It’s late-June, and the sun is slowly dipping below the horizon, painting the sky a fiery amalgamation of pink and orange, and casting a shadow of Gwendolyn’s figure against the brick of their home.
She’s sitting in a rocking chair, swaying gently in the sticky summer air, a weathered copy of Much Ado About Nothing clutched in her hand. Reading a favorite novel or beloved volume of poetry on the porch on muggy summer evenings has become a favorite pastime for Gwendolyn, a soothing way to wind down for the evening.
Her eyes sweep across the pages in an easy left-right-left-right, the song of the cicadas hidden in the nearby foliage a lilting melody.
Therefore I will depart
Thou hast frightened the word out of his right
“Darling?” comes a voice from inside, an echo Gwendolyn can barely hear from behind the closed door.
“Out here!” Gwendolyn hollers back.
Mildred nudges open the door and steps out onto the porch, balancing the baby against her hip, much to Gwendolyn’s delight, along with a cool glass of iced tea. She thumbs Much Ado closed and holds her arms open for Jo.
“Hello, baby,” she coos affectionately when Mildred swings her forward so Gwendolyn can press a kiss to the wriggly girl’s cheek.
Mildred eyes Gwendolyn, raising an eyebrow. “What are you doing? It’s hot as Hades out here.”
Gwendolyn laughs, tips her head back with it. It is often a point of contention between them: that Mildred so despises the heat while Gwendolyn relishes it. “You’re right, but I so do enjoy it. May I have some of your tea?” She reaches for the glass in Mildred’s hand, which Mildred passes to her without a second thought.
She takes a long sip, swallows down the sweet, amber liquid, and hands the glass back to Mildred. Gwendolyn studies her love for a moment, baby food uncharacteristically splattered on the collar of her robe, copper tendrils of hair loose from her bun framing her face, beautiful, bare feet.
“Come sit with me a moment,” Gwendolyn invites, nodding at the empty rocking chair beside her.
“Gwen,” Mildred starts, her face a scrunched-up picture of discomfort. “It’s terribly warm out, and it’s past the baby’s bedtime-“
“The baby will be fine,” Gwendolyn attempts to appease, “please.”
She feigns a pout and Gwendolyn knows she’s got her. “Alright.” Good naturally, Mildred acquiesces. “But only for a moment.”
After ensuring the safety gate is securely latched, Mildred places Jo on the ground to crawl around a mite. She straightens, pressing a kiss to Gwendolyn’s vaguely sweaty crown, before settling into the chair beside her with an exaggerated groan.
“Long day?” asks Gwendolyn.
“Very,” Mildred answers, tucking her feet under her. “I think she’s cutting her first tooth, and she refused to settle for a nap today.” She gestures to their little one, who seems particularly interested in her own toes at the moment.
Gwendolyn takes in Mildred’s tired eyes and bare face and is overcome with gratitude. “Thank you,” she says, reaching to grasp Mildred’s hand and give it a squeeze.
Mildred squeezes back. “For what, darling?”
“For taking such good care of our girl.”
Mildred takes the hand in her own and brings it to her lips, kissing the skin of Gwendolyn’s wrist. They both sigh with it, content, and study the orange-pink of the horizon in the silence, the gentle creaking of their chairs and occasional coo from the baby the only soundtrack to the evening.
“You’re right, you know,” Mildred announces abruptly. “It is quite pleasant out here, if a bit warm.”
Gwendolyn chuckles, triumphant. “I knew I’d make a summer devotee of you yet, sweetness!”
“Pipe down, there’s no need to gloat,” Mildred scolds, but Gwen can see the playful glint in her eye in the fading light of day. “What are you reading anyway?”
“Oh, this old thing?” Gwendolyn holds up the play so Mildred can study the cover. “It’s my favorite. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. My father used to read this to me just before I’d fall asleep as a girl,” she recalls warmly.
“That’s lovely, Gwen.” They seem to notice the baby’s particularly droopy, tired eyes in the same moment, and Mildred stands to swiftly scoop her from the porch floor. She again sinks into the rocking chair and settles a sleepy Jo against her breast, who snuffles contentedly, and inquires, “Will you read to me a bit?”
Gwendolyn’s chest constricts for a beat; that Mildred wishes to know of her most cherished childhood memory fills her with an adoration so intense she can’t breathe. She smiles brightly, the expression cracking her features wide open. “I’d be delighted.”
“Claudio undergoes my challenge, and either I must shortly hear” she starts, her voice clear and strong, as if she knows these words by heart.
“from him, or I will subscribe him a coward
and I pray thee
now tell me, for which of my bad parts didst thou first fall
in love with me?”
Gwendolyn places a finger on the text to mark her place before glancing at Mildred and Jo, the latter asleep against the former, though Mildred doesn’t appear so far behind. Gwendolyn studies the way the setting sun projects a golden glow across Mildred’s peaceful features, and Gwendolyn thinks she’s beautiful.
“For them all together, which maintained so politic a state of
evil that they will not admit any good part
with them. But for which of my good parts
did you first
suffer love for me?”
She quietens, all at once curious about something, those words stirring some kind of yearning in her. Mildred must still be awake, for her eyes pop open in the unforeseen silence. “What is it? You still have a few moments of daylight to read by,” she teases, running her fingertips tenderly through Jo’s sparse tufts of hair.
“Tell me something, Mildred,” Gwendolyn declares, though her voice is mild, “what was it that made you first fall in love with me?”
Gwendolyn worries for a tick Mildred may think she has lost her mind, or is suffering from heat exhaustion, surely, but then her brow furrows seriously, and Gwendolyn knows she’s thinking.
“Hmm, that’s a curious question, my love, one surely spurred on by Shakespeare,” Mildred considers aloud. “Would it be terribly shallow of me to say I was initially captivated by your beauty the very first time I laid eyes on you?”
Gwendolyn chortles softly so as not to wake the baby. “Not if it’s the truth.”
“Well then,” she carries on, “certainly your beauty. However, while your beauty was what drew me to you, it was your courage that made me love you.”
“My courage?” asks Gwendolyn, tipping her head curiously.
“From the moment I met you, I was taken by the manner in which you fully embrace the woman you are, and the particular way you move about so steadfast and certain of yourself.”
“Oh,” Gwendolyn murmurs, slightly overcome. She places a hand over her chest, feels her beating heart and the physical reminder of how deeply she treasures this woman.
“There’s more.” Mildred smiles. “Your unfettered kindness and the way you aim to always do the right thing, no matter how burdensome,” she adds, sounding rather buoyant. “The way you take care of me and ask for nothing in return. It became impossible not to love you for it. And let it be known you are an easy woman to love.”
“Oh Mildred, I will always take care of you,” Gwendolyn replies, the vaguest hint of feeling coloring her words.
“I know,” whispers Mildred fondly.
They lapse into a comfortable stillness then. Even the cicadas have ceased their singing. Mildred sips her tea. Gwendolyn picks at a loose thread on her slacks, eyes the growing darkness around them.
“Darling?” She strokes the skin of Mildred’s forearm. “In the last vestiges of daylight, may I tell you what made me fall in love with you?”
“Well, I certainly had not perceived a woman as handsome as yourself in all my life,” she starts, which earns a titter from Mildred.
“You’re just saying that because I did!”
“Am not.” Gwendolyn winks at her in the dusk, though she is entirely serious. “But your inner strength is truly something to behold. The world has not been kind to you,” she says gently, “yet you get up every single day and face it head on.”
“Gwen,” Mildred starts, her voice low, a telltale sign she’s holding back emotion.
“A person who dedicates her life to caring for people in pain is someone worth loving,” Gwendolyn continues, despite Mildred’s meager protest. “And you are whip smart and unabashedly brave,” she finishes, triumphant Mildred has allowed her to laud her. She is not so good with accolades, her love. “These are your good parts.”
“Look at what you’ve done.” Even in the darkness, Gwendolyn can see Mildred swiping away a stray tear or two.
“We can attribute this entire debacle to Shakespeare,” Gwendolyn jokes in reply, leaning back in the creaky rocking chair. Mildred and baby are but outlines in the nighttime now.
She stands, tosses Much Ado into the seat of her empty chair, smooths her wrinkly slacks. “Come here, you.” Gwendolyn holds out a hand for Mildred to take. Mildred sniffles, uses Gwen’s hand as an anchor to wrench herself up, certain not to jostle the snoozing child too greatly.
Gwendolyn pulls Mildred to her, pressing their bodies together in an intimate press, Jo bracketed between them like she was always meant to be there. She nuzzles her nose into Mildred’s neck, breathing in the familiar scents of baby powder and the floral hint of roses.
“What do you say we put this baby girl to bed,” she murmurs into Mildred’s ear, “and then we follow suit?”
“You made me cry. Are you going to make it up to me?” Mildred quips and presses a sweet kiss to Gwen’s temple.
She hefts Jo from Mildred’s arms and snuggles the stirring child to her chest, and leads Mildred by the elbow into their warm, brightly lit home.
In the morning, the rising sun will illuminate Much Ado About Nothing, resting still in Gwendolyn’s porch chair.