Click, hiss, click, hiss. The toaster clicks and clutches the cinnamon toast, and the kettle hisses. I warm the pot and find the linen cloth for the tray.
Thud, thud. A tennis ball striking the wall on the old tennis court in the backyard. My son Jacob is practicing his backhand. A dozen or more thuds. I smile. A long rally will make him happy.
Tick, tick. The clock warns me that I have three minutes before I’m due upstairs. My father, Isaac Stephens, retired thespian, is a stickler for punctuality. If you miss your cue, you lose your audience and lose the part. Being late for tea will hardly ruin his career. Not now. But given our common knowledge of how lateness jangles his nerves, any dawdling of mine will be interpreted as a lack of care, a desire to rub his nose in his weakness. That’s not my intention, but there’s no point in arguing, and every point in hurrying. But before I take the tea tray upstairs, I raise myself on tiptoe and wipe steam off the high window for just a quick look at Jacob, a lanky fifteen-year-old. I see purple crocuses pushing through the cold ground, a rime of frost on the statues and wrought iron garden furniture, the towering maple still naked except for touches of green. The London spring is slow coming this year. Jacob is swinging his racquet, dressed in a loose jersey and long shorts. Not enough layers. I worry that he’ll catch cold.
“Rebecca!” he calls imperiously from two stories up.
The toast is almost the perfect shade of brown. I spread the butter. Too cold, it tears the bread. Too late to start again. So I push the sides together, steep the tea the exact number of minutes he prefers, find the shortbread with rosemary and the strawberry jam. I balance the tray carefully, holding my spine straight, determined not to spill the tea, and start up the stairs. But no spills means no speed. I’ll be sorry for that too.
I push open the door to my father’s sanctum: a high-ceilinged room with burgundy damask curtains, walnut bookshelves, and a large bed with an ornate headboard, where my elderly parent is stretched out surrounded by books and papers. With his left arm and left leg withered by a stroke, he can barely propel himself to his ensuite bathroom with a walker. Soon he will need a wheelchair to move at all. His slightly asymmetrical face is robed in deep velvet folds of skin. Poor old man, you might think. But then you see his eyes that are alert, piercing and hard as coal.
“Took your time, didn’t you?” he says as I set the tray on his lap. His voice was the most celebrated aspect of his performance, a voice that could conjure Hamlet’s jagged rage or Othello’s despair or Lear’s tremulous second childhood.
“I was just trying to get it right.”
He examines the tea and toast. “Oh, I see.” His long dramatic pause ends. “You went to a lot of trouble. Cordon Bleu fare for your crippled father. Just as I’ve come to expect,” he says finally, swallowing the tea in a single swoop and devouring half a slice of toast.
I stare dumbly, pretending not to understand, hoping to bore him with my dullness.
“Where’s the boy?”
“Outside playing,” I say. Outside playing is an acceptable answer, but I know he’s wondering whether it’s true. I open the window. The chilly March air brings the thud, thud of a ball on strings and concrete. My father cocks his head, and then nods. I smile, pleased to have such an active, outdoorsy son.
“Did you hear from the Windsor School?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say, pleased to have another answer that is both true and acceptable.
“Will they take him back?”
A mouse under a hawk’s shadow cannot panic. Stick with the plan, I tell myself. Guile can defeat strength. “No,” I lie, resisting the temptation to embellish, to point out that one wouldn’t expect them to take Jacob back, not after he defaced the chapel; but that would provoke a diatribe. My father thinks Jacob should have submitted to the hazing. After all, boys do. They always have. Certainly back in my father’s day, they submitted and shut up. He will remind me again, as he always does, that as Jacob’s legal guardian, he has the right to decide what school he attends.
“Turn around,” he commands me in his divine right of kings voice.
I turn and show him my face, transfixed by his gaze, placid, compliant, apparently open.
“Are you lying to me?”
Odd question. If I’m lying, why I would tell the truth about lying? “No,” I say. “Of course not.”
“Don’t pretend to be so innocent. You’ve lied before.”
I look down, unable to contradict him on this point.
“‘To thine own self be true’,” he intones in his RADA-trained accent. “‘And it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.'”
“Oh, not that old cliché,” I say, and attempt a laugh. Arguing about Shakespeare is permissible.
“There’s a reason it’s a cliché. Generations — four hundred years of generations — have recognized the eternal truth and repeated it.”
“But even Shakespeare couldn’t have believed it. After all, he had Polonius say it — and Polonius is an old fool.”
My father’s eyes narrow. Am I calling him an old fool, I imagine him wondering. But no, of course, we both know that he’s brilliant. I couldn’t possibly have seen through his virtuoso performance.
“Shakespeare gave some of his most profound lines to his worst characters. Consider …” He pauses magnificently. “Iago, Shylock, and Macbeth.”
“That’s true,” I have to acknowledge.
“So, the point …” He stretches his torso to allow his lungs full range. “My point is that you need to be true to yourself. Cease all this self-deception. And then you won’t lie to me.”
“Rebecca, Rebecca.” He sighs. “Ever since you were a child, you’ve lied to yourself. After your mother died, in your — understandable — grief you allowed yourself to be tupped by those Baker boys and then pretended—”
“They forced me, Dad,” I say, flinching at the recollection.
“So you say. But really? A red dress in a bar with four beers and a couple of whiskeys in you. You could hardly expect me to go to the police with that, could you? Think of the shame to your name. Which — incidentally — happens to be my name too.”
I struggle to marshal my memories. Maybe I did invite the Baker brothers with some unconscious looks and gestures. My father’s version of events has more staying power than mine. What does it matter? Maybe I was a little fool at eighteen. But, at thirty-four, I’ve matured, sobered up, and learned how to make my own choices, about how to vote, what church to attend, what to study, and, especially, how to parent my own son, without his guidance.
“I’ve been out of rehab for four years, Dad. I haven’t had a drink in … two.”
He draws a deep breath and puffs out his chest. “Why should I believe you?” he asks, shaking his head. “You said you didn’t drink back then, even while you were swilling half a bottle a day of … What was it?”
“Cointreau,” I put in. Perhaps if we talk about my drinking, he’ll forget Jacob.
No such luck. “I’d like to get Jacob back to the Windsor School.”
“They were pretty adamant about not taking him back,” I say. I want to argue with him, point out that the Windsor School isn’t the right place for Jacob, and that he needs to be home with me during these hard mid teen years, and that the bullying will destroy him. But arguing with my father will only serve to stiffen his spine, harden his resolve, and make him call the trustees himself to persuade them to forgive the crazed act of vandalism that got Jacob expelled.
“In our family, we don’t sneak around. Jacob is weak, Rebecca, just as you were. You don’t want him going down the same path you went down, do you?”
I stare at him. How can he insult me and ask for my cooperation in the same sentence? Is he mad? Or is he perfectly rational, having been allowed to get away with this behavior all his life? From his early twenties, as the family’s one big success and meal ticket, he was lauded, indulged, and forgiven cruelties small and large. I do not answer and he will take my silence for regret, for agreement, for shame.
“Isn’t that what you tell Jacob? You don’t teach him to lie to you, do you?”
He’s right. I don’t want Jacob to lie to me. I want us to be close so that he can share his troubles with me. If he has a beer at a party, or two or six, I want him to tell me. I want to be there at the start of trouble, to head it off. I want to work together with him to keep him safe. I want him to trust me completely — for his sake and my own. And when he does, I will guard his secrets. I would give my life for Jacob, and sell my soul.
“Why lie to me, then?” my father asks triumphantly, as if concluding an airtight proof.
I am tempted to answer his question. There’s a difference, I’m tempted to say. We are different kinds of parents. “I don’t lie to you,” I say instead.
He curls his lip and makes a dismissive noise. “Close the window, will you? I can’t afford to catch a cold and lose my voice.”
I move slowly and gaze out at the backyard. Jacob is gone. Ragged footprints in the frosty grass are the only evidence that he was there.
“Rebecca!” my father reminds me. I haven’t complied with his command. His first response is irritation, but when I look back and still hesitate, I wonder if I’m imagining fear in his dark eyes. He needs me now, and the realization scares him. He’s growing weaker just as I’m growing stronger. I shut the window, leaving just a crack for fresh air.
He touches my sleeve as I pass, and gives me his most charismatic smile. “We shouldn’t be enemies, Rebecca. We both want the best for Jacob. Let’s work together.”
“Yes,” I say to my father.
No, I say to my own self.