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A Misunderstanding

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Carol stands in her office, unmoving, for almost a full minute. The image of Therese Belivet’s face is seared in her mind—writ with shock and humiliation and… and hurt. Carol remembers very clearly seeing her for the first time at the store. So thoughtful as she worked. Studious. Lovely. And when Carol went to introduce herself (a foolish whim) how startled she looked. But it was nothing like the startled expression she wore, when Carol held out the cash to her. No, in the shop, Therese had looked startled and amazed and enchanted. Enchanting, with her big green eyes and doll-like beauty. But just now, in this very office, she looked like a wounded bird.

Carol’s hand has dropped to her side, but she still holds the three bills, and when she finally looks at them she feels a wash of shame. It was an impulse, to offer her money. A way to thank her for her discretion. Only now does she realize what a complete an utter monster she’s been. How badly she’s insulted that girl.

“Where did she go?”

The voice in the doorway startles her. She looks up, and Jennifer is there, still slightly flushed from too much wine—but distinctly sobered by what has just happened.

Carol turns her back, puts the money into her pocket book, shoves her pocket book into her purse and leans her hands on the desk, fingers biting into the wood as anger surges through her.

“She left.”

A few seconds of silence. She hears the office door closed and then—

“Is she—will she—”

“She’s not going to tell anyone.”

A scoff, “How can you possibly know—”

“Because I know, Jennifer,” says Carol impatiently. “And even if she did tell someone, she never saw you. She saw me. I’m the only one in danger here.”

This time the silence goes on for so long that Carol thinks Jennifer may have left, but that hope is eradicated when she senses the woman moving up behind her—and then feels her hands on her shoulder blades.

Carol jerks, turning and stepping away, putting space between them.

“Carol—”

“I told you,” Carol interrupts coldly. “I told you when it happened that it would only happen once. I made you promise that you understood that.” 

Jennifer looks startled.  

“Carol, I—”

“It was a mistake.”

The silence between them goes up like a wall of ice. Carol forces herself to maintain eye contact with the woman across from her, determined to stand firm. Jennifer’s husband, Andrew, is an accountant at Myers Furniture. If he found out, it would be the end of Carol’s career. Getting involved with her was one of the most reckless things she has ever done. And for what? A single night in a crummy hotel in Queens? A night that gave her a little bit of relief, a momentary release, and has proved to be nothing but a headache, since?

Suddenly Jennifer’s eyebrows hike upwards. Her startled look transforms to something knowing and even slightly amused.

“A mistake?” she repeats. Her voice is low, with a hint of gravel. “You didn’t think it was a mistake when I had my head between your legs, did you, Carol?” She takes a step toward her. “You didn’t think it was a mistake when you slid your fingers inside me. Or have you already forgotten?”

Carol’s nostrils flare. She hasn’t forgotten, not even close. In the month since it happened, she’s wanted more than once to find a reason for it to happen again. Not because of Jennifer herself (who Carol regards as only passably interesting) but because of the way Jennifer felt. Her sounds and her skin and her body. Before her, Carol had not slept with anyone in over a year. She was lonely. She was weak. But she can’t be weak now.

“It doesn’t matter how I felt at the time. We agreed not to repeat it.”  

Jennifer steps closer, still. Carol’s heart rate picks up, and she doesn’t know if what she’s feeling is anxiety or desire. Jennifer is a lovely woman, tall and auburn-haired, her body beneath the green cocktail dress curvy and soft.

“I agree to all sorts of things before I orgasm,” she says slyly. “You can’t expect me to not take my chance when it comes.”

“Jennifer, if Andrew found out—”

“Andrew!?” she blurts a laugh. The look she turns on Carol is incredulous and pitying, and she laughs a second time. “Oh, Carol! Do you honestly not realize—Andrew is a total poof.”

Carol’s eyes widen. “What? He’s—”

“Did you really not know? I thought you had a sense for this kind of thing. You saw me clearly enough.”

“I—no, I didn’t. That was—that was spontaneous, it—”

A scoff, which makes Carol’s hackles rise. “Maybe for you,” says Jennifer coolly. “I had you in my sights from the beginning. As soon as you started working there, Andrew told me there was a new lesbian in the office.”

This time something cold and dreadful slides through Carol’s veins, a feeling of shock and terror and… humiliation. She is so careful. She is always so careful, and yet a man looked at her and knew it at once. Not only that, but—

“Andrew knows about us?” she asks.

Jennifer runs a casual hand through her hair, answering primly, “Of course. We tell each other everything, you know, it’s all very friendly between us. Why do you think he took the children home without me? We have an agreement. I get tonight and next weekend he can go to the baths.”

Carol can only stare at her. She tries to imagine a scenario in which she and Harge came to such an agreement, but it’s beyond comprehension. And even if it had been their agreement, would she have told him the women that she slept with? Women that he might have known?

“You—” Carol flounders for a moment, staring at Jennifer. “You should have told me. I—Jennifer, I work with him, why would you tell him without—”

“Carol, aren’t you listening to me? He’s one of us. There’s nothing to fear from Andrew. Why would he tell anyone about it when he knows I’ve got the goods on him?”

This sounds so pragmatic, so mercenary, that Carol feels a little ill. And the thought of going to work on Monday and seeing Andrew, talking to Andrew, knowing that Andrew—

“You should leave,” Carol says.

Jennifer gives her an exasperated look. “Honestly, Carol, why are you—”

“I meant what I said, the first time,” interrupts Carol harshly. “I said once, and I meant it. I wasn’t looking for an affair, or anything of the sort. I’m sorry, but I can’t afford it. There’s too much at stake for me.”

And too much risk, if Jennifer is as reckless and blasé as she seems. It must be convenient to have a husband who provides cover, but Carol has no such privilege, and Harge… well, he was livid when he found out about Abby. All these years later, she worries that if he ever got an inkling that she was with a woman again, he’d react as strongly as if they were still married. She may not depend on him financially, but where custody is concerned, he holds all the power. And she’s not about to risk that for a woman as inconsequential to her as Jennifer.

Jennifer, who seems to finally realize that she is serious, and who after a stunned moment—pouts.

“Fine,” she says peevishly. “I’m not about to beg you, anyway. I do think you’re being awfully paranoid about all of this, and we did have such a lovely time.”

“I’m sorry,” Carol replies. “I never had any intention of hurting you.”

Jennifer rolls her eyes. “Don’t be melodramatic. It was a bit of fun, wasn’t it? That’s all our sort can hope for, after all. A bit of fun, to tide us over.”

She says it cheerfully, but Carol does not mistake the undertone of bitterness in Jennifer’s voice—nor can she ignore the flare of bitterness she feels herself; bitterness, and despair, because while Carol may have had her share of dalliances, it’s not exactly in her nature to seek casual pleasure. She has always been rather too serious for that, even under the bright and charming veneer. So to have it put so boldly by Jennifer only reminds her: these kinds of entanglements will never offer more than momentary relief. Anything better is… impossible to imagine.

“Let me walk you downstairs,” says Carol. “Make sure you get into a cab.”

“I don’t need you to be a gentleman, Carol, I’m quite capable of hailing my own cab.”

The words are harsh but the tone is less so. In fact, now Jennifer gives her a look that is simultaneously fond, and regretful, and compassionate. She looks at Carol like this for so long that Carol begins to feel nervous and irritated.

“You poor thing,” Jennifer sighs. “Let me know if you change your mind. I’m not fussy.”

With that, Jennifer swoops in. Carol goes rigid, but in the end the other woman only kisses her cheek. Carol gets a whiff of her expensive perfume, floral and heady. But though it ought to make her think of their night together, she’s completely unprepared when it triggers a different memory altogether: the brief scent she caught, when she let Therese Belivet into her home. Something bright and fresh and with a hint of citrus…

<><><> 

It is the week before Christmas, and while the sales floor at Myers Furniture is open, much of the office staff have taken vacation days. To Carol’s immense relief, this includes Andrew. She spent Sunday in a state of perpetual dismay, imagining the moment when they would have to talk to each other again. Knowing that he knows. More than once she has considered resigning, seeking a different position. Staying now seems so dangerous. So unbearable. But to be unemployed, even briefly—she dreads to give Harge that kind of ammunition. He is always urging her that she doesn’t have to work at all, that it would be much better if she settled for the alimony and her own inheritance and help from him. Why must she work, on top of everything?

He doesn’t understand, he has never understood, that she wants it. It has kept her going, these past two years, on those weeks when Rindy is with Harge. The thought of returning to a life of social performances and leisure makes her feel ill. No, never again. The work gives her purpose. She’s done living a purposeless life.

Unbidden, her thoughts flash to Therese Belivet.

‘Do you like being a photographer?’

‘All I ever wanted to be was a photographer.’

Something warm goes through her at the memory, not just of the words but of the look on the young woman’s face. Those big, pensive eyes. That clever smile. The whole air of her, of someone who with a look could unveil every truth she saw—unveil it, and capture it forever with her camera. In her presence, Carol had felt distinctly seen, and this experience was both exhilarating, and terrifying.

In her few encounters with Therese, they have shared perhaps ten minutes of cumulative conversation, and yet Carol can’t stop thinking about her. The first time she saw her at the store, she was utterly mystified by her own reaction. At first she thought it was just surprise. She had assumed that Dennis hired a male photog, and yet here was this short, slim creature wandering amidst the furniture with her camera, like a fairy picking her way through a magic forest. And yet, surprise could not explain why Carol stopped and stared. She had come on to the sales floor to check the price of a recently delivered sofa set. She was busy. She had things to do. But she could not stop watching the girl—no, the woman. The strikingly lovely, enchantingly serious woman with her dark head and small hands and exquisite profile.

Asking her if she wanted tea was an impulse, and a reckless one at that, but secretly she was hoping that the photographer would open her mouth and say something rude or obnoxious or vapid, something that would break the spell of her loveliness. And indeed, no poetry issued from her lips when Carol interrupted her. Instead, something even more bewitching happened—stumbling words, a flush in those cheeks, eyes falling upon Carol with a kind of star struck amazement. Carol had been utterly charmed by her, by her awkwardness that could not conceal a sweet and unassuming nature. How much Carol wished that she had agreed to tea. Then Carol could have brought some out to her and they could have talked a minute. But instead, work called them both away, and by the time Carol had a reason to go out to the floor again, Therese Belivet was gone. Carol thought, Oh well. Sometimes a random encounter is sweet enough on its own. It can be just itself. Nothing to spoil it.

Now, as Carol sits down to her desk and reviews the little slips of paper waiting for her—messages to return and appointments to keep—she feels a deep sadness, a weariness and regret. Because in the end, something did spoil that perfect encounter. Carol spoiled it. Since Saturday night, she has wanted more than once to call up Abby and tell her what happened. But she has been too ashamed. Not only because she got herself entangled with Jennifer after Abby warned her not to, but also because she thinks Abby would not look kindly on the three twenty dollar bills she offered Therese Belivet.

Even now, she’s not sure why she did that. The young woman showed no hint of artifice, and her insistence that she was neither judgmental, nor a gossip, rang true. Carol, despite the panic thrumming through her at being caught, had felt innately that she could trust Therese’s word. And yet, the world being what it was, and trained as she was by the behaviors that were so commonplace in her circles, offering the staff a tip for their discretion felt natural.

And that was the problem. Because Therese was not ‘the staff.’ Yes, Dennis had hired her—yes, she was there to do a job, but she wasn’t some underling. And even if she was, did that give Carol any right to try to buy her off? Hadn’t Carol always hated the way that Harge treated employees, the way her father treated employees, the way her mother treated servants and staff? And yet here was Carol, doing the exact same thing to a woman who had shown her nothing but graciousness and warmth.

No, she can’t tell Abby. She can barely think of it herself with withering from shame.

“Good morning!”

Startled, Carol looks up from her desk to find Dennis standing in the doorway, beaming.

“Swell party, Carol. It really was a triumph. And you saved my bacon, let me tell you! If Mrs. Myers had to throw another party this year, I think she’d leave me!”

He boomed a laugh, and Carol returned it graciously, donning charm and social ease like a coat that fit perfectly, “Happy to help, Dennis. I think it went off well.”

“And what an idea, hiring the photographer!” Dennis added. “I haven’t heard the end of it from the families. Everyone is so excited to get their prints. Mrs. Marcs was just telling me how she hasn’t had professional pictures done since with the twins were in diapers. It was a splendid hit.”

“I’m glad, Dennis.”

“This is why I say we all need the benefit of a woman’s instincts,” he goes on. “I would never have come up with an idea like that. You’re invaluable, Carol! I assume you paid the girl?”

Carol clears her throat, nodding. “Yes, I saw her off at the end of the night.”

“When will the photos be ready?”

Carol freezes for half a beat, realizing she never had an opportunity to ask Therese. But she recovers smoothly, laughing, “Oh, with as fast as she worked on the catalogue, I think we can expect them in a day or two. If you want I’ll ask Ginger to call her up.”

“Excellent, excellent,” he nods approvingly. “Look up her address for me, will you, Carol? I want to send her a personal thank you. And maybe a coupon for the store. Who knows, she may need a love seat!”

He laughs again. Carol smiles, hoping it doesn’t look like a grimace. Ordinarily being asked to perform secretarial tasks only exasperates her; it’s an unavoidable consequence of being a working woman. But this particular request makes her quietly furious. Luckily Dennis says goodbye and strides off to his office, so he doesn’t see Carol’s gathering frown. Best get it over with.

She finds the phone book in Ginger’s desk, flipping forward to the B’s and searching with a finger pressed to the list of names. Her heart has started beating harder, and she doesn’t know why. Why should the prospect of seeing the woman’s name in print make her feel this deep thrumming of—

And then, there it is. Therese Belivet. The only Therese Belivet in the phone book. But when Carol sees her address, her heart only beats harder. She’s in Greenwich Village. Carol swallows. The last time she was in Greenwich Village was in July, with Abby. They went to a coffee shop to hear some poets read. Beatniks. The poetry breathed with something vibrant and almost violent, the rhythms hypnotic, the imagery and language jarring. The poets described a society built around constraint and consumerism and joyless repetition. They drove a spike through that society with calls for alcohol and drugs and freedom and sex, so much sex, sex between men and men, sex between women and women. Listening to the sometimes pornographic descriptions, Carol had felt a startling combination of unease, arousal, and exhilaration. She had looked around at the rest of the audience, at first to make sure that there was no one she recognized. But it was recognition that kept her looking. Not recognition of anyone she knew, but recognition of the clothes and manner of those around her. Abby had leaned into her, murmuring in amusement, “See something familiar?”

Carol had looked at her wide-eyed, whispering, “They’re all—”

Abby chuckled. The poet on the stage was describing her first time with a woman, rich metaphors and lyricism that made the audience snap appreciatively. Abby said, “Not all, no. But yes. You should come out here with me more often. It’s a good place to meet our kind of people.”

Now, staring at Therese Belivet’s address, Carol swallows down a dryness in her throat. In their brief conversation Saturday night, Carol had been certain she read… something in her. Something open. Something possible. The way she met Carol’s eyes so fearlessly. The way she responded when Carol asked if she had a boyfriend. Not a girlish giggle, not a ‘No, not right now! Soon, I hope!’ Rather, she said, ‘No,’ and in her ‘no’ there was a hint of brazenness, as if she were saying, ‘Not now, not ever.’ And then of course there was that excruciatingly exciting moment—

‘I feel closer to the things I photograph.’

‘Will you let me photograph you, tonight?’

Carol, adding this to the list of other clues (that starstruck look, for one) had thought—maybe?

But then Jennifer cornered her in the bedroom. And in a moment of weakness Carol let herself be kissed. When she heard the sound from the door she looked up to find Therese Belivet staring at her with a shocked expression. In that moment, Carol thought, I was wrong. If she understood, if she was like me, she would never respond to what she’s seen with such huge eyes, such wounded eyes, as if I have disappointed her with my depravity…

It was this reaction from Therese that made her go cold with fear. It was this reaction that made her rush to smooth things over, to beg for discretion and then, when begging wasn’t needed, offer the money anyway. Convinced as she was that seeing her kissing a woman had shocked the girl, Carol was totally unprepared for Therese’s reaction to the money. How… hurt she had looked. Hurt, and also—angry. Yes, with the passage of time Carol could look back on what had happened and recognize that it was anger in Therese Belivet’s eyes. Carol said—

‘I certainly would not want anyone to have the wrong idea about me.’

And Therese looked at her as if Carol had struck her. As if those words had been an insult, hurled at Therese’s feet…

Carol stares at the address. It’s possible that it means nothing about Therese herself, her interests, her… proclivities. Perhaps it merely explains why she showed no interest in exposing Carol for what she had seen. In the Village, Therese would at the very least be familiar with the existence of homosexuals, might even be friends with some of them. It didn’t mean…

In her periphery, she sees Ginger poking her head into Dennis’ office to say good morning. Carol writes down the address for Dennis, and then—in a sudden burst of daring, writes it down a second time.

“Hiya, Carol,” says Ginger brightly.

Carol smiles, palming the second little note and holding out the first. “Would you mind giving that to Dennis? It’s Therese Belivet’s address.”

“Oh, you mean the photographer from Saturday night?” asks Ginger, accepting the note. “She sure was swell. And gosh, she was awfully pretty. Never would have thought the newspapers would hire such a pretty girl. I suppose it’s all men over them. They must like it.”

Carol smiles flatly, imagining a pack of newspaper men leering at Therese, pawing at Therese, wanting Therese...

To Ginger she says, “Yes, she was very pretty. Thanks for your help.”

“Sure thing!”

Relieved to get away from the conversation, Carol moves swiftly toward her office—the little piece of paper clutched in one hand.