Frank’s grandfather, Dr. Nelson Watkins, sat slumped in a rocking chair at the far end of the shaded porch, listening politely as a bosomy older woman lectured the table on how, precisely, she was related to the young Buford couple who ran the hotel.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Frank said, cutting in. “Grandpa, there’s somebody here I’d like you to meet.”
When the old man looked up at them, Cheryl instantly understood why Mae Watkins hadn’t known she was black: Frank’s grandfather hadn’t told her. The doctor was a year shy of ninety, so it was possible he had simply forgotten, but more likely, to judge from his stricken expression, he hadn’t known how to explain his grandson’s decision to bring her. Whatever the reason, as he reached for his cane, twisting his top-heavy body out of the chair, Cheryl saw in his sheepish grin that he had told no one.
“It’s nice to finally meet you, sir,” she said once he’d righted himself. “Frank’s told me so much about you.”
“Lies, all of it,” he said, with a practiced wink. “Lies and slander.” Already, he’d moved past his initial shock to something warmer, more like genuine interest. He turned to the women at the table. “Ladies, I want you to meet my grandson, Frank, and his girl, Cheryl. They come all the way down from New York to be here.”
This news, shouted quite nearly at full volume, did not go down well. Dr. Watkins affected not to notice, but in the glances that flashed across the table, Cheryl saw that these women felt sorry for him, this nice old man having to cover for his grandson who had turned up at a family gathering with this overdressed black girl from New York City.
Cheryl would have given anything to slip upstairs to change out of her suit, which she saw now was all wrong for this crowd, but once they’d exhausted the introductions and the doctor led them inside to the mansion’s vaulted stair hall, she realized it was the cocktail hour. Shelby Watkins roamed the hall inspecting trays of hors d’oeuvres as they came out of the kitchen on the arms of half a dozen red-vested waiters. Again, Cheryl pulled herself straight, blessing every minute of her ten years of ballet with Madame Kurakolov as she made small talk with Dr. Watkins about their flight from New York and the beauty of the countryside.
She studied the faces of the young black men circulating the room in their red satin vests, looking for the tea-brown bellman, but he was nowhere to be seen. These young men all shared his clean-cut good looks and his athletic carriage. Maybe, she thought, they belonged to a fraternity at a nearby school, or had grown up in the same church. Here, though, they seemed to have mastered the role of the Negro house servant, arms stiff at their sides, eyes angled downward, bowing with exaggerated slowness when a guest thanked him or complimented the food. Each time a waiter passed by with a tray of biscuits or deviled eggs, Cheryl tried to catch his eye, to let him know—what, exactly? That she understood this was a summer job, like any other? That she felt no more comfortable around all these stuffy white people than they did? That she knew that, outside this room, none of them would be caught dead saying “suh” to any man, black or white. Whatever message she was trying to send, it backfired, and the men studiously averted their eyes, bowing to her in that same grinning, servile way.
“Hang on a minute,” the doctor said, waving to a passing waiter. “I’d like this young lady to try one of these ham biscuits.”
“Oh no, thank you,” Cheryl said. “Really. I’m fine for now.”
“Now, this ain’t like that stuff you get in New York, fulla hormones and god knows what.” Watkins said. “This here’s home-cured country ham, raised right here in Buford, Virginia.”
Cheryl looked to Frank for help, but he was watching her, curious to see what she would do. Without meeting the waiter’s eye, she took the smallest of the disk-like biscuits and placed it on her napkin.
“Don’t mind if I do,” the doctor said, stacking three large biscuits on his napkin. “Frank?”
Cheryl could smell it now, the flue-cured hog meat raising a bilious wave of revulsion in her gut. But the doctor was watching her, waiting, and so, summoning every ounce of willpower she possessed, she brought the biscuit to her lips for an exploratory bite.
“Delicious,” she said, chewing. But then her tongue found the salt-laden pork meat and she gagged, sucking in two greedy breaths through her nose to stop herself from spitting the entire nasty thing back into her hand.
“Drink something, honey,” Dr. Watkins said, taking her arm.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” she said, chewing as fast as she could to clear the foul, rubbery taste from her mouth.
“She’s been like this all day,” Frank said. “You should’ve seen her on the plane.”
“It’s stress, that’s all,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind a glass of water, though. Not tea this time, just plain water, no ice.”
She regained her composure enough to wait for Frank to bring her the water, and once she’d drained it, to spend another ten minutes chatting with him and his grandfather. She even ate two more ham biscuits without incident. But when Dr. Watkins was called over to meet an ancient Buford cousin, Cheryl excused herself to use the bathroom. Finding their room keys in an envelope in the lobby, she bolted up the stairs to their room.
Once inside, she tossed her purse and her suit jacket on the bed. She had a splitting headache, her gut was on fire, and she needed to pee, but just then all that mattered was that she was free from the prying eyes of Frank’s extended family. Peeling off her wilted skirt and heels, she dug her makeup case from her purse and locked herself in the bathroom. Deep in her makeup case, under her aspirin and an emergency stash of codeine for the migraines she sometimes suffered, she had hidden a bottle of vitamin B6 she’d bought the day before at a Rite-Aid on Columbus Avenue. For the past ten weeks, ever since classes ended in May, Cheryl had been studying for the New York Bar Exam twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Even after she realized a few weeks before the exam that she had missed her period, it never occurred to her to buy a home pregnancy test because it never occurred to her that she could be pregnant. She was too young to be pregnant. She was too busy to be pregnant. And in any case, she’d been on the pill since her sophomore year of college.
It wasn’t until the first day of the bar exam, when she spent the morning break on the floor of the ladies’ room with her head over the toilet that she recalled that, in June, she’d gone home to Boston to celebrate her father’s sixtieth birthday and forgotten to bring her blister pack of Alesse. She had doubled up on pills for the days she missed once she got back to New York, but on the second day of the bar exam, when she again found herself on the floor of the ladies’ room, spent and ill, she was forced to admit she was pregnant.
Now, in the bathroom, Cheryl screwed open the vitamin bottle and was looking for a water glass when the outer door clicked open.
“Cher?” Frank said.
“In here, baby,” she called, making a face at herself in the mirror.
“It’s locked,” he said, jiggling the bathroom door.
With an exasperated snort, Cheryl turned the lock and threw open the door. “You don’t have follow me around like some little lost puppy dog,” she said. “I’m just freshening up.”
Frank tensed, preparing to snap back, then stopped himself. He had been doing this all day—all week, really—holding back his anger out of deference to a scrape of pain in her voice Cheryl couldn’t silence, and he couldn’t account for.
“I wasn’t following you around,” he said. “I came up to apologize. About this afternoon at the airport, and just now downstairs.”
“Honey, it’s all right,” she said, turning back to the mirror to sponge away her eye shadow. “I’m a big girl. I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to come. So did you.”
“I know, but I keep forgetting what it’s like. Or more like I keep thinking it’s changed, and then I come here and it hasn’t.”
She eyed him in the mirror. “Maybe it would’ve helped if you’d told a few more people you were bringing me.”
“I tried,” he said. “I told Grandpa and Uncle Shelby. I figured between them they’d sort of spread the news.”
“Well, I guess they never got around telling to your Cousin Mae. Or those old biddies your granddad was with. Did you see how they looked at me? You’d think I peed in their G&Ts.”
“I know, I know,” he said. “I don’t really know this side of the family, and this isn’t the kind of thing you can put in an email.”
“‘Oh, why, yes, Mrs. Buford!’” she said to the mirror, “‘I’d love to come to your reunion, but would it be all right if I brought my darkey girlfriend?’”
“Cher, come on, I’m trying to apologize. This hasn’t been easy for me, either.”
“Is that right?” Cheryl snapped. There was whole long speech on the tip of her tongue about the big green disbelieving eyes of the girl at the airport and all those guys downstairs dressed up like lawn jockeys, but when she saw Frank’s jaw harden, preparing to take the blow, the words died on her lips.
“If you want to leave, say the word,” he said. “I’ll tell them you aren’t feeling well and we’ll find a car and head for the nearest airport.”
“I’m fine, really,” she said, brushing on fresh eye shadow. “It’s just one more day, right? By this time Monday we’ll be on the beach in Spain.”
“Drinking sangria and eating dinner at midnight,” he said, so cool she could have killed him.
You might be drinking sangria, baby, she thought. I’ll be sticking to fruit juice and tucking into bed by ten. But he had won this round. “I can’t wait,” she said. “Now, can you give a girl a minute? I need to finish putting on my face.”
He picked up the bottle of Vitamin B6 from the counter. “What is all this stuff?”
“Didn’t your mama ever tell you not to snoop?” she said, playfully slapping his hand. “Go on, will you? This face of mine isn’t going to get put on by itself.”
“I’ll be downstairs,” he said, eyeing her in the mirror. “Dinner’s at seven.”
Cheryl waited until she heard the outer door shut, then turned the vitamin bottle over onto her hand and took four of the large white pills, washing them down with a palmful of tap water. She cleared her throat, banishing all thoughts of nausea, which still lapped at her insides like the trailing wake of a distant ship, and closed her makeup case. But when she looked at herself in the mirror, she saw what had made Frank look at her so strangely as he was leaving: in applying her eye shadow, she’d brushed powdery blue over one eye and iridescent green over the other.
“Shit, shit, shit,” she swore as she ran fresh water over her makeup sponge, wishing not for the first or last time that day that she’d inherited a touch of her own mother’s uneasy relationship to fertility, which had caused her to space three daughters out over eight sonless years.
About the author:
Michael Bourne’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, The Common, and The Cortland Review. He is a contributing editor at Poets & Writers Magazine and a staff writer for The Millions.