Somewhere along the road west of Philadelphia, as the sun began to set, the land had turned forested, making the road darker. Carol turned the headlights on as the road curved. Therese, Carol noticed, had leaned into the passenger door and fallen asleep. Poor thing, she thought to herself as she carefully pulled a blanket around her, she hardly slept at all last night at my house. They had stayed up late, drinking whiskey on the swing seat in the glassed-in upstairs porch, quiet after talking over their travel route. Carol had to admit she had been feeling a bit melancholy that night, staring out over the yard into darkness, as they essentially were preparing to flee. Now, here they were, a day’s drive from home, and Carol ached to caress Therese’s cheek as she tucked the blanket under her chin. What was she fleeing from? Carol wondered.
The radio softly reported on Eisenhower’s Christmas celebrations, which Carol found boring, and she fiddled with the radio tuner until she found music, keeping the volume low to not disturb Therese. Suddenly, as they came out of a dipping and rising turn, Carol slammed on the brakes as a deer wandered into the middle of the road. Instinctively, Carol flung her right arm out in front of Therese with a cry, catching her as she was thrown forward.
“Therese! Are you all right?” The car stopped, and Carol drew a shaky breath.
“I’m fine, oh Carol, a deer! Look!” Instantly awake, Therese had caught Carol’s protective hand up into her own, pressing it into her chest in her excitement. Her wide eyes stared out at the doe, calmly looking back at them. “Let’s not go yet, can we?”
Carol could only gaze at Therese. “Of course,” she said quietly, smiling slightly at Therese’s delight, and her own wonder at Therese holding her hand for the second time that day. She could feel the curve of a breast under her hand and wondered if Therese noticed. Carol tried to keep her breathing calm, taking a glance out the windshield at the deer. The doe blinked at them, and then wandered off into the forest.
“Oh, Carol,” sighed Therese, squeezing her hand again and shifting it into her lap. “She was beautiful.”
“Yes,” Carol said softly, gazing again at Therese. Therese looked at her and smiled. For a moment they were still, gazing at each other, until Carol said, “Well, shall we?” She felt Therese’s grip loosen, as if to release her hand, and before she could even think, she squeezed her hand back, refusing to let go. Therese looked down at their hands, then back up at Carol, and Carol felt a plea form in her own eyes, an unvoiced “please don’t let me go.” When Therese squeezed her hand back and settled back into the seat, Carol finally breathed again, and released the brake.
She did not, however, release Therese’s hand, nor did Therese let go, and they drove on into the night, quietly holding hands as Therese talked about never seeing animals since she had always lived either at the girl’s home or in the city. There was ease in their conversation, laughter. And Carol’s hand held in Therese’s as they left New York farther and farther behind.
As far as Carol was concerned, they got to their motel outside Pittsburgh all too soon. When they stepped out of the car, all was sudden awkwardness at their separation, as if neither one knew where to stand, or where to look, or what to say as they unpacked the car, said goodnight, and headed to their separate rooms.
Lying between the scratchy sheets, Carol wondered what Therese thought, what she felt. Carol felt bereft at being alone, as she had when Therese had nervously let her hand go in the diner earlier that day. She wondered, was letting go a way of Therese recognizing, “I notice you notice I am holding your hand, my goodness, I’m holding your hand, should I be holding your hand?” and thus the quick patting release as she went back to her camera. Carol had tried to keep her face soft, curious, open, even when she asked about Richard in an effort to cover the moment and also to try to get a sense of what Therese thought, a hint at what she felt for him.
In truth, they had known each other for such a short time, although from the moment their eyes met in Frankenberg’s Carol was intrigued, and knew soon into their first lunch that Therese was smitten. But that night of the injunction, when Therese had moved through the awed haze of her crush and seen her as human, laying her hand on Carol’s shoulder, Carol had felt her quiet, deep care for her as she wept, and it moved her. The connection when Carol reached back and grasped her hand was nearly electric, a charge humming “there is more here when you are ready” between their skin. Did Therese feel what Carol felt, when their hands touched? What if she did, what then?
Carol remembered how it felt when she first recognized her feelings for Abby. Confusing, exhilarating, and so unknown how does one even imagine it, let alone speak of it? How do you say what you know to be true when everything and everyone tells you it cannot, must not be? How could she be sure Therese felt what she did? Therese said yes to everything Carol asked, gave her a love song as a Christmas present for goodness sake. Still, Carol wanted her to be sure. What she felt for the young woman left her wanting to honor Therese’s own process, even though Carol knew she herself wanted more. And anyway, what if she guessed wrong? In the middle of a road trip no less. So Carol resolved to say nothing.
But in the car, Therese had not let go. She had not let Carol go, and had opened up to her about the girl’s home, and seemed as comfortable with their physical connection as Carol felt comforted by it. This is all I will do, she said to herself, this is all I will do until she makes the next move. As she drifted into sleep, she wondered what it would take for one of them to be brave enough.
The next morning, when Therese handed her the blue sweater through the bathroom door, Carol caught her eyes scanning her body, still wet as she tried to keep her robe around her. Yes, she thought, noticing Therese’s breath catch, perhaps being brave looks just like this. She dared an extra lilt in her eyes and voice when she closed the door saying “I’ll be right out.” Perhaps being brave looks just like this.
But when they got onto the road again that morning, Therese seemed a little distant, shifting into the corner where the seat met the car door as she unwrapped their sandwiches. Carol was puzzled, and wondered if she had gone too far. Therese handed her part of her sandwich and she took a bite.
She sensed Therese chewing slowly, swallowing. Therese asked, “Do you feel safe? With me, I mean?”
Carol laughed gently at the question. “You’re full of surprises,” she said with a smile, trying to put Therese at ease. Where was this coming from?
Therese took another bite of her sandwich, careful in choosing her words. “But – you’d tell me. If something scared you. And I could help.”
Carol was not sure if it was a question. What was going on inside her head? With a little more vehemence than she had intended, she responded looking straight out the windshield: “I’m not frightened, Therese.”
But Carol wasn’t entirely sure that was true. She was scared, of what would happen when the trip was over, when they returned to New York. What would happen with Rindy? What would happen with her and Therese? But now, on the road, just the two of them alone and ever farther from New York, the only thing that scared her was whether or not Therese would hold her hand again. Was that what Therese meant?
Wax paper crinkled as Therese crumpled up the sandwich wrappers and tucked them into the basket in the back seat. As she re-settled in the front Carol noticed she’d not gone back into the corner, but sat once again in reach. Carol knew her well enough by now to know she was still pondering on something, but now she was watching the road with those ever-curious eyes. Had Carol’s response been enough to calm whatever was rolling around in Therese’s head?
“Therese…” Carol almost whispered, and she glanced over to see Therese watching her, a kind, open look on her face, “I’m not afraid.” Carol drew a breath, looked back out at the road, and quietly placed her hand on Therese’s knee, and when Therese gathered her hand into her own and pulled it into her lap with a contented smile on her face, Carol’s heart pounded.
Crossing into Ohio, now 3 state lines away from New York, Carol felt like she could breathe again. They wandered along the way, taking back roads and stopping for Therese to take photos. In the car Therese delightfully watched the landscape changes, and Carol sometimes felt her thoughtful gaze on herself as well. They had a long lunch in a grove of trees, bundled in their coats and yet warmed by the unusually bright winter sun gleaming down through bare branches.
As they drove on, sharing stories, Carol found herself enchanted by Therese’s kindness, openness, and her gentle curiosity. She asks me things, Carol thought, but doesn’t pry, or push. She lets me be, and waits, lets me share what I’m ready to. Such a relief, to be with someone who doesn’t push or pry, or act like every thought Carol might have belonged to her. Harge of course treated Carol as if her whole life were his possession. Even Abby, because they had known each other forever, sometimes thought she had a right to Carol’s inner world.
Well, Carol thought, Therese has her own inner world too, and though Carol was not always sure what was going on in her mind, the fact remained that Therese had yet to let her hand go in the car. After every time they stopped -- for a walk, for gas, for a photo of winter’s light against stark bare trees -- they would climb back in the car, Carol would get back on the road, and then quietly slide her gloved hand over to Therese, who without a word would pull her hand into her own.