Plans for the vacation changed, and then changed again.
Back in March, when arrangements for Chess's wedding were falling into place as neatly as bricks in a garden path, an idea came to Birdie: a week for just the two of them in the house on Tuckernuck Island. As recently as three years earlier, such an idea would have been unthinkable; ever since Chess was a little girl, she and Birdie had clashed. They didn't "get along." (Which meant that Chess didn't get along with Birdie, right? Birdie had tried everything in her power to gain her daughter's good graces, and yet she was perpetually held in contempt. She said the wrong thing, she did the wrong thing.) But lately, things between mother and daughter had improved—enough for Birdie to suggest a week of bonding in the family cottage before Chess embarked on the rest of her life with Michael Morgan.
Birdie had phoned Chess at work to see if the idea would fly.
"I have to call you back," Chess said in the tight voice that meant Birdie should have waited and called Chess at home. Chess was the food editor of Glamorous Home magazine. She was the youngest editor on the magazine's staff; she was the youngest editor working for the Diamond Publishing Group, and she worked extra hard to prove herself. Chess's job was one Birdie secretly coveted, being an enthusiastic and accomplished at-home gourmet cook. She was so, so proud of Chess, and envious of her, too.
"Okay, honey!" Birdie said. "But just put this in your stew pot: you and me in the house on Tuckernuck the week of Fourth of July."
"You and me?" Chess said. "And who else?"
"Just us," Birdie said.
"The whole week?" Chess said.
"Can you?" Birdie asked. Chess's job had seasonal flexibility. The summer was slow; the holidays were insanity. "Would you?"
"Let me think about it," Chess said, and she hung up.
Birdie paced her house, agitated and tense. She felt like she had in 1972 when she was waiting to find out if she'd gotten a bid from Alpha Phi. Would Chess consider this trip? If Chess said no, Birdie decided, she wouldn't take it personally. Chess was busy, and a week was a long time. Would Birdie have wanted to spend a week alone with her own mother? Probably not. Birdie picked up her cup of tea, but it had gone cold. She put it in the microwave to reheat and sat down at her computer, which she kept in the kitchen, where she could get the news and recipes. She checked her e-mail. Her younger daughter, Tate, was a computer wizard and sent Birdie at least one e-mail each day, though it was sometimes a forwarded joke, or a chain letter, which Birdie deleted without reading. Today, her in-box was empty. Birdie chastised herself. Chess would never want to spend a week with her alone. She shouldn't have asked.
But then, just as she was about to sink into the self-doubt that plagued nearly every interaction with Chess (why was her relationship with her elder daughter so fraught? What had Birdie done wrong?), the phone rang. Birdie snapped it up. It was Chess.
"July first through seventh?" Chess said. "You and me?"
"You'll do it?" Birdie said.
"Absolutely," Chess said. "It sounds great. Thanks, Bird!"
Birdie sighed—relief, happiness, elation! A week on Tuckernuck did sound great. One of the benefits of being divorced now, after three decades of being married, was that Birdie could do whatever she damn well pleased. The house on Tuckernuck had been in the Tate family for seventy-five years—her family, not Grant's family. Whereas Birdie had grown up with memories of simple, carefree summer days on Tuckernuck, Grant had not. He had pretended to like Tuckernuck for the two summers of their courtship, but once they were married and had children, he revealed his disdain. He loathed the place—the house was too primitive, the generator unreliable. He wasn't a pioneer; he didn't want to work a pump by hand for water that was then heated over a fire for his bath. He didn't like mice or mosquitoes or bats hanging from the rafters. He didn't like to be without a television or a phone. He was lawyer to half of Wall Street. How could Birdie reasonably expect him to live without a phone?
Grant had suffered through two weeks a summer in the house on Tuckernuck until Tate was a senior in high school, and then he put his foot down: no more.
Birdie hadn't been to Tuckernuck in thirteen years. It was time she returned.
And so, in addition to planning Chess's wedding to Michael Morgan, Birdie also planned a week's vacation on Tuckernuck. She called their caretaker, Chuck Lee. As she dialed the number—long forgotten and yet familiar—she found herself singing with nerves. Chuck's wife, Eleanor, answered the phone. Birdie had never laid eyes on Eleanor, much less had a conversation with her, though Birdie was aware of Eleanor's existence and she was sure that Eleanor was aware of hers. Birdie decided not to identify herself to Eleanor now; it would be easier that way.
She said, "I'm looking for Chuck Lee, please. Is he available?"
"Not at the moment," Eleanor said. "May I take a message?"
"I have a caretaking question," Birdie said.
"Chuck doesn't do caretaking anymore," Eleanor said. The woman had a pleasant enough demeanor, Birdie thought. In Birdie's younger imagination, Eleanor had weighed four hundred pounds and had skin the texture of a squid and a faint mustache.
"Oh," Birdie said. She wondered if Chuck and Eleanor's phone had caller ID, but decided not. Chuck was a man firmly embedded in 1974 and always had been.
"My son Barrett has taken over the business," Eleanor said. "Would you like his number?"
After Birdie hung up, she had to sit down and take a moment. How mercilessly the years flew by! Birdie had known Barrett Lee all his life. She remembered him at five years old, a towhead in an orange life preserver sitting beside his father on the Boston Whaler that picked up Birdie and Grant and the kids from Madaket Harbor on Nantucket and delivered them to the slice of beach, as white and soft as breadcrumbs, that fronted their property on the tiny neighboring island of Tuckernuck. Was Barrett Lee old enough to take over a business? In age, he had fallen somewhere between Chess and Tate, who were thirty-two and thirty respectively, making Barrett thirty-one or so. And Chuck had retired like a normal sixty-five-year-old man, whereas Grant still rode the train into the city every morning and, for all Birdie knew, still took clients to Gallagher's for martinis and sirloins after work.
Birdie called Barrett Lee's cell phone, and sure enough, a man answered.
"Barrett?" Birdie said. "This is Birdie Cousins calling. I own the Tate house on Tuckernuck?"
"Hey, Mrs. Cousins," Barrett Lee said casually, as though they had spoken only the week before. "How's it going?"
Birdie tried to remember the last time she had seen Barrett Lee. She had a vague memory of him as a teenager. He had been quite handsome, like his father. He played football for the Nantucket Whalers; he had broad shoulders and that white-blond hair. He had come out on his father's boat alone early one morning to take one of the girls fishing. And then another time he had taken one of the girls on a picnic lunch. For the life of her, Birdie couldn't remember if he had taken Chess or Tate.
How's it going? How was she supposed to answer that? Grant and I divorced two years ago. He lives in a "loft" apartment in Norwalk and dates women he calls "cougars," while I bounce off the walls of the family homestead in New Canaan, six thousand square feet filled with rugs and antiques and framed photographs documenting a life now gone. I cook an elaborate meal on Monday and eat it all week long. I still belong to the garden club. I go to a book group once a month and frequently I'm the only one who's read the selection; the rest of the women are just there for the wine and the gossip. Chess and Tate are grown up, with lives of their own. I wish I had a job. I spend more time than I should feeling angry at Grant for never encouraging me to work outside the home. Because now, here I am, fifty-seven years old, divorced, becoming the kind of woman who inflicts herself on her children.
"It goes well," Birdie said. "I'm sure hearing from me is something of a shock."
"A shock," Barrett confirmed.
"How is your father?" Birdie asked. "He's retired?"
"Retired," Barrett said. "He had a stroke just before Thanksgiving. He's fine, but it slowed him way down."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Birdie said. This also gave her pause. Chuck Lee had had a stroke? Chuck Lee with his military buzz cut, and the cigarette clenched in the corner of his mouth, and his biceps bulging as he pulled the ropes of the anchor off the ocean floor? He was slow moving now? Birdie imagined a land turtle, bald and lumbering, then quickly erased it from her mind. "Listen, Chess and I are going to spend the week of the Fourth of July in the house. Can you get it ready?"
"Well," Barrett said.
"It's going to need work," Barrett said. "I stopped by there back in September and the place is falling down on itself. It needs to be reshingled and it probably needs a new roof. You'll need a new generator. And the stairs down to the beach have rotted. Now, I didn't go inside, but…"
"Can you take care of it?" Birdie asked. "I want it to be usable. Can you buy a good generator and fix the rest of the house up? I'll send a check tomorrow. Five thousand? Ten thousand?" In the divorce, Birdie had gotten the house and a generous monthly stipend. Grant had also promised that if she had larger expenses, he would cover them, as long as he deemed them "reasonable." Grant hated the Tuckernuck house; Birdie had no idea if he would deem the cost of fixing it up reasonable or not. She smelled a possible battleground, but she couldn't let the Tuckernuck house fall to pieces after seventy-five years, could she?
"Ten thousand to start," Barrett said. "I'm sorry to tell you that…"
"No, don't be sorry. It's not your fault…"
"But if you want the house back to where it was…"
"We have no choice!" Birdie said. "It was my grandmother's house."
"You'd like it ready by July first?"
"July first," Birdie said. "It's just going to be Chess and me for one last hurrah. She's getting married in September."
"Married?" Barrett said. He paused, and Birdie realized that it must have been Chess that he'd taken on the picnic.
"On September twenty-fifth," Birdie said proudly.
"Wow," Barrett said.
By the middle of April, tax time, every last detail of Chess's wedding to Michael Morgan had been tended to—including the dress for the flower girl, the catering menu, and the selection of hymns at the church. Birdie called Chess at work much more frequently to get her opinion and her approval. Most of the time what Chess said was, "Yes, Birdie, fine. Whatever you think." Birdie had been both surprised and flattered when Chess had asked her for help with the wedding. She had essentially dropped the thing in Birdie's lap, saying matter-of-factly, "You have exquisite taste." Birdie happened to believe this was true; her good taste was a fact, like her green eyes or her attached earlobes. But to have Chess's confidence was gratifying.
Three hundred people would be invited to the wedding; the service would be held at Trinity Episcopal, with Benjamin Denton, the pastor of Chess's youth, presiding. The ceremony would be followed by a tented reception in Birdie's backyard. The landscapers had started working the previous September. The pièce de résistance, in Birdie's opinion, was a floating island that would be placed in Birdie's pond, where the couple would take their first dance.
Grant had called only once to complain about cost, and that was in regard to the twenty thousand dollars for the engineering and manufacturing of the floating island. Birdie had patiently explained the concept to him over the phone, but he either didn't get it or didn't like it.
"Are we or are we not paying for a regular dance floor?"
"We are," Birdie said. "This is a special thing, for the first dances. Chess dancing with Michael, Chess dancing with you, you dancing with me."
"Me dancing with you?"
Birdie cleared her throat. "Emily Post says that if neither of the divorced spouses is remarried, then… yes, Grant, you're going to have to dance with me. Sorry about that."
"Twenty thousand dollars is a lot of money, Bird."
It took a phone call from Chess to convince him. God only knows what she said, but Grant wrote the check.
At the end of April, Birdie went on her first date since the divorce. The date had been set up by Birdie's sister, India, who was a curator at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Center City, Philadelphia. India had been married to the sculptor Bill Bishop and had raised three sons while Bill traveled the globe, gaining notoriety. In 1995, Bill shot himself in the head in a hotel in Bangkok, and the suicide had devastated India. For a while there, Birdie had feared India wouldn't recover. She would end up as a bag lady in Rittenhouse Square, or as a recluse, keeping cats and polishing Bill's portrait in its frame. But India had somehow risen from the ashes, putting her master's degree in art history to use and becoming a curator. Unlike Birdie, India was cutting edge and chic. She wore Catherine Malandrino dresses, four-inch heels, and Bill Bishop's reading glasses on a chain around her neck. India dated all kinds of men—older men, younger men, married men—and the man she set Birdie up with was one of her castoffs. He was too old. How old was too old? Sixty-five, which was Grant's age.
His name was Hank Dunlap. Hank was the retired headmaster of an elite private school in Manhattan. His wife, Caroline, was independently wealthy. The wife sat on the board of trustees at the Guggenheim Museum; India had met Hank and Caroline at a Guggenheim benefit years earlier.
"What happened to Caroline?" Birdie asked. "Did they get divorced? Did she die?"
"Neither," India said. "She has Alzheimer's. She's in a facility upstate."
"So the wife is still alive, they're still married, and you dated him? And now you want me to date him?"
"Get over yourself, Bird," India said. "His wife is in another world and won't be coming back. He wants companionship. He is exactly your type."
"He is?" Birdie said. What was her "type"? Someone like Grant? Grant was the devil's attorney. He was all about single-malt whiskey and expensive cars with leather interiors. He was not the kindly headmaster type, content with a salary in the low six figures. "Does he golf?"
"Ah, then he is my type." Birdie swore she would never again be romantically involved with a golfer.
"He's cute," India said, like they were talking about some sixteen-year-old. "You'll like him."
Surprise! Birdie liked him. She had decided to forgo all of the "I can't believe I'm dating again at my age" worrywart nonsense and just be a realist. She was dating again at her age, but instead of fretting, she got showered and dressed and made up as she would have if she and Grant were going to the theater or to the country club with the Campbells. She wore a simple wrap dress and heels and some good jewelry, including her diamond engagement ring (it had been her grandmother's and would someday go to one of her grandchildren). Birdie sat on her garden bench in the mild spring evening with a glass of Sancerre and Mozart playing on the outdoor speakers as she waited for old Hank to show up.
Her heartbeat seemed regular.
She heard a car in the driveway and proceeded inside, where she rinsed her wineglass, checked her lipstick in the mirror, and fetched her spring coat. With a deep breath, she opened the door. And there stood old Hank, holding a bouquet of fragrant purple hyacinths. He had salt-and-pepper hair and wore rimless glasses. He was, as India had promised, cute. Very cute. When he saw Birdie, he smiled widely. He grinned. He was darling.
"You're even prettier than your sister!" he said.
Birdie swooned. "God," she said. "I love you already."
And they laughed.
The evening had gone from good to better. Hank Dunlap was smart and informed, funny and engaging. He picked a new restaurant on a trendy street in South Norwalk, among the art galleries and upscale boutiques. This faux Soho (they called it SoNo) was where Grant now lived. Birdie wondered if he hung out on this trendy street (she had a hard time imagining it); she wondered if she would see him, or if he would see her out on a date with cute, erudite Hank. It was warm enough to sit outside, and Birdie jumped at the chance.
The food at the new restaurant was extraordinary. Birdie loved good food and good wine, and as it turned out, so did Hank. They tasted each other's meals and decided to share a dessert. Birdie didn't think, I can't believe I'm dating again at my age. What she thought was that she was having fun, this was easy; it was easier, perhaps, to have dinner with this man she barely knew than it had ever been to have dinner with Grant. (Beyond his penchant for aged beef, Grant didn't care what he ate. He ate only to stay alive.) In the last few years of their marriage, Birdie and Grant had barely spoken to each other when they went to dinner. Or rather, Birdie had chirped away about the things that interested her, and Grant had nodded distractedly as he watched the Yankees game over her shoulder or checked his BlackBerry for stock reports. As Birdie ate with Hank, she marveled at how nice it was to spend time with someone who not only interested her but found her interesting. Who not only talked but listened.
Birdie said, "I would run away and marry you tonight, but I understand you're already married."
Hank nodded and smiled sadly. "My wife, Caroline, is in a facility in Brewster. She doesn't recognize me or the kids anymore."
"I'm sorry," Birdie said.
"We had a good life together," Hank said. "I'm sorry it's going to end for her away from home, but I couldn't take care of her by myself. She's better off where she is. I go to see her Thursday afternoons and every Sunday. I bring her chocolate-covered caramels, and every week she thanks me like I'm a kind stranger, which I guess, to her, I am. But she loves them."
Birdie felt tears rise. The waiter delivered their dessert—a passion fruit and coconut cream parfait. Hank dug in; Birdie dabbed at her eyes. Her marriage had ended badly, though not as badly as some, and Hank's marriage was also ending badly, though not as badly as some. His wife no longer recognized him, but he brought her chocolate-covered caramels. This was the kindest gesture Birdie could imagine. Had Grant ever done anything that kind for her? She couldn't think of a thing.
Hank kissed Birdie good night at her front door, and that was the best part of the evening. The kiss was soft and deep, and something long forgotten stirred inside Birdie. Desire. She and Grant had had sex right up to the bitter end with the help of a pill—but desire for her husband's body had evaporated by the time Tate went to grammar school.
"I'll call you tomorrow at noon," Hank said.
Birdie nodded. She was speechless. She stumbled inside and wandered around her kitchen, looking at it with new eyes. What would Hank think of this kitchen? She was a big believer in small details: always fresh fruit, always fresh flowers, always fresh-brewed coffee, real cream, fresh-squeezed juice, the morning newspaper delivered to the doorstep, classical music. Always wine of a good vintage. Would Hank appreciate these things the way Birdie did?
She made herself a cup of tea and arranged the hyacinths he'd brought in one of her cut-glass vases. She was floating. The perfect life, she decided, would be a life filled with first dates like this one. Each day would contain electric promise, a spark, a connection, and desire.
God, desire. She had forgotten all about it.
She undressed and climbed into bed with her steaming mug of tea. She picked up the novel her book club was reading, then set it down. She was levitating like a magician's assistant. She closed her eyes.
The phone rang in the middle of the night. Three twenty, the clock said. Birdie sat straight up in bed. Her bedside light was still on. The tea was cold on the nightstand. The phone? Who called at such an hour? Then Birdie remembered her date and she filled with warm, syrupy joy. It might be India calling to find out how the date had gone. India kept ridiculous hours. Ever since Bill died, she had suffered from mind-blowing insomnia; she occasionally went seventy-two hours without sleeping.
Or the call was from Hank, who had, perhaps, not been able to sleep.
Birdie grabbed the phone.
A woman, crying. Birdie knew immediately that it was Chess; a mother always knew the sound of her child crying, even when her child was thirty-two years old. Birdie intuited the rest of it right away, without having to hear one lurid word. It crushed her, but she knew.
"It's over, Birdie."
"Over?" Birdie said.
Birdie drew the covers up to her chin. This was one of her defining moments as a mother and she was determined to shine.
"Tell me what happened," she said.
Michael Morgan was six foot six, clean cut, and handsome. He had sandy hair, green eyes, and a smile that made others smile. He had played lacrosse at Princeton, where he had graduated summa cum laude with a degree in sociology; he was a whiz at crossword puzzles and loved black-and-white movies, which endeared him to people of Birdie's generation. Instead of taking a job at J.P. Morgan, where his father was managing partner, or going to Madison Avenue, where his mother oversaw the advertising accounts for every smash hit on Broadway, Michael had taken out a staggering business loan and bought a failing head-hunting company. In five years, he had turned a profit; he had placed 25 percent of the graduating class of Columbia Business School.
Chess had met Michael Morgan at a rock club downtown; Birdie couldn't remember the name of the place. Chess had been at the bar with a girlfriend, and Michael had been there to see his brother, Nick, who was the lead singer in a band called Diplomatic Immunity. This was how young people met each other; Birdie understood that. But unlike the other young men that Chess met socially, she and Michael Morgan got serious right away.
The beginning of Chess's relationship with Michael Morgan coincided with the end of Birdie and Grant's marriage. When Birdie and Grant met Michael Morgan for the first time, they were, technically, separated. (Grant was staying in a room at the Hyatt in Stamford. This was before he rented and then purchased the loft in South Norwalk.) Chess knew her parents were separated, but Chess wanted Birdie and Grant to meet Michael together as a unit. Birdie balked at this. It would be awkward; it would be what amounted to a date with Grant, whom she had so recently and unequivocally asked to leave her life. But Chess insisted. She believed that her parents could be civil and congenial to each other for one night on her behalf. Grant was open to the idea; he made a reservation for four at La Grenouille, their former favorite restaurant. Grant and Birdie drove to the city together; it wouldn't make sense not to. Grant smelled the same; he was wearing his khaki suit and one of the Paul Stuart shirts that Birdie had bought for him, and the pink tie with the frogs that he always wore when they went to La Grenouille. Birdie remembered having the reassuring yet sinking feeling that nothing had changed. The maître d' at La Grenouille, Donovan, greeted them as a married couple—he had no idea they'd split—and showed them to the table they preferred. On the way to the restaurant from the parking garage, Birdie had filled Grant in on Michael Morgan. He and Chess had been dating for three weeks.
"Three weeks?" Grant said. "He got an audience after only three weeks?"
"This is it, I think," Birdie said.
"It?" Grant said.
"Just be nice," Birdie said. "Make him comfortable."
Chess had looked beautiful in a flowery lavender dress, and Michael Morgan was stunning in a charcoal suit and a lavender-hued Hermès tie. (They had color-coordinated their outfits! This struck Birdie as cute at first; then she worried that they were secretly living together.) Chess and Michael Morgan looked like they had just stepped off the pages of Town and Country. They looked like they were already married.
Michael Morgan greeted Grant with a strong handshake; he kissed Birdie's cheek. He gave them both that brilliant smile that made them smile. (That square jaw, those perfect teeth, the light in his eye—he was magnetic!) Birdie had gone into that dinner feeling very jaundiced about romance and relationships, but even she had been won over by Michael Morgan, and by Michael and Chess together. Michael had beautiful table manners, he stood when Chess rose to use the ladies' room and when she returned, he told Grant and Birdie about his business and plans for future growth in a way that was both impressive and pleasingly self-effacing. He appreciated the wine, he drank scotch with Grant after dessert, he thanked both Grant and Birdie profusely for the meal, he praised them for bringing up a beautiful, smart, accomplished daughter like Chess. What was not to like?
So what Birdie heard over the phone surprised her. Chess had broken the engagement. Chess had been out to dinner at Aureole with her friend Rhonda; from there, she and Rhonda had gone to the Spotted Pig for cocktails, and then on to a nightclub. Chess had left the nightclub without telling Rhonda. She had walked sixty-seven blocks uptown to her apartment (Birdie shuddered at the danger of it) and had called San Francisco, where Michael was with candidates interviewing for the head of a prestigious tech company. She had called off the wedding. Michael was flying home in the morning, she said, but it wouldn't do any good. The relationship was over. She would not be getting married.
"Now wait a minute," Birdie said. "What happened?"
"Nothing happened," Chess said. "I just don't want to marry Michael."
"But why not?" Birdie said. She wasn't naive. Had Chess taken any mind-altering drugs while she was at the club? Was she still feeling their effects now?
"I don't have a good reason," Chess said. She started to cry again. "I just don't want to."
"You don't want to?"
"That's right," Chess said. "I don't want to."
"You're not in love with him?" Birdie said.
"No," Chess said. "I'm not."
What could Birdie say?
"I support whatever decision you make. I love you. If you don't want to marry Michael Morgan, we will undo all the wedding plans."
Chess exhaled. She hiccuped. She whispered, "God, Birdie, thank you. Thank you."
"Okay. Okay, now," Birdie said.
"Will you tell Dad?" Chess asked.
"Me?" Birdie said.
"Please?" The tears threatened. "I just can't do it. I am not strong enough."
What Chess meant was that she didn't want to do it. Who in their right mind would want to call Grant Cousins, whose job it was to intimidate everyone from the at-home investor to the SEC, and tell him that he may have wasted $150,000 on things like hand-engraved invitations and a floating island in his ex-wife's backyard pond? Birdie was aware that her greatest flaw as a mother was not holding the children fully accountable for their actions. She had never made them do the dirty work. When Tate, at age six, stole crayons from the five-and-dime, Birdie hadn't marched her back to the store to confess to Mr. Spitko, the owner, as she should have. She had let it slide with a lecture and had then put five dollars in an envelope, which she slid under the door of the five-and-dime after hours.
"I think you should call your father and explain your decision in your own words," Birdie said. "I won't be able to do it justice."
Birdie sighed. The hour weighed upon her, as did the reality of No Wedding—all that work for naught!—as did the prospect of speaking to Grant about this catastrophic turn of events. But she mustn't think of it as a catastrophe. She would think of it as Chess saving herself from a lifetime of unhappiness. A catastrophic event would have been Chess getting married, bearing three children, and then realizing that any one of a hundred other options would have been better than marrying Michael Morgan. You only got one life, and Chess was going to treat hers with thoughtful care.
Birdie was exhausted.
"Let's talk in the morning, and then talk again after you speak to Michael in person. Then we'll worry about your father. This thing might reverse itself."
"No, Birdie, it won't."
"Birdie," Chess said. "Trust me."
Chess was steadfast in her decision. Michael came home from California exhausted and frantic, willing to do absolutely anything to get Chess to change her mind, but Chess shut him down. She would not marry him in September. She would not marry him at all. Michael Morgan, former King of the World, former Golden Boy, former All-Ivy athlete, and one of Inc. magazine's Young Entrepreneurs of the Year, was reduced to gravy.
Michael called Birdie early the following evening. It was Sunday, cocktail hour, and Hank Dunlap was in Birdie's living room with a glass of wine, eating her savory palmiers, listening to Ella Fitzgerald on the stereo. Birdie had invited him over for a springtime supper of roast chicken and asparagus, despite the fact that her world was tumbling down around her. Or not her world, exactly, but the world of people she loved.
When Hank had called Saturday at noon, what Birdie said was, "I find myself in the middle of a startling family crisis."
And Hank said, "Would you prefer company or space?"
The wonderful thing about dating again at her age was that she was dealing with a partner who was emotionally mature. She could choose either company or space, and Hank would understand. She decided she wanted company. She barely knew Hank Dunlap, but she sensed he would give her a sound perspective. He had been a school headmaster. He had dealt with students, teachers, parents, money, emotions, logistics, and, most likely, dozens of thwarted love affairs. He might be able to help, and if not, he could just sit there and Birdie would feel better for looking upon him.
He had arrived at her door with a bottle of Sancerre, her favorite wine, and she had poured two glasses immediately, pulled the palmiers from the oven, and told Hank the story. My daughter Chess called in the middle of the night with the news that she'd broken her engagement. She gave no reason. She simply isn't in love with him.
Hank nodded thoughtfully. Birdie had begun to feel slightly embarrassed on Chess's behalf. Why on earth had she agreed to marry Michael Morgan in the first place if she wasn't in love with him? Michael had proposed to Chess onstage at a rock concert, which had seemed rash to Birdie, bordering on unseemly, but Chess and Michael had met at a rock concert and he was after some meaningful symmetry. He had thought it through; he had asked Grant for Chess's hand the week before. Chess hadn't seemed bothered by the public nature of the proposal, or had seemed bothered only slightly. What she'd said was, How could I say no? But she said this lightly, and what Birdie thought she meant was, Why would I want to say no? Michael and Chess were made for each other.
Hank interrupted Birdie's thoughts by putting his hands on her waist and pulling her to him. She felt a light-headed rush. She set her wineglass down. Hank kissed her. Instantly, she was aflame.
He stopped and said, "I feel like the guy who is only thinking about sex when we're supposed to be studying."
"Sex?" Birdie said. "Studying?"
Hank took off his glasses and started kissing her again.
And then the phone rang. Initially, Birdie ignored it. Nothing was going to tear her away from… but then she realized she had to answer. She pulled back. Hank nodded and put his glasses back on.
"Hello?" she said.
"Mrs. Cousins? It's Michael Morgan."
She had told him at least half a dozen times to call her Birdie and he had never complied—his Ivy League sense of decorum stopped him—though now she was glad.
"Oh, Michael," she said, and Hank repaired to the living room sofa with his wine and the tray of palmiers.
Michael's voice was shaky, then stronger, then shaky again, with high-pitched, boyish breaks. What did he do wrong? What could he do to change Chess's mind? It seemed Chess had failed to come up with a convincing argument. She didn't want to marry him but she didn't have a reason. He wasn't buying it.
"It doesn't make any sense," Michael said. "At eight o'clock, everything was fine. She called me on her way to Aureole. She told me she loved me." He paused, allowing Birdie to express her sympathy with a clucking noise. "Then at ten o'clock her time, I got another text saying she was leaving the restaurant and going out to a bar."
Birdie said, "I see."
"Four hours later, she had taken off her ring." His voice grew stronger, angrier. "Mrs. Cousins, I want to know what happened at that club."
"Oh, goodness," Birdie said. "I don't know what happened."
"She didn't tell you?"
"She didn't say a word about the club. Other than that she left without telling the other girl. She walked all the way back to Sixty-third Street in the middle of the night by herself."
"Are you sure she was by herself ?" Michael said.
"That's what she told me," Birdie said. "Why? Do you think there's someone else?"
"Why else would she break the engagement?" Michael said. "There is no other reason, is there?"
Is there? He was asking Birdie for her opinion. She was torn between wanting to comfort Michael and wanting to fairly represent Chess's point of view. She was, she realized, being plopped right in the middle of this.
She said, "I can't speak for Chess, Michael. She told me she doesn't want to get married. Her feelings have changed. You proposed in a very public way." This came off as an admonition, and it was: if Michael Morgan had proposed privately, Chess might have answered differently. "Maybe Chess felt like she had to say yes when what she meant was that she wanted to think about it."
"I proposed six months ago," Michael said. "She's had time to think about it."
"She's had time to think about it," Birdie said. "And I know this comes as cold comfort, but having her realize now is much better than having her realize in ten years when you have four kids and a mortgage. This is a perspective that comes with age, and you're going to have to take my word for it."
Michael said, "I can't give up hope. I love her, Mrs. Cousins. I am madly in love with your daughter, and I just can't turn it off like a faucet. My heart…" Here, he started to sob, and Birdie cringed. The boy was used to getting whatever he wanted, but he couldn't have Chess. He didn't know it, but this kind of earthshaking disappointment would be good for him. "My heart is in a thousand pieces."
"You need to talk some more with Chess," Birdie said.
"I was just with her for four hours."
"A little later, maybe. Once she's had time to reflect."
"I have to go back to San Francisco," he said. "I left two candidates for a seven-figure job sitting at the Marriott."
"Go back to San Francisco," Birdie said. "Talk to Chess when you get home."
"If she doesn't change her mind, I don't know what the hell I'm gonna do," he said.
"You'll survive," Birdie said, looking at Hank on the sofa, wiping crumbs from his lips with a cocktail napkin. "We all do."
In the week that followed, there were all sorts of other conversations, conversations upon conversations. Birdie had never had so many conversations. One of the most difficult, predictably, was Birdie's conversation with Grant, which she chose to undertake at nine o'clock at night when he would be at home in his "loft" rather than at the office.
She said, "Grant, I'm calling to tell you that Chess has broken the engagement. The wedding is off."
"Off ?" he said.
Silence. Birdie had wondered how Grant would meet the news. It was telling that after thirty years of marriage, she had no idea. She figured his main concern would be for Chess's welfare, and once he realized the murder had come at Chess's own hand, he would be worried about his money. Birdie waited for his questions, but none came.
"What do you think?"
"What am I supposed to think? You want to tell me what the hell happened?"
Of course, she should have guessed that he would not react at all until Birdie told him how he was supposed to feel. She had always done his emotional work for him.
"Chess wanted out. She's not in love with him."
"Not in love with him?"
"That's the gist of it." It was no longer Birdie's job to shield Grant from the unpleasant realities about his children. Birdie had to deal with it, and now so did he. "She's not in love. She doesn't want to spend the rest of her life with him."
"I don't get it," Grant said.
Of course he didn't get it. This was why Chess had wanted Birdie to call; Birdie was supposed to make him understand. Grant was eight years her senior; he had been thirty-one to her twenty-three when they got married. Grant had just made partner at the firm; he was expected to marry, start procreating, move to the suburbs, join a country club. He had come after Birdie like a bull charging; he had tracked her like a hit man. I want you, you, you. There had been dinners and musicals and weekends skiing in the Poconos, where they kept separate rooms for the sake of appearances. Birdie had an entry-level job at Christie's, where she showed a proclivity for carpets. She idolized the head of fine carpets, a man named Fergus Reynolds, who was always dashing off to Marrakech or Jordan. He spoke fluent French, Spanish, and Arabic and wore silk scarves in the style of Amelia Earhart. Birdie wanted to be a female incarnation of Fergus. She wanted to smoke clove cigarettes and appraise estates on the French Riviera. But instead, she succumbed to Grant. Within a year of marrying, she had quit her job; within two years, she was pregnant with Chess. The ways in which Grant Cousins had curtailed her potential were too numerous to name.
And then, once they were married and the girls had been born and the household established, Grant vanished. He was still present physically—sitting at the head of the dinner table with his tumbler of scotch and his benevolent, slightly baffled smile—but his mind was elsewhere. He lived in a state of constant distraction. The office, the cases, the clients, the billable hours, his handicap, the Yankees game, the Giants game. Birdie had grown to feel that anything and everything was more important to Grant than she and the girls were. He was kind to them, and generous, but they could never quite capture his full attention.
"I don't know how else to say it," Birdie said. "She's not going to marry him. And rather than beating her up, we should be praising her for calling it off before it was too late. If she'd gone ahead and married him, she'd regret it."
"The way you regret marrying me?" Grant said.
Birdie inhaled. Honestly!
"I do not regret it," Birdie said.
"Sure you do."
"I do not regret raising our children. And for many years, I didn't regret marrying you."
"You regretted being hemmed in to a certain life," Grant said. "You wished your life had contained more than PTA open houses and garden club. I do listen when you talk, Bird."
Infuriating. He was playacting now, trying to fudge the exam when he hadn't read the book. "Well, this will come as a surprise to you, I'm sure, but I'm not exactly dead yet. In fact, I'm dating someone."
"Congratulations," Grant said.
He was so patronizing. Birdie chastised herself for telling him. Her love life was none of his business, and no reaction—not even one of jealousy, which would have been disingenuous—would have satisfied her. Dating Hank was a source of private delight; to make it public would poison it.
"So anyway," Birdie said, "there are the matters of the wedding arrangements. I assume you'd like me to try to get your deposits back?"
"Yes, please," Grant said.
"All I can do is try," Birdie said. She had half a mind to simply let Grant's cash sink to the bottom of the ocean, but his money was her money, and wasting it was foolish. "And Grant?"
"Call your daughter, please."
"And say what?"
"What do you think?" Birdie said. "Tell her you love her."
In the days and weeks that followed, Birdie had a hard time reaching Chess. When she called Chess at work, she was stonewalled by Chess's assistant, Erica, who claimed that Chess was no longer accepting personal calls at work.
"But she's there, right?" Birdie said. "She's alive?"
"Affirmative," Erica said.
When Birdie tried Chess's cell phone, she was inevitably shuttled to voice mail, where her messages stacked up like newspapers in the driveway of someone who had moved away.
"Call me," Birdie said. "I'm worried."
Birdie sought refuge in conversations with her daughter Tate. Birdie didn't love Tate any more than she loved Chess, but Tate was easier.
"Have you talked to your sister?" Birdie asked.
"A couple of times," Tate said. "Mostly I just leave messages."
"Oh, good," Birdie said. "I thought I was alone in that."
"You know I'd never leave you alone, Mama," Tate said.
Tate—Elizabeth Tate Cousins—was, at the age of thirty, a computer genius who was flown in by the biggest companies in America to fix glitches in their systems. She had such specialized knowledge and expertise that she was able to call her own shots: She wore jeans to even the swankiest workplaces, she worked with her iPod blaring Bruce Springsteen at top decibel, she ate lunches of tuna fish sandwiches and creamy tomato-basil soup from Panera and, in cities where there was no Panera, from Cosi. She demanded an astronomical fee.
"Where are you today?" Birdie asked. Technically, Tate lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, a place that Birdie didn't understand. It was a "new" city, known as a banking capital. Charlotte was the first place Tate had worked on assignment, and she had spontaneously plunked down money on a condo in a complex that had a beautiful swimming pool and a state-of-the-art fitness center.
Why Charlotte? Birdie had asked.
And Tate said, Because it was there.
There had been a period of time in junior high school when Tate had dressed like a boy. She had worn jeans and a boy's white undershirt and a red bandanna wrapped around her wrist or her ankle; she had cut her hair very short, spiking it some days and slicking it back on others. She even sounded like a teenage boy; she was constantly making flip remarks. She had been caught engraving the lyrics to "Darlington County" into a desk at school, and when asked why, she had shrugged and said, Because it was there. Birdie had wanted Tate to see a therapist, but the guidance counselors at school assured Birdie that Tate was experiencing a phase and it would pass. It had passed, but the teenage boy lived on in Tate. She was still fanatical about Bruce Springsteen, and about computers, and about NFL football. She had bought her first piece of real estate in a city where she knew no one "because it was there."
"I'm in Seattle," Tate said.
"Microsoft has computer problems?" Birdie said.
"I'm at a conference," Tate said.
"What did Chess tell you?" Birdie said.
"The same things she told you, I'm sure," Tate said. "She changed her mind. She doesn't want to marry Michael." Tate paused. "And she said you were completely cool about it. Not a freakazoid at all."
Birdie fought a sense of disquiet. She didn't love the idea of Chess and Tate discussing her, though of course Birdie and her sister, India, had parsed and deconstructed their own mother from the time they were conversant, at ages three and five.
"Did she say if anything had happened?" Birdie said.
"Did anything precipitate her decision? Or it all just came out of thin air?"
"Out of thin air, I guess," Tate said.
"Okay," Birdie said. "Because Michael thinks there's something else going on. Something Chess might not be willing to tell him. Or her mother. Like maybe she's met someone else?"
"She didn't mention anyone else," Tate said. "But we're talking about Chess. I'm sure she has men hounding her day and night. I'm sure she has men following her home from the subway like stray dogs, trying to sniff up her skirt."
Birdie sighed. "Really, Tate, must you be crude?"
"I must," Tate said. She paused. "So… what about Tuckernuck?"
"Oh," Birdie said. She had forgotten about Tuckernuck. "What about it?"
"Chess said that you two are going, and I want to come, too," Tate said. "I want to stay two weeks like we used to. Can we? Chess said she would."
Birdie was caught off-guard. Amazing, at the age of fifty-seven, that she could still feel so many surprising emotions at once. Both girls on Tuckernuck for two weeks? It was an embarrassment of riches; it was a lavish gift, one Birdie never would have dared wish for. And yet the motivating factor behind this trip had been for Birdie and Chess to spend quality time alone together. Now that Chess wasn't marrying Michael Morgan, Birdie supposed the need for one-on-one time with her daughter was less pressing. And the trip to Tuckernuck would be more fun with Tate along. Birdie decided to let herself be happy. She would have both of her girls on Tuckernuck for two whole weeks!
"Can you swing it?" Birdie said. "What about work?"
"I am my own boss," Tate said. "Two weeks is nothing. I could take the whole month off if I wanted to."
"You're sure you want to come?" Birdie knew that both her girls loved Tuckernuck as much as she did. But they were adults now, with responsibilities. There was no Internet on Tuckernuck, no TV, and very poor cell phone reception.
"God, yes!" Tate said. "Of course I want to come. The house is still a total dump, right? I think about it all the time. The cobwebs? The bats? The stars at night, bonfires on the beach. And the Scout? I love that vehicle."
"I spoke to Barrett Lee," Birdie said. "Do you remember Chuck's son, Barrett? He's taken over the caretaking business."
"Do I remember Barrett Lee? Yes, I remember him. He was the object of my private fantasies until Clooney and Pitt did Ocean's Eleven."
Birdie said, "Was it you, then, who went on a date with him? The lunch date, in the boat?"
"No, he took me fishing. He took Chess on the picnic. Good old Mary Francesca scored a date with my fantasy man, then proceeded to drink a six-pack of beer, get seasick, and upchuck her ham sandwich off the stern."
"Really?" Birdie said. She knew there had been a date, but she'd had no clue what transpired.
"Classic Chess, right? The woman gets whatever she wants and then ruins it. That's her modus operandi, present situation included."
"Well, Barrett is fixing up the house. He's reshingling it and repairing the roof. Buying a new generator. Refinishing the floors in the attic, and painting all the trim, I guess. I'll buy new linens and towels. Perhaps a few pots and pans so we don't get Alzheimer's from the corroded aluminum…"
"Don't bring too much," Tate said. "The whole point—"
"I know the point," Birdie said. "I invented the point." This wasn't exactly true; her grandparents had invented the point and her parents had refined it. The point was to live simply. "So we'll go, then, the three of us, for two weeks?"
"I can't wait," Tate said.
Thus followed a second conversation with Barrett Lee.
"Chess and I will be coming for two weeks instead of one," Birdie said. "And my other daughter, Tate, will be joining us."
"Swell," Barrett said. "It'll be nice to see everybody again."
Birdie said, "The reason for the switch is that Chess's engagement was canceled. The wedding is off."
"Ouch," Barrett said.
"It was Chess's doing," Birdie said. "She wasn't ready."
"She's still really young," he said. Then he cleared his throat. "And Mrs. Cousins? I sent you a bill. It's for twenty-four thousand dollars."
"You got the check I sent you? For ten?" The ten thousand had come out of Birdie's personal savings account. She had not wanted to ask Grant for the money until she knew what the total would be.
"Yes, ma'am, thank you. This bill is for twenty-four beyond that. The house needed a lot of work, the generator alone was eight grand, and I hate to say this, but I think it's going to be ten to twelve grand more, at least."
Birdie calculated. Fifty thousand dollars fixing up the Tuckernuck house. Birdie tried not to panic. Tuckernuck was her ancestral summer home; it had been left to her by her parents and someday would go to her children. But Grant, most certainly, would never set foot on Tuckernuck again. So why would he shell out fifty grand for upkeep and improvements? Would the kids' interest be enough for him? Birdie would have to grovel for it. It wasn't fair: Thirty years Birdie had supported Grant, and hence, the divorce lawyer reminded her, she was entitled to half of what Grant had earned during that period. Grant had earned millions. Fifty thousand dollars was negligible. It was a sneeze.
Furthermore, in the past two weeks, Birdie had recouped 75 percent of Grant's deposits from the wedding. She had pleaded and begged, negotiated—and, in one instance, cried—on behalf of Grant's money. She would remind him of this.
"Fine, Barrett, no problem," Birdie said. "The house needs a roof, it needs walls, it needs electricity. Thank you for all your hard work."
"My pleasure," Barrett said. "And hey, I'm sorry about Chess's wedding falling through."
"It's for the best," Birdie said, for what felt like the thousandth time.
The last conversation, one Birdie was dreading and had practically talked herself into believing was unnecessary, was with Evelyn Morgan, Michael's mother. Birdie had never met Evelyn Morgan, half of the aggressively branded couple Cy and Evelyn Morgan, but Birdie knew through Chess that Evelyn was a hurricane. She was not only the managing partner of a behemoth Madison Avenue advertising agency, but she was also on the board of directors at Bergen Hospice, an elder at the Presbyterian church, and president of the Fairhills Country Club. She was a tireless power walker and she read six newspapers a day. She had two sons—Michael and his younger brother, Nick—and a daughter, Dora. Evelyn Morgan was perpetually moving at amphetamine-rocket speed—wheeling, dealing, exercising, overseeing, singing, and dancing.
Birdie had sensed this from Evelyn's manic and overdetailed e-mails regarding the rehearsal dinner, which was to have been held at Zo, the hottest new restaurant in the Flatiron District. It was to be caipirinhas and Brazilian tapas for all out-of-town guests; Evelyn had hired a samba band with a transsexual lead singer. We could have had the dinner at our country club, Evelyn wrote. But really, how dull—sauced tenderloin, martinis, sprinklers dousing the eighth green in the sunset. Certainly the kids would rather be in the city!
All plans in the city were now off; the rehearsal dinner had been thrown in the recycling bin along with everything else. Chess and Evelyn had gotten along famously; they were better friends, Birdie had to admit, than Chess and Birdie were. They met for lunch on the seventh floor of Bergdorf's, they walked in Central Park after work, they cruised art galleries downtown in search of paintings for the apartment that Chess and Michael would inhabit after the wedding. But Chess hadn't spoken to Evelyn in person about the breakup. Calling Evelyn Morgan was one more thing that Chess should have done but refused to do. And so, it fell to Birdie.
Birdie wasn't sure how she envisioned the one and only phone call between her and the woman who would not become Chess's mother-in-law; she thought maybe she and Evelyn would commiserate a little, express regrets that they would not be grandmothering the same future children. But what niggled at Birdie was the thought that she might be expected to apologize to Evelyn. Her daughter had hurt Evelyn's son. How was this call any different from the call Birdie had had to make to Helen Avery when Tate pushed Gwennie Avery from the top of the slide and Gwennie Avery broke her arm?
Birdie tackled the call at the civilized hour of ten o'clock on Saturday morning. Birdie had a hair appointment at eleven, followed by a manicure, a pedicure, and a massage. She had a date with Hank at six that evening. Her day would be so, so pleasant once she got this phone call over with.
She dialed the number at the kitchen counter and then stared into her fruit bowl at the pineapple, the lemons, the Granny Smith apples.
Evelyn picked up on the first ring. "I was wondering if you'd have the guts to call," she said.
"Hello?" Birdie said.
"I've been wondering if you, Birdie Cousins, mother of Mary Francesca Cousins, would have the guts to call me, Evelyn Morgan, mother of the heartbroken, yet admittedly overprotected, Michael Kevin Morgan."
Was the woman drunk? Her voice was loud and theatrical, as though she were speaking not only to Birdie but to an audience of people that Birdie couldn't see.
"I have the guts," Birdie confirmed. "I'm calling."
"You are a better woman than I," Evelyn sang out. "In a similar position, I would have found a way to talk myself out of calling."
Birdie sighed. "I'm sorry, Evelyn."
"You have no reason to be sorry," Evelyn said. "You did nothing wrong."
"Chess is sorry, too," Birdie said.
"If she's really sorry, she would call me herself and tell me so," Evelyn said. "I've left the girl God knows how many messages. I even called her at work, and they told me she's no longer accepting personal calls."
"If it makes you feel any better, she won't take my calls either," Birdie said.
"I just don't get it," Evelyn said. "This came out of nowhere. I was there when Michael proposed. You've never seen a girl so happy. And that's why I'd like to talk to her. I'd like to find out what happened."
"I don't think anything happened," Birdie said. "She just changed her mind."
There was a pause on Evelyn's end, and Birdie wondered if her last comment had been too glib: Chess broke Michael's heart because she changed her mind? Was Chess that flighty? That insensitive?
When Evelyn spoke again, her voice took on a normal timbre. "Chess feels how she feels, there is no right or wrong. We can't make her marry him. She has to want it. I applaud her for being brave enough to speak up."
"I do," Evelyn said.
"How is Michael?"
"He's devastated. He's not eating, not taking care of himself. He works all the time because when he's working, he doesn't have time to think, and as I'm sure you know, it's thinking that hurts. He does have a trip planned. He's going rock climbing with his brother in Moab over Memorial Day."
"That'll be good for him."
"He'll survive," Evelyn said. "But he's lost something. All of the Morgans have. Chess is a wonderful girl. I love her like my own. We're the ones missing out."
"You're sweet to say so," Birdie said. She was shocked to find that she liked Evelyn Morgan. Birdie might have enjoyed a life tethered to this other woman, as they lived their lives on either side of the reflecting pond that was New York City.
"It was good of you to call," Evelyn said. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Birdie said. She didn't want the conversation to end. She might never speak to this woman again. "I just thought—"
"You thought correctly," Evelyn said. "And please encourage Chess to call me when she's ready. I'd like to talk to her."
"I will," Birdie said. "Good-bye."
On the twentieth of May, which happened to be Birdie and Grant's ex-anniversary, Chess called to say she had quit her job at Glamorous Home. From the background noise of traffic and sirens, Birdie could tell Chess was calling from the street. Birdie was dumbfounded.
"So you quit quit?" Birdie said. "You walked out?"
"I walked out," Chess said. "We just put the July issue to bed and I thought, That's that."
Birdie wondered what was going on here. Was the fact that her elder daughter had marched out on two major commitments in a row—seemingly without planning or forethought—a sign of encroaching mental illness?
"I can't believe it," Birdie said. "You've been there so long."
"Eight years," Chess said.
She had been at the magazine for eight years; she had been named food editor a month shy of her thirtieth birthday. Birdie had been so proud. Her daughter was a prodigy; she was the Yo-Yo Ma of food magazines. One day she would be the magazine's creative director or editor in chief. But now a sideways move might not even be possible. If Birdie understood her, she had walked out without giving two weeks' notice.
A prevalent worry of Birdie's since the children were small was that her kids would suffer from their privilege rather than benefit from it. This worry surfaced now: Breaking her engagement and then quitting her job? What did Chess plan to do for money? Ask her father? (Internally, Birdie cringed. This was, of course, what she did when she needed money.)
Birdie longed to call Hank to ask his opinion. She had continued to see Hank every weekend, and often he spent the night. He was the warmest, kindest, most evolved man Birdie had ever met. He not only brought Birdie flowers but spent two hours on his knees in her garden helping her weed. He took her to see Jersey Boys and then they drank champagne and shared french fries from a paper cone at Bar Americain. Hank serenaded her all the way home, and then he carried her upstairs to bed like a bride. Another weekend they had wandered around Greenwich Village and he had encouraged Birdie to enter clothing boutiques meant for women twenty years younger and try on clothes. It had been something of an erotic fashion show, with Hank occasionally peeking at her over the top of the dressing room door. Birdie didn't want to weigh down her relationship with Hank with her concerns about Chess. She didn't want him to think Chess was a complete mess. Chess was her marquis, gold-standard daughter. She would leave her job at Glamorous Home only after securing a more fabulous job at Bon Appétit or Food and Wine. But she had called from the street. Was she a complete mess?
"What are you going to do?" Birdie asked Chess now. "Do you have anything lined up?"
"No," Chess said. Her voice was so indifferent that Birdie wondered if this was really her daughter. Maybe this was some kind of prank? "I'm thinking of traveling."
"Traveling?" Birdie said. "What does that mean?"
"I'm thinking about India," Chess said. "Or maybe Nepal."
"India?" Birdie said. She was trying not to become hysterical. "Nepal?"
"Listen, Bird, can we talk about all this when I get home?"
"Home?" Birdie said.
"I've sublet my apartment for the summer. I'm coming home to you next weekend."
"Next weekend" was Memorial Day, and Birdie had plans to go to the North Fork of Long Island with Hank. Reluctantly, she canceled. She said to Hank, "Chess has quit her job and sublet her apartment, and she's coming home. And I should be there for her. I'm her mother."
Hank said, "Do you want to talk about it?"
Birdie thought for a second. Hank had handled Chess's broken engagement artfully, convincing Birdie that if Chess was no longer in love with Michael, then breaking the engagement was the only decent and humane thing to do. He might be able to make sense of these new developments. But Birdie held back. "No," she said. "I don't think so."
"Okay, well then, we'll go to the North Fork another weekend. I promise. Now go take care of your little girl."
Birdie changed the sheets in Chess's room and put roses in a vase by her bed. She made Tuscan lemon chicken, Chess's favorite dinner, for Friday night. Birdie had half a mind to plan a barbecue for Sunday afternoon, inviting some of Chess's high school friends, but thought better of it. And how wise! Chess, when she arrived, looked, not like a beautiful thirty-two-year-old newly liberated from fiancé and high-powered job, but wan and puffy eyed and painfully thin. Her long blond hair was greasy and tangled; her shoulders were hunched. She wore a ratty T-shirt featuring the logo of the band Diplomatic Immunity, and a pair of surplus army shorts. She hadn't bothered with makeup or jewelry; the holes in her pierced ears were red and swollen. She looked like a homeless person.
Drugs, Birdie thought. Or a cult. India? Nepal?
Chess pulled her cell phone out of her incongruously elegant Coach purse and dropped it into Birdie's kitchen trash. "I am done with phone calls," she said. "I am done with e-mails and done with texting. I don't want to talk to Michael or to anyone else about Michael. I don't want to talk to anyone from work about why I left or where I'm going. I am all done talking. Okay?" She looked to Birdie as if for permission, and her eyes filled with tears. "I'm just really confused, Bird. The way this has all played out… the things that have happened… honestly? I'm done with other people. I want to be a hermit and live in a cave."
"What's wrong?" Birdie asked. "What ‘things' have happened?"
"Are you not listening?" Chess said. "I don't want to talk about it."
Birdie, not knowing what else to do, poured Chess a glass of Sancerre and led her to the picnic table, which was set for two overlooking the garden. (Would it make Chess uncomfortable to gaze at the acreage where her wedding reception was to have taken place? Probably, but what could Birdie do? It was her backyard.) She plied Chess with Tuscan lemon chicken and a gratin of potatoes and fennel, and haricots verts sautéed with garlic, and rolls and butter. And a wedge of rhubarb pie for dessert. Under Birdie's hawklike gaze, Chess ate four bites of chicken, one green bean, a bite of roll, and two bites of pie. She didn't want to talk, and Birdie—despite four or five really important topics hovering over the table like hummingbirds—wouldn't make her.
After dinner, Birdie rescued Chess's phone from the trash can. She checked the display—fourteen new messages. Birdie was tempted to see who the messages were from. What kind of "things" had happened? Birdie supposed her curiosity was natural, but she was determined to shine as a mother, which meant respecting Chess's privacy. She wiped the phone off and set it on the counter next to the house phone.
Upstairs, she drew her daughter a lavender-scented bath in the claw-foot tub and turned up Pachelbel's Canon. She laid a fresh white eyelet nightgown on Chess's bed. She set a copy of her reading group's latest selection on the night table.
Before retiring to her own room that night, Birdie peeked in on Chess, after knocking lightly and waiting to be invited in. She was happy to find Chess tucked between the crisp linens, reading. The light was soft; the roses by the bed were fragrant.
Chess looked up. "Thanks for everything, Birdie."
Birdie nodded. It was what she did, it was who she was: a mother. Chess was home. She was safe.
Which was a good thing, because three days hence, on Monday, Memorial Day, the call came saying that Michael Morgan was dead.
He fell a hundred feet while rock climbing in Moab. He broke his neck and died instantly.
This was crisis. This was hysteria. Upon hearing the news—from Michael's brother over the phone—Chess screamed like she was being stabbed. Birdie rushed into Chess's bedroom, where Chess was sitting on the floor in her wet bikini. (Chess and Birdie had spent the majority of the weekend at the country club pool, picking at club sandwiches and hiding from acquaintances behind copies of Vogue.) Birdie said, "Chess, what is it?" And Chess put the phone down and looked at Birdie and said, "He's dead, Mommy! He's dead!"
For one stricken second, Birdie thought she was talking about Grant. She thought, Grant is dead, and felt a vertigo that nearly pulled her to the floor as well. The children had lost their father; she was all they had left, and she had to be strong. But how could she be strong when Grant was dead? Birdie wasn't quite sure what led her to understand that it was Michael Morgan who had died and not Grant. It was something Chess said over the phone to Nick, or perhaps the fact that it was Nick on the phone clued Birdie in. Birdie got the story straight: Michael and Nick had been rock climbing in Moab. Everything had been fine; the rock climbing had been going well. They had good weather, perfect conditions. On Monday morning, Michael had arisen at dawn and gone for a climb by himself in Labyrinth Canyon. He had not been harnessed properly; he had lost his footing and fallen. A park ranger found him.
The funeral would be Friday at the Presbyterian church in Bergen County.
Birdie didn't know what to do. She called Hank, but he was on his way to Brewster with his children to see Caroline at the facility and couldn't be interrupted. She called Grant and was shuttled to his voice mail, which meant he was golfing. (Of course: Grant golfed every Memorial Day.) Birdie called their family physician, Burt Cantor, at home. Burt, too, was golfing, but his wife, Adrienne, was a nurse practitioner and she called in a prescription for Ativan to the pharmacy. Chess was screaming deep into her pillow, she was wheezing and hiccuping, and Birdie sat on the bed next to her, put a hand on her back, and felt as useless as she ever had in her life. She thought: if Chess was this upset now, how upset would she have been if Michael Morgan were still her intended? Or maybe this was worse somehow; Birdie didn't know.
Tears flooded Birdie's own eyes as she thought of Evelyn Morgan. What kind of hell must she be experiencing right now? To lose a child. To lose her big, handsome, smart, talented, charming, athletic firstborn—who would only have been a little boy in Evelyn's mind. Birdie rubbed Chess's back and smoothed her pretty hair, which was stiff with chlorine from the pool. It was the world's greatest privilege to be a mother. But God knows, it was a punishment as well.
Birdie said, "Adrienne Cantor called in a sedative. I'm going to run to Fenwick's and get it."
Chess raised her head. Her face was melting. She was trying to speak, but the words were gibberish. Birdie shushed her and handed her a tissue. Chess blew out a faceful of snot and said, "This is my fault."
"No, Chess, it isn't." She reached for Chess and rocked her. "Honey, it isn't. He fell. It was an accident."
"But there are things you don't know."
"We can talk about it if you want to. We can look at it sixteen different ways, and in none of those ways will this be your fault."
Chess buried her head under the pillow. She was moaning.
"Okay," Birdie said, and she stood up. Was it safe to leave her? She needed a pill, that was for sure. "I'll be right back."