Paula Webb was only days into her technical drawing master’s degree when, bored between lectures and with time heavy on her hands, she joined dinner-date.com, a website promising to bring together like-minded individuals from the LGBTQ community with a view to fostering romance (and not just sex “like the other sites”, its website boasted). A popular, slim and attractive red-head of just 23 years of age, Paula had no obvious need to resort to this kind of site. She did however have many non-obvious motives to do so, prominent among them being that she felt very ill-at-ease with the LGBTQ community at and around her university, finding them too ‘irresponsible’ and ‘focused on casual sex’ for her liking. Despite her youth, Paula was an instinctively conservative soul who found the idea of short term flings and no-string-attached sex distinctly unappealing. She wanted something more than this. She wanted sex, like everyone else, but only with a woman she loved, only with someone intellectually alive and in harmony with her style of thinking. And so the fact that dinner-date.com matched its members on their interests and profiles, without allowing them to see each other prior to the first meeting, convinced Webb that it was a service perfectly suited to her prejudices.
It wasn’t long before Webb received offers of a date. In fact they arrived by the dozen. Her stated interests, which included George Eliot, classical music and sewing, it seemed were shared by a surprising number of people in the components and environs of Cole County, Minneapolis. Of these, Paula selected one largely at random, a girl of 24 named Betty (the surnames were never displayed on the site so as to prevent people looking up potential dates on other social media), and a date was soon set for the following Saturday at an upmarket pizza restaurant a few blocks down the street from her halls of residence.
On early Saturday evening, Webb prepared for this date as she had prepared for every social event she had ever attended; with studious attention to detail in front of a freshly chemical-wiped full-length mirror. The accusation that Webb was excessively careful about her looks was frequently made and not completely without foundation. Paula herself rarely denied that she took enormous pride in her appearance and more often chalked up the criticism she received to simple jealousy. There was much about her appearance to be jealous of. Her paper-white face was shaped like a perfect diamond. Her skin, both tight and soft, was faultless from crown to toe. Her long, shining hair poured out like melted fire around her sharp and bony shoulders. And she was also tall, standing at just over 6,2ft tall with her heels on. And she always wore heels.
Arriving at Matteo’s Pizza Express on 4th street that night, Webb quickly attracted attention from those already settled, irrespective of gender. Nervously, she pulled a heart shaped piece of blue paper from her clutch and held it in front of her face, as per the rules of the website, and waited for someone to approach. Only a few brief moments later, she was startled by a hand on her shoulder. Turning quickly around, she found that it belonged to a thick-set (but slim) brunette only slightly shorter than herself.
“Hi,” Paula said breathlessly, holding a hand flat over her heart.
“Did I startle you?” the girl asked blankly, frowning.
“A little. It doesn’t matter. I’m easily startled. I’m Paula from the site.”
“Nice to meet you, Paula,” the girl said in a slow drawling accent and held out her hand. “I’m Betty.”
When they were sat down at a booth, a waiter sprinted over to take their drinks order. Betty ordered a whiskey. Paula requested a vodka and coke. When the waiter had departed Paula sought to use this as the jump-off for a conversation.
“Whiskey, huh?” she grinned, as if this were an innuendo for something.
“I’m from the South,” Betty returned with a shrug, making it one.
“The South? Really? What state?”
“Alabama. I grew up in a town called Redbrook. You won’t have heard of it. It’s tiny. Everyone knows each other. That kind of place. My family goes back a long way there.”
“I’m afraid I’m a total Yankee,” Paula remarked. “Born in Saint Paul. Been living around the Twin Cities for most of my life.”
“Do you work?”
“No, not at the moment. I’m a student. Technical drawing. We compose models for architects and people like that. Not very interesting.”
Betty stared at Paula with a half-frown, her face conveying suspicion and deep analysis, as if she was sizing her up.
“Look,” she said after a long pause, looking down at the table,” I know it’s early to say so, but I kind of get the impression that you’re out of my league a little bit. You’re real pretty. I was a bit disappointed when I saw you. I kind of need a relationship right now. I don’t have time to waste running up a dead-end.”
Paula was taken aback by this. “I don’t think I’m out of your league at all,” she assured her sincerely. “You’re really pretty, too.”
“I’m not a student.”
“I don’t care.”
“I never even graduated high school. A lot of my interests on the site were made straight up. I’m not really into anything other than horses. Do you have any interest in horses?”
“Sure,” Paula smiled warmly, lying. “They’re beautiful animals. Do you have one?”
“Nope. My daddy has two, though. I like to ride them when I go home. It’s not very intellectual, right? Don’t worry, I know my place.”
“Betty, you’re fine,” Paula insisted. “I’m honestly intrigued by you. Please don’t be so hard on yourself. Perfect people aren’t interesting.”
The waiter brought over the drinks and laid them on the table.
“Thank you, mister,” Betty said to him as he left. Paula found this sweet, archaic, charming.
“So, do you hail from a long line of Yankees?” Betty asked after swallowing a thick mouthful of liquor. “Lawyers, doctors, people like that? Everyone in my lineage worked with their hands, or didn’t work at all. I guess that tells you something about me.”
Paula was determined to prise Betty from this self-deprecatory mood. She soon thought of just the trick.
“You might find this hard to believe,” she began, “but my great-great-grandfather on my father’s side was African-American. He lived pretty rough down in Arkansas. So I’m hardly blue-blooded. Please relax. You seem really nice.”
Betty’s reflective and calm expression changed at once to one of deadly seriousness. She began to study Paula’s face intensely, her eyes quickly shifting their focus between her lips, ears, eyes and nose.
“You’re a Negro?” she asked perplexedly. “Seriously?”
“No,” Paula clarified, frowning and smiling at the same time, “I said I had a black great-great-grandfather. Everyone else in my lineage is white. I’m white. I just have little splash, that’s all. I don’t usually tell people.”
“A splash is all it takes,” Betty replied seriously. “You’re of, what, one sixteenth dilution?” she continued quietly to herself, mentally searching for something. “You’re a quintroon.”
“That’s the kind of Negro you are. You’re a quintroon. It goes mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, quintroon. There aren’t terms for Negroes more dilute than that in America. There are in the Caribbean.”
“Betty, look, I don’t think I want to be called that, alright?” Paula said, hurt and confused. “I’m not a racist person at all, but I’m not a Negro, either. I’m clearly white. I’ve never even heard of the word quintroon.”
Betty laughed disbelievingly and cupped her mouth with her hands. “I can’t believe I thought you were out of my league,” she muttered. “I thought I wasn’t good enough for a…”
“I’m not a Negro,” Paula said firmly. “People don’t even use that word anymore. You’re being weird, Betty.”
Betty dropped her hands and adjusted her face to convey potent indignation.
“Don’t ever talk to me like that, little missy,” she seethed. “You watch your little mouth.”
“Don’t ever talk back to me. Watch your mouth. Don’t make me ask you again.”
Paula could hardly believe what she was hearing. “I don’t think I…”
“You should have told me on the site,” Betty continued.
“Is this actually going to be a problem? Do you want to call it a day? I think this bothers you.”
“That isn’t what I’m saying. I’m still prepared to have dinner with you. You just should’ve told me. I’m embarrassed for my behaviour earlier.”
“Because you were respectful?”
“No, because I was deferential. And that isn’t appropriate given the difference between our races. We’re not equals.”
Paula, affronted, laughed sarcastically. “Excuse me, Betty, but as you said so yourself we’re not really academic equals, either. I’m studying a technical drawing degree. I have an IQ of 158. You didn’t finish high school.”
“That’s positive discrimination, Paula,” Betty suggested confidently. “They probably helped you over every hurdle, probably changed some of your grades. I hear about that kinda stuff all the time. They have quotas. It’s so unfair on Americans.”
“I’m not even American now?”
“Sure you are. Just not an ethnic American. Look, I don’t want to holler about this any more, Paula. Just be respectful. A couple hundred years ago I could have used your back as a coffee table. Don’t treat me like I’m at your level.”
The waiter returned to the table to take their food order. Betty ordered for herself and then, to Paula’s shock, for her date also. When Paula tried to interject, Betty held up the palm of her hand to demand silence and barked, “Don’t embarrass me, please.”
“That was really rude,” Paula said when the waiter had gone. But Betty was uninterested in her opinion.
The conversation died out for a while at this point, with both girls preferring to be left alone with their ruffled thoughts. It was only after the food had been brought that Betty saw fit to reignite the topic of discussion.
“Don’t you feel out of place at a university?” she said, rolling a chunk of well-done steak around her mouth. “Don’t you think you’d be happier doing something more… appropriate?”
“No,” Paula replied warily. “Why would I?”
Betty shrugged. “I just wonder if it’s in your nature, that’s all. People have different characters. The same is true about races. Some are suited to working with the mind, others with the hands. I think it’s sad how the north makes it seem like anyone can be anything. I know they mean well, but they cause a lot of misery on the individual level. As we say in the South, a pig wasn’t born to drive a tractor. He was born to be a pig. That’s what makes him happy.”
Paula formed an arch with her forearms and rested her chin on her closed fists.
“Betty, you honestly believe that being one sixteenth black makes a person unfit to work with their mind? You’re that fanatical? Who says that black people can’t use their minds? I’m not even black, but if I were, you’d still be ridiculous to make that assumption. There are many great black academics.”
Betty seemed to absorb little of this. She tilted her head to one side and stared into Paula’s eyes with relaxed thoughtfulness. “Are you not prepared to reconsider? My father owns a little farm back in Redbrook. I think we could offer more fitting labour for you out there. Would you consider dropping out of university? For me? I’ll take care of you.”
Paula looked at Betty’s face, at her sincerity, her understated, sultry good looks, and felt something shift deep inside her personality. A release of inexplicable arousal shuddered in purples waves across the circuits of her neurochemistry.
Sensing the dam was beginning to crumble, Betty leaned forward across the table and gently stroked Paula’s white cheek. “I can take good care of you, Paula. I’m not too strict. My daddy ain’t neither. We’re good Christian folk in Alabama, all of us. Just think about it for a second; no more stress, no more deadlines, no more long words that you don’t understand, no more pigs driving tractors. You’ll feel serene. Home at last.”
Paula’s reply to this seemed to occur without her volition.
“Yes,” she droned, her warped instincts shocking her rational mind.
Betty smiled victoriously, proudly, and let go of Paula’s face.
“You’re going to have a wonderful life, missy. You know it makes sense.”