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Better Than Fiction

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November 25, 1999 -- Thanksgiving day

Therese had been up since 4 a.m. Not because she had to, but because her eyes had popped open and her body had compelled her to get up and write. She had an end of year deadline, but she always liked to finish with plenty of time for her own edits and clean up before handing over to her editor. She only had 2, maybe 3 chapters left to write.

Besides, the end of the year would be the new millennium, and there was so much paranoia about computer systems crashing and data being lost that she wanted to have her manuscript printed and saved in multiple media formats before the new year.

She had an extra layer of anxiety about this novel. Her first 3 books had been murder/mystery plots, loosely based on true crime stories she had read, combined with a totally fictional character she had created of a quirky female detective. While she had drawn elements of the main character and other threads of the story from her own life and experiences, it was far detached from her daily reality. While not best sellers, the stories had given her enough success to quit her job and become a full time writer, and she had a good relationship with her publisher.

Her publisher had wanted her to do more of the same -- to keep building on the detective series and let the popularity continue to grow through word of mouth and the occasional book tour. And she planned to ... eventually.

But the book she was working on now, against her publisher's wishes, was intensely personal. It was a lesbian love story set in the deep South, about two women who, against all odds, managed to find each other and true love in an oppressive setting. So much of it had been taken from her love affair with Carol and the early, painful memories of discovering her own sexuality. There had been moments, sitting in front of her computer, when she had started to cry, or laugh hysterically, or felt a sudden wave of heat and animal lust wash over her. The feelings were raw with this story, and she experienced them on a level far deeper than anything she had felt with her other novels.

Most of all, she felt so invested in the two main characters and wanted desperately for them to find each other and be happy, finally. There were times during the story where she had to fight against her own wants and desires for the two of them and try to remain true to what she felt was right for the story -- to let them struggle, and cry, and come to their own conclusions.

Now, here she was in her little study with the sky still pitch black out her window except for a sliver of moon glinting off the snow on the bushes outside. She sipped black coffee and typed, then backspaced, then typed again. She found herself smiling, laughing at her own jokes in the manuscript.

She loved writing in the still and quiet of the early morning hours. The desk chair creaked when she leaned back, and she heard the soft pad of feet coming in from the hallway. It was JoJo, her fat orange boy cat, strolling across the hardwood floor to twirl around her leg flirtatiously. She patted her lap, and he jumped up for a snuggle. His purr was hypnotic, and she buried her face into the thick fur of his neck, enjoying his warmth and comfort.

By the time she finished the chapter, her legs had fallen asleep from the effort of trying not to move and disturb his peaceful slumber. She shifted, and he opened a cautious eye, a grumpy warning that he was not done napping.

She laughed. "Too bad, big boy. I have got to get up and start prepping for dinner. Big day today!"

He managed a noise half between a moan and a meow as she shuffled him off her lap. The sun was just starting to peek over the trees and trickle in through the kitchen window as she checked her schedule for the day. She had put a lot of thought into it, determining the best timing to get every dish to the table hot and fresh. Today was going to be a lot of work, but she would love every minute of it.

Last night she had done quite a bit of chopping and prep work, and she had carefully injected the giant thawed turkey roosting in the refrigerator. The first order of the day was to get it in the oven.

She had just finished getting the turkey settled when she heard the shifting of floorboards toward the back of the house, and then the flush of a toilet, running water. She could feel the excitement rising in a warm bubble in her chest. The day was really beginning now -- time to share it with someone else.

A tousled mop of dark hair poked its way around the doorframe, followed by a face that was all yawn.

"G'mornin'," followed the yawn, as she headed straight for the coffee.

"Good morning yourself. How did you sleep, sweetheart?"

"Mmmm good. We've been so busy at the museum lately that it feels great to have a few days to relax."

"Sit down. I'll cook you some breakfast. How does a little bacon and egg omelet sound?"

"You spoil me, Terri." The girl's eyes twinkled over her mug of coffee, the steam rising in a curl over her forehead.

"I'm happy to do it," she said, walking over and putting an arm around her shoulders for a squeeze. She seemed thin to Therese, so she felt it was her job to put a little weight on her while she was visiting. Therese thought she was going a little overboard on the Goth phase, but as long as she seemed healthy and happy she wasn't one to complain. Sure, it was unsettling the first time she had come home with her hair dyed black and five studs dotting one earlobe -- she practically had to peel Carol off the ceiling. But it was just some hair dye after all, and a little self expression. She had consoled Carol with the fact that at least she hadn't gotten any tattoos yet. Well, at least not that they knew of.

When Rindy sat down at the table with her cup of coffee, Therese indulged herself in just a moment of taking her in, sitting there. There were so many years without her at the table, or only sporadic visits. Harge had done his best to turn her against them --and even more potent had been the religion she was steeped in. But this little rebellious streak in her, the same one that had compelled her to dress all in black and buy Doc Martens, that streak had made her question the teachings of the church and reach out to a mother who had always been loving and kind.

Once she was able to drive, she had started to steal away to Birmingham on the weekends to see them, and she would call a fuming Harge to tell him that she was ok, but that she was going to spend the night with her mother. Carol would just shrug her shoulders at him and smile cryptically as if to say, "What can I do? I can't make her leave." Secretly, her admiration for her fierce and strong-willed daughter gave way to the type of appreciation that a parent can only experience when watching their child grow into adulthood.

And then, there came a pivotal moment for all of them. Carol's reputation in the academic world had been flourishing, and she had published several articles in respected literary journals. She started being invited to speak at conferences, and it wasn't long before job offers started to come in from various schools for positions with the promise of tenure.

They had sat down at the kitchen table, the three of them: Carol, Therese, and Rindy -- and they talked about where they would all like to live, and where Rindy would like to go to school. For the schools where Carol had offers, she could provide Rindy with a tuition-free education. It was too good to pass up.

Therese could still remember that conversation, and how outnumbered she had felt at the time. Mother and daughter had been lobbying hard to return to Vermont.

They had friends, connections, and most importantly, fond memories of the time when they had lived there. It had reached an idyllic status in their minds, and Therese was skeptical of how much of their fond remembrances would be a reality.

Also, she was a southern girl through and through. She had barely been out of the South, except for a short trip to New York City where she felt overwhelmed and completely out of her element. She had no idea what Vermont would be like. How would she handle the cold? She was terrified at the thought of driving in snow -- she had only seen snow once, and it had completely shut down the city of Birmingham with less than an inch of it on the ground. Would the people there make fun of her accent? Would they think she was dumb, or a hillbilly?

And most importantly, would she be able to find work in her field? A degree from a small liberal arts college in Alabama might not hold any sway in the great frozen North. 

But finally, they had worn her down. Their enthusiasm was contagious. And Carol had promised her, if she would just give it a try, that they could always move back to Birmingham when Rindy finished college if she really hated it. So Therese had moved, reluctantly, with a 4-year calendar count-down in her mind.

It was nothing like she had imagined.

They had told her that Vermont was full of beautiful country, of trees, and cows, and farmland. They had told her about the mountains and the clean air. But nothing could have prepared her for the pure splendor of it, the sparkling waters of Lake Champlain, the way the morning mists rolled off the pastures, the thousands of tiny streams tumbling from high places down over rocks as smooth as dinosaur eggs. From her first week there, she was smitten.

And then there were the people. They had many of the characteristics of the small town folks she had met in Alabama: willingness to help, a friendly charm, quaint and even downright quirky behaviors. But there was a certain reserve as well, a cautiousness and tendency towards privacy that Therese could appreciate, had even embraced herself. There was a "live and let live" mentality that seemed to thrive in the place that they settled, and not only did people not pry into their personal lives, they seemed careful to avoid any topic that might be of a more sensitive nature. With most of their neighbors, they talked about the weather, and the crops, and the recycling rally being held downtown. Therese had never met such a bunch of recyclers in her life, and she got a crash course in how to be more eco-friendly as soon as she moved.

As she plated Rindy's omelet and heard the pop of the toaster, Therese smiled to herself at the memory of their first few days after they had moved to the sleepy little village of Vergennes. They had explored Main Street with its upscale bistro and homey diner, plundered the little bookshop, and marveled as they saw a man in overalls on a John Deere tractor driving through the center of town. On their 3rd evening in their new home, they had gone to Button Bay State park to sit on the rocks and watch the sun set over Lake Champlain, feeling the crispness in the air that signaled the impending fall and the start of Rindy's education at Middlebury College, and Carol's professorship in the English and American Literatures department.

Even though she had felt a little lost as the two of them started off to work and school, it had given her a chance to explore the area and get the lay of the land as she did her job search. She had enjoyed a few solitary hikes up lush mountainsides, and she had discovered that she loved paddling a kayak in early morning to the call of the loons.

To her great surprise, an opening had come up within a month at the tiny Vergennes library. It reminded her of her job in Dixon -- well, the good parts of it, anyway. She was able to organize community events and programs for children, order books, and help patrons with their research projects. The main difference was this library had a generous budget and the full support of the community. She was able to hire plenty of help to keep the little library running smoothly, and she had no problem stocking the shelves with a healthy collection of Gay and Lesbian literature. On Tuesday nights, she started what was to become a very popular writer's group. This was where the seed of her murder mystery series had taken root, and she would always remember her first book signing at that little library as one of the highlights of her career.

Now Rindy had graduated and had gotten a job as a curator at the Shelburne Museum, a sprawling and eccentric collection of antiques, art, and pop culture history on 45 acres of private land. It was her dream job, as she got to help set up new exhibits, work on restoration projects, and interact with visitors to share the history of the museum and the area. And, it was a job where her quirky personality and dress were seen as an asset rather than a liability.

She ruffled the girl's hair affectionately, and Rindy playfully slapped her hand away. "Hey, I'm not a kid anymore!"

"I know, you're a grown-ass woman," she said, and gave her a wink. Rindy might protest, but she knew that she loved being pampered when she came over to visit. She was still in those early struggling years, just scraping by on her salary, and Therese and Carol were only too happy to cook for her and buy her things. They were trying to make up for the time they had lost -- an impossible task, she knew, but it didn't stop them from fawning over her.

The sound of someone clearing her throat made them both look up at the doorway.

Therese's heart made that silly little flip-flop it sometimes did when she saw her. Even after 10 years, there were moments when the sight of her still took her breath away.

She was so incredibly tall, leaning against the frame of the door in her blue silk pajamas, her arms crossed over her chest and watching them with a bemused smile on her face. Her hair was tousled from sleep, and the creases in the corners of her eyes were deeper, the blush of the pillow on her cheek.

"You finally managed to wake up, huh?" Rindy teased.

Carol crossed the room to where Rindy sat and wrapped her arms around her neck, leaning down to kiss the side of her face. "I did. But I feel like I'm still dreaming. My two favorite ladies in the kitchen."

The blonde looked at Therese over Rindy's head and gave her a sly wink, and she felt a warm flush through her body. They were still careful in front of Rindy -- no matter how many times she told them she was "cool with it," the old habits of containing their affection in front of others was a hard one to break. For her own part, Therese didn't mind. Something about being restrained from touching her for a short while just increased her desire, made it all the more sweeter when they could reconnect again in private. It was the ingrained pattern of their existence, the early avenues of their desire, a series of restraint followed by passion unleashed.

The certainty of it all now, the knowledge that Carol loved her, would always love her, made her feel connected to her always, like a tether stretching between them wherever they were. There was no need to hesitate when they were finally alone. She would fall on her, drown her in kisses, mark her and claim her all over again.

As she watched mother and daughter together with a catch in her throat, she saw so much of Carol's face reflected in Rindy. She could see the pride and protectiveness in every angle of Carol's body: her baby was home. She had fought for her and finally won her over again, and it would take nothing short of death to keep her away now. She could see Rindy's impatience, her desire to pull away. When she was feeling strong, like any young woman the urge was to separate, to declare her independence. But as she watched, the girl's eyes softened, and she allowed herself to be hugged and kissed again, and she only sighed a little at her mother's attentions.

Therese brought Carol a steaming mug of coffee, and their fingers brushed briefly as she handed it to her. Electric.

"Thank you," she said, and her eyes said so much more.

"You're welcome," Therese replied with a slight lift of her eyebrow.

Carol sat at the table with Rindy and Therese brought her 2 slices of buttered toast, her only concession to breakfast. The smell in the room was starting to hint at the turkey roasting.

"What time does your dad's flight arrive?" she said, the toast poised in her right hand.

"12:15. Are you sure you don't mind going without me?" Therese asked.

"Not a bit. I wouldn't want to mess up that artfully crafted food schedule," Carol said with a crooked smile.

"He'd rather see you than me anyhow. Just get ready for all the questions about farming in Vermont."

Carol nodded. "Ready. I had lunch with one of the Agricultural Studies professors from University of Vermont last week just to up my game a little."

"He'll be impressed."

"Wait 'til you show him your goats," Rindy chimed in. "Those guys are the most spoiled things I've ever seen."

"The second most," Therese said, raising a meaningful eyebrow.

"Touche'."

Therese still couldn't believe that Carol had wanted to buy a farm. She had always thought she born for high society, someone who expected and needed expensive things and a fancy lifestyle. The reality was that Carol was really a simple country girl at heart. Sure, she still enjoyed dressing up for an evening at the symphony, and Therese had never seen her without her nails polished.

But Carol in jeans and a button down plaid shirt carrying water for the goats, or feeding the chickens, was truly a sight to behold. Her face serene under the shadow of a wide-brimmed hat, she looked as natural in the landscape as the squirrels and the bumble bees.

Last year, she had bought a horse, and resumed the riding that she had loved as a child. Therese didn't want anything to do with riding the huge, intimidating beast, but she loved to help brush him down and clean the tack in the barn that smelled sweet with hay. She would stand in the yard and watch Carol as she rode off down the path towards the woods and the pond, tall and majestic in the saddle, as if she and the horse had merged into one creature.

She was excited for her father to see the farm. He hadn't been to visit since they bought it. And she was even more excited just to see him, to hold his hand and look him in the eye and get a sense of him. It had been a tough year for him -- the last time she had seen him, he had been just getting over a terrible bout of double pneumonia. She and Carol had flown down to Jamison to check on him and help nurse him back to health.

It was then that Carol and her father had finally bonded, as if, in that visit, he was finally able to see the intense love this woman felt for his daughter. Once he realized this shared interest they had in common -- their mutual undying love and affection for Therese -- it was as if all the other barriers were lifted and they could find their other common interests.

Therese checked her schedule -- almost time to pull the cornbread out of the oven to cool. There was a pot of fresh cranberries on the stove just about ready to come to a boil. As soon as she got the homemade cranberry sauce made, she would start on the lemon ice box pie. It was Abby's favorite.

If you had asked her 6 years ago, Therese would have said there was no way she would make a special pie for Abby except if she thought she might choke on it. The beginnings of their relationship had been rocky, to say the least.

Surely, having Carol's ex-lover less than an hour down the road from them had not been a selling point to the merits of Vermont. And when she met Abby and saw how attractive she was, and the natural humor and ease that the two women shared, her jealousy had burned a hole in her stomach.

When she was with Abby, there was yet another side of Carol to experience. A Carol who had a biting wit and a penchant for sarcasm, and the two of them were constantly tossing playful barbs at each other.

Therese had felt left out, especially in their frequent strolls down memory lane, the antics of their youth and the drunken parties they had attended. It didn't help in the least that Rindy was head over heels for Abby, too. The two of them could stay up all night talking about art and the creative process. Every encounter with Abby left her feeling crabby and unsettled, and Abby's not-so-subtle mentions of her age and inexperience only added to her irritation.

One day, she had finally had enough. Abby dropped by when Carol was out riding, and she had draped herself in a kitchen chair while Therese was busy cooking.

"Look, kiddo, the only way you are going to get ahead is to really push with a publisher. You have got to get your work out into the world," Abby drawled.

This was in line with the many tirades Abby had given her about her writing, how she needed to find a good editor, how the publishing houses were so full of crap these days, that she should be mailing at least 100 manuscripts out to executives ... and on and on and on.

Therese ground her teeth and took her anger out on the mashed potatoes. "I've tried," she said, keeping her voice low, "it's just not easy."

"Nothing's ever easy, kiddo. That's what is wrong with you young folks, you expect things to just ..." 

Therese snapped. "Stop calling me kiddo! I'm fucking 37 years old! And if I needed your advice on getting published, I would have asked you!"

Therese stopped, her hand on the potato masher, her own surprise registering on her face. Abby definitely looked surprised. She whistled low under her breath.

"Well ... I didn't know you had it in ya."

Therese gaped at her. She could feel herself cooling off, like a pressure cooker that had released its steam and was settling down to a simmer.

"Sorry," she said, not exactly meaning it. "I just ... it's frustrating."

Abby nodded. "Well, I'm only being a pain in your ass because I believe in you. I have read your work, and it's damned good stuff. You should be published. But I'll lay off -- I didn't know it was bothering you so much."

And that's when it had clicked for Therese. Abby's intentions were good; she just didn't know how to be anything but slightly insufferable. And she believed in her. She was the first person who believed in her work who didn't have skin in the game. Her support and encouragement, and the connections that she helped her to find, ended up helping her get the start she needed to her writing career.

She owed a lot to Abby. And she realized that she wasn't a threat. Carol loved her, surely, but as a friend. There was nothing to compare to the way that Carol looked at Therese; it had been so obvious all along.

So, she was making her mother's lemon ice box pie recipe. She had made it last year for Abby, and the woman had swooned over it. This year she would make two, so that she could secretly send one home with her after dinner was over.

She had just slipped the second pie into the fridge when Rindy wandered back into the kitchen and asked if she could help. Therese was only too happy putting her to work chopping onions and peeling hard boiled eggs. The two women giggled and bantered as they worked. Rindy had an interest in cooking that she certainly didn't inherit from her mother, and Therese promised to show her how to make the cornbread dressing.

But the promise came with a caveat.

"Swear to me that you will not give the recipe to that horrible woman."

"Cross my heart," Rindy said, fluttering her lashes. "Besides, even if I gave her the recipe, measured out all the ingredients, and even mixed it up for her, she would still manage to find a way to screw it up. She can't cook for shit."

Therese laughed. "Really, it can't be that bad, can it?"

"I am still recovering from the unidentifiable lump of charred meat I had to hack my way through the last time I visited. I didn't know it was possible to screw up pork chops, but I guess if you work hard enough at it, you can."

Therese giggled guiltily. She knew she shouldn't enjoy Rindy's criticism of Harge's wife so much, but she couldn't help the ripple of glee. In their brief interactions, she had been nothing but nasty, and her incurable nosiness reminded Therese of her old nemesis, Sandra.

Rindy always came back from visits with stories of how the holier-than-thou bleached blonde with fake nails like talons had pumped her for information about the "unnatural lifestyle" of her mother. Over the years, Carol had gone from being indignant, to mildly irritated, to now, where she actually relished the thought of filling this woman with false and fanciful stories of their lives.

With Rindy in collusion, the three of them would concoct adventures and odd rituals to feed the silly biddy's curiosity. Now Therese was in full-out creative mode -- she was, after all, a writer.

"I think you should tell her that we've gone vegan, and I served you tofu loaf, quinoa, and kale for Thanksgiving dinner."

"You're assuming she'll even know what any of that means."

"I trust you can explain it to her in horrifying detail." Therese smirked. "Oh! And I think you should tell her we're up to 10 indoor cats and a colony of 15 feral cats in the barn."

"As long as she doesn't demand photo evidence, I think I can pull that off. Speaking of which, I am still wanting to get a photo of you guys in Birkenstocks and tie dye dresses."

"Over my dead body," Therese said, laughing.

They were cackling like setting hens about the idea of gluing cat hair on Therese's legs and under her armpits for a very interesting photo shoot when Carol waltzed in, fresh from her shower.

"My goodness, I could hear you two all the way in the back of the house!"

Rindy flashed a smile very reminiscent of her mother's. "We were just plotting what I am going to tell Debbie about the latest developments at 'Homosexual Haven.' You're now a vegan with pit hair."

Carol nodded sagely. "Ahhh, I've gotten wiser in my old age. And how many cats are we up to now?"

"25," Therese chimed in. "And at least 5 of them are missing legs or eyes .....oooh, what about one with no ears?"

"Brilliant!" Both Rindy and Carol said at the same time. Carol laughed and playfully poked her daughter in the side.

"I'm just about ready to head out to the airport," Carol said, leaning against the counter near Therese. "Any chance you could help me find that scarf I was planning to wear?"

"Scarf?" Therese asked, then caught the mischievous look in Carol's eye. "Oh right, the scarf. Let me go see what I can do."

Therese did a quick check that everything in the kitchen would be ok for a few minutes before following Carol down the hallway to the bedroom. Carol waited by the door while she walked in, then quietly shut the door behind them. Therese pretended not to notice and made for the walk-in closet.

"So, is it the green and white scarf you're looking for?" she said, hiding a grin.

In a moment, she felt Carol behind her, wrapping her arms around her, pulling her over and onto the bed with a thump. Therese was trying not to giggle.

"Goodness, be quiet! What will Rindy think?"

"She'll think her mother is a very lucky woman," Carol smirked, then leaned in to press a kiss to her lips. "God, you look so sexy in the kitchen. My very own domestic goddess."

Therese wound her arms around Carol's waist. "You look pretty good yourself. I guess family holidays look good on us." She could feel her heart thumping as she looked up at the stunning woman leaning down over her, a shower of blonde hair with threads of silver sparkling and cascading around her face. The years had softened her cheekbones and her jawline, deepened some of the creases around her mouth and her eyes, and added just a little extra curviness to her hips and breasts. Her eyes held a deep kindness and wisdom now, an empathy for others born of her own years of suffering.

To Therese, she was even more beautiful to her today than she had ever been. Every day was an opportunity to learn her anew, to adore and admire her, to watch her persevere. Each gray hair, each fine line, the accumulations of the little scars and imperfections that signaled a life well lived -- Therese wondered at every one of these and felt grateful for them, that she was the one who got to know her so well, to study each mark that their lives together left upon her.

She stroked her thumb along Carol's cheek. "You're loving having your baby here, aren't you?"

Carol smiled at her, kissed her thumb, and she thought she could see just the hint of wetness in the corner of her eye. "Having my two favorite girls with me is the best gift I could ever have. It's life at its fullest."

Therese slid her hand down and pressed it against Carol's chest, over her heart. For a moment time stood still and they just looked in each other's eyes, savoring this sweet moment and storing it in memory for later days.

Carol kissed her again and pressed against her ... hard. She knew just the places to touch that could take Therese from 0 to 60 in a heartbeat, the knowledge of a long-term and observant lover. Her breath was hot in her ear as she whispered, "Later, my darling, I am going to ravish you so mercilessly that you will have to shove the pillow into your mouth to keep from waking the rest of the house."

Therese swallowed hard, looking into the desire that burned in Carol's eyes.

"Well, happy fucking Thanksgiving to me," she murmured, and they both started to laugh.

Reluctantly, they pulled away from each other. "You'd better get to the airport," Therese said, giving the tall woman a playful smack on the ass.

"I'm so hungry already! The smell in this house is pure torture."

"Don't you dare snack before dinner time. We're going to eat at 2:00. As long as Abby's on time, that is," Therese said, rolling her eyes.

"Oh, don't worry. I lied and told her dinner was at 1:00, so she should be here by 2:30 at the latest."

"Brilliant," Therese said, standing up and smoothing out her rumpled blouse. "Now I'd better get moving, time to make the gravy."

Therese had her hand on the doorknob when Carol stopped her with a hand on her arm.

"Therese," she said in that way that she still had of saying her name and almost knocking her knees out from under her with the power of it.

"Mmm?"

Carol moved in close, cupping her chin and kissing her softly again.

"I love you."

"I love you too, darling."