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Love Won (2011)

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Both cats twined around her feet as Annie Kenyon started the coffee machine. Annie sighed to herself as the comforting bubbling and hissing started coming from the machine. As the cats stared up at her hopefully, Annie looked out the window at the busy street. There were buds forming on the tree outside the window, and sun shone through the branches. After many years of living in the city, Annie knew that the promise the sun carried was false--late March was still cold in the northeast.

Annie bent to fill the cats’ bowls, absently stroking the back of the small tortoiseshell. The cat arched her back, moving into the soft touch.

“Hi,” a voice came from behind her. It was Liza, her voice still a little soft from sleep. Annie turned, stepping into a hug. It was familiar, the same hug she’d been sharing with Liza since she’d moved back to the city after college. Both Annie and Liza had demanding careers--Liza at the architectural firm and Annie teaching music at one of the city’s public high schools--but they always made time in the morning to have a quiet moment together.

Annie buried her nose into Liza’s tousled hair. She took comfort in the familiarity--after twenty nine years together and seven years of marriage, Liza’s hair was the same brown color it had always been. Annie could not say the same--her black hair was now streaked with grey, and she had long ago cut it into a shorter style.

“What time do we have to leave to make it there on time?” Annie asked.

“Probably 9:30 or so--traffic shouldn’t be too bad getting out of the city, do you think?” Liza answered.

Annie shook her head, pulling back from Liza to fill two coffee mugs. “Not on a Tuesday morning.”

***

Annie gazed out the car window, quiet, as Liza drove.

“What are you thinking about?” Liza asked, squeezing her hand.

“Oh...just that this will probably be the last time we make this trip,” Annie answered.

And it’s so different than the first time we made it, Annie thought. We were so happy that day...I remember how that felt...

***

It was the first weekend I’d been back in the city after my freshman year at Berkeley. The city still seemed unfriendly to me after the openness on the west coast, but it was wonderful to be home with my parents and Nana--and Liza, of course.

Liza had started a summer internship at an architectural firm in the city. She was giddy with excitement, gushing on the phone to me about all the people she was meeting and the projects she was working on. She’d been busy all week--I had yet to see her since I’d gotten home. In fact, I hadn’t seen her since Thanksgiving--my parents simply did not have the money to get me back home for every break, so I’d stayed at school for the Christmas and spring holidays. I’d had my music and my work, and the constant stream of letters and phone calls had kept me from missing her too much.

Still, I had missed her sheer presence--that golden optimism and strength that just seemed to radiate off of her. When she opened the door of her parents’ brownstone and bounced onto the stoop--barefoot, of course--my heart jumped a bit. She hugged me tightly, her arms strong around me. “Come in for a minute--I’ve got to put my shoes on and grab my stuff. And you can say hi to my family.”

I followed Liza into the building, carrying my backpack up to her apartment. Her brother Chad was sprawled on the couch--he turned away from the book he was reading to give me a friendly wave. Liza’s mom greeted me, too, telling me to set down my backpack and make myself comfortable. Most of the awkwardness between us was gone--Liza’s mom still did not acknowledge my relationship with Liza to me, but Liza assured me she was coming around. She at least had recovered enough from what had happened to start talked to me like she had in the past--asking about my music and Nana, which I was grateful for.

“Ok, girls, you ready?” Liza’s dad asked, coming out of the bedroom. “We’d better get going or you’re going to miss your train.”

We huddled together on the train up north, just glad to be together. We whispered together, making up stories about the other passengers and pointing out things out the window like old barns, kids on bikes, and the way the light seemed to highlight a sign just so.

The train pulled into the station and I stretched, glad to be able to get up and move. Liza pulled her backpack down from the overhead compartment and smiled at me, ready to go.

“Come on, Unicorn,” she said to me, reaching for my hand.

I hesitated, not sure I wanted to play that game right now. Besides, there were tons of people around, gathering their belongings and jockeying for space in the aisle. Liza shrugged, dropping her hand. “Look,” she said. “There’s Ms. Stevenson.” She ran her hand through her hair and pulled at the hem of her shirt. “Do I look ok?”

For the first time, I could see a hint of nervousness in Liza’s demeanor. “You look beautiful,” I assured her.

Ms. Stevenson looked different than the last time I’d seen her, surrounded by boxes and paintings, packing up her life in Cobble Hill. She wore the same paint-spattered jeans and her hair was still a messy blond pageboy, but she was more relaxed, more at home. She greeted us and threw our backpacks in the trunk of her car.

“Katherine’s at home,” Ms. Stevenson said. “I couldn’t get her away from the garden this morning.”

True to Ms. Stevenson’s words, Ms. Widmer waved to us from her knees in the garden as we pulled into their driveway. She got to her feet, coming over to the car, her black cat following behind. I crouched down, holding out my hand. The cat sniffed warily before coming closer to accept a stroke on his head. I’m sure I smiled as I petted the cat and Ms. Widmer enveloped Liza in a welcoming hug.

We spent the weekend with them relaxing and catching up. They showed us around their little town and I noticed there was no distance between them, that they didn’t seem to feel the need to have that space for decorum’s sake.

“Well, I suppose we have nothing to lose at this point,” Ms. Widmer laughed softly when I hestitatingly brought it up. “Between Isabelle’s paintings, the garden, and the money we have saved, we’ve got enough. And no one can fire us from any of that.”

Liza looked down at that.

“Hey...” Ms. Widmer said. “We’ve been through all this.” She leaned across the table, staring directly at Liza until Liza lifted her head to meet her eyes. ‘It’s not your fault--the world’s just not fair, that’s all.” She leaned back in her chair, stretching. “And now we’re in the position to help make things better--and hopefully you two won’t have to go through the same nonsense as we did.”

***
Annie came back to the present as Liza brought the car to a stop. Ms. Widmer had been right--she and Liza had not faced the same discrimination as the two older women. Annie was able to live her life in openness--while she did not talk about her personal life with her students, she could be seen in public with Liza and work in her quiet way for equal rights without fear of losing her job. She would have never guessed, in the early 1980’s, how much the world would change in her lifetime--and the day she left the church, hand in hand with Liza, matching rings on their fingers, their families surrounding them, was one of the most beautiful of her life. Nana was gone by then, but her parents were there, as well as Liza’s parents and Chad, with his wife and two young daughters. Chad’s youngest daughter was a particular favorite of Annie’s, and she had sung a song in her high, girlish voice during the ceremony.

Still, there was a lot to be done, Annie knew. She knew it from what her students went through--they came out at a younger and younger age, but she still saw that same fear and doubt in their eyes.

“Ready?” Liza asked, unbuckling her seat belt.

“No,” Annie smiled weakly. “But I guess I have to be.” Annie and Liza left their car together, walking under the gray sky into the small white church. They sat quietly in a corner pew, Annie’s lips moving in silent prayer as music played and people took their seats. The last to be seated was an old lady. She came down the aisle on the arm of a young man, leaning on him as if she were not sure if she had the strength to walk on her own.

“That’s James,” Liza whispered to Annie.

Of course it was, Annie knew. James was the grand-nephew Ms. Stevenson had often talked about--the one who had taken it upon himself to care for Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer’s house and property as they grew older.

The music ended as the pastor began to speak. Annie tried to focus on the prayer, but her mind wandered. She shifted in the pew, finding comfort in Liza’s warm presence by her side. Liza faced forward, her eyes on the pastor. Liza was not particularly religious--certainly less spiritual than Annie herself was--but her mind seemed to be focused on the service.

The pastor finished her prayer and motioned to the front pew. “Isabelle’s long time companion, Katherine Widmer, will now share a few words.”

James and the pastor helped Ms. Widmer up the steps to the podium. Her gray hair was completely white now and her steps were slow--but as she began to speak, her voice was as clear and strong as it had ever been.

“I have loved Isabelle--and she has loved me--for longer than many of you have been alive,” Ms. Widmer began. As she spoke, images began to be projected on a screen behind her--of a young Ms. Stevenson, in black and white photos as a child and a teenager. In many of the ones as a teenager, another, gawkier girl was at her side--Ms. Widmer, of course. The images continued as Ms. Widmer spoke--still in black and white of Ms. Stevenson as a WAC, stiff and formal--switching to color as she got older, looking much as she had when Liza had been in her art class at Foster Academy.

The last few photos were of two old ladies, sitting on their front porch. The final one showed a frail Ms. Stevenson, oxygen tube in her nose, a poignant reminder of the illness that had taken her life. But her hand grasped Ms Widmer’s, and their joined hands were what Annie focused on as Ms. Widmer laid a flower on the casket and moved back to her pew.

***