This above all else—to thine own self be true, And it must follow as the night the day Thou cans't not then be false to any man.
I was twenty-three when I learned of the sudden and mysterious dissolution of my father's friendship with Cecil, his best friend. My parents were lingering at the dining room table, sipping wine, and discussing what might have caused it. I was reading in a room nearby. I was not eavesdropping, but occasionally words drifted in my direction that carried me back to Cecil's side and private memories I associated with him: the smell of New York in his Harris Tweed jacket; his squared fingernails stained with photographic chemicals; the sprinkle of fine freckles under his eyes. I had not seen Cecil or Cynthia, his wife, since before the friendship fell apart, but learning of it saddened me. It made me aware of the void his absence had left in my life and how much my parents must have missed them.
As a youngster I became so excited waiting for Cecil to arrive at our home in Connecticut that I sometimes threw up, and when he said goodbye, I always had to fight back tears. I learned so many things from him: how to pick the meat from a lobster without using utensils; how to short sheet a bed; how to cook crepes so I could serve my mother an elegant surprise breakfast. I even grew to like the pickled herring he brought us from the Fulton Fish Market. Those chunks of raw fish submerged in brine and draped with seaweed were the least appetizing dish one could set before a fussy little boy, but I ate them enthusiastically because Cecil did.
When Cecil came to see us, the unexpected came with him. Grace, his Packard convertible, was often involved in the mischief. She was a sleek, gray roadster with a maroon canvas top and many miles on her chassis but like Cecil, she was still handsome. Cecil said she had spunk. "What's spunk, Ceese?" I asked as he turned the ignition key. "This is spunk," he said, cranking the steering wheel hard to the left and goosing the accelerator. Grace jumped sideways and wrapped herself into tight, fast circles that pinned me against the passenger door. I remained there convulsed with laughter until Cecil straightened out and drove sedately out of the parking lot.
Somehow Cecil could make Grace's motor sputter at will. When it did, he would declare an emergency, pull to the curb, and we would jump out to perform our assigned duties. I would check the oil and lights; Cecil would tinker and mutter under the hood, mixing words like ‘solenoid' and ‘distributor' with an occasional ‘hmmm'. Then, at a moment he deemed just right, he would ask me to turn the key in the ignition. Grace would inevitably purr sweetly back to life and we would head for the ice cream parlor to celebrate our mechanical prowess. Cecil did not believe in automatically limiting our cone in-take to one apiece. Two was better than one, if we judged the first to be of excellent quality, which we usually did. Our record was three each.
One afternoon after an emergency drill, Cecil was talking animatedly about the Yankees, our favorite team, while lowering Grace's hood. When he slammed it shut, the pointed latch that held the hood down pierced his necktie front and back, tethering him bent at the waist to the front of the car. I laughed so hard I peed a little. Cecil laughed too, but only slightly because it was hard to do in that position. Following his instructions, I eventually found the handle under the dashboard that popped the latch and freed him.
Cecil was fun and funny, but it would be misleading to portray him as a comedian. Comedians make fun of the human condition; Cecil was obsessed by how unfair it was. I remember him spending most of a weekend playing Old Maid with my little sister who had a serious case of the measles, a fever, and a deck of marked cards. The corner of the Old Maid card looked like her gerbil (also named Cecil) had tried to eat it. Cecil sat at her bedside for hours, crammed into a child's chair, losing game after game. But my sister was relentless. "Just one more game, Ceese, pleeease," she would beg and he would submit to just one more.
At the time I wondered why he kept playing. What was in it for him? Then one night as I lay in bed, the answer came to me: Cecil was vulnerable. Of course I did not know that word, but we kids did know that he could be deeply touched by our laughter and our tears. We loved him for that. It made him more child-like and more accessible than other adults. We had no idea it was the heavy burden he carried that made him so sensitive to other peoples' misfortunes. Had I known, I would have understood that he really had no choice but to play Old Maid all weekend.
I am sure my family helped relieve Cecil's burden by loving him as much as we did. I believe being in my father's presence was especially reassuring to Cecil. He served as a big brother and number one fan wrapped into one. He loved Cecil's eccentricities and his style, and he envied the innocent enthusiasm with which Ceese would chase his latest dream. And yet my father's cautious nature made him incapable of such abandon. His instinct was to restrain Cecil, to protect him as he raced off to join another crusade or invest in some new venture. He was a busy guardian angel.
Despite their differences, the two men developed a unique bond. Even a little boy could sense it. I remember them during cocktail hour ambling in lockstep to the far end of our long backyard, my father's big forearm resting on Cecil's shoulder. I watched them from my bedroom window as they lounged on our deck chairs, drinks in hand, conversing as intensely as they played tennis; first one spoke, then the other, back and forth, each attentive as the other made his point, each frequently leaning forward to take an early bounce or find a better angle. Their wisecracks sent peals of laughter into the dusk and their mutual affection radiated out and touched me. I wanted to be with them and like them, but I left them alone when they were in synch like that because I sensed those moments were solemn and not to be shared by outsiders. They were the only insiders.
My father was stretched out on his chaise longue, legs elevated for improved circulation, the morning sun warming his spare shoulders and backlighting the flyaway ends of his white hair and the blood vessels in his ears.
"So, how are you this fine morning, Pops?' I said. I lived nearby and dropped in on weekends for a morning coffee.
"Not so well, Buddy," he said. "Got to thinking about Cecil Thorne and couldn't fall asleep. Do you ever think of him?"
"Of course. I loved Cecil," I said. I had not seen him in decades, but the word ‘love' popped out automatically.
"Well, I loved him too, son," my father countered in an emotional voice.
My father was a closet introvert. He put up a good front as an extrovert, but those who knew him well knew he was a very private person. It was out of character for him to say he had ‘loved' Cecil.
In fact, that comment marked the beginning of a change in my father. Motivated perhaps by his waning strength, he became more willing to reminisce about the people who were important in his life. Cecil was at the top of the list of those he wanted us to know better. They had shared so much that for some time my father seemed torn between keeping their secrets, and letting us in on them. Eventually he broke his silence.
"Did you know I once had a Duesenberg at my disposal?" he asked one morning."
My father had an excellent memory and he told a story well. He had my attention from the beginning when he said "his" Duzzie was the J101 Model built in 1929, argueably the finest car in the world. J. Breckenridge Trulock, a big time banker whom everyone called ‘the Chairman', bought one just before the stock market crashed. It was a deep maroon, such a luscious color you wanted to lick it. The Chairman hired my father, who was then in college, as his occasional chauffeur and driving instructor. They took the car out only on weekends because the Chairman was busy making money during the week. On Sunday evenings, after dropping the Chairman at his apartment, my father would park the car in its garage where it would remain during the week, except when Cecil and my father ‘borrowed' it once on a Friday night.
That evening Cecil, acting as my father's chauffeur, drove him and a lady friend, who did not know Cecil, to a dance at the Algonquin Hotel. He dropped them there, parked the car, and returned, to play his obsequious part to the hilt. All evening he loitered behind my father's chair, lighting his cigarettes, flicking dandruff from his shoulders, and whispering criticisms of the waiters to no one in particular.
When it was time to leave, my father sent Cecil to fetch the car. Forty-five minutes passed and Cecil did not reappear. Finally, he charged into the lobby out of breath. "Christ, Sir, excuse me, but I can't find the Duzzie. I don't remember where I parked it." My father was used to dealing with Cecil's absentmindedness, so he did not panic. This was serious, though. They had misplaced…stolen actually…one of the world's most expensive cars.
"It's no wonder I couldn't sleep last night," he said. "That car cost $20,000."
But all was not lost. After putting my father's date in a cab, they started walking along the route Cecil thought he had taken, my father asking questions, Cecil looking for familiar landmarks. Suddenly he stopped; a look of relief crossed his face. He remembered deciding the Duzzie would be safest parked near a police station. Their pace increased as the headed toward the nearest one. As it came into view, they saw several cops on the sidewalk ogling the car. They strolled the remaining half block casually, nodded good evening to the policemen, and heaved sighs of relief.
When my father dropped him at his apartment, Cecil leaned in the passenger's side window, and made a confession: "You know, Bob, when I abandoned the search for the Duzzie and decided to go get you to help look, for a few minutes I couldn't remember where I'd left you either!"
Stories like that related more than facts. I began to see Cecil as my father saw him when their friendship was young. Cecil, who enjoyed some celebrity as a star basketball player for Columbia University, lived in a school dormitory and seldom spoke of his family. My father lived at home, but his family was seldom there. His mother, Constance, a British-born concert pianist, was devoted to her music and to her luxuriant mane of chestnut hair. She put my father just below music on her list of priorities, but he was devoted to her perhaps because his father, George, was not. George was a construction engineer who traveled often, had weaknesses for scotch and the ladies, and a lovely tenor singing voice. He sang in saloons and Constance gave piano recitals at Carnegie Hall. That was as close as they came to having something in common.
When George met Cecil for the first time he had a couple of shots under his belt. He entered his apartment, poured himself a drink and before my father could introduce Cecil he began to rant about three ‘lazy colored boys' he had just fired. Neither Cecil nor my father said a word. My father knew it would have been useless and Cecil was struggling to control his temper. After two minutes of George's harangue, Cecil marched out of the apartment without saying a word. His face was beet red and he slammed the heavy front door so hard the barometer fell from the wall.
This incident was one of several my father had witnessed in which Cecil's anger prevailed over his better judgment. My father knew Cecil was quick to perceive an insult, found it difficult to forgive one, and was prone to hear one when none was intended. When asked about his flare-ups Cecil always gave the same, uninformative response: "The Devil made me do it." He was good at building walls.
Cecil said little about his own family. My father knew only that Cecil's father was dead and his mother, an American Indian, had gone home to live in Council Bluffs, Iowa, after her husband's death. When she visited New York once, Cecil took Bob to her hotel to introduce them. My father remembered vividly his first impression of her. Her blue-black hair, penetrating hazel eyes, and copper skin were "stunning", he said, and her cool demeanor and regal posture demanded that he give her his full attention. They drank coffee into the late that afternoon and spoke of serious matters: the stock market, crime, Babe Ruth's ethnicity, Indian rights, etc. My father focused on thinking clearly and speaking well because he was sure Mrs. Thorne was using her considerable intellect and her beauty to assess the man her son was calling his ‘best friend'. When the time came for him to leave, my father felt drained, but full of admiration for her because she had shown such dedication to her son. As she said goodbye she called him Robert for the first time. He considered that a sign the interview had gone well.
During the following year my father inquired about her occasionally until one day Cecil told him gently he had just learned of her death in a car accident out west. My father was stunned and offered Cecil his condolences, but that evening an unsettling thought occurred to him: Cecil really had not seemed much affected by his mother's death. The impression disturbed my father for weeks.
In looking back on their adventures, my father was also disturbed that he once helped Cecil and Cyn get an abortion. "I knuckled under too quickly," he said. The first sign of trouble, he explained, occurred one morning after a tennis match. Cecil sat down heavily on a park bench and buried his face in his hands. My father sat beside him, aware that something was amiss, and put a hand on his shoulder. They sat for some time, alone among the many passersby, silent within the din of the city. Finally, Cecil regained his composure and said without looking at his friend, "Cyn's pregnant."
My father, who was good in a crisis, figured the best way to comfort Cecil would be to offer him a reassuring plan. "Okay, let me think," my father said, his hand still on Cecil's shoulder. Cecil gave him some time. "Ceese, don't despair. I think we have a couple good options," my father said. "We can either keep the wedding date as is and have the baby seven months after you're married, which wouldn't upset any of your friends, or we could move the date forward and have the baby nine months after the wedding." He felt pleased with his succinct analysis but Cecil, whose face was dark with intensity and streaked with sweat and tears, shot back, "Goddamit, Bob, we're not having a baby! So, are you going to help me or not?"
"Yes, Ceese, of course I am," he said, without knowing if he could keep his promise. Chairman Trulock, the banker, helped him keep his word. He put my father in touch with an acquaintance who knew a doctor who performed abortions because he believed some women need this ‘last option'. He was selective and secretive about this practice, and my father was equally discreet. He researched the doctor's record and asked to see where he worked. The doc wanted to meet the parents. My father said, "Only when we have an agreement." They went back and forth and when they finally reached an understanding, Cynthia balked.
My father said he was never privy to Cecil and Cyn's discussions, but he spent hours with Cecil during the next few days. Cecil was terrified by the idea of fatherhood. "I can't do this, Bob," he said repeatedly. "I'm not ready. It's too risky." He could not sleep, his stomach was upset, and he smelled bad. One morning Constance, my grandmother, took Cecil's hand, walked him into the bathroom, pointed at the bath she had drawn for him, and ordered him to bathe. She had seldom shown such a display of maternal care.
His appearance did not concern my father so much as his fear of fatherhood did. That was so irrational it made him wonder about Cecil's grasp of reality. Cecil was a natural with kids; he reveled in their company. Every time they played tennis a big bunch of his little fans appeared from somewhere to cheer for him. Thinking back to how much I loved Cecil as a boy, I agreed completely with my father: Cecil was designed for fatherhood.
Cynthia used every ploy imaginable to change Cecil's mind, but to no avail. Finally, she acquiesced. After the abortion, she told my father she had had to decide whom she wanted more, Cecil or the baby, an impossibly cruel choice, and she wondered if she would ever feel comfortable with her decision.
Sixty years after this event my father still kicked himself for not having discussed Cecil's fatherhood phobia with him. "We really should have discussed it at length. We should have stayed up into the wee hours for as long as it took" he said. "Who knows, we might have been able to get to the bottom of it and Ceese might have been a father all these years. But, back then men were not supposed to have heart-to-heart talks about their feelings," he pointed out. "We were supposed to be stoic...the strong, silent types. As a result, we ignored a critical moment in Cecil's life. It was a bad mistake."
At 85, my father's body was wearing out. His mind remained clear, though, and I think he was trying to tie up some of his life's loose ends. One afternoon, after watching tennis on television, he said, "Despite all he put me through, I'm glad I knew him. I only wish I knew what alienated him." This wistful comment led him to relive one last time their final luncheon and sift through his memories of it for clues that might enlighten him.
In 1955 and my father had just come east after a three-year business venture in Los Angeles. For their reunion luncheon, he selected a restaurant known for its decorum and wealthy clientele. Curiously, Cecil, who always dressed impeccably, arrived with an open collar, a loosened tie, and a barn door rip in the knee of one pant leg. He made no mention of his appearance, but quickly turned the conversation to civil rights in New York City.
The racial caldron was boiling in 1955. The previous year the Supreme Court had shaken the country with its Brown vs. the Board of Education decision and Rosa Parks had inspired many others, black and white, to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Churches were burned, Freedom Riders killed, and Bull Connor, Orval Forbus, and the KKK defended their "for whites only" water fountains and bathrooms with German shepherds and lynch mobs. Cecil was caught up in the Movement. "I'm ready now to fight with my brothers for our rights, Bob," he said gesturing at his ripped pants. "I'm ready!"
Cecil's phrases "my brothers" and "our rights" did not escape my father's notice. "You sound like you're playing for their team already," my father commented.
"I'm playing for our team, Bob. I'm glad you're finally hearing me." My father was not taking Cecil's comments at face value, though. He attributed them to Cecil's enthusiasm for the cause and his inclination to hop aboard a passing bandwagon now and then just for fun. The problem was that my father found this bandwagon un-American which put him often at odds with his friend. When, in response to some incredible claim Cecil made, he heard himself say in exasperation, "Cecil, don't be ridiculous…" it dawned on him that he had better tread lightly. Their friendship had been untended and untested for three years. My father did not want to overburden it so, for the remainder of their luncheon he mostly listened, chose his words carefully, and kept his emotions in check.
"I must have said or done something because we never spoke again," he said. "Your mother and I called, sent invitations, birthday presents…never had a reply." He looked tired. "Whatever I did, it beats the hell out of me," he said with a New York shrug of his thin shoulders, and within minutes he was asleep on his chaise longue.
Two weeks later, my father died peacefully at home. While sorting through his things, I found in his bedside table a vintage photo of him and Cecil in their tennis whites on a court surrounded by tall buildings. I had it framed and kept it on my chest of drawers until I went to see Cecil in New York two years later.
One October night, while checking into a hotel in New York, I noticed a Manhattan phone on the counter. I flipped through the pages to Thorne and found four Cecils. Good odds, I thought, wondering if he was still alive. Impulsively, while the clerk was busy with a defective room key, I decided to call. My Cecil would have been in his early 80's then. I dialed the first number. I recognized the distinctive voice and the accent, a mixture of sophistication and the New York street. "Hello, Ceese," I said, "This is Buddy, a voice from your past." There was a brief pause and the voice replied, "I'm so happy to hear from you." His greeting dispelled my concerns that he might have forgotten me or had no interest in talking to me. "You can't imagine how much this means to me," he said, his voice filled with emotion. "Why don't you come visit, I'm dying to play a few hands of Old Maid."
"Only if I can bring the cards," I replied. Ceese chuckled. We rambled through some questions and answers. It was comfortable conversation, but I detected melancholy in his voice. He was reluctant to hang up, and he urged me to come see him. "I have things to tell you," he said.
A month later on a cold, grey morning my sister Connie and I met at Grand Central Station and took a cab to Cecil's apartment. The elevator clanked and climbed to the 12th floor. We exchanged no words, only sterile smiles to cover the emotions we were feeling. We followed the numbers to his apartment, pushed the doorbell and waited. When at last we faced each other across the threshold, my sister flung open her arms. It was spontaneous, she told me later. It was the perfect greeting. Cecil moved gracefully into her embrace. I watched him close his eyes and savor her affection. It made me wonder how long he had been without human contact, as my parents had heard that Cynthia had died several years earlier.
Despite minor age-related changes, I would have recognized him anywhere. His dark hair, silver now, was still combed straight back, except for a lock that fell fashionably across his forehead. He was thinner and darker, but his skin was smooth, no jowls, neck folds, or wrinkles, save at the corners of his eyes. The face suggested a mix of ethnicities: his mother's Indian blood in the straight nose and high cheekbones; perhaps a touch of Mediterranean or even Arab blood in the olive skin. My mother said she—and many other women—found his face "alluring." Only the eyes had changed appreciably. Those dark eyes, the essence of his charm, would not hold my gaze for long. The melancholy I had heard on the phone I saw in his eyes. "You look like you could still start at guard for Columbia, Ceese," I said, preferring banalities so early in our visit.
Indeed Cecil did look great. He had always had exceptional taste and style and had dressed with imagination. He greeted us that day in dungarees, loafers, a black turtle-neck, and a deep purple vest he said was woven in Finland. He looked like he had just come from one of his Vogue fashion shoots.
Cecil poured coffee, set out some cookies, and we settled down in the living room to renew our acquaintance.
"Did you know my dad went to Dartmouth on a four-year lacrosse scholarship?" he asked out of the blue. "He loved living up there and wanted to stay in New England after graduation, but couldn't find work so he returned to New York and took a job as a clerk with a bank in Brooklyn."
"Do you remember him, Ceese?" I asked. "Didn't he die when you were young?"
"No, he died about 20 years ago down in Florida...a broken man."
"The poor guy never stopped expecting he'd get what he deserved but he never got it. I used to overhear him complaining to Mom that the bank promised him this, promised him that, but they broke every promise. So, he left; ended up as a bookkeeper for a firm in Brooklyn." While I was taken aback by the heat in Cecil's voice, my sister stepped in and asked, "But was he a good dad, Ceese?"
"Yes, he was. He and Mom sheltered us from the abuse he took at work and he wouldn't let his three brothers get started with their stories either."
"But I thought your Mom moved back west after your Dad died."
"No, she lived here right up to her death in Brooklyn at 90 years of age." Why'd you think that?"
"Because my father told me all about her. He said she was gorgeous, smart, somewhat intimidating, and was killed in a car crash out west." Cecil did not reply.
"I'm confused, Ceese…" was all I could say before he interrupted.
"Let me tell you about her. She was all the things your dad said; she just didn't die out west. Early on she wanted to meet your dad because I talked about him all the time. Actually, I think she was worried that he was a gambler or a rackets man targeting me because I was a pretty good college basketball player. How well I played could affect the odds. Anyway, it was impossible to take him over to my family's house, so she rented a hotel room and I brought Bob there."
"But. . . did you tell him she'd died?" I asked.
"It was an awful thing to do, I know, but they really hit it off in the hotel. Bob was smitten and Mom impressed and I was really worried she might spill the beans if they met again."
At that moment an alarm clock rang in the kitchen and Cecil excused himself. "Gotta take my medicine," he said. When he was out of earshot I whispered to my sister, "Did that make sense to you?"
"We're missing something," she whispered back.
He returned immediately and apologized. "I fell last week. Ended up in the hospital for three days."
"Oh, Ceese. How come?" my sister asked.
"A little arrhythmia," he said. "But let me tell you what happened in there. A nurse who took care of me scared me to death when she discharged me. She took me down to the street in a wheelchair, and as she helped me into the cab, she took my hand in hers, put her face close to my ear and said, ‘Don't you worry, Mr Thorne, nobody's gonna find out. You're safe.' "I have no idea how she knew," Cecil said.
"Knew what, Ceese? You had no idea she knew what?" my sister repeated.
Cecil pushed back against his chair, closed his eyes, and ran his fingers through his hair. Then he leaned forward forearms on his thighs, head down, eyes focused on the carpet. "Didn't your father tell you?" he asked, glancing up at us.
"Tell us what?"
Cecil hesitated one last time and said quietly, "I'm a Negro."
The words sucked the air out of the room. No one moved or spoke. Finally I said stupidly, "What do you mean? You're a colored man?" Cecil nodded. I glanced at Connie. She sat stunned.
"You never told Dad?" I asked.
"Yeah, I told him back in the mid-50's just after he came back from California. First and only time I had told anyone and it was not easy, believe me. For months I debated whether I should tell him. I realized I had broken the trust between us by lying to him for years so I figured, at first, he could never forgive me and I decided not to tell him."
My sister and I sat in silence.
"But then I thought, hoped really, that Bob might support my decision to ‘pass', as they say, if I could just explain my rationale to him. So I talked to him about how hard it was to be successful in photography. I told him the white editors keep all the good assignments from the few negroes in the business. I kept thinking of my dad. He had an Ivy League education and a work ethic than made him an All-American lacrosse player and yet they wouldn't promote him from office boy!"
Cecil had still not said exactly what he told Bob. He kept wandering away from that detail. So, when he paused for a sip of cold coffee I asked, "Did you actually tell Dad?"
"Yes, I had to because I wanted his approval for what I had done, but I figured he needed to understand first why I'd done it." Cecil was repeating himself, procrastinating. "I thought he might actually admire my decision. After all, it takes some courage to give up your family and your heritage to be free, don't you think?"
Neither my sister nor I answered. Sensing Cecil was on the brink of telling us what he said to our Dad, we waited. But when he began to ramble again, I took a different tack. "When you told him, how did he respond?" I asked.
A strange expression crossed Cecil's face. "I remember the exact words," he said in a tight voice. "When I tried to tell him I was a Negro, he said, ‘Oh, Cecil, don't be ridiculous.'"
He made an attempt to continue, but could not. He tried to take a sip from his empty coffee cup, then got up to turn on some lights. He stooped slowly near a table lamp and his hand trembled as he reached for the switch. The Vogue model had become an old man.
"You know he didn't mean to hurt you, Ceese," my sister said into the silence.
"Con, he dismissed my life in three words."
"But are you sure he understood what you were saying?"
Cecil leaned forward into his response. "Don't be ridiculous," he repeated those poisonous words. "That meant he thought I was making it up, or that I'd lost my mind. What else could it mean?" he snapped, looking at Connie. But Cecil was not soliciting answers. He had them and delivered them with such precision it was clear he had been thinking about them for years. "On the other hand, if he did believe I was colored, it meant he considered me ridiculous for having betrayed my race just for a better chance at career advancement. Or, maybe he thought I was cowardly for crossing over just to avoid the bigotry my dad endured for years; or, that I was stupid to have lived a lie all these years just so I didn't have to live in the black ghetto. Maybe I was ridiculous, but for Bob of all people to have judged me that way. . . "
"Ceese, let me tell you something," I said. "Toward the end of his life my father talked more about you than anyone else. Two weeks before he died he told me he loved you like a brother. That's the truth." I was talking fast, hoping to right my father's reputation in Cecil's eyes without implying that Cecil had judged him wrongly. "He could not have imagined how difficult it has been for you to live your life, but he would have been so proud of your accomplishments. You are a well-known fashion and portrait photographer, Ceese. Your portrait of Hemingway is all over the bookstores now. You've made it. Don't these facts justify your decisions and your sacrifices?"
"No they don't," he said, "and I'm not sure Bob would have been impressed. I didn't blaze a trail for others to follow. I hid my trail so nobody could find it. I hoodwinked everyone I knew. And do you know why? Because I was afraid somebody would discover I had lived a lie and make me pay for it. The truth is I've been letting people take advantage of me for years because I've been terrified that I'd be discovered. That's why I didn't even tell Cynthia."
Silence descended again. I remember hearing an occasional taxi horn from the streets far below and my breathing—nothing else. Cecil lay sprawled on the sofa, as if his announcement had blown him backward. My sister sat stunned again and I just stared at Cecil, wondering if it were true. Because I felt so uncomfortable I said, "Ceese, are you sure you want to talk about this?"
"Yes, I am sure." My sister got up from her chair and sat down next to him. He righted himself from his slouch and put his hand on hers. "I debated this forever," he began. "It was the worst period of my life. I even met my dad once to get his input, but that was a waste! He thought my decision to ‘pass' was smart and he envied my life as a white man because he never appreciated how lonely it was to be isolated from the family, or how vigilant I had to be to live my ‘white' life. He never listened when I told him how constant the pull was to cross back over so I could be myself again, so I could stop feeling I had betrayed my race." He paused briefly and looked at us for support. Then he repeated his father's final advice, "If you can satisfy yourself that Cynthia's not a racist, marry her and God bless you both—but always keep your secret!"
"That's a pretty cold advice, pretty cynical. Didn't he even ask if you loved each other," my sister asked?
"No time for that," Cecil replied. "The situation got worse fast." Cecil hesitated briefly, took a deep breath, and plunged on. "Cyn got pregnant right after we got engaged."
"Oh, God, Ceese. I don't know if I can stand this," I interrupted, but it made him smile for the first time that afternoon.
"Do you know why I didn't tell her? It's so simple! Because I just couldn't see myself sitting down with the poor girl, as upset as she was then, and saying to her, "By the way, Hon, I'm a Negro."
The line made me giggle. Then my sister started. Cecil looked quizzical momentarily, and he began to laugh. One laugh begot another. For several minutes we laughed uncontrollably; we laughed until the tension eased and we had no more tears.
Cecil pulled us back to reality, though, even as he wiped his cheeks. "I should have told her," he said. "We could have handled it together." He looked so forlorn; suddenly, I was overcome with sadness. Cecil continued. "By keeping my secret from her at that critical moment I was withholding an offer of trust. She really deserved better."
"Ceese, you're beating yourself up," I said. "You had a long, happy marriage. There are too many variables for you to say a different decision would have given you a better life."
"No. If she'd known, she'd have loved me anyway. It would have made us stronger," he insisted. He thought for a moment and added the coup de grace, "In a way, I think my decision condemned us to live separate lives forever."
My sister squeezed Cecil's hand and said, "I remember Cyn as a happy person. I am sure she didn't feel separated from you."
"I hope not, God rest her soul. She was a good woman, not a bigot like my dad suspected, but she was high-strung and I didn't want to see her hit with the hatred she would have faced back then as the mother of a black baby. Even if she had produced a baby as white as I look, those black genes would have been there ready to strike the next generation." Cecil stopped for a moment. We listened to the silence while he thought. "I forced Cyn to do it, you know—to have the abortion," he said. "She was totally opposed to it."
My sister took his hand again and said. "Oh God, Ceese! Oh my God!" He found it difficult to speak but acknowledged her kindness with a glance.
"One more thing…to make this complete," he said. "I did promise myself that if we survived the abortion ordeal, I would come clean with Cyn. I would introduce her to my family so she could decide about marriage with all the facts. Most of my family thought I was better off as a white man so I was sure they would welcome her into the family. But I broke my promise to myself, I'm sorry to say. I never introduced her to them, never told her about them. I never gave her a chance… or them."
By the time Cecil ended his soliloquy, night had fallen. My sister had wrapped herself in a blanket more to fend off additional heartache than to dispel the chill in Cecil's apartment. I felt spent. My hands shook as I carried our coffee cups to the kitchen, and my shoulders and neck ached. Cecil had stopped talking. He seemed—and perhaps he felt—vulnerable after revealing so much of himself. I expected him to apologize, but he did not, which I hoped meant that he had no regrets. As he stood at the sink rinsing the dishes, my sister walked over to him, put her arm around his waist, and told him she was proud of him. At that moment, I snuck into Cecil's bedroom and left the vintage photograph of ‘the boys' in their tennis whites on his chest of drawers.
We put on our warm coats and walked two blocks in a bitter wind to Praiano's Pub. Its warmth and bustle was a welcome change from the empty sidewalks. When the owner spotted Cecil, he led us to a booth in the corner. "I saved your table, Mr Thorne," he said, shaking Cecil's hand. "I'll be right back with food." On the wall above the booth hung a framed page from the New York Times, dated November 1928, with a photo of a familiar, trim figure suspended near the hoop about to score. The headline read: "Columbia Clips Crimson for Championship—Thorne Scores 22."
Tony brought appetizers, wine, and a piping hot ravioli dish. The food seemed to energize Cecil because he set out again for the past, but this time, perhaps due to fatigue or wine, he lost his way. He drifted into a murky monologue, in which he insisted, in a conspiratorial voice, that his life depended upon his maintaining the integrity of his white status. He demanded that we swear never to mention his secret to anyone.
"You see, I am surrounded by competitors who have been jealous of me for years," he said. "If they knew I'd been ‘passing' all this time, there's no telling what they might do. And some members of my own family, who know I've been ‘passing', hate me for it. That's why I seldom visit my relatives and only at night," he said in a whisper. "That's why I didn't go to see my mother before she died and why I'm really concerned for my life these days." Cecil sat with his elbows on the table, his hands clasped tightly above his untouched food. His face was flushed with anger.
"Ceese, why don't you have a sip of wine?" I said raising my glass. "And some of your ravioli? It's delicious. You're safe now and with friends." He stared at me, a lost look in his eye, and for a moment I did not know if he would explode at me or take a deep breath and relax. Cecil had told us how debilitating it had been over the decades to feel vulnerable and alone all the time and how unrelenting the stresses of maintaining his white identity had been. That night we witnessed the toll those lonely, stressful years had taken.
"You're right," he said, his voice sounding more normal. "Enough of this for today. You all have been a Godsend." The three of us raised our glasses and drank a toast to our next get-together.
After dinner we walked Cecil home, my sister on his right arm, I on his left. We walked in silence and slowly to postpone saying our farewells and we huddled together to share our warmth and because we felt close. We rode up to the 12th floor and traipsed down the empty corridor with our arms still around each other. At Cecil's door we lingered trying to find words to express how we felt, but they would not come. At last we managed to say goodbye, but not to stifle a tear or two in the old elevator as it brought us down to a shaky landing.
We spoke by phone regularly for half a year after our visit, insignificant but affable conversations, but there was to be no next get-together. I called one day, heard a nasal recording say, "This line is no longer in service," and knew he was gone. A week later I saw his obituary in the Times. I cut it out and put it on our refrigerator door with a magnet. It was fitting to preserve Cecil's memory by surrounding his obituary with photos of our family, mostly kids.
A year after his death, my sister and her family spent Christmas with us. One night after everyone had gone to bed, I found her standing in front of the obituary looking pensive. "A penny for your thoughts," I said.
"Lets pull that sad obituary down and replace it with this," she said. In one quick shuffle, she slid the article from under its magnet and handed me a red and green envelope. Inside I found a copy of that black and white photo of ‘the boys', solemnly posed yet dashing in their old-fashioned tennis costumes. I placed it in the middle of the kodachrome array on our refrigerator door. It remains there to this day. Some folks, I'm sure, think that old photo looks out of place among those happy faces and informal poses, but those folks do not know the story. They do not know that Cecil had been out of place most of his life, except when he was among children.
R.K. Simpson lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife Patty. he is a graduate of Dartmouth College and a veteran of the Marine Corps and the war in Vietnam. He served as a diplomat in several of our embassies in Europe, Africa, and Latin America for over twenty years and as a pediatric nurse for over fifteen years. He has three adult children.