Chapter 12 – We’ll always have India.

I pull up to the gallery. The new sign is perfect: elegant, simply beautiful, in a word: Tina. In fact, that’s practically what the sign says, ‘The Tina Kennard Gallery.’ I take in a deep breath and blow it out. I pull down the visor and slide back the shudder. Small lights glow around the edges of the mirror and I see my face. It’s nervous and anxious, but all the accoutrements are well in place.

I reach up to the mass of curls piled up off my neck and tuck an unruly tendril behind my ear. I see the action in the mirror and instantly think of Tina. It’s not hard to think of her, but I feel the edges of the hole in my chest tingle, my constant reminder that I’m walking around as half a person. God I miss her. It’s such a waste. If we only get one lifetime together, I don’t want to waste another moment of it without her.

I flip the visor back up in frustration and close my eyes. I give myself a moment to quiet the pain inside and grab the clutch from the passenger seat. I step out of the Saab carefully. I’m wearing a long, gray one piece, sleeveless dress with clean lines, a plunging back and neckline, and a black Italian leather belt clipped high around my waist. My matching black heels click on the asphalt as I make my way to the small mass of people gathering at the doors.

Of course I invited our closest friends who are all in attendance. But I also invited some of my closest business relations and contacts in the art world. I want this gift to be utterly official. Everyone will know that Tina is the better Bette Porter, that all of this is hers; I surrender who I am to her, all of me. It’s the last part of myself I have to give. That and the entire collection displayed inside, what used to be my personal collection. It’s all hers and the very knowledge of it brings a bright smile to my face.

I step past the small crowd greeting everyone as I make my way to the doors. James meets me at the large glass entrance and I turn to my guests. “Thank you all for coming. While I wanted us to all enter together, I don’t want to keep you waiting out in this uncharacteristically cold weather, so I’ll be quick.” I search the faces but none of them speak to me, call to me as only hers can.

“You are my dearest friends and colleagues. I invited you here tonight because so much has changed in the last six months.” I point to the new sign, lit in all its glory and proudly displayed by the front window. “As you can see, this is now the Tina Kennard gallery. I never was an artist, but I know beauty when I see it, and I’ve never met someone more beautiful than Tina. She is the love of my life and such a gift to me. It’s a privilege and an honor to return even a small portion of her warmth and generosity. This…” I put my hands out at my sides. “…all this, is my gift to her.” I put my arms down. The faces that greet me are warm and familiar, but I can’t help the tiny crack that starts to fracture across my heart. “Just inside, there’s a short video to introduce the Core Retrospective. I’m calling it that because it’s about core values: family, faithfulness, and commitment and I think you’ll find Tina’s private collection just as inspiring as the owner.”

There is a round of applause as James and I open the doors and I greet everyone individually as they enter. It takes several minutes, but soon everyone is inside waiting in front of the large screen in the extremely muted light of the front foyer.

I look out into the settling darkness of the parking lot and wait. Several more minutes pass and still no one else comes. James steps over to me and puts his hand on my shoulder. “Bette, all the invitations have been accounted for but one…”

I look to him and the tears of desperate loss well in my eyes. I nod at him and speak around the lump in my throat. “I know James. Go ahead and play the video. I want to wait a little longer.”

He smiles at me sadly and says, “Don’t be out here too long. It’s getting cold…”

I reach up and pat the hand resting on my shoulder. “I’m fine. Thank you though. Now, take this…” I hand him my clutch. “…leave it in my office, and go take care of our guests.” He nods once more and walks through the tall glass doors, shutting them behind him. I turn and watch as the screen flickers to life and the muted music starts to play. I can barely watch it, but I force myself to. I want to see it again, to compare the images of stolen touches, warm but passionate glances, and love laced facets  that touched our lives on the screen with my own vivid memory of them. I want to feel them now as I did then. Several minutes later, all of it dies away, prelude of the true nature of something so beautiful.

I turn back to look out into the dark expanse of city life bustling around this little piece of it I used to own, and I realize that she’s really not going to come. I close my eyes and my world stops as the crack in my heart webs out at harsh angles and deep fissures through the rest of the helpless tissue.

The life and sounds of the city keep going but my world has ended. How can they go on? Can’t they see the loss, feel it? No, they can’t. That’s life. It just…goes on. I feel something wet and cold touch the skin on my shoulder and look down to see the white fleck dissolve. What’s this…? I look up at the sky to see a few more white flecks flurry and flutter through the air, steadily growing in number. It’s snowing…

I stare as the sparse, translucent white pin dots fluster around on the wind before meeting the ground and fizzling away. I can’t help the smile that lights my face. Even the impossible is possible, if you only just believe. Maybe it’s just denial, but I believe. I believe in Tina and I believe in us. I just won’t give up. I stare through the quiet flurry and hug myself tightly as I rub my arms slowly. She’s not coming, but I still believe, maybe not tonight, but someday. I believe.

With one long sigh, I look one last time into the busy night before turning and walking inside. The tall doors shut out the cold behind me and I see Dana and Alice standing in front of the rare Allyn Barnes requisition. Dana has her hands on either side of Alice’s face and both are looking deeply into the other’s eyes; their open, elated expressions proof of the conviction of the words coming from their mouths, their hearts. The happy tears and smiles that adorn their faces glance across my own, and I reach up and cover my mouth as the tears fall from my own eyes.

I can’t help but gaze into this private moment with wonder and joy. Finally Dana kisses Alice sweetly and they hold each other tightly, rocking from side to side as if dancing to a tune only they can hear. I’m glad to have shared in this moment of joy. If I can’t fully have my own, I can think of no one more deserving.

I look around me and see that everyone is definitely enjoying the show as they amble back and forth from the hors d’oeuvres to the art. I walk through the crowd and spy Shane and Carmen holding hands and striding quickly for the front door. I shake my head and worry for Shane. I’ve seen first-hand what Carmen’s family is capable of, and while I’m thankful for the help, Shane could be in trouble. But I won’t let this dark cloud ruin this evening. I have finally given everything I have to give to Tina: my heart, my soul, my wealth, my art, my past, my present, my…future. If only she would want it. The tears come again and I roll my eyes.

I make my way toward the bathrooms to clean my face, but stop as I’m about to open the door. The two on the other side aren’t shouting, but I can hear what they’re saying. I can’t help myself. I lean in close and press my ear against the door to listen.

“Dylan, we’ve been through this…” God, she’s still fighting it. I roll my eyes and sigh.

“Why are you doing this? I know you love me! Why are you holding on to someone you don’t even want? I mean, look at you…” This voice is soft but strong and confident. “…you’re miserable and it breaks my heart because you just don’t have to be…”

I hear the sound of real tears and Helena chokes out, “I can’t, I just can’t…you don’t understand. It’s not Tina. I know I don’t love Tina…” Fucking finally…

“Then what? What good reason can there be? I’m sorry, but, ‘I just can’t,’ just isn’t good enough.” There’s a harsh sigh…and an ultimatum. “If you can look me in the eyes and tell me that you don’t love me, that you don’t want me, with conviction, I’ll leave now, and I’ll leave you alone for good…”

The tears turn to sniffles and I hear the sound of rushing water before the tearing of a towel from the holder. “I…I don’t…” You don’t what? There’s no sound coming from the room anymore. Long seconds later I hear a moan and a breathless, ‘Dylan,’ and decide that’s my cue to seek shelter elsewhere. I again smile brightly. At least Tina’s free. The tears well in my eyes again and I decide that I need to get out of here. I’m a wreck.

I walk to my office and flip on the light as I enter. I look to the clock on the wall and it’s almost eleven. Good, people will be leaving soon anyway. I sit down at my desk and hear a quiet knock at my door.

“Bette, sorry to interrupt, but you have a call from the fire commissioner. He’s on line one.” James points to my phone and I furrow my brow.

“Thanks James. I’ll take it.” He turns to walk away. “James?” He turns back around. “I’ll be leaving after the call. Can you take care of everything?”

He smiles patiently. “Sure Bette. Most of the guests are leaving anyway. Merry Christmas…”

I smile back at him. “Merry Christmas, James.”

He walks away, shutting the door behind him, and I pick up the phone, selecting the blinking button to activate the line. “Bette Porter.”

“Yes Ms. Porter. This is Jerry Tanner, Fire Commissioner for precinct fourteen. My men responded to a fire at 1412 Harper Avenue. You are listed as the previous owner and we were hoping you could help us reach the new one. We only have her name, but none of her personal information has been listed yet. We’ve almost put it out and…well, it looks like arson.”

Fuck. “Yes, of course. I’m on my way now. I’ll try to reach her on the way over. It should only take fifteen minutes.”

“Excellent. Thank you. See you shortly.” I hang up the phone and grab the clutch on my desk before jogging out the back exit.


 

I pull up to the house and everything looks fine, quiet even. Tina hasn’t responded. It’s still snowing but it’s so thin and it melts so quickly that it might as well be a misting rain. I furrow my brows and step out of the car, contemplating the empty house for long moments. I approach the door and find it unlocked. I turn the knob and push it open.

“Hello?”

It’s quiet and entirely dark, except for one small candle on the mantle. I walk fully into the room, glancing around. Please tell me this isn’t more of Candace’s nonsense. I find the room empty so I approach the mantle, setting my keys on the freshly stained surface, tears well in my eyes as I see the small framed photo slightly illuminated by the tiny, flickering light.

I pick it up and stroke the smiling faces behind the glass and remember again how utterly wonderful and miserable this trip was.

“That trip is probably one of the best memories I have of our life together.” I close my watery eyes and allow the beautiful voice behind me to recall its vivid counterparts in my memory. “I was terrified when you got sick. I thought you might die. But I took care of you…and you didn’t.” I hear the gentle brush of her legs as they bring her closer. “For once, you needed me, truly needed me, just like I always needed you. You needed me because you were deathly ill, and it made me feel…complete.  Is it wrong of me to feel that way?”

I place the frame gently, reverently on the mantle and turn to face her. She looks tired, but even at her worst she is still the most striking beauty I have ever seen. The tears in my eyes start to fall as I answer her in a haggard voice. “No, it’s not wrong of you. It was wrong of me not to show you how much I needed you in facing life, not death.”

She smiles but still doesn’t raise her eyes to mine. “I called the bank yesterday and found out that you never removed me from your account. Do you know what they told me?”

I chuckle as I reply, “That I’m your deceased great aunt Mariam, twice removed on your father’s side?” She laughs as well and I close my eyes as I soak up the warmth the sound inspires.

“I saw it…the video.”

I furrow my brows. “You were there?”

She fidgets with her jacket and finally looks up to me. Her smiling eyes are so open and gentle and I can see her very soul shining with life in the glassy depths. She lets out short, incredulous laugh that raises her eyebrow. I want so badly to touch it, to touch her, to confirm that she’s not the welcome apparition of a heartsick and fevered mind. “Bette…it blew me away…you blew me away. You just keep doing that…”

Tears fall from my eyes and I can barely whisper, “Good…”

She walks up to me and rests her hands on either side of my face looking deeply into my eyes, and I’m the one blown away. All her barriers are down and her insecurities are nowhere to be seen. She takes my hands and I support her as she gets down on her knees in front of me before pulling her left hand away to reach into her jacket pocket. Oh God, what’s happening?

She pulls out two rings, our rings, and I laugh through the tears. It was her…this whole time? She smiles so brightly that I can barely see the sheen of mischief in her eyes. “T…how…?”

“Alice and Dana. I knew some of what you were planning because I cornered Alice after she kept badgering me about the rings. I decided then to make plans of my own.” I laugh again and I raise my hand to wipe at my tears so I can see her before placing it over my mouth. “I’ve been staring at these rings for weeks since…well, I realized something that I’ve known for a while now but was just too afraid to admit, or maybe accept. You would never…EVER…hurt me. That’s just not who you are…not anymore. And, you need me, just as much as I need you.”

Her eyes grow warm and hopeful and joyful as she continues. “Bette…I know that we always said that we wouldn’t even consider getting married until we had full and equal rights under the law, and while it’s legal in thirteen states now, we still have a ways to go as a society before that’s entirely true; but I’ll be honest, I don’t give one single fuck about that.” We both laugh and I can hardly believe what I’m hearing. “I want to be your wife. I want to come home to you every night. I want to share a bed with you, a full life with you, and a family with you. Bette…” It’s all I can do to stay standing in the passionate gratification of this moment. “Will you be my wife?”

I can’t help the cry of happiness that escapes my lips, or the clumsy tumble to my knees, or even the desperate grasp for her face as I pull her lips to mine and kiss her with the promise of a thousand lifetimes together. It’s sweet, and warm, and honest, and desperate, and I finally pull away just enough to whisper, “Yes,” in a hoarse and tremulous voice.

She pulls back and we each take our respective rings with shaking hands and slip them onto slender fingers in turns. Once the rings are finally home, I raise her hand and kiss hers to seal the promise with complete devotion. She looks into my eyes as I gaze into hers and just like the ring, we are finally home.


Continued in The First Step is Always the Hardest.

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