“Are they ready?”
Joyce sighs wearily and smiles condescendingly as she un-tucks her hands from across her chest and stands from her leaning position against the edge of her desk. She strides around to the far side, and takes a seat in her high backed leather chair before leaning back and crossing her ankles up on the corner. Scooping up a handful velcro covered ping pong balls, she hurls a ball at an educational sized poster depicting the internal view of a uterus on the sidewall of the room. The ball sticks with a resounding crunching and I wince. I never did like balls being thrown at my own cervix.
“Bette, as your lawyer, I must strongly advise you against this. In the eyes of the law, you’re a wealthy, successful, tax paying, single woman. If you really want to go through with this, why not just marry the girl? “Crunch. “That’s an option now, you know.” Joyce smiles brightly and winks as she says this. “I mean, you already gave her the house just two weeks ago. At least if you get married, she’ll only own half your ass when she divorces you and you won’t be completely cleaned out.”
If only she knew how much I wish I could exercise my finally recognized constitutional right to marry Tina. Tina’s just not ready for that though. “Joyce, I know you’re just doing the job I pay you to do, and I appreciate it.” Crunch. “But I trust Tina. I know what I’m doing.” She eyes me almost a little sadly at what she very vocally thinks is a huge mistake, but I’m determined. I do know what I’m doing and I know who Tina is. If anything, this might cause a bigger argument than the house.
Joyce may think I’m insane, but she’s a paid professional. She pushes a manila envelope in the center of the desk towards me before leaning back again. “Well…” Crunch. “…It’s my job to make sure you understand the consequences of what you’re about to do Bette. We’ve been over them, but…”
I put my hand up to stop her. “I know what it means Joyce. That’s the point of it.” This time the ball misses, bouncing hard off the wood paneled wall and, I have to duck to avoid a black eye.
She lets go of a deep breath. “Well, on a brighter note…” Crunch. “…even though I think this is suicidal, I’ll still try to bail your ass out of this mess if and when it comes to that.”
I smile and reassure her without a hint of doubt in my voice. “I know you would, but it won’t be necessary, I’m sure of it.” I stand and take the envelope and adjust my purse up on my shoulder.
She stops mid throw and eyes me specutively. “Bette…you’ve got it bad. I just hope she’s worth it…or at least hot.”
I laugh at this. “Oh, she’s both, trust me.” I raise the envelope and say, “Thanks…” I turn and make my way to the door, hearing one last resounding crunch before it shuts. I shake my head and caress the envelope in my hands before heading for the building’s exit.
“Hey T…” She turns to me from her conversation with Sam and smiles brightly before greeting me with a sweet kiss. Sam crosses her arms over her chest and adopts her usual smug demeanor as she eyes me speculatively. I decide to suck it up and be civil to her. I’ll never like her or be comfortable with her, but unfortunately, she is part of Tina’s job. I smile tightly and say, “Hello Sam.”
“Sam, can you give us just a moment?”
She looks to Tina and nods her head saying, “Sure, T. I’ll help Sally over there with the camera set up.” It’s all I can do to contain my fury. That’s my name for Tina and I feel dirty having heard it pass her lips. If looks could kill, Sam would be bleeding out on the floor right now. I close my eyes and rein in my anger. She’s just trying to get a rise out of me, and I just have to choose not to let her.
Tina gives her a reprimanding gaze and she chuckles petulantly as she walks about twenty feet away where a crew is setting up cameras on a closed set that appears to be a frat boy’s bedroom. I look back to Tina and smile more genuinely as I stroke her arm and lift the bag containing today’s lunch. “Chicken salad croissants and raw vegetables with dip. Do you have time today?”
She eyes the bag hungrily and beams a grin at me. I really wish she’d take better care of herself. It’s nearly two o’clock and she’s probably running on leftover coffee fumes by now. It’s inconsequential. I’m determined to take care of her. I just know better than to show up before one o’clock. “Give me five minutes and I’ll have time.”
I smile warmly at her and again caress her arm. “Okay, I’ll be waiting.” She takes my hand and holds onto it until the last minute as she walks away. I love how heeled shoes make her hips twitch in the most inviting manner. She reaches the crew and starts speaking quickly to Sam who just nods her head every few moments. I’ll never know what Tina saw in her. She’s not ugly, but she dresses like she rummages through a military laundry facility. Her army green tank top is rumpled and her stone washed jeans are overly faded. And the do rag…is a don’t.
Tina points to a small box of lens filters at their feet and Sam bends over to rummage inside as Tina turns to talk to Sally. The thin strand of Sam’s silver beaded necklace falls out of her cleavage with the jostled movements of her arms, and the glint of real gold catches my eye. It looks familiar. I take a few steps closer and it’s all I can do not to sprint up to her and stare into her eyes as I choke the life out of her. There, around her neck, is the commitment ring I gave Tina, the same one the crew and I have looked everywhere for. Oh, she’s a fucking dead bitch.
Sam realizes it’s fallen out and quickly tucks it back into her tank top, checking to see if Tina noticed before continuing her search more carefully. That fucking cunt. I’ll kill her. I just need to do it quietly and with fewer witnesses. I quickly pull my phone from my purse and text Alice with angry precision. “Planet. 3pm. Don’t be late.”
Tina strides up to me as I press send. A thin but attractive brunette with short hair is with her. “Bette, I’d like for you to meet Dylan Moreland, the director. She directed The Other Side of Nothing.” My need to kill Sam takes a backseat as I smile warmly. I reach my hand out and shake hers. Today is turning out to be very interesting indeed. “Dylan, this is Bette Porter, my partner. She owns the Bette Porter Gallery.” I try hard to keep the smirk off my face at Tina’s words. If she only knew…
“Dylan, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you. Tina speaks very highly of you.”
She accepts my hand and smiles a genuinely pleased smile. “There’s no better compliment. She’s pretty great for a suit…” We all chuckle at this and she continues. “…seriously, she’s very well respected.”
I release her hand and beam at Tina with bursting pride. “Of course she is…”
Tina smiles back and tucks a lock of honey hair behind her ear. I take a moment to revel in my love for her before turning back to Dylan and laying it on thick. “Dylan, do you still do short films and autobiographies?”
“Oh, yes, of course. That’s how I started out directing. They’re a passion of mine…”
I smile winningly. Not the only passion from my understanding. “Then it’s fortunate I met you today. I received an email from Leo Herrera this morning. He’s been managing the day-to-day operations of the gallery but needed my approval for a video showcase we plan to use as the introduction to a new exhibit we’re running. It’s called Core. The showing is in one month. I know it’s a small job, but I’d be grateful to have you direct and produce it. I loved The Other Side of Nothing and would prefer someone with your reputation, talents, and discretion.”
Her eyes go wide with shock and her mouth gapes a bit. She looks to Tina who’s mirroring her response. This wasn’t planned for me either; it came to me just now in a rare moment of brilliance. Neither of them has managed to put a sentence together yet, so I continue. “It would be mutually gratifying as far as advertising goes, and of course, you would be handsomely compensated for your time and effort.”
She lets out a short incredulous laugh and manages to mutter out. “I…don’t know what to…say…”
I pull a business card from my purse and hand it to her with a warm smile. “Say you’ll think about it.” Her eyes are still wide as she accepts the card and glances at it. “That’s my card. You can reach me via my cell. Or, you know…” I stop here for dramatic effect as I pretend the idea just struck me. Maybe I should have gone into acting. “…you should just stop by the Planet and join us for coffee any weekday before work. It’s a morning ritual in our circle of friends, but I’m confident that you’ll fit in very well.”
Helena is going to shit herself and I honestly just can’t wait. Something’s got to get her ass moving in one direction or another. There’s a moment of still stunned silence before she finally blurts out, “Sure, okay…” She looks to Tina who is still trying to process all this and says, “I…I guess…” She turns back to me. “…I’ll see you…tomorrow morning…”
I reach out my hand again to shake hers and the way she accepts it is so dazed that I have to fight not to laugh. “Dylan, it’s been a pleasure.”
Her flustered face can’t contain her excitement. “You too…I mean…Likewise…” She laughs nervously again as she pumps my hand a little too enthusiastically. She realizes this and stutters, “Oh, sorry…okay…I think they’re ready to start shooting so…tomorrow then.”
I look over her shoulder to see a nearly naked man getting makeup carefully applied to his exposed ass before looking again to Dylan and giving a small wave. She waves back in a bit of a daze before finally looking in the direction she’s walking.
I look to Tina and wonder how I’m going to explain this away. It’s too good a feeling to know I just killed two birds with one stone to try and lie about it. I’ll just have to dance and hope I’m surefooted. She raises her eyebrow at me incredulously but I just smile a beatific, winning smile and raise the bag hoping to distract her. I take her hand, pulling her towards the exit but the distraction doesn’t work.
“Bette, what was that about?”
I give her my most innocent expression. “What?”
She continues to look at me in shocked wonder and finally says, “All of…that…” She gestures to the general area behind her.
I smile and play it naïve. “Oh, I hadn’t even considered that I have this amazing, talented, and gorgeous partner with incredible connections in the movie business. When you introduced me to Dylan, it just sort of…clicked. She’d be really great for what Leo and I are doing, and it helps your movie…” My face morphs into something decidedly pouty and regretful. “I didn’t overstep my bounds did I? I didn’t mean to…”
She squeezes my hand and grins as she reassures me. “No, no, it’s a great idea. It was just so…out of left field. I think it’s great though.”
I smile and relax. I’m getting too old for this shit. I hate keeping things from her, even for a short while. “Good. Now, I came here to focus on you, not work. Let’s get you fed and I’ll even give you a little massage before you have to run off and put out all the new fires that will undoubtedly pop up while you’re away.”
She pulls our linked fingers to her lips and kisses the back of my hand. “What would I ever do without you?”
I smile a genuine smile straight from my heart. “For starters, you’d starve.” We both laugh at this and I look into her smiling eyes to see her own heart swell in their clear depths. It’s going to be a good day, despite my one little hiccup, if you can call premeditated homicide a hiccup.
I look up to see Alice sit down at the table with barely contained annoyance that borders on…sadness. “Al, are you okay?” She looks to me and all of it fades away to leave tears welling in her eyes. Her bottom lip pokes out as her chin starts to quiver, and all thoughts of murder leave my mind.
I get up and come to her side and put my arm around her, pulling her into me. She starts to really cry and I look around the Planet. It’s pretty crowded. I finally spy Kit coming out from the back and wave to her to get her attention. She looks to me and smiles in greeting only for the smile to fade as she sees Alice. She jerks her head towards the back and I gently push Alice off of me, grab both our bags, and keep my arm around her as I lead her to Kit’s office.
I sit us both on the couch and continue to hold her as I put our bags down. Kit comes up and sits on the edge of the couch next to Alice and starts to stroke her back in soothing circles. I catch her eyes and her worried expression matches my own. She observes. She has to know. My heart breaks and I squeeze Alice a little tighter as we wait out the defeated sobs.
Finally she calms down enough for me to ask, “Al, what happened?”
Alice sniffs pathetically and Kit leans over to grab a box of Kleenex off of her desk. Alice takes one and blows her nose and another to clean her eyes. Once she’s done she holds the wadded up napkins in her lap and stares at them, twisting them this way and that. After another long moment, she finally speaks in a pathetic voice. “Do you guys think I treat Dana like shit?”
There’s a long moment of silence where I look to Kit. She doesn’t know what to say either. Fuck. Honesty has been working for a long time now, so I’m going to stick with it. How can I do this gently? “I…I don’t think you treat her like shit…” She looks up at me and I feel terrible. She looks almost destroyed. God, why do we hurt the people we love so badly? It just makes no sense. It’s almost as if pain and suffering are genetically encoded in us. “…but sometimes you’re…sort of…I don’t know…short with her…”
She furrows her brow. “What do you mean short?”
“Um…okay, for instance. Do you remember when she sprained her ankle last spring?” She nods her head. “Well, I asked her probably three questions and you didn’t let her speak for herself once, even when I asked her how she was feeling.” Her mouth gapes open and I can tell she’s getting defensive. I hold up my hand and eye her seriously. She clenches her teeth together but remains quiet. “…and in one of your answers, you said something about putting a moose in a tutu…or something like that. Anyway, I think you just don’t realize that sometimes your humor or…over-exuberance…can be hurtful.”
She stares at me disbelievingly. “You’re joking? That hurt her?” I nod my head and she snorts incredulously before assuming a defensive and whiny timbre. “Why would that hurt her? I mean, that’s fucking stupid…” I reach up and cup my hand over her mouth to cut her off. Shane’s right. Now, where did I put that rolled up newspaper?
“Alice, right there, what you said just now, that’s what I’m talking about.” She furrows her brows and I look into her eyes. “If I were Dana and you told me that it was ‘fucking stupid’ of me to get hurt over some idiot comment you made offhandedly, I’d be even more hurt.”
I gaze into her eyes to watch the emotions play out there. She seems to really think about what I’m saying and I can tell it’s sinking in. I release her mouth hesitantly and continue to watch her. Tears well back in her eyes and her shoulders slump dramatically. “She can’t really think that’s what I mean…that’s just…”
I eye her exasperatedly and she shuts her mouth. She blows out a frustrated breath. “I’m not trying to hurt her…I swear. I’d never want to hurt her…”
I look into her eyes and ask something that’s been wearing on me. “Al, when we were searching Tina’s apartment and you left in a rush, Dana said she thought you might be having an affair…”
Her jaw drops open and her eyes spark with incredulity. “What?! She knows that I was…” She stops her words and snaps her mouth shut so fast that I’m worried she’s cut off her tongue.
I furrow my brows in confusion. “What…she knows you were what?”
She looks panicked and stutters out, “No…no…she knows that I was meeting Tina to…help her. I would never cheat on someone I love…”
She says this so accusingly that I could crawl in a hole and die. I swallow the hurtful thoughts and judgment. She’s just angry right now. “Well, you should tell her that, make sure she knows it.”
She sees the hurt that flashed across my face and contritely says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. But trust me; she knows I’m not cheating. I love her more than anything…”
I pat her shoulder. “I know that Al; even Dana knows that. But sometimes…it’s not enough. Think about it. She knows you love her and she loves you, but you’re constantly hurting her and you just don’t see it. How long would it take you to get fed up?”
She starts to cry again and I look to Kit. She meets my gaze and I can almost feel the pride bursting off of her in waves. I smile at her, but it’s a half watt smile. Alice’s tears abate much faster this time and she grabs another tissue to clean up again. “What do I do? I mean, I’m just me…” She sniffs again and her head is lowered as she continues. “I don’t know how to be anyone else…”
I rub her back. “I don’t think you need to be someone else Alice. You just need to think about how what you say is going to affect her. Just even being aware and apologizing would probably help tremendously.”
She blows her nose again. “Well, I have to figure something out.” She looks to me and I’ve never seen this much conviction or seriousness on Alice’s face. The strength of it is almost shocking. “I can’t lose her Bette. I love her…more than anything…”
While shocking, I feel intense relief. If she loves her that much, she’ll find a way, and I tell her as much. “That’s good Al. It means you’ll find a way to figure this out.”
She brightens considerably and I hope she’s able to do it. I really don’t know if anyone but Dana would be as patient with Alice. Alice and I only dated six weeks. Don’t misunderstand, I love Al; she’s my best friend, but it just wouldn’t have worked. She looks to both of us and smiles as she says, “Thanks you guys.”
Kit and I both lean in and hug her tightly for a few moments before Alice comes back in her normal bubbly force. “Oh! I was so wrapped up in my drama that I forgot you rudely demanded I meet you here. What’s going on?”
I lean back and feel a flush of rage burn through my veins and flash in my eyes. Alice notices and scoots a little further towards Kit. “You’ll never fucking believe what I found today…”
“Babe? You in here?” I hear the sweet hesitant voice of the love of my life call to me from the front door and I can’t help the flush of pure, unadulterated happiness that floods my face. I’m sure she’s a little nervous to be here, but I have something small to offer her. This isn’t my past, or the house that we used to call a home, it’s a piece of the healing process, the compass that guided me here, to her.
I walk through the patio doors and make my way toward the front of the house. Wheezy has almost finished all of the building but it’s still raw and fully unrecognizable. If she maintains this momentum, we’ll be finished ahead of schedule. It doesn’t much matter now, since Tina’s aware, but I still want to give her a complete gift. I hope she will want to live here, start a new life here, and maybe even start a family here, but it doesn’t much matter now either, since Tina’s all I need.
I look around me and I no longer see the heartache it used to so thoroughly represent. Now, it’s a monument to the strength of starting new and stronger amidst the ashes of the pain we conquered. It will keep us close and keep us honest. And those are the most important aspects of loving someone.
I see her standing in the now open and large area, turning slowly in amazement. I lean quietly against the wall and watch as she absorbs the difference between the old and new, the then and now, the us we were and the us we are, and I realize something; this house is where we started and failed. It’s been gutted and torn apart, and soon it will be fully restored; and that is just what happened to us. We are this house; we were gutted and torn apart, but we will be filled with the sounds of laughter and life and love, one way or another.
She finally comes full circle and catches me watching her. Her wondrously beautiful face is open and exultant and I can’t help but smile at her. “Bette, it’s…incredible…”
She raises her eyebrow and I delight in its familiarity as the happiness radiating from her warms the empty space better than any raging fire. “I can’t even believe it. It’s just so…I hardly recognize it.”
She looks to me pensively and slowly nods her agreement. “I didn’t think it was possible, but it really is…”
“So are we.”
Tears well in her eyes and I can’t stand the distance between us any longer. I stride up to her and take face in my hands as I lean in and place a warm, lingering kiss on her delightful lips. It lasts long moments and I stroke the edges where our lips meet with my thumbs, memorizing the kiss from all angles.
I pull away and take her hand, leading her to the stairs, where we climb slowly as she takes everything in. There are two rooms up here now, one a master bedroom with a full en suit. I lead her to the double doors and open them. She enters the large space gazing around her in stunned silence. She finally meets my eyes and I know. I know that she feels the same connection to this home as I do; it’s the same connection we share. I can’t help but smile brightly with the knowledge that we will have our life here. The utter elation is inspiring; she is inspiring.
I take her hand again and lead her out to the balcony through another set of double doors. She takes it all in with her eyes before landing on the large, high powered telescope I have situated here and I know it’s time to give her this small, inconsequential piece of myself.
I come up behind her and wrap my arms around her waist as I usher us up to the lens that sits at eye level. “Look into it, but try not to move it.” She smiles thoughtfully at me over her shoulder before leaning in to gaze upon a star, my star. She stares for long moments and I take the time to breathe deep of her lavender gold hair.
As she turns to gaze at me, I remove one of my hands and reach into my back pocket, pulling out a square envelope and holding it up to her. She removes the small certificate as I replace my arm around her waist and squeeze her tightly against me.
“A star has been named in honor of TK…”
“I wanted to give you one of the stars I used to talk to, sometimes about you, and sometimes as if it was you. I never used to notice them much before, but I do now…all the time. They became my friends and they helped me heal, just like you.”
She turns in my arms and wraps her own around my neck before kissing me sweetly on the lips. It’s not fevered, but it is open, honest, and intensely intimate. I feel her hands run through my hair and down my back in a soothingly relaxing manner, where she settles them about my waist and teases the dark skin on the inside of my waistband with her softly stroking fingers. The calming intensity of her touch and the cool night air heighten my senses, and while I feel flushed and intoxicated by it, it feels peaceful and reverently safe.
Her questing digits circle around to my front, leaving a path of sweetly tingling nerves in their wake, where they open my loose fitting charcoal slacks, letting them bag low on my hips. She pulls back and I meet her gaze. She’s infinitely calm and her skin glows alabaster in the muted moonlight. I can’t help but reach up to stroke her porcelain face, wondering at the dreamlike state she’s lulled me into. This must be what’s it like to make love by means of your soul; you leave your body, and it’s sensations become an afterthought in the shelter of celestial realms.
She doesn’t blink or drop her gaze as she slides in to meet the creamy nectar that’s pooled in my center, collecting it smoothly, and gently stroking me in a long effortless caress, the touch so light it’s nearly imperceptible.
I’ve never experienced anything like this before. The rush of eroticism and passion is there but it’s not hurried, anxious, or even pleading in need. It’s the calm of standing in the storm and knowing it can’t really touch you while it rages steadily more violent around you. I don’t need to groan or brace myself, or even close my eyes against its intensity. I have her, and I don’t need anything else.
She maintains the easy rhythm and I loosen my hold on her, on everything, as I feel the first cresting lap of peaceful release sweep gently over me, only to be followed by another, and another, until I have been fully immersed in its cleansing tide.
I breathe deep and settle my weight more fully against her and take shelter in her tranquil embrace. Her countenance is so thoroughly serene that it pulls me in like a lullaby, calling me to endless, resting sleep. I loathe breaking this calming silence, but my heart wishes to speak to her.
“Thank you for coming home.” I feel the wondrously alive sigh of contentment ruffle the curls at my neck and thank the stars for guiding us safely together, to home.