Sometimes the smallest decision can change your life forever.
Abe Lincoln’s bodyguard decides to stay for another drink at the bar at Ford’s Theatre during intermission.
The archduke’s driver makes a wrong turn in Sarajevo because he refuses to ask for directions. (Men, right?)
You finally listen to your know‑it‑all brother‑in‑law and invest everything you have with a guy named Bernie Madoff. Steady returns, dude. A no‑brainer.
The tyranny of small decisions, someone once called it. The gate of history turns on small hinges.
Danny Goodman’s nightmare began with a quick handshake and a friendly smile.
Whenever he drove up to his daughter’s private school, the Lyman Academy, Danny couldn’t help thinking of stately Wayne Manor, the baronial mansion outside Gotham City where Batman lives as Bruce Wayne. If only he were driving the Batmobile instead of a 1997 Honda Accord.
Lyman was the most exclusive private girls’ school in Boston, and most of the other cars in the pickup line were gleaming luxury SUVs: Range Rovers or Mercedes-Benzes or Land Cruisers. Today, though, Abby would be spared the public humiliation of an Accord sighting, because her father had arrived twenty minutes early for the afternoon pickup. He had an appointment with the head of the Upper School, Tinsley Thornton, whom everybody called Lally.
Lally. No wonder the place made Danny uncomfortable.
He parked in the side lot, where the teachers parked, and where his dented old Honda didn’t look quite so out of place. The office of the head of the Upper School was at the end of a long corridor next to the headmaster’s office and Admissions, which might as well have been labeled rejections. You either had to know someone—several someones—to get into Lyman or be able to write a check sizable enough to build a new library. Danny had been fortunate: The foundation his late wife, Sarah, had worked for was endowed by a guy who also happened to be chairman of Lyman’s board of trustees.
Lally Thornton welcomed him to her large, oak-paneled office with a concerned look, clutching his hand in two of hers. Her steel-gray hair was held back with a black velvet headband. She wore a black turtleneck, a double strand of pearls, and perfume with the strong floral smell of urinal cake. Her air of lethal graciousness always reminded Danny of that socialite girls’-school headmistress who shot the diet doctor years ago.
“Is everything all right with Abby at home?” she asked with hushed concern, settling into a low brocade chair while Danny sat on the couch at a right angle to her.
“Oh, yeah, she’s—doing well.” He swallowed hard.
“It must be so difficult for her.”
He nodded. “But you know, Abby’s a strong kid.”
“Losing a mother at her age. What a terrible thing.”
Danny nodded. She must have just reviewed the file. “I had a quick question about the Italy trip,” he said.
She lit up. “It is such a profound experience,” she said. “You’ll see. It changes them. They come back different people—more aware of the world, more appreciative of different cultures, and, well, it seems to just dissolve all those cliques, all those silly tensions between the girls. I’d even call it transformative. Abby—oh,she’s going, isn’t she?”
“Well, see, that’s the question.”
“She must. She absolutely must. It’s the trip of a lifetime.”
He blotted his damp palms on the knees of his suit pants. “Right, I know, I’ve heard. . . . But Abby—well, you know how idealistic these girls can be at that age. She’s sort of concerned that some of her classmates might find it difficult to go.”
“The five thousand dollars, I mean. Not everyone can afford it, and, you know, that bothers her.” Danny tried to sound casual. As if he were a hedge fund tycoon with a social conscience. Instead of a writer whose advance on his latest book had run out months ago.
What Lally apparently didn’t know was that he was more than a month late with this semester’s tuition. He had no idea how he could possibly come up with it—let alone five thousand bucks for a trip to Italy on top of that. Lyman had the biggest endowment of any private school in the United States. He was fairly certain they’d squeak by a bit longer without his lousy sixteen thousand dollars.
He imagined her reply: Why, that five-thousand-dollar fee, that’s merely a suggestion, a recommendation. Of course it’s waived if it’s a hardship for any family.
He felt a single fat bead of sweat trickle down behind his left ear, then down the side of his neck, and under his shirt collar.
“Isn’t that thoughtful of her? Well, you tell Abby that if any of her friends aren’t going to Italy because of the money, their parents should say something to Leah Winokur right away. We have scholarships for deserving minorities.”
“Of course.” He’d come here to try and finagle something that might enable Abby to go to Italy. A price break, maybe. A loan. Something. A scholarship for minorities didn’t exactly help. The only minority that Abby
Goodman, blond-haired and blue-eyed, belonged to at this school was Girls Whose Parents Didn’t Have a Summer House. “You know, I do wonder whether it might be difficult for other parents, too—not minorities but not, you know, the very wealthy. To pay that kind of money on top of everything else.”
“I doubt most Lyman parents would consider that a hardship. After all, no one has to go to Italy.”
With a smile as cold as a pawnbroker’s, she said, “Was there anything else?”
The halls were crowded with teenage girls. It rang with squeals and shouts and laughter. Some of them walked arm in arm or hugged one another. Danny often marveled at how affectionate girls that age were, and couldn’t help contrasting them with teenage boys, who smelled like old gym socks and zit cream and expressed affection by punching one another on the shoulder.
He waited for Abby with a deep sense of dread.
Not going on the Italy trip, she’d said, would be social death. She’d be a pariah. He’d told her he’d think about it. He’d see what he could do. Meeting with Lally Thornton had been a desperation move, a Hail Mary pass that didn’t complete. No need to let Abby in on just how bad things were. How they were basically living on fumes. He wanted her life to be as normal as possible, given the circumstances.
She was doing better than a lot of girls her age would have done. She was strong, but her mother’s death had hit her hard. For months, her default expression had been a Darth Vader mask of anger. Who could blame her?
He didn’t look forward to giving her the bad news about the one thing she was looking forward to.
From behind him came a rumbling basso profundo. “Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes,” sang a school security guard, Leon Chisholm. He was a black man of about sixty with close-cropped white hair and a wide, open face. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and had a gap between his front teeth; the vibe was part professor, part prizefighter. He’d spent twenty years with the Boston Police Department, so he was probably able to handle a few mean girls in Lululemon yoga pants.
“Officer,” Danny said with a grin and clapped him companionably on the shoulder. When Leon’s oldest daughter, Rebecca, had graduated from Bunker Hill Community College—the first in the family to go to college—Danny had helped her get a job with a publisher in Boston. Leon liked Danny, one of the few Lyman dads who said hi and actually chitchatted with him. To most other Lyman parents, Leon was invisible.
Then Danny caught a glimpse of Abby near the front lobby—her silvery metallic fringed scarf, then her face. Smiling, which surprised him. He couldn’t remember when he’d last seen her smile. She was walking arm in arm with her new BFF, Jenna Galvin.
Jenna Galvin seemed to be Abby’s polar opposite: She was small and dark-haired and chubby, where Abby was slender and graceful and blond. Jenna seemed sour, aloof, even arrogant, whereas Abby was sweet-natured
and sociable. Or had been, anyway, until six months ago. Jenna had just transferred to Lyman as a junior, which was unusually late to start a new school, and had apparently been an outcast there. Abby, empathic as ever,
and maybe also a bit rebellious, had felt bad for the new girl and befriended her. Now they were inseparable.
Abby’s face lit up when she saw her father, which was disorienting—was she smiling at someone else? She maneuvered nimbly through the teeming horde of girls and threw her arms around him.
First uncoerced hug in eleven months, Danny thought. But who’s counting?
“Oh my God, Daddy, thank you!”
For what? he wanted to say.
She hugged him even harder. He still hadn’t gotten used to how tall she’d grown. “Thank you thank you thank you. I just saw my name on the Italy trip list. I knew you’d let me go. You are so awesome.”
Jenna touched her arm. “My dad’s here, come on.” A sleek silver-haired man in an expensive-looking camel-colored
suit entered the lobby and gave Jenna a kiss.
“Abby, wait—what are you talking about?” Danny said.
But Abby didn’t hear him. She’d turned around and was talking to Jenna. Abby said, “I know, right?” before turning back to her father.
“Daddy, is it okay if I go home with Jenna?”
He felt a flash of irritation. She never seemed to want to spend time at home. But he said only, “Well, I don’t know. I’d rather not have to drive out to Weston to pick you up.”
“Esteban will take her home,” Jenna said.
Esteban was the Galvins’ driver. Jenna’s father was some kind of investor and had a lot of money, even by Lyman standards.
“Abby,” Danny said, but then someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned.
The silver-haired man. Thomas Galvin.
He appeared to be in his late forties. His blue-gray eyes were like steel against his deep tan. His suit was exquisitely cut, his pale blue shirt perfectly pressed, his tie neatly knotted. Everything in place. Danny’s crappy sport coat, which he’d bought off the discount rack at the Men’s Wearhouse Black Friday sale, felt itchy.
“Just wanted to introduce myself,” the man said, offering his hand.
Abby was already out the front door with Jenna.
“Nice to meet Abby’s dad. She’s terrific.”
“Most of the time,” Danny said with a grin.
“Jenna couldn’t ask for a better friend.”
“Well, it’s great to meet you, too.”
“Listen, thanks for letting me kick in on that Italy thing.” He had the accent of a kid out of Southie.
“Abby has been a lifesaver for our Jenna. You have no idea.”
“Hold on a second. You paid for Abby’s trip to Italy?”
“For totally selfish reasons, trust me.” He lowered his voice to a confidential mutter. “This is Jenna’s fourth school in three years. She was already begging to leave until she started hanging out with Abby. And she sure as hell doesn’t want to go with the class to Italy if Abby’s not going.”
Danny’s cheeks grew hot. He was astonished, and embarrassed. And angry, though he rarely let anyone see his anger.
How much had Abby told her friend? She couldn’t possibly know how bad their financial situation was, but she must have said something. This was beyond embarrassing; it was demeaning. This rich guy was treating them like a charity case.
“That’s extremely generous of you,” he said, “but I can’t accept it.”
“Please. It’s for my daughter.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll call the bursar and set them straight. But I really do appreciate the thought.” He smiled, then turned and pushed through the front doors.
The sun dazzled his eyes. A gleaming black Maybach limousine was parked at the curb. It had to belong to Galvin. A man in a uniform of black suit, white shirt, and black tie approached Abby and Jenna with a cardboard Starbucks take-out tray and handed them each a cup. Galvin’s chauffeur must have gone on a Starbucks run.
“Thanks, Esteban,” Abby said. She turned as Danny emerged, beaming excitedly, her eyes shining. “Everything okay, Daddy?”
He beckoned her over. “Boogie,” he began quietly, using the pet name he never used around anyone else.
“Oh God, I’m so so so excited,” she interrupted. Then followed a torrent of words—pasta and gelato and shopping—that Danny couldn’t quite follow. She grabbed both of his elbows. “I’m going to Italy!” she almost sang.
He hadn’t seen her this happy in years. Dimples had appeared on her cheeks, her smile so wide it looked like her face might crack in two.
Now what? Tell her there’d been a mix‑up?
Danny had once made the mistake of opening a link a friend had sent him. It was something called a crush video. It showed a woman stepping on a tiny kitten with her stiletto heels. It was one of the sickest, most disturbing things he’d ever seen, and he wished he could unsee it.
Telling Abby the Italy trip wasn’t going to happen would feel a bit like that.
“Dan,” Galvin said by way of greeting as he came out the front door, lowering his BlackBerry.
Danny approached and said, in a low voice, “I can only accept this if you’ll let me pay you back.”
Galvin’s eyebrows shot up. He nodded solemnly. “If you don’t, I’ll send my goons after you.” He gave Danny a wry smile.
“I mean, no offense, but it’s a little awkward. We don’t even know each other.”
“Which is crazy, right? Given how close Abby and Jenna are? Listen, come over for dinner tomorrow night, wouldja? The boys are home from college, and they love Abby, and Celina is making her famous arroz con
What could he say? The guy was shelling out for his daughter’s trip to Italy. Dinner with his family was the least he could do.
Much later, he’d replay that moment over and over again in his head.
He thrust out his hand and smiled. “Sounds great,” he said. “Thanks a lot.”