In Paris, art seeps into your feet and drips from your fingertips. Dark-eyed buskers in berets squeeze out sweet accordion songs, and the birds trill along. The air tastes like crème brûlée; the light is melted butter. Or so I’ve heard. In two weeks, I’ll find out for myself.
I can see it all now: In the golden mornings, Mum and I will set up matching easels on the banks of the Seine and paint side-by-side. She’ll be too excited to sleep till noon, too inspired to stare blankly at the wall. Her sadness will fall away like a too-heavy coat, and she’ll once again fill canvas after canvas with works of aching beauty.
We’ll while away the hot afternoons in the Louvre, communing with the masters. Finally meet some of her long-lost French relatives. Wear goofy hats and stuff ourselves with pastries and laugh like we haven’t in ages. Every day will be a chick-flick montage of joie de vivre.
Or is it joyeux de vivre? Theo would know.
“Theo? Thebes?” I shake my boyfriend, who snoozes beside me on the couch with his school tie loosely askew and notebook open in his lap. When he doesn’t react, I stroke his left forearm. He swats at me with an oar-calloused hand, mutters, “Stalin… Churchill…Roosevelt.”
He must be in bad shape if he’s dreaming history notes. “Never mind. Just rest.”
I’m not exactly the most diligent study buddy either. It’s hard to focus when I’m two finals from freedom. Two finals till I can shop for my France wardrobe, till I can dedicate maximum brain space to merci, s’il vous plaît, and three thousand other phrases that will keep me from looking like a lazy américaine.
I pull out my highlighter and mark my top three café picks near Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Summer 2009, just published in March. I wonder if these places serve iced decaf lattes. Or is iced coffee a gauche American concoction? Yet another thing to ask Theo.
His sleeping face pinches. I reach to touch his cheek, then stop. Facing finals right after two weekend crew regattas in a row has already made him totally stressed and exhausted. I’m probably stressing him more by talking nonstop about my trip. For him, it means five long weeks apart. We’ll Skype every day and muddle through somehow. The painful separation will be totally worth it when Paris works its magic and Mum’s back to normal.
The kitchen phone jangles and I guiltily stuff my Paris guidebook under a couch cushion. Theo stirs, but doesn’t shift enough to free my hair from under his sleep-heavy head.
Why isn’t Mum answering? Is she napping again?
With a swift tug, I free my hair. The hefty textbook I’m supposed to be studying slides off my lap and thuds to the floor. I sprint to the kitchen, reaching the phone on the tenth ring.
“Mrs. Deane? Mrs. Grace Tilman Deane?” A woman asks.
“Just a sec. I’ll get her.”
I carry the handset through the apartment to the spare bedroom we use as a studio and gingerly knock on the door. No answer. Is Mum hiding or deep in another epic zone-out? Since she left her stressful Madison Avenue advertising job for art school, thanks to a foundation started in my late father’s memory, Mum should be having the time of her life. Art was the passion she couldn’t pursue when she was young for a lot of stupid reasons. But now that she’s actually living her lost dream, paint seems to dry on her palettes more than her canvases.
I press my ear to the door and hear only the low hum of the air conditioning. When I peek inside, our husky-mix Rhys raises his head, perks his ears, gives a fangy yawn. On the easel above him sits a white canvas with a single red stripe down the center. Beside the easel is an empty stool. What the heck? Did she go back to bed?
I stare at the phone a moment. Chances are it’s just some stupid survey or courtesy call. Nothing worth waking Mum for.
I clear my throat and mimic Mum’s smoky alto. “Hello?”
“Mrs. Deane? This is Nurse Lowman from North Penn Health System. In Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania? It’s about your father. Daniel Tilman?”
Good Lord, now what? Poppa hasn’t gone berserk on another doctor, has he? You’d think the time he got hauled off by security would have shamed him into changing his ways. Mum should let them press charges this time. Poppa might finally get a clue about how big a jerk he is.
I deliver the standard Mum line: “My apologies. How can I assist?”
“There’s been an accident, Mrs. Deane. Your father…his condition is needing surgery and we have to get your approval to proceed.”
My guts drop seven stories. I wouldn’t be surprised to find them out on Columbus, pancake-flattened and dimpled with taxi tire marks. “Poppa’s had an accident?” I squeak.
“This isn’t Mrs. Deane, is it?” Her tone is so cold, my wet tongue would stick to it.
“Sorry, it’s…Danielle, the daughter, I mean Mr. Tilman’s granddaughter. I’m sorry about pretending to be my mother. I thought you were a telemarketer and Mum’s not feeling well. Since I’m family, too, it wouldn’t be against HIPAA regulations for you to tell me what happened, and I can let her know, right?”
“I’m afraid not, Danielle. I have to speak to your actual mother.”
Crap. It must be bad. Really bad.
“Um, okay. I’ll, ah, go find her.” I cover the mouthpiece and head to the master bedroom.
In the phone, I can distantly hear the nurse crack up and tell her medical cronies, “Get a load of this: I’ve got some kid from New York on the phone who knows about HIPAA regulations! City kids! Gawd. She’s probably been playing the stock market since kindergarten.”
I’d love to give this bumpkin nurse chick a piece of my mind. Tell her that the adult world finds some of us young and makes us grow up fast, whether we’re ready or not.
But I don’t say this, because my persistent knocks are getting no response from Mum at all. As I step into her dark bedroom, I’m surprised by a strange, sour smell. I pat her bed, expecting to feel the warm hump of a leg. Instead, I touch something thick and sticky. Blood? I bring my hand to my nose. Ugh. Spoiled milk.
I switch on the bedside lamp and find a toppled Stonyfield ice cream tub that’s left a gooey puddle on her silk bedspread. Okay, it’s organic, but still. The woman’s a gym addict. Grabbing a tissue to clean the goo off my fingers, I see a worse sign: Mum’s cell phone is on the dresser. But Mum is gone.
I take a deep breath, then uncover the mouthpiece of the phone. “Um…” I tell the nurse, “I think we might need to call you back.”
* * *
Seeing the empty key hook by the front door sucks the air right out of me. Dear God, no. I crush the paper scrap with the hospital’s number in a trembling fist. For all I know, Poppa will be dead in minutes if they don’t operate. But without Mum’s approval, they legally can’t.
I cannot believe Mum left Theo and me alone in the apartment. She usually checks on us every ten minutes like clockwork, bugging us with questions or roping Theo into chores like opening jars or pulling things off high shelves. It’s like she has this bizarre fear that we’re going to rip each other’s clothes off at any moment and make me the next teen pregnancy statistic.
Well, she can’t have gone far — probably just to the little market on Columbus to pick up dinner ingredients. Surely she’ll be back any minute. I should call the front desk and ask the doorman if he saw her go out. Theo could hold down the fort while I look for her.
Gosh, I can just picture her standing in line at Rico’s, looking for all the world like a bohemian free spirit in her snug t-shirt, paint-spattered jeans, strappy sandals, gobs of gypsy jewelry, hair in long, loose layers. She’ll glance up from her basket of Thai basil and coconut milk, see my face and just know. Know that I’m about to hurl a bomb at her. Know that trouble’s found her yet again, like it always does.
How can I tell her? How? It’s only been a year and a half since Dad’s car crash and the month of ICU agony before he was snatched from us. How can she possibly cope with Poppa right now? He’s as fatherly to her as a lion is to a gazelle.
I just wish I could make this all go away.
I look at the hospital number in my hand again, and my mouth goes as dry as a day-old croissant. What if Poppa and his car—? There’s no ice on the roads, but a couch could tumble off a truck, or a rogue deer leap out of the woods and straight through his windshield. Poppa could have massive bleeding on the brain right now — pressure building like floodwaters behind a levee, flattening everything. Cells, synapses, ganglion crushed, dying, dead. I’ve seen it before.
My grand Paris dream starts to pull away, a face in a taxi window. Off toward Midtown. Off to find a more worthy recipient.
A homeless drug addict steps in front of the taxi in my mind and it stops. The coked-up guy stands there, fists on hips, chin jutted out, dark eyes flashing, as if daring the driver to flatten him in his frayed cords and Nietzsche T-shirt. Uncle David?
He winks at me, then in a blink transforms from his old stoner self into the bald, flannel-shirted craftsman I now know and love. Of course. If there’s anyone who can help me sort out what to do about Poppa, it’s Mum’s younger brother, the prodigal son.
I carry the phone to my bedroom, hit four on speed dial.
“Ah-yup,” Uncle David says, another weird Maine expression that’s crept into his speech. A table saw whines in the background. The tone changes as the blade tastes wood, gearing up to a horrific shriek like someone being tortured. A woman with serious lung capacity. A shot-putter. One of those beefy opera singers.
I close my bedroom door, shout, “Hey! It’s Dani. Could you go to your office maybe?”
“Hey niece o’mine, what’d ya say? Keegan’s ripping boards and I can’t hear squat. I better go to my office.” He shouts something to his assistant and gradually the heinous squealing fades. “A’right. Office. Shoot.”
“I need your help right away. Some hospital called saying Poppa’s been in an accident and they want to operate immediately and they need approval from Mum, but she’s not here and I don’t know where she went or exactly how long she’ll be gone or anything, and the nurse lady who called wouldn’t give me any details at all but it must be pretty bad if they have to operate. I’m seriously freaking out. Could you please, please, please call the hospital and see if you can find out what the heck is going on and give them the okay to operate?”
“Whoa. Accident? What kind of accident? Car accident?”
Images of crumpled fenders, broken glass, thick smoke, and charred car remains click through my mind in rapid succession. Not again, Lord. Please, not again. I wobble, sink onto my bed. “I—. I don’t know,” I choke.
“Sorry, I’m just in shock. I mean, after your dad…” he gives a low whistle. “Gracie’s been through this kind of hell one too many times. Give me that number. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thanks,” I wipe my eyes and give him the nurse’s name and number. “What should I do now? Mum could be back any time. She’s gonna just curl up and die when she finds out.”
“Well…” he drawls, “I reckon there might be, you know, divine providence in her missing that call. It’s about time I had a go at being the responsible kid. Don’t you worry, and don’t say nothing. Got it?”
“You want me to lie to Mum?”
“I’d like to spare Sis some grief for a change, so let’s keep this between us for now. No guarantees it’ll work, but it’s worth a shot. Go back to what you were doing and just be normal.”
I snort. “This should be good. I’ve got two finals tomorrow.”
“I’m real sorry, Dani. Go study and try not to worry too much. God’s watching over you and Gracie. He won’t let you be tested beyond what you can bear, as the Good Book says.”
* * *
Just be normal, Uncle David said. Right. I’ve got exams, a dying grandparent, a missing mother. My dream summer hanging in the balance. Well, not so much a dream as a nightmare-chaser. An antidote to the poison that’s been building inside of Mum.
I plod back to the living room. My throat aches even more when I see Theo’s face tipped onto a couch cushion, muscles slack in peaceful sleep. If Mum and I don’t get to Paris, then what? Mum becomes even more sad, more sick? Breaks down? Goes to the hospital and I go where? To freaking Maine with Uncle David? I’d rather sleep on park benches.
I kneel at Theo’s feet and shovel papers back into my history binder. My face’s reflection in his polished school shoes is stretched like a limp, useless noodle.
How could Uncle David say we’re not being tested beyond what we can bear? Jeez. Mum and I are still trying to recover from losing Dad. Do we never get to settle into normal? Real normal, not pretend normal. Not resigned normal.
Church words flood my mind and push back the rising tide of self-pity. What Uncle David said is only half-true. Part of the story. There’s more to that passage — a promise: “When you are tested, he will provide a way out, so that you can bear up under it.”
Right. There is a way out. My uncle will handle this. He’ll get Poppa the care he needs and everything will be fine. Mum can stay at a safe distance and just…send him a get well card. We’ll head to Paris as planned and leave our worries behind.
I pile my binder and textbook on the far end of the couch, untuck my shirt again, twist my pleated skirt askew, and sink into the cushions beside my boyfriend. Theo registers my return by dropping his head back on my shoulder and draping his warm arm across me.
I pull History: Modern to Contemporary onto my lap and pretend to be engrossed in the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, the Iron Curtain falling, the Cold War blowing in. But I can’t stop my hands from trembling as I turn the pages. I practice French phrases in my head, but quelle heure est-il? sounds vaguely like “kill or steal” and I picture Parisian police descending on me for asking the time. I open my mental sketch book and let strokes flow over the whiteness, but the virtual charcoal stick crumbles in my inner grasp.
All right, God, I want to trust you here, but what the heck are you doing? How will Mum ever believe you aren’t out to get her? She needs to be healed, not drawn into Poppa’s world and his hateful words: she’s “uppity,” “useless,” “a waste of space” with “no use for a soul.” I know you expect me to be still, Lord, and believe you’re going to fix this. Can’t you give me something to hold onto before I tear out my own hair?
Theo grunts in his sleep, nuzzles against my collarbone, his whiskers scritching across cotton. I rest my cheek on the back of his head and breathe in the familiar scent of his scalp, his musky vanilla cologne. My anxious mind stops flailing and I sink into memories of our last rooftop picnic.
We nestled on a tattered afghan, my spine curled against Theo’s chest, blanketed from the chilly spring air by his toasty arms. The sun sank behind the buildings and distant windows lit up, one by one. In awed silence we sat, listening to whirring HVAC units and the distant hum and honk of traffic below. I could not imagine a more perfect peace than this.
But soon the roof access door banged open. Mum appeared in her paint-spattered smock, bringing us a bag of Chinese takeout. Theo jumped to his feet to make space for her on the blanket, but she backed away, shaking her head. She stared at the sparkling Manhattan skyline for a moment and her shoulders sagged under some invisible weight. Then, without a word, she turned and disappeared down the stairs.
In her overworked fog — or whatever was making her so droopy — Mum had forgotten to send up normal silverware. So Theo and I cracked apart the cheap chopsticks from the bottom of the bag and fed each other sloppy clumps of Chinese chicken and shrimp. Between bites, we talked about the years to come — him studying psychology, me, art. Living with our families and commuting to college here in the city to save money.
“I’ll save as much of my inheritance as I can,” I said, “so we can get a place of our own.”
Theo prodded his Lo-mein, his ears turning pink. “I take it you plan a wedding in there somewhere,” he said, more to the noodles than to me. “Shacking up doesn’t seem your style.”
“I think my family would be more supportive of that than me getting married at twenty.”
I swallowed hard. “That’s just two years from now. You think….”
“Can we pull it off? I don’t know, Dee. We’re just daydreaming here, right?”
Were we? It felt so tantalizingly possible. I could picture us brushing our teeth at a dinky apartment sink, barefoot and sleep rumpled.
“We’d have my trust fund and I could learn Web design. Mum has tons of business contacts — plenty to keep us fed and housed while you do med school and then your psychiatry residency.”
“Web design? Uh-uh. These hands?” He grasped my wrists and lifted my palms to eye level.
“They’re meant to make masterpieces, not code HTML.”
“I can still draw and paint on the side. Heck, I’d rather be a janitor and be with you, than have gallery shows without you.”
“I don’t deserve you.” He pulled me close and kissed me. Soy sauce and spice.
WOOF! WO-WOOF! WOOF!
Rhys’s barking snaps me out of my reverie. As he nudges open the studio and bolts for the front door, my heart becomes a thumping drum again. It’s Mum. She’s back.
I get my nose out of Theo’s sweet-smelling hair and rivet my attention on the textbook in my lap.
Theo rolls away from me, onto his other side, but he doesn’t wake.
Here goes. Act One of Just Be Normal. Places everyone. Aaand, action!
Mum shuffles in, sorting a pile of mail, while Rhys runs circles around her. Instead of her usual strappy sandals, she’s wearing ratty slippers, the once-white chenille now gray and frayed. Her hair is tangled and there’s a coffee ring on the leg of her jeans. Yikes.
“Hey.” Her voice is limp and breathy. “How’s the studying going?”
“Great. Super stimulating. Right, Theo?”
Mum thumbs through a magazine and absently pats Rhys’s head. She still hasn’t noticed snooze boy.
“Yeah, definitely,” I say in a pitiful imitation of Theo’s bass voice. “Once we dropped some acid, the ’60s came alive for us.”
“What?” Mum’s gaze drifts up and she takes in the scene. “He’s asleep again?”
“Of course. He’s used to crew practice at dawn. When four p.m. comes, he’s out. I swear you could set clocks by it.”
“Another early bird.” Mum’s chin puckers beneath her downturned mouth — her missing Dad expression. He woke at six every day, annoyingly chipper.
Her eyes roam. I turn to see what’s caught her attention. On the wall behind me is a snapshot from my parents’ engagement day, shot by a Japanese tourist Dad pressed into service, so the story goes. Dad’s on one knee at Mum’s feet in a grassy spot among English castle ruins. She cradles his face in her hands as if it were pure gold.
Gold turned to dust.
Don’t go there. Don’t let Mum go there, either.
“I suppose you told Sleeping Beauty where you went?” I say.
“He said you were in the bathroom, and I thought I’d be right back. But the condo association president cornered me in the mailroom. What an exhausting motor mouth. I could use a nap.”
Another nap? No, no, no. Come on, brain. Think upbeat. Think perky.
“So!” I chirp, “What came in the mail? Anything good?”
Mum flips through the pile again. She frowns and waves a lime-green postcard at me — an RSVP card for my seventeenth birthday bash, held weeks ago. “This came from Poppa Tilman. I don’t know why he bothered after all this time.”
All the blood in my head drops to my toes. If I weren’t already sitting, I’d swoon. Why did that have to come today, of all days?
I stuff my shaking hands under my thighs. “M-maybe it, uh, got lost in the mail.”
“I don’t think so. There’s a note on the back: ‘Sorry I missed your party, pumpkin. I’m not coping well with paper at the moment. Those infernal women your mother keeps sending can’t work with my system or stay out of my business. But don’t worry your pretty head none. I ordered something special that’s due to ship any day now.’ I should have known his silence about the invitation wasn’t something so simple as rudeness.”
“You think he fired another maid?”
“Obviously. Not that he’d bother telling me about it. In my memory, Pop’s jealously guarded system is to keep every last thing and make piles to the ceiling. I’m surprised the contents of his house haven’t spontaneously combusted, they’re packed in so tight.”
The cordless phone rings from the far end table, just out of reach. Mum picks it up and checks the caller ID. “Ah, it’s David. I’ll take this in the studio. Why don’t you ask Theo to stay for dinner? I’m sure he’ll perk up with a little food.”
I say “okay” to Mum’s departing back and reach to Rhys for comfort. Stroking his fluffy neck slows my galloping heart. “Oh, Rhysie, I hope Uncle David’s just making small talk and he’ll ask for me soon, that he won’t tell her anything. For now, I guess we need to play normal. Lay down, boy.” He settles at my feet with a grunt of protest.
I reach for Theo’s shoulder and give him a little shake. Then a harder one. “Thebes?”
He lifts his heavy head off of me. His hazel eyes flutter open, more gold than green in the afternoon light. He groans. “Oh, Dani, I did it again, didn’t I? Jeez, I’m sorry. I’m just so tired all the time. Maybe I need to start drinking coffee like you do.”
I smile. “It would stunt your growth.”
“Little late for that, don’t you think?” He leans back, stretching, and his firm stomach peeks between his shirt hem and the waistband of his khakis. I look away and sit on my hands again before my hormones get the better of me.
“Mum wants to know if you can stay for supper.”
“Yeah?” he says, poking me in the ribs. “What about you?” Poke. “Do you want me?” Poke, poke, poke. “To stay?”
“Not if you’re gonna be a bully.”
“Moi?” He strikes a Miss Piggy pose.
“Non, ta jument méchante, qui ronfle comme un os endormi.”
Theo roars with laughter. “My evil what? Mare? Who snores like a sleepy bone?”
“I meant twin. Ju-something…else.”
“Ah. Jumeau méchant. Evil twin. And I do not snore. Especially not like a bone.”
I roll my eyes. “Bear. I wanted to say bear.”
“Ours, not os. Bien? Dis-le et répète, Danielle.”
You say it. Repeat. Oh, brother.
I tip my head side to side as I chant, “Ours, ours, ours, ours, ours. Happy?”
“Come on, babe, cheer up. Your grammar’s quite good. You used the feminine adjective with jument, which was great, even if it wasn’t the noun you wanted.”
“I’m never gonna get this. Parisians will bludgeon me with baguettes for crimes against the mother tongue.”
“You are getting it. You’re brave enough to try making jokes in another language, which is pretty complicated. Honestly, you’ve picked up in six months what it took me three years to learn. Of course, I didn’t have a patient instructor completely dedicated to my success.”
“Come on, Thebes. You’ve got to be bored out of your mind teaching a dunce like me.”
“You are way too hard on yourself. So you made a mistake. Big deal. Who doesn’t? Heck, I’m learning here, too. Remember the flashcard fiasco?”
“I’d rather not.” Theo pounding the wall, purple-faced; me hunkered in a distant corner, utterly stunned by his rare flare of temper — not a scene I care to replay. Ever.
“Well, me neither. That was totally my bad. But I learned from it, right? I’ve had quite the adventure developing my cutting-edge teaching techniques.”
“Yeah? You doubt me? I’m deeply insulted.”
“What’s so cutting edge about, ‘Dis-le et répète’?”
“How do you think you learned to draw? Practice. Years of filling sketch pads until your scribbles became art. Anyone who thinks they can get some new skill without practice is an idiot. So once we get through finals, we will répèter, en français every day, until you go. Très bien?”
Mum strides into the living room clenching the phone. I can almost smell the fury pulsing out of her like fumes from a hot engine.
Pas bien. Mal. Très, très mal.
“There’s been a change of plans,” she says.
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