Light coming from behind the subject, toward the camera lens, so that the subject stands out vividly against the background.
She thinks she should have been more confident. Therese likes – had liked that. Carol had approached her first, after all, a lifetime ago. It seemed to have been a wordlessly defined part of their relationship, if it could even be called that: Carol was the one who walked with the swaying hips of a woman used to getting what she wanted; who made the dinner reservations; who ordered the food. It was Carol who had driven them along the west-winding roads, parked the car in front of nice and not-so-nice motels. Who had stripped herself bare one New Year’s night in a dump just inside a town called Waterloo.
Therese had had her moments, when she’d spoken up and Carol had been amazed at the woman hiding just beyond the strange girl. The presidential suite. “Room six-twenty-three, Mrs. Aird.” They had been few and far between.
It must happen a lot more, now, Carol realizes.
“No, I don’t think so.”
It hurts like hell, but she’s strangely proud. Therese, negotiating her own life. What more could Carol have wanted but for Therese to see herself not just in photographs, but in words and decisions?
But oh, “Love is a smoke and made with the fume of sighs,” and she wants more.
She wants it so much that her voice had wavered, shaken by the fact that the dream that had haunted her in both her sleeping and waking hours was, blissfully, no longer a dream but had been sat in front of her, real and here and sipping a cup of tea as Carol’s heart was ripped out of her chest. She had stumbled on the words, her tongue twisting into knots on simple phrases like “Oak Room” – because Therese had said no. And driven by the desperation she had felt at hearing it, at seeing Therese stone-faced and unyielding in the presence of her breakdown, Carol Aird (who really needed to change back to her maiden name, as soon as humanly possible) had done something so utterly foreign to her as to nearly make her sick.
She had begged.
Begged with her eyes and her tone, begged with a quiet “I love you.” Three words that contained the world and everything in it, for Carol. She’d lifted it up, held it out in her hands, offered it away, and it wasn’t enough.
Perhaps, she thinks, she should’ve left no room for argument. Perhaps she should have walked in and not even sat down. We’ll take a taxi, let’s go home. Come along, darling. She could have stood there with her eyebrow raised expectantly, and Therese would have… what? Followed along obediently, without question?
No, thinks Carol. That’s not what she wants. Therese has a hidden fire, and Carol wants to watch her spark and flame.
If only that stupid boy hadn’t interrupted. Jack. She loathes the name by virtue of the derailment its owner had caused. Detestable-sounding, coarse and rude. Well, he’d been polite enough, had enough decorum to invite her to some ridiculous party. He ought to, since he was robbing her of Therese. But Carol had seen something; it could have been wishful thinking but she’d like to think she’s memorized Therese well enough to know that it wasn’t. A certain widening of the eyes, a quickening of breath: the words had reached her. A moment longer, and maybe…
She's trying to appear interested in the discussion. Lord knows Carol has had enough practice. How many clients had she entertained with Harge, how many hours of her life up to this point had she wasted away on smiling and trying to charm men by indulging their vapid wives in aspic recipes and theories on the latest child-rearing techniques? (Not that she minded talking about Rindy, that being her favorite subject.)
"it's unheard of," Robert is saying. "A mechanical heart, can you imagine?"
Yes, Carol thinks, she can imagine. What is it but a trifle, to have your lifeblood bypassed into metal and wire, a machine beating in cold, rhythmic precision? The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, and so it must be circumvented.
And yet. No one can be kept alive with a mechanical heart.
"It's a fascinating advancement," she says, then smiles. "And an altogether boring conversation piece."
They laugh, because they know Carol. She demands the sort of stimulating conjecture that Robert and Fred and Alice can give, on topics such as the latest in medicine or the youth of the new queen. Her mind thirsts for distraction, tonight even more so, because she just can't stop looking towards the door.
“Do you hate me?”
“How could I hate you?”
Every time her eyes flick past the arrogant dinner crowd, those words are a slight comfort. Therese does not hate her. But of course, how could she? It isn’t, Carol knows, in Therese’s nature, no matter how hurt she has clearly been by a letter Carol wants, more than anything, to never have written. But absurdly, when there’s a lull in the conversation and she finds herself searching, Carol wishes Therese did hate her. It would make things infinitely easier, make no easier to accept. She has gone from releasing to being released, and perhaps it would be easier to forget the darkness of Therese’s eyes and the gentle curve of her mouth if Carol could hold onto a thread of hate, instead of constantly being tethered to hope.
“How is the working life treating you, Carol?”
It’s a bizarre reality to Alice, the idea of Carol working. Other than Jeanette Alice is the only woman from that period of her existence Carol terms “Life With Harge” that she cares to remain friends with. Alice is happy being a housewife, happy wearing pearls and resting her hand on her husband’s arm as he leads her through a party introducing her to all of his colleagues from the office. She dotes on her picture-perfect family of two boys and a girl, loves nothing more than having her children come home from school for lunch, and having dinner on the table for her husband when he returns from work. She is, in Carol’s mind, exactly what God intended for Adam when He created Eve.
But, like Jeanette, Alice doesn’t judge. She accepts that now, it is just Carol, and no longer Harge-and-Carol, not the Airds and their precious little daughter Rindy. Once a week she takes Carol out, to the tea room or somewhere for something a little harder, and they don’t talk of husbands. Alice is quick to smile, quick to laugh, and she didn’t bat an eyelash the first time Carol had uttered the word “divorce.”
Carol hasn’t mentioned Therese to her. As good as Alice has been, Carol knows the understanding can only extend so far. She doesn’t need Alice’s friendship, or Jeanette’s, she has Abby, after all. But it’s nice.
“Most days it’s brilliant,” Carol says. “And other days it’s dreadful, when some young pal waltzes in and claims his ten-year-old, filthy dirty couch is a ‘museum piece’ worthy of a thousand dollars.”
A few days ago a woman – no, really not old enough to be called anything but a girl – had come in. She was brunette, nervous, and Carol had been reminded of a department store toy shop, and a brunette, nervous girl in a Santa hat.
But this woman was not Therese.
She was selling a living room set: couch, chairs, a desk. A piano with pink streaks of nail polish across the lid. Her daughter had done it, the woman said, apologetically. She spoke in soft tones that rang like a low octave of hurt, and Carol glanced down at her left hand and spotted the faded line where a wedding ring had once been.
The items were virtually worthless. Carol offered the woman twice that.
“If Paul ever lets me remodel the house I’ll know where to bring everything,” Alice jokes, and Carol laughs.
A movement to her left is not Therese.
“It’s really a lucrative business if you think about it,” Robert says to Fred. “Some things can be worth so much the commission alone could feed you for a year.”
“It’d be a nice living,” Fred agrees.
“I don’t think you need to worry about your living,” Carol says drily to her lawyer. Fred is a good man, but a shark when he needs to be, and he’s earned his salary and then some this last year.
He tips his glass at her. “Nor you.”
He’s right: the commissions are good, enough for her to save up for a trip to Paris. If she had a reason to save up for such things. And Harge, well. Carol refuses to be beholden to the man, but he’s insisted on giving her “a little something” every month. Keeping her like a dog on a leash, Carol is sometimes inclined to think bitterly. Supervised visits with Rindy and a goddamn allowance.
It’s all right, though. Her penance for love is to get up at 6:30 every morning and work for eight hours. To see her daughter for two, every other day. Carol does it with a smile, and no regrets.
“Still, I’d love to see Carol’s salary compared to yours in a couple of years, Fred,” Robert says. “And I’d place bets on people liking her a lot more than you lawyers.”
It’s the same tired joke, poor Robert doesn’t ever seem to have a better one. If he wasn’t a successful doctor Carol would’ve thought he had failed the bar exam once upon a time and had never quite gotten over it.
“Not half as hated as a tax man,” Fred rebuts.
Carol nods, smiles in indulgence. Her eyes flicker, expecting men in suits and women in prim hats.
Her gaze lands.
The rest of the world fades away.
Any transparent accessory added to the light path that alters the character of the passing light.
“Ma’am, please, if you don’t have a reservation I must insist—“
“She’s with m- us,” Carol corrects herself. She’s unable to stop smiling, unable to stop staring at Therese. “A chair, please, so the young lady can sit.”
“Of course, ma’am.”
She remembers her manners, just barely, because he brings a chair to sit Therese between Robert and Fred. No, Carol wants to scream out. Put her next to me, I need her next to me.
She clears her throat. “Robert, Fred, Alice, this is Therese Belivet, a… very good friend of mine.”
Friend. The word tastes like bile on her tongue.
They murmur their hellos, Therese responding in kind.
“Have you eaten?” Carol asks abruptly.
“Not since noon, actually,” Therese says, as if she’s surprised by this realization. Carol nods and waves over their waiter.
Therese inquires about the soup of the day. Tomato, he says, and Carol catches the faint hint of a broader smile from the younger woman. She orders the soup with crackers, and a glass of water. Carol is reminded of another day, a diner after hours of driving. Tomato soup and a Billie Holiday record. Her hands shake as she lights a cigarette.
Fred knows. He looks from Carol to Therese and back again; she offers him a slight shrug.
“Therese is a photographer,” she says, and there’s pride in her voice. “For the Times.”
“Well, that sounds wonderful,” Alice says, and Carol is infinitely grateful for her luck in meeting, in knowing Alice. “And difficult, do you like it?”
“I do,” Therese says, with a quick thank-you to the waiter as he sits her dinner before her. “It was a little hard at first, I wasn’t used to having assignments and deadlines. But now it helps me focus.”
“And are you still interested in photographing humans?” Carol is teasing, and the light flush to Therese’s cheeks and ears almost makes the previous months worth it.
“Well, I have to be. Though some humans hold my attention more than others.”
Fred seems as if he wants to object to the whole thing; even at dinner-as-friends he’s still thinking as Carol’s lawyer. But whatever’s going on in his mind, he doesn’t voice it. Robert and Alice, thankfully, are oblivious.
And Therese… she looks very fine. Carol is fascinated by the movement of her hands, bringing spoon to mouth, lifting the glass of water and sipping artfully. If she’s nervous being in Carol’s environment there’s little to betray it: Therese is calm and answers each question about her work with ease. She’s grown into herself even more than Carol had realized. It isn’t just the cropped hair and business suit that has changed about the woman she loves. There is something distinct in the way Therese speaks now; she’s comfortable being Therese, because Therese has slowly begun to make her own way in the world, by herself, without need of a man – or a woman – to lead her.
There’s a wall, too. Carol can see it in the way Therese casts little glances at her as she eats and converses with Carol’s friends. There are questions that lay beyond the deep of Therese’s eyes (Ask me things, please…), but she’s keeping them just out of reach, as if she recognizes Carol’s hunger to speak to her, to be near her, to touch her. There is a layer shrouding her like too many clothes, too many blankets on a hot summer night. Carol wants to slip her hand underneath and draw Therese out.
She tells herself they will meet on Therese’s own time, now.
Alice is the first to disperse. A message comes in to the restaurant for her and is delivered in hushed tones by the waiter: her youngest, a bright-eyed little girl of three, has come down with a cold and is running a slight fever. She is the apple of her mother’s eye, and Alice looks so stricken that Carol can’t help but rise from her seat and hug her as she starts to leave with apologetic goodbyes to the others at the table.
Carol would fight all the powers of hell, including Harge Aird, to get to Rindy if the case were the same.
Therese sweetly takes Alice’s name and number down on a napkin with the pen provided by Fred – always prepared, that one. She promises to call Alice sometime in the next week, to make plans to get together for brunch, and Carol feels oddly triumphant. She doesn’t give a single damn if any of her friends, minus Abby, care for Therese. It’s not their feelings that matter, but they do help. Alice is charmed by her, Robert seems intrigued, and Fred…
Fred is resigned, because Carol’s desires are now court record.
“We’ll talk later,” he says, rising from his seat ten minutes after Alice leaves, and Carol shakes her head with an amused smile.
“No,” she says casually, “We won’t.”
They won’t talk about Therese, because there is nothing to say that hasn’t already been emblazoned in tape and ink. There may be even less than nothing to say about Therese, Carol thinks with a pang, because she doesn’t know what will happen once she and the younger woman are sat at the table alone. Therese is finished with her dinner; the plate has been taken. She has her hands grasped around the water glass; Carol notices that her knuckles are white.
Fred purses his lips at her, but he doesn’t push. He doffs an imaginary hat at Carol and she can’t help but laugh.
“Nobody left but us chickens,” Robert says, stretching out a little in his seat, and for a moment Carol is reminded unhappily of that bastard Tucker. She likes Robert, but she wants him to go.
It takes another half hour of him rambling on about some new regulation at his hospital before he obliges. He pays his check, insists on paying Carol’s as well. She’s been unfair to him, Carol thinks, and feels a surge of camaraderie with the doctor.
She takes out her purse to pick up Therese’s check. She’s a split second too late; Therese has already placed a bill in the waiter’s hand.
Paying her own way. Carol remembers the Drake Hotel, and winks at Therese. For the first time in months Carol sees Therese’s dimples crease her face in a smile, and the tether of hope reels Carol in just a little bit further.
“Would you like a cigarette?” Carol asks Therese when they’re alone at the table.
Therese declines, as she had earlier. Carol lights one, takes a long, slow drag, taps the ashes out into the tray. Her fingers tremble.
“Well, now you know I have other friends besides Abby.”
It’s meant to be light-hearted, but it’s self-deprecating; Carol feels the sudden overwhelming need to reassure Therese that there is more to her than Abby. She remembers the constant calls to Abby on their road trip, how she had felt helpless and adrift in the mess that she had made of her own life. How she was meant to be an anchor for Therese but instead had made Abby something of an albatross.
“I like them,” Therese says, giving no indication that she had truly noticed what Carol was trying to say. “It’s nice to talk to people who aren’t photographers and reporters. Oh, the people I work with are wonderful, most of them,” she hurries to add, “but seeing the same ones day in and day out gets a little tiring.”
“I didn’t think you would come,” Carol says, and then silently curses herself. She has been determined not to do this. She will not fall apart again in front of Therese Belivet.
Therese doesn’t say anything. Carol finishes her cigarette.
“Shall we go?” she asks quietly.
Just exactly where they are going she doesn’t know. She’d thought about skipping dinner earlier, but she hadn’t wanted to go back to Madison Avenue, because it’s big enough for two and she is just one, alone. Without Harge, without Rindy, without Abby, without Therese. The furniture she’d taken from the house barely makes the place look inhabited, and Carol still hasn’t unpacked everything.
To live out of a suitcase reminds her of Waterloo.
Therese picks up her coat; she follows Carol out of the dining room to retrieve hers. Carol pins her hat to her head and gives Therese a brief smile. She’s in fear of hailing a taxi, because that puts her one step closer to No, I don’t think so even though Therese had come. She has changed her mind.
That’s something, isn’t it?
Therese hails the taxi because Carol has somehow forgotten how to use her hands. They slip into the back seat and Therese doesn’t jerk away when Carol’s leg ends up resting against hers. The slight touch sends a chill running up Carol.
“Madison Ave—“ Carol starts, when a voice interrupts her.
“No,” Therese says. She rattles off her own address.
Carol looks down at her lap. They’ll drop Therese off, then.
“I have to get a change of clothes, at least.”
Oh. Well, then.
They’re quiet in the taxi. Therese looks out the window as she did on that day to New Jersey. The two of them have seen New York for their entire lives, but somehow Therese always looks out at the landscape as if it is brand-new, seen for the very first time as if through a lens. What would it be like, Carol wonders, to see the world through Therese’s eyes? To see herself as Therese did?
The taxi comes to a stop in front of Therese’s building; Carol pays the cabbie, shooting Therese a glance that brooks no objection. Therese merely climbs out of the car and holds open the door for Carol, then does the same thing for the front door of her building.
Carol follows her upstairs, her heels too loud, too harsh against the wooden floor.
Therese walks up to her apartment, digs a key out of her coat pocket. She inserts it in the lock, but doesn’t turn it.
Instead, she turns, and looks at Carol.
“What is it?” Carol says, unnerved.
“You didn’t think I’d come.”
Therese shakes her head. “How could you think I wouldn’t?”
“Therese—“ The protest is on her lips, but Therese interrupts her.
“I never left, Carol.”
Therese unlocks the door, opens it.
She turns on the light.
Light that doesn’t belong in an image.
It takes Carol a moment to step inside.
Therese’s apartment is in a state of disarray, much like Carol’s own. Boxes lay everywhere; empty film canisters are scattered on a table. The walls have been newly-repainted; the smell combined with the faint scent of photo chemicals makes Carol wrinkle her nose. But she glances around fondly, noting the small kitchen that used to be full to bursting with Therese’s photographs. They’re gone now; Carol thinks they’re better suited for a museum than a kitchen anyway. Carol remembers the first time she was here, after that disastrous meeting with Fred. After the injunction.
She can still feel Therese’s hand on her shoulder, like fire on her skin, as she’d cried.
“Would you like a drink?” Therese asks, already rummaging through a pile of clothes that lay on a chair.
There are dresses Carol hasn’t seen before, professional clothes that Therese most likely wears to her job at the Times. It makes Carol feel affectionate, fulfilled, proud. She would like to think that she’s had a hand in this – is this what comes from getting away from me? – but she knows the truth. It’s Therese, it’s all Therese.
Carol shakes her head. “No,” she says. “Whatever happens tonight I’d like to approach it with a clear head. Therese—“
She picks up her polka dot pajamas and tosses them into a suitcase; Carol smiles at the sight of both of them.
“I’ve been here this whole time,” Therese says. Her voice is flat. “I’m the one who woke up naked with Abby in the room, I’m the one who has been waiting for months. You’re the one who left, Carol, what gives you the right to…”
“You did say no,” Carol points out. “Earlier this evening, if you recall.”
She recognizes this for what it is. Anger and hurt, resentment has likely been boiling inside of Therese since winter, and if there’s any hope in moving forward, it needs to be let out, to melt like snow in spring so that the flowers can grow.
She steels herself, waiting for the inevitable onslaught, because it is nothing less than everything she deserves. Yet she wavers, because the force of Therese Belivet being angry is not something that Carol has ever thought she would experience.
“You left,” Therese says, and Carol thinks that if she has to have her sins numbered one more time she might as well drive the nails herself.
But Therese is sliding her camera protectively in between her clothes in the suitcase, and she shuts it with a snap before turning to look at Carol.
“And now I don’t need you.”
The words are brutal, and Carol winces. How easily Therese can tell her what she’s thinking, now. There had been times when coaxing Therese’s thoughts out of her was no easier than a dentist yanking out a stubborn tooth. Now it seems the words flow as easily as rain. Carol isn’t sure if it’s a gift or a curse, at this point.
“When we were together I thought there’s no way I can live my life without you. And then I had to live my life without you, and I did. And I’m young, and maybe I did want answers then, and I still want answers now, but I understand why you did what you did. It made it hurt less, it made me need you less.”
I don’t need you any less, Carol wants to say, but it’s not her time to speak. She stands on one end of the living room with Therese on the other, behind the couch. At an impasse.
“What changed your mind?” she asks quietly.
Therese looks down at the faded, threadbare fabric. Carol thinks she wouldn’t even offer two dollars for it, if it was brought into her shop.
“You said you loved me. Isn’t it funny? That’s all I wanted to hear.”
“I love you more than you can possibly know,” Carol says fervently, and Therese smiles.
“I’ve loved you from the minute I saw you in Frankenburg’s.”
“That long?” Carol says, amused even though her voice catches and she’s on the edge of tears in relief.
The smile disappears from Therese’s face as quickly as it arrived, and Carol feels the panic rise within her again. It can’t slip from her fingers this easily, not now. Not when she’s so close.
“I never wanted you to sacrifice Rindy for me.”
Oh, god damn it. If she could strangle Harge right now, she would. She hasn’t necessarily told Therese any of the conversation that had occurred at the hearing, but Carol should have known how smart Therese is, how she would have been able to put together the reason why Rindy wasn’t living with her, why Carol said it was the right thing (for now).
Carol rounds the couch; fuck personal space, she thinks. Therese looks at her a little warily; that wall may have crumbled ever so slightly but it’s still there, still intact as Carol reaches out and places a hand at Therese’s waist.
That Therese continues to blame herself for what rages inside Carol’s own heart is not a surprise. Nor is Carol’s desire to erase any hint of guilt that she sees lurking on Therese’s face. How many times, Carol wonders, are they going to have their own personal Waterloo?
“I have sacrificed nothing, do you understand?” she says firmly. “I will not put my daughter through an endless hell of custody battles, and I cannot lose you again, Therese. This arrangement I have with Harge may not be what I’ve wanted, god knows I would much rather have Rindy living with me. But I haven’t sacrificed my daughter, and I haven’t sacrificed you. This is not your fault.”
It’s then that Therese finally hugs her, behind an ugly couch in the middle of her apartment. She folds herself against Carol, arms coming up to wrap around her waist; she actually nuzzles herself under Carol’s chin and the tears streak hot and fast down Carol’s cheeks.
“Jesus Christ,” she whispers, holding Therese close. She cups the back of Therese’s head with her hand, fingers brushing through the soft, wavy locks. Her body craves to make up for the months she’s gone without Therese in her embrace.
“Why didn’t you say anything when I called?” Therese asks, sounding muffled from having her face pressed against Carol’s chest.
“And what would you have said if I had?”
“’I miss you, I miss you,’” Therese murmurs. “’I’m here, I love you, please come back.’”
The weight of that night comes back in full force for Carol. She remembers it keenly: remembers lying down on the bed with tears in her eyes. She’d held a pillow to her as she tried to sleep, imagined that it was Therese and that she’d wake up in the morning with Therese looking sleepily back at her. She’d called Abby, cried, hung up the phone, cried some more.
“I’m so sorry,” Carol chokes. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
There are words that want to tumble from Carol now. Words that she has never said to anyone, not to Harge, not to Abby. Only Therese owns these words, only Therese can make Carol want to string together words into sentences, to verses that would rival Shakespeare, into songs that Billie Holiday would’ve wanted to sing. She wants to sing them now, low and soft into Therese’s ear.
Therese pulls back and wipes the tears from Carol’s face with her thumbs; she smiles at the gesture.
Therese silences her with her lips pressed lightly against Carol’s. Carol makes a startled noise; she’s lifted her hands to Therese’s cheeks before she knows it, kissing her back harder. Perhaps she can’t speak, but she can push all of her emotions into that kiss, into the way her lips hungrily move against Therese’s, desperate for entire months, entire winters and summers and springs and falls. After a moment, Therese breaks the kiss. She doesn’t leave Carol’s arms, she just stands back slightly, staring at her.
“Carol,” she says, nearly reverently, rich and honest. “Carol.”
It’s a symphony.
Then she does pull away; Carol catches her hand and holds it tightly before Therese can detach herself completely, and Therese only laughs.
“I just wanted to get my suitcase, silly,” she says, and Carol grins, feeling dumb and weightless. Therese picks it up and brandishes it with a shrug.
“Just like old times, isn’t it?” Carol asks, feeling herself come alive with possibility.
“Hopefully not exactly,” Therese says, and there’s a mischievousness in her eyes that Carol hasn’t ever seen before. “I’m not sure I can handle guns and drama this time.”
Carol rolls her eyes with a snort, and tugs Therese flush with her body again, kissing her. She pries the suitcase from Therese’s hand, feeling it swing heavy in between them.
She takes a risk.
“We’ll take a taxi; let’s go home. Come along, darling.”
Therese cocks her head, studies Carol for such a long minute that she begins to wonder if she’s ruined it all. Again.
But Therese smiles, and nods.
Emitting or reflecting light.
The streetlights of New York shine into the taxi window, casting a harsh yellow glow onto Therese’s face. She is quiet. Carol doesn’t worry; she knows Therese is taking it all in, absorbing everything around her as she always does. Perhaps hours ago Carol would have described her as a child newly-seeing the world; now she knows Therese Belivet is anything but a child.
“Are you still with me?” she asks anyway, hearkening back to that day when she had been pulling up to her home in New Jersey. The taxi stops in front of her apartment building.
“Yes,” Therese says, and her dimples are there just as they were then.
Carol defies convention to place her hand on the small of Therese’s back as they walk up the steps. The doorman holds it open for them.
“Swanky,” Therese remarks, and Carol laughs. It’s been far too long since she felt like a schoolgirl.
Therese leans against the wall as they take the elevator up; she’s watching Carol now, with a bit of the old adoration on her face that Carol has grown so accustomed to, that she’s missed all these long months. She thinks of trying to sneak in a kiss, but the elevator opens and her two-doors-down neighbor is waiting when they step off.
Carol doesn’t like this, the idea of having to be careful. She wants to be wild, unabashed, to steal kisses in elevators and reach out to grasp Therese’s hand, no matter where they are. She satisfies herself by again taking Therese’s suitcase, carrying it to her apartment.
She unlocks the door, reaches around to flip on the light, and takes a step back. She wants to allow Therese to walk into her apartment – to their new home – on her own terms. Not being edged forward, not being led. Oh, part of Carol wants to sweep Therese in her arms as if she were a bride, to carry her across the threshold. She’s never been much of a romantic; even when Harge was wooing her he never said anything beyond what was requisite for a young man of his station, trying to enchant Carol in hers. He would sign her birthday cards with “Yours, Harge,”; she would sign his with “Love, Carol.”
She will fill Therese’s cards with words, she thinks. She will petal the apartment in roses, hang banners and streamers. “I love you, Therese,” will never not be on her lips. She doesn’t know how to be romantic, but Therese steps across the doorway and strips off her coat, and Carol knows that she will learn. For her.
“This is big enough for two,” Therese says; her eyes are wide as she turns in a circle and sees the living room furniture, bold but sparse against the stark white walls. One picture of Carol and Rindy (the first of the two most important things in Carol’s life) rests on a side table. Paintings lean against the wall; Carol hasn’t really wanted to hang them just yet. It seems as if there should be something else to hang, something she hasn’t been able to put her finger on.
“But it’s all…” She trails off, and Carol looks at her in alarm.
“You don’t like it?”
They’ll move, she decides.
“No, no, it’s not that,” Therese insists, still looking ‘round. Her gaze lands on the kitchen, spacious and the only room that looks lived-in. She glances back at Carol.
“But isn’t it a bit lonely?”
She has no idea.
Carol crosses the floor and takes off her own coat, draping it across the back of the couch. She moves to stand beside Therese, dares to slide her arm around the smaller woman’s waist.
Therese leans into her; Carol kisses the top of her head.
“Not lonely now.”
Therese shifts so that she is fully in Carol’s arms. She tips up to kiss her lips; Carol responds eagerly, smiling against her mouth.
“It needs painting,” Therese breathes, feather-light. “White’s a little boring.”
“Well, we can’t have that,” Carol says, holding the back of Therese’s neck with her hand. “I refuse to let a Times photographer live in a boring apartment.”
Therese giggles. “Maybe you’ll just have to keep me entertained,” she challenges, and Carol’s eyes crinkle in surprise.
“Someone has learned to flirt,” she says. “I wonder who has been your teacher.”
It has occurred to her, over the months, that perhaps Therese will have met someone else. The pain of imagining Therese in someone else’s arms has nearly doubled Carol over, more than once. But Therese grabs her face in her hands suddenly, kissing Carol forcefully, opening her mouth so that their tongues tumble together and Carol groans, her own fingers grasping at the fabric of Therese’s suit jacket.
“There has only,” Therese says firmly, a promise on her lips as stern as a reprimand, “been you. There will always only be you.”
“Good,” Carol manages to say around their kisses. “I only ever want you, my darling.”
Therese smiles a moment and stills, running a finger down the buttons of Carol’s jacket.
“How many bedrooms are here?” she asks.
It all sounds so innocent, so naïve, and Carol has to struggle not to roll her eyes.
“Two,” she says.
“Show me yours.”
She walks Therese past the room that is Rindy’s; Therese grins with happiness at the train set on the floor. Carol’s daughter hasn’t yet stayed overnight, and Carol isn’t sure Harge is ever going to agree to that. But in case he does, the train set is there. There are coloring books and a couple new dolls; there are clothes in the closet that will probably be too small for Rindy by next week. This room is white, too; Carol is waiting for her daughter to say which of the paint samples that are splayed across her desk is her favorite.
Whatever it is, Carol will make sure Rindy knows this can be home, too.
Her own room is an absolute mess. Her suitcases are still open on the floor, spilling out their contents. Makeup and ash trays are scattered over the vanity; as she stands back and watches Therese survey the room with its king-sized bed, Carol thinks she has somehow been trying to capture the freneticism of a road trip. As if, by leaving her clothes in suitcases, she could imagine that she had never left Therese. That she has been merely packing for the moment when they will be reunited.
Well, at least the bed is made.
Therese sits on the edge of it, works her heels off with her toes and kicks them across the room with abandon. Carol quirks an eyebrow at her, and Therese just smiles and pats the empty space next to her. She sits and Therese’s arms are around her again; Carol holds as if she can’t believe that she’s no longer reminiscing about how it felt. Therese kisses her neck, her chin, that space just behind Carol’s ear that sends a shiver racing down her spine, and it occurs to her that she is trembling.
“Lay with me,” Therese whispers.
Causing light to form a point, or sharp image on the image sensor or film.
She unpins the hat from her head before she obliges. Tosses it… somewhere. It doesn’t matter. Her eyes are glued to the glossy nails that tip Therese’s fingers as they slowly, almost slow enough to be maddening, unfasten each button on Carol’s own jacket. She shrugs it off, the strap of her slip falling off her shoulder in the process.
Therese kisses where neck meets collarbone, and Carol sighs.
It’s in Carol’s nature to want to speed things up, to hurry, but she occupies herself by unbuttoning Therese’s jacket, pulling it off of her. They don’t need to rush, she reminds herself, and the realization brings fresh tears to her eyes.
“What?” Therese says, sounding a little alarmed as she pulls back, cups Carol’s face in her hand.
Carol shakes her head, twisting to kiss Therese’s palm.
“We have all night,” she says in a tone of wonder. “And—“
“And tomorrow,” Therese finishes. “And the night after that, and the day after that.”
“We have time,” Carol says, reaching to tug Therese’s shirt out from her skirt. Her fingers trace over the diamond-shaped patch of skin just below Therese’s throat; she replaces them with her lips and Therese gasps.
“Therese Belivet,” Carol says, letting the words roll off her tongue, as if she was saying them for the first time.
How many worlds are contained in that name? she asks herself.
Therese’s hand is in Carol’s skirt, unsnapping garters and rolling down stockings. Carol forgets when she had discarded her shoes, but it doesn’t matter. She eases Therese’s shirt up over her head, pushes the young woman down onto the pillows and stares at her bra-clad form in awe.
“I will never understand someone so beautiful,” Carol murmurs against Therese’s skin as she kisses the swell of her breast just above the white silk fabric.
“I could say the same thing.” Therese’s hands are at her waist; Carol shimmies out of her skirt and leans above Therese on one elbow, now clad in only her slip. Her hair shrouds her face; Therese tucks it behind her ear.
“What else could you say?”
She’s kissing Therese’s shoulders, her neck, her throat. Her lips, her eyelids which feel wet to Carol’s mouth. It makes Carol touch her forehead to Therese’s, makes her brush Therese’s nose left and right with her own, and Therese smiles.
“You’re like a photograph I don’t know how to take. There isn’t a lens or a setting that can capture you. But I’m going to keep trying.”
She’s out of her slip now; her underwear joins the growing pile at the side of the bed and Carol lays herself fully on top of Therese.
“Keep trying,” she pleads.
Therese nods, arches her back so that Carol can slip her hands around and remove her bra.
The relationship between the lightest and darkest areas in a scene and/or photograph.
There are freckles spattered over Carol’s hand; they stand out in a bright distortion against the smoothness of Therese’s skin, the valley between her breasts. Her thumb brushes over a stiff nipple and Therese lets out a little cry; Carol smiles. They kiss slowly, almost lazily, because no, time is not of the essence and New York can’t see into the windows of Carol’s apartment.
“What would you say?” Therese asks suddenly, and Carol has to pause the descent of her mouth to that inviting nipple.
“What would I say?”
“About me, right now. Ever.”
She’s always thinking. Even during sex, Therese’s mind never shuts off. Carol licks her way back up to Therese’s lips.
“I would say I love you,” Carol answers simply. “Because there just aren’t enough words in any language that exists to describe what you are to me. I. Love. You.”
“I love you too.”
Therese is completely naked now; they press against each other for warmth, skin to skin in the slightly chilled room. Carol finds herself kissing a little more urgently now, her hand cupping Therese’s breast as she allows her mouth to roam over her freely.
How many times has she dreamed of this over the last few months? And now Therese is here, with one arm thrown across her face as she breathes hard, writhes under Carol. She pinches a nipple and the shudder that courses through Therese is palpable. She stretches herself out, pulls Therese’s arms over her head and anchors the smaller woman against the bed, wrists pinned to the mattress. Therese’s eyes are hooded, dark, her mouth open into a slight “o,” as if she’s startled by this new development in their lovemaking.
Carol doesn’t blame her; this entire evening has been nothing short of startling.
She holds Therese as she moves, almost as if she’s afraid Therese will slip from her grasp if she eases up, even a little. But Carol keeps her gaze on her lover for a moment, silently asking approval.
Something inside Carol bursts when Therese nods.
She releases; Therese doesn’t move her arms from above her head. She likes this, Carol decides, and the idea of not letting Therese touch her just yet spurs her on. Drives her head downward so that she’s kissing Therese’s breasts, her side, running her tongue over Therese’s navel. She has all night, Carol remembers, to worship at the altar of Therese’s body. To coax sighs and sounds and movements, to make up for the hell that has been February and March.
She’ll spend the rest of her life making up for a few months, if Therese will let her.
Softening detail in a print with a material that scatters light.
She doesn’t think she can get enough of Therese’s face. Carol’s tongue and lips are everywhere on her but every now and then she raises her eyes and just watches. Therese’s expression contorts with every touch against her skin, but when she sees Carol looking at her, the stiff lines of desire melt away and she smiles, gentle and sweet.
This must be what it means to make love, Carol thinks. Only once has Carol ever thought that sex with Harge meant anything, and that’s the night she’s sure they conceived Rindy. But it wasn’t Harge, it wasn’t ever Harge, only the knowledge that they had created life together. There’s no life to be created from what she and Therese are doing; there’s no “natural order” to it, Carol’s sure so many will say, if they know. But something grows from them anyway; something strong in spite of everything that might be thrown their way when the moon disappears and morning finds them. Carol tries to nurture it with her touch, tries to honor it as her hand softly slips between Therese’s legs and finds her slick.
“Carol,” Therese breathes, and she hums in response, first kissing the inside of one thigh, and then the other. She buries two fingers inside Therese’s warmth as her mouth takes her. Therese gives a little, pleased grunt and tilts her hips upward; Carol presses her back down with her other arm across her stomach.
Her fingers and tongue soon find their rhythm, pulling out of Therese the most delicious sounds, music to Carol’s ears. She thrusts slowly, deliberately, wanting to draw it out and tease, to make this last forever. But oh, they do have all night, don’t they? And even more than that – hours and days and weeks and months to share each other.
She moves her hand a little harder, her tongue a little quicker, and it doesn’t take long for Therese to come undone, to cry out as her body pulses around Carol’s fingers. Carol crawls back up the bed, rests herself against Therese, kisses the woman through her orgasm. She wants to see this forever, she thinks: the way Therese blinks sleepily from pleasure at her, the tender, satisfied grin that spreads across her face. She wraps her arms around Carol’s neck and clings to her. A blush has faintly pinked over her skin, almost as if Therese is embarrassed by her own need, and it’s so adorable to Carol that she laughs out loud.
“What?” Therese says with a tilt of her head. There’s a flicker of hurt, of apprehension across her face; Carol hastens to kiss it away. “What are you thinking?”
“Just that I’m absolutely smitten with you, my angel.”
They have so much working against them. Carol’s brief stint in psychotherapy has lain it all as open as Therese underneath her. But it’s not just society, or Harge finding out, or not ever having a real place outside of the little cocoon they are making for themselves here inside of Carol’s – their – apartment, now. Abby had said it before: Therese is young. Carol sometimes feels so incredibly old and wonders if there will ever be a point when Therese will tire of her, when she will long for someone who doesn’t have an ex-husband and a child.
But Therese has tightened her grip on Carol, and her mouth is hot and wet against Carol’s neck. It sends ripples down Carol’s spine, and she understands that she is being, has been, completely and utterly ridiculous.
She loves, and is loved in return.
Therese Belivet loves her.
The degree of lightness or darkness in any given area of a print; also referred to as value.
She finds herself on her back, because Therese has flipped their positions, as casually as if she was an expert. She is positively radiant as she looks down at her; Carol reaches up her hands and lightly pulls Therese’s hair back so she can see her fully. She studies the angle of Therese’s jaw, the bow of her smile, which Carol can scarcely believe is for her, not after all she has done to the woman. One hand trails down so Carol can trace a link to each of the moles on Therese’s chest; she feels the shiver and she winks, triumphant.
“You need to stop,” Therese says with mock frustration in her voice. “How am I supposed to make love to you if you keep doing that to me?”
“Doing what?” Carol drawls, breathing Therese in like a cigarette.
Therese rolls her eyes, straddles Carol’s waist. Dips her head low to nuzzle at the space of Carol’s neck between her jaw and shoulder. “Making me naughty,” she almost purrs, and that’s that, Carol’s wetter than she ever thought imaginable.
“I think,” Carol gasps out, barely, since Therese’s evil little hand is now meandering over her nipples, ushering them into almost painful hardness before she soothes each one with her mouth, “That perhaps you ought to take a week’s vacation from work.”
Therese’s head pops back up. “Why would I do that?” she says in confusion, looking comically like a deer caught in the headlights.
“Well, because, dearest, this is an apartment big enough for two, and I intend to make up for lost time and have you on every single surface.”
Therese’s mouth drops open; Carol smirks.
“I don’t want you going to work falling apart because of the things I’ve done to you the night before.”
“Huh,” Therese says, and her expression has gone hazy. She’s thinking, imagining everything. That’s all right; Carol is too. The floor, the couch, the kitchen counter. Everywhere in the apartment is theirs and everything is Therese, and Carol Aird is more than ready to stake her claim to both.
Therese is kissing her way down her breasts, and makes it nearly to where Carol wants her most before she says anything more.
“No, I don’t think so.”
She’s come on too strong, then, Carol berates herself. Of course she has, they’ve only been CarolandTherese again for, what was it? An hour? Two? Christ, can she have any patience before she goes insinuating herself into things like some glorious lumbering fool?
But the thoughts are lost when Therese licks a hot stripe between Carol’s legs and she groans; Therese looks up and smiles, with Carol glistening on her lips.
“I want it,” Therese says with her voice low. “I want to go to work sore and aching and still wet, and know it’s because of you.”
“Huh,” is all Carol can say in her shock.
“Besides,” Therese says, and she sounds far too happy for her own good. She kisses Carol’s thigh, then nuzzles it.
“You work now, too.” Her challenge is clear.
Well, devil take it all, Carol muses, shifting in the bed and spreading her legs wider when Therese strokes her again with her tongue.
Therese Belivet is going to kill her with an agonizing lust, and Carol’s going to sing praises to God while she does it.
This is more than just sex, though, at least for tonight, because where Carol could encourage Therese to take her roughly and quickly, to satisfy the urge that’s building deep within her belly, she lets Therese set the pace. And it’s slow, it’s oh so slow and soft, even when Therese bites her thigh and Carol knows that’s going to leave a mark. Therese takes her time, because don’t they have that in spades, now; she covers every inch of Carol’s skin with her mouth and with her hands, and Carol realizes with another sudden rush of tears to her eyes that of course, it’s not just her that is wanting to make up for moments lost.
There is a tenderness about Therese that Carol isn’t sure she will understand, not after everything she’s done, everything she’s put the young woman through.
Do you hate me?
How could I hate you?
It’s a level of forgiveness that Carol doesn’t think she’ll ever attain, because there have been too many hurts in her life. But here is Therese, abandoned by her parents, lost and alone in a boarding school, only to grow up and be abandoned once more, however briefly, by someone else. And yet there is no more anger in Therese as she slips inside Carol and makes the other woman’s eyes flutter shut. Carol lifts herself into Therese’s touch, into her mouth, keeps her eyes closed but doesn’t bother to bite her palm as Therese does.
When she comes, her cry shatters into the light of their bedroom, in their apartment.
“Therese,” Carol says raggedly, reaching down and grasping. “Therese, where are you, come here.”
She’s not upset, but she’s almost sobbing, because in spite of all the words that they have said, it has just struck Carol that Therese is finally here, that they are together again and it will take every force in the universe to pull Carol away from Therese Belivet again. Therese moves herself up to lay alongside Carol and awkwardly yanks and tugs at the bedsheets until they are half-draped around them both. She rests her head on Carol’s chest and takes her hand, linking their fingers together.
“Carol, what is it?”
Carol takes a deep, shuddering breath. Therese’s hand anchors her like it had once before, so long ago when an injunction threatened to destroy everything. This isn’t a dream, this is real, she reminds herself. She holds Therese to her, tightly.
“You darling little thing,” Carol says, stroking her hair. “I love you.”
Therese yawns; it’s such a mundane thing that it delights Carol. “I love you too,” she says. “Almost as much as I love this bed.”
“Ha!” Carol is grinning, stupidly. “I made a good choice in it, then.”
“Oh, a very good choice, but I think anything beats the twin bed in my old apartment.”
My old apartment.
“So you’re staying?”
She’s still doubtful and the look Therese gives her tells Carol she doesn’t like it.
“I thought I’d made that clear,” she says, then lifts herself up so that she’s positioned over Carol once again. This time it isn’t sexual, but careful. She kisses her; it lingers on Carol’s lips when they separate.
“Yes, Carol, I’m staying. And not because of the bed.”
A dark image outlined against a lighter background.
It’s a little after six a.m. when she wakes. She turns over on her side and stretches, feeling the delicious pull on her muscles and the tenderness between her legs. Her hand reaches over and touches smooth, still-warm emptiness.
Carol opens her eyes. She smiles.
Therese is not gone.
Well, she’s gone from the bed. But her pajamas are folded neatly on the chest at the foot, and her suitcase rests, unopened, inside the closet. Carol’s own robe is still tossed over a chair. She’s fairly certain that Therese’s newfound confidence has not yet expanded into public nudity, so, no, Therese is not gone.
Carol closes her eyes, altogether not inclined to leave the bed yet herself. She hears a quiet rustling coming from the direction of the living room, and though any ordinary person might have thought it a cause for alarm, to Carol it’s a comfort. She knows the light footfalls as well as she knows Rindy’s; it’s almost as if she has been indoctrinated with the knowledge of Therese since the very first day that they met at Frankenburg’s, and it fills Carol with a peace that she hasn’t had, in this new apartment with its plain white walls.
It makes her want to drift off to sleep again. The realization that Therese is in the next room calms Carol’s heart, stills the otherwise incessant need to go and to do and to be. She’s content to just lay there in the bed, curled up on her side with her hand tucked under her cheek. She’ll have to get up and go to work today, which doesn’t exactly make her happy. But what’s eight hours apart when Carol knows that Therese has come back to her, will always come back to her?
The empty space in the bed has grown cold, and Carol forces herself up to a sitting position. She gropes for her robe, stands up and throws it on. She unlatches Therese’s suitcase and fumbles through it, smiling when she finds the camera. Carol makes a noise of satisfaction and straightens up, draping Therese’s own deep blue robe over her arm.
She makes her way into their living room.
The light casts shadows on Therese’s naked form; she moves slowly and with intent, staring at the walls. Occasionally she lifts her hands, twisting her thumbs and forefingers into a square. She squints through them, one eye shut, her tongue darting out from her mouth as she focuses in severe concentration. Around the room she goes, foot by foot by foot, calculating something in her mind. Always thinking.
Carol watches for a few moments. Finally, the desire to have Therese back in her arms is too much.
“Dearest,” Carol says affectionately, and Therese squeaks in surprise and whirls around. She looks very much like Rindy when Carol catches her sneaking an extra cookie from the jar.
“What are you doing?”
Therese bites her lip and allows Carol to come to her and slip the robe on her, tying the belt around her waist. She adjusts the collar of it around Therese’s neck, squeezing Therese’s shoulders with her hands. There are times when Therese feels so small to her, in spite of how much she has blossomed during their months apart. It inspires in Carol a need to care, to guard, to protect. If Therese minds it, she doesn’t let on.
“Planning?” Therese says. “You don’t have your paintings up yet, and I was trying to figure out…”
“Figure out?” Carol prompts.
She takes Therese’s hand and leads her to the couch. Instead of sitting next to her, Therese surprises her girlfriend by settling into her lap. Carol smiles and wraps her arms around her from behind, loosely.
“Trying to figure out the best placement for my photographs,” Therese says softly.
Yes, Carol thinks. That is exactly what has been missing from these bare, boring walls in which she is living.
“What a brilliant idea,” she says, and Therese beams, laying her head on Carol’s shoulder. Carol kisses her forehead.
“Do you know we have a balcony?” she asks after a minute’s silence.
She’s not sure what makes her think of it, except that the clock leaning against one of the walls reads six twenty. It’s morning, and Therese is here.
“What?” Therese lifts her head, her eyes dazzled with excitement. “We have a balcony?”
“Yes, indeed we do,” Carol says with laughter in her voice. She nudges Therese off her lap. “Come see.”
She throws open the door leading to it and steps out, with Therese behind. It’s not exceptionally large or terribly elaborate, but it’s enough for the two of them. The early cold makes Carol shiver, and she feels Therese press against her back, warming her. Carol is taller and more suited for holding Therese, but there’s something so… good about being wrapped in Therese’s arms.
The city is coming more alive beneath them. New York may never sleep, but it still has to rest sometimes. Down below in the darkness are the beginnings of the horns of taxis, the sleepy morning grumbles of men and women headed off to work. Carol and Therese will be among them, too soon after they’ve found each other again, Carol believes, but it’ll be all right.
Maybe she’ll take Therese to dinner tonight, just the two of them. Therese would like that. Or perhaps Carol will make dinner tonight, just for the two of them. Therese would like that, too.
“Will you go to Paris with me?” Carol asks, casually. Too casually, and she knows her voice shakes a little.
“Not yet,” Therese says, and she must feel Carol stiffen, because she hugs her closer. “I don’t mean not ever, you know. Soon, maybe. After things settle? I just need a little time.”
There is still that wall, after all, Carol knows, crumbling and weak as it is. But the promise is still there, the hope for something that lay just beyond the coming days. She nods.
“You shall have all the time you need, my darling.”
“When will you be home today? After work, I mean.”
Carol reaches around to pull Therese next to her as they stand at the railing of the balcony. She slips her arm around Therese’s waist, and the young photographer tugs Carol’s other hand into hers.
“A little after four, so long as no desperate customer wanders in at three-thirty to try to upsell something.”
Therese grins, which turns apologetic. “I’m not out till five.”
“I’ll miss you, but we’ll adjust,” Carol says, cuddling her.
They will map out their future with schedules and stolen moments. And when the doors close behind them on Madison Avenue, they will both breathe a sigh of relief. They will kiss and they will make love, they will fight and cry and make up again. They will be.
“You’re right, we will.”
They’re quiet again, until Carol says, “It’ll be daylight soon.” She looks at Therese.
“Since I’m paying an exorbitant rent for this balcony, I might as well put it to use and watch the sunrise. Would you like to watch with me?”
Therese’s smile is more beautiful than a million sunrises.
“Yes. Yes, I would.”
Carol kisses her, long and soft, and Therese returns it in equal measure. Carol squeezes her hand, then moves away from her lover to go back into the apartment, through the living room and into the kitchen, to start a pot of coffee for the first morning of many.