From his perch on a low bleacher in the college auditorium, Seth watches the girls cluster together, some still in their graduation gowns, hair hanging down their backs or clamped to their scalps. One holds a bouquet of bluish roses. She has thin lips, but her limbs are long and tan. Her friend, thick in the middle, wears a red tube dress that hoists her breasts up, displaying them like jellied eggs on a platter. In thirty years these girls will look like their mothers — middle-aged women with colorful eyeglasses and saggy midriffs disguised by silk wraps. But for now the girls have youth on their side.
Seth watches his daughter, Beryl, chat up one of her professors, a sad-eyed type with a ponytail. Something the professor says makes her laugh and fiddle with her necklace. She slips a high heel off and presses the bare foot over the other one. She’s wearing a pink minidress with some kind of ridiculous pattern: tiny circles inside of hexagons inside of different-sized rectangles. Beryl’s mother, the ever fashionable Dianne, is responsible for this purchase, Seth is sure. Shopping has always been her strongest skill. He and Dianne don’t talk since the divorce and have had to split Beryl’s graduation meals and ceremonies so they will never be in one another’s presence.
Beryl is tall, and the dress hugs her rear. It has no back, only a large V that comes together where Beryl’s underwear must begin. Available for all to view is his daughter’s olive skin, dusted with fine copper hairs. Her vertebrae make delicate knobs as she bends to put her shoe back on. The professor touches Beryl on the shoulder, then walks over to another group of students.
Seth makes his way through the islands of families, all of the nicely dressed people adding their sweet cologne and floral notes to the vaguely musty air. He gets to Beryl at the same moment as a kid in a wrinkled green button-down. She gives Seth a weak-armed hug, identical to the weak-armed hug she gave him when he arrived last night. Her new thing. Then she introduces the kid as “Lyon” and Seth as “my dad.” The boy grins at Seth and doesn’t remove his hands from the pockets of his faded jeans. Beryl smiles. Three thousand dollars’ worth of orthodontic work has done the trick. Those straight white teeth match the straps of her dress, match the absurdly clean porcelain in his bathroom at the Sea Maiden Inn.
“You should come out tonight,” the boy says to Beryl. He’s decent-looking, except for a weak chin, and he leans back, trying to look cavalier. “Clyde’s having a bonfire.”
“Oh, that’s cool. Out at the barn?” she asks. Lyon, whose head is shaved all the way down to its shining scalp, runs a palm over his skull and tells her yes, out at the barn. Can she make it?
She stands straight, this daughter of his, this sociology graduate with a minor in English lit. Her carriage is that of someone older than her twenty-two years. She flips her hair back, juts out a hip. In the past year or so she’s gone from ill-fitting jeans and slogan-adorned T-shirts to purses and painted nails. But still, at every chance, she’s on her soapbox: Tibet, hormones, Pakistan, pesticides. Who is she becoming? And what is that look she’s giving this boy, this poor boy who, like all the boys she’s introduced Seth to today, clearly sees nothing in this giant auditorium but Beryl: her long arms, red nails, disheveled curls, dewy skin. Beryl in a hall of mirrors, crowding out the rest of the physical world.
It’s an odd thing to realize: This child of his, the same flailing baby that he and Dianne brought into this world, is unlike the other girls milling about — and it’s not fatherly fondness clouding his vision. Beryl Tillman-Ward in her wild pink dress and high heels is playing that most confusing and desired female role. She’s a magnet, a bombshell, the best-looking girl in the room.
After the reception Seth and Beryl drive the country roads with the windows down. She changes out of her heels into a pair of flip-flops she left under the seat and tells him about Alvin, that boy with a scraggly beard she introduced him to before the ceremony. He just landed a really competitive internship at the Nation. Another guy, Will, is starting an NGO with a thirty-five-hundred-dollar grant from the college. Beryl seems certain that, with this windfall, he’ll be able to get the entire city of Boston running on French-fry grease.
“What about your friend Tiger?” he asks.
“Lyon?” she says. He’ll probably publish his really amazing experimental novel in the next two years. She prattles on about them, these near-men with skinny arms and stains on their shirts who she believes will change the world.
When they get to the bistro, Beryl goes to the bathroom and leaves Seth with the hostess.
“Two for lunch?” the hostess asks.
Seth senses judgment in the plasticity of her smile. “Just me and my daughter,” he responds.
This is a consequence of divorce that no one warns you about: the single-dad-and-daughter outing; the way people look at a fifty-two-year-old man dining with a twenty-two-year-old in a tight dress. But it’s better than the lack of interest he gets when escorting his usual dates: thin, leathery divorcées with defensiveness flickering in their eyes. In fact, though he’d never say it, Seth feels a glimmer of pride when people see it as feasible that he, a man closing in on senior discounts, might be wining and dining someone like Beryl.
The hostess seats him in a corner, beneath a window overlooking a vegetable garden, where a woman in white kitchen garb cuts rosemary from a large bush. A twitch starts up in Seth’s eye. He clamps it shut, but it keeps clenching. He rubs it, and a tingling spreads above his nose.
“I’m a vegetarian now,” Beryl announces as she returns and plops down across from him. For a moment, due to his vigorous eye rubbing, Beryl looks blurry, but she quickly sharpens into view.
“Oh, yeah?” he says. “I thought you told me that vegetarianism was a ‘conceit of the elite.’ ”
“I’m trying to lessen my carbon footprint,” she says, holding the menu upright. “Did you know that cows emit greenhouse gases? Just by being cows?” Beryl puts the menu down, reaches into the breadbasket, and slathers butter on a baguette. Seth resists the urge to ask if it’s soy butter.
His friend Dan recommended the bistro, a cozy establishment with white tablecloths and purple flowers growing in window boxes. Two towns over and twenty minutes from Beryl’s college, it’s the perfect place to avoid a potential Dianne run-in.
Beryl jerks her napkin open, causing her silverware to clatter to the floor. She leans down to retrieve it.
“Isn’t that your professor?” Seth asks.
Beryl sits up quickly to look. The man with the ponytail stops talking and raises a hand when he sees Beryl. She waves back and scoots her chair out so she can face him, her fingers toying with her necklace. He’s with a woman, presumably his wife. They’re coming over. The professor may be slightly jaundiced, but his wife is pretty. Seth stands up.
“You must be Beryl’s father,” the professor says, reaching for Seth’s hand. His eyes dart to Beryl’s lap. She’s fidgeted and somehow exposed most of her thigh. Professor McKee tells Seth what a great student Beryl is, one of his best, a reason for teaching. Beryl has dragged her hem even farther up her leg, where she kneads it methodically. She smiles brightly, the dimple deepening in her chin.
The wife wears a lavender shirtdress and hippie sandals. Her calves are shapely, and her curls fall loose and uneven over her shoulders. She has an old-fashioned, quiet kind of beauty: large, soft mouth and gentle eyes. Seth reaches to shake her hand.
“Oh, I’m so rude,” Professor McKee says. “This is my sister Annie. She’s just in from Boston for the weekend. Ever eaten here before? We heard the food was great.”
“No, my first time,” Seth says. “A friend recommended it.” His sister! Seth holds her hand a little too long. She smiles at him and wrests it away.
“Congratulations,” Annie says to Beryl, and for a moment Seth has no idea what she’s talking about. Beryl pulls the hem of her dress down and scoots her chair forward. “Thanks,” she says.
The professor and his sister excuse themselves, and Seth turns to watch Annie take a seat across the restaurant. Beryl pulls a daisy from the small gray vase and begins slicing the petals with her thumbnail.
“I’ve applied to the Peace Corps,” she says. She stops mutilating the daisy long enough to swipe her hair from one shoulder to the other.
“I decided last week. You don’t get to control where you go,” she says, slicing the daisy again, “but I’m trying for West Africa.”
“What happened to living in San Francisco?”
Beryl sets the tattered daisy down. “I think I’m just going to stay here for a bit till I figure it all out. My roommate Esther — she’s staying. I can keep my job at the Environment House.”
“Did you tell your mother?” he asks.
Beryl tilts her chin down and stares flatly at him, a look from her former self: vintage teenager. “You’re doing that thing,” she says.
He’s not praying but pressing his palms together in front of him. For whatever reason, this irritates Beryl.
“Why do you do that?” she says, and she presses her palms together too.
“Isn’t the Peace Corps two years?” Seth asks. “That’s a long time, Ber. I thought the plan was to take a year off, then graduate school.”
“Yeah, well, plans change.”
“Is it safe?”
“Of course it’s safe,” she says, sitting up straight. “Don’t be racist.”
Their food arrives on large white plates garnished with fresh flowers. Seth looks at his fish, the white fillet drizzled with buttery sauce. The Peace Corps. He tries to imagine Beryl in some arid country digging trenches and hauling buckets, her hair in a knot on top of her head. He pictures a hut, small and muddy, an ethnic blanket on a straw bed. He tries to imagine it for her, this manicured daughter sitting across from him in a fancy French bistro, carefully picking fava beans out of her risotto and placing them on her bread plate.
“Don’t they eat a lot of beans in West Africa?” Seth asks.
Beryl tidies the little green pile she’s made into a small pyramid. “Is the fish good?” she asks.
He nods. “It’s wild, locally caught. Want some?”
She shakes her head.
He looks over at Annie, whose back is to them. Her shoulders are a little broad.
“Mom says she needs to talk to you about the cabin,” Beryl says.
Seth spears his fish. “What about it?”
“She says it needs something. A new roof? I can’t remember.”
“She can’t tell me to my face?”
Beryl shrugs. “She’s still dating Rafael.”
“Oh, yeah?” Seth says. He glances over at Annie again and this time catches the professor’s eye. Both men quickly turn away.
“He’s got a house in southern France,” Beryl says. “Mom’s taking French lessons.”
“I’m sure she is,” he says.
Seth and Dianne divorced three years ago, but they’d been separated for two and a half years before that, and the marriage had begun to tank even earlier. Beryl was probably twelve when Seth experienced his last taste of marital pleasure. As a husband he was a dud. He did all the things he wasn’t supposed to do. He had numerous affairs, the longest with a young Brazilian botanist named Beatriz. He accused Dianne of not trusting him when she suspected infidelity. He bought a rustic cabin in Oregon so he could “take time for himself”: chop wood, cook bloody meat on a filthy grill, and bed Beatriz in relative isolation and privacy — and later Sonya, Margaret, Kath, and once (this is a little bit of a trophy) his neighbor’s hot lesbian dog walker.
No one would argue that he and Dianne aren’t better off apart. But it angers him that Dianne, with her pettiness and classic poor judgment, uses Beryl as a messenger. Seth, for all his failings, uses e-mail.
In the divorce they’d agreed that Dianne would keep the house and Seth could keep his cabin, though Dianne got to use it one week in May every year. She delights in bringing an inspector with her so that she can tell Seth what kind of money needs to be sunk into the place to keep it from decaying back into the wet, mossy earth.
Professor McKee and Annie stop by on their way out. “Gotta get back,” the professor says. “Grades are due.”
Beryl twirls a dark curl around her knuckle until the fingertip turns purple. Annie stands to the side. She has teeth almost as white as Beryl’s. Seth guesses she’s in her midthirties, the first sign of webs in the skin around her eyes.
“What’re you going to do while you’re in town?” Seth asks her.
“Well, Zach has a bunch of work, so I’ll probably be a sloth,” she says, “watch some pretentious movies out of his arsenal of foreign films.”
“They’re not that bad,” the professor says. “I’m sure I have some blockbusters in there.” The professor wears a silver bracelet with Asiatic script on it, the same kind that’s on Beryl’s necklace.
Seth smiles at Annie the way he would at someone’s dog. The throbbing in his eye starts up again, but he manages to ignore it.
“Well, if you’re interested, I’d be happy to take you out to a more mindless movie or something,” Seth says. “Beryl has plans anyway.”
Beryl sinks down in her chair. Seth pulls out his business card, and Annie fumbles in her purse for a gum wrapper to write her number on. Her handwriting is awful, scratchy and illegible. When she gives him the wrapper, he feels the heat of her fingers.
“What the hell?” Beryl says as soon as Zach and Annie have left. “That was my sociology professor!”
“Actually, it was your sociology professor’s sister,” Seth says.
Beryl glowers at him. She’s always been an amazing glowerer, her eyes going from sunny pools to sharp little arrows. She doesn’t touch her poached pears at dessert. They had plans to go to a lake for the afternoon, but she clearly can’t wait to be rid of him.
Beryl knows about Beatriz. Dianne told her recently. Though the affair occurred nearly a decade ago, it’s news to Beryl, and she’s only just begun to punish Seth. When she remembers to be, she is distant, cool, unpredictable. Last year she would have clung to his arm as they walked to the car and called him “Daddy” in her endearing way, leaning in close. She would have gossiped to him about her mother’s faults and follies, criticizing her expensive tastes, her lizard-skin belts and handbags. Now, with this new knowledge secured around her like a cape, she walks a step ahead. She keeps her head high and is silent for the entire drive back to the old Cape Cod she shares with four other girls.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go to the lake?” he asks as he walks her to the sagging porch. She unlocks the green door, revealing a foyer full of book bags and jackets. He catches a whiff of mildew.
“Positive,” she says, and closes the door in his face.
It smarts. How could it not? Seth reaches unconsciously for his shirt pocket: empty. If only he still smoked, he’d sit here on the porch in that ratty gold armchair, ripped to its wooden bones, and have a cigarette and watch his thoughts take shape. Beryl, his beautiful daughter, who last year gave him pamphlets against the death penalty and made a speech about legalizing drugs and criticized his shower heads, is pure in her violent convictions — and, unfortunately for him, this includes parental fidelity. At twenty-two, this is how it should be, he supposes.
Still he has the urge to fight back, to muddy the waters a bit: to tell her that the hybrid car he drives, the one she seems so fond of, has a battery that will someday wind up in a landfill, bleeding toxins into some poorer community’s drinking water; that her organic shampoo comes in a plastic bottle that probably leaks carcinogens; that the soybeans in her tofu are genetically modified. But there is also the opposite urge — to change the shower heads and read the pamphlets; to agree with her, grovel at her feet, bang on her door and offer her chocolates and new dresses and a backpack for the Peace Corps. A puppy, a pony, a car. His guilt is large, even if he ignores it most of the time. His guilt is a full-size replica of himself; it could almost walk out of him and live its own life.
Back in his clean little rental car, he turns on NPR. A calm woman interviews an even calmer woman about poetry. The words are soothing, and he sails into a peaceful dream of Annie.
He phones her from a parking lot, and they make a dinner date. He now has all afternoon in this nowhere East Coast village. He goes back to his room at the Sea Maiden Inn and lies on the floral bedspread, rifles through the goody basket on the table and eats the crackers. Finding nothing of interest on the television, he walks to the drugstore and buys a pack of condoms.
Seth is ten minutes early to pick up Annie at Professor McKee’s house, a well-maintained Victorian on a corner lot with a surprisingly lush English garden. “We can’t go anywhere too fancy,” Annie says, “because I spilled tomato soup on my dress, and I only brought one other skirt.” She’s wearing it — a baggy one in a drab military color. Her tank-top sweater is bright red and made of fuzzed-out yarn. She wears no makeup, but her skin is perfect except for a red bump on her nose. She smells like some kind of oil squeezed from a rock or tree.
Annie did the Peace Corps in West Africa — an odd coincidence — and she’s recently divorced: eight months ago. They’re still friends, she and the ex. He’s taking care of her plants while she’s out of town.
“It’s great if you can do it,” Annie says at the restaurant. “Stay friends. I know it’s not possible sometimes, but I don’t know what I would do without him. I still love him — not, like, in a sexual way.” A pink rises to her cheeks. “But as a friend.”
Seth picks up his wineglass. “So you research wind farms?” he asks.
She draws little lines in the condensation on her water glass. “I do,” she says. “I’m a harness broad: I do wind-harness work.” She turns pinker. “I’m sorry. I haven’t really been dating. I just . . . I guess I have been in the proverbial muumuu for a while now. God, listen to me: ‘The proverbial muumuu’?”
Annie’s hand lands on her flushed cheek. Her fingernails reveal a chewing habit.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I feel jumpy. If I weren’t domesticated, I’d totally run out of here screaming.”
“I just feel so — I don’t know — like I’m graduating, too: Hey, big world, here I am.”
“Have some more wine,” Seth says.
She smiles. “Yeah, maybe my own bottle. Maybe a jug. I’m sorry I’m such a mess.”
He pours her a glass so full, the liquid quivers at the rim. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. “Dating’s awful.”
She leans down to sip the quivering wine. When she’s drunk enough off the top, she holds the glass up so he can clink it.
“To graduations,” she says, “of every ilk.”
After three glasses of wine and a plate of wild quail, Annie looks relaxed and dopey. Her body heat has loosened the fibers of the red sweater, and it hangs lower, revealing a small pendant: a silver A. During the meal she told him about her job and about the trip she and her brother were taking to Brewster, where they were raised. They’d be staying at their parents’ place for the last time, because their mother wanted to sell it. It was too much house for an elderly woman to keep up alone, and Annie and Zach were both too busy to help.
After they’ve finished their coffee, Seth tucks cash beneath the dessert plates, and they walk out under the thick, leafy trees. The humid night smells of hay and faraway flowers.
“I’d invite you over to my place for a glass of port,” he says, “but I don’t live here. And I don’t have any port.” He stands close to her, near the car. “Should we just take a drive?”
She tucks a curl behind her ear. The look she’s giving him turns grave. Now’s his moment. He puts a hand on her arm, and she leans in. Her lips are soft and alive, and the tip of her tongue brushes his. He slides a hand down her back. “You smell good,” he says, letting the fingers of his other hand get tangled in the mess of her hair.
“You can’t get this perfume anymore,” she says. “The tree’s going extinct.” He notices a small scar on her nose from an old piercing. She presses her palms against his chest, then drops them so that her index fingers hang inside his trouser pockets.
He’s got the carriage house — a stroke of luck. He doesn’t have to say hello to the inn’s cloying host in the foyer. Annie goes to the bathroom. Seth pulls his curtains closed and picks up a water glass. The throbbing starts in his eye again. This time it’s fierce. He reaches to rub it.
It’s the high voice he notices first, like a pin in his ear. There’s a woman in a red sweater squealing into a cellphone. It takes him a full minute to realize who she is: The woman from the restaurant. The professor’s sister. Annie. Why is he on the floor? Why do his arms feel this heavy? His glasses lie beside him under the bed. His hand is wet. The shattered drinking glass creates icelike islands in the pools of water on the hardwood.
“What’s going on?” he says. “Jesus Christ.” And then he sees only violet spots, like a swarm of purple bees around him. “I can’t see,” he says. “Oh, my God, I can’t see!”
The dots are gone by the time they arrive at the hospital. His vision is back, and with it a humiliation so great he can barely speak.
“I’m really, really sorry about this,” he keeps saying.
“Has this happened before?” Annie wants to know. “Do you have a medical condition?”
“No, no medical condition,” he says. “Probably just a hex from my ex.” Annie doesn’t crack a smile. They’re in front of the ER desk, and the nurse is not making eye contact. He can feel the tension in Annie’s body.
“You know, I actually think I’m fine,” he says, though there is a disturbing pain at the base of his skull. “I can make an appointment with the regular doctor tomorrow. I feel totally normal now. It’s nothing.”
“Are you sure? We’re here. We might as well wait,” she says.
No, no, he insists. Really he’s fine. His brother is an ER doctor in LA. They can call him, but he’s sure it’s nothing.
To his surprise, Annie concedes. She even seems relieved as they walk out the automatic glass doors.
“A hex, huh?” Annie says.
“A hex,” he says.
“Did you deserve it?”
“Probably,” he says.
“I called your daughter,” Annie says. “She’s on her way.”
“Beryl? How’d you find her?”
“Zach knew how to reach her.”
A cold feeling travels down Seth’s arms: The necklace, the Peace Corps, the dress. Of course. Of course this is happening to Beryl. She’s too pretty with too much hope. Isn’t it the same thing: the belief that you can go to West Africa and change the world, and the belief that your middle-aged professor really loves you?
And, as if summoned, a silver pickup swings into the emergency-room lot with the professor at the wheel. The passenger door opens. Beryl looks nervous and rumpled, her eyeliner smeared. “Daddy,” she says — that endearing word. She walks up to him, eyeing Annie. “What happened?”
“I don’t really know,” he says. “How did you get here so fast?”
“Annie called Zach when you fell,” Beryl says, “and he came and got me.”
No one is making eye contact. Annie stares at her watch, Beryl at her flip-flops. The professor looks as if he’s found a maze in the texture of his truck’s dash.
“You were at home?” Seth asks, then wishes he hadn’t.
“I should probably get going,” Annie says. Then, to Beryl: “We can swap: I’ll go with Zach, and you can drive your dad.” She reaches in her bag and gets Seth’s keys. Beryl snatches them. “I’ll call you,” Annie says to Seth, and she walks to the pickup.
Beryl’s wearing a short Indian-print skirt and a shiny sleeveless blouse. It would be wine and jazz at the professor’s historic house — or maybe they never made it out of the truck. The tag of her shiny blouse sticks up. Seth reaches and tucks it back in.
The professor rolls down his window. His hair is out of its ponytail and hangs to his knobby chin. Annie sits next to him, straight as a rod, staring ahead, purse in her lap. “If you need anything, just give a call,” the professor says. His mouth hangs open slightly as if he might say something else. Then he rolls up the window.
“Did you already see the doctor?” Beryl asks Seth. “Do you want me to call Mom?”
Seth’s hands feel jumpy. “I have a headache, Ber,” he says. “Calling your mom won’t make it any better.”
“Well, you should go inside. You should get checked out.”
Something’s wrong with him — something that will finally make him feel like he’s in his fifties. He should turn around, go back into the ER for tests. It’s probably diabetes, a faulty blood vessel, some old-man problem. With any luck, there will be pills for it.
“Baby,” he says, reaching for Beryl, but this just makes him think of the professor. He puts his hands in his pockets and watches moths dance at the bulbs near the entrance. He wants to tell his daughter not to mess up her life. He wants to tell her that no matter what might seem right to her right now, no good will come of what she’s doing. She should meet someone her own age, get married, travel to Europe, get a dog.
“Did you see the doctor?” she asks him again. He shakes his head. She straightens and says, “I think you should see a doctor,” all business, standing tall. Conviction radiates from her — and Seth feels a wave of exhaustion as he follows her inside.
He hates Dianne. This will never change. There’s too much mud in their water. And he’s through with marriage and all the sacrifice and guilt and boredom it entails. He knows that even if he continued to court Annie, he’d find fault with her in less than six months. But he can live with this. And he can live with whatever they might tell him tonight in the eerily quiet hospital — that he is aging, that he’s miswired. He can live with corrupt presidents, the oil lobby, pesticides, the frightening emptiness he feels after sex. But, he thinks, as Beryl talks to the nurse at the desk, he doesn’t want Beryl living with all this.
“What do you mean it might take an hour?” she says to the nurse in the bright waiting room. “We’re the only ones here! Let me speak to the person in charge.” Those funny blotches she gets near her eyes when she’s upset make her look even younger. “I can’t believe this,” she says. “It’s the emergency room.” She turns back to the nurse. “For EMERGENCIES!”
The feeling that comes over Seth then is out of context, and it takes him a moment to recognize it: giddiness in his chest, up through his cheeks. He smiles at the paperwork on the clipboard in front of him. Beryl still believes in right and wrong, a just and malleable world, true love. She’s about to fix this problem, really let someone have it. She’ll set this place straight by sheer force of will; he can see it in the air around her.
The nurse shows them into a triage room, and Seth takes a seat on the examining table. Beryl smoothes her blouse, her chin raised in victory. Seth looks at her hand, placed assuredly on her hip. The giddiness gives way to something softer. A tightness in his throat.
Her confidence won’t last. It can’t last. In a month, a year, she’ll start to see, she’ll figure it out. He may not witness too many more moments like this one. But, God, is it great right now.