Written by Deesha Philyaw
This week’s book of the week is Deesha Philyaw’s beautifully crafted story collection The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Read an extract from the story Eula below.
When Deesha Philyaw sat down to write her debut short story collection, The Secret Lives Of Church Ladies, she wanted to depict the hidden, imagined lives of the women she grew up observing. The finished product is nine interlocking stories exploring the lives of Black women, sex and the church. “[They’re] the kinds of things that Black women whisper amongst ourselves,” she has explained. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then you’re in luck, an HBO Max TV series of the collection is also in the works, optioned by actor and producer Tessa Thompson. Read an exclusive extract from the story Eula below.
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 all right with me. Because that André sips just as well in the dark.
After we settle 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 I bought the potato salad from Publix, added some chopped boiled egg, mustard, pickle relish, and paprika, and put it in my red Tupperware bowl. She eats seconds, pats her belly, and tells me 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 sneaked behind her parents’ backs as I had, curious, 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 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 rain check 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.
Sometimes I 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.
The Secret Lives Of Church Ladies (£14.99, Pushkin ONE) is out on 5 May
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