Read an Excerpt
Room 216, the Hart Building, Washington, D.C.
Friday, October 8
Betts is sitting alone at a table with two untouched water cups, the pen I gave her the day we graduated from law school, a clean legal pad, and a microphone. On the dais, one of nineteen senators talks his way toward a question he hasn’t arrived at quite yet. Cameras whir mercilessly as photographers on the floor between them vie for the better angle, capturing the small fatty deposit on Betts’s freckled face, her perky mouth and shattered-crystal eyes. The chair she sits in is poorly chosen; her square diver’s shoulders, in a suit the washed driftwood gray of her hair, fail to top its leather back. Still, she looks impressive as she leans toward the microphone, listening in the same intent way she has always listened to Ginger and Laney and me—the way we all need to be heard.
The senator’s voice booms, “You were born in an Eastern Bloc country, Professor Zhukovski, a communist child of communist parents,” as if this is something she might not have realized. The photographers edge closer on the journalistic racing pit of a floor, none pausing for fresh batteries or different lenses. Television cameras, too, peer down from booths in the side walls, relentlessly recording each intake of breath. “At least the TV cameras are shooting me from above,” Betts had joked over the phone a few nights ago. “The still photographers are shooting right at my crepey old neck.”
My own crepey old neck feels warm and moist as I stand at the back of the room, behind the computer-laden tables of reporters. Betts has already answered a week’s worth of questions, though, sticking to the script. She praised Brown v. Board and deplored Dred Scott and Korematsu, uttered “right to privacy” and “stare decisis” while avoiding “abortion,” “gay rights,” and “guns.” She’s managed to appear to answer every question without actually stating a single view, all while demonstrating that she has great judgment without ever having been a judge. And the committee vote is scheduled for Tuesday, with the full Senate expected to confirm.
“How are we supposed to believe, Professor Zhukovski,” the senator asks finally, “that a communist child of communist parents is the best person in this whole free country to be the arbiter of our laws?”
Betts smiles warmly. “My mother, a doctor in Poland, scrubbed floors here . . .” she responds, her voice rolling gently against the senator’s snap. A softer sort of self-possession than she uses in her classroom is called for here, where the minds she is working to win over are still overwhelmingly older, and white, and male.
Scrubbed toilets, I’d suggested—words met with a long, expensive, overseas-line silence before Betts had responded, “You’ll be surprised when your mom dies, Mia, how much her dignity means to you.”
She’s taken my advice, though, I realize with a small measure of triumph: she’s gotten a friendly senator to ask about the Widow Zhukovski fleeing Poland with Baby Betts in a way that doesn’t seem friendly. And the gang back here in the press gallery is taking copious notes.
“My mother actually would have made an amazing justice,” Betts says. “A fact she would not have hesitated to tell you.”
The senators laugh easily, as does the audience, the stenographer, and even the press.
I was on assignment when Betts called to ask me to come for this weekend; we’d practically had to shout to be heard over the rickety line. “So let me get this straight, Betts,” I’d teased her. “You want me to fly back from Madagascar? Madagascar, that’s off the coast of Africa, you know that, right? To hold your hand while you worry over a Senate confirmation there isn’t a shred of doubt you’ll get.”
“My crystal ball must be murkier than yours, Mia,” she said, her laugh as cozy as the room we shared in N Section of the Law Quad our first year, as comfortable as the couch on the porch of the house we shared with Laney and Ginger our second and third. I’d slipped my camera strap over my neck and set the Holga aside, laughing with her. Betts, the Funny One. Ginger, the Rebel. Laney, the Good Girl. And me, the Savant.
“Or else . . . Hmmm,” she said, “maybe no one is exactly a slam dunk for the Supreme Court?”
Laney had told her I’d be back home that week anyway. “They want to meet in D.C. for the hearings and then train up to New York for the weekend,” she said. “I told them they could come for the last afternoon. The part where my supporters make me sound like Superjudge.” And she laughed again. Betts is always the first to laugh at her little jokes.
“We’re thinking Les Miz Friday night,” she added.
“No doubt we’ll be seeing something about a bad mother on Saturday if we let Ginger choose.”
“Maybe not, now that Faith is gone.” Then, with a crack in her voice, “God, Mi, I wish Matka had lived see this.”
“Matka,” Betts always called her mom, the only Polish word she was allowed outside the songs she sang in church, and in church she usually played her zhaleika. Here in front of the Judiciary Committee, though, she calls her “my mother.” I stick my hands in my pockets, feeling the cut of waistband, the little roll mushrooming over the top of my slacks as I head for three open seats in the back row. I settle into one of them, imagining Faith and Mrs. Z both cheering wildly together in whatever mom-heaven might exist.
Betts is finishing speaking in her short, straightforward sentences—her “rehearsed immigrant-widow speech,” she would call this, although she’s avoiding hyphenating here—when the click of high heels sounds. A young woman edges through the crowded room to whisper to a senator we in the press call “Milwaukee’s Finest” for his professed love of his home state’s Blatz Beer over the Russian vodka he really drinks. I’m reminded, oddly, of the Wizard of Oz as he turns toward her, his gaze as dull-eyed as my editor’s—my ex-editor’s, now that he “let me go,” as if I’d just been waiting for his permission to lose my job.
My ex-editor. My ex-paper. My ex-husband and my ex-almost-fiancé. What a fool I am not to have made time to see Doug this weekend.
At the dais, Milwaukee covers the chairman’s microphone and whispers, the creased lines around his narrow eyes leaving me wondering if my own eyes are as lined as his are, as lined as Betts’s, too, above her pearls. Leaving me wishing my budget allowed for Ginger’s expensive facials and creams—a smell trigger, I realize, as Ginger throws her arm around me, not a hug so much as a coach’s arm drape. The soft fabric of her quilted winter white wool jacket tickles against my skin.
I turn back her collar to read the label: Kamila.
“I love the buttons,” I say.
Her slight overbite disappears into a double-wide grin. “Found-ebony wood chips,” she says. Fair trade. Eco-conscious. Fruit of the gods. “You can borrow it this weekend.” Evoking memories of the four of us sharing medium-sized Fair Isle sweaters, raiding each other’s closets before parties and dates.
Laney slides her long legs gracefully into the empty seat beside Ginger, whispering, “Mi,” and reaching across her to grasp my hand.
I pull us all into a three-way hug. “If you two had been much later,” I say, “you’d have missed the whole show.”
The guy in front of us shoots me a look.
“God, it’s so good to see you both!” I say more quietly, trying to tuck my rush of joy at being with them again into a smaller voice.
Ginger presses a folded scrap of paper into my hand—a faded old Juicy Fruit gum wrapper. I extract my reading glasses, a bamboo frame that cost next to nothing in China, and examine the tight loops of blue ink on the backside, Ginger’s angular, almost illegible scrawl. Laney takes the gum wrapper and reads without the need of glasses as I remember the four of us studying together in the Law School Reading Room, the hush unbroken but for the occasional thwick of a page turned in frustration, the scrape of a metal chair, the hushed swoosh of the revolving doors, and, if you listened closely enough, the tick of a small folded gum-wrapper note hitting the table in front of Laney or Betts or Ginger or me, like a spitball hitting home. Gum-wrapper humor-fortunes like this one, which reads:
LAW QUADRANGLE NOTES, September 2018: Elsbieta (“Betts”) Zhukovski (JD ’82) has been appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the first woman and the first foreign-born justice to be appointed to the country’s most important legal post. The line to kiss up to her forms outside N-32.
“She’s already missed first woman justice,” Ginger whispers. “By decades.”
The chairman announces a five-minute recess, and the photographers reach for new batteries and memory chips while, behind us, reporters tweet quick recaps.
“You’re forgetting the ‘Chief’ business, Ginge.” Laney’s Southern accent soft and warm and proud. “Betts could still be the first lady Chief. She’s got years before that silly gum-wrapper 2018.”
I swallow against a scratch in my own throat, envy too stingy to voice. I’ve always been as jealous of Betts as Ginger is. Not of her smarts so much as her discipline, her courage to imagine she might actually get what she wants.
“Female Chief,” Ginger says. “Let’s not be expecting proper, ladylike behavior from Betts when we don’t require the male justices to be gentlemen.”
“A real-life Justice Bradwell,” I manage finally. “Not made of stone.”
Laney’s dark fingers smooth the folds in the wrapper. Fifty-some-year-old fingers, fifty-some-year-old hands, but her short nails unbitten now, there is that. Her teeth aren’t as white as they once were and she has a few smile lines at her eyes and mouth, but the only place she shows her age in a real way is in her hands, bony and unevenly colored, lighter splotches against her African American skin where I have darker spots on my own Irish pale. I suppose she’s imagining, as I am, what a real Law Quadrangle magazine alumni update might look like after the full Senate vote:
Elsbieta (“Betts”) Zhukovski (JD ’82) has been appointed to the United States Supreme Court, following in the steps of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for whom Ms. Zhukovski clerked on the D.C. Circuit.
One of us would write the note for her. We’ve written every one of each other’s alumni notes ever since Isabelle was born and Zack died in the same few short weeks and Betts, who’d somehow managed through it all, broke down over the writing of this irrelevant announcement. “How do I do this?” she wanted us to tell her. “How do I announce in fifty words or less that my daughter is born and my husband is dead?” The bones of her wrists as fragile as Zack’s had been, as if she’d gone through chemotherapy with him: an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, dead at twenty-nine. It had been, surprisingly, Ginger who had put her arm around Betts’s shoulder and said so soothingly she might have been reading a favorite poem, “Let me, Betts. Let me do this for you, this one small thing.” It’s something we’ve done for each other ever since, too: set out the words to announce each other’s joys and sorrows to the world.
Or joys, really. Only joys, not sorrows. Betts would never have thought to submit a class note about Zack’s death if it hadn’t so closely coincided with Izzy’s birth. We don’t ever announce bad news in the alumni magazine. Ginger didn’t submit anything the fall she was passed over for partner, any more than I did when I divorced. And I sure don’t plan to submit a class note announcing I’ve been fired. If I find a new job—when I find one—Laney or Betts or Ginger will compose a note that makes it appear I’ve moved up in the world, even if I haven’t. That’s the way of alumni notes.
“Betts is wearing your mama’s black pearls,” Laney realizes in a whisper—“your mama” being Ginger’s mom and the pearls not really black so much as unmatched shades of gray tinted silver-green and blue and eggplant, with a looped white-gold clasp now resting at the base of Betts’s throat. They’re the good-luck pearls I wore to the Crease Ball our first year at Michigan, and Laney’s “something borrowed” on her wedding day. “‘Next to my own skin, her pearls,’” Ginger says in what Betts calls her “look-how-well-I-quote-poetry voice.”
I don’t remember ever seeing the pearls on Betts, but they look better on her than on any of us; it’s the hair color, I think, the echo of gentle gray.
She’s too thin again. She could stand to participate in one of those paczki-eating contests from her childhood—those celebrations of the Polish jelly doughnut Betts swears is not a doughnut. It’s the stress, of course: the months of interviews and background checks, and the worry she’d lose the nomination to someone with judicial experience—not that she regrets having stayed in Ann Arbor for her daughter’s sake. Then the weeks of holing up in a windowless room at the White House, crafting answers to every question the staffers could imagine, then practicing them again and again and again. And now the daily hearings, the cameras and questions, the news clips, a short few words taken out of context, replayed at 5:00 and 6:00 and 10:00, and then again on the morning shows. Betts’s confirmation may very well be as secure as I think it is, but that doesn’t make good press.
“We should make Betts color that hair this weekend,” Ginger says as she smoothes the cowlick at my right temple into submission. Let me do this for you, this one small thing. “That gorgeous auburn it was before Zack died.”
From the Hardcover edition.