Be True to Me — Chapter 1 (Excerpt)
My breath pitched and fell rough as the water itself. I’d always been a strong swimmer; for as long as I’d been alive, I had connected with the flow of every sport I’d ever tried. But this wasn’t a sport; this was nature. Nature had its own rules, and the ocean was against me.
I wouldn’t make it. I wasn’t going to make it.
But I couldn’t believe it, either. I didn’t lose at these things.
“Gil!” I called over my shoulder.
It never occurred to me that he wouldn’t be there.
. . . the truth itself seemed like a tiny detail.
My older sister had the face I always wanted. Elegantly elfin, with a nose like a Valentine silhouette. But she didn’t stop at pretty; Daphne also looked decisive. You could see at a glance that here was a girl who had strong tastes in shoes and music and what should be poured into a flask before a tailgate party during Homecoming Weekend.
Ever since I was little, I’d thought that if I looked more like Daphne, people would understand what I was all about. Because I was every bit as sure of what I wanted. I just never came across that way.
Tonight, I’d been sprawled across her bed, watching her pack for Barcelona. Shoulders back, chin tilted, frowning slightly, she’d hold a dress against her lanky frame and then I’d wait for her firm yes or no. I was in charge of taking the noes back to her closet. Sometimes she’d ask my opinion, as if it counted.
“Does this match my hair?” Daphne’s hair: a drop of strawberry in straw-gold blond. Parted clean, cut neat to the chin.
This was a nautical mini dress with large covered blue buttons.
“Yes. It looks perfect on you. You can wear it on the Fourth.”
“They won’t be celebrating that in Spain. Anyway, the buttons are tacky.” She tossed it to me. “Mom’s taste, of course.”
Did Daphne act the way she looked or did she look the way
she acted? I picked up her toiletry kit, precisely organized with her shampoo and roll-on, her bottle of Nair depilatory and her pots of Magic Gloss. There was also some loose jewelry, including my earrings.
“Hey, Daph. These are mine.”
She snatched up the kit and slapped me away. “Jean, don’t be pesky. I bought those earrings at campus crafts fair last semester. Now go get my quilted wraparound.”
I slid off the bed. Daphne’s wardrobe took up the extra closet in the hall between us. By the time I’d returned with the skirt, she’d screwed in the earrings. My chest constricted. Daphne was already a knockout. I was the one who needed killer earrings — at least for tonight, when everyone would notice us together and compare us.
Now I saw myself reflected in Daphne’s bureau mirror, my hair a dark blond cloud, my face doughy and uncertain — I favored the Danielsen side, my mother always sadly decreed, blaming her Nordic bloodline, although she herself had managed to escape its curse of a thick waist and eggshell-pale skin.
“I can’t believe you just put those on.”
“They’re mine, Jean.”
My heart raced with the unfairness. “When you’re asleep,” I
said, “I’m going to sneak into your suitcase and take them back.”
She flicked her fingers at me. “Go ahead. And then I’ll check for them in the morning, and if they’re gone, we can fight about it. And Mom and Dad will get upset and make one of us fork them over. But either way — you’ll know you were wrong. And eventually, your stupid behavior will upset you, and you’ll call me one night in Barcelona, probably way too late and waking me up, apologizing, trying to get me to believe it was an honest mistake.”
My face went hot. That did sound like me. “You don’t know anything.”
“I know you spend half your time doing stuff that you spend the other half regretting.”
My sister’s voice was lower and sharper than mine. It made the things she said sound too important.
“I’m sick of being your handmaiden,” I said, and slammed out.
But I regretted this move immediately. My own room looked so empty after Daphne’s, which was always such a fun, popular-girl party of Dingo boots and silk scarves and Vogue magazines and ticket stubs. I searched my closet halfheartedly for something to wear tonight. Not that it mattered. All eyes and ears would be on Daphne and her glamorous summer plans for studying in Spain.
The Cool one or the Other one? The Pretty one or the Other one? The Foxy one or the Other one? Everyone said it. Maybe they didn’t say it to my face. But the comparison was always in their eyes. I was glad my sister wasn’t coming with us to Sunken Haven. Even when we got along, we were siblings, officially positioned and divided as rivals.
A whole summer of no Daphne felt too good to be true.
Changed into a fresh dress, the one I’d worn to Bertie Forsythe’s senior spring formal at Choate, I still wasn’t any match for her. I was the plainer, heavier Other Custis Sister.
And it was cruel of Daph to take my earrings. It was like she was saying I didn’t deserve them.
The doorbell buzzed. The first guests had arrived. I heard the caterers sweeping in and out of our kitchen, circulating trays. Dad put on a jazz record, and Mom was squealing hellos and darlings. There was a soft click next door as Daphne sailed out. I stayed hidden with my paperback copy of Looking for Mr. Goodbar for another half hour or so. Then I crept unnoticed into the living room, where the bon voyage was in full swing.
Friends and neighbors were scooping hors d’oeuvres and speeding through Chablis. Mom was holding court by the living room windows. Dad poured highballs at the bar cart.
From a passing tray, I took the single glass of white wine that my parents let me have at cocktail parties, and I stayed on the edges. I watched my earrings twinkle, hypnotic, in Daphne’s ears. It burned me up. I should do something. I gulped the wine and gave it a couple of minutes to buzz through me.
Good grief, maybe I would do something! Lightheaded, I plunged through the crowd.
“Oh, my gosh!” My voice broke through to Daphne and her group of admirers, including my godfather, Carpie Burke, damply overheated in his summer suit. “You found my earrings!”
Daphne’s smile went stale. Her finger touched an earlobe. “Jeanie has been hounding me about these.”
“They were in my Christmas stocking,” I explained, though nobody had asked, “and they mysteriously disappeared the same day.”
“Santa would want us to share. Listen, you can borrow them anytime, okay, Sis?” Daphne’s glib party voice only made me madder.
“Ha, now that’s interesting. Borrowing my own jewelry!”
“I don’t think we’ve been introduced.” The young man standing next to Carpie had a Southern accent and an amused tone, as if I were saying charming things that made him want to get to know me better, instead of barking accusations at my sister.
“This is my goddaughter, Jean,” said Carpie loud and quick. “And Jean, I’d like you to meet my nephew, Gil Burke. In fact, this is why I brought him out tonight. To get to know some of the young Sunken Haven set.”
“How do you do, Jean?” The direct, unexpected lock of Gil Burke’s eyes on me turned my mind blank with surprise, as he extended his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Hello.” I tried not to stare. I felt dizzy. Why’d I drink that wine so fast? Carpie’s nephew? Yes, I saw that. But Gil was the handsome, athletic version. His eyes were the warm brown of Dad’s favorite bourbon, and his skin glowed like he’d just stepped out of the sun. He looked like a person who’d be happier in general to be outdoors.
Shy as I felt, I didn’t stop staring. Beside me, Daphne laughed. I was acting awkward but I couldn’t help it.
“Gil’s done some good work at the firm this spring. Next week, he’s coming out to Sunken Haven, and he’s staying at the house with Weeze, Junior, and me. You’ll show him how we do things there, won’t you, Jeanie?”
Gil hadn’t let go of my hand. Once I’d read that party handshakes were icy because in moments of social stress, the blood flow pumped into more important organs. But Gil Burke’s hand was all heat. I was sorry when he finally let go. “If you’re Carpie’s nephew, then why haven’t we met before?” I asked. “The Burkes are practically family.”
“I’m on the hillbilly branch of the Burke family tree.” Was he being serious? His lips held a jokester’s quirk.
“Gil’s and my birthdays are the same year, four days apart,” said Daphne. That meant Gil was nineteen — a new nineteen, because Daphne’s birthday was last month. I’d turned seventeen in December, so Gil wasn’t too old for me — but he was also fair game for Daphne, and if she wanted him, I’d never get him.
I hoped Gil knew she was leaving tomorrow for Spain.
“You better give those back before you leave for Spain tomorrow for the whole, entire summer,” I said. Then I reached over, my hand raised like a slap, and batted at an earring.
Daphne squealed and hopped. Her fingers cupped her ears.
“Jeanie, my girl,” said Carpie. “Fighting is for sandboxes.”
When I made another snatch for them, Gil’s laugh and “Easy” as he caught my arm stopped me. But his smile was kind. “You’re a wild card, huh?”
“Daphne’s a liar.”
“Oh, please, Jean. I really — I can’t handle your childish impulses tonight.” With a parting glance of pitying contempt, Daphne left us. By then, Carpie had also smoothly redirected himself across the room, probably in search of more adult company.
“She pushes my buttons,” I confessed to Gil once we were alone. “I don’t know what comes over me.”
“Except you’re the one Uncle Carp wants to teach me the straight dope on Sunken Haven, am I right?”
“I guess so.” Only because Daphne would be abroad. I didn’t say that. I was conscious of how hard we were staring at each other.
“I need to split, go get a real dinner,” said Gil. “Want to join? Can you recommend anywhere?”
“Oh! Sure.” My heart tripped at the unexpectedness of his suggestion. “How about Hollander’s?”
“You and me? Hollander’s? That bar is legend.” Gil’s voice dropped. “Think you can get us in?”
“Easy.” Could I? I’d never gotten in without Daphne.
“Then let’s bust outta here.”
“I’ll check with Mom.” Quickly I glanced over at the other side of the room, where Mom and her friends were still close to the windows. “They’re spying on Baryshnikov.”
“Mikhail Baryshnikov. He’s that ballet dancer who defected from Russia. Now he lives across the street. Every night he walks his poodle.” I turned. “She’ll say I have to be home by ten thirty.”
“You can go anywhere in the city, so long as you’re home by ten thirty?”
“I’m not going anywhere bad.”
“Right. Just illegally, into bars. ‘I must file this under Crazy Pastimes of Young Citizens of New York.’ ” Gil had switched into a Russian accent. “ ‘You are not merely cute girl. You are valuable KGB information source.’ ”
“Buy me a beer, and I’ll spill all my secrets.” Cute girl? Did Gil Burke really think I was cute?
I was glad Daphne was on the other side of the room, so she didn’t see us leave. But once we were in the elevator, I could hardly look at Gil. My throat felt dry with nerves. On the curb, Jimmy, the doorman, whistled for a cab and then slammed us inside it. This was a date, right? Wasn’t it? I didn’t have much to compare. My school-year social life was meet-ups at Lexington Candy Shop or the Regal Theater. My summer social life was Bertie Forsythe, who otherwise I only saw when I attended his boarding school’s formals weekends.
Tonight felt completely different from any of those excursions.
Gil seemed relaxed. “The life of Miss Jean Custis!” he said. “The Upper East Side apartment. Happy summers at this mysterious Sunken Haven. Let me guess: You have a ski pad, too?”
I laughed. “Just a time-share in Stowe. You make us sound too glamorous! My parents are the last word in dull.”
“Oh, Mumsie! Oh, Daddykins! So very ho-hum!” Gil flicked my arm. My skin tingled at the mark.
“Where are you from, anyway?” I shifted down in my seat to stare at Gil at an uptilt. My Dalton friends and I had practiced our cab angles on each other. It had been decided that I looked cutest on an up-tilt. “I mean, where is your accent from?”
“Elmore, Alabama. I’m a transplant.”
“I came up to City College this year. Let’s just say Uncle Carp’s taken an interest since I got straight As. Found me a job clerking at his firm, and now he wants to transfer me into his alma mater, Columbia. He’s been like family.”
“Well, probably because he is family! Do you get along with Junior?” I couldn’t help but make a face. Junior Burke was Carpie’s awful son, a year older than I was. The Burkes had tried and failed to fix up Daphne or me with Junior for years, but no dice. Gil was a whole other story. The Burkes would be able to set up Gil with any girl in a heartbeat.
How lucky that I’d got to him first!
“Funny thing about Junior,” said Gil, “but I haven’t even met him yet. Last week, he went straight from Syracuse to a week of sailing camp. I’ll meet him when he gets back.”
“But isn’t Junior your first cousin? That’s pretty close family, I’d say.”
“I never met any of the Burkes till I moved here.”
“What? In your whole life?”
“My folks and Uncle Carp don’t get along.”
Gil’s expression was complicated. “Uncle Carp hasn’t had much to do with us, is all I meant.”
“It’s funny, because for us, the Burkes have always seemed like relatives.”
“Funny,” Gil repeated, but it was clear he didn’t think so. I’d blundered.
Thursday night at Hollander’s. Through the windows, the bar looked packed. Kids were pressed around the outside entrance as usual, hoping for the magic nod from Jack Hollander that would admit them.
“I’m not dressed right,” said Gil. “I look uptight in this suit.”
“You look cool.” Though among the shaggy-headed boys in their summer khakis and sockless loafers, Gil did look formal in his button-down and blazer.
“If we need to take off,” he said, “I know a diner in Hell’s Kitchen where the batter-fried onion rings — ”
“Just you wait.” I was on my tiptoes, waving to Jack, who was outside working the door. “His dad owns this place. He’ll get us in.” I was betting Jack’s crush on Daphne would carry us. When Jack saw us, he smiled. “No sister, Jean? Look at you, Miss All Grown Up!” On his all powerful signal, Gil and I bumped to the head of the line and shot through.
We pushed past underage girls lined up at the bar. I saw a clump of graduated Dalton seniors. I felt like a cat, sleekly sliding past them, Gil in tow and no Daphne to steal my moment.
In the dining section, Gil and I slid into the last empty checked-cloth window table, where a waitress took our order.
As Gil explained how he wanted his burger, I let myself enjoy a long look at him. He was a real Ryan O’Neal type, with those wide-spaced features and that polished, winning smile. When he shrugged off his blazer and hung it on the back of the chair, I noticed a stitched monogram at the shirt pocket — C.G.B.
“You’re wearing Carpie’s shirt?”
“Yep. He’s Carpenter Gilroy, I’m Christopher Gilroy. And he’s strict as all hell about how I show up at the firm. But I’d wear a tutu and toe shoes if that’s what he wanted, he’s been that solid to me since I showed up in New York.”
“Oh, yes. Carpie’s the best. But soon all you’ll need are Polo shirts and tennis whites. Sunken Haven’s so relaxed.”
Gil took a first sip from the beer that had been set down. “You sure? Aunt Weeze went ahead a few weeks ago to ‘open the house.’ What’s that even mean?”
“It’s not glamorous, if that’s what you think! It’s about clearing out the mouse droppings and scrubbing the salt off the windows, airing the beds and sweeping out the sand and the pine needles. My family’s house is right on the ocean. You can smell sage and bayberry all the way up South Beach.”
Gil was looking at me deeply. I’d never had anyone look at me like this. Not even Bertie, who always had a smile for me. “Your eyes shine when you talk about this place. You must love it.”
“Oh my gosh, I do! I’ve spent every summer there since I was born. It’s a shelter island, you know. One side’s ocean and the other’s the Long Island Sound. Our cottage, Lazy Days, is right on the ocean. And it’s . . .” I was about to say my first summer without Daphne. But it seemed petty. “It’s going to be so fun,” I said instead, truthfully. So fun without Daphne.
“Carpie said kids work,” said Gil.
“They do. We do. We all have jobs, for pay or volunteer.”
“Volunteer?” He quirked an eyebrow.
“It seems corny, but everyone pitches in somehow.”
“So what are you volunteering to do there?” His smile was teasing.
“Well, June and July it’s nothing but tennis,” I said. “See, I lost the Junior Girls Singles championship last year, and my parents went ape.” Even after a year, my tennis fiasco humiliated me. “I’ll be on the court day and night.”
Gil looked amused. “I’m teaching swim classes and waiting tables at the yacht club. Guess I’ll be the boy fetching your ice-cold Yoo-hoos and Winks.”
“No, no, it’s not that way! Kids always work at the club. We wait on one other, we babysit one another, we teach the little ones to swim!”
He laughed. “I didn’t mean to rile you.”
“I don’t want you to think I’ll be having this la-dee-da summer, while you’re toiling away.”
That made us both laugh. “It does sound pretty cushy,” said Gil. “I’ve helped at my stepdad’s hardware store since I was knee-high. Now, that’s some dull work.”
“There’s loads of kids on payroll who still have fun. Mrs. Walt — you know Walt’s Chocolates? Well, that’s her family — but at Sunken Haven, she’s just the sweet old lady who runs the thrift shop, and I worked there last year.” I was rambling, I blamed the wine and beer and not quite knowing how to act around a boy who made me feel so giddy. “All I’m really saying is it’s busy, you know . . .”
Gil’s eyes were warm on me. “It’s cool how you’re so serious about everything. You’re a funny princess.”
“No, no! I’m not,” I answered sincerely.
He laughed. “Especially when you don’t mean to be funny.”
But I’d meant that I wasn’t a princess.
Our burgers arrived, distracting us as we squirted ketchup and loaded the buns with lettuce, onions, and pickles. Led Zeppelin was on the jukebox. “What sort of music do you go for?”
Now Gil leaned in on his elbows. I’d struck a nerve. “Clapton, Tom Waits, Lynyrd Skynyrd. But I dig most any rock-and-roll — me and my pal Kenny took a bus twenty-three hours to see The Who in Fort Worth.”
“I’ve been to Madison Square Garden twice this year. Once for David Bowie and once for Elton John.” This wasn’t true — it was Daphne who’d gone. But I’d heard enough about both concerts. In the moment, staring at Gil, I wanted it to be true so badly that the truth itself seemed like a tiny detail.
“Elton John? That guy’s a dud.” Gil began to sing “Bennie and the Jets” through his adenoids.
My cheeks got hot. Daphne never did dud things! Or did she? What would Daphne say in this moment? “Well, I saw Elton’s whole act, and it’s a complete hoot!”
Gil shrugged. “Piano’s good if Waits is playing it. I’m more into guitars myself.” He molded his hand around an invisible neck, and with the other hand, he strummed air. “I used to mess around in a band — we called ourselves The Mindbenders. But that was B.C. — Before Carp. Now I’m at the firm day and night. He’s got me in his focus — which I do appreciate,” added Gil quickly. “Hope I wasn’t coming off ungrateful.”
“Have Carpie and your family mended fences?”
Gil paused, as if deciding how to frame this. “Matter of fact, one of the deals of my being here is, I can’t contact my family.”
He smiled, guarded. Sipped his beer and shrugged in answer.
“But that’s family politics for you,” I said. “Anyway. I’m glad you told me. I’m always here to listen if, you know — ” I floundered “ — you want to tell me more.”
Now Gil eyed me in a way that burned up my cheeks. “I want to know more about you.”
“Oh, okay. Me. Um. Like what?”
“Like . . . what do you love?”
“Love! Oh my gosh! Don’t put me on the spot!” I hid behind my beer mug — only a few sips remained. I wouldn’t order another. Even one drink made me too careless with my words. “I love tennis,” I told him after a pause.
“Where I’m from, that game’s for snobs.”
“I never feel snobby when I play. I feel happy. Unless it’s . . .” against her. “Unless it’s too competitive.”
“Have you got a shelf full of trophies?”
“Aw, you’re stewing about something.” Gil’s voice was gentle. He tipped his head, watching me. “Cat got your tongue? Tell me.”
“No. There’s nothing to tell.”
“Come on. Put it out there.”
Fritz O’Neill. She was something real. She was something to put out there. But I wouldn’t even speak her name out loud. Not tonight.
Fritz O’Neill, who last summer had entered the Junior Cup Tennis competition at the eleventh hour. Then she’d casually annihilated me. My loss had shocked the family. My mother’s and Daphne’s names were both etched into plaques that hung in Haven Casino’s center hall.
But not mine.
“I’m training super hard for a tennis rematch that I lost last summer. I’ve been practicing after school and every weekend.”
“Bet you’ll do fine.”
“There are other good players.”
“I guess I can’t remember her name.”
“Arrright, arrright.” Gil popped his last huge bite of burger in his mouth. He ate too quickly, but his appetite also made him sexy, like a wolf.
When “Young Americans” came on, I clapped for it. “I love this song!”
“I’ll get out there if you want.”
Toward the far end of the room near the jukebox, kids were bouncing and shimmying and trying to look like they weren’t working too hard on their moves.
Gil slapped a ten on the table to pay. “Let’s go.”
When I stood with him, he took my arm and led, turning me in and out easily, and then pulling me close. When he held me to his chest, I melted against the press of his body. Were Dalton girls watching? Was Jack Hollander? Would people talk about how smooth we looked out here? I felt expansive with all the possibilities.
And when the song ended and Gil stared down at me, for once my uptilt felt entirely natural. I’d never felt so radiant as I did in his gaze.
Gil leaned in close to my ear. “Hollander’s. Bowie. You. At least I got one New York night exactly right.”
We danced to a few more songs, then we left the bar, sailing into the warm, almost summer night. We had enough time to walk uptown and still beat my curfew. Three hours ago, I hadn’t even known he existed, and now here was Gil Burke, blazing bright as a comet through the center of my world. I was giddy with it, almost frantic with wanting to absorb and memorize every detail of each, shared moment.
“Kinda funny, remembering about earlier,” Gil said, as if he’d been listening in on my thoughts. “When Uncle Carp first mentioned his goddaughter?” He took my hand and slid his fingers through mine. “For some reason, I pictured a little girl with braces and a hula hoop.”
I sighed. “Carpie thinks I’m still a child.”
“You’re anything but.” He said it sweetly. Not like a come-on. His fingers were woven strong through mine. Gil had seemed sure right from go that I was special — a fun-loving New York girl with connections to “It” bars. And now a brand-new thought overtook me.
First Gil had rescued me from my fight with Daphne. Then he’d sprung me out of the apartment and whirled me into this perfect evening. What if Gil had come here all the way from Elmore, Alabama, to Sunken Haven for me?
Could it be true? Instead of a summer playing handmaiden to Daphne, was I being delivered something entirely different — a summer in the spotlight? A summer starring Gil Burke and me? The idea, as it steeped, filled me with tense, panicky joy — it sounded too good to be true, like something a West Village psychic would promise for fifty cents.
Summer flings and sexy romances were Daphne’s territory. Not mine. I was the one you didn’t pick.
I swatted off my hope like a bumblebee, knowing it was too late. I’d already been deliriously stung.