The Winter Romance of Bernice Crocetti



990AC229CB74F7E21040AED46C90_h400_w400_m2_bblack_q100_p100_cYbeJeezW.jpgby Andrea DiMaggio



There are so many of us who find we can have faith that moves mountains, just not faith for our own sake. We see the best in others while seeing so little of worth in ourselves. Life can be hard when you’re stuck that way, but Bernice was about to find out that someone had faith in her.



 
Unbreakable
 
 
Outside
This room
No one ever sees the whole me
Only stronger side
But inside
This heart
There is much to know
About me
Words can not describe

Previously, from The Summer of Love of Linda Piontak...

“Sorry you had to leave. We figured you needed some cheering up, so we came over. Oh, sorry…this is my girlfriend Bernice…she’s Dave’s sister.

“Gggirl….girlfriend?” Linda stared at Bernice like she had two heads.

“Yeah…you know…a friend….who happens to be a girl.” Bernice took Linda’s comment the wrong way and Annette figured out what was going on and said….

“No, honey…I think she thought your brother was my….boyfriend.” She turned and looked at Linda with an “am I right,” expression. Linda nodded....

“Your boyfriend left you because he couldn’t handle your heart, dear.” Linda winced until she heard her next words,

“Just being you made it difficult for him to face himself. He’s got to find himself, and it can’t be with you; you’ve already realized that, and it hurts, but it’s not you, honey, no matter what.” She was right, of course.

“Listen, you’re not the first trans-woman to go through this, and you certainly won’t be the last.” Linda was startled to the point of nearly spilling her soup. Annette grabbed her free hand and held it.

“I’m sorry, honey, but you needed another friend; someone who understands what you’re going through....”

“How...what...Annette...I told that to you in confidence....” She tried to protest, but something seemed oddly good...even right about Bernice and Dave knowing her secret. She looked over at them and Dave smiled.

“Linda Piontak, you’ve met my sister Bernice....meet the former Angelo Seraphino Crocetti.”


Community United Methodist Church, Jackson Heights, New York, New York...mid December...

“That was about as lovely a wedding as I’ve seen in my lifetime….for a ten minute service…” Dave kidded as Annette and Linda stood at the back of the church receiving the ‘guests’ for the hastily thrown together wedding; Dave and Justin his boyfriend, Linda’s mom Susan and her step-mom Laura; Tony, her best friend and now step-brother and his wife Astrid as well as several of the faculty and friends at Julliard.

Annette was glad that Bernice, Dave’s sister and Annette’s best friend (and former lover) was able to attend. Sajid Sharma was kind enough to arrive a day earlier than his projected delivery date, so Bernice was free for the service.

The ceremony was hastily arranged to coincide with the Thanksgiving break at school along with an available church. The pastor of the church was kind enough to donate her services and the use of the fellowship hall, but Dave and Bernice insisted on giving the woman a generous gift anyway.

“Who’d have thought?” Bernice kidded with her best imitation of Gilda Radner’s Rosanne Roseannadanna. “It’s always somethin…” She laughed softly and poked Annette in her left shoulder; likely the only other person besides Linda who could get away with such a personal touch in such a tender place. Annette winced only a little as the light touch sent a mixture of slight pain and ticklish energy coursing through the pinned sleeve of her wedding dress to the stump that lay underneath.

Both she and Linda had settled on buying a couple of antique gowns they found in a consignment shop. It was ‘on the cheap,’ as they say; not just to be frugal, but because they wanted to be focused on the day and the relationship and not the pomp of the circumstances, so to speak. They took the money they would have spent on a big wedding and a honeymoon and put it in the bank for a ‘rainy day.’

“I…”

Annette looked at Bernice and half-frowned; tears had begun to fill up once again for the umpteenth time since the service had concluded. This time they were personal, but not for the day and certainly not for herself. Bernice nodded. Just as Linda had moved on from her relationship with Tony to find live with Annette, Annette had done the same with Bernice. But there still would be places in each other’s hearts for…forever, it would come to be. Bernice still had feelings for Annette in no small way, but it had been an established fact for perhaps too long a time that she and Annette were never ‘meant’ for each other.

“I’m going to go over and talk with Pastor Martinez, sweetie,” Linda said, kissing Annette lightly on the cheek. She stepped even closer and spoke softly.

“Go ahead…it’s okay…really.”

Linda kissed her once again before walking away. The girl had developed almost a sixth sense regarding her new bride, and the words became an unexpected permission to do and say what even Annette had failed to realize was necessary until that moment. Annette turned back to Bernice, whose eyes had been fixed on Linda as she stood with the Pastor. Jealousy and envy would never ever be a part of who Bernice was, but hopeful longing for what someone else might enjoy or experience was to be expected. She sighed and wiped more than a few tears from her eyes.

If you look
If you really read between the lines
You will see
This is just a disguise
A disguise

“Hey…kiddo…?” Annette said with a laugh, but it wasn’t a tease. More over, it was as personal a connection as the two still maintained now that Annette had found another love. Bernice would harbor no doubts or regrets about their decision to part, but instead felt more alone than she had ever felt before; even in a crowded room with her best friend in front of her. It was time to let go; she knew that. And while it was time, it wasn’t comfortable at all.

“I’m sorry, but I always cry at my former lovers’ weddings.” She looked away; feeling more than a little small and petty.

“It’s okay, Niecy…really.” Annette put her hand on Bernice’s arm, which the woman pulled away.

“I’ll never stop loving you.” Annette regretted the choice of words even as they left her mouth. Bernice smiled through the tears and grabbed Annette’s other hand, facing her.

“I know….I’ll always love you, too. And of course, we’ll always have Staten Island.” She joked once more, but the pain of knowing that it never would have worked out was almost too much to bear. Annette was the most beautiful human being Bernice had ever known, and it was a grief almost too much to bear knowing that she would never be with her. She was thrilled for Annette and Linda; just very sad and feeling so hopeless for herself. Annette compounded the emotion of the moment by drawing the woman into one last kiss. Kissing the bride on a reception line is an acceptable practice, but no one ever said it was always the best idea. Bernice pulled away and pulled out her cell phone.

“I….I’ve got to go. The Feingold baby is early,” she lied. No text or call; just a quickly devised fib to aid a quick retreat. She gave Annette a semi-air kiss before waving while backing out the front door of the church. She walked to her car quickly; barely able to see in front of her as the tears clouded her eyes. She hit the ‘unlock’ on her remote and got into the car and practically slammed the door; not out of anger but out of shame and frustration.

Taking a look beyond these eyes
It'll take you right around my heart
I feel
You should know
That I'm not unbreakable
It's hard for me to show the other side
Telling you but it isn't lie You
You know
That I'm not unbreakable

She was about to start the car when a tapping came at the passenger side front door. She looked over to see a very sympathetic face; Dave had followed her down the block to her car. She nodded and hit the ‘unlock’ a second time and he got in.
“I…” She went to speak but choked up. He smiled an understanding smile and sidled as close as the center console would allow and put his head against hers. He reached over with his right hand and pulled her into his left shoulder as she began to sob.

“I know, Niecy…I know. It’s going to be okay.” As okay as it could be; assurances from brother who has lost the ability to play violin to a sister who felt inauthentic on a nearly every-other-day basis tend to ring truer than most.

“When will…Davey…it hurts so much.” She shook in his arms. Despite her encouragement to others about bright and hopeful futures, Bernice could see nothing but lonliness and heartache in her own tomorrows. Every single person at the wedding besides her had someone to go home with. Other than her cat, there would be no one at home to cuddle with or hold or even argue with or frown at. Life seemed to be one big disappointment lately, and there seemed also to be no change in that routine on the horizon.

“I’m so sorry, honey.” That one word…’honey.’ Dave had called her that even before she had even thought to reassess her gender perception years ago. Big brothers never call little brothers ‘honey,’ do they? Dave seemed to know even before she did that the former Angelo Crocetti was destined from before birth to be a woman, and that life would never be ‘common-place’ for either of them. At that long-cherished term of endearment, Bernice disolved even more into her brother’s arms as she wept uncontrollably.

“Shhhh….shhhh. It’s okay, honey….and it will be okay,” he said as he stroked her hair. He noticed movement out of the corner of his eye and looked up to see Linda and Annette standing by the car door, silent; Annette’s face etched with the tracks of tears. He smiled at her and nodded as if to say, ‘don’t worry, I’ve got this. It’s okay.’ She nodded back and the two walked away.

It really wasn’t okay at the moment, but as he said, it would be.


I'm scared and frightened
Who will give this soul asylum
Protect me beyond these walls
Can't stand this breaking and falling
All of these mistakes I'm making
Finally crystalise

Hope Women's Medical Center, Jackson Heights...later that week...

“Dr. C? Inez called and said she’s running behind. Should I just go ahead and reschedule her; it’s pretty late, and there aren’t any other patients.” Liz called from down the hall. Bernice looked once at her watch. No plans meant no urgent need to go home.Dave and Justin were house hunting in North Arlington, so dinner would consist of marginally satisfying pizza and a bottle of wine to go along with whatever was available at the Red Box at the Stop and Shop.

“No, that’s okay. Let her know it’s fine. I’ve got nowhere to go tonight since baby girl Schmidt came a day early…I believe her name is Heidi, of all things.” She laughed; wondering if the first word out of the baby’s mouth would be ‘grandfather!’

“Do you want me to stay? I’m in the same boat as you. Maybe we could send out for dinner, though. I worked through lunch thinking I’d be going out with Jimmy tonight, but he got called into the Firehouse at the last minute to cover for one of the guys.

“Yeah…whatever you’d like; you fly, I’ll buy!” Liz didn’t need to ‘fly,’ since most of the places the girls at the practice like delivered.

“Your wish is my command, Madame!” Liz laughed at her own take on a French accent. Her parents actually grew up speaking both Lao and French. She spoke the language fluently, but her playful nature lapsed occasionally into what her parents considered almost profane; fake French.

“Doctor C? Bernice? Come quick.” Liz shouted from the reception area. Bernice ran quickly down the hall and into the waiting area to find Inez Cristobal doubled over in one of the chairs. Her blue scrub pants were darkened by a rapidly growing stain of blood.

“No time for 911. I’ll get my car up front and you help her to the curb,” Bernice said hastily as she ran out the front door.


Taking a look beyond these eyes
It'll take you right around my heart
I feel
You should know
That I'm not unbreakable
It's hard for me to show the other side
Telling you that it isn't lie You
Do you know
That I'm not unbreakable

New York City Hospital, Flushing, Queens, New York....

“I’m sorry Inez. I am so very sorry.” Bernice had lost babies before, but none as tragic as the little girl who would never see the light of day. Hope Cristobal was lost as Inez suffered a ruptured uterus; something that no one could have foreseen. Some things happen for no apparent reason in first pregnancies, much less one that was nearly seven months along. It was triply tragic since Inez lost the only baby she would ever have. But the saddest part of it was that her boyfriend, the little girl’s father, had been killed in action when his helo crashed just outside Kabul two days after he returned to Afghanistan for his second tour.

Bernice looked out the window and sighed deeply. It had started to snow and the white flurries swept past her view like so many lost opportunities in her life. While she had felt the need to be ‘herself’ since childhood, part of her was angry that she had never saved any ‘material’ from her old life; a just in case of a snowy day. But she never really did want to sire a child. Bernice never despised her body before she transitioned from Angelo; it was more of a mutual understanding between her and her gender that they just didn’t suit each other.

But wanting children was ingrained in her from the start; baby dolls and stuffed animals when all the other little boys played with ‘action figures’ and toy guns. Well, mostly, since Jimmy Carpentiere had joined Angelo in a quickly disbanded girls club when at five the two were discovered in Jimmy’s mother’s closet trying on shoes. The idea of being a mother once was just a tease to her; the odd looks she’d get followed by resignation when Angelo was the only one available to babysit his cousin’s kids. The interesting thing is that like nearly every woman the boy ever knew, there was a resolve and strength usually reserved (in misconceptions at least) for men.

She had never found any thing attractive about men; again, nothing but an understanding that she and guys didn’t suit each other; neither before coming out when Angelo’s friends kept pushing him into relationships with the boys they knew. And not afterwards, when Bernice’s tastes leaned decidedly toward the femme population. She promised she would be ‘married’ before thirty, barring another idiot appeal against same-sex marriage. But nothing worked out. The closest she came was with Annette, which ended amiably but with more disappointment than she would admit to anyone; even herself.

She looked at the woman and both envied and pitied her, since she at least had life grow inside of her; no cruel taunting by a misfit body even if she lost the baby. But Bernice looked again. Even in her narcotic stupor, there was nothing that the medication would be able to do to ever remove the heartache.

Bernice shook her head, feeling so small and petty. Who was she to complain? Maybe she had it better, since she’d never feel the heartache of a miscarriage. She’d likely never have a child, so she’d never ever worry about losing that love as well. Guilt spent a great deal of time living in Bernice’s world, and it slapped her hard; the old doubts and shame about being false and inauthentic and perpetually barren. Her patient stirred enough to moan, gaining her briefly distracted attention from her self-loathing. She gazed down at the woman. Inez was almost completely under from the sedation, and didn’t see Bernice step into the hallway where she put her hand to her face and wept silently.

Now
There's no where else to hide
Nothing more to fight
Being alive

That I'm not unbreakable
It's hard for me to show the other side
I'm telling that it isn't lie
Read me you'll know
That I'm not unbreakable
You read me you'll know
That I'm not unbreakable
You read me you'll know
That I'm not unbreakable



I Will Love Again!

Did I ever tell you how you live in me
Every waking moment, even in my dreams
And if all this talk is crazy
And you don't know what I mean
Does it really matter
Just as long as I believe


A few weeks later…at the office…

A petite woman sat at the desk across from Bernice. She was perhaps Eurasian or some other exotic mix. A tall woman, thirty-ish, sat next to her, clutching her hand.

“I know you’re anxious, Alice. Your first seems to be taking her time; no major developments, but she’s healthy, and that’s really what matters at this point. Besides, you already know that babies hardly every pay attention to due dates, right?” Bernice laughed and the young woman nodded. The woman beside her nodded as well, adding a warm smile.

“So, you must be excited. Just back from your tour and a new baby about ready to be welcomed into the world?” She smiled at the couple, but the girl scrunched her face a bit.

“Oh, Dr. Bernie….I’m sorry.” She looked at the woman sitting next to her.

“This is my sister-in-law, Ione….Duncan...my husband... is still in Germany.” She lowered her head just a bit and Ione smiled once again.

“Oh, gosh…sorry. I saw the wedding ring and she was holding your hand….” She began to turn red with embarrassment. Changing the subject quickly, she looked slightly away while speaking.

“Do you have any children…Ms. Stuart?”

“Two girls, Fiona is eleven and Maggie is ten. Please, call me Ione?”

“You and your husband must be proud.” Not an unusual thing to ask, but the woman winced almost imperceptively at the emphasis of the word 'husband.'

“They’re….they’re wonderful kids. Couldn’t be prouder.” She smiled, but there was a nervous squint of the eye.

“So….I’ll see you in the office next week unless …?” She struggled for the name, and Alice helped her out.

“Iris….Iris Chang Stuart.” She beamed proudly.

“Oh that’s right.” Bernice winced at her words; of course it would be right. She still measured her words carefully against what wasn’t necessarily expected.

“She’s named after someone in your family, right?

“Yes…my sister….Fiona and Maggie’s mom.” A sigh followed by a small tear that ran down her cheek. Ione bit her lip and looked away.

“Iris passed….about two years ago…uterine cancer.”

“Ohmygod.” Bernice put her hand to her mouth, wishing her words hadn’t been so abrupt; it wasn’t about her, and she wanted to be ….she didn’t know what she wanted to be, but certainly she wanted to show her support.

“I am so sorry.” Sorry for bringing it up? For her self-centered embarrassment? She sighed and tears came to her own eyes as she remembered the scene at the hospital with Inez only a few weeks before.

“You didn’t know. Iris….she…she was a fighter, and her passing was brave and even glorious in a way. She was strong for us all at the last.” The woman put her head down and put her head to her face for only a moment. She lifted her head and smiled.

“I think little Iris is going to be a fighter….just like her namesake!” Alice blinked back a few tears and smiled a very warm smile.

“Thanks, Dr. Bernie,” she said as she rose from the chair. Ione stood and smiled. Bernice reached across the desk and offered her hand. She took it gently and squeezed, shaking it with a firm grip. Bernice felt a wince of pain in her wrist; a reminder of an old hockey injury pre-Bernie, so to speak. A moment later the two had left the office and she sat back down at her desk, wondering what had just occurred. A moment later a knock came at the door.

“S’cuse, Dottoressa?” Liz stood in the doorway playfully holding up a calendar, pointing to date circled about three quarters down the page.

“You decide to break down and grace my table for Thanksgiving?”

“Oh…sorry….of course.” Her brother Dave was going to be in Pittsburgh with his partner Jason’s family for the holiday and the past year’s arrangements would be ever so awkward since her former girlfriend was now married. Annette and Linda had almost begged for her to visit with Linda’s family, but she couldn’t bear to be around Annette.

Too many good memories to miss as opposed to a bad parting. It wasn’t as if she only missed being with Annette so much as she missed being with someone. She would always love the woman, but not ever in the same intimate way of the past. Still, it was too soon after her own meltdown at the couple’s happy nuptials. And of course, Liz and her husband Jimmy and their own girls would be family enough.

“I’m looking forward to it.” She smiled and Liz smiled back with an almost conspiratorial grin. Bernice tilted her head and squinted.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Don’t give me that, Elizabeth François Carpentiere. I’ve known you since you and Jimmy and I used to try on your mother’s shoes.” She half-frowned and tossed a balled up piece of paper in Liz’ direction. Jimmy had ‘grown out’ of the being a girl thing, at least 'full-time,' as Liz would likely remind her; his own unique perspective gave him an understanding about his best friend’s change. And Liz François Dao Carpentiere had been right next to her in recovery; holding her hand through all the pain and joy.

“I just know it’s been hard on you since…well, since the wedding.” Liz reflected the half-frown with one of her own. She shrugged in sympathy and continued.

“And don’t get me wrong. I know you’re ‘over’ Annette, but you gotta know that still loving her isn’t an option…I mean…NOT loving her. I love Jimmy with all my heart, but I still have a special place inside for Leo Piccone, right? It’s just…different. You’ll get there in time, hun.” Liz smiled and patted her chest with her palm. A deft change of subject also deflected any suspicion regarding Thanksgiving dinner. She wanted to bless her boss…her best friend, and she hoped that the holiday would be the start of something wonderful.


People never tell you
The way they truly feel
I would die for you gladly
If I knew it was for real
So if all this talk sounds crazy
And the words don't come out right
Does it really matter
If it gets me through this night

At her home...a few evenings later....

Bernice sat on the couch with the laptop on the snack table in front of her; an electronic ‘thumbing through’ of the picture album of her recent life…a life that had been turned upside down by new needs by her love and new focus and direction and neglect by her. She hated herself more than she missed Annette, and she missed Annette really bad, since it was her inattentive devotion to her relationship and her distraction by her job that drew the two apart. Not that she had much of a choice. Her work was her calling…her life, in fact, as she helped others bring new life into the world. No regrets there, but perhaps a lifetime of guilty regret over the loss of her one ‘true’ love.

“She hates me…she hates me not…” She repeated the mantra as she moved each picture in file into a folder. Not to be discarded, but rather to be stored away from where she might be tempted to pine for what wasn’t meant to be. Once she finished the transfer, she moved the folder into the plug-in flash drive before removing it. She placed the drive in an envelope which she put on the mantel of her fireplace, right behind the clock in front of the large mirror.

“Keep it secret…keep it safe,” she joked, recalling Gandalf’s words to Frodo regarding the One Ring. Safe? The memories were almost unsafe in her heart, but at least the visual reminders would be far away from her in a way. She sighed heavily before returning to the couch. She hit ‘play’ on the remote to her CD player. A moment later the music began. Listening to the lyrics, all the preparation and planning to be safe from harm and hurt vanished only to be replaced by words that did more than just pull at her heart strings. They assaulted them; almost brutally, but in a way that was almost healing in its power to convince and sway and transform how she saw herself.

If I'm true to myself, nobody else can take the place of you
But I've got to move on, tell me what else can I do


Thanksgiving Day….the home of Liz and Jimmy Carpentiere….

It had begun to snow; Bernice stood at the doorway, debating to stay or to run away and hide at King Wah’s for Thanksgiving. She stepped back, pondering whether to knock on the door or ring the bell when she heard a voice from behind.

“Dr. Bernie? Nice to see you again…and out of the office.” Bernice turned to see Alice Stuart. The man next to her looked familiar and different at the same time.

“Oh….you haven’t met. This is my husband Duncan….Ione's brother? He just flew in today. And of course you’ve already met Iris.” She eyed the sleeping baby in the carrier held by the tall man beside her.

“Thank you so much,” Duncan said, giving Bernice an awkward half-hug. He had missed the birth by only a few days as his assignment kept him in Germany past the due date. She nodded and smiled before turning her attention to Alice.

“I’m glad to see you. I didn’t know you knew Liz out of the office.” She regretted the words; why wouldn’t they know Liz. But Alice explained with a smile.

“I was visiting my sister-in-law and the girls for a barbecue and she introduced me to Jimmy and Liz…they live next door.” She used her hand in a broad gesture to point to the house on her left.

“Liz told me what a fine doctor you are, and the rest, as they say, is history.” She smiled and her eyes seemed to twinkle as Iris cooed.

“Dr. Crocetti?” The name repeated with a vaguely familiar voice attached to a fairly familiar face. Ione Stuart stood on the bottom step of the front porch along with her two girls.

“Ms. Stuart? Oh….yes…” she struggled for words, since the group was growing bigger by the moment, but hardly keeping pace with her ever-expanding feelings of insecurity. Out of place, in a way. She found herself growing hot in the face, which she likely would have realized was blushing.

“Please….call me Ione.” She said it softly and with warmth she had never heard before, even from close friends and family. The woman exuded welcome and acceptance; commodities very scarce in her world, even if they were withheld from her by herself at times as well. Her face was hotter and she put her hand to her cheek, forgetting the gloves she wore.

“And what may I call you?” The question was more than just polite; the words seemed to express a calm but urgent need to know her, and she obliged, if awkwardly.

“Oh…you…you can call me.” She hadn’t forgotten her own name, but years of guilt and misplaced feelings of being out of place spoke old names as a tease….a cruel reminder of what had never really been real. Annnnn….for Angelo. Truth be told, she had always been her mother’s angel, but never really that person everyone thought they knew. Even after all these years and so much acceptance by friends and girlfriends and the love of her life, she still felt inauthentic and false, but the woman in front of her didn’t know that. She walked up the steps to the porch and took Bernice's hand gently in hers.

“Yes?” That voice…soothing and disarming; foreign….alien…unreal…but so warm and gentle that it coaxed the real woman to return from her retreat into a false past. She looked at Ione and her smile freed her.

“You….can call me Bernice.”

I will love again
Though my heart is breaking, I will
love again
Stronger than before
I will love again
Even if it takes a lifetime to get over you
Heaven only knows, I will love again



Love by Grace

I didn't come here to find out
There's a weakness in my faith
I was brought here by the power of love
Love by grace

Thanksgiving dinner…a short while later…

“It must be so rewarding.” Ione said casually; her head was lowered as she idly buttered a dinner roll.
“Rewarding?” Bernice had heard the comments before; a nice way of connecting, since everyone loves babies, right? Nevertheless, the woman’s statement disarmed her. She nodded a bit and practically whispered the word, ‘yes.’

“I remember the moments…when Fiona was born… when Maggie was born… like they both came to us…me… yesterday. It was wonderful each time. You must find such blessings in participating in the newness of life, yes?” Bernice wanted to leave the room…the home…the planet. As difficult and awkward as it was to talk about other women’s children, something in Ione’s voice seemed to be soothing; almost salve-like on the abrasion that stung with every reminder of her own status. Easy enough for the woman to talk. She at least knew the joy…the absolute bliss of giving birth. What did Bernice have except a queen-size bed with a vast unused space next to her own?

Dinner was nice enough; the company was welcoming and warm even if she felt awkward and out of place. Everyone seemed to max out at the same time and began saying their goodbyes. Bernice wanted to hurry out; the welcome of one almost overwhelmed her and she found herself growing impatient being ‘last’ in the queue by the front door. Ione stepped back away from the group and walked toward the kitchen. As she walked past Bernice, she touched her sleeve lightly with a very well-manicured hand. A lovely hand, if truth be told.

“Why don’t you come join me for a cup of coffee while we wait? Everyone seems to be reluctant to say a quick goodbye and I’m a bit sleepy. I’ve got a ton laundry to get to. Bernice nodded blithely and allowed the woman to urge her into the kitchen with that gentle hand. She imagined someone as elegant as Ione would have someone to do the laundry for her.

“I’m sorry. I must apologize; I seem to have made you feel uncomfortable, and that was certainly not my intent. May I ask what I said so that I don’t repeat that mistake?” That disarming air; talking about what made her uncomfortable was likely more disturbing than thinking about it, but Ione’s voice seemed to coax the hurt out of her.

“I…became a doctor to help people. I can’t think of anything more helpful than escorting new life into the world.” She paused without saying the implied ‘but.’ Ione reached out and touched her arm again, sending a shock through her. She shuddered, but Ione didn’t let go. In fact, she reached over and grabbed Bernice’s hand with her other and held fast. Deep, understanding eyes gazed into hers.

“I know how it feels. When Iris and I first decided to have children, it was going to be each of us with every other pregnancy. Two for her and two for me. But I can’t…I ended up losing our first and my womb in the process. So Iris had our girls….and…” She began to mist up; both women seemed to easily draw the other out.

“She died two years ago.” Ione unconsciously looked down, leaving Bernice feeling embarrassed and sad for Ione since she had already explained about that; the frequent habit of telling someone about a loved one’s passing often getting confusing as to whom was told and when. She nodded and smiled a warm half-smile.

“I’m so sorry.” She felt more than just a commonality with Ione, even if their barrenness was for entirely different reasons. It was almost as if part of Ione died when her partner passed, and Bernice felt exactly the same way with her breakup with Annette. That old Carol King lyric about something inside dying in her as well. Ione lifted her head and tried to smile, but the tears got in the way, so to speak. She looked away before returning her gaze to Bernice; a haunting, pleading stare for understanding…for acceptance. She shook her head in resolve, convincing herself of the rightness of her next words.

“Do you mind if I kiss you?” Ione was frowning and her eyes had filled with tears. It was an odd and completely surprising request, but something deep inside Bernice came alive at that moment. As if in staring at the woman before her, she was saying goodbye and hello simultaneously. That idea of love at first sight coupled with letting go of her first real love made her decision entirely agreeable and easy. She put her hand softly on Ione’s cheek; wanting to bless the woman as much as if she was delivering new life. She leaned close and kissed Ione on the lips; softly and tenderly, finally feeling loveable and loving after a winter where her heart lay fallow.

And Ione kissed back; tenderly and tentatively, as if by having faith in the kindness of Bernice’ gesture she might be hurt but still undaunted. A very brief moment later their lips parted; eagerly and reluctantly at the same time, as if they wanted to look into each other’s soul to gauge sincerity and truth. Their eyes met and Bernice nodded slightly, as if to say yes. Ione’s head lowered slowly as the woman felt her face grow hot. Bernice touched her chest with her palm as if to say ‘me, too.’

“I’m not ashamed. I don’t want you to think I didn’t like that.” Ione lowered her head again.

“I know. You want me to know that it wasn’t easy or frivolous…I know exactly what you mean.” Even as she spoke her own face reddened, but not for the same exact reason even if they both arose from the same place in the heart. She sighed.

“I’m not complete.” A needful completion of a confession already begun; Bernice needed Ione to know the whole story and needed to know Ione’s heart.

“Neither am I.” She patted her chest, but the gesture meant more than just belonging to the barren sorority to which neither woman had pledged. She patted her chest once more and shook her head; indicating yet another lack. Ione smiled and squinted as if to ask if that loss made a difference. She had sensed the answer already, but was more interested in not cheating Bernice than in her own loss. Bernice had seen the look on enough women to know exactly what Ione meant. She put her head down slightly, not to ignore, but to gain the courage to speak.

“I’m not a real woman.” It was the greatest truth and the biggest lie that Bernice ever told. And Ione somehow understood. She stared at Bernice for a moment, struggling with coming up with something to say. Words failed her, but her heart was completely reliable, and she shook her head no. Bernice began to take it the wrong way and bit her lip as tears came to her eyes.

“No!” It was the only word Ione could think of, but her gesture a second later clarified the moment. She gazed once more at her chest before eying Bernice up and down in inspection; no difference between the two. If one was inauthentic, then both were. And since neither woman was false, both had to be true in the truest sense where it mattered most….in the heart. Simultaneous sighs were met by tearful smiles and a nervous cough to their left. They turned to see Liz standing at the doorway to the kitchen. Over her shoulder they saw Jimmy saying goodbye to the last of the guests other than them and Ione’s girls.

“I think your girls might enjoy a nice sleepover with Aunt Liz and Uncle Jimmy, don’t you?” She winked playfully, and the glee in her face seemed to indicate that the two had been set up. She pointed to the two backpacks leaning against the wall in the hall way. Both women seemed to straighten up, as if they had to hide their intentions. But kids have a way about them, you know, and a moment later Maggie pulled on Ione’s elbow.

“Is she going to be our other Mom? I like her.” It took all Ione could do to keep from laughing and crying at the same time. Bernice just turned a very dark red and turned her face away to keep from reacting. Fiona came over and grabbed her sister by the arm and leaned close.

“Uncle Jimmy has the new Twilight DVD, Maggie. Mommy needs time to find out, you know?” She tried to whisper but it came out louder than she intended. Maggie pointed to Ione’s face and smiled.

“I think she knows already,” her own attempt at a whisper sounded more like someone trying to shout softly; causing both women to stare at each other. It was true, however embarrassing, that Ione indeed had already decided. Almost an emotional version of an accelerated Master’s program that allowed for life experience, Ione’s heart had already moved into that place of acceptance. She stared at Bernice and smiled weakly.

“I have as well.”

“Have what?” Ione looked at her in puzzlement.

“Decided.” She smiled with a bit more resolve. Liz put her hands at the girls’ backs.

“Come along, ladies. Let’s go see if Uncle Jimmy has found the DVD. Maybe we can have some popcorn and hot cocoa, okay?” Both girls nodded and rolled their eyes as if to say, ‘we got it.” They walked casually into the living room as Liz resisted the urge to giggle with glee since her successful meal turned into a successful match.

“S’cuse. Dottoressa?” She said with a grin. Bernice looked at her and held her hands up in a small shrug.

“You can take tomorrow off, if you like.”


A short while later, at the Stuart home…

That was just a moment in time
And one we'll never forget
One we can leave behind
'Cause when there was doubt
You'll remember I said

“I never thought it would ever get better.” Their voices were mute, but their eyes said it all.

“I never had you to begin with, but there was part of me that worried I’d lose you…does that sound crazy?” Ione pled. Bernice leaned closer and kissed her.

“Love by grace? I didn’t come here to lose you?” The CD playing in the background didn’t quite seem to fit, but they both appreciated the absolute romance of the singer, and both thought of the lyrics; perhaps words that played in both hearts for the longest time for completely different and identical reasons. Either way, there was a part of each of them that learned that love in the form of romance came indeed by grace.

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I didn't come here believing I would ever be away from you
I didn't come here to find out
There's a weakness in my faith
I was brought here by the power of love
I was brought here by the power of love
Love by grace



Unbreakable

Words and music by
Wayne Hector, Tim Woodcock,
And the performer, Lara Fabian
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MiFMpYAA_70

I Will Love Again
Words and Music by
Mark Taylor and Paul Barry
as performed by
Miss Lara Fabian
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxnl83HD3R0

Love by Grace
Words and music by
Wayne Tester and
Dave Loggins
As performed by
Miss Lara Fabian
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kjqa_Csf29Q



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