“What if, some day in the distance, a man ventures through this same, tree-studded forest, along the long-covered path Fitz and I had carved for ourselves? What would he think of us—of what we did, of who we loved, of what we wanted to be?”
—Kenneth Cosgrove, “Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning,” The Atlantic
Beatrice Rizzo had many talents. She knew how to tap dance, spoke decent French, and once beat her dad at chess (though, come to think of it, maybe he had let her win—but never mind that). She was at the top of her class in mathematics and spelling. She could write her name in flawless cursive with one of her dad’s fancy ink pens, and could do cat’s cradle better than Jenny Litvin who lived down the hall. Last year, she even won the science fair, building a bridge out of Popsicle sticks that could hold three Webster’s dictionaries. Beatrice Rizzo could do many things—but she could. Not. Wait.
“Is it my birthday yet?” she asked, peering into the kitchen.
“Not yet, Chief,” replied her dad, who was drawing something on her cake with a tube of blue icing—her favourite colour.
She traced her big toe along the line in between the tiles on the floor. Then she picked her nose. She went into her bedroom, inspected her unmade bed, shrugged, and walked back to the kitchen. Then she asked, “How about now?”
Dad glanced up at the clock above the sink. “Come back in thirteen minutes.”
Groaning, Beatrice pranced past the kitchen counter and stood on tiptoes to see her dad’s handiwork. “What is it?” she asked.
Dad feigned shock with an offended gasp. “You mean you can’t tell, String Bea-n?”
It was a game they played. Every night when he tucked her into bed, he would call her something silly.
“Good night, Bumble Bea,” he would say.
“Good night, Paki-Stan,” she would fire back.
“I love you, Reese’s Bea-nut Butter Cup,” he would say.
She’d giggle at that one, then reply, “I love you, too, Stan-ford University.”
She looked at the blue lines curving across the cake. “It’s a Bea-ch Ball?” she ventured.
“Nope.” Dad scooped her into his arms and lifted her above the counter. Now she could see: the circle she had thought was a ball, was actually a crater.
“It’s a Bea-teor Shower!”
“Bingo.” He lowered her down and rested his palm on her shoulder. “Eleven minutes, Chief. Don’t ask me again. Didn’t your mom get you a watch for Christmas?”
Beatrice crinkled her nose. “Yeah, but the strap is itchy,” she observed. “Besides, I asked for roller skates.”
“Your mom was just being practical. What were you going to do with roller skates in the winter? It was too snowy outside to use them.”
“I could’ve waited ‘til summer,” Beatrice mumbled.
“You? Waited?” Dad scoffed. “Yeah, right.”
Beatrice rolled her eyes. “What am I supposed to do for eleven whole minutes?” she bemoaned.
“You could watch TV,” Dad suggested. “Read a book? Play with Sputnik?”
“Sputnik’s asleep,” Beatrice pointed out, nodding at the three-legged retriever curled up beneath the counter by his water bowl.
(Though it was Beatrice who had found Sputnik lying in the middle of the street, at death’s door after a run-in with the Litvins’ Cadillac, the pleas of “Can we keep him?” had come not from Beatrice, but from her mother. The name, however, was all Bea’s.)
“Sputnik’s always asleep,” Stan countered, which was true. Sputnik was as lazy as an ad man after his morning whiskey.
Rolling her eyes, Beatrice knelt beside Sputnik and prodded his belly with both index fingers, as if she were playing “Chopsticks” on the piano in her grandma’s living room. The dog opened one eye, sneezed, and shuddered back to sleep.
Every year, at 12:47 a.m. on the fifteenth of July, Beatrice’s family woke up to celebrate her birthday, down to the exact minute. It was a ritual more sacred to her than unwrapping presents on Christmas morning. Some years, she’d fall asleep at bedtime only to startle awake at 12:46, driven by the precise internal alarm clock that only children seem to have. But this year, her excitement had managed to fend off drooping eyelids. (Excitement, yes, and also a late-night bowl of Cocoa Puffs; Mom’s crusade to lure General Mills over from Dancer to McCann, though ultimately ineffectual, had allotted certain benefits.)
Now it was 12:37.
Sputnik grumbled in his sleep. The sound reminded Beatrice of her Uncle Gerry whenever he complained about his back.
12:39. Beatrice traced the word BIRTHDAY in cursive against the grain of Sputnik’s fur.
Stan crossed into the living room and switched on the TV. The man behind the desk was speaking very solemnly about hostages in a place called Iran.
12:40. She’d never make it to her birthday; boredom was already seeping into her bones. She had to do something.
Dooo dum duh-dooo do dummm… Beatrice began humming just loud enough for Dad to hear. She cast him a glance to see if he recognized the tune.
Sure enough, her plan was working. She watched her dad’s expression grow increasingly irritated, and amped up her volume, sprinkling in some lyrics: I’d like to buy the world a Coke – dooo dum duh do-dummmm…
Stan had had the Hilltop jingle stuck in his head for the better part of a decade. He scowled at his daughter, crossing his arms. “Tell you what,” he said. “Six minutes left. You can go wake your sister early.”
Grinning in triumph, Beatrice leapt up, stepping on Sputnik’s tail in the process (though the dog remained sleepily unfazed). She bounded down the hall to Eleanor’s room and swung the door open like an opera diva making a grandiose entrance. “Ellie,” she called, “wake up wake up wake up!”
Light from the hallway splashed onto Eleanor’s face as she rubbed her eyes. Scrunching her nose, she peered at her sister. “ ’Sit your birthday yet?”
“Okay,” Eleanor noted, and kicked her legs out from under her bedsheet. “Did Dad make a cake?”
“What’s on it?”
“Okay,” said Eleanor again, rolling up the sleeves of her Strawberry Shortcake pajamas. “Can we go to the kitchen?”
Eleanor’s birthday tradition was different than Beatrice’s, because Eleanor had been born in the middle of the workday, and according to Mom, it simply wasn’t practical to drop everything in order to blow out a few candles. So on Eleanor’s birthday every December, Dad would make chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast, and Eleanor would get to choose what Mom and Dad wore for the day. Last year, Peggy had shown up to the Heinz pitch in one of Stan’s Hawaiian shirts, blue jeans, leg warmers, some purple Mardi Gras beads, and no fewer than sixteen bracelets.
But today was Beatrice’s day, not Eleanor’s. It was 12:45. As the girls entered the kitchen, Dad winked at them. “Two minutes, Chief. Gonna go wake your mom.”
Stan tapped on the door to his and Peggy’s bedroom. “You up?” he called, turning the knob.
“Barely,” came her groggy reply. “When did 12:47 become such a tall order?”
He shook his head, and strode over to the bed, leaning over her. “Eight years, huh?” Stan murmured, tracing his index finger along her jaw.
She half-smiled sleepily. “If I close my eyes, I can still see the chauvinistic ass-hat I fell in love with.”
“Ah, and there’s the stuck-up stick-in-the-mud who stole my heart.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Let’s go. Our daughters are waiting.”
(He always said it like that, in italics, as though the fact of it still came as a surprise. As though he constantly had to remind himself of this beautiful and unexpected reality they had created.)
Peggy shrugged into her bathrobe and followed Stan into the kitchen, stopping short as he paused in the doorframe. “Look,” he whispered.
They watched as Beatrice guided Eleanor through a hand game she had learned at summer camp, something with clapping and waving and a catchy tune: Down down baby, down by the roller coaster… The sisters’ hands—small hands, strong hands—clapped and waved in clumsy synchronicity, while Sputnik observed with the half-hearted gaze of a captive audience.
Suddenly, Beatrice leapt up. “It’s 12:47!” she cried. “It’s my birthday!”
There was a cake with eight candles, decorated with blue icing meteors; there was a wish with closed eyes; and a picture snapped with the SX-70 that Peggy had nabbed when Polaroid and Kodak were competing to be added to McCann’s roster. There were presents: roller skates, finally; and a big box, bigger than Eleanor, wrapped in blue paper and tied with purple ribbon.
“What is it?” Beatrice asked, unsure how to approach the unwrapping process for something this large.
“You have to open it to find out,” Mom intoned.
“Right.” Beatrice walked in a circle around the box, and tugged at the tails of the purple ribbon. Then she slid her fingers under the taped-down folds of paper; something about this box—its size, its mystery—forbade her from tearing into it too hastily. Whatever this was, it seemed to merit reverence.
And then the paper was gone, and there it was, glorious. A telescope.
The box didn’t even have pictures of children on it, so Beatrice knew this was the real deal. She exhaled suddenly, uncertain how long she had been holding her breath. “Thanks,” she said softly, without looking at her parents. Her eyes scanned the words on the box, words like DISCOVERY and GALAXY and NEBULA and ADVENTURE.
(Decades later, on an NBC special about women in space, Tom Brokaw would ask her what had inspired her to become an astronaut, and she’d think of this moment: of her parents, smiling with shy encouragement; of her sister, grabbing her in a guerrilla hug; of Sputnik, nosing through the crumpled blue wrapping paper; and of the sky outside the living room window, black and distant but somehow welcoming.)
“What did you wish for?” Eleanor asked.
“For Mom and Dad to be married,” Beatrice answered, then clapped her hand over her mouth. She looked up at her parents, who were sitting with expressions of mild shock on the sofa. “Sorry. I forgot—I mean, you’re not supposed to say wishes—I mean, I know why you’re not, and I know you love each other, and it’s okay. It’s just, remember when Penny’s dad went away? And he didn’t come back, and Penny is really sad. And I’m just scared—I mean, not scared, just—I want you guys to promise. To be here. Always.”
“Well, that came out of left field,” said Peggy, smoothing the creases in her bathrobe. “Beatrice, honey, we’re not going anywhere. We promise. Scout’s honour.” She held up three fingers to prove her point.
Stan looked to Beatrice, then to Eleanor, then to Peggy. “Eh,” he said with a shrug. “Let’s get married.”
“Really?” Beatrice exclaimed, at the same time Peggy said, “What?”
Shrugging again, Stan gestured broadly around the living room. “Peg, we live together and love each other and are raising two human children together. Let’s do it, if only for the tax benefits.”
“Need I remind you that you were the lawless hippie opposed to marriage in the first place?”
“That was years ago,” Stan noted. “We’ve got a groove going now. We’re a family. We jive. Why the hell not get married, this far into the game?”
“Language,” Beatrice reprimanded.
“Oh,” said Peggy. She tightened the sash on her robe, and ran a hand nervously through her hair. “Well, I suppose I have to think about it.”
“Seriously?” Stan and Beatrice said in unison.
“I mean, we’ve had this—this system—for so long. We’re good like this. We work.”
“We'll still work,” Stan assured. “What will a piece of paper change?”
“Ha,” Peggy laughed drily, because that was the exact argument she had used eight years ago, when they had agreed to raise an unplanned child together, and she had been the one to propose. Throwing her hands up in surrender, she rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she said, “fine. But I’m keeping my last name.”
Stan winked. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
By 1:22 a.m., the telescope was set up on the roof of their building. Since it wasn’t a kids’ version, it couldn’t be adjusted very low, and Beatrice had to stand on a phonebook to reach. She closed one eye and pressed the other up to the lens.
It was odd, this feeling: powerful; pioneering. The endless lights of New York City could hide the stars from everyone else’s eyes, but she—Beatrice Rizzo, a girl of many talents—she could see them. They were far away. She wondered if they would seem bigger from the windows of a spaceship, or if they would only seem brighter, and more beautiful.