”Hey, come in.” I smile brightly and step aside to let Alice and Dana in. ”You’re about an hour early, but you’re welcome to keep me company. I’ve almost got everything set…”
”Bette, everything is set. That’s why we’re early! I wanted to talk to you and let you know what’s going on!” Alice is so excited that she’s jumping up and down and rapidly clapping her hands.
Dana shuts the door and gives me an utterly exasperated look. Alice grabs my hands and excitedly rushes over to the sectional, pulling me along after her. Landing on the couch with an ungraceful ’oof’, Dana follows as Alice turns in my direction and tucks a foot up under her. Apparently, she needs to be comfortable to finish regaling me with the details of this nightmare I’m positive will somehow become entirely my fault.
”Okay, so after we left the Planet, I called Helena on the way home. I started telling her how worried I am for Tina and how I wish there was something I could do, but of course I have no chance of helping her with Sam in the picture, blah, blah, blah. Anyway, Playing it as pathetic as possible, I said, ’I wish Sam would just disappear for like, a year.’ She agreed, of course, and we spent about half an hour trying to figure out a way to make that happen. It was exhausting. For a woman with money, she’s a bit slow. Even Dana figured it out faster.”
”Hey! I’m right here Alice, exactly right here.”
Dana crosses her arms over her chest and slumps into a sulking position as Alice waves her off and continues. ”After going over several ideas, she finally realized that she could send Sam away to a super remote location, in Alaska, shooting footage of whales for the discovery channel, and she would be gone a full seven months!”
Leaning forward and pinching the bridge of my nose, I wrack my brain, trying to find any way to make this all stop. Giving Dana a scolding look for starting this, I then turn to Alice. ”Al, I told you I want nothing to do with this.”
”No, what you told me is that you want a chance at Tina. Well, this is your chance.”
Sigh. ”Al, think about it. Put yourself in Tina’s position. If you found out that Dana broke up your relationship to be with you, how would you feel?”
Alice seems to truly consider my words for a minute and I have a brief moment of hope that I might reach the more sensible side of her. It only lasted a moment. She holds up her hand and starts counting off points on her fingers. ”First, if my relationship was abusive, I wouldn’t want it. Second, if it was that easy for someone to break us up, it wouldn’t have lasted anyway. Third, if my friends don’t like her, again, I don’t want it. It’s a package deal for me, spouses, partners, lovers, lesbian identified males, what have you, either assimilate or go home. And finally, if I got Dana out of the deal, I’d be as happy as a big gay box of birds, regardless of whether she had a hand in it or not.”
As she says this last part, she looks to Dana and grabs her hand, not letting it go. She turns back to me and her smile slowly fades as she realizes just how desperate I am to stop this. ”Alice, Dana hasn’t hurt you like I’ve hurt Tina. I may want another chance, but she may not want to give it.”
”Bette! Come on! Tina loves you, I’m sure of it! You fucked up, but it’s obvious you’d never do that again.”
Sighing and meeting her eyes, I explain, ”Alice, it’s not just the affair. You don’t understand.”
Showing a little more compassion, she says, ”Come on Bette, work with me here. Everybody knows that you and Tina are special, that you belong together. That’s why the affair…the break-up, was so devastating for everyone. We watched a huge part of our family just fall apart, and worse, fall away. She’s not just Tina and you’re not just Bette. You’re Tina and Bette…Tibette!” She starts laughing at her own joke, and after a few moments, realizes that no one’s laughing with her. Playfully pushing my shoulder, she says, ”You know, like Brangelina, Beniffer, and TomKat? Come on people, work with me here.”
”Oh…nice one Alice! Tibette!” If I didn’t know any better, I swear I see a lightbulb slowly fizzle on above Dana’s head. This image is only further punctuated by a huge toothy smile that crinkles her nose and giggles interspersed with dainty snorts.
While Dana and Alice have their moment of levity, I realize that while she’s insane, she’s still absolutely right. Tina’s my soulmate. But what Alice can’t seem to comprehend is that I failed Tina on way too many levels to ever make it right. Tina may be gentle, a touch passive aggressive, and exceedingly patient, well normally, but she’s proud. What does it say about someone who stays with a spouse, or more directly comes back to a spouse, who treats them the way I did? Sure, I know that I’d never make the same mistakes again. If I can’t say anything else, I can say that I learned from my mistakes. But how many people say they’ve changed when that’s just not the case? No, the old axiom is ’Once a cheater, always a cheater.’ Hell, there’s even ’Hit me once, shame on you. Hit me twice, shame on me.’ I never hit her, no…I cheated on her…and then held her down and raped her…fuck, why does it always come back to this?
”If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I need to use the powder room.” This gets their attention and a worried weight settles in the room as I make a hasty retreat. I get to the bathroom in just enough time to make it to the toilet before emptying my stomach. Sitting on the floor, I scoot back and lean against the wall, taking a bit of toilet paper with me to clean my mouth.
”Al, I just need a minute okay?” The look on her face says it’s not okay. She comes and sits down next to me and runs her hand in small circles on my back.
”Bette, what happened?” I close my eyes to catch my breath and a sharp image assaults me.
She was still struggling, but her struggles and cries were weaker. She sounded so pitiful and defeated. I thought that maybe I was reaching her. I started to kiss her cheeks, and shoulders, and neck, trying to get her to realize that I loved her and I was not trying to hurt her. I needed to express that in some primal way; I wouldn’t cause her further harm, I couldn’t, could I? Then it went from wrong to worse. As I kissed her, I became increasingly desperate. Some part of me thought that if we could make love, that she would know that I meant it, that I felt it. I needed her so badly to know that. I held her down and pulled at her dress to expose more of her back. I wanted to kiss her, to worship her, to reaffirm my love and desire for her. Her dress tore away like paper, the sound echoing in my heart, in her heart. I had regained control of the situation by losing it completely.
My eyes snap open and a stark panic fills my heart, making my head and stomach swim. Pushing Alice away, I reach the toilet in time to heave so violently it forces me to cough. I feel Alice’s small warm hands pull my hair together at my neck and a watery voice call out, ”Dane, I need a cold wet washcloth and a bottle of water.” Pushing up on my shaking arms, I close my eyes again.
Her upper body was fully exposed now. I ran my hand down the side of her breast and under her hip to touch her, to bring her pleasure, to connect, just connect in some way. Her whimpers were muffled and small so I took advantage of her calm. ”I love you! You have to believe me! I love you!”
My eyes again snap open. I feel something cool at the back of my neck and look up to see Alice, looking at me with so much compassion in her eyes, so much compassion I don’t deserve. I once called Faye Buckley, leader of the Provocations extremists, a monster when she said that God took my child to spare him the degradation of mine and Tina’s love on national television. But no, I’m the monster. My stomach wants to rebel again, but there’s nothing left, so my emotions find another release, and I cry piteously. Alice collects me in her arms, shh’ing me and coo’ing in my ear. She says it’ll be okay, she even believes it, but she’s wrong. She just has no idea how wrong she is.
I blink my eyes open. I’m in my bed and I’m alone. Looking at the bedside clock, I realize it’s seven thirty. I can hear the muffled murmurs of talking coming from the living room and footsteps getting louder. I sit up as Dana walks in.
”Hey, it’s okay Bette. Alice cancelled the dinner. Everything’s taken care of, just settle down and rest. Do you need anything?” Propping up against the headboard, I see a bottle of water and some ibuprofen on the nightstand. She sees this and gets them for me. I swallow down a couple of caplets before sitting back.
I look at Dana and say, ”Thanks. I…I’m sorry for what happened and for ruining the dinner.”
”Hey you didn’t ruin anything,” Alice says from the doorway. She comes in and crawls up next me to me on the bed. Rubbing my leg she asks, ”You feeling any better?”
I nod my head. ”Yeah, I’m alright now. Thanks for your help. What happened? Was everyone upset that I cancelled?”
She shakes her head and says, ”Nah, no one’s upset. Tina and Sam were going to cancel anyway, something about some bad news at work.” She gives me a knowing grin with this information before realizing that this topic caused my earlier breakdown and quickly moving on. ”Um, Shane is here. She’s cleaning up in the kitchen. I called Helena and told her that you weren’t well. So she’s really the only person I had to cancel.”
”Thanks for handling it Alice.” Leaning further into the pillows, I fluff them a bit and relax a little more fully.
”Um, Bette…did you…want to talk about what happened? I mean, you were fine one minute…and then…well…it just didn’t seem like you had the flu.” Her gaze is open and compassionate and she resumes caressing my leg. Dana crawls up next to Alice and settles down behind her, propping herself up on her elbow.
I’m not sure whether I should tell them. I could lose them completely. But I promised not to shut them out and honesty had worked thus far. Taking a huge breath, I say, ”Get Shane in here. If I’m going to relate this, I’m only going to do it once. Maybe if you know everything you’ll stop this insane idea of yours.”
Alice shakes her head, as stubborn as ever, but pulls out her cell phone and starts texting. Dana and I just stare at her in disbelief. ”What? I don’t want to move. We’re all comfy.” Dana and I just smile incredulously.
”You rang?” Shane steps up to the bed and I smile at her.
”Get comfortable Shane, I have something to tell you guys.” She eyes me cautiously, but does as requested, propping up against the headboard on what’s normally my side of the bed.
”Alice, what I’m about to say does NOT, under any circumstances, leave this room. I have a contract in my briefcase that I will make you sign in blood if that’s what it will take for you to keep your mouth shut. Be honest Alice. I know you’re dying to know, but this is the most important request I’ve ever made of you. Do you understand and agree?” She looks at me like I’ve lost my mind but nods her head saying, ”I swear,” in a defensive and irritated voice.
I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and begin to relate the lowest moment in my life. ”How much did Tina tell you guys about what happened here the night after the Provocations show?”
Fuck, maybe this was a mistake. I look around at the faces of the few pieces of my family I have left and can’t make heads or tails of their expressions, there are just too many at once: incredulity, horror, shock, pain, and anger, to name a few, all of them mixing to create blank masks. I’m not sure what the appropriate thing to say is. What do you say after you finish relating the details of something so horrific, ’Cut, wrap, print?’
The first one to break the silence, surprisingly enough, is Shane. ”Bette, can you clarify something for me?”
I look down and nod, playing with a piece of imaginary lint on the comforter.
”Okay, so you both sort of…attacked each other…and you started to…touch…her. But, you didn’t go…all the way…because she freaked out?”
With a deep, exhausted sigh, I reply, ”Yes, I forced her down and touched her everywhere…but she fought…”
I hear Alice mumble, ’Well, yeah!’
Shane looks to Al, and in a reproving voice says, ”Al, you’re not helping.” She looks back to me and pats me on the knee. ”It’s okay Bette. What happened next?”
Leaning my head back, I continue. ”When I tried to touch her…there, she lost it, and flipped us over. I only touched her there when she…well…demanded it…basically. I did hold her down though, and tear her dress practically off of her. I kept touching her in other places, even after she begged me to stop…” My stomach roils and I can’t continue. I readjust the pillows trying to find a modicum of comfort.
”Okay. So what would you say your role was?”
Without a moment’s hesitation, I answer honestly from the most ashamed part of my soul. ”I’d call myself the predator, a rapist.” Saying it out loud, hearing the harshness of those labels being suffixed to me, makes it more real than the memories of it. It’s terrifying.
Dana moves and sits at the end of the bed facing the wall. Alice has her head in her hands and has yet to even look up at me. The enormity of what is going to happen strikes me. I’m going to lose them. They can’t forgive this. Why should they? It’s unforgivable.
Shane, sitting forward and playing with her bottom lip nervously, as if she’s debating something critical, starts again. ”What would you say Tina’s role was?”
Rolling my head to face her, I lose all sense of reason and shout, ”The prey, the fucking victim! What does it matter what labels I give it?!” I abruptly fling myself from the bed, grab the lamp on the nightstand, and throw it at the glass patio doors. They crack, but the satisfying destruction never comes. Turning around to face my friends, my family, I find them looking at me in shocked silence and sadness.
”I RIPPED HER FUCKING CLOTHES OFF WHILE SHE BEGGED ME TO STOP! I HELD HER DOWN WHILE SHE WHIMPERED AND CRIED!” I grab my head at the temples and continue in a subdued and defeated voice. ”Fuck! I violated her! I violated her love, her trust, her very soul, and when that wasn’t enough, I tried to violate her body! I RAPED…MY FUCKING…WIFE!”
With this last declaration, all the fire leaves me. I want to cry, need to, but the tears are all gone, as if there are none left in me. I stumble over to the loveseat and collapse. Resting my elbows on my knees, I grip my scalp and hair and wish for death to find me.
I hear movement from the bed and look up to see Shane walking towards me. She kneels in front of me and grips my hands. ”I know something that Tina told me in the strictest confidence.” At this, she turns to Alice and catches her gaze. Alice, wounded, just crosses her arms over her chest, sighs, and nods her head. Looking back to me, Shane continues, ”A couple months after she moved, I went to see Tina at her new place. The way she was responding to my texts…well…I was worried about her. Anyway, when I got there she was drunk, very drunk. She and Helena had just broken up and she told me what happened between you. She was…I don’t know…scary. Everything she said…it was like she was relating a movie, detached. She threatened to kill me if I ever told. I believed her.”
I look at her completely nonplussed. She knew, this whole fucking time, and tortured me with her questions? She reads my reaction and explains, ”I don’t break a confidence Bette, not unless I have to, with or without being threatened. You know that.”
She’s right. I do know that. I’ve trusted her with the darkest parts of my soul and not only has she kept them safe, she’s never judged me, not once. Offering the best smile I can manage, I reassure her. ”I know Shane, I do. It’s one of the many things that make you such a good friend.”
Smiling at me, she brushes my hair back to make sure I’m looking at her. ”So then, you’ll understand that it’s difficult for me to break it right now, but given your answers, I think it’s too important not to. Bette, Tina doesn’t see things the same way. She thinks that she hurt you, that she violated you…”
I can’t even comprehend what Shane is saying. ”You’re not serious…”
”Bette, I have no reason to lie to you. Tina carries around the same needless guilt you do and she handled it exactly the same as you did, only in a different way. You both disappeared, you literally, and Tina by becoming…different. You both blame yourselves and not the other, at least, not for this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that what you both did to each other isn’t fucked up. It is, but I don’t think either of you is fully to blame for that night.”
I snort out an incredulous laugh. ”You’ve got to be kidding Shane! That night never would have happened if I hadn’t fucked Candace! This is entirely my fault!”
Shaking her head and sighing, she continues. ”Bette, fucking around was most definitely your fault and Tina’s clear on blaming you for that, but we’re not talking about you fucking around on Tina. We’re talking about you…essentially…raping her. You didn’t. You may have come close, even tried, but it didn’t happen. I honestly don’t think you were trying to hurt her, just stop her from hurting you or herself, and the situation got very confused. If you want to hate yourself and carry around guilt, that’s fine. All I’m saying is that you should only carry the guilt that belongs to you. No matter what happens in a relationship, any relationship, both parties are responsible. It’s never just one person’s fault.”
Alice’s small voice chimes from the bed. ”She’s right.” I look to Dana and she nods her agreement.
Standing, I walk over to the patio doors and stare out at watery lights of the pool. Shaking my head I turn around and throw my hands up. ”Okay then! I’m absolved! Hallelujah! Now all I need to do is visit the pope, get splashed with some water, and hope that I don’t burst into fucking flames for all the other shit I’m guilty for!”
Alice stands from the bed, grabs Dana’s hand and walks over to Shane, taking hers as well. The three of them walk up to me. Alice looks me in the eyes and says, ”We all fuck up Bette, royally. You wouldn’t allow yourself to grieve the loss of your child, and you were lost to Tina’s grief. You fucked up, royally. But you’re learning as you go, just like everyone. You and Tina are stronger than all of that though; you just have to fight your way through it, and we’re here to help you. You’re not alone.” She looks to Dana, then Shane, squeezing their hands in tandem before releasing them completely. She puts her arms around my waist and rests her head under my chin. ”I’m not the pope, but I am a saint…” This gets a collective snort in response. ”Don’t listen to them…anyway, like I was saying before I was rudely interrupted, I’m not the pope, but I still love you, and I forgive you. You should too.”
Dana walks up and hugs us both from the side. ”Yeah, like Saint Alice said, I love you and forgive you.”
Shane just smiles and says, ”I may be too butch for group hugs…” Alice reaches back and grabs Shane’s shirt, dragging her forward. She smiles and wraps her arms around us from the other side. Before I know it, the tears are here again. I wrap my arms around them and thank whatever power that may be listening for such a wonderful family.
We stand there for several long moments, long moments of love, compassion, and forgiveness that I really don’t deserve but soak up like a dusty, dry sponge. That’s how grace works isn’t it? You can’t deserve it. It’s a gift, given freely. ”So, what do I do now…where’s forward?”
The tangle of arms and limbs that we’ve all become loosens a bit, but not completely. Alice looks up at me and smiles brilliantly. ”We help Tina save herself just like we’re helping you. I have a feeling that once you heal individually, you will heal together.”
I’m speechless. Shane reaches up to Alice’s forehead and says, ”Al, you feeling okay? That was pretty deep…” Alice bites at Shane’s hand and we all laugh, relieved that no matter what happens; we can get through it together.
Al gets a mischievous glint in her eyes and says, ”Or, I can throw some water on you and see if you burst into flames?”
My grin grows impossibly wider. Even in darkest and shittiest times, these people know how to make me laugh. While I’m waxing poetic on the value of great friends, I don’t even notice when Shane opens the patio doors. Alice tightens her hold on me and, like a sentimental fool, I believe it’s a comforting gesture. Before I know it, six hands are dragging me through the doors where all four of us catapult over the edge of the pool with a tremendous splash.
I reach the surface sputtering and spitting and, for a moment, I have a twinge of anger. I hate pranks like this. No, the old Bette hates pranks like this. Looking around I see Alice reach the surface only to scream when Dana pulls her back under, and Shane already standing on the diving board half naked, clumsily tugging off her wet jeans. I start to laugh helplessly, uncontrollably. It feels amazing, freeing. I swim to the shallow end of the pool, get out, and start tearing off my own clothes. Who gives a shit about appearances or decorum? They have their place, but not amongst family. I will learn to relax and enjoy myself if it kills me.
A soaked skirt hits me in the face and I hear, ”WHOOO! Bette’s on fire! We need crosses and pitchforks, and torches…” Alice’s diatribe fades away to silence. Pulling the sopping cloth from my face, and looking at her, I see her face set in a shocked expression, the same mirrored by Dana, not Shane though. She comes running at me naked as the day she was born, only to blow past me.
I turn just in time to see her grab Tina around her waist. Tina starts screaming and kicking, but it’s no use. Shane drags her to the side of the deep end. Tina’s shriek of ”Don’t you dare,” is the last thing heard before Shane unceremoniously tosses her in and cannonballs in right next to her. Tina reaches the surface gasping and wearing a very sour expression. She stares at Shane for a moment before pushing her away harshly and shouting, ”That was fucked up Shane.” She then turns to the side of the pool and begins to pull herself out, all the while cursing under her breath. Shane sees this and quickly tugs Tina back in.
In all the years I’ve known these people and watched them cavort in the pool like children, I’ve never seen Tina act this way. She was always so much fun. I was the one that could never find the heart to join them; it was too undignified. Tina had no such problem. But now, she seems truly angry.
Reaching the surface again, she slicks her hair back and yells in Shane’s face. ”Stop it! What the fuck is wrong with you?! Fuck Shane, grow up!”
Is that how I am…was? It’s a shame to know how much time I wasted. It’s a crime to see that the happy, fun-loving parts of Tina are gone. It’s downright devastating to know that I did this to her. I said before that Tina was strong and able to get out without completely losing herself. I sincerely thought that was true, but, as I’m learning with most things, I was wrong.
”See what I mean Bette? She’s like this all the time!”
I turn to see Alice and Dana standing beside me, removing what’s left of their wet clothes, and I realize that Alice is right. While this plan is insane and entirely underhanded, something has to be done and Sam has to be out of the picture long enough for that to happen.
I turn back to see Tina finally pull herself up out of the pool. Shane shakes her head, a hurt expression on her face, and starts to swim to the shallow end. Tina walks up to me and puts her finger in my face. ”And you! What did you do? This shit with Sam has your stink all over it!” She turns then to Alice, ”Don’t get me started on you.” Looking back at me, she continues, ”Let me make something perfectly fucking clear Bette…”
She says my name with so much venom that I consider getting a tetanus shot. She gouges her finger into my breast bone, punctuating her words with sharp jabs. ”You haven’t been back in my life for even two months and already you’ve broken your word! You said you weren’t here to hurt me or interfere, but that’s exactly what you’re doing! You think you have the right to have Sam shipped away? You think you know what’s best for me and who should speak for me?”
At this she laughs in what sounds like a short grunt. It seems that the more she speaks, the more irate she becomes. It all feels so familiar, so much like that terrible night, but I refuse to repeat what happened. Instead, I just stand back and let her get it out. I don’t try to defend myself or stop her. If one of us gets hurt, then it will be me. If this is what she needs, then she’ll get it.
She shoves me roughly and screams, ”GET A FUCKING CLUE! YOU DON’T OWN ME, NO ONE DOES! STAY OUT…OF MY…LIFE!” She turns in a circle making sure to meet everyone in the eyes before shouting her last demand. ”ALL OF YOU!” Her eyes return to mine, and just like before, her face morphs, and there is nothing left of the woman that I loved. The utter hatred and loathing in her eyes is too much for even her own body to contain. She reaches back and connects her hand into the side of my face with all the force she can muster. But this time, it doesn’t feel good. It fills me with pity and compassion for the wonderful woman who died. Sure, her body is still walking around, but just like I had become, she is a husk, a small sliver of a shadow of her former self. I cannot help but grieve for that tremendous loss and the tears come unabated.
She stares at me in disbelief for a long moment and then falls to her knees in utter defeat. I watch her face as the same emotions I just relived flash across it. She sees it. She sees it all, in the all too frightening clarity of one who’s lived it.
She manages to stand on wobbly legs, her demeanor placidly numb, her face devoid of expression, and just like that, all emotion is gone. It’s as if the fire of her anger burned everything out of her. In a dreamlike state, she grabs her purse, and sleepwalks out the back gate. I am now resolved. We’ve got to do something.