Maybe nothing would ever have happened but for the Christmas stockings. Hand sewn in red and green felt, they were the saddest things I had seen in a long time. As soon as I noticed them, hanging gloomily from every doorknob, I knew that I wanted to marry him.
It was my first visit to Paul’s home, on Whitsun Sunday. His house near Paris was covered with vine and wisteria spilled over the garden walls. From his bedroom window, we had a view on the shimmering skyline along the Seine, but this dusty red stocking was dangling from the handle and there were foil paper angels fluttering in the draughts. In the kitchen, a flashing garland screeched Jingle Bells when you flicked the switch. Over the cooking range someone had tacked a child’s drawing of a house. It was dedicated in large clumsy letters « To the Best Mom in the World ».
The best mom in the world had walked out the summer before to start a new life in Gopherville, Arkansas, with a nightclub owner who specialized in Country music and sex scandals involving underage performers. Dolly had simply vanished from the lives of her husband and daughter, leaving one in care of the other.
Once they got over the first shock, Paul and Lena enjoyed living by themselves. Paul managed to cut his working hours and came back early every night to mess about in the kitchen with his daughter. They invented zany recipes and grew carnivorous plants, secretly watching each other for signs of loneliness. For Christmas, they decided that it would be the just the two of them. Lena cut snowflakes out of white paper and worked hard on her father’s present: a box decorated with tiny shells from last summer’s holidays. Slightly tipsy from the champagne, half buried under layers of torn gift wrappings, she swore that this was her best Christmas ever. She was about to turn eleven.
In January Paul hired a private investigator to locate his wife and start divorce proceedings. Dolly readily agreed to everything; the one thing she asked was permission to visit her daughter in Paris for the winter holidays. She flew back to France, dropped her suitcases in the guest room and opened her arms for Lena to fall into as if nothing had ever happened. Lena started working out schemes to make her mother stay, but Paul, who was quietly putting away the whisky glasses Dolly forgot in her wake, knew that they were doomed. This time, he didn’t even try to search out for the bottles Dolly was hoarding like mice hoard cotton wool for winter.
On the last day before Dolly’s flight home was due, Paul came back after work and found the house empty.
Mother and child had vanished. The car was not in the garage. They could not have gone to the movies and taken the hall carpet with them, could they? It had been torn away from its nails; tufts of wool remained stuck on the bare wood floor. Pictures were missing too, leaving pale squares on the wall. Paul dragged himself through one room after another, counting his losses, looking for clues. The child’s bedroom was a war zone: clothes, toys, stuffed animals, torn cardboard boxes and ripped open suitcases had been hurled across the room. Burdened with the all the luggage she intended to take with her, Dolly had left her daughter’s treasures behind. Paul did not walk in; he just clicked the door shut. On the landing he found one pink plastic thong, size 4, with a torn strap. Clutching it to his chest, he started sobbing at last.
After a while, he gave a few phone calls and found out that his daughter was already flying over Knoxville with her mother. There was nothing he could do. The child’s passport was valid and Dolly was entitled to take her anywhere she pleased. She had chosen the small town she had been raised in.
Ironically, the nearest city was called Hope.
I had met him through friends. With his sad smile and shock of hair touched with gray, Paul looked like a boy grown too fast, weighted down by some secret sorrow. We talked until dawn, then he walked me home and kissed me goodnight at my door. We didn’t feel like rushing; we thought we might have a whole lifetime before us. When Lena disappeared, things changed. Paul’s usually dazed look grew into something darker. He started wandering about in his own private nightmare, misplacing his glasses, his keys, his pocketbook, his telephone – he went nowhere without it for fear of missing a call from Dolly, which never came – even his car. He forgot to eat. He was so distracted that I was afraid he would forget to breathe. By then I was so much in love that I would have moved mountains to see him smile. I could not bear to see him heartbroken. One year later we were married.
Meanwhile, in Arkansas, Dolly had given birth to a new daughter, Claire. Lena missed her father. It proved easy enough to convince Dolly to send her eldest child back to us, and this is when the real trouble started.
I thrashed Bitchy all right tonight. It was brilliant.
Her real name is Mitzi– how ridiculous is that? But I call her Bitchy. Actually, my mom suggested it, but then it suits her perfectly. Of course Bitchy doesn’t have a clue. I have to confess that I hide a few things from Mom too: for example, I haven’t told her yet that sometimes I call Bitchy Mommy. She would hate it, obviously. Poor Mom. It’s hard for her to be so far from me, even though she was the one who left. She calls me every day, and when I am not home, she calls again to leave desperate messages. She keeps asking why I chose to live with my father, and I don’t know what I can say to that. As soon as she starts speaking I know exactly how many drinks she’s had. She is louder after four or five, from six onwards she moans that I abandoned her, and often she ends up sobbing or screaming at me, when it is late at home in Arkansas and she’s had way too many.
So why would I call Bitchy Mommy? Because it pleases them all so much. Not Bitchy, exactly: it unsettles her rather than making her happy, which is fun too. But Grandma loves it. She probably believes that all is well that ends well. And Dad is so glad to see that I adopted his new wife… He thanked me for it the other day. I am his perfect little girl, the jewel of his crown, and ours is the perfect new family. If he only knew! It’s a good thing that no one hears us talking on the phone, Mom and I.
So, tonight, Grandma and Granddad were coming over for dinner. Bitchy spent the whole day running around like a panic-stricken bat. She fumbled about in the kitchen for hours, polishing the silver – which I wouldn’t mind nicking, then burnt her fingers on the oven while trying out fancy recipes. I asked her if she wanted some help, but she brushed me off: she didn’t want me under her feet. I got my revenge when I pinched the foie gras and took it up to my room for a taste. I love foie gras. When I returned it, minus several fat slices, she was livid, but what could she say? And then she asked me to help set the table, but I told her I had homework to do. Who did she think I was? Her household slave?
So we were gathered around the table, all on our best behavior, and I was bored to death. I was sitting next to Dad, as usual. I waited for a lull in the conversation and then I cleared my voice and dropped my bomb:
– Yes, dear?
– Is Mitzi older than you are?
By then, I had everyone’s attention.
Dad mumbled something like:
– Eh? …. Ah… Well, maybe a teeny bit, but why?
Grandpa chose precisely this moment to ask Bitchy whether she could recommend a good film, but they all heard my answer anyway.
– Because it shows.
I saw her flinch and turn scarlet. I looked down at my plate, but our eyes had met. At first she got that incredulous, too stunned to react look… but then I saw outrage and fury. It was as if she was split open and I could see the gears. I had to bite my cheeks hard not to burst out laughing. Thankfully, I could hide behind my hair… I ate off everything in my plate without raising my head, feeling on top of the world. From time to time, I stole a glimpse from under my bangs. She was happily chatting away, but her smile was a shade too bright. After a while, she excused herself and went to the bathroom. She stayed there for quite a long time. I could practically see her checking out every single inch of skin in the mirror, looking out for creases and wrinkles…
I have always heard Grandma say that of the mouths of babes comes forth truth.
Lena has been playing truant all year; not a week went by without phone calls from the school, asking what she was up to. Yesterday I had to drive over to pick her up: she was sick. When I arrived at the infirmary, for half a second I did not see Lena, but a strange girl whom I did not immediately recognize. A girl I did not like, slouching aslant in a chair, with hair in her face and legs wide apart. Her piercing was showing in a fold of white belly fat. The eyes she raised towards me registered absolutely nothing, not a flicker of recognition. They were big cat’s eyes, black with silent rage. Her stare chilled me. Usually she never really looks at me; when she needs to say something, she addresses the wall behind me, or the radiator, or the third button of my shirt. She’s been smoking pot again, of course, or worse. I am ashamed of her.
Paul says that it is only teen crisis. He doesn’t know yet that as a gesture of ultimate rebellion, she just had 666 tattooed on the inside of her left arm. Her favorite bands sport names like Aborted, Hatebreed or Suicide Silence. She stocks their collectibles and posts their messages on her walls, along with pictures of her father. He gave her a shoe box full of family photos, and now he is everywhere, in whole series of photo booth portraits, in his passport photos from the time he was three, in holiday snapshots, Paul skiing, Paul on the beach with a ring of girls around him, Paul playing Hendrix on air guitar, Paul with a tie on, probably on Graduation day, Paul with bell-bottoms, Paul thoughtful, holding a book, Paul cute and sexy…
Paul at the age Lena is today.
She has no friends that I know of. The only types she hangs around with are the Goth and Emo kids, loners like herself. They share dark secrets and apocalyptic dreams. When she is home, I feel her hate throbbing in the rooms like a pulse. She has taken this weird habit of hiding in inconspicuous corners, behind doors or curtains, and then materializing when we least expect it. I have an impression of being spied on all the time– or is it that I am going mad? And there are things missing from my desk or closet. When the pen Paul gave me for my birthday disappeared, I asked her for an explanation. She called her mother and told her that she wanted to go back to Arkansas, that she would not live in a house where she was treated like a thief and a liar… There was nothing I could do to plead my case. She knows that her father’s worst nightmare is to see her go, and she plays on that with uncanny virtuosity. Every whim of hers must be fulfilled immediately, or else. Her new fancy is to play drums; she also wants a ferret. Apparently, all her friends have pet ferrets. I should insist that it will be the ferret or me, but I am afraid Paul would choose the ferret.
We’ve been married two years and seven months and I don’t even recognize the man I loved. Last weekend, we had another row. Paul blames me for his daughter’s grades. I was mad with rage at the unfairness of it all, and still crying when he finally came to bed. He switched off the light without a word, turned his back to me, and two minutes later he started snoring. I got up without waking him, took the car keys and went out. I started to drive with no idea of where to go. I only wanted to get away as far as I could. I drove all night. When I finally came back, chilled to the bones, he was still storing. I went to sleep on the couch in the living room. It is an old battered shapeless thing, a makeshift raft in the wreck of our marriage. Watching the day rise between the shutters, I felt like a tramp waiting for dawn in a railway station. I could hear the rumble of the refrigerator. It was not a pleasant noise, but it kept me company.
Grown-ups have funny ideas about us children. They always imagine that we don’t have a clue, as if we were deaf and blind and unable to see what’s going on. They are totally convinced that they are “protecting” us… Not! Protecting us from what, when they don’t even have what it takes to stick together as a family long enough to raise their own kids? I know everything about my father and Bitchy. I know them even better than they know themselves. I love snooping. It’s super easy: when I’m home alone, I search their room, I read every letter I can lay my hands on, I poke through drawers and dressers. There are quite a few interesting items lying around in pockets and handbags as well. Dad leaves just about everything in his coat pockets, even big bucks, and afterwards he keeps looking for them. He never dared to ask me, but he had a row with Bitchy the other day because she had stuffed his jeans in the washing machine with three twenty-euro bills in the rear pocket… or so he thought. The funniest thing of all is that she started arguing, then things got ugly and she ended up crying! I told Mom the whole story and she laughed so hard she nearly split her sides.
Bitchy’s been crying a lot lately, anyway. Things are going downhill fast in this house. They can spend whole days without saying a word to one another. Often at dinner, Dad ignores her completely and speaks only to me. I tell him stories from school, things I make up, anything to hold his attention. She gets up to bring things from the kitchen and clear away, dour-faced and silent as a fish. Pathetic. You can see that she’s dreaming of being someplace else. Well, go, why don’t you? Get a life! While she plays around with her food without actually eating anything, I take second and third helpings, particularly at dessert. I just love eating.
I found a juicy letter that she wrote to Dad, complaining because he doesn’t even look at her anymore… It took him so long to get tired of her, almost three years, but I knew it was going to happen in the end. It was only a matter of time and patience.
“You come home at night, you pour a glass of wine for both of us and you lock yourself up in your study with your glass. You only get out for dinner. Dinner is chaos, impossible to share a few words without being interrupted.”
Yeah, I guess that’s true. I have things to say too.
“After dinner, you go directly back to your study, leaving me to clear the table. Later, often very late, you go to bed. I have been waiting for you. Bedtime: you slip under the covers, you rewind your alarm, and you switch off the light without a word. You fuck me in thirty seconds, hands off, or not at all. And that is the one variation in your routine.”
Not bad so far, is it? But my favorite part is the conclusion:
“ Am I so uninteresting that you don’t even feel like spending a few minutes of your time in my company?”
Well… thank you for pointing out the obvious, Mommy dear.
Marie Hermet wanted to be a hippie when she grew up. As it is, she studied Art in Paris, had a stint as a costume designer for the cinema, then finally graduated in English Literature. Currently living in Paris and working as a reader and translator for French publishers, it is her ambition to complete her PhD (about European exiles in Hollywood in the 1940s) before her granddaughter, aged two, finishes high school. Her short stories published in French include L’Oiseleur (awarded the Prix Pégase 2010) and La Reine des Neiges (prix du Musée des Lettres 2009). She believes, as Colum McCann puts it, that you write best not about what you know, but about what you want to know.