Queen El­iz­a­beth and Brigitte Bar­dot

The Iowa Review - - FRONT PAGE - Jo­hanna hunt­ing

My mother loved to touch So­nia’s long blonde hair. “Like corn silk,” she’d say, as she gath­ered it in her hands. It was the hair my mother had had when she was a girl. She’d even shown So­nia pho­tos, faded prints with rounded edges. She said it was so weird that I didn’t get that hair—and didn’t seem to quite be­lieve me when I came home from school one day, tri­umphant at hav­ing learned in sci­ence that blonde hair was a re­ces­sive trait—that I couldn’t pos­si­bly have been blonde, since ev­ery­one on my dad’s side had dark brown frizz. Still, I’d be­gun to feel con­cerned about how I looked. To­ward the end of sixth grade, I started to wake up ear­lier, an hour and a half be­fore it was time to leave for school, to wash, blow-dry, and iron my hair straight. School got out for the sum­mer. I spent most of June and July at So­nia’s. She lived in a large, salmon-pink stucco house with her par­ents and older sis­ters, Heloise and Nathalie, two spaniels, and six horses. I loved the jum­ble of jack­ets hang­ing from the pegs in­side the back door, the bench piled with black vel­vet rid­ing helmets—the over­lap of who wore which one. My mother was glad when she could drop me there, so that I wouldn’t be left at home by my­self. I’d gone to camp the previous sum­mer, but this year she couldn’t af­ford it. She was work­ing as a real es­tate agent, not mak­ing much money. She’d show peo­ple house af­ter house—and then abruptly stop hear­ing from them. She called that get­ting burned; it hap­pened all the time. If So­nia’s mother, Mar­tine, who didn’t work, was out, Nathalie was usu­ally giv­ing rid­ing lessons in the ring. We were go­ing into sev­enth grade any­way, old enough to be left pretty well alone. We still liked to play with Bar­bies, would spend hours dress­ing them up for “the dance”—but we wouldn’t have wanted any­one in our class to know about it. Our moth­ers be­came friendly, too. Mar­tine was French, a freespir­ited woman who wore cropped sweaters and jew­elry—neck­laces of beads frosted like sea glass or spindly limbs of co­ral—not the kind of thing you could buy at the mall. My mother had trav­eled to Europe when she worked as a flight at­ten­dant in the early ’70s, and when she de­scribed some­thing in a pos­i­tive way—an out­fit, a dessert—the ad­jec­tive she typ­i­cally used was “French.” When she came to pick me up in the evenings, she’d grate­fully ac­cept Mar­tine’s of­fer of a glass of wine,

and they’d chat in the kitchen while Mar­tine made din­ner. She didn’t just make spaghetti or stir-fry—she would bake whole fish stuffed with lemon slices, or pre­pare cheese souf­flé. So­nia’s fa­ther, Richard, was not French. He was short, a head shorter than Mar­tine, with a bald, liver-spot­ted scalp. He ran a com­pany that man­u­fac­tured plumb­ing fix­tures and fit­tings and ex­pected to be treated as the boss. If he came home while my mother was still there, he’d barely ac­knowl­edge her, would just tell Mar­tine she ought to hurry up al­ready with din­ner. My mother, used to charm­ing men with her smile and naive ques­tions, was frus­trated by him. She had just started dat­ing—had gone out with our den­tist and a guy she’d met at the wine store. She said Richard didn’t like her be­cause she was di­vorced. Mar­ried men didn’t like di­vorced women, didn’t want their own wives to get ideas. “Like it’s con­ta­gious,” I said.

Mar­tine took the girls to the South of France for the month of Au­gust, to a stone house she owned with her sib­lings, where she’d spent sum­mers as a girl. I was sup­posed to go visit my dad, but he called and told my mother that it just wasn’t a good time. My mother said that he was an id­iot and we should feel sorry for him, but I felt more sorry for my­self. I’d bought a guide book to Philadel­phia, where he’d been liv­ing for a year and I’d never vis­ited, had high­lighted var­i­ous at­trac­tions: the Franklin In­sti­tute, the Magic Gar­dens. I put the book un­der my bed. On Satur­days when my mother didn’t have to work, we’d wake up early and drive to Singing Beach in Manch­ester-by-the-sea, with sand that squeaked as you walked along it. We missed So­nia and Mar­tine, won­dered what they were up to, what the beach they went to looked like. The re­gion in France where they had their house was known for its rosé, and my mother started drink­ing that in the evenings. My mother had one list­ing of her own, where she’d host an open house most Sun­days. The sell­ers would leave clut­ter on the coun­ters and dishes in the sink that she would have to quickly tidy up. I went along with her, helped her puff the pil­lows and open all the blinds. Then I wan­dered around the rooms with the prospec­tive buy­ers, pre­tended that I was one of them—tested the bath­room faucets and opened the closet doors. When I got tired of that rou­tine, I sat and waited on the creaky swing set in the backyard. It was a wooden house like ours, but painted yel­low rather than white. It felt a lot big­ger than our house, but my mother said it had the same num­ber of square feet. So­nia had told

me her house didn’t seem big to her—it was funny how once you got used to a place, you could no longer tell what it was like. Dur­ing the week, I al­ter­nated be­tween the TV in the kitchen and the one in the liv­ing room, watch­ing The Price Is Right or Mur­der, She Wrote. My mother said that if I was so bored, I could vac­uum or at least un­load the dish­washer. When she was my age, she’d babysat for three dif­fer­ent fam­i­lies.

I had as­sumed So­nia would call me as soon as she got home, but it was my mother who heard first that Mar­tine and the girls were back in town, had been for a cou­ple of days. I biked over to their house and found So­nia ly­ing on the liv­ing-room couch with our sum­mer read­ing book, Water­ship Down. “What’s up?” I said. She sighed and flung down the book. “I wish my fam­ily still lived in France.” She’d gone out danc­ing with her cousins and sis­ters al­most ev­ery night. And she’d had her first two kisses. Both boys so hand­some: Mathieu, a lo­cal, and Alis­tair, from Lon­don. The most ex­cit­ing thing I’d done was grow a tomato plant in a terra-cotta pot. It was too hot to ride horses or mess around in the barn. I thought we might play Bar­bies, but So­nia said she didn’t feel like it. I’d brought my bathing suit, a navy-blue racer­back, but she of­fered me one of her two-pieces in­stead. In the kitchen, she rubbed the cut side of a lemon all over her hair, passed me the other half. We turned on the sprin­kler and jumped back and forth through the rake of cold wa­ter un­til Nathalie, who was nap­ping in the nearby ham­mock, moaned that we were be­ing too noisy. I was scared of Nathalie, who wore her hair in a per­fect dark braid and had told my mother that I lacked con­fi­dence—most of her stu­dents who had taken so many lessons would be jump­ing by now. So­nia com­peted in horse-jump­ing shows most week­ends and had the satin rib­bons strung up all the way around the canopy of her bed to prove it. My mother said that un­less I loved rid­ing, I’d bet­ter stop tak­ing lessons, that they weren’t cheap. We walked past the barn, along the dirt path that we some­times rode down, to the pond. So­nia slung her towel around her neck; I wrapped mine around my waist. We walked along the wa­ter’s edge to the widest strip of beach, care­ful to avoid the sludgy duck crap, and stretched out our tow­els, an­gled to­ward the sun. “In France, ev­ery­one sun­bathes top­less,” said So­nia. I thought maybe she was test­ing me. “Yeah, right.”

“It ac­tu­ally makes a lot of sense be­cause then you don’t get tan lines,” she said. I had thought that tan lines were half the point of tan­ning—if you didn’t have a strip of con­trast­ing white skin, then you couldn’t re­ally tell—or brag about—how tanned you’d got. So­nia pointed out that you’d still have a tan line on your butt and ev­ery­thing. She tugged at the bow be­hind her neck and her tri­an­gle top came loose, then un­did the string be­hind her back. Her breasts hung from her chest, whereas mine barely stuck out. “Let’s start on our stom­achs,” she said. She set­tled on her towel and, propped up slightly on her el­bows, be­gan to read her book. I looked around to make sure no one was com­ing. “It’s not a big deal,” said So­nia. My top, the one she’d lent me, was bra-styled, with hooks in the back. I pulled my arms out of the straps, so that my chest was still just cov­ered, and lay down on my stom­ach. She looked at me and frowned but didn’t say any­thing. I un­hooked the back of the top, let it fall off onto my towel. “If any­one comes”—she looked left and right—“which they won’t. You just have to act to­tally nat­u­ral, OK? That’s what my cousin said. It’s only weird if you’re self-con­scious.” “OK.” “Don’t you feel bet­ter?” said So­nia. “It’s free­ing, right?” I did feel more com­fort­able—and less hot. We lay on our stom­achs for a while, un­til our backs started to crunch, then flipped. It was hard to read ly­ing flat on your back, so we just talked, look­ing up at the sky. So­nia fanned her hair out be­hind her, so that she looked like she was float­ing in wa­ter, and I did the same. “I hope we get good new peo­ple, good boys,” she said. Sev­enth grade was start­ing in just a cou­ple of weeks, and our class would dou­ble in size. I was dread­ing ev­ery as­pect of it—the thought of new peo­ple, new teach­ers, dif­fer­ent class­rooms, more home­work made me feel queasy. But I agreed with So­nia. “The boys in our class suck.” Soon I heard her breath­ing steady. I closed my eyes. My un­der­arms and the crooks of my el­bow and knees were sweat­ing. I touched my hair—the lemon juice had made it clump to­gether and har­den. I won­dered if we ought to head back. Nathalie might have gone in­side by now, and we could turn on the sprin­klers again—or sit on the soft grass in­stead of on the hard-packed dirt. The pond smelled ter­ri­ble. Then I

felt a dog brush against my leg, its wet nose and slob­ber­ing tongue. I sat up, hug­ging my knees to my chest. “Well, if it isn’t Brigitte Bar­dot and let’s see, uh, Queen El­iz­a­beth,” called Richard as he ap­proached. “I got home early and thought I might take a dip. I guess ev­ery­one had the same idea.” “Go away, Dad,” said So­nia, with­out open­ing her eyes or mov­ing. The dogs splashed around in the pond. “Nice to see you, too,” said Richard. As he came closer and saw that So­nia and I were bare-chested, he stopped, turn­ing his head abruptly, looked up to­ward the sky, and said, “Put a top on! Je­sus Christ. Who do you think you are?” He turned his back to us and whis­tled for the dogs. They leaped out of the wa­ter and shook off, splat­ter­ing So­nia and me with pond wa­ter. So­nia shrieked. She wrapped her­self up in her towel, rushed past him, and ran back to the house. I strug­gled to keep up. When I got home, I asked my mother who Brigitte Bar­dot was. I didn’t un­der­stand why he’d called her that—“so­nia” didn’t sound any­thing like “Brigitte.” I washed the lemon juice out of my still-brown hair. A few days later, we were brows­ing in the video store when my mother called out to me. She held out the box for a movie called Con­tempt. “Brigitte Bar­dot.” We rented the movie but both found it too slow. “I think this is a lit­tle over your head,” my mother said as she ejected the tape. Any­way, I’d seen enough.

So­nia tested out of sev­enth-grade be­gin­ner French. An eighth-grader in her class in­vited her to his birth­day party. “It might be re­ally awk­ward,” she said. “Be­cause I won’t know any­one.” We’d been rid­ing and were brush­ing the horses with rub­ber-toothed cur­rycombs just in­side the barn. “But you’ll know him, right?” I pointed out, reach­ing to brush along the horse’s spine. The sad­dle had left a curved im­print of sweat. “And the other peo­ple from your class.” “He said I could bring friends,” she said. “Oh! What will we do—at the eighth-grade party?” “Dance, I guess. Talk,” she laughed. “Nor­mal stuff.” When my mother dropped me off at So­nia’s house to get ready on Satur­day af­ter­noon, I found her sit­ting in the kitchen with Daya, a new girl from our year I rec­og­nized from or­ches­tra. She played per­cus­sion; I played oboe. It was strange to see her out­side of school. So­nia was wear­ing her striped ter­rycloth bathrobe and Daya was wear­ing Mar­tine’s pink quilted robe.

Daya was lean­ing over So­nia, spread­ing eye shadow on her lid with her in­dex fin­ger. “I like to do a re­ally smoky eye,” she said. Her fam­ily had just moved up from New York. “Hey, is your mom home?” I asked, lin­ger­ing by the door. “I think she’s in the bath.” “Did you come over to see her mom?” said Daya. “No, I just—my mom wanted to know. I’ll go tell her she’s busy.” When I came back into the kitchen, they were both laugh­ing. “He’s on cross-coun­try, too,” said Daya. She licked her thumb and rubbed the tip of a black eye­liner pen­cil. “Oh, I’m so glad I’m do­ing it,” said So­nia. “What? You’re do­ing cross-coun­try?” I was shocked not to have heard any­thing about it. I helped my­self to a glass of wa­ter, hop­ing that Daya would see that I knew where the glasses were kept. That I knew bet­ter than to ask for ice cubes. “Yeah, try­outs are on Monday,” said So­nia. “I think ev­ery­one makes the team though,” said Daya. “Oh, that’s good. I’m not very fast.” “Me nei­ther,” said Daya, shak­ing her head. “But—why?” I said. We of­ten went rid­ing or helped Nathalie with the horses af­ter school. “I don’t know. I don’t want to get fat,” said So­nia. “As if,” said Daya. “OK, open.” So­nia’s eyes looked big­ger than usual; her lids shim­mered sil­ver. “No, se­ri­ously, you should see what my mom feeds me.” “It’s true, she cooks amaz­ing,” I said. “Amaz­ingly,” said Daya. She dabbed con­cealer on So­nia’s chin. If So­nia was wor­ried about get­ting fat, then I thought I might be fat al­ready. “Maybe I should join cross-coun­try,” I said. I pulled out the chair next to her and sat down. “But you hate run­ning,” said So­nia. “You hate run­ning, too.” “Not any­more, not re­ally.” She shook her head. I con­sid­ered say­ing that I might not hate it any­more ei­ther, that I hadn’t ac­tu­ally done it in a while, but I didn’t want her to think I was a fol­lower. Once ev­ery­one’s make-up was done, we went up­stairs to get dressed. Daya had brought a duf­fel bag of clothes, which she dumped out on So­nia’s bed. I leaned against the end of the bed and watched as they went through it. Daya quickly de­cided on a black suede skirt and a tube top. There was a co­ral-col­ored dress that I al­most asked to try on, but

by the time I’d got up the nerve, So­nia had al­ready re­jected it, and Daya had packed it away. So­nia tried on sev­eral of Daya’s things and set­tled on a red minidress. “That looks amaz­ing on you,” said Daya. I won­dered where So­nia’s sis­ters were. I’d pic­tured get­ting ready with their ex­pert ad­vice. So­nia turned side­ways, looked over her shoul­der at the mir­ror, puck­ered her lips. “Very Brigitte Bar­dot,” I said. I had prac­ticed say­ing that name in a French ac­cent. “Ew, El­iz­a­beth,” said So­nia. “That’s what my dad calls me,” she ex­plained to Daya. Daya rolled her eyes as though she un­der­stood. “Is that what you’re wear­ing?” I was wear­ing my most “party” dress: light blue, sleeve­less, cov­ered in silk ruf­fles. I’d got it for my cousin’s wed­ding the previous spring. I said, “Yeah, I think so.” When I had got­ten dressed at home, I’d imag­ined So­nia was go­ing to tell me I ought to bor­row some­thing of hers, but she just said, “You look cute,” and tipped her head for­ward to brush her hair up­side down. We wan­dered across the hall into So­nia’s par­ents’ room. Her mother and fa­ther were go­ing out to din­ner and said they would drop us at the party on the way. “Mar­tine, we do not want to be the first ones there. So­cial sui­cide,” warned Daya, ad­dress­ing So­nia’s mother more di­rectly than I ever had. I won­dered how many times she’d been over to So­nia’s house. It was only the third week of school. “Well, we could try to make the reser­va­tion a lit­tle bit later,” said Mar­tine. So­nia’s fa­ther, who was lac­ing up his shoes, said, “Ab­so­lutely not.” He looked up and no­ticed for the first time what So­nia was wear­ing. “Where are your pants?” “It’s a dress, Dad.” “Mar­tine.” His face was flushed. “It’s a cute dress, but maybe a lit­tle short,” she said, hold­ing her fin­gers a few inches apart. “You were go­ing to wear those black pants with it,” said Daya. “What?” “The black pants that I said you should, like, put on un­der­neath.” Daya winked—too ob­vi­ously, I thought, but what did I know?

So­nia ran to get the pants. When she came back, Daya said, “We could take a taxi.” I was sur­prised to see Mar­tine tilt her head as though she were se­ri­ously con­sid­er­ing this. I had only ever taken a taxi a hand­ful of times— to the air­port—and I was pretty cer­tain that So­nia’s fam­ily didn’t reg­u­larly take them ei­ther. “That’s a good idea,” said So­nia. Her fa­ther said, “We’re go­ing to drop you on our way out and pick you up on the way back. And if you and your friends don’t like that, you can just stay home.” I didn’t know why he looked at me when he said that. I didn’t mind what time we ar­rived at the party. They dropped us off at Adam’s house, which was only a short drive away, in fact just past my house. It was hand­some, brick with white col­umns fram­ing the front door. His mother let us in and said, “Don’t you look pretty?” She seemed to be ad­mir­ing my ruf­fles. So­nia asked for the bath­room, where she went to take off her pants. The party was in the base­ment, which felt more like a dun­geon be­cause of the black light­bulbs that gave off an eerie blue glow and the smoke ma­chine. I couldn’t see my feet, which I thought might be for the best, from the way Daya had been look­ing at my Mary Janes in the car. Not many peo­ple had ar­rived yet, but the mu­sic was blar­ing. Adam kissed So­nia on both cheeks. We’d learned about that cus­tom in French class. “Bon­soir, thanks for com­ing,” he said. He was wear­ing jeans and an un­tucked white shirt, which looked pale vi­o­let in the light. So­nia’s hair glowed, too. She in­tro­duced Daya and me to him. He kissed Daya twice. He kissed me on one cheek, but as I turned my face for the sec­ond kiss, he pulled away, and we wound up brush­ing lips. “Ah!” he said, jerk­ing his head back. “What are you do­ing?” He rubbed his lips with the tips of his fin­gers. “Sorry.” I was as sur­prised as he was. “Oh my god, El­iz­a­beth!” said So­nia. “I was just do­ing the cheek-cheek, the French kiss, not the French kiss, you know, the kiss-kiss, the air kiss, like you did.” My face felt hot. “Don’t worry about it,” said Adam, hav­ing re­gained his cool. “I’ll take what I can get.” He told us to make our­selves at home, have a soda, eat some­thing, what­ever. The room soon be­came packed with peo­ple, the en­tire eighth grade. I knew most of their names but had never spo­ken to any of them. I watched So­nia and Daya dance and tried to sub­tly mimic their mo­tions, but when I looked down, I re­al­ized I was hardly mov­ing.

When a slow song came on, Adam emerged from the smoke and wrapped his arms around So­nia. They pressed up against each other so that al­most their en­tire bod­ies were in con­tact. Jared, ap­par­ently a friend of Adam’s, asked Daya to dance. I found my­self in the mid­dle of the floor, sur­rounded by cou­ples, and quickly re­treated to­ward the edge of the room. I poured my­self a pa­per cup of soda and stood back, mak­ing ten­ta­tive eye con­tact with a cou­ple of guys who stood nearby. They edged away. I sucked on a Cheez Doodle un­til it dis­solved, then crouched down and un­buck­led, then re-buck­led my shoe. Some­one’s butt knocked into my head. Fi­nally, I de­cided to wait it out in the bath­room. It was locked so I waited just out­side. Af­ter a long time—a more fast­paced song had al­ready come on—a girl and boy stum­bled out hold­ing hands, look­ing some­how both sheep­ish and smug. I quickly locked my­self in the bath­room, where I stood for sev­eral min­utes, un­til some­one else tried the door. I didn’t bother to turn on the light, just stood there with my eyes closed and breathed in the dark. Mar­tine was shown into the base­ment by Adam’s mother. I saw her smil­ing faintly, watch­ing So­nia slow-dance to another song with Adam. I hoped she didn’t see that I was sit­ting by my­self in a cor­ner. She waited un­til the song was over be­fore call­ing out to So­nia. We fol­lowed her up the stairs. So­nia was an­noyed at hav­ing to leave be­fore the party was over. Daya com­forted her, say­ing that it was good to make a dra­matic exit. It was Mar­tine who re­minded So­nia to put her pants back on as Adam’s mother showed us to the front door. “You OK, El­iz­a­beth?” she asked me as we waited for So­nia. “Yeah,” I said. “My ears are ring­ing.” I got dropped off first. I had a feel­ing that Daya was spend­ing the night at So­nia’s. She’d left that bag of clothes. My mother asked how the party was, and I told her it was fine. She was sit­ting in the dark, stretched out across the couch, watch­ing a movie. “And the guy who in­vited So­nia?” she said. “Are they an item?” She hit pause on the re­mote. “I don’t know. I guess.” “What’s all over your face?” she said. “It looks like you’ve got soot around your eyes.” I shook my head and ex­plained, “It’s the ‘smoky’ look.” “It looks aw­ful,” she said. “Don’t get it on your dress.”

I turned around so that my back was fac­ing her. “So­nia’s do­ing cross­coun­try, so I can’t go to her house af­ter school any­more, and you’ll have to pick me up,” I snif­fled. “Why are you stand­ing like that? Turn around so I can see your face. You can take the bus home from school. Or you can join the team, too.” “But I hate run­ning.” I didn’t ac­tu­ally be­lieve that any­one could not hate run­ning. “You’d prob­a­bly get in re­ally good shape.” “She’s do­ing it with her other friend,” I said. “What other friend?” “Daya.” She shook her head, as if sur­prised that she didn’t know Daya, as though she knew any of the new kids in my class, or what school was re­ally like. “Honey, you’ll make new friends, too.” I knew I shouldn’t have told her. I went up­stairs to my room. At lunch, I had to stick right next to So­nia, fol­low di­rectly be­hind, if I wanted to sit any­where near her. As soon as she put her tray down, a clat­ter of other trays—daya’s and the rest of the group they quickly es­tab­lished—dropped to sur­round it. Soon, I gave up try­ing. I stopped go­ing to lunch, just bought a gra­nola bar from the vend­ing ma­chine and ate it in the li­brary. The funny thing was that when I passed So­nia in the halls, she’d act so friendly, would say, “Hey, El­iz­a­beth!” as though she’d been look­ing for me. My mother be­came closer with Mar­tine. So­nia’s dad of­ten trav­eled for busi­ness, and when he was away my mother and Mar­tine would go to a movie screen­ing at the French Li­brary in Cam­bridge or out to eat. She’d fill me in on the gos­sip the next morn­ing on the way to school. The car smelled faintly of cof­fee—my mother kept an open bag of it in the pocket of her door since she be­lieved it neu­tral­ized odors. I was eating ce­real very care­fully out of a plas­tic mug. I wasn’t re­ally al­lowed to eat in the car since my mother liked to keep it clean for clients. “Mar­tine’s not sure about So­nia’s friend Daya,” said my mother. “She sounds like a bad in­flu­ence. So­nia’s started smok­ing. I can’t for the life of me imag­ine why a run­ner would smoke.” I said, “Who cares? A lot of peo­ple smoke.” I dropped my spoon into my mug and looked out my win­dow, which was still printed with frost. The car usu­ally didn’t get warm enough to blast the de­froster un­til we were al­most at school. “It’s such a shame you’ve fallen out with So­nia. We can’t un­der­stand it.” I took my flash cards out of my back­pack and be­gan quizzing my­self— I had a gram­mar test that af­ter­noon. I was sure that Mar­tine un­der-

stood, that she was prob­a­bly just too kind to ex­plain to my mother that So­nia no longer wanted to be friends with me. “Maybe you should ask her if you did any­thing to up­set her. Honey, did you hear me? You know, maybe if you smiled more, were just a teensy bit more charm­ing.” She pulled into the drop-off cir­cle, and I got out and slammed the door.

I don’t know if it was my mother’s or Mar­tine’s idea to try and smooth things over be­tween So­nia and me. One Satur­day in the spring, my mother sug­gested we go to the mall. I needed jeans—i had grown a cou­ple more inches, and all my pants were too short. My mother was look­ing for a new rain­coat for her­self but didn’t find one she liked for the right price. There were a few dif­fer­ent food op­tions at the mall, but we al­ways went to the same place, a café with a black-and-white tiled floor, a long, dark wood bench, and mir­rored walls. When we got there, my mother walked right past the maître d’ to join Mar­tine and So­nia, who were al­ready seated at a ta­ble, pe­rus­ing the menu. I pulled my mother’s arm, glared at her. “I don’t want to have lunch with them,” I said. “Smile,” said my mother through grit­ted teeth. They were sit­ting next to each other on the bench, and my mother took the seat op­po­site Mar­tine, so I sat down across from So­nia. We be­gan by talk­ing as a four, my mother de­scrib­ing the rain­coats, but once we or­dered, my mother and Mar­tine broke off from So­nia and me. I was sur­prised by how eas­ily we fell back into our old pat­tern of con­ver­sa­tion. By the time we’d fin­ished our choco­late mousses, we were laugh­ing so much that my mother shushed us, fear­ing that we were dis­turb­ing the neigh­bor­ing ta­bles. I felt as though So­nia had for­given me for what­ever I’d done wrong. Back at school on Monday, I joined So­nia and her group hud­dled to­gether at re­cess. I wasn’t look­ing for her—i was on my way to the li­brary to start on my math home­work when I saw her long blonde hair. “Hey,” I said, breath­less. She nod­ded. Daya was telling a story. “And then he said—” She stopped, looked at me. “This is kind of a pri­vate story. I mean, no of­fense, it’s just that—” “Oh, sorry,” I said. I smiled. She smiled back. “No, don’t worry,” she said. “Do you want to ask So­nia a ques­tion or some­thing? In­vite her to the dance? She al­ready has a boyfriend, you know.” Ev­ery­one laughed.

As I turned away I heard So­nia say, “Why’d you say that? My mom’s go­ing to kill me.”

My mother got a plane ticket to go visit Mar­tine and the girls in France that sum­mer. I was in­vited, too, my mother in­sisted, but when I saw So­nia at school, she didn’t men­tion any­thing about it. I hadn’t been over to her house in months. We barely spoke any­more, even though in home­room I could al­ways sense where she was with­out look­ing di­rectly at her, heard the pitch of her voice clear above the gen­eral clamor. I called my dad, ask­ing him if he would pay for me to go to sleep­away mu­sic camp and, to my mother’s sur­prise, he agreed. You had to au­di­tion for ac­cep­tance, and I be­gan prac­tic­ing oboe for sev­eral hours ev­ery day af­ter school. When she picked me up from camp, my mother gave me the report on how beau­ti­ful their old house was, how de­li­cious the food had been. She and Mar­tine had gone to the dis­cothèque with the girls. They’d had the best time. I re­ally should have come. My mother said she thought Mar­tine was work­ing up the courage to di­vorce So­nia’s dad. Mar­tine had re­al­ized that she wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily have to move—since my mother had sur­mised they’d bought the house mostly with her money—and had be­gun to con­sider how much hap­pier she’d be with­out him. It would be bet­ter for the whole fam­ily. He was much too strict with the girls. That was prob­a­bly why So­nia was so naughty—she was re­belling against him. I don’t know ex­actly what hap­pened, but my mother said that when Mar­tine asked Richard if he’d move out for a trial sep­a­ra­tion, he went crazy. He said she couldn’t see my mother ever again. I re­mem­ber think­ing that my mother de­served it—she’d be­come too in­volved with their fam­ily.

The first time I stayed for din­ner at So­nia’s, in the fall of sixth grade, it was Mar­tine’s birth­day and Richard was away on busi­ness. Heloise made a big salad and Nathalie was mak­ing some kind of spe­cial soup, Mar­tine’s fa­vorite. So­nia and I set the ta­ble. Nathalie la­dled the soup into bowls and set them on a bak­ing sheet, then paused. “El­iz­a­beth, do you like French onion soup?” My mother was al­ways warn­ing peo­ple I was a picky eater, but I typ­i­cally ate what I was given at other peo­ples’ houses. “I don’t know,” I said. “Is it just like—onion?” “Yeah, onion,” she said, nod­ding, im­pa­tient, la­dle midair. I looked to So­nia, who shrugged. “I might not like it,” I said.

“It would be a shame to waste it,” said Nathalie, nod­ding. She got rid of one bowl, shared its con­tents among the other four. The soup came out of the oven some­how trans­formed into a bub­blin­gover, melted cheese–topped, sweet-smelling marvel. Mar­tine came in from out­side, sniff­ing ap­pre­cia­tively, clearly im­pressed. Nathalie set down the hot bowls on plates at the ta­ble, skip­ping my place. “You said you didn’t want any.” “I know.” “What are you go­ing to eat?” said Mar­tine. “Salad,” I said, and Heloise passed me the wooden bowl. Ev­ery­one be­gan eating in si­lence, pulling up long, steamy strands of cheese with their spoons, dig­ging into the soggy bread and dark broth. “You made it just right,” said Mar­tine. So­nia no­ticed me eye­ing her soup, of­fered me a bite. “Wow,” I said. It was the most de­li­cious thing I had ever tasted. Mar­tine smiled. Af­ter a few min­utes, she pushed back her chair and stood up. She set her bowl down in front of me and picked up the salad. “Mom, what are you do­ing? I of­fered her some and she didn’t want any,” said Nathalie. “She likes it,” said Mar­tine, clearly pleased, as though I were a baby who had eaten my first bite of solid food. “No,” I said. “It’s yours.” But Mar­tine just shook her head and sat back down at the head of the ta­ble. Nathalie rolled her eyes and even So­nia seemed an­noyed.

The last time I saw Mar­tine was the time she came to lunch at our house. So­nia and I were on spring break from ninth grade. My mother pre­pared what she called a French lunch, some­thing she had never made be­fore. I knew what she meant was the kind of thing Mar­tine used to make. When I came down for break­fast, she was al­ready tend­ing to a leg of lamb, mak­ing slits in its purple flesh with a par­ing knife and slip­ping in sliv­ers of gar­lic. She asked me to set the ta­ble. I opened the drawer where the place mats were kept and reached un­der the stack of straw mats we used ev­ery day to pull out the quilted Provençal fab­ric mats, rec­tan­gu­lar with rounded edges bor­dered blue. Mar­tine used sim­i­lar ones—my mother had bought them on her visit to the South of France. Mar­tine was at her house in France when she came down with a kind of flu that didn’t go away, had gone to the doc­tor ex­pect­ing to get a pre­scrip­tion for an­tibi­otics—or some­thing. That was the previous Au­gust. But Mar­tine, who had not seen my mother in a whole year, didn’t tell

her she was sick. I’d learned about it first, had over­heard some girls in the bath­room at school whis­per­ing about how bad they felt for So­nia. My mother had said she was sure I’d mis­un­der­stood, or that it was prob­a­bly some aw­ful ru­mor, but had snuck over to visit Mar­tine the fol­low­ing morn­ing. When I got home from school, my mother was cry­ing at the kitchen ta­ble. The tu­mor on her brain had al­ready ad­vanced to stage IV. Nathalie, an­tic­i­pat­ing Richard’s re­turn, hadn’t let my mother stay long but had agreed to bring Mar­tine over to our house for lunch. My mother warned me that Mar­tine wasn’t talk­ing much any­more but she still un­der­stood ev­ery­thing. I had just fin­ished lay­ing out the mats at the places around the kitchen ta­ble when my mother looked up and said, “No! Not in here—in the din­ing room. And not those old, stained mats.” She got out the vel­vet-lined box where she kept her wed­ding sil­ver and counted out four sets. “It’s a shame So­nia’s not com­ing,” said my mother. What she meant was that it was a shame that So­nia and I were no longer friends. I won­dered what So­nia had been do­ing dur­ing the past week of va­ca­tion. I hadn’t been up to much. We never ate in the din­ing room. Maybe be­cause I spent so lit­tle time in there, it was my fa­vorite room in the house, with its pis­ta­chio-green walls and long silk drapes. The win­dows looked out of the front of the house, onto the street. It was a mild day, and the snow had al­most melted. Cro­cuses had be­gun to poke out along the edge of the mat­ted, yel­low grass. “Bon­jour!” said my mother as she opened the door. “Ça va?” “Bon­jour,” crooned Mar­tine. Her sand-col­ored hair was clipped in a twist to the back of her head, with bangs fram­ing her face. My mother kissed her on each cheek, then looked be­hind her and said, “So­nia! We didn’t re­al­ize you were com­ing. What a nice sur­prise.” So­nia smiled and tossed her hair. She was wear­ing a gray sweat­shirt with a cut-off neck and faded jeans. I felt like an id­iot in my or­ches­tra uni­form, my fa­vorite thing to wear: a white but­ton-down and long black skirt. “Let’s get Mom in­side,” said Nathalie. “She needs to pee.” She led Mar­tine into the bath­room. “Her mo­tor func­tion is to­tally fucked up,” said So­nia. I winced, but my mother just shook her head. “So sad.” So­nia shrugged as though this were too ob­vi­ous a thing to say. We fol­lowed my mother into the kitchen. She had al­ready sliced the meat and set it on a plat­ter. She tilted the roast­ing pan to drip the meat juice over the pink-and-gray slices. “How’s your break go­ing?” said So­nia.

“Good,” I said. I got my­self a glass and filled it with wa­ter at the sink, then turned and, lean­ing against the kitchen counter, said, “How are the horses?” “What would be nice is if you could fill a pitcher with wa­ter and set it on the ta­ble,” said my mother. She turned to So­nia. “Ev­ery­thing’s ready.” “Smells yum,” So­nia said, charm­ing as ever. She stepped aside so that I could reach be­hind her to get the big yel­low pitcher off the shelf. I nar­rowed my eyes at her, al­most asked why she had come. She could have at least called to tell my mother, who had gone to a lot of trou­ble. But I just handed her the pitcher and said, “I have to set another place.” So­nia held it with both hands and asked my mother in a light, high voice, “Do you have ice?” When I came back into the kitchen, Mar­tine and Nathalie were stand­ing by the counter. My mother asked Nathalie if she thought the meat seemed too rare, and she shook her head. Mar­tine looked dif­fer­ent than she used to, but not in the way I’d imag­ined. Her head wasn’t mis­shapen or ban­daged. I knew that was prob­a­bly a stupid thing to ex­pect. She had gained weight—her cheeks were fuller and her stom­ach looked padded. I couldn’t help but won­der if that was a side ef­fect of her treat­ment, or if she’d just start­ing eating more since she knew she was go­ing to die. I must have been star­ing at her, think­ing of this, be­cause my mother told me to come and give Mar­tine a kiss. I ap­proached, not want­ing to touch her, afraid of her. I had wished on many oc­ca­sions that she were my mother. I pressed my face against the cool beads of her neck­lace. When she let me go, I gave Nathalie a hug, too. She pat­ted my back, as if to com­fort me. My mother told Nathalie to bring Mar­tine into the din­ing room and set­tle her in. “How’s your mom’s ap­petite?” my mother said qui­etly to So­nia. “Is this way too much?” “She eats,” said So­nia. She nod­ded ap­prov­ingly at the por­tion size. “But she’s not so good at cut­ting food any­more. If you give me a fork and knife—” She sliced the meat into strips and then squares, and cut green beans into stubby lengths, but left the potato gratin in­tact af­ter test­ing that it was fork-soft. “Do you have a straw?” “You know, I’m sure we have some some­where.” My mother frowned. “Straws! I can’t find the straws!” She grew fran­tic, open­ing all of the draw­ers and cab­i­nets, dump­ing stuff onto the coun­ter­top. “I just bought them—where did you put them?”

I usu­ally helped her put away the gro­ceries. “I didn’t put them any­where,” I said. “There are some in the car,” Nathalie called out from the din­ing room. My mother said why didn’t I go get them. It was Mar­tine’s car, the one I had rid­den in so many times be­fore. It smelled the same in­side, both earthy-sour like hay and horses and pow­dery from her per­fume. I found a pa­per-wrapped straw in the glove com­part­ment and shut the door. I scooped up a hand­ful of the muddy snow­bank and squeezed it in my fist. It was gran­u­lar, felt more like slush than snow. How long would the car smell like her af­ter she was gone? It seemed crazy that her car, her house, her horses—that any­thing—would con­tinue to ex­ist with­out her. When I opened my palm, only a small, hard ball of ice re­mained. I chucked it into the road, wiped my hand on my hip, and walked back up to­ward the house. My mother had fin­ished mak­ing up the plates. We car­ried them into the din­ing room, where Mar­tine was sit­ting in front of the fire­place at the head of the ta­ble. She looked slightly dazed, star­ing into a dusty stream of sun­light. “Are you com­fort­able?” said my mother. “She’s not in any pain, is she?” she said qui­etly to Nathalie. Nathalie shook her head. “She’s on all kinds of stuff.” She smiled at her mother. “But the sun might be both­er­ing her eyes. Is there any way we can—?” My mother hur­ried to shift one of the blinds so that the sun was not di­rectly hit­ting Mar­tine’s face. “Is that bet­ter? I’m sorry about that, Mar­tine,” said my mother. Mar­tine smiled and shook her head, as though it didn’t mat­ter. My mother opened a bot­tle of wine, even though she usu­ally didn’t drink or serve wine at lunch. Not that we ever had peo­ple over for lunch, but if we did. She poured some out for ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing So­nia and Mar­tine, af­ter Nathalie gave the ap­prov­ing nod—and me. “Just half a glass,” my mother said. I tried to act ca­sual, to not smile too much. “How’s Richard? How’s Dad?” My mother ad­dressed all her ques­tions first to Mar­tine, and then to Nathalie or So­nia. “He’s Richard,” said Nathalie. “And Heloise? Such a shame she couldn’t join us.” “She’s well. She’s in Mex­ico with friends,” said Nathalie. “Oh I’m glad to hear that. It’s good for her to get away.. .” “Yeah, she’s tak­ing surf­ing lessons,” said So­nia. “I’m so jeal­ous.” “Wow. Isn’t that won­der­ful, Mar­tine?”

I could barely eat in front of So­nia. The meat stuck in my throat. I was aware the whole time of how much she was eating, what was left on her plate. She picked up her green beans with her fin­gers and ate them one by one. Mid­way through the meal, Nathalie re­filled my wine glass, and my mother didn’t no­tice, or pre­tended not to no­tice. I be­gan to feel slightly numb, as though I were float­ing up out of my seat. “Isn’t this nice?” my mother said to Mar­tine. “I wish we had done this more—” Her voice caught and she stopped, took a sip of wa­ter, and turned to Nathalie. “Let’s do this more of­ten. When­ever she feels up to it, se­ri­ously, just give me a call.” Nathalie nod­ded, said she would, and I won­dered if my mother be­lieved her. Af­ter the lamb, my mother served slices of fruit tart, the berries and cir­cles of kiwi lac­quered with too-sweet gel. “I don’t have to feel guilty about not bak­ing this, right? Since you told me that French women al­ways buy dessert.” Mar­tine smiled. “Honey, why don’t you play your oboe for Mar­tine?” said my mother. “No, Mom,” I said. “Are you in the or­ches­tra, So­nia?” So­nia shook her head. “Cho­rus,” she said. I could imag­ine So­nia laugh­ing with her friends about how I’d given a recital af­ter lunch. “El­iz­a­beth’s got­ten very good at the—” She mimed some­thing that looked more like flute than oboe play­ing. “Fin­gers crossed it will trans­late into some kind of col­lege schol­ar­ship. Prac­tices for hours, hours a day.” She had no idea what it took to be a mu­si­cian. But I looked at Mar­tine and her eyes seemed to brighten. I pushed back my chair and was about to run up­stairs for my oboe when So­nia said, “We should go. We don’t want to hit traf­fic.” Nathalie agreed. “Have to get back be­fore Dad.” “Please, let us know if there’s any­thing we can do,” said my mother. “Any­thing at all.” We stood on the front steps and watched them help Mar­tine into the car. “I don’t envy those girls,” said my mother. She squeezed my hand and I squeezed back. We stood there watch­ing un­til they had driven clear away.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.