What might’ve been most frustrating about Harge’s morality clause was how disingenuous it was. His faux-outrage, as if Carol’s wandering eye— specifically, the types of persons upon whom her gaze landed— violated some strongly held principles of his. He’d simply found a loophole for leverage and was using it to his advantage. He’d be enraged if Carol was leaving him for any reason, if she was leaving him for another man, and he knew the end of their marriage hadn’t been sparked by any specific affair. But, the low road had presented itself, right there for him to take.
But Harge was no square. Not before. Carol wouldn’t have bothered marrying him if that had been the case. If she’d have to put up with being someone’s housewife, being a Mrs. Husband’s First-and-Last Name, she wanted to at least tolerate the man. And Harge, for the most part, was tolerable. Sure, he didn’t show all that much regard for Carol’s life beyond him, but he came from an upstanding and proper family, had a promising career, lived in a tight-knit community, did all of the things a man of his esteem was meant to do.
Therese had used the word, “square,” after Carol began crying at her apartment after meeting with her attorney, news of her and Harge’s already protracted divorce being drug out further by the damned morality clause still fresh. “Has he always been such a square?” she’d asked as they smoked on her rooftop.
A sign of the times, Carol figured, because not only did Therese seem to understand the implications that came with the morality clause, ones that Carol wouldn’t say explicitly, but her question asserted that frowning upon such implications, upon people like that, (people like Carol), was passé. (And how far apart were they in age, again? Carol thought. Therese was in her early twenties, and Carol her thirties. A decade or so of years but a generation of difference in thought. And thank god for it...)
“He isn’t, really,” Carol answered Therese’s question. Because really, he wasn’t.
For a long time, as long as he’d known Carol, Harge had been well aware of Abby’s proclivities. She was about as outright as one could be, which wasn’t very, but regardless, Harge never took issue. In the safety of their home, they’d have Abby over for dinner, an invitation also extended to whatever woman she was entertaining at the moment. Occasionally, they’d even venture for dinner out, and Harge would welcome comments from waiters or men at nearby tables about their envy of a man with three beautiful women accompanying him.
“Save some for the rest of us!”
(Interestingly, remarks such as those certainly didn’t violate any of his morals.)
Carol would sit at those dinners, smell Harge’s cologne, feel his rough, imposing hand grip her thigh, and wonder what it felt like to be on Abby’s side of the booth.
She got her question answered and then some.
There was a lead-up, of course.
One winter, a year before Rindy, Carol and Abby lounged in the den of Carol’s home, not doing much of anything in particular but smoking cigarettes and listening to the radio. Harge was away for two weeks— Detroit, on business— and Carol couldn’t stand being alone in her suddenly cavernous house for all that time. Out of nowhere, Abby asked, “what’s it like being married to a man?”
The question elicited a healthy round of laughs from the both of them. Carol considered that Abby wasn’t really asking what marriage was like, because that she could’ve asked just about anybody, and she knew from watching her own parents all her life. Plus, she’d added, “to a man,” instead of simply asking what it was like being married. Abby wasn’t one to care much about domesticity, surely not enough to talk about it, but she did enjoy talking about more salacious affairs. And Carol had the sneaking suspicion that Abby hadn’t ever been in bed with a man. Or maybe she had, but it likely wasn’t recent nor sober enough an experience for her to remember. Really, she was asking Carol what it was like to have sex with a man.
Carol tried not to blush. She said, “it’s work,” an answer befitting of both the literal question and it’s undercurrent.
Because it was work. Any man would’ve scoffed at the idea of a woman calling sex any kind of work, “all you have to do is lie there!” But it was work, when Carol couldn’t get wet enough for it not to hurt, and then she had to find a way to convince Harge her gasps and moans were ones of pleasure and not pain. It was work, when neither Harge nor Carol wanted a baby yet, so it was on Carol to make sure she used her diaphragm properly. Yes, “work,” seemed the correct response.
Abby raised a single eyebrow. “Hm.”
A couple of days later, Abby freed Carol from her cabin fever when she called from her job at the antique store. “I’m leaving the city now. Up for a snowy evening drive?”
“Abby, it’s a disaster outside!”
The snow was gorgeous, coming down in thick, pillowy clumps, but it was also heavy and sticking to the ground. On top of that, it would be pitch dark by the time Abby made it to New Jersey.
“Disaster? It’s beautiful! Put on your gloves. I’ll see you in a half an hour.”
It was fun while it lasted. That was, until Abby’s car stalled out on CR 512. It wasn’t exactly the middle of nowhere, which was a large reason as to why Carol just laughed instead of getting angry. Abby couldn’t believe it. “What are the odds? The one time I pull you out of the house—”
“One time? Abigail, please, spare me the lies.”
They used what was left of their girlish charms to convince the gas station attendant to let them make a call from the store’s phone. Two, actually. One to a mechanic and the other to Abby’s parents. They were closer to their side of town than they were to their own, so instead of giving them rides to their respective homes, Mrs. Gerhard said, “why don’t you two just stay? The roads won’t be plowed until the morning.”
While they waited in the store, the clerk having taken pity upon them, allowing them to loiter away from the elements, Abby grumbled, “maybe this is where having a husband comes in handy.”
“Oh, please. Harge wouldn’t know the first thing to do. And he’d be too stubborn to call a mechanic. We’d freeze to death.”
Abby didn’t need a husband. Not only because she didn’t want one, but she was decently self-sufficient. She had a job that paid her bills and, for the most part, funded her not-so-frugal lifestyle. She had a house in the suburbs that she could use to entertain just as well as any kept woman. There were whispers, of course, questions as to her abnormalities, but Abby didn’t let them bother her. Abby’s parents had stopped trying to set their daughter up with potential suitors. After enough rejections, they at least took the hint that Abby was disinterested in marriage. Carol wasn’t sure if they knew the real reasons, but they weren’t total stupes. They must have had their suspicions.
The Gerhard house hadn’t changed much since Carol and Abby were kids. Notably, Abby’s bedroom was a time capsule. Mrs. Gerhard made up the guest room for Carol before she’d gone off to bed, and Carol thanked her profusely, and then tiptoed into Abby’s bedroom to sneak in one last nightcap before turning in themselves. Carol squeezed in close next to Abby on her narrow twin bed. They giggled about the events of the evening while sipping their bourbon, and the courage from the liquor helped Carol formulate a question she’d been trying to find a way to ask since Abby’s own inquiry about having a husband.
“What’s it like,” she whispered, “being with a woman?”
She was opening Pandora’s box, she knew, and she was aware, too, that she wasn’t looking for Abby to answer her question with words.
Finally, her gasps and moans, though stifled given the setting, were actually from pleasure and not pain. It wasn’t at all work, not in the slightest. As soon as Abby unbuttoned Carol’s borrowed sleep shirt, slid her thigh between Carol’s and pressed up, Carol knew it would be different. It would be easy and over too soon, because any ending was one that came too quickly. There was something maddeningly erotic about a woman that Carol had never felt with Harge— with any man. The smoothness of her skin, the curve of her waist, her soft lips against her collar bone as she let her delicate (but shockingly strong) fingers trail lower.
It was the first time Carol had had an orgasm that was completely of someone else’s doing. And it wasn't because of some big, grand spectacle. Monumental for Carol, sure, but there was no soft lighting, no dinner, no candles, no lead up. No expensive lingerie or perfume. It wasn’t in a luxurious bed or lavish cosmopolitan hotel room. It was fumbling around in the darkness, trying not to make noise on Abby’s uncomfortable child-sized mattress as they quickly tore off the hot, flannel pajamas Mrs. Gerhard had lent them.
And Carol didn’t think she could ever get enough.
Luckily, it continued to happen, morphing into something more, something unexpected. And one afternoon, when Carol went to Abby’s under the pretense of “maybe going to the club to play tennis,” hustling out the door past Harge’s newly watchful eyes, she found herself worried as she laid in Abby’s bed, Abby tracing circles on her back and mumbling something about maybe actually showing their faces at the tennis club. She didn’t know what to do.
A solution, however, found her instead.
“I’m pregnant,” she told Abby. She was going to have a baby. With Harge. And whatever was happening between the two of them, they both knew it would have to end.
She asked once, how Abby met women. A smile curled across Abby’s face. “There are places… in the city.”
“That’s the only way?”
“Of course not. But it’s the safest. Beyond that…sometimes you can tell right away, you know? Other times, well, there’s just a way of looking at someone. The way they look back at you. A gaze that lingers a little too long.”
Carol knew what Abby was alluding to. She’d experienced it countless times herself, with Abby, with other women. Sometimes unreciprocated, Carol left staring on her own, other times there was eye contact that lasted beyond simple acknowledgement. Carol had always chalked it up to pure admiration, though. And she’d never been compelled enough to act further, as much as she would’ve liked to. No, she wasn’t one to take chances, only pursuing sure bets.
Until one day, she went to the store. Goddamn Frankenberg’s.
It was reckless, she knew, but Abby’s words played like a jingle in her head. A gaze that lingers a little too long…
Not long enough was more like it. Again, Carol needed more. She hadn’t meant to leave her gloves! But retelling the story days later, on the drive back from Scotty’s, Abby was unconvinced. It was too convenient.
“You think that I left my gloves on her counter assuming she’d send me a Christmas card in return? Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I don’t mean on purpose. But maybe subconsciously…”
“Subconsciously? Okay, Dr. Freud…” Carol only quirked an eyebrow and gazed out at the road ahead. “She’s just a nice girl. It was sweet of her to return my gloves.”
“How old is she?” Abby asked. Carol couldn’t tell if she was asking out of sheer curiosity, or with ulterior motives, motives involving teasing.
She shifted, and looked out to her right side. “Twenty-three.”
“Twenty-three and she’s not married, huh? That’s interesting.”
“Lots of women nowadays are waiting. Some are working. You of all people— ”
And that’s where Carol paused, because Abby was getting at just that. Yes, Abby. She of all people, not unmarried due to great delay, not because she was a spinster, but because… “exactly.”
The girl in question, it was so purposefully reductive. Carol closed her eyes as if not seeing would also hinder her hearing, prevent her from listening to men who knew nothing talk so flippantly about the girl she loved so dearly.
She should’ve told her that night, in Iowa. Saying it would’ve been so easy. In fact, Carol had found it difficult to hold back. Therese laid facing her, impossibly close yet somehow not close enough, and ran her finger down the bridge of Carol’s nose. She lingered there for a moment until Carol went cross eyed and then giggled when Carol blinked. I love you, she should’ve said then, but Carol had always had trouble saying the truth out loud.
But she kissed Therese instead, hoping her actions would speak for her, and when she pulled away, only a little, only as far as she had to in order to not cross her eyes again, Therese pushed some damp strands of hair away from her face, and whispered, “you’re beautiful.” Carol had heard that before, but when Therese said it, she believed it.
There was a part of Carol, maybe a hopelessly naive part, that thought that night, this can be real. It didn’t only have to take place on the road, on the run, away from familiar faces and suspecting eyes. They could go out to dinners, go to Broadway shows and museums, they’d just have to be more discreet than other couples. But, if they wanted, they could go to one of the spots Abby often patronized, be less guarded there. And when they were alone, maybe at Carol’s house or Therese’s quaint little apartment or perhaps elsewhere, perhaps somewhere new, they could exist just as they did in the crummy little motel in Waterloo.
She mumbled all of her wild ideas in Therese’s ear as she made her come again. Only they didn’t seem wild until the morning. In the moment, anything was possible. In the moment, their affair wasn’t so clandestine, so illicit. It was as real as anything else.
Carol’s thoughts often fell upon that night because she had been more hopeful then than ever before. Only a similar feeling sparked within her as she caught a glimpse of Therese— yes, her Therese, her Therese Belivet— from the taxi on her way to the custody hearing. Of course, because The Times building was just a block or two away. But really, what were the odds? Maybe the same odds as accidentally leaving one’s gloves behind at a shop counter and in return getting a lover. In that case, of course Therese Belivet was crossing the street in front of her car, looking sharp and self-possessed. But she’d always embodied such qualities. That night in Waterloo, she’d been more confident than Carol had been with Abby the first time, more brave.
And now, she worked at The Times. Unsurprising to Carol, she’d seen her talent. A new, impressive job; new, impressive clothes— though ones still fashioned in the style of her beatnik tastes. Even months ago, Carol was enchanted by Therese’s lifestyle, her independence. Carol herself had never lived alone, going from her parents’ home to the dormitories at Wellesley to her home with Harge. She’d attended college, but not as a means to a career— it was simply what girls of her age and status did: went to college, got a sensible— but not too rigorous!— degree, found a husband, and became a housewife. It wasn’t how Carol wanted her life to be, but she didn’t know any other way. And truth be told, she wasn’t awfully good at the housewife part. She couldn’t cook well, the house was far too big to clean on her own, and then, without Rindy there full-time, all that was left to do was help Florence with laundry or go to the tennis club and see women she despised. For some women, the work of a wife was fulfilling and important. Carol felt useless.
Therese wasn’t tethered to a man. The one who’d wanted her she’d left at the drop of a hat, because she could. Therese didn’t depend on a husband for an allowance— she made her own way in life. Therese lived alone, she’d told Carol she had since she’d left school at 17. Therese had ambition, and probably plans for her own future, and seeing her at that crosswalk, all Carol wished to do was tell her how she aspired to do the same. The tables had turned, and Carol felt the overwhelming urge to impress Therese like she knew Therese once had wanted to impress her.
But the light turned green. The cab continued on.
And before long, she was in a stuffy room, fit with masculine colors and masculine materials and masculine scents and masculine voices, one over the other, attempting to get in a word. The conversation had shifted to "the girl in question" and Carol felt as though she might be sick. The girl in question, as if not speaking her name made her less real. Strip Therese of any personality, and what sort of influence could some girl, some shopgirl, really have had over Carol?
She took a deep breath and opened her mouth to speak. She’d heard enough.