Julia was a single mom, so she did what she had to do.
“Just put your quilt on the table with the others,” Beth said.
Beth was the PIC – person in charge – of the single parents’ group at City of God. City of God had support groups for everything, plus soccer fields, tennis courts, and an auditorium large enough to hold a heavyweight championship fight between Jesus and the devil.
“Are the parents literally going to hunt Easter eggs?” Julia asked.
Shannon, her five-year-old, was hunting Easter eggs with the other kids in the meditation garden. But the notice for this parents-without-partners event said there’d be two hunts, one for the kids and one for the parents.
“Uh-huh,” Beth said. “I’m going to hide the eggs right now.”
She had her arms wrapped around a large cardboard box. Julia lifted the flap and saw pink and blue plastic eggs.
“How does this work?” Julia asked.
“It’s a mixer,” Beth said. “Each blue egg has the name of a man in the group. The pink eggs have the name of a woman. The men have lunch with the lady in their egg. Then after lunch, the ladies pitch horseshoes with the man in their egg and the kids join the parents.”
“Sounds like a key party without the sex,” Julia joked. It was okay to talk with Beth that way, not so much the others. To be safe, she added, “Not that I’ve ever done anything like that.”
She’d never belonged to a megachurch before, either.
“But there’s a problem,” Beth said. “We have more women than men. And we have an odd number of people.”
“Sounds like a potential cluster-you-know-what,” Julia said.
Beth nodded. “We’ll go with the flow. Jesus loves us, and it’s just lunch and horseshoes. I’m going to hide these around the tennis courts.”
Julia watched Beth set out for the tennis courts with the box of eggs and wondered if Beth got a stipend for organizing these things.
Shannon had snuck up on her. Her basket was overflowing with bright plastic eggs. She set it on the quilt table.
“How many did you find?” Julia asked.
Shannon made a show of counting, losing herself in the rhythm and song of it.
“You counted some of them twice,” Julia said, “but that’s still a lot of eggs.”
Inside each egg was a piece of candy and a slip of paper, similar to a fortune cookie, saying something like Jesus Loves You or Praise God. A theme at this church was Christianizing secular customs. The kids were drilled on the point that Jesus was real and that the Easter bunny wasn’t, but pretending was okay so long as you knew it was just pretending. Shannon opened one of the eggs and took out the candy.
“Save the candy for when we get home,” Julia said. She pointed to the rows of child-sized tables above the walking trail. “You’re going to have lunch over there while Mommy has lunch with the adults.”
She felt a tap on her shoulder that made her jump. It was Bruce. Bruce had a boy a few years older than Shannon. She’d ignored his hints about setting up play dates with their kids because she knew Bruce wanted a play date with Julia.
She turned back to her daughter, but Shannon was running to the ice cream tables. Julia couldn’t very well run after her, though she wanted to, so she turned back to Bruce and gave the obligatory smile.
“Have you ever done anything like this before?” he said. “I tried speed dating once. Those women were really desperate.”
He was drawing a distinction favorable to her – she wasn’t as desperate. She marveled at his ability to offend without even trying and his worldview, where women were consumer choices and men were shoppers with coupons.
“This mixer is progressive for a church, don’t you think?” he said, rubbing his chin, a leer in his eye he probably thought was flirty.
“I don’t know,” Julia said. “I was wondering about the blue egg, pink egg thing. What about people looking for same-sex relationships?”
He threw back his head and laughed.
“You wouldn’t find something like that here, now would you?”
Tsk, tsk, women could be so ditzy.
“Maybe in a Unitarian church,” he added. “You’re not one of those, are you?”
He was inviting her to demonstrate solidarity by sneering at Unitarians. Before she could figure how to step around this steaming pile of cow manure, he’d moved on.
“I think the good thing about something like this is that it takes judgment out of the picture,” he said.
She thought the bad thing about it was that it took judgment out of the picture. Some men in this group – like Bruce – she flat didn’t like. If she found one of their eggs, she’d spend the afternoon clutching the knot in her stomach while she tried to remain pleasant without making emotional contact that could be interpreted as encouraging.
It was Shannon, again. This time, a little boy was behind her. She’d seen him in church.
“Can Jason and I go to the playground?”
The boy was a cutie, blue eyes and lots of beautiful brown hair. Shannon was five years old and hooking up already. It was easier now than it would be later, when puberty got in the way. Julia glanced at the ladies setting up for lunch at the kids’ tables. They weren’t anywhere near the serving stage.
“That’s fine. Mommy’s going to hunt Easter eggs, so do whatever Ms. Elmhurst tells you, okay?”
Shannon and Jason scampered like insane squirrels towards the swing set. Julia envied them. Then she heard Beth warble like a songbird:
“Time for the adult Easter egg hunt!”
The others were following Beth to the tennis courts. If she was going to duck out, now would be the time to do it. It might seem counterintuitive at a mixer, but Bruce was part of the mix. It was like Russian roulette. Most of the time, pulling the trigger will be okay, but that one time when it’s not is why you don’t pick up the gun.
“Shall we?” Bruce said.
His brown eyes were impatient, friendly on the surface, but implying that if she cut herself from the herd, there would be unspecified but bad consequences. That was how it was at this church – this implied threat was in everybody’s tool belt.
So, she walked by his side to the tennis courts and joined the others gathered in a semi-circle around Beth.
“The eggs are hidden around the middle court,” Beth said. “The Easter bunny didn’t make it hard – they’re on the ground in plain sight.”
Julia looked out at the court. Beth was telling the truth.
“There are more women than men,” Beth said, “so not all the ladies will get a blue egg today. The odd number also means there will be at least one threesome.”
“A threesome?” Bruce called out. “That’s pretty racy.”
One of the men laughed. Everyone else pretended they hadn’t heard. But Julia was thinking about Beth saying, Not all the ladies will get a blue egg.
“Can I have a drum roll?” Beth said, hamming it up.
One of the men did a drum roll on his chest.
“On your mark, get set, go!”
Julia spied a pink egg on the ground at the center of the tennis net. She walked swiftly and reached down, but a man shouldered her out of the way and took it for himself. He looked at her like she was crazy.
“Men get the pink,” he said. “You need to find a blue egg.”
Julia watched the others scurry this way and that, each one eventually leaving with an egg, until Julia was alone in the middle of the tennis court. She scanned the court and saw a pink egg nestled next to the fence. She hurried over and grabbed it.
Julia found her quilt and carried it to the grassy expanse on either side of the row of poplars the developers had left when they bulldozed away everything else to build City of God. She chose a spot furthest down the tree line, not far from the woods and creek that trickled through the undeveloped portion of the church property.
She spread her quilt and plopped down in the middle. She looked around at the archipelago of picnic blankets, where solitary women nested like female cardinals, waiting for the bright red male to swoop down with the worm. She glanced back to where the buffet was being set up and saw the men gathered, conferring. Easter eggs were being swapped and money was changing hands. Some of them were laughing.
She gazed up at the trees and awaited her fate. The poplars hadn’t leafed out yet. She could see the clear blue sky through the latticework of branches. The sky looked clean, true, non-deceptive. Julia wished she could marry the sky.
She heard footsteps approaching. It was Bruce, a big smile on his face, licking his lips like a sociopath. She told herself to cut it out, put on her big girl pants.
Jesus loves us. It’s just lunch and horseshoes.
“How about that?” Bruce said, sitting down beside her. “We’re having lunch together.”
“How about that,” she replied. “Were you guys wheeling and dealing over there?”
“Oh, you saw that, huh? Sometimes it costs something to get what you want.”
She wondered what it would cost to put out a hit on Bruce. Not really, but would fifteen hundred dollars do the trick?
Beth was sounding an old-fashioned triangle dinner bell. A nice touch. Julia admonished herself to be sociable. It was character-building, like kissing lepers.
“Come and get it!” Beth shouted.
“Shall we head to the chuckwagon?” Julia said.
Beth and her helpers had mustered buckets of fried chicken and mashed potatoes on a picnic table beside bowls of homemade slaw and jugs of iced tea. In line, getting food, Julia could talk with other people while they loaded their plates. But when they returned to Julia’s quilt, she and Bruce were alone again. She occupied herself with eating, as if she were ravenous. So long as she smiled and nodded, he seemed to think they were having a conversation.
She was eating chicken and building character when Beth arrived with another woman who was carrying a plate and a drink.
“This is Charlene. We have an odd number, so she’s joining you for lunch. Charlene, this is Bruce and Julia.”
“People call me Charlie.”
They all exchanged hellos. Julia hoped Bruce wouldn’t repeat his joke about threesomes, but it was the opposite. Bruce was all puffed up, as if a strange bird had flown into his territory.
Charlie sat on the quilt beside her. She was a handsome woman. Blue eyes, a mop of beautiful brown hair. There was something familiar about her.
“Are you Jason’s mom?”
“How did you know?”
“He looks just like you. Shannon was playing with him.”
“Is Shannon the one he’s eating cake with?”
She shaded her eyes with her hand and looked at the little tables where the kids were eating until she found Shannon. Sure enough, Jason was beside her.
“He has a crush on Shannon,” Charlie said. “He was following her around on the slides and the jungle gym.”
Bruce cleared his throat loudly. The ladies looked at him. He didn’t have anything to say, he just wanted Julia and Charlie to stop talking to each other.
“What do you do for a living, Bruce?” Charlie asked.
He told her he was an executive at IBM. Charlie asked more questions. Bruce was vague, implying that he was important, and defensive, as if he was afraid she might discover that he wasn’t. Talk dribbled down to nothing. Julia ate without speaking, peaceful now. It felt like being let go from a bad job and drawing unemployment.
They were just finishing lunch when her bladder started to complain. The iced tea had been a mistake. She wasn’t the only one. Women were lining up outside the single portable toilet by the parking lot. The line was getting long. Very long.
“Who needs to go to the restroom?” Bruce said, standing up.
Julia did, but the prospect of standing beside Bruce for who knew how long, trying to hold it? Talk about combining two forms of torture. And the idea of peeing in the portable toilet with Bruce standing outside the door, then coming out and looking him in the eye? She’d rather pee on her grandmother’s quilt.
“You go ahead,” Charlie said. “We’re good.”
She looked at Charlie. Charlie winked.
As soon as Bruce was out of earshot, Julia said, “I’m about to explode.”
“Me, too,” Charlie said, standing. “The woods are right over there.”
She followed Charlie, looking over her shoulder as they entered the woods to verify that Bruce wasn’t seeing, as if they were breaking out of jail. There was a trail into the woods. They followed it in until the undergrowth was thick enough to block anyone from seeing. Everything smelled green and damp.
“You first,” Charlie said. “I’ll keep a lookout.”
Charlie turned and walked back up the trail to where it bent to the left, taking her out of Julia’s sight. Julia stepped off the trail a few feet. Even though no one could possibly reach her without hacking through the bushes with a machete, it took deliberate effort for her to pull down her pants and relax. But once the stream began to flow, the relief was incredible. She felt a kind of glee, listening to her urine splash against the ground, like she was sneaking behind the school for a smoke in seventh grade. She finished, buttoned her shorts, and went back up the trail where Charlie was standing. She tapped her on the shoulder.
Charlie hurried down the trail. Julia turned to face the direction of the picnic, in case Bruce came looking for them. If he was back at the quilt, how would she explain their absence? She could tell him the truth, but she wasn’t sure what the truth was, other than peeing in the woods was a lot more fun than talking to Bruce.
When Charlie returned, she didn’t want to go back to the picnic.
“It’s nice in here. All woodsy and quiet.”
Charlie nodded. She didn’t want to go back, either.
“Want to go hiking sometime?” Charlie asked. “We can take the kids. Go someplace with a creek or a waterfall.”
Charlie spoke to her like an old friend, though they’d probably not exchanged fifty words. She wondered what Charlie was doing at City of God. She couldn’t see Charlie waving her hands in the air at a revival.
“That sounds great,” Julia said. “Shannon would love it.”
“Speaking of kids, we better get back.”
They walked to the edge of the woods, stopped, and gazed from the shadows at the sunny open field dotted with blankets. Charlie looked at her.
“It’s not so bad.”
It was, but Charlie made it all right. Charlie took her hand and they walked out of the forest together. Once they were out in the open, she thought about letting go of Charlie’s hand, but she didn’t, and Charlie didn’t either, not until they got to the quilt. They sat on Julia’s blanket and Charlie pointed.
“Bruce is still in line.”
She looked. He was now second in line, the only man. The woman in front of him had her arms crossed and was staring intently at the portable toilet. The woman behind him had turned her back to him and was locked in conversation with another woman. Bruce noticed Julia and Charlie watching him. He waved.
They waved back. She put her hand on Charlie’s arm.
“Do you think he really has to go, or just likes to be with women when they go to the bathroom?”
They both laughed.
“You should ask him when he comes back,” Charlie said. Julia saw people heading to the horseshoe pits.
“I won’t have the chance,” she said. “We’ve moved on to phase two.”
They collected the paper plates and plastic glasses. Charlie helped her fold the quilt. She returned her quilt to the picnic table while Charlie disposed of the trash. Shannon and Jason were back. Shannon pulled on her sleeve.
“Can I keep playing with Jason?”
She turned to Charlie.
“Can she go with you? She’s having fun with Jason.”
“Sure. Where are we going, exactly?”
“The horseshoe pits,” Julia said. “We pitch horseshoes with the name in our egg.”
Julia pulled out her egg, opened it, and read the paper.
She turned to Charlie, who was opening a pink egg of her own. Charlie laughed and showed her the paper.
The four of them – Julia, Charlie, Shannon, and Jason – claimed an unoccupied horseshoe pit. The adults made up a rule that kids could pitch from three steps away. Shannon went first. Her shoe struck the iron stake and everyone cheered.
“Did I win?”
“You got one point,” Julia said. “It’s close to the stake, but not a ringer.”
“It rang!” Shannon protested.
Julia explained that ringers weren’t just when the shoe struck the stake, but when the horseshoe landed in a way that encircled or “hugged” the stake. Shannon reached down, picked up her horseshoe, and placed the inside of it against the stake.
“Now it’s hugging the stake!” she said.
“She’s right,” Charlie said. “It is hugging the stake. It just needed a little help.”
Normally, Julia made Shannon follow rules, but the spirit of the day seemed all about breaking rules. Or following some higher rule.
“I guess that will count as a ringer,” she said.
It was Jason’s turn. He pitched, and the shoe landed near the stake. Following Shannon’s example, he picked up his shoe and placed it on top of Shannon’s. The kids were on a roll.
Now it was the moms’ turn. They both walked back to the regulation distance of about forty feet. Julia watched Charlie reach back, then step forward, swinging her arm and releasing the shoe. It turned over and over in the air. The inside of the shoe struck the stake near the base, coming to rest on top of the kids’ shoes.
“That was perfect! You’ve done this before.”
“A time or two. What about you?”
Julia shook her head. Though she’d explained the game to Shannon moments ago, it was only because she’d looked up the rules on the Internet this morning. She’d never pitched a horseshoe in her life. She summoned in her mind a vision of what she’d just seen Charlie do. She willed her body to feel like she thought Charlie’s must have felt. She reached back, stepped forward, and swung her arm, releasing the shoe with a little prayer.
The shoe sailed through the air, turning over and over. The inside of her horseshoe struck the stake near the base, right on top of Charlie’s. When the metal clanged, Charlie whooped.
“Two genuine ringers!”
“All the horseshoes are hugging the pole!” Shannon exclaimed.
“That makes it a group hug,” Charlie said.
Julia collected the horseshoes and distributed them, so they could do it again. As the kids moved into position, she thought about how well Shannon and Jason got along. Then she thought about the hiking trip Charlie had proposed. It could be a camping trip. Maybe Charlie had a tent big enough for two adults and two children, or they could borrow one. She looked up at the blue sky, so clean and true. Non-deceptive.
Clang. Charlie was grinning at her.
Julia stepped up to the mark. As she prepared to pitch, she wondered what kind of children’s programs they had at the Unitarian church.