It was late afternoon on board the yacht “My Surprise” when we’d both agreed, it’d been too long since we’d had a date together. Dancing close, our hands played and imagined with lover’s signals the many hidden places we’d felt content to stir and dream of finding later.
“I feel very lucky you were free tonight,” I say to my beautiful date, Tina.
“Your sister couldn’t wait for us to leave.”
“She was anxious.”
“We do have a very cute baby.”
“We do.” I kiss Tina’s lips. “Are you missing her already?”
“A little, aren’t you?”
“Yes, but I’m glad you’re here. Alone.”
“Alone…?” Tina repeats, as if trying to remember its very meaning.
“Hmm…they’ve been times.”
Tina dances closer to whisper.
Smiling at her suggestion, I whisper back, “I do like you that way.”
She sighs and we dance. “We’ll miss you if you take this job.”
“Should I turn it down?” I look into her eyes and then, past her. Where the ocean beats relentlessly against the channel walls.
Before she can answer, Barry, our party’s host and owner of the yacht, “My Surprise” appears at my elbow. “Bette, they’re calling for us to come below. Tina included.”
“I’d love to, of course.” Tina smiles back.
Barry, Tina and I weave through a boat deck of drinkers and dancers to take the four steps down into the yacht’s stateroom. Waiting on us are three other couples, the marriage equality campaign’s ring leaders.
Introductions are made and Tina and I meet Nancy and Isabelle, Laban and Todd and Barry’s partner, Carey. All of whom, after introducing themselves, added the long official names of their elite law firms.
Sangria in sweating pitches of deep red wait for us. Everyone pours a drink. Everyone is smiling. It’s a beautiful day and Laban says, “Bette, we’re ready to make you an offer, but we have a few questions.”
“I’m ready when you are.” Relaxing, with my arm around Tina, I lean back in my chair taking in the well appointed stateroom around me.
Laban continues, “We’re very interested in the fundraising work you’ve done. It’s put you at the top of our list.”
Folding my hands on the table I lean in. “Everything you sent me I read carefully. Your polling numbers weren’t as high, as I know you would’ve liked them to be heading into Election Day, but the relentless negative media campaign from your opposition killed your growth.”
Barry adds bitterly, “Twenty fucking million dollars the Church of Mormon SuperPac spent against us…in the last thirty days!”
Laban says very firmly, letting me know they’re all still in the fight, “Marriage equality is far from over, but we can’t win against so many well-funded opponents.”
“I can rid you of Fay Buckley. I know, she’s just one, but I came with a fundraising plan…” I reach for my purse, but Carey interjects.
“I, for one, can’t take the replays anymore!”
Barry releases a long defeated sigh. “We’re still stinging from our failures, Bette.”
Then the table grows solemn, without another word mentioned about their nationally recognized defeat.
I’d come prepared with a strategy to bring them out of the ashes, but before I can offer even one, Nancy begins rustling papers.
She’s in her sixties, thin and strong like a Yogi, who’s let her long hair go white in braids down her back. She looks at me with steely blue eyes of Icelandic ancestors and says, “So, we need to talk to you and Tina about your image.”
Tina sputters out a disbelieving laugh, “Okay…, I guess.”
I reach over for Tina’s hand and brace myself for what’s coming next.
Nancy continues, “All of us here, along with everyone else working with us in management, filed for our marriage licenses and made it through the brief window, before the opposition shut it down.”
Laban says, “They were heading for us anyway, but watching thousands of same sex couples getting married put Dobson and VoteYesMarriage on high alert and they got Prop 8 on the ballot.”
He looks back at Nancy, who’s reading through more papers Isabelle has handed her, “You’ve been together for…?” she asks me and Tina.
“Eight going on nine years.” Tina and I answer in unison.
“But you didn’t apply for marriage licenses?”
We shake our heads, no, to a growing sense of disbelief that crowds into the room.
My throat goes dry.
Nancy asks, “But you and Tina did register as domestic partners with the State? Right? Before you had a baby together?”
Tina drops my hand as Nancy hits another raw nerve, “You filed for adoption, though? You…did…do that, right?”
Waiting for a shred of legal sense to come from me, six lawyer’s disbelieving eyes stare.
Laban adjusts his eye glasses and says, “Why didn’t you take your own and your family’s civil rights more seriously?”
Todd adds, “Bette, it’s not that we don’t like you, it’s just that this job we’re asking you to do….” but he stops as several around the table begin to shrug and shift, “…will put you in the spotlight of a very closely watched civil rights campaign. This case is headed into the courts and after that, back on the ballot.”
“Which is why I’m here to talk about raising you money.”
Nancy’s already heard too much. “She’s not ready. Let’s move on.”
Planting both my hands on the table with a smack, I address the group, “If you’ll give me one minute, with the love of my life who should unquestionably be my wife, we’ll be right back.”
On the deck, I try to put my arms around Tina, but she’s furious about what happened below. “Bette! Goddamn you! You were off with Candace,” her voice becoming shrill, “at the very moment we had the chance to get married!”
Desperately looking around the boat deck I see two options. First, is the anchor line I could tie around my neck and leap off this boat, ending forever this stupid careless life I’ve been exposed as leading.
My second thought is to have a final shot of tequila before I die.
A waiter passes behind Tina, who’s breathing fast and pulsating with rage. I snap up two shots, give her one. They disappear in a flash.
“Bette, we should go…
Any second, I expect to see Tina spin around and break for the exit.
She continues, “…and talk about why? Why we didn’t fucking care enough!”
I grab the hand of hers not firmly planted on her hip. “We’re not going home right now, because you’ll never listen to me there. So, I’m begging you once again,” I plead with her, “and you’ve got to hear me…Dear God! Tina, you’ve got to hear me! Please. Forgive. Me!
But her fingers slide from my grasp. “Baby, don’t….” My voice shreds…unrecognizable.
“Tell me, then! What’s wrong with you?”
I grab the railing to hold fast before I jump.
Instead, I sag against it. “Fucking so broken. I can’t understand it.”
“And you think you’re alone?” She sounds exasperated.
I spin around. ”Do mothers really vanish without a reason? Do they? I never saw her, you know, my mother. I was told she was very sick when I came home from school, but do you never see them, again? Not even to say goodbye at a funeral?”
”Bette, you’ve never told me any of this past you coming home from school.” Tina’s voice softer, comforting me.
”Did she leave me? Was she murdered? I can’t stand not knowing…”
”Bette! That’s too far!”
“Arrrgg!” I grip the railing with all my strength and shake it violently. “He would sit there in a restaurant and erase you! Frozen, I’d watch him do it!”
I feel myself about to vomit overboard and unable to stop I heave.
“Jesus Christ, Bette! This is a job interview!” Tina pats my back and tries to pull me upright.
I mutter, as I wipe my mouth with my handkerchief, “He erased me every time he erased you. The woman I adored and wanted to marry.”
Out of my incoherent misery I hear Tina’s voice. “I knew we couldn’t, as long as he was alive. Bette, I knew that.”
“Goddammit! I’m not a fucking coward. You know I’m not!” And a feeling of steel shoots up my spine. My eyes flash! I pull her into my arms. “Be engaged to me! Say yes!”
Her arms fold around my neck and we sway together at the railing. “It may take years to get the final piece of paper.”
“Are you saying, yes?”
“I’m saying yes!”
“Thank God!” I smack my hand against the railing. “I fucking swear to you, Tina, my heart couldn’t feel any more married to you.”
“Stay that way, Bette, and we’ll all be fine.”
“I will.” I slice my arm with finality. “But I want revenge though.
My anger burns.
“For us, for everyone who’s ever been shamed and told their love was wrong.”
Tina walks ahead of me as we trot down the stairs back into the stateroom with six lawyers. My eye catches a still life of figs on a beach. I pause for a moment before turning around and saying, “Being humble in a business meeting, admitting how ineptly I’ve handled legalizing my life with Tina’s and our child, it’s true. I’ve been out of step, remiss and as I’ve said, inept.
“We appreciate the few minutes you gave us to talk privately about where we were back then…surrounding circumstances….the reasons why we didn’t act, when you and so many others did.”
I cross my arms across my chest, beseeching them, “Please understand me. I do care about the wounds inflicted by prejudice. They’re in me, too and I’ll use the passion I have to raise your money. I can help you. I know how to raise money for this.”
The mood in room makes a slight shift.
Tina motions me to the empty seat at the table.
Laban says, as a nearby printer begins churning out legal documents. “While you and Tina were up top, we put together some material from the State. You both should read these.”
I hold out my hands, incredibly grateful.
He shrugs it off good-naturedly, “Bette, I’m mean there are six lawyers in this room for Christ sake, what’d you think we’re going to do with our spare time? Print out contracts, of course!”
Tapping them together he scoots one stack over to me and one to Tina.
Todd explains as we read, “The top one is for domestic partnerships and then, you file Bette’s adoption papers, after you get your confirmation back from Sacramento that you’re registered as domestic partners.”
Tina says, “So, you’re saying wait on the adoption papers?”
Nodding Todd says, “First, you submit to the State of California that you’d like it to recognize you as domestic partners. Then they write back with their acceptance of you and Bette as a ‘special class of persons’ under their domestic partnership laws. To them you are stating: You are two women, agreeing to commingle your lives, money and assets and you are asking that the State recognize you that way.”
Tina takes a fountain pen out of her purse. Looking at me she asks, “Right?”
I motion for a pen.
An elegant gold writing instrument, light years past a pen, rolls down the table to me.
I look up and see it’s from Isabelle.
Carey taps the table in front of Tina. “Give them to me with the filing fee of thirty-three dollars and I’ll deliver them to the Secretary of State’s Office.”
“Thank you,” Tina says continuing to write.
Reading down the form, I mutter, “I’m sure we could mail them….”
“You could, Bette…”
I stop reading and look across the table at him.
“…but I work for the Secretary of State so, I’ll hand deliver them for you.”
I know I’m good hands. “Thank you so much, all of you. When would you like me to start?”
Later that night, Tina puts my arm around her waist and draws me tight against her back.
“You’re an exhausting woman, Bette.”
I take that as my cue to distract her. Rolling my tongue around her ear, I whisper, “Earlier, a piece of me turned into a smoldering pile of ash, if that’s any consolation.”
“I saw it,” Tina says, rolling over.
“On a yacht, where I got a very nice job, and we got engaged.”
“Exhausting sometimes was my point. Were you considering jumping overboard? I saw a crazy look in your eye.”
“I really did. Wrapping the anchor around me, too.”
“Oh Babe.” She hugs me. “We all have horrible ghosts, but they’re never real.”
“Ghosts.” I stare up at the ceiling.
Tina’s fingers play up and down my belly. “Not real, Babe.”
I bury my face in Tina’s neck. “I’m so lucky to have you.”