Cheryl was still on the sea-green chaise with the Let’s Go book open on her lap when Frank knocked lightly on the door. He’d had a few glasses of champagne after she left and was full of stories about his grandfather and how the other guests had reacted to his speech. Cheryl tried to listen, nodding along whenever he seemed to need it, but in her mind, she was still in her apartment on West 78th Street the night he’d told her about Annie Johns. The next morning, they rode the subway to school together as if nothing had happened, but the weeks that followed had been the longest cooling off period in their relationship. Even after winter break, when they came back for spring term, Cheryl found it hard to be herself around him. She still liked him, was still physically attracted to him. That was what made it so hard. Whenever they kissed, she thought of that poor black girl in her child-sized maid’s uniform saying, “Think of birds.” What did it say about her that she found a man with a history like that attractive? What did it say about a man with a history like his that he found her attractive?
Yet at least once a week she found herself at the end of the night in bed with Frank Watkins. Over time, she found it possible to joke and flirt with him again, but they never fully regained the ease of their earliest time together. At first, Cheryl thought this meant their relationship might be veering toward platonic status, but as the months passed, she came to see that things with Frank would never return to how they’d been in the beginning, and that she was falling in love with him, anyway. This had come as a shock to her. In Cheryl’s mind, love meant you got everything, that with this one person you had no limits, no fears, no out-of-bounds. But no, she was coming to see, it was precisely the opposite. The people you loved were the ones who could destroy you. That was why you loved them, because they could destroy you and yet they chose not to.
“So,” Frank said, “I’m guessing you didn’t hear a word I said.”
“No, no, I’m listening,” she said. “You were telling me about your granddad.”
“Like, ten minutes ago.”
“Honey, I’m sorry. It’s just—”
“I know. You’re wigged about having to call your folks.”
In fact, she’d forgotten about calling her parents, but now she turned again to the slim silver Nokia next to the bed. She and Frank had never discussed the tale she had told her parents about this trip, but she knew he could safely assume that whatever she told them, she’d left out the part about going to Virginia to meet her secret white boyfriend’s Southern family.
“You can make the call from here if you want,” he said. “I’ll be quiet.”
“That’s all right,” she said. “I was thinking I’d go outside, in the yard.”
“You don’t have to do that. Look, I’ll leave. You can call from here.”
She didn’t answer, just reached for the phone and stood, feeling like she really was flying off to coastal Spain, not merely walking downstairs to make a telephone call.
“Back in a mo’,” she said, blowing him a kiss.
Downstairs, the house was quiet, with only the crystal chandelier in the stair hall illuminated to a gauzy glow. Out front, Cheryl heard laughter and boisterous conversation, but indoors the coast was clear, the dining room empty except for two young women setting the tables for breakfast the next day. Moving quickly, Cheryl slipped into the sitting room, and then, stopping again to make sure no one had seen her, pushed open the door to the back porch.
Outside, the night air clung to her like a damp cloth, but the grass, heavy with dew, was springy and cool under her bare feet. The sounds she heard, crickets, leaves rustling, made her think of summers on Martha’s Vineyard, of the walk to the beach from her family’s cottage in Oak Bluffs. When she looked up, the night sky was embroidered in silver—not just the Big Dipper and Aries and her own sign, Scorpio, but the entire Milky Way, a single, mad brushstroke of light flung across the blue-black sky. When was the last time, she wondered, she had seen the Milky Way? Even on the Vineyard the light pollution was so bad you could barely see the constellations. She stood barefoot in the grass, her head tilted upward, awed by the cosmic insignificance of her arguments with Frank, the baby in her belly, Dr. Watkins’s story of coming up off the farm, her own family’s obsessive retelling of the story of Eustace Crawford’s escape from bondage. What did any of that matter in the face of—this? Star after star, galaxy upon galaxy, each of them a world unto itself, stretching on out so far it took thousands of years for a beam of light to reach them.
Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the light from their second-floor bedroom—Frank in bed, reading, waiting for her—and remembered the phone in her hand and the lie she needed to tell her parents. She crossed the lawn to a grove of trees, and finding a comfortable spot in the crotch of an old oak, she dialed her parents’ number in Brookline.
“Oh good, it’s you,” her mother said when she picked up. “I was starting to worry. What time is it over there, anyway?”
“I don’t know, Mama, pretty late,” Cheryl said. “I’m a little jet-lagged, so I couldn’t sleep. Listen, this call’s going to cost a mill—”
“What’s it like?”
“What’s what like?”
“Spain,” her mother said. “The beach, this young woman’s house. Do you like it?”
In the background, Cheryl could hear Die Berliner Philharmoniker launching into the opening movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20. Mozart’s No. 20, with its dark, passionate melodies, was one of her father’s favorite pieces of music, though he told anyone who would listen that you had to travel to Europe to hear it because no American orchestra could be trusted to play it properly. This recording, made in 1964 with von Karajan himself conducting, existed only on vinyl, so her father had paid a sound engineer three hundred dollars to have it digitally remastered for his personal collection. Whenever he put it on, it meant he was brooding over something and didn’t care to be bothered.
“Oh, it’s beautiful,” Cheryl said, closing her eyes, imagining it. “We’re right next to the main beach and there’s a big swimming pool. They gave me a lovely room with a view of the ocean.”
“How about your friends? It’s Carmen, right? The girl you’re staying with.”
“Camilla. This is her father’s place. She’s invited a whole bunch of us for the week.”
In the silence, in the way her mother seemed to hold her breath as if waiting for her to say more, Cheryl understood for the first time that her sisters had blabbed and that her mother knew about Frank. Not all the details, maybe, but enough to know that this story Cheryl was telling was less than the whole truth. Cheryl had been lying to her parents about Frank all along, but those had been lies of omission, a matter of keeping secret the parts of her life her parents wouldn’t approve of. It had pained her, but in a curious way she knew she was only doing what was expected of her, that her father would rather not hear news about his daughters that would displease him. But it had never occurred to her that her mother might know Cheryl was lying, and—this, too, Cheryl was suddenly sure of—not tell her father.
“So, your sister got the letter from Cornell today,” her mother said.
“Cornell?” For a second, Cheryl had no idea what her mother was talking about. Then she remembered. “Oh, no. Are they going to let her in?”
“Your father’s going to write a letter to the diversity coordinator, but that’s just to make himself feel better. There’s nothing they can do now. The wait list’s closed. Classes start in a couple weeks.”
“UMass is a fine school, Mama. Cassie’s going to love it there.”
“Mmm-hmmn. That’s pretty much what I told your father.”
“But it is a good school,” Cheryl said. “I have friends who would give their eye teeth for a full-ride scholarship to UMass.”
“They’re not all Judge Crawford’s baby daughters, now, are they?”
This was one of her mother’s backhanded jokes, but also a bald statement of fact. Cheryl’s friends weren’t Judge Crawford’s baby daughters. There were only three of them, and so far one had gotten into Yale and the other into Princeton. Cheryl thought of Cassie with her dyslexia and her early discovery of boys. At Choate, it had taken her five years to complete her credits, but at her father’s insistence, she had applied to all eight of the Ivies, along with Wellesley, Vassar, and Swarthmore. She’d only applied to UMass Amherst at the last minute, as her safety school, when a softball coach at Choate told her the university had a scholarship for in-state minority athletes.
“Is she there?” Cheryl asked. “Can I talk to her?”
“She’s out,” her mother said. “Which is probably a good thing, given the black cloud that’s descended here. But you could talk to your father if you wanted. That might help.”
“I don’t know, Mama,” Cheryl said. “These calls, they’re so—”
But her mother had already set down the phone. She heard a brief conversation, half-shouted over the piano and strings, and then the abrupt silence of the CD player being paused. A moment later her father’s voice boomed down the phone line.
“Hey there,” he said. “How’s the newest member of the New York Bar?”
“Come on, Daddy, you know I just took the thing,” Cheryl said. “They don’t give you the results for months.”
“Nonsense, sweetheart. I know how hard you’ve been working. You passed, don’t you worry about that. I just wish you’d come up here to celebrate instead of taking off to—where is it you are, again?”
“San Sebastián,” Cheryl said. “It’s in Spain. Listen, about this thing with Cassie.”
“I know where San Sebastián is. And I don’t want to discuss your sister.”
“Lighten up, Daddy,” she said. “UMass’s a very good school and they’re going to pay Cassie’s way. Even Dahlia and I never got full-ride scholarships.”
“That’s because you didn’t spend all your time playing softball.” Her father snorted. “What does she think? The world is going to let her earn a living playing girls softball?”
“It’s just a scholarship,” Cheryl said. “She can still take her pre-med courses. And if that doesn’t work out, she can switch to history or English. She’s going to be fine, Daddy. You should be proud of her.”
“So your mother keeps telling me. So, fine, UMass is a good school. Fine, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Well, I’m not ashamed. I can hold my head up in any room in this country. I’ve put two girls through Ivy League schools, and starting next month, one of those girls is going to clerk for the most distinguished jurist in the second circuit.”
Cheryl looked across the darkened lawn at the single lit window on the second floor, wishing she had made the call from the room, after all. Not that Frank would have had any better idea what to say to her father, but it would have helped to have someone in the room to help her stand fast against this relentless force grinding away at her from the other end of the line.
“You know perfectly well you don’t need me, or Dahlia or Cassie, for that matter, to be able to hold your head up.”
“Sure, I’ve had my accomplishments,” he said. “But none of that matters next to what I’ve done for you girls. You’ll understand that one day, Cheryl, when you have a family of your own. In the end, nothing matters but the success and happiness of your children.”
“Come on, don’t talk like that.”
“Talk like what?”
“Forget it. I should go. It’s almost three in the morning here.”
“No, wait a minute. You’re not going anywhere, young lady. What’s the matter? I can hear it in your voice, something’s wrong.”
She turned again to the second-floor window, listening to her father’s quick, gulping breaths in her ear. She wished Frank would come to the window—just that, show himself in the window.
“What if I couldn’t take the clerkship this year?” she said.
“The clerkship with Judge Bishop. What if—I don’t know, what if something got in the way and I couldn’t take it?”
“Cheryl, is this about the bar exam?”
“No, Daddy. You’re not listening to me.”
“That’s because you’re talking nonsense. You don’t need to pass the bar to clerk for a judge. But that doesn’t matter because you passed the exam with flying colors. I’ve known you all your life, Cheryl Eustacia, and I’ve never seen you fail at anything.”
“Will you please just listen to me?”
“No, I will not listen to hysteria and nonsense,” he said. “I told your mother this European vacation was a terrible idea. Whoever heard of flying all the way to Spain to go to the beach? What’s wrong with Oak Bluffs? For that matter, what’s wrong with coming right here to Boston? That’s what you should’ve done. Come home to be with your family, with people who know you and love you, instead of that pack of jet-setting—”
Cheryl pressed “end,” cutting the line dead. She stared at the glittering hunk of metal in her hand, stunned she’d found the courage to cut her father off mid-sentence. Where had cell phones been all her life? But then she panicked, realizing he would have her cell number somewhere in the house, and as quickly as she could, talking herself through the unfamiliar steps, she powered down the phone and watched the red warning light wink out.
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.