It’s different, after Teresa, Betty thinks, but not in the ways she expects.
She spends most of her free moments with Gladys – hesitant-like, as if handling Gladys post-telegram is a task suddenly fraught with danger, like pouring amatol – determined not to let Gladys work (or drink) herself to death. Gladys is back with her parents, a strategic defeat; but if it bothers her, she doesn’t quite let on. She is indefatigable even in grief.
Sometimes Kate hovers in the periphery, especially in the boarding house; she is quieter somehow, even as the unmistakable bloom of new love (or whatever she has, Betty thinks dully) tints her cheeks, her movements. Betty is stiffer in her resolve not to let Kate and Ivan’s budding courtship salt her wounds, but she knows Gladys has seen her tense while watching Ivan clutch Kate possessively, a victor enjoying his spoils.
Betty is grateful, in a way, for the silence most nights; she watches Gladys imbibe, and for all the ways it used to loosen her before, it only steels her now. Betty feels sorry for them both – James, of course, for being dead, and Gladys for having to pick up the pieces. She tries not to begrudge Gladys her guilt: the guilt of the living, it seems, runs deep, and Betty herself is no stranger to grief, or the lingering pinches of hurt it leaves behind, all deep in your bones.
Some nights, Betty palms the space beside her in her bed, and it’s like she’s missing a part of herself. It is the phantom wound that shapes her nights – but in wartime, isn’t everyone in love with a ghost? These are the thoughts she carries into sleep, and sometimes – when Gladys’s knock at her door awakens her – she’ll think it Kate instead. But now it’s none of her business where Kate spends her nights. (Though, as long as she’s being honest, she can never quite convince herself not to care.)
“You’re an idiot,” Gladys says one night, slowly, a plume of bitter smoke trailing from her cigarette. “For letting her go, I mean.”
“Gee thanks, Princess,” Betty replies, not unkindly, taking the glass in Gladys’s grasp and swilling its contents in a solitary gulp. “But that’s how it is with soldiers: in town one moment, gone the next. What was I supposed to do?”
Gladys shakes her head firmly. “I’m not talking about her, Betty – I’m talking about Kate.”
“Oh.” Betty’s mouth goes dry.
“I know what it is to lose someone. It’s an ache that never goes away, just keeps festering deeper and deeper. I just keep remembering what I said to James that night; it makes me sick.”
“Gladys,” Betty starts. They’ve been dancing on the precipice of this conversation for some time, and now that it’s finally happening, Betty still feels unprepared somehow to take the reins.
Gladys’s expression is pained and raw. Betty thinks, fleetingly, that all the ills of the world have finally caught up with her – and if it wasn’t that she had been cheating fate by seeming so untouchable, then fate had at least been most unkind in doling out her lot all at once. It wasn’t like her to pity Princess, and god knows she’d never let on that the thought had even crossed her mind, but the past weeks it had been slowly been creeping on regardless. It made Betty tenderer in her ministrations of friendship.
“He’s gone forever, Betty. If I had only stayed true – if only I had been better, maybe he wouldn’t be. Is that too ridiculous to imagine?”
“Gladys, look at me.” Betty’s voice is soft, but insistent. “You loved him. He knew that, no matter what. Whatever you’re carrying, carry it without ever doubting that.”
Gladys is somber, almost contemplative, for a moment. Her eyes have a doleful hue to them, but their expression changes after a moment. “You’re not going soft on me, are you?”
They laugh for the first time in weeks, together in Betty’s room. Gladys’s laugh is harsh rather than joyful, but for once it feels like a small kind of victory.
Betty’s at The Jewel Box for the first time in a week – alone, as Gladys’s family keeps the strings a little tighter these days – when she spots him. It’s a slow night and the patrons are few; Betty’s been staring into her glass for the past half-hour, half-heartedly tapping in time to whatever tune is playing.
He’s walking toward the bar and it’s hard, Betty thinks, to keep up pleasantries with a boy you dated because you couldn’t have the girl you really wanted. She’s being honest about it now, with Gladys and with herself, now that things have passed with Teresa. (It’s almost a small kind of comfort.) His hands are in his pockets and his cap is half-askew, and these are things Betty might’ve found almost charming were it not for their present détente.
“So, I haven’t seen you here in quite some time,” Ivan says, pulling into the barstool beside her.
Betty runs an awkward hand through her hair, trying to muster some semblance of composure. “Yeah, I’ve… uhh, been spending a lot of time with Gladys lately. You know, because her fiancé was killed and all.”
“Kate’s been worried about her. Is she doing all right?” Ivan asks, his voice ringing with unexpected sincerity.
“She’s… coping. Thanks for asking. But I don’t really think you came here to ask about Princess.”
Ivan laughs into his drink; it is an easy, bright laugh, the kind that almost makes a girl feel safe. “No, you’re right. I didn’t. I… well, I wanted to ask something on behalf of Kate.”
“I wasn’t aware she couldn’t speak for herself,” Betty interjects icily, then recovers. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right,” says Ivan. “She’s your best pal; I can understand why you’d be upset, though I don’t think it’s because you’re jealous – let’s face it, you were always a little half-hearted.”
Betty quirks an eyebrow.
“Sorry,” Ivan mutters. “Anyway, I just think she’s worried about you. I guess you’ve been giving her the cold shoulder lately, and whatever is going on between you two, she seems real sorry not to have you around. That’s all.”
Betty regards him with knitted brow, trying to make out whether he’s actually being sincere about Kate. Her stomach churns a little, thinking about her conduct lately and the way Kate stares at her sometimes – but those doe eyes only work for a girl so long, Betty thinks.
“I appreciate you coming here to say that,” Betty says resolutely. “You must care about her an awful lot.”
“I do,” he says with a crooked smile. “But she cares about you, too, Betty. The two of us going steady doesn’t change that.”
If only, Betty thinks. She doesn’t quite hold back a smirk. “Well thanks for stopping by, Ivan.”
“Sure thing,” he says. He tips his cap ever so slightly as he leaves, before running off into what Betty suspects are the waiting arms of Kate. It isn’t long before she leaves, into the lonely arms of the waiting evening, its embrace stilling her against the chill. There is a kind of solidarity in the air, and by the time she reaches the boarding house, the tinny-sounding laughter in the kitchen almost fades into the backdrop of the night like an afterthought.
The first time Kate finds her alone, she’s almost prepared for it. Still, her response to the knock is an automatic, “Hold your horses, Princess,” cigarette dangling from her lips.
“Hi,” Kate says shyly, in that way of hers, when Betty opens the door. “I’m not Gladys. I’m sorry, were you expecting her?”
Betty’s expression sours a little. “No, I’m not. She just, well – she has a habit of calling around this time, is all.”
“Oh. Can I come in?” Kate points through the doorway, where the record player is spinning Billie Holiday. “If you’re not busy, that is.”
“Just settling down for the evening, but what the hell,” Betty mumbles, ushering Kate inside. Kate keeps her distance at first, a little skittish, before settling down on the corner of the bed like she’s unsure of its steadiness. Betty isn’t going to make this easy.
“So what’s on your mind, Kate?” Betty says, leaning against the doorframe.
“Ivan told me he spoke with you. At The Jewel Box the other night, I mean.”
“He did,” Betty says curtly. She softens after a moment, when the stillness between them embarrasses her. “He wanted me to talk to you, or something like that.”
“I know. I’m sorry he did it – I didn’t put him up to it, is what I came here to say. I just thought you should know.”
“Oh. It wasn’t so bad, anyway. He only did it because he cares about you, you know.”
“He does.” A blush creeps into her cheeks, their rosy hue unfocused in the dizzy lamplight.
“Are you happy?” Betty asks softly. It is almost an offering between them, less approbation than undimmed regard.
(There’s a Billie Holiday lyric – Why do I want what things I dare not hope for? What can I hope for? I wish I knew – that Betty thinks of sometimes, and if the record weren’t spinning right now and if Kate weren’t looking at her so expectantly, maybe none of this would matter. But it does.)
“I think so,” Kate answers after a moment. Her eyes are questions, wide and sincere, but Betty is never sure what they are asking. (She supposes it’s what got her into this mess in the first place.)
“If it’s what you want, then I guess I should be happy for you.” Betty takes a seat in the chair, facing Kate. Her hands rest limply between her legs as she hunches forward. “After all, it’s what friends do.”
That seems to touch Kate, and she breaks into a real grin – the kind that might make a girl go weak in the knees, if she were so inclined. “And you’re happy, too?”
“I’m not doing too shabby,” Betty says with a bit of a smirk, her voice only faltering slightly.
“And that soldier girl? What was her name – oh, I can’t remember…”
“Teresa,” Betty says with a gulp. Her jaw tightens. “Her name’s Teresa.”
“She seemed to really take a shine to you,” Kate says smoothly, in a way that makes Betty a little nervous.
“Yeah, she turned out to be a good friend, all right. Maybe I should join up myself, eh? I reckon I wouldn’t look too bad in a uniform.”
Kate’s expression falls, suddenly serious. “But then you’d have to leave Vic Mu, and you’d be gone all the time. I’d never get to see you.”
“Relax, Kate,” Betty says, reaching out to pat Kate’s knee. “It was a joke.”
“Oh,” Kate says slowly. Her face creeps into a tentative smile. “I thought it – well, I thought you might be serious.”
“It’s not. I’m not, that is.”
“She’s cavalcading elsewhere, I suppose. A girl like her, well, I doubt she’ll be lonely for long.”
“That’s an awful shame. You deserve a friend like her,” Kate says solidly. She reaches out to grasp Betty’s hand – it’s an impulsive gesture, not unsteady it is execution, but it melts Betty completely.
“You really mean that?” Betty asks quietly.
Kate’s voice is equally serious. “I do. You deserve happiness, Betty.”
Betty can hardly suppress a smile. “So do you. And if Ivan – if he really makes you happy, I swear I’ll never say another word against him.”
Kate giggles. “Only if it’s a promise you can keep.”
Betty regards her guiltily. “Lime cordial on me if ever I happen to let a remark slip?”
“You’re on,” Kate replies, clasping her other hand atop Betty’s. The room suddenly feels a little smaller, and Kate a little nearer.
When they part – with Betty’s assurances that, yes, they are still friends after all – Betty dives onto the bed, tethered to her thoughts. Her sprawled limbs feel lighter; she lays stock-still for a long while, letting the record player spin tunelessly.