“Drink Your Wine With a Joyful Heart” Ecclesiastes 9:7
Night had fallen over Boston. The moist air clung to Mary Eunice’s long sleeves and dampened her hair to her cheeks, like she had freshly stepped out of the shower. As the last strip of sunlight vanished from the sky, she called out into the darkness, “C’mon, Baby Eunice! We can’t build more fence tonight. It’s too dark.” She gathered up the hammers and the nails they’d used throughout the day and dropped them one by one into the toolbox. “Bring me the things you were using, okay?”
“Mkay!” The little Mary Eunice came trotting over the overgrown grass to her. The moon peeked out from behind the clouds and shone silvery on her blonde hair. She lugged over the hammer Mary Eunice had given her--it had distracted her from playing with the more dangerous things in the toolbox that Mary Eunice and Lana were using to erect the privacy fence around their yard. “Why can’t we keep building?”
“It’s too dark,” Mary Eunice repeated, snapping the toolbox shut.
Baby Eunice frowned. “But why can’t we do it in the dark?”
“Because we need to see the nails to be able to put the boards on the fence posts. Otherwise, we might hurt ourselves.”
“Why does it get dark?” Mary Eunice opened the shed and pushed the toolbox into the shadows inside, and then she locked it shut, reaching for Baby Eunice’s hand to lead her back to the house.
She tilted her head thoughtfully. “I think Aunt Lana could tell you the answer to that one.” Her rudimentary grasp of church science was not, she thought, the most accurate explanation she could feed to Carol’s daughter.
Baby Eunice grunted. “Why?”
“Why does Aunt Lana know more than you about stuff?”
Mary Eunice chuckled. “I think it’s because Aunt Lana went to college.” At the back door, she carefully eased out of her shoes, and she picked up Baby Eunice to take off her shoes. “Let’s wash our hands and get ready for dinner. Then bathtime.”
She nodded enthusiastically. “What’s college?”
Laughing to herself, Mary Eunice opened the screen door and stepped inside. The smells of cooking meat--perhaps, overcooking meat--wafted from the kitchen. Baby Eunice extended a hand to touch the wallpaper. “Ah, ah. No touching. Our hands are dirty, remember?”
“Mary Eunice!” Lana called from the kitchen. “Help!”
She hurried her pace with a few quick steps. The kitchen, she found the saucepan had a thick, oogey mesh of ingredients stuck to the bottom of the pan--too thick to stir, just enough to be scraped about like a paste. “What happened?”
Lana stood over the stove, her hair frenzied and her hands misted with flour. “I followed the recipe exactly!” Beside her, Gus eagerly wagged his tail, hoping for some scraps.
A grin split Mary Eunice’s face. “Somehow, I doubt that.” She shifted Baby Eunice out of her arms to Lana, who ducked her head with shame as she took her. “I’ll fix it. She needs to wash her hands.”
“I think I can do that right.” Lana pressed a quick kiss onto Mary Eunice’s lips, and then she walked away with Baby Eunice on her hip. “Let’s go wash our hands, okay?” Baby Eunice gave a cheer, and then she began to parrot off questions at Lana again, questions about why the sky got dark at night and what college was and if it made you smarter and if it did, how could she get to go? and Mary Eunice listened through the hollow walls with a smile on her face as she washed her hands and then peeled the adhering layer of sauce off of the pan into the trashcan and started again with fresh ingredients.
The rest of Lana’s meal had turned out--the steaks were only slightly burnt, and the green beans and mashed potatoes looked great (Mary Eunice said her own grace prematurely before she taste-tested them). Throwing some lard and seasonings and flour into the pan, she stirred up the gravy-like sauce, this time pouring it over the steaks and into a dish before it had time to settle. She turned off all the burners on the stove and cut off a bit of fat trimming for Gus, who caught it midair with a clever snap of his jaws. He coughed.
Mary Eunice frowned. “Gus?” He pricked his ears, tail whipping back and forth, hoping for another piece of fat--he’d spent the last few hours smelling meat and anticipating dinner, and he hoped soon there would be snacks for him. He didn’t cough again. “Weird.” Mary Eunice slid everything on the counter farther back and picked up his bowl. “You can have dinner, too, buddy.”
She filled his steel bowl with kibbles and walked to the corner of the living room. “Sit.” He sat. “Stay.” Both eyes fixed on her with the bowl as she bent over to place it on the floor, nothing moving but his tail sweeping back and forth across the carpet. “Go ahead.” He dove at the bowl, taking big gulps of it as Mary Eunice walked away.
Serving up the food, she prepared the plates, listening to a conversation through the wall as Baby Eunice continued pestering Lana with questions. “What’s a nun?” So somehow they went from how the sun sets to nuns. I wonder how that conversation went. Mary Eunice cut up the steak for baby Eunice into tiny pieces and gave her much smaller portions than the two adult plates.
Lana was saying, “A nun is a woman who decides she wants to give herself to God, kind of. I think that’s probably a question for your Aunt Mary, though.”
As they rounded the corner into the kitchen, Baby Eunice frowned. “But Aunt Mary says you’re the one who knows everything.”
Lana laughed. “Is that what Aunt Mary says?” The corners of her brown eyes twinkled, but as she reached for one of the plates on the counter, a tremble wracked through her hand. She’s anxious.
The nights where they kept Baby Eunice late were never good ones. Mary Eunice had asked Carol to try to mitigate them, but sometimes, like tonight, they were unavoidable; no one else was available, and Carol couldn’t show up to job interviews with her child in tow.
“Here, I’ll carry it,” Mary Eunice offered, taking the plate to the table. “Baby Eunice, do you think you can feed yourself?” She nodded and hummed, taking the small fork in her fist. “That’s my big girl.” She ruffled the girl’s blonde hair and walked back into the kitchen, where Lana poured herself a glass of tea. “Are you sure that’s what you want to drink right now?”
“Yes.” Lana reached into the pocket of her skirt and shook out a Valium. “It’s eight-thirty. Shouldn’t Carol be here by now?”
“She’s job shopping out in Concord.”
“Concord’s an hour away, tops. Nobody is interviewing after six.”
Mary Eunice glanced into the dining room where Baby Eunice picked at the steak with her fingers. Fidgeting with the hem of her sweater, she murmured, “She’s supposed to be meeting with Molly about a divorce attorney.”
Lana raised her eyebrows. “A divorce attorney?” she repeated in a whisper. “With a five year old and one on the way? Does she really think that’s a prudent decision to be making right now?”
Averting her eyes, Mary Eunice shrugged. No. No one thought that. “Harry is seeing someone else. She wants to have a start on things before he pulls the rug out from under her… not after.” She peered in at Baby Eunice again, still eating, oblivious to their conversation. “I don’t think she thinks it’s wise, but… I think it’s necessary.” Mary Eunice picked at her fingernails, glancing down to the tile floor of the kitchen. Why do men do that? she wanted to ask Lana. Why would they take the one good thing they have in their life and then throw it away? She couldn’t imagine ever being unfaithful to Lana. She could never have imagined herself being unfaithful to God. Some people treated fidelity like an old dog thrown outside and beaten down under the hot sun. But in this house, their old dog was cherished and well-fed. Mary Eunice couldn’t conceive of anything else.
A cold hand touched the small of Mary Eunice’s back. “I understand.” She watched Baby Eunice pick at her food.
Tilting her head, Mary Eunice watched Lana’s profile. “I’m not going to ask her to stay here.” Lana faced her, a look of surprise on her face. “I’ll help them as much as I can, but--”
“I wouldn’t ask them to be homeless.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to give up your peace.”
It was backward, in a way, that this place was Lana’s sanctuary. Within these walls, Wendy had taken her final breath; Mary Eunice bleached the carpet weekly, the place where Wendy had died, but she still swore there was an outline of bloodstain there that would never fade. This house had punished and cursed Lana in so many ways. Yet it was her only solace when she needed to escape, and welcoming others into it broke something inside of her.
Dark eyes softened and looked away. “I didn’t think I was so transparent.”
Only Mary Eunice could come into this space without setting off alarms and driving up walls and firing armed guards to the surface of Lana’s mind. Anyone else, no matter how well-intentioned, no matter how beneficent, triggered something within her, made her feel exposed and unsafe.
“I’ll give her money,” Mary Eunice promised, “if she needs a place to stay. That’s all.”
“That’s your family,” Lana reminded her gently.
“She’s a grownup now.”
A smile cracked Lana’s face. “You’re beginning to sound more and more like me.” Mary Eunice brightened, feeling praised for some reason-- I can think of no one else I’d rather be like. Lana arched an eyebrow at her. “I didn’t mean that to be a compliment.”
“I still think it is one.”
Chuckling, Lana pressed a quick kiss to her lips, and she picked up her plate and carried it to the kitchen table. Mary Eunice followed her. As they sat down across from Baby Eunice, she looked up at them, steak juices all over her face and fingers. “When will Mama be here?”
Mary Eunice took a napkin to wipe off her grubby little hands. “Mama will be here soon.” I hope. “We’re gonna give you a bath after dinner so you’re all clean when she gets here, okay?”
The forks and knives on the plates made sounds which sent chills down Mary Eunice’s spine. “How’s the fence coming?” Lana asked. “I didn’t get to look outside before the sun set.”
“It’s going up.” Mary Eunice raised her eyes to her. “Fewer splinters today than yesterday. I’m getting better at it.”
A grin creased Lana’s expression. “I still think you should’ve let Earl and Barb put it up for us. It wouldn’t have taken them nearly as long as it’s taking you… and you wouldn’t have a dozen smashed fingers.” She extended her foot under the table and touched Mary Eunice’s ankle. At the unexpected contact, Mary Eunice flinched, but then she relaxed and held out her leg to let Lana rub her big toe against her calf.
Mary Eunice shook her head. “I’m going to learn some life skills if it kills me. We don’t need a man to do anything for us.”
“Now you’re really beginning to sound like me.”
“Is it a compliment this time?” Lana’s eyes crinkled at the corners at Mary Eunice’s innocent question. Her laugh is perfect. There were days Lana didn’t laugh enough. This was one of them. “I’m serious,” she added, “I’m going to figure things out. I’m going to be the--the… what’s the word? The bench.”
Lana narrowed her eyes, her mouth opening as she tried to work out Mary Eunice’s meaning. “Are you trying to say butch ?”
Cheeks flaming, Mary Eunice ducked her head. “Maybe.”
“What does butch mean?” Baby Eunice piped up, and Mary Euince’s and Lana’s eyes widened in synchronization as they both faced her, continuing to pick through her food with her hands instead of her utensils. Uh… Mary Eunice’s mouth hung open as her gaze flicked back to Lana, uncertain how to proceed, what to say.
Lana cleared her throat. “Well, honey, butch is a word for a woman who is… very capable and strong.” No, no, don’t tell her that, she’s going to--
Baby Eunice perked up. “Can I be butch?”
Lana looked back to Mary Eunice, who cut in, “That’s only a word we use for grownup women. But if you want to be butch when you’re older, you can be.” Saved it. Carol had been blissfully forgiving--perhaps out of necessity--with allowing them to watch Baby Eunice, where sometimes she saw things with them she wouldn’t have seen on television. Mary Eunice didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that. One of these days, she’s going to reach the end of her rope with us.
Their feet touched under the table, ankles hooking into ankles, and Mary Eunice cut into her steak absently. Baby Eunice kept asking questions between her bites of food, gravy and spots of things all over her face and hands. “Don’t talk and chew at the same time,” Mary Eunice chastised her gently. “Elbows off the table.” She nudged her to straighten up her posture. Carol didn’t always have time to keep her manners in line, so teaching some etiquette to Baby Eunice was the least they could do.
Baby Eunice finished her meal before Lana and Mary Eunice did. “Can I play with the doggy?”
Lana lifted her chin, looking over at Gus. He had finished his dinner and dozed on the floor in front of the couch, all sprawled out and snoring. “You can ask him if he wants to play. But if he says no, you have to respect that, remember?” Baby Eunice nodded in agreement and slid off of her chair. She approached Gus and sat on the floor a few feet away from him, calling and clapping, and he amiably climbed to his paws, shook his big ears, and then padded to her and flopped across her lap, eliciting a slew of giggles.
A ghost of a smile touched Lana’s face. “I’ll wash the dishes if you’ll give her her bath.” Mary Eunice nodded in agreement. “How has work been? I haven’t heard from Lois over the past few days.”
“It’s good. She says she’s going to try to get her cosmetology license finally.”
“She’s been saying that for years.” I know, but I like to think she’ll do it now. I like to have hope for her. “I have a book signing tomorrow in Salem. It’s supposed to run pretty late. You’ll be okay?”
“Yeah, of course.”
Rolling around on the floor, Gus coughed again. “Ew!” Baby Eunice cried out. “Stinky breath.” She waved her hands around in the air frantically, scrambling to get off of Gus. The large dog dragged himself to his feet, beginning to pursue her with a wagging tail, but then he stopped. He coughed a third time. Mary Eunice and Lana both stood, watching as his chest expanded and he hacked again. Licking his jowls, he flopped his ears with a shake of his head. Then, he licked Baby Eunice on the face.
The frowns didn’t fade from their faces. “He coughed while he was waiting for scraps earlier, too.” Exchanging a glance with Lana, she rocked back on her heels, crossing her arms. “Do you think he’s okay?” What will we do if he isn’t? She tried not to consider it. She tried not to think about a future where Gus wasn’t with them. It would come one day, but not today. Mary Eunice wasn’t ready for it to be today, or tomorrow, or next week.
She hoped to find reassurance on Lana’s face, but the perturbed expression held fast to her lips. Her hands tremored. Touching Mary Eunice’s wrist, she tilted her head. “If he keeps it up, I’ll make him an appointment at the vet.” She spoke the words like a vow, a promise in good faith, as she reached to squeeze Mary Eunice’s hand. “I’m sure it’s nothing. It’s June. There’s new pollen and stuff in the air. He’s probably having some kind of allergic reaction to a new plant or something. Maybe the sawdust from putting up that fence is bothering him. You think?”
Lana had plausible explanations, but she, too, was seeking reassurance. I don’t know what to say. Mary Eunice had worked in Briarcliff for so long. She knew the difference between sounds of different coughs--an allergic cough, a pneumonia cough, a tuberculosis cough, among others. This cough doesn’t sound like any of those. It wasn’t a wet, productive cough. But it wasn’t a dry allergic cough, either. It was too deep to be curing a tickle in his throat. It came from his lungs. Nothing came up with the air, yet the exertion, the sheer physical effort he pushed into these coughs, sent him doubling over and crippled him.
Lana’s expectant brown eyes worried back at her. She needs me to tell her it will all be okay. Mary Eunice didn’t know how to tell a lie. But when Lana needed her, she figured it out. “Yeah. He’s fine, I’m sure. It’ll probably be gone by next week. And he’s due for his shots soon, anyway, isn’t he?” The vet would examine him and would reassure them that nothing was wrong. Or he’ll tell us that Gus is sick. He’ll probably be able to fix it. Doctors can fix lots of things. Medical technology has come so far. That lingering shred of doubt twisting inside her threatened to paralyze her.
Fortunately, Lana’s voice shook her out of that reverie. “Baby Eunice!” Her tone crawled up the octave, imperceptibly higher than before. To Mary Eunice, it sounded shrill. She’s stressed. They needed a break from babysitting. Lana needed to recover. She wasn’t meant to handle things like this. “Baby Eunice, it’s time for your bath. Let Aunt Mary take you and give you your bath.”
It was a small house. Having it invaded, even by Baby Eunice, didn’t bode well for Lana’s mental health. “Okay!” Baby Eunice stood up and offered her arms to Mary Eunice. Mary Eunice picked her up. “Bath time,” she chimed.
In the bath, Mary Eunice sat on the floor across from her, watching her scrub herself with the bubbles in the tub. Baby Eunice giggled, dropping lather on top of her own head. She tilted herself back with laughter. “Aunt Mary?” The question drew Mary Eunice out of her reverie. “Aunt Mary, why is Mama gone so much? She never was gone before. Now she’s gone all the time.”
Mary Eunice sucked her teeth. Fidgeting with the sleeve of her sweater, she swept over Baby Eunice with her gaze. “Well…” I don’t think I’m supposed to have this conversation with her. “Mama is going to have another baby. She has to spend some time at the doctor so they can make sure she and the baby are both going to be healthy and okay.” It was safe to talk about Carol’s pregnancy; Baby Eunice knew about that.
“But Mama goes to the doctor until this late? Every day? ”
Baby Eunice was five, but she knew a doctor’s appointment a day didn’t make very much sense. “Not every day,” Mary Eunice reassured. “You’re not here every day, are you?” She ruffled her hair, earning a cheeky laugh. “Mama is looking for a job, too. Grownups look for jobs sometimes. We have to work to make money so we can take care of our little kids, so they can grow up big and strong, like you.”
“But Daddy works so Mama doesn’t have to.”
“Sometimes Mamas and Daddies both work.” And sometimes Daddies are unfaithful. And sometimes Mamas have to look out for their children because Daddies won’t. “But you don’t have to worry about that. You’re safe here with us. And if Mama has to work, you’ll still be safe here with us.”
“Mama didn’t have to work before.”
“Things change, baby. You’ll be alright. You’ll still see her every day.” Mary Eunice scooped up water into a cup to pour it over her head. “Cover your eyes. Let me rinse your hair.” Baby Eunice obeyed. “Good girl.” With several scoops of water, she rinsed the suds from her hair and from her body. “All clean? Your booty, too?” Baby Eunice giggled and nodded. “I thought so.” Unfolding a towel, Mary Eunice lifted her out of the bath water and dried her off. “Let’s brush your hair and braid it so it’ll be all neat for Mama. Okay?”
Nodding enthusiastically, Baby Eunice scrambled into her nightgown, and then she ran into the bedroom, perching on the edge of the mattress. Mary Eunice sat behind her with the comb and combed through her fine blonde hair one stroke at a time. “Aunt Mary?”
Mary Eunice loved her dearly. But I’ll be very glad when I don’t have to hear someone calling me Aunt Mary every few minutes. Guilt plagued her at the thought. She pushed it away. “Yes, dear?” She kissed the top of her head to amend for her dark thoughts.
None the wiser, Baby Eunice asked, “If Mamas get jobs to take care of their kids, why don’t you have kids?”
“Not all grownups have kids. Grownups without kids still need money, even if we don’t have families.”
“Why don’t all grownups have kids?”
“Well, some people don’t want to have kids. Some people think it’s better to have dogs or cats, or to spend time at work or with friends… And some people have trouble getting babies to stay in their tummies, even if they really want them.”
“But Mama has a baby in her tummy.”
“Yes, she does.”
Baby Eunice looked back at her. “Is the baby in Mama’s tummy going to leave? I don’t want him to leave! I want a little brother.” Her blue eyes went round in a terrified protest, and Mary Eunice bit the inside of her cheek to keep from chuckling at her. “Why would the babies leave? Don’t they want to be born?”
Gathering up the blonde locks in her hands, Mary Eunice ran a calming hand over her head. “Mama’s baby has been in her belly for a few months now, so he’s not going to leave. When babies leave, it’s usually when they haven’t been there very long. I’m sure you’ll get your little brother.” She parted the hair into tendrils and began to cross them over one another in a neat, tight braid. “Mamas have to be healthy for a baby to want to stay. Sometimes, they don’t eat enough, or they work too much, or they have something else going on that makes it hard for a baby to live inside them. But your Mama is going to be fine. Now hold still so I can braid your hair.”
With a satisfied little grunt, Baby Eunice relaxed, allowing Mary Eunice to braid her hair and tie at the bottom.
“Aunt Mary?” Mary Eunice hummed in return. “Why don’t you have babies?”
I was hoping you wouldn’t ask me that. Jaw shifting uncertainly, Mary Eunice blew a sigh out of her nose. “When I was a little girl, not much older than you, I had to take care of your Mama and her brother and sisters. It was really hard. So when I grew up, I decided I didn’t want to raise any more babies. It’s like when you hear the same song on the radio over and over again, and you get tired of hearing it. I got tired of taking care of babies.”
“Oh.” Baby Eunice sounded disappointed. “So you won’t give me any baby cousins to play with?”
With a short laugh, Mary Eunice shook her head. “No, honey, I don’t think so. Besides, babies need Mamas and Daddies to be born. I’m with Aunt Lana. No Daddy for us.”
Baby Eunice fidgeted. “Mama says I’m not s’posed to ask about you and Aunt Lana. She says it’s sinful. ” The word slapped Mary Eunice across the face. She placed her hands in her lap and averted her eyes. Baby Eunice, unperturbed, kept talking. “I don’t understand. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life with a boy. Boys are yucky!”
She couldn’t bring herself to smile. It was too difficult to wipe the grimace off of her face. “You won’t think boys are yucky forever,” she promised. I hope not. If you do, Carol will blame me. “There are women who like women instead of men. And men who like men instead of women,” she explained quietly. “But people aren’t very nice to us. It’s not a very nice world to live in. And it means it’s harder for us to have jobs, or to have babies if we want babies.”
“But if Aunt Lana was a Daddy, you’d have babies?”
Mary Eunice shook her head. “I don’t think so, sweetie.” Through the wall, she heard the doorbell ring. “That’ll be your Mama. C’mon, put on your slippers.” Baby Eunice was dressed in her gown and ready to go to bed, so Carol could tuck her right in as soon as they got home. Mary Eunice helped her into her coat. “You got it? You need help with the buttons?”
With an obstinate shake of her head, Baby Eunice protested, “I can do it!” as her clumsy fingers worked over the buttons. “See, I got it! All by myself!”
“All by yourself, that’s right. High five?”
Baby Eunice high fived her with a sharp laugh. Then, as Mary Eunice opened the bedroom door, Baby Eunice charged out. “Mama! Mama!” Carol waited for her with open arms. Baby Eunice dashed to her, squealing with delight, and jumped on her. “Mama! I buttoned my whole coat, all by myself! I did! I buttoned all by myself!”
“You did? That’s so good! I’m so proud of you!” Carol kissed her on the cheek.
Baby Eunice grinned from ear to ear. “You know what that means?”
“What does that mean? Tell me!”
“I’m gonna be butch when I grow up!”
Lana stood across from Carol. All of the color drained out of her face. Mary Eunice shuffled beside her, and her footfalls rustling the carpet made the only sound in the room. Carol lifted her head. Her eyebrows drew together, tight and hot. Anger fizzled upon her face. She’s cross with us. Mary Eunice reached for Lana’s hand. Lana didn’t take it. But the gesture didn’t go unnoticed.
Brown eyes flared hot. “ Really, Mary? Even now? Even here? Even with her?”
Oh, no. Her voice faltered. “Carol, I’m sorry. She doesn’t even know what that word means.” Baby Eunice looked between the three of them in confusion, her lower lip poking out into a frightened pout. The tension in the room sucked all of the joy from her. Tears welled in her eyes. We shouldn’t make her cry. “Please,” Mary Eunice asked Carol in a small voice.
Mouth curling into disgust, Carol looked back and forth between the two of them. “I can’t believe you two. I’m trying to be open here. I’m trying. Because you love each other. And because you love her. And because I love you.” She squeezed Baby Eunice tighter when she whimpered. “But I can’t sit here and watch you--watch you poison my daughter! Jesus Christ, Mary Eunice, what’s the matter with you? With either of you? You were a nun! What happened? Did Satan crawl inside of your brain and turn it into his own personal pervert factory?”
Mary Eunice flinched. Lana stepped between them. “Hey.” Her soft voice rang with finality. “That’s enough.” Yes, he did. Mary Eunice’s stomach flipped. Yes, he did, he did, he did, I can’t sleep at night without seeing his eyes in my dreams. “It’s time for you to go, Carol. It’s past Baby Eunice’s bedtime.” Lana held her hands out in a peaceful, placating gesture. In the air, her fingers quaked.
“What? You don’t like it when I call you what you are?” The dark look on Carol’s face didn’t abate. “I knew better than to rely on you. I don’t want you dykes anywhere near my daughter.” Lana bristled. Mary Eunice shrank. The door opened and then closed behind them. Through the wall, the sound of Baby Eunice beginning to cry echoed. The window lit up when Carol cranked her car and turned on the lights, and then they drove away, leaving nothing but silence on the street.
Eyes burning, Mary Eunice stared at the carpet. She crossed her arms across her chest, trying to shrink and protect herself. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled to Lana. “I shouldn’t have said what I said in front of her.” Gus sat at their feet, gazing up at him with his round brown eyes.
One trembling hand closed around Mary Eunice’s forearm. “This isn’t your fault.” Dykes. The word burned her. The word chilled her to the bone. “You didn’t say anything out of line.”
“It’s not the type of thing I should’ve said in front of Carol’s daughter. It’s not appropriate.”
“It’s not appropriate? ” Lana repeated, raising her eyebrows. “You said you wanted to be butch. One, it was a joke, but two--there’s nothing wrong with being butch! How many butches are we proud to have met?”
“You know Carol is never going to see it that way.” Mary Eunice shrank. I’m not even sure I see it that way. Her belly boiled with self-hatred. Dykes.
She’d been living with Lana for almost a year now. She had heard the word more times than she cared to think--sure, usually not hurled at her, but rather at Lana, or in their general direction. But she had heard it. It shouldn’t have surprised her when it rolled off of Carol’s tongue so fluidly. The vitriol in Carol’s voice shouldn’t have taken her aback. It shouldn’t have filled her with the darkness now shivering in her belly.
Lana’s hand slipped into hers. “Let’s go lie down. You need to rest. You look exhausted. Building that fence and chasing Baby Eunice all day isn’t easy on you.” Lana’s fingers quivered. But she didn’t speak to her own anxiety. Instead, she cared for Mary Eunice, and that almost made it worse. Every action, the soft hand on the small of her back, the tender drawing back of the covers, the way Lana kissed her with such love--it branded the word dyke inside of Mary Eunice like a hot iron pressed to her skin.
Gus rested at the foot of their bed. Within a few minutes, he snored. Occasionally, on the off-beat of his breaths, he would cough. And each time he coughed, Mary Eunice reached out her foot to touch him and make sure he was still there, make sure she could still feel the rise-fall of his chest.
Lana didn’t push her. They lay there together in the dark. “Are you going to tell me what’s bothering you?”
“Is she right?” Mary Eunice didn’t hesitate to ask the question. It spilled from her lips before she could consider bridling it. “Do you think it broke me?” That’s silly. You’re being silly. Her lower lip trembled. Loving Lana is the holiest thing about me. The demon couldn’t have done something like that to her. Father Joseph would have said something if he thought that was how it had happened. Father Joseph says all love is good love. He says I deserve to feel love. He says--
She needed to hear it from Lana. All the approving priests in the world couldn’t settle the war in her head and in her heart right now.
One hand extended across the bed and pressed right to Mary Eunice’s chest. “Sunshine, no…” She shook her head. “You’re not broken. There is nothing wrong with you.” Pressing firmer, her palm embedded itself into the flat of Mary Eunice’s chest, feeling her apical pulse there through her ribs. “Carol doesn’t know what you’ve been through. That was just a silly, mean thing for her to say while she’s hormonal and stressed. Just think about it.” Mary Eunice closed her eyes, listening intently to the sound of Lana’s voice. “Think: Carol’s young, and she’s pregnant, and she’s going through a divorce. She’s probably jealous because she sees how happy we are. And she’s uncomfortable because--because it takes time to accept us being the way we are, no matter how much she loves you. And she needs us, and she doesn’t like needing us. She’s fallen on hard times. She didn’t mean to hurt you, not really.”
Why else would she call us that? It was a fighting word. It was a slur. And it fell from her lips so easily… “How do you know for sure?”
Lana knew for sure; of course she knew for sure. She smiled. “You don’t think I’m broken, do you? You don’t think there’s anything wrong with me.”
“No. Of course not.”
“So you know there’s nothing wrong with you. There can’t be. Not when it’s the same thing. Not when it’s the same love.” Lana yawned. The Valium was taking effect, making her sleepy. She leaned over and pecked a chaste kiss onto Mary Eunice’s lips. “Are you ready to get some sleep?”
There is nothing wrong with me. Logically, she knew it. But convincing her emotions of it was a different story. She nodded, curling up onto her side, facing Lana. “Are you okay?” she asked. Dark eyes evaded hers in that tell-tale way--the one that said she wasn’t okay, but she didn’t know how to say otherwise. Mary Eunice placed an arm on her waist. “I’ll stay awake until you’ve gone asleep.”
Placing her head on Mary Eunice’s pillow, Lana quietly answered, “You don’t have to do that.” But her tone betrayed her soft resignation. Her heavy eyes found Mary Eunice as her hands bunched up beneath her chin in the blankets. “Will you read to me?”
Mary Eunice smiled. She reached for her Bible. “Yeah.”
It was a passage on love, and her words purred out of her like a rattling cat, voice hoarse with sleep. She stopped at the end of the chapter, when Lana’s body had relaxed so much, Mary Eunice thought for certain she had fallen asleep.
She’s still awake. “Yeah?” One hand brushed over Lana’s soft brunette hair.
“I’ll call Barb and Lois tomorrow night.” Her eyelashes fluttered, but she didn’t open her eyes. “Think we should spend a night at Pat Joe’s sometime soon. Be around our people.” She yawned. “I love you.”
Is that a good idea? Mary Eunice couldn’t shake her most distinct memory of Pat Joe’s, when Lana brought home that woman and slept with her while Mary Eunice waited silently outside the bedroom, listening to the amorous sounds through the walls and trying her hardest not to weep. “I love you, too, Lana.” That won’t happen again.
She knew Lana would never be unfaithful to her; she had no reason to doubt her. Pushing away her discomfort, Mary Eunice kissed the crown of Lana’s head. We haven’t seen Barb in awhile. I haven’t seen Lois outside of work in weeks. It will be good to go back. She clutched Lana tighter around the middle, trying to convince herself of all these truths--that she was not broken, that she deserved love, and that nothing impure awaited them at the gay bar.