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A Misunderstanding

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Whatever Therese imagined or dreamed for this evening, whatever secret hope she entertained and then told herself to dismiss, what she did not expect was to walk into a room and find another woman kissing Carol Ross.

Honestly, how she ended up at this party in the first place is still a source of bafflement to her. It all started with a job, just a simple job, photographing for a furniture house’s spring catalogue. She answered the advertisement in the paper and when they heard that she worked for The Times, they hired her on the spot. Something to be said for the prestige of her day job—even if the pay is bad and the men constantly try to get her to go on dates with them.  

The shop was on 4th Avenue. Therese showed up on Saturday morning, and a man called Dennis Myers (the owner) gave her a tour of the floor, pointing out that all the new pieces had a special little tag on them, so she’d know what to shoot.

This was not the sort of work Therese usually enjoyed. She preferred photographing people, in all their messiness and beauty. She liked to imagine what their secret lives entailed, what their faces and outward appearance hid from the world. Perhaps she projected onto them, having, as she did, such a secret life. But in any case, when it came to the secret lives of furniture… Therese was initially flummoxed.

Except that once she had the lay of the project, each chair and table and sofa and bed frame unfurled for her a whole future of possibilities, if her pictures helped them sell. She imagined families for the furniture. Dogs jumping up on the settees. Children running around the dining room tables. Roommates watching TV on the couches and couples making love in the beds. She got so caught up in the work, in the stories, that she never saw her coming. Didn’t know anyone was behind her until—

“Excuse me.”

It startled her. Would have startled her, even if she had been paying attention. The voice was low and rich, a little husky. When Therese spun around she nearly choked.

“Oh, I’m sorry, did I startle you?” the woman asked.

She was arrestingly beautiful, like a starlet or a queen. Therese had always prided herself on the ability to school her expressions, to seem cool and calm even when she wasn’t—even when she saw a pretty woman. This time, however. Therese gaped, shook herself, babbled nervously, “Oh, no, no, I’m sorry, uh—can I help you?”

The woman gave her a smile that looked amused, maybe even charmed. Her smile was as gorgeous as the rest of her, wide and pearlescent and it made her eyes sparkle. Eyes that, Therese quickly perceived, were pale and hypnotizing.

The woman asked, “Would you like some tea? Coffee? Only I was about to get myself some from the breakroom and thought I’d ask. You’ve been working for two hours.”

It was such an unexpected gesture of kindness that first Therese didn’t know how to respond. And when she did respond, her own words baffled her— “Oh, no. Thank you.” 

“You’re sure?” the woman asked. “Not thirsty at all?”

In fact, Therese was thirsty. Thirstier now that that regal head was tilting quizzically sideways. And yet, inexplicably, she shook her head again. “Thank you, though. I’m quite all right.”

This time the woman’s smile was definitely amused. Her eyes seemed to bore right into her, as if in her crown of golden hair she was a queen observing the foolishness of a court jester. Therese had never seen such cheekbones. The woman wore a sophisticated gray pantsuit with expensive-looking jewelry, and Therese felt like a tiny, ugly mouse in her simple weekend dress.

“Well, all right, then,” the woman said. Her tone was dry, her smile was mischievous, and those eyes were diamond bright. “Let me know if you change your mind.”

The moment she walked away (she was tall, like a goddess, her gait elegant and fascinating), Therese changed her mind. Wanted to call out to her, to take back her ridiculous refusal. But it was too late. And the woman never came back. Therese dawdled through her final photographs, hoping to see her again, but in the end she finished the project without catching another glimpse of her. Dennis asked as she was packing up, “When will the prints be ready?”

“I can bring them on Monday,” Therese replied. “Is five o’clock too late?”

He said it wasn’t. Therese took one last surreptitious look around the furniture house, but the woman was no where to be seen. And when she came back on Monday, photographs and negatives in hand, the woman was still nowhere to be seen, and so Therese went back to her life, and thought of the woman as a mirage, a fantasy, something she had conjured out of daydream—

Watching Carol Ross kiss another woman is far from a dream.

Therese’s eyes go wide as dinner plates, her hand on the door knob clenching in startlement. She must make a sound, a gasp, perhaps, because Carol wrenches away from the woman in front of her (a tall woman, like Carol, who Therese noticed at the party earlier) and looks directly at Therese. Her look is sharp as glass, her eyes like gray flints, her mouth flushed from kissing.

“Excuse me,” says Therese, and spins around, hurrying back down the hall.

Her eyes feel hot. Her throat feels thick. She’s got no right to feel this way, because while she didn’t know what this night would hold, she should never have dared to hope it would end with Carol Ross kissing her.

After all, the phone call from Carol had been entirely professional. Two weeks after the job at the furniture store, she was at her desk at The Times when Lucy popped her head around a corner and told her, “Telephone for you, Terry. Some woman called Carol Ross? She says she works at Myers’ Furniture?”

Of course, Therese didn’t recognize the name, and assumed it was some secretary of Mr. Myers’, maybe with questions about the photographs. She went into the next room and picked up the receiver, saying, “Hello, this is Therese Belivet.”

The voice that answered was a smoky drawl, “Ms. Belivet, this is Carol Ross. We met briefly while you were taking photographs for the catalogue?”

Therese’s mouth went dry. She barely had the self-control to squeak out a stunned, “Oh, hello, Mrs. Ross.” And then, “Were the photographs all right?”

“Yes, they were excellent. Dennis is very pleased. So much so he’d like to hire you for something else. I’m hosting the company Christmas party this Friday night, and Dennis wants to offer the staff formal family portraits as a kind of gift. I have a lovely sitting room. We could set you up there. It’ll be about ten families. Are you free?”

She spoke briskly. Therese wondered if she was the secretary. That would explain her offering tea, wouldn’t it? And arranging this new job? Only she had seemed that morning, and seemed now, over the phone, far too magnificent to be any man’s secretary.

Therese had paused too long. Carol Ross said, “Ms. Belivet? Are you still there?”

“Yes, yes of course,” Therese stumbled. “Um, thank you very much. I can certainly take those portraits for you.”

A pause. The woman asked, “And you’ve done portraits before?” as if suddenly she were reconsidering the choice.

“Oh, yes,” Therese hastened to assure her, thinking that she had acted like a nincompoop and now Carol must think she was one. “I regularly do them as part of my work here at The Times. And I’ve had several private bookings, as well as one contract with a local elementary school—”

“Well, that’s that,” said the woman. “Sold. The party starts at 7:00 but I’d like you here at 6:00 to set up. Is that all right?”

“Yes, of course. Thank you, Mrs. Ross.”

“Please,” the woman said. “Call me Carol.”

Carol Carol Carol.

It was a name that rang in Therese’s ears, all the rest of the week. As pervasive as the memory of Carol’s face, of her statuesque build, of her relaxed but authoritative stride, as she’d walked away that morning in the store.

Therese was not new to the experience of noticing a beautiful woman. She often noticed them, on the streets of New York, or at the parties that Gen invited her to. Sometimes the women noticed her back. Sometimes there were discrete kisses in corners, and sometimes equally discrete nights. Sharing her bed. Sharing her body. Letting the pleasure and freedom of connection unfurl on a small twin mattress. Therese, who had never enjoyed sex with men, enjoyed sex with women very much. Perhaps it had never become something more—perhaps the women she met never woke in her the kind of deep, consuming passion that Gen described when she talked about her own affairs—but Therese wasn’t sure she wanted that. It sounded messy. A little dangerous, even. She had got a taste of it the first time she kissed Gen, the first time she slept with Gen: something new blooming inside her, intoxicating and terrifying and consumptive, like all she could think and breathe was the memory of the other woman’s touch, and those memories would eat her alive from the inside.

Thankfully, Gen helped her understand that she wasn’t in love with her, but simply overwhelmed by the discovery that she’d made about herself. They slept together a few more times, but in the end decided to be friends. It was better now, because Therese had overcome those feverish emotions that dominated her in the week after she and Gen met.

Overcome them, that is, until Carol Ross. Carol Ross, whom she has just seen kissing a woman.

Therese rushes into the sitting room to find the rest of the wait staff clearing away discarded glasses. The apartment has emptied out, all the guests gone home, and Therese’s camera is waiting for her in its case on the coffee table. She grabs it, swinging it over her shoulder. If Carol still wants to pay her after that incredible blunder, she can send it to her by mail. The thought of waiting any longer to speak with her is mortifying. Therese has just got the front door open when that voice calls out behind her—

“Ms. Belivet?”

Therese freezes, winces, considers running for it, and then finally turns to find Carol standing not four feet away. Her expression is intense, but her feelings are unreadable. Therese momentarily stops breathing, transported back to a moment not five hours ago, when she knocked on the door to the Madison Avenue apartment. It opened promptly, and Carol was there.

“Oh, it is you!” Carol said cheerfully. “Come in, come in!”  

Carol was wearing a very handsome dress, just a shade bluer than teal, and a triple layered necklace of delicate pearls, and other jewelry, equally striking. But it was her face that left Therese shivering inside, for Carol was even more beautiful than she remembered, her gray eyes magnetic and her lips parted in a wide smile. Her wave of blonde hair looked like gold. Therese followed her like an awestruck puppy, into the equally awe-inspiring interior of her large apartment. Now Therese knew for certain that she was not a secretary, because no secretary could afford such a space, high-ceiled and stylishly decorated, with even a baby grand piano in the corner by the fireplace. There was a Christmas tree, too, and Carol gestured at it.

“I thought you could take the portraits in here, what do you think?”

Therese looked around, trying for an air of professional assessment. The sitting room led into an equally large dining room, which adjoined the kitchen, and there was a hallway to the right that must be where the bedrooms were.

“Yes, this will be lovely,” Therese said. “Will your guests have enough room if I take up that much space?”

“Oh, they can spread out,” said Carol gaily. “I’m not formal. Also there’s a balcony off the dining room. People tend to smoke out there.”

Carol gestured, and Therese saw the double doors behind the mahogany dining table. Therese thought Carol must entertain quite a lot, or else have a large family—the apartment was huge!

Carol had gone to the end table next to the sofa and picked up a cigarette case. She took out a cigarette and lit it and dragged on the end, watching Therese closely.

“I read The Times this morning. I saw your byline on a couple of photographs, the ones of the parish nativity out in Brooklyn.”

“Oh,” Therese said, wide-eyed. 

“You’re very talented. I don’t often notice pictures in the paper but your shots of the children looking at the nativity were… affecting.”

“Thank you.”

“I think I told you there will be about ten families here tonight. About thirteen children and their parents. My co-worker Maude is bringing her cocker spaniel.” Carol grinned, and there was something so arresting about it, almost rakish, like she was telling a sly joke and inviting Therese into it. “I’m not one to police what makes a family,” she drawled.

Therese felt her cheeks pink, and didn’t know why.

“And your family?” Therese asks. “I assume I’ll be doing your portrait, as well?”

At this, Carol took another long drag of her cigarette. She regarded Therese in a pensive, slightly arrogant way, that made Therese suddenly nervous. Had she said something wrong? Had she—

“I’m divorced,” Carol said. “And my daughter is with her father this weekend.”

Therese’s eyes widened again. “Oh, I’m sorry, I—”

“Don’t be,” Carol interrupted, with a firmness that cut off the rest of Therese’s apology. “It happened two years ago. I’m quite better off on my own.”

Therese looked around again at the apartment, so large, so beautiful. To live here, all by oneself… It made her suddenly sad. She looked at Carol again and Carol’s eyes were still assessing. Smoke curled up from the cigarette. Therese was certain Carol had guessed her thoughts, and this embarrassed her—for who was she to dare think anything about Carol Ross was sad?

“Your home is lovely,” she said, to cover herself.

Finally, Carol smiled. “Yes, I like it. And what about you, Therese Belivet? Do you live alone?”  

The question took Therese off guard, made her pause and lock eyes with this woman, this stranger, who watched her back with an unreadable intensity. Just a few years ago, Therese would have thought nothing of this question. Would have seen it for what it probably was—friendly small talk. But since meeting Gen two years ago, since kissing Gen, since learning all in a flood of unanticipated revelation that there was a reason she did not like kissing Richard or Dannie or any other boy—since then, Therese had found herself inducted into a secret world. A world of women whose casual small talk was so often code. A world where looks, smiles, gestures, took on a meaning that the average person didn’t even realize existed.

Therese herself had learned, slowly and cautiously, to speak this secret code—and to recognize when it was being spoken to her. But as with all new languages, there would always be the risk of mistakes. Carol Ross, looking at her just so, eyes like glittering jewels, asking that question—Carol Ross might mean nothing by it at all. And yet, Therese thought—

“I do live alone,” said Therese, looking her straight in the eyes.

A lift of Carol’s eyebrow. “No boyfriend?” she asked.

And Therese said, heart in her throat, barely breathing, “No boyfriend.”

For a moment they were both still as statues, watching each other, and something flickered in Carol’s eyes, but before Therese could glean its meaning—someone came in from the kitchen. Waitstaff, with a question about the catering. Carol was whisked away. Therese, almost trembling, turned her focus on preparing for the night’s work.

And now, that work is over. And all Therese had wanted to do was find Carol, thank her for the job, settle the awkwardness of payment. Maybe talk a little more… Instead, she is standing in Carol’s doorway, and Carol is looking at her with a fierce expression.

The older woman glances toward the waitstaff, then looks at her again.

“I’m so sorry,” she says. “I forgot to pay you. Would you mind stepping into my office briefly?”

The look on Carol’s face is sharp, and urgent, and Therese realizes that she thinks Therese is going to refuse, maybe even make a scene. Therese gives a short nod, and then follows Carol out of the sitting room. In the hallway, Therese can’t help glancing down to the bedroom at the far end. There’s no sign of the other woman, who Therese distinctly remembers photographing with her husband and son. Carol takes her the opposite way, and directly into a small office. Carol shuts the door, and they are facing each other again.

“Ms. Belivet,” Carol says, “I’d like to… explain.”

Therese’s eyes widen. “Oh, Mrs. Ross, it—it’s not necessary—”

“No, no,” says Carol, a little sharply. “I think it is.” She passes a hand across her waist, a nervous gesture, and she breathes in through her nostrils, looking deeply unsettled. But when she speaks she still has that arrogance in her voice, “Please understand that my friend had a lot to drink tonight. She spilled something on her dress and we went into my room to clean her up. I was completely unprepared for her advance.”

Carol looks at her keenly. Therese says after a moment, “Oh.”

“Yes, and, to be honest, I don’t think she even knew what she was doing. She’s having trouble in her marriage, that sort of thing. I think she was just confused, or she would never have done that.”

“Oh,” says Therese again, and could kick herself for the asinine response. So she adds, “I’m—I’m sure it’s very difficult, struggling with one’s… husband.”

“Yes, and so I think it would be quite unfair if anyone—” a significant look, “—were to… misconstrue or judge or—”

Therese, realizing what Carol fears, hastens to reassure her, “Oh, Mrs. Ross, no, I—”

“It’s not Mrs.,” Carol snaps. “I’m a single woman. And as a single woman yourself I’m sure that you can appreciate that we are subject to certain scrutiny, and that a misunderstanding of this type could lead someone, an employer, for example, to—”

“I’m not a gossip,” Therese interrupts, as quickly and firmly as she can with Carol’s voice talking over her. And it works. Carol stops. Stares at her. Therese adds earnestly. “I’m not inclined to spread rumors about you, or—or any woman—who—”

She breaks off, noting the intensity of Carol’s look, the slightest narrowing of her eyes. Suspicion. Uncertainty. And then, slowly, cautious hope.

“Well,” Carol says, sounding wooden, her body ramrod straight. “Well, that is… that is good to hear, Ms. Belivet.”

Therese, relieved to see that shadow of panic retreat from Carol’s eyes, smiles tentatively. After a moment Carol smiles back, but it’s more like a grimace, awkward and uncomfortable. At least her posture has relaxed a little bit. Therese remembers speaking to her just an hour ago, when she seemed perfectly relaxed, happy and vibrant as they crossed paths in the kitchen. Carol was giving instructions to the waitstaff and Therese, who had come looking for some water, stopped short to watch her. She was mesmerizing, so tall, so elegant. She gestured in a lazy way as she explained things to the staff, and when they said they understood she smiled brightly and warmly, and Therese thought she would kill to have such a smile directed at her.

Which was when Carol turned to leave—and saw her. And suddenly Therese got her wish.

“Oh,” said Carol. “Ms. Belivet. Is everything all right?”

“Yes, thank you,” Therese smiled. She smiled much wider than the situation warranted. She felt a little light-headed, a little giddy, standing in the same room as this spectacular woman. “I just thought I’d find a glass of water.”

“Of course!” said Carol. “I should have brought you something! Would you like anything else? Let me make you a drink.”

“Oh, no,” Therese tried to say, “that’s not necessary, I—”

“Nonsense,” said Carol, and moved toward the bar that was set up on her counter. “You’re my guest.” Therese, who had thought herself no more than hired help, couldn’t restrain a delighted smile as Carol asked, “What would you like? Martini? Bourbon? Wine?”

“Um… wine, thank you. Anything red.”

Carol grinned. “Red it is,” and grabbed the bottle and a glass, and poured. She asked, “How are the pictures coming?”

Therese gave a pleased nod. “Very well. Everyone is relaxed and happy, and that makes it go better.”

A brilliant laugh from Carol. “Yes, they ought to be relaxed and happy. Dennis has just handed out the bonuses!”

Therese grinned back at her, accepting the glass of wine. She took a sip and it was dry and floral and Carol watched her drink, seemed almost to fix upon her drinking, til she seemed distant, distracted. Therese, suddenly self-conscious, asked, “So… what do you do, at Myers Furniture?”

Carol snapped out of whatever fugue had seized her, and her smile was dry like the wine. “I’m a buyer,” she said.

Therese didn’t know what this meant, but she smiled and asked, “Do you like it?”

A little chuckle. Carol said, “Yes, more even than I expected. And you? Do you like being a photographer.”

“All I ever wanted to be was a photographer,” Therese replied.

Carol looked at her keenly. “A newspaper photographer?”

This time Therese chuckled, and sipped her wine. She felt excited, in a way that would probably embarrass her in the morning. Excited because she had only come for a drink of water and now she was having this conversation with Carol, and Carol was interested in what she had to say, and Carol was intelligent and beautiful and she lit a spark in Therese that had never lit before.

“It pays the bills,” said Therese. “Sometimes it’s very interesting. The work I like best is more personal. I like taking pictures of people in everyday life. Taking walks and documenting the city. It makes New York feel real to me.”

Carol’s brows leapt up. “Does it not feel real to you, otherwise?”

Now Therese wondered if the wine and the excitement of Carol’s presence had made her say something reckless, had made her give away too much. She shifted her stance and said cautiously, “Oh, I—of course, yes, it does. Perhaps what I mean is that taking photographs helps me feel more that I am a part of the city. I tend to get distracted with my own thoughts. Photography has a… grounding effect. I feel closer to the things I photograph.”

Carol continued to look at her, thoughtful, assessing, and Therese felt in her bones that it was not just the casual look of a woman in conversation with another woman, but something deeper, something… inviting. In a fit of daring, Therese made her move:

“Will you let me photograph you, tonight?”

In the half beat of silence that followed, Therese lived whole lives of terror and hope and uncertainty, before Carol’s lips parted to speak, and then—

Dennis Myers bustled into the room. He needed Carol for something. He ushered her away, and there was hardly time for an exchanged look before Therese was alone in the kitchen. Alone, and flustered, and wondering—

Until now. Now, she is alone with Carol again, truly alone with her, and Carol is saying in that flat, hard voice she has used since they went into the office, “I have your check from Dennis right here.”

She picks it up off the desk, holding it out. Therese steps tentatively forward, accepting it, eyes averted. She feels nervous and ashamed in a way she can’t explain. Suddenly Carol is reaching for something else—her purse. She opens it and takes out her pocketbook.

“I appreciate your discretion, Ms. Belivet. I certainly would not want anyone to have the wrong idea about me. That kind of thing is so crass and unpleasant. Here you are.”

Therese looks up, and sees in shock that Carol is holding out three crisp twenty dollars bills. Revulsion shoots through Therese’s body. She steps back as if Carol had threatened to hit her, and Carol’s eyes widen in surprise.

“No—no thank you,” says Therese, acid in her voice. “I’m sure I don’t have the wrong idea about you, Ms. Ross. Thank you for the job. I’ll show myself out.”

She turns before Carol can argue, before Carol can heap more humiliation on her. Her eyes burn with tears as she hurries out of the apartment. Clearly she misunderstood everything. Everything. God, how could she have been so foolish, so oblivious? How could she have thought, even for a moment, that Carol was flirting, when clearly Carol found the very idea of two women together like that so repugnant? 

This time, Carol Ross did not try to stop her when she got to the front door. This time, she escaped with her camera in tow, and the hard sound of the door closing behind her was like an axe coming down, severing her from this latest, foolish whim.