The room was smaller than Betty remembered. It was on the upper story, and the ceiling sloped down diagonally either side of where she and Polly were stood in the middle of the room. She couldn’t help but think the angled corners where the the ceiling met the floor created a waste of valuable floor space. The curtains, at least, were open though. There was just enough light beaming through the window to give the room a pleasant glow, the lighting allowing glimpses of flecks of dust in the air.
"I cleared out the wardrobe for you."
Betty looked over at Polly and smiled. "Thanks," she said. She meant it, but somehow it didn’t quite sound right. It was hollow. Betty walked over the the window. "Can I open this?"
She was going to open the window anyway, but since Polly was just standing there in the middle of the room surveying everything, it seemed prudent to ask.
Polly looked slightly taken aback. "The window?" She glanced around the room briefly. "If you want. But the aircon is running. So it likely won't make much difference."
That couldn’t be further from the truth. It would make all the difference in the world. Betty knew she couldn't cope in this tiny little room without some source of fresh air. She was scared of stale air, scared of stale thoughts. Scared of becoming stale herself. She needed to let the air in.
Betty fidgeted with the latch, and pressed on the window. It clearly hadn’t been opened in some time because it was stuck. She wondered if it had been painted shut at some stage, and she wanted to ask as much, but Polly was clearly not going to be interested. She was busy fluffing the pillows on the spare bed and avoiding Betty’s gaze, be it incidental or intentional.
Betty leaned a little more heavily on the window, offering more of her weight. This time it popped open, suddenly, and somewhat to her surprise. She had to brace herself against the window frame to stop her forward momentum. Cool air rushed into the room, and Betty let out a sigh of relief. It permeated the small, musty room, infiltrating the darkest corners of the room and perhaps even the dustiest corners of her mind.
She turned and smiled at Polly again. "I'm happy now."
Polly looked underwhelmed. Like this was unnecessary in the face of all she’d apparently been doing in preparation for Betty’s arrival. Like this was little.
It was little. That was the thing, though. If Betty had learned anything, it was that it was all about the little things. The things that kept you on the straight and narrow, that paved a pathway for your everyday. The things without which you would struggle to maintain some semblance of normality.
The things that stopped everything from seeming so complicated.
Polly did not offer a response, instead staring at the small collection of suitcases and bags gathered at the entrance to the room. “You didn’t bring very much stuff.”
It was a statement rather than a question. And it was almost accusatory, as if Polly presumed Betty to have compacted the last five years of her life into too few suitcases, neglecting to bring with her things that others might. But it felt good to Betty to be able to pack most of what she owned into those few suitcases. To feel like she had the freedom and the control and the independence to go wherever and whenever she wanted. Having too much stuff just weighed her down. It added to that suffocating feeling, the one that made her feel like she was at the liberty of other people and other things.
“I keep it pretty minimal these days,” Betty shrugged.
Polly looked like she wanted to comment further on this, but seemed to think better of it. She brushed her hair back out of her face. “Well,” she said, more as an ending than a beginning. “I’ll let you get unpacked. I’ll just be downstairs with the kids if you need anything.”
Betty nodded. She wouldn’t need anything, but she nodded anyway. Sometimes that was best.
Polly turned on her heel. Her footsteps were audible, disappearing out into the corridor and down the stairs. Betty sat down cautiously on the edge of the bed. It sank down slightly under her weight, enough for her to be able to rest her feet flat on the floor. The bed was made up with fresh linen. Betty recognised the duvet cover as being one her family had once had in their spare room when she was younger. She searched for a moment for some trace of nostalgia, but was unsurprised to instead just find emptiness. Betty ran her right hand lightly over the fabric, tracing the stripes with her finger tips.
She’d thought she was more stubborn than this. More stubborn than to be so easily convinced that, upon completing her final year of college, the best option was to return to her hometown and stay with her sister for a time. That said, the only other alternative had been that she retreat back home to their parents house - in the same hometown. And as hard as it was going to be to live with her older sister and niece and nephew, it would be even more difficult to reensconce herself back in the family home and live with her parents.
It hadn’t been her idea. The concept had been put to Betty under the guise of Polly needing help with the twins. There was no doubt Polly would appreciate an extra pair of hands, particularly in the wake of her recent divorce. But Betty felt certain none of the parties involved in formulating this arrangement would have done so if they didn’t think Betty would benefit from it too.
It wasn’t that Betty couldn’t cook, per se, so much as that she just didn’t like doing it. It was tedious, and it irked her relentlessly that it was an activity that required such frequent attention. It didn't matter whether you'd had a bad day, you still had to eat, and to eat you had to have cooked. That said, there had been a time where she enjoyed it. When it had been something she was good at, and something she enjoyed doing for other people. When she didn’t have a million other things she should or could be doing instead. Before it was a want and not a need.
It was one of many things Betty found herself fighting against on a daily basis, struggling to understand why nobody else seemed especially bothered by it. And yet, here she was; cooking.
Not long after Betty had finished unpacking and Polly had finished commenting on it, Polly had announced she was taking the twins to their music lessons. Betty wasn’t sure there were too many six year olds enrolled in music lessons, but these kids were part Blossom. Betty typically liked to use that as an explanation for all things atypical about Polly’s lifestyle.
Betty hadn’t disliked Jason, as such, but his family had always been somewhat controversial within the community. Born and bred from many generations of old money, they held their own status in the highest regard, and their reputation underlined virtually everything else. Betty should probably have assumed all along that Polly’s kids would emerge, aged six, as musical geniuses who demonstrated excellent academic progress and promised endless sporting potential. Even in the wake of the divorce.
Divorce was messy. Of that much, Betty was now certain. Although, it had served in some way to offer something other than Betty herself as a topic for her family to talk about. The only thing more alarming than having a daughter caught in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance about life, was having the other daughter suddenly embroiled in marital problems.
It was almost over all too quickly, though. Because already Polly seemed to have made a remarkable recovery. She was coping admirably and was, if nothing else, financially set up for life. Now, the attention was back on Betty. Betty, for whom everyone had had such high expectations from such a young age. Betty, who had ploughed through college, against all odds, and finally made it through to the other end, only to emerge with no real semblance of a future plan. Betty, whom everyone was watching over and waiting for and praying she not slip back into the murky waters off the deep end.
She slid the roasting dish into the oven and closed the door. She crouched down to peer through the glass. The oven illuminated by one of those tiny light bulbs that no student ever bothered to get replaced, but that all fully functioning adults seemed to have. Odd, Betty found herself thinking, to be able to look inside so easily and see so clearly.
If only all of life was like that.
She left the oven to do its thing. Small mercies included things like roast vegetables being able to be left to cook largely unassisted. She ventured, for the first time since arriving, into the living room. Several children’s toys were scattered across the floor and the couch cushions looked a little rumpled. But largely, the room was clean and orderly. The decor was ornate and somewhat dark in tone. Betty knew this to be the work of a Blossom associated interior decorator, because she and Polly had both grown up in the same pastel coloured house with the same pastel colour sweaters, and that kind of thing didn’t leave you of its own accord.
She did feel a little bit nosy, though whether this was justified she wasn’t sure. Afterall, she lived here now too. At least, she would for the next wee while. There were framed photos throughout the room, but a more concentrated cluster of them sat on the sideboard. Betty approached the sideboard gazed at them. She recognised most of the individuals. Her parents, her niece and nephew, Jason, and some members of Jason’s family. Friends, some acquaintances, and the occasional more distant acquaintance. Betty herself featured in a couple of them, but not many, and not particularly prominently in any of the more recent ones. Instead she was tucked away in the back, lurking in the shadows, wearing something of a grimace. Avoiding confrontation, avoiding mere conversation.
Photos were for happy people. People for whom smiling was easy.
Betty peered more closely at one of the older photos featuring her and Polly and their parents. There she was, not more than ten years old, beaming happily. The weight of the world not yet bearing down on top of her. She was wearing one of those pastel sweaters, and there was a soft pink ribbon was tied in her hair. Betty squinted and then blinked several times, on the off chance the image would change. It didn’t, of course. She remembered that photo being taken. She remembered being instructed by her mother that she dress up accordingly. She remembered standing there, the comforting weight of her father’s hand on her shoulder, smiling widely as the photographer snapped picture after picture.
What she couldn’t recall, though, was the feeling associated with a smile that real.
Betty felt a sudden pang in her chest, the kind that made you feel like it could rise up through your chest and suffocate you if you didn’t try hard enough to stop it. She reached out and took the photo frame off the sideboard. She pulled her sleeve over her fist and wiped the dust off the glass. And then she opened one of the side board drawers, slipped the photo inside out of sight, and closed the drawer.
It was a strange feeling to be back in Riverdale.
She couldn’t shake it. Betty couldn’t tell if it felt regressive, or if she was relieved. But as she perched on the steps of the wrap around porch the next morning and ate her breakfast, it was at least pleasant to bask a moment in the sunshine.
Considering it was once a home shared with a Blossom, Polly’s house was located in a surprisingly understated area, surrounded by equally understated neighbours. It was decisions like this that had lead Betty, to soften her view of Jason somewhat, back when it had first become apparent that he and Polly seemed to be something of a given. It was almost comforting to sit there on the porch and feel that this wasn’t so very far removed from the upbringing she and Polly had themselves. She felt it boded well for her niece and nephew.
Betty heard movement behind behind her, and turned around to find Polly standing in the doorway. “How did you sleep?” Polly asked.
Betty finished her mouthful, and put her bowl and spoon down next to her. She nodded. “Well, thank you. That’s a really comfortable bed.”
“It is, isn’t it,” Polly said, absentmindedly, as she walked across the porch and stood next to where Betty was sat, staring out at the garden. “What have you got planned for today?”
Betty didn’t have a plan, and she knew that to be foolish - in part, because that opened her day up for Polly to formulate a plan of her own, but also because Betty knew she needed a purpose. She knew this. If she was going to get through this period of unregulated freedom and indistinct future plans, she was going to need a purpose.
“I thought I might go have a look in town,” Betty said. It sounded lame when she said it out loud. But this was Riverdale, and that was almost inevitable. She was more concerned it sounded like she’d made that up on the spot, because she had.
If Polly realised this, she didn’t say anything. “That’s a good idea,” she agreed. “It’s been a while since you’ve really been home.”
It had been longer than a while. In fact, it had been several years. You could avoid something as long as you wanted, but it would never go away.
Betty knew that now.
“You need me to pick anything up from town?” Betty asked, choosing not to acknowledge Polly’s reference to the passage of time.
“I don’t think so. But I’ll text you if I change my mind.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Betty saw Polly turn and disappear. And then there was silence again. She picked up her bowl and resumed eating her breakfast. Her corn flakes were soggy by now and unappetizing, and she didn’t want to go back inside to get more and have to explain something so mundane to Polly. It seemed childish to tip them in the garden.
She stoically finished them.
The brief walk into town some time later was uneventful. Having not resided on this side of town growing up, she was unfamiliar with the area. But oddly, it still looked like home. It even felt a little like home.
The feeling grew stronger as she reached the centre of Riverdale, such that it was. The town seemed to hum quietly, even though nobody was really there to listen to it. She half expected to see someone she once knew, and for them to walk straight past her, but it didn’t happen. Instead, she found herself meandering along the main street without any real intention. She didn’t really want to look at anything, she didn’t want to buy anything, and she definitely didn’t want to see anyone.
The only other option left, really, was to eat or drink something.
There had been a degree of change since she left Riverdale five years ago, but it wasn’t hugely apparent to the untrained eye. What was noticeable, however, was the extent to which Pop’s appeared not to have changed at all. Betty could have sworn time hadn’t passed at all in this particular corner of town.
She wondered if Pop might be around. Having thought she didn’t want to see anyone, now that she came to think about it, seeing Pop wouldn’t be altogether bad. He’d been nothing but nice to her throughout her adolescence spent both dining and working there. But when Betty reached the counter, girl who served her seemed to be the only one on duty.
She was almost tempted to order a milkshake, just for old times sake. But it felt weird. It almost felt like an inability to move on - despite Betty proving countless times she was always more than ready to move on. Instead, she ordered a coffee, because that was what well adjusted, fully functioning grown ups did. Or so she’d heard.
It wasn’t busy, and there weren’t many people there. Betty still went to the farthest corner and chose an empty booth. Away from the thick of things, just in case someone arrived, caught sight of her, and felt like they had to pretend to care about the last five years of her life. Or worst, actually care, and end up disappointed by an anticlimactic story.
Betty flinched at her name the sound of the voice. She immediately wondered if she’d imagined it. But when she looked up, she knew that she hadn’t. There was a guy sitting in the booth across from hers. He was staring at her inquisitively over his laptop. He had dark hair, and it was partially obscured by a beanie that Betty would recognise anywhere. A collection of empty coffee cups were grouped on the table next to him.
Betty was taken aback. This kind of thing was exactly what she’d been avoiding - the awkward high school rendezvous. But he was still staring at her, almost expectantly, his eyebrows slightly raised.
Suddenly, Betty felt rude. She cleared her throat hastily.
She waved awkwardly in his direction, conscious there was a distance of two booths between them. “How are you?”
He looked surprised, like this wasn’t quite the response he had been expecting. She didn’t really blame him. It was hardly the most natural question to ask of someone you’d not seen in many years. Additionally, it had come out in an interestingly nonchalant singsong voice, that voice that seemed only to come out when she was nervous.
“I’m good, thanks,” he said eventually. “So, you back now?”
Was she back now? Kind of. Perhaps. WIllingly? Not so much. It was a complicated question.
“Just for a bit, yeah.”
He nodded in response, but didn’t query this further.
They sat there awkwardly, separated by two booths, five years and what could only be a plethora of contrasting experiences. When Betty’s didn’t say anything further, he sighed exaggeratedly and closed his laptop. Betty watched him arrange the collection of empty coffee cups into a neat group, and then he stood up.
“I’m actually heading off,” he said, somewhat unnecessarily.
Betty couldn’t tell if she felt relieved that this awkward encounter was over, or guilty about possibly having made it so awkward he felt leaving was unavoidable. Either way, it was over.
“I guess I’ll see you around, yeah?” he said lightly, shuffling out of his booth, laptop in hand.
Betty smiled. “Yeah,” she said tightly. “See you, Jughead.”