Bette Arrives...

Bette and Mark had been talking for months after they got back in contact in June 2020. They texted each other almost daily. They video called each other a couple nights each week. Mark was able to do so more often when his children were with his former wife: every other week. Bette had concerns about Mark having an ex-wife and children, but over the months it became clear: Shannon had been someone he had loved as a friend; she was his partner in raising their children. He told her their romantic love had faded fast in the early part of their marriage and they were both much happier now. He had nothing but kind things to say about her as a friend and mother.

Mark had had even more wonderful things to say about his children. Ellie had turned ten over the summer and looked like Shannon: blonde hair and green eyes. Mark described his little girl as sharp with her mother's sense of humor. She loved old Warner Brother's cartoons, especially Bugs Bunny. When Mark got Disney+ for the house she watched the 1990s animated movies from Mark and Bette's childhood again and again. Ellie found the old classics section with movies like 'Oklahoma' and 'Hello Dolly' and was fascinated by them. Bette called her an old soul and Mark agreed. He described JJ as a little wilder. He would turn eight in October and looked exactly like Mark did at that age. Bette cooed at the pictures of him: brown hair, blue eyes, and a giant smile. He was a strong and determined child, always trying to climb the highest limb of a tree or do the same moves as the Ninja Warriors on TV (hence the bigger, stronger, homemade playground equipment). He was also a sweet, sensitive child, if he tore his jeans while playing, he felt bad about it and wanted to help fix it. Making his parents mad or disappointed was a bigger punishment than being punished alone.

Bette told Mark about her life after high school. She had a serious boyfriend during much of college but broke up when he cheated on her. It left her emotionally scarred and made it hard to trust men again. She dated, even had a brief engagement when she was 26, but kept most men at arms-length. She had lots of great gal pals; she was never out of touch with Jenna. She finished her four-year degree but didn't feel career driven at all. She worked in restaurants and retail and lived with roommates to save money. She worked in property management for several years; storage unit facilities, then apartment buildings. That experience is what helped get her a leg up into the government job she really wanted. It allowed her to make more money to travel, make small renovations to her house, and be comfortable. She had hobbies like sewing and tailoring thrift store clothes, attending the local renaissance fair, local comic con, and as she always put it 'any excuse to wear a costume.'

Times got really hard around the time she turned 30. Her father John got pancreatic cancer and it took him within a year. It turned out he and Bette were both BRCA1 gene carriers. Bette made the difficult decision to have a hysterectomy and a double mastectomy. The cancer risks were too high in keeping her breasts and her reproductive organs as a gene carrier. Her mother Lorna was by her side through all of it. What was supposed to be a couple routine surgeries a few months turned into botched plastic surgeries and multiple reconstructions. Bette was left with A-cup breasts of real tissue; she didn't want synthetic breasts, not after having double-D cup breasts her whole adult life. She also lost her nipples, her original belly button in the reconstruction; the surgeon tried to turn her tummy fat into new breasts and they didn't take. Her body went through shock after shock for nearly three months. It was six months after that she had the hysterectomy. That recovery had been easier, less taxing; she was back to work weeks later.

Mark and Bette had spent the last several months sharing the specific details of the last 16 years apart and discussing more of the good times from back in school. She got him back in touch with other people he had lost touch with over the years, people she was Facebook friends with: Hank, Robert, Ashleigh, Hannah, and others. He didn't join Facebook, but it was nice to text and video call with other old friends and see pictures of their families and children.

By late September 2020, Bette and Mark became anxious to see each other in person. They locked down their personal bubbles for two weeks and each took COVID tests at the beginning of their personal quarantines and again three days before they scheduled to see each other. Their tests came back negative and made a date to see each other. Bette made an egg bake and cookies and made the 20-minute drive to Mark's home. He lived two suburbs over; he lived in the suburb she worked in. It was Sunday October 11th and Bette drove up the gravel driveway. If Google Maps hadn't taken her there already, it was clear that this was Mark's home from the outside. Mark had built the over-sized jungle-gym that looked a lot like the one from their elementary school for his children. There were big rope swings in the yard, a sandbox made from a tractor tire, and a tetherball poll. Lots of simple toys, balls, and games. What a wonderful way to grow up. She even caught a glimpse into his garage from the window: tools hanging and a truck parked inside. When she turned her car and parked in front of his garage, she could see the house, side door, and the side yard in the rear view mirror. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw him in the kitchen window and the clothes line outside. Bette looked over at her grocery bag and purse and took another deep breath sixteen years. She unbuckled, put on her mask out of habit, grabbed the bags, and opened her car door; Mark was standing in the open door frame smiling wearing a pull over hoodie with his hands in his jeans pockets. He had the same sweet smirk on his face when he saw her for the first time when it had been three and a half years. She had texted thirty minutes ago that she was leaving her house, they had video called a few nights earlier, but seeing him in person, and only a few yards away, it was as if both 16 years and no time had passed at the same time.

She let her purse strap fall to her elbow and reached to her face. I don't need a mask here. She pulled off her custom mask and smiled wide as she fumbled with closing the car door. Mark quickly put on a pair of shoes and hustled out to the car. "Do you need a hand? Do you have everything?"

"No-uh-or," she held out the cloth grocery bag and flinched a little as her purse and the contents shifted. "-you could-"

"I got it," Mark took the bag with a little laugh. "Nothing breakable, I hope."

"No." He was right next to her. He was the closest person she had near her besides her mother since she last saw her friends in person in early March. He was the only person she trusted to have in close proximity to her unmasked since COVID began, at least since they had negative recent tests. "The baking dish is glass, but nothing I'm too worried about."

"Sure." She locked the car door with her fob as they walked up to his door. "Any trouble finding the place?" He asked.

"Not at all."

Mark glanced in the grocery bag, "Did you bring slippers?" He asked in a confused tone.

She laughed a little, "Yeah. So many old houses around here, and my feet are always cold. I bring slippers to my friend's homes in fall and winter. My friend Kari, she has a pair of mine at her place from January I left there. She keeps sending me pictures of her wearing them. I'm not sure if she's holding them hostage or what."

They were in the house and Mark closed the door behind them. Bette set her purse on the kitchen island and started to take off her coat. She wore black leggings, a purple and teal plaid skirt, a black t-shirt, and a teal cardigan. She pulled the slippers out of the shopping bag; they looked like fluffy sneakers and put them on.

"Let me take your coat," he was trying to be a gracious host, but she could still hear the air of nervousness to his tone. She'd be lying to herself if she thought she wasn't nervous too.

"Thanks." He took her coat and hung it up on a hook near the doors.

Mark stood and fidgeted for a moment: he thumbed his ring and touched the back of his head, "Do you- I've got the cinnamon rolls in the oven. I mean- Does your dish need reheating?"

Bette gave him a soft smile, "It's already cooked. It reheats easily in the microwave. I'm not in any rush. I'd like to see some your home if you're okay with that."

Mark exhaled through puffed cheeks and showed Bette around his home. He showed her photos of his children and other family, pieces he picked up while he traveled around the country and the world, and the improvements he made to the home. The tour relaxed them both. The oven beeped and they went and back to the kitchen. He glazed the rolls and another beep went off in the laundry room.

"What's cooking in there?" She joked.

"It's just laundry to switch out, never stops around here, you know? I'll be right back." He started to leave the kitchen for the laundry room.

"You have a clothes line," She said. Mark stopped in his tracks and looked back at her standing at the kitchen island in front of the rolls.

"Yeah," He said slowly.

"I told you. I'm in no rush. The egg bake can go in the fridge for now. We can have cinnamon rolls now, and I can help you with the laundry on the line."

He got a weird smile on his face, "You come over for brunch and you want to do chores?"

"It's still nice out. You know how the weather is here; we could have snow in six days or six weeks. Take the opportunity while you can."

"Are you sure?"

Bette smiled wide and nodded. "I always liked hanging up clothes. Makes me feel young."

Mark walked over to a cabinet, opened it and took out a couple plates. "You're going to spoil me with this kind of help. Shannon and the kids," he shook his head; "They don't like the clothes line. She thought it was old fashioned. The kids can't reach it to help. For me, it's peace and quiet time. It's practically meditation." He served up a couple cinnamon rolls and they ate them sitting on a couple of stools there on the island.

"I have one of those umbrella-style ones. There's something magic about sheets and towels that get dried on the line. Especially in spring, and when it rains a tiny bit and the lilacs are in bloom," Bette sighed. "I mean, I know they literally bottle that stuff, but the real thing: it's incredible."

"I know what you mean," he said. Mark pulled a little remote from his pocket, clicked a button on it, and spoke into it. "Play young mix." The house's stereo system began to play. Bette couldn't quite hear where 'Tubthumpin' by Chumbawumba was coming from, but it made her smile either way. "Speaking of feeling young!"

"Been a while since you've heard this?"

"If by a while you mean last week? Then yes, it's been a while. God! Songs like this take me to specific moments, you know? Jenna and I were dancing to this at a dance in 6th grade and we were doing a move that involved a hand catch and we missed. I fell on my ass and cried. So many kids pointing and laughing at me. It's not a middle school dance unless someone ends up in the bathroom crying. It took a solid year before I could hear this song without it making me queasy." She sighed again. "Golden memories."

"Jeez. Maybe I should have had you look at my mix list before I brought up any accidental trauma."

She finished her cinnamon roll. "Oh," she scoffed. "Ancient history. If I had a dollar for every childhood story that could be simplified with, 'Remember when Bette did that embarrassing thing then cried,' I'd be a millionaire. I know I've told you more than a few of those."

"I guess that's not how I remember elementary and middle school. That's not how I think of it." He took their empty plates and ticked his head for her to follow him. "I remember elementary school in little streaks and flashes, you know?'

"Sure. Little things," she agreed.

Mark unloaded the washer into a standing laundry basket. "Terry Johnson being the only boy to play that one game with all the girls in the big circle."

"Crocodile Moray or Bo-bo-ski-waton-ta-ton."

"Yeah, or the year Robert had that electric green sweat suit."

"It was the '90s, everyone had neon clothing. I had at least three sweat suits and at least one wind suit in neon."

He laughed. "I'm also guilty. I had a red Chicago Bulls one, because everyone was a Bulls fan in the '90s."

"Also true," she agreed. She opened the door and grabbed the bag of clothes pins he pointed to.

"But the memory I have that is so distinct, so vivid in my head, is one I can recall at the drop of a hat. It was the first day of 5th grade and I was waiting outside the building with Robert. We waited at the main doors with everyone. We wanted to wait to go in where we might know some people." Mark started pinning up pillow cases; Bette did the same and kept listening. "Buses started pulling up and kids started getting off. I looked, not for anyone specific, and then I saw Cassandra get off the bus with you right behind her. She and I were in Mrs. Garrison's class the year before. You two were talking. And in that moment, time stopped for me. I remember everything. I wore a blue t-shirt and jeans and had a black back pack. You were wearing dark blue bib overalls and a dark green, long sleeved, waffle shirt. Everyone had those in the '90s too. Your headband had gold studs on it. I thought you were the cutest girl I had ever seen before and I had no idea who you were even though you had gone to Pebble Lake Elementary too. We never were in the same class before. I couldn't believe my luck when you ended up in Mr. Barrow's classroom too. It took weeks or months for desks to get moved around and we ended up in a cluster together at one point. I referenced a line from the best of Johnny Carson tapes and you said the next line from it without missing a beat. You weren't just cute; you knew about so much. And if I knew nothing else, I knew I liked you. That's what I remember." Mark pinned up a hand towel as he finished speaking.

Bette handed him a pair of clothes pins. "I can't believe you remember that," she spoke in a meek whisper.

The basket of linens was empty as Mark pinned up the last towel and took her hands, "I could have told you that any time. But I wanted to see that look on your face in person. That touched, sensitive, sweet look on your face. That look you couldn't hide behind hands or off camera."

Bette felt the warmth of his hands and he stepped closer to her. They had been flirting on calls for weeks, but this was different, this was Mark's feelings come full circle.

"I-I wanted to know what this would be like." She looked down and massaged his hands in hers. "Hanging up laundry with you. I never forgot that was the idea."

He let go of one of her hands and lightly touched his fingertips to her cheek. "I can't tell you how much I wanted to do this," he said softly. "How long I've thought I've thought about it."

She leaned her cheek into his hand. "Don't wait anymore," she said softly. Bette felt hear heart begin to race. The breeze picked up and the linens flapped on the line around them.

"Thank God," he whispered as he leaned into her and kissed her.