1 - Cornelia
My life—my real life—started when a man walked into it, a handsome stranger in a perfectly cut suit, and, yes, I know how that sounds. My friend Linny would snort and convey the kind of multipronged disgust I rely on her to convey. One prong of feminist disgust at the whole idea of a man changing a woman’s life, even though, as things turned out, the man himself was more the harbinger of change than the change itself. Another prong of disgust for the inaccuracy of saying my life began after thirty-one years of living it. And the final prong being a kind of general disgust for the way people turn moments in their lives into movie moments.
I do this more than I should, I’ll give her that, but there was something backlit and sudden about his walking through the door of the café I managed. If the floor had been bare and not covered with tables, chairs, people, and dogs, the autumnal late-morning sun would have slung his narrow shadow dramatically across the floor in a real Orson Welles shot. But Linny can jab me with her three-pronged disgust fork all she wants, and I’d still say that my life started on that October morning when a man walked through the door.
It was an ordinary day—palpably ordinary, if that makes any sense, like it was asserting its smooth usualness. A Saturday, loud, smoke already piling up and hovering like weather over me and the customers in Café Dora. I sat where I always sat when I wasn’t waiting on someone—on a high stool behind the counter—and I watched Hayes and Jose play chess. Everyone said they were good players. They themselves said they were. “Not prodigy good,” said Hayes. “Not Russian, Deep-freakin’-Blue-playing good. But hell.” Hayes was from Texas and wrote the wine column for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He liked to swear in offbeat ways, liked to walk in, turn a chair around backward with a bang, and straddle it.
As I watched, Jose lifted his shaggy head, gave Hayes a liquid-eyed, sorrowful look, and moved a chess piece from one square to another. I don’t know the game well, but whatever Jose had done, it must have been something, because Hayes tossed back his head and hooted, “Hot damn, boy! You pulled that one right out of your ass!” Hayes looked at me with a wry smile and a genial cowboy twinkle in his eye, and I lifted one corner of my mouth in a kind of rueful facial shrug. “What can you do?” my face said.
But don’t get attached to Hayes. As he was already in the room, he’s obviously not the man who walked into it bearing the new life on his shoulders, and he doesn’t finally figure into this story much. Not sure why I started with Hayes, except that in lots of ways he’s a neat little embodiment of the old life: a self-invented, smartish, semialluring wine snob disguised as a cowboy, not un-nice, with fairly amusing comments tripping off his tongue and probably a real person under there somewhere, but possibly not. In college, I read Piers Plowman in which this man Will goes on a journey and runs into characters like Holy Church and Gluttony. Think of Hayes as a character like that: Typical-Denizen-of-Cornelia’s-Old-Life. I’ve always found allegories kind of comforting. When you encounter people named Liar and Abstinence, you might not be crazy about them, but you know exactly what you’re getting into.
Another regular, Phaedra, made her entrance, all blowsy auburn curls, leather pants, and nursing-mother breasts, and tugging a giant black pram behind her—one of those English nanny prams with high, white rubber tires. Five people jumped up and nearly cracked one another’s skulls trying to hold the door open for her. Phaedra directed a beseeching look at the couple sitting at the table nearest the door, a look that turned out to be unnecessary. The man and woman were already hustling up their cappuccinos, jackets, camera bags, and backpacks on metal frames, not minding a bit.
“Cornelia!” Phaedra sang at me across the room in just the sort of musical voice you’d expect to come out of her mouth. “Could you? Café au lait? Loads of sugar? And something sinful!” We don’t have table service. Phaedra made a helpless, sighing gesture with her shoulders and her long hands, indicating her child, her exhaustion, the whole ancient weight of motherhood. Phaedra was a pain. But Allegra was a different story. Bearing the coffee and a croissant, I came out from behind my counter and made my zigzag way around tables and dogs for the sake of Phaedra’s baby, Allegra.
And there she was, wrapped in a leopard-print blanket, just waking up. A blue-eyed, translucent, bewitching witch of a baby, fresh as new bread in that smoky room. Allegra resembled Phaedra, same white skin, same glorious Carole Lombard forehead, but with carrot-orange hair that flew out in all directions. I waited for the pang; the pang came. I never saw Allegra without wanting to touch her, specifically to sleep with her in the crook of my right arm. I put the croissant and the coffee in front of Phaedra, then cradled my elbows with my hands. Allegra was asleep and making nursing motions with her mouth because what else would babies dream about?
“Face it. You want one,” said Phaedra. With effort, I shifted my gaze from gorgeous child to gorgeous pain-in-the-ass mother. “See that?” said Phaedra. “You had to literally drag your eyes away from her.” Ouch, I thought, and then sat down to talk for a minute, Phaedra’s misuse of the word “literally” having created a warm spot in my heart, tiny but large enough to prompt a five-minute conversation.
“How’s business?” I asked. Phaedra was a jewelry designer.
“Not good. I’m starting to think people just don’t get it,” said Phaedra. Her signature pieces, or what would be her signature pieces if anyone bought and wore them, were made out of sea glass and platinum, a juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary, Phaedra claimed, that forced one to rethink one’s perceptions of “value” and “preciousness.” Maybe people didn’t get it. Or maybe they got it but didn’t feel sufficiently moved to shell out eight hundred dollars for a bracelet made of old Heineken bottles.
Phaedra lifted her coffee to her lips, eyeing me brightly through the steam. “Cornelia, what if you wore some of the pieces in the café, just to generate in-ter-est?” Her tone suggested the idea had just popped into her head. In fact, this was the third time she’d asked.
“I can’t wear jewelry at work,” I said, not elaborating but rolling my eyes in a way I hoped suggested some unseen powers-that-be who hovered over me, forbidding jewelry. The truth was that I never wore jewelry anywhere, ever. I’m five feet tall and built like a preteen, eighty-five pounds soaking wet, as my father says, and my fear is that, given my smallness, jewelry will make me look like a geegaw or doodad, a spangly ornament to hang on a tree. It’s a shame, too, because I adore it. Not so much Phaedra’s kind—cool, angular objects—but serious jewels: diamonds, cuffs and chokers, brooches like shooting stars, tiaras. Jean Harlow jewels, Irene Dunne on the ship in Love Affair.
Allegra stirred in her leopard-print nest, yawned, and shot out a fist. Phaedra lifted her onto her lap, instantly dipping her swan neck, dropping her face into the orange hair, breathing in her child’s scent. An authentic gesture, automatic, unstudied. I felt prickles shoot down my arms. I touched a finger to Allegra’s hand, and she gripped it hard and hung on.
“You should have one, you know,” said Phaedra, harping, and this instantly got my hackles up, until I saw her face, which was something like kind. Phaedra was always a better person with Allegra in her arms. So I just trilled a little laugh and said, breezily, “Me with a baby. Can you imagine?”
“Of course, I can. Perfectly,” said Phaedra. “And so can you.”
While I resented her smug smile, and while I’d have died before admitting it to her, I had to admit to myself that she was at least partly right: I couldn’t imagine it perfectly, but I could imagine it. Had imagined it, in fact, more than once. But, every time, what brought me to my senses was my conviction that before a person dropped a new life into this world, she should probably get a real one herself.
The truth was, I was treading water and had been for some time. If you’re wondering why a thirty-something woman who had gone to all the trouble of attending a university and slogging through medieval allegorical texts had risen no higher on the career food chain than café manager, I don’t blame you. I wondered myself. And the best answer I’d come up with was that I hadn’t figured out anything better—not yet. If I were to ever have a full-fledged vocation, as opposed to a half-assed avocation, I needed to love it and, in my experience, it isn’t always easy to figure out what you love. You’d think it would be, but it isn’t. Also, if you stay in it for any length of time, like anyplace else, a café becomes a world.
I felt suddenly weary, looking at Phaedra and Allegra and the shining black pram. And if a woman weighing less than ninety pounds can be said to heave herself, I heaved myself out of my seat and lugged myself back to my spot behind the bar.
All of which is meant to demonstrate the ordinariness of the day and how the ordinariness was even taking on shades of dreariness and futility. Because you have to understand what my life was like in the “before” in order to see just how much it changed in the “after.” Ordinary, ordinary. Except that—and I honestly believe this, Linny’s pooh-poohing of movie moments notwithstanding—just before, a minute before the café door opened one more time, the ordinary day turned itself up a notch, in preparation.
The light falling through the high, arched windows went from mellow to brilliant, turning the old copper of the espresso machine to pure gold. And the music—Sarah Vaughan, whom I worship, singing George and Ira, whom I worship—was suddenly floating and dipping like some kind of bird in the clear space above the cigarette smoke and chitchat. The coffee smelled sublime, the flowers I’d bought that morning pierced the air with their blueness, the coffee cups lost their chips and glowed eggshell-thin, and standing in my red sweater and vintage suede skirt, my boots solidly on the floor, I felt almost tall.
The door of Café Dora opened, and Cary Grant walked in.
If you haven’t seen The Philadelphia Story, stop what you are doing, rent it, and watch it. It’s probably overstating the point to say that until you watch it, you will have been living a partial and colorless life. However, it is definitely on the list of perfect things. You know what I mean, the list that includes the starry sky over the desert, grilled cheese sandwiches, The Great Gatsby, the Chrysler building, Ella Fitzgerald singing “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If You Ain’t Got That Swing),” white peonies, and those little sketches of hands by Leonardo da Vinci.
If you have seen it, then you know there’s a moment when Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord steps from a poolside cabana. She’s got a straight white dream of a dress hanging from her tiny collarbones, a dress fluted and precise as a Greek column but light and full of the motion of smoke. A paradox of a dress, a marriage of opposites that just makes your teeth hurt it’s so exactly right.
I was fourteen when I first saw it. It was three days before Christmas, which in my family’s house meant, means, and will always mean, Yuletide sensory overload: every room stuffed to the gills with garland and holly, the whole place booming with Johnny Mathis, and a monstrosity of a tree towering in the living room, weighed down with ornaments of every description, including dozens defying description that my brothers, sister, and I had made in school over the years.
Fourteen was not a good year for me. I was the latest of late bloomers, of course, about two feet high and scrawny as a cat, still shopping in the children’s department, profoundly allergic to every member of my family, and convinced that nothing could make me happy.
But then my grouchy channel-surfing landed me in the middle of a black-and-white heaven: Tracy, the dress.
I was so struck, I forgot how to swallow and began to truly asphyxiate on a sip of 7-Up. And when, a little later, Tracy unfastened the belt from her willow waist and slipped her faultlessly formed self out of that faultlessly formed garment, I stood up and yelled, “Holy shit, that’s her bathing suit cover-up!” which my father, who was sitting on the floor fastening—no joke—jingle bells to the collars of our cats, did not appreciate.
I turned every atom of myself over to the rest of the movie. People must’ve gone tearing through the room, because people always did go tearing through rooms, especially my brothers Cam and Toby, who were eight and nine at the time. But a volcano could have begun spewing molten rock inches away from me, and I would not have noticed. I sat. I watched. If a girl could sling a poem over her swimwear as though it were an old T-shirt, what else might be possible?
I slid my fingers over my face, feeling for Tracy’s winged cheekbones. And when Dexter (Cary Grant) took Tracy to task, saying, “You’ll never be a first-rate woman or a first-rate human being until you have some regard for human frailty,” I recognized it as wisdom and wondered whether I had it, that kind of regard, and just how to get it if I didn’t.
In college, I took a film studies class subtitled something like “Turning the Formula on Its Head” in which the professor talked about the trick The Philadelphia Story pulls off. It should never have worked: creating a fantastic love scene between two characters whom you know are not in love with each other, getting you somehow to root for them wholeheartedly during the scene, but then to feel completely satisfied when they end up with other people.
Before you get the wrong impression, you should know that I’m not and never was one of those film people, the kind who argue into the wee hours about the auteur theory and whether Spielberg is the new Capra, or whether John Huston impacts, in unseen ways, every second of American life. I don’t know from camera angles, and I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of pre-World War II German cinema, but I fell a little in love with the film professor when he looked upon us with shining eyes and proclaimed, “No, it should not work. But work it does!” because he was so passionate and right.
When I heard Mike (Jimmy Stewart) say to Tracy in that tender, marveling voice, “No, you’re made out of flesh and blood. That’s the blank, unholy surprise of it. You’re the golden girl, Tracy,” I clasped my hands under my pointy chin, prayed that she would run away with him, and swore to God that someday a man would say those words in that voice to me or else I would die. But then, at the movie’s end, my father heard cheering and left water running in the sink to watch his lately distant, disaffected teenage daughter bang her fists on the arms of her chair and turn to him crying, “with a face as open as a flower” (my dad’s own improbable words), saying breathlessly, “She’s marrying Dexter, Daddy.”
I’ll admit it. I’ve always been more than a little proud of myself for having been fourteen and deeply benighted about almost everything, but having had the sense to recognize what is surely a universal truth: Jimmy Stewart is always and indisputably the best man in the world, unless Cary Grant should happen to show up.
His name was Martin Grace. An excellent name, which, you may have noticed, shares all but three letters with “Cary Grant.” Of course, if you’re not a freak of nature, you probably didn’t notice, and you’ll be relieved to know that it didn’t even spring to my mind right away. It was later, as I lay in bed that night, that I figured it out, mentally crossing out letters with an imaginary pencil, concentrating pretty hard, but sort of affecting an offhand, semi-interested attitude about it, cocking my head casually on the pillow, even though there was no one in the room to see me.
Truth be told, I’m a little superstitious about names. Back in college, I dated an enormous, blond, dumb fraternity boy from Baton Rouge with a voice like a foghorn purely on the strength of his being named William Powell, whom everyone knows from the Thin Man movies, but who is even better in Libeled Lady and is one of those men whose handsomeness you believe in completely even though you know it doesn’t exist.
My mother met the boy and knew instantly what I was up to. “Your nose looks like Myrna Loy’s,” she’d said. “Be satisfied with that.” Even so, I didn’t ditch Bill until a few nights later when I stood in his Georgian-mansion-turned-dank-cave of a frat house and watched Bill dancing shirtless on a tabletop, his bare, unfortunate belly pulsating like an anguished jellyfish. The bellyfish pulsated, and William Powell, with a delicate shrug, chose that moment to detach himself from Bill forever and slip out into the honeysuckle-scented night.
Slippery things, names. Still: Martin Grace. Good. Very good.
He’d stood dark-eyed and half-smiling in the doorway. Tall. Suit, hair, jawline all flawlessly cut. “Imperially slim,” is the phrase that jumped out of my fourth-grade reading book into my head. But the man in that poem ended up shooting himself, I remembered later, while this man, my man, clearly had only a seamless, sophisticated, well-shod life ahead of him. I’m exaggerating, but not much, when I say that as he walked to the counter—walked to me—the dogs, chess players, prams, etcetera parted before him like the Red Sea.
“Hello,” he said, and his voice wasn’t mellifluous or stentorian or melting or sonorous but was nonetheless unmistakably leading-man. As you knew he would, he had a dimple in his chin, and for a wild second or two I considered touching it and asking him how he shaved in there, because if you’re going to rip someone off it might as well be Audrey Hepburn. I didn’t, but I distinctly felt the dimple impress itself upon my unconscious, if such a thing is possible.
“Hi” is what I said.
“A coffee, please. Black.” And you could just tell that’s really what he liked and didn’t sense a self-conscious backstory involving a Marlboro Man masculinity obsession trailing like a long, stupid tail behind the request.
When I handed him his coffee, I let my hand linger on it an extra beat, so that it was still there when he reached for it. I like to pretend to myself that the cup became a little conduit and that our electricity shook it. Anyway, coffee spilled on my hand and I yelped and pressed it to my mouth like a two-year-old.
He looked at me with real concern and said, “I should be kept in a cage.”
“Occupational hazard.” I shrugged. “It’s fine.”
“It’s fine? Really? Because if it’s not, you have to tell me so I can go drown myself in the Delaware.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said. “The Schuykill’s closer.”
“The Delaware’s deeper. I don’t have the guts to drown myself in shallow water, even for you.”
Even for you, even for you! my heart sang.
“Except,” he said.
“Except what?” I snapped, snappily.
“Except it’ll have to be the Thames. I leave for London in two hours.”
This might not sound so earth-shattering to you, so fabulously clever or romantic, but trust me when I tell you that it was. Right from the start, we just had a cadence, an intuitive rhythm that I might possibly compare to the sixth sense that jazz musicians sometimes have when they’re playing together if I knew the first thing about jazz. You’ve seen Tracy-Hepburn movies, yes? It was the conversation I’d been waiting for all my life.
And it kept up, that back-and-forth. He talked about his business trip—four days in London, finance something or other—and about fog, how the thing of it was it really was foggy in London.
I felt taut and tingly and flushed, as though I were wearing a new skin, but I wasn’t exactly nervous. Miraculously, I was up to the challenge of meeting this man, perfect as he was. I was “on.” I even had the presence of mind, in the presence of Martin Grace, to continue doing my job, which was fortunate because that’s the way life is, isn’t it? Even as you and the Embodiment-of-All-Your-Hopes stand percolating your own little weather system, two teenaged boys with skateboards under their arms are bound to walk up, splash a pile of dimes onto the counter, and order triple mocha lattes. And usually, it’s not when your eyes are locked with the black-lashed, chocolate-colored stunners the dream man apparently carries around on his face all day as though they were ordinary eyes, but when you’re busy jittering the dimes into the cash register that you’ll hear him say, “Why don’t you come with me?”
Because he said that, Martin Grace did. To me.
I heard it again, an eerily precise aural memory, as I lay in bed that night, turning over the all-but-three-letters/Cary Grant idea for the first of you don’t even want to know how many times. At the sound of Martin’s voice in my head, I sat up, got up, walked over to the window, my white nightgown floating like a ghost around me, and sat in the chair I’d covered last spring with figured, lead-heavy green silk that had once been a monster of a fifties ball gown hanging in a resale shop in Buena (pronounced Byoona) Vista, Virginia. I cranked open my third-floor casement window, looked at Philadelphia—my piece of it—and let my affection for it lift lightly off of me like scent from a flower and drift out into the cool air. Spruce Street: cars and lights; the synagogue on the corner; the hustlers in front of it, male and heartbreakingly young. I felt the two tugs I always felt when I looked at those boys: the tug toward wanting the cars to stop, the tug toward wanting them not to stop.
I could be in London right now, I thought. Right now, lying back on unfamiliarly English pillows with Martin Grace beside me.
Why I wasn’t is a long story—so long that it probably isn’t a story at all. It’s probably just the way I am. But the next thing I said, a major-league clunker, the conversational equivalent of falling on my face, pretty much sums it up.
I stood there in tumult, weighing common sense against desire, trepidation against adventure, caution against impulse, while inwardly banging my head against the wall because, tumult or no tumult, my answer was a foregone conclusion:
“I want to, but I can’t. My mother wouldn’t like it.”
“So we’ll leave her home this time. She can come on the Paris trip.”
As I sat at my window replaying this conversation, lonely, nightgowned, face burning, but still somehow happy, I watched a helicopter in the distance drop its beam of searchlight and swing it slowly back and forth. I imagined a couple in evening dress doing a song-and-dance number in the street below, the woman’s skirt blooming like a white carnation as she spun.
Then I tried to imagine a world in which my mother would accompany me and my older (by maybe fifteen years?) lover to Paris, and blew out a single, sarcastic, “Ha!”
My mother alphabetizes her spice rack, wears Tretorn sneakers, and never puts eleven items on the ten-item express grocery counter, ever. She is a garden club president, and I mean that both literally and figuratively. On the outside, my life doesn’t look much like hers; I’ve made sure of that. But the truth is that I am my mother’s daughter, literally, figuratively, forever.
Still, I made sure Martin Grace did not walk out the door without my number. I leaned over, folded back his lapel, and placed it in his inside breast pocket myself. Then, I gave him a look so worthy of Veronica Lake, I could almost feel my nonexistent blond tresses falling over one eye.
2 - Clare
It started with towels. Ten full sets, thick Egyptian cotton-dyed dark plum, pale yellow, flamingo pink. Her mother dropped the huge white shopping bags heavy with towels on the floor of Clare’s room, then ran back to the car for more, until there were ten bags lined up like teeth on Clare’s rug. “Wait until you see them all, sweetheart. So beautiful. The best. The very best.”
Clare leaned against the doorjamb, let the wood press into her shoulder, half inside, half outside the room. She listened to her mother chatter and watched her toss the towels onto the bed, really pitching them so that the bath sheets unfolded like banners in the air and the washcloths fluttered open like little birds. Apple green, crimson, hydrangea blue. The bed was heaped with them. Clare put her thumbnail between her teeth, didn’t chew it, but held it there.
“Have you ever seen such beautiful towels? I feel the colors in my bones. Right inside my bones. Don’t you, Clarey?” Clare’s mother was breathing hard, almost panting, as though looking at the towels were like running or dancing.
Clare said, “We have towels already.”
Her mother walked over to her and swaddled her in a towel the soft brown of a brown egg. The towel was huge. Clare was going on eleven and was tall for her age, but the towel wrapped around her twice and puddled at her feet. Inside it, she felt skinny and hunched. Clare’s mother took Clare’s face in her hands, gently. Under her makeup, her cheeks were flushed. “It’s important to wash them before you use them the first time. And to wash each set separately so you don’t spoil the colors. Do you understand that?” Her voice was hushed and serious, so Clare nodded. Her mother took her hands away and looked over her shoulder at the bed covered with towels.
“We’d better go down and have lunch now, Mom,” Clare said.
“Oh, they just make me want to weep,” said Clare’s mother, and she lay down on the towels and wept.
The next morning, Clare sat in her fifth-grade classroom making lists.
Orphans. All of Clare’s favorite characters were orphans, and she wrote their names in the back of her notebook while her teacher went over the reading-comprehension questions for the Helen Keller autobiography the class had read. The questions were on a sheet of paper on Clare’s desk, with Clare’s answers penciled in underneath each question.
Clare’s mother called her worksheets “soulless,” not because the questions were stupid and reduced the readings to a bunch of lumpish facts; not because for what her mother was paying for the fancy Main Line school, they should have been coming up with something a lot fancier than worksheets; but because the sheets were copied on a Xerox machine. She recalled for Clare the mimeographs of her youth—the curling, slick paper, orchid purple smudgy ink, and the odor, a fragrance like none other. “I’d pick up the worksheet first thing and just breathe it, Clarey! That smell was the smell of school.”
Clare had wanted to say something good in response to this, something original and declamatory about her own school, how it smelled or didn’t, something to let her mother know that they were a team, two interesting people who noticed smells and soullessness. Clare tried hard to toss off sharp, quirky comments in front of her mother, to quip, is how she thought of it, the way girls in books were always quipping. Anne of Green Gables was a big quipper, for example. Once in a while, at school or with their cleaning lady, Max, who wasn’t a lady really but a nineteen-year-old with a tattoo of a phoenix rising from smoldering ashes across her bony shoulder blades, Clare was capable of quipping. But often, with her mother, conversation was tricky. Clare found herself trailing after, while her mother’s mind and voice dashed ahead, doubled back, ping-ponged in amazing ways.
Anne Shirley, Sara Crewe, Mary Lennox. These were the top-three orphans, with Anne miles ahead of the other two, so Clare wrote their names in inch-high lettering that came as close to calligraphy as she could manage given her number two pencil and limited artistic talent. When she was younger, she would sometimes draw pictures of each next to their names: three pale, big-eyed faces, each almost perfectly triangular, and topped, consecutively, with red hair, black hair, blondish hair. After the Big Three, there were others. Heidi. The Roald Dahl orphans: James and Sophie. Wild, vaguely creepy Pippi Longstocking, if you believed, as Clare did, that Pippi’s father was drowned and not a cannibal king. Tom and Huck. David, Pip, Estella, Oliver and the rest, struggling through fog, grim streets, and their twisting, thickly populated stories. The Boxcar Children. Unforgiveable Heathcliff; Hareton, who hanged the puppies from the back of the chair; Jane Eyre. Recent, bestselling orphans: Harry Potter, the sad-faced Baudelaires. There was also a subcategory of half-orphans, usually motherless, and a subsubcategory of half-orphans with kindly housekeepers: Scout and Jem; all four Melendy kids (five after they adopted Mark, a full-fledged orphan); even Nancy Drew, who was almost an adult and barely counted.
Clare grouped and regrouped the orphans, categorizing them by age, sex, hair color, country of origin, economic status. Clare was starting a list of the poor ones who ended up rich when she heard her teacher stop talking. Worksheets notwithstanding, Ms. Packer was nice and was maybe even a good teacher, Clare thought, although she was no Anne Shirley, who—once she’d grown up and become a teacher—loved every student as her own child, who won over the wicked Jen Pringle, and who inspired handsome Paul Irving to become a famous poet. Ms. Packer had a loud voice, was thick-waisted, thin-haired, and her fashion sense ran to Birkenstock sandals with socks, thumb rings, and what was whispered to be bralessness. But she seemed to care about books, and she sometimes talked about the characters as though they were real people, with tears in her eyes and a choke in her throat. She wasn’t married, and Clare understood that it was because she was madly in love with Charles Darnay and no other man measured up.
The night before, upon Ms. Packer’s suggestion, Clare had stuffed cotton in her ears and worn a blindfold for two straight hours. After she caught her finger in a drawer, busted her shin against the Biedermeir table, and spilled an entire glass of iced tea, she’d sat in a chair for a long time and afterward understood that being blind and deaf meant being alone with your thoughts and feeling a tide of worry rise around you.
Ms. Packer stood, arrested midsentence, pencil in the air, looking at the back of the room, and when Clare twisted around with the rest of the class to look, she saw her mother standing in the doorway. She wore a wrap dress, heels, sunglasses, lipstick. She was lithe and elegant, and her hair fell like a sheet of silk to her shoulders. When she looked at Clare and smiled, Clare felt a knot she hadn’t realized was under her ribcage loosen. My mother, she thought. Look at her. Who would worry about a woman like that?
But then she saw Mrs. Jordan, the assistant to the Head of the Lower School, hovering behind her mother, looking put out, and Clare remembered that parents never came to the classrooms. They waited in the reception area, and Mrs. Jordan sent a helper down to retrieve their children. Clare imagined her mother striding like a runway model down the school hallways while Mrs. Jordan pattered after her, apprising her of the rules in a tense but polite voice. The knot tightened.
“Sorry to interrupt, Ms. Packer, but I need Clare,” said Clare’s mother, turning her smile on Ms. Packer.
Then, Clare’s mother dropped like a dancer or a panther into a crouch and shook back her hair. She held her arms out to Clare, as though Clare were a toddler. “I need you, Clare,” she said.
As Ms. Packer and Mrs. Jordan exchanged bemused, disapproving looks over her mother’s shining head, Clare chose the side she was on. She looked from teacher to administrator, then grinned at her mother, a grin she made sure wasn’t just the fashioning of her mouth into a shape but that went all the way to her eyes. Then, she shoved books and notebooks into her backpack and stood up.
“You’ll e-mail me with the homework, please, Ms. Packer?” she said briskly, just tipping her voice up ever so slightly at the end of the sentence to turn it from statement to request.
She glanced at her friend Josie, whose desk was next to hers, and noticed that Josie’s expression was familiar, the combination of admiration and friendly envy with which Josie always regarded her when they spent time with Clare’s mother. Josie had once told Clare that she thought of her mother as a cross between a fairytale princess and an exotic animal like a peacock. Josie was a bright girl, but not especially creative, and this was definitely one of the most interesting things she’d ever said to Clare, which showed just how much Clare’s mother fascinated Josie. Even when Clare’s mother did some ordinary mother thing, like give them a plate of cookies, Josie gazed at her in amazement as though she’d just performed magic. Even though Clare’s mother showing up in their classroom was peculiar, it probably didn’t seem particularly so to Josie, who saw everything Clare’s mother did as special and unexpected. Rules that applied to other mothers didn’t apply to her.
Ms. Packer nodded at Clare, her brows still knit. Then, Clare turned on her heel, as pertly as any storybook heroine ever did, walked to the classroom door and, as she hadn’t done for years and not caring what the kids in her class would think, took her mother’s hand.
Clare stayed stride for stride with her mother, head high, ponytail swinging, down the hallways of the school, through the oak-paneled entryway, and out the door. They were coconspirators stepping out together into the sunny afternoon. But, in the parking lot, her mother looked down at Clare’s face and said, with a hint of irritation in her voice, “Nothing to worry about, Clarey. I’m your mother. I’m allowed to take you out of school without jumping through hoops.”
“No, Mom. I’m not worried. I’m really not worried,” said Clare, inserting what was almost a skip into her step. “Ms. Packer and Mrs. Jordan, they’d be okay, if they weren’t so—conventional.” Clare’s mother squeezed Clare’s hand.
“Sometimes, darling, a mother just has to let everything go, and take her daughter to lunch.”
“I agree,” Claire almost sang, and she felt everything was fine—better than fine. She’d used a good word, “conventional” and, in a breezy, laughing voice, her mother had called her “darling,” a luxurious, old-fashioned endearment that Clare had read a thousand times but had never been called.
Inside the rose-colored walls of the restaurant, before her mother said unthinkable things, Clare was happy. At first she was happy because she had decided to be, and then she relaxed into her happiness and just felt it.
The restaurant was cool and high-ceilinged, with waiters in creaseless white shirts, and with tight bunches of purple flowers in tiny vases on the tables. It was the sort of place that is sure enough of itself to be noisy and bustling rather than hushed, and Clare thought it was wonderful. The way the water sat in the glasses; the menus that didn’t open but were a single pale yellow card; the small, brightly colored, evenly spaced paintings that hung across one wall—all of it dazzled Clare.
“If you can tell us which of these two wines you’d recommend and why, you’re our man,” said Clare’s mother to the handsome, black-haired waiter. She handed the wine list to him and pointed to the two selections, her hand lightly touching his, her fingers looking tapered and delicate. She spoke in a low voice, and the waiter smiled. His front tooth was chipped, causing Clare to notice how young he was. This is the way men smile at beautiful women, she thought, and she felt proud that even this guy who was almost a kid, almost a boy, could fall under her mother’s spell.
When he brought the wine, he filled her mother’s glass, and then held the bottle over Clare’s glass. Clare started to tell him no, but he was looking at her mother, not at her and, astonishingly, her mother nodded. Clare watched the dark wine rise in the glass, watched the waiter’s hand give a slight twist at the end, then sat staring at the wine, unsure of what to do next. Should she remind her mother about her own mother’s sister, Aunt Patsy, who at age nine, after a dinner party, had sneaked downstairs and drunk the dregs of every guest’s drink? “They found her in the front yard, laughing at the moon. From that moment on, she was a hopeless drunk. Hopeless.” Her mother’s words, her mother’s cautionary tale; it seemed impossible that she’d forgotten it.
But her mother was raising her own glass and looking at Clare, eyebrows arched. It was a large glass, long-stemmed, like nothing Clare had ever held or drunk from, and she wrapped her fingers gingerly around the stem, then—glancing at her mother—cupped her hand under the globe and lifted. Her mother nodded approvingly. Maybe it was all right, then; it must be.
“It’s as important to know when to break the rules as it is to know when to obey them. Here’s to playing hooky!” Her mother touched her glass to Clare’s, and Clare drank, tasting the odd, rich harshness, but swallowing anyway. Tears started in her eyes, and she blinked hard. Please don’t let me be a hopeless drunk, she prayed, then snatched the prayer back. It must be that some people can become hopeless drunks and others can’t, Clare thought, and her mother must know this and know Clare to be the kind who can’t. If her mother didn’t know that, she would never allow Clare to drink, not in a million years. She imagined her mother knocking a glass from her hand, just as Clare was raising it to her lips, the glass shattering, the wine purple on the wall.
The food was interesting, little complicated creations resting in the centers of large plates, sauce drizzled in gleaming patterns, meat placed on top of vegetables instead of next to them. Clare would just begin to dismantle or eat around the edges of one creation, when another plate would come. It was too much food—much too much—but that was OK because her mother was eating with gusto, really digging in, and it hit Clare that her mother hadn’t been eating much lately. She would flit around the kitchen at dinnertime, perch—legs crossed, one swinging—on a countertop, but would rarely sit for long. Clare tried to remember seeing her mother actually chew and swallow food. Her mother had always been slim, but recently Clare had noticed how thin she was: hands grown translucent, almost clawlike, skin pulled tight over her cheekbones, hipbones jutting alarmingly under her dresses. She looks like a model, Clare had reassured herself, but it was still a relief to see her mother eat, and Clare was happy.
“Listen, Clarey,” her mother said suddenly, “this Christmas, we leave all the god-awful American yuletide tedium behind and go to Spain. Madrid”—her mother took a deep sip of wine, then shook her head—“no, no, no. Barcelona! Gaudi! You won’t believe your eyes. It’s like fairyland! What do you think?”
And Clare felt so honored, being asked what she thought, so she said, “I think definitely yes!” even though she loved their Christmases in Philadelphia. It was always just the two of them. Clare’s parents were both only children and both orphans, even though they didn’t acquire full-fledged orphanhood until they were already grown up, and Clare never saw her father at Christmas. They had a tradition of eating dinner together on New Year’s Day, but it hardly counted as a tradition because it usually didn’t happen. Clare’s father was away or busy most years, which was all right with Clare.
So every year, Clare and her mother would take the train in and watch every tree lighting in town, then sit on the floor together at Lord & Taylor to watch the light show over and over, shop, and hear as much carol singing as they could. They both loved carols, and Clare’s mother had taught her verses to “Silent Night” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” that almost no one else knew. On Christmas Eve, they would eat dinner at a country inn, where a married couple named Juno and Lars would serve a Christmas-carol dinner that included goose, pears, chestnuts, and real figgy pudding. Clare would feel safe and peaceful, at a table with her mother in a room filled with noisy, laughing, dressed-up strangers, the country sky arching over the roof, and Christmas arriving around them little by little like snow.
But her mother was so uplifted, describing candy-colored spires decorated with knobs and swirls, shaping them in the air with her hands, and planning lessons in Catalan for them to take together, that Clare didn’t mind giving up one holiday season to Spain. If her mother’s voice sounded higher than usual, contained a hectic note, Clare thought, it was just excitement and probably a burst of energy from all the food.
Then, Clare’s mother suddenly stopped this vivid, bubbling chatter, looked around at the pink walls, and said, “My husband used to bring me to this place,” in a new, hard voice that stopped Clare cold. Clare’s parents had divorced when she was two years old. While Clare saw her father occasionally, Clare’s mother never talked about his leaving, never talked about him much at all, and had certainly never called him “my husband.” What shook Clare more than this, though, was the way her mother’s voice and face changed so fast, as though she were a different person interrupting herself.
When the waiter walked up a second later, Clare’s mother’s eyes softened as she turned her attention to him and the corners of her mouth curled. To Clare’s amazement, her mother took the man’s hand between the two of hers, turned it over, examined his palm, turned it back, then lifted his cuff with her fingers to look at his watch.
“I see you have the time,” she said in the same low voice she’d used before. The waiter glanced at Clare, then smiled at her mother.
“Would you like your check?” he said. His hand still rested lightly in hers, and as she nodded, she opened her fingers, releasing it like a bird.
Just after he walked away, Clare’s mother stood, folding her napkin carefully and placing it on the table. Her expression was full of affection for Clare, “Ladies’ room. Wait here, darling,” she said, and now the “darling” sounded all wrong, like she wasn’t talking to Clare at all. Abruptly, she sat back down in her chair and leaned toward Clare. In a loud whisper, almost a hiss, she said, “Never let anyone tell you men want sex more than women. Your father was nothing in bed, but with the right man, sex is exquisite. Exquisite! Listen to your body, Clare.” Then she stood up and walked away.
Clare felt punched, gasping and sick. She crossed her arms in front of her chest, holding on to her own shoulders to stop herself from shaking. What could be happening? She wanted her mother to be drunk, but she knew she wasn’t; her glass of wine was almost full. The mother she knew would never have spoken those words, would never have taken her out of school to go to lunch, wouldn’t have given her wine, wouldn’t have touched a waiter. Should she tell someone? Who? Would her mother get in trouble if she did?
Clare knew what you did when someone you loved died. You pulled yourself tall and straight like a princess, received condolences graciously, dry-eyed, and then later sobbed stormily and cleansingly into your pillow. But all the books she’d read had taught her nothing about what you do when your mother doesn’t die but turns into someone you don’t know, someone who doesn’t take care of you anymore.
Reprinted from Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2005 by Marisa de los Santos. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.