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A Secret Tide of Longing

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September 1st. A Classroom.

“Hello, class.” First day, first class, and new kids. She loves her kids and she knows she’ll love these new ones, but she’s also shy and kids are unafraid to meet your eyes. Still, she squares her shoulders and soldiers on. These kids are her kids starting today.

“My name is Ms. Therese,” she smiles, hoping that her nerves aren’t too obvious to the group of five-year-olds. “I’m just going to take attendance really quickly before we start class today. Please say ‘here’ when you hear your name.”

“Josey Zepler?” He turns out to be a small boy with blue glasses and a shy smile. She marks him down as here.

“Ellianna Williams?” She smiles at the small girl with ponytails and a loud Hawaiian shirt. It’s been a long time since she’s seen a kindergartener in a Hawaiian shirt. It’s nice. This should be the norm. She writes down “Ellie” next to the name.

“Brandon Singh” has dark brown hair and a solemn smile; “Lily Smith” is covered with freckles and has hair that looks like it’s on fire in the sunlight. She runs through the rest of the names, noting that “Noah Hoffman” has two missing front teeth and “Caroline Dai” has on a really pretty shirt that Therese would definitely steal for herself if it were in her size.

She reads name after name until finally she looks down and sees one last name on her list. Final name. She releases a breath she hadn’t realized she’s been holding, glad that she didn’t butcher any of the names of her kids this year. Last year, she had mispronounced “Yuxuan Xu” so badly that the poor kid didn’t know she was calling him and she marked him down as absent even though he quite literally sat in the first row.

“Darinda Aird?”

“Here! I like ‘Rindy.’” She writes down ‘Rindy,’ and looks up to connect name to face. The little girl is positively cherubic, with long blond locks that are pulled back in a simple braid, large gray eyes that are electrifyingly familiar in shade, and dimples.

“Gottcha, Rindy.” She puts down the attendance list and turns to the class, glad to get the most nerve wracking part of the first day over. “Give me a week, guys, and I promise I’ll get all of your names down. For now, though, please forgive me if I accidentally call you by the wrong name. I’m old,” she declares dramatically, and feels an instant liking for Rindy, who giggles.

“Anyway, class, today we’re just going to go over some classroom expectations and rules, play some games to get to know each other, and do a few exercises to see what you guys know and don’t know. Sound good?”

She gets out her computer to the chorus of twenty-five kids agreeing, and decides that this year will be fun. Every year is, but she somehow has a good feeling about this year in particular.

 

October 15th. A Classroom.

“Ms. Therese?”

She looks up from her grading to see the little girl peering at her over the book she is supposed to be reading. “Yes, Rindy?”

She nearly gets goosebumps from the way Rindy looks at her, and has to mentally reprimand herself. The girl’s five. It’s just that sometimes, she feels like she’s looking into someone else’s eyes whenever she meets the soft gray gaze that Rindy wields. “Can I ask you a question?”

Even the way she speaks sometimes feels older than she is. “Of course. What is it?”

“Can a girl marry a girl?”

Ah crap. Sex education isn’t mandatory for kindergarten, and some parents might not be happy with her talking about sexuality with their child. It’s difficult navigating the deep political waters these days, not because the kids are difficult, but because no one knows what the adults have to say about everything. She is quite sure that if any of the remarks Rindy has made in class before (she was way too proud when Rindy brought in a Planned Parenthood T-shirt and proudly told everyone that abortion is healthcare for Show and Tell), her parents aren’t the type who would shy away from sexuality with their daughter.

So she doesn’t deflect. “Yes.” Then, because she’s curious, she adds, “Why do you ask?”

The girl shrugs. “Aunt Abby brought a girl to dinner last night, and Mommy said they are in love.” She looks contemplative for a moment, “They held hands, too.”

Therese almost weeps with relief that Rindy’s parents aren’t going to come screaming and wielding court injunctions at her. “Oh. Well, then, yes, Rindy. People can marry whoever they love.” She wants to add as long as they are old enough, but she thinks Rindy understands her implication.

Rindy nods, lifting a hand to shift her bangs out of her eyes before looking at Therese again. She is completely serious when she says, “Thank you, Ms. Therese. I understand now.”

Then she turns back to the book she’s reading (Dork Diaries, Therese checks), and Therese thinks that if she ever had a child, she’d want one like Rindy. She knows teachers shouldn’t have favorites, but she’s careful not to ever display favoritism, so she doesn’t think it matters if she has a secret favorite. She turns back to her grading too, but the image of Rindy’s serious little face and her unnerving gray eyes remain with her for the next week.

 

November 3rd. A Classroom and a Library.

“OK, class, make sure you’ve packed all of your things! Noah, you’ve left your notebook on the desk again, please go get it. Jesse, you know the drill, we have to wait patiently until our parents come to get us, don’t we?” She shakes her head at the boy, who is once again trying to push to the front of the line to get outside sooner, and smothers a laugh when she sees the little boy slide unhappily back into the line. “You guys did a great job today, and I’m happy to say I’ll be able to tell all of your parents amazing things about you guys at the parent teacher meeting today! Except you, Rindy,” she winks at the small girl who’s proficiency in sarcasm has caused her too many headaches over the past month. Then again, the girl is also the only one who seems to catch Therese’s sarcasm and reply with a biting wit that is truly astonishing from a five-year-old’s mouth, so Therese feels fine teasing her.

“Hey!” The girl protests, and Therese smiles wider.

“Alright, alright, I’ll stop teasing you. Caroline, go ahead and lead the class down to the library. Single-file line, everyone!”

She makes sure everyone gets to the pick-up area in the library alright, and heads back to her own office. She has to grade some final math worksheets and prepare for the parent-teacher meetings. She always forgets how nerve wracking these things are.

Time passes fast when you’re anxious, which is what she is, so by the time six o’clock rolls around, she’s still buried deep inside a kid’s math homework that she’s already read twice.

“Excuse me? Is this Ms. Belivet’s classroom?”

She looks up. “Oh, yes, it is,” she stands, shaking herself and smiling at the mom standing in front of her. “I’m Ms. Belivet. The kids call me Ms. Therese,” she says, extending her hand.

“I love your name,” the woman says, shaking her hand. “It’s so unique. I’m Ellie’s mom, by the way. Call me Sally.”

“Of course. It’s so nice to meet you, Sally. Ellie’s very attentive in class.” She pauses, and smirks just a little, “But she keeps telling me that I should try on high heels sometimes.”

Sally laughs and shakes her head, “It’s my fault, really. I always wear heels and she seems to have taken it upon herself to mold the world in the image of her mother.”

Therese smiles, “Ah, well, she’s five. Plenty of time for her to get working on that goal. Anyway, would you like to take a seat at one of the desks?”

“Thanks.” She looks like she’s about to say something more, but another parent walks in then, and instead she just smiles at Therese and goes to sit down. The other parent turns out to be Noah’s dad, and she chats with him for a moment before other parents start trickling it.

At ten past six, she looks out over the room. Almost all of the desks are occupied, so she decides it’s time she starts the meeting.

She clears her throat, and immediately all the eyes in the room are on her. “Hello everyone. Thank you for coming today. This meeting is–”

“So sorry I’m late,” a woman’s harried voice interrupts her, and she turns to smile at the late parent rushing into the room.

“It’s alright, we’re only just getting started. You must be Josey’s mom, right? I can tell from the glasses.” The woman sports bright pink glasses that resembles Josey's eccentric style, and she nods. “Josey usually sits there,” she gestures at the seat near the front row, “if you would like to take his seat, but you can sit where ever you like.” She nods again, still slightly flushed, and hurries to an open seat with a quick “thank you,” to Therese.

Therese looks back out into the room where twenty four pairs of adult eyes look back to her. She’s actually really pleased with the number of men in the room, and thinks about quipping a joke about it, but decides she’ll do that when she’s more sure of what the parents are like. Instead, she clears her throat again, “As I was saying, the meeting is mandatory for teachers at our school. Basically, the school wants teachers to get to know the parents, and of course, allow me a chance to get to know all of you.”

She turns on her computer to display her PPT. “Technically, school’s only started for about two months, and all of your kids are kind of awesome, so I don’t actually have any behavioral issues to talk about privately with anyone.” She smiles a little at the sounds of relief some of the parents make, instantly deciding that she likes this bunch. “However, I do have to introduce myself and what I have planned for the kids this year. If any of you have any questions at any point, please feel free to–”

Her voice stutters, falters, and fades.

She’s incredibly glad that this is the first meeting and the other parents don’t know her well enough to catch the break in her breath. She doesn’t know how she manages to continue, but she does, except suddenly she feels numb, floating outside of her body, as though everything that happens afterwards is just an out of body experience.

Because the person who walks in, the final parent, is Carol.

Her Carol.

“--ask. Anyway. My name is Therese Belivet.” Therese. Not Theresa? “I’ve taught for about four years now.” What do you do on Sundays? “I studied education in school, and now I’ve achieved my lifelong goal of being a teacher.” She hears laughter, even though it wasn’t a joke. But right now, her eyes see nothing and she hears nothing except the final damning line of that first real conversation between her and Carol in her mind. Flung out of space.

She doesn't know how she makes it through the rest of the presentation. Maybe it’s because she’s practiced this introduction in her mind enough times for her to function on autopilot, but before she knows it, she’s saying, “Thank you all for coming tonight,” and the parents are filing out to leave. But even as she says goodbye to all the other parents, she can feel Carol’s gaze on her, and knows that when she turns back to the classroom, she won’t be alone in it.

She isn’t wrong.

“Hello.” Carol says, so softly it’s nearly a whisper, yet somehow still echoing in the empty room.

“Hello,” she whispers back, her eyes unable to see anything except Carol, standing in front of her, real and in the flesh for the first time in half a decade. She hasn’t changed much. She’s still clad in clothing tailored to her form, her perfume still hints at something mysterious and sultry underneath the rich aroma, still lines her lips with a bold red that looked like blood on Therese's throat. In short, she still looks as though she could drop everything and ask Therese on a road trip to change both of their lives.

Carol’s smile is almost sad, twinged with something that seems like melancholy. “How are you?”

Suddenly, it hits Therese where they’re meeting, and so she blurts out the first thing that comes to mind, ignoring Carol's question completely. “Whose mom are you?”

Carol doesn’t even seem surprised at the non sequitur. “Rindy.” She replies, sitting back down from where she had stood up. “Rindy is my daughter.”

Therese closes her eyes. She doesn’t realize how bitter her laugh must sound until Carol, sounding just a little like the way she used to sound whenever she was amused and slightly annoyed with Therese, asks, “What’s so funny?”

Therese, still chortling with laughter, can do nothing except gasp out something she hopes sounds like, “Of course.” Because of course Therese’s favorite student would be Carol’s daughter. How could she not see it? She opens her eyes and stares deep into the same gray eyes that stare at her in class everyday, and is shocked at how she didn’t make the connection before this. “Of course she is.”

It irks Carol, she can tell, the way she doesn’t elaborate on her answer, but this Carol in front of her is no longer the Carol who will demand the answers from Therese. Instead, she waits patiently for Therese to calm down, and says nothing until Therese wipes the final tears from her eyes and joins Carol on a desk so that they can speak, face to face, after so long.

“How are you?” Carol repeats, softly, cautiously.

“I’m well. I’ve become a real teacher now,” she says, and at that a real smile crosses Carol’s face.

“I always knew you would keep working with children.”

For some reason, that rubs Therese the wrong way. “Why, because I’m so childish?” She instantly feels bad for suggesting it, but she doesn’t say anything to take it back. Why would she?

Carol winces, and Therese knows she remembers those words as well as she does. “Because you’re kind. Caring.”

“Oh.” Therese swallows. “Thank you.” They sit in silence for a moment, Therese desperately wanting Carol to stay and simultaneously feeling strangled by her proximity. “How have you been?” She blurts out. “When did you– You know. Get married?” She doesn't have to ask if Carol is married. Carol is too traditional in some senses to have a child without a marriage.

“When I had Rindy.” Carol’s eyes are impossibly soft. “And then I got divorced last year.” She rubs the back of her neck as though self-conscious, admitting, “That’s why I was late today. Harge neglected to tell me about this meeting until half an hour before it.”

“Harge. You married Harge.” The man she had dated before Therese, the person that hung over their entire relationship. Therese doesn’t know if she feels lighter knowing her jealousy wasn’t misplaced or more weighed down than ever.

Gray eyes harden. She reaches for her bag, as though about to take out a cigarette, and then seems to think better of it, instead folding her hands in her lap. “You’ll meet him officially soon. He has full custody of Rindy. I just have her for Thanksgiving.”

Therese frowns. That didn’t sound like Carol. Even when they were together and contemplating having a family, Carol had always been more attached to the idea of a child. Therese hadn’t really wanted a child, content with the ones she found through her job. They had argued about it often enough. “Oh? I would’ve thought—” She trails off, not sure if she was still privy to Carol's life enough to ask.

“Lost the custody battle,” Carol says, waving her hand as though it didn’t matter to her. But Therese recognizes the signs that Carol is hurting as though she hadn’t spent half a decade trying to erase every part of Carol out of her system. She remembers even now the slight downward slant of full red lips and the anxious pinching of a ring finger.

She acts on instinct, laying her hand on Carol’s. “I’m sorry.”

Carol’s breath hitches as she looks down at their hands, and Therese thinks that she’s never seen Carol so defeated or small in that moment. But when Carol lifts her head, she seems almost completely fine, the eerie shine of tears about to fall the only thing giving her away. “It’s fine.” She shakes her head, as though shaking herself out of a trance, an unfamiliar movement to Therese. “I must get going, though.” Her smile doesn’t reach her eyes. “Rindy’s waiting.”

“Oh, yes. Of course,” Therese mumbles, and gets up as well.

“May I see you sometime, soon?” Carol asks almost as an afterthought, her eyes focused on the insides of her purse. “Rindy–”

“Of course.”

 

November 17th. A Restaurant.

“Hello,” Carol says, setting her purse down in the booth seat. “Thank you for seeing me.”

Therese nods in return, pushing a menu towards her. “How are you?”

“Good. You?”

“Fine.” Therese looks down at the menu, trying desperately to stop a sense of deja vu, “The food here looks good.”

“It is,” when she looks up, Carol is looking at her. Not staring, just looking deeply, as though she is as astonished by Therese as Therese is by her. “It’s one of my favorite places.”

“Then I’ll just order what you do.” She even smirks a little as she says it, as though trying to make light of what they once were. “I trust your taste.”

Carol’s eyes, instead of lightening the way Therese had hoped, seem to darken. “You do, do you?” She murmurs, nearly to herself, but before Therese has the chance to answer she’s waving the waiter over and placing their order.

“So,” Therese starts, when Carol seems to have no intentions to start talking, instead content to just look at Therese. “What did you want to talk to me about?”

Carol seems to come out of a trance. For a moment, Therese is worried. She doesn’t remember Carol being so easily distracted. But she dismisses these thoughts. It’s been years. People change. “Oh. Yes, of course. I wanted to talk to you about Rindy.”

“She’s been doing well in class. She’s a very bright girl. She actually reminds me of you, if I’m being honest,” Therese takes a sip from her water, “I don’t know how I didn’t instantly make the connection.”

Carol smiles at that, “Thank you.” She takes a deep breath, as though steadying herself, “But I was actually a bit worried about that. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable around Rindy because of our… Past.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not. And I won’t change the way I interact with her now that I know you’re her mom. You can trust me that much.” She doesn’t try to mask the hurt in her voice.

“I do.” Carol’s voice is soft again, so vulnerable Therese nearly feels as though she is about to break. “I do trust you.”

They sit in silence until the waiter comes back with their food, and then Carol looks up at her, with a hint of her old mirth in her eyes, and says, “Bon appetit.”

Therese just smiles, and takes a bite from her food.

“I have to ask,” she says, washing down her food with a drink of water. “Why did you leave?”

She is referring to her waking up in the middle of nowhere, in a hotel room alone and naked, with nothing but Abby (oh, so that's the Aunt Abby that Rindy was referring to) and a letter, detailing why Carol could not stay. She knows Carol understands her immediately, yet she can almost see Carol decide not to play dumb.

“I was pregnant.” She states simply, as though she didn’t just suddenly erase everything that Therese had believed in for the past five years.

Therese coughs, glad she already swallowed her drink of water. She's sure her eyes are bugging out. “Pregnant?” Therese sounds like she is choking even to her own ears.

Of course. Because Rindy is five this year, and Carol left her alone in that hotel room five years ago. Of course she was pregnant. When is Therese going to be able to start connecting the dots?

“How?” She still sounds like she is being strangled.

Carol continues speaking as though she were merely asking Therese to pass the salt, not changing the entire way Therese had thought about their relationship. “I was never unfaithful,” her voice hardens, “your doubt in me was hurtful.”

“You- Were you pregnant during our relationship?" She doesn't wait for Carol to answer before continuing, her mind and heart racing so fast she doesn't know if she is still forming coherent thoughts anymore. "But- Why- You didn’t think telling me would have been a better idea? God, Carol. We could’ve- I could’ve-”

“What? Commit to a child when you were still barely an adult yourself?” Carol shrugs, taking another bite from her plate, still refusing to meet Therese’s eyes. “You didn’t deserve a responsibility you didn’t want, and with a woman you barely knew for longer than a month at that.”

“But I wanted you!” Therese’s voice is raising, but she can’t bring herself to care. She pushes her plate from her, all thoughts of food forgotten. “I would have accepted any price!”

Carol finally looks at her, but all Therese sees in her eyes is a stone cold assertiveness. “It was the best choice for both of us at the time.”

Therese puts her face in her hand, but she can’t deny that Carol is not wrong. She was too young, was too naive to know that having a child changes everything. But, “You should have given me the choice. You shouldn’t have made the decision for both of us.”

Carol is quiet for a moment, and when she speaks again, she sounds softly contrite. “Leaving you that way was… Immature and impulsive. I was too consumed with doing the right thing that I forgot about your feelings. For that, Therese, I am so sorry.” Therese doesn’t have to look at her to know that she is sincere, but she’s still reeling inside.

“I’m sorry, too,” she says, her words muffled by her hand, “I’m sorry I made you feel like you couldn’t rely on me.” Miraculously, because she can't believe Carol would want to touch her, she feels Carol’s hand on her’s. “We just missed each other, didn’t we.” It’s not a question, but Carol answers her anyway.

Carol’s voice is so sad it makes Therese hurt inside. “We did.”

“Will I still see you, now?” She’s too scared to look up and see what Carol thinks, but she doesn’t have much time to languish in self-pity, because Carol’s answer is firm and immediate.

“Yes.”

 

December 31st. An Apartment.

“Wine?”

Therese nods, before remembering Carol can’t see her in the kitchen. “Yes, please.”

Carol returns to the room, handing Therese a cup and sipping from her own. “Do you have anywhere you need to be later tonight?” Her words are less cautious now that the two of them have found a rhythm of friendship, but the assertive Carol Therese remembers from their past relationship has still yet to make a return.

“No. I always spend New Year’s alone.” And she knows Rindy won’t be with Carol on New Year’s this year. She didn’t want Carol to be alone.

“I had thought, perhaps, in the last five years, that might have changed.”

“No,” Therese answers Carol’s silent question. “Not for me.”

Therese doesn’t read too much into the smile that crosses Carol’s face, nor the small glimmer of hope in her own heart. Instead, she leans back and takes another sip. “Is Abby coming over later?”

“No.” She nods towards the mantle, where a picture of Abby, Carol, Rindy, and a red-headed woman stands. “She’s found her own person to spend New Year’s with. She’d welcome me, but I’d rather not intrude on her happiness.”

Therese takes another sip, and she isn’t sure if the warmth in her chest is from the alcohol or the implications of her spending New Year’s with Carol, but she feels bold enough to ask, “You know, we’ve now been friends for longer than we were lovers.”

She feels Carol stiffen next to her on the sofa for a moment, before she too takes a sip from her cup and relaxes. “Yes. Astonishing, isn’t it, how a relationship that lasted barely a month changed so much?”

Therese chuckles at that. “Lesbians sure do move fast, huh?”

Carol laughs as well, shaking her head. “I suppose we do.”

They move to easier, safer topics after that, as Carol asks about the kids in Therese’s class and Therese asks about Carol’s job as a buyer in a furniture store. The time passes quickly, and before she even realizes it, it is almost midnight.

“Do you want me to leave?” Therese asks, when the conversation lulls to a quiet place.

“No.”

A moment later, “Do you want to leave?”

“No.”

Carol nods. She finishes the rest of her drink, and gets up, pulling Therese with her. “Come on then. I refuse to sit around drinking on New Year’s Eve. Let’s dance.”

“Dance?” Therese is laughing as she sets down her drink and allows Carol to pull her up. “Dance to what?”

Carol’s hands are on her hips, and Therese really can’t help comparing her to Rindy in that moment. It is scary how much the little girl takes after her mother, the thought making a grin cross Therese's face. “I seem to recall you playing the piano.”

“Yes, but then you would be dancing alone.”

“That’s true.” Carol’s brow scrunches up, and Therese almost tells her how adorable she looks, but Carol interrupts her thoughts, “I’ll play something on the speakers then. You have to dance with me. Dancing alone is sad on New Year’s.”

“Sad any time of the year, really.” Therese quips, giggling at Carol’s glare. “Fine, fine. What do you want to listen to?”

Carol is too busy scrolling through her phone to see Therese staring at her. “You’ll see.”

When the song plays through the bluetooth speakers, Therese turns to Carol and raises an eyebrow. Both of them know too well the song that plays. “Easy Living?”

Carol stares right back at her, her expression resolute. “It was the first gift you ever gave me. Fitting on the cusp of a new year.”

She thinks about disagreeing, but she finds that she really doesn’t disagree, so instead she nods. “Fine.”

And so they dance, the two of them giggling like school girls, hair mussed and expressions exaggerated. But Billie Holiday sings behind them, and Therese can’t find it in herself to care. After a while, they get tired, and somehow their crazy jumping around turns into a soft sway, Therese resting her head against Carol’s shoulder. The two of them simply move, without thought of the past, present, or future, and Therese is never happier to just let herself be.

 

January 1st. An Apartment.

The clock chimes twelve before either of them realizes it. Carol meets her eyes, the two of them so close that she only needs to whisper to be heard above Billie Holiday. “Happy New Year, Therese.”

She looks into those gray eyes that, even from a different face, had stunned her. It is impossible to stop the memories this time, because once, long ago, Carol took a chance on New Year, untying her robe to reveal herself to Therese’s hungry eyes. Carol took the leap, and Therese followed her, as she always did then.

But now Therese is different, and so is Carol. She is no longer the same schoolgirl who would follow Carol to the end of the world with no knowledge of the consequences. Yet she would still follow Carol to the end of the world, and she feels a sense of inevitability as she makes her decision.

Therese takes the chance on New Year this time. Slowly, so slowly, she leans forward, and when Carol doesn’t push away, she gently presses her lips against Carol’s. It feels like coming home. It feels like catching the person she almost missed.

“Happy New Year, Carol.”