It was the next morning, and Bernadette stood in a corner of the Cheesecake Factory staring through stray strands of blonde hair, past her waitress’ uniform at her thankfully comfortable shoes. The pain pulsing in and out of her head was making her regret her plan to get drunk the night before, mostly since it hadn’t worked. But at least her feet didn’t hurt.
A text to Amy that morning had revealed that she hadn’t remembered anything from the night before, and an embarrassed, harassed-looking Penny, who had forgotten to put mascara on one eye and lipstick on one lip told Bernadette that her other friend hadn’t remembered anything, either. Not that there was much to remember.
Bernadette had wanted to scream at them that she didn’t want to get married, that she wasn’t going to go through with it, but she couldn’t. She had tried to loosen her own tongue with Bellini after Bellini, but all it seemed to have done was led to was a few smoochy text messages to Howard and a plethora of tears and incomprehensible confessions to her friends. All they offered in turn was reassurance that things weren’t that bad, that everyone got worried about their wedding, that it was a lot of stress, and that everyone had doubts about going through with getting married.
She wasn’t quite sure, though, how many people had these sort of doubts.
It was ridiculous, she kept telling herself, her friends were right, it really was just nerves - she’d come this far and she wasn’t going to let go. These other feelings were unfounded, and she’d dealt with them a long time ago. Or, well, if not dealt with them, come to a firm conclusion. Well, a conclusion, anyway.
She was not gay.
And she was definitely not getting married just so she could reach some sort of finish line and prove to herself that it was all in her head and always had been, and hadn’t been worth the fights with her father, and hadn’t been worth the stress and the regrets and the doubts, and that she had really been thrilled and not just relieved that people had been so happy for her when her facebook status changed to ‘engaged’ and college friends had started talking to her again like she was a real person, and...
Here it was, then - despite all she’d been telling herself, despite being mere weeks away from marrying a man like a good straight girl should, maybe pushing out a few babies, even if she didn’t want them, because that’s what people did - despite all that, there was still the voice that rolled its eyes and mocked her.
Heterosexual my ass.
She really hated that side of herself, the one that made her try to face the truth. She wished she could talk to someone else about this, but she was afraid that Penny would be weirded out, being from Nebraska, or that Amy would say something awkward and then go gossip to Penny anyway, because that was kind of her life now... Bernadette just wanted to stamp her feet and yell at herself that she couldn’t do it! She couldn’t be an outcast on all fronts - short and brainy and Catholic and a lesbian! Something had to give!
The voice laughed at her, and forced her to look down at her shoes. She sighed.
As Howard stepped into the car, Bernadette flexed her fingers on the steering wheel and stared ahead. She kept telling herself that it would always just be one last date, and then she’d come clean, fess up, spill the beans, let him down easy. And that had been before he had proposed.
Now she found herself with a diamond ring on her finger, a wedding date set, and seating charts to worry about. She was also on her way to a double date with Raj and some girl his parents had set him up with. Bernadette swore to the holy Virgin this would be the last time.
The night was a disaster from the start. Raj’s date was beautiful, and Bernadette didn’t hear a thing after Raj told them her name: Lakshmi. Her dark eyes were captivating. Her hair was a cascade of ebony. Her breasts were two perfect orbs... Everything about her evoked in Bernadette the kind of bad junior high poetry she had always torn up and flushed down the toilet before the sisters saw.
They must have had some sort of soup for dinner - not that Bernadette could remember what it tasted like, but she did nearly put her elbow in it as she stared across the table at Raj’s date. Twice she missed her mouth trying to eat her main course, and had to force herself to look at her meal every so often.
She did remember the wine. There was wine. Or perhaps it was water. Whatever it was, Lakshmi cupped the smooth bowl of the glass, her fingers caressing its gently curved surface, now stroking it, now cradling it, now firmly taking the stem between her thumb and forefinger, twisting it around and around. As she put it to her lips to drink, Bernadette had to look away.
The dessert: Bernadette remembered that, too. When the waitress placed it in front of Lakshmi, her round eyes widened and she ran the tip of her tongue over her bottom lip. In a flash that seemed to Bernadette like hours, she brushed off the peak off the whipped cream with her fingertip and brought it to her mouth. Her eyes closed as she licked it off, sucking for just a moment. There must have been some sweetness left on her lips because she licked them with a sly smile. Bernadette wished she would run her finger along the smooth layer of mousse, or press right through its surface, but she settled for watching her lick her spoon clean after each bite.
The meal ended and Bernadette came back to reality, unsure of anything that had gone on over the course of the evening. Raj was droning on about the second observation of a binary star system, and she didn’t regret for a moment what else she had missed.
It was a wonder, she thought, that no one had noticed her lack of attention, then remembered that Raj and Howard usually spent every evening with her staring at her breasts. She was somewhat relieved to know it had happened again. It was with some annoyance, though, that she caught Raj’s date sneaking a glance, too. The nerve of straight women! Where were all the lesbians?
“Howard!” Bernadette roared, then stopped and composed herself, hands on the wheel, so she wouldn’t run the car off the road. “You’ve been going on about Raj for two days. What’s your point?”
He sighed and shook his head.
“Look, he knows Lakshmi is a lesbian. I just don’t see how you could want to marry someone just so you won’t be alone. It’s like giving up!”
Bernadette had to bite her tongue.
“Raj must be lonely,” she mused. “I mean, what would you do if you were alone?”
As he grabbed her hand, she kicked herself for walking right into that one.
“At least I don’t have to worry about that,” he crooned.
She didn’t know how the nervous laugh escaped her lips.
“No, but hypothetically,” she pressed, her voice an octave higher than usual, “what would you do?”
“Gee, I don’t know, I never really thought about it,” he said. “I suppose I’d still have my mom to put up with - I mean, uh, keep me company. By the way, you two have been getting along much better. She’s finally worn you down.”
Not wanting to admit that her relationship with Howard’s mother was progressing more smoothly because she knew it wouldn’t last forever, Bernadette just smiled through gritted teeth. It was a wonder that she got through any conversation without just blurting everything out to Howard, but years of Catholic school had trained her to keep so many things under wraps that it was second nature. She cursed herself for it.
“Really, though,” she persisted in an effort to assuage her own guilt, “what would you do to keep from getting lonely?”
Howard thought for a long time.
“Well,” he offered, finally, “if I didn’t have allergies, I’d probably get a puppy...”
Bernadette nearly jumped out of her seat.
“That’s it! We’re getting Raj a puppy!”
There really wasn’t anything Howard could say to that.
It was because Raj was a nice guy and she didn’t want to see him hurt, not because she was projecting, that they were getting him a companion to keep him from being lonely. At least, that was what she kept telling herself. Howard had to remind her not to squeeze her handbag so tightly, she might crush their surprise, and have to clean up puppy guts off her bag. She couldn’t help but being tense, especially trying to ignore the voice in her head that suggested that if this worked, she could get Howard some sort of hypoallergenic puppy, too, when she was finally brave enough to call it off.
Raj beamed, welcoming them inside.
“This is a treat. What brings you guys by?” he asked.
“Howard told me what's going on with you and Lakshmi,” Bernadette said before Howard could say something about getting married for the wrong reasons.
“You told her about it?” Raj whined. Bernadette winced slightly. She had felt pretty bad for assuming Lakshmi was straight when Howard had told her about the situation, and had to remind herself that the standard reaction would be to feel bad for Raj, her friend, not for Lakshmi for wanting to hide.
“I told everybody,” said Howard.
“We believe there's someone out there who will love you for you,” Bernadette told Raj. She hated saying these things in front of Howard because she felt like she was saying them to him.
“Well, actually,” Howard joined in, not able to leave well enough alone, “we kind of agreed to disagree on that one, but we both think you shouldn't marry this woman.”
“So while I'm waiting for this mysterious perfect match, who may or may not exist,” Raj reminded them, “I'm supposed to just be alone?”
“Not necessarily,” Bernadette said, turning to her purse. She hoped to hell this worked. “I think we found you someone to cuddle with.”
“Oh my goodness!” Raj said, “aren't you the cutest little Yorkie ever! You got him for me?”
“Her,” Howard clarified. “We thought you two would hit it off.”
“I think we already have. Let's go see if you fit in my man purse...”
As he left the room, under her breath Bernadette said, “Heterosexual my ass...”
And wanted to kick herself. When had she started making judgements about other people so easily? It would serve her right if she ever came out - people would probably smile at her patronizingly and tell her it was a phase and she’d get over it. It had been twenty-six years and she still hadn’t. Sleeping with all the boys in the world wouldn’t do it. Marrying one of them wasn’t doing it.
“Oh, by the way,” Raj said, coming back into the room with his puppy poking its head out of a shoulder bag, “Lakshmi asked for your number.”
“Why would she ask for my number?” Howard asked, confused.
“Not you, silly, Bernadette.”
A tingle went down Bernadette’s spine and she felt her heart flutter.
“But Lakshmi wants to marry you! And Bernadette’s straight!”
There it was, Bernadette thought, just what she deserved.
“Maybe she just wants to get to know people. Besides, I didn’t give it to her,” Raj said, and Bernadette’s heart sank. “I said I’d give her number to Bernadette.”
Bernadette couldn’t believe it. She was so thankful at that moment that she could have kissed poor, naive Raj. It was hard to pin down exactly why, but she thought it had something to do with external affirmation - if a lesbian was giving her her phone number, maybe she wasn’t crazy, maybe to some people it was obvious that she was hiding, even if her close friends were oblivious. Having Lakshmi’s number wouldn’t help with the marriage mess she’d have to get herself out of, but it was something she needed. She now felt even worse for having thought Lakshmi was straight.
Howard was making noises of protest, but Raj was already playing with his phone. She didn’t know why Raj was doing it, but she didn’t care. She felt giddy like she never had before, like she had always hoped to when she was asked out by the next cute guy, hoping desperately to feel something and not have to think about her mother telling her, wishing for her to be sent to Hell for her sins. Now a woman wanted her number, wanted to call her, thought she was cute, or maybe just wanted to be friends and didn’t like her that way at all, but it didn’t matter to Bernadette. What mattered at this moment was the joy she was feeling, and how her reaction felt so... natural. There was a word she hadn’t been comfortable using for a long time. It felt right now, not like all the words she had grown used to hearing: immoral, wrong, abomination. She wanted to bounce on the spot, she was so thrilled that this was happening. But the timing couldn’t have been worse.
Howard was glaring at Raj.
“Go mess up your own life!” he yelled at him. “Stay out of mine!”
With that, he stormed out of the apartment, slamming the door. Bernadette and Raj both stared after him. She was engulfed with guilt, and Raj looked sheepishly at the floor.
“I’m sorry, Bernadette, I didn’t mean to -”
“No, Raj, it’s okay,” she said softly. “I’m - I’m the one who should be sorry.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“You’ll find out,” she sighed quietly, and followed Howard.
He was already waiting by the car when she caught up with him. She opened the door and he plopped himself down in the passenger’s seat as she got in. His arms were crossed over his chest. After delicately turning the key in the ignition, she drove away. While she drove, she noticed that she was still feeling strangely elated, despite the fact that she knew she would have to tell Howard, and tell him soon. Now. In a way she was glad that the reality of the situation hadn’t hit yet - it was going to be bad enough when it finally did.
It didn’t last very long. A few minutes after they were on the road, Bernadette’s phone beeped again, reminding her that she had an unchecked call. Howard heaved a sigh, and she gripped the steering wheel just a bit tighter.
“Are you upset I took her number?” Bernadette asked after a long moment of silence.
“No, it’s not that,” he said, sulking. “I’m upset Raj gave it to you - what’s he trying to do? You don’t even want it.”
Biting her lip, she chose not to answer. She was grateful that he didn’t seem to notice. They drove in silence for a quarter of an hour before pulling up to Howard’s house. As she turned off the car, Howard sighed again, but this time smiling.
“I’m sorry, Bernie, for being so grumpy. I don’t know why I got upset,” he laughed, “you’re my fiancee, it’s not like you’re going to just go on a date with a girl!”
A litany of words shattered over her mind, making it feel like time had stopped. The giddiness was gone, and she could feel her palms go clammy. It was now or never. The next thing she said would be more difficult than anything else she had ever done in her life.
“Yes, I will,” she said with a certainty that surprised even her.
Howard was still grinning, but it faded quickly.
“Howard, I’m so sorry...” she said, her voice strained. She wanted to tell him how sorry she was for lying to him and lying to herself, but it didn’t come. She couldn't breathe. She couldn't think. Couldn't talk. Automatically she started pulling off her engagement ring. Tears blurred her vision, but she could see the look of puzzlement on Howard's face as he held out his hand to collect the ring she passed him.
“I'm sorry,” she said again turning to try to hide her face, but she could hear Howard sniffle and stammer without really saying any words, and she kept blinking away wave after wave of tears. He couldn’t even manage a why, and finally stopped trying.
“I'm sorry,” she whispered again, as if it would help. There was an infinite silence, so complete that she was afraid to even breathe, and finally Howard got out of the car. Her chest tightened, but it wasn’t until he had closed the front door behind him that she collapsed on the steering wheel, sobbing.
It was pitch black outside, and it had started to rain lightly. Without her glasses, Bernadette stared out the window from under the blanket on the couch she had wrapped herself in, seeing nothing. In the DVD player, episodes of Frasier played over and over. The light from the screen lit up the floor a strange blue, making the empty tissue box and two paper pints of ice cream glow on and off. No one had knocked at her door yet, even though her cell phone had been off for hours. It was almost like she didn’t exist.
A million thoughts chattered at her, but she couldn’t make sense of any of them, and managed to ignore them all. The occasional laugh from the television was the only thing she could hear. The sweetness that was upsetting her stomach mixed with the saltiness in her throat. Her eyes were swollen and heavy, but she couldn’t sleep.
Although she knew they would be back, both the guilt and the giddiness from before were gone. Her entire life was suspended, just for now, like the second after the ebb of a wave had tinkled down the sand, inhaling itself into the ocean, but just before the tide returned. She was upset with herself for the carnage she had no doubt caused, but proud, as much as she didn’t like feeling that way at the moment, for finally, after all these years, having the courage to listen to herself. She floated on a calm sea of hope, sure in the fact that things would only get better, even if everything seemed in pieces right now. She imagined herself like a flower closed up on the last cold evening of spring. A carefree chorus of laughter filled the room, and she smiled just before drifting off to sleep.