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The Other Half of the Universe

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November 1950

The rest of the weekend was a blur. A slow unfurling of comfort and desire—shaking off the initial shyness they had felt after their first night together. Things were different now. They were different. They had to relearn one another’s rhythms; retrace the patterns they’d grown used to as they walked alongside one another. It was one thing to navigate longing in the presence of she who was loved. Another thing entirely to have the walls between the two of you torn down, turned to so much dust and rubble. Carol found herself practicing a new art of restraint against an endless wealth of curiosity.

Every fiber of her being wondered. How strange to have rewritten every interaction. How strange to feel just above the surface of every look, every inconsequential touch, every moment of nearness, that weight of having been together. The ever-present knowledge of her touch, trails of fingertips left imprinted along her skin. Of their secret connections. Warm and enveloping and magnificent. How strange to feel as if her eyes had been opened in some unpredictable, incomprehensible way. As if there had been a hidden room somewhere buried deep within her bones locked tight until now. Now, with doors flung open, she was left wandering round and round, reacquainting herself with the very notion of herself.

Three days of such navigation passed before they were able to dig Abby’s car out of the embankment. Three days that passed like a dream. Margaret lent them some clothing, ill-fitting as it was, and took their assurance that the shared bed was of little inconvenience without a second glance. Beyond that, they spent the time together reveling in their newly devised experimentations of intimacy. They flirted. They kissed. They went on walks over the drive and down the road a ways, trudging through the snow in oversized boots. Abby revisited some of her favorite books among her father’s collection, reading from them for Carol and sometimes Margaret by the fire. Then, each night, they would fall into one another’s arms in a tangle of embraces only to awake still threaded together come morning.

It was, quite possibly, the most perfect sort of existence Carol could ever have imagined. And when the time came for them to climb back into Abby’s car and wind their ways along wintry roads toward home, she found herself more than a little sorry to leave. She could not help but feel as though they were leaving behind more than the building itself. That, with it, they would leave some sense of security, that magical enclosure of the house with its inexplicable surprises so bound together, so rooted. Surrounded, swaddled by a sea of snow that laid waste to any rules or expectations of normalcy. Now, they were flying away from it into all-too-familiar territory of scripts and schedules. Back to their lives and the responsibilities they’d thought nothing of for days.

She watched the road rush toward them and disappear under the nose of the car. Who knew what the coming days would bring? Carol ran her finger over the metal lining the passenger window. An affair. She’d never expected to have an affair. Then again, was that ever something one could expect? She ought to feel badly about it. She supposed, in a way, she did. But not much. Not strongly.

Harge and her were hardly affectionate anymore. It was a contractual marriage more than anything else, and—well. Abby. Abby was more “anything else” than anything Carol could have dreamt.

Still, there was that pervasive thrum of anticipation, of worry that ran beneath the car’s racing tires. They both felt it. What would become of them? How would they make it work? With Harge and Rindy and the world—how? Carol did not know. She felt that now, more than ever before in her life, she had no answers. Just questions and feelings and an unerring sense that this was the path she was meant to take.

She settled more comfortably in her seat and watched the hillside rush by in a blur of white.

December 1950

“Harge moved more of his things into the guest room last night. It’s all set up in there. Clothing folded in the dresser or hanging in the closet, things lined up in the bathroom. It’s like we’d always had separate rooms,” Carol shook her head lightly, placing her clipboard and inventory sheet on a nearby hutch that stood as high as her elbows. It was a lovely thing—a tad too art deco for her tastes but chic. She expected it to sell rather quickly once they got it onto the floor. She took a deep breath. “I hardly even see him anymore. Did you know that? Not that I mind, of course. We both seem to have run out of kind words for one another. But, still. It’s like living with a roommate. Or a ghost. It’s bizarre.” She eyed the tag on the hutch, taking note of its dimensions, price, and item number.

Sometimes, it struck Carol as odd to talk about Harge so openly. It wasn’t an unfamiliar habit—she’d been commiserating with Abby about her marriage for years now and often found herself falling into the practice without thought. But, these days, it felt… indulgent. Tactless, in a way. As if she should shield Harge from Abby. As if she were already doing enough harm in having an affair behind his back—complaining about him was a step too far. Then again, sometimes—often—it was freeing, too. She wasn’t simply enduring the misery of a marriage that wasn’t working. She was living beyond and despite that marriage. And the continuing domestic drama unfolding in her home only served to further validate the good of her relationship with Abby. The reason of it.

Carol glanced about the stockroom, empty and still save for Abby drifting back and forth from the front counter to the office desk. It was a Sunday, and the shop was closed. They’d taken to running through the inventory every Sunday morning. It was easier when no one was about. During the week, Carol or Abby or one of two girls they’d hired to work the counter would run through the pieces on the floor. They’d make any necessary notes—calls for new pieces on display or tags on large pieces that had sold but awaited pickup. All in all, the store was a well-oiled machine. Business was steady enough—booming, even, some might say. It was a fine situation. And, having the extra help was a dream. Abby and Carol could leave the shop to the girls a couple days a week, spending what felt like endless free hours drifting through the city or curled up in Abby’s apartment. More and more, driving home every evening felt alien. As if that were the excursion from her normal, flowing life. Each night, she would walk through the doors of that tall, white monstrosity of a house. Each night, it felt less and less like a home and more like a museum of a life left long abandoned.

Two impossibly warm hands slid around Carol’s waist and held her, breaking her from her reverie. Carol hummed, leaned back against Abby, and felt the other woman’s chin come to rest in the crook of her neck.

This was it. This right here. It was hard to put into words the difference between life with Harge and life with Abby. Even before things had gone south with Harge, they’d never quite had this. Harge was a gentler soul. Someone willing to wait for her, someone happy to let her drift along in her own cloud of thought and observation. He had been warm, steady. A comforting hand to keep her rooted and secure. His presence had been welcome, always, but it was welcome for its evenness. For the ways he would attend to her so lightly, offering his love without questions or expectations. At least not at first. When they were young, Harge’s way was always to circle her in a slow orbit. She’d loved him for it.

But nothing about Abby was slow.

Abby washed over Carol in a wave. A great tsunami of passion. She led her around the city in speeding pursuits, enveloped her with a single look, commanded every ounce of her attention. There was nothing quiet or steady about Abby. To be with her was to forever race through a waking bewilderment, an electric symphony of sensations. Had she ever felt so aware of another person’s body? So consumed by another? Had she ever felt desire with such acuity?

Perhaps. But had it ever felt like this?

It wasn’t just that things between them were magically superior. She took greater pleasure in Abby, that was clear to her, but it was more than that. It was more than sex. It was that sense of freedom that came from knowing her, from occupying a similar place in life as she did. Abby never vied for control over their day, never demanded that she subscribe to some idyllic image of a woman that she could never be. Abby just wanted her. Proverbial warts and all. It was startling. Unnerving, almost. It had the effect of leaving her feeling so warm and yet somewhat exposed by the intensity of Abby’s gaze. For there was no waiting for Carol to be anything or anyone else, no script to follow. It was all so present. So effortless. So terrifyingly real. She had no idea where they would go, how they would live. What life might look like in a day or a month or a year. It was exhilarating.

Carol lay her arms over Abby’s and hugged them to her.

“I’m glad he’s finally catching on and leaving you alone,” Abby muttered, nuzzling her way up Carol’s neck below her ear. Her voice was low, gruff almost. Her breath was warm and ticklish against Carol’s skin.

She shivered.

Sliding her hands over Abby’s, Carol turned in the other woman’s arms and kissed her. Abby answered the gesture passionately, and Carol felt the upper ridge of the hutch press against her back. The kiss deepened, and her mind grew giddy with pleasure.

It seemed these days they could hardly go five minutes without touching one another. It was like an addiction—the intoxicating touch of Abby Gerhard. The fix of her gaze. The flush of it all. Carol knew she ought to practice more restraint, but she couldn’t help herself. It felt absurd to be so brazen, so affected by another person. She felt like a girl again. Everything brought her joy or sorrow. Everything pulled her. Unsettled her.

Sometimes, it even frightened her.

It frightened her because being with Abby was so, so far away from control. As far as she could possibly go. She loved every second of it, but every second overwhelmed her with its intensity. With that inexplicable sense of insatiable need and disregard for any and all consequences. She was flung, wholly and dizzyingly into a whirlwind of feelings. Every day ushered in a new delight—the brilliance of Abby’s smile greeting her in the morning, the thrill of stolen kisses by the office table—hidden behind wardrobes and bookshelves and the odd chandelier. It was like she had no choice, no real moment of decision. She hadn’t decided to fall in love with Abby. It had just… happened. Everything from then on, too, had just happened. The world itself had tilted, and she was thrown headlong into love. Control had nothing to do with it.

From the edges of her mind, the world called to her. She groaned and pulled back from Abby’s embrace. “We shouldn’t,” she said in a quiet, even tone.

Abby’s brow furrowed. “What? We’re completely alone.”

Carol shot her a look. “You’re the one who said we needed to practice discretion.”

“Sure. Around strangers and in places where people might see us,” Abby took a step toward her, closing the distance between them once more. “No one can see us here.”

Carol stepped to the side, grabbing her clipboard and willing her feet to carry her steadily away. “And what if Martha were to come in for her check? Or Harriet? I’m sure they’d be very understanding.” She sighed. “We shouldn’t risk it. Not here.”

Abby nodded slowly and leaned against the hutch. “Okay.” A mischievous smile pulled at the corners of her lips. “So. You don’t want to kiss me anymore. That’s… hard to take, but I’m sure I’ll recover. Eventually.”

Carol looked at her and couldn’t help but smile. She was ridiculous and obnoxious and gorgeous. And she always knew how to diffuse any hint of seriousness that got in her way. “Of course I want to kiss you.” She set down the clipboard on a dining room table—a beautiful piece. Oak with a dark varnish. “It’s all I seem to want to do these days.” Abby’s eyebrows quirked. Carol shot her a stern look, “Just not while I’m trying to work in our business where anyone could walk in. At any time.”

“Suit yourself,” Abby said through another dramatic sigh.

Carol rolled her eyes at her, but she was still smiling. This, too, felt ridiculous. Giddy and too bright and cheery. Who was she anymore? Teasing each other like schoolgirls with coy smiles and overacted protests. And her heart—jumping at each laugh or smirk sent her way. She knew rationally that she was still just… Carol Aird. The mother, the wife, the store owner. She knew her life remained, sprinkled behind her in a ragged array of memories, but they didn’t feel real. It was all ghosts in her past. She was young again, consumed with the terror and promise of each twist and turn in their relationship. She was sure she looked like a fool, grinning widely and with abandon. She was sure she would be mortified to see some record of it, to hear their exchange sometime, years from now.

Silence settled between them. She let it lay, soft and light, across the space for a minute before sparing a glance at Abby. The other woman was carrying a small stack of receipts back to the desk, slipping them into a folder, then a file cabinet for safe keeping. Even those movements—such simple, mundane gestures struck her with such beauty, stirred in her startling provocations of desire.

An affair. The word sent a strange mixture of thrill and repulsion rocketing through her body even now. It didn’t make sense to her, didn’t fit in the neat picture of her life. Everything she felt for Abby was stunning and perfect and she could not reconcile it with an affair.

She was a married woman. She had taken vows, made promises to share a life with someone. Even beyond the dubious sacrality of it all, she’d been so sure that such things mattered. Promises. They had to, didn’t they? But how could promises hold when their very foundation was a lie? And, wasn’t this good? Wasn’t she happy? For perhaps the first time in years she was happy. Where did that fit in among all the promises? Little knots began to form in the pit of her stomach as she thought about Harge and the marriage and the vows and the affair…

And then there was Rindy. And their life together—as complicated and monotonous as it often was. It was all there, in the back of her mind. It ushered forth little murmuring suspicions that she was a bad person for doing this, that she was a bad mother. That she’d just assumed she could walk, joyously, half out of her own life but that it couldn’t be this easy.

That, perhaps, Harge already knew. Or, worse, that Rindy knew. Such suspicions filled her stomach with snakes and made her want to run out of the room, as far away as she could.

She blinked. Her eyes refocused, catching sight of the tag of a nearby wardrobe. Clearing her throat, she jotted down the information onto her form. Focusing was what she needed. If she could just focus and finish her work, she would feel better.

She pressed the pencil against the paper at an odd angle, causing a section of lead to break off in a long shard. She sighed, sweeping her little finger across the page absently to fend off the lead. It scraped across the paper, leaving in its wake a long dark smudge. Carol flipped the pencil in her fingers, running the eraser over the smudge with a twinge of irritation, but the mark wouldn’t disappear entirely. Across the paper, spread over the lines of inventory categories, lay a line faint and gray as a comet’s tail.

“Carol, I, ah. I was thinking about getting Rindy something. For Christmas. Do you know what she might like? I don’t really know what kids like…”

Carol’s eyes ran across the gray line. What did Rindy like? Did she even know? A spike of guilt shot through her mind as she wondered. She spent so much time away from home these days. As much as she could. Any free moment was spent with Abby. And any moment trapped at home found her in her own head, thinking of Abby. Abby and nothing but Abby. She knew she wasn’t neglectful, but she certainly hadn’t been very present for her daughter of late. Some kind of mother she was. She hadn’t been herself. She’d been distracted, unable to think. But she would be better. She would balance things more. Be more attentive. Present. She could do that.

“I was thinking of getting her a painting set. I saw a really fabulous one in a shop window the other day. Do you think she’d like that? Or should I get that new C.S. what’s-his-name book that the Times keeps going on about?”

Carol’s lips quirked. She tilted her head, ran her eyes over Abby’s puzzled face, and summoned an answer.

January 1951

“My god. The prices here have just gotten out of hand. One economic boom and everything’s expensive. I will never understand business.”

“You own a business,” Carol replied in a voice filled with dry amusement.

Abby tilted her head, “Ah, but you do the business part. I’m just the face that brings in the customers.” She leaned across the table and said with a slow wink, “And what a face it is.”

Carol shifted, suddenly uncomfortable, and glanced about the diner at the booths and tables dotted with other patrons. Abby followed her gaze. No one was paying any attention to them, of course. Everyone else was mired in their own conversations, their own lives. What did they care for two women seated on opposite sides of a small table, carrying on an even, friendly conversation at a perfectly normal volume? They didn’t. They were busy with their own dramas and delights.

Still, Abby remembered what it was like at first. The nerves. That sense of surveillance dogging you everywhere like you were walking around totally exposed. Every movement feeling like a giveaway, as if your very body were the thing that signified your difference. It was hard to adjust to that, hard to regain some sense of composure. To walk the thin line between discretion and paranoia, comfort and recklessness. Hell, she wasn’t an expert herself. She suspected hardly anyone was. The nerves never really went away. They just… changed. Grew familiar. It was a matter of growing used to it and learning how to get by. To not let it take away what little happiness there was to be had in this world.

Abby watched Carol roll her shoulders and focus in on the menu. Things would get better for her in time. She just needed to grow accustomed to it all. Abby knew better than to take it personally. Carol was warmth incarnate when they were alone. And her habit of withdrawing into herself was a familiar one. She’d done it all their lives. No, it was the publicness of it all. That was it. That horrible combination of rediscovering yourself while still having to inhabit the world. Carol was just a private woman. She was bound to be anxious about it all. It didn’t really matter that they were under little threat of discovery. They’d been getting lunches together for years, after all. Were they to run into one of Carol’s party circuit friends, Abby would hardly be a sight out of place. Though, really, they weren’t all that likely to run into anyone from that circle. Not where they went.

Still, it was difficult. To have patience. Abby knew it was a trial for Carol to sit with her in public, to negotiate some kind of truce between her nerves and her affection for Abby. She knew that. And yet. She was anxious for them to move past it. She felt as though she were on the precipice of a great and brilliant future. She could see them together years down the line. A comfortable companionship. Quiet in most circles. Open in a few select others. Taking walks together. Buying a house. Living.

She knew it was more complicated than that. It always was. She knew things were up in the air with Harge and Rindy. Even so, she couldn’t help her mind wandering, dreaming up such sweet images of a possible life together. The thoughts filled her head with clouds of bewildering happiness. It was all right in front of her. It seemed baffling and perfectly obvious—all at once. To be here, together, with Carol. This was what she had always wanted, wasn’t it? So, how could it have happened to come true?

Abby glanced across the table at Carol. Carol, with her beautiful light hair and water gray eyes. Carol, with her set shoulders. Her nervous hands, adjusting the position of her fork on the tabletop. Abby smiled. She could be patient. She could make space, make an effort to behave. For her. She would wait forever for her.

Carol looked up, caught her eye. Her eyebrows tensed even as her lips quirked in automatic pleasure. “You’re doing it again,” she said in a low voice.

“Doing what?” Abby asked, leaning back in her chair and trying very hard not to flirt too directly.

“Staring.” Carol moved her water glass a few inches to the left and suppressed a smirk.

“Aha.” Abby studied her face. She seemed cautiously playful. Best to just go with it. “Well, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just looking forward. You’re in front of me, and I happen to be looking at you. Perfectly innocent.” She kept her eyes locked on Carol’s face. Sure enough, a smile pulled at the younger woman’s lips.

“Perfectly.” Carol chuckled. The sound was so low, rumbling. Abby loved that sound.

Carol cleared her throat, “So, I was thinking. If you’re not busy after this, that is… I have the rest of the evening free. We could go,” she paused, her eyes swept over a nearby line of tables, “We could go to your apartment. Spend some time there. Would you—would that be something you might like?”

Abby bit the inside of her cheek to still her smile as best she could. “I think that sounds lovely.” She looked at Carol for a beat. Her chest hummed, and her heart felt lighter than air itself. A tone of amusement colored her voice as she added quietly, “I rather like that you’ve taken to inviting yourself over to my place. It’s…” She searched for the right word. A public word. “Familiar,” she said at last.

A small, guilty smile passed over Carol’s face. “I’m sorry about that. I’d invite you to mine, but… Well, what with Harge and everything, I just don’t—”

Abby held up a hand, banishing the apology. “It’s fine, Carol. Really. I don’t mind. I really don’t.”

Carol held her gaze for several beats. Throughout the diner, forks tapped against plates, ceramic mugs grazed the sides of dishware, dirty dishes were cleared away from tables—all making a chorus of clinks and raps. Abby took a deep breath and shifted in her seat.

“Besides,” she said, “We’ve had supper with Rindy a few times. That’s been nice.” She glanced back up to Carol—to that intense, unwavering gaze. “I like spending time with Rindy.”

She did. Rindy was a curious girl. She seemed to enjoy the outings. Abby and Carol had to be on their best behavior, of course. They avoided touching or standing too closely to one another. They tried not to look too intensely at one another. Nothing obvious. Nothing telling. It didn’t matter that Rindy was a child and unlikely to understand their relationship. Carol didn’t want her to know.

“She adores you.” Still, Carol’s voice was quiet. Still, it was steady.

Abby smiled. “The feeling’s mutual.” She listened to the diner’s chorus chime about them for another long moment. Then, lowering her voice even further—so much that she wasn’t entirely sure Carol would be able to hear her—she said, “We can go as slowly as you need.”

Carol frowned. Her posture stiffened in defense. Then, like a wave had washed over her, her features smoothed out. She relaxed into her chair. A grateful look passed over her face, and she nodded.

They ate their dinner with familiar ease, exchanging casual conversation as they liked. Abby caught herself grinning like an idiot at the simplest of mannerisms and made an effort to control her expressions. All the while, her own words rang in her ears: They could go slow. She could wait. It would be worth it. They had a lifetime, didn’t they? And then, well. Then the sky would be their limit. Such words stretched and rang over the film roll of images rushing through her mind.

As they ate, she pictured sitting beside Carol in front of a fireplace. Opening presents on Christmas morning. Sharing cups of coffee or something more festive. Relaxing later that evening, swaddled in warm robes, and listening to some radio program or other. Bliss.

As they rounded the corner, leaving the restaurant behind, Abby imagined traveling with her, taking her abroad. They would board a ship and live together, huddled in a tiny cabin as they made their way across the ocean. Or maybe down along the coast to South America. Anywhere, anywhere together. As they got to the car, she could picture it: walking along strange streets together, excitedly looking around each corner for whatever new experience awaited them there. Visiting ancient ruins and cafes filled with people and seeing plays in opera houses older than New York City itself. Such perfection.

They pulled up to the street alongside her apartment building, parking snuggly next to the curb. Turning the keys to quiet the engine, Abby imagined waking up every morning and turning to see Carol beside her. That beautiful face, that magnificent woman—her hair splayed around her like a golden crown. Sheets wound around them. Their legs tangled. What in the world could be better than that? Her every atom longed for it. She could feel herself extending out toward that future, reaching for it with outstretched fingers and a hungry mind.

There was something fated about them. Their reunion. Their break. Their connection. So many dots in a single line. There was something necessary about it. Inevitable. This was real. She could hardly believe it, but it was real. It had taken them so long to get to where they were, but they’d made it. At long last. Looking back over the years and years of strife and adventure, navigation and heartache, Abby could not help but feel as though she’d made some sort of grand journey through space and time. And this, this new adventure… It was just a continuation of that journey. The other half of the universe, still unexplored and laid bare to them. Ready for the next adventure.

They climbed the stairs to the second landing, and Abby made quick work of the lock. As they entered the apartment, Carol unwound her scarf and laid her coat along the back of a chair so casually that it made Abby’s heart pang. She used to ask about leaving her things there. Abby had teased her for it. It was such a silly hesitation, such a lovely consideration of space. So like Carol to check each time. Even so, as fond as she was of the gesture, Abby’d felt the distance of it, too. The recognition that this was not Carol’s apartment, that she felt the need to check with Abby about her intrusion. Seeing her occupy it with more ease meant the world to her. It was a gesture of comfort that spoke a thousand words.

She’d been thinking of moving, of course. Abby glanced around the space, lingering on the reading nook, the mirror by the closet, the opening near the kitchen. She loved this apartment. It had been her home for years. It felt like an extension of her body. This little hideaway place that she could retreat to when things got tough. She rarely brought people here. It was her place. Hers alone.

But she didn’t want to be alone anymore.

She hadn’t told Carol. Not yet. She wanted to find the perfect place. Somewhere bigger. Somewhere new. Somewhere that she might… settle down. More permanently. And, perhaps, with Carol. Some day.

She wouldn’t tell Carol that part. Not now. It was too soon. Things were too… unsettled. No, it was best to wait. When things with Harge calmed some, when Carol felt more comfortable with the idea of them—that was when she would ask her. A thrill raced up Abby’s spine at the thought of it. Just imagine. Just imagine.

“I’m going to call the house,” Carol said. Abby turned to see her peering out the window. “I ought to let Harge—or, let Florence know that I might be staying. I don’t like the look of those clouds.” She frowned at the sky before noticing a small tuft of lint caught in the curtain threads. She picked it out. Then, with a wistful sigh, she turned to look at Abby, “I suspect we’ll see more snow tonight.”

Abby grinned. “My favorite kind of weather.”

Carol chuckled dryly and flicked the lint toward Abby. It caught in the air, losing all momentum, and drifted lazily to the floor. Abby watched it float its way down and listened as Carol begin to dial home.

“I’ve been thinking about where we should go first.” Abby glanced at Carol lying beside her in the bed, “For a trip. You and me. Maybe Rindy. Somewhere abroad,” she stretched out on the bed, digging the back of her head into the pillow, and sighed “I was thinking Italy.”

Carol hummed, “Not France?” She wasn’t looking at her. Instead, Carol’s eyes followed her own fingers as they traced circles over Abby’s thigh.

Abby shifted, propped herself up on her elbows lightly. “France can happen after. I’ve never been to Italy.”

“Well, then. Won’t we get lost?”

Abby tilted her head, looked curiously at Carol. The younger woman glanced up at her. “That’s the fun part,” Abby said softly.

They spent the rest of the evening in a cloud of careless joy. Abby opened a bottle of wine, and they lay about the bed talking. Carol had a quiet curiosity about Abby’s life—even now after years of knowing one another—and asked her question after question. It took Abby a few minutes to understand that these questions were less about her and more about the community of women like her that existed in the city. It seemed to fascinate Carol to no end that there were other women like them, lesbian women, living lives discretely but socially all around them. Abby told her as much as she wanted to know, answered every question that she could. She was glad to do so—more than glad. Sharing that part of her life that she often kept so closely guarded, so hidden, filled her with a sharp pleasure she could hardly describe. She wanted to tell Carol everything. To show her everything there was to see in the world. And whatever she didn’t know, well, they could explore together.

Carol ended up spending the night with her. Snow outside fell just thickly enough to discourage a drive home. Abby knew the weather was just an excuse. That Carol wanted to stay. That was good. She was glad. Soon enough, maybe she could stay even without the excuses. Stay forever.

February 1951

“Hurry up. It’s this way!”

“Abby, where are you taking me?” Carol’s heel caught and slid across a thin layer of snow, slick against the wet pavement. She yelped, catching herself on a nearby lamppost. The metal was icy to the touch, even through her gloves, and sent a jolt of cold up her hand and wrist. She let out a breathy laugh and continued her way following Abby down the quiet street.

It was dusk. The air was crisp and cold with the bite of the fading winter. Automobile exhaust mingled with the sour and spice of the city. It fell on Abby’s nose numbly, blanketed over with the smell of snow and dry winter air. The city was quieter than Abby was used to out here. Quieter than it ought to be. It was a smaller neighborhood, of course. Suburban almost. Houses huddled together in a line with squat but meticulously tended lawns and bushes sitting out front. Windsor Terrace, it was called. Abby’d like the name. It had reminded her of England.

Most everyone was indoors, finishing their dinners or settling down for the evening. But not them. They were on a mission. Abby had something to show Carol, and she led her wandering along empty sidewalks through that quiet neighborhood in Brooklyn.

“It is freezing out here, you are aware of that?” Carol called out to her and pulled her sleeve down over the lip of her gloves to discourage the air from creeping between the seams of her clothing. Abby was certain it did very little for her.

She laughed and called back, “It’s beautiful out here! Now come on!”

“God, shush,” Carol scolded, “It’s getting late. People are going to—”

“Here we are.”

Abby stopped in front of a two-story house. It was nice. Not too grand, but by no means shabby. Covered in the front with beautiful red brick, it had a heavy round-top door. There were no lights on in the house. Only streetlamps that stood a little ways down the road on either side illuminated it against the fading light of the evening. Her heart beat hard in her chest. She was excited. So excited and elated and proud to be here.

Abby released a breath and grinned, swinging a hand out in presentation. Carol returned her smile with a confused one of her own, raising her eyebrows.

“So? What do you think?”

Carol blinked at her, glanced back at the house, at her again. “What do you mean what do I think? It’s a house.”

“It’s my house. I’ve decided to buy it.”

Carol’s mouth fell open. “You—what? What about your apartment? You love your apartment.”

“I do love my apartment, but…” She stopped herself. She wasn’t sure how much to say. She could give some half-assed excuse for moving. She could claim that it was simply time. That she was feeling restless. But none of that would be true. Not exactly. And it wouldn’t account for her moving out here. What she wanted was to tell the truth, but the truth would be too much for Carol. It was too soon. They weren’t ready for that. So, instead, she just said, “Well, it’s not very big.”

Carol’s brow furrowed, “I thought you said you liked the size of it.”

“I do. I did. I—It’s a fine size for me, but… I don’t know. Maybe I won’t always be living alone.” There was nothing for it. She glanced at Carol, hoping her words were vague enough, loose enough. That they would imply her meaning clearly without adding any pressure to the mix.

Carol’s mouth thinned. Her brow smoothed out. Her back straightened. She crossed her arms over her chest more tightly. “Oh,” she said quietly.

Abby took a step toward her and held up a hand, “Carol, relax. I’m not asking you to move in with me. Not yet. I wouldn’t. I—That’s not why I bought it. I just wanted to get a bigger place. Something that felt more permanent.” Carol was eyeing her, but her jaw seemed less set, her mouth less thin. Abby smiled, trying for something easy and playful. “But, yes, of course. If, you know, you do ever get bored of that mausoleum you live currently in, that, well, I just might have room for you.”

Carol looked at her for another long beat before, finally, she breathed out a single dry laugh.

Carol looked down at her hands clasped together beneath leather gloves. She let out a long steadying breath, tried very hard to hold the smile on her face in place.

It was all too much.

She looked up at the house before her. It was beautiful. Perfect. Never in a million years would she have expected Abby to settle on a place like this—Abby wanted people and places to be available at her fingertips. The drive alone would make impulsive evening outings a headache out here. Evenso, her eyes drifted over the crisp white lining each red brick. She peered through the diamond windowpanes, spying the vaguest outline of furniture within the quiet exterior. Had she already begun to move in? Or were those vestiges of the previous tenants? Her mind spun. When would Abby move?

There was some melancholic about the thought of her packing up all her things, dragging them across Manhattan—out to here. This quite place. This large house. What would she do with all the space? She had belongings but not enough to fill a house. It would look so barren. And the apartment—that sweet, secret haven of theirs. It would be empty. Left to collect dust and new memories made by new people.

Alongside the melancholy, though, there was a pervasive, cloying wonder. A house. She’d bought a house. She wanted to… settle down. Live somewhere permanently. Carol eyed the house’s beautiful chimney, its round wooden door. Settle down with her. Eventually. She felt drawn to the thought like a moth to a flame. There was something so hypnotizing about the idea. The two of them, huddled together before a fire. Wouldn’t it be wonderful? A different sort of home. Warm and enticing. A life without the cold stares and biting asides she was so used to these days. A life peppered with activities and desire and Abby. Abby’s affection. Abby’s energy. Abby’s private quietude. The idea seduced her, brought to mind a thousand images. Holiday parties with close friends, early mornings sharing breakfast over the newspaper. Growing old together—like they’d always imagined.

And Rindy. She could be there. There would be more than one bedroom in the house.

Her heart skipped a beat to think of it. The three of them as something of a family in something of a home. So right. So different from the odd stiffness she’d felt about starting a life with Harge. No, this time family would mean something. Something better.

Butterflies fluttered around the top of stomach—before plummeting to the pit of it. It was all too much. She couldn’t just transplant her life from one house to another, one partner to the next. She couldn’t just shift into this house and assume a mirror of a life. Rindy could never live with them here. Not really. It was a fantasy to think she could. Carol knew that even if she did leave Harge, even if he did agree to let her go, he would never allow it. Living there with Abby might escape his notice—they were, after all, very close friends—but to take Rindy? It would raise too many questions. He would want to visit. He would want to see where his daughter was staying. He would see that they shared a bedroom. Or else, Rindy would tell him. He would find out, and he would take her.

Carol shook her head, squeezed her eyes shut. She was getting ahead of herself.

But, was she? She was right. She knew that. Even if, by some miracle, Harge overlooked the glaringly obvious truth that she and Abby were together, what about Rindy? Would she really want her daughter to grow up in that kind of a household? With this lifestyle? With all the secrecy and difference and—all of it. What kind of mother would that make her?

No, Rindy wouldn’t join them. She would not want to raise her daughter in a home the rest of the world would abhor. But, then, it couldn’t work. Could it? Perhaps none of it would. Why was everything always so complicated?

She looked up at the house again. Over at Abby—Abby who was grinning like a beautiful idiot. Abby who looked so happy, so excited to share this wonderful new experience with her. Her heart ached for that happiness, that excitement. She wanted so very badly to believe in it too.

Carol drew the sides of her coat tightly around herself once more. All she wanted for a moment—a moment—was the simplicity of an unanchored life. If she wasn’t married, if she weren’t a mother… So many things would be possible. They could run off together. Go wherever they liked with no one in the world fit to stop them. They could make a life running. Half the year in the house, the other half wandering the world aimlessly, joyously. It was a happy thought. Happy enough to burrow into her bones and tinge them blue around the edges with sadness.

March 1951

Carol ducked her head as she hurried out of the cab and under the nearby awning. It was a chilly night—rain fell steadily from the sky and wind nipped at her ankles. Against the wet pavement, the city’s lights glittered and shined, flashing through the dark of the night. She peered through the sheet of water back at the cab, watching Abby crawl out behind her. The brunette smiled at her as she settled by her side.

“We’re going in there,” she said, pointing at another awning just down the sidewalk. A rusted sign crowned in half-lit bulbs announced the club. Swing Rendezvous, it was called. Carol glanced back at Abby and offered a hasty nod. Right. To the club then.

They ducked once more, curling into themselves and darting out from their temporary shelter. The rain tapped against Carol’s scarf and hat as she rushed to follow Abby across the walk. They made their way up the few steps, through the door, and into a narrow, dimly lit room. They came to a stop beside a squat podium behind which sat a tired-looking woman in a gentleman’s sportscoat.

The woman frowned at them, running her eyes over Carol. She pursed her lips. Carol shifted her weight, straightened her back, and tried to focus on removing her gloves.

Abby leaned forward, drawing the woman’s reluctant attention, “There a cover tonight?”

She smirked, “Isn’t there always?”

Abby smiled and nodded her head to the side. “How much?”

The woman looked at her for a long moment and glanced at Carol. “A dollar for the two of you.”

Abby whistled.

She shrugged, “Have to keep the lights on.”

Abby reached for her purse, and the woman’s frown returned. Abby handed her the money. The woman grunted her acknowledgement and waved them on.

“Tough crowd,” Abby muttered, placing her hand on the small of Carol’s back and ushering her toward the bar.

Carol felt herself grow tense. She wasn’t used to Abby touching her in public. Not like that, anyway. She tried to shrug off her anxiety. She knew this wouldn’t seem… abnormal here. They had decided to go to a lesbian bar. Women dotted the room. The long, worn bar, scribbled over with initials and notes from patrons past, was speckled with the glasses of at least a dozen women—many of whom had glanced their way as they settled by a pair of barstools. The women sitting furthest from them wore men’s clothing. Suits, ties, slacks. They held their cigarettes with a cool sort of confidence, eyeing the other patrons over plumes of smoke. The women sitting closer to them were far more feminine. In dresses with perfectly applied lipsticks, they spoke in quite tones, turning their glasses in a slow spin between careful fingers.

Carol peered at them, overcome with curiosity. She studied them. Was she like them? These were the types of women one thought of when one thought of lesbians, she supposed. There was an audacity to them—the women in suits smoking and leaning openly against the countertop as they drank their glasses of bourbon and chatted with their friends. The way they looked so openly, so unabashedly at the women sitting closer to her. How, every now and again, one of them would make their way over and offer to buy another woman a drink. Carol felt almost giddy to think of it. The parade of interactions around them, so chaste and yet so affectionate. Things so often hidden behind closed doors or in the privacy of their homes. She wondered if any of them were married. If any, like her, had children. Had lives that they abandoned, even if only for an evening…

Abby murmured in Carol’s ear, offering to take her coat. Carol blinked, cleared her throat, and shrugged out of the wool thing. She felt awkward, stiff. As if her limbs had grown wooden from the nerves. Everything about this place was strange, asked of her a different rhythm, a different language. It was one thing to look around her. Another entirely to know that she was being looked at in return. And look they did. With intense suspicion and curiosity. Why were the other women staring at them? Were they doing something wrong, behaving in some inappropriate way? She felt awash, lost at sea or shipwrecked in a land she did not know. But surely Abby knew how things worked here. And she did not seem nervous. On the contrary, Abby laid their things on a nearby stool and ran a hand down Carol’s back, eliciting a shiver from her. She seemed more than comfortable.

Carol glanced at her, trying to muster some polite balance between scolding her and thanking her for her presence. Abby smiled in return and leaned in close. “It’s a lot, I know,” she muttered in Carol’s ear. “Just bear with me. Have to let people know we’re together somehow.”

Carol grimaced. Well. Fine.

She turned back to the room around her. It was a long, narrow space. A few tables were pushed up against the far walls—napkin dispensers with the occasional salt or pepper shaker to accompany them stood out against the wood paneled walls. At the far end of the room, Carol could see a wide archway that led off to other rooms, perhaps. Music trickled in through the opening—music that clashed somewhat against the tinny jazz piano spilling out of the PA system behind the bar. She watched a pair of women—one in slacks, suspenders, and a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up; the other wearing a floral jersey dress—round the corner through the walkway. The woman in slacks stopped by the bar, threw a few dollars onto the counter, and, with a laugh and a quiet comment to one of her friends nearby, led the other woman out of the bar into the street beyond.

Beside her, Abby waved a hand to summon the bartender.

The woman behind the counter drifted their way, drying a glass with a white and red striped towel as she walked.

“Two martinis please,” Abby asked. She laid the money on the bar.

The bartender looked at her for a long moment, glancing between her and Carol. Then, with a shrug, she took the money and started to prepare their drinks.

“Why do they keep doing that?” Carol muttered, shooting a look at the bartender, the women at seated at the other end of the room, the walls. She worried a divot in the varnish of the bar’s wood, picking the tail of a ‘y’ off one of the scribbled signatures embedded in its surface. “The looks, I mean. What exactly is so interesting about us?”

Abby followed her gaze and hummed. “We’re not exactly… typical, I suppose.”

Carol looked at her.

Abby tilted her head a little to the side. “So, have you noticed how most of the women in here are dressed? Or, that couple that just left. How they were dressed. People tend to pair off like that… That’s what passes for normal around here.”

“So, the women down the bar. The ones in men’s clothes. That’s—they don’t like how we’re dressed.”

“Yes. Or, rather, that we’re together.”

“That’s absurd.”

“It’s—yeah. I don’t know why it matters, but it does.”

The bartender walked back over to them. She tossed two cocktail napkins onto the bar and placed a drink on either one. Without a word, she turned to resume her cleaning.

Carol frowned and pulled her glass toward her, “And the bartender. That’s why she’s acting so odd.”

Abby chuckled, “Oh, no. No, she probably just thinks we’re cops.”

“Oh,” Carol’s frown deepened. It was all so confusing. Another world. There were so many odd signals and rules she couldn’t understand. By and large, she and Abby spent their time together alone. At Abby’s or after hours at work. When they went out, they went to dinner. But even dinners felt private. There, they were shrouded by low lighting, ensconced in their private booths. They needed only worry about the waiter or how far their voices might carry. Everything else was manageable. Logical. Here… Far as Carol could tell, logic knew no place here.

“You know. Doing a raid? Because we don’t fit the—oh my god!” Carol turned her head to see the source of interruption as Abby stood from her barstool, let out a throaty laugh, and greeted a tall, thin woman with an easy embrace, “Anne Waters. As I live and breathe.”

The woman had an abrasive voice—low and flat and hard as gunmetal. “Abby Gerhard. Good god. Come to grace Greenwich Village with her presence.” She smiled widely and warmly at Abby, shoving against her shoulder lightly. “Are you out here trolling for a date? You always did pick the most impossible places.” Her eyes drifted over and landed on Carol. “Ah, but I see you’ve already found someone. Hello, my dear. Be careful with this one. She’ll break your heart as soon as look at you.” She punctuated the warning with a wink.

Carol smiled weakly and opted to take a sip from her drink rather than respond. She had no idea what to say. She felt disarmed by the introduction, the wink, the whole of it. Abby merely chuckled, glancing back at her. “Carol, this is Anne. We go back a few years. I tried asking her out once, made a complete ass of myself in the process, and somehow a friendship happened out of all that.”

Anne hummed, “Truly one of life’s greatest mysteries.”

“Quite.” Abby was grinning. She looked so pleased with herself, so at ease in this environment. It was curious, Carol thought, to see her so open. So unfurled. She was happy here. She leaned back against the bar and laid a hand on Carol’s arm, “Anne, Carol is—”

Anne waved a hand, cutting across the introduction, “Oh, I remember Carol.” Carol’s eye shot up to study her face. She had no memory of meeting this woman. Had she been at one of Harge’s parties? A quick jolt of panic surged through her. If she knew people, and she now knew Carol was… How long before Harge heard—“You used to talk about her all the time. The friend you were in love with as a child that you just could not get over.” She smirked at the two of them. Carol took another drink and tried to steady her heartrate. “Either you have the oddest friendship I’ve ever seen, or you’ve gotten over that little hurdle.”

Carol smiled despite herself and looked at Abby—Abby who laughed and offered a ready retort. Abby who leaned against the bar to talk to her friend but kept glancing back at her. Making sure that she was there. Included. Engaged.

Carol spun the base of her glass in a slow circle. What an odd year it had been. What a wondrous, incredible, perplexing year. So much felt so right. So much more felt overwhelming, confusing, and uncertain. But. They’d figure it out, wouldn’t they?

Looking at Abby—her smile, her casual pose, her teasing eyeroll—she hummed lightly to herself. They would. They always did, didn’t they?