Since she was very young, Elizabeth knew that things were going to be different for her, in that they would be maddeningly, forcibly, the same. Wanting was not an option, having - a negotiation, and living... well. Living was an altered definition, torn from a dictionary, marked in red, and shoved crumpled into her palm by a brutish passerby.
There was little point in spending much time on the wanting. She moved far too quickly to begin with; that was the problem. Nothing could keep up with her, least of all the world surrounding. Quick mind, sharp tongue, ambition akimbo, and no future that could possibly live up to her own expectations. (Little did, and it was a regular reminder - there were contact burns and scrapes on her skin as the world jostled her into an unwelcome and unfamiliar shape.)
So concession was routine. Concession the shield, her mouth the sword. Bill came as a blessing, that something so close to wanting showed up in her backyard. This was the nice thing she got to have, in some form, as reparations for being unapologetically bright and bold in a man’s world. Ironic and fitting, of course, that this offering came in the form of a man, but... well. This was the currency of women, and so she accepted. She actually wanted what she could have, and in many ways that was very lucky. She was in love, secured, and sated.
And then there was Olive.
Olive opened everything up, unfathomably and impossibly, like every door, window, curtain, and shutter clanged wide simultaneously on a dark and dusty house. And in that one transformative opening, everything in Elizabeth’s life turned fragile.
It means very little, Elizabeth knows all too bitterly, that Bill should be in love with both Olive and her. It’s a tale as old as man himself; long is the reign of the cock. Cosmically, the world does not quake at a man in love with two women. It does not stumble at two women in a man’s bed. It is of no consequence that Bill should love Elizabeth, Elizabeth should love Bill, Bill should love Olive, and Olive should love Bill. There is no revolution beneath the longing nor lurid stares he might give them.
But if Elizabeth loves Olive, and Olive loves Elizabeth... the world slips off its axis. The act of loving Olive is unimaginable; it exists in the beyond that Elizabeth has never allowed herself to contemplate. It is wanting, and having, and living, in a capacity far removed from actualization. A kiss is a coup; sex, an insurrection; romance, a revolution. In a life built of concessions, the upheaval of reality in favor of a manifesting beautiful undreamt is nothing short of miraculous.
Because fantasy has never been a possibility, Elizabeth has never quite let herself wander into the hypotheticals of her existence. After Olive, she can’t help but wonder. What would her life look like without the bounds of convention? What would her life look like if she were not seen solely as a woman, meant to bear children and stay home, close her mouth, and obey? What would her life look like if she were allowed the expanse of full happiness as she now knows it? If she were seen as a woman, and a woman could get her PhD, could earn her own money and make her own life, could fuck who she wants and when, could fall in love with a woman if it so happened, could share her life as she saw fit, and could most of all choose any of these avenues as she came upon them?
In that world, terrifyingly beautiful and free, Elizabeth starts to see her happiness shimmer onto the visible spectrum of her imagination. Some of it is wonderfully familiar: kissing Olive hello as she arrives home from work, reading to the children before bed, sparring with Bill over a new set of his theories. Some of it extends painfully beyond possibility. She’d have her PhD. She'd earn a full salary. She’d be teaching - standing up in front of both young women and men and booming her voice to the ceiling, rather than sitting in the window like a flower box. Her children would be safe, because there would be no hatred to shield them from. She’d take Olive’s hand on the city streets and kiss her knuckles before letting them, joined, swing between them. Bill would cheer the loudest after she gave a talk at Harvard, and Olive’s smile would be the brightest in the audience.
After all, it is Olive that can see all of this too, even before Elizabeth ever could.
The cruel irony of Elizabeth’s existence is that once she found herself living the unconventional life she’d always longed for, she suddenly found nothing more appealing than the banality of the everyday. Before, a quiet life was a limit of the imagination, especially one lived in a careful home with children and cooking and chores. But now... now, her quiet life is everything to her; home is everything to her. It is only in her home that she can trace her fingertips down Olive’s cheek... kiss her good night and good morning... push the hair off her neck while she’s doing the dishes. She cannot do these things in public as Bill can; she can instead only smile, and yearn for closed doors and drawn curtains.
In her home is the only space where she can live the fullness of her life’s design, bright and bold, ambition akimbo. Wanting, loved, held safe, and allowed.
It is all of their days, then, in their middling mundanity, that become sacrosanct for Elizabeth. Days of making lunches, clearing the table, filling the sink with suds. Brushing hair; hers, Olive’s, their kids’ (the latter two with far more reverence than her own). Mismatched socks in the laundry, three toothbrushes in the bathroom, seven pairs of shoes by the back door. Playing card games and cheating so she’ll lose. Fighting over the radio program. Watching Bill try to help the kids with their homework only for both parties to get immensely frustrated with the material until Olive intervenes.
At Thanksgiving, Olive is the only one brave enough to tackle roasting and carving a turkey (Elizabeth stops at a bakery and picks up pies). For Christmas, Bill and Olive and the kids decorate the tree while Elizabeth looks on, handing them ornaments from their boxes. They ring in each new year with paper hats and kazoos; Bill and the kids fall asleep before midnight, and Elizabeth has to wake them for hugs and kisses both - but not before stealing time with Olive on the couch, curled up together and whispering promises for the coming year.
There are breakfasts with sun breaking through the curtains, and sizzling bacon and hot coffee and dragging feet. There are evenings with dinner, dessert, laughter, and reading. There are stolen moments of sex and passion, and quiet nights of Olive’s breath on her neck and her fingers in her own, held lightly to her chest.
The days are long and fast and fragile and, most of all, never enough.
There comes a point when it is preposterous that Olive doesn’t have a ring. Namely, it is irritating and exhausting to watch men flirt with her shamelessly at first notice of a bare finger. If there’s one thing Elizabeth hates, it’s watching Olive put her armor on, and greet hopeful suitors with stiff shoulders and half-grins. It would be enough to loathe society’s rotation around the unyielding demands of the penis, but there’s something else that crawls beneath Elizabeth’s skin when she witnesses it. There’s something dreadful about watching the light dim a little in her love, something unbearable in seeing her softness become hard and unrecognizable.
So Elizabeth finds herself in a secondhand jewelry shop, having briskly swept through the door and announced to the salesman that she was buying for herself, since she had lost her own ring. Bill hadn’t accompanied her, because she saw it mostly as an errand - a simple and quick solution to a rather annoying problem. She’d told him, of course, and he peered at her for a moment around the corner of his paper, then agreed with a small smile that it was a good idea.
Soon after she arrives, though, it becomes apparent that this is neither simple nor quick. Gold bands and sharp diamonds glint up at her through the glass cases, and the breath leaves her body. She is, no matter the motive or means, buying a wedding ring for the woman she loves today, and suddenly the task transforms into something quite enormous.
The clerk asks after her, and she blithers something about feeling light-headed but fine. None of these rings seem to be good enough somehow. There are far too many, and yet not enough. From her pocket and out of view of the clerk, she looks down at her own band that Bill had picked out.
One hour later, she emerges with the band that looked most like Olive, whatever that means. Elizabeth knows little about jewelry, but she does know that when she put this ring next to her own, her heart clamored against her ribcage like it might be trying to escape.
Bill has gone out for a walk with the kids when she returns home, so Olive is taking advantage of rare free time by listening to Jo Stafford with her feet up, writing in a notebook. Elizabeth has barely entered when Olive is back on her feet again, greeting her at the door with a kiss and a smile. The rings clink in Elizabeth’s pocket. She takes a steadying breath.
“Darling, I have something for you.”
But Olive is pulling her into the den by the wrists, leading her in front of the radio cabinet, where she turns up the volume. The needle scratches along the melody as she slides one hand around the back of Elizabeth’s waist, then picks up her hand with the other.
“You never dance with me. I only ever dance with Bill,” Olive murmurs, leaning Elizabeth into a sway.
Elizabeth sighs and pulls Olive closer. “It’s because I hate dancing. Bill’s been very happy to have a more agreeable partner.”
“You’re dancing with me now.” Olive tilts her cheek against Elizabeth’s, whose eyes fall closed.
“I love you well enough to suffer through some dancing,” Elizabeth hums. She brings their joined hands up to her sternum and holds them there, as they step gently in time with the music. Jo Stafford croons about always and it fills their home to the ceiling.
Moments pass, and the record ends. Olive breaks away to turn it over, and Elizabeth feels instantly cold.
“What did you have for me?” Olive asks as the music starts again.
Elizabeth chuckles, eyes watery. “Well, it’s not a big thing, really... Bill and I just thought maybe you should... have this.” She pulls the rings out of her pocket, and holds out Olive’s.
Olive is the only person Elizabeth knows that can smile in such a way that says, kindly, I’m unimpressed. “Aren’t you supposed to be on one knee for this?”
“Right. Yes. That seems more appropriate.” Elizabeth exhales in a short burst, smooths her hands over her slacks, and stoops down.
“Originally,” she tries again, looking up at Olive, “This began as a way to deter desperate men from throwing themselves at you, because apparently sexual and romantic jealousy is in fact something one can experience, despite her best efforts.”
Olive cracks a smile as Elizabeth goes on. “And I know rings are an antiquated tradition, and only just a symbol that society has given altogether too much meaning, but... Bill has one, and I have one, so you should have one too.” A lump is quite unfortunately forming in her throat. But she plows forward, holding up the ring. “...and I can’t entirely believe how lucky I am to be able to give one to you.”
Olive is full-crying by now, and at that, she drops to her knees to meet Elizabeth on the floor, grabbing her face between her hands and kissing her with resounding force.
“I assume you like it?” Elizabeth gets out between kisses.
“I haven’t even really looked at it,” Olive admits through a hiccup.
Laughing, Elizabeth holds open her palm to present the ring, but Olive plucks the other one from it.
“Sweetie, that one’s mine.”
“I know that,” Olive retorts. “Give me your hand.”
But she’s already reaching for Elizabeth’s left hand, and pulls it up by the fingers, whereupon she slides the ring back on. Elizabeth just shakes her hand, and coughs out a watery laugh, every emotion vibrating through her. Recognizing her cue, she takes Olive’s hand in hers, and mimics the action.
“There,” Olive says, with no small amount of pride.
Elizabeth feels her face stretch wide with her own smile, tears running into the cracks of her skin. It feels like it might break completely, much in the same way it feels like her heart is expanding beyond its capacity in this moment. There are no adequate words she could summon, so instead she takes Olive’s face in her hands, and kisses her softly, and slowly, and with the full reverence of their shared unyielding life.
There are still times when reality intrudes painfully on their happiness, and the surrounding world cannot hold their well-lived dreams within its bounds. Elizabeth feels exhausted on these days, from the sheer force of willing to love beyond imagination. But when dreaming feels too much like hurting, and the dust settles around her fire-stoked fantasies, she returns to see the results not only within reach but already before her: Bill smiling at her crookedly from his chair across the room, and Olive next to her on the loveseat, legs curled underneath her, closing the final pages of a book. She can still hear children’s footsteps pattering through the hallway adjacent, and a sweet melody playing faintly from the radio. Olive reaches over to lace their fingers together, her ring brushing Elizabeth’s skin. She gazes at her like she hung the moon, and Elizabeth smiles.