The thought of Frank went with me into the bedroom. The sight of the big double bed, smooth and untroubled under its dark blue satin spread, brought him suddenly and vividly to mind, in a way I had not thought of him in many months.
I supposed it was the possibility of impending departure that made me think of him now. This room—this bed, in fact—was where I had said goodbye to him for the last time.
“Can’t you come to bed, Claire? It’s past midnight.” Frank looked up at me over the edge of his book. He was already in bed himself, reading with the book propped upon his knees. The soft pool of light from the lamp made him look as though he were floating in a warm bubble, serenely isolated from the dark chilliness of the rest of the room. It was early January, and despite the furnace’s best efforts, the only truly warm place at night was bed, under heavy blankets.
I smiled at him, and rose from my chair, dropping the heavy wool dressing gown from my shoulders.
“Am I keeping you up? Sorry. Just reliving this morning’s surgery.”
“Yes, I know,” he said dryly. “I can tell by looking at you. Your eyes glaze over and your mouth hangs open.”
“Sorry,” I said again, matching his tone. “I can’t be responsible for what my face is doing when I’m thinking.”
“But what good does thinking do?” he asked, sticking a bookmark in his book. “You’ve done whatever you could—worrying about it now won’t change…ah, well.” He shrugged irritably and closed the book. “I’ve said it all before.”
“You have,” I said shortly.
I got into bed, shivering slightly, and tucked my gown down round my legs. Frank scooted automatically in my direction, and I slid down under the sheets beside him, huddling together to pool our warmth against the cold.
“Oh, wait; I’ve got to move the phone.” I flung back the covers and scrambled out again, to move the phone from Frank’s side of the bed to mine. He liked to sit in bed in the early evening, chatting with students and colleagues while I read or made surgical notes beside him, but he resented being wakened by the late calls that came from the hospital for me. Resented it enough that I had arranged for the hospital to call only for absolute emergencies, or when I left instructions to keep me informed of a specific patient’s progress. Tonight I had left instructions; it was a tricky bowel resection. If things went wrong, I might have to go back in in a hurry.
Frank grunted as I turned out the light and slipped into bed again, but after a moment, he rolled toward me, throwing an arm across my middle. I rolled onto my side and curled against him, gradually relaxing as my chilled toes thawed.
I mentally replayed the details of the operation, feeling again the chill at my feet from the refrigeration in the operating room and the initial, unsettling feeling of the warmth in the patient’s belly as my gloved fingers slid inside. The diseased bowel itself, coiled like a viper, patterned with the purple splotches of ecchymosis and the slow leakage of bright blood from tiny ruptures.
“I’d been thinking.” Frank’s voice came out of the darkness behind me, excessively casual.
“Mm?” I was still absorbed in the vision of the surgery, but struggled to pull myself back to the present. “About what?”
“My sabbatical.” His leave from the university was due to start in a month. He had planned to make a series of short trips through the northeastern United States, gathering material, then go to England for six months, returning to Boston to spend the last three months of the sabbatical writing.
“I’d thought of going to England straight off,” he said carefully.
“Well, why not? The weather will be dreadful, but if you’re going to spend most of the time in libraries…”
“I want to take Brianna with me.”
I stopped dead, the cold in the room suddenly coalescing into a small lump of suspicion in the pit of my stomach.
“She can’t go now; she’s only a semester from graduation. Surely you can wait until we can join you in the summer? I’ve put in for a long vacation then, and perhaps…”
“I’m going now. For good. Without you.”
I pulled away and sat up, turning on the light. Frank lay blinking up at me, dark hair disheveled. It had gone gray at the temples, giving him a distinguished air that seemed to have alarming effects on the more susceptible of his female students. I felt quite astonishingly composed.
“Why now, all of a sudden? The latest one putting pressure on you, is she?”
The look of alarm that flashed into his eyes was so pronounced as to be comical. I laughed, with a noticeable lack of humor.
“You actually thought I didn’t know? God, Frank! You are the most…oblivious man!”
He sat up in bed, jaw tight.
“I thought I had been most discreet.”
“You may have been at that,” I said sardonically. “I counted six over the last ten years—if there were really a dozen or so, then you were quite the model of discretion.”
His face seldom showed great emotion, but a whitening beside his mouth told me that he was very angry indeed.
“This one must be something special,” I said, folding my arms and leaning back against the headboard in assumed casualness. “But still—why the rush to go to England now, and why take Bree?”
“She can go to boarding school for her last term,” he said shortly. “Be a new experience for her.”
“Not one I expect she wants,” I said. “She won’t want to leave her friends, especially not just before graduation. And certainly not to go to an English boarding school!” I shuddered at the thought. I had come within inches of being immured in just such a school as a child; the scent of the hospital cafeteria sometimes evoked memories of it, complete with the waves of terrified helplessness I had felt when Uncle Lamb had taken me to visit the place.
“A little discipline never hurt anyone,” Frank said. He had recovered his temper, but the lines of his face were still tight. “Might have done you some good.” He waved a hand, dismissing the topic. “Let that be. Still, I’ve decided to go back to England permanently. I’ve a good position offered at Cambridge, and I mean to take it up. You won’t leave the hospital, of course. But I don’t mean to leave my daughter behind.”
“Your daughter?” I felt momentarily incapable of speech. So he had a new job all set, and a new mistress to go along. He’d been planning this for some time, then. A whole new life—but not with Brianna.
“My daughter,” he said calmly. “You can come to visit whenever you like, of course…”
“You…bloody…bastard!” I said.
“Do be reasonable, Claire.” He looked down his nose, giving me Treatment A, long-suffering patience, reserved for students appealing failing grades. “You’re scarcely ever home. If I’m gone, there will be no one to look after Bree properly.”
“You talk as though she’s eight, not almost eighteen! For heaven’s sake, she’s nearly grown.”
“All the more reason she needs care and supervision,” he snapped. “If you’d seen what I’d seen at the university—the drinking, the drugging, the…”
“I do see it,” I said through my teeth. “At fairly close range in the emergency room. Bree is not likely to—”
“She damn well is! Girls have no sense at that age—she’ll be off with the first fellow who—”
“Don’t be idiotic! Bree’s very sensible. Besides, all young people experiment, that’s how they learn. You can’t keep her swaddled in cotton wool all her life.”
“Better swaddled than f**king a black man!” he shot back. A mottled red showed faintly over his cheekbones. “Like mother, like daughter, eh? But that’s not how it’s going to be, damn it, not if I’ve anything to say about it!”
I heaved out of bed and stood up, glaring down at him.
“You,” I said, “have not got one bloody, filthy, stinking thing to say, about Bree or anything else!” I was trembling with rage, and had to press my fists into the sides of my legs to keep from striking him. “You have the absolute, unmitigated gall to tell me that you are leaving me to live with the latest of a succession of mistresses, and then imply that I have been having an affair with Joe Abernathy? That is what you mean, isn’t it?”
He had the grace to lower his eyes slightly.
“Everyone thinks you have,” he muttered. “You spend all your time with the man. It’s the same thing, so far as Bree is concerned. Dragging her into…situations, where she’s exposed to danger, and…and to those sorts of people…”
“Black people, I suppose you mean?”
“I damn well do,” he said, looking up at me with eyes flashing. “It’s bad enough to have the Abernathys to parties all the time, though at least he’s educated. But that obese person I met at their house with the tribal tattoos and the mud in his hair? That repulsive lounge lizard with the oily voice? And young Abernathy’s taken to hanging round Bree day and night, taking her to marches and rallies and orgies in low dives…”
“I shouldn’t think there are any high dives,” I said, repressing an inappropriate urge to laugh at Frank’s unkind but accurate assessment of two of Leonard Abernathy’s more outré friends. “Did you know Lenny’s taken to calling himself Muhammad Ishmael Shabazz now?”
“Yes, he told me,” he said shortly, “and I am taking no risk of having my daughter become Mrs. Shabazz.”
“I don’t think Bree feels that way about Lenny,” I assured him, struggling to suppress my irritation.
“She isn’t going to, either. She’s going to England with me.”
“Not if she doesn’t want to,” I said, with great finality.
No doubt feeling that his position put him at a disadvantage, Frank climbed out of bed and began groping for his slippers.
“I don’t need your permission to take my daughter to England,” he said. “And Bree’s still a minor; she’ll go where I say. I’d appreciate it if you’d find her medical records; the new school will need them.”
“Your daughter?” I said again. I vaguely noticed the chill in the room, but was so angry that I felt hot all over. “Bree’s my daughter, and you’ll take her bloody nowhere!”
“You can’t stop me,” he pointed out, with aggravating calmness, picking up his dressing gown from the foot of the bed.
“The hell I can’t,” I said. “You want to divorce me? Fine. Use any grounds you like—with the exception of adultery, which you can’t prove, because it doesn’t exist. But if you try to take Bree away with you, I’ll have a thing or two to say about adultery. Do you want to know how many of your discarded mistresses have come to see me, to ask me to give you up?”
His mouth hung open in shock.