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Learning Curve

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“It’s summertime and the living is easy,” Kate sings absently to herself.

“Trust you to sing that when there’s frost on the windows,” Betty teases her. They’re relaxing side by side on Betty’s bed, Kate reading a movie magazine and Betty leafing through the newspaper.

“I can sing Christmas carols if you’d like,” Kate offers sweetly, knowing full well what Betty’s answer will be.

Betty pulls a face. “No fear, that’s all they’re playing on the radio nowadays. Please, please sing about summer instead!”

Kate laughs, but finds herself glancing at the clock.

Betty sees her do it, and asks, “Can you stick around much longer?”

“I’ll stay ‘til eight.” The other rooming house women, their neighbours, should mostly be finished with cooking meals and taking baths by that time, so Kate should be able to slip out of Betty’s room unnoticed.

Betty gives a sigh which might be contented or rueful. “Hard to believe this place is gonna be a ghost town a week from now,” Betty muses. At Kate’s questioning look, she goes on, “Most everybody’s leaving to see their families.”

Kate wonders whether this is Betty’s way of breaking it to her that she’s going home too. She’s not sure whether new girlfriends trump families. There’s a lot about dating a woman – dating at all, really – that’s still very new to Kate. “Will you … were you planning on going home to see your folks?”

“My plans all seem to involve sticking around here,” Betty says, putting her arm around Kate’s shoulder.

Kate can’t help feeling pleased, but finds herself asking, “Won’t your parents be disappointed?”

“Nah. There’ll be umpteen sons and wives and grandkids running around underfoot, nobody’ll even notice I’m not around. Sometimes I suspect that’s why Mom and Dad had so many, so they wouldn’t have to think too much about whichever one turned out to be the black sheep. Let no-one say Jim and Lizzie McRae ain’t practical to a fault.” Betty says it all on one note, like a comedian, but Kate feels for her.

“It’ll be nice to have the place practically to ourselves for a few days,” says Kate, trying to cheer Betty up. She’s thinking purely in terms of lazing around in front of the radiator and not having to queue for the stove, but Betty smiles in a way that says she’s thinking of something different.

“You know, we’ve got ourselves awhile ‘til eight,” Betty says quietly.

Kate suddenly feels rather lightheaded, with the way Betty’s looking at her. “Do we?”

“I’ve finished the paper,” Betty says, putting it on the bedside table. She nods at Kate’s reading material. “How’s that Lamplight?”

“There’s an article about Clark Gable.” Kate can feel herself starting to blush.

“Clark Gable, huh? You don’t say.”

“It’s very interesting.”

Betty moves closer. “Oh, I’ll bet. Go on, tell me about Clark Gable.”

“Well, he was born in Ohio-” Kate giggles at the feeling of Betty’s lips brushing the line of her jaw. “And, um, his favourite food is … is...”

“Mmm?” Betty starts peppering Kate’s throat with little kisses.

“You don’t give a darn about Clark Gable,” says Kate in a tone of mock disapproval, as she leans her head back to give Betty more to kiss. Her eyes flutter closed and a small smile plays around her lips.

“Is it that obvious?”

“You’re gonna have to get up pretty early in the morning to make me believe you fancy Clark Gable, Betty.”

“I knew I couldn’t pull the wool over your eyes.”

“I don’t miss a trick,” Kate murmurs, before Betty’s lips capture hers. The Lamplight tumbles to the floor, quite forgotten, as they slide down against the pillows.

Perhaps tonight is the night. Perhaps Kate will finally allow herself get carried away, the way people do in magazine stories about poor but honest girls who are romanced by dukes...

Betty’s hand trails up the length of Kate’s body, as warm and sure as it was on Kate’s first day at Victory Munitions, when she showed Kate how to pour the amatol. It feels lovely, so lovely to be held and touched and kissed like this. Kate wants more, she knows she does. Yet the soft rasp of Betty tugging down the zip on her dress is like a chainsaw.

“Don’t,” she says, pulling away, hating herself for it. It always happens this way. They’ve tried to make love a few times now, but every time Kate’s clothes start coming off, she freezes up and can’t enjoy herself.

“I’m sorry,” says Betty hastily. “I’ll leave.”

“But it’s your room.” Kate laughs more than she would, ordinarily.

Betty isn’t smiling. “I don’t want to force you,” she says.

“You’re not forcing me,” Kate insists. She’s not sure how much of her pounding heart is wanting, and how much is pure terror. “I’m just - I keep wanting to like it, but I can’t.”

Betty looks at her sideways. “Do you think it’s wrong?”

Kate doesn’t quite know how to answer that. She knows that almost everyone she’s ever met would think it’s wrong. She knows it’s against the law, against her religion. Yet she doesn’t think it’s wrong. That in itself is hard to reconcile, but she’s trying her best. She’s getting better all the time. But she’s worried she’s not getting better fast enough.

“Of course I don’t,” she says, because it seems like the simplest and safest thing. “We can try again.”

Betty moves away and says gruffly, “Mood’s gone.” Kate doesn’t know whether she’s relieved or disappointed.

After she lets herself out of Betty’s room, Kate goes down to the kitchen to make herself some hot milk. She hasn’t had it in years. Kate’s preferred tea since she was ten, but Mother used to make her hot milk and honey when she was small. She feels like she could use a bit of mothering right now. It’s not the same as before, though. The milk is evaporated, for one thing, and much too sweet even without honey. Mother isn’t around to talk to. Not that Kate could talk to her about this particular problem.

Aggie and Susan are in the kitchen. They nod in recognition at Kate before returning to their discussion. They’re talking about some woman they know and don’t particularly like.

“He says she’s frigid as well, on top of everything else. Hasn’t gone further than kissing since they got together,” Susan says disbelievingly. “Can you believe it? She’s twenty-seven, no spring chicken. His eye will start wandering, before long.”

Aggie gives a derisive snort. “Too right. It’s not the 1800s, for God’s sake. Sooner or later, you’ve got to give ‘em a reason to stick around. Eventually, you’ve got to give it up.”

Kate cringes as if they’re talking about her. She turns the stove off and pours the milk hastily into a mug while it’s still only lukewarm, just so she can get away.

She goes to the telephone in the front hall and pulls up a chair. She sits until her milk has gone stone cold before she has the courage to dial a number.

“Hello?” says a voice which sounds harried, but still princesslike.

“Hi, Gladys,” Kate says in a small voice.

“Oh, Kate, it’s you,” Gladys says distractedly.

Kate toys anxiously with the phone cord. “Have I called at a bad time?”

“I’m just in the middle of some very complicated cookery.”

“Sorry, Gladys, I’ll leave you to it, then-”

“No, hang on a tick. I’m never too busy for my best friend. What’s up? You sound a bit flat.”

“I suppose I’m just missing people,” Kate says, because it is at least part of the truth. “You know, Christmas and all.”

“Oh, Kate.” Gladys sounds sympathetic, but still faraway. “I know you and Betts can’t be in the same room too much, with everybody else around, but maybe you could start playing a certain record when the coast is clear, so Betty knows it’s safe to make a dash for your bedroom-”

“No, no, everything’s lovely, I swear. I’m just in a funk. I don’t know why.” Kate pauses. “Well, actually I’ve got an idea.”

“Because you miss your family?”

“That, and – other things.” Why does the rooming house always go quiet whenever Kate is about to voice something embarrassing? “It’s a bit hard to talk about. You’ll think I’m an idiot. I think I’m an idiot.”

“I’m sure you’re not an idiot. Try me.”

Kate clears her throat. “Well, I … when you and James first – when you … did you find it hard when things went further than-”

“Oh, my lord, I think it’s on fire,” gasps Gladys.

Kate blinks. “Gladys?” She listens with increasing alarm to various clangs and crashes from the other end of the line, interspersed with at least two shrieks from Gladys.

Eventually, Gladys returns to the phone. “Everything is perfectly under control,” says Gladys. “But I made a bit of a mess.”

“Well, at least you’re not hurt. Is the kitchen all right?”

“Listen, I’m sorry you’re not feeling the best.” Gladys’ tone says clearly that she does not want to discuss the state of the kitchen. “Do you want to come over tomorrow, around two? You sound like you could use some tea and sympathy.”

No sooner has Kate said, “I’d like that,” than Gladys has hung up, presumably to tackle the spectacular mess she’s made of her kitchen. Once again, Kate is alone with her thoughts.

Kate is not blind any more. She knows that she likes women. She knows she’s in love with Betty. She is well aware, with every little fibre of her being, that she wants her. But it seems that’s not quite enough. Something keeps stopping her, and she doesn’t know what.

She’ll talk to Gladys about it, and everything will be just fine. She is not blind, and soon she won’t have to be afraid, either.

Still, the next afternoon, as Kate approaches the luxury apartments where Gladys is living in her fiancé’s vacated flat, she feels ridiculously conscious of her threadbare coat and homemade dress. Normally, she would try a bit harder to pull herself together, but Kate has a feeling that her self-consciousness is serving a purpose. Perhaps worrying about stupid things like her clothes is easier than admitting to herself that she’s dreading the prospect of discussing sex, even with her best friend.

Gladys shows Kate in graciously, evidently pleased to be playing hostess. “I baked,” Gladys says proudly, indicating a plate of thick, rather lopsided ginger biscuits. “I used up a week’s butter and sugar ration, but I think they turned out all right, don’t you?”

Kate nibbles at one (it’s delicious, but slightly burnt on one side), tactfully ignoring the recipe for ginger cake lying on the sideboard. Even with the mishaps, Gladys’ cooking is getting much better. From offhand remarks, Kate has learned what happened during the weeks after Gladys moved out of her parents’ mansion, when she lived on soup and buns and things from tins. Betty grew steadily more exasperated, until one day she had offered (rather forcefully, she admitted) to come over and teach Gladys to cook a proper meal.

(“The look on her face when I told her I’d teach her to cook - it was the first time I’d laughed in weeks,” Betty told Kate, later on. “I said to her, ‘I’m the only girl out of seven kids. Being a tomboy only gets you out of so much.’”)

Kate wishes she could have been present for those early cooking lessons. They sound like such fun. Gladys and Betty haven’t been terribly forthcoming with the details, but from what Kate’s picked up on, it sounds like those were some of the only fun afternoons they had, in between searching for Kate and dealing with the fallout from their separate scandals.

Whether it’s a champagne-soaked letter-writing party at the rooming house or tea and biscuits on a Sunday afternoon, Gladys always pours beverages the same way she pours amatol: with equal amounts of precision and determination. “So, what is it that’s got you so blue?” she asks, straight out. “I gather it’s something to do with Betty?”

Kate blanchs at her. It took a lot of courage just to ring the doorbell, even more to walk inside the flat, and was hoping – praying – for some small talk to ease her into this.

“Kate, I’m not going to have a fit of the vapours the minute you start talking about being a lesbian. You’ve got the wrong Witham. Mother’s the one who needs a fainting couch in every room. Well, a hangover couch, really, but we won’t go into that.”

Kate can’t help giggling. Betty always groans and buries her face in her hands whenever Gladys says the word “lesbian.” Something about the lascivious sound of the l, the sibilant hiss of the s, just makes Betty squirm. “Gladys!”

“Well, it’s about time somebody said it out loud. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a Bogie film, being around you and Betty, with all your double-talk.” Gladys pushes the biscuit platter nearer to Kate. “Have another biscuit – that one’s not too burnt, there you go – and tell me what’s got you down.”

Kate tries her best. “It’s hard keeping it a secret. I just want to be with her all the time, but everyone’s watching us. That makes it even harder to...”

For all that Gladys claims not to be a total innocent, she proves selectively slow on the uptake. She stares at Kate, prompting her to continue. Gladys Witham is the closest thing Kate’s ever had to a sister – a strange amalgamation of sophisticated older sister and callow younger sister – but right now, Kate feels absurdly shy of her.

It’s too hard. Kate sighs and attempts to paste a cheerful expression on her face. “It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. Far from it. We have so much fun together.”

Gladys laughs. “I should say so. You must have a lot of fun indeed, getting to sleep together as much as you want without having to worry about anybody getting pregnant.”

Gladys has brought it up. She’s said it out loud, so why does Kate still feel so awkward? Kate fidgets. “We haven’t actually … done that, yet.”

“Whyever not?”

“All sorts of reasons,” Kate mumbles.

“Can you not get two minutes alone at that rooming house?” asks Gladys sympathetically. “Because you can come here, if privacy is the issue.”

Kate is fairly sure she’s gone the same colour as her hair. “It’s not that. We can be alone if we put our minds to it. It’s just that whenever we try, I keep … freezing.”

“Freezing?”

Kate doesn’t feel especially willing or able to elaborate on that. Instead, she asks, “Do people always like it right away? Making love, I mean.”

“I’m hardly an expert, Kate. James and I only got to do it a few times before he left. I think I’m barely on two hands, to tell the truth.”

The quantity of Gladys’ trysts with James is not what Kate is interested in. She asks, “But did you enjoy it, right from when you started?”

Gladys can’t help smiling. Kate can see her remembering, see her missing James. “I did.”

So it’s true. There’s something wrong with me, Kate thinks miserably.

Gladys sees her face fall. “Kate, I’m sure it’s nothing that can’t be overcome. Everyone’s brought up to think that sex is dirty, but somehow people do it anyway. It’ll happen for you, especially now that – well, now you know what you want.”

But it’s not about me liking women, Kate desperately wants to say. I think I’d be this way even with a man. I’m worried Betty won’t know I love her unless I do it. I want to, but something keeps stopping me and I don’t know what...

Leaving the apartment complex under a darkening sky, Kate is thoroughly fed up with trying to explain herself. She needs to be someplace where she can be with others who are in the same boat as her … someplace she can feel normal. There was a time, not so long ago, when that invariably meant being home with her family, singing hymns and folk songs while her brothers accompanied her, followed by an early night. Nowadays, being with people like herself is more likely to mean the Tangiers Club.

Kate grew up thinking of herself as a real homebody. It was almost frightening, a year and some ago, being away from her family for the first time and finding out how much she loved dancing and making new friends and yes, even drinking. She still gets nervous sometimes, of crowds and new people, but on the whole, Kate loves being out on the town. It is one of the biggest differences between the person she is now, and the person she never wants to be again.

So Kate goes out. She ignores the niggling part of her that frets about the very idea of going out to a seedy nightclub on a Sunday. She revels in the fact that she can approach any table in the whole of Tangiers just as easily as can be, and greet the people as friends, and trust that they know her name, that she’s a singer, and that she’s Betty’s girlfriend. To prove to herself that she is well and truly Kate Andrews now, Kate picks the queerest table in the joint, the one with Betty’s friend Carla, Carla’s girlfriend June, and a whole gaggle of men. The men are all listening to Raymond, a neat fellow with painted fingernails and a loud voice, who is by far the most popular person at the table.

“Christmas!” Raymond says, rolling his eyes heavenward. “Don’t talk to me about it! It’s nothing but trouble!”

Carla snickers. “Is the beauty parlour having a run on henna? I told you the stuff was gonna get dear.”

“Ha, ha, Miss Prentiss. But no, my hair’s got nothing to do with it. Ma’s on the phone all day and all night, saying, ‘But Raymond, why won’t you come to midnight Mass with me this Christmas? Your brothers both off fighting, you’re gonna make me go all alone?’” Raymond shakes his head. “I haven’t put one toe inside any church since the day I first kissed a man. I don’t see how any queer person could believe in God. Because that way, you’d have to think God created us to be miserable. You’d have to be kind of sick in the head, to believe there’s a God that hates us enough to make us queer.”

Kate is taken aback – more so when everyone around the table starts nodding and agreeing with him.Loving God is the one thing Kate’s father never, ever had to force her to do. It comes to Kate naturally as breathing. She’s never in her life thought that God wanted her to be unhappy. She used to think (still fears, sometimes) that she was unhappy because she wasn’t following God’s path, and that she would be happy if only she could be the person her father wanted her to be. She realised, slowly, that God’s plan for her did not include being beaten, and feeling terrible about herself all the time. That’s in her past. She’s Kate Andrews again, Kate Andrews for the rest of her days. All that awfulness was Marion Rowley’s lot in life, not hers.

She’s never felt the least bit sick about believing in God. When things were at their darkest, trusting that God would love her even if nobody else did was the only thing that got her through. That was what got her back to Toronto, back to -

“Hey,” says a low voice in her ear. She feels Betty’s jacket sleeve brushing against her bare arm. “Sorry I took an age. The line for the ladies’ room stretched around the block. I think I even saw a few fellas waiting.”

“Which is odd, since they usually prefer to do it standing,” quips someone, and everyone laughs. Everyone except Kate.

“Hi, sweetheart,” she says, giving Betty a distracted peck on the cheek.

“What’s up? You look a bit flushed.”

“I’m not overheated, I’m just fine,” says Kate.

“Well, then, do you want to dance?” Betty asks gamely. It makes Kate love her so much. She knows how awkward Betty feels on the dance floor, but she still asks Kate every time they go out, because she knows how Kate loves dancing.

Yet mingled with Kate’s rush of fondness for her girlfriend is a feeling very like shame. She’s having trouble looking Betty in the face.

“I’m on in a minute,” says Kate. “But I’ll dance with you after.”

Truthfully, it’s at least five minutes until she’s due to be onstage with the band, but she can’t stay here. She knows that Betty doesn’t believe in God either, and she’s never had a problem with that, but she’s suddenly so scared about what will happen when Betty joins the conversation. She doesn’t think she’d be able to stand it, if Betty started saying that a person can’t be queer and believe in God at the same time. She knows in her heart that that’s true for Betty – that part of the reason Betty doesn’t believe is because she’s known what she is since she was a tiny little girl, and she’s always felt excluded because of it. But Kate honestly feels like she would burst into tears if Betty were to agree with Raymond, and say that queer people have to choose between God and being in love.

Kate doesn’t want to choose. She’s made enough tough choices to last a lifetime. Why can’t people ever be allowed to be more than one thing?

“All right, Church Mouse?” Leon asks in a low voice when Kate climbs onstage.

“What makes you ask that?” She wants to perform now, not talk about what’s bothering her.

“You look like you’re gunning to slap somebody.”

“It’s nothing. People saying silly things. I’m fine.” Kate approaches the microphone. “Mr Riley, if I may, I’d like to sing this first song for my baby,” she says into the mike. This way of talking doesn’t come naturally to her, after twenty-four years of being shouted at every time she unconsciously repeated the slang she overheard in the street, but she finds it easier to do when she’s onstage.

Leon grins. “Boys, let’s give her some swing.”

She sways as they play the introduction. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see the table she just left, people reaching over and tapping Betty’s shoulder, hissing comments, tittering, some of grabbing partners and starting to dance – and Betty looking like she’s been lit up from inside.

Growing up, Kate was always told that there was nothing worse than wanting people to look at you. Nobody ever mentioned anything about sharing a look. Sharing a look, Kate thinks, is just about the nicest thing in the world.

“Who do you think is coming to town? You’ll never guess who. Lovable, huggable Emily Brown – ‘Miss Brown’ to you,” Kate sings. “What if the rain comes pattering down? My heaven is blue. Can it be sending me Emily Brown – ‘Miss Brown’ to you?”

Kate sings, and all at once, her world is full of magic. She used to think it was a sin, the sin of pride, to feel so happy when she sang. When she was a girl, her father was quick to stop her singing if he thought she was too pleased with the sound of her own voice. She was well trained by the time she was in double digits, only singing on cue, or when she was alone. The consequences were dreadful if she ever forgot.

It’s not pride, though. It’s just joy. It was wretched to realise that she’d been kept from a thing as simple, as utterly necessary as joy, all her life. Kate’s never really yearned to be a movie star like Gladys or Vera did when they were young, but she often thinks that life would be so fine if only she could live in a musical, and sing everything she feels for the rest of her life. She would be so eloquent, there. She could feel joy every minute.

She gears up for the big finish. “Why do you think she’s coming to town? Just wait and you’ll see. Lovable little Miss Brown to you is ‘baby’ to me!” Everybody in the audience who knows she’s with Betty gives her a special cheer. There’s nothing quite like having people cheer her for singing about a woman.

She sings two more Billie Holiday standards – My Man, which makes everyone who knows about her and Betty laugh, and I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, which is seasonally appropriate, at least. When she leaves the stage and rejoins her table, Betty says, “You were great,” and kisses Kate right in front of everybody. Kate returns the kiss, but finds herself reddening. She’s still not totally used to doing this sort of thing in private, let alone in front of strangers.

“I had no idea you were the singer everybody talks about! Nobody would ever think it to look at you. You sure do look different onstage,” Raymond says jovially. “But down here, why, you’re as tiny as can be.”

Kate doesn’t feel tiny. She always feels so immense with joy whenever she runs offstage into Betty’s arms. Why is Raymond talking down to her like this?

“You’re just a scrap of a thing, but you’ve sure got a big, beautiful voice. Any relation to the Andrews Sisters?”

“No,” says Kate, shaking her head. She has an urge to snap that she’s not related to anybody named Andrews, just to spite him. She knows she ought to accept his teasing and his compliments with good humour, but she can’t help feeling stung about what he said earlier. I won’t be teased by anybody who thinks I’m sick in the head, she thinks fiercely.

Raymond smiles indulgently at Kate, the star of Tangiers who he can reduce to a scrap with just a word, just a look. “Well, if that ain’t it, where’d you learn to belt like that, dollface?”

“I’ve been singing in the church since I was four years old,” says Kate curtly, before turning pointedly to Betty. “May I buy you a drink?”

Kate knows she’s not doing the right thing. She knows full well that women who wear dresses are supposed to let women who wear pants get the drinks. But Kate and Betty work the exact same job; they get paid the same wages. Why shouldn’t they take turns? Kate has loved the Tangiers Club since the moment she first entered it, but sometimes Kate doesn’t understand the way things work here at all. Sometimes, the way things work here have a remarkable way of bringing Kate down from the high of performing faster than you can say Jack Robinson.

“Sure, I’d like that,” says Betty, valiantly ignoring the snickers coming from various points around their table.

Waiting at the bar for Betty’s whiskey sour, Kate wonders what on earth is the matter with her. She came to Tangiers to perform, to have fun and be with the woman she loves, not find excuses to put an entire dance floor between herself and Betty.

I’ve got to stop being such a pill, she thinks as she pays for Betty’s drink. I’ll give Betty her whiskey, and kiss her on the lips in front of everyone, and ask her to dance with me. Maybe she’ll even apologise to Raymond, for being so short with him. He did compliment her singing, even if it was in a backhanded sort of way. He wasn’t to know that Kate goes to church every Sunday. Perhaps it is unusual. After all, Tangiers is always packed on Saturday nights, right into the small hours of the morning, with no indication that anybody is going to Sunday service.

What if what he said was true? Kate is swept up by a creeping panic. Maybe there is no such thing as a queer person who believes in God-

“Excuse me, sir,” Kate says distractedly, trying to sidestep a man of around forty, standing too close behind her at the bar.

“Sir?” he repeats. He regards her incredulously, and Kate sees that there’s no trace of stubble on his cheek. His black suspenders trace the unmistakable outline of a woman’s figure. “Name’s Pearl, actually.”

“Oh, golly, I’m so sorry,” Kate stammers, mortified. “I’m just off in a world of my own, and-”

“Golly gosh,” mimics Pearl, regarding Kate. “It’s no skin off my nose.”

“I’m sorry,” she says again. “Have a nice evening.”

Pearl steps in front of Kate again, preventing her from escaping. “No, hang on a tick. Since I’ve got you on your own, I might as well ask. What are you?”

The question stops Kate in her tracks. “I don’t know what you mean,” she says slowly.

Sneering, Pearl says, “Isn’t that just the trouble? I mean, hugging and kissing on another girl, cosying up to Leon Riley, singin’ Miss Brown To You and then My Man? The way you carry on, how is anybody supposed to know what you are?”

Kate bristles. “Leon and the band pick the songs. I just sing them. My girlfriend is waiting for me, so if you’ll excuse me-”

“So you are sleeping with her, then?”

Kate falters. She hates herself for faltering. It ought to be nobody’s business. She falters all the same, and Pearl gives a strange crow of triumph.

“I thought so. You’re just playing around. Girls like you are hypocrites, stringing proper bulldaggers along while all the men are overseas. Can’t stand going a few months without any attention, can you?”

“I’m not like that,” Kate whispers, but for all Pearl acknowledges what she’s said, she might not have spoken at all.

“You look like butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth, and all the while you’re gettingyour jollies from keeping everybody guessing. Well, I just hope your so-called girlfriend’s ready for a world of heartbreak.”

Betty has spotted that Kate is in distress, and she’s making her way through the crowd. Kate ought to just shove Pearl aside and rejoin Betty, forget all this unpleasantness, but she finds herself rooted to the spot.

“Is she bothering you?” asks Betty, taking Kate’s arm.

Pearl chuckles. “Don’t worry, sport, I ain’t making a move on your girl. Seems it’s not my kind you’ve got to worry about.”

Betty swears at her, short ugly words she learned from her older brothers long ago. Usually Kate flinches whenever Betty uses words like that, even in her defence. Yet Kate feels like using them too when Pearl looks pityingly at her Betty and says, “I’m not the enemy here. Good luck to you,” before ambling away laughing.

“What did she say to you?” Betty asks. “Kate?”

“I think I’d like to go home now,” Kate says, sounding just as small as Raymond said she was. “I don’t feel well.”

“Okay,” Betty says. “We’ll get your coat, and we’ll be on the next street car home.”

“I’m supposed to go on with the band in an hour,” Kate frets.

“Well, if you don’t wanna be here, then you don’t wanna. Leon and the boys will live. I’ll get somebody to tell him you’re sick, it’s no problem.” Betty wraps an arm around Kate and presses a kiss into her hair. Kate leans gratefully against her.

As they wait for the street car, Betty tries to get her to talk about what happened. Kate keeps insisting that it’s nothing, nothing, nothing. Eventually, Betty gives up, and Kate is left with her thoughts.

Kate does like men. It’s something she doesn’t mention much, any more. It seems inappropriate somehow, to like men even a little, now that she’s with Betty. That doesn’t change the fact that she does feel some attraction to them, on occasion. Kate likes looking at them (she can definitely tell when a man is handsome, unlike Betty, who claims to have no aptitude for that sort of thing) and even idly wonders what it would be like to kiss a man. She doesn’t feel particularly sad at the idea of never kissing one, though. She’s in love with Betty. If Kate has her way, Betty is the only one she’s kissing for the rest of her life.

But they haven’t slept together yet. People can tell it just by looking at her, because of the way she dresses, the way she goes pink when Betty kisses her in front of people. They think that because she’s somewhat attracted to men, and because she believes in God, she can’t really love Betty.

She thinks about that woman Aggie and Susan were talking about, how her boyfriend’s eye is going to start wandering if she doesn’t give it up, and Kate can’t help but shudder.

They hop down from the street car and walk toward the rooming house. It’s a starless winter night, very quiet after the heat and hustle of Tangiers. Usually, Kate sings when it’s quiet like this. She doesn’t feel much like singing now.

“I’m sorry Pearl ruined your evening,” Betty says, after awhile. “I wish you’d tell me what she said. Carla reckons Pearl gets bitter around really pretty girls when she’s had a few.”

“I don’t much want to talk about it, Betty.”

“Even if I solemnly swear not to put her lights out the next time I see her?”

“Even then. Speaking of ruined evenings, I’m sorry about yours.”

“Don’t even worry about it. It’s never a ruined night when I get to hear you sing.” Betty looks at Kate like she’s proud that Kate is her girlfriend, like Kate isn’t a total disgrace. It makes Kate feel even worse. Of course, that could just be because they’ve reached the rooming house steps.

Kate bites her lip. This is always her least favourite part of any evening, the part when they have to pretend they’ve gone out separately.

“You go in first,” Betty says, like always.

“But I went first last time,” Kate protests, wishing that her teeth weren’t chattering.

“I’m dressed warmer than you.”

“But-” It doesn’t seem fair. Betty is just as small as Kate, underneath her jacket and trousers. She probably feels the cold just as much. Surely it would be fairer for them to take turns walking back into the rooming house first. Surely it would be fairest if they could walk in together, hand in hand, like every single other couple in the universe.

“I’ll be inside in a minute,” Betty insists. “Two minutes, tops.”

Kate fixes Betty’s scarf. “Don’t stay out here too long. You’ll catch your death.”

“McRaes don’t get sick,” Betty says haughtily. She catches hold of Kate’s gloved fingers and kisses them. “Go on!”

Reluctantly, Kate starts to head up the steps. “You’ll be just two minutes, right?”

“One and a half,” Betty promises her.

Kate blows her a kiss. She wants to call out, “I love you,” but can’t be sure they won’t be overheard. So she settles for, “Sweet dreams.”

“G’night,” returns Betty. Somehow, Kate’s brave girlfriend looks very small, standing out in the snow all alone as Kate goes indoors first.

It is a full ten minutes after Kate reaches her room that she hears Betty climbing the steps to the third floor. She pictures Betty futilely stamping her feet and breathing into her cupped hands as she stands in a snowdrift for ten whole minutes.

Being in love ought to make everything better. Isn’t that the way it always works in the movies? When Kate is around Betty, she feels like the life has been breathed back into her. But when Kate has to contend with all these other things – the sneaking around, and the people who know treating her like she’s so small because her girlfriend is tough and wears trousers, and the constant worrying that there must be something wrong with wanting to kiss women and believe in God at the same time – it’s like the joy she’s searched for all her life is being leached out. She knows she wants Betty. It’s almost alarming how worked up Kate gets, thinking about Betty when she’s alone. So why does she keep freezing when she’s in her girlfriend’s arms?

Kate has no frame of reference for any of this. There are no films about women in love, no magazine columns she can glance through for tips, and very few people she can ask for advice. Yet she figures that by most people’s estimation, she must be a simply appalling girlfriend, never doing the right thing, always shaming Betty in front of people. Kate wants to be good – it was all she was brought up to want – but she’s got less idea how to be good than she’s ever had in her life.

Never mind what you want, she thinks. You know you want her, and that ought to be all that matters. It would be all that mattered, for anybody who wasn’t as broken inside as you are. You didn’t give up so much, learn so much, grow so much, just to wreck everything. Do you want to lose her now?

Kate doesn't think anything much as her feet hit the floor, as she peeps around her doorway and heads for the staircase up to the third floor. She knows what she's about to do, so she can't let herself think, in case she loses her nerve.

Despite all her bravado, Kate finds herself lingering in Betty's doorway for a moment, just watching. Betty is sitting on her bed, frowning as she thumbs irritably through a book. Aside from the newspaper, Betty is not an avid reader. She didn’t grow up around books, and she left school at thirteen. Even so, Betty's the smartest person Kate’s ever met. She’s so forthright, so quick with her words. Kate still goes all girly when she remembers Betty telling off the floor boys for putting those disgusting comments in Gladys’ suggestion box.

Kate shuts the door behind her, which makes Betty look up. The annoyance on her face melts away at the sight of Kate. “Well, this is a nice surprise!”

“Hopefully not too much of a surprise,” Kate says, not moving away from the door. “What are you up to?”

Betty holds up the book. It has a plain brown cover, with the title, The Well of Loneliness, picked out in black. “The Sink of Solitude. Gladys loaned it to me about ... eleven months ago. It’s about inverts. Her way of pledging support.”

Kate raises her eyebrows. Betty doesn’t say “invert,” she talks about people being “in the life” or “that way.” “Sounds swell.”

Betty has marked her page with a bus ticket. It is less than halfway through. “As you can see, I’m racin’ through it. There’d better be one hell of a love scene soon, or I’m pitching it straight out the window.”

Kate waits slightly too long to laugh. Betty winces.

“Dullest thing I ever read in my life,” Betty adds hastily. “I flick through it when I’m trying to drop off at night.”

“You’re not going to sleep now, are you?”

“Might iron my work clothes before I hit the sack. Why, what’s up?”

Kate’s response is to pull Betty’s doorknob directly upward. The click of the door locking sounds deafening.

“You want to talk or something?” Betty asks, eyeing her.

“I just want to be with you.” Kate’s voice goes up at the end of the sentence, making it sound like a question.

“Well, come on over.” Betty pats the space beside her. “You know being with you is my favourite thing.”

Kate sits down beside her. I’m Kate now, she thinks. I’m Kate Andrews, not Marion any more. I need to show her that I want this, that she doesn’t have to worry. I need to get through it so it can be good later.

She steels herself, then kisses Betty hard on the mouth. Kate leads Betty’s hands to pertinent places on her body and blurts out, “Touch me.”

“Kate-”

“Please do it,” she murmurs, unable to meet Betty’s eyes.

“Well, that’s romantic,” says Betty, sounding rather nervous.

“I’m not good at this,” Kate says. “It’s all new to me. But I do want it, I swear. I just – I need – please do it to me.”

“Are you sure?” Betty sounds dubious but also hopeful. Kate has never done this before, has never come to Betty’s bedroom of her own accord and asked Betty to touch her.

Kate can’t quite form the word yes. Instead, she kisses Betty until Betty stops asking if she’s sure.

Kate thinks, I want this, I want this, I want this, over and over. For awhile it seems to work. At least, she manages to take off her clothes, and Betty’s too. She makes the correct noises and moves in the right way. She doesn’t know whether it feels good. It’s not important whether it feels good. What’s important is doing what is expected of her, so that people will know she loves Betty.

“You’re so lovely,” she hears Betty say, from somewhere near the region of her waist. “Oh, Kate, you’re so, so beautiful.” That makes Kate feel nice – sort of like she’s blushing all the way through her body – and for a moment she thinks that perhaps this could go all right, after all.

But then she thinks, I’m not lovely. My scars aren’t lovely, and the things my father did to me weren’t lovely, and the things I said to you when I left last winter weren’t lovely. Why are you lying to me? Father always said this is what would happen, that people would lie to me to get what they wanted-

Kate falls back into herself, like falling from the ceiling. She’s more naked than she’s ever been in all her life. She doesn’t know how she got that way. It’s all wrong and Kate didn’t want it to be like this.

She gasps. It is not a pleasurable sound. It sounds like someone being shoved underwater, fighting to breathe. Kate never learned to swim.

“Get off me,” she says suddenly. “Get off!”

Dimly, she hears Betty ask, “What’s the matter?” There’s a part of her that wants to just collapse into her girlfriend’s arms and be comforted – but another, more pressing part just wants to run.

She drags her dress on, buttoning it haphazardly, and gathers up her bra, slip and underwear, screwing them into a bundle which she clutches to her chest. If anybody sees her, Kate will look horribly suspicious, leaving Betty’s room in such a state of disarray, but Kate can’t … she just can’t.

Betty looks stricken. “Kate, tell me what I did wrong.”

“It’s not you,” says Kate. “I have to go.”

She makes a dash from the room. Betty can’t follow right away, because she’s stark naked, but five minutes later, as Kate lies shivering on her bed in her room, she hears footsteps outside her door.

“Kate? Kate?” There is a pause, and Betty says, “Honey, please let me in.” It makes Kate want to cry. They don’t call each other by endearments when other people are around, it’s much too risky. Betty must be so worried about her.

“I’m tired,” she calls, her voice cracking audibly. “I need to go to sleep.”

In her mind’s eye, Kate can see the expressions flitting across Betty’s face. Concern, hurt, confusion. Neither of them can say any of the things that are on their minds. Kate has closed the door.