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I Was a Wartime Bride

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Everything changes, but nothing is new.

Rindy marries her sweetheart on an unseasonably warm weekend in late autumn with the draft lottery looming. She wears Carol’s wedding dress and curls her hair, and if it weren’t for the way her coloring favors Harge, Carol would almost think a portal had opened to 1942, revealing a young, scared girl marrying a young, scared boy under the dark shadow of a bloody conflict. They stand together, mother and daughter, in Rindy’s dressing room, and stare at each other through the mirror.

“Bennett will be all right,” Rindy says, reaching for Carol’s hand. She doesn’t phrase it as a question, but Carol knows that’s what it is.

Bennett Fall is a sweet man, a gentle man, a man whose hands seem eminently ill-suited for holding a gun. He fights enough battles in his own life anyway, as does Rindy, just two years out from the Loving decision. They didn’t choose this small, subdued ceremony, but that’s what they’re getting. Everything changes; nothing is new.

“He will be,” Carol tells her daughter. They both know it is a prayer, not a promise.

They’ve always been close, the two of them, even during that awful period just after the divorce when Carol was allowed only one visit per month. In the last few years, though, their relationship has grown even stronger, knitted together by the shared pain of living in a world that despises the love they’ve pursued. Carol would never, ever wish any hurt upon Rindy, but she cannot bring herself to regret this: the shared struggle, and the sympathy it has engendered between them. 

“Where’s Therese?” Rindy asks, letting go of Carol’s hand to adjust her bodice. “I haven’t seen her since lunch.”

“Triple-checking her lighting, I’d imagine,” Carol replies. “Knowing her, she’s probably trying to requisition the sun itself to cast a better shadow.”

Rindy rolls her eyes, but she’s smiling fondly. “She doesn’t have to do that. She would have been welcome to come just as a guest.”

“I know, darling.” Carol tucks an errant curl behind Rindy’s ear and presses a quick kiss to her forehead. “But she wanted to, as a gift to you and Bennett. Besides, if you’d hired someone else, she’d just spend the whole day harassing them, and then we’d all suffer.”

They share a knowing look. Therese’s professional pride – admittedly very well-earned – tends to dominate any situation that calls for an aesthetic eye. When she defers on matters of composition or design (which is rare), it is to Carol and Carol alone. Rindy has often expressed half-joking relief that she inherited no artistic inclinations whatsoever from either woman; only a keen affinity for mathematics and business that flourished under the tutelage of Aunt Abby and, to a lesser extent, Harge.

Carol can’t blame Rindy. Therese’s creative instincts, so fledgling and uncertain when she and Carol first met, had blossomed into something like genius during the first several years of their relationship. It was a maturation so rapid and astonishing that Carol couldn’t help feeling intimidated; couldn’t avoid wondering whether Therese might grow out of her as quickly as she grew out of all that self-doubt and naivety. She herself often felt artless in those days, watching Therese devour volume after volume of contemporary critical theory and trying desperately to keep up in subsequent conversations, getting lost in a dizzying rush of words and ideas that sometimes felt familiar but were mostly brand new.

That feeling didn’t settle until, one day, she was visiting Therese at work – a field assignment shooting a play that was just going into rehearsal – and they sat together in the sea of empty chairs to watch the first scene. “This set is all wrong,” Carol muttered as the lead actor paced around what was meant to be the living room onstage, monologuing at length. “That Tarbell over the fireplace is from the turn of the century, and the armoire isn’t period either. And don’t even get me started on that suit he’s wearing. Isn’t this drivel supposed to take place during the Civil War?”

Therese didn’t quite manage to stifle her giggles, and the director shifted in his seat and glared at them. Carol smiled at him serenely while Therese pretended fix something on her camera, shoulders still shaking. 

“I love it when you do that,” Therese told her later as they were walking out of the theater and onto the sunny sidewalk. 

“Tear well-meaning creative professionals to shreds, you mean?” Carol asked. She’d maintained a running commentary under her breath through the rest of the act, keeping Therese in stitches of (mostly) silent laughter.

“Yes.” Therese gave Carol a look out of the corner of her eye – one that, had they been somewhere less public, Carol might have interpreted as an invitation to remove her clothes as quickly as possible. “You’re very intelligent, you know.”

Carol smiled, and felt something resolve within herself. “Takes one to know one, darling.”

Therese smiled back. “Well, I am very glad to know you.”

To be truly understood by another person, Carol thinks, returning her attention to the present and Rindy’s preparations, is surely the greatest gift. Therese knows her to her bones by now and still somehow wants to know more. She wishes that for Rindy and Bennett; wishes for it more than perhaps anything else in this marriage, which is already so clouded by fear and uncertainty outside their control.

“Does Bennett ask you things, Rindy?” she inquires, toying with the hem of the veil. “Not just about your work, I mean, but about who you are, and how you feel?” Bennett is a good boy, but Carol has learned not to put much stock in men when it comes to these matters.

Rindy’s face, lit up with love and a more profound contentment, is all the answer she needs.

 

A little later, Carol leaves Rindy in the capable hands of her maid of honor, one of only a handful of college friends who have taken Rindy’s choice of partner – not to mention her less-than-traditional parental arrangement – in stride. She finds Therese in the kitchen, sneaking a glass of wine with Abby.

“Hello, my little wallflowers,” she teases. It’s not quite accurate – Abby is more of a misanthrope than anything, and Therese can be the life of the party as long as she knows where she stands – but Abby just smirks and Therese offers her a sip from her glass.

“How’s the woman of the hour holding up?” Abby asks.

“A model of grace under pressure, of course.” Carol pulls out her cigarette case and distributes one apiece.

Therese leans forward for a light and takes a deep drag. “Like mother, like daughter,” she says, exhaling a plume of smoke and giving Carol a wink.

Carol preens a little, sliding an arm around Therese’s waist. She feels Abby’s gaze on them, fond and a little sad. “Did you see Kit this morning?” Carol asks, reaching for Abby’s hand to draw her in as well.

Kit, Abby’s lover of nearly ten years, is in the hospital, battling the cancer that has spread from her breasts to her bones and nearly everywhere else in her body, or so it would seem. The doctors tending to her are grave, solemn, pessimistic men. With every week she survives past their dire predictions, they hover with increasingly confounded, scowling expressions, as though she has caused them some personal offense. Abby visits faithfully, spending her days surrounded by antiseptic and loudly beeping machines without complaint, but Carol can see the toll it has taken on her; the deep grooves of exhaustion in her face that, three months ago, were but light, spidery lines.

“Went first thing,” Abby replies. “Smuggled in some coffee cake. She’s livid she can’t be here, of course.”

“The reception certainly won’t be the same without her.” Therese shifts so that Abby can stand between her and Carol, half-sandwiched in their embrace. “Our only hope is that someone on Bennett’s side has decent rhythm.”

“Excuse me,” Carol protests, reaching around Abby to pinch Therese. “I’m very graceful, thank you very much.”

She is, but Therese isn’t wrong; Kit has always been magnificent in motion, tall and elegant and light on her feet. Carol is a homebody by nature, but with Kit around, it was a delight to go out; slip into a friendly bar; share a drink with Therese while watching her sweep Abby across the floor like she was born to do it. That’s the worst part of seeing her in the hospital – not the tubes or the bruises or the bare head, shorn of handsome salt-and-pepper hair, but the immobility; the unnatural stillness of a body that once seemed fundamentally designed to dance.

Abby chuckles wetly, sagging against Therese’s shoulder and squeezing Carol’s fingers tightly, securing a bit of strength from them before standing up straight again. “Well, it must be almost time,” she says, brushing away a tear that Carol and Therese both pretend not to notice. “Should we brave the yard?”

Therese drains her wine glass. “If we must.”

The three of them walk together to the back door and then part ways, Abby and Therese stepping outside and Carol walking up the stairs to reconnoiter with Rindy. She pauses on the landing and looks out the window at the two of them picking their way arm-in-arm across the lawn, headed for the large tent that has been erected in Harge’s vast backyard for the occasion. Her heart swells with love. There was a time when she feared there might not be room enough for them both in her life – when she half-expected distrust and insecurity to poison their hearts, and maybe even her own – but it never came to pass. Instead, they grew into each other like a well-worn pair of gloves, each cut from their own pattern and yet perfectly matched, ever content to be Carol’s left and right hand.

“Mama?”

Carol looks up and presses a hand to her chest. Rindy, poised at the top of the stairs like a dove about to take flight, is smiling down at her.

“Are you ready?” Rindy asks.

“My sweet girl,” Carol says, holding out her arms. “I am.”

 

The ceremony is gorgeous. Bennett’s brother, a Methodist pastor, officiates. Behind him, the trees on the edge of the property provide a colorful backdrop of scarlet and gold. There’s a breeze coming off the duck pond where Harge maintains a small fishery, but given the time of year – nearly Halloween – it’s practically balmy.

Carol manages to stay composed until Rindy and Bennett exchange their vows. Therese is constantly on the move, getting shots from as many angles as possible, but Carol sees her dab at her eyes with her sleeve more than once. Abby remains dry-eyed but beaming, and Harge bawls through the whole thing. Millie, his third wife, passes out handkerchiefs. Across the aisle, Bennett’s parents seem pleased, if perhaps slightly uncomfortable, and they cling to each other’s hands the entire time.

There are the rings, the kiss, the procession, and then everyone moves to the back of the tent where the hired staff has brought out far too much food for the number of people in attendance. Carol takes her place between Therese’s empty seat and Millie, suppressing a smirk when she realizes that Harge is surrounded by women on all sides. The smirk fades, though, when she looks at the two unoccupied place settings between Abby and Harge, spots they had saved in hopes that his parents would come around on their granddaughter’s union. The elder Airds had sent their decision only two nights before, and Rindy had sobbed inconsolably into Carol’s shoulder.

“It’s awful, isn’t it?” Millie says, following Carol’s gaze. “I really thought…”

“Well, they’ve always been self-righteous,” Carol mutters, not bothering to camouflage the bitterness in her voice.

Millie laughs, and Carol grins at her. She’s only met Millie once, at Rindy’s college graduation, but liked her immediately; had been surprised (and a bit concerned, for Rindy’s sake) to hear of Harge’s extravagant proposal after a courtship of just two months – within a year of his divorce from his second wife, no less – but has received no indication since then that their relationship is anything but loving and dedicated.

“Never seen blood so blue,” Millie tells Carol, pitching her voice low so that Harge, carrying on a stilted exchange of pleasantries with Abby, won’t hear. “They weren’t pleased when he swapped me in for sainted Alice, I can tell you that.”

Alice, the second Mrs. Aird, had been a dainty, modest woman with an abiding interest in croquet and very little else in the way of personality, as far as Carol could tell. Naturally, Jennifer and John adored her. Carol can’t imagine how they must have reacted when faced with Millie, who has the pedigree of a Southern belle but very few of the manners.

“At least you’re not ‘that wretched deviant,’” Carol replies dryly. She can laugh about it now, but when eleven-year-old Rindy had quoted that particular epithet to her, she’d nearly blown a gasket.

Millie sighs. “They’re the wretched ones. Honestly, if I didn’t love Harge so much –”

“What’s this about loving me?” Harge has abandoned his conversation with Abby, who looks deeply relieved to be left alone. The two of them have never really managed to get along, and Carol has long since tired of trying to broker an accord. It’s enough that they can at least achieve a temporary ceasefire, if only for Rindy’s sake.

“None of your business,” Millie says with a coy shrug. “Now, tell me, what are we getting for the first course?”

While Harge holds forth on the menu, Carol takes the opportunity to scan for Therese, who is capturing the lavish buffet for posterity. She must feel Carol’s gaze on her, because she lowers her camera and looks over at the family table with wide, curious eyes; a ghost of the shop girl Carol met all those years ago. This time, she smiles when she sees Carol looking – a wide, radiant grin that shows off her dimples. Carol raises a hand to wave her over, and she comes.

“Are you sure you got that soup tureen’s good side?” Abby kids as Therese sits down, still clutching her camera to her chest. “I’m not sure every piece of chicken has been accounted for.”

“You’ll thank me later.” Therese is correct once again; Abby has a sentimental streak a mile wide, and of all those in attendance, she’ll be the one begging Therese for a copy of every photo.

“I’ll thank you now,” Millie interjects, leaning forward. “It’s so lovely of you to do it, Therese.”

Therese blushes all the way to the roots of her hair, and Abby and Carol exchange an amused look behind her back. Millie, while not as statuesque as Carol, possesses distinctly similar poise and confidence, and her face has retained the beauty of a much younger woman. If Harge is guilty of having a type, then Therese is certainly no better.

“It’s my pleasure,” Therese replies, stammering only a little. “And I’ll make prints for the two of you, of course.”

“You’re such a dear,” Millie coos, and Therese goes a fraction redder. Out of the corner of her eye, Carol sees Harge watching their exchange like a hawk.

“Who wants bread?” Abby asks, coming to the rescue with a basket of rolls. “Butter?”

Bennett’s best man stands at the head table, clinking a fork against his wine glass, and everyone turns their attention to him. Under the long tablecloth, Carol feels something bump against her shoe and then wrap around her ankle. She sneaks a glance to her right. Therese is watching the toast with an air of angelic serenity, but Carol isn’t fooled. The errant foot traces up and down her calf, and oh, Carol will never cease to be amazed by this feeling, this flame of passion that lit within her so many years ago and hasn’t sputtered since.

Suddenly rather warm, Carol clears her throat. Therese passes her a glass of water. They lock eyes, and Carol twitches in her seat. It’s going to be a long night.

 

As dinner winds down, the band starts up. They’re a group of musicians from Harlem, recommended to Harge by Bennett and famous enough that Therese had gone a little starry-eyed when she heard they would be playing the reception. With the first note from the trumpet, Carol closes her eyes and sighs happily. She was raised on classical and will always love chamber music first and foremost, but there is something about jazz…

“Carol,” Therese murmurs, tugging at her sleeve. “Their first dance.”

That gets Carol’s attention, even as Therese slips away to start taking pictures again. She watches with a fresh round of tears in her eyes as Bennett twirls Rindy under his arm and pulls her close faster than the music calls for, looking for all the world like he can’t bear to be even inches apart from her. The singer croons something about moonlight kisses and the warmth of the sun. Rindy whispers something into Bennett’s ear, and he laughs, teeth flashing.

The music changes, and Harge cuts in to dance with Rindy before they cede the floor to Bennett and his mother Sara. It’s clear to see where Bennett gets his good looks – the woman in his arms is breathtaking. Carol knows from Rindy that she was a model for a time; that she met Bennett’s father while living in Paris and working for fashion houses like Dior and Balmain; that her career ended when she was in a driving accident that crushed her leg, breaking it in several places. The only sign of the crash is a slight roll in her gait, and Carol wonders why she never turned to catalog work after she left the runway; she certainly has the face for it.

Bennett’s father Joseph is an almost comical contrast to his wife: short, round, and bespectacled, with a crooked nose and stooped shoulders. He is Senegalese, although Carol barely noticed an accent when they greeted each other earlier in the day. She isn’t sure how he spends his time – Bennett mentioned something about a store in the city, but the details were fuzzy – and she isn’t sure she’s brave enough to ask. Evidently, both he and Sara are quite religious and weren’t happy about having the wedding outside a church; Carol has to assume that they would take a similarly dim view of her divorce, not to mention her sexuality.

Her sexuality. Even after she took up with Therese, it was ages before she could really acknowledge that part of herself head-on, with no oblique euphemisms or well-practiced sublimation. For years, she watched with interest, then bemusement, and then almost paralyzing envy as Therese, unencumbered by the same invisible chains that held Carol back, took to the scene easily, trailing after Abby to private clubs and basement bars like a duckling learning to swim. Abby, of course, had been like that from the beginning as well, so self-assured and so confident; of the three of them, it was only Carol who was hopelessly, horribly stuck.

And so, on the nights the two of them went out exploring, Carol usually stayed home, working herself into a lather of jealousy and rage that inevitably exploded in a fit about something completely unrelated and irrelevant the following day. Therese, who usually had no patience for pointless spite (from Carol or anyone else), was always kind in the face of these outbursts. “I wish you’d come out with us next time,” she would say quietly, ignoring the content of Carol’s ranting and cutting straight to the heart of the matter. “I know it’s hard, but it is nice, you know? To be around people like us, sometimes.”

“Those people are nothing like me,” Carol would sneer, pacing the room. “And they’re nothing like you, either. You and me, we’re different. It’s not the same.”

Sometimes, Therese would leave it there, smiling at Carol sadly and squeezing her shoulder before getting up to put some distance between herself and Carol’s still-spinning tornado of cruelty. Other times, she aimed to provoke – “And Abby? Is she different, too? Or is she one of those people?” – and still other times, she simply said, “I understand why you feel that way, but I disagree. Would you like me to make you some tea?”

By evening, having worn through her vindictiveness, Carol would find Therese wherever she was hiding – usually reading a book on the couch or playing the piano in their living room – and curl up by her side. “I’m sorry, my darling,” she would say. “I really am.”

“I know,” Therese would reply. “It’ll be easier, someday.”

Carol doesn’t remember how or when it happened, but eventually, Therese’s prediction did come to pass. Perhaps it was overhearing Therese’s frank explanation of their relationship to a thirteen-year-old Rindy – “We live together because we love each other. Sometimes, it just happens that way.” – or perhaps it took Abby meeting Kit, whose butch sensibilities removed the option of invisibility to which Carol was so accustomed. Perhaps it just took time.

Regardless, the shift occurred. She stopped scolding Therese for talking politics; stopped objecting to the idea that their love was, on some level, not just political but radical. She stopped scoffing at other lesbians in front of Abby; stopped mocking their ill-fitting suits and tried instead to understand why they wore them. Whenever she and Kit met up after work to walk to the train together, they heard slur after slur down every block, but she didn’t buckle; didn’t even bend.

“Look at that storefront,” Kit would say, pointing at some interesting display or signage to distract Carol from the stares and the vitriol. “Isn’t it queer?”

“Yes, I suppose it is,” Carol would reply, scrutinizing whatever mannequins or toys or other sundries Kit had indicated, before turning back to her with a saucy wink. “Then again, so are we.”

She stopped staying home when Abby and Therese went out. She chatted with strange women who offered to buy her drinks (much to Therese’s delight and amusement), and even if she never saw them again, felt glad to know that they were out in the city too, going to work and kissing their lovers and living their lives. It was nice to be around them, she found – all these people with whom she could have had nothing else in common, and who would still somehow be kin.

It was hard, too; not in the same manner as before, when she had to hold it all at arm’s length, but in a way that was more visceral, more immediate. Now that she was a part of this world, she could sense when it had been wounded; could feel within herself the pain they all suffered together. This year in particular had been vicious: the riots in the summer and the raids continuing through the fall, a rash of brutality so intense that Carol felt truly frightened for the first time in a long while. There had always been incidents, of course – it was not unusual for Kit to show up to dinner with a shiner or a ripped shirt or a bloody nose – but pervasive as they were, those assaults could always be written off as random. The police, the searches, the invasions; all this recent violence was systematic, and seemingly unstoppable.

“Excuse me, Ms. Rogers, I don’t mean to bother you, but I thought you might like to dance.”

Carol looks up from the napkin she’s been unfolding and refolding meditatively and finds Joseph Fall standing in front of her, offering a nervous but kind smile. “I’m sorry?” she asks.

“A dance?” Joseph repeats, extending his hand.

“Oh! Of course,” Carol relinquishes the napkin and stands up. “Please – lead the way.”

The dance floor has filled up, mostly with Bennett’s friends and cousins, who comprise the vast bulk of the guest list. Harge and Millie are swaying together in one corner, and Carol and Joseph take one of the others.

“You looked rather melancholy over there,” Joseph says. Carol can hear the accent now, slipping through on his a’s and r’s and digraphs. “What were you thinking about?”

His forehead only comes up to Carol’s nose, and she looks past him to Therese, who is still faithfully circling the revelers. “Oh, life, I suppose,” she replies vaguely. “Time. Family. The way it all changes, the way it all remains the same.”

She must sound absolutely mad, she realizes, but Joseph seems unperturbed by her philosophizing. “This sort of event does make one feel reflective,” he muses.

“Yes,” Carol agrees. “Your third?” Bennett has two sisters, both of whom are in attendance with their husbands and children.

“Yes. First son, though. I feel very proud.”

“As you should,” Carol says. “Bennett is wonderful man.”

Joseph’s chest puffs up comically, and Carol has to gnaw on her lip to keep a straight face. Across the way, she sees one of Bennett’s nieces approach Therese, gesturing shyly at her camera. Therese immediately abandons the task at hand to show off her pride and joy to a captive audience, dropping to her knees and pointing at various knobs and buttons.

“He speaks highly of you and your… companion,” Joseph tells her, stumbling only briefly. “We were grateful to you for having him last Christmas.”

“It was our pleasure.” The Falls had returned to Senegal to visit family for the holidays the previous year, but Bennett had not been able to take the time off work, and so had arrived at Carol and Therese’s apartment at eight o’clock on Christmas morning to open gifts and make some of the very best pancakes Carol has ever had. “Therese likes having someone around who will play cards with her. Rindy and I are too competitive.”

In fact, they had all played Monopoly, and Rindy had been so insufferable in her victory that Carol needed to leave the room to keep from yelling at her own daughter in front of said daughter’s fiancé. Therese had been even worse, not caring a whit for her own losses but goading Carol awfully whenever she landed on one of Rindy’s properties. Sweet Bennett was her only ally, cheering her on and even sneaking a few stolen bills to her when she was really up against the ropes.

The song ends, and Joseph steps back, giving Carol a little bow. “We are glad to have you joining our family, Ms. Rogers.”

Carol takes his hand again and squeezes it in both of hers. “Please, Mr. Fall,” she says, with as much warmth as she can muster. “Call me Carol.”

 

The night spins on, slowed down by a few more glasses of wine and smoothed out by good company. Servers deliver trays of desserts, and Rindy and Bennett cut into their towering cake. Therese never stops moving, it seems, but still comes to find Carol every fifteen minutes or so to say hello or point out someone interesting to talk to or share a slice of cake. Her earlier diffidence has sloughed off and she is all bright, captivating charm. Every time their orbits collide, it gets harder and harder not to kiss her.

“Wipe that drool off your face.” Abby chides, sidling up to the table where Carol is resting and pressing a fresh cocktail into her hands. “Honestly, it’s embarrassing. She’s been in your bed for two decades and you still behave like a couple of teenagers.”

Carol laughs, tilting her head back. Everything feels good, and Rindy is happy, and Therese is beautiful, and really, has there ever been a better party? “I never felt like this as a teenager,” she says. “Not all of us were sneaking off with Maggie Anderson, you know.”

“Mmm, Maggie Anderson. What a girl. I wonder where she is now.”

“Married, four children.” Abby shoots Carol a disbelieving look. “What? Not all of us skipped our thirtieth high school reunion, either. For what it’s worth, it didn’t look like a particularly happy marriage.”

“That’s… not shocking,” Abby opines smugly. “Did you take Therese?”

“I’m in love, not suicidal. My ‘roommate’ stayed safely at home.”

“Tucked up in her twin bed, I assume?”

“Like a nun.”

They look at each other for a moment, and then burst out laughing. Abby doesn’t laugh much these days, not with so much of her mind on Kit, and it’s a sound Carol didn’t know she’d been missing.

“Oh, that’s too good,” Abby gasps, wiping at the corners of her eyes. “So good, in fact, that I think I’ll call it a night. Best to go out on a high note.”

Carol frowns, but doesn’t protest. In truth, she’s shocked Abby has lasted this long in a tent full of strangers, and without Kit by her side. “All right, darling,” she says, taking Abby’s hands in her own. “Be good. Try not to steal the groom’s mother’s heart on your way out.”

Abby raises an eyebrow.

“I saw you talking earlier. That old Gerhard charm is hard to miss.”

“Well, you’ve seen her – can you blame me?” Abby replies, lips curling in an impudent smirk. Carol rolls her eyes, and Abby grows serious. “Her sister has lung cancer. We were comparing notes.”

Carol squeezes Abby’s hands. “I’ll visit the hospital with you Monday,” she promises.

“It’s a date.” Abby hasn’t cried all evening, not since their conversation in the kitchen, but now her eyes are suspiciously bright. “I’d better say my goodbyes to Rindy and Bennett. It looks like Harge is headed over here anyway, so that’s my cue.”

“I love you, darling.” Carol kisses Abby on both cheeks. “Drive safe. Goodnight.”

Abby wasn’t joking about Harge’s imminent approach; almost as soon as she vacates her seat, he sits down in it with a heavy sigh. He looks exhausted but cheerful.

“Enjoying yourself?” Carol asks.

“More than I thought possible,” he says, crossing one leg over the other and leaning back in the chair.

Carol regards him closely. To this day, they rarely interact without a specific (usually Rindy-related) goal in mind, but as far as she can tell, he has no agenda this evening. He seems relaxed; carefree in a way he hasn’t for a long time. Aging has treated him at least as well as it has treated Carol, showing up only in the silver of his hair and a few extra lines in his face. If she squints, she can almost see the boy she met while walking across their college campus, vital and handsome and sure of himself.

“Do you want to dance?” he asks.

Carol’s ankles are aching. “Not really,” she replies.

He smiles at her. “Me neither.”

They sit in silence for another few moments, letting the music from the band wash over them. “You look good, Harge,” Carol says after a while. “Happy, I mean.”

He smiles again. “I am. I am very happy.” He plays with his wedding band. “I don’t know which planet Millie dropped in from, but I’m damned glad she did.”

Flung out of space, Carol thinks; aloud, she says, “Yes, I know the feeling.”

Historically, any allusion to Therese – no matter how indirect – would have reliably sent Harge spiraling into an angry sulk. Today, he just shakes his head with amusement and awe. “How lucky we are,” he says. “A wonderful daughter, a good man who loves her, and two beautiful women who’ve somehow agreed to put up with us.”

“Life isn’t bad when you live it right,” Carol agrees. Truthfully, she’s floored by Harge’s words – in almost twenty years, she’s never heard him refer to Therese as anything other than ‘that girl’ (usually in a rather nasty tone), and he had plenty of ill-concealed reservations about Bennett in the beginning – but she’s not about to show it.

“Millie wants to have the two of you over for dinner, by the way,” Harge says, as though the concept of them all socializing together is a possibility he’s always secretly treasured. “You’ll have to let me know when you’re free.”

Carol doesn’t quite manage to bite back a scoff, and Harge cocks his head at her. “Are you joking?” she asks. She genuinely isn’t sure.

Harge frowns and uncrosses his legs, leaning forward to prop his arms on his knees. “Carol…” he says, sighing and trailing off before picking up speed again. “I spent a long, long time being angry at you. I was cruel to you and I punished you simply because I could.”

Carol holds her breath, half-certain she must be dreaming.

“That was wrong of me,” Harge continues. “And I regret it.”

Carol breathes out. She digs her fingernails into her legs.

“I shouldn’t have kept Rindy from you for so long, and I shouldn’t have been so unkind to – to Therese. You both deserved better from me, and I’m sorry.”

Harge twists his hands together, and Carol gapes at him. “You’re serious?”

“Very.”

“Harge, I –” Carol breaks off, turning her head to the side as unexpected emotion rises in her throat.

So many years of visits with Rindy cut short; of snide remarks directed at Therese or Abby or both; of condescending lectures and biting her tongue. The first eighteen months were the worst, but even though things got better, they were never good. No matter how firmly she’d emancipated herself, Harge was still endowed with a great deal of power – financial, familial, institutional – and he didn’t hesitate to wield it.

“I know it might be too little, too late,” Harge says. “I understand if it is.” He gets to his feet, and Carol looks up at him. “Still, I hope you’ll think about coming to dinner.”

He gives her a small, sincere smile, and with no further pleas or excuses or recriminations, ambles back toward the other side of the tent. Carol watches him go, mouth agape. She has never in her life heard Harge apologize for anything, let alone hurt he’s caused. Usually, it simply didn’t occur to him that he might be in the wrong; and even if he knew he was, his stubborn pride never allowed him to admit it.

She wonders how much of this new accountability has to do with age, and how much has to do with Millie, who has intercepted Harge on his way to the bar and dragged him back to the dance floor instead. The woman is an irrepressible force, that much is clear – but Carol was always bold, too, and Harge hated it. Maybe the difference is that, this time around, the willfulness is paired with genuine love. Carol never was quite able to offer him that.

 

On Therese’s next turn around the tent, she carries over a second slice of cake and jerks her head to indicate that Carol should follow her. They slip out into the darkness and make their way down the little path to the edge of the pond. There are no lights, but the sky is clear and the moon is nearly full, and they find their way with no trouble.

The path curves down a slight incline and diverts around a tall hedge, leading to a lovely little stone bench. Carol sits and looks back up toward the tent. The music from the band is still audible, but the hedge masks the sightline to the upper lawn; they are entirely hidden from view.

“Why, Therese,” Carol says, affecting an ingenuous tone. “Are you trying to get me alone?”

Therese abandons the plate and forks she’s been carrying on the ground and glides onto the bench next to Carol. “The wedding photographer always sees the most beautiful parts of any property,” she tells Carol. “I took special notice of this one.”

“You’ve been spending my beloved daughter’s happy day doing illicit reconnaissance?”

“Mmm, very illicit.” Therese’s hand skates over Carol’s knee, and Carol gasps, parting her legs instinctively. “You’ve been watching me tonight.”

“You know I can never take my eyes off of you.”

Therese pulls the hem of Carol’s dress up slowly, raising it inch by agonizing inch until it’s high enough for her to reach beneath it and run her fingertips along the edge of Carol’s stockings. Her eyes are hooded, her lips parted. She seems to Carol the very essence of temptation.

As Therese’s hand moves higher and higher, brushing over bare skin and then damp silk, Carol lets her eyes fall shut. The band is playing a slow, sweet song, and that’s how Therese touches her, too – soft and unhurried and achingly gentle.

“Do you want more?” Therese asks. “Do you want me inside?”

Carol shakes her head, biting her lip. “Like this,” she whispers hoarsely. “Just the way you are now.”

Therese kisses her cheek, her jaw, her throat; touches her exactly as likes it; builds her up bit by bit so that by the time she comes, her whole body feels like it’s floating in mid-air. It’s easy between them now, after so much practice – never stale, but uncomplicated, almost effortless. And after a whole day of wanting, the release is exquisite.

Carol had thought that their chemistry might diminish over time and with age, the way it had with every other lover, but if anything it has only grown more intense. Carol delights in the strands of gray that have started to thread through Therese’s dark hair – worn long now, usually in a braid down the middle of her back – and Therese remains as obsessed with Carol’s physical form as she ever was. With Rindy grown and out of the house, they both eschew sleepwear even on nights when they do not make love, and Carol cannot imagine anything more divine than Therese’s warm skin pressed close to her own.

Then again, Carol thinks as she leans into Therese’s embrace, there’s certainly something to be said for the thrill of fully clothed encounters. “My, that was lovely,” she murmurs.

Therese presses a kiss to the crown of her head and strokes her hair. “Seemed like you might need it, especially after that conversation with Harge. Did he say something to upset you?”

“On the contrary, he apologized. For everything.” She raises her head from Therese’s shoulder and kisses her cheek. “Even called you a ‘beautiful woman,’ so you can take that to the bank.”

Therese looks as gobsmacked by this turn of events as Carol feels. “Are we talking about the same Harge, here?”

“The one and only. Also, he and Millie want to have us over for dinner soon, so you should start thinking up excuses now if you want to get out of it.”

“Dinner? Really?” Therese shakes her head incredulously. “Never thought I’d see the day.”

They both gaze out over the dark water stretched out before them, pondering. “It might not be so bad,” Carol says. “For one thing, you’ll be able to keep nurturing that adorable little crush you have on Millie…”

“Carol!” The whine in Therese’s voice tells Carol that she’s hit the nail right on the head. “I do not.”

Carol chuckles. “Not at all?”

“Well, maybe a bit,” Therese admits with a reluctant sigh. “She seems very modern, doesn’t she? Not what I’d expect from a Georgia debutante.”

“I’ve certainly enjoyed her company so far,” Carol agrees. “And I suspect she may have more than a bit to do with Harge’s change in perspective.”

“Let’s do it, then,” Therese says. “What have we got to lose?”

Decision made, they linger on the bench, though the party is not large enough for their absence to go unnoticed. Carol toys with the ends of Therese’s hair, the collar of her dress, the chain of her necklace. They are so rarely able to touch each other in public that they have both developed an almost compulsive habit of physical contact when they are alone, and besides, Therese looks so beautiful in her rose-colored gown.

“Shall we go up soon?” Therese asks, even as she leans into Carol’s caresses.

“Just a few moments longer,” Carol replies.

 

When they finally return to the upper lawn, the revelry is starting to die down. Bennett’s eldest sister waves as she and her family depart. One of her daughters – the little girl who had shown an interest in the camera – breaks away and runs over, flinging her arms around Therese’s waist. “Bye, Ms. Belivet!” she exclaims.

Therese reaches down and embraces her. “Goodnight, Mary,” she says. “It was very nice to meet you. I hope to see you again soon.”

Carol watches their exchange fondly. Therese has always been a hit with children, perhaps because she refuses to treat them any differently than adults. Rindy was besotted with her from the beginning, often insisting that “Trez” be seated next to her at dinner, read her stories, and help her with her homework. Therese was awkward about it at first – too young, really, to parent a child Rindy’s age, and always wary of Carol’s feelings being hurt – but in time, she grew into a comfortable role: neither mother nor mentor nor friend, but some unique combination of all three.

If Therese regrets never having children of her own, she rarely shows it, although Carol does sometimes catch her gazing wistfully into the strollers they pass as they walk through Central Park. They’ve discussed it a handful of times, and Therese always insists that she’s happy with their family as it is; that helping to raise Rindy has been enough, and that she feels lucky to have shared in that experience at all. She doesn’t say what they both know, which is that even if she felt differently, there would only be one solution, and the price is simply too high.

Only once did Therese ever reveal anything other than sanguine acceptance of their circumstances. It was her birthday – twenty-eight, the same age Carol was when she had Rindy – and they were in bed together, and Therese was glorious and uninhibited, and at the very peak of her bliss, Carol had whispered, “God, I wish I could give you a baby.”

She’d meant it sincerely – had wanted nothing more in that moment than to slot her hips between Therese’s thighs and somehow, impossibly, spend inside her – but playfully, too; as a whim, a tantalizing reverie. She hadn’t anticipated the way Therese’s body would lock up (and not, as it had mere moments before, out of pleasure), nor the deep sob she couldn’t control, nor the fat, glistening tears that spilled down her cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” Therese gasped between heaving, choking wails. “I’m so sorry.”

Up until that moment, Carol had not really let herself consider the tremendous sacrifice Therese had made in being with her; had not been able to look directly into the gaping loss of what she’d given up. The grief that wracked Therese’s slender frame shook her to her core. She sat, frozen, between Therese’s legs, watching in horror as Therese wept into their pillows

Only when Therese cried out her name in anguish was Carol spurred into action, pitching forward and pulling Therese into a crushing hug. They rocked back and forth together, Therese shaking violently and Carol holding her tight enough to bruise, until Therese started gulping for air. Carol loosened her grasp, and Therese inhaled deeply, then let all her breath out in a long sigh. She went limp in Carol’s arms.

Carol wanted to speak, to soothe, but what was there to say? She stroked Therese’s hair and kissed her forehead; shifted so that the whole length of their bodies pressed together, forehead to chest to hips to toes; rubbed her fingers up and down the notches of Therese’s spine. They fell asleep like that, cradling the things they couldn’t have between them, and she dreamt of little girls with big eyes and deeply dimpled smiles.

The next morning, Therese brought her coffee in bed. “To be clear,” she said, in a voice still hoarse from crying. “This is enough.”

Carol took a sip of her coffee, steeled herself, and asked, “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Therese said, and that was that.

In the here and now, Bennett’s niece is clinging to Therese’s skirt, and Therese looks down at her warmly. “You ought to go with your mother and father,” she tells the little girl. “But if you’d like, you can have Bennett bring you around sometime so we can take pictures together.”

“Okay,” Mary whispers, showing no signs of disengaging from Therese’s side.

“Mary!” Bennett’s sister calls. “Come on, now!”

With one last adoring, upward glance, Mary reluctantly releases her grip on Therese’s dress and shuffles back over to her parents, who offer an exasperated wave before herding her out of the tent. Therese glances at Carol, lips quirked in a little grin, and Carol gives her a wink.

“Looks like you’ve got a fan, Therese.” It’s Rindy, weaving her way through the maze of empty chairs and collapsing into one with a groan. “Goodness, I’m beat.”

“Let me get you a glass of water,” Therese offers, already starting to turn away.

“Don’t be silly. Sit and talk with me. You too, Mama.”

They have no sooner settled into their chairs, though, than Joseph and Sara Fall walk over to say goodnight. Carol reluctantly rises to her feet once more, cursing her heels.

“It was lovely to meet you both,” Joseph says, taking Carol’s hand in both of his as Therese hugs Sara.

“Likewise,” Carol agrees. “I hope we see you again soon.”

She and Therese do-si-do, and Sara kisses the air beside both of her cheeks. Her perfume smells warm, almost buttery, and up close, she’s even more stunning. Carol is rarely cowed by the physical appearance of others, but standing before this goddess of a woman, she can’t help feeling daunted.

“I’m s-sorry we didn’t get a chance to t-talk,” Sara tells Carol in a soft, stuttering voice that is completely at odds with her striking exterior. “I w-wanted to tell you how b-b-beautiful your dress is.”

Carol glances down at her royal blue gown. Sara is wearing a similar color in a different cut; it almost looks as though they had planned it. “Seems as though we both have good taste,” she says.

“Y-you’ll have to let me know where you sh-shop. It’s n-not often you see a s-style like that.” Sara smiles. “I l-love it.”

Carol promises to send her a note and suggests that perhaps they could even take an excursion together. Sara lights up with excitement, kissing Carol’s cheeks again before turning to say goodbye to Rindy. Carol, unable to suppress the heat that rises in her face after Sara’s lips graze her ear, can feel Therese’s eyes on her; can hear the whispered tease before it comes: “Looks like I’m not the only one with a crush.”

Carol doesn’t bother demurring. “Christ, it’s like carrying on a conversation with the Mona Lisa herself,” she mutters, fanning her face. “I don’t know how Rindy makes it through those family dinners.”

“Well, as far as we know, she doesn’t face quite the same struggle we do,” Therese points out, eyes twinkling. “I, for one, wouldn’t last past the first course.”

They grin at each other, gratified as ever to partake in this strange and thrilling inside joke of theirs. Rindy, having bid farewell to her in-laws, turns and catches them in the act. “You’re doing it again,” she grumbles, rolling her eyes and returning to her seat.

“What is that, dearest?” Carol asks, not taking her eyes off Therese’s face.

“That old telepathy thing,” Rindy explains, waving her hands vaguely in the air. “I swear, it’s like the two of you live in your own universe, sometimes.”

That gets Carol’s attention. It’s an old sore spot, practically the only one between them, but enough to make her divert her focus from Therese to her daughter completely. Fortunately, Rindy only looks amused, not sour. Nevertheless, Carol can’t help recalling the shouted indictments and bitter recriminations of an adolescent daughter who, finally cognizant of the rationale behind her custody schedule, used it against her mother at every available opportunity.

“I’m not surprised; I mean, why would you come?” she had sneered over the phone when Carol called to apologize for missing one of her recitals. “I know you don’t care about me anyway.”

“Darling, that’s simply not true,” Carol had pleaded. It was their fourth such discussion in as many weeks, and she was weary of it. “I got stuck with a client at work, and Therese –”

“Oh, of course, Therese,” Rindy taunted. “She always comes first, doesn’t she?”

Carol pressed her fingertips into her temples, feeling the sharp stab of a migraine beginning to cloud her vision. “No,” she muttered through gritted teeth. “Listen to me. She was on her way to pick me up so I could make at least some of it, but some idiot ran a light and smashed into the front end of the car.”

There was silence on the other end of the phone. When Rindy spoke again, it was in a much smaller voice. “Oh,” she said. “Is she – she’s not hurt, is she?”

“Not badly,” Carol replied, closing her eyes against both the pain of her headache and the memory of the choking, gasping terror she felt as she ran into the hospital where Therese had been taken in an ambulance. The physical damage was limited to a broken collarbone and a few stitches, but Carol knew the psychological effect would be much worse and longer-lasting – for both of them.

Rindy was quiet once more, although Carol could practically hear her weighing her lingering anger against genuine concern. “I should go do some homework,” she muttered eventually. “Tell Therese – tell her I said I hope she feels better.”

“I will, dearest. And I’m sorry again about missing the concert.”

It had not been their last argument on the matter, but within a few months, Rindy’s rage had mostly tempered, and the passive-aggressive comments about guardianship arrangements (not to mention the outright accusations of poor mothering) dwindled. Carol was glad of it; and glad, too, that whatever vitriol Rindy had proven capable of was rarely directed at Therese. Indeed, even after the story of Christmas and Waterloo and the detective had come to light, very little changed in the relationship between the two, who continued to spend hours at the piano playing complicated duets together. Whatever antagonism Rindy expressed was reserved for Carol alone – a burden she did not relish, but willingly shouldered for Therese’s sake.

“You and Bennett are the same way,” Therese tells Rindy. “Thick as thieves.”

As if to prove Therese’s point, Rindy glances over her shoulder and Bennett immediately looks up from a conversation with two young men about his age, smiling reflexively as soon as their eyes meet. He turns back to his compatriots and says something that makes them laugh, then makes his way over to where the women are sitting. “Hello, beautiful,” he says, pulling up a chair to sit next to Rindy and taking her hand. They gaze at each other warmly.

“There it is,” Therese says, laughing.

Bennett glances over at her, clearly reluctant to look away from his bride. “There’s what?”

“True love, of course,” Carol interjects. There’s a part of her – the part that stood in Rindy’s shoes twenty-seven years ago – that isn’t so sure; that can’t help but cringe when faced with all this pomp and circumstance and impossible expectation. Everything changes, nothing is new. Still, for her daughter’s sake, she hopes and hopes and hopes.

“Oh, that,” Bennett says, and offers his most charming, boyish grin. “Well, we learned from the best, didn’t we?”

“We certainly did,” Rindy agrees, and there is nothing but gratitude and affection in the way she looks at Carol and Therese.

It wouldn’t make sense to anyone else – to most, it must seem that Rindy comes from a tragically broken home – but they all know better. Therese’s hand twitches in her lap as though she wants to reach for Carol; she doesn’t, but Carol senses the warmth of her touch all the same. She closes her eyes and holds that feeling near.

“Are you getting tired, Mama?” Rindy asks.

“A bit,” Carol opens her eyes again and glances at Therese. “How are you holding up?”

“Shattered,” Therese admits. “I hate to leave such a good party, though.”

“Yes,” Carol agrees. “Although I think it might be time for us old folks to push off and leave the younger generation to it.”

Bennett and Rindy offer token protests, but Carol can see that they’re excited to get back to their friends and the dance floor and the drinks that are still flowing freely. She and Therese get to their feet, wave to the crowd on the dance floor, and hug the bride and groom.

“I love you, my sweet girl,” Carol whispers into Rindy’s ear, clutching her as close as she can.

“I love you too, Mama. Thank you for everything.”

As they make their way out of the tent, they run into Harge and Millie. “If you were serious about that invitation, we’d love to come to dinner sometime,” Carol says.

“Oh, wonderful!” Millie exclaims. “I’ll call you this week to set something up.”

“We’ll look forward to it,” Harge says, sounding genuinely pleased.

They say their goodbyes, wave to the revelers once more, and then they’re free, walking across the sweet-smelling lawn in the moonlight. Once they’re more than a hundred yards away, they reach for each others’ hands, gripping tightly. “They’ll be all right,” Carol says. She doesn’t phrase it as a question, but that’s what it is. “She’ll be fine.”

They reach the driveway, and gravel crunches under their shoes. Beside her, Therese is silent, not answering nor even acknowledging her plea for reassurance until they get to the car. Then, with one swift look around to make sure they’re alone, Therese backs Carol up against the car and kisses her deeply. It is a firm kiss; a hard kiss; a kiss designed not to stir passion but to seed conviction. When Therese pulls away, her gaze is fixed and intent.

“Stop worrying so much,” she says. Under the pale glow of the moon, she looks as otherworldly and ethereal as Carol has ever seen her. Her voice carries the full weight of seventeen years of love and pain, of dancing and fear, of child-rearing and war. “She’s your daughter, Carol. She won’t just be fine. She’ll be magnificent.”

Carol drops her chin, presses their foreheads together. She breathes in the way Therese smells and imagines a newborn grandchild held between them. She closes her eyes, and she hopes.

Half a world away, boys are dying in the jungle. Miles from where they stand, Abby is alone in the bed she no longer shares with her lover. In the heart of the city, people like them are looking over their shoulders as they leave lonely basement bars. And yet, Rindy and Bennett are married. And yet, Carol is going home with the woman she loves. Even on this dark planet, she thinks, there are moments of bright, shocking light – brilliant flashes of something that feels almost like redemption.