The Norwegians were coming to dinner.
“Help your father in the kitchen, will you?” my mother said to me. She was already dressed—in a black pencil skirt with a narrow gold belt, an ensemble that gave her the svelte proportions of a nineteen-sixties screen siren—but her curlers were still in. I watched her lean toward the mirror to apply a line of charcoal along her eyelids. She partially closed one eye and traced its lash line slowly. It was an operation that required steady hands; I held my breath until she finished. Next was mascara, which she applied with a delicate fluttering motion in her wrist. There was a science to all this preparation and I was taking notes. I was almost thirteen and waiting for beauty to strike.
“He’ll just say I’m in the way,” I said. My father did all the cooking and took his duties seriously.
“But if you don’t go down there, he’ll bitch and moan about the fact that no one helped.”
She was right, but I was loath to leave. My mother was out of the country so often that such moments with her were rare. She fiddled with her bracelet—a wide gold cuff that was vaguely Egyptian. It reminded me of Cleopatra. “Can you get this for me, darling?” she said. I moved closer to fasten her clasp and inhaled her Chanel No. 5. I didn’t know then that it was the bestselling perfume in the world, that the intoxicating fragrance I associated with my mother was not a singular scent at all.
The Norwegians—that’s what my father called them, “The Norwegians”—arrived right on time.
She studied herself for a moment and squinted as if trying to make up her mind about something. She sucked in her cheeks. “I’m past my prime,” she sighed. “Disappointment catches up with you.” She turned to me. “Helen,” she said. “Go on. Your father needs you.”
In the kitchen, my father was flustered as usual. The counters were cluttered with bowls and pots; two different cutting boards displayed piles of vegetables.
“It’s about time,” he said to me. “Dice these onions, will you?”
I cried while I chopped the onions—I always did, such a relentless bout of tears that the skin on my entire face began to sting. I splashed cold water in my eyes in an attempt to wash out the hurt while my father jerked around the room, cursing at every opportunity. He had stiff joints—souvenirs from college football injuries—and his movement around the kitchen had the halting quality of a wind-up toy. He often complained about the fact that my mother gave him so little notice when she decided to host dinner parties. “She invites these people and just assumes I’ll do the work,” he said. But it was my mother’s work that had paid the bills in our house since his law career floundered. He had let her down; she felt entitled to be taken care of.
My younger sister Phoebe came into the kitchen. “Praise Allah,” said my father. He was an Episcopalian, but sarcastically invoked the Muslim God in moments of exasperation.
He put Phoebe to work setting the dining room table. From the kitchen, I could hear the clink of stemware as she arranged glasses for water and wine. She was seven, but already knew her salad forks from her dinner forks.
“I’m serving the salad first tonight,” my father said.
“Did you hear that, Pheebs?” I said.
The door to the dining room swung open and Phoebe appeared. She was holding a bouquet of knives. “Got it,” she said.
The Norwegians—that’s what my father called them, “The Norwegians”—arrived right on time. I took their coats and then leaned my head into the kitchen to tell my father they were here. “Who shows up on time for a dinner party?” he grumbled. My mother dazzled down the stairs to greet her guests. Her hair was out of the curlers and looked perfect. “Martin,” she said. “How wonderful of you to come.”
Martin was an economist who always looked like he was about to laugh. He traveled with my mother on various international development missions. When he came to our house for dinner, he always brought his wife and daughter, Karoline. The family had been living in D.C. for nearly a year by then, but still didn’t know a lot of people. Karoline was exactly my age and our parents hoped that we would become friends. They had even sent us to sailing camp together on the Chesapeake Bay for three weeks the previous August.
We began the evening in the living room. Phoebe passed a tray of Carr’s Table Water crackers spread with cream cheese and hot pepper jelly. It was late autumn—not chilly enough for a fire, but my father had made one anyway. He liked to fuss with the bellows and logs; it made him feel useful. So it was too hot but the smell of wood smoke created a false sense of coziness. The room was elegant, with its classic Colonial proportions. The rugs were valuable, the furniture was antique. An outsider would be forgiven for thinking that we were rich. But everything had been inherited from my grandparents—both sides of the family had money—and my parents were often in debt. Phoebe and I had attended private school since we were toddlers but my father was always threatening to move us to the suburbs and send us to public school.
Martin sat between my mother and his wife on the sofa. I admired his wife’s steely composure. I have tried many times to remember what she was wearing that night. She often wore silver bracelets that chimed when she moved her arms. I wanted bracelets like hers. I do remember that she wore flat brown shoes—penny loafers I think, though I don’t remember a coin—and sat with her feet squarely planted on the floor, facing forward, as if riding a bus. My mother’s long legs were crossed and she rotated one high-heeled foot in dainty circles in the air. Her ankle cracked as she moved and I thought the shoe might fall off—it slipped several times, revealing a glimpse of her balletic arch—but it never did. Martin’s wife was attractive in a wholesome, athletic way—she’d been a champion tennis player—but she could not compete with our mother, who was leggy and blond, with an exuberant laugh and a lusciousness that emerged when she drank. My father’s back was to us. He strained against the seams of his sport coat as he wrestled with the bottle opener. There was always a lot of wine.
“I love hot pepper jelly,” said my mother. She put a whole cracker into her mouth and licked the residue off her finger.
Martin pointed at her lips and pantomimed a dabbing motion. “You have a bit of cheese,” he said.
My mother’s tongue explored the corner of her mouth. She turned to Martin and presented herself for inspection. “All gone?” she said.
“Lingonberry jam is better than this stuff,” said Karoline, from the armchair next to mine.
“Karoline,” said Martin’s wife. She made a scolding remark. In Norwegian, every syllable sounded stressed. The most mundane phrase took on the urgency of a military command.
Karoline shrugged. “I’m just saying this jelly is nothing special.” She had a mean streak. One afternoon at camp, during the break between the last activity period and dinner, we were all assembled in the cabin, reading our mail, writing letters, and sharing caches from various care packages. Someone offered Karoline a Twizzler. The other girls found her exotic because of her hint of an accent and her knowledge of obscure European pop groups. They were eager to stay in her good graces. Karoline shook her head. “I don’t like American candy,” she said. And then, with the flourish of a magician, pulled a cookie tin of Scandinavian licorice from her trunk. “Everybody can have one piece,” she said, passing the container around the bunk. It was salty black licorice—an acquired taste—but if the other girls were disappointed, they didn’t show it. They gamely sucked down their pieces. But when the container reached a girl named Marcy, Karoline said, “No candy for you. You need to be on a diet.”
“I’m sorry she is being rude,” said Martin’s wife to my mother.
“Everyone is entitled to an opinion,” my mother said. She was always quick to forgive.
“Dinner is served!” said my father from the dining room. He often catered to his guests’ whims. He had attempted tagine for Moroccans, dal for Indians. And in my mother’s efforts to charm and accommodate, she had forced Phoebe and me to wear saris at one dinner, traditional Ethiopian dresses at another. My parents were champion entertainers. They were an extraordinary team. But there was no smoked salmon on the menu for The Norwegians that night. And Phoebe and I were not in costume.
When The Norwegians came to dinner, my mother always drank too much. Her voice got louder and she became emphatic about things that needed no emphasis. She was an uncompromising advocate of privatization, nineteenth-century English novels, and exercise as a cure-all. She made normal, uncontroversial statements sound provocative, as if daring people to disagree with her. By the time we finished our salads, she was already vehement.
“Middlemarch,” she said. “I just love Middlemarch. It is a perfect book.” The Norwegians said nothing; it wasn’t clear if they knew who George Eliot was. Or they may have been silenced by the sheer randomness of the remark. My mother had the sort of giddy intelligence that hopped from subject to subject like a bird flitting among telephone wires. In her best moments, her enthusiasm for an idea could be exhilarating. I had seen both men and women captivated by her when she was holding court. But by the end of a night of drinking, she often crossed a line from charming to tyrannical and then her rambling opinions were embarrassing. She was still in charming territory, but my father twitched at his end of the table. He had a habit of tapping his fingers when impatient, the thumb patting each of the other four digits in rapid succession. “Phoebe, Helen,” he said, cutting my mother off. “Clear the salad plates. It’s time for the main event.” I waited for my mother to resume her monologue, but she had clearly forgotten her train of thought.
My father lurched into the kitchen. He was proud of his culinary skills. He often deviated from recipes, creating dishes—his so-called “inventions”—that never failed to impress. On that night, he had made pumpkin soup and a pork roast with grilled Brussels sprouts. “This looks stupendous,” said Martin. “Tom, you’ve outdone yourself.”
My mother looked pleased. She offered my father a stately smile. Then she asked him to pass the wine. I’m sure my dad knew she had had enough—he probably took a moment to add up the refills in his head—five? six?—but filled her glass anyway. Her cheeks were flushed and she was starting to slur her words slightly. I hoped she wouldn’t make a fool of herself.
She and Martin started talking about the Minister of Finance in Ethiopia—“That wandering eye! I never know what he’s looking at!” she was saying—and Martin was nodding in helpless agreement.
“Tom,” he said to my father, “you have no idea how difficult it is to concentrate in meetings with this man. We were sitting—where were we sitting, Ellen?”
“At the Hilton in Addis,” said my mother. “By the pool.”
“No, no, with the minister.”
“Oh, that was the dinner at the other hotel. He was seated between us…”
“Yes,” said Martin, turning away from my father and back to my mother, who was quite beautiful even with the flush of drunkenness blurring her angular features.
“God, he was too much… and he wouldn’t stop talking,” she said. “On and on, his eye going this way and that…he wanted us to give him more money for the bridge…”
“They’re building a new bridge over the Blue Nile,” Martin said to my father.
“A project we’re already funding,” said my mother.
“She holds the purse strings,” said Martin to the rest of us, as if we didn’t know what she did for a living.
“I help control the purse,” said my mother and swallowed a hiccup. “And I do have some questions about the way the loan is being spent.”
Martin wore glasses with thick black frames. He took them off to do an impression of the minister. He spun his eyeballs around with comic flair. I tried not to laugh—to do so felt like a betrayal of my father, whose confidence withered in the company of more successful men—but I couldn’t help myself. His blue eyes were small and circled by white patches where his sunglasses had been—he spent a lot of time outside, sailing and skiing. This white bandit mask gave him the mischievous look of a raccoon. Martin was irresistible. He seemed to stir up the very air around us. My mother clapped her hands in childish delight.
My father cleared his throat. He offered to make a pot of his special New Orleans coffee. A customized blend of beans, he explained. There were no takers. He shook his head slowly, as if the lack of interest in his coffee was a great rejection. He had often been compared to Cary Grant in his younger days, but his face had lately become fleshy with regret. He was forever dwelling on his failures. He held them up to the light and examined them in minute detail, like necklaces that had tangled in a drawer. He seemed especially deflated next to Martin’s youthful energy and easy humor. “Who wants some of my Buttermilk Pie?” he said.
But my mother and Martin were busy laughing. I can’t remember Martin’s wife saying anything at all.
After we ate, we children escaped to the basement to watch music videos. Karoline tossed her hair. It was the color of early morning sunlight—a pure, pale blond that cannot be manufactured. TV was boring her. “We could play truth or dare,” she said.
“What’s truth or dare?” said Phoebe.
“It’s a game where you see who’s brave,” said Karoline.
“That sounds fun,” said Phoebe.
“Okay,” said Karoline. “Truth or dare. Choose one.”
“Dare?” said Phoebe.
Karoline narrowed her eyes at her. “I dare you to take off all your clothes and run upstairs into the dining room.”
“You mean naked?”
“Ew, in front of your dad? In front of my dad?”
“If you’re too chicken, then just say so.”
Phoebe looked at me for back up. She had bangs then—a blunt Dorothy Hamill cut that made her seem especially fragile somehow.
“Don’t do it,” I said. “Mom will get annoyed at you for ruining her party.”
“So, who cares?” said Karoline.
“That’s not nice,” said Phoebe.
“It’s not really a party, “ said Karoline. “It’s your parents and my parents. They see each other all the time.”
“I don’t want to get naked,” wailed Phoebe. I thought she was going to cry.
“I think you’re afraid we’ll see that you’re fat. Maybe you need to be on a diet.”
“She’s not fat!” I said. “She’s perfect. Pheebs, you’re not fat.”
“You two are so lame,” said Karoline, and the way she crisply enunciated the word made it sound new, something she had just acquired for her English vocabulary. “Phoebe, are you going to grow up to be as lame as your big sister?”
Phoebe pressed herself against me on the sofa. She was the girl I had taught to ride a bike, the one I taught to read. I could feel the sharp bone of her hip through her blue jeans. “I’ll do it,” I said.
“You’ll do what?” said Karoline.
“I’ll run upstairs naked.”
Karoline laughed. “Really?” she said. “Phoebe, do you hear this?”
“It’s stupid, but I’ll do it,” I said. “Pheebs, you stay here.”
I was wearing L.L. Bean camp moccasins, brown corduroys, and a navy blue sweater. A long-sleeved gray T-shirt, underwear that was pale pink with tiny blue sailboats on it. Argyle socks with a pink and brown pattern. I removed all my clothing and arranged it in a neat pile on the coffee table. “Keep an eye on those,” I said to my sister. There was no telling what Karoline might do with them while I was gone.
I had seen Karoline naked in the showers at camp. She already had pubic hair—a mop of reddish blond—and breasts. But my body remained inert, stuck in childhood—I wouldn’t get my period for another three years—and I didn’t want Karoline to see it. Naked in the middle of the basement, I felt hot at first—a flush of shame, I suppose, for my too-skinny frame, my concave chest, my pale skin—and then chilled. Our father was always hot and kept the house very cold. I was so cold that my teeth were actually chattering as I took a deep breath and walked toward the stairs.
“This will be good,” said Karoline.
The stairs were carpeted in a thick, stain-resistant dark grey that my mother thought was sensible for a playroom. I took each step slowly, keeping my eyes focused on my bare feet as I climbed, and noticed tiny red flecks in the carpeting, a pattern that I had never seen before. I was conscious of Karoline behind me at the bottom of the stairs, impatient and watching. At the top, I didn’t hear any voices when I opened the door.
I found the dining room empty, the plates not cleared, half of the Buttermilk pie still sitting on a trivet at my father’s end of the table. Even the candles in the crystal chandelier were still burning: twelve gold tapers swaying slightly, ready to topple and set the house on fire. I took the snuffer from my father’s boyhood as an acolyte in his church—an elegant brass instrument, four feet long, and religious in its very construction—and walked around the table, holding it aloft and positioning it carefully over each candle, snuffing them one by one. The candlelight flickered on my bare skin, creating shadows that made me feel, for the moment, as if I were beautiful.
When the dining room was dark, I crept down the hall. In my unclothed state, everything in the house looked different. In the sunroom, where a wall of windows looked out onto the backyard, I felt completely exposed. The lights were out, but I still ran through the room, afraid of who might be watching me from the dark.
Outside the study, I heard murmurs and pushed the door open. My mother and Martin were standing in a corner by her desk. He was running his index finger along her collarbone, as slow and exacting as if he were trying to paint a straight line. Her face was tilted down and she was watching his hand and I realized that except for that slowly moving digit, they were completely still. I was used to seeing my mother with my father, who orbited her in fidgety bursts, who paced the rooms looking for answers among the many objects he had saved from his glorified past. He had a Southerner’s reverence for history. But here in this room, nothing existed but the present, and there was just this finger tracing the hint of skin in the space revealed by the unfastened top button of her blouse. I studied my mother’s face. Swimming just beneath the surface of her placid expression was a hint of the same weariness I’d seen reflected in her bathroom mirror. Her breath came in short, sharp shudders, as if she were running out of air. “Oh,” she said, more exhalation than word, and closed her eyes. It sounded like she had an ache too far away to reach.
I stood there for a moment, waiting for them to see me, to be shocked by the fact that I wasn’t wearing any clothes. I wondered where my father was and what Martin’s ever-controlled wife would say if she saw this. But they never turned around, and after nearly a minute standing there, my teeth began chattering again. I ran back to the basement.
Karoline was waiting on the stairs. “And so?” she said.
I pushed past her and ran down into the room and over to the sofa, where Phoebe sat dutifully guarding my clothes. She handed me my underwear and my pants and my long-sleeved T-shirt, and it was only after I pulled my sweater back over my head that I spoke.
“They were all in the sunroom,” I said. “Drinking cognac. Your dad said I looked like I was ready for the sauna.” That is, in fact, exactly the sort of thing that Martin would have said. He could make a joke of anything. “He told me I should come to Norway for Christmas and go in the sauna with you.”
“You can’t come for Christmas,” said Karoline. “That’s just for our family.”
“Don’t worry, I don’t want to,” I said.
“You didn’t get in trouble, Helen?” said Phoebe.
“Dad looked mad,” I said, “but he just told me to get dressed and stop acting like a fool.”
I thought Karoline might go investigate, might fact-check my story. But she accepted my version of events, and when I said, “Now who’s next? Karoline? Truth or dare?” she just shook her head.
“Okay, game over,” I said.
And it was not long after that that Martin shouted from the top of the stairs—something in Norwegian—and summoned his daughter out of the basement.
“Helen! Phoebe! Come and say good-bye,” my mother called.
And so we went upstairs and found everything as it should be. Martin and his wife were standing by the front door with their coats on and our father was offering them the rest of the pie, now wrapped in foil. Martin’s wife helped Karoline into her parka and then she stood in the crook of her father’s arm staring at me.
“What do you say?” said my mother to Phoebe and me.
“Thanks for coming,” said Phoebe.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Tak,” said Karoline.
That was not the last time The Norwegians came to dinner. But about a year later, they moved back to Oslo. Apparently, the wife insisted they leave Washington.
A few years after my mother died, I learned that she had a miscarriage in Africa. It was in Kenya or Ethiopia, where she used to travel four times a year. Her sister told me this one afternoon at the country club. The pool had just opened for the summer and my aunt and I were lying on lounge chairs next to the diving well. A couple of boys were doing cannonballs off the high dive and every time they dragged themselves out of the water, their shorts stuck to their legs, the fabric twisted in heavy wet bunches that they had to wring out in order to walk. Watching them made me miss being a kid in the summer, when I lived in my bathing suit and often went whole weeks without wearing shoes.
My aunt couldn’t remember where in East Africa my mother was, but she lost a lot of blood, she said; so much that the doctors worried she’d need a transfusion. And the blood supply in Africa in the eighties was not something to mess with. “It could have been a disaster,” she said.
My mother was forty-two then. I wanted to know how far along the pregnancy was, but my aunt wasn’t sure. “Eight weeks maybe,” she said.
If the baby had lived, it would now be twenty-two. Thirteen years younger than I am. The kid would just be finishing college; my dad would be harassing him or her to go to law school.
“So we could have had another sibling,” I said, and tried to imagine a third person in the Christmas card photos with Phoebe and me.
“Half-sibling,” said my aunt. “You remember Martin?”
My mother wouldn’t have expected to get pregnant at her age. I imagine an inky, sweaty night in Mombasa, skinny dipping in the Indian Ocean, perhaps, and then scrambling up the beach in the dark, dropping the hotel key in the sand and feeling around to find it. His hands intertwined with hers, her laughing and saying, “Stop, I need to find the key, help me look!” but his hands don’t stay focused on the search and instead climb up the narrow channel of her wrist. His fingers wrap themselves around her forearm like ribbon on a gift. And when she finally finds the keys, a solid wooden keychain—“Hard to miss,” she says. “You’re a terrible looker, I shouldn’t count on you”—she is shivering and so they run to her room without stopping to remember that the condoms are in his.
And of course she’s not thinking about children—the children are time zones away and right now, in Africa—“My God,” she thinks, who ever thought that she’d be spending so much time in Africa of all places?—she feels as if time has stopped, as if anything that happens under those low sprawling skies doesn’t really count as a violation of the rules. Here in Africa, unmoored from her life in Washington, she is floating, adrift, buoyant.
I wonder if Karoline knew what was going on between our parents, if she identified the affair for what it was. At the time, what I saw struck me as a strange dream, one that I managed to forget for many years. I was so angry with my mother for so long. Now I’m old enough to recognize the disillusion I saw dawning on her face that night. Happiness is elusive. I’ve learned you can become the kind of person you swore you’d never be. Your sense of self can slip out from under you. You can fall so far. She must have known it couldn’t last. Her eyes were closed against the future.
At the country club that day with my aunt, I asked what my mother would have done if she had carried the baby to term. Would she and my father have divorced?
“It wasn’t meant to be,” my aunt said.
“Is that what she thought?” I said.
She shrugged. “I never knew what she thought. She never really let anyone in.”
I wondered where she was when she started to bleed. Was she in one of those single-propeller planes over Victoria Falls? Was she on a raft, crossing the Blue Nile with a rustic pulley system in the place where the bridge was going to be? I have seen the photos of these missions to Africa: my mother, always the only woman on her team, tall and triumphant, beaming from curio shops in Nairobi, in Sudanese deserts, in jeeps on dirt roads in the middle of Somalia, or surrounded by curious semi-clad children on Lake Tana. Did she feel the blood seep into her underwear and think: “Thank God”? Thank God the baby growing inside her was not going to expose her after all? Or did she worry that the men would see the blood and think that she wasn’t tough enough to handle this job? She always had so much to prove.
“Look,” said my aunt, pointing at the diving well. “She’s afraid to jump.”
A girl was on the high dive, standing on the end of the board and staring at the water. There were four other kids waiting their turn and they called up to her from the bottom of the ladder. “Hurry up!” they said. One of them had his legs squeezed together as if he were about to pee on the pool deck. “The problem is, once you’re up there, it’s hard to back down,” said my aunt.
The girl looked about nine. She had strawberry blond hair, short and slick with chlorine. It must have been her first time on the three-meter board. I know it can be scary the first time you get up that high. The water looks so far away. But compared with the one-meter board, the difference you spend in the air is negligible. Less than a second. When I was scared, my mother used to snap her fingers and say, “That’s the difference between high and low.” That’s all there is to it.
Elliott Holt’s short stories have been published by The Kenyon Review and Bellevue Literary Review and she received a Special Mention in the 2010 Pushcart Prize anthology. She has won scholarships to both the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and The Tin House Summer Writers Workshop and has been a resident at Yaddo. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Brooklyn College, where she won the Himan Brown award, and is a contributing editor at One Story. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
I adore the New York Review of Books Classics. Among the titles in that series that I’ve most enjoyed are Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker; The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy; Stoner by John Williams; and all three volumes of Mavis Gallant stories. I’ve been an Alice Munro fan (my friends can testify to this since I am always raving about her) for years, but I only started reading Mavis Gallant (the other great Canadian short story writer) a couple of years ago. I spent much of my twenties living abroad and gravitate toward what I call “expat fiction” (books by Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov and W.G. Sebald and Norman Rush, among others) and Gallant’s masterful stories of exile fall into that genre.
Also, I loved Laura van den Berg’s story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.