Eula books the suite in Clarksville, two towns over. I bring the food. This year, it’s sushi for me and cold cuts and potato salad for her. Nothing heavy. Just enough to sustain us. And I bring the champagne. This year, which like every year could be our last, I bring three bottles of André Spumante.
And I got us some noisemakers and year 2000 glasses to wear. The lenses are the two zeroes in the middle. For all we know, the Y2K bug will have us sitting in the dark one second after Dick Clark counts down in Times Square. But that’s alright with me. Because that André sips just as well in the dark.
After we get settled in, Eula digs into the potato salad and cold cuts. She’s real particular about what she eats. About most things really. She likes things just so. She’s a schoolteacher, like me, so we have to mind the details, though Eula minds them more closely than I do. But she can’t tell that I bought the potato salad from Publix, added some chopped boiled egg, mustard, pickle relish, and paprika, and then put it in my red Tupperware bowl. She eats seconds, pats her belly, and tells me that I outdid myself.
After we’re finished eating and polishing off a bottle of the André, I start the shower. We like it boiling hot. The heat relaxes me, but I feel like it does something else for Eula. She stays in there long after I get out. Through the steamy shower door, I see her pink shower cap. Her head is bowed, and I wonder if she’s asking God’s forgiveness for stepping outside of His favor as she continues to wait on His provision.
By the time Eula and I turned thirty, ten years ago, we had been best friends for half our lives. We met in tenth grade, the only black girls in our Honors English class. Eula had been new that year; her family moved down from North Carolina. She needed a friend, and I did too. We were daydreamers, planning our double Hawaiian wedding in the margins of our math notebooks. Our husbands would be railroad men like our fathers. We’d teach at the high school, join the ladies auxiliary at church, and be next-door neighbors. Our kids would play together.
But our thirtieth birthdays found us teaching at the high school and serving in the ladies auxiliary with no other parts of our daydreams realized. We celebrated Eula’s birthday in her apartment, with too many wine coolers. She ended up in my lap, her skirt bunched up around her waist. I saw the white cotton panties between her thick brown thighs. She smelled like vanilla.
“Do you ever feel like you could just bust?” she asked me, her breath fruity and hot in my face.
I didn’t answer, afraid that my honesty would send Eula running. But it didn’t matter because she kept talking, begging me to touch her because no one had ever touched her down there. She had been a good girl, she told me. But I already knew that. As a teen, Eula hadn’t snuck behind her parents’ backs as I had, curious, and then disappointed, by what too-rough boys had to offer. And as a grown woman, she had not endured short-lived flings with men whose names weren’t worth remembering, as I had. Eula had committed to praying and waiting for her Boaz, like Ruth in the Bible.
Eula is a true believer. She doesn’t walk around with questions lingering in her throat like I do.
But that night, she slid my fingers inside those white cotton panties and forgot all about Boaz. We stayed up until we were slick with sweat. Later that morning, Eula tamped down regret with silence and coffee.
A month or so later, it was New Year’s Eve, and Eula called to say that she’d booked a suite over in Clarksville. I brought white pizza and three bottles of Asti Spumante.
For Eula’s birthday the next year, I planned a special dinner at my house for us. I went down to the fish market on Avery and got everything to make gumbo, her favorite dish. Eula liked my Grandma Pauline’s gumbo, but without the okra, so that’s how I made it. I cooked the night before Eula’s birthday because Grandma Pauline always said the gumbo tasted better after it had a chance to sit in the Frigidaire for a day.
As I stirred the roux, which is my least favorite part of making gumbo because it requires patience, Eula called to ask if she could get a raincheck on dinner. Reese, an attorney from our Singles Bible Study whom she’d been seeing for barely six months, wanted to take her out for her birthday. It was a surprise. Her words tumbled all over each other—OhCarolettaIthinkhemightaskmetomarryhim—and I just kept stirring that roux.
“You understand, right?” Eula had asked.
“Sure.” I tried to think of something else to say that Eula would want to hear that wouldn’t taste wounded and bitter in my mouth. But I couldn’t come up with anything. It didn’t matter anyway because Eula just prattled on, wondering how Reese could’ve managed to guess her ring size and what she would say to feign surprise when he popped the question.
In the end, both Eula and Reese got a surprise that night. Their romantic dinner at a rooftop restaurant (the original surprise) was interrupted by Reese’s estranged wife.
Later, when Eula called to tell me what had happened, her fury just about leaped through the phone. I sat up in bed, listening, eating my second bowl of gumbo, with okra, another woman’s husband snoring lightly beside me.
Over time, Eula had other Reeses, other almosts. But she would end up dismissing them as too old or too young. Too broke or too stupid. Or they would dismiss her once they realized they couldn’t woo or pressure her into sleeping with them. Now-days, there are fewer and fewer Reeses, and they are less and less like Boaz with each passing year.
I sometimes wonder if Eula finds fault with all these men because secretly she doesn’t want any of them, and is just doing what’s expected of her.
But these are the kinds of things Eula and I don’t talk about.
After the shower, Eula puts on a white tee shirt and white cotton panties. She falls back on the king-sized bed, floating on the crisp white sheets, plump pillows, and billowy comforter. Her hair is wrapped in a pink silk scarf. She takes a long drink, straight from the second bottle of André.
“Want some?” She holds the bottle out to me.
I crawl to her, from the foot of the bed. When I am next to her, she lifts the bottle to my mouth and then pours it down the front of my nightgown and giggles. “Let me get that,” she says. She sets the bottle on the nightstand and pushes me back on the pillows. She straddles me, takes off my nightgown, and licks everywhere the champagne has touched.
About an hour later, I wake up, still drunk. Eula is up, drinking from the last bottle of André. She has muted the TV, but I can tell Dick Clark is introducing some little white girl with multi-colored hair who had a hit early last year. Can’t remember that child’s name, and I guess it really doesn’t matter. She can’t dance to save her life and can’t sing a lick.
“I have a New Year’s Resolution,” Eula says, her eyes half closed. “If I’m still alone come Valentine’s Day, it will be the last one I spend without a man who belongs to me and me only.”
“That’s a pretty big resolution.” I say, reaching for the bottle. The sting of her saying she’s alone doesn’t roll off of me as quickly as it usually does.
“And you need to get with the program, too.” Eula adjusts the pillows behind her back.
“Caroletta, don’t you want to be happy?” she asks.
I look at Eula, her no-longer-fresh ringlets damp from the time spent between my legs. As I think about her question, something both cruel and pitiful churns inside me and threatens to spill out. Since when does she know or care anything about my happiness? Anything at all about it?
“I am happy,” I say, coaxing my voice out to sound braver than I actually feel. “Right now. Right here. With you.”
Eula sits down on the edge of the bed looking away from me, at the TV. “Caroletta, I hope you haven’t given up on finding you a husband. I’m on a mission, and you can be too.” She sounds flat, like the world’s most exhausted saleslady.
“Eula, turn around and look at me. Please.”
Eula shakes her head. To the TV, she says, “I don’t want to die a virgin. Do you want to die a virgin?”
I guess I wait a beat too long to respond.
Eula whips around to face me. “You…aren’t?”
I don’t know what’s funnier: That Eula thinks my forty-year-old ass hasn’t had sex with a man in all these many years, or that she still considers us both virgins after all we’ve done together in those same years.
“You? With some dirty ass man?” Eula clamps her hand over her mouth. In that moment, Sunday School Teacher Eula snatches the reins from Biology Teacher Eula. “You aren’t clean?”
I expect her to grab her clothes and bolt. But she doesn’t. She just sits on the bed, her body racked by sobs. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” she cries over and over again. I’m not even sure what “it” is. Me with other men? Her with me? Life?
“Eula,” I say again. “What way was it supposed to be?”
She turns around on the bed and faces me. “I just want to be happy,” she sobbed. “And normal.”
I want to close the gap between us, to pull her to me and rock her until the tears stop, but I don’t dare.
“Normal according to who, Eula? Men who been dead for thousands of years who wrote a book together and couldn’t agree on a single thing?”
“The Bible is the inerrant word of God,” Eula whispered, as defiantly as a whisper can be.
And you only believe that because of how another group of men interpret the first group of men. People say you’re supposed to put your faith in God, not men. Do you think God wants you, or anybody, to go untouched for decades and decades? For their whole lives? Like Sister Stewart, Sister Wilson, Sister Hill, my mother after my father died—all those women at church who think they have to choose between pleasing God and something so basic, so human as being held and known in the most intimate way. If God became human once—”
“If?” she says, spitting out the word.
“—then why would he make rules that force such a painful choice?”
“I don’t question God.”
“But maybe you should question the people who taught you this version of God. Because it’s not doing you any favors.”
Eula shakes her head. “You’re not who I thought you were.”
“You’re not who you thought you were either.”
On the TV, the Times Square crowd is going wild. It’s almost time for the countdown. Eula and I are lying in the bed wearing only our year 2000 glasses. The noisemakers are still in the bag.
“I want to ring in the New Year in Times Square someday,” Eula says, but her words are kind of mashed together because of the André.
Eula doesn’t answer.
“Our friends Down Under in Sydney, Australia were the first to ring in the New Year,” Dick Clark says to a white woman in the crowd wearing a purple velvet Mad Hatter’s hat. “And other countries have celebrated as well without any loss of power or computer glitches. Do you think the Y2K bug was much ado about nothing?”
“I’m scared, Caroletta.”
Eula begins to whisper. I move closer to hear what she’s saying and realize that she’s praying.
When she says, “Amen,” I get up and walk to the foot of the bed and kneel down. Eula’s toenails are painted the same pink as her scarf. I reach for her ankles and pull her toward me. She scoots on her butt until she’s at the edge, her feet flat on the bed on either side of me. She spreads her knees apart. I push down gently on the inside of her thighs, until she is open, like an altar.
I am speaking in tongues.
Eula has her prayers and I have mine.