She remembered exactly where it was taken, although it could have been any motel room in the midwest. Generic furnishings, hideous wallpaper, but Carol somehow fitted there, her presence enough to infuse the room with a grace beyond its merits. Like the subject of a portrait, the background seemed painted in just to complement her.
She was bent over a map, checking the route one last time before they set off, her hands busy pulling a silk scarf around her neck. There were a few stray curls caught in it; in a moment she would absently untuck them, but Therese preferred the imperfect shot. There weren’t many people Carol allowed to see her when she was less than immaculate.
Therese had been on the verge of fastening her suitcase, her camera left out so she could reach it at a moment’s notice. It was before Waterloo (of course; Carol’s expression was unclouded in a way it wouldn’t be again for months after a few wires almost ruined everything) and all Therese thought was how fleeting their days might be; her uncertainty of what exactly they were heading towards magnified the preciousness of each moment.
The delicate tightrope walk of that trip, intimate before their lips ever touched, couldn’t last. She was glad of that, but she was also glad to have captured the version of Carol that only existed on the road, utterly hers without Therese yet knowing it.
Carol was lighting a cigarette. Therese caught her from the side, her back curving as she leaned forward, hand cupped around the flame as it flared and died. Their empty glasses sat on the coffee table in front of her. She looked perfectly self-contained, the scene complete without Therese, and yet, a moment later...
“Stay a little longer,” Carol had said. She’d swallowed the ‘please’ but it was there on her face, painfully readable, and it was clear she wasn’t just talking about that night.
Therese had expected her to ask, had expected herself to gently decline, again; she’d pulled on her coat already, and more to the point, she’d set herself little rules for this odd second courtship. The shadow of their abrupt parting was still stalking their dinners and drives, and erasing it was the work of many more months, or so she’d thought.
Instead she said, “my lease is up soon.”
It wasn’t Therese’s picture. Carol was too young, the setting unfamiliar - Abby’s house, she learned eventually. It was a party of some sort, disembodied shoulders gently pushing into the frame; Carol had a glass of wine in her hand and no ring on her finger. She wasn’t quite smiling but there was one at the edge of her lips as she looked past the camera at whoever was holding it; Therese knew the expression well.
She’d discovered it while helping Carol pack up her things, stripping the house of its human touches and piling them into boxes. Carol hadn’t been sentimental about hanging onto relics of her married life; Therese had moved at half her pace, fascinated by all the bits and pieces that accumulated when one had a big house and plenty of money.
A few months later, she distilled her own life down to the essentials in just a morning. She’d finished before Carol arrived to lend a hand, the photo tucked away safely, and they’d gone to lunch before the movers came.
They were at an estate sale, Carol on business and Therese for the drive, the company, and the tiny fierce smile Carol always wore in the midst of outbidding a man for something she refused to let go of. The camera couldn’t preserve the cool tone of her voice, staying level even as the numbers climbed incrementally, nor the knowing glance she cast Therese in the tense silence after her final bid, the silence that signified her rival backing down before the auctioneer closed the lot.
Therese got the quiet moment afterwards instead - Carol with her prize, a glove temporarily shed so she could run her bare hand along the wood. Carol had the clothes, the airs and the expertise to make it seem a legitimate inspection of the piece’s quality, but she confessed in an undertone when Therese joined her a moment later that she just liked to savour the victory.
Therese’s first colour photograph could only have been of one subject. Carol had protested lightly at her trying it out the moment they’d arrived home - “at least let me freshen up first” - but Therese had tugged her hand away from her hair and taken the picture anyway. It was slightly blurry, both of them in motion – Therese stepping back, Carol’s fingers frozen mid-air, but Therese had a permanent record of Carol’s grey-blue eyes and the warmth of her skin and the vibrance of the red coat and that was more than enough for her to carefully file it away with the best.
She was cautious with her use of colour – the film was expensive, something to save for special occasions. But Therese found her definition of special didn’t quite match the regular one when it came to Carol, and her photos continued in the same vein as they always had – Carol laughing at her over breakfast, or beckoning her to come dance to a record she’d just put on; the Carol that existed most often when it was just the two of them.
Travelling on Christmas became a habit of theirs. Neither of them had anyone else to be with - Rindy was invariably claimed by Harge’s family - and with nothing to tie them to the city, they deserted it. The road was an old favourite, but one year Carol presented Therese with her present early – a pair of boat tickets.
“Europe,” Therese breathes, and for a moment she looked as she had when Carol first saw her, wide-eyed and impossibly young.
“Europe,” Carol confirms.
When Therese had imagined London, Paris, Rome, it was always summer, but the winter lent them a magical air like towns in an old fairytale. On Christmas Day, she built a snowman, complete with a Santa hat; she donned a matching one to pose for Carol. Between her dimples, red cheeks and the hat falling over her eyes, she looked like a pixie; the strange silent girl so out of place at Frankenberg’s was utterly transformed.