MILLENNIUM — Laura Krughoff
December, 1999. I don’t remember saying anything to my friend, Kathleen, about not wanting to spend New Year’s Eve with my boyfriend, Corey, but I must have. Corey and I were about to graduate from college and I needed to figure out if ours was a college relationship or if I should be taking him seriously when he talked about marriage. Our relationship, and our future, was complicated by the fact that we’d had our hearts broken by some of the same girls. I needed a little distance. Kathleen was a sophomore, at the time, cute as hell with her red hair and freckles, and the nicest person on the planet. When she showed up on campus the year before, I decided I definitely did not like Kathleen. She was smart and talented and nice in that way that makes you suspicious. A year later, I loved her. And I still do. So when she said, out if the blue, “Hey, you should come spend Christmas and New Year’s with me,” I said, “Absolutely.” Spending the holidays with Kathleen meant spending them in Abijan, in the West African country Cote d’Ivoire. Her parents were teachers who’d spent their careers at International schools. Kath was a middle-class Canadian-American kid who’d just happened to have grown up in Africa.
This was, of course, the turn of the twenty-first century. This was Y2K. People were stockpiling bottled water and canned beans. Sane people thought that at 12:01 on January 1st chaos might ensue. People were seriously worried about grids crashing. And those of us who were not worried spent a lot of time dancing to Prince. We were not going to party like it was 1999. We were going to party because it was 1999 and no one knew for sure what would happen next. Why not go to Africa?
Kath and I flew to Amsterdam and then on to Abijan. We played cards and drank a lot of Bailey’s. On the second leg of the flight we ran into a couple classmates of Kathleen’s, the pretty, blond, daughters of missionaries who now attended some Bible college in the States. They were distressed by our card playing and our Bailey’s drinking and by the fact that for a while Kathleen slept in my lap. When we landed in Abijan, as we were crossing the hot tarmac between the plane and the terminal, one of the missionaries pulled Kathleen aside to ask if she had become a lesbian. “No, I’m not,” Kathleen said, “but she kind of is.” The missionary looked at me, alarmed. Kathleen took my hand and we smiled. “There’s my dad,” Kathleen said. She squealed with excitement and ran the rest of the way to the terminal, and pretty soon, instead of having to think about whether or not a non-monogamous heterosexual marriage would work for me, I had someone else’s mother slicing mango and pineapple for my afternoon snack.
On Christmas Eve Kathleen and I were sunbathing in the backyard when we started hearing the pop pop pop of what Kathleen said were firecrackers. “It’ll go on all day,” she said. “And all night. New Year’s Eve will be crazy with firecrackers.”
I rolled over on my back and closed my eyes against the sun. The sky was hazy with dust blown in from the Sahara. I listened for a while. “Are you sure?” I asked. I lived in Chicago in the 1990s. “It kind of sounds like gunfire.”
“No,” Kathleen said. “It’s firecrackers.”
About five minutes later Kath’s mom was at the sliding glass door saying, “Girls, get in here.” We gathered our towels and books and sun lotion. “Come on,” her mother said. “Kathleen, I said move it.” We scampered for the door. We both blinked in the sudden dimness of the house.
Kathleen’s father was on the telephone. “On whose authority? When? And where’s the president now?” he asked. As the principal of the international school, he had diplomats for friends. He turned to us. “They’ve bounced the president. It’s a coup d’etat. Just in time for Christmas.”
Instead of spending my holiday traveling across West Africa as a tourist, I spent it playing gin rummy in the living room with Kath and her family. We watched the military overthrow of the government on TV. Robert Guei gave speeches about how the military would return the government to democracy. There was a brief period of a shoot-on-sight dusk-to-dawn curfew. We stayed home during that. International boarders were closed and then opened and then ambiguously closed and open. This was back before Skype, before ubiquitous internet chat, before most people carried cell phones. I called my folks to tell them I was safe, but I didn’t call my boyfriend. I didn’t think a coup d’etat in Cote D’Ivoire would make the kind of news he was likely see.
Shortly after Christmas, things seemed to be returning to something like normal in the streets of Abijan. The curfew was lifted. Shops opened. People came out. When Kath’s Ivorian friend, Antoinette, called to ask if we’d like to go out to dinner with her, we jumped at the chance. Getting out of that split-level ranch that might as well have been on any American cul-de-sac felt fantastic. We hailed a taxi and went out for the best Ethiopian food I’d ever had. “This coup has been making me crazy!” Antoinette said over yellow lentils and fish stew. “My mom won’t even let me go out for New Years. I have to be in by 10, can you believe it? She’s acting like the world is ending.” We were too young to know what we were witnessing. In our defense, the talking heads on the BBC predicated all would be sorted out in six months. Everyone thought it was a little coup. We drank honey wine and pressed our luck, refusing to hail a cab until an equatorial evening was almost upon us, the sky neon, the dusty streets lit up.
In the cab, Antoinette sat shotgun chatting politics with the driver while Kath and I watched the storefronts, fruit vendors, and tanks parked on street corners scroll past. We’d hardly gone a mile when the driver glanced in the rearview mirror and swore, softly, “merde.” Bearing down behind us was a Mercedes flashing its lights. Soldiers, boys waving assault rifles, leaned out windows. The taxi driver looked for a moment like he wanted to floor it, but his beat-up Citroen was no match for the Mercedes pulling along side us, and the boys waving rifles looked serious. They forced the cab to the side of the road and approached the car. The soldiers demanded something from the driver that he didn’t have. He offered them money. There was shouting and a soldier pulled open the driver’s door and dragged him out.
“They want to see his license,” Antoinette translated. “He doesn’t have one. He tried to bribe them but they keep saying ‘We’re soldiers, not the dirty police!’ ‘We don’t want your filthy money.’” Our driver was getting roughed up. He was thrown against the side of the car, his back pressed to the window next to Kath’s head, a rifle muzzle pressed to his chest. “That soldier just said if the driver makes another wrong move he’s going to pump him full of lead!” Antoinette said. Another soldier leaned in the driver’s window and shouted. Antoinette turned and in the same tone of voice shouted, “He says to stay calm! He says everything’s fine! He says we shouldn’t be afraid!” We all laughed, absurdly, even the soldier. Antoinette’s eyes welled up. And then as inexplicably and bizarrely as the incident began, it was over. The driver gave the soldiers all the money he had and they sped away in their commandeered Mercedes.
“Girls,” the driver said in English, “you are okay. I am okay. I take you home.” And he did.
New Year’s Eve, Kathleen and I didn’t want to go anywhere. Her parents were going to a party at another principal’s house. Her sister had plans, half of them clandestine, with her Ivorian boyfriend. Kathleen and I decided to spend the evening swimming in their neighbor’s backyard pool. The neighbors were in Paris. We bought champagne we intended to drink from the bottle. It was December 31, 1999, and we thought it might be the end of everything. The patio around the pool was paved with stones still warm from the sun. Kathleen flipped on the pool lights and the water glowed aquamarine. There were a few scattered streetlights on Kathleen’s block, but mostly the night was very still and dark. There was no gunfire that night, no firecrackers, either. We popped the corks on two bottles of champagne, placed them poolside, stripped to our bikinis and dove in. Kathleen held her waterproof watch sideways so she could read it by the light of the pool. “Two and a half hours,” she said, “to the millennium.” The BBC had done a long piece that afternoon about Africa’s unpreparedness for Y2K, about the fact that if any grid on the globe were to fail, it would be Africa’s. “Two hours and twenty-eight minutes and we’ll see if the lights go out.”
“To the future,” I said, and we clinked bottles.
We were seven hours ahead of Chicago. “We’ll be the first to know,” I said. “What happens in the year 2000.”
“What’s Corey doing tonight?” Kathleen asked.
I took a swig of champagne. “I don’t know.” We swam and drank and talked. At some point, Kathleen peeled off her suit.
“We should be naked for New Years,” she said. “We should be skinny dipping.”
“You are so right!” I said, and wiggled out of mine.
We would meet the millennium as naked and wet as the day we were born. But definitely drunker. I remember the air that night smelled of wood smoke and dust, that it was warm and windy. I remember sitting on the steps in the shallow end watching the stars. I remember Kath floating on her back, arms and legs spread so she looked like a starfish, her red hair floating around her. Her asking, “Are you going to marry Corey, or what?” She was so pretty, all pink and orange against the blue of the water.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I hope not. If we got married, it would be more out of fear of a future without each other than out of love.”
Kathleen stood up. “What? I couldn’t hear you, my ears were under water.” She kind of sexy-dog-paddled toward me.
“I said, ‘I think I’m too gay to marry Corey,’” I said.
“That’s probably true,” Kath said. She floated into my lap. I leaned back on my elbows so we could watch the stars. “How will we know if things go to shit at midnight?” she asked. “What if all hell breaks loose but we don’t know it? It feels like we’re the only breathing people for blocks and blocks.”
“The lights in the pool will go out,” I said. “We’ll be plunged into darkness.”
“What time is it?” Kathleen asked. I picked up her wrist and held her watch to the light.
She looked up at me. “Half an hour.”
“Yeah,” I said.
She put a hand on the back of my neck. “Happy old year. Happy new year,” she said, and then she kissed me. This wasn’t a friend’s kiss, that quick soft press of lips. She turned in my lap and put her hands in my wet hair. Now, I don’t think it’s always a good idea to go around making out with your friends. But if you ever find yourself swimming naked in a backyard pool in a country tipping into civil war at the edge of a millennium, my suggestion is to err on the side of making out. Because sometimes a kiss at midnight is about romance, but sometimes a kiss at midnight is about any number of other kinds of love. We were two girls with thirty minutes left. I wrapped my arms around my friend and kissed her back. The night was quiet. Water lapped. We kissed, and laughed, and kissed.
Laura Krughoff received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan in 2003 and a PhD from the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois, Chicago in 2014. Her first novel, My Brother’s Name, was published by Scarletta Press in 2013 and was named a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. Her work has appeared in Huffington Post, Printers Row Journal, Washington Square Review, Requited, The Seattle Review, The Pushcart Prize Anthology XXXI, The Threepenny Review, Chicago Tribune, and other journals and magazines. She is an assistant professor of creative writing in the Department of English at the University of Puget Sound.