can be the maid of honour for who, so everyone gets a chance? Well, we tried that. But Gen doesn't do relationships, and she said she doesn't want to get involved when she's never going to get married herself. So now I'm stuck with it'.
'Well, I know what it's like, if that's any consolation', Therese offered. 'I was a bridesmaid for my sister-in-law, last year, and she was exactly the same'.
'I don't know what else I was expecting, to be honest. I guess I thought she wouldn't be so giddy, 'cause she's 38, but it doesn't really matter what age you are, does it?'
'Most people still have that princess fantasy, yeah. Doesn't matter if you're 20 or 80'.
'I was 20, when I got married'.
Therese blinked. 'You were 20?' she repeated.
'Yeah', Carol smirked. 'Hard to believe, now. It seems like a million years ago'.
Therese folded her arms on the counter, letting her weight fall against it. 'God, I was still such a baby at 20', she remembered. 'I mean, I'd been living independently for a while by then, but I was completely clueless about love. I'd never even had a serious relationship'.
'Well, Harge was my first serious relationship', Carol shrugged. 'And I was a baby, too. I think I was still figuring myself out, and instead of actually taking the time to do that, I just said yes when he proposed. Huge mistake, obviously. It was very up-and-down, and we kept going for way longer than we should have, but now we're out the other side and there aren't any hard feelings anymore'.
The brightness of her voice seemed a jarring contrast to what she was actually saying, and Therese was a little shocked by it. She heard no trace of remorse, or regret, just complete ownership over what had happened in the past, like she'd long made her peace with it, and learned from it. Therese couldn't help but admire her confidence.
'Wow. You've been through a lot'.
Carol chuckled, knowing she'd surprised Therese, and surely feeling a little satisfied about it. 'I think I'm living my life in reverse, you know?' she mused. 'I was a wife, and then I was a mother, and now I'm single and living with my friend and . . . just thinking about what's next, I guess'.
'Join the club', Therese deadpanned.
'Gladly. It's nice, to be in the same place as you'.
Therese's heart leapt, and Carol's blue-grey eyes flashed as she stared into them. The older woman just took an innocent sip of coffee, holding her gaze as she raised the cup to her lips. It was as if neither one of them wanted to be the first to look away.
'How long are you in Chicago?' Therese asked, unable to help herself.
'Four days', Carol replied.
'And you'll come back, on your way home?'
'I wouldn't miss it. Will you be here?'
I'd work 24 hours a day if it meant I'd get to see you.
Therese nodded determinedly. 'I'll make sure of it'.
Chapter 3: Running From Something
A couple of you were a little confused about the geography, so I'll clear it up here: I made it up! I just wanted the name Waterloo to keep as a reference, I know the real town isn't between Chicago and New York. Sorry for any confusion and I should have made that more obvious before. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this chapter, and thanks for reading!
Therese took her hairbrush and dragged it through her hair, before pulling the fraying tie from her wrist and fastening her hair into a ponytail. Her phone lay on the thin plywood shelf she'd fixed above the bed, her brother's voice interrupted every now and again by crackles on the line. Even with a less than perfect connection and the volume turned down low, the sound still reverberated through the tight space, bouncing off the walls. Therese had grown so used to the silence that sat with her in the van that her own quiet voice, or Dannie's, sounded like a shout. It was jarring, but not in a way that felt uncomfortable. Just unfamiliar.
'Nora got promoted last week', Dannie said brightly.
Therese smiled. 'She did?'
'Yep. Senior copywriter'.
'Aw, you must be so proud of her'.
'I am. And she's so happy'.
Therese reached over to grab her mug from the thin sideboard, wiping away the watery ring it left on the plastic top with the back of her hand. The teabag swirled inside, slivers of green dancing in the water like smoke in the air.
She slid open the door as quietly as she could, inviting the crisp morning air to greet her. The park was mostly empty, this early. She spotted a couple of vacationers over towards the front of the site, but the air was so still, there wasn't a breath of wind to carry their voices. Everything was silent, except for her own conversation.
'I hope you took her to some fancy restaurant', she said to Dannie, picking her phone up from the shelf and bringing it with her to the step, sitting down there, letting her bare feet dangle to the floor.
'I did', he responded, sounding rather pleased with himself. 'The Greek place on East 7th Street. You remember?'
'Sure. I mean, I never ate there'.
'You said you wanted to'.
'Yeah, I did'.
'I'll take you, when you're next in town'.
Therese tensed at those words. She took a gulp of tea before reluctantly giving her response. 'That was a real smooth segway', she said flatly.
'Hey, I didn't mean it like that', Dannie protested.
Therese rolled her eyes. 'You never do'.
'Well, maybe if you'd give me a clue, I'd stop bringing it up', he argued.
'And maybe if you just accepted that I don't have a clue, I wouldn't keep having to explain', she shot back.
She heard her brother's sigh of frustration, and imagined him sitting there, elbows resting on his knees, two fingers rubbing his temples, like he always did when he was agitated.
'It's just that this is going on for longer than I thought it would', he said, calmer now. 'You've been away for over a year, Tee. I'm getting worried'.
'I've told you not to worry', she insisted.
'But I do, anyway. I can't help but think of you, all alone in the van, when everyone's missing you here'.
'I miss everyone too'.
Dannie continued as if he hadn't heard her. 'They ask me about you, all the time. And when I can't give them an answer, because I don't know what's going on with you . . . it just makes me feel like I'm being a shitty brother. Like I'm not looking out for you like I should'.
'You're not being a shitty brother', she promised. 'And I'm sorry if I'm being a shitty sister'.
'You're not. But I wish you'd let me in a little more. I feel like we hardly speak'.
'I know. I'm sorry. I lose track of time. There's just . . . there's not a lot to tell you'.
'You always say that'.
'Because it's true. I'm not excluding you from my plans. I just don't have any'.
'Then come home. You can stay with Nora and I for as long as you want'.
Therese fought the urge to groan, knowing it would just upset him further, but this request grew more tiresome every time she had to dismiss it. 'But I don't want to, Dannie', she said adamantly. 'I've said it a hundred times. I'm not ready to come back yet'.
'Then you're happy?'
'Yes. And I'm not alone either. I promise'.
Dannie let out another long exhale. 'Just think about the spare room', he said, with a note of finality. 'Please'.
'And when I say no?' Therese prompted.
'I'll keep asking anyway'.
'. . . Right'.
It was awkward for a moment. Therese didn't know what else to say.
Dannie spoke eventually. 'What are you doing today?'
'Working', Therese replied, grateful for the change of subject. 'In a couple of hours'.
'How's it going, at the diner?'
It occurred to her suddenly how long it had been since she had spoken to Dannie, and how she hadn't yet given him a full update.
'About that', she began. 'Remember the woman I told you about, from New York?'
'The really hot one?'
'Yeah. Well, she came back'.
The plate was almost empty, just half a lone pancake in a shallow pool of sticky maple syrup. Therese had made better, but Carol seemed to enjoy it enough.
They each had a cup of coffee this time, but those were already empty too. Therese didn't feel so bad about slacking off like this, since the diner was empty apart from the two of them. Jack had, mercifully, gone to the bank. She had watched his truck leave, and Carol's car pull into the parking lot just five minutes after, as if she had somehow known the perfect time to arrive. Therese said a silent thanks to the universe, and whatever unexplainable forces were on their side.
It was nice, sitting with Carol like this, listening to her talk about her stay in Chicago, stories of Abby's life there and Carol's place in it, little tales of their history woven in seamlessly. In some ways, it felt to Therese like they were just two ordinary friends, catching up over a coffee. Yet at the same time, it was nice to have cooked for her. Carol hadn't exactly ordered anything to eat, but Therese had decided she'd make her something anyway, inviting her back into the kitchen to keep her company as batter sizzled in the pan.
Carol's knife and fork clattered against the plate as she tore at the fluffy pancake, dragging it through the maple syrup and holding it there for a few seconds, letting it drown in thick liquid, before eating it.
'My brother called this morning', Therese announced.
Carol looked up. 'Oh?'
Therese nodded. 'He's worried about me'.
'He just doesn't understand what I'm doing'.
Carol frowned. 'You mean, living in the van?'
'Yeah. He wants me to go home. Every time he calls, he tries to convince me to move back in with him'.
'And you don't want that?'
Therese made a face. 'Dannie thinks it's all about money. That if he let's me have his spare room, rent-free, then eventually I'll give in'.
'It's a good offer'.
'But it's not that simple'.
Carol popped the last chunk of pancake into her mouth, as if to punctuate the remark, and in her unwavering confidence, Therese saw that to her it really did seem simple. It just made Therese feel invalidated, like she was making something out of nothing. She shrank back into her seat.
Carol must have noticed, because she looked sorry suddenly. 'You don't have to tell me', she said gently.
'No, it's fine, I just . . .' Therese sighed. 'I mean, obviously money is an issue. I can't really afford to live in New York anymore'.
'But your brother's place still isn't an option?' Carol pressed.
Therese shifted uncomfortably. 'It's not about living with him, it's just . . . living there in general, I guess'.
Carol looked at her, blue-grey eyes dancing with curiosity. 'You're running from something', she observed.
'Not really', Therese mumbled, wondering if it was even worth protesting. Clearly, she had become transparent. What other explanation was there, when Carol could see right through her?
'But there's something you don't want to go back to', the older woman affirmed, as if to prove her theory.
Therese hung her head. 'I just don't want to go back to myself', she said quietly. 'I didn't like the person I was, in New York. The person I'd become, in the past few years'.
'What happened?' Carol asked tentatively.
Therese ran a hand through her hair, twisting the ends around her fingers. 'I guess you could say I hit a dead end', she explained reluctantly, focusing her attentions on the rusty streetlamp outside just so she could avoid looking at Carol. 'That's the best way to describe it. I was living in Hamilton Heights in a shithole studio apartment and working two jobs, and I could still barely make rent. I had no time for myself, or to see friends, and no idea how to get into photography as a career, especially since I didn't have any experience. So it just became this cycle I was stuck in. I was tired all the time, and so anxious that leaving the house for anything other than work made me feel sick. It was all a little too much like trying to keep my head above water while I was drowning. And so I left'. She swallowed nervously. 'If I'm running from something in New York, then I guess it's from my own failure'.
A slightly awkward silence filled the space between them as Therese finally turned back to Carol. The older woman had been watching her intently as she spoke, her face set in an expression that was both thoughtful and a little . . . sorry? Surprised? Sympathetic? Therese wished she could read her better.
'Does Dannie know all this?' Carol asked after a moment, voice heavy with concern.
'I gave him the edited version', Therese mumbled.
'Well, I guess that's why he thinks it's all about money'.
'I mean, that's where it all stems from, so I was telling the truth. Technically. But I just think, if I moved in with Dannie, it wouldn't be too long before I ended up in the exact same position. I'd feel like I was crashing their little newlywed home, and so I'd try to leave sooner than I should, and then I'm back to square one. Back to hating my life, and feeling like, in 26 years, I've achieved nothing'.
Carol shook her head, in a gesture that was almost disapproving. 'I think you're putting way too much pressure on yourself'.
'That's the New York mentality, though, isn't it?' Therese shot back. 'If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. I couldn't'.
'But you're so young'.
'I don't feel young. I grew up in foster care. I've been my own support system for as long as I can remember, and that can wear you down after a while. Dannie of all people should understand that'.
'You don't think he does?'
Therese shrugged. 'We're just different, I guess. He's always been so sure of himself. But I'm getting better at that, since I left. I feel like I've spent so much time with myself, you know?'
'I suppose you have to, on the road', Carol acknowledged.
'Exactly. And it's helped me calm down, for sure'. Therese smiled then. 'I mean, where better to clear my head than in these little rural towns where nothing ever happens?'
'So that's why Waterloo', Carol concluded, like it was a puzzle she'd been trying to solve for some time. Perhaps she had. Perhaps she'd been working it out since that first day they met.
Therese nodded. 'Waterloo, and all the other places I've been. And all the places I still have to go. I'm not finished'.
'You make it sound so liberating'.
'Well, it has been. I feel like I've taken back control over my life, finally. That's why I keep telling Dannie I'm not coming home yet'.
Carol rested her head in her hand, cheek to palm, looking at Therese from this new angle like she was studying her. 'I like your conviction', she said thoughtfully.
'Well, I like your understanding', Therese grinned. 'A lot of people don't get it'.
'Oh, I get it. It's something I wish I'd done myself, when I was younger. Spent time with myself, I mean'.
'It's not too late, you know'.
Carol smiled softly. 'I hope not', she said, the faintest trace of regret in her voice.
Watching her clothes spin around and around in the washing machine was almost hypnotic, but Therese couldn't watch them for too long, because she kept catching her own face reflected back at her in the clear plastic window, and she thought she looked . . . good. Better. But better than what? She didn't usually look bad. Despite the fact that she generally saw herself as unexceptional, she was well aware that other people found her attractive. But it didn't matter what they thought. There was only one person's opinion that she cared about, and she hadn't yet figured out exactly what that opinion was.
So why did she look different? Was it because she was happier? Perhaps. But she was happy enough before she had met Carol. Just enjoying the freedom she'd found for herself, drifting along as if carried in the breeze, rolling like a stone down the riverbank. Excited, then? That must be it. Being involved with Carol, in whatever way that might be, certainly stirred up a new appetite for adventure within her. It sat in the pit of her stomach, like a raging hunger that only calmed in Carol's presence.
Therese's life was already exciting, in principle. She was a wanderer, not tethered to one place for any longer than she wanted to be, and that rare opportunity to have home be anywhere she laid her head. But, as quixotic as that sounded, it was also solitary. In the van, she was a loner, among other loners. And while she enjoyed her own company, she enjoyed Carol's so much more. That excited her like nothing else.
'Did you know Robichek's thinking of leaving?' Jeanette asked out of the blue, startling Therese.
She turned around. Jeanette was leaning back against her washing machine, a puzzled look on her face, like she'd just remembered she was meant to ask Therese the question.
Jeanette was her other mother in Waterloo. She'd arrived three days after Therese and introduced herself with a huge box of donuts from the bakery in the town center, going from van to van, offering them out. She was a kind woman from a relatively simple background - that is, until her husband passed away, and, with her children grown up and living their own lives, she sold her house in Oklahoma and decided to follow her dream of seeing all 50 states. And, unlike Robichek, she was very open about her past, showering everyone even slightly younger than her with little snippets of advice she'd learned in her half century of life.
She looked at Therese expectantly. Light hair streaked with grey hung to her chest in two loose braids, her bangs held back by a pink floral hairband.
'Yeah, she mentioned it', Therese answered, remembering a hint Robichek had dropped last week. 'She didn't say where she was going, though'.
'Somewhere like Wyoming, probably', Jeanette guessed. 'She usually spends the summer up north, before it gets too cold to go'.
'Makes sense. I'd do the same'.
'Well, there's still time'.
Therese nodded. 'I know'.
Jeanette raised an eyebrow. 'Not planning on moving on any time soon, then?'
Therese faltered. Honestly, leaving Waterloo hadn't even crossed her mind, not since Carol had walked into the diner and transformed it into a place where magic happened. How could she leave, when it meant leaving Carol?
'I just don't think I'm ready yet', she said, trying to sound nonchalant.
'Huh', Jeanette said flatly, as if she'd expected something more.
Therese frowned. 'What?'
'You've just been here a while, is all', Jeanette replied, doing her best impression of an innocent bystander.
Therese wasn't convinced. She heard an underlying suspicion in her friend's voice, and couldn't help but wonder if she had another agenda.
'Not that long', Therese protested.
'Think you owe something to those folks down at the diner, do you?'
'Then it must be about that woman from New York'.
Therese blinked. 'How do you know about her?'
'Oh, sweetie, everybody knows'.
Well, that's just great. So they'd all been gossiping about her behind her back. Therese wasn't particularly surprised - in fact, she could almost guarantee that anything she told Robichek would become common knowledge on the park. But it still made her feel a little embarrassed, knowing everyone was aware of her crush.
'I heard she's something special', Jeanette offered, by way of apology.
'So that IS the reason you're still here'.
Therese nodded. 'If I leave Waterloo, she won't be able to find me', she explained. 'Even thinking about that just makes me miserable'.
'Why didn't you just give her your phone number?' Jeanette asked.
'I should have, I know. We just never got around to it, and a part of me didn't want to bring it up. Maybe it's stupid. Anyone can just call someone they like, but I think there's something so spontaneous about not being able to reach her unless she shows up at the diner. Like, if she didn't want to see me, she wouldn't come back, but she does, every time. It just feels like it means more'.
Jeanette smirked at her. 'You're a true romantic, aren't you?'
'I guess I am, yeah', Therese admitted, feeling her face grow warm.
'And I suppose she is too'.
'I think so. I mean . . . well, I don't know'. For a moment, she felt hopeless. There was still so many things she didn't know, things she hadn't really thought about. She'd been so caught up in the fact that Carol had returned, and promised she would again, that she'd entirely forgotten about the very real possibility that she was little more to her than a convenient stop-off along her way. No real effort. But that couldn't be true. Could it?
Therese sighed. 'Maybe I'm reading her all wrong', she muttered.
But Jeanette shook her head. 'I don't think you're wrong. Driving for 11 hours to see you is a pretty grand gesture. But what are you gonna do about it? Stay in Waterloo forever and make her coffee every time she passes by?'
Well, when she puts it like that, I suppose it does sound ridiculous.
'No', Therese replied. 'I'm gonna give her my number'.
Jeanette looked satisfied. 'That's more like it'.
Chapter 4: The Real World
Thanks everyone for your interest in this story! I love reading your comments.
The little slip of paper sat in her apron pocket. It had been there two weeks, since the day after her conversation with Jeanette, when she'd written out her number as neatly as she could, folded it and forgotten about it. At least, she tried to forget about it. Every time she reached for her pen and pad, and the side of her hand brushed against the sharp corner of the fold, she was reminded of Carol, and what she would do when she saw her next. Would she even have the courage to give it to her?
Now it was time to find out. Carol was walking up to the door, almost running, in fact, and Therese felt those familiar butterflies awaken in her stomach as the bell rang above the door.
'Hey', she greeted her as she entered.
But Carol hovered by the door, as if she couldn't decide where she was going. 'Darling, I'm late, I can't stay', she said apologetically. 'I'm helping Abby out with some clients'.
Therese heart sank. 'So you don't want coffee?' she asked, voice heavy with disappointment.
'I'd love to, but . . .' Carol's eyes dropped to the floor suddenly, and she seemed to shrink into herself in a way that was almost . . . shy?
'But I wanted to ask you', she said nervously. 'I bought tickets for the Art Institute of Chicago, for tomorrow, and I was hoping you'd go with me'.
Therese's breath hitched, the force of the unexpected almost throwing her off balance. Carol . . . asking her out? It was what she hadn't let herself dare to dream of.
A smile broke out across her face. 'Yeah, I'd love that'.
Carol looked relieved. 'You're not busy?'
'Well, in the morning, yeah, but I finish here after lunch'.
'That's perfect', Carol assured her. 'You can meet me at the gallery, then? About 3.30?'
Therese nodded. 'Yeah, I'll be there'.
'Okay, great. I'll see you then'.
With that, she turned, one hand about to push on the glass of the door. But Therese had something she had to do first. Because, yes, she had the courage. With Carol, she felt she could do just about anything.
'Carol?' she called out to her.
The older woman looked back. 'Yes?'
Therese went over to her, enjoying the confused look on her face. Without explaining herself, she took the slip of paper from her apron and popped it in the breast pocket of Carol's navy button-up.
'See you tomorrow', she said.
Carol looked down to her pocket, and then back up at her, smiling as she understood.
As the end of her shift dragged to a close, Therese sprung into action, barely saying goodbye to Jack as she rushed out into the parking lot, the elderly couple in the corner booth staring after her, wondering what was the hurry.
She'd driven Virginia to the diner that morning, so she'd have more time to get ready before hitting the road. It had occurred to her that this would be the first time Carol would see her out of her work uniform, but in truth she didn't have enough outfits packed away under the bed to worry about what to wear. It was the blessing and the curse of having so few possessions; the stress of picking out clothes no longer existed, but there were some occasions, like this one, for which she wished she was able to dress up a little.
She hastily pulled on a short tan-coloured tank top that hugged her small frame, and her beloved 90s skater jeans she'd picked up at a vintage store in Omaha. She brushed out her hair, and, looking at those loose chocolate waves in the mirror on the sideboard, she decided she'd leave it down, something that was so rare it almost felt special. After touching up her mascara, layering some silver chains around her neck and sprinkling a few drops of perfume across her collarbones, she was ready to go.
At least, her look was ready. On the inside, however, she was anything but. The sheer joy of Carol's invitation had clouded her thinking over the past day and a half, but now she was actually cruising down the highway towards Chicago, anxiety swirled in her stomach. The prospect of seeing Carol outside of the diner, outside that space that was so familiar to her, had suddenly become overwhelming. Perhaps it was because there was some small, unacknowledged part of her that never believed her relationship with Carol would extend beyond what they already had, and so she hadn't allowed herself to prepare for what might happen.
For all this time, the diner had been a safe space for Therese to be with Carol. It existed in a parallel universe where only good things happened, somewhere that was entirely removed from reality. But there was just one problem with that; sometimes it genuinely seemed to her that a woman as wonderful as Carol could only be a product of her imagination. If it wasn't for Jack having met her, Therese might have been convinced that she'd made her up entirely. Stepping out of the diner with Carol meant walking into the real world, and, in Therese's experience, the real world had a tendency to disappoint. What if it all went wrong, out there?
It made her feel slightly sick.
She put on some Luscious Jackson and cranked open her window, and tried to enjoy the drive, the way the sun slanted in through the windscreen and skyscrapers rose up from grassy plains. But her hands tightened around the wheel like she'd lose control if she loosened her grip.
Now, standing on the sidewalk outside the Art Institute, having left Virginia in an underground parking lot two blocks away, she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, too restless to keep still. Humidity in the air weighed down heavily upon her. She'd almost forgotten how stuffy the city could be in July, heat trapped by glass and concrete until the whole place felt like a sauna. She wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand.
She was watching a couple of kids clambering over the rusted lion statue by the steps, their dad frantically shouting at them to come down, when the low rumble of an engine echoed through the street, overpowering the noise of any other car. Her attention turned to the opposite side of the road, where a bright yellow Lamborghini rolled into view, inciting gasps of awe from the large group of students gathered on the steps behind her. It had barely slowed to a stop, passing pedestrians easing up to admire the car, when the passenger door swung open. Therese's jaw dropped. It was Carol who stepped out.
She waved a quick goodbye to the woman behind the wheel - Abby, she guessed. Therese caught a brief glimpse of her as she drove away, a flash of voluminous red hair and dark sunglasses.
Carol made crossing the street look like a photoshoot for a magazine. Her golden hair bounced at her shoulders as her head turned from side to side, her white cotton dress floating behind her as she walked. She looked celestial.
And then Carol saw her, their eyes meeting from afar. It was almost shocking to Therese, how quickly her anxiety melted away, just by seeing her smile. That tangled knot of nerves loosened in an instant. How could she have thought such ridiculous things before? How could she have questioned that anywhere other than the diner might have ruined Carol for her? The woman wasn't her creation, she was real. She existed in the real world. And the real world no longer felt like such a disappointing place, when Carol was in it. When they were in it together.
Therese wanted to scream. Instead, she just said, 'hi'.
'Hi, yourself', Carol greeted her.
'That's some car Abby has', Therese smirked, gesturing with her head towards the now empty spot where the Lamborghini had dropped her off.
'Oh, no, that was Esme. Abby could never have driven off without coming out to meet you'.
'You told her about me?'
'Of course I did', Carol said, like it was obvious. She started ascending the stairs towards the gallery's entrance, and Therese followed, until they were walking slowly side-by-side.
'Esme would have said hi too, but she's on her way to a meeting', she added.
'What does she do for work?' Therese asked.
'She's a corporate lawyer'.
'Oh. Well, that explains the car'.
'She makes good money, yes, but the car was an engagement gift from Abby's parents'.
Therese blinked. 'They got a hundred grand car as a gift?'
'Yep. The Gerhards are certainly the wealthiest family I've ever met'.
'You've met a lot?'
Carol shrugged. 'Sure. I went to a very exclusive private school. Everyone there was a child of old money'.
'. . . Including you?' Therese asked tentatively.
The response was simple, unapologetic. Therese didn't really know how to respond.
In truth, she had always known, and always accepted, that Carol came from a wealthy family. She heard it in the casual comments she dropped about her parents' multiple houses or her childhood travels to far-flung countries in Africa and Asia. But, in talking about it, there was a sense of apathy. Carol certainly wasn't one of those poverty tourists who hid their affluence because the working class struggle seemed cool, nor was she one of those entitled elites who thought their privileged upbringing made them better than anyone else. She was just . . . indifferent. Therese wondered what it was like. She'd never had the luxury of being indifferent when it came to money.
Carol must have sensed this contemplation, because she turned to Therese. 'Does it make you think of me differently?' she asked.
'What, knowing you grew up rich?'
Therese nudged her playfully. 'You mean, do I think you're spoiled?'
'Something like that', Carol smirked.
'No. I don't'.
'But does it bother you?'
Therese shrugged. 'It doesn't bother me, no', she said honestly. 'I already knew we were from two completely different worlds. But I don't judge you for yours, as I know you don't judge me for mine. Now we're in the same place, remember?'
Recognition flashed across Carol's face, as she heard her own line repeated back to her. 'Of course', she smiled.
'Besides, I'm sure Abby is a lot more spoiled than you', Therese joked. 'I'll just judge her instead'.
Carol laughed. 'You should meet Genevieve. She's a real brat'.
As they approached the door, and Carol took out the tickets from her purse, it was all Therese could do to keep herself from jumping for joy. She talks about me, she thought happily. She tells her friends about me.
Hanging against a navy blue column of wall in the middle of a room like any other, a painting caught Therese's attention the moment she glimpsed it. Of course, it wasn't just any painting. It was 'Nighthawks', a work she'd known and loved for years.
'Wow', she breathed.
She wandered over to it, Carol following her, and found a place for the two of them to stand among the other admirers. It was beautiful. The colours leapt out from inside the frame, the warmth leaking from the windows of the coffee bar into the cool of the night. Therese could almost hear the sounds of the city in the near distance, and yet it seemed a million miles away from this tranquil scene.
'I love Edward Hopper', she said after a few moments. 'He's my favourite artist'.
'Why's that?' Carol asked.
'I just think his paintings are so peaceful. The later ones, more specifically, the ones with a single person surrounded by all this space, whether it's an empty bedroom, or a quiet café, or a deserted road. People always say they're about isolation, and I guess that's true, but I never saw that as a bad thing. Being alone doesn't always mean being lonely. It can be introspective'. She shrugged. 'Peaceful'.
Carol had been watching her intently as she spoke, a curious look on her face. 'And you would know', she remarked.
'Exactly', Therese smiled, feeling, as she had before, that Carol could see right through her. It was a foreign concept for someone who'd been told so often that she was guarded. Carol just had this ability to knock down all her walls, and, for some unexpected reason, she didn't feel at all threatened by it. In fact, it excited her.
She shook off the thought.
'Although, 'Nighthawks' isn't my favourite', she added.
'Which is your favourite?' Carol asked.
''New York Movie''.
The older woman nodded in recognition of the name. 'It's in the MoMA'.
'Yep. Have you seen it?'
'I have. Why do you like that one?'
'I just find myself wondering what the woman is thinking about. There's a movie playing in the background, but she isn't paying any attention to it at all. When I first saw the painting, I thought she was just another audience member, but then I read that she's an usherette. It made more sense then - since she works in the theatre, she's probably seen the movie way too many times, and she doesn't care about it anymore. More time for her to stand there in her own little world'.
A strange thought crossed her mind suddenly, something that had never occurred to her before, and yet it now seemed impossible to miss. While she'd conjured up the image of her favourite artwork in her head, she'd failed to recognise the familiar figure painted there against the wall, deep in thought.
'The woman looks like you', she told Carol, smiling in satisfaction at having discovered it. 'In 'New York Movie'. I just realised that'.
Carol laughed. 'Yeah. I guess she does'.
Of course, it wasn't surprising to Therese. Wouldn't any artist want someone like Carol as their muse? She was elegance in human form, always the most beautiful woman in the room. As they drifted slowly towards the next painting, Therese found herself dreaming of the day she was finally able to take Carol's picture.
The cocktail in front of Carol was almost empty. Therese couldn't help but notice how she winced every time she took a long, slow sip through a straw. Was she even enjoying it? Perhaps it was just too strong. She'd ordered a Long Island Iced Tea. Something nice and alcoholic, she'd told Therese, anything that better prepared her for dealing with Abby and Esme's sickeningly sweet obsession with each other, and their incredibly loud love-making in the early hours of the morning. She still hadn't been sleeping easy, she'd said, and so she usually had to put her earbuds in and just endure it.
This time, she looked up as she drank, finally realising that Therese watching her. She had to suppress a laugh until she'd swallowed the murky liquid.
'This is disgusting', she admitted. 'I could have made one better myself'.
'Think you're better than a mixologist, do you?' Therese teased.
Carol gasped in mock offence. 'I know my way around a drinks menu, I'll have you know. I used to be a cocktail server'.
'Yep. It was probably the most fun job I've had. Not that I've had many'.
'Well, what were your other jobs?'
Carol looked thoughful, like she was counting them up in her head. 'There's the one I have now, with Abby, and my first job, working on a farm in Australia'.
Therese blinked. 'You lived in Australia?'
Carol nodded. 'I was there for a year, when I was 18. You can get a tourist visa to stay that long if you commit to working in some kind of manual labour industry for a little while. So it was me and a bunch of American and British kids on the farm for four months, and the rest of the time was free for travelling, or whatever we wanted'.
'My grandmother was from Sydney, so I always wanted to go there. She was my favourite person in the world, I even named Rindy after her. She always said she'd take me to visit, but she died when I was 16, and we never got the chance. So after I graduated high school, I went alone, and I worked, and I hung out with other travellers, and I even got to meet some of my grandmother's family'.
'Sounds like an adventure', Therese remarked.
'It was', Carol agreed, smiling at the memory. 'But I was a teenager. Most of it was spent getting wasted and messing around. I wish I'd taken it a little more seriously. But then again, I didn't know I'd end up married two years later'.
It might have been an awkward topic, with someone else, but Carol spoke with that same confidence Therese had heard in her before, that same ownership over her past. Maybe she opened up like that to everyone, but even so, Therese felt so grateful that Carol was comfortable in sharing herself, and her history, so freely.
'When did you work in the bar, then?' she asked, eager to hear more.
'After college. We'd just moved into our first apartment, and Harge had started working at his father's brokerage firm. I just wanted to try something new. My parents hated it'.
Therese frowned. 'Why?'
'They thought it was beneath me', Carol said, rolling her eyes. 'Apparently, lounging around all day while my husband made all the money was a more valuable use of my time. So I did that, for a while'.
'You were a housewife?'
She nodded. 'Harge had this idea that I'd stay home and raise a family, but after years of trying, we still couldn't get pregnant. We'd fallen out of love already, but we both wanted to be parents, so we just kept waiting around, hoping a miracle would happen. It was kinda stupid, and we probably should have just gotten divorced, but then we found out we were having Rindy, and suddenly it was all worth it. So I stayed at home for another few years, until she started pre-school. That's when Abby asked me if I'd want to work for her a couple days a week. Now I'm basically partner at the store, not that Abby would ever admit that'. She took another sip of her cocktail, screwing up her face as she drank. 'This really is awful'.
Therese looked towards the bar, where the bearded bartender was tossing a silver cocktail shaker over his shoulder and catching it with one hand. Showing off, of course. Ugh. She saw him do the same earlier, when Carol went over to order their drinks. Unfortunately he was far too busy gazing dreamily at Carol to actually concentrate on mixing her drink. Therese had to fight to ignore the pang of jealousy that vibrated in her chest as she watched them chatting and laughing.
She nodded her head in his direction. 'Ask him to make you another', she challenged.
Carol shook her head. 'Oh no, I couldn't'.
Therese shrugged. 'I'm sure he'd say yes. He was totally checking you out before. And, well, who can blame him'.
Carol's eyes widened, and a look of surprise flashed across her face.
Shit! Did I say that out loud?
Therese felt her face grow warm, and her mouth was so dry suddenly that she had to take a hasty swig of her beer so she might physically be able to speak. She swallowed nervously. 'I mean, don't you know how beautiful you are?'
'No', Carol said softly, a serene smile on her lips. 'But when you say it, I could believe it'.
While Therese sat there awkwardly, trying not to spontaneously combust, Carol had become distracted, her light eyes drifting from Therese's face to the spot over her shoulder, towards the bar's entrance.
'Oh, no', she muttered under her breath.
Before Therese could ask what was wrong, a woman sauntered up to their table. She looked impossibly well put together, dressed in a beige tailored blazer, navy skinny jeans and tan knee high boots. Not a strand of her mousy brown hair was out of place, as if she'd arrived straight from the salon, and her warm brown eyes were framed with a flick of black eyeliner. Abby.
'Well, well, well. What do we have here?'
'Abby, this is Therese', Carol introduced them.
Abby turned to the younger woman, and looked her up and down. 'Damn, Carol, you were right when you said she was gorgeous', she murmured.
Therese felt like she was going to faint. Gorgeous? Carol told Abby I'm gorgeous?
Carol looked alarmed. 'Abby!' she scolded.
She smiled, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. 'Nice to meet you, Therese'.
Therese tried to force a smile, still taken aback by the sudden interruption. 'Likewise'.
Abby must have sensed that she had walked in on something. 'Am I early?' she frowned. Though there was something in her voice that told Therese this was her intention all along.
'Yes', Carol said bluntly.
'Well, we can get another drink?' Abby suggested, noticing the empty glasses on the table.
But Therese shook her head. 'I can't, I have to drive back. But you two should stay'. She shot a wink at Carol. 'You can order a different drink this time'.
Abby looked genuinely apologetic then. 'Oh, honey, I really didn't mean to interrupt'.
'Don't worry about it', Therese waved a hand dismissively. 'I know you don't get to see each other so often any more'.
'Well, in that case, I'll go order a couple Tom Collins. Is that okay, Carol?'
Carol just nodded, and Abby turned on her heel and headed for the bar, leaving them alone once again.
Therese looked across at Carol, who hid her face with her hands in embarrassment.
'She's so annoying', she groaned. 'I'm so sorry'.
Therese laughed. 'Don't be', she assured her, and, before she could overthink it, she reached out and gently took Carol's hand, bringing it away from her face and down to the table, joined in hers. 'I had a really nice time today', she said earnestly.
'Me too', Carol smiled.
'And I'll see you in a couple days?'
Therese already knew the answer, but she wanted to hear her say it anyway.
Carol squeezed her hand. 'Do you even have to ask?'
Chapter 5: Endless
Summer's almost gone here in the UK, but this chapter's got me feeling like it's still mid July. Let me know what you think!
Therese scrubbed furiously at the tiles with a hard-bristled brush, watching the soapy water run brown as it collected the grime and dirt of the past . . . however long it had been. She didn't even remember the last time she cleaned the bathroom. It's not like many people had used it anyway, that's what she kept telling herself. It was just one in a long line of similar excuses.
She was certain that Jack was going to fire her soon. She knew he didn't want to run the place all by himself, at least until his dad was ready to return to work, but Therese was lazy and unmotivated and careless. She would happily admit all of those things - they were all true. That's just how it was, working these temporary jobs. She knew she would move on soon anyway, and if the boss didn't like her attitude, she could just quit.
But now she was in Waterloo, a place that held her like a prisoner in a cell of her own making. This job might at least be an excuse to stick around for a little while longer. But Jack was thoroughly unimpressed with her, rightfully so, and every day she braced herself for unemployment. She almost felt sorry for herself, over it, but honestly, she knew she was just feeling sorry in general.
Therese sighed, scrubbing harder. It had been a long week without Carol.
The older woman had never spent more than four days at Abby's, but by the seventh day with no sign of her, Therese had sunken into a deep depression, reluctantly admitting to herself that Carol had most likely gone home. Today was day nine, and still the diner stood empty.
Therese didn't understand it. Their afternoon in Chicago had been so wonderful, and Carol had left every impression that she felt the same way. So why hadn't she come back? Therese tried so hard to figure it out. Every replay of their time together, blissful in those first days after, had become a painstaking exercise in overthinking and overanalysing every word she had said, desperately seeking what it was that had turned Carol off. But she found nothing.
Now every day, Therese watched out eagerly for the white Audi, and every day, the fire of hope that had blazed within her as she drove home from Chicago had dwindled to a flickering flame, the harsh whispers of doubt threatening to extinguish it for good. She just had to accept that, somewhere along the line, something had gone wrong between them.
She picked up the bucket, catching the sight of her own miserable reflection in the murky water. What a mess. It was becoming increasingly worrying, how completely devastated she was by Carol's absence. Maybe if Carol had at least given her an explanation, she might find it easier to come to terms with it. Or not. Maybe that would be worse, having to look Carol in the face as she rejected her.
She headed for the back door, brushing aside the fly chains and trudging outside into the grass.
'Therese!' Jack called out after her.
'Just emptying the bucket', Therese responded through gritted teeth. Can I not go outside for five seconds without-
'Your friend's here'.
Therese whipped round. 'What?'
'Yeah. The blonde woman? She's asking for you'.
Therese dropped the bucket and ran back to the door, swerving to avoid Jack and rushing out through the swing door to the counter.
Sure enough, Carol was sitting there patiently, as if she had been there all along, and all at once Therese felt the rush of heat within her as the fire roared once again, burning brighter than ever. She breathed a deep sigh of relief, putting a hand out on the counter to hold herself steady.
Carol smiled, seemingly oblivious. 'Hi'.
'You're here', Therese blurted out.
'I thought you were in New York'.
Carol frowned. 'Where did you get that idea?'
'It's been nine days'.
'I know it was a little longer than usual', Carol admitted. 'But I wouldn't have left without seeing you'.
A little longer than usual. That's all it was. And how embarrassing, now, to have been stomping around like a moody teenager for the past week.
Therese looked at the floor, feeling foolish. 'Yeah, I know', she mumbled.
'What is it?' Carol asked, voice heavy with concern.
Therese sighed. 'I thought . . . I just thought you realised it was all a mistake or something, meeting me in Chicago, and you didn't wanna see me anymore'. She shook her head, as if to rid herself of the thoughts. 'It's stupid'.
'It's not', Carol promised. 'I'm sorry, darling, I should have called. I had a really great time with you'.
Therese looked up, finally, to be met with Carol's smiling face, and she knew, of course, she was telling the truth.
'I'm glad', she said, comforted. 'Well, what were you doing, in the city?'
'We kinda had an overhaul at the store. We got a lot of work done, stuff that was way overdue, which means . . .' Carol trailed off, her face falling as she realised what came next.
'You won't have to come out here as often', Therese finished for her, heart constricting as she spoke the words.
The pause that followed seemed to stretch on for hours, as the reality of the situation sunk in for them both. Therese had known this day would come, of course she had. But, still, it had crept up on her, catching her off guard. Perhaps it was the same for Carol; the older woman appeared equally bothered by their shared realisation.
'I'll still come', she said weakly. The flat tone of her voice didn't quite match her sentiment, and it sounded entirely unconvincing.
For a moment, Therese felt totally hopeless.
'I just don't want you to go', she confessed, without a care of whether she sounded too forward. Right now, she just wanted to be honest. 'When we see each other, it's so fleeting. And I watch out for you everyday until you come back, just so we can spend one hour together, and it's . . . I just don't want you to go'.
'Then ask me to stay with you tonight', Carol said suddenly.
Therese blinked. 'What?'
'Ask me to stay', Carol repeated.
Therese was at a loss for words, the thud of her own quickening heartbeat loud in her ears. It was as unexpected as the last time, when Carol had invited her to Chicago. Now she was requesting an invitation of her own.
It was funny. Therese always thought she cared just a little more than Carol. Just a little too much. The simple reason was that Therese still couldn't quite understand why someone like Carol would be interested in someone like her. She was so ordinary. Yet it was always Carol who asked her these most extraordinary of questions. It was always Carol who made the first move.
She was still looking at her expectantly.
'Would you?' Therese whispered.
Darkness spilled into the hazy yellow sunset like blue ink across parchment, another star blinking every time Therese looked up. The sky, again. The ever-changing painting, changing still. It was so completely beautiful, and so completely endless, and she was so tiny underneath it all. But she felt endless too, tonight. No yesterday, and no tomorrow, just here and now, stretched out in camping chairs, drinking lukewarm beers from glass bottles, her happiness vast enough to stretch across histories she'd never known, and futures she wouldn't live to see.
She turned to look at Carol. 'If you could travel to any point in time, just for 24 hours, where would you go?' she asked her absentmindedly.
Therese couldn't see her too well now, though she still make out the brightness of her blue-grey eyes, and the flash of white teeth when she smiled.
She thought for a moment. 'Just 24 hours?'
'Hmm. I don't know'.
'I can go first?' Therese offered.
'I think I'd go to prehistoric times and see the dinosaurs'.
Carol laughed. 'That's a good one'.
'Right? I'd spend a day on my own little expedition, trekking through some jungle somewhere and seeing what species I can find'.
'Just be careful you don't drastically change history. What's that story about the butterfly effect?'
'Oh, yeah. 'A Sound of Thunder'. Well, let's not worry about that. In this scenario, everything is contained, and you won't accidentally change written language, or whatever it is that happens in that book. So, where would you go?'
'I think I'd go to the fifties', Carol finally decided.
'The fifties?' Therese repeated.
'Wasn't it a little . . . repressed, back then?'
Carol shrugged. 'Of course. But for 24 hours, I don't think I'd have a bad time. It would be different if I had to go back and live there. I think it would be incredibly hard'.
'Then why would you go?'
'For the aesthetic, probably. Is that shallow?'
Therese smirked. 'Maybe a little'.
'I don't know. I just look at the photos taken back then, or the movies that came out, and there's just something about the fashion, and the cars, and the small town charm. It seemed so simple. Of course, it wasn't, and I know that. I guess a lot of it was all about the image, the performance of being happy, when a lot of people were completely the opposite. The fifties were only good for certain people, with certain values. Values I don't share'.
'Well, that's good to know', Therese mumbled.
'But, you know what?' Carol continued, like she hadn't heard. 'Weirdly enough, the past two decades of my life might have made a little more sense if I was living in the fifties. A housewife, married young, trying to have a baby with a rich husband who works in the city. I would have fit right in'.
Therese shook her head. 'I don't think you would'.
'You're probably right', Carol agreed, waving a hand dismissively. 'The other moms would have kicked me out of the PTA when I got divorced'.
Therese laughed. 'No. I mean, I think you're too adventurous for that kind of lifestyle, now or back then'.
'I'm not adventurous', Carol retorted, with a hint of self-deprecation.
'Well, you're sat here, aren't you?' Therese pointed out. 'In a field in the middle of nowhere with someone you barely know?'
Carol raised an eyebrow. 'Barely? I think I know you a little better than that'.
Therese's heart fluttered, and her eyes dropped to the floor, so suddenly embarrassed.
She was still trying to think of an adequate response when a woman with platinum blonde hair tied in a high ponytail came stumbling over to them, waving around a half-empty bottle of wine, probably without realising it. Therese watched the dark red liquid sloshing from side to side, wondering whether it was going to spill.
'Hey!' the woman greeted them enthusiastically.
'Hey', Therese smiled at her. 'What's up?'
'A woman called Jeanette asked me to come get you two', she slurred.
Therese blinked. Jeanette? She looked over to where the woman had come from, where the vacationers were having a party. Therese had heard them all evening, the sharp shrieks of laughter and the low hum of music carrying from the front of the park. But she hadn't actually taken a moment to notice just how many people were there, dancing and chatting around a campfire that blazed in the darkness.
'Jeanette's over there?' Therese asked.
Against the brightness of the flames, a figure waved her arms wildly at them. 'Come on, ladies!' Jeanette called.
Therese turned to Carol. 'Do you want to?' she asked.
Carol looked bemused, but she nodded anyway, and jumped up out of her chair. 'Why not'. She grabbed Therese's hand and pulled her upright, and, to Therese's delight, she didn't let go as they followed the woman towards the campfire.
She was right. Everyone was there. All the vacationer families, and all of Therese's neighbours on the park. They arrived among the crowd to the sound of Iggy Pop blasting from a giant subwoofer speaker in the trunk of someone's car. Camping chairs were set up around the fire, but most of them were empty, people gathered in small groups, socialising with strangers or dancing, spinning each other around, kids on their parents shoulders.
Everyone seemed just as drunk as the woman who'd come to invite them, but Therese was hardly sober herself. The edges of her vision were hazy, and the sounds all around her so sharply defined, so much louder than she was used to. She felt warm all over, inside and out. Yes, it was because of the beers she drank, but she swore it must also have something to do with being with Carol. It just felt impossibly special, turning up with her in front of all these people. Like arriving to the ball on the arm of the most beautiful woman in the kingdom.
Jeanette came running over when she saw them, pieces of hair sticking out of her braids at random places.
'Therese!' she exclaimed, hugging her, arms heavy around her neck as she hung off her.
'Hey', Therese laughed into her hair. 'What's happening?'
'I don't know, this couple came over and asked if we wanted to have a party, and so a bunch of us agreed! And, hey, you must be Carol!'
Jeanette released Therese and immediately enveloped Carol in a hug. Therese couldn't help but smile at Carol's surprise, as she put her arms awkwardly around Jeanette.
'You are a beauty, aren't you?' Jeanette commented as she pulled away, inspecting Carol's features.
'Oh, thank you', Carol said modestly.
'Therese has been talking about you for weeks!' Jeanette exclaimed.
'Is that right?' Carol smirked, shooting a wink at Therese. Therese looked away. She was just glad it was dark, and Carol wouldn't be able to see how furiously she blushed.
'Yep', Jeanette continued. 'I can't believe I finally get to meet you. We thought you'd never come'.
'Well, here I am'.
'I'm glad. Therese is quite infatuated with you'.
Therese was cringing. She'd never known what it was like to have her mother embarrass her in front of people she was hoping to impress, but she imagined this was something very close to that experience.
'Please stop talking', Therese groaned.
Jeanette turned to her. 'What?' she said innocently. 'Fine, I'll leave you'. Then she moved a step closer to Therese. 'Robichek's over there with Jacob and Luis', she mumbled. 'You know they're gonna want to meet her!'
'Yeah, yeah, I'm on it', Therese muttered under her breath, with a gentle hand on her back to push her away. She headed back to where Cecily was dancing with a group of vacationers.
Therese turned back to Carol, letting out a laugh that was somewhere between relief at Jeanette having left, and embarrassment over what she'd said. Carol laughed too, seemingly unbothered by it. Therese was glad. Even now, after everything, she still worried that she might scare Carol off.
The intro of David Bowie's 'Modern Love' sounded out across the party, and another handful of people abandoned their conversations to go dance. As Therese watched them, she was suddenly aware of Carol moving closer to her side, and her hand sliding into her own. Therese looked at her, but Carol didn't say anything, just moved along past her until she was walking backwards towards the dancing group, pulling Therese with her. Therese laughed as Carol started mouthing the words of the song, taking her other hand, beginning to move to the rhythm. It took Therese a moment to get into it. She wasn't really a dancer - at least, not until she'd downed a couple shots of something stronger. But with Carol swinging their joined hands between them, lifting one arm up to spin her underneath it, she just couldn't say no.
Strangers they'd never met welcomed them into the circle, jumping around wildly to the beat, shouting out the lyrics. Therese paid little attention to any of them. Carol might as well have been the only person on earth, because she was the only one Therese could see, wild and carefree as she'd never seen her before. With the flicker of firelight across her face, her hair, burning in her eyes, Therese thought she'd never looked more beautiful.
The chaos of the night slowed to a stillness after midnight, a pit of crackling embers where the campfire had roared hours earlier. Parents had gone to put their kids to bed and never returned. The music had been turned down, and then off, the trunk of the car shut and locked.
Therese and Carol laid atop the sheets of Therese's bed, still fully clothed apart from their shoes, not quite ready for sleep.
Carol had been rather impressed by Virginia, when Therese had given her the grand tour earlier. The double bed at the back, a mattress on top of a set of wooden doors, with her boxes of clothes and extra blankets underneath, like a closet turned on it's side. The LED strip lighting she'd taped up around the edge of the roof, the brightness dimmed and the colour set to gold, giving the space a warm glow, even in the colder months. The sideboard with the kettle and camping stove, and the table that folded out from the wall for those rare times she ate in the van. The shelf above her bed with with her portable speaker and that expensive bottle of Viktor & Rolf perfume Dannie had bought her for her birthday. Therese always said it wasn't much, but she couldn't deny she was proud of her little home.
Therese had her feet propped up against the back of the van, where she usually left her pillow. But on clear nights like this, in the heat of summer, she could rarely bring herself to close the door, and shut herself off from all that beauty outside. So she laid her head on the opposite side of the bed, stargazing as she drifted off to sleep.
Now Carol was laid next to her, doing the same thing, without asking why. Therese explained it anyway.
'When it's hot like this, I usually leave the door open all night', she told her. 'Just a crack, like that. I lie with my head right here, and the cool air just hits you'.
Carol rolled onto her side. 'Don't you worry about getting robbed or something?' she asked.
'No. I trust everyone on this park. You're safe, I promise'.
'I feel safe. As much as I can be, in a field in the middle of nowhere with someone I barely know'.
Therese looked at her. She was smirking, passing it off as a joke, but there was something uncertain in her eyes, something that pleaded for explanation, like maybe Carol had believed her.
Therese shook her head. 'I was wrong, when I said that', she said, voice barely more more a whisper. 'I think you know me better than anyone. Is that crazy?'
'No', Carol said softly. 'I don't think it is'.
And when Therese felt Carol's arm snake across her stomach, she knew what was coming next. The anticipation of it hung in the air between them for a split second, both women knowing exactly how the other would move. Therese rolled onto her side as Carol leaned in and kissed her on the mouth, Therese slipping her own arm around Carol's upper back. They pulled each other closer, Therese wrapping her leg around Carol's waist, so their bodies pressed together.
'On second thoughts, I think you should close that door', Carol whispered.
Therese rolled over, already having forgotten that she'd let a crack of starry night sky watch them while they slept. But Therese figured they weren't going to be sleeping any time soon. Now it was just intrusive.
'Yeah, you're right', she breathed.
She hopped up and quietly slid the door shut, cutting off the outside world, sealing them into their own private one. When she slid back into bed, Carol kept her firmly on her back, swinging a leg over her waist and continuing her trail of kisses along Therese's neck, slipping a hand up her shirt, and coming back to meet her lips. Therese moaned into her mouth.
Carol eventually, reluctantly, pulled away, sitting up on Therese's hips, Therese still held beneath her on the bed.
'What do you want?' she asked, her low, smokey voice sending shivers down Therese's spine.
Therese stared up at her, a silhouette in the darkness with that shining halo of golden hair. 'Everything', she breathed.
And everything was exactly what Therese felt, as Carol made love to her. Every emotion too vast for her heart to contain, every wave of pleasure that rocked through her core escaping in moans and cries, her body ripped open, endless, like the sky.
Chapter 6: Driving
Seems like I've worried you all! Please don't be concerned for the fate of our heroines. I know where I'm going with this . . . even if the next step is a little different to what you might expect. Thanks so much for reading.
There was a love bite at the base of Carol's neck. Small and purplish red, not obvious from afar, but unmissable to Therese, who had put it there. She was shocked when she first saw it, when Carol first brushed the hair off her shoulder and exposed the bruise, so vivid against pale skin, fine lines where Therese's teeth had grazed tender flesh. But it was also one of the most erotic sights she'd ever laid eyes on; the most beautiful woman ever to walk the earth, lying naked in her bed, the evidence of Therese's own desire marked on her throat like a tattoo.
Therese couldn't deny that she was pretty proud of herself, seeing it. But she hadn't done it intentionally. She couldn't remember how it happened. Everything was such a rush, last night, and thinking about it now, her heart thumped so hard in her chest that she thought she might go into cardiac arrest.
She apologised to Carol anyway, but Carol wasn't bothered in the slightest - in fact, she admitted, she kinda liked it. Now Therese just couldn't stop staring at it, Carol sitting cross-legged on the edge of her bed in just a white lace bra and a pair of black jeans, brushing out her eyebrows, using her phone screen as a mirror.
Last night, as Therese fell asleep in Carol's arms, she didn't know if it would feel weird in the morning. She didn't know if it would be something they needed to talk about. But it wasn't like that at all. It was like they'd both known it was going to happen between them. They just didn't know when or where.
'Are you gonna just sit there all day?' Carol smirked, eyes never leaving the screen, like she sensed her somehow.
'I could', Therese pouted. 'But no, I'm not'.
'Good'. Carol slid the wand of her brow gel back into its tube, and popped it into her make-up bag. 'Because I'm almost ready to go. I just need to go brush my teeth'.
'Yeah, sure, I'm ready too', Therese said, eyes dropping to the packed rucksack at her side.
Carol pulled on yesterday's t-shirt and her white sneakers, and slid open the door, a shaft of sunlight falling across her face as she leaned out into the cool morning air, taking a deep breath.
'It's so quiet', she murmured.
'Guess everyone's hungover', Therese shrugged.
'Yeah, probably. I'll be back'.
Therese reached out and grabbed Carol's hand before she could go, planting a chaste kiss on her knuckles.
'Don't be too long', she teased.
Carol shot her a wink, before disappearing through the door.
Therese got up after a moment, going to make the bed, trailing her fingers along the pillow where Carol had laid her head, the scent of her perfume infused in the fabric. She looked outside, into another clear morning, the sky a cloudless pale blue. It had been weeks without rain.
Therese surveyed the park. Carol was right. It was quiet. Unusually so. If she hadn't been at the party last night, she'd be concerned that some kind of mass exodus had occurred without her knowledge. But there was movement interrupting the stillness. Robichek was collecting the laundry she'd left out to dry overnight. She was already dressed for the day in a pale pink cotton t-shirt and cargo pants, never one to step out in her pyjamas, as the others so often did. Therese smiled. She knew she could rely on her to be up before everyone else.
Therese pulled on her sneakers and went over, beads of dew clinging to her soles as she walked in the grass.
The grey-haired woman stopped as she approached. 'Well, look who managed to get out of bed', she chastised.
'It's only nine o'clock'.
Robichek narrowed her eyes, pointing an accusatory finger at Therese. 'That's not what I meant. I heard some very interesting noises when I walked by your van last night'.
Oh, no. Therese groaned internally. Robichek had heard them? She'd closed the door for a reason! And she'd tried so hard to be quiet . . .
'Sorry', she mumbled awkwardly.
Robichek shrugged. 'Take it while you can get it. And with a woman like that? I'll tell you, Therese, I'm straight as a ruler, but I bet she could convince me otherwise'.
Therese blinked. 'Wow. Okay'.
'Don't worry, I'm not about to go for her', Robichek laughed, waving a hand dismissively. 'She's very pretty, though'.
'Yeah', Therese agreed, smiling to herself. 'I know'.
'Is she leaving?'
'Yeah. And I'm going with her'.
Robicheck gaped at her. 'You what?'
'Only for a few days', Therese clarified. 'But yeah. I'm going to New York'.
'When did you decide this?'
'Last night. We were talking and we were . . kissing'. Therese cringed, knowing Robichek was already well aware they'd been doing a lot more that that. 'Somewhere along the line she asked me. And I said yes'.
'What are you gonna do about your job?'
Therese shrugged. 'Not go. I feel kinda bad about it actually, but . . . I can't not do this'.
'Well, it's getting serious, huh?' Robichek remarked with a smug smile, as if she'd suspected it all along.
But Therese wasn't so sure. That's where the trail went cold, where she couldn't see any further into the distance. 'I'm trying not to think too much about that', she admitted.
Robichek frowned. 'Why not?'
'Well, I don't know how this is gonna work out', Therese said candidly. 'Right now, I'm just taking it one day at a time. I really like her, of course, but this situation is so . . . uncertain. I'm just gonna let myself enjoy it, despite what happens later'.
Robichek put a hand on her arm. 'That's the way it should be', she said, pride glimmering in her voice. 'Keep your head screwed on like that, kid, and you'll be just fine'.
Therese smiled gratefully. 'Thanks, Robichek'.
'Any time. Now, mind how you go'.
Fields stretched all the way to the horizon on either side of the road, a sea of brownish green beyond rolled down windows. A gentle breeze sailed through the car, carrying with it that fresh scent of grass and earth. Carol's blonde hair swirled in it.
Snap. Therese clicked the shutter again. Carol didn't flinch. She'd already gotten used to the sound, her eyes, behind aviator sunglasses, still fixed on the empty road ahead. She was a natural in front of the camera, effortlessly candid and cool. She never tried to pose, or flash a false smile, or control the way Therese took her picture. She just was just herself.
Snap. And she was completely, breathtakingly beautiful.
'You know, I haven't slept so well in a long time', she mused.
Therese set her camera down, letting it fall against her chest on its strap. 'Well, it's peaceful out here'.
'No, I think it's just because you were next to me'.
Therese's heart fluttered, and she looked down at her lap, blushing.
'You wanna listen to some music?' Carol asked.
Carol shifted in her seat, fishing in her pocket until her cell phone slid out. She pressed her thumb against the screen to unlock it. 'Here', she handed it to Therese. 'You choose'.
Therese took the phone and opened up Spotify, sneaking a quick look at what Carol had been playing recently. The last thing was a Carpenters record. Therese smiled. It was what she imagined Carol would listen to, thinking about it now. Something soft, dreamy, melodic. Therese's taste was a little different, a little rougher around the edges, and she knew exactly what she was looking for. She typed 'Exile in Guyville' into the search bar and hit play on the first track. Carol checked the title as it rolled across the stereo screen.
'Yep. She's always my first choice for long drives. But I can listen to anything, honestly. I can't be without music when I'm alone on the road. I chose Virginia 'cause she had a stereo already fitted. I could just connect my phone and go'.
'Is Virginia you first car?' Carol asked. 'Well, I know she's not a car, but . . .'
'Yeah, she is. I mean, I never owned a car before, and then suddenly I had this big van that I was driving around'.
'You like it though? Driving?'
'I do. I don't do a lot of it, as weird as that sounds. It's more like, I drive really far for a day or two, and then I stay in one place for a while. In Waterloo, the furthest I drive is to town, and that's only 15 minutes from the RV park'.
Carol nodded in understanding. 'I'm the same. I barely use this thing in the city, but out here I'm behind the wheel for 12 hours at a time. But I've always been that way, even when I was driving my first car'.
'When was that?'
'I was 17'.
'What car was it?'
'A Subaru'. She shot Therese a warning look. 'Don't'.
Therese laughed, holding her hands up defensively. 'I wasn't gonna say anything'.
'Well, it was a great car', Carol said proudly. 'It had a casette player, so all my CDs were worthless in it, but it didn't matter. I had this one tape, Lou Reed's 'Transformer'. I listened until it finished, and I started it over again. I think I know every word to every song on that record'.
Therese leaned her elbow against the door, resting her head in her hand. 'What does a 17 year old kid from Manhattan need a car for anyway?' she asked.
'I bought it so I could go see Abby', Carol explained. 'Her family had a house in the Hamptons - well, they still have it now. But she used to spend every summer vacation out there. My parents were strict, and they never let me take the train by myself when I was younger, so I didn't see her for months at a time. As soon as I was old enough, I started driving, and they couldn't really stop me'.
'So you just took off for the whole summer?'
'Pretty much. I stayed for maybe four, five days at a time, and by the middle of summer, I was practically living there'. Carol's smile faded a little. 'Well, until it all went wrong, and we didn't speak until she came back to the city'.
'You fell out?'
'We broke up'.
Therese gaped at her. 'Abby was your girlfriend?'
'Yes', Carol replied simply.
Therese sank back into her seat, the revelation knocking all the air out of her, leaving her deflated. 'I had no idea', she mumbled.
Carol shrugged. 'Why would you? It's all water under the bridge now'.
'What happened, between you two?'
'It was kind of a disaster, to be honest'.
Therese frowned. 'Why do you say that?'
Carol paused for a moment, like she was figuring out how to explain. 'Looking back on it now, I thought that, just because Abby and I were best friends, and we both liked girls, we were somehow meant to be together', she said finally. 'I guess she thought the same thing'.
'So it kinda just happened?'
'Yeah, it did. Abby came out as gay when we were 15. For me, it took a while longer. I couldn't totally relate to her, because I knew I was still attracted to boys, but once I figured out bisexuality was a thing, I thought, maybe that's what I was. And Abby was just . . . there. We didn't really know any other queer girls, especially in our school. It was so conservative. Its not like we had a lot of choice when it came to who we could date. But I chose her anyway. She was already my platonic soulmate, so I thought, why wouldn't she be my romantic one too? We just assumed it would work out'.
'And it didn't'.
'No. There was no spark between us. One day I just realised our relationship wasn't any different to what it was when we were friends. Nothing had changed between us, other than the fact we were having sex - terrible sex, I might add. We were 17, we had no idea what we were doing. All I knew was that it wasn't supposed to feel like that - love, I mean. I was never in love with her'.
'Was she in love with you?'
Carol shook her head. 'She thought she was, back then. When I told her how I felt, and suggested we call it off, she took it really badly. I went back to the city, and for weeks I called her over and over, but she never picked up. I heard from our friends that she was still mad at me. I'd really hurt her, they said. But when I asked how, they never had an answer. Neither did Abby. I knew then I hadn't hurt her at all, just bruised her ego a little. She can be very proud, and very stubborn, and that's probably why she wasn't answering my calls. She wanted to punish me for dumping her before she could dump me'. Carol waved a hand dismissively. 'Anyway. She came back at the end of summer and turned up at my parents' apartment and said she was sorry, and that she knew I was right all along. And that we could be friends again'.
Therese smiled at the happy ending, the green-eyed monster slinking back to where it had come from, tail between its legs. 'And the rest is history', she remarked.
'Yep. We finished high school. I went to Australia, she spent a year teaching English in Peru, and then it was back for college. I stayed in the city and took classes at Columbia. Abby went to Harvard. And suddenly I was back in my Subaru, driving out to see her. Like nothing had changed'.
'And now you drive out to see her in Chicago'.
Carol nodded. 'The journeys keep getting longer'.
Therese turned to look out the window for a moment, flashes of green whizzing past like one long stroke of a paintbrush. She thought of everything Carol had told her about Abby. It was all tainted, now she knew they'd been more than friends. It wasn't a bad thing. It just coloured Abby a little differently in her mind.
'How long were you together?' Therese asked, turning back to Carol.
'It was only four months', Carol said nonchalantly. 'All our friends knew about it. Abby's parents did too, but they didn't tell us that until years later'. She chuckled. 'Now that was an awkward Thanksgiving dinner. Abby's mom had a little too much red wine and just blurted it out in front of the whole family. I don't think I've ever been so embarrassed'.
'But you were staying in their house, weren't you?' Therese pointed out. 'Of course they knew!'
'Well, we thought we were pretty good at sneaking around. Guess not'.
'But they were cool with it?'
'Yeah. They've always been supportive of Abby. And they never treated me any different after, which is why we always assumed they didn't know'.
Therese smiled. 'That's nice'.
'It is', Carol agreed. 'And I'm so grateful to them for keeping their mouths shut'. Her voice almost seemed to trail off then, as if some thought had ambushed her unexpectedly. 'After that Thanksgiving, Abby asked her mom why she never mentioned it, and she said it was to protect us. Abby never understood it, but I do. It wasn't her they needed to protect. It was me'.
Therese frowned. 'Why?'
'My parents wouldn't have taken it well', Carol responded through gritted teeth.
'You mean, they would have kicked you out?'
'Maybe. Probably not. I'm just glad I didn't have to find out'.
Therese looked down at her lap, pulling at the ends of her hair as she processed the sudden depressing turn in their conversation. It hurt, to see Carol hurting.
'Did you ever tell them?' she asked tentatively.
'About Abby, no', Carol answered. 'They still have no idea. But yes, I came out to them'.
'I guess that's why they don't like you', Therese said flatly, remembering what Carol had told her, that day they took Rindy on vacation without her.
Carol nodded. 'It's been hard', she admitted. 'They don't understand, and they don't try to. But there's not a lot I can do about it. I can't change who they are, no more than I can change who I am. I still keep them around, for Rindy's sake, and because, despite everything, I still want them in my life. And, maybe it's naïve, but I'm still holding out hope that one day they'll turn around and say, 'Carol, we're proud of you''. She laughed humourlessly. 'Pathetic, isn't it?'
Therese shook her head. 'Not at all', she assured her, heart breaking at the sad confession. 'I just . . . I hope you're proud of yourself, even if they're not'.
Carol turned to her, a grateful smile on her lips. 'I am', she promised.
Therese often wondered whether New York would feel like home to her, when she finally returned. Sure, she grew up there, but with no family to speak of, no one neighbourhood in which she spent her childhood, her roots weren't buried so deep. She could pull them right out of the ground whenever she wanted to. Sometimes she felt like she already had.
But, as the landscape changed, and leafy green trees with sprawling branches became rigid blocks of concrete and glass, and they finally emerged from the Holland Tunnel into lower Manhattan, she felt . . . indifferent. Was that the right way to describe it? Perhaps. She just knew that there was no sense of wonder as a stream of yellow taxis sailed past her window, no excitement as she caught a glimpse of a subway station. These icons of New York were just . . . well, they were just familiar. She'd seen it all a thousand times before, and, even after a year away, she couldn't bring herself to find any of it particularly interesting.
Maybe she did feel at home, after all.
Tribeca, though, was a neighbourhood she hadn't ever become acquainted with, having never had reason to spend time there. It was, in her eyes, reserved for the glamorous and sophisticated. She was neither. Carol, on the other hand, was both - and so was the chic apartment building in which she lived.
A glassy elevator with marble floors opened out into a short but spacious corridor with two doors on either side. Therese grew increasingly aware of the squeak of her sneakers echoing off the walls as she followed Carol, and tried to tread lighter. The place was just so . . . clean. She worried about the dirty marks she might leave streaked across the marble, dust from the RV park carried 800 miles on her shoes.
Carol unlocked the first door on the right and pushed it open gently. There was only darkness, until Carol stepped inside and reached to the wall, flicking on the light switch and letting a warm white glow illuminate the space. Therese followed her inside, and Carol closed the door behind her.
The apartment was incredible. Therese hadn't expected any less. Not just because it was Carol's home, but also because of everything Carol had told her about Genevieve, and the luxury she liked to surround herself with. The place wasn't huge, but that didn't matter, because it was meticulously decorated. Every piece of furniture placed like an artwork in a museum. Every colour matching perfectly. Every surface gleaming, like it had just been cleaned. Nothing was out of place.
A monochrome kitchen sat to the right-hand side of the front door, opening out into a lounge area with a small circular dining table and a black leather corner sofa facing a flat-screen TV. Venetian blinds were drawn, but not closed, over the floor-to-ceiling windows on the opposite wall. Therese thought she could see a door handle poking out between them, and assumed there must be a terrace or balcony out there. On her left, there were two doors, both closed, before the wall veered off to the side, and whatever lay around the corner was hidden from her view.
'Well, I guess Gen's out', Carol observed, putting her keys down on the counter. 'You wanna go get dinner?'
Therese made a face. 'I'm not really in the mood'.
'Me neither', Carol admitted, sounding relieved. 'I don't feel like eating anything'.
Therese raised an eyebrow. 'Well, what about me?' she offered, unable to keep the flirtatious smirk from her lips.
Carol chuckled, sliding her slender arms around Therese's waist and pulling her closer. 'You'll do just fine', she murmured against her lips.
Chapter 7: Happier Than Ever
Have a good weekend everybody!
Where there was usually light, there was darkness. Therese was so used to waking up with the morning sun flooding the van, the thin sheet she put up over the window as a makeshift curtain no match for breaking summer days. But Carol's blinds were black-out, and so the bedroom remained dim. She knew the sun had risen already, that was clear from the way the light crept through the cracks around the blind, a border of soft yellow around a black square. But she also knew it from the time. The alarm clock on the bedside table announced in glowing white letters that it was seven o'clock.
So it was still early, but Therese had been lying awake for some time now, not for any particular reason she could think of. If she was awoken earlier than usual by her own body clock, it was normally because she was anxious, or stressed, or worried over some important errand she had to run that day. She didn't feel any of those things right now. She was perfectly comfortable, sunken into a luxurious double mattress, a thin white bedsheet wrapped around her, and Carol's arm draped across her stomach, hot breath on the back of her neck.
Carol hadn't yet stirred. For a woman who apparently suffered from insomnia, Therese had only seen her sleeping soundly like this. She smiled to herself at the thought, remembering what Carol had said to her in the car. She slept so well because Therese was next to her. And Therese was only too willing to be something she could hold onto in the night.
For now, though, she'd have to do without. Finally growing bored with just lying there in the darkness, Therese slithered out of bed, slowly and cautiously, so as not to wake Carol. She rummaged in her rucksack as quietly as she could, and pulled on the first clothes she found, a loose-fitting grey t-shirt and a pair of beige plaid shorts. She turned back to the bed before she left, checking Carol was still asleep. Sure enough, her eyes were still closed, a stray golden curl falling over her face, her bare chest still rising and falling evenly. She looked so serene.
Therese wandered out into the hallway. Golden stripes slashed across the walls of the lounge and kitchen where the sun filtered in through the Venetian blinds, but apart from the change in light, everything was exactly as it had been the night before. An empty glass still sat on the draining board next to the sink where she had left it. She went over to refill it and took a huge gulp of water.
There was another thing that was different, though; as she drank, she noticed a black shadow in the corner of her eye. She turned abruptly to the couch, where the movement had caught her attention, to find a black cat staring up at her with curious green eyes. Breathing out a sigh of relief, Therese went over to the couch and kneeled down beside it, reaching out tentatively to stroke the cat's soft head.
'I see you've met Artemis'.
Therese whipped round, startled, to find the owner of the voice, which was low, and dispassionate, and, to her surprise, clipped with an elegant London accent that rang out sharp and clear in the silence.
Genevieve was standing by her bedroom door, pale arms folded across her chest, a sleek mass of thick black hair like a cloak over her shoulders and down her back. She wore a silky camisole pyjama top with matching shorts, and a thin lace robe with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows. Her stature was small, maybe an inch or two shorter than Therese, but her presence was commanding, and Therese couldn't do anything other than stare at her for a few long moments.
The cat nudged her hand again, as if to remind her of its presence.
'Artemis as in-'
'Goddess of the wilderness, yes', Genevieve finished for her. 'Ironic, isn't it? Since she lives in a penthouse'.
Therese shrugged. 'It's big enough. And there's the terrace'.
'Only when the sun hits it, around midday. Otherwise she's not interested'. Genevieve gestured towards the French doors with the slightest nod of her head. 'Want to see it?'
Therese nodded. 'Sure'.
Genevieve went silently over to the doors with a walk so graceful and controlled, she might have been floating. She reached up to unhook the latch at the top and turned the key in the handle before opening the door and walking out onto the terrace. Therese wordelssly followed her, the crisp early morning air rushing to greet her as she stepped outside, the flagstones cool under her bare feet.
It was amazing. The square space was small, decorated only with a couple of rattan deck chairs and a palm tree in a terracotta pot, but in the distance beyond the iron railing was every icon of the New York skyline, all arranged neatly next to each other, as if they'd been built just so she could get a good look at them.
Therese wandered over and leaned her folded arms against the top of the railing, taking a moment to marvel at the view. And it really was marvellous. From where Therese was standing, it wasn't difficult to see why people fell in love with this city, so grand and glassy, buildings gleaming in the sunlight like trophies on a shelf. Maybe even she could even fall in love with it again.
Sure, if I owned a penthouse in Tribeca, Therese thought, her cynicism getting the better of her. If I was as rich as Genevieve. Then maybe.
The dark-haired woman joined her by the railing, and for a few moments they stayed there in comfortable silence. But when Therese glanced to her side, she found Genevieve looking at her intently. Now, standing next to her, Therese was struck by the startling lightness of her eyes, pale blue and hard, like glass. They seemed to stare right through her, as if they could see something more than whatever her expression betrayed. Genevieve's own expression gave nothing away, her strikingly beautiful face a blank canvas.
The thought intimidated her.
Therese frowned. 'What?'
Genevieve just smiled, that hard look dissolving. 'It's nice to meet you, Therese'.
Therese laughed then, only now realising they hadn't yet been properly introduced. 'You too, Genevieve', she smiled back.
'It's Gen', she corrected, shooting Therese a dark, somewhat seductive smile. 'Unless you're angry with me'.
Maybe it was because she was doing it on purpose, but her voice seemed inextricably linked to flirtation, some suggestive undertone running through it. The kind of voice that could read the dictionary and still sound sexy. It might have been something to do with the accent. Or maybe it was just how she spoke to everyone.
'Carol never said you were from the UK', Therese remarked.
'Surprise', Gen deadpanned. 'I've been a New Yorker almost as long as I was a Londoner, but this accent will give me away forever'.
'I like it'.
Therese turned around, leaning back against the railing. 'This place is really beautiful', she complimented.
'Yes', Gen agreed simply.
'How long have you lived here?'
'Seven years. Carol's been with me for two'.
'Did you share it with someone else before?'
'No. I just liked the space. Carol's bedroom was already a guest room, but I turned my office into a bedroom for Rindy. I never used it anyway'.
'Carol said you're an artist'.
Gen made a face. 'Hardly. I work at a gallery'.
'Yeah. The Harkevy Gallery. Maybe you've heard of it'.
Therese blinked. The Harkevy Gallery? Any New Yorker who was remotely interested in the art world had heard of that place. She had dragged Dannie to many an exhibition there, attending the shows of prominent artists from across the country as well as up-and-coming local talent, just dreaming of the day she might see her own photographs hanging on those walls.
'I have, yeah', she said. 'I used to go there all the time, actually'.
'When were you there last?' Gen asked.
Therese shrugged. 'Just over a year ago. Two, maybe'.
The ghost of a smile started on Gen's lips. 'Then we've probably met before', she observed. 'Small world, isn't it?'
'Smaller than I thought', Therese said flatly.
It was a crazy coincidence, sure, but as much as that impressed her, it also infuriated her. She was quickly discovering that travelling a couple thousand miles, trying to put distance between herself and New York, had been a complete waste of time; all it had done was bring her back to the city, to familiar names, familiar places. So much for believing she could pull up her roots. Apparently, they had grown much deeper into the ground than she'd realised.
Genevieve headed towards the door, flipping her luscious dark hair over her shoulder. 'Coffee, baby?' she called behind her.
'Sure, thanks', Therese accepted, following her back inside with a final glance at the sparkling skyline.
Gen was in the kitchen already, reaching up to take two glass mugs from an overhead cupboard and setting them down on the counter.
'Carol tells me you're a photographer', she declared, pulling the filter handle from a professional-looking coffee machine.
'Yeah. Kind of'.
Gen raised an eyebrow. 'Kind of?'
'It's not my profession', Therese clarified. 'Not yet, at least'.
'Well, I'd love to see your work', Gen said nonchalantly.
Therese blinked. 'You mean it?'
'Of course I mean it', Gen replied, as if it were obvious. 'Send me something'.
Then she turned back to the coffee machine like nothing had happened, like she hadn't just offered Therese the opportunity that could change everything.
The morning was blissfully wasted. Carol eventually emerged bleary-eyed from the bedroom as Therese and Genevieve finished their coffee, joining their idle conversation. Gen had to leave for work around nine, and so Carol and Therese were left alone in the apartment once again, Carol blowing off all her responsibilities for the day, assuring Therese that Abby wouldn't be too mad about it.
They spent a few hours doing nothing; lazing around in bed, taking a long shower, sitting out on the terrace and enjoying the morning sun on their faces. Therese called Dannie and told him she was in town, and she'd drop by to see him tomorrow. She had to laugh at his incoherent mumbling in response, the surprise rendering him speechless.
After midday, Carol suggested they go out and get something to eat, and so they walked the 15 minutes down to Gansevoort Market. Therese hadn't been there in years, always finding it too crowded, but once Carol suggested it, she soon felt like trying it again.
The place was undeniably cool. Food vendors lined up along either side of long walkways, cuisines from countless countries all under the same roof, all done up in industrial decor. The smells changed with every few steps forward, salty and spicy and sticky sweet. Therese pointed out the colourful menu propped up outside one of the vendors, with its Chinese lettering written delicately in black marker pen. She suggested they get the bao buns, one of her favourite meals, and Carol just nodded her head in agreement, seemingly happy to order whatever Therese wanted.
They each ordered their bao buns and a couple of cokes, and went to find a table in the eating area. Therese eagerly tucked into her food, soft dough melting in her mouth against the satisfying crunch of the vegetables. She looked across at Carol as she in turn took her first bite, and her face lit up with surprise.
'I never tried these before', she confessed, swallowing the mouthful. 'They're delicious'.
'I know how to make them', Therese announced proudly, taking another bite of her own.
Carol looked impressed. 'Oh yeah?'
Therese nodded. 'I'm capable of more than pancakes and French fries'.
'And here's me thinking diners were only for American junk food', Carol smirked.
'Well, I never learned anything about cooking from working in diners', Therese clarified. 'I never learned a lot about it in general, actually. But my sister-in-law's a really great cook. She's half-Chinese, and every time she goes to visit her grandma in Shanghai, she comes back with a new recipe to teach me'.
'Yeah'. Therese sighed wistfully. 'She's lucky'.
Carol must have caught the slight change in her voice, because her smile faded. 'I guess you never had a grandma, growing up', she said flatly.
Therese shook her head. 'Nope. Sister Alicia, maybe, but I was only at that home for two months before I was moved on'. She looked at her lap, trying to keep her tone light, but finding it hard to do so. 'Shame. It was nice, that place'.
'How many times did you move?'
'I can't even count'.
Carol looked sympathetic. 'It sounds chaotic, for a child'.
'It was', Therese agreed, absentmindedly peeling at the label on her coke bottle. 'Interesting, sure. Never a dull day, but plenty of lonely ones. Even in houses full of people'.
And it was lonely, often. It was strange how, now she lived alone in a van, cramped but cosy, she never felt lonely like she did back then, when nothing was really her own and the people around her drifted in and out of her life like waves lapping at the shore, one after the other. Well, until she was 12, and, for the first time, she found someone constant.
'Of course, I met Dannie, eventually, which solved most of those problems', she continued. 'We just hit it off, right away. I'd never had that before, 'cause I was so shy, and the other kids didn't bother talking to me too much. But we just connected. Started telling everyone we were really related until we almost believed it ourselves. I finally had someone who always had my back. Someone to goof off with'.
Carol smiled. 'I'm sure it was a lot of fun, having a brother'.
'Yeah, it was', Therese remembered fondly, thinking, as she often did, about how different her life might have been, without Dannie. Her teenage years would have been tougher, that's for sure. Just having someone who understood her completely, someone who wasn't one of those patronising social workers who sounded like they were reading lines right out of a psychology textbook, had really helped her during those last years, as both of them tried to figure what they would do when they aged out of the care system. They really leaned on each other, back then, even during the times they were separated, living with different foster families, in different homes. All they knew was that, whatever came next in their lives, they'd do it together.
It always made Therese pity those kids who never had that kind of relationship, who didn't have another kid in their house to grow up along side. But Carol hadn't had that either.
'Was it lonely for you?' she asked. 'Without any siblings?'
'You could say that', Carol said thoughtfully. 'I was close with my cousins. Five of them, all older than me. But my father and his brother weren't friends, and when their family moved to Seattle, I never really saw them again. It was just me left behind, by myself. I was only eight. It was kind of shitty, actually. It used to make me feel bad, thinking I was putting Rindy through the same thing'.
'You never wanted any more kids?'
Carol shrugged. 'It was difficult enough conceiving Rindy, so having another never seemed like an option. That, and the fact that my marriage was pretty much over before she was even born. I think Rindy's okay with it though'. She smiled then. 'That's just another reason I can't pull her out of boarding school. She has sisters there, the girls she shares her dormitory with, the girls who are there when classes are finished for the day. She adores them. And I want that for her, you know? I want her to have a different experience than I did'.
'You wish you'd done something similar?'
'I just wish I got to hang out with people my own age a little more, outside of school at least. I think it made me a very serious child, hanging out with adults all the time. The only person who really let me be a kid was my grandmother. While my parents were expecting me to behave at the dinner table when their friends came over, she was doing arts and crafts with me, teaching me to sew, watching me make up little songs on the grand piano at her house, dancing around to the music she used to listen to when she was a teenager'. She laughed as she remembered, a far-off look in her eyes as she momentarily lost herself in her past. 'And, yes, Nora is lucky to have a grandma who can teach her to cook, because mine could barely fry an egg'.
'Well, apart from that, she sounds wonderful', Therese remarked, smiling.
'She was. I think of her as more of a mother to me than my actual mom was. Not because she spent more time raising me, but just because she was everything a mother should be. She supported me in what I wanted to do, she accepted me for who I was, and who I was becoming. She's everything I try to be for Rindy. I just wish she was here to see how it all turned out'.
'What do you think she'd say, if she was?' Therese asked.
Carol smirked. 'I think she'd call me an idiot, for many of my life choices', she said without hesitation.
It made Therese laugh, picturing Carol getting scolded. 'Really?'
'Well, she definitely wouldn't have been thrilled about me getting married so young. She did that. She was 19 when she married my grandfather. She loved him forever, but she also said it was one of the worst mistakes she ever made'.
'She thought it was a mistake?'
Carol nodded. 'Because she had to give up everything she wanted to do with her own life', she said, like it was obvious. 'And I think she would have been worried that I'd do the same'.
'But you didn't'.
Therese nodded in understanding. 'Well, what do you think she'd say about your life now?'
Carol thought about it a little longer this time, resting her head in her hand as she mulled it over. 'I don't think she'd be surprised', she said eventually.
She shook her head. 'I think she always knew I wasn't cut out for the traditional life my parents wanted for me. She was right. This wasn't what was planned. But now I'm happier than ever'. She reached out across the table and laid her hand on top of Therese's. 'And happier since I met you'.
Therese blushed. 'I feel that way too', she said bashfully.
Carol smiled, dreamy and distant. 'The same place', she mused aloud, sipping at her coke.
Chapter 8: Getting Better
A little introspection for your Monday, with love from a small town girl who often dreams of calling other places home, but who still lives in the place where she was born (and still loves it, sometimes). Tell me your thoughts!
In that spontaneous moment Therese had agreed to go to New York with Carol, the thought of how she might get back to Waterloo never crossed her mind. She was too caught up in the moment to let such an issue bother her. Besides, it wasn't even an issue. She just told herself she'd book a train ticket, or a seat on a bus. It would be simple enough. But, as the weekend approached, and Harge was due to drop Rindy off with Carol, Therese still had no plans.
In the end, she was grateful to have left it until the last minute. Dannie had called on what would be her last day with Carol, announcing that he was going to stay with a college friend in Cleveland for a couple nights, and he'd drive her if she could take a bus from there to Chicago. He'd hired a car and he'd pick her up at six in the morning.
She and Carol had stayed awake most of the night, making love, talking afterwards, staring up at the ceiling with their hands joined between them, ignoring what awaited them in the morning. Therese would have refused to talk about that, but Carol didn't try either.
After finally succumbing to a few hours of peaceful sleep, Therese woke abruptly, as if jolted awake from a dream. She reluctantly removed herself from Carol's embrace and began packing up her things. When it was time to go, she pressed a kiss to Carol's temple, whispering goodbye in her ear, her heart aching already. Carol, still half asleep, mumbled something incoherent, but reached out for Therese's hand, holding it close to her chest, like she was trying to keep her from leaving.
It would have been so much more depressing, though, had it not been for Dannie, parked up outside Carol's apartment building in his rented BMW, greeting Therese with his usual enthusiasm despite how early it was, immediately thrusting a hot cup of coffee into her hand as she got into the car. She felt that hollowness in her chest, but she didn't have time to sit and brood over it, over her separation from Carol and the uncertainty over when or where she'd see her again. Not when Dannie had her laughing out loud before they'd even made it to midtown.
They'd never been on a road trip together, let alone one that would take seven hours. Whether he was using his friend in Cleveland as an excuse, or whether he really was planning on driving out there anyway, Therese was so grateful he'd suggested it. She couldn't think of anything worse than having to endure the first half of this long journey by herself, sitting alone with her sadness.
The roads were as sleepy as their drivers, and, beating the rush hour traffic, they were quickly through the Lincoln Tunnel and out onto the open highway, sailing through dense areas of deep green forest on either side. Therese finished her coffee with a jelly donut from the box of 12 on the backseat, and Dannie ate his third.
'You know what movie I saw the other day?' Dannie asked, around two hours into the journey.
''The Wizard of Oz''.
Therese laughed. 'I don't think I ever need to see that again'.
That was Renata's favourite film. She was one of the carers at a group home for kids awaiting placement with foster families. Movie nights at that place were Tuesdays and Fridays, and in the three and a half months Therese spent there, she was sure she'd seen 'The Wizard of Oz' at least 20 times.
'Well, that's what I thought', Dannie said. 'But I turned on the TV, and there it was, and I just sat and watched the whole thing'.
Therese smirked. Dannie had only been there two months. It was another one of those periods of time in which their paths crossed, passing from one foster home to the next.
'Can you still remember all the words?' she asked.
'Of course. Can you?'
'Yep. I think I could watch it in my head, if I wanted to'.
'Me too. It all came back, when I saw it. Nora told me to shut up when I started singing along'.
Therese chuckled to herself. 'It was fun, though. Movie night'.
'Yeah, it was', Dannie said fondly. 'Do you remember that time Dylan Nicholas got Renata to put on 'The Human Centipede'?'
'What, after he convinced her it was a nature documentary?'
'Oh my God. The younger kids were traumatised. I can just picture Renata rushing around trying to find the remote so she could turn it off'.
''Cause Luis Guerrero hid it!'
Dannie shook his head, laughing. 'That was so funny'.
'Until it got everyone over 12 banned from movie night', Therese reminded him.
'How old were we then?'
Dannie shrugged. '15, I guess? Maybe 16?'
Therese exhaled with a whistle. 'So I haven't seen 'The Wizard of Oz' in more than a decade'.
'Are you surprised?' Dannie asked, one eyebrow raised.
'It just doesn't seem so long ago, is all'.
'Well, it isn't, not really. We've just changed a lot since then'.
Therese shifted awkwardly in her seat. 'Speak for yourself', she mumbled.
Dannie looked at her incredulously. 'You've changed the most!'
Therese wasn't convinced. 'Maybe I have, but my situation hasn't', she protested.
'What do you mean?'
'Well, I'm doing the same things as before. The same jobs I was doing when I was 18. I haven't exactly made a lot of progress'.
Dannie shrugged. 'But you're happier', he said, more of a statement than a question.
'Then that's all the progress you need'.
Therese looked at him, saw that wide grin on his face, the one he always wore when he was pleased with himself.
'Since when did you start getting so wise?' she teased.
Dannie laughed. 'Shut up. Besides, you are making progress. This thing with Carol's roommate could lead to something, right?'
Therese looked at her lap. Oh, yeah. That. She'd been trying to push the idea to the back of her mind, which had been easy enough, since Genevieve had practically disappeared after that first morning they'd met. According to Carol, that's just what Gen did. Spending nights with friends, and lovers, and whoever else she'd somehow become involved with. And then she'd turn up after a few days like nothing had happened.
So that's what Gen was like. Unreliable. It was why Therese hadn't taken her offer too seriously. She'd probably forgotten about it already. And if she hadn't? Well, that might be even greater cause for concern.
'I've been getting kinda anxious about that, actually', Therese admitted.
Dannie frowned. 'I thought you'd be excited'.
'I am excited. It's really cool of Gen to do this for me'.
'Then what's the problem?'
'It's not a problem, it's just . . . it's just that my pictures are so personal. I mean, I always intended for my work to be seen, you know that. But I don't think I ever realised how terrifying it would be, turning them over to someone like Genevieve. Someone who knows talent when she sees it . . . and someone who can judge whether I have any'.
'Tee, there is absolutely no doubt that you have talent', Dannie assured her.
Therese shrugged. 'Even so. Those pictures are my life, for the past year. They're me, they're my friends. They're Carol, and the way I see her. I think if Gen didn't like them, I wouldn't be able to see it as anything other than personal. It would hurt me'.
'But you're still gonna do it, right?' Dannie asked, sounding slightly alarmed. 'Send the pictures, I mean'.
She nodded without hesitation, despite all the doubts she'd just confessed. Her head was always going to win out over her heart in these circumstances. 'Yeah, I have to', she said, knowing any other answer would sound wrong even in her own ears. 'I can't let a chance like that pass me by, it would be stupid. It just scares me, that's all'.
Dannie looked satisfied. 'Okay. So, you've been worrying that Genevieve might not like your work. That's normal. Being scared of criticism is normal. But, Tee, what if she likes it?'
He sounded so hopeful, and that attitude was too infectious not to get under Therese's skin. What if she likes it? Even if nothing happened, even if Gen couldn't offer her any more than her praise . . . then at least she'd have the validation of someone whose opinion mattered. At least she'd know that her aspirations weren't such a distant dream.
She grinned at Dannie. 'Then maybe I'll feel like a real photographer'.
It was almost dark by the time Therese finally arrived on the RV park, dragging her weary feet in the dirt, her rucksack growing heavier by the second, as if someone had filled it with rocks when she wasn't looking. She supposed 14 hours of non-stop travelling did that to a person, even if all she'd done was sit. First in the car, then on a bus, and then another.
She struggled over to Virginia, sitting obediently where she'd left her, dust collecting on the white paint from where the wind had picked up and thrown a smattering of dirt against her sides. She needed a clean, Therese knew. But there was something else that bothered her as she approached. A square of paper ripped from a lined notepad, taped to the door so she couldn't miss it.
She tore it down.
WENT UP TO MONTANA. SORRY I COULDN'T STAY TO SAY GOODBYE. IF YOU NEED ME, COME FIND ME, AND IF NOT, THEN I'LL SEE YOU AROUND.
IT WAS GREAT MEETING YOU, KID. BE GOOD!
Therese's heart sank. Robichek left? She peered along the line to where her van had been parked. Sure enough, another had replaced it. Similar, but not the same. She hadn't even noticed, but why would she need to? Robichek's presence at the park was as reliable as the changing of the seasons. And now, suddenly, she was gone.
Without even stopping to dump her rucksack, she marched over to Jeanette's van, seeing the lamp in the window was turned on, and knocked on the door. She heard a creak inside, Jeanette getting up from the bed, and a moment later the door slid open.
Jeanette's eyes widened, her face lighting up. 'You're back!' she exclaimed.
'Robichek left?' Therese demanded, cutting straight to the point.
Jeanette's smile faded almost as quickly as it had appeared. 'Yeah', she said flatly. 'Two days ago'.
Therese took off her rucksack and dropped it to the floor, like a sulking child throwing a toy. 'I can't believe I missed her'.
'Well, none of us expected it. Of course, we knew she'd move on soon, but she didn't really give us any warning'.
'She should have'.
'But you didn't either'.
Therese frowned. 'What?'
'You disappeared', Jeanette said pointedly, her tone accusatory.
Therese was taken aback. Is that really what she thought?
'I was gonna come back', Therese mumbled.
Jeanette held up her hands. 'Well, we didn't know that'.
'But it was just spontaneous', Therese protested. 'Carol asked me to go with her and I couldn't say no. But I wasn't leaving'.
Jeanette opened her mouth to argue back, but she sighed before she spoke, like she couldn't see any point in saying more.
'How did you get back?' she asked, changing the subject.
'My brother drove me to Cleveland, and I took a bus the rest of the way. Two buses, actually'.
'How was New York?'
Therese smiled sheepishly. 'It was really great', she admitted.
'Because you were with Carol'.
'Of course. Why else?'
Jeanette shrugged. 'Just wondering if being back there made you fall in love with the place again. I mean, for a moment there, I thought you were gone for good'.
Therese stopped smiling, defensive suddenly. For some reason, she felt called out.
'I'm not going back there, Jeanette', she said firmly.
Jeanette frowned. 'Not ever?'
'Not yet'. Therese sighed, turning to lean back against the door so she didn't have to look at Jeanette, didn't have to feel judged by her. She knew deep down that Jeanette didn't judge her, not really, but that was what Therese projected. She couldn't help it.
She looked out at the line of white vans, parked up in their neat crescent, the same shape as the moon above, its silvery light reflecting off of them, like a string of pearls draped across the grass. It was so tranquil tonight, the sound of crickets like a gentle lullaby, the cool breeze soothing against her skin. The contrast between this peaceful scene and the sprawling city she'd left behind that same morning was almost laughable. But that was okay, as she was slowly coming to realise. The contrast was just a contrast. It didn't mean one place had to be better than the other.
'Jack told me once that small town culture is wishing you lived anywhere else, until you grow up and realise it was pretty great all along', she remembered. 'Is that true?'
Jeanette thought about this for a moment. 'Well, I suppose it is', she agreed. 'I lived in three towns my whole life, before I sold up. All sleepy little places in Oklahoma. Most people I went to high school with had dreams of leaving, and I did too, for a while. But most of us stuck around. And, you know what? I had the best time there, raising my family. It worked for me, that quiet life. It doesn't work for everyone'.
'No. I guess not'.
'Why do you ask?'
'It's just, the whole reason I started travelling out here was to live that quiet life. I just needed somewhere totally different than New York. I wanted to see if small towns worked for me, because the city definitely didn't. It just made me think of what Jack said. Maybe we all grow up hating our hometowns, whether it's a tiny village or a metropolis. We all wanna see if the grass is greener somewhere else'.
'Well, the grass here is brown. I don't know how you feel about that'.
Therese smirked. 'Still pretty green to me. Still makes me happy, being here. Being on the road. But . . . I was happy the past few days, too. I don't know. Maybe I'm being too hard on New York'.
'So you have fallen in love with it again', Jeanette said, folding her arms, a smug smile on her face.
Therese rolled her eyes. 'No, I haven't', she insisted. 'But, for so long now, I've been blaming everything on New York. Maybe it's time I stopped'.
Jeanette nodded slowly, thoughtfully. 'Can you imagine yourself living there, in the future?' she asked after a moment.
'Yeah, I think so', Therese admitted, as much as it pained her to do so, as much as it felt like she'd become a traitor to everything she'd believed in over the past year. 'But I'd need to have reasons. I'd need to have made progress in my life'.
'And Carol?' Jeanette blurted out suddenly.
Therese blinked. 'What about her?'
'She means a lot to you'.
'Yeah. She does'.
'And she lives in New York'.
'Are you asking me if I'd go back for Carol?'
Jeanette just shrugged, feigning innocence. 'Well, would you?'
Therese stared at Jeanette. If she had felt called out before, it was nothing compared to now. Jeanette didn't back down, just stared back at her expectantly.
Therese sighed. Would she go back for Carol? Well, honestly, she'd love to. She loved being with Carol. She'd love to see what might happen between them, if that's what Carol wanted too. It seemed like she did. But it wasn't that simple.
Therese considered, for what felt like the millionth time, what it was that had driven her out of New York. My own failure. It sounded trite, even to her, but it was the best way to explain everything, when people asked her why she didn't want to go home. All of the reasons she stayed away, condensed into that neat little phrase. She said it to Carol, she remembered, and Carol had told her she was being too hard on herself. But Carol would never understand. More than that, she would never be able to fix it. This was something Therese had to fix herself.
'I wish I could say yes, but . . . it wouldn't be right, for either of us. My own failure is my own to deal with, and I need to deal with it. That's why I left New York in the first place. But being with Carol wouldn't change my situation. Going back for her when I'm not ready would be like going back and expecting her to solve all my problems. She can't help me with that. I can't let her either'.
Jeanette smiled, and it wasn't smug this time. It was proud.
'You're so sure of yourself', she remarked, squeezing the top of Therese's arm.
Therese almost laughed. It was the same thing she'd told Carol about Dannie. He was always so sure of himself, but that had never been in Therese's nature. But she had also said that she was working on it. She was getting better.
So she told Jeanette the same.
'Yeah. I'm getting better at that'.
And this time, she really believed it.
The day after she arrived back in Waterloo, newly unemployed and with nothing to do, she drove into the town centre to visit the print shop. She sat almost an hour with the owner, an artsy looking guy with a handlebar moustache and nautical tattoos covering every inch of his arms, him acting as a sounding board as she looked through the hundreds of photographs on her laptop. The very first one she'd taken since leaving New York was dated May 14th, the day she bought Virginia. She smiled as she clicked through the album, memories catching her off guard as she saw the faces of those friends she hadn't seen in months, restaurants she used to work in, battered road signs displaying in worn white lettering the names of the towns she'd temporarily called home. It was like flipping through the pages of a journal. She read her own story in those pictures.
She finally picked out a selection of her favourites, and got each one printed on smooth matte paper. Then she packed them up into a folder, popped the folder into a large brown envelope, and headed for the post office, where she mailed it to Genevieve Cantrell at the Harkevy Gallery. Nausea rolled in her stomach as the envelope was taken away, nerves getting the best of her, empty hands clutching at the air like they couldn't quite work out what was missing. But her pictures were gone, on their way to New York, released into the world like doves from an iron cage. She'd done what she was afraid of, and she could be proud of that at least.
Later in the week, as Therese was crouched on the ground by Virginia's wheels with a bucket of hot soapy water and a sponge, her phone rang. She fished it out of her back pocket. Unknown number. She hadn't been expecting a call, but the sudden shiver down her spine had her feeling like she knew exactly who it was.
She stood up. 'Hello?'
'Hi, baby. It's Gen'.
Therese froze at the sound of her voice. 'Oh, hi', she said, trying to sound nonchalant. 'What's up?'
'I got your pictures', Gen replied in that deadpan voice of hers. It gave nothing away.
Therese breathed a deep sigh of relief. 'Thank you', she said earnestly.
Gen just continued, like she hadn't heard. 'I showed them to Harkevy, and he thought the same. He wants to exhibit them, in the gallery'.
A burst of excitement crackled through her body like a firework, and she almost dropped her phone. 'Are you kidding?'
'Not kidding. I gave him your number, so he'll be in touch over the next few days about arranging the show and flying you back out here'.
Therese held her hand over her heart, feeling it hammer against her ribcage. 'Gen, you don't know how much this means to me', she breathed.
'Yeah, yeah', Gen said dismissively, clearly not interested in getting emotional. 'I'll see you soon, Therese. Call me if you need anything'.
'I will. Thank you'.
As the line went dead, she slumped down into her camping chair, heart pounding, mouth dry, as if she'd just run a marathon.
Well. Now I feel like a real photographer.
Chapter 9: New York, New Friends
Therese was in that satisfied state of having enjoyed a good meal as she walked up West 42nd Street. Her stomach full of baked salmon and crispy parmentier potatoes, her usually sharp vision slightly blurred around the edges after a few glasses of startlingly expensive white wine, a warm fuzziness in her chest. She was tired, but it was blissful. The kind of tired that follows a long but productive day.
It was still warm out, though it had been dark for almost an hour. Therese looked to her left, over into Bryant Park, where people were scattered across the grass in their groups, black polka dots against a blanket of greenery. They were still in t-shirts, no need for a jacket.
Genevieve was wearing one anyway. Well, it was a blazer, actually. Grey pinstripe with matching pants, and a crisp white shirt underneath, all tailored to fit her perfectly. Therese paled in comparison, in her burgundy red button-up and plain black cigarette pants. She wasn't exactly well-versed in how to dress professionally. Not that it mattered. She'd gotten the job before she'd even arrived.
Therese had flown into JFK that afternoon, where Genevieve picked her up in a glamorous Rolls Royce that might have belonged to her or to the gallery. Therese couldn't tell, and she thought it would be rude to ask. Whoever owned the car, riding in it made her feel like a VIP as she watched the city slip by the window, sunlight reflecting off glass like the camera flashes of paparazzi who weren't really there.
Genevieve, as Harkevy's right-hand woman, seemed to have been assigned the role of looking after Therese while she was in New York, which she was grateful for. It was comforting to have a familiar face she'd be able to turn to over the next few days. At least, familiar enough. Therese still didn't quite know what to make of Gen. The woman reminded of her a villain from a superhero movie; cold and calculating, with a wicked smile that could disarm her at once. And yet, Therese knew she could trust her. It was she who had made all this happen, after all.
They had a dinner reservation with Harkevy at a high-end midtown restaurant, but before that, Therese had enjoyed a couple of hours to herself, plenty of time to check into her lavish suite at the Knickerbocker Hotel and get settled. She'd argued with Genevieve at first, when it was announced that the secretary at the gallery had booked a room for her. She didn't need a hotel, she could just stay with Dannie. Gen just told her that this was policy for all artists travelling from other cities, and if she didn't want the room, then it would simply stay empty for a week. Therese had conceded then, and, now she'd arrived, she was glad she had. Staying in any hotel was a rare treat, but especially one as luxurious as this. Hers was a corner suite, the bright lights of Times Square filtering in through the windows on two sides of the room, her own small sanctuary in the heart of the city. She thought about asking Carol to stay the night, but she was with Rindy, and Therese didn't want to interrupt their precious time together.
Instead, she had showered and dressed alone, straightening her hair and and spending more time on her make-up than she had in the past month put together. As seven o'clock rolled around, and Gen came to meet her, she felt like she might throw up. Gen had assured her that the dinner was more of a social event than a professional one, but Therese couldn't help but feel the pressure.
Harkevy looked exactly like she remembered, having seen him around the gallery on her previous visits. Tall, broad-shouldered, dressed impeccably in a navy blue suit and tie, with sandy brown hair flecked with silver and eyes so dark that she could barely see the pupils. He smiled politely as they entered, and as he reached out to shake Therese's hand, she noticed the enormous designer watch on his wrist, glittering with tiny diamonds around it's face.
As it turned out, though, she needn't have been so intimidated. She'd completely misjudged his character. Harkevy, despite his being 20 years her senior, had in his youth walked a similar path to Therese. He too was born in Queens, a child of immigrant parents, though his were loving where Therese's had abandoned her. He too spent his early twenties struggling to pay the bills. They laughed as they traded stories of their growing up in the city, Gen watching on in bewilderment. It was bewildering, Therese thought. She hadn't expected to feel this kind of kinship with Harkevy. Having frequented plenty of art galleries back when she was still living in New York, she knew that almost all the guys who owned them existed in their own privileged, high society bubbles. They were people like Genevieve, not people like her. She felt graced by good fortune, trusting that her work was in good hands, the hands of a man who understood her.
The conversation had, inevitably, moved to the show, which would be taking place from Friday to Sunday. Therese was due to visit the gallery in the morning to meet the team and work with them on the installation of her photographs. The prospect of it was so alien to her, and as Harkevy detailed their plans for the next couple days, she just nodded eagerly, hoping her expression didn't betray her naiveté. There were several uncomfortable moments in which she felt like a clueless intern who had stumbled into a meeting she wasn't supposed to attend, and she cursed herself, cringing internally at her own inexperience. Yet still, as she headed back towards the hotel, she couldn't help but feel optimistic. She was here because they believed in her, both the brilliant man they'd left at the restaurant, and the true ally who now walked by her side.
Gen nudged her gently as they neared Times Square. 'You're quiet', she remarked.
'Always am', Therese responded.
Gen smirked. 'Okay. I'll allow it'.
'I'm just thinking'.
'All this'. Therese looked at her, into her sapphire blue eyes. 'You. I know for some reason you won't let me thank you, and you always brush it off when I try, but I really do appreciate you taking a chance on me'.
A flash of surprise seemed to pass across Gen's face. She was caught, mouth slightly open, as if she was deciding whether or not to speak. It was the first time Therese had ever seen her look uncertain.
'I never like the art that people give me', Gen admitted after a moment. 'I said I'd look over yours, like it might be a favour to Carol. You're really special to her, and I thought she'd appreciate it, you know? But when I saw your pictures, I couldn't ignore them. I really love your work, and I mean that'.
She smiled then, that sardonic smirk she wore like armour slipping into something more genuine.
'Thank you, Gen', Therese said earnestly, only hoping she'd take it seriously.
Gen nodded, like she was finally accepting it. 'Call Carol when you get upstairs, won't you?' she asked. 'I get the feeling she'll be waiting'.
'And tell her I'm not coming home, so she shouldn't wait up'.
Therese frowned. 'Where are you going?'
Gen shrugged. 'Won't know till I get there'.
Then she shot Therese a wink, and turned on her heel to walk away, the sound of her stilettos on the sidewalk dissolving into the growing distance between them.
Therese went upstairs to her room, kicking off her shoes and flopping down onto her bed, shuffling so she could reach her phone in her back pocket. Finally. The evening had been wonderful, but with every passing second, Carol only weighed heavier on her mind. She just couldn't wait to call her.
'Hi, darling', Carol answered the phone.
Therese swooned at the sound. 'Hi'.
'How was your day?'
'Crazy. I only just got back'.
'Was dinner good?'
'Yeah. Harkevy was really nice. He was so . . . normal'.
Carol laughed. 'Normal?
'Like, he wasn't some hot-shot art guy. He was just good to talk to'.
'And the food?'
'Sounds like a successful day'.
'Yeah. It was'.
'Well, now you're a sought-after photographer, you might be too busy, but I thought I'd ask anyway. I was wondering if you'd like to spend the afternoon with Rindy and I, tomorrow'. Carol stumbled, suddenly. 'It's totally okay if you don't, but-'
'No, I'd really like to', Therese interrupted, relieving her of her doubts.
Therese could hear the smile in her voice.
They were waiting for her on the corner outside the hotel, laughing about something. Therese spotted them instantly as she stepped out of the cool lobby and into the stuffy afternoon. She almost didn't want to go over, feeling like she might spoil the lovely scene, but Carol had already seen her, and reached out her hand to wave her over. Rindy noticed her too, the smile fading from her face. She took a small step closer to Carol's side.
Rindy looked exactly like Carol might have done when she was a child. That was Therese's first impression of her. Her hair a little longer, a little straighter, but the same tall, slim frame, the same pale skin and blue-grey eyes.
'Hey, guys', Therese greeted them as she approached.
Carol put a gentle hand on her daughter's shoulder. 'Rindy, this is Therese', she introduced her.
Rindy looked Therese up and down, sizing her up. 'Hi', she said, a little cautiously.
Therese smiled. 'It's nice to finally meet you, Rindy'.
'Nice to meet you, too'.
'Rindy's decided she'd like to go bowling', Carol announced, ruffling the little girl's dark blonde hair. 'Is that okay with you?'
'Sure', Therese agreed. 'I haven't been bowling in ages'.
'Neither have I', Rindy added.
'Okay'. Carol nodded towards the crosswalk. 'Come on, then'.
Rindy followed her mother's directions, but Carol hung back just a little, letting her walk in front. Then she turned to Therese.
'Hi, you', she smiled, giving her a chaste kiss when Rindy wasn't looking.
The bowling alley Carol suggested was just a short walk away, on the edge of the Garment District. It was all shiny compared to the one Therese used to work at back in Queens, her weekend job while she was still in high school. She loved that place, even if it was kind of a dump. On less busy shifts, she and her co-workers would challenge each other, playing for money or bragging rights, and somewhere along the line, they all got really good at bowling.
But that was a decade ago, and Therese was a little rusty. She still won the game, by a lot. She didn't know if she should have let Rindy claim a victory, but the little girl didn't seem bothered. She was probably too old for that anyway.
After the game, the three of them found a free table away from the lanes, where families were eating and drinking in amongst a selection of classic arcade machines. Therese and Rindy each took a seat, but Carol hung back, hovering behind Rindy's chair.
'Are you hungry?' she asked her, stroking a hand down the side of her face. 'Shall I go get us some nachos?'
'Yes, please!' Rindy exclaimed.
Carol smirked. 'Therese?'
Therese nodded. 'I'm always in the mood for nachos'.
'Alright'. Carol squeezed Rindy's shoulder. 'Rindy, you stay here with Therese for a minute, okay?'
'Okay', the little girl agreed.
Carol shot Therese a wink, and headed for the bar.
An awkward silence enveloped Therese and Rindy, the first time the two of them had been alone without Carol's presence, or the blessed distraction of a heavy bowling ball and ten pins in the distance.
Therese had no idea what to say. Fortunately, it was Rindy who spoke first.
'You're really good at bowling', she said, a little disinterested. It wasn't really a compliment, more an attempt at small talk.
'Thanks', Therese said anyway. 'I used to work at a bowling alley'.
That caught her attention. 'You did?'
'Yep. When I was 17'.
'Why'd you quit?'
'I didn't. It got closed down'.
'But I found another job'.
Rindy mulled this over for a moment. 'I'd like to be a waitress', she mused. 'My mom was one, before she had me'.
Therese nodded. 'She told me all about it'.
Rindy was quiet, and Therese could almost see the cogs turning in her head. She was making her assessments, Therese supposed, and she had every right to do so.
'How long have you known her?' the little girl asked. It sounded more like a challenge than a simple question.
Therese played along. 'Three months'.
'She never stops talking about you'.
Rindy didn't flinch, just stared Therese down for a long, uncomfortable moment. So she knows about us, Therese realised. But that wasn't all she was trying to say with this silent confrontation. There was something too vaguely threatening about it all. Therese could only admire her determination. She was clearly very protective of her mother.
'Well, she talks a lot about you too', Therese told her, in an attempt to shift focus.
Rindy took the bait. 'What does she say?' she asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
'That you go to boarding school, and you're having a great time'.
She smiled, then. 'Yeah, I am', she said proudly.
'What's it like there?' Therese asked.
Rindy put both her hands flat on the table, leaning forward slightly, as if she had something important to say. 'It's this huge old stone building, with all the classrooms, and a couple smaller ones next to it', she explained, like she was telling a story. 'That's where the dormitories are, where I sleep. It's like a grid of six beds'. She drew imaginary lines on the table with her fingertip, attempting to illustrate it. 'Here's mine. And my bed is next to Bridey's - she's my best friend. Her parents are journalists in Dublin. Sometimes we see them on TV, on the news. It's so cool. Bridey's really good at doing hair. She taught me how to do all different kinds of braids. Now we practise on our other friends'.
Therese smirked as Rindy finally stopped for breath. Her enthusiasm was endearing, as was her childish manner of speaking, venturing this way and that into tangents that never quite interlinked.
'What are your friends like?' she asked.
'Really nice. Most of them are Irish. All the girls who I share my dormitory with are. But there are some from other countries too. I'm the only New Yorker, but there's a few other Americans. One from Washington DC, one from Hartford, one from . . . I forgot'.
'And you like living there?'
'The weather's bad, but yeah, I like it. It's so green. My school is right in the middle of the country, there are no cities nearby'.
'What do you do after class, then? And on the weekends?'
Rindy shrugged. 'We can take the bus into town, if we want to. Go shopping, stuff like that. I usually stick around, though, by the playing fields. Training. I'm on the lacrosse team, and the hockey team'.
'Sounds like you're busy'.
'Yeah, the year goes so fast. It's like, I'm here for the holidays, and then it feels like a couple weeks back at school, and then I'm home again for summer vacation'.
'No time to get homesick, then'.
It was an offhand comment, but Rindy faltered, like she'd been called out. Her shoulders drooped, as if all the energy had drained right out of her.
'I guess you could say that', she muttered. 'I miss my mom though'.
Therese frowned, worried suddenly that she might have implied something she didn't mean. 'Of course you do. You can be happy where you are, and still miss people back home'.
'No, I know', Rindy assured her. 'I just feel guilty about it sometimes'.
'That you're happy?'
'Well, yeah. I guess. Because I'm having so much fun at school, and I don't want her to think that I'm like, rubbing it in her face or something'.
'You worry about her', Therese realised.
Rindy nodded. 'I know she misses me. I worry that she gets lonely. I mean, I know she's not lonely. She has Gen - have you met Gen? She's the coolest. But I think it must be harder since my Aunt Abby moved away. She's my mom's bestest friend'.
'But they still see each other'.
'Not as often, though. She used to just drop by our apartment, or mom and her would go out to dinner or something. They can't do that anymore, you know?'
'Yeah. I guess you're right'.
'And that's why I worry', Rindy continued. 'Aunt Abby isn't around, but neither am I. Ireland is so far away. Sometimes I feel like I should come home or something. I know my mom would like that. But I don't want to'.
She looked down at her lap, ashamed. Therese was sorry to see it, but she was also surprised. It seemed slightly strange that Rindy would choose to confide in her like this, but Therese understood all too well that temptation of spilling secrets to strangers. Someone who doesn't know you, and doesn't judge you. After all, that's how it had been with Carol, that first day they met.
Of course, now Therese knew Carol, and she thought she knew Rindy too, through Carol's stories of her. She was confident, and ambitious, and independent. But it was those attributes that had been antagonising her all this time, had been making her worry that her mother was feeling isolated. And that was something Carol clearly wasn't aware of.
Therese didn't know how to make it better. She couldn't tell Rindy the truth, that Carol actually had considered pulling her out of school. Knowing something like that just made it worse. Therese had already had enough experience of it.
'I get it, what you're going through', she empathised. 'I know my brother wants me to come home, and I don't. I tell him no, every time he asks. I feel guilty about it too'.
Rindy looked up at her, tilting her head to one side. 'What do you do about it?'
'Nothing, really', Therese admitted, running a hand through her hair. 'I know I should call him more, to be honest. But . . . even though he doesn't understand why I'm away so much, it's never gotten in the way of our friendship. We're still as close as ever'.
'And he forgives you?' Rindy asked hopefully.
Therese smiled. 'Yeah. He does'.
Rindy nodded slowly as she considered it. 'Thanks, Therese'.
Rindy shrugged sheepishly. 'Making me feel better. And for making my mom feel better. She really likes you, you know'.
'I really like her too'.
Rindy smiled, and Therese smiled back at her, an understanding passing silently between them. Friends, Therese decided. And she was glad of it.
'So', Rindy said after a moment, leaning closer to the table. 'Do you really live in a van?'
Chapter 10: Houseless
Thanks to anyone who's still reading!
Familiar faces stared back from the walls. Bright blue skies, faded paintwork, tanned skin, browning grass, rusted metal, strands of grey hair. Therese breathed it all in, that earthy smell of summer evenings seeming to emanate from the frames, the voices of her friends and neighbours calling out to her. She could hear them now.
Apart from that, the gallery was silent. She was alone, given a few precious moments by herself to wander along its walls. Harkevy had told her to go make sure she was satisfied with the layout, but Therese couldn't look with such objectivity anymore. Being in that space, even with her own work on display, she felt just like she used to, when she visited the gallery. She was a fan. Someone who'd come to shows to be inspired, to enjoy other people's creative visions. Someone who'd gaze in wonder at the walls. She couldn't help but do the same thing now. It was as if she were a VIP, allowed access to the show before opening time.
The gallery was split over three levels, ramps leading to low mezzanines and one large upper floor accessible by an iron spiral staircase. The walls were all white, with strip lighting running along the edge of the floor, illuminating each frame from below. The photographs themselves were hung in no particular order. She supposed she could have placed them chronologically, but that would have been too much effort. Time periods seemed to blend together so seamlessly, and while she knew exactly where she'd taken each photograph, she'd have to trawl back through her hard drive to check the dates. It didn't seem worth it. It didn't matter anyway.
There was the diner she'd worked at just outside Baton Rouge, flourescent lights against a darkening sky. A teenage girl on vacation with her family, fastening her bike helmet over her braided hair. Her friend Vivian, who she'd met on an RV park in South Carolina, head leaning in her hand as she sat patiently with her fishing rod dipped into the cool waters of Lake Marion. It was only afterwards that she'd informed Therese the place was infested with alligators. Then there was Robichek in her camping chair, head back and mouth hanging open in a snore as she slept, a folded newspaper resting on her chest. A little boy with scruffy red hair and a smattering of freckles across his nose, hands outstretched, a spider crawling across his palms. Patrick, a thirty-something who'd been her neighbour in Missouri for just a week, bringing home his laundry in nothing but a pair of jeans and cowboy boots, his bare chest a patchwork of different shades of sunburn. And Jeanette, laughing as she tried desperately to keep her laundry on the line, a t-shirt flapping wildly in the wind, a pair of shorts whizzing through the air above her head. Therese remembered taking that shot. She'd had to abandon her camera immediately afterwards and help Jeanette take her clothes inside. One of her socks blew away, and they never found it again. That night was the strongest gale Therese had ever experienced, Virginia creaking and rocking from side to side, jolting her from sleep whenever she closed her eyes.
She smiled at the memory.
Therese turned around. Carol was lingering by the side door, poking her head out tentatively. Therese didn't know how long she'd been watching her, too lost in her own little world to notice. She said nothing, just held out her hand for Carol to take.
Having come in through the back door, Carol hadn't seen the space yet, hanging back with Genevieve in her office, letting Therese take the time she needed. Therese was glad of it, because now she had the privilege of showing her around, letting her be the first member of her audience, seeing it all through her eyes.
Therese watched her carefully as she led her through the gallery, taking in the pictures one by one, telling her the stories behind them. Carol never let go of her hand, fingers interlocked, stroking her thumb up and down over Therese's skin. She was quiet, just listening intently as Therese spoke, until they reached a particular picture by the foot of the stairs.
Carol froze, a stifled gasp escaping her lips. Therese smiled smugly.
It was Carol, in the photograph. Leaning back lazily against Virginia in her black jeans and green t-shirt, arms folded across her chest, her face obscured by aviator sunglasses and a few stray waves of golden hair. It was the first picture Therese had ever taken of her, that morning in Waterloo. It was also the only one she'd taken before they got into Carol's car and sped away to New York.
'What do you think?' Therese asked her.
'I think it's cheating', she responded, though she couldn't keep the smile from her face. 'I'm not a nomad'.
Therese slipped her arm around her waist. 'You were one', she said, smiling up at her. 'Just for a night'.
'And it was a wonderful night', Carol remembered. She leaned in and kissed Therese softly. 'I'm so proud of you. This is gonna be a great show'.
'Thanks. I just hope people show up'.
And they did.
Therese's show, simply titled 'Houseless', began at eight o'clock, and attendees were filtering through the doors as soon as they were opened. She watched in bewilderment as the space filled up, servers with trays of sparkling champagne flutes waltzing through gaps in the crowd, the pictures on the walls disappearing behind people's heads. She tried to tune into the chatter around her, hoping to hear some first impressions, but the sounds bled into one another, and she couldn't make any of it out. Probably a good thing, she decided. Accidentally eavesdropping on criticism of her work would be a punch to the gut she really didn't need right now.
For a short while, she had enjoyed moving through the gallery like a shadow, but the anonymity didn't last long. Harkevy or another member of gallery staff must have pointed her out, because the word quickly spread, and she suddenly had people approaching her, keen to talk about her work. It was a little overwhelming, but she was just grateful that people actually cared.
She excused herself, though, when she glanced across the room and spotted Dannie and Nora hovering by the doorway, looking for her.
'Hey, guys!' she called to them.
They both spun around. 'Tee!'
Dannie almost ran over to her, picking her up and spinning her around, almost dropping her as she laughed. As he put her down, Nora was lovely as ever, in a long silky black dress that matched her long silky black hair. She beamed at Therese and enveloped her in a hug.
'I just freaked out seeing your name on the posters outside!' she gushed.
'I know, I can't believe it!' Therese said excitedly.
'I can! I always knew you'd have your work in here someday'.
'Yeah, there must have been a reason you used to drag me here all the time', Dannie added.
Therese nodded. 'A good omen, maybe'.
'Is Carol here?' Dannie asked.
'Yeah, she's around somewhere'.
Nora poked her playfully in the ribs. 'Are we finally gonna get to meet her?'
Therese grinned. 'I think it's about time, yeah'.
She let the two of them go, promising she'd introduce them to Carol later, and grabbed a glass of champagne from a server as he passed by, savouring a quiet moment to herself, downing the fizzy liquid in a few large sips.
Genevieve found her not long afterwards. She marched over in her beige Armani suit like a woman on a mission, throwing up her hands dramatically. 'There you are! Harkevy wants to introduce you officially. And afterwards you can make a speech'.
Therese's heart sank. 'What? Do I have to?'
'Yes', Gen replied simply.
'But I won't be able to talk in front of all these people!' Therese protested.
Gen shrugged. 'Well, figure it out', she said unsympathetically, before disappearing back into the crowd.
Sure enough, just a few minutes later, Harkevy appeared on the raised platform in the centre of the main space, calling the attention of the attendees with his presence alone.
Therese groaned internally. Looks like this is really happening.
'Good evening, everyone, good evening'. His voice boomed throughout the space, and heads turned instantly. In a matter of moments, an audience was accumulating around him.
'I want to thank you for joining us tonight for this very special exhibition', he continued. 'It's been only a couple of weeks since I laid eyes on Therese Belivet's work, but as soon as I saw it, I knew I had to have it here. I knew it had to be seen'.
As his eyes sought her out in the crowd, Therese froze, a sense of impending dread creeping up on her. She wasn't even listening to him any more. She couldn't. All she heard was the thudding sound of her own heart in her ears.
Harkevy led the crowd in a round of applause as he left the platform, gesturing for Therese to take his place. She did, reluctantly, weaving her way through the crowd until suddenly she was facing them. Her heart raced. Her mouth was so dry she didn't think she'd physically be able to speak. She knew what she wanted to say, she just didn't know if she'd be able to string a sentence together.
She surveyed the crowd, stretching back far across the space, all waiting for her to address them. Shit, there are so many people here. But, as her eyes darted from one anonymous face to another, she landed on the most beautiful of them all. Carol smiled when she realised Therese had found her, giving her a subtle nod of encouragement. It was such a simple gesture, but it empowered her anyway. She had always felt she could do anything when she was with Carol.
She took a deep breath. Suddenly it didn't feel quite so terrifying anymore.
'Thank you for the introduction', Therese nodded towards Harkevy. 'I'm not much of a public speaker, so I'm gonna keep this short'. Her voice trembled just a little, but it was loud enough for people to hear.
'Just over a year ago, I left New York for the first time in my life', she began. 'I didn't have a destination in mind, nor did a particular place call to me. I just felt that the city had pushed me out, like it didn't have space for me anymore. So I bought a van I found on Craigslist and moved into it, making wherever I decided to park for the night my home. Photographing my journey was never the intention, but once I started meeting people on the road, and hearing the tales they told me, it seemed almost impossible to resist. You see, I wasn't the only one who was feeling pushed out, who chose a new way of life because their old one just wasn't working out anymore. I met countless others like myself on RV parks across the country, living in vans because they could no longer afford where they were living, or because they couldn't find work in their hometowns, or simply because they craved adventure. And with them I found community. We live an unconventional lifestyle, but that's what connects us. Because when you're on the road, you build your own neighbourhoods with those around you. And neighbours look out for one another.
'I named this project 'Houseless', the word my friend uses to describe her situation, to attempt to change people's image of us nomads. We're not homeless. We chose this. And while I'm privileged to have a place to come home to, I still choose it.
'This project brings together a community of people with a shared lifestyle, but no single story that ties them together. I hope, in these pictures, you can hear their voices. Thank you so much for being here, all of you. I always dreamed of seeing my work on these walls, but to do so with a project so close to my heart means so much more than you know. Thank you'.
As she stopped speaking and the sound of applause rose from the crowd, she exhaled a shaky sigh of relief, nodded awkwardly at the people standing before her, and made a quick exit off the platform, right into a group of young art students who fawned over her like a rock star. Both flattered and amused, she stopped to speak to them, but not before she could reluctantly watch Carol disappear upstairs.
She spent some more time wandering around, rarely alone. After a while, Genevieve appeared at her side.
'Hi, again', the dark haired woman said.
Therese turned to respond, and as she did so felt a bump at the back of her shoulder, catching someone as they passed.
'Can I get an autograph?' a familiar voice teased.
Therese whipped around. Abby was standing there, arms folded, her hair straightened to a sharp point, painted red lips curving up into a smile.
'Hey!' Therese exclaimed. 'Where did you come from?'
'I just got here. I was delayed six hours, it was a total nightmare. I see now why Carol drives it'.
'And you still came!'
'Of course, I wouldn't miss your show'. Abby slid her arm around Genevieve's waist and pulled her to her side. 'Especially since my gorgeous best friend here helped pull it off', she said proudly, planting a kiss on Gen's cheek.
Gen pushed her away. 'Get off me', she scowled.
Abby laughed. 'Affectionate as ever'.
'Well, thanks for being here', Therese said earnestly. 'I appreciate it'.
'Are you happy with the turnout?'
'Of course. It's more than I ever expected'.
Gen smirked. 'Just wait until the word gets out. By Sunday, they'll be queuing out the door'.
Therese exhaled with a whistle. 'It's unbelievable'.
'Not unbelievable. You're just onto something'. Gen shrugged. 'And who knows? Maybe we'll see the second volume of 'Houseless' around here soon'.
'Maybe you will', Therese shot back, surprising even herself with how quickly she could confirm such a suggestion. It felt right, though. And saying it out loud just made it so much more real.
Gen raised an eyebrow. 'Is that an exclusive?'
'Only for you', she smiled smugly.
'Good'. Gen took a step forward, lowering her voice so no one else could hear. 'Because you know if you give any more of this series to another gallery before ours, I'll make sure you never work again'.
Therese stared her down. 'I don't doubt it'.
Gen gave her a satisfied nod, the sealing of a deal between them.
For three nights, it was like that. Therese relaxed a little more once she learned she wouldn't have to make a speech again, but the chaos of the show never slowed. She spent hours chatting with attendees, sharing stories of her travels, sometimes hearing theirs in return. Many had come to the exhibition to be reminded of their own cross-country road-trips or camping adventures. Therese was even reunited with a couple of vacationers she'd had dinner with down in Louisiana. Her world was shrinking once again.
Carol was there with her every night, helping in whatever way she could. Even Rindy came on the Saturday, much to Therese's delight. The little girl bounded up to her as soon as she saw her, her dad trailing wearily behind, tired out by her endless energy. Harge had a Cary Grant look about him, the kind of old-fashioned handsome that she only really saw in movies from the 40s. Therese imagined it might be awkward meeting him, but Carol just greeted him with a kiss on the cheek and casually introduced the two of them, and he shook Therese's hand like he was genuinely happy to meet her. No hard feelings then, Therese thought to herself.
And then, all too fast, it was late on Sunday night, and it was all over. She'd loved it. Hearing the praise of her peers, the validation she didn't even realise she'd needed, was the greatest gift, something she'd carry from here like a badge of honour. Now, as she stood outside the gallery with Carol, through the darkened windows she could make out the staff moving through the shadows like ghosts, taking her pictures down. It was a little depressing, watching it happen. Now her work would be packed up and sent into storage, as she'd requested, patiently awaiting the next time they'd be hung on gallery walls, admired by hundreds once again.
Until then, the great unknown awaited her. She had only one plan, and that was to continue with her 'Houseless' project, that simple series of photographs that had already given her so much pride and purpose. She didn't know where it would lead her next, but that sense of spontaneity was what excited her most. She would put all her faith in her instincts, let them take her wherever she needed to be. There was nothing holding her back.
Well. Nothing except Carol. She too was the great unknown.
A light breeze brushed by her, the night air cool after the humidity of the day. Carol felt it too, rubbing the tops of her arms.
'What time is your flight again?' she asked.
'Just after seven', Therese replied.
'I don't know why it's so early'.
'Me neither', Therese lied. Honestly, she knew exactly why it was. Genevieve had made it so, because she thought Therese would be desperate to leave after the show was over. She wasn't wrong. But Therese couldn't say that out loud. Not in front of Carol. Not when she'd be leaving Carol behind.
If Carol had sensed something was off, she didn't mention it. 'I wanted to thank you for sharing this weekend with me', she said earnestly. 'I know it's been so special for you. It just means a lot that you let me be a part of it'.
Therese smiled. 'Of course. None of it would have happened without you'.
Carol just nodded, clasping her hands in front of her, eyes dropping to the floor for a moment, before meeting Therese's again. Her lip quivered, like she was about to say something. But she held back. Therese's stomach flipped.
'Have a safe trip back, won't you?' Carol said, finally.
Oh. Therese faltered, her heart sinking. An overwhelming urge to cry came over her, unexpected, like a great gust of wind on a still day. Was it wrong of her to expect something . . . more? She stuffed her hands in her pockets and shuffled her feet awkwardly, getting ready to leave. Something about it all felt so stiff. She just couldn't work out why.
Therese forced a thin smile. 'Yeah, I'll be okay', she said, with a curt nod. 'Goodnight, Carol'.
She turned away, feet heavy with each step as she began the short walk to the subway station, growing increasingly aware of the silence behind her, no click of high heels against the concrete.
Therese stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk. She turned around.
Carol took a deep breath, like she was building up to something. 'I want you to stay in New York. With me'.
Therese stalled. So there it was. The ultimatum, finally realised. Up until now, it had only existed for Therese, but now Carol had given voice to it, and suddenly it was impossible to ignore. Hanging in the air between them, the question that both of them had been too afraid to ask. The question they didn't realise the other had been struggling to answer.
Would I go back to New York for Carol? She remembered talking it over with Jeanette, and the conclusion she'd come to. The answer had always been no, as heartbreaking as it was. It was still no, now she had her reasons for going back to the van, now she had her project to complete. And yet, with Carol standing in front of her, looking so vulnerable, she wanted to ignore all of that. She wanted to run into Carol's arms, let her take her home, and stay there forever. She almost lost her resolve.
'I can't do that, Carol', she said, ignoring the way her heart twisted at the words. 'If this was a different time in my life then-'
'You don't have to explain yourself', Carol interrupted.
But Therese wanted to. She couldn't just leave her without an explanation. She gestured to her side, to the gallery. 'You heard what I said, in there. I choose the road. There's still so many places I want to visit, so many things I want to do. And I want to keep taking pictures of it all. It's what I love. And, seeing all these people show up at the exhibition, I'm finally starting to believe I might be pretty good at it'.
'You are good at it', Carol agreed, but the words sounded flat. Therese didn't know if she was really listening. Maybe Carol was expecting something more too.
Maybe she thought I'd stay. Maybe she thought we'd be together.
But it was always going to be this way, wasn't it? Two lives so different never easily intertwined, and Therese accepted that. She had known from the beginning that what they had was something too strange to be steady, too entirely based on being in the right place at the right time. Their whole connection had been founded on little more than coincidence, and everybody knew it. She had told herself, and the people closest to her, that she was going to enjoy her relationship with Carol while it lasted. And that carried with it a miserable implication that there would come a time when it would simply . . . stop lasting.
She didn't want it to end. She wanted Carol with her, anywhere she might go. Just anywhere but here.
'You know I'd ask you to come with me', Therese told her, aware that it sounded a little pathetic now.
'Then why don't you?'
'Because I know it's impossible. You have your life here. I can't ask you to leave it'.
Carol just nodded soberly, not saying anything.
'I just . . . I don't think we're in the same place after all'.
'I guess not', Carol agreed reluctantly. She looked down at the floor, poking at some crack in the sidewalk with the toe of her shoe. Therese just stared at her hopelessly, unsure of what else to do, the silence between them opening like a chasm she couldn't cross, Carol abandoned on the other side. Unreachable.
It suddenly seemed that this was the last time Therese would see her.
Therese swallowed thickly, a lump rising in her throat. 'Why does this feel so final?'
Carol looked up, and in the dim light of the streetlamp, her blue-grey eyes shone with tears. 'I thought the same thing', she smiled sadly.
'What will you do now?' Carol asked after a moment.
'I'm gonna leave Waterloo', Therese answered, the one thing she knew for certain. 'I've been there long enough. I was only hanging around for you'.
'Well, don't let me stop you. Just don't forget about me'.
Her voice cracked at the last moment, and a single tear spilled from her eye, a glittering jewel on her cheek. In her ivory lace dress, she was a marble statue of a Greek goddess. If statues could look so broken.
Therese felt like that too. Cold and still, frozen to the spot, unable to tear her eyes away. Her heart slowed to a stop.
'I could never', she promised.
Chapter 11: Mirage
Sorry I'm a little late, I've been out of town. I enjoyed discussing the last chapter with you all. I'm not sure if this one will be expected or not, but I hope you'll like it.
The late afternoon sun burned against the top of the rock, a great orange torch towering above the ground. The cloudless blue sky behind framed it so vividly it seemed to move closer, a slow looming presence across the jagged ground, all the way down into the sandy plains below. Therese stared up at it in awe.
She hadn't been in New Mexico long. After a brief stint in Kansas, she'd made her way south, following the warmer weather. Therese had always been a sun chaser, and she handled the heat, hence why she she favoured the southern states. And she'd chosen well. The September afternoons were still balmy, and sweat still glistened on her sun-tanned skin. She sat in her camping chair by Virginia's step, hiding her face under the shade of the little canopy she'd fixed above the door, but stretching her legs out into the sun beyond. One of her neighbours had given her the canopy, telling her he was headed up to North Dakota and wouldn't have need for it any time soon.
Just outside Las Cruces, she'd happened upon a quiet RV park nestled amongst winding trails and hiking paths that twisted and turned up to the Organ Mountains. She couldn't believe her luck, finding space to park the van in such a beautiful spot. But summer vacation was long over, and families had all but stopped showing up, too busy with work or school. Now, the park was populated mostly by nomads.
Therese was indifferent about it. Sure, she enjoyed having a more permanent group of neighbours around her, as permanent as they could be. But she couldn't deny that she missed the vacationer crowds, rolling in and out in a matter of days, a steady flowing stream of new people to meet. It felt lonelier without them.
It felt lonelier in a lot of ways, though. It wasn't difficult for Therese to figure out why. The hollow ache in her chest had bothered her since the day she left New York, a pressure on her heart that was sometimes so powerful it felt as though her ribs were caving in. It was like that in the night mostly, when she unconsciously reached across the space next to her, hands stretched out to touch what wasn't there. It was funny how she'd only had Carol in her bed for one night, and now it somehow seemed empty without her. Like something was missing.
That image of Carol, crying, standing alone on the sidewalk, was burned into her brain, and she couldn't shake it off no matter how hard she tried. She didn't want to remember her like that. She didn't want to remember them in their saddest of moments. But she couldn't help herself. I did that to her. And for what? The night she left Carol with nothing more than a parting promise to never forget her, she'd gone back to her hotel room and cried herself to sleep, each tear that leaked into her sodden pillow an uncomfortable reminder of the battle to come. She knew being away from Carol wouldn't be easy. She knew every day she'd be at war with herself over whether she'd made the right decision. It was a fight she hadn't yet won, and maybe never would. Especially since she had no idea how Carol was dealing with it.
She and Carol hadn't really spoken. A few texts were exchanged in those first couple of weeks they were apart, but nothing since then. It felt too forced. Therese wanted to reach out, but after it took her half an hour of staring at the blank text-box on her phone screen, desperately trying to come up with something to say that didn't sound too false or detached, she wondered if it was worth it at all. If it didn't feel right talking to Carol, then perhaps it was better to stop talking.
And that was the saddest part of it all. Carol had been her favourite person to talk to, and suddenly it was too much effort to send her a simple text. Their spark had been instaneous, explosive like a firework against the velvet night sky, but now all that was left of them was the glittering trail after the bang, fizzling out into nothing. Is that what they were to each other now? Nothing? They'd become strangers already, and it was all because Therese was too cowardly to stay in New York. She cursed herself for it, guilt over her own selfishness churning in her stomach like nausea. But had she been selfish? Even her disgust at herself couldn't convince her of that entirely. She'd debated it with Jeanette, before she finally left Waterloo. Jeanette had promised it wasn't selfish to put her own wellbeing first, which Therese understood was true. Even now, that knowledge was what she held on to, what sustained her in those moments of doubt. And those moments were frequent enough. For someone who took pride in how she was always growing surer of herself, Carol had certainly thrown her off course, like a ship careering towards the rocks.
She was happy enough before she had met Carol. She'd been over this already. She kept repeating it to herself like a mantra, as if it might magically bring back the memories of what life was like before. The truth was, it was a struggle now to remember a time before Carol. It all seemed tainted, like peering through frosted glass at what had once been so clear. Carol lingered in her memories, even the ones in which she didn't belong, from the months before they had even met. Therese still smelled her perfume on her pillow, even though she'd washed it enough times since Carol had laid her head on it. Her imagination had never been so cruel.
But she could be happy again. It would just take time, and distance. That was another reason she'd headed out west. If she continued on, soon enough she'd be greeted by the ocean, the complete opposite side of the country to where Carol was. She imagined herself sitting in the sand on some Californian beach, staring out at the vast blue water, the rhythmic rolling of the waves soothing her. She'd be okay then. She had to be.
Still, even then she wouldn't be entirely cut off from Carol's life. Genevieve had been in contact, hounding her about another exhibition, despite Therese's insistence that it was way too soon. Honestly, she liked talking to Gen. It gave her hope for her future as a professional photographer, kept her motivated to continue with her 'Houseless' project. But they never talked about Carol. Gen probably thought Therese wouldn't want to. It was for the best, she supposed. Still, Therese often found herself biting her tongue, Carol's name hot in her mouth, questions she needed to spit out but never could. She craved a sign from Gen. Any careless comment as she hung up the phone, or tacked onto the end of a text like an afterthought. Carol misses you. At least then she might not feel so alone in her grief.
The rock had almost fallen into shade, as it always did this at this time in the afternoon, the sun passing behind a scattering of trees by the front of the park, the last remnants of its light lingering like a streak of orange paint against the jagged top of the rock. Therese knew the routine. In a couple of hours, it would be set alight again, as the sun reemerged from the trees for a final time, before beginning its slow descent towards the ground. But this moment was her favourite, watching the different tones of light blend and fade, the rock their canvas, a natural work of art. She took out her camera, from the shelf by the door, hung the strap around her neck, and raised it to her eye. Snap. She'd taken this same shot enough times now, most days even, but she kept trying anyway, preparing for when she would lay them all out and select which second in time was the most beautiful. It was ridiculous, really. But it felt worthwhile to her nevertheless.
She surveyed the park absentmindedly, zooming in with her camera on random points in the distance, just to see if anything captured her attention. There was her neighbour Blanca's dog, digging a hole in the dirt with its raggedy paws. There was a tiny patch of wildflowers wilting and dying beneath the shade of a juniper tree. There was Carol, walking across the sand towards her. Hmm. Therese sighed to herself, letting her camera fall against her chest. Her mind playing tricks on her again. A mirage in the desert. How original.
Still, this was new. She raised her camera again. Carol was still there. What the . . . Therese blinked hard. Still walking towards her, in her lilac button-up shirt and denim jeans, eyes hidden behind aviator sunglasses, and that unmistakeable golden hair curling at her shoulders. It's really her! Therese's whole body froze as the shock surged through her like a blast of cold water. But . . . how? She never even told Carol she was here. How could she have known where to find her?
It didn't matter right now. It would be a miracle if she was able to say anything at all.
As Carol approached, she could only stare up at her in sheer disbelief, her own Greek goddess descended from heaven itself. Therese might have been less surprised if the actual Aphrodite had shown up instead.
'What are you doing here?' Therese managed eventually.
Carol took off her sunglasses and placed them neatly on the top of her head. 'I'm looking for someone', she said, a small smile playing on her lips.
The two of them sat in silence for a moment, side by side, Carol in Therese's spare camping chair. Therese looked out across the park as if looking for inspiration, something she could focus on. Thoughts buzzed in her head like flies around honey, and in the chaos she couldn't find a coherent sentence she could string together. She looked at Carol. The older woman was pensive, attention pinned on some unknown spot in the distance.
'How did you find me?' Therese asked finally.
Carol turned to her slowly, as if her voice had woken her up. 'I asked Dannie where you were', she replied simply.
'I found him on Instagram'.
'He took some convincing, actually'.
Therese frowned. 'What do you mean?'
'He didn't want to tell me where you were unless he knew I was really serious about seeing you. He's very protective. It's sweet'.
'And how did you convince him?'
'Well, at first he wondered why I didn't just call you and ask'.
'That was my next question'.
Carol raised an eyebrow, like she was surprised Therese would ask. 'Calling isn't really our style, is it?' she pointed out.
'No', Therese admitted. 'I guess not'.
'Besides, it wasn't just about that. I didn't want you to know I was coming, honestly. I didn't want to hear you tell me not to come'.
Therese blinked. 'What made you think I didn't want you to come?'
'I don't know', Carol said, shifting uncomfortably in her seat, eyes dropping to the floor. 'Just me overthinking, maybe. But I just had to see you. And if you didn't want me here, then at least you could tell me to my face'.
'But why would I tell you that?' Therese pressed.
Carol looked up at her meekly, her eyes lacking their usual sparkle. 'You said we're not in the same place'.
Therese blinked. 'That's what you're afraid of?'
'You were right', Carol mumbled miserably.
'But I didn't want to be', Therese protested, wondering how Carol could have missed something so obvious. 'It was shitty, saying that to you, but at the time, it felt like the truth. I'm not so sure anymore'.
'What do you mean?'
'Well, you're here, aren't you?'
'You mean physically?'
Therese rolled her eyes. 'Yes, but it's not because you're here, it's why you're here. You're not sure either. You wouldn't have come if you really believed I was right'.
Carol was quiet for a moment, nodding slowly, mulling it over. 'I kept repeating that last conversation we had', she said candidly. 'I remember all of it. It felt so wrong, leaving it like that. It wasn't closure'.
'Is that what you want from me? Closure?' Therese couldn't hide the disappointment in her voice. It was to be expected, she supposed, and yet the thought of Carol coming all the way out here just to say a proper goodbye was so utterly depressing that Therese wasn't sure if she wanted to hear it at all.
But Carol shrugged. 'I thought so, at first', she contemplated. 'But I kept thinking about what you told me. That you'd ask me to come with you, but it was impossible'.
'Impossible for you'.
'Well, yes. And I agreed, then. But the more I thought about it . . . the more I believe you weren't right about that either'.
Therese frowned, not understanding. 'Why?'
'It's not impossible for me to leave New York', Carol explained. 'You said I have a whole life there, but that life isn't fixed in the city. I don't have my own place. My job is remote. My daughter doesn't live there for most of the year'.
'But it's your home', Therese pointed out.
Carol shook her head. 'I don't think so. Home is where you look forward to going back to at the end of the day, that safe place you can lay your head at night, and sleep peacefully. I can only do those things with you. Maybe home is wherever you are. It moves with you, and so my life has to move too'.
'What are you saying?' Therese asked outright, still not certain of what was happening, and not wanting her imagination to take off running before reality could catch up.
Carol just looked at her, in all her unwavering confidence. 'Would you still ask me to come with you, now you know it's not impossible?'
Therese stared at her, dumbfounded. It took her a moment to comprehend what Carol was asking, a moment of watching her, waiting for her to break, to burst into laughter or tears, as if it were all a big joke. But that didn't happen. Carol didn't even flinch. She just held her gaze as she waited for her to respond.
Oh my God, Therese realised, heart hammering in her chest. She's serious.
'Of course I would', she said breathlessly. 'But . . . this is crazy!'
'And you can totally send me away, if it's too much', Carol promised.
'No, I don't want to!' Therese said urgently. 'It's just . . . are you sure you're ready? It's so different, living like this'.
'I know. But I want to try. And if we start hating each other after a couple weeks, then I'll leave, and you and Virginia can carry on like always'.
'And what about Gen? And Abby? And Rindy?'
Carol shrugged. 'I left my stuff at Gen's, I know her door is always open. Abby thinks you're good for me, and says it's about time I followed you. And Rindy's back at school until Christmas. I'm sure when she comes back she'll be very excited to hear about how her mom's been living'.
Therese smiled. 'I'm sure she will. Speaking of which . . .' her eyes drifted to the spot behind Carol's chair, where a large black rucksack sat on the ground. 'What did you bring with you?'
'Just the essentials', Carol said nonchalantly, like she hadn't given it much thought. 'I didn't exactly know how long I'd be staying'.
'So you really just got on an airplane without any idea of what would happen?'
Therese nudged her playfully. 'See? Adventurous'.
'Maybe', Carol conceded. 'I just wanted to be in the same place as you again. I'd go to the end of the Earth, just to be there'.
Therese smiled bashfully, butterflies fluttering in her stomach. 'Well, fortunately, it was just the end of the country. But I'm glad you came. There hasn't been a day I haven't thought of you'.
Carol reached out to take her hand, squeezing it. 'Me too. I'm sorry. I should have come sooner'.
Therese shook her head. 'Doesn't matter. You're here now. You're home'.
Carol smiled, dreamy and serene.
'My angel', she murmured, like she was thinking out loud. 'Flung out of space'.
Therese knew, of course, that she and Carol wouldn't start hating each other, but it surprised her how quickly she grew used to having Carol around. The van was small, and she knew to live together in such close quarters would be intense at first. It was, in some ways. Therese had gone from being entirely alone for most of her day to sharing every hour with someone else. But that someone else was Carol, and it only felt as though she'd filled the space that was rightfully hers.
They soon settled into an easy rhythm. For the first few weeks, they did very little, too wrapped up in the novelty of each other's company to be bothered too much by anything else. Carol worked from the van, or from local cafés, where Therese would sit and have coffee with her before venturing out into the town, finding whatever she could to photograph. In the warm evenings, after dinner, they hiked the trails up to the Organ Mountains, always setting off just a little too late, always promising they'd get further up the path the next time. Then they'd go back to the van as night fell, sitting outside as the air cooled, talking about anything and everything. Sometimes they'd go out, to a movie theatre or a concert, or maybe to a restaurant. In any case, by midnight they were curled up in each other's arms, Carol falling asleep easily and Therese no longer wondering what was missing from her bed.
It was uncomplicated. Therese felt so grateful to be able to share that kind of simple life with Carol, and she knew Carol too appreciated the slow pace of it all. The older woman had adapted quickly to living in the van. Her laid-back nature and her willingness to approach things with an open mind made her the ideal candidate for a nomad, but still Therese was impressed by how easily she handled such a drastic change in environment. Abby and Gen clearly felt the same, their near constant calls to check up on Carol soon dwindling to only once or twice a week. Even Rindy knew her mother was doing something unexpected, and it reduced Carol to tears when the little girl told her over Facetime that she was proud of her. Despite all this, Carol never acknowledged that she was doing anything out of the ordinary. She didn't see herself has having achieved something. She was just happy, she said. She was where Therese was, and so it didn't feel out of the ordinary at all.
But, as wonderful as those blissful weeks of freedom had been, the money was drying up, at least for Therese. Their stops since leaving Las Cruces had been fleeting, short stays across New Mexico and Arizona, but when they crossed the state line into Nevada and settled in a small town north of the Valley of Fire, Therese knew it was time again to get a job.
On her second day in town, she passed by a sweet little ice cream parlour on the edge of the main plaza, an old-fashioned place with that irresistible small-town charm. She fell in love with it immediately. She doubted they'd need any more staff, since ice cream season was over and the colder weather was coming, but she stepped inside and enquired anyway. The owner said they probably couldn't offer her a full-time position, but if she came back for an interview, he'd see what he could do. So she returned with a copy of her resume, quickly impressed the owner with her years of experience in the service industry, and was invited to start part-time next week. She was happy with that. It would give her more time to work on her 'Houseless' project, and besides, now Carol was living with her, all her costs were cut in half.
She walked slowly back to the RV park, gazing up at the sky, the pastel blues and pinks and yellows of her ever-changing painting. A lot of things were different now, but this would never change. Only now, when she walked beneath that vast expanse of colour and beauty, she no longer wished for an untroubled life. She had that already, though it had taken her some time to realise it. A family that loved her, friends who watched out for her. A talent she was finally getting recognised for. The freedom to have home be everywhere and nowhere, or wherever she wanted it to be. The woman of her dreams waiting there for her at the end of the day. She smiled up at the sky, a silent whisper of thanks to the universe, or whatever had bestowed these great gifts upon her. She didn't know who else to thank, or how to express it. She just wanted it to be known that she was grateful.
Carol was chopping red peppers when she arrived, a disposable barbecue already burning on the ground, half-finished skewers of chicken and vegetables sizzling. The two camping chairs were set up around the folding metal table, a citronella candle burning in the middle and an unopened bottle of cold white wine with two glasses waiting to be filled. Their own makeshift version of a private dinner date. Therese's heart melted.
Carol looked up as she approached, and her expression turned serious. 'Well?' she asked expectantly.
'I got the job', Therese grinned.
Carol's face broke out into a smile. 'Aw, congratulations!'
'It's just part-time, but it'll pay enough. Here, let me help you-'
'No, no, no', Carol cut her off, setting the knife down on the chopping board and moving around the table to pull a chair out for her. 'You sit down. I'm going to take care of everything'.
Therese almost protested, but, seeing the satisfied smile on Carol's lips as she took the corkscrew to open the bottle of wine, she thought better of it.
'I love you', she said instead.
Carol froze, the words catching her off guard. Therese didn't worry about it. She already knew Carol was going to say it back.
Carol looked at her, blue-grey eyes intense. 'Don't you know I love you?'
Therese smiled, because it was such a Carol thing to say, and it sounded so beautiful in that low voice of hers, smooth and smokey as scotch on the rocks. Therese felt the warmth in her chest as she drank it down, fire in her throat. Those words were like poetry. She'd tattoo them across her heart if she could, along with all those other lines Carol had spoken like lyrics, without even meaning to. Flung out of space. That was always Therese's favourite. She still didn't know what it meant. But not knowing was half the fun.
And she didn't know where the road would take them, nor how long it would run, how far into the distance it would stretch. Therese could only guess, and she wasn't even sure she wanted to do that. There was however, that growing certainly over their final destination. It seemed more inevitable than ever that Therese was destined to end up in New York. It didn't scare her so much anymore. Some day, she'd make it back there, face her former enemy and greet it like a friend. And she'd do it because, just as Carol had made her home where Therese was, Therese would do the same for her, following her back to where they'd both grown up, worlds apart in the same city, brought finally to the same place, where they belonged.
Chapter 12: Epilogue
Happy Friday, and happy final chapter day! It feels like I only just started uploading, what!
Thank you all for reading this story, my love letter to unexpected adventures, to travelling, to leaving your hometown to open your mind. God knows I've needed it in the past, and I'm so grateful for the experiences I've had so far. Writing these stories can be such a wonderful outlet to vicariously live out my fantasies while I often feel like I'm just waiting for my life to begin. I love having all of you around to witness it in some small way.
Thanks as always for sharing your ideas and kind words with me. I'll be around - just waiting for inspiration.
Therese lingered in the hallway, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, unable to keep still. She paced, and stopped, and paced again. Rindy was running late, of course. She was as bad as her mother when it came to punctuality. Still, Therese had to give her the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps she was still stuck at the repair shop. Therese could just go and sit down, and wait for her call. But she was far too excited.
She looked across from the hall to the lounge, and out through the window on the far wall. It had finally stopped raining, but water still sat in a stagnant puddle on the glass surface of the table on the balcony. She felt like she'd barely been able to use it this year, always too cold or too damp outside. In the warmer months, she'd be out there every morning, drinking her coffee with a book, or even just with her thoughts, while Carol slept in another half hour. Therese was still an early riser, a habit from the road that she just couldn't quit.
They had moved back to New York four years after Carol joined Therese in Las Cruces. Not because they no longer loved their life with Virginia, but because that life had slowed to a natural end. They were ready to come back. Both of them, this time.
They'd expected to stay at Genevieve's for a while as they looked for a new home, but just five days into the search, they found a chic third-floor apartment in a classic brownstone on the Upper East Side. It was neither too big nor too small, with two cosy bedrooms and a tiny balcony overlooking the tree-lined street below. They both fell in love with it instantly, and Carol was ready to sign on the dotted line there and then. Therese was uncomfortable about it at first, knowing she could in no way afford to live in the neighbourhood, and Carol was aware of how she felt, though she didn't really understand it. After four years together, money was still that subject in which they didn't see eye to eye. Not because they lacked it - in fact, it was quite the opposite. Carol had a trust fund, and she was generous with her spending, while Therese found it difficult to forget her frugal ways, and was still reluctant to accept what she hadn't worked and paid for herself. When she tried to explain this to Carol, the older woman had assured her that it was their apartment, even if she had contributed more financially. 'Besides', she'd said, 'it was you who invited me into your home, four years ago. If you really must think of this place as mine instead of ours, at least think of it as me returning the favour'. Therese was satisfied with that, at least.
There were definitely advantages to living in an apartment again, home comforts as simple as not having to walk across to the restroom blocks in her pyjamas if she wanted to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. But their adventures on the road never felt too far away, mostly because they'd decorated the entire place with photos and souvenirs they'd picked up along the way; a tiny clay vase painted with cacti, a traditional Native American dream catcher, a metal Route 66 sign, a Mardi Gras masquerade mask, a collection of their favourite photographs that almost covered the wall next to the front door.
Therese looked at them now, smiling as she always did when she relived those memories. A slightly blurred picture of Carol in a cowboy hat she'd been given by an admirer in a country music bar in Nashville, drunk and laughing hysterically. Therese standing in a crystal clear stream in some forest outside Montpelier, jeans rolled up to her knees as cool water rushed around her ankles. The two of them sitting cross-legged on a ledge at the Grand Canyon, the ground falling away behind them. The sweeping landscape of Badlands National Park, the sky hazy and blue as the dusk settled on the vast expanse of pink-striped rock, and Therese wandering off into the distance. The bright lights of an October evening in New Orleans, Carol standing in the middle of busy Bourbon Street, looking back over her shoulder as Therese took the shot. The two of them with Carol's cousins at Pike Place Market in Seattle, one of many days they'd spent in the city whilst they were living near Mount Rainier. After years of lost contact with that side of the family, Carol had reached out to the cousins she loved so much as a child. They were astounded to learn what had been happening in her life since they last spoke, but eagerly welcomed her with open arms, and embraced Therese too as one of their own. They became close, over that couple of months they stayed, and Therese experienced her first busy family gatherings, even attending her first real Thanksgiving dinner. Carol was just grateful she still had relatives who accepted her exactly as she was.
They'd stayed close ever since, watching from afar as the family grew and changed, with marriages and divorces and break-ups and new babies. With five cousins, their partners and kids, there was always something happening. Rindy was fascinated by the whole thing. Being one of the youngest of the family, and Carol's only child, Rindy was the centre of attention despite her physical absence, and she rather enjoyed being the exotic cousin from New York. The distance was definitely a downside, though. She'd still never actually been to Seattle, but she planned on it.
Even never having visited her cousins in their home city, Rindy had done her fair share of travelling over the past decade. When her daughter came home for summer vacation, Carol had planned to return to Genevieve's for a couple months and spend her time with Rindy as she had before, sharing her with Harge. But Rindy was eager to see how her mother lived while she was away at school, and so Harge and Carol agreed to split the summer right down the middle, Rindy spending the first half with Carol and Therese in the van, and the second half in New York with her father.
There were pictures all over the wall of Rindy's visits with them. Therese looked towards the small silver frame in the centre, at herself and her stepdaughter sharing a stick of cotton candy in the hustle and bustle of Santa Monica Pier. That was from Rindy's first stay with them. She loved living in the van. Granted, she only saw the most exciting side of it; Therese and Carol had cleared their schedules for a whole month in preparation for her arrival, and driven all the way from Billings to Los Angeles to meet her at the airport and whisk her away on a hectic three-week road trip. Therese and Carol spent the whole time sleeping in a tent, so Rindy could have Virginia to herself. There just wasn't enough room for the three of them in the van, and there was no way they were about to let Rindy take the tent by herself, despite her protesting that she was 11 now, and that was plenty old enough to take care of herself.
They began that particular trip with a few days sightseeing in LA and a visit to Disneyland, where Rindy dragged Therese on the biggest rollercoasters they could find, and Carol insisted that she stay off, because someone had to watch the bags. From there they drove out to Joshua Tree, before heading north to Death Valley, up to Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, before finishing in San Francisco, where Harge and his wife Marianne flew in to spend a few days with them before they took Rindy home to New York. That was where they took Rindy's favourite picture, the five of them together, the Golden Gate Bridge looming behind them, half shrouded in thick fog. She still had it framed in her bedroom.
They'd had other friends and family members come to meet them on the road, though of course they weren't exactly able to host. Instead, their friends would fly out to meet them in whichever city they were closest to, and Therese and Carol would treat themselves to a couple of nights in a luxurious hotel. Abby was a frequent visitor, seeing them in Denver and Memphis and Salt Lake City, wherever she spontaneously decided. She'd call Carol maybe a week in advance and announce her intention to visit, and Carol got annoyed that she had to drop everything at such short notice, and Abby would promise she'd plan better next time, but nothing ever changed. It didn't matter. They always had fun together, wherever they ended up.
Usually Abby would be accompanied by Esme, sometimes by Genevieve, and sometimes both of them. There had been three legendary meet-ups in Las Vegas, where Abby had developed an addiction to the slot machines, Gen's icy demeanour served as her best asset at the poker table, and whenever Esme won big on the roulette wheel, she'd take all of them for a fancy dinner to celebrate. There was the impromptu long weekend in Miami, where they spent their days lounging on the beach and their nights in the salsa clubs. One of the bartenders had seen them lurking on the edge of the floor and insisted on teaching them to dance. Abby took him up on the offer, but the lesson was cut short after he disappeared with Gen, who showed up again 24 hours later with a smug grin and a large hickey on her throat. And then there was the time Carol convinced Abby to go camping with her at Estes Park, suspecting that she'd probably hate it but willing to try anyway. Sure enough, Abby spent the night tossing and turning in her sleeping bag as she fought off the bugs that had wriggled their way into the tent, terrified of every rustling noise outside the canvas sheet, and she stormed out the next morning telling Carol she would never camp again.
Dannie and Nora had visited too, though not as often as they would have liked. Their last trip was to Austin for South by Southwest, and it was right after that Nora found out she was pregnant. Going to meet her new nephew Elliott was one of two times Therese had flown in those four years, getting on a plane in Atlanta as soon as Dannie called to tell her he'd been born. That was six months before she and Carol had moved back to New York, and Therese had been the doting aunt ever since.
The only other flight she'd taken was when she heard that Robichek was sick. Jeanette called from Detroit, where Robichek was in the hospital, asking if she wanted to see her for what might be the final time. Therese was shocked. She had no idea that Robichek was sick, but then again, she wasn't the type to let people know a thing like that, too scared of the inconvenience it might cause them. Therese got on a plane the next day and went straight to the hospital, where she and Jeanette sat by Robichek's bedside and spent one last wonderful day with her, remembering stories of their time together and listening to the ones she'd never heard Robichek tell. But Therese was just one of many visitors to her bedside, and she left shortly afterwards, not wanting to overstay her welcome. Robichek took an unexpected turn for the better, strong enough at least to leave the hospital, and spent three more months on the road before she passed away. The funeral was held in her hometown of Willmar, Minnesota. When Therese and Carol drove up there, they found every RV park anywhere close was already fully booked. There were more than a hundred people come to pay their respects, and Therese finally learned Robichek's first name. It was Ruby.
Therese thought of her often, as she thought of all those friendly faces she'd met during the five years she'd lived on the road. Many of them she'd stayed in contact with, but others faded from her memory like water into the soil. Still, they were immortalised in her photographs of them, even as remembering their names became more difficult. She kept returning to her project long after she'd completed it, just to keep those memories fresh in her mind, too scared to lose them. It was her love letter to the road, to nomadic life and the people who lived it. And countless others had shared in that love too, all those people who'd come to her exhibitions. Her second 'Houseless' show opened a year after her debut at the Harkevy Gallery, her third a year and a half after that, and her fourth three months after she'd returned to New York. The show's reputation had grown steadily over time, and by the time her last pictures were exhibited, she had articles being written about her and art critics singing her praises. They wanted more, but without Virginia, she could no longer offer what she had become known for. Instead, she built a network from contacts of Harkevy and Gen, and started working as a freelance photographer for various publications based in the city. She took pictures of people, mostly. It was what she was good at.
So the nature of her work hadn't changed too much, even if she now rarely travelled to do it. But she didn't regret returning to New York. After travelling across almost all 50 states, a lauded photography series and a lifetime's worth of adventures with Carol, Therese's priorities had shifted, and the anxiety that used to rattle her as she remembered her old life had, with time and reflection, all but dissipated. She no longer feared New York now she knew for sure that she wasn't a failure, and she was confident that she could make it work if she chose to. But, more than that, it felt right to move back because her family was here. Rindy was here. She was 19 now, and beautiful inside and out. The two of them had grown close over the years, particularly after Rindy left Ireland and moved back to start high school. Now she was a student at NYU, still living between Therese and Carol's place and Harge and Marianne's down in Chelsea, but due to move in with a couple friends in Greenwich Village at the start of the next academic year. Carol kept insisting that she was more than welcome to stay home and save the money she'd be spending on rent, but honestly she was just devastated at the prospect of Rindy flying the nest. It was hard for her to accept that her little girl was all grown up, and those attributes that had made her an independent child now made her a force of nature as an adult. She'd succeed in whatever she chose to do, that much was clear, and even if all four of her parents wished she wouldn't stray too far from home, they wouldn't stand in her way if that was her desire. It would be hypocritical if they did. Therese had always recognised in her that same adventurous spirit that she harboured herself. Carol did too.
PEEP, PEEP, PEEP!
Three long blasts of a horn from the street below sounded through the apartment, low and slightly off-key. Therese snapped to attention. She'd know that sound anywhere.
'Carol!' Therese called. 'She's here!'
Therese gasped as she stepped out the front door, blinking in the brightness as sunlight glinted off pristine white paint and polished metal wheels.
'Oh my God', she breathed.
It was Virginia, parked at the sidewalk. Her former home, her trusted companion. Restored to her former glory.
Therese hadn't been surprised when Rindy announced that she and her boyfriend Hunter were planning a cross-country road trip for the summer. What had surprised her was her intention to take Virginia. Six years in an unused garage on the Gerhard property in the Hamptons hadn't been kind to the van, and her old age meant she needed some serious work doing. But Rindy was up to the challenge, determined to bring Virginia back, not only for her own benefit, but to see her moms' faces when they saw her as she used to be.
She and Hunter had spent several evenings a week at the repair shop, where a friend of Dannie's worked on the mechanics while they stripped the back and installed a new bed, shelves, sideboard and table. They cleaned her up, had the scratches in the paintwork filled in, and fixed the one broken front headlight that, for some unknown reason, had decided to stop working.
Rindy hopped down from the passenger side in her yellow gingham shorts and black tank top, just as Carol finally emerged from behind Therese.
'Oh my God!' she repeated.
Rindy smiled, satisfied. 'Doesn't she look great?'
'Almost like new!'
'The horn's still a little broken though'.
Therese nodded. 'I heard. Don't worry, it's always sounded like that'.
'I thought so'. Rindy pointed upwards, to the apartment. 'I left my denim jacket here, I'm just gonna run upstairs and grab it. But come have a look!'
They both agreed enthusiastically, Therese grinning at Carol as she went to slide open the side door and reveal the changes inside. Carol instinctively reached out and grabbed Therese's hand, like she always did when she was awe-struck by something.
It really had changed. The bed was higher and draped with a soft red and white patterned quilt that brought a pop of colour to the space. The pillows were now at the side instead of at the back, and a grid of six wicker boxes for storage sat underneath. A wire vine of papery leaves ran around the edge of the ceiling, tiny golden fairy lights intertwined with them, and cosy false candles sat on top of a slim set of shelves with clear plastic drawers full of random kitchen utensils and tools. Hanging pouches lay flat against the walls, toothpaste and shampoo and make-up brushes peeking out. The space was practical, but warm and comfortable. The perfect home for three months on the road.
As they explored, commenting on every little change they saw, Hunter finally climbed out from the front, shutting the door gingerly behind him, but hanging back like he was afraid to approach them. He was never usually like this. From the first day Rindy brought him home just over a year ago, having met him at a friend's party, his charisma was obvious. He could talk for hours, but just as easily shut up when he needed to listen. Carol found him charming. Therese liked that he didn't take himself too seriously, and was always making them laugh.
Therese knew why he faltered now, though. He knew how important Virginia was to the three of them, and he'd been sheepish from the start because of it, worrying that perhaps he was intruding on some sacred space in which he didn't belong. He wanted their approval, that much was certain, but in Therese's mind, he'd had it all along. He adored Rindy, and wanted to do right by her, and her family. That had always been enough.
She left Carol in the van and went over to him. 'You two did such a good job', she congratulated.
He seemed to relax then, his shoulders loosening, that warm smile of his breaking through. 'Thanks, but I can hardly take the credit', he said modestly. 'Rindy designed it all'.
Therese decided to cut straight to the point, asking what she'd been meaning to. 'Just make sure she calls Carol, won't you? Even just to let her know she's safe?'
Hunter nodded. 'Of course', he agreed. But he frowned slightly, noticing the seriousness of Therese's request. 'I'll take care of her, I promise'.
'Yeah, I know', Therese assured him. 'And she'll take care of you too. And so will Virginia, now you've fixed her up so good'.
'Thanks so much for letting us take her, Therese', he said earnestly, gesturing towards the van with his head. 'I know she means a lot to you'.
Therese smiled. 'I'm just glad she's getting back on the road. I know she won't let you down'.
'Of course she won't', Rindy joined in as she came bounding out of the building, long hair streaming behind her, denim jacket slung over one slender arm.
'You got everything from your bedroom?' Therese asked her.
'Yep'. She looked up at Hunter, giving him a gentle nudge. 'Go see that my mom hasn't gotten lost, will you?'
'Sure', he agreed, turning on his heel and heading towards the back of the van.
'So you're ready to go?' Therese asked Rindy.
'Yep!' she answered brightly. 'I can't believe the day's finally here'.
'Neither can I', Therese agreed, looking up at the stepdaughter who was taller than her and wondering, as she often did, how it was possible that Rindy had grown up so fast.
'You know, I've been dreaming of this moment since the last night of the trip to Bryce Canyon', Rindy said. 'That was the last time I stayed with you before you moved back, do you remember?'
'I do', Therese smirked, recalling the drama that ensued when she and Carol discussed moving back to New York with Rindy. 'You cried when we told you we weren't gonna be nomads anymore'.
Rindy laughed. 'Well, I was a kid. I was loving all those trips out to see you, wherever you were'.
'Yeah. Those were good times, weren't they?'
Rindy nodded, her face turning wistful. 'Do you miss it?' she asked. 'Living in the van?'
'Of course', Therese answered honestly. 'But you know how it is. I had that time, and it was the best, but if I went back, it would never be the same'.
'Because you needed it', Rindy observed.
Therese nodded. 'I did. It saved me, when I needed to get away from it all. There's no other way to describe it. But I don't need to be saved anymore'.
Rindy looked at her intensely, like she was seeing right into her soul, blue-grey dancing with curiosity. It was the way Carol often looked at her, that uncanny ability to read her, an ability her daughter had inherited.
'I think you're amazing, Therese', Rindy said earnestly.
Therese's heart swelled. 'I think you're amazing too', she told her. 'You're going to have the most wonderful time, and you'll learn so many things about yourself along the way'.
'You think so?'
Rindy smiled gratefully. 'Better go say goodbye to Mom, then'.
The two of them went back to the sliding door to find Carol lying flat on her back on the bed, looking as though she'd made herself quite at home.
Rindy folded her arms, feigning sternness, though she was laughing all the same. 'Mom, what are you doing?'
'It's so comfy', Carol said dreamily.
'Get off the bed, I just made that'.
Carol sat up and raised an eyebrow at her. 'Nerinda Aird lecturing me about making the bed? I never thought I'd see the day'.
Rindy rolled her eyes, but her indignation wasn't convincing at all.
'Do you have everything?' Carol asked her as she stepped out.
'Yep, we're ready', she said, unable to keep the smile from her face.
Seeing that her daughter could barely contain her excitement, Carol nodded slowly, like she was finally accepting it. Therese knew she'd been dreading this moment for months, been pushing it to the back of her mind. But it had, it seemed, dawned on her at last.
'You be careful out there', she said seriously, pulling Rindy into a hug, pressing a kiss to her temple.
'I will', Rindy promised, putting one arm around Carol and the other around Therese, letting her head rest between theirs, the three of them locked in an embrace. 'I love you guys'.
'We love you too', Therese said, hugging her tighter.
'And don't forget to call!' Carol told her as they drew apart.
'I won't. I know you'll be worried, but try not to?'
'I can't make any promises', Carol answered shortly. But then she closed her eyes and shook her head, like she was correcting herself. 'I'll be fine. Go on, get up there'.
'Okay', Rindy nodded. 'Bye!' She hurried around to the passenger side and climbed up into the seat, and Hunter grinned at them from behind the wheel, shouting his farewells from the window as they pulled away.
Carol and Therese stood watching and waving for as long as they could, the van rolling on down the street, Rindy sticking her hand out of the open window for one last wave goodbye. Therese had her arm around Carol's waist, with Carol's arm draped across the back of her shoulders, and as the van took a left and sailed out of view, she felt the older woman tense.
She watched her, saw the tears in her eyes. She wouldn't let them fall, Therese knew, even now Rindy was gone. She'd put on a brave face, try to convince everyone she was fine, and later Therese would find her crying in the bathroom, and there they'd sit on the floor while Therese held her, stroking gentle fingers through her golden hair. It was always like that.
'Are you okay?' Therese asked anyway.
'Yeah', Carol sighed, letting go of her and going to sit down on the steps up to the front door. 'It's just never any different, sending her off and knowing we won't see her for a few months'.
'I know', Therese smiled sadly.
'Still, I'm so excited for her'.
'Yeah, me too'. Therese went to sit down too, perching on the bottom step and hugging her knees to her chest. She looked back over her shoulder at Carol, resting her head in her hand.
'Do you think she'll end up like us? Staying out there?'
Carol's eyes widened in alarm. 'She'd better not! She hasn't finished college yet!'
'I don't mean now, necessarily', Therese clarified. 'But, in the future. Do you think she might choose to do what we did?'
'Maybe', she said with a shrug. 'But she wouldn't be like us'.
'What do you mean?'
'Well, she's just going for fun. You never did that. You were chasing peace of mind, a change of pace. And I was chasing you'.
Therese smiled. 'Until I chased you right back here'.
'But we had fun anyway, didn't we?'
'I loved every minute'.
Carol shifted, her face falling so slightly that only Therese would be able to discern it. But Carol spoke before she could question it.
'You know, in those first few weeks I lived with you in the van, I didn't know if I'd stay'.
Therese frowned. 'You had doubts?'
'Not about you, but about . . . well, the whole thing'. Her eyes dropped to the floor, staring absent-mindedly at some unknown spot on the sidewalk as she spoke. 'Coming from the city to be with you, it just felt like a vacation. We were living these grand adventures every day, and I worried it wasn't possible to exist like that, you know?'
'And all vacations have to end', Therese acknowledged.
'Exactly', Carol nodded. 'I thought reality would get in the way eventually, and our happiness would run out. But that never happened'. She looked up again, eyes sparkling. 'We just stayed happy, and suddenly life in the van was my reality. I was home, with you. And I never thought of leaving again'.
Therese was quiet for a moment, surprised by this sudden revelation, but not wanting to let Carol know. 'You never told me that', she mused.
'I was a little ashamed about it, to be honest', Carol admitted. 'You always said I was adventurous. I didn't want to prove you wrong'.
Therese shook her head. 'You wouldn't have', she promised. 'I know you'.
Carol smiled, and she was so beautiful that Therese almost couldn't believe it. Couldn't believe that Carol was hers.
'Yeah', the older woman said softly. 'You do'.
Therese smiled too, and Carol looked at her with so much love in her eyes, as she had countless times before, across countries and continents, in crowded city streets and winding country roads, in scorching deserts and the biting cold, in lush green forests and golden coastlines, and under star-filled skies, laid down in the grass, one hand tracing constellations with her fingertip and the other interlocked in hers. God, she loved that look. It still felt different every time, still excited her, still gave her butterflies, even after 10 years. It was her favourite feeling in the world. Just being in the same place as Carol, knowing how much she loved her, and that, wherever they were, she was home.