NOTES: Thanks for all the encouraging feedback in Part One. I thought I'd have this wrapped up in two chapters, but I think it makes sense to break here before the conclusion. Part Three is on the way fairly swiftly. \0/ LDN is also on the way, being worked on simultaneously.
Feedback is joy. Thanks! Enjoy!
"UNDERTOW": Part Two
Daniel's iPhone vibrates closer and closer to the edge of his coffee table, but he makes no move to save it. His mother's picture flashes on the screen, making it the fourth time she's called since he left Betty's party a few hours ago.
He gets that she's worried. But really, what is there to say?
The phone teeters, and then drops into soft shag rug, going silent. He flops over onto his stomach, attempting to empty his head enough to fall asleep. No luck so far.
Catching Daniel during his second escape attempt from the party, Mom had worriedly pulled him aside to ask if everything was alright. Over her shoulder, he had glimpsed Betty chatting with Amanda's – whoever that guy was, across the party. Their eyes caught, and Daniel's gut clenched unpleasantly when Betty glanced away to laugh forcedly at something Spencer Cannon said.
Swallowing heavily, Daniel met his mother's concerned eyes and said, "Like I said, Mom. She's fine."
Third time was the charm. He didn't see Betty after that, and now, lying on his sofa where he dropped straight after entering the apartment, he wonders if he ever will again.
Practically, he knows there's no way he won't. For instance, she will no doubt be flying back to New York to spend Christmas with her family. He can't picture otherwise. And while she's here his mother will invite Betty to the holiday parties she throws at the Meade estate, if for no other reason than that the two of them seem to have a relationship entirely separate from him.
And Daniel will, of course, be there as well. He hopes to be put together enough by then to make polite conversation about her job, and is the weather in England really as shitty as everyone says? That, he supposes, is something.
But that's more than half a year away. By then, Daniel imagines Betty won't be returning to New York alone.
Daniel feels caught in a currant, helpless as though water is rising up around him. There's nothing to be done. Betty is leaving, just as assuredly as before the colossal mistake he made at her party. Worse still, she now knows the reason behind his jackass behaviour, and it seems she wants nothing to do with him. No calls, no texts, no emails. Silence.
It doesn't matter that for a brief, shining moment, he was certain that she, too . . .
No. It doesn't matter.
His phone rings again. His heart stopped doing that hopeful, maybe-it's-Betty lurch a while ago. Mostly. He checks anyway.
It's Mom. Ignoring her makes him feel even scummier.
Sleeping. Will call u tmrw AM, he types. He pauses and adds, I'll be fine. Love u. D.
With that, he switches off the ringer and drops the phone back into the shag rug. Face half-buried in the couch cushion, Daniel stares blankly at one of Molly's knickknacks he still keeps displayed on the fireplace mantle.
The delicate wire birdcage thingy's spring mechanism door was broken even when Molly purchased it at an antique sale when they first began dating. The door hangs open as though the little bird inside just pulled a jailbreak. He thinks its original purpose was to hang jewellery from, but Molly kept it on her desk at school to store a rather impressive sticker collection. Like her Sunday crossword puzzle and a croissant t-shirt, Daniel found himself reluctant to part with the cheap trinket. He even left the stickers inside.
Sometimes, when he did especially attentive things like putting the seat down or remembering trash collection day, Molly would playfully affix a "Terrific work!" or "A+!" to the back of his hand before kissing him soundly.
Despite everything, the memory warms him up. He reluctantly smiles into the couch cushion –
– and then sits bolt upright, scattering the cushions on the floor.
I'm an idiot, he thinks dazedly as realization strikes him. A defeatist, melodramatic idiot.
Betty is going away, far away, for probably a very long time. To start a new job. A new life. She isn't dying, for God's sake.
But he's been mourning her just the same.
Heart pounding, Daniel tightly clutches a cushion as his thoughts race. His bizarre reaction to Betty's departure had confused everyone, including himself, but it makes sense to him now.
First, there was denial when she came charging into his office to explain Marc's mass email, and all he could think above the blank buzzing in his head was that there must be some sort of mistake. After that came the fiery anger, which he rationalized away as that of an employer losing a prized employee he had invested company resources in.
The bargaining stage, he realizes, was especially manipulative and rotten – dangling more money in front of Betty when he knows a portion of her salary goes towards paying bills for a household she no longer even lives in.
And then, the sadness. It came in a flood he was barely able to contain as he fled his office after signing Betty's release papers. Her wet apologetic eyes and puffy, bitten lips had torn him up from the inside out. He rode the elevator down to the dark and mostly empty parking garage, slid into the driver's seat of his Bentley (on a whim, he had been driving himself to work all week), pressed his forehead to the steering wheel, and remained there for the better part of an hour.
Now, he supposes, should come the acceptance stage.
Fuck that, he thinks, scrambling to his feet. Losing somebody for forever, he knows what that truly means. And this? This is not the same thing at all.
He's not helpless this time. Betty is alive, he's alive, and yeah, soon there will be an ocean and a couple of time zones between them –
But she'd once told him that anything worth having was also worth fighting for. What he feels for her – what they could have together – is worth everything. He can only hope that Betty might see that, too.
Yanking his shoes on, he races out of his apartment, praying he's not too late.
Betty stares up at the spackled ceiling, wide awake.
Beside her, Hilda breathes a deep sigh just shy of a snore, hogging the covers in her sleep. Bobby is bunking on the sofa downstairs after Hilda kicked him out of their bedroom for the night, claiming that she and Betty needed one last stay-up-all-night sisterly bonding session. So after everyone else went to bed, she and Hilda painted and dried their toenails, crawled into bed and pulled the covers over their heads with a flashlight between them, just like their girlhood slumber parties. They talked for hours, sometimes laughing, and sometimes crying a little, especially when Hilda gently tugged on Betty's necklace and whispered, "Mami would be so, so proud of you, Betty."
She hadn't planned on revealing what happened with Daniel earlier tonight. In fact, she had half-convinced herself she'd imagined the entire thing, even when her heart lurched painfully each time she caught a glimpse of his darkened office across the party floor. Even when Claire swooped down to embrace her one last time, her eyes full of questions Betty couldn't answer, and warm, loving concern.
Even when she felt a phantom tingle on her lips and imaginary hands on her waist.
But in this cozy space there is no room for secrets. And in telling Hilda, Betty untangled some truths of her own.
"I think maybe it was so difficult for me to tell him about London because . . . well, because." Shadows flickered under the blanket as she rolled the flashlight back and forth.
"Wow. I gotta say, Betty. Did not see this one coming."
"Me neither, believe me. But I guess we've never been in such an . . . emotional situation before either. I mean, I knew it was going to be hard on him, me leaving. He's like that, you know? He doesn't let a lot of people in. Not really. But when he does, he's kind of yours for life." In a whisper, she added, "It's my favourite thing about him."
"Well, truth is you guys have been real good to each other the last couple years. Funny how these things work, though. All this time, nothing. And now?"
"Yeah. Except not so much 'funny' as – as –"
"I know, mamita. I know." Hilda's voice was soft and understanding, muffled under the blanket. She tapped Betty on the nose. "But the question is, what are you gonna do about it?"
"Oh, Hilda. Nothing," Betty whispered, even though her voice broke and her eyes welled at the thought. "I'm moving to another country tomorrow. I'll call him or email him or whatever when I get there, but anything else is just way, way too complicated. Anything else is not fair to him – or to me."
"Complicated. Okay," Hilda repeated slowly. She sounded sceptical, and Betty realized then how much their relationship as sisters had changed. Hilda from a few years ago would've had plenty of bossy but well-meaning advice. Instead, all she asked was, "Does this make you wish you weren't going?"
"No. It doesn't really." This was true. But there is something she's longing for, something she still can't shape into words. "I mean, that's life, right? Full of changes. You can't always keep everything the same. And Daniel and I will always been friends. I know that. I told him so. Okay, so it won't be exactly like before, but . . . being far apart isn't so bad, right?"
"Well, it ain't great, but –"
"Gives an excuse to visit. To travel. And there's technology now and – phones. We have phones. Skype, too. Although he never remembers how to work the – the thing . . . And he reads my blog now. And, um, texting, of course. He's good at – he's a pretty fast . . . Hilda –"
"Shh, shh. It's okay." Hilda wrapped her arms around Betty, tipping the flashlight onto the floor. She stroked her hair soothingly for a long time. Betty kept her face pressed to Hilda's shoulder, eyes scrunched shut, until Hilda gently joked, "Enough drama. We haven't even talked about what you're gonna wear on your first day of work yet."
Betty gave a wet giggle, grateful for the distraction. "No ponchos. That much I know."
Sometime during their debate over bare legs versus sheer panty hose, Hilda drifted off. Betty now finds it impossible to do the same. She is exhausted, but nerves and sadness and excitement prevent her limbs from loosening as she wonders where this new path she is embarking on tomorrow will take her.
She feels her mind beginning to slant back towards the party at MODE, but she wills the images away. She cannot do this to herself.
Sleep. She needs to sleep. Tomorrow is a big day.
Closing her eyes, she curls up against Hilda's back and tries to match their breathing.
Her Blackberry buzzes on the night table, startling her so badly she jolts. Hilda rolls onto her belly, mumbling something incoherent and most likely rude. Fumbling around for her glasses but unable to find them in the dark, Betty seizes the phone before it vibrates off the table and squints at the display. Her heart skips a beat.
"Sorry. Did I wake you?" Daniel says.
"It's 3:30 in the morning," she breathes. She sits up, clutching the blankets to her chest.
"But were you sleeping?"
She closes her eyes. "Daniel, what is it?"
"I . . . um, you guys forgot to pick up your newspaper today."
"What? Where are you?" Suspicion forms and Betty carefully eases out of bed. She moves over to the window and peeks through the lacy curtain.
Daniel is standing on the front stoop, phone pressed to his ear. He looks up and waves a rolled-up copy of the Queens Courier.
"Hey there," he says.
She presses her hand to the glass. "Hi."
"Betty," he whispers, "could you come outside for a little while?"
Even without her glasses she can see his pleading, vulnerable expression from up here.
She nods slowly, looking directly into his upturned face. "Okay. Give me a minute." She hangs up, and tiptoes back to the nightstand to find her glasses.
Just as she's slipping Hilda's oversized cardigan over top her camisole and thin pyjama pants, the bed rustles.
"You sure about this, Betty?"
She pauses and smiles, unsurprised. "No. Not at all. But I was wrong, Hilda. I can't go without . . ."
"Without what?" Hilda sits up and switches on the bedside lamp. Her hair is a bushy mess, her tank top is skewed. Betty loves her so much right then it hurts.
"Without knowing how he's going to fit in my life from now on."
Hilda looks at her carefully. "That's a pretty big risk. It could hurt."
Betty nods, pulling the sleeves of Hilda's cardigan down over her hands. "I know."
Hilda opens up her arms, and Betty drops onto the bed, landing on Hilda's legs. They hug fiercely.
"I'll cover for you. In case Papi wakes up early," Hilda whispers in her ear.
Betty thinks about telling her that won't necessary, but something stops her. "I love you."
Hilda smoothes back Betty's hair, tucks it behind her ears. "I love you, too, chica. Now go."
Betty tiptoes through the hallway, down the stairs while avoiding the creaky third-last step, past Bobby's snoring form on the sofa. She slips on some flats and then pauses at the door, taking a deep breath.
Everything is calm and okay.
Daniel is waiting for her on the stoop, still in his work clothes. Sort of. His charcoal shirt is untucked and wrinkled, his sleeves rolled up, and his tie and jacket missing. He seems agitated, like he's been pacing.
"Betty, I'm sorry. There's so much I want to tell you, I don't even know where to start, but I'm so sorry I was such an –"
He doesn't finish, because just the sight of him sets something ablaze in Betty; she stretches up on her toes, slides her arms around his neck, and silences him with a kiss.
Four years, she thinks hazily as Daniel immediately responds by pulling her closer by the waist. Four years of being with him, and how could she not know she's always wanted to do this?
She pushes even higher on her tiptoes until their bodies press flush chest to chest, belly to belly, hips to – oh God – hips. She feels the shape of him against her pelvic bone as images swirl through her brain, heightening her sense of incredulity that this is actually happening.
Silly small moments, like when he asked her not to say "boobs" again. His laugh when she told him he could run a fashion magazine better than Gandhi but not Jesus. Sneaking him into Cal Hartley's Easter bash. The goofy faces he made at baby William the few times he got to hold him. That moment while he was off in Level 7 land, the one she never told him about.
His soft eyes when he told a crowd of black and Latina bloggers that he adored her. A six page reference letter. Dinners with her family. Karaoke and wedding cake.
"I couldn't imagine being here without you."
"Give me your keys," she whispers, barely parting her lips from his. She presses his forehead to hers, eyes closed, panting for breath.
"Mmm. Why?" He dips his head down and pecks her lips two, three, four times, then kisses her again so deeply she forgets absolutely everything for a long, warm moment.
They part for air, and she remembers, intent. "Keys. Now."
She doesn't realize until his hand brushes her inner thigh as he digs into his pocket, but somehow they shifted across the stoop: Daniel's now resting his butt on the low iron guardrail. And Betty – she's half-straddling his lap.
"Here. Where are we going?" He presses the keys to his Porsche into her palm even as he begins mouthing the skin under her left ear. Suddenly, he pauses and pulls back, eliciting a tiny whine from Betty. His expression is shocked, but also carefully hopeful. "Wait. We're going somewhere?"
Betty hesitates for a moment, thoughts of consequences and implications threatening her courage –
– but only for a moment. Looking into his eyes, she strokes his cheek and nods. "Yes. Let's go. Before Mr. Bramwell gets in from his night shift and sees us."
Thinking no further, she grasps his hand and pulls him down the stairs toward his waiting car.