Out front, the lobby was mercifully empty, and she was about to start up the stairs when the bellman slipped in from the dining room, pulling the door softly shut behind him. Seeing her, he whirled around, whipping his hands behind his back as if she’d caught him stealing.
“Evening, ma’am,” he said, bowing quickly.
“You’re still here?”
“Yes, ma’am.” His eyes flicked up, taking her in. “Had me on dinner service tonight, ma’am. Clearing dishes and that.”
She hadn’t seen him in the dining room, but she realized now that he must have seen her, the only black face in a sea of overfed white ones, which meant he had probably seen her kiss Frank. She had been so moved by his grandfather’s speech that she’d given no thought how it would look to the black men there—a light-skinned black girl in a couture dress throwing her arms around her white boyfriend in a room full of white people.
“Anything I can do for you, ma’am?” the bellman asked, a faint smirk on his lips.
No, there was nothing he could do for her, nothing he could do to extinguish the wildfire of embarrassment raging up Cheryl’s spine. She wanted to wipe that smirk off his face, make him understand she wasn’t that black girl, the one who’d tricked herself into thinking she was white. But to say any of this to him here, now, when she was draped in thousands of dollars of designer clothes, would only make her seem more ridiculous, so she drew herself up, inserting what she knew he would surely call a stick up her butt, and smiled.
“Thank you,” she said. “I was just going upstairs to bed.”
She sprinted up the carpeted stairs as quickly as her spiky heels would carry her. But even after she shut the door, even after she traded the shirred silk dress for a pair of gray sweats and a Columbia Law t-shirt, the prickle of heat along her neck and scalp wouldn’t cool. This was why, she reminded herself, she had only ever dated black men. With a black man, she was safe. Even if he didn’t come from the right family or hadn’t attended the right school, she could kiss him any damn time she liked. She could call her mother and gossip about him. She could bring him home to Brookline, and so long as he was a hard worker, so long as he aspired to the same good life she aspired to, she could count on him being welcomed with open arms.
With Frank, that would never happen. In a month they would mark the anniversary of their first date, yet her parents had no idea he existed. She had told her sisters, of course, because she told her sisters everything. When her baby sister, Cassie—poor, boy-crazy Cassie, suffering through her fifth year at Choate—visited New York that spring, Cheryl had sneaked her into the law library for a stroll past a glassed-in carrel where Frank was studying. But her parents knew nothing. Her friends from home knew nothing. Even some of her closest friends at Columbia had never heard her say Frank’s name. All of which, as she washed off the last of her makeup in the bathroom mirror, reminded her of the phone call she needed to make to tell her parents what a fabulous time she was having with her friends in Spain.
Cheryl found her silver Nokia flip phone in her purse and pressed the button that powered it up. She had been dreading this call all day, and if anything she dreaded it more now. It was one thing to tell her parents she was spending a week in Spain with friends and leave out the white boy from California she’d been seeing for almost a year, but quite another to call from an antebellum mansion in Bumfuck, Virginia and pretend she was beachside in San Sebastián.
No, she decided, she wasn’t ready to call home. Not yet. She set the phone down and fished out her copy of Let’s Go Spain & Portugal from her voluminous purse. She’d bought the book at the airport, thinking it might be wise to know a little something about Northern Spain before she told her parents how much she liked it there, but as she settled into the sea-green chaise by the bed and flipped to the pages on San Sebastián, her mind pinballed from what she would tell her parents, to the smirk on the bellman’s face, to the portrait of Rebecca Watkins downstairs and the memory it had brought up of Frank’s story about the servant girl Annie Johns. Cheryl stared at a full-color photo of the sun-drenched Bahía de la Concha, mentally placing herself on the beach next to Frank in a skimpy two-piece, but the image just brought her back to the night she’d spent listening to Frank tell her the story of Annie Johns.
Sitting up, Cheryl rearranged the small green pillows on the chaise longue to give her better back support. She wouldn’t be wearing any two-piece bikinis next week, anyway. The night before, she’d stood at the full-length mirror in her bedroom, inspecting herself from every angle, and there was no bump. Not even a hint of a bump. But she felt pregnant. Her feet were swollen. Her breasts, usually a demure B-cup, had ballooned half a size and chafed against her bra. Even her hips seemed wider, somehow. Seven weeks in, she felt like the S.S. Cheryl Crawford, and there was no way she was letting gossipy Camilla and her twiggy Eurotrash friends see her bare midriff, much less her newly inflated porn-star breasts. The first thing she was going to do after she told Frank she was pregnant was go out and buy one of those gauzy white beach dresses her mother always wore.
But this thought, of the conversation she needed to have with Frank, put her right back on the big brass bed in her apartment on West 78th Street talking about his grandmother and that poor servant girl, Annie Johns. This had been in December, just before finals. She and Frank had been dating a few months by then, and he slept over at her apartment a couple nights a week, but in Cheryl’s mind theirs was still very much a casual thing. She liked Frank plenty; that wasn’t the problem. He was passionate and funny and easy on the eyes, and unlike every other man she had ever been out with, he showed no sign of being afraid of her. But Cheryl had plans, big plans, none of which included marrying an idealistic white boy who intended to turn a degree from Columbia Law into a $35,000-a-year job defending indigent clients at Legal Aid. So that snowy December night when they got together to prepare for the final exam in the lone class they had in common, a seminar called “The Strange Career of the Fourteenth Amendment,” Cheryl had expected to spend the evening actually studying.
But as had happened so many times that winter, a few hours studying had turned into takeout dinner from the Thai place on Columbus Avenue, which had turned into a couple glasses of red wine on the sofa, which had turned into the two of them reeling, lip-locked and fumbling with their clothes, into Cheryl’s bedroom. Afterward, they sat up in Cheryl’s bed, refilled wine glasses in hand, arguing over Shaw v. Reno, a 1993 voting rights case they had been reviewing for class. This was the other side of their relationship, the side that Cheryl knew that her father, if he could ever get past the fact of Frank himself, would understand: Frank loved to argue the law. And Cheryl loved arguing it with him. It wasn’t just that he was smart and had done the reading. What Cheryl liked was that Frank saw the law, despite centuries of evidence to the contrary, as an expression of the moral universe’s long arc toward justice. Cheryl herself took a more cynical view, that the law functioned as a sort of lexical brickbat wielded by those in power to keep the lower orders in line. But while she wasn’t above teasing him about it, she loved watching Frank struggle to find in an obscure subsection of a statute, in a footnote to some musty Supreme Court opinion, a tiny handhold, which, if exploited by a skilled litigator, could refashion even the most repressive law into a weapon that could be turned upon its makers.
In Shaw v. Reno, the Supreme Court had ruled 5-4 against a majority-black Congressional district in North Carolina, declaring the shape of the proposed district, in the words of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “so bizarre on its face that it is ‘unexplainable on grounds other than race.’” Frank was appalled, both by the decision and by the ideology behind it. Cheryl had agreed at first, but the more she studied the case, the more the liberal justification for the law, however well-intentioned, grated on her. As someone who had never needed to play the race card in her academic career but understood that everyone assumed she had, she bristled at the implication that black people couldn’t get it together to elect a black member of Congress unless white people granted them their very own separate-but-equal Congressional district. At a more practical level, while it was all well and good to have another black member of Congress, if that new congressman owed his job to some oddly shaped district that would be in all probability gerrymandered out of existence in the next census, what was the point?
“The Majority’s right, you can’t mandate racial equality by judicial fiat,” she told Frank. “Whoever wins this district is going to be a tidy minority of one. Who in their right mind is going to listen to him?”
“Well, he can vote,” Frank answered. “He can sit on committees and form coalitions with like-minded representatives, and when there’s political pork to go around, he can deliver some of it to his district. More importantly, a significant, tax-paying portion of the state’s population will have had a chance to have their voice heard in an open election.”
“So a few thousand black folks will get a warm, fuzzy feeling,” Cheryl said. “It’s not going to change anything. They’re still black and poor.”
“They’ll have a voice in Congress, and that matters,” he said. “You don’t know what it’s like down there, Cher. Until they created this district, there hadn’t been a single black Congressman in North Carolina since Reconstruction.”
She sat up, offended. “Excuse me. I don’t know what it’s like?”
“No, you don’t,” he said coolly. “With all due respect, Cheryl, your father’s a federal judge. You grew up in Brookline and went to Yale.”
“And when I walk out that door I’m still going to be black,” she said. “All the Ivy League education in the world won’t change that.”
She and Frank had never done this before, talked in such a blunt, personal way about race, and she was furious—but also, in a strange way, impressed—that he wouldn’t back down.
“I see the way people look at you, Cheryl,” he said. “And I see the way they look at us when we’re together. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about voting rights. My grandmother worked for twenty years to help a local black minister get elected to the school board in her little town down in Virginia. The town’s practically half black and it took twenty years to get one black guy on the school board. One guy. And then he lost in the next election. That’s not chance. That’s not voter apathy. That’s planning. Unless the courts intervene, it’s going to go on like that forever.”
Perhaps the thing that most surprised Cheryl about this story, beyond the story itself, was that she hadn’t heard it before. Frank had told her stories about his grandfather, and once in class, he had mentioned that in the 1960s his grandmother had been branded “a known integrationist” by a local newspaper. But the fact that his wealthy white Southern grandmother had spent two decades campaigning to help a black man get elected to the school board: this was news.
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.