That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo


  • • •

  Kelsey Apple, the bride, had been Laura’s best friend through middle school, back in L.A. Laura’s had been the more dominant personality, or so it had seemed to Griffin. Wherever she was, that’s where Kelsey had to be, and whatever she had was what Kelsey wanted, including Griffin and Joy for her parents. Her own were dour and dull, her father some sort of bean counter for a movie studio, her mother religious. “It’s so weird being in your house,” Kelsey once told Laura. “Your parents, like, actually talk to each other. You can tell they still have sex.”

  When Griffin accepted the teaching position back East, they feared Laura would be devastated to leave her L.A. life and friends, but it was Kelsey who’d come unglued at the news. “You can’t,” she told Laura matter-of-factly as they walked home from school, as if that declaration meant the end of the discussion. That evening after dinner, Mrs. Apple had called the Griffins to say that Kelsey had pitched the mother of all fits and locked herself in her room. Could Laura maybe come over and reassure her that their moving to Connecticut wouldn’t mean the end of the girls’ friendship, that they could still write and even talk on the phone? Joy had gone along with Laura for moral support and also ended up talking to Kelsey through her locked bedroom door, a conversation that quickly devolved into a negotiation. Of course Kelsey and Laura wouldn’t lose touch, and of course they could talk on the phone each and every week, and of course Laura wasn’t going to go out and find a new best friend and replace her. And next summer (Joy had to promise this, too, not just Laura) Kelsey could come visit them in their new home and stay as long as she wanted. Leaving no stone unturned, Kelsey then insisted both her parents join them in the crowded hallway, grant their permission and promise they’d somehow find money for the trip. Only then did she open the door and embrace her friend. “I’d still rather you wouldn’t,” she told Laura, clearly suffering buyer’s remorse now that the deal had finally been struck. Walking home Laura confided to Joy that she was just as happy to be moving far away, that Kelsey’s friendship, always needy, was becoming impossible.

  New England was different, though, and she found it tough sledding in her new high school. The cliques were long established, and since Laura wasn’t the type to crash them, she spent most of her free time babysitting and wishing she had a best friend again, even a needy one. Kelsey visited for two weeks that summer, and after that first year’s separation both girls seemed profoundly happy together. Kelsey had a boyfriend now, Robbie, but he was from her mother’s church and he thought he might become a minister, so in some respects it was a lot like not having a boyfriend. She told Laura she was thinking she’d break up with him as soon as she got back to L.A., though then again maybe she’d wait until she had someone to replace him. The following summer, when she visited again, Kelsey was still with Robbie, who now was pretty sure, at least when they were necking in the backseat of his parents’ car, that he didn’t have a vocation after all. It wasn’t until junior year that Laura got a boyfriend, the son of one of Griffin’s colleagues, and this ended her isolation, because being a couple allowed them access into the same social circles where they’d been unwelcome as singles.

  That was also the year of college applications, and Kelsey frequently called to ask what schools Laura had visited the weekend before, which had impressed her the most, how she was leaning. She wanted desperately to apply back East herself, but her parents said she had to stay in California, in the state university system. Private schools were out of the question. Which they would have been for Laura but for the generous tuition-reimbursement program offered by Griffin’s college.

  By the fall of her senior year Laura had settled on Skidmore College. Jonathan, her boyfriend, applied there as well, though not early admission as Laura had and expected him to. His parents wanted him to keep his options open, he explained, but she was worried there might be more to it, that maybe those options weren’t just academic. Worse, what if that wasn’t really his parents’ idea but his own? Griffin didn’t say anything, though he feared she might be right. Jonathan’s father struck him as a careerist who was using his present position as a stepping stone to a better one at a research university. He’d even asked him for a letter of recommendation earlier that year, stressing the necessity for secrecy. If Griffin was right—and he was reasonably confident of his ability to recognize academic snobbery and ambition when he saw it—then the apple hadn’t fallen very far from the tree. Laura was deeply in love with Jonathan, though, and while he undoubtedly cared for her, she was afraid that maybe he wasn’t quite as much in love with her as she with him. The harder she tried to find out, the more elusive and distant he became. When she got the good news about Skidmore, he was happy for her, but she thought maybe he was also relieved to know that her decision had been made, that she wouldn’t be able to wait and see where he was going. When he applied to eight schools and got in everywhere except Skidmore, Laura tearfully confessed to her mother that she suspected he’d withdrawn his application there. “You should give Kelsey a call,” Joy had suggested, hoping to cheer her up. “See how things are shaping up for her.”

  Laura said she would but never did. She’d told Kelsey too much about Jonathan and didn’t want to confess the extent of her broken heart. In fact, they didn’t talk until late that spring, when her friend called with exciting news. She hadn’t called earlier, she explained, because she was waiting to hear what kind of financial package her favorite school would offer, but she’d just learned today that she, too, would be enrolling at Skidmore. The other reason she hadn’t called was that she’d been down in the dumps since Christmas, when she’d spent the holidays wondering whether to break up with Robbie, only to have him break up with her. All that backseat groping had caused him to backslide into the church. He’d confessed to his pastor that he was pretty sure he and Kelsey would have sex soon (she told Laura his optimistic anxiety on that score was entirely unwarranted), and the pastor had said that breaking up was definitely the right thing to do. So for now she was dating a boy who was really more of a friend, someone there was no danger of getting serious about. Laura knew him, actually. Did she remember Sunny Kim? Probably not, but he remembered Laura and was always asking about her.

  Of course Laura did remember both Sunny and his family. Mr. Kim was an engineer who’d thrived since arriving in America. Mrs. Kim didn’t work outside the home and in fact seldom left it. Griffin remembered Sunny, the oldest of their half-dozen children, as a well-mannered boy, prematurely adult and serious. He wasn’t allowed to play sports or join clubs. When school let out Mrs. Kim was always there at the curb with a wagonful of well-behaved little Kims, the two youngest still strapped into car seats. Years before, Joy and Kelsey’s mother had invited Mrs. Kim to join their car pool, since the three families lived within a few blocks of one another. But she’d declined, saying in fractured but earnest English that transportation was her duty and her husband wouldn’t approve of her sharing it. She wasn’t unfriendly, though, and seemed, if not tempted by their offer, at least grateful for it. Determined to raise their children as Koreans, the Kims apparently feared all American influences, as if Southern California culture itself were rooted in decadence and corruption, which—admit it—didn’t exactly make them fools. That Sunny also wasn’t allowed to ask girls out made Laura guiltily glad, because she knew he had a crush on her.

  It was interesting that later, when they finally relaxed a bit and let Sunny date, he chose (or was it his mother?) the daughter of one of the women who’d been kind to Mrs. Kim so long ago. Laura suspected that the real reason he dated Kelsey was that he knew she and Laura were still friends. Sometimes they’d talk for a good half hour on the phone and then, just before hanging up, Kelsey would say, as if in afterthought, “Oh, Sunny says hi,” and Laura would realize that he’d been there all along, waiting patiently to be acknowledged, for his name to be introduced into the record, anxious not to be completely forgotten. When Kelsey headed east to join Laura at Skidmore,
Sunny enrolled at Stanford, where he’d earned a full scholarship. “Do you think Sunny’s gay?” Kelsey inquired idly one day, as if this happy possibility had just occurred to her. They’d dated throughout senior year, and Sunny, though always attentive and eager to please, had never even tried to kiss her. She hadn’t wanted him to, exactly, but still. Now, at Stanford, he apparently wasn’t dating.

  “No,” Laura told her, “Sunny’s not gay.”

  What he was, at Stanford, was poor. He had the scholarship, sure, but he also worked two part-time jobs. His father, a stereotypical Asian workaholic, had fallen ill that summer and had to have an operation. Afterward, he’d gone back to his job too soon and gotten sick again, a pattern that was to recur during Sunny’s college years. “Is it okay if I give Sunny your e-mail address?” Kelsey asked one day during their spring semester. He’d been writing her every week, long e-mail letters that made her feel guilty about the brief ones she sent in return, so guilty that she’d solved the problem by responding only to every second or third letter, and it would be good to have someone to share the burden. “Besides,” she told Laura, “he keeps asking about you.”

  Laura said that of course it was okay, but for some reason Sunny didn’t write. Probably, she decided, he was just as shy as he’d been in middle school, always standing awkwardly off on the periphery of things, never willing to put himself forward. So after a couple weeks she wrote him instead, asking how he was, how his classes were going, whether there was a girl in his life yet. By evening he’d responded—good, fine and no. But he was very happy to hear from her. Yes, Kelsey had given him her address, though he hadn’t been sure she’d remember him after so many years. Still, since she’d been so kind, would she mind if he wrote her occasionally and promised not to do it too often? He knew how busy she must be, and of course she wouldn’t be under any obligation to reply.

  “Excellent!” Kelsey said when Laura told her about all this. “Now he’s yours, which is only fair. I dated him. This is the least you can do.”

  And so the two began a correspondence. Every couple weeks Laura would receive a newsy e-mail and wait a few days before writing back, not wanting to give him the wrong impression, though in fact she did enjoy hearing about his family, his classes, his part-time jobs. Gradually she learned to read between the lines, factoring in Sunny’s modesty (he wasn’t doing “okay” in his classes, but brilliantly), his optimism (his father’s condition wasn’t likely to “improve soon,” but rather would continue its decline), his stoicism (he was friendly with several of his professors, meaning he had no other friends). His classes had many attractive and intelligent girls, he admitted, but most were spoken for and, besides, his mother was determined that when the time came he should marry a Korean girl and bring her to this country. For this precise purpose she’d kept in touch with friends from the old country who had daughters roughly Sunny’s age. He wasn’t in favor of this plan, he confessed, but until such time as he should fall in love with a girl who loved him back, he saw no reason to bring his mother un-happiness by refusing to consider the possibility of a Korean wife.

  Laura’s e-mails to Sunny were far less circumspect. She was enjoying college and doing well, but she confided to him that she and Kelsey were going through a rough patch in their friendship. Kelsey had originally suggested they room together, and her feelings were hurt when Laura, who was still ambivalent about her being there, said they should probably be meeting new people. To her surprise, though, Kelsey proved more adept at making friends than she was, and by the end of September she had a new boyfriend and had pledged a sorority. Laura began to sense that the shoe of neediness was now inexplicably on the other foot. At the beginning of the spring semester, when Kelsey asked if she wanted to pledge her sorority, Laura said she didn’t think so, but the way Kelsey just shrugged and said “Fine” made her wonder if she wasn’t relieved.

  Laura also confessed to Sunny that she was still in love with Jonathan, who’d gone off to a midwestern university. Worse, his father had published a well-reviewed book that won him a job at an Ivy League school, and the family had moved, which meant she wouldn’t be seeing him even on vacations. Most of the boys she’d met at Skidmore were wealthy city brats majoring in alcoholism who saw no reason to waste time on a girl who wasn’t going to put out, not when the next girl would. Kelsey is lucky to have you for a friend, Sunny wrote back. And you are right not to give in to social pressure. You’re too special. That made her feel guilty, detailing her own brokenheartedness to a boy who she suspected was himself brokenhearted over her.

  Much as Sunny liked to write long e-mails, he had little use for instant messaging. Most of her college friends—Kelsey in particular—were on IM every night with a dozen friends all over the country. Laura, wary of the habit, tried to stay off-line except on weekends. Sunny agreed that it wasted time, but he had another reservation, too. I like to think about what I say, he explained. When I speak impulsively, I sometimes say foolish things. She’d noted, of course, that his communications were formal to the point of stylistic stiffness, that he never contracted words or used slang or made grammatical errors, but she’d attributed this to the combination of his brilliance and cultural upbringing. Eventually she began to suspect that he not only wrote carefully but also revised again and again. The reason he didn’t write more often (as he’d done with Kelsey) was that every letter had to be perfect. It was the instant in instant messaging that frightened him, and himself he distrusted. You need to loosen up, Laura wrote him. So what if you say something dumb? It’s just me. We’re friends. I say dumb things all the time.

  No, he wrote back in his next long letter. You never say dumb things.

  One Sunday night Laura awoke before dawn, as she often did on days when she had a big exam or presentation. She’d forgotten to turn her computer off the night before, and now noticed that Sunny was online. She’d put him on her IM buddy list, but until that moment he’d never actually used it.

  Sunny, is that you? In California it was 2:00 a.m., not so very late for a college student, but still.

  Then, after a long beat: Laura?

  How are you?

  An even longer beat, then: A terrible thing has happened. My brother has been arrested.

  Laura watched the blinking cursor and had just about concluded that he wasn’t going to say anything more when words started flying onto the screen in a torrent. His brother and a friend had broken into a house in Beverly Hills. A girl they’d met at a club lived there and told them no one would be home. She was angry with her parents, who’d left for Europe without her, fobbing her off on an aunt in Brentwood for a whole month. She’d given Sunny’s brother the security code and told him to take everything. Except it turned out she didn’t really live there, that the people who did weren’t her parents and weren’t in Europe, that the code she’d given them didn’t even have the right number of digits. Sunny’s parents had had to borrow money against their house to get his brother out of jail. The story had been in the newspaper, the family disgraced. Sunny was afraid his father, his health precarious as always, might now take his life for the shame of it. His mother was talking about moving back to Korea. She wanted Sunny to leave Stanford immediately and come home.

  Your brother has disgraced himself, not you, not your family, Laura wrote. If you leave Stanford I’ll never forgive you.

  Again, she watched the blinking cursor for a long time. Finally, he came back. You are right, of course. May I tell my mother you said this?

  I hope you will.

  Please don’t tell Kelsey

  Of course I won’t, she promised. Hey, you know what? I’m proud of you. You wrote a spontaneous message. It contained actual mistakes, a misspelling, even. You can rest easy, though. You didn’t say anything foolish.

  He wrote back, The thing I wanted to write but did not… that was the foolish thing.

  Laura didn’t have to ask what that thing was.

  “I’ll tell you, but only if you promise no
t to judge me too harshly,” Sunny told Joy when she asked what he was doing in D.C. The day had turned hot, and Griffin took off his sport coat and loosened his tie. Guests were now gathered on the lawn, waiting for the wedding party to emerge from the hotel. Sunny had walked with them to the last row of folding chairs when Joy waved him over, giving her a graceful kiss on the cheek and shaking Griffin’s hand with firm forthrightness, though neither gesture should have been particularly surprising. The kid had graduated from Stanford, after all, then gone to law school at Georgetown, so there was no reason for him to be shy or awkward anymore. “I’ve become two terrible things,” he said with a wry grin. “A lawyer and a lobbyist.”

  Though not so very terrible, of course. Under cross-examination Sunny confessed that he worked for a liberal law firm that handled public-interest litigation. He himself was one of its immigration specialists.

  “I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you at the restaurant last night,” Griffin said.

  “I should’ve introduced myself,” Sunny told him. “I was pretty sure it was you, but when I didn’t see Mrs. Griffin …”

  The last time Griffin had seen him was at Laura’s thirteenth birthday party. Joy had had to banish him from the kitchen, where he wanted to be put to work. “You’re a guest,” she told him. “Join the others and have fun.” The one thing the poor boy had no clue how to do.

  “I wish it would get dark,” Griffin recalled telling Joy. “I can’t bear to watch this.”

  As instructed, Sunny had joined the others on the patio but seemed to have little in common with the other boys, who’d congregated, as boys will, near the food, strutting and joking and pushing and checking out the giggling girls who’d cleverly staked out the punch bowl. Sunny had positioned himself in the middle, as if he represented a third gender, smiling broadly at nothing in particular, his head bobbing arrhythmically to the horrible boy-band music, pretending, Griffin was sure, to enjoy himself.

 
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