I still see parts of Beth everywhere; her grass green eyes look out at me from the face of a new student, her small, boney hands bag my groceries, her almost-too-long legs are crossed in a chair next to me in the waiting room of my dentist's office. Once, I caught myself staring for too long at a sales woman in Dillard's who stole her frown.
I set fire to almost every picture of her just before my wedding, hoping the flames would burn both paper and memories. Instead I'm left with one worn photo I keep in a shoebox at the back of my closet, a feeble monument to our love and my own secret rebellion. I only pull it out a few times a year, usually in June when I miss my innocence the most.
I took it on our first vacation together, a weekend trip to my grandparents' North Carolina beach house about an hour away from our college. She had been my roommate and friend for over a year, so they didn't bat an eye when I asked for the keys. The photo is almost ten years old now, edges frayed by concealment and the passage of time, but the colors are as vivid as ever. I took it when she wasn't looking, wanting to capture her serenity forever. Beth is stretched out on her stomach, her long lanky frame balanced delicately on her elbows. Her skin glows golden brown against the shockingly red towel, her black one-piece swimsuit hiding the brand new butterfly tattoo on the small of her back. She holds a battered paperback copy of The Bell jar in her left hand, her round chin resting in her right. Her short auburn curls fall haphazardly around her face, tossed askew by the heavy June breeze. this is how I like to remember her; happy and at peace, a striking contrast to the woman I left behind four years later, angry and broken.
I met Beth my first day of college, walking into my dorm room shortly after my parents finally left only to find her sitting on my freshly made bed. A cliché beginning perhaps, but the truth is set in stone, unchanged by time and memory. Her hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail, bare legs swinging back and forth, eyes fixed on me, unblinking.
"So you like pink," she said, apparently finding a friendly hello to be superfluous, her thick velvet voice sounding every bit as confident as I had never been.
She ran her hands back and forth over my pale pink bedspread, her back resting comfortably against the matching pillows.
"I guess," my own voice came out sheepish, crumbling under the weight of her stare. "Who...are you exactly?"
"Your roommate," she pointed at the open door next to me.
On it, the R.A. had taped two red circles cut out of construction paper, the names Beth and Courtney printed on them in glittering gold magic marker.
"O," I looked back at her and tried to smile, "nice to meet you."
I was about to ask her why she was sitting there when I saw the mountain of plastic bags, cardboard boxes, and three suitcases piled precariously atop her unmade bed.
"Did your parents leave already?"
"My dad brought me," her eyes moved away from mine to the mess on her bed, "he had to get back to Rhode Island. He works a lot."
I almost asked where her mom was, but thought better of it. An awkward minute passed between us in which I shifted from foot to foot in the doorway, while Beth continued to sit on my bed, still staring at her mass of possessions.
"Do...do you want some help unpacking all that?" I finally asked, a desire to help mixed in equal measure with a need to break the silence.
She finally sprung from my bed as if she had been waiting for me to offer, her bare feet sliding into worn army green flip flops she'd left there.
I thought about our first meeting that night at the beach house, lying awake in Beth's arms, listening to her quiet breathing. She was always everything that I am not; solid, confident, raw. I tried to remember when I first knew I loved her, but couldn't. I felt as if I had always loved her, as if I was made to hold her, touch her, taste her.
Why did it change? Why did I abandon her after getting an apartment together, after telling my conservative Baptist family about her, after making promises of family and forever?
Sometimes I awake in the middle of the night, my husband's sturdy chest pressed up against my back, the sounds of my two daughters stirring in their sleep floating to me through the open bedroom door. In these moments, I know this is where I belong, I know that I am happy.
The regret visits me in my dreams clothed in our last goodbye, painting shades of gray over my black and white life.
It was the morning of our fourth anniversary, and I stood in our kitchen, making the raspberry pancakes Beth loved so much. November third wasn't the exact date we began our relationship, but neither of us could recall an official beginning, and we both loved Fall, so it seemed to fit. She walked up behind me, draping her long arms over my shoulders.
"I want to come home with you for Christmas."
She said this in the same way that one might say, "I could really use a cup of coffee," or, "where's the paper?" Beth was never one for pleasantries, a precious waste of time and words. I dropped the spatula I was using to flip the pancakes and looked back at her.
"You're not serious."
"Of course I'm serious, Courtney." She stepped back, folding her arms over her chest. "I've been with you for four years...four years. That is a hell of a long time."
"I know, but..."
"And I've only met your mother and brother once, and that was at graduation last year."
"I know but..."
"They all know about me, Courtney! Why are you so damn set on keeping me from them?" She began pacing back and forth, her bare feet smacking loudly against the worn brown linoleum.
"I'm not trying to keep you from anyone." I smelled burning batter, but I ignored it. "They know. I thought that's what you wanted."
"I want to be a part of your entire life, not just part of it. I'm fucking sick and tired of being locked away in the Lesbian corner!"
"You are a part of my entire life," I gestured madly around with my flower covered hands, "this is my life, Beth! You are my life! You know I love you."
"It's your grandparents, isn't it," she plowed ahead as if she hadn't heard me. "They don't want their grandbabies to catch the gay, right? Afraid their other granddaughters might grow up to like vaginas?"
"Anyone with a brain knows that is ridiculous..."
"And you're perfectly happy to pacify them by shutting me out." She stopped pacing and bared down on me. "What, did you make some kind of deal with them? It's fine with us if you're dating a woman, we just never want to hear about it. Let us know when you want to fuck men again!"
"It isn't that simple, Beth!" My voice rose in spite of myself. "I have a sister, cousins, family I love very much. What do you want me to do, not go? How would I explain that?"
Silence enveloped us for what seemed like an eternity. The pancakes burnt in the pan behind me, but they didn't seem important anymore.
"If they love you as much as you claim they do, they wouldn't say no if you insisted." Her voice shook, and I saw tears pulling at the corners of eyes so unaccustomed to their presence. "If you loved me like you say you do...if you want to spend your life with me like you have said a thousand times...you would want me there. If I were a man, you'd want me there."
I should have vehemently denied this claim. I should have taken my Beth in my arms, kissed every precious curve, and told her that she was wrong. I should have stroked those messy curls while I called my grandparents to tell them I was bringing the love of my life home for Christmas.
But I didn't. The words caught in my throat, and all I could do was stand there, acutely aware that I was breaking her heart, and my own.
That Christmas I went home alone, cowardice in toe.
Three years later, I met my husband at a church hayride. He's a loving husband, good Christian, and a great father, everything I ever thought I wanted. Yet, I keep this picture, pulling it out more often than I should. I love my life, but every time I gaze at the beautiful woman I once loved, I wonder if I chose this because it is what I want, or because it is easy.
I'm not sure I ever want to know the answer.