Authors: Jodi Picoult,Jennifer Finney Boylan
“I’m sorry if I—” I’m not sure how to say this. “If I took him away from you?”
Maya blinks at me. “Lily.” She laughs. “We were never a thing.”
I want to ask her if that was his choice or hers or what
because it’s still not clear to me if Maya is gay, or ace, or what. But when I asked her about this before, she changed the subject. Asher says he’s never known her to have a crush on anybody. My guess is, Maya’s waiting for someone, and he or she or they haven’t yet arrived on the scene.
Boris moans, a ghost in a haunted house. “One more time?” Maya says. “And maybe more legato after measure twenty, you know: the high part?”
I nod. “Got it.”
She counts it off. “One, two, three—”
“Maya.” She lowers her instrument, frustrated. “Can I ask you something?”
talking about Asher?”
“No,” I say. “I mean, yes.” I let the end of my bow touch the floor. “Can I ask you about…Asher’s dad?”
“Ah,” says Maya. “The mysterious Braden. You meet him and think, What a nice man! What a charmer! But he’s not a nice man, Lily. He’s just figured out how to imitate one.”
“Does Asher know all that?”
Maya shrugs. “He knows
think that. But he keeps on having those Saturday breakfasts every month in spite of it.”
“You know about the Saturday breakfasts?”
Maya nods, like
she knows about the Saturday breakfasts. “I think Asher feels like his father is this broken thing he has to fix.”
“He wants—to fix his father?”
“He wants to fix himself.”
It hurts me physically, like a stab to the chest, to think that Asher would believe he is lacking in any way. Even if it is how I thought of myself until only weeks ago.
“Let’s say that, hypothetically, Asher decided to surprise his father’s family, in the middle of a big family dinner. Just show up at his father’s house and march in there so the new wife and the kids have to look him in the eye—”
“Wait, what?” says Maya, and for once I have surprised her. “This is real?”
I think about what I’ve told Asher, and what I haven’t. I think about how, if trust is a seed, you give it to someone believing that they will not crush it beneath the heel of their boot. Asher confided in me, and not Maya, for a reason.
“I said hypothetically,” I answer.
Maya narrows her eyes on my face. “Well, I hope you hypothetically told him it was a stupid idea.”
“I’m not an idiot,” I reply, and I lift my bow.
THREE DAYS LATER,
I’m hearing the Bozza duet in my head as Asher and I make the drive. Brown leaves by the side of the road swirl around as the Jeep rushes past.
A muscle in Asher’s jaw clenches and unclenches. I cover his hand with mine on the stick shift. I want to tell him
You don’t have to do this
. But I’m not sure that’s true. I think he does.
I didn’t play the Bozza for my audition piece at Oberlin last July, but I did play the Saint-Saëns’s First Cello Concerto. Badly. There were three people on the committee—a Black woman with gray hair, a young Asian woman with big glasses, and this old white dude with Benjamin Franklin–style half-glasses who scowled at me the whole time like he’d just stepped in dog shit. He had this intense stare, so intense I couldn’t stop sneaking these little glances at him, and every time I looked up at him he looked angrier. I started shaking. By the time I got to the
I actually dropped my bow. I can still hear the sound of it hitting the floor. It was the sound of my future disappearing in a single second.
I figured that was it, and I might as well wave goodbye to the committee, but the woman with the gray hair picked my bow up for
me, put it in my hand, and said, “Ms. Campanello, pretend you’re playing for your friends.” Which was one of the most generous things anyone has ever said to me.
It didn’t stop the Ben Franklin guy from scowling, though. Then the woman with the glasses said, “Start over from the top. You can consider that your mulligan.”
There’s that word again.
Maybe it’s because I figured I didn’t have anything left to lose, but the second time
I nailed it.
I played the hell out of that thing. When I finished, the women applauded. Even Angry Ben Franklin nodded. A few minutes later, my cello was back in the hard case and I was wheeling it out to the car, where Mom was waiting with Boris.
“How’d it go?” she asked, and I wondered if I should tell her about the first time or the second. The second, I decided. Because it had erased the first.
Asher turns onto an unmarked dirt road. His father lives in the far suburbs of Boston near absolutely nothing, from the looks of it. “How much further?” I ask.
He glances down at the GPS. “Three miles.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Jumpy,” he says.
“You know,” I say. “There’s still time for Plan B. We can go back, see how your mom’s doing.”
“Oh, she’s using the time to scrape propolis off her old frames,” Asher says. “She’s actually
to not have to be cooking all day. Don’t worry about Mom.”
I look out the window into the dark forest—pine trees and birches and oak. “It’s not your mom I’m worried about.”
Asher has to slow down because this dirt road has so many potholes and bumps in it. On the GPS map there’s a checkered flag now, showing the location of the house. It sits on the bank of a body of water called Cold Pond.
He glances over at me, catches the worried look on my face. “Lily,” he says. “This is going to be fine. I promise.”
But I can’t tell whether he really believes this, or if he’s just trying to convince himself.
“You believe your mom, don’t you?” I say. I know this sounds harsh, but there’s no way to sugarcoat it. “About what he did to her.”
“I do,” he says, but there’s a tone in his voice like
“It’s what happened to her,” he says. “Not what happened to me.”
happen to you, too. Didn’t it?”
“If he ever did anything to me,” he blurts out, “I don’t remember it. I barely remember him hurting
“That’s not an excuse—”
He turns to me. “Do you believe people can change?”
All the breath in my body goes solid. “Yes,” I finally say.
“Okay, then,” he says, his shoulders relaxing. “I believe that the relationship between him and my mother was toxic. And yeah, it was his fault. But it’s been
. They’ve been apart longer than they were married. My mother decided I don’t get to have a relationship with him, because she thinks she’s protecting me. But that was never between him and me; it was between him and
. It’s not fair that I have to be on my own.”
“You’re not on your own,” I tell him. “You have your mom. You have me.”
“I know,” he says, quietly. “But it’s different. Not having a father. Even a fucked-up one.” He looks at me as if he could will me to understand. “Don’t you ever wish your dad was alive?”
“Not if he was an evil
” I say, a little too quickly.
There’s a long pause. “What did he die from?” he asks. “Your father?”
“He was in a car wreck,” I tell him quietly. “He was drunk.”
“Oh, Jesus,” says Asher, and he jams on the brakes. We are at a dead stop, on a dirt road, in the middle of a thick forest. He puts the car in park. “I’m so sorry,” he says, and he leans forward to put his arms around me. “I’m really sorry, Lily.”
But now I feel terrible about lying to Asher, even if it was strangely
satisfying to fictionally kill my father off. “Actually.” I pull back from the hug. “There’s…something else about him. I should have told you before.”
Asher’s eyes darken, until they are the same shade as the boughs that surround us. “Tell me,” he says.
But how can I? When I’ve only just gotten Asher back? “I don’t know how,” I say, my voice small.
For a while we sit there in silence. “Okay,” Asher says, finally. “That’s okay, too. Whenever you’re ready.”
I reach for his hand again, stroke my thumb over the knuckles. “One daddy at a time,” I say, and Asher lifts my palm and kisses the center, folding my fingers around it, as if I could hold on to this promise.
He shifts the car into gear, and we move forward again. And then, suddenly, there it is: a huge post-and-beam house with a wraparound porch. There are racks with canoes down by the water, and puzzle pieces of what I guess must be a dock, disassembled for winter.
Through the windows, I see people moving around inside. It makes me think of Olivia lifting the top off a hive, of the bees who bustle around, completely ignoring her.
Asher turns off the engine. “Let’s do this,” he says, and I see that muscle in his jaw pulsing again.
He gives me a sad smile. “As ready as I’m gonna be.” We climb out and close the doors of the Jeep. Then we start walking.
The picture windows of Braden Fields’s house glow golden. There must be a fire in a fireplace I can’t quite see, too, because the light shines and flickers. As people move through the light, their shadows play against the walls. There’s a long table in one room, and some candlesticks, and a chandelier that hangs down over that. Two little boys are setting the table—they must be Shawn and Shane, the horse thieves. There’s an Irish setter wagging his tail. A woman comes in behind them—rosy cheeks, a little plump—Margot. She looks nothing like Olivia, and I am not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing. I realize I am scanning her for bruises.
She looks happy.
Asher has been watching this scene, too, and as we’ve drawn closer his steps have come more and more slowly, until now, nearly at the threshold, he’s frozen. Until this second, this other family of his father’s was just an idea. But now they’re real: Margot, two little boys, a dog. As we stand in the shadows, peering in, Braden walks into the room. Margot pivots, and we cannot see her face anymore.
So softly I can barely hear it, Asher breathes, then says, “Turn around.”
I do, but he’s not talking to me. He’s staring at the family in front of him.
“Fuck this.” Asher huffs. He strides back to the Jeep, and I have to run to keep up. Before I even get the door closed Asher starts up the car and pulls it into reverse. I twist around to look at the house as we drive off. I can see Braden and Margot and the boys squinting through the picture window into the darkness at the sound of the Jeep peeling away.
Margot and Shawn and Shane look uncertain, as if they’ve been asked a question they don’t know the answer to. But Braden has a different expression entirely. His face is all planes and angles, sharp as a knife, as if he knows exactly who drove up to his door, and just why we came.
ON THE WAY
back from Asher’s father’s house, here are the things we discuss:
Whether the Bruins will make the playoffs.
Whether a yam is a sweet potato and why anyone would make a pie with either of them.
Which president was the first to pardon a turkey (John F. Kennedy).
That the land North Adams sits on actually belongs to the Wabanaki.
That there should be reparations for indigenous people
That Black Friday is the busiest day of the year for plumbers, which doesn’t say much about the talents of those who make Thanksgiving dinner.
Here is what we do not discuss:
What happened at Asher’s father’s house.
OUR DINNER THAT
night winds up being a bucket of KFC in the tree house. There are drumsticks and breasts and wings and little tubs of mashed potatoes and a carton of brown gravy. We sneak past the house, so Olivia won’t hear us. We are getting gifted, I realize, at dodging parents.
“What are you thankful for?” Asher asks me, gnawing a drumstick.
“What am I what?”
“Thankful for. Didn’t your family ever go around the table, everybody saying what they’re thankful for?”
“Our Thanksgivings were pretty laid back.” I lean forward and kiss him, hard. “But I’m totally grateful for this
Asher smiles. “Dirk has a whole theory about girls, comparing them to different kinds of KFC chicken.”
“Of course he does.”
“He says there are only three kinds of women—Original Recipe, Extra Crispy, and Nashville Hot wings.”
I shake my head. “Fucking Dirk.”
“I know,” says Asher.
I look up from the mashed potatoes. “So? Which one am I?”
Asher thinks it over. “Extra Crispy, I guess.”
“What about Maya?”
He wrinkles his nose. “Maya’s not chicken.”
“I know, I know…” He grins. “Original Recipe, actually. Maya’s definitely Original Recipe.”
I look up at her initials on a rafter. I think about how she warned me against going to Braden’s.
Asher puts his chicken bone atop the small pile we’ve amassed. It looks like a tiny potter’s field, a mass grave. I wonder if Asher, too, is thinking about where things go when they die, because he says, softly, “I’m going to tell him I don’t want to meet for breakfast again.”
I wait, because I know there’s more.
“I just…” He shakes his head. “I can’t, now. Now that I’ve seen him…there.” Asher looks up at me. “Even that one Saturday a month, he doesn’t belong to me.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
He shrugs. “It wasn’t like I expected. They all looked so…happy.”
“And that’s a bad thing?”
“Yes. I mean, I don’t know. It all seemed so
” Asher says. “All I could think was that my mother probably looked happy, too, when she lived with him, even though she wasn’t.” He takes a deep breath. “I wanted to see her face. Margot’s. When he came into the room, I mean. I wanted to know if there was something dead in her eyes, or if she was smiling too hard. If everything was perfect between them…or if she had to make it look that way, because of who he is.” A shudder runs down the length of him. “I wanted to know if she looks like my mother does, when she talks about him.”