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Feb 152013
 

by Dean Jollay

 

Caroline wiggles her toes, trying to restore circulation to feet numbed by spiked heels, feet which, left on their own, would descend from the stage, walk out the front door, and never look back. But escape is out of the question. Her father cups his hand on her elbow and whispers, “Here we go, honey.”

The announcer calls, “Miss Caroline Muchalsky escorted by her father, Robert.”

A recording of “The Way You Look Tonight” plays on the auditorium’s sound system. The CD skips and crackles. Caroline dons the smile she’s been crafting. Polite applause skitters across the drafty hall, more tentative than for the girls who have preceded her. Retribution, she guesses, from her kick-ass days at Parker High, where she led the girls’ basketball team in personal fouls per game.  

By order of the Cotillion Committee: No waves, spontaneous outbursts, or words of greeting are permitted on the grand tour, as such behaviors will slow down the promenade. The debutantes and their fathers shall maintain a brisk pace. Four minutes are allotted for each father and daughter to circle the room and return to the stage to await the closing ceremony. Caroline has coached up her daddy, telling him they can make it in three. Nine other girls and their fathers have preceded them. She studied their technique as they paraded about the hall.  

* * *

The cotillion was Stepmother Penelope’s idea. “What well-bred girls do,” she said. Caroline has checked the calendar. It’s 2011, not 1911. A newly declared history major, she’s under the distinct impression that important events have detoured around Parker, Georgia. The War Between the States, for example, not to mention the Spanish-American War, two world wars, the Korean War, Vietnam, Granada, Panama, Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Civil Rights Movement, a depression, and numerous recessions, including the Great Recession, which might as well have been a depression had the good citizens of Parker cared to pay attention. Year after year the cotillion persists, surviving all misfortune.

* * *

Last summer, before Caroline headed to the University of Georgia for her freshman year, Penelope dragged her on a road trip to Buckhead in Atlanta, her stepmother gaga over the “cutest little place you’ve ever seen in your entire life.” An old college chum of Caroline’s owned Helen’s Boutique. Three hours up I-75 in Penelope’s Range Rover to buy a dress. “You’ll just love this place, honey. They carry all the top designers. We must find a dress that makes you look…well…bigger up top. Maybe something full length too. No point exposin’ those heavy legs of yours, darlin’.”

Penelope made Caroline try on dress after dress. This one, too short. That one, sleeveless. (“Darlin’, those arms aren’t exactly one of your best features.”) Another too modern. “We’re going for the classic look, aren’t we? I don’t think folks in Parker are ready for that.”

Desperate for the endgame, Caroline picked a full-length mermaid-style gown that hugged her body to the knees and flared at the bottom. She didn’t particularly like the dress, but it was marked down and she wanted to cut her father, about to lose his construction business, some slack. His brand-new gated community on the outskirts of Parker stood almost vacant, swimming pools dark with algae, air conditioner pads empty, condensers stolen for their copper and steel, foreclosure and short sale signs as common as the weeds and thistles growing in the yards. He’s told her he might not be able to pay her tuition after this semester. She should think about applying for a scholarship.

Penelope wrinkled her nose at Caroline’s choice and shook her head. “Heaven sakes, you look like Jessica Simpson in that thing.”

“It’s on sale.”

“Honey, good luck walkin’. How you fixin’ to get up and down those steps by the stage?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll manage.” The dress squeezed her knees together, as if they were wrapped with bungee cords. “Daddy’ll help me.”

Where did her father get the cash for her dress, money for the cotillion fee, plane tickets for sister Meg and her husband to fly in from LA, flowers, favors, Penelope’s dress (not a Vera Wang but a tailored original with hand-sewn beadwork)? When they returned to Parker and he complained to Penelope about the expense, she said, “Why, honey, that’s why they invented MasterCard.”

The Vera Wang required only a few simple alterations. Last week Caroline came home from school on Christmas break and tried it on. The gown hung on her bones like linen on a mummy. Dorm food hadn’t appealed—her freshman fifteen on the minus side. She’d been running eighty-five miles a week training for a marathon. Caroline sneaked the dress to Superior Drycleaners. A Latino woman who worked in the back took it in for her. Snugged the waist too much, she discovered when she picked it up, but it was too late for a do-over.

* * *

            Her daddy extends his right elbow. It’s his moment, not hers. She feels like a 4-Her’s pet sheep being shown at the county fair. She curls her hand around his right bicep, granitelike from years of labor in the blazing Georgia sun. Heart-of-pine boards on the Palladium stage squeak as father and daughter head for the steps to the auditorium floor, squeezing by the other girls and their fathers, her gown so tight she’s forced to take baby steps. Damn if she’ll let Penelope see her struggle. She whispers, “Go slow.” He lifts his hand to steady her as she bends to grab the front of her dress.

The stairs are cloaked in shadows—the Palladium’s overhead lights dark, the only illumination strings of tiny white Christmas lights woven around the wooden trusses. The dimness suits her purposes, if she can only navigate the steep treads. The Cotillion Decorating Committee has conjured a starry post-Christmas fantasy in the rickety Quonset hut. Candles in hurricane lamps with red bows flicker on the tables. Pine boughs give off an aroma that reminds her of a certain cleaning liquid.

            They regroup at the bottom. She lets go of her dress and hooks her arm in his. She wobbles in her three-inch stilettos like a boat pitching in light chop. She tightens her grip on his arm to make sure she doesn’t fall. She can’t recall the last time she wore anything but sandals, flip-flops, or running shoes—New Balance, American-made, her favorites, the ones that helped her cruise to a second-place finish in the state cross-country championship.

Across the room Lorenzo, her new boyfriend from UGA, waves and gives her a thumbs-up. Graduating in the spring, he came to the U.S. from Colombia to study international business. Caroline’s brother, Paul, accused her of dating him with the cotillion in mind, knowing how pissed Penelope would be when Caroline brought a foreigner into the house, a South American with skin slightly darker than her own, not a Negro mind you, but darker all the same. Paul’s wrong about her motives. She’s really into Lorenzo.

Penelope won’t let Lorenzo sleep in Caroline’s room. “I don’t care to know what you do at school, but whatever it is, you’re not doing it under my roof,” she said. Caroline appealed the verdict to her father, but he shrugged and walked away. Maybe Paul’s right about his being pussy-whipped. Caroline made Lorenzo a bed on the couch in her father’s study. In the bustle of the cotillion, they haven’t been able to sneak a minute by themselves. Caroline misses having him in her bed, imagines his fingers brushing her nipples, tracing the contours of her stomach, working their way gently between her thighs. Remembers how she apologized for her small breasts the first time they made love. But not anymore. Lorenzo prefers spare, small-chested women. “Large breasts are such a waste,” he says. Oh, how she wants to believe him.

He reads poetry to her before they make love. Caro and Silva. Speaks in Spanish, then translates to English. Octavio Paz is her favorite. “Contigo (With you)”:

                                                        …The day

                                    is a great clear word

                                    a fluttering of vowels

                                                                        Your breasts

                                    ripen before my eyes

                                                                        My thoughts

                                    are lighter than the air

                                                                        I am real

                                    I see my life and death

                                    The world is true

                                    I see

                                           I inhabit a transparency

 

Lorenzo recites in a voice full of sadness—lingers on every word, every syllable, polishing its surface.

            Three-quarters of the way down the right side of the room, her father clears his throat and whispers, “Doin’ okay?”

            “Guess so, but you were shaking.”

            He chuckles. “That’s a fact. I’m so proud of you is all. You’re the most beautiful girl here.” A lie, of course. Obligatory. Total crap.

            They make a left at the exit sign and head toward the empty buffet tables. She steals a peek at the overflow seats for townspeople who don’t have a young lady in the cotillion. Old folks who may have introduced a daughter to Parker society once upon a time. The rest, gawkers and wannabes with no skin in the game. Half the chairs in the back of the auditorium are empty. Not even a black face. Blacks have their own cotillion, have since the Second World War, she understands.

The music’s not quite as loud back here. She relaxes and glances at her daddy. His shoulders tilt leftward, his right leg longer than its counterpart. This morning he visited Dr. Leeds, his chiropractor, and had an adjustment so his back would make it through the evening. She’s pretty sure her father hates the cotillion as much as she, though he’d never let on. He’s going through the motions for Penelope. Keeping up appearances until his company goes belly-up.

Her father sits in his home office late at night with the lights off. Leaves his cell in a desk drawer and never answers their home phone. Poker club, Saturday morning golf, hunting and fishing with his buddies, weekends up in Atlanta to watch the Braves—all discarded. She wonders what will happen to him when Muchalsky Construction Company, his baby, shuts down. Building is all he knows. “I’ll find something else” is all he’ll say. But he’s fifty-one.

A Coca-Cola machine blinks in the alcove straight ahead. Peach Blossom Catering hustles to pack up their chafing dishes, china, silverware, coffee urns, tableware, serving pieces, and flower arrangements. She wonders what will happen to the uneaten food—fruit and cheese plates, braised beef tips, chicken cordon bleu, asparagus almandine, mixed green salad, potatoes au gratin, sourdough rolls, and crème brûlée. Hopes someone will think to donate the leftovers to a soup kitchen. Plenty of folks in Parker need food these days. If her mother were running the show, she’d make sure it didn’t get wasted.

* * *

            Her mother flew south for the cotillion. Penelope insisted that Mamma stay at the Hampton Inn, as far from them as possible. When Caroline was thirteen, her mother left to teach English at a college in Boston. “Can’t spend another minute in Parker,” she said. “Not a second.” Caroline guessed her mother had no idea what she was getting into when she fell for her father. She attended college in Atlanta because it was as far away from Newton, Massachusetts, as her parents would allow her to go.

            Caroline understood that her parents’ breakup had been inevitable. She supposed that Daddy had quite enough of Mamma, so outspoken and independent, a wife who couldn’t be bothered to cook or clean, who hadn’t set foot in church since Caroline was baptized. A woman who butted into conversations, mocked the Daughters of the Confederacy, and called football “that plague on contemporary civilization.” Penelope is Mamma’s polar opposite, a Southern lady to her core. No wonder she snagged Robert Muchalsky not long after the divorce.

            Unlike her father, Caroline won’t give up on Mamma. If only she were in Caroline’s day-to-day life, her real life, not just graduation and the cotillion. A phone call once or twice a week for openers. How’s school? What have you been up to? Why don’t you fly up to visit me over break? When Caroline broaches the subject, her mother says, “Don’t be so insecure. You know I love you, even if I don’t call all the time.” Now that she’s nineteen, the obligatory visitations called for in the divorce decree completed, Caroline wonders how much time she and her mother will spend together.

            Yesterday Caroline went to see Mamma in her motel room, time stolen away from the bustle of pre-cotillion festivities—luncheons, rehearsals, an interview with the Parker Independent. Mamma’s even thinner than at graduation, Caroline thought as they embraced. Her hair, waist-length during her Parker days, was cropped short, strands of gold and silver parted and combed in a boyish style. Mamma had always favored ball caps over dark glasses and straw hats. Now the corners of her eyes were furrowed from squinting at the sun. Still, from a distance, she looked younger than her forty-eight years.

            They sat cross-legged, opposite one another on the king-size bed. “Paul tells me you have a boyfriend from Colombia.”

            Caroline wondered what Paul might have said. She decided to proceed with caution. “Yes, I do as a matter of fact.”

            “Tell me about him.”

            “Well, he comes from a prominent family in Bogotá…”

            “Not that,” Peggy interrupted. “What does he look like? What color are his eyes?”

            “He has a birthmark on his calf the shape of a dolphin.”

            “The eyes, Caroline.”

            She closed hers. “Black at night, chestnut during the day.”

            “Is he good in bed?”

            “Mamma, please.”

            She insisted that Caroline bring Lorenzo to meet her, brushing aside her daughter’s protest that there wasn’t time. Mid-afternoon before the cotillion, Mamma let them into the room and Caroline introduced Lorenzo.

“My, my, Caroline,” she said. “Aren’t you the lucky one?”

Lorenzo went immediately to her mother’s stack of books on the bed stand. When Caroline was a little girl, Mamma always had a book in her hands. He lifted each one carefully and studied it in turn. A John Cheever biography anchored the bottom of the pile. He leafed through its pages.

“Have you read his stories?” Mamma said.

“A few. Not my cup of tea, as you say in the States. A nasty, ungrateful man, I’ve heard.”

Mamma smiled. “What has that got to do with anything?”

            He shrugged and set the book back on the heap. Sitting in the armchair in the corner of the room, Lorenzo entertained her mother with stories, like the time his father escaped from an ambush in downtown Bogotá. He discovered that Mama knew Spanish, learned it when she lived in Parker because the town had a large population of Mexican immigrants and she volunteered at a food pantry.

Caroline felt left out as they spoke in his native tongue, wishing she’d learned the language in high school when she had the chance. When they were leaving the motel, Mamma tugged Caroline’s arm, pulling her backward, and whispered, “I like this boy, He seems so—well—mysterious.” Halfway down the hall, Lorenzo turned and smiled as if he had heard every word. Backpedaling, he blew Mamma a kiss. They exchanged a few more words in Spanish.

* * *

The Muchalsky family table is twenty feet away, on the left. Whoever printed the invitations misspelled their name, M-u-l-k-a-l-s-k-y. Not even close. Penelope was upset. She thought someone on the Cotillion Committee had done it on purpose. The culprit made sure the engraved cards arrived the day before they had to be mailed so that a correction was impossible. Caroline’s stepmother loves conspiracies. She’s certain George W. Bush took part in planning September 11.

As they approach, Lorenzo and Paul smile at her from opposite ends. Penelope sits beside Father Nick, back straight, hands folded, chin slightly raised. Mama gives Caroline a little wave, barely moving the tips of her fingers, the corsage of white roses her father sent pinned to her lapel. She looks like a lawyer in her gray suit and maroon blouse, as different from Penelope as she could possibly be. Sister Meg and her husband, Tim, are immersed in conversation and don’t even look up.

Caroline exhales as she and her father pass by. They start for the steps on the end of the stage. “Won’t be long now,” he mumbles. Her shoes rub. Blisters have popped on her heels. Seventy, eighty miles a week and she hardly ever gets one. A few hundred feet around this room and her feet are toast. With any luck, this is the last time she’ll ever wear a pair of high heels. She glances at the stage, where the other girls and their fathers await them.

She begins to relax, to congratulate herself for pulling this off, for running the gauntlet and escaping with only sore feet for her troubles. Her father pauses at the bottom of the steps and waits as she teeters upward. He extends a hand to her. She stubs her toe on the top tread and loses her balance. He tries to steady her, grabs for her shoulders, but her skin’s moist and he loses his grip. She falls backward, reaches for his outstretched hand, and barely holds on. His strong arm breaks her fall, but she lands on her tailbone, her dress seam ripping from waist to ankle.

Someone in the crowd shouts, “Is she all right?”

Another voice, possibly Penelope’s, screams, “Call 9-1-1!”

Her father lets go of her hand, bends down, and whispers, “You okay?”

She nods. “My butt stings like it’s about to go numb.” For once she wishes there were a little more meat on the bone. She drops her head to inspect the damage. This fucking dress. Fucking Vera Wang. It’s the last time she’ll ever wear a gown. If she ever marries, it will be in jeans and a T.

Lorenzo and Paul hover at her side. “Can you move?” Lorenzo says. “Did you break anything?”

She shakes her head, more embarrassed than hurt. Nothing in the Cotillion Committee Rules and Regulations tells the young debutante what to do when she lands on her ass.

Paul elbows Lorenzo out of the way. “She needs air. Back off.”

Lorenzo staggers, then regains his balance. A crowd encircles them. She recognizes some of the faces. Father Nick stares down at her, mumbling a prayer, but Caroline’s certain she won’t be needing his services.

Her brother crouches beside her and strokes her hair.

“Paul,” she says, “I’m okay. Lighten up.”

Lorenzo balls his fist, takes a step toward Paul, and stops. Mamma, beside him, grabs onto his wrist. She whispers something in his ear. He relaxes his hand. Mamma’s fingers slip into his.

“Can you get up?” Daddy asks, wrapping his arm around her back.

“Think so.”

Her father lifts her by the armpits. “Easy,” she says. “I’m not a slab of beef.” When she’s on her feet, he pulls her arm over his shoulder and neck and helps her to the table. “I’m not sure I want to sit,” she says, but does so anyway, trying to disappear. Thinks she hears a snicker close by. Then a laugh. People return to their seats and the festivities resume. The master of ceremonies announces, “Laura Pinckard escorted by her father, Stanley.”

Caroline’s bare leg is cold. She tries to hold the seam together, but there’s not enough fabric. She gives up. Paul slips into the chair on one side, her father on the other. “Sure you’re all right?” Paul says.

“Jesus, Paul, come on. I’m fine.”

Mamma wiggles in between them. She bends to her daughter’s ear, rubs her arm, and says, “I’m so glad you’re not hurt.”

“I run ten miles a day and couldn’t make it up the damn steps?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Mamma says. “None of this does. Ten years from now this will be a funny story to tell your children.”

Caroline tries not to look at Penelope, dreads the lecture forthcoming, predictable as her allergies in the spring: I warned you not to buy that dress. Told you it would be difficult to get up and down those steps. For now her stepmother keeps it zipped, but looks like she’s just won the lottery. Father Nick seems disappointed too, as if he regrets Caroline’s body and soul are intact, still a singular unit.

Lorenzo holds Mamma’s chair and scooches her in.

“My—that was exciting,” Penelope says.

Caroline watches the Pinckards as they circle the room, calculates the time it will take for the remaining couples to complete the promenade—twenty minutes, give or take. Twenty minutes until she can flee. Maybe she and Lorenzo will return to Athens tonight. Perhaps this is the last night she’ll ever spend in Parker, Georgia.

After the last pair tours the room, the announcer begins the closing ceremony. Her father looks at her, raises an eyebrow, as if to ask whether she wants to give it another go and join the group onstage. Caroline shakes her head. The class will remain one girl short. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the master of ceremonies intones, “may I present to you the debutantes of the 2011 Cotillion.” The crowd applauds. Cell phones and cameras flash. The ceremony concludes with the announcer’s thank you, on behalf of the debutantes and their families, to all who attended.

Caroline wants to leave immediately, but Penelope insists on pictures. She recruits Lorenzo to take them with her Nikon—a way, Caroline supposes, to make sure he doesn’t appear in their family photos. She puts Caroline in the center of the back row, where the riven bottom half of the Vera Wang doesn’t show, and moves back and forth to view the digital images as Lorenzo snaps them. Half the auditorium is empty by the time Penelope declares she’s satisfied. She’s chairwoman of the cleanup committee, so she pecks her husband on the cheek and tells him not to wait up.

The remaining families mingle, congratulating one another on the evening, how beautiful their daughters look, how this has been the best cotillion ever. As if by unanimous secret ballot, the Muchalsky entourage leaves the building with the most meager of polite good-byes to their friends and neighbors. Caroline closes her eyes and sighs as they pass through the glass doors into the chilly night air. A poster on the side of the building announces tea dances held every Friday night through April. Spotlights on the Second Baptist Church across the street cast shadows that float upon its brick facade.

She’s on her father’s arm again as they walk to the car. He pats her hand. In a strange way she feels sorry for Penelope. Every one of her stepmother’s women friends will want to rehash the evening. We’re so sorry about Caroline. Why did she fall? Is she okay now? Didn’t you warn her about that dress? It looked so uncomfortable. Nothing like that has ever happened at the cotillion. A hundred different conversations, each exactly the same.

In the parking lot Lorenzo turns to Caroline and says, “I’m going to take your mother to the motel. I’ll see you back at the house.” Meg and her husband are a hundred yards away, heading for their rental car. Someone has to drive Mamma, Caroline supposes, but why Lorenzo?

With help from Paul, she climbs into the backseat of her father’s Tahoe. The leather is softer than the wooden chairs in the Palladium, yet her butt still throbs. Maybe she cracked her tailbone after all. She considers asking her father to drop by the emergency room, but decides to see how she feels in the morning.

Paul slides into the passenger seat, and they join the long line waiting to exit the lot. Lorenzo and Mamma are in the queue, two cars in front of them. Headlamps illuminate Lorenzo’s BMW. Backlit, her mother’s hands jump about like a shadow boxer’s.

Paul leans in her direction and says, “Lorenzo and Mamma sure have gotten to be friends in a hurry.”

The remark stings. “Colombian boys are close to their mothers,” she says, not knowing whether it’s true.

“She’s not his mother.”

“Thanks for pointing that out, Paul. I wouldn’t have known.”

The line of cars barely moves. Her father taps the steering wheel and yawns. “Your mother always fancied the new and the different. I suppose that’s why she married me and moved to Parker.”

At home, Paul asks Caroline if she wants to watch Saturday Night Live with him. But she’s had enough comedy for one night.

She changes out of her dress, into jeans, and heads downstairs to her father’s study to wait for Lorenzo. She collapses onto the foldout sofa and awakens an hour and a half later when the garage door whirs open. Footsteps fall upon the stairs, the master bedroom suite doors rattle. Where the hell is Lorenzo? The mantel clock chimes once. Wide awake now, she turns on the floor lamp and looks around. His suitcase is missing.

Sitting at her father’s antique desk, Caroline calls the Hampton Inn and argues with the desk clerk, who refuses to connect her to her mother’s room at the late hour. She tells the clerk it’s an emergency, that she has to speak with her. Eventually, he gives in and puts her through. The phone rings, six, seven, eight times. Finally, a click. Her mother says, “Who is this?” Mamma sounds like she’s awake.

“It’s Caroline. I want to talk to Lorenzo. I know he’s there.” Her wound pulses, counting out the seconds. She imagines her boyfriend in bed with her mother and covers her mouth.

“He’s not here. He dropped me off two hours ago.” Her mother yawns, pretending she’s been awakened.

“You’re lying. I drove over there. I saw his car in the lot.”

“That’s a terrible thing to say.” But her mother doesn’t deny it.

“Mamma, just let me talk to him.”

She hears Lorenzo in the background. They speak in Spanish. “Sorry, Caroline,” her mother says, “he doesn’t want to talk to you.”

“I’ll bet. He’s a coward. When I see him at school, I’m going to kick his skinny Colombian ass.” She picks up her father’s brass letter opener and stabs the MasterCard bill on the corner of his desk.

“You’re overreacting.”

“I don’t think so. Penelope was right about you.”

“Oh come on, it doesn’t mean a thing. Lorenzo and I are just having some fun. We aren’t hurting anyone.”

“How about me?”

“He’ll be going back to Colombia soon, Caroline.”

“Jesus, Mamma, grow up.” She slams the receiver into its cradle and looks for her father’s car keys. She needs to confront Lorenzo tonight. Her mother too. She pops four Advil to relieve her aching butt, then hobbles about the downstairs looking. They’re neither on the kitchen counter, where he usually leaves them, nor on the stand in the hall by the front door. She thinks he has a second set in his desk, but searches the drawers to no avail.

Frustrated, she eases into her daddy’s chair and closes her eyes. Driving to the Hampton Inn is a bad idea anyway. A waste of time and energy. Would it have proved anything, made her feel better? Unlikely. Perhaps she’ll torch the Vera Wang instead. Fire up the patio grill, throw the dress onto the flames, and watch it melt into a charred lump of designer chic. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Now that will improve her mood.

Her father appears at the doorway. Spikes of brown and gray hair porcupine from his head, his eyes slits in muffins of flesh. Alabaster legs peak from beneath the burgundy robe she gave him for Christmas. “Caroline, why on earth are you up? Where’s Lorenzo?”

“With Mamma at the Hampton.”

“I’m so sorry. Your mother…” He drops his chin, finishing the sentence.

“Been looking for your car keys. Thought I’d go over to the motel and raise some hell. Take your shotgun too, if you don’t mind.”

His face brightens. “I’d pay good money to see that.” He tosses his head back, chuckling.

“Want to come with me? I’ll take Lorenzo. You can have Mamma.”

Laughing full bore, he staggers to the sofa, covers his face until he runs out of breath and begins to cough. “Honey, you’re a hoot and a half. I miss you away at college.”

“Me too, Daddy.”

He slaps the couch. “Come sit by me.”

“We’re not going to the Hampton then?”

“Nah. We’ve had enough fun for one night.”

“Dern.” She joins him, nuzzles against his shoulder. Fish sleep in the tank on the bookcase opposite them. “You sit in here all alone with the lights turned off. What’s going on?”

He takes her hand in his and sighs. “Lately it seems my life is running away from me. I can’t catch up.”

“Why’d you do it? The cotillion. Spend money you don’t have. Why didn’t you tell Penelope to bugger off?

His shoulders heave. “Sorry I didn’t catch you.” He pauses, then says, “It was a good night anyway, wasn’t it?”

Caroline realizes her father must believe this. For all her stepmother’s finagling, no matter how he had let it appear like the cotillion was Penelope’s idea, her show, his sacrifice had been for his daughter and her alone. To make a shared memory, his evening and hers. Lorenzo and Mamma be damned. But her mother is right about one thing. The embarrassment of Caroline’s fall will pass. Her tumble will be recorded in the annals of Muchalsky family lore, a tale to entertain children and grandchildren.

“A very special night,” she says, squeezing his hand. “Yes, it was.”

They sit in semi-darkness, elbow to elbow, knee to knee. Neither wishes to switch off the lamp on the corner of the desk, to call it an evening, breaking the current that flows between them. This notion transfixes her—how much her father has tried to shelter her from the disappointments of a lifetime—unhappy years with Mamma and Penelope, his failed business, the melancholy that has overtaken him. And this one too—that he wants her love, not her pity. Soon enough she’ll return to school. Her life will go on as it always has, exactly the same, but forever changed.