I arrive at the house at around two o’clock. Stopping at the enormous wrought iron gate, I press the call button and wait. The small screen next to the dial flickers on and a female voice asks, ”How may I help you?”
”Yes, I’m Bette Porter. Helena …”
The disembodied voice interrupts, ”Ah, yes, I’ve been expecting you.” The large black gate starts to part and I pull up the driveway to an enormous, white, two-story waterfront home with floor to ceiling windows on most of the structure. The landscape is perfectly manicured and the water structures are striking. It’s almost industrial but decidedly warm. I’ve seen this property before…you’ve got to be joking…this is the house from ’Architectural Digest.’ Tina and I had practically drooled on the magazine pages when we saw it. Apparently, Helena has impeccable taste in women and real estate. Well, she can have the house…
I pull up to the parking area and take a deep breath. I’m nervous and anxious. I don’t really have a plan but it doesn’t really matter. I can’t control anything. This thought makes me laugh. It’s strange, but I don’t really want to. While it has been painful pulling myself out of my destructive black hole and trying to do the same for Tina, I’ve actually had more fun in the last few weeks than I have since…since…I really don’t remember a time I’ve had this much fun.
It’s sad to think that this has been the most enjoyable time of my life. Don’t get me wrong, I had wonderful times with Tina and the night I met her was truly incredible, but I was never really able to fully enjoy it, really have fun with it. Something always got in the way; whether it was work or family or even the fact that I was a cold-hearted bitch, I just couldn’t lean back and be happy, even with so much to give me cause. There was always something more to be had, planned or controlled. I had it all, and it wasn’t enough. What a sad, small person I had become. I can’t imagine how my life with Tina might have been if I’d been able to revel in it and see it for the joy and utter happiness it was. The enormity of my loss is great. Well, whatever happens here, it will be enjoyable; I’ll make sure of it.
The laughter of the moment warms my heart, washing away all of my nervous anxiety. I get to see Tina, be alone with her, and possibly stay with her in this beautiful home on a private portion of the ocean. I feel the joy of these thoughts and take a few moments to really feel them, let them envelope me like the embrace of a long lost friend.
I step out of the car and practically skip to the back, popping the trunk, and lifting out my luggage. I wasn’t sure how long I’d be here; it may only be an hour before Tina decides to take off due to my unexpected arrival. But, she has about a month before she has to be on set again, so I packed accordingly, hopefully.
I walk up to the front entrance where an older woman with salt and pepper hair is waiting at the open door. Her face is wizened but devoid of lines, except those that indicate a life lived with laughter. She’s maybe middle fifties with olive toned skin, and the glint in her eyes is mischievous. She’s petite, but she looks strong and fit, her posture perfect, and her demeanor motherly but no no-nonsense. My good mood and smile from before are still with me and I find myself instantly liking her. I extend my hand. ”Bette Porter. It’s nice to meet you.”
”It’s a pleasure Ms. Porter. I’m Sandra. Here, let me get those for you.” She reaches for my luggage but I stop her.
”Thank you, but that’s really not necessary. I don’t expect you to take care of me or be at my beck and call.”
Her returning smile is very warm as she stands aside and welcomes me in. ”I appreciate that, truly, but if you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask. I’m not a servant; I’m an employee and I enjoy my work.” She turns and looks at me over her shoulder. ”Excellent benefits.”
I laugh with real sincerity. ”Thank you Sandra; if I can’t manage it, I won’t hesitate to ask, but I think you’ll find I’m quiet, neat, and very capable.”
She claps her hands together and says, ”Well then, you’ll fit in nicely with our other guest, Ms. Kennard,” before walking ahead of me and gesturing for me to follow.
We walk through the foyer to the open concept kitchen and great room. ”As you can see, this is the main living area and kitchen.” Pointing down the hallway at the far end of the space, she says, ”That hallway leads to three bedrooms and two baths. And over there…” She gestures to wall of glass next to the kitchen. ”…a deck with private ocean access.”
I look to Sandra and smile, and she returns the sentiment. Who doesn’t love the ocean? And a private beach is hard to find in California. If I get tarred and feathered while I’m here, it’s worth it to have this kind of access. Sandra’s heels click on the hardwood flooring as she starts to climb the spiral staircase and I follow. Reaching the top, she turns and says, ”This is another other living area. And…” Her words cut off as she notices how blown away I am and allows me a moment to take it all in.
It’s beautiful. The room is vast and open with floor to ceiling windows along the wall facing the coastline, a vanishing line pool just beyond that makes you feel like you’re standing at the edge of the ocean itself. There’s a fireplace on the farthest wall and a comfortable sitting area that I almost can’t wait to curl up in with a good book, or maybe even a warm body called Tina.
I look to Sandra and we again smile at each other. She says, ”I thought you might like to stay up here as well. The room at the end of that hallway…” She points to the arch near the fireplace. ”Has this same view and a full en suite. Ms. Kennard is in a matching suite over there.” She gestures to the arch on the other side of the room. ”The master bedroom is on the third floor”
Ah, so it’s a partial three story. I look down the warmly lit corridor to Tina’s double doors and wonder if she knows I’m here. Turning to Sandra, I ask. ”Was Tina, Ms. Kennard, aware that I planned to stay here?”
She smiles and nods her head. ”Yes. She seemed indifferent to the idea, but then, she doesn’t say much. Are you two friends?”
I smile sadly and say, ”Yes, we’ve known each other for about eight years. She was…she’s a very good friend.” I decide to keep things light.
”Well that’s wonderful then. She seems…troubled, sad. A beautiful ocean getaway and a good friend might do her some good, open her up a bit.” I see the fire of knowledge in her eyes and consider that I may have an ally here. ”Anyway, why don’t you go see if you find your room acceptable and get settled? I’ll be in the kitchen if you find anything lacking. I’m here from noon to six everyday but Sunday. Ms. Kennard hasn’t requested my culinary services since she arrived, but I’d be more than happy to…”
”No, no, that’s really okay. I’ve been feeding myself for a while now. I can make do.” I wink at Sandra and she smiles before patting me on the arm. ”I’m glad you’re here Ms. Porter. You seem like a very capable woman, a woman who doesn’t give up easily or lose often. Don’t doubt those capabilities.”
I stare at her blankly, a little floored by her perceptiveness. She turns to walk away and I call out to her. ”Sandra?” She stops, turns, and meets my eyes. ”Call me Bette…and thanks.”
She smiles and gives a sly wink of her own before descending the stairs. My jaw starts to ache and I lift my hand to feel for the source of the discomfort, only to find that I’m smiling; in fact, I’ve been smiling this whole time. I walk through the archway and open the double wooden doors, setting my bags just inside.
The suite is enormous, easily as big as half my house with every modern creature comfort imaginable. The king size bed faces the ocean and the view is beyond spectacular, just as Sandra promised. I can’t help but sit on the edge of the bed and stare out the huge windows at the vastness of the ocean. I realize something that I never really had before. Don’t misunderstand, I’ve always had an affinity for the beach, but I never really understood Melville, Tennyson, or Whitman when they spoke of how insignificant they felt. But as I sit here, I start to feel infinitely small, infinitely inconsequential. No matter where I’ve been or what I’ve seen, or even what I’ve done, the universe mocks me like an ant under a magnifying glass.
Suddenly things don’t seem so hopeless. As giant and as ancient as the universe is, the ants are still here, but more than that, they’re thriving. Like the waves that crash the shore, we just keep coming back, harder, faster, stronger, and better than ever. So it would seem that despite our differences, the ocean and I have something in common; no matter how big or small you are; you matter if you endure. I always told guys in college that size isn’t everything, but that was just to pacify them. Who knew it was actually true? I laugh at this, and swear I hear the ocean laugh with me. With a deep satisfied sigh, I lay back on the bed and close my eyes.
I blink my eyes open and sit up. I hadn’t meant to fall asleep, just rest for a moment. Deciding the best way to break the ice with Tina is to cook dinner, I stand and unpack my things. The clothing is put away quickly. Taking my toiletries, I flip on the light in the bathroom. It’s huge as well, with a full four person shower and separate Jacuzzi tub. I place my toiletries bag on the counter and catch my image in the mirror before turning to leave and…turning back to the mirror. Who the fuck is that? Other than some makeup and hair, I haven’t really studied my face or noticed any changes, but today, now, it’s almost shocking.
The bags under my eyes are nearly vanished and the wrinkles around them less defined. My face is fuller, and my skin has a healthy hue to it. My hair is lush and glossy. The whites of my eyes are actually white, and the always dilated pupils have shrunk to a normal size, allowing some of the honey brown color to show. That in and of itself makes me look less imposing; all-black eyes tend to scare people.
My face is warm and open and…kind? Okay, that development is very new. My jeans and tank top are feminine but casual and I look alive and about six years younger. For a fleeting moment I apologize to my liver. I can’t believe what I was doing to my body. I can’t believe that I’ve stopped doing it but I’m so glad. I don’t know if it’s fair for me to be feeling so good inside and out knowing that Tina’s so miserable, but I’m going to do all I can to change that. This is the joy I promised to put on her face. If I can find it, I know she can. And if she can’t, I can show her where it is, maybe even lend her some.
I close my eyes and allow myself a moment to revel in the happiness of this hope and freedom, to examine it, and really feel it. I smile and open my eyes with a deep breath. Looking at my watch I see it’s about six o’clock. With a grin I quickly make my way down to the kitchen to catch Sandra before she leaves.
When I arrive, Sandra is nowhere to be found, but Tina is bent over in the crisper, pulling out ingredients for what I assume is a caesar salad, if the stuff already on the counter is any indication. I allow myself a moment to ogle her ass. Fuck poetic license. I’m not admiring how the tight, low-rise jeans barely cover the curve and swell of it as they clearly identify every indention, or even the cute way it bounces as she rummages. No, I am ogling the shit out it with nothing but pure unadulterated lusty intent.
I feel a flush of familiar heat decidedly southward and with a lecherous grin and a sway in my hips, I stride over, squat down beside her, and lean in close to her ear. Adopting the most seductive timbre in my arsenal, I say, ”Can I help you find something?”
She jerks her head in my direction letting out a surprised scream while lifting her elbow and cracking me hard in the eye. My head snaps back and I begin to fall so I reach out and grab her arm and we go tumbling to the floor in a tangled mass of arms and legs, me on my back and Tina sprawled out on top of me.
We both take a moment to catch our breath and I feel my eye starting to throb and swell. That was not a good idea. She lifts her head from my chest and bracing her arms on either side of me, she lifts herself up, her eyes meeting mine. Fuck, she’s pissed. Just as she opens her mouth to tear my ass open, her face softens and she touches my eye so gently that I could die now and be happy. I almost can’t believe it when I hear a whispered, ”Are you okay?”
Tears well in my eyes and she scrambles to get off of me, misinterpreting my tears as pain. She has no idea that I’m just so happy that I saw my wife, the real Tina. She sits against the fridge and stares at me while I lift myself up. The world spins and I sway a bit. Tina’s face turns into a mask of horror and she rushes to my side and takes me in her arms, letting me lean against her.
”Fuck Bette! I didn’t mean to hit you, I swear! You just scared the shit out of me!”
This is a cozy warm nest I’m resting in. Why on earth would I reassure her I’m fine when I can milk it for all it’s worth? Nestling my nose against the skin of her throat, I don’t say a word but moan a bit, a genuine moan that she again misinterprets, and wrap my arms around her to soak up the surreal warmth of the moment.
I hear a timid and frightened, ”Can you sit up? I’m going to call an ambulance.” I take a deep breath of her lavender scent with me as I sit up and look at her. She’s worried, truly worried, and I glory in the moment.
”No, T, I’m okay. I just got a little dizzy and I have a headache, but I’m not sleepy or nauseated. I think I’m fine.” She closes her eyes and lets out a relieved breath. I grab her hand and squeeze it to get her attention. ”I’m sorry I scared you. I really wasn’t trying to, just play with you a little bit.”
Her expression becomes annoyed and she looks at our hands, pulling hers away awkwardly before standing. She looks down at me for a moment as if deciding something before reaching her hand out to help me up. I take her hand and stand but I’m still a little disoriented, so she helps me to a stool. I sit with a groan. My back is a little stiff.
”Look, are you sure you’re okay? If you need to go to the hospital, I’ll call an ambulance for you.”
I smile at her and lift the hand she had forgotten to retrieve this time, delicately kissing the knuckles. ”I know you would but it’s not necessary. It’s nothing a couple ibuprofens and an ice pack can’t cure. Thank you for helping me though, since this is entirely my fault.” I smile so brightly at her that she looks at me disbelievingly and stutters out a few short laughs. I stare at her beautiful face and the tears well up in my eyes again. ”What?”
She throws her hands up and slaps them on her thighs as she bends to pick up the scattered vegetables. ”Nothing…really…it’s just…” She stands and eyes me speculatively before going to the sink and setting them inside.
”Come on T, what is it?”
She turns and leans against the counter before gesturing to me in general. ”You, Bette. You’re so…different.”
I smile at her and she rolls her eyes. ”See what I mean? You’re all smiles and soulful eyes anymore. Hell, you’re playful and swim nude!” I can’t tell if this angers her or if she’s just having a hard time accepting these changes. ”And not once, in all the time we were together, were you this clumsy.”
I smile at her again and she breathes out a frustrated, ’Ugh,’ as she again throws her hands up. Suddenly she stands up from the counter and looks at me with a gaze so serious, I can’t help but hesitate to ask what’s wrong. With the way her emotions are lately, it could be any number of things, some painful for bystanders. After a long moment, she finally walks up to me and asks, ”You…you’re not…” She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. ”…you’re not…dying…are you?”
My brow furrows and tears well in my eyes again, though this time not with happiness. Is that what she thinks of me? I’m such a monster in her eyes that I’d have to be dying to change, or care, or show emotion, or be playful? I see her steady, hesitant gaze and realize that this is exactly what she thinks. I close my eyes and lower my head, the torment of the moment far too real and soul rending to keep my heart from breaking into pieces.
I feel her hands grip my face and lift my head almost roughly as the tears actually fall. The panic in her voice is unmistakable. ”Bette! You’re not dying?!”
I open my eyes and gaze at her. Seeing the sheer anxiety and fright, my heart skips a beat and I hasten to reassure her. Grabbing her hands and holding them to my face, I say, ”T, no…no, not that like.”
Tears well in her own eyes but she blinks them away and blows out a relieved breath before the last of my words register. ”What do you mean not like that?”
I look in her eyes and for once, I don’t repeat my mistakes. Instead of presuming to know what she wants to hear, I ask. ”T, I don’t presume to know what you want to hear. If you want an honest answer, I’ll give it to you. But I’m warning you that you may not like it and I’m not ready to lose you to anger. This is the first decent conversation we’ve had in ages.”
Her face is shocked. She opens her mouth to speak but can’t seem to find words. Finally, she says, ”I can handle it now. I’m not as angry as I was before.”
My answering smile is as bright and warm as a brilliant fire on a cold rainy night. I take her hands from my face and kiss each palm in turn before resting them in my lap. I wipe at the fresh tears in my eyes and clean the single track from her cheek with my thumb. ”You have no idea just how happy I am to hear that.”
She returns my smile with a sad one of her own and I answer her question. ”I’m not dying in the sense that I have life threatening illness but…in a way…I did die.” She looks at me and furrows her brows. Taking a deep breath, I continue. ”I was dying long before but when our son died…something in me did as well.”
She looks up at me and her eyes glaze over in what I can only assume is soul shatteringly intense pain. I stroke her cheek to pull her back from that cliff and say, ”I know.” Her eyes take on brilliant warmth and for a moment, I can almost physically see the strength passing between us via a connection that supersedes any sense of logic or physical laws. ”After that, well, you know how bad I became.” I lower my head in supplication as the last part is said but look up to make sure she can see the open and honest sincerity of the words I’m about to speak. ”I am…” I shake my head. ”…there are not words for how much I regret all the things I did to you, to us. But if it’s any consolation, I did them to myself first.”
She pulls back gently, breaking the connection. I can tell she’s overwhelmed and confused by how intimate this all is given that, in her mind, I’m the enemy. I don’t let her take everything though. I cup her hand in my own and hold it up to my heart.
How can I help her to accept that I’m not the enemy, that I’m a different person? ”T, why is it so hard for you to believe that maybe I’m just…I don’t know…changed? I don’t need to be dying to know that I wasn’t actually living. I’m just so sorry that you only got the worst of me.”
She considers my question very critically for a moment before furrowing her brow, looking to our hands and asking, ”How did you figure it out? I mean, I tried so hard to get you to open up before. Why didn’t it…why wasn’t I…” She shakes her head and her sigh is defeated but I understand the question.
”T, I know it doesn’t make sense, but none of the mistakes I made had anything to do with you. And there were things that were completely out of our control. Our son didn’t die because you failed.” She looks at me as if she’s been shocked and I nod my head. ”Yeah, I carried that same guilt for a long time too.” I squeeze her hand and continue. ”I didn’t cheat because I no longer found you desirable. And the night after Provocations…honestly, I have no idea how any of that happened. There was just nothing you could do, you were helpless. I was the only one who could fix me, and you couldn’t reach me because I was too far under to even meet you halfway.”
The shame on her face is mirrored in my own but she asks a question that must have been burning in her mind for more than a year. ”Then why did you cheat.”
I shake my head and furrow my brows. ”I was so empty T. There’s no good reason or excuse, but I can honestly say that I think I was just trying to fill a void. You and I were so distant and I thought that maybe I had fallen out of love with you, but that wasn’t it. It just seemed the chasm between us was too vast to cross and honestly, I was too weary and weak to put any effort into it…so I gave up. I gave up on you and then gave up on life in general. Nothing mattered anymore. I was a fool, a weak and pathetic fool. I promise you though; you are as beautiful and desirable now as you were then; you always will be.”
She nods her head and retrieves her hand before letting go and breathing out a nervous breath. I can tell that she doesn’t believe me but this is enough to process for one night; and oh what a night it is. There’s an awkward silence before she runs her fingers through her hair, turns, and goes to the cabinet by the fridge. She opens it and pulls out the ibuprofen.
”T, are we okay? I mean you seem to be…friendly. I just don’t really know what you’re thinking right now and that conversation was pretty…intense.”
She continues to the freezer in silence and I begin to get worried. Too much too soon. Fuck. She reaches in for the icepack and then pulls a bottle of water from the other side. Walking over to me, she sets them down next to me and braces her hands against the counter avoiding my eyes.
”I think I’ll be okay Bette. I’m just…so overwhelmed right now. I haven’t been in a very good place and…and I feel…well I don’t feel much. It’s like something’s broken in me and I have no idea how to fix it…”
Her voice sounds so monotone and clinical, detached. ”I understand all too well. Just remember that what can be broken can be fixed. I’m living proof of that.”
She eyes me speculatively and asks, ”How did you fix it?”
I smile sadly and ask, ”Have you grieved T? Really grieved for anything…everything?”
She stops for a moment and truly considers the question as she opens the pill bottle and shakes a couple into my hand. I smile thankfully and chase them down with the water. Grabbing the icepack, I eye her with the healthy one and wait for an answer.
”I grieved for our son, but not much else. I had you when we lost the baby. Despite all of the other stuff that happened, you actually helped me with that, but then you fucked off…”
I feel my anger pique. Tossing the icepack on the counter, I turn to face her and interrupt her. ”I fucked up. I did not fuck off. I did not leave. I am still here.” She meets my gaze, lowers head, and nods her agreement.
I rub her on the shoulder and sigh. ”I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to lose my temper. It’s been hard for me to learn to let the emotions happen but still somehow control them. That’s what freed me.” She eyes me curiously and I can tell she’s really listening so I continue. ”That day…that I showed up at your home…I went back to my house and grieved so violently that I destroyed the Lisa Yuskavage.”
She looks at me incredulously. ”You can’t be serious.”
I nod my head and smile sadly at her. She sits on the stool next to me and takes a drink from my water. ”Why? You loved that painting more than…anything.”
I snort and gaze at her fully before saying, ”I think that is why. I put more value in things than what was really important, than you.” I laugh ironically. ”You know something, I haven’t thought of that painting once since I had to throw it away, but I’ve thought of you every minute for more than a year now.”
She looks at me with a wary expression and sighs. ”Bette, I’m not sure if I can even be friends with you; I don’t know if I can trust you enough. I don’t want you to…I just think we need to…”
I take her hand and furrow my brow. ”Tina, I won’t lie. I want you back.” I look to her just as she starts to panic and hasten to continue. ”But, I don’t expect anything from you. If you can even be civil to me, it’s more than I deserve.”
She blows out a breath and pulls her hand away. ”I do still…love you Bette, I always have.” She says this so softly that I have to strain to hear her. ”I’m just not sure what that means anymore. I don’t know if I actually even believe in love anymore.”
A tiny ray of hope battles with the overwhelming darkness of despair at the two conflicting emotions these words inspire. ”That’s okay T. I have enough faith for the both of us.”
This seems to calm her a bit and I actually see a small genuine grin. I can feel that ray of hope grow stronger. ”So, if I’m not mistaken you were making a caesar salad. Mind if I help?”
Her smile widens a bit more and then she laughs. ”You’re joking right? You? Cook?”
I glare at her playfully and reply, ”Sure. I mean a ceasar salad isn’t hard. I can boil the lettuce while you melt the parmesan cheese…”
She glowers at me in a knowing manner. ”Right, well, how about you continue to ice your war wound and keep me company while I cook? I’m more confident in your ability to eat.”
I smile at her and she picks up the icepack, slapping it gently onto my eye. I wince as she goes to the sink to wash her hands and rinse the vegetables. Even over the sound of the water, I swear I hear her laugh and my world rights itself.