Excerpt: My One and Only
In which Harper, her dad and her stepmother discuss the wisdom of Willa's upcoming wedding…
“She just met this guy,” I reminded them.
“Well, they met at your wedding, darlin’.”
“For six hours,” I pointed out.
“And Christopher must be good people if he’s Nick’s brother.” I suppressed the flash of hurt that comment inspired — the immature part of me wanted her to say If he’s related to that stupid ex-husband of yours, Harper, he must be a real ass.
But no, BeverLee was off and running. “Christopher seemed real nice when we spoke on the telephone! Such good manners, and I think that says something about a man, don’t you, Jimmy, honey-pot?”
My father didn’t answer.
“Dad? You got anything here?” I asked.
My father glanced at me. “Willa’s an adult, Harper. She’s almost thirty.”
“She married an ex-con and a gay man. Perhaps one might suggest that she’s not the best judge of character when it comes to men?” I said, trying to stay pleasant.
“Oh, listen to you, Harper, sugar! Don’t you believe in true love?”
“Actually, no, not in the sense you mean, BeverLee.”
“Bless your heart, Harper, you don’t fool me. I bet your big ol’ Dennis has something to say on the matter of true love! You’re just fussing. I think you’re a secret romantic, that’s that I think. You just fake being all cynical ’cause of that job of yours. So. Lavender’s fine, then? I’ll do your hair, of course. You know how I love to do hair.”
There was really no point in talking to BeverLee. Or Dad, whose failure to have an opinion was a well-documented trait. “Lavender’s fine.” I sighed. Hopefully, Willa would see sense before then.
“Should we all fly out together? Willard and her young man are getting out there a week from Wednesday, and your daddy and I, we want to get out there ay-sap! He’s just dying to see his little Willard, aren’t you, Jimmy?”
“Sure am.” That was probably true. Dad had always gotten on better with Willa than with me.
“So we’ll make a reservation for you and Dennis, how’s that? We can all sit together, God willing!”
While technically I did love both my father and BeverLee, the idea of being trapped on a plane with my father and his wife for five or six hours was as appealing as, oh, gosh…being locked in a sweatbox by Al Qaeda. Plus, if things went well, I wouldn’t have to fly anywhere. “The wedding’s on a Saturday?” I asked. BeverLee nodded. “I think Dennis and I will probably fly out Thursday or Friday, then.”
“Come on, Harper, honeybunch, it’s your baby sister!”
“And I’ve been to two of her weddings already!” I said, smiling to soften the words. “I’ll come as soon as I can, how’s that? Now, I hate to be rude, but I have work to do,” I said, standing up.
“Sure now, you are a grade-A workaholic! We get the hint! We don’t have to be told twice!” BeverLee hugged me against her breasts, which were the size and consistency of bowling balls, kissed me twice on the cheek, leaving a smear of frosty pink, fluffed my hair and managed to sneak in one last blast of Jhirmack. “Let’s grab us some lunch this week, okay? We can talk about all the details. Should we get a stripper for her bachelorette party? Do they have Chippendales out there in…where is it again?”
“Glacier National Park, she said.”
“I wonder if they have male strippers out there.” Bev pursed her lips thoughtfully.
“I’m guessing not in the park itself,” I said. “Teddy Roosevelt would’ve frowned on that.”
“Then I better get on it,” she said, and left, my father in tow, a miasmatic cloud of Cinnabar in her wake.
Three seconds later, she was back. “Honey, now may not be the time to discuss, but sweetie, I need a favor.” She glanced furtively behind her.
“I need to unburden myself, shall we say, on someone.”
“Sure.” I took a deep breath, assumed good listening posture and braced for the worst.
The worst came. BeverLee wrung her hands, her acrylic, orange-painted nails flashing in the dimming light. “Your daddy and me…we haven’t had sex for quite some time. For seven weeks, in fact.”
“Oh, God,” I said, flinching.
“I’m just wonderin’, do y’all have any idea why?”
I choked. “BeverLee, you know…well, Dad and I don’t really talk about…that. Or anything, really. And maybe you should tell—”
“What should I do? I mean, usually, he can’t get enough—”
“Okay! Well. I think you should talk to one of your girlfriends. Or Dad. Or, um, your minister. Maybe Father Bruce?” Sorry, Father. “Not me. You two are my…you know. My family.”
Bev mulled that over, then sighed. “Well, sure, you’re right, honey-bun. Okay. But if he does say anything—”
“I’m positive he won’t.”
“ — you just give me a heads-up, all right? Bye now!”
The quiet took a few minutes to creep back to my little slice of paradise, as if fearful that BeverLee would return. A thrush trilled from a bush, and the eastern breeze carried the sound of a far-away radio. The sound of laughter came from down the hill, and for some reason, it made me feel…lonely. Coco came over and flopped at my feet, then rested her little head on my bare foot. “Thanks, sweetie,” I said.
I stared out at the harbor for a long minute. Late summer is a particularly beautiful and bittersweet time on the Vineyard. Autumn was tiptoeing closer, the island would quiet, the kids would return to school. Nights spent on decks or sailboats were numbered now, darkness fell earlier, and the leaves had already lost their summer richness. But tonight I didn’t really see the view that so often soothed me after a long day’s work.
Snap out of it, Harper, I told myself. I did indeed have work to do. Going inside, I saw the light blinking on the answering machine.
Message one, today at 6:04 p.m. “Harper? It’s Tommy.” There was a gusty sigh. “Listen, I’m having second thoughts. See, the thing is, I love her, you know, and maybe FedEx was just a mistake and we can get some counseling? More counseling, I mean? I don’t know. Sorry to call you at home. See you tomorrow.”
“You poor thing,” I murmured automatically. My paralegal’s wife had been unfaithful with the FedEx man, and Tommy was considering divorce. While I wouldn’t represent him — it was never wise to represent a friend in a divorce, I’d learned — Tommy had decided mine was the shoulder on which he should cry, though I hadn’t been much comfort, despite my best intentions.
Message two, today at 6:27 p.m.. “Harper? It’s me, Willa! I’ll try you on your cell. Wait, did I just dial your cell? Or is this your house? Hang on…okay, it’s your house. Well, talk to you later! Love you!” Despite my trepidation over her news, I couldn’t help a smile. Sweet, sweet kid. Misguided, sure, but such a happy person.
Message three, today at 7:01. Right when I’d been proposing to Dennis, which seemed like it happened last year, frankly.
Message three was just…silence. No one spoke…but the person hadn’t hung up right away, either. For a second, my heart shivered, and I stood there, frozen.
Would Nick call me, with our siblings getting married?
No. He didn’t have my number — it was unlisted. Even if he had it, he would never call me. Then the machine beeped, releasing me from my paralysis. You have no more messages.
I checked caller ID on my handset. Private number.
Telemarketer, most likely.
Almost without thinking, I padded barefoot into my bedroom. Dragged the chair from my dressing table to the closet and stood on it, groping along the highest shelf and took down an old hat box. I sat on the bed and slowly…very slowly…opened the box. There was the silk scarf Willa gave me three birthdays ago, in shades of green that made me look like an ad for the Irish Tourism Board with my curly red hair and green eyes. The black wool cap my grandmother had knit when I went off to Amherst, shortly before she died. My tattered copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. I’d always assumed I’d been named after Harper Lee…how many Harpers are out there?…and in the year after my mother had left, I’d read the book nine times, searching for some clue as to how my mother could’ve loved the story of literature’s most steadfast hero but still abandon her only child.
There, underneath everything else, was what I wanted now.
A photo. I picked it up. My hands seemed to be shaking a little, and my breath stopped as I looked at the picture.
God, we’d been young.
The photo had been taken the morning of my wedding day; Dad had been testing his camera settings for the ceremony that afternoon. Nick and I hadn’t done that can’t see you till the altar thing, not buying into those superstitious rites (though in hindsight…). That morning had been cool and cloudy, and Nick and I had gone outside to sit on the steps of Dad’s house, cups of coffee in our hands, me in a flannel bathrobe, Nick, a New Yorker, in a faded blue Yankees shirt and shorts, his dark hair rumpled. He was smiling just a little as he looked at me, his dark eyes, which could be so tragic and vulnerable and hopeful all at once, happy in this moment.
You could see it on our faces…Nick, confident, happy, almost smug. Me, a secret wreck.
Because sure, I had doubts. I’d been twenty-one, for God’s sake. Just graduated college. Marriage? Were we crazy? But Nick had been sure enough for both of us, and on that day — June 21st, the first day of summer — for that one day, I believed him. We loved each other, and we’d live happily ever after.
Live and learn.