“What are you thinking?”
She couldn't help but smile. A little over half a year ago it was an entirely different question. Half a year ago it was her question, her nagging worry that she couldn't refrain from asking Therese, despite her best attempts.
Now it was Therese who'd asked, returning Carol's bemused smile, her head tilted inquisitively waiting for an answer. Carol sat up in bed, patting Therese's side, and raised an eyebrow.
Therese chuckled, leaning off the bedroom doorframe and walking over to the bed, ignoring Carol's hand and pouncing right on top of her, hands out to tickle her sides.
Carol fell back with a playful shout and a laugh before defending herself, rolling Therese over so she was pinned beneath her. Therese squirmed, no match for the strong hands she so admired. They held her wrists captive above her head and Therese felt that first sign of excitement low in her stomach.
“What are you thinking?” She demanded again with a laugh, resigning herself to this position she didn't mind one bit. With a huff and shake of her head she blew the hair from over her eyes so she could look up at Carol's.
“I'm thinking, I'm not hungry for breakfast just yet,” Carol leaned forward and kissed Therese's cheek, her jaw, the spot she liked just below her ear.
Therese could only hum her content, her arms straining to be wrapped around Carol's back.
“I'm thinking, I've never been this happy before. Truly. I'm thinking, I can't believe I tried to give you up, even for a minute.” Carol punctuated every couple of words with more kisses, her grip on Therese's wrists slackening as she moved lower.
Therese took the opportunity to push up and roll Carol back onto her back. She brushed a few stray blonde locks from Carol's face and kissed her, deeply.
“Well I'm thinking, I have to go across town, and you should meet me for a drink after I'm done with the shoot.”
“My little big shot,” Carol said affectionately.
“When do I get promoted to 'big big shot',” Therese wondered with a pout, sliding off the bed.
“When you're a big enough big shot to stay late in bed with me whenever you please,” Carol teased.
Therese bit her lip, mulling over the hours she'd have to put in to get the necessary promotion.
“Meet me for drinks after? That little bar on the corner we like?”
“I'll be there, darling.”
Therese beamed and turned down the hall to collect her bag. Carol heard her rustling in the hall, no doubt smoothing her clothes after her brief roll around the bed. After a minute Therese called out a soft “Bye!” and then the door locked behind her. The apartment always felt so empty without Therese in it, as if even Carol wasn't there while Therese was out.
Carol sat up and pulled a cigarette out of her compact on the night stand. She missed Therese every second she was gone. What a schoolgirl I've become, she thought to herself. Schoolgirl-ish she may have felt, but for once she didn't care. She thought back to that night.
She truly hadn't known if Therese would meet her for dinner. She was incredibly good at convincing others she knew what she was doing, but she had yet to fool herself. On the outside she was calm, collected, enjoying dinner with friends she hadn't seen in a while. She tried not to think of earlier that evening, the love she verbalized but both of them already knew. She tried not to think about the look on Therese's face, wondering if her maturation meant the end of them. Her friends took no notice of her stress, but the worry deep in her stomach had driven her to her second drink faster than she might have reached it regularly.
She was doing her best to not look towards the door every other minute when finally the shape of a person standing a few feet shy of the table caught her eye. She had known before looking up, yet she couldn't hide the delightful shock from her face. Therese. Standing there, breathtakingly beautiful, still shy but in a grown up way now, in the middle of a bustling restaurant but looking at Carol as if she were the only one in the room.
Carol would never forget the way her heart seemed to jump rope in her chest. She still felt that way now sometimes, just from the simplest things. A gentle kiss hello from Therese when she got back from work, a look across the room at a crowded party. Little things were all it took now to set Carol's heart off to the races.
She would catch herself comparing things to how they had been with Harge, but there was no comparison more unfair. There was no comparison, really. Her life with Harge was a performance, the only slice that was real was Rindy. Carol would cook pancakes for Therese and remember a Sunday morning with Harge, where the same action felt stiff, fake, being judged on a scale of 1 to 10. Carol would dwell on those memories until Therese would bring her back with a touch, a word.
Carol had reached the end of her cigarette with her daydreaming. She dropped the remainder in the ashtray and got up to get dressed and start her day.
“Carol you must tell me, have you been seeing someone recently?” Karen, an acquaintance from the furniture house asked as they wrapped up some paperwork that afternoon.
Carol gave her a neutral smile. “I have, in fact.”
Karen rapped her pen on the desk. “I knew it! No one going it alone is that happy, not at our age. Tell me about him, how'd you meet, what's he like?”
“Ah Karen, and ruin my mysterious air? I couldn't,” Carol pursed her lips coyly, looking back down at the papers finalizing the sale they had just completed.
“Oh, you're a tease,” Karen grinned wider, shaking her head but thankfully not pushing the subject.
Carol sighed as she left the store. She was truly bursting at the seams with happiness, but had no desire to share the source with anyone. She had felt on display for 10 years with Harge, who proudly showed her off as the source of his happiness, regardless of how she felt. For once she wanted to keep herself to herself, despite the pleasure she knew Therese would take in being bragged about, judgmental society be damned.
Therese always checked with her that it was okay before she mentioned their relationship to a friend, because Therese was a saint, an angel growing bolder by the day. The younger crowd seemed to be more carefree about the whole thing, not necessarily more accepting, just blithe about it all. Carol already knew that people her age looked on their type of relationship as demented or perverted, and while they could all go to hell she wasn't about to risk any more trouble.
When she got to the bar she walked straight through to the patio in the back, knowing she would find Therese there. Carol spotted her towards the back easily, like a switch in her brain tuned everyone else out. As she walked towards the table she caught Therese staring off into space, cigarette smoke swirling around her, and Carol wished she could take a picture. She had tried on occasion, playing with Therese's camera, attempting to catch the beauty Carol couldn't put to words, but they never came out as well. They never did Therese justice.
Therese stood up when Carol reached the table and pulled her into a quick half hug, half peck on the cheek. It was dark out, the only light the dim lamps hanging around the open air patio.
“Sorry I'm late,” Carol said, putting her purse down on the open chair at the table.
“You should either stop being late or stop apologizing for it,” Therese smirked, sliding the martini she had already ordered for Carol over to her.
“I am losing my element of surprise, aren't I?”
“Never,” Therese's eyes flickered and she took a drag of her cigarette.
Carol sipped from her martini. Once, what felt like a lifetime ago, she'd have cared about being predictable. It was one of the many things that had driven her crazy with Harge. Even if her life were routine now, even if Therese could read her like a book, she didn't mind. Every day with Therese held new promise in it. Even if Carol had no more room to grow, to change, Therese was different every day. Always the same Therese, but always learning something new, teaching Carol something new. About Therese, about herself. About the ducks in the lake.
“What was it you told me about the ducks, in the park the other day?” Carol found herself asking.
Therese's brow furrowed a moment before smiling, remembering.
“They lay more eggs when there's more daylight,” Therese said.
Carol chuckled, taking a drag of her own cigarette. “You are just a wealth of knowledge, aren't you.”
“Just random things, nothing of importance.” Therese sounded sullen.
“Anything you share is important to me,” Carol's voice was low.
“Even duck facts?”
“Especially duck facts.”
Carol nudged Therese's leg under the table with her own, prompting a soft blush and a smile. They sat in comfortable silence for a moment.
“I'm scheduled to see Rindy this weekend,” Carol said slowly.
“That's great, Carol. Where?”
“She's coming to the apartment.”
Therese's face lit up. “Really, that's wonderful!” She faltered, her features drooping. “I'll, I'll plan to be out when she comes by.”
“No no,” Carol objected immediately, reaching across the table to take Therese's hand. She kissed it, turning it over and kissing her palm before lowering it back to the table but not letting go.
“You can be there. I want you to be there, please.”
Therese studied Carol, still unsure.
“I don't want to cause any more trouble for you two, Carol. I couldn't live with myself.”
“And I couldn't live with myself if you thought you couldn't be in our own goddamn apartment while my daughter's in it. You two are the lights of my life, and I can't have one without the other. I won't.”
Therese's eyes shone as she held back the first sign of tears. Tears of happiness at least, Carol thought. She didn't mind those too much. She had to fight the urge to lean over the table and kiss the corners of Therese's eyes before any fell.
“I've never been more sure.”
“Alright then. I can't wait.”
Carol's heart thudded in her chest at the knock on the door. She was forcefully aware of Therese's presence in the room behind her and Rindy and Harge's on the other side of the door in front of her. She and Harge didn't speak now or see each other unless it was about Rindy, but recently he'd been less sour. Ever since that last divorce hearing she'd had to storm out of. It must have been why she was being allowed unsupervised visits in the apartment. She took a deep breath, opened the door and her eyes fell immediately to Rindy.
“My sweet pea, look at you!” She scooped her daughter up, spinning her around as she squeezed her close. Rindy's small arms clasped around her neck as tight as they could. Carol barely looked at Harge.
“I'll be back tonight,” He reminded her solemnly.
“She'll be here,” Was all Carol said before closing the door.
The second the door clicked shut Harge was gone from her mind, as if Rindy had magically appeared in her arms. Carol turned and brought Rindy to the couch where Therese sat, hands clasped in her lap.
“Sweet pea, you remember Therese?”
Rindy was silent, shy in front of someone she didn't know. Carol kissed her cheek, her ear, her hair. She kept her lips pressed to her daughter's hair, taking in the smell that could only be described as Rindy's.
“Therese is my favorite person in the whole world, after you of course, sweetness. Do you want to play a game with her while Mommy makes us lunch?”
Carol looked across Rindy's head at Therese, whose smile rendered her incapable of regretting the sentiment that had slipped out. That was always the case when she found herself getting sappy; she didn't feel regret or embarrassment because the look on Therese's face made her want to say whatever she'd said a million times over again.
Rindy nodded her head almost imperceptibly and Carol lifted her off her lap and onto the couch so she could stand up.
“Well, Rindy, what game do you want to play? Or we have coloring books and crayons if you'd like?” Therese asked, giving Carol a little nod that it was okay for her to leave them. Carol went into the kitchen to prepare lunch, her ears straining to catch every word between Therese and Rindy. It seemed they settled on coloring books, and when Carol poked her head out of the kitchen she found Therese and Rindy sitting on the floor between the couch and the coffee table, coloring away.
Carol went back to putting together sandwiches for the three of them. So this is what family is supposed to feel like, she marveled. She had known it didn't feel right with Harge. She had felt love with Abby but it was fleeting, a peek into what she wanted but not with the right person. She knew it could never be this way all the time, but in this moment, she felt more complete than she ever had.
“Mommy, look what Therese and I made!” A few minutes later Rindy came running into the kitchen holding a page from the coloring book. She had half jumbled Therese's name, unable to pronounce it quite right.
“That's beautiful sweetheart, absolutely beautiful!”
Carol crouched down in front of Rindy so she was eye level with her, and lowered her voice to a secretive smile and whisper. “Tell me, do you like Therese? She's great fun, isn't she?”
Rindy nodded, clutching the coloring with one of her tiny fists.
“Good, now go sit down at the table and I'll bring you your lunch, alright?”
Carol gave her daughter an encouraging pat towards the dining room and stood up again, watching the little girl scamper to the table. She picked up the tray of sandwiches and followed, glancing towards the couch where she saw Therese putting the crayons back into their box.
“Dear, you can clean those up later,” Carol called, putting the tray down with a laugh at the back of her throat. Therese looked sheepish as she got up and left the rest on the coffee table.
“Maybe we'll teach Rindy to clean up after?”
“I know, it's no trouble though, really,” Therese said, flustered.
Carol took Therese's hand and pulled her towards her, kissing her reddened cheek.
“I love you so much, sometimes I think I should be locked up.”
Therese scoffed. “Don't say that,” she frowned.
Carol only kissed her cheek again and stood there, holding Therese's hand as she watched Rindy, who'd already helped herself to a sandwich.
Therese slipped her hand from Carol's and slid her arm around Carol's back so her hand rested on her waist. She drew her closer so their sides were pressed against each other, both women watching the little girl at the table in front of them.
“If you got locked up I would get myself locked up with you,” Therese murmured.
“Now you don't say that,” Carol shook her head. “Neither of us are going anywhere, okay?”
Therese turned and leaned into Carol, stretching till her lips brushed the shell of her ear.
“Wherever you go, I am with you,” She whispered with finality, before turning back to face Rindy, who was completely engrossed in her sandwich in the way only a child could be.
Carol felt that feeling again, the one where her heart did aerobics in her chest. She looked at Therese's profile, so peaceful, calm and sure of herself.She watched in awe of Therese's every slow blink, every muscle in her jaw, the small, almost permanent smile she seemed to wear these days.
Is this what comes of coming back to me? She wondered, and hoped that Therese would let her know.