28 Summers: The gripping, emotional page turner of summer 2020 by 'the Queen of the Summer Novel' (People) (27 page)

BOOK: 28 Summers: The gripping, emotional page turner of summer 2020 by 'the Queen of the Summer Novel' (People)
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What are we talking about in 2005? Hurricane Katrina; Brad and Jen; YouTube; Terri Schiavo; John Roberts; the White Sox; Scooter Libby and Valerie Plame; Alinea; Xbox 360; Carrie Underwood; Marilynne Robinson; Russell Crowe; Jude Law; the New Orleans Saints; Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell, McNulty, and Bunk; “I wish I knew how to quit you.”

  

L
eland Gladstone and Fiella Roget have been together for ten years. They’re a fixture in the New York literary scene and get invited to twenty events per week: gallery openings, readings, author luncheons, secret high-stakes poker games, and midnight raves at the hottest clubs on Twelfth Avenue. They are their generation’s Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, only biracial and far, far better dressed.

Fifi is a professor in the MFA program at Columbia, a job that requires her to teach one workshop per semester in exchange for a generous salary. This leaves her long stretches to work on her new novel, which she’s having a hard time birthing. Her first two novels dealt with her childhood and adolescence in Haiti, and now Fifi is writing a novel set in the United States, but it feels wobbly and predictable. She tries not to let the novel shackle her. The inspiration comes when it comes, and her editor understands this; Fifi just wishes people would stop asking her when they can expect it. Leland knows enough not to mention the novel at all, though Fifi recently overheard Leland telling the cleaning ladies not to bother with Fifi’s office.
She hasn’t been in there in weeks.

Fifi is invited to do paid speaking events across the country, and in the spring of 2005, she accepts an offer from the department of women’s studies at Harvard. Fifi decides to make a trip of it—maybe two nights, maybe three. She likes Boston. It’s charming and old-fashioned with its proper Puritan aesthetic. Boston doesn’t have a dirty mind the way New York does.

“I can maybe do two nights,” Leland says when Fifi shares her plans. “But I definitely cannot swing three.”

“I think I’d like to go alone,” Fifi says. “We each could probably use some space.”

Fifi can see Leland wavering between a bitter response and an offended one. Fifi finds both tiresome. She believes every relationship needs a little air, but Leland sees things differently. Over the past few years, she has developed the tendency to smother. She likes to travel
everywhere
with Fifi and make connections for
Bard and Scribe,
where she is now editor in chief and which is now failing because everyone is on the internet. Fifi used to be fine with Leland’s constant companionship, but now the phrase
riding her coattails
comes to mind.

If Fifi was second-guessing her decision to go alone, she stops doing so the instant she checks into Fifteen Beacon, orders up some room service, and draws herself a bath. Because she grew up with so little, five-star hotel rooms still strike her as an unfathomable luxury—the delicious linens, the fine, heavy pens and creamy stationery, the waffled robes hanging in the closet. Here at Fifteen Beacon, Fifi’s room has a gas fireplace and two deep leather chairs. Someone has sent up a fruit and cheese plate—the front-desk clerk, Pamela, it turns out! She’s a big fan of
Shimmy Shimmy
.

The greatest luxury of the room is the solitude. Fifi pulls out her manuscript and starts revising. She works until five minutes before she has to leave, at which point she slips her dress over her head and goes down to the lobby. A car is waiting to take her to the Brattle Theatre.

  

Long relationships have peaks and valleys, and Fifi has every right to some time to herself. What happens next, however, is more difficult to explain.

The day after she speaks at the Brattle is a beautiful spring day. Fifi can shop on Newbury Street, stroll through the Public Garden, even sit on the rooftop at Fifteen Beacon and continue her revisions. But instead, she calls the car service and asks to be delivered to the ferry dock in Hyannis. She’s going to Nantucket.

She calls Mallory in advance (she’s impulsive but not rude) and catches her between her first and second classes.

Thinking about coming to the island overnight; I can probably make it in time for your last class if you’d like me to stop in?

Are you kidding me?
Mallory says.
My last class is my senior creative-writing seminar. We read
Shimmy Shimmy
last month. The kids devoured it. I told them we were friends but I don’t think they believed me.

We’ll show
them, Fifi says.
I’m on my way.

  

Fifi won’t tell Leland about her change of plans. She knows she should…but she doesn’t want to deal with the inevitable static.
Mallory is
my
friend, not your friend.
(Oh, but who is the person who insists they share everything—the apartment, the parking spot in the Bleecker Street garage, the Peugeot that occupies that parking spot? Yes, that’s right, Leland.) Fifi wants to go to Nantucket and see Mallory on her own terms. But why? Is she doing it to piss Leland off?

That may be part of it.

But there’s something else as well. Fifi
likes
Mallory. She’s smart and fun and…normal. She’s Leland minus the drama. She’s pleasant to look at, though her beauty is quiet, natural—the golden tan, the sun-bleached hair, the ocean-colored eyes. Fifi’s writerly instincts tell her that with Mallory, still waters run deep. Something is going on with her, maybe. Or maybe not.

Fifi and Leland visited Mallory the summer before. They stayed at the Wauwinet Inn for the sake of everyone’s privacy but they had dinner at Mallory’s cottage. The little boy, her son, was spending time with his father in Vermont, so Mallory had the carefree attitude of a teenager whose parents were away. After dinner, Mallory took Fifi and Leland to the piano bar at the Club Car. It was a cramped, narrow, dimly lit space filled with joyful people singing their drunken little hearts out. Mallory knew Brian, the piano player; she sat down next to him on the bench and turned the pages of his sheet music while everyone gathered around to sing “Hotel California” and “Sweet Caroline,” then threw money into a glass jar. Leland had the nicest voice of the three of them but she was the one who had wanted to leave. It was as Fifi followed an impatient Leland out of the Club Car that she’d thought,
This would be much more fun without her.

  

So, now.

Fifi spends less than twenty-four hours on Nantucket, but her time there is transformative for two reasons. The first is Mallory’s creative-writing seminar. Fifi and Mallory arrive at the door of the classroom seconds after the bell has rung; the twelve kids are already seated in a circle and have their notebooks out. Fifi peeks at them through the window.

Mallory swings the door open and says, “You guys, I have a surprise. Fiella Roget has come by to say hello.”

The kids’ heads snap up. Fifi enters the class with just a wave, and she can see the kids puzzling.
Is it really her?
Then:
It’s really her. It’s really her!
They start to clap and then one of them stands and then they’re all standing and clapping, a twelve-person standing ovation, and Fifi, who has been applauded and feted and praised all across the country, feels her eyes well up with tears.

There are nine girls and three boys. It’s funny to Fifi how girls dominate creative-writing classes but men dominate the bestseller lists…but don’t get her started. There are five people of color, which surprises Fifi. Nantucket Island; she would have thought that all the kids would be lily-white, privileged, and entitled. But Fifi learns that Nantucket has quite a diverse year-round population; the school’s e-mails, Mallory says, come out in six languages. The kids in Mallory’s class are growing up on an island, like Fifi did, some of them as eager to escape as Fifi was. It’s no wonder they liked
Shimmy Shimmy
.

It’s obvious that the kids adore Mallory. They call her Miss Bless and they kid with her and tease her, though respectfully. She is
that
English teacher, the one Fifi wished she’d had in secondary school—the one who listens, the one who reads her students’ work carefully and asks questions without prying, the one who presses a novel into a student’s hands and says,
I thought of you when I read this. Let me know if you like it.

Fifi wishes Leland were with her just so she could see this. Fifi and Leland live in a rarefied literary stratosphere where they believe they’re creating culture and influencing public opinion, but the person who’s actually making a difference is Mallory.

The second thing that blows Fifi away is Mallory’s son, Link. He’s four years old, a towhead, a beautiful child with sweet, smooth cheeks and Mallory’s eyes—are they blue? Are they green? Fifi’s experience with children this age is nonexistent; she might as well be meeting a lemur. Link studies Fifi’s face, touches the skin on the back of her hand. He likes her name,
Fifi;
it makes him laugh. He says it over and over again in his high, clear little voice.

Mallory says, “Your auntie Fifi is a writer. She writes books.”

She tries to write books,
Fifi thinks.

Link hears
books
and brings a stack over to the sofa for Fifi to read to him.
How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? Bear Snores On. Toot and Puddle.
Link points to the pictures he likes and explains them—Toot isn’t wearing pants but that’s okay because he’s a pig—and in some places, he reads along. He’s smart—indeed precocious!

Mallory feeds him small bowls of pasta and edamame, then she gives him a bath; Fifi can hear him splashing and laughing. He comes out to the living room in blue pajamas printed with trains. His blond hair is wet and combed and he smells like toothpaste.

He takes Fifi’s hand and tugs. Mallory pokes her head out of the bedroom. “He wants you to tuck him in,” she says.

This feels like a greater honor than winning the Pulitzer Prize. “Of course,” Fifi says. She hears her cell phone buzzing—Leland—and she thinks about answering it and stepping outside to confess her treachery.
I’m on Nantucket with Mallory
. But instead, she turns her phone off. She has more important things to do.

Link climbs into his little bed. Fifi smooths his hair and kisses his forehead. There’s a night-light in the corner, an impressive number of books on the bookshelf, a four-foot giraffe, a photograph of a couple that Fifi guesses is his father and his father’s girlfriend. It’s Leland’s old beau, Frazier. Even a few months ago—hell, even a week ago—Fifi would have studied the picture, interested to see the kind of man who had so enraptured Leland in her youth.

But now, it’s irrelevant.

“Good night, sweet prince,” Fifi says. “Sleep tight.”

  

Fifi and Mallory settle at the harvest table, which is lit by one votive candle. Mallory pours them each a glass of wine. She has, amazingly, pulled together dinner: pan-roasted chicken in a mustard cream sauce and a green salad with cornbread croutons that she made herself.

Mallory raises her glass. “Honestly, I can’t believe you’re here. I can’t believe Lee let you come alone.”

Fifi smiles. They touch glasses, drink.

“I’m leaving Leland,” Fifi says.

“What?” Mallory says. “Why?”

Why does anyone leave anyone? The love has run out, or it has changed. It’s probably the latter for Fifi. Despite all the pushier emotions Leland inspires—annoyance chief among them—Fifi knows she will always love her. Leland is family; she’s a sister. But Fifi doesn’t want to live with a sister or make love to a sister.

There’s something else too, a secret. Fifi recently bumped into a writer she’d met back in 1995 at Bread Loaf. Her name was Pilar Rosario, she was Dominican, and when they’d met, it was immediately clear that Fifi and Pilar were attracted to each other. But Fifi had been in the first thrill of her relationship with Leland at that time, so her attraction to Pilar went unexplored.

Then a month or so ago, after a reading Fifi gave at the Ninety-Second Street Y, Pilar appeared—conveniently while Leland was sucking up to
The New Yorker
’s fiction editor—and slipped Fifi her card.

“Call me,” she said. “I’d love to catch up.”

Fifi nearly threw the card away—meeting Pilar would be a betrayal of Leland—but she changed her mind, deciding one glass of wine couldn’t hurt.

But, ah…it
had
hurt. Fifi found herself drawn to Pilar for many reasons, not least of which was that Pilar confessed she wanted a baby.

Yes,
Fifi had said, shocking herself.
Me too
. This was the real betrayal, because although Fifi hadn’t slept with Pilar or even seen her again, she had acknowledged this truth despite the fact that Fifi and Leland had vowed that theirs would be a blissfully childless existence. Leland felt fiercely about this—no children, no pets, not even a houseplant, nothing to care for except themselves.

Talking with Pilar allowed Fifi to recognize the pressure building inside of her, her biology asserting itself to the point that Fifi can no longer ignore or deny it. She wants a baby.

“That’s why I came to Nantucket,” Fifi tells Mallory. “I wanted you to be the first to know. Leland is going to need you.”

What are we talking about in 2006? TSA; Steve Irwin; “SexyBack”; the Duke lacrosse case; Dick Cheney’s shooting accident; Miranda Priestly; AIG and Tyco; the subprime-mortgage crisis; TRX;
The Osbournes;
Ben Bernanke; “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose”; Suri Cruise; Tom DeLay;
Eat Pray Love;
Meredith Grey and Dr. McDreamy.

  

T
he reality of serving in the House of Representatives is as follows: You spend one year getting things done and one year campaigning so you will be reelected so you can get more things done.

Who originally came up with a two-year term? One of the Framers of the Constitution who was terrified of imperial rule, possibly someone with a personal vendetta against King George III. Jake understands protection from the power hungry, but he personally thinks a three-year term in the House would be more productive.

Ursula is thinking more like a six-year term.

After she finds out that she’s running unopposed in her second reelection bid, she tells Jake she wants to run for the Senate in 2008.

“Tom’s term is up and he’s slipping in the polls,” she says. “Now is the time, I think. I know I’m still the new kid on the block, but…”

But…have you seen the news? Ursula de Gournsey is a media
darling
. The Washington correspondent for
Newsweek
noted the monogram on her attaché case as she ascended the steps of the Capitol Building in her four-inch stilettos and started referring to her as UDG, a trend that quickly caught on. UDG has become a very hot commodity in American politics.

First of all, she’s a young, beautiful, stylish woman. And how does Ursula handle being described as such? Jake only too vividly recalls their college days.
Tell me I’m smart. Tell me I’m strong.
Is it not insulting to have the press clamoring for the names of her designers, for the shade of her lipstick? (It’s Cherries in the Snow by Revlon, which she purchased for the first time at age fifteen from L. S. Ayres with money she made selling programs at Notre Dame games. True to her roots, she has stuck with the lipstick.) Jake would have said all the attention to Ursula’s physical traits rather than her intellectual gifts would have caused her to show her fangs, but he’s wrong. Ursula is happy to get attention any way she can. If it takes Cherries in the Snow to spotlight the welfare-reform bill that she wrote with Rhode Island senator Vincent Stengel, so be it. Ursula is style plus substance, as many people have pointed out. The complete package.

Ursula was built for politics, but Jake has no stomach for it. He has firm views on the issues—and some of his views differ from Ursula’s—but he loathes the wheeling and dealing, the bargaining chips, the side deals. He tries to stay out of it; he appears only at wholesome family-friendly events—Toys for Tots drives at the Grape Street mall, polka dancing on Dyngus Day—and he always has Bess in tow. Bess is in kindergarten at McKinley Elementary. Jake walks her to school every morning and picks her up every afternoon. They still have their nanny, Prue, in Washington, but here in South Bend, Jake handles all things Bess-related, and if he’s traveling for work, then Ursula’s mother, Lynette, covers. Bess visits with Jake’s parents every Sunday. They are surprisingly hands-on, taking Bess to the Potawatomi Zoo or to the ice-skating rink, the same rink where Jake met Ursula so many years ago.

They eat a lot of pizza from Barnaby’s.

Jake would like a second child. He would like a third, a fourth, even a fifth. But Ursula barely sees Bess as it is now. She’s supposed to handle school pickup on Wednesdays and take Bess to her ballet class, but last Wednesday, Ursula had a meeting with workers from the ethanol plant and the week before she was at a first-responders event and when Jake asked her if she wanted to change “her” day, she snapped at him.

I’m doing all this for
her, Ursula said.

She’s too young to understand that,
Jake said.
She needs her mother.

You’re not too young to understand it,
Ursula said.
Bess is fine. I read to her at night. We cuddle. I took her to the library last week. The person who has a problem is you.

Ursula is right; he
does
have a problem. He isn’t happy. Every day he thinks about asking for a divorce. He thinks about Mallory, about taking Bess and moving to Nantucket, about marrying Mallory and having a child of their own.

“Are you sure you want to run for senator?” Jake says.

“Yes,” Ursula says. “Good night.”

  

How are things going for Jake at work? Well, that’s the good news: He loves his job. Jake is executive vice president of development for the Cystic Fibrosis Research Foundation, which means he asks individuals and companies for money. Some people—most people, in fact—hate the mere idea of asking for money, but it turns out, Jake has a knack for it. It helps that he’s passionate about the cause, that he can make statistics sound anecdotal, and that he understands the medical advances in CF research. If the medicine of 2006 had been available back in 1980, Jessica could have lived an extra decade, maybe even two.

Jake doesn’t say this, however. He has refrained from marching out his dead sister in order to pry donations out of people. The closest he comes to mentioning her is this: When people ask why he’s so passionate about research for cystic fibrosis—not cancer, not ALS, not heart disease—he says he lost someone close to him to CF and leaves it at that.

Jake doesn’t attend every CFRF fund-raiser across the country—that would be impossible—but he does appear at the major ones, such as the benefit held in Phoenix in May. The philanthropic set don their tuxes and gowns, drink a few flutes of champagne, eat canapés, find their place cards, admire the tablescapes, listen to an inspiring speaker, eat some kind of sauced chicken, and raise their paddles.

The Phoenix event, held at the JW Marriott in Desert Ridge, has one thousand forty-four attractive and well-dressed people attending. The chairwoman’s name is Carla Frick. Jake has met a lot of chairpeople and Carla is the best. She organizes everything down to the minute, she’s prepared for any one of a hundred snafus, and she has put together a committee of sixteen women who are just as unflappable, detail-oriented, and gracious as Carla is.

When Jake sees these women in action in Phoenix, he wonders how it is that men have historically been in charge of the world. Women should be running everything everywhere—and Jake’s not just saying that because he’s married to Ursula de Gournsey.

Jake is talking to Dave Van Andel from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who came to Phoenix specifically for this event (and to drive his Porsche 911 on the flat, straight desert roads) when Carla appears at Jake’s elbow. They are still in the cocktails-and-canapés portion of the evening. There’s a big band with a Frank Sinatra look-alike crooning standards. The affair is elegant; the drinks are strong; the bite-size arepas with hot-pepper jelly are delicious. Phoenix does things right. Why doesn’t everyone live in Phoenix?

Carla smiles at Dave. “I need to borrow Jake for a minute.”

Carla leads Jake out of the ballroom and into the hallway. She’s wearing a black jumpsuit with rhinestone straps and a diamond cross around her neck. When she fingers the cross, Jake sees something new in Carla: a crack in her façade.

“Sydney has been taken to Banner,” she says.

“What?” Jake says. Banner is the Phoenix hospital and Sydney Speer is a twenty-nine-year-old local news anchor from Scottsdale who has CF. She’s one of the best ambassadors Jake has. The foundation has flown Sydney all over the country—to Dallas, to Miami, to Kansas City—because when people hear the daunting odds Sydney overcame to appear on television each night, they double whatever amount they had planned to donate. “What happened?”

“She has an infection,” Carla says. “Her oxygen level dropped dangerously low and Rick didn’t want to mess around. Sydney wanted to do her talk first, then go.” Carla’s eyes brighten with tears. “Because that’s the kind of warrior Syd is.” A single silver tear rolls through Carla’s perfect makeup. “Plus, you know, she loves this party.”

Jake pulls his phone out and texts Sydney’s husband, Rick.
Sending you guys my love. Keep us posted.
Then it’s on to a much smaller problem but a problem nonetheless. “Who’s going to speak?”

Carla says, “I have contingencies for every emergency but I don’t have a backup speaker. I didn’t think we’d need one. I saw Sydney on Sunday at the PCC playing
golf
.” Carla scans the ballroom. “The Gwinnetts lost their son, they have firsthand experience with the disease and I know Joanne is comfortable talking about it, but I’m not going to throw her up in front of a thousand people without any warning.”

“Obviously not,” Jake says. He sighs. “I’ll do it.”

“You’ll ask Joanne?” Carla says.

“No,” Jake says. “I’ll be the one to speak.” He clears his throat. “I lost my twin sister to CF when we were thirteen.”

(Carla Frick feels her mouth drop open in a way she is sure is unattractive. She scrambles for something to say. “Did I
know
this, Jake? I didn’t know this.” Carla is halfway madly in love with Jake McCloud. He’s so handsome, so upright, so
good
…and so unavailable, married to a stylish congresswoman back in Indiana. Carla has recently gotten divorced from a man who, although handsome, is
not
upright and
not
good, and Carla has vowed that the next man she becomes involved with will be like Jake. This news about his sister, while unexpected and out of the blue, explains a lot. Jake is outstanding at his job, vested beyond just showing up to work, and now Carla knows why. She didn’t think her feelings for him could get any more intense, but they just have.)

“I don’t tell very many people,” Jake says. He lays a hand on Carla’s forearm, then quickly lifts it. Carla is newly divorced and they’ve been out in the hallway for too long, probably. He’s sure that people in Phoenix gossip just like they do everywhere else. “I’ll speak.”

  

Jake is good with people—but his strength is one-on-one or small-group conversations. His strength is
not
public speaking.

He jots down a couple of notes on a cocktail napkin, but they’re disjointed, so he throws the napkin away. He’s seen enough speakers at enough benefit dinners to know that all he needs to do is tell his story.

Still, his stomach churns and he feels uncomfortably warm and prickly in his tuxedo. He can’t eat anything, and he certainly can’t
drink
anything; even with half a Jim Beam and Coke in him, he’s worried he’s going to make a complete idiot of himself. What is he
doing?

The lights go down and people find their tables, which are now bathed in candlelight with the salad course plated. They pass rolls, then scalloped pats of butter. They pour wine. The lights go up on the stage, the band plays some background music, and Carla strides over to the podium, the pants of her jumpsuit billowing, and takes the microphone. There’s cheering. This crowd is friendly, Jake thinks. They’ll forgive him if he’s awful.

“I’ve spoken to Rick Speer and told him we are all sending Sydney our prayers tonight,” Carla says after explaining the situation. “And I’m happy to tell you that in Sydney’s absence, Jake McCloud, executive vice president of the Cystic Fibrosis Research Foundation, has bravely agreed to share his own story publicly for the very first time. So please, ladies and gentlemen, let’s give a warm Phoenix welcome to Jake McCloud.”

Applause. Jake can’t tell if it’s half-hearted—these people paid to hear Sydney—because of the blood rushing in his ears. Imagining them in their underwear isn’t going to work. Jake is nervous—not about the speaking itself but about what he’s about to say. He has told the story of Jessica to so few people. Who? He didn’t have to tell Ursula because Ursula lived through it with him. Bess is still too young to understand. He’ll tell her when she gets older.

Mallory,
Jake thinks.

He told the story to Mallory.

So when Jake replaces Carla at the podium, he isn’t looking out at one thousand forty-four people. Instead, he’s looking at one person: Mallory. It’s 1993; she’s twenty-four years old. She’s lying on the old blanket on the beach in her T-shirt and her cutoffs; her hair is spread out behind her as she gazes up at the night sky. When Jake starts to tell her about Jessica, she rolls onto her side, props herself up on her elbow. Her eyes are green tonight and they’re fastened on him.

She’s listening.

“When does memory start?” Jake says. “Age four? Age five? Sometime within that year, a child’s synapses connect, creating lasting memory. And it was at around this age that I realized there was something different about my twin sister, Jessica—coughing fits, hospital visits.” Jake pauses. “It was probably a year or two later that my parents explained that she had cystic fibrosis.” The room is absolutely silent. “And, yes, I did say my
twin
sister. We were—obviously—fraternal twins, though people would ask once in a while if we were identical.” There are a few laughs, probably from parents of twins or people who were twins themselves. “Because we were fraternal twins, our DNA was only as similar as any other two siblings’. In our case, Jessica had the CF genes and I didn’t.” Jake pauses again. “You can probably all imagine how that made me feel. If I had been able, I would have…happily,
gratefully
…taken the burden of the disease from her and carried it myself.” Jake’s eyes fill; the audience is blurry, but he’s in control. “That wasn’t possible, of course. But that’s why I have worked for the past seven years raising money for the Cystic Fibrosis Research Foundation. I do it so no other children like me have to lose a sibling at the age of thirteen and so no other parents like my parents—who I think felt all the more helpless because they are both doctors—have to lose a child.” Jake stops to take a breath. “I’m standing before you asking for your support because my twin sister can’t.”

Jake McCloud receives a standing ovation. The CFRF dinner in Phoenix raises one and a half million dollars—over four hundred thousand dollars more than the year before.

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