• The Death of Cliff Huxtable / Chapter 10: Eunice Chantilly

    PREVIOUS: Chapter 9:  Winnie & Nelson                             NEXT:  Chapter 11: Clair

    Steam ascends from her bath water, smelling of lavender and eucalyptus. Her raised back, free standing, country copper tub makes her feel like a queen every time she takes a soothing bath. Candles lit and soft jazz bellowing from the stereo in the background, the lady soaks her sadness and drowns her dreams of loving him. It is finally time to let Cliff go. Eunice continues her bath, beads of sweat falling off her breast and tears streaming down her face.
         “He’s calling for you. He needs you here.” 
    echoes the message from Clair on Eunice’s voicemail. She didn’t answer the call as she knows very few people in an 718 area code. She only knows one number from that place called Brooklyn.
         “I know how much he means to you, Eunice. I know what you mean to him. My husband is dying      and he is asking for you. I know this is the most impossible message to receive after 50 years…nearly as impossible as it was for me to make this call…but my husband is dying…and he is asking for you…too. Please come.” 
    The message replays in Eunice’s mind. Burned deep into her brain is the quiet pride of the woman who won the man…a woman who would stand above the petty and call with grace. Eunice always despised Clair for being so magnanimous. That shit simply pissed her off. Today, however, Clair’s grace will afford Eunice an opportunity to see the first love in her life and for that, she is grateful. Now…if she can just figure out what to wear.

    ​New York City is a monstrous beauty, thinks Eunice as she takes in the aerial view of the city’s skyline from her airplane seat. Eunice doesn’t travel often and rarely ever takes a plane anywhere. Seeing the city’s tall buildings from the sky is exciting. She flips through the pages of her 1995 travel book of New York City, searching for a map of Manhattan. On the page, she locates the World Trade Center. Eunice looks out of her window and says a solemn prayer over the island that lost so much. In minutes, Eunice is back on the ground and thankful she has landed safely.

    ​Eunice’s taxi pulls up to the address Clair sent her in a text message before she left Stone Mountain, Georgia this morning. The brownstone looks warm in the glow of the early September afternoon. Eunice pays the driver and tips him generously,
         “Are you sure ma’am? This seems to be a lot.” asks the cab driver. He wants to claim the entire tip but he doesn’t want to take advantage of this apparent newcomer to the city.
         “No. I know what I gave you. You are a part of a story I have been waiting 50 years to live. Consider it a blessing for playing your part.”
         “Ok. Well…thank you.”
         “No, son. Thank you.”
    Eunice takes one final look at herself in the driver’s rear view mirror. The driver adjust the mirror so the lady in the back can see her reflection clearly.
         “Do I look alright?”
         “You are a vision. “
         “Speak plainly, son. I don’t know what a ‘vision’ looks like. I could be rabid dog ugly…and be a ‘vision’.”
         “Ma’am, you ain’t no where near no rabid dog…I’ll tell you that. You look beautiful. I especially like that green barrette. Is it wooden?”
         “Yes. Yes, it is. It’s got a stone in it and everything. My love gave it to me over 50 years ago. I’m wearing it for him today.”
         “Well, he’ll love it.”
         “I hope so.”

    Eunice steps out of the car and closes the door behind her. The cab slowly pulls away, leaving Eunice standing alone in the street.
         “What am I doing here? I can’t go in there.” 
    Eunice quickly discovers she can’t stand in the street either as a car zooms by dangerously close to her. She steps up on the sidewalk and proceeds to the Huxtable front door, taking one step at a time. Each step erases a decade away from Cliff. Each step signals a louder thump in her chest…heart beating so heavy she thinks she will burst.

    ​Reaching the top landing and raising her wrinkled finger to ring the bell, Eunice catches her reflection in the window of the front door. Looking to see if her hair, makeup, and dress are all perfectly set, her reflection changes to a face she recognizes, but is not her own. Clair peeks through the etched design frosted on the front door window and opens the door before Eunice can ring the bell.
         “Hello Eunice.”
         “ I’m so happy you made it.”

    Eunice smiles politely, waiting for Clair to invite her into the house. The glass stone in Eunice’s barrette catches the afternoon sun, bouncing a sparkle of light into Clair’s eyes. Clair, wearing a plastic green bracelet, which looks awfully cheap and out of character for the impeccably dressed Mrs. Huxtable, extends her arm and says, 
         “Where are my manners? Please…come in.”

    Eunice steps through the threshold of a world she hoped would belong to her, many moons ago. She looks around the living room, looking for a shortcoming or a chance to say, “I would do that better.” There is no such signal. There is no such evidence that Cliff and Clair’s life together wasn’t perfect.
         “Can I get you something to drink? Water? Coffee? Tea?”
         “Tea sounds nice.”
         “Well good. I just put some water on to have a cup myself. Let’s go into the kitchen, pour ourselves some tea and then we’ll head upstairs to see Cliff.”
         “Ok. That sounds nice.”
    Eunice is nervous. She tells herself to relax and to stop saying everything sounds nice. It has always been Eunice’s coping mechanism to minimize her emotional investment or engagement in an unsavory situation by saying “sounds nice.” She suspects plenty of things will “sound nice” today.

    ​The two women move into the kitchen. The hot water is whistling in the kettle. Clair reaches in the cabinet for a second mug for tea while Eunice takes a seat at the kitchen table.
         “You have a lovely home. I always suspect you would.”
         “Why thank you. It has served us well for nearly 50 years. I’m thankful it’s still standing.”

    ‘I can’t stand her’ thinks Eunice. ‘She couldn’t just say thank you. No. She had to remind me that she and Cliff have been together for fifty years. I would have been with Cliff for fifty ONE years had she not come switchin’ around, with her fast self. Fifty years…what you want me to do? Get up and sing y’all a song and dance around the living room because you been in this house together…for fifty years?!’
         “Well, it’s a lovely home and being here for fifty years…well, that sounds nice.”

    ​The genteel rivals made their way up the back stairs to the second floor. Eunice can feel her heart race and her palms moisten with sweat. 'I shouldn’t have come. This is going to hurt too much,' wonders Eunice. Passing the plethora of bedroom doors, Clair finally escorts Eunice into the master bedroom. In bed, resting peacefully, Cliff is sleeping. His face is just as she remembered: kind and sweet. She counts a constellation of moles and soft wrinkles on her love’s face, but he is as beautiful as the first time she laid eyes on Heathcliff. Tears well up in Eunice’s eyes for today, she will lose her love…again.

    ​Clair gently shakes Cliff’s shoulder, followed with a soft call to wake up,
         “Cliff, darling…wake up. Someone is here to see you.”
         “It’s ok Clair. Let him sleep. I can sit with him for a moment while he rest.”
         “Are you sure? I can…”
         “No…no…let me sit quietly with him first. If that’s ok?”

    Clair looks at the tears dropping from Eunice’s face with sympathy…and care.
         “Ok. I’ll be in the next room. Call me if you need anything.”
    Clair walks out of the room, closing the door behind her. Eunice stands still in the middle of the bedroom, staring at Cliff, still asleep in the bed. She takes a look around the room, surveying the place he spent the last fifty years with another woman. She imagines Cliff getting dressed for work…for church…for bed…in this room. She imagines Cliff starting his day and settling in his bed after a long day at work. She imagines curling up next to him every night and sleeping in late with her love on the holidays and the occasional free Saturday. She imagines Cliff making love to her in the bed she stands before now. 
         “I want to let go of my petty jealousy before I come sit next to you, Cliff. I want to let go of the heartbreak of you leaving me, so many years ago. I know we both moved on and married other people and had families but I still carry a hurt that I wasn’t woman enough for you. I later realized that I was woman plenty for any man, but you weren’t just…any…man. So, I’m gonna stand here, for a moment, and let go of my petty jealousy because when I come to you, I want to come to you with open love in my heart. I want our last moment in this life to be a love filled time for just the two of us.” 
    Eunice takes a deep breath and releases a deep sigh, expelling fifty years of regret. She slowly walks to Cliff’s bedside and pulls up a chair. She sits. She slowly takes Cliff’s hand in hers and cradles his hand like a school girl holding her sweetheart’s hand for the first time.

    Cliff opens his eyes. He blinks a few times to adjust to the light. He looks around the room, in a medically induces daze, until his eyes land on Eunice. He can not believe what he is seeing. Eunice smiles and tries to present a light, happy disposition.
         “Eunice? Eunice is that you?”
         “Hey Bucky. How you feeling’?
    Cliff chuckles. “I haven’t heard that one in a long time.”
         “Yeah…it’s been a while. It’s good to have the little things to remind you of home.”
         “Home. Yes…I suppose you are right.”

    Cliff attempts to sit up but struggles. Eunice helps prop him up and fluff his pillow behind his head.
         “Clair know you in here? You know that woman don’t allow no other women in our bedroom.”
         “ I ain’t no other woman. I’m the first woman.”
         “Oh Lawd…here we go…”
         “Every one needs to keep that in mind.”

    The two old friends laugh and hold hands again.
         “I’m glad you’re here Nicey.”
         “Me too Bucky.”
         “How did you know to come?”

    Eunice pauses before answering. The truth will illuminate Clair’s angelic light even further and Eunice simply can not stomach that idea. However, Clair did see fit to call Eunice when a world of other women would likely treat her husband’s dying wish to see his first girlfriend as a delusion of pending death…or the drugs. Clair loves her husband that much and for that, and out of respect, Eunice replies,
         “Well…Clair called me. She told me you were hollering and crying for me. So I came.”
    They laugh some more,
         “I was not hollerin’ and cryin’…was I?!”
         “Yeah! Oh Bucky…to hear Clair tell it, you said you just had to see me.”
    jokes Eunice.
    Cliff’s laugh softens. His eyes softens as well,
         “I did. I had to see you…one last time.”
         “Oh Bucky…don’t say that…”
         “It’s true. This will be the last time I see you. I’m dying. It won’t be long…and I’m glad…I’m happy…I get to sit with you for a little while.”

    Eunice feels her heart break into a million pieces.
         “Me too.”
    Cliff notices the barrette in her hair. He smiles,
         “I like your barrette.”
         “This old thing?”
         “Yeah…I remember you liking it at the five and dime back home.”
         “Umm hmm…and I remember you ain’t have a five or a dime to get it for me.”
         “Yeah…but I wanted to though.”
         “Wanted to and did were two different things.”
         “Yeah…but I finally came through.”
         “My birthday…a couple years later. You left this box and a card on my front porch.”
         “I wanted to surprise you with a little something.”
         “It was sweet but I almost threw it away.”
         “Yeah…I know…because you were mad at me.”
         “I was hurt. You hurt me, Cliff.”
         “I know. I am sorry, Eunice.”

    While she appreciate Cliff’s apology, Eunice didn’t come to New York for rehashed hurt and the obligatory ‘sorry’.
         “No. No, you’re not sorry, Cliff. You made a choice that lasted fifty years. You and Clair were suppose to be together…just like me and Albert. We walked the paths laid for us. I understand that, but I loved you.” Eunice swallow tears and her pride. “I still do. I love you Bucky and I always will.”

    ​Cliff is quiet. He takes Eunice’s hand up to his face and smells the sweet lavender and eucalyptus scenting her skin. He brings her hand to his lips and gently kisses her hand. Eunice’s tears fall free and her love unlocked eternally.

    ​Eunice Chantilly and Cliff Huxtable, high school sweethearts, spend the rest of the afternoon, courting and conversing of old times. Bucky and Nicey are together…again.


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