The next day was Courtney’s graduation ceremony. You know how people in Hollywood use the word “film” instead of “movie”? People in academia–at least in Boston– don’t use the word graduation. They use the word “commencement.”
I’d never really thought about it before, until I saw and heard the word a hundred times in those two days, that “commencement” means the beginning of something and not the end. It’s not the culmination that’s being celebrated, it’s the beginning of the rest of your life.
And sure, some of these baby birds didn’t look ready to be kicked out of the nest. But the energy in that room, a 3,000-plus seat venue, felt to me like the whole class of graduation-robed kids was ready to take off like a giant mass of black crows. The ceremony was pretty dull in that the speaker was a Massachusetts state senator, a guy named Ed Markey who I confess I knew nothing about, and the main ceremony consisted of reading off a numbingly long list of the names of the graduates as they shook hands with the deans and got their diplomas. But I spent the entire thing jittery and on edge because there was so much energy in the room.
They went alphabetically and had a system for staging each group to keep them in order. The graduates spent most of their time sitting in their seats, and then their whole row would get up to go and file over to the side of the stage.
As Court’s row got up, Claire gasped. She was wearing the Dillard’s dress and a small, vintage-y looking hat. “Oh, my baby girl!”
I hadn’t even realized it was her row until then, but as I looked, my sister turned and waved in our general direction. She waved toward two other spots, too, like maybe she was covering her bases and wasn’t sure where we were, or maybe like she was just waving to her adoring public?
“I mean,” Claire said, even though I hadn’t said anything, “she really is my baby girl. I really mean that.”
“You can probably get away with calling her that. I can’t.”
“She’s just so young! She’s younger than most of her classmates, did you know that?”
“Some of them took longer than usual to finish.”
“And she took shorter than usual, didn’t she?”
I made a non-commital noise. I wasn’t really sure how many total years it was for Court when you added where she’d been before, but I did know that with summer courses she was able to pack three academic years’ worth of classes into two calendar years.
Court edged closer to the stage. I kept having trouble picking her out because she was in the same black gown and hat as everyone else and she hadn’t done anything like added a masking tape message to her mortarboard. (Some read “Hi Mom” or “Thanks Mom & Dad” or “Hire Me!”) But Claire didn’t seem to have any trouble keeping track of her. She gasped again when Court went up the stairs to the stage with another, higher-pitched, “Oh my baby girl!”
Court shook hands with various administrators and took the leather folder with her diploma in it, and paused for a photo from the pro photographer who was darting back and forth across the stage like snipers might be in the area but he was determined to get that Pulitzer-winning shot anyway.
“Is it true the diplomas aren’t really in the folders?” a female voice behind us asked.
“Can you imagine the nightmare if they get them mixed up?” another woman answered.
The midgle-aged guy beside me, who I’d been pretty much ignoring, turned around to say, “I’m sure the diplomas are in the folders.”
“What makes you think that?” one of the women challenged.
He pointed. “That woman there. Before she hands them to the president of the college, she checks inside each one. If they were empty she wouldn’t have to.”
My head hurt just thinking about the sheer organizational weight of keeping a thousand alphabetized diplomas in order. I was glad that was not my problem.
Court raised it high above her head in triumph and evoked a cheer from the students in their seats. Then she waved toward us again–same as before, three waves, one center, one right, one left. This time it looked even more to me like a stage wave, like a stump speech politician who wants everyone to feel included. Or a rock star, come to think of it.
I was so captivated by my own thoughts about that that I didn’t notice her taking her seat again. We were sitting in one of the mezzanine levels and down below all I could see was mortarboards.
I also didn’t notice Claire clutching her chest until she grabbed my forearm with her other hand. Oh, shit.
“Claire, you okay?”
A bout of ugly crying followed, loud enough to attract the attention of everyone around us. She collapsed against me and I started trying to strategize how to get her out of there if she was really debilitated and not just overcome with emotion. I tried to figure out how to ask.
“Are you all right?” No answer except for more sobs. “Do you need a doctor?”
This time a definite nodding of her head.
Before I could do anything, the guy with the opinion about the diplomas began waving for a security guard. Next thing I knew, no one in our entire section of the mezz was looking at the ceremony. They were all looking at Claire and me and the guy, and the people in our row who vacated their seats into the stairway-aisle to make way. The two of us maneuvered her out to the aisle. I was afraid she was going to pitch forward and fall down the stairs. An usher who looked like a student–literally underfed and pimply–was above us waving to someone else.
A guy with the air of venue security about him–shaved head, black polo shirt–hurried down to us. Claire was swooning so he spoke to me. “What’s wrong with her?”
I froze up trying to untangle the explanation of her most-likely-terminal medical condition from my brain.
The middle-aged guy, who I could see now had a salt and pepper beard and a summer suit jacket on, leaped in. “Does she have heart problems? Dehydration? Has this happened before?”
Claire had literally pasted the back of her hand to her forehead and had gone limp.
I setled for, “I think she’s fainted.”
Security dude took her under her arms. “Let’s get her some air.”
I took a leg, and Mr. Salt and Pepper took a leg, and we carefully moved one step at a time up the aisle until we reached the mezzanine lobby. She felt disturbingly light–although I know I wasn’t carrying the heaviest part of her. We lowered her to the carpet beside a deserted concession counter.
Her eyelids fluttered as Mr. Salt and Pepper fanned her with a program. The security guy radioed for medical. I watched as Claire’s eyes opened and she focused on the middle-aged guy’s face.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
And she smiled. There I was, heart in my throat, wondering how we were going to get word to Courtney from whatever hospital we ended up at, thinking how New England Medical Center was just a block or two over, calculating how long it might take for an ambulance to arrive…
And she was flirting. “Did I faint?” she asked him.
“You tell me.” He was smiling back, looking into her eyes.
As Moon Unit Zappa once immortally declared, “Gag me with a spoon.”
This wasn’t totally unexpected, I know. This was the woman who swooned in front of a priest at holy communion when she wanted to make an impression on him. Or maybe she didn’t. I hated being so suspicious of her when she might just genuinely be on the verge of stroking out or whatever, but, I mean, jeez. What was I supposed to think?
I decided to act as if she was having a genuine medical event and not faking it for the sake of grabbing attention at her first opportunity after my sister’s part in the commencement ceremony was done. The security guard assumed all three of us were together. I didn’t particularly approve of Mr. Salt and Pepper inviting himself along on our medical non-emergency.
“I’m her son,” I said to him. “Daron.”
He let go of Claire’s hand and shook mine. “Albert. You must be Courtney’s family?”
I let go. At least he hadn’t tried to crush my fingers. “You know her?”
“She scalped a ticket to the ceremony to me, yes,” he said. “Mrs. Marks–”
“Silver, dear, Silver. But call me Claire,” she said, reaching for his hand again.
“Claire,” he affirmed, and then began asking her some medical-sounding questions. When the paramedics came, he helped her answer their similar bevy of questions.
Ultimately we went down to the first aid office and Claire rehydrated with some kind of a solution they gave her. I felt like I could use a Gatorade myself. The venue had AC but the air was still humid and when you sit there for two or more hours without a drink, you can get pretty parched. Albert hovered and was accepted unquestioningly by the paramedics the same was Remo had been by Claire’s nurses. Like she was just expected to have a man attached.
You know I don’t mind whatever gender you want to choose for a partner, whether the same or different from yourself, but something about this kind of heterosexuality gave me a creepy crawly feeling in my throat right then. Albert was solicitous and charming in almost as exaggerated a way as Claire herself was.
She was cleared to leave after a while and Albert suggested he take her over to a quiet hotel bar near where the post-ceremony reception was due to be held. “Or we could go up to my room.”
I put my foot down. “And how’s Court going to find us? I suppose you’re expecting me to stay here and wait to tell her?”
He beckoned me away from where Claire was sitting, saying offhandedly, so she could hear: “Let’s see if a taxi can take us.” And then as soon as he got me out of earshot he said, “Your sister warned me this might happen.”
I was outraged. “Are you saying my sister is trying to fix you up with my terminally ill mother?”
He made placating gestures. “No-no-no. One of the conditions of taking the ticket was that I keep an eye out for a swoon. Damn if she didn’t predict right when it would happen, too.”
“I don’t understand.”
“She didn’t want her to overdo it and get carted away.”
“Okay, but what if she had a real medical emergency?”
“I would’ve sent you and her to the hospital in an ambulance and reported back to your sister where she went.” He chuckled. “Stand down, pup.”
“I appreciate your filial concern. But she’s safe with me.” He tugged on one of his earlobes and gave me a significant stare.
Was that a piercing hole? Was he trying to tell me he wasn’t as straight as he looked?
Yes, apparently. “I’m also the one who got your sister the guest house in P-Town.” That clinched it.
I felt like an utter fool. “Claire doesn’t know that, though.”
“Maybe she does, maybe she doesn’t,” Albert said. “She likes my attention and that’s all that matters. Your sister filled me in.”
I was still suspicious for some reason. “And you just happened to need a ticket to Emerson graduation.”
“My nephew was at the beginning of the alphabet,” he said evenly, maybe daring me to accuse him of lying.
I really had no reason to suspect him by that point. “I still feel weird about letting you run off with my mother, even if it is just to a fern bar or something.”
“I have no intention of running off without you in tow. Court knows where to meet us if she doesn’t see us.”
“Oh.” I felt like a rush of emotions were all fighting to flee from my face, leaving me flushed and tired. “Jeez. Okay.”
That meant I had to watch another hour or so of fake ultra-polite flirting like something from a Hollywood classic from the 1950s. It was only marginally easier to take now that I knew Albert was gay.
Well, I told myself, it’s probably still better than sitting through the reading of five hundred more names.