• Bird of Paradise

    Shannon Sanders

    Fall 2023

    Evening fell and up came the automated glow of the citronella torches. Cassandra had noticed them as she first stepped into her boss’s backyard, a dozen earthen obelisks discreetly lining the patio and the outer reaches of the lawn, and registered them as a particularly un-Jon-like aspect of his Takoma Park home. Difficult to imagine the university president—who dressed each day as if for a press conference, fleurs-de-lis flashing at his jacket cuffs and the school colors shining in the satiny threads of one bow tie from his bottomless reserve—strutting into a Lowe’s in search of these garden lights that looked like mud sculptures. Now, though, the darkness-activated torches turned majestic, their steely basins emanating scent and showy little flames. This was Jon: drama, spectacle, pomp and circumstance, and so forth. Presidential!

    However, while the torches gave off a warmly flattering aura, performing small mercies on the zits and crow’s-feet of the faces in the assembled crowd, they didn’t provide nearly enough light if one happened to be looking for someone, which Cassandra was. “Sorry, just a minute,” she told the group clustered around her. She touched the arm of the person before her—some young hanger-on from Student Affairs—and the seas parted; she pushed through.

    She needed her nieces for a photo, quickly. They’d only just been here, gathered with the crowd on the patio to hear Jon’s end-of-evening remarks, and then seemed to disperse as Cassandra was swept up in toasts and congratulations. She thought now that she saw one by the koi pond, a high-piled puff of hair above a shadowed young face, a lissome body in black. She headed that way, gathering the skirt of her dress in one hand and clutching her glass of Opus One in the other, careful, so careful not to trip.

    “Beautiful dress,” murmured a woman named Janet as their shoulders grazed each other in passing. Janet would start the upcoming semester as the new dean of diversity and inclusion, once Cassandra ascended to the role of provost. Passing Cassandra the name of her favorite fashion rental service had been Janet’s first act of solidarity with her predecessor.

    “A little birdie helped me find it,” said Cassandra, winking, and hustled past.

    For Jon, for this, Cassandra had chosen a dress called the Zofia by a designer well outside her ken, a magenta cocktail number with a plume of shirring for a shoulder strap. She had done so understanding that it would draw even more than the usual share of Michelle Obama comparisons so many of her colleagues seemed dead set on making, suggestive as it was of last year’s inaugural ball gown. That was all right; one could see that as a sort of compliment. The Zofia had been a nod to Jon’s preference for sartorial regality. Cassandra had had her hairstylist put in a bronze rinse and take off an extra inch to dilute the Michelle-ness of the overall look, and—it was all fine. But the structure of the dress, its constrictive boning and the flare of tulle at the hip, made hurrying difficult. Especially now that night had fallen. And by the time she reached the koi pond, the phantom niece had disappeared behind a wall of party guests.

    Of the eightyish guests, Cassandra supposed that half—including Jon, hence the party, the heavy hors d’oeuvres, the unending cases of upper-midlist French wines—were sincerely happy for her appointment. Twenty-eight or so had openly backed Neil Margolis, the other apparent front-runner. Another nine were utterly goddamn inscrutable, their faces sealed in neutrality all evening as they burbled their congratulations and clinked Cassandra’s wineglass. Fine. They had their own aspirational reasons. But of course it left her to twist in the winds of uncertainty, both tonight and once they were all back in the hallowed halls.

    And so—operating on such a slim margin of confirmed support—how grateful she had been all evening for the true agnostics! The catering staffers passing bacon-wrapped scallops on trays. Jon’s cleaning ladies, two lithe brown figures clad in black, clandestinely collecting dropped napkins and left-behind plastic flatware, sweeping them into the wide mouth of a garbage bag for what Cassandra suspected must be double overtime. The photographer, someone’s earnest nephew, wielding a gifted Nikon DSLR. When one needed a break from the bullshit—and one often did—one could reach for a scallop, or duck into a dim corner, and supplant university small talk with, for example, a comment about the mosquitoes that despite the citronella seemed sent straight from hell to swarm Jon’s backyard. God, the relief of it, these few blessed souls present who truly didn’t care one way or the other.

    Except that now the photographer, worried about the dying light and the party guests’ accelerating drunkenness, was beginning to reckon with a preordained list of hoped-for shots, photos that would likely punctuate the next university bulletin and perhaps a local culture magazine or two. Half an hour earlier, he had accosted Cassandra by the fruit display. Dr. Collins, could we get one of you with your family? 

    Family. When Jon had put this thing together, he’d floated a possible date by her, and she in turn floated the date by her husband during their bi-nightly phone call.

    “I don’t know, Sandy,” Charles had said after a moment, not concealing his distraction or the clattering of his fingers on a keyboard. Down in Atlanta, he was sorting out the details of an acquisition turned nasty, managing trips up to DC only as absolutely necessary. “This is instead of the other thing?”

    He meant the official do that would take place once the semester ended, a gargantuan gala the likes of which Jon was famous for. Tuxes and gowns. “In addition to,” Cassandra clarified, though she understood already that this was the groundwork for a no. “This is a more intimate gathering at Jon’s house. You could wear a sport jacket. It’s not a big show.”

    Charles huffed a little at that.

    “Not a big donor show,” Cassandra clarified, cradling the phone between her ear and shoulder as she parted the curtains and peered down at the cacophonous Saturday nighters below. The window in the living room of her condominium overlooked the corner of Eighteenth and M, a triangle of bars and restaurants. On weekends after dark, the block teemed with under-thirties, interns from the Hill and students of nearby institutions, their dance music throbbing from the windows. Cassandra let her eyes wander over the crowd without focusing on any particular tearaway, careful as always not to positively identify some drunken student from her university.

    “I don’t know, Sandy,” Charles said again, this time in a tone that effectively ended the conversation. “The other thing, though, I’ll be there, absolutely. Spit shined and suited up.”

    It wasn’t such a disappointment. The handful of times she’d gotten Jon and Charles in a room together, Cassandra had found herself physically disoriented, as if the hemispheres of her brain had switched sides without warning.

    Her daughter, Cecilia, didn’t answer the phone. This stung but didn’t surprise Cassandra. Compiling recent data, she realized there was, at any given moment, a better than 65 percent chance that Cecilia wasn’t speaking to her.

    Her son, Cyrus, answered midway through the second ring. Though she’d meant to launch right into the question of the garden party, first she couldn’t stop herself from bitching for a full fifteen minutes about Cecilia, to Cy’s gentle clucks of validation. His patience persisted even as noise swelled behind him, collegiate debauchery not unlike what went on outside Cassandra’s window, and finally Cassandra forced herself to come to her point: “Anyway—could you get here for the party, by any chance? On the tenth?”

    “I have a dance final,” said Cy, not without tenderness. “But you know I would, if not.”

    She did know, and after they hung up she sat motionless for a minute or two, picturing her dismay as a small gray stone, turning it over in her mind, painting it a bright white with wide, forceful brushstrokes of gratitude. She took a few deep breaths, and then she called her sister Lela.

    “Can I bring somebody?” asked Lela. Of course.

    “No,” said Cassandra. “Bring who?”

    “I’m seeing someone,” said Lela.

    “I know,” said Cassandra. “But—”

    “You don’t know. This isn’t that guy. This one’s name is Irving and he’s been saying he wants to meet you.”

    “This isn’t the time for that, though,” said Cassandra, pinching the bridge of her nose. “For this, just family is best.”

    Lela exhaled theatrically. “Worrying we’ll make you look bad,” she murmured, as if to herself. “You already have the job, don’t you?”

    “Listen, Lee,” said Cassandra. “It’s a yes or a no. I’ll get you a ride from Southeast if you need one. Jon always has good wine.”

    Lela gave a dry laugh. “Jon always has good wine. You know what, looks like my calendar just opened right up.”

    “Yes or no, Lela?”

    “Didn’t I just say I’ll be there?”

    Though she was alone, Cassandra gave a firm, victorious nod. “All right, well, good,” she said. “Thank you.”

    “It’s outdoors?”

    An image flashed unbidden into Cassandra’s mind: her voluptuous sister striding into Jon’s backyard in a minidress, a thin layer of spandex barely covering her ample, middle-aged behind. Flirting with the men of Jon’s administration and maybe even Jon himself, parading crassly around in front of him like an underdressed flamingo. “You know,” she said, tripping over the words a bit, “a colleague of mine gave me the name of one of those places where you rent a designer dress for a night.”

    Lela said nothing, but maybe snorted once or twice.

    “My treat,” said Cassandra.

    Lela snorted once more. “I just checked my calendar again,” she said. “And guess what?”

    Cassandra sighed.

    “I’m busy after all, you stuck-up motherfucker,” said Lela, and hung up.

    Cassandra had wandered into the kitchen, where she now fixed herself a much-needed rum and Coke. As always, she shut her eyes and thought of her father’s face, lifting the glass heavenward before she tipped it toward her mouth. The first sip was a little moonbeam of ecstasy.

    Shannon Sanders is a Black writer and attorney near Washington, DC. Her debut short story collection, Company, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in Fall 2023. Her short fiction has appeared in One Story, TriQuarterly, Electric Literature, Joyland, and elsewhere, and has received a PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.

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