“I’m not perfect, Elle. I’ve done some bad things. Sometimes, I feel like if you knew about them, you—”
“I don’t want to know. That doesn’t matter to me. Loving someone means loving them despite their faults or mistakes. The Lord forgives you if you repent and accept Him.”
While I felt that she truly believed that, our conversation still left me with more questions than answers. Namely, why I was suddenly overthinking the impending marriage when it was always supposed to be a business arrangement. I had accepted that. So, why was I suddenly questioning everything?
The candles flickered as wax dripped down off of them. I was twenty-one and staring down at my first ever fucking birthday cake. It was triple-layer chocolate and baked fresh by Olga. Growing up, before Lillian, Dad never celebrated my birthday, and Lillian didn’t believe in birthday parties.
“Where’s Aunt Imogene?” Emily asked.
Olga set the dessert plates down. “She won’t be joining us for cake.”
“She’s staying in her room for now,” Lance said.
Imogene was odd; there was no doubt about that. But I found it kind of sad that they hadn’t allowed her to sit with us at dinner at all anymore. I partly understood why they made that decision because of Emily, but it still didn’t seem right. Elle or Evangeline would always just bring Imogene her dinner on a TV tray.
“Hey, Seven-Up, blow out your candles!” Emily shouted.
Staring into the flames, I extinguished them with one swift blow. Amidst the cheers and smiling faces, I couldn’t help but notice the other person missing and wondered if she were intentionally avoiding my birthday celebration.
As if she could read my mind, Elle asked, “Where is Evangeline tonight?”
Olga passed her a piece of cake. “Lord knows. That girl keeps cutting it close on that bike at dusk. I just pray one of these nights, it’s not a police officer knocking on our door instead of Evangeline.”
My chest constricted at the thought of anything bad happening to her.
Elle put her hand on my shoulder. “You okay, birthday boy?”
“I’m fine. Why do you ask?”
“You just look a little down all of a sudden.”
“I’m okay, Ellebell. If you want to know the truth, this was the best birthday I’ve ever had in my entire life.” What I neglected to explain was how bad all of the other ones were. So, in truth, it wasn’t much of a compliment.
I could hear the front door open, trying to ignore the sensations in my body that always seemed to erupt whenever I knew she was near. Something inside me always came alive, and despite my efforts to beat it down, it never ceased.
“Hi. Sorry I’m late.”
“You missed Sevin’s birthday party, Evangeline,” Emily scolded.
“I’m sorry.” She flashed me a fleeting glance. “Happy birthday.”
Her eyes were red. She looked like she’d been crying.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She didn’t say anything, causing Elle to interject, “What’s wrong? What happened?”
She shook her head as if she didn’t want to talk about it then whispered to Elle, “It’s Lorraine.”
“Did she die?”
She shook her head. “No.”
Olga entered the dining room. “My word, Evangeline. What is going on now?”
“I can’t talk about it. You’re gonna get mad at me, and I can’t deal with this tonight.”
Lance raised his voice, “Does this have to do with those lesbians?”
“Lance!” Olga turned to Emily. “Honey, please go to your room.”
When Evangeline kept quiet, Lance repeated, “Well, what is it?”
“You don’t really care. So, why do you want to know?”
Olga leaned in. “Honey, what’s going on? You can tell us.”
Speaking through tears, Evangeline said, “Lorraine is dying. She may not even make it through the night. The cancer has completely ravaged her. Adelaide is suffering. Lorraine’s family is at the hospital and won’t let Adelaide in the room. They’ve been together for twenty years. Lorraine is the love of her life, and Addy can’t even be by her side when her partner takes her last breath. It’s breaking my heart, and there is nothing I can do.”
Everyone was silent. Watching her cry was causing me physical pain. I remembered the story she told me on that first day about having to sneak around to visit her friends, and the reasons behind her having to hide it were now even clearer.
“Evangeline, those women…they’re sinners,” Lance said. “What’s happening is unfortunate, but the laws of the state and the laws of God are the same. The way they’ve been living is wrong.”
“You’re wrong, Daddy. Love is not wrong!”
“I beg to differ. It is wrong when it’s between two members of the same gender. The Bible confirms that as well. I’m sorry. It’s perverse. That poor dying woman is going to hell.”
My fists tightened. I could feel my blood boiling as memories of Lillian and the hate she used to spew flooded my brain. I wanted to punch Lance in the face in that moment. The frustrating thing was that I knew he truly believed he was right.
Evangeline stormed out of the dining room. The front door slammed. I felt sick.
Lance and Olga retreated to the kitchen, leaving Elle and me alone at the table.