For Christmas that year we made a solemn pledge to give each other thoroughly practical presents—in other words, things we needed for the house in Vieques—and nothing more.
Naturally, we both caved in at the last minute and exchanged spectacularly pointless stocking-stuffers.
Even so, we had exclaimed politely over our respective stashes by noon on Christmas Day, eaten lunch at our favorite Chinese restaurant by 2:00 p.m., and were standing in line at the Uptown Theater on Connecticut Avenue by mid-afternoon.
It was a bleak, frigid day, but the ladies in front of us were in rare form. We couldn’t help wondering if they’d fortified themselves against the elements with a pitcher or two of Bloody Marys.
It seemed they were about to embark on a New Year’s break in Anguilla, where their oldest, dearest friend owned a house.
“I can’t believe she didn’t offer us a discount,” one of them wailed.
“And we’ve known her since grade school,” another chimed in.
“Typical,” a third grumbled.
I couldn’t help adding my two cents. “She’s probably just trying to cover her expenses.”
Three aghast faces turned to me in unison. “Excuse me?” the ring leader barked.
“Well,” I gulped, as Michael edged slowly away from me, “we just bought a house in Puerto Rico, and we’re thinking of renting it out someday.”
They continued to stare.
“There are a lot of hidden costs when you own a second home,” I stuttered. “Maybe your friend has a rule about saving money by not offering discounts to anyone except relatives.”
They burst into merry laughter. “Honey, you’ve got her all wrong. She’s rich as cream,” one of them said. “Just cheap.”
“Angela!” one of our ladies screamed. “Sweetheart!”
She embraced Angela in the style of ladies who lunch, projecting loud air kisses left and right.
“Hello, Ellen,” said Angela with the warmth of a fruit bat.
The other two ladies each took her turn wrangling an awkward hug from Angela, whose expression remained faultlessly neutral if not downright catatonic.
An uncomfortable silence ensued. It occurred to me that Angela was the owner of the house in Anguilla and that our queue-companions were terrified Angela had overheard them dissing her.
After an excrutiatingly awkward pause Ellen gestured to us and said, “We were just telling these gentlemen about your vacation home.”
“Oh?” Angela replied, arching a ruthlessly plucked eyebrow.
“Yes, darling,” Ellen gushed. “We were telling them what a fabulous deal you gave us.”
More silence. “They own a Caribbean home too,” Ellen rushed on in desperation.
Angela turned to us, ignoring her friend with the majesty of a mastiff ignoring a gnat. “Where is your house?”
I felt unaccountably nervous, as if the Queen had singled me out for conversation at a Buckingham Palace garden party. “Vieques.”
More silence still.
“Bombs,” she said at last.
It took a few moments for this to sink in. “They left.”
“So it’s quiet now?”
“Except for the roosters.”
Her Birkin bag wiggled slightly. I suspected a small dog. Or perhaps a transplant organ.
“Do you have a card?’
“I’m afraid not.”
“Are you online?’
And with that she was gone.