The summer we took in a boarder my mother started wearing headscarves. They were adorned with elaborate patterns and colors as if a fistful of crayons had melted on her head. Often she wore more than one at a time twisted around each other and tied low at the nape of her neck so a plume of silk cascaded down her back. The scarves swayed from side to side as she walked, like the dragons in the New Year’s parade in Chinatown. They were so odd an affectation that it prompted our boarder Miriam to ask me if my mother was sick.
Miriam was from Switzerland and spoke French with only a minimum of English, so she pronounced the word sick as seeeck and it took me a few moments to understand what she was asking. I was left to shrug and roll my eyes as if to say: parents? Who can explain them? Truth was I had no explanation for the scarves, although I guessed they were probably a result of my mother getting home late from the theater with mussed up dirty hair. She was in a play in New York that required her to wear a wig – some depressing Bertoldt Brecht thing. My mother was excited about it because she thought it lent her credibility as an actor. My brother George and I had used her comp opening night tickets not so much to see our mother but to see the stage debut of a TV actor George thought was hot.
So the weird head scarf affectation could be explained like this: by the time the car she’d hired brought her back from the city to our house in Nyack it was close to dawn. My mother was vain and frankly, disinterested in the mundane lives of her last teenage children — she was done — fini as the French say – but I didn’t know how that would translate so I gave Miriam the universal shrug. I could tell from the expression on her face that she wanted more than I could give.
I’d caught Miriam more than once studying the dusty family photos that lined the halls of our house and ran up the steps like crooked teeth – her face up so close to some of the old black and white’s that shreds of cobwebs clung to her chin and nose. In pictures I can see we translate well and so I understand her fascination. Our parents back then were often together, smiling wide, showing all their teeth, and holding cocktails or being hugged by someone famous (if only in their obscure theater circles). The rest of us – we are four in all — looking mildly amused or bored in all the pictures — even when we were babies.
Miriam had not met the rest of us yet since it was only George and me still at home. Miriam occupied Finn’s old room with the crew paddles and lacrosse sticks hanging on the wall. Being the only female in the house besides my mother (who was most definitely not participating in the Miriam project), I was the one to get Miriam’s room ready and I chose Finn’s room because his has a little bathroom tucked under the attic stairs. When I was turning the mattress to freshen it, I found several Penthouse magazines and, tucked between the appropriately suggestive pages, love letters from an old girlfriend, Holly, along with an ancient crinkled condom pack.
I pocketed the condom (wishful thinking — I was going to college a virgin) and threw away the magazines, but I kept the love letters. I planned to surprise Finn with them when he came back from Europe at the end of the month.
Finn was off on a backpacking trip with our father and at some point they were supposed to meet up with my older sister Kate who lives in Florence and teaches English. Finn was the only sibling actually invited to join our father. George suspected Finn was asked because he is the true coward among us and will not question our father on why he has abandoned our family.
When George says things like that, I feel bad that Miriam seems to be idolizing us – at least the “us” in pictures. Our father is responsible for Miriam’s presence in our house, which explains everything and nothing. All we know is that she is an exchange student for the year without a place to stay. She would be attending high school with me for senior year. I had no idea my father even knew such a thing as an exchange existed, let alone a single person in town who would even consider allowing my family take someone in. I thought the whole concept of exchange involved another student participating in the exchange, but in Miriam’s case that didn’t seem to apply.
Miriam showed up on our doorstep the day our father’s bags appeared in the front hallway. Their luggage co-mingled for a few hours while George (who frequently took our mother’s side – because it seemed there was always a side to take) scowled at Miriam from the top landing vowing to have nothing to do with her (lucky for Miriam his vows usually last all of five minutes) and I destroyed the French language in an attempt at conversation. Our father was, as usual, absent. Our mother was hiding on purpose in her room with the door bolted. I could smell the cigarette smoke from downstairs and I pictured her in her bed, the curtains drawn against the early August heat. She would be smoking furiously lighting the next cigarette off of the last all the while blinking and applying eye drops (while she tried not to light her hair on fire) because her eyes teared from the grey cloud above her bed. The day would be no different from the others just because Miriam had arrived. My mother would only rise to shower and emerge from her room moments before the car came to take her into the city.
This is why I know more about Miriam than anyone in the house. She puts double the amount of coffee and half the amount of water in the pot so the coffee is deep and thick and bitter. She prefers baths to showers – when she takes them – and she often wears the same skirt several days in a row although she always changes her blouse. She eats bread and jam and cheese in her room or standing up at the kitchen sink. Sometimes she cuts the cheese with a knife and fork. She dislikes tomatoes and eggs. She carries an old fashioned floral handkerchief in her pocket and adores television. I have found her several times sitting in the middle of the den transfixed by the small black and white my siblings have long derided because everyone we know has large color televisions where you can identify the actors without the aide of a magnifying glass. Miriam actually cleared off the accumulated detritus we’d neglected so that she could have an unobstructed view of the miniscule screen. Although I had no idea what to think about her viewing choices of the sitcom’s: Roseanne, Murphy Brown, Home Improvement and Cheers, it must have given her glimpses of American life that she wasn’t experiencing by living with us. After several weeks at our house she surely must have figured out that no television show could accurately portray her existence in our world.
Since I was desperately searching for a way not to be me, studying Miriam became my secret hobby. As soon as I saw her leaning against the newel post in my front hall I’d wished I’d been born a mysterious European. I was tired of being the smart, creative yet totally nondescript Amy. I was tired of those trite adjectives, period. The night before Miriam arrived, George and I held a bonfire fueled by the journals of my adolescent longings. I’d burned everything because I was sure this would be my last summer at home and I didn’t want to take a chance that one of my siblings would take them and use them as fodder for yet another familial drama.
My guidance counselor had assured me I was smart enough to get into college and probably would get a scholarship to pay for some of it. I think he took pity on me – he had seen all of my siblings through this school – guided them all to college despite the apathy my parents displayed. I mean it was seriously all they could do to sign off on the applications. The guy deserved a medal. Before college I planned to spend my last summer traveling – even if I had to earn the money by working the arts and crafts table at the after school camp for over indulged five year olds again all year long.
George fought with me over burning my journals – said one day I might want to write a book about our family. He was joking, I could tell. George was just a packrat. Burning the journals didn’t bother me. If an occasion ever arose for me to pen my memoirs I was positive my childhood would never, ever leave me.
* * *
My summer job consisted of scooping ice cream and making milkshakes at the dairy shack late afternoons and evenings. Usually I spent the time before work sleeping then fooling around with some fabric or paint, maybe a book, (George and I had just gone to the library and the pile between us included: “American Psycho,” “Shampoo Planet,” “The Kitchen God’s Wife” and “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent”), but this August was different. Now in the mornings I led Miriam to the swimming hole at the very back edge of our property. It was actually more than a hole, but that’s how our father always referred to it back when he enjoyed playing the role of country dad. Going swimming meant a hike through waist high weeds and prickly vines all the while swatting away mosquitoes and no-see-ums, but Miriam seemed to take it in stride. The yard and surrounding property, like the house and its inhabitants, was simply worn out from years of neglect. I liked to imagine that when my parents had purchased this odd crooked house twenty-five years ago they had the best intentions of their young family at heart – when in truth its purchase had been a recommendation from an accountant during a particularly flush period for my father.
Once we got to the water, Miriam stripped down to her underwear and sunbathed topless. Her breasts were small although almost completely overtaken by large brown nipples. Under her arms was a thick shaft of dark hair, at odds, it seemed with her pale pink skin. On the middle toe of her left foot she wore a silver ring. I tried to look sophisticated in my one piece black Speedo as I spread out on the blanket next to Miriam – but I failed miserably and ended up spending most of the time picking at the suit and redistributing the spandex around my midsection. All I could think was that facing my senior year of high school with Miriam, who was so comfortable in her skin, could only mean I had less of a chance with guys than I currently had.
On the days George joined us I expected Miriam to attempt to cover up, but she barely paid any attention to him except for when he dove into the water. George had been on the swim team all four years of high school. He was tall and thin with broad shoulders and a flat stomach and, with the exception of his time spent in the water, was extremely clumsy. Actually, much to the disdain of my parents who had assumed their children, like them, would have a penchant for the arts, (my collages and fabric creatures were not exactly the Great White Artistic Hope my parents might have dreamed about) all of my siblings excelled in one sport or another. Besides swimming for George, there was crew and lacrosse for Finn. Like my sister Kate, I was a runner, although I only ran when I was feeling puffy and exhibited no extraordinary athletic prowess and refused to join the track team as Kate had. I’d say my parents got exactly what they deserved by choosing to live in a small town that, despite its “artsy” reputation and access to New York City, was just like any other cookie cutter suburb across the country.
When George climbed up to the highest ledge and performed an elegant swan dive – his body sluicing into the water like a knife barely disturbing the surface – Miriam propped herself up on her elbows and nodded approvingly. “Beautiful,” she whispered under her breath. “The boy can fly.”
I nodded and was horrified to find water leaking from my eyes down onto my cheeks. George would be leaving for college in New Hampshire at the end of the month and I didn’t know what I was going to do without him. There wasn’t a moment of my life that I had ever been without George. As family lore goes, my first steps were not to my mother or father but to George. From the ages of three to five I slept curled against him in his twin bed because I was afraid of the monster in my closet. I would have stayed there forever had George not convinced me that he had erected a super secret monster detection system in my room that would keep me safe at all times. Miriam reached over and patted me on the thigh – an odd grandmotherly gesture, but she didn’t say anything – she was still concentrating on watching George dive.
I closed my eyes and lifted my face to the sun; the dried tears left my skin with a tight feeling high across the cheekbones by the time George got out of the water and came over to us shaking off like a wet dog.
With my eyes still closed, I lifted my leg to kick George away from me – the water in the pond was spring fed and felt like pin pricks of ice. I always waited until the last minute to get wet; I had to be uncomfortably baked before I could be coaxed into the water. George laughed and then dropped down on the other side of Miriam. I knew this because she rolled closer to me to give him more room on the blanket. A few minutes passed where I could only hear the sound of George’s huff like breathing and Miriam swatting away flies when Miriam broke the silence.
“Teach me to do that, George?”
“Huh?” It sounded like more of an exhale than George actually answering.
“To dive?” Miriam explained. “To fly.”
So far I had only seen Miriam venture into the water twice and each time she did that tiptoe wading in thing people do when the water is too cold. With her stomach sucked in and her nipples hard and pointy she patted at the water with flat palms. I can’t even remember if she actually swam.
George seemed to be reading my mind because he said, “Do you swim?”
Miriam laughed. “Of course! Do you think I want to perish?”
I was still mulling over her choice of the word perish for die when I heard George say, “Okay then – let’s go.”
Miriam hopped up. I opened my eyes and looked over at George. He was scrutinizing Miriam and scratching his head. I could tell he knew I was looking at him and that he was purposely avoiding my glare. I never jumped off the ledge. When George first joined the diving team, I couldn’t even look at him up there on the board. My palms went sweaty and I felt lightheaded. It had taken years for me to get used to watching George bouncing up and down on the edge of a thirty-foot high rectangle. Now Miriam was diving? We – I – didn’t even know the details of Miriam’s exchange. Like who to call in case of an emergency. I only knew how she liked her coffee and what she ate.
She scrambled ahead of George to the rocks and then waited for him to catch up. Along the way he stubbed his toe and skipped around as he cursed in pain. Miriam made appropriate murmuring sounds, a little cluck in the back of her throat. She looked down at his foot when he made it over to her but he shook his head and brushed her off although I could tell he was pleased. George could be a drama queen.
George took the lead – only climbing to the lower ledge that was about four feet above the water. I couldn’t even describe this as safer. Miriam stood beside him peering down into the water as George pointed out the flat sheaf of shale rock to the right she would want to avoid as she threw herself over the edge. That would be from experience. At one time or another that rock had sheared the skin of every one of my siblings except for me. And that was not out of prowess – just avoidance. I never dove and in my seventeen years I have heard every word there is to describe my cowardice.
Miriam placed her arms over her head with her palms together like a beginner ballet student except her legs were together and her feet pointed out. Without waiting for George to correct her she toddled towards the edge and jumped off. I winced as she hit the water belly first.
When she came up, she was laughing although her chest and neck were red from either the cold or the impact or both. She looked towards me and waved and I waved back hoping the pain would dissuade her from any more diving. George stood with his hands on his slender hips- his bathing suit hung dangerously low – and shook his head from side to side.
She yelled up from the water, “Show me George.”
And George, as effortlessly as breathing, made a graceful arc into the water. Miriam waited for him to surface and when he did she held up her arms in the victory position.
They continued like this for what must have been another hour because I dozed off and when I woke and checked my watch I had less than thirty minutes to get to work. Before I left, Miriam insisted I watch her dive again. Her form had improved (or maybe changed was a better word) so that while she didn’t look like a demented ballerina, she now looked like someone with scoliosis.
* * *
George and Miriam’s diving lessons continued for the rest of the week. The weather had turned oppressively hot so much so that even the water felt tepid. When we weren’t in the water and I wasn’t working, we snuck into the movie theatre in town. The back door faced an alley and a boy who had an unrequited crush on George propped open the door for us on the nights he worked. It didn’t matter what was playing because the theatre had air conditioning. We’d eat the cheese sandwiches on thick sour dough bread that Miriam made us, washed down with a huge coke and some rum that George always provided. For dessert I contributed broken pieces of chocolate dipped waffle cone that were free for the taking from work.
Sitting like that in the dark with George reminded me of all the hours we’d spent as kids in one theatre after another while our parents rehearsed plays. Rehearsing really was a euphemism because in reality my parents spent more time fighting over lines, or fighting over actors or actresses that one accused the other of being attracted to. Not that we always understood it at the time –we only went to the theatre when someone forgot to call the sitter and all of the older kids had plans.
By the time I was born my father’s career had peaked. Years before he had written a play (about a large dysfunctional family, go figure) that had made it to Broadway and ran for nearly three years winning several Tony’s including one for my dad, only to follow it up with four more plays that closed at five months, three months, six weeks and the worst – opening night. That last particularly painful failure happened the day of my fifth birthday. A day my father hasn’t commemorated in twelve years unless you count him locking himself in his study to drink an entire bottle of Jack Daniels.
After that, the offers were few and far between and so he took to the road where obscure small towns filled with would be theatergoers afraid to venture to the big city were more receptive to his work and he reveled in their attentions, reluctant to relinquish the spotlight.
But an odd thing happened during that time. My mother’s career mysteriously revived after she took a role as a crazy innkeeper in one of those stupid teen slasher movies that (surprise, surprise) made millions of dollars and my mother a “cult” actress. She wasn’t quite in the John Waters league of quirky, but she was getting there. All of a sudden she was the one fielding offers and leaving for months at a time. And that was when my dad unexpectedly took a position as head of the theatre department at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs – about three hours north of where we lived. It meant he was gone, living in some rented room, four usually five out of the seven days of the week. We were never invited to visit and we never asked. In terms of parental guidance, wolves may as well have raised George and me.
* * *
On Sunday evening, after we’d sat through a double creature feature of Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, it was close to midnight and still 95 degrees according to the digital time and temperature clock on the bank across the street from the theatre on Main Street. George suggested swimming. Too lazy to go into the house we cut through the now down trodden path to the pond and stripped down to our underwear.
Well I did, anyway. George and Miriam pranced like naked toddlers to the water while I, despite my rum buzz, felt like their maiden aunt standing in my bra and panties.
When George yelled, “Take it off for Christ-sakes, Amy and get in!” I shivered but managed to undo my bra and toss it onto the ground along with my underpants as soon as they both disappeared underwater.
The water over my bare skin was…. indescribable. How could a barrier of Lycra make such a difference in how it felt to swim unencumbered? This was nearly as delicious as the technique I’d perfected in the bath (with the door double locked) involving the faucets turned on full blast. Almost.
I went under and opened my eyes. Through the cloudy haze of moonlight that spilled through the trees I could make out a flash of leg in front of me. I swam towards it only to have it disappear. When I popped up to the surface, it took me a moment to find George and Miriam. They were standing on the lower ledge, Miriam poised to dive first.
I was sober enough to think: be careful, but not enough to yell out to her. I’d noticed the raw skin and accumulation of deep scratches along her arms and legs from the rock. I’d insisted she put salve on some of the worst and then I had to help her apply it because she couldn’t reach them. Her diving had not improved much in a week and so she hit the water with another grand belly flop. When she surfaced, she swam over to where I was treading water and we both turned to watch George dive.
“God damn! I haven’t seen such a pathetic excuse for manhood in a long time!”
I spun around. The voice came from the bank and belonged to our brother Finn.
George flipped him the bird and laughed as I called out “Finn?”
He didn’t answer. Just stripped off his clothes and climbed up to meet George. They fake tussled for a moment – their strong limbs and smooth torsos entangled and made paler than they were by the moonlight – before they fell into the water still holding onto each other.
I swam over to them and then was pulled underneath by a tug on my leg. I hadn’t had time to take a breath and I fought harder than usual, kicking someone in the groin, with my toes I felt the curl of pubic hair and tuberous flesh and I instantly recoiled. Growing up with brothers was like living inside a boy’s locker room and I was used to seeing (and smelling) a lot, but physical contact was another thing. It wasn’t until I came up gagging, my throat and nose burning from inhaled water that I realized what I’d done.
“Nice to see you too,” Finn said although through his scowl I could tell he wasn’t that hurt.
“What the hell are you doing home?” George asked as he filled his mouth with water and spit it at Finn barely missing his left ear. “It’s not the end of August yet, is it?”
Finn shook his head and said without explanation. “I felt like cutting it short.”
“Did dad come with you?” I asked.
“Nope.” Finn looked past me to Miriam.
I turned and motioned for her to join us. “Miriam, this is our brother Finn.”
Miriam swam closer. “Finn,” she said demurely, “hello.”
I turned to Finn, “Finn, Miriam.”
He flicked water at George before he said, “I know who she is.”
I looked at Finn and made a face like don’t be a rude shit but he didn’t get it. He oozed charm without trying, even when he was being a jerk. In that instant it struck me that Finn reminded me a lot of our father. He continued to ignore my pointed stare. Instead he shouted to George, “Race you to the high ledge.” And they were off.
“Weird,” I said out loud more to myself than Miriam. I had never known Finn to miss an opportunity to impress a girl. Or maybe this was all part of his game. Who knew?
“Weed?” Miriam repeated incorrectly in an attempt to understand the word. She mispronounced it a few more times but I ignored her, I didn’t feel like playing translator right now. She gave up and dipped her head back so her face was level with the water. Her hair fanned out around her like seaweed.
I was getting tired of treading water so I swam over to where I could stand on a rock. The water lapped over my breasts as they floated on top of the surface and I folded my arms in an attempt at modesty. Miriam didn’t follow me. She was watching my brothers clown around on the high ledge, probably still pondering the meaning of the word weird. Let’s see, what examples could I give her that she would understand? My life, her presence in our house, or my brothers up on that ledge? George hung back while Finn hot dogged it, one set of toes curled around rock, his calf muscles taut, while he dangled the other leg over the side like he was going to fall. His arms made windmills while from his mouth came a whoop –whoop -whooping sound.
When Finn did finally dive, it was expert but not as elegant as George. I couldn’t see the expression on Miriam’s face but she clapped. Finn stayed in the water near Miriam and shouted insults to George until he jumped in – a major cannonball that drenched us all. I waited until the water cleared and George and Finn climbed back up on the ledge and then I said goodnight to Miriam.
Her mouth turned down into a little pout but she didn’t try and stop me from leaving. On the bank I skipped over my bra and underwear entirely and pulled on my t-shirt and shorts as fast as I could. I took a quick look back and felt a little guilty. Finn and George were ignoring Miriam, although either she didn’t mind or didn’t notice. I hesitated a second and then fatigue settled on me like King Kong himself and I dragged myself back to the house, dropped into bed in my wet clothes, and fell into a hard dreamless sleep.
* * *
When I woke, it was almost twelve. There was a dull ache behind my eyes from the heat and humidity. I felt like I did when I had a fever except I wasn’t sick. Under my arms and in the folds of my shorts the fabric was still damp from the night before. I lay there for a little while and then got out of bed. As I got close to my mother’s room, I heard Finn’s voice and my mother’s but I couldn’t make out the words. The only thing I clearly heard was when Finn raised his voice and said, “I don’t feel bad about a damn thing.”
One of my mother’s scarves was tied around the doorknob; the tail of another was caught in the door from the other side. I reached out and fingered the silk while I waited. I smelled cigarettes and I imagined the two of them sharing a smoke in silence. Finn was the only one of us, besides mom, that smoked. I shifted my weight on my feet. I don’t know why I just didn’t go in and join them, it had to be the youngest child thing in me that preferred to get my information the sneaky way.
Eventually, tired of waiting and in need of caffeine, I went down into the kitchen. There was an empty pot of coffee and the remains of a jam smeared English muffin on the counter. On the kitchen table was a pile of mail: Mostly junk, a few bills and on the top something from the University of New Hampshire for George. I wondered who was going to be taking George to school at the end of the summer. I made another pot and was waiting on the back porch steps outside the kitchen door for the coffee to brew when I heard a door slam from upstairs and then Finn appeared in the kitchen. He was angrily shoving his feet into sneakers as he hopped into the kitchen. When he saw me on the steps he growled, “Move.”
“Say please.” I couldn’t resist.
“Say fuck you,” Finn retorted as he side stepped around me and took off down the gravel drive in a slow jog. For some reason it reminded me of when he would train for crew in the preseason by jogging with a back pack filled with bricks. Today, he didn’t have the backpack but he did have on his old Nyack Lacrosse jersey and a pair of blue, bleach-stained athletic shorts I’d found when I cleared out the drawers in his room for Miriam. I’d dumped everything in the basement laundry. Interesting that Finn should need to find those things. It could only mean one thing: he’d come home without any of his belongings. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
I had just poured myself a cup of coffee and returned to the back step when Miriam appeared in the middle of the back yard. “You are here,” she said, as if I had asked her to point out my location on a map.
I nodded and lifted the mug to my lips. Miriam moved several steps closer and stretched her arms up towards the sun with a little moan. “Everything it hurts today.”
“Too much diving,” I said not bothering to correct her English.
Miriam smiled showing all her teeth. “But I’m getting better?”
I nodded as I swallowed my coffee. “Did you guys stay up late?”
Miriam frowned and gave a petite shrug. I wondered if Finn continued being a jerk. I was surprised when she said, “George went to bed – but I stayed swimming with Finn.”
“Really?” I said. I shouldn’t be surprised. I had never known my brother to go for long without some girl draped all over him. High School had been a revolving door of females in all shapes and sizes. There wasn’t what I would call a definitive Finn type before Holly. Yet she of all of them had been really non-descript with long brown hair parted in the middle, flowing paisley tops and jeans with holes in the knees. Unlike the others who had a penchant for Love’s Baby Soft perfume and Bonne Bell lip-gloss, Holly had been bare of any excessive girliness. I remember one time they had given me a ride home from school in Holly’s cramped little MG. I had to practically sit on the stick shift wedged between Holly and Finn’s shoulders. To this day I can recall how Holly had smelled like handfuls of dirt from the garden. Not unpleasant, just not flowery. Would he really go for Miriam? Or she for him?
Miriam, who had previously been looking out towards the woods turned to me and said sharply, “What is it?”
“I’m surprised, that’s all. Finn was acting a little …” I waved a hand in front of my face. “Forget it.” I thought of his greeting to me this morning or using the word weird but instead I just added, “He was in no mood this morning – that’s for sure.”
She looked bored at the mention of Finn’s mood. “He’s awake?”
“Jogging,” I said and pointed in the direction of the driveway.
Miriam pursed her lips and looked up at the sky. “Let’s go get the George, I need more practice.”
The George? I liked that. It made him sound important. Out of earshot of Miriam I would refer to my brother as The George. I rose slowly and Miriam followed me back into the house. I looked at the clock on the wall. I had to be at work in three hours – what else was there to do until then but swim?
* * *
In the beginning Finn’s arrival had no impact on our daily makeshift schedule of swimming, work (for me), and movies. We barely saw him and so I dubbed him the vampire – only coming out of his room when he knew we’d all gone to bed. The first night Finn was home he had bunked in with George. The next day he moved into Kate’s room despite the large hole that squirrels had chewed in the baseboard molding (entry had been gained through the porch roof eaves below the window) and was never properly repaired. George and I had cleaned up the squirrel crap, shoved steel wool pads in the hole (a trick I learned when mice infested the pantry – apparently they won’t chew steel wool) and then nailed a two by four over the mess and closed the door.
The only reason we knew he’d moved in was because that night when we’d gotten back from the movies there were piles of trash that lined the hall blocking access to my room. Obviously he had done some house cleaning. George slouched against the wall and watched silently as I kicked the bags out of the way and slammed my bedroom door. I’d be damned if I was going to have Finn waltz back in here without telling me what was going on. Especially since out of the blue, Miriam told us that Finn would not be going back to Boston where he lived and worked. As she put it, he told her the night before that he was taking an “absence.”
Ever since Finn dropped out of Boston College his sophomore year he had worked construction, but he had a habit of losing jobs. He drank too much and then didn’t show up for work. So Finn’s “absence” could easily have been a decision made for him, not by him. Even knowing that about Finn didn’t make it any better when Miriam told us. George looked like he wished he could be any other place in the world, and even though there were some things I wanted to know, there were more things I didn’t want answers for– not yet anyway – and especially not through Miriam.
After a few nights of lying awake and listening to the door across the hall open and close, I decided the time was right to confront Finn. I gave him a five-minute lead before I snuck out of my room. Unusually cool air swept through the upstairs hall, and I shivered in my tank top and shorts. The heat had finally broken at night although from past summers I knew the days would keep the water warm for swimming – at least for now.
As I made my way downstairs I smelled cigarette smoke. Finn must have been meeting my mother every night when she got back from the city. I walked toward the only source of light in the house and stopped just shy of the doorway. Finn and Miriam sat across from each other at the kitchen table, smoking, the chipped blue willow teapot between them. Finn’s head was bowed, his chin tucked towards his chest, the hand with the cigarette dangled over the edge of the table. His expression could have gone either way – boyish shyness or flirting. My money was on the second option. I stepped back even further, afraid they would see me. Although they weren’t doing anything wrong, the scene seemed too intimate, even more intimate than swimming nude in the pond that first night. Finn said something and Miriam laughed and then I heard a chair scrape across the floor and I went running back upstairs into George’s room.
George slept spread eagled on the same twin bed he’s had since grade school. His arms and legs hung off the sides. I curled on the floor next to him and tugged on his hand. “George – wake up.”
He moaned. I tugged again. “George, wake up!”
“Not until you wake up.”
“Pest – what the hell is it?”
“Finn and Miriam are down in the kitchen.”
“Alert the media.”
“Fuck, Amy – were they naked?”
I sighed. “Why do you think Finn left dad in the middle of the trip?”
“He finally grew some balls?” He threw an arm across his eyes and mumbled, “Get me another blanket, would you?”
“Only if you talk to me.”
“Why can’t you be a moody teenager and go in your room and crank some Nirvana?” He lamely hummed a bar of “Teen Spirit.”
“George, I’m warning you! Talk!”
Exasperated I said louder than I intended, “Pick one: Finn, Finn or Finn!”
George covered his head with his pillow and I pulled it off and tossed it on the floor. George rolled over onto his side and reluctantly opened one eye. “All that Finn told me was that dad had other interests and so he just decided to come home.”
“You mean a girlfriend?’
“I don’t know,” George said softly.
George was a horrible liar. “Yes you do! Why are you protecting him all of a sudden?”
He barked, “That’s a good one – who the hell do you think I’m trying to protect here?”
“Don’t do me any favors, please.” More to myself than George I said, “Why didn’t dad stop Finn?”
“What’s dad going to do to stop him?” George touched my shoulder. “Amy, why don’t you ask Finn yourself if you don’t believe me?” He tried to grab the pillow back. “Let me sleep.”
I shrugged him off and pulled my knees up to my chest and hugged them tightly. I looked down at the floor where a pile of wet swim trunks and a towel were probably getting moldy. I nudged it with my toe. Soaking wet. I thought about getting in touch with Kate to find out if she’d seen dad like they’d planned, but I didn’t really want to have to go through her. Kate, ever the oldest, would only talk down to me in that way she always did when she thought she needed to impart an important life lesson. I’m sure she could explain away dad’s “other interest” enough to make me feel like a fool. “Have you talked to mom?” I asked.
“Sort of,” he growled. “Yesterday afternoon when I bummed a twenty.”
I sighed; money reminded me that we needed groceries. I said this to George and he said, “Now? Seriously Amy, you need to get a life.”
Just how was I going to do that? I looked around George’s hole of a room and grabbed the olive green and gold striped afghan from off the desk chair and tossed it on top of George’s head. Our grandmother had made one for each of us; mine was orange, purple and yellow like Easter dye gone bad. He mumbled something from beneath the pile of acrylic, but I didn’t stick around to listen.
* * *
I can’t remember specifically how the idea of a dinner party came about. We were at the grocery store, Miriam and I, and she came around the corner with a gorgeous pile of deep purple grapes in her hand and a frozen container of daiquiri mix and the next thing you knew in our cart we had several steaks, cheese, pears, butter, garlic, leaf lettuce and a few baguettes and were planning a party. It was to be a proper dinner, Miriam insisted, one where we dressed up and ate at the table and used napkins.
The afternoon of the dinner party I skipped out on swimming and stayed behind to make a cake even though I was the absolute worst person for the task. I read and re-read the directions on the box until I was confident enough to begin. Even if I screwed up it was better than the alternative activity. The novelty of Miriam’s diving lessons had finally worn off.
Before she left, Miriam helped clean the dining room. We drew back the drapes and opened the windows. On the sideboard I placed a vase of creamy hydrangeas from the old bushes that circled the foundation of the house. I cleared off the table then washed the dusty lace cloth and hung it on the line to dry in the sun. When the cloth was ready, I planned to set the table with the bone white china plates and mismatched etched glass goblets I’d found on the top shelf in the pantry.
A week had passed since I’d spied on Miriam and Finn in the kitchen. I tried to ignore the sound of Finn haunting the halls long after we’d all gone to bed. He remained as absent as ever during the day and I had come to the conclusion that maybe George was right – I needed a life other than the one I invented in my head.
The heat was back. Sweat trickled down my back and between my breasts and I regretted my decision not to go swimming. I chewed on ice as I waited to take the cake out of the oven. This last bit of summer made me sad, the days were waning. Soon George would leave, school would start, my mother’s play would be over and she would be forced to make an attempt at parenting until her next job came along. And what about Finn?
That evening the purple sunset cast shadows around the room as I lighted candles. Finn teased George relentlessly about his clothes. Under orders to dress up, George had found (god only knows where) a wrinkled pair of herringbone pants and a mustard yellow button down shirt topped off with one of our father’s old tuxedo jackets. He paired the ankle length pants with low black converse sans socks. He smelled funny but I decided not to say anything since Finn, in pressed khaki’s and a deep red bowling shirt that said “Ralph” over the left breast pocket, had greeted him by saying, “You are the least stylish homo I know.”
That prompted George to sulk a moment by the drink cart I had set up. He poured himself a glass of the leftover rum from the daiquiris and downed it in a swallow before elbowing Finn in the stomach. Laughing maniacally, Finn grabbed the waistband of George’s belt and was about to give him a wedgie when Miriam entered the room. They stopped scuffling and Finn stumbled away from George. I turned around to see Miriam catch Finn by the arm. George yelled, “Let him fall,” then he hesitated, suspending us all for a second, before he grinned and I found myself laughing a little too loudly in relief.
Maybe my reaction was because of the high color in Finn’s face that hadn’t been there before as Miriam let him go. But more likely it was because wrapped around Miriam’s torso was one of my mother’s scarves. She had tied it twice around and knotted it in the front. It bared a sliver of belly below which she wore a black velvet skirt that touched her ankles. It was the most daringly sexy thing I had ever seen on someone my own age – and it belonged to my mother. On her wrist was a rope of pearls that she had wound around several times, her hair was loosely knotted at the nape of her neck. In contrast, my sleeveless black dress that I had considered to be slightly Audrey Hepburn- like now seemed cheap and constricting.
George began to hum and Finn remained speechless looking everywhere in the room except at Miriam. It was funny that we all seemed shy now that we were dressed in something other than bathing suits or less. What had once been a sophisticated and fun idea seemed all the more like play-acting when I said, “Let’s start off with some drinks.”
Eagerly we tossed aside dinner party etiquette and downed the first pitcher of daiquiris and then a second and started on a third. By that time Miriam’s legs were propped on the chair next to her and her velvet skirt was up around her thighs. I had kicked off my heels and George abandoned his hideous shirt and wore the tuxedo jacket over his bare chest. Finn, who had drunk copious amounts of alcohol, at a faster rate then the rest of us, was quickly becoming the drunkest of us all. He rested his head on his arms on top of the table.
“Doesn’t a dinner party have food?” George asked.
“You look like a rock star,” Miriam said to George ignoring his question.
George did a little air guitar for Miriam’s benefit.
Finn lifted his head off the table and enunciated very slowly, “I am hungry.”
I stood quickly, too quickly. My vision blurred and my tongue felt thick and awkward in my mouth. I sat back down to wait out the double vision. I wasn’t aware that Miriam had left the room but when she returned she had the plate of pears, grapes, cheese and one of the baguettes. We swarmed the food until there was nothing left but the stems and lightly nibbled innards of the pears.
The bread and cheese had almost an instantaneous effect on me. Maybe it was the booze that gave me courage or maybe I just told myself it did. When I finished chewing and swallowing, I looked across the table at Miriam and said, “I didn’t realize you and my mother were close.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw that Finn’s head swiveled in Miriam’s direction.
When Miriam looked confused I gestured with a knife, “Your top,” I clarified. “It’s her scarf isn’t it?”
She nodded quickly. “Is it a problem?”
“Amy,” George said quietly.
“Not mine.” I shrugged, refusing to acknowledge George. “I mean, you mentioned the scarves before so you must like them, right?” I picked up my glass and set it back down without drinking. “Finn seems to like it.”
“Amy, what do you mean?” Miriam’s brow was wrinkled and she looked genuinely upset. She glanced at Finn but he seemed unable or unwilling to meet her gaze. I was sorry the words left my mouth but it was too late.
George smiled slowly. “Don’t listen to her. She’s had too much to drink.” Miriam didn’t really look like she believed George but she returned the smile anyway.
“How do you know what I do and do not mean?” I asked George. “Weren’t you the one who told me to ask Finn?”
“Then ask Finn and stop being a bitch.” George had said the word bitch so softly I wasn’t sure I heard him. Then he stood up and announced to us before he left the room, “I’m going to put the steaks in the broiler.”
My heart was thudding in my ears when I turned to Finn. “When is dad coming home?”
He looked down at his plate.
“Come on Finn, you have to answer me,” I cried. “Why did you leave early?”
Miriam shifted in her seat and leaned towards Finn. “Tell her,” she said quickly.
Before I really processed that Miriam knew something about my family that I did not, she followed George out of the room.
Finn finally looked at me and said, “He’s not coming home.”
I watched his face waiting for something more but there was nothing so I asked, “Not, as in never?”
He shrugged and twisted his body so his legs were stretched out to the side. I stared at the name embroidered on his pocket while I waited for his answer. My eyes followed the curly script: R – A – L – P – H. Eventually he said, “He’ll show up again. At some point.”
It seemed, after all of our father’s absences, that the information I had pushed Finn for was at best, anticlimactic. “Mom knows?”
Finn sighed and rolled his eyes at me like I was the stupidest human being in the world. “I don’t think he hides anything from her.” He cleared his throat. “She was the one who told me that Miriam is the daughter of one of dad’s friends.”
My cognitive abilities were obviously shot because I was totally confused. “What are you talking about? What friend of dad’s?” Finn was silent until it dawned on me what he meant by the euphemism. I leaned back in my chair and stared at my lap. “Shit.”
When I looked up again, Finn was rubbing his face with both hands. In a muffled voice he said, “It’s not Miriam’s fault. Dad….” He paused and looked over at me like he was in pain. Finn was not your man if you were having an emotional crisis. Finally he mumbled, “Miriam didn’t know who we were until she got here.” He stalled by loudly clearing his throat. When he was done he said, “Think about it Amy, we’re the same as Miriam. I mean whoever dad is doing-”
I cut him off. “I get it. Except I don’t think Mom is about to ship us off to live with one of them…”
Finn laughed, “Don’t count on it.”
I figured only he could joke about something like that because he was the one who was closest to mom. He wasn’t in danger of falling out of her graces no matter what he did, and in fact she seemed to care more about him than the rest of us no matter what he said or did.
Secretly I started hoping that Finn had formulated a plan to get rid of Miriam. Because I didn’t want to be responsible for showing her the door and incurring the wrath of our father. Even after everything I now knew, I had to admit that I had grown to like Miriam.
“So what do we do now?” I asked.
“You mean with Miriam?”
“Nothing. We do nothing.” There was a slight hint of a challenge in his voice.
“How long do we wait?” I asked.
“The thing about you Amy is…” Finn explained like I was a small child. “You need to stop waiting.”
I folded my arms across my chest. I could hear Miriam and George laughing in the kitchen, fat from the steak popping and sizzling in the broiler and silverware clattering in the sink. I thought about how George said that Finn was the coward among us – that he would never challenge dad- so it was logical that he wouldn’t challenge Miriam’s place with us. It was obvious I was getting nowhere with Finn. Suddenly I remembered the package of love letters I had found under his mattress. I pushed back my chair and said, “I’ll be right back.”
I could see Finn tense, he was all coiled up like he might need to spring into action at any minute. In his eyes there was fear and then surprise when I headed upstairs and not in the direction of the kitchen. He must have thought I was going to drag Miriam out here and have it out. When I returned from my room with Holly’s letters, he was slumped in his chair with his eyes closed.
“Here.” I dumped them in his lap. He opened his eyes and fumbled with the rubber band as he squinted at the handwriting.
As soon as he recognized them he said, “What the fuck? Where did you get these?” The rubber band snapped as he extricated an envelope and unfolded a letter. He held the paper up close in front of his face, his mouth moved but he made no sound as he read. Finn pulled out several more and continued to read. I realized as I watched a bevy of transparent shifting emotions flit cross across his face that I had been wrong about love. It was not a linear thing with a beginning, middle and (sometimes) an end. Perhaps love was just a myth or as simple as the desire not to be alone. That desire could justify anything – what else could explain how my parents lived as they did?
Finn placed the bundle of letters on the table. He looked like an old man beaten down by default; the legacy of our father was his and his alone. His fingers traced the rectangle of the envelope and then he dropped his hands in his lap. “You can’t fix everything.”
I blushed with embarrassment that he thought I was trying to rekindle a high school romance for him. “That’s not what I was trying to do.”
He shook his head and shoved the letters away from him. “I mean about dad, about me and dad. It’s not your problem to fix.”
“Tell me what the problem is!” I shouted with frustration. “I don’t even know. I know nothing except you went away with dad and now you’re home early.” I leaned across the table. “Please, tell me.”
His eyes darted around the room as if he were looking for a place to settle where I didn’t exist. Finally, he sighed and said, “I had too much to drink.”
I slid the remainder of my plate towards him – a crust of bread and a trio of grapes. “Here – eat this.”
Finn’s lips were twisted together like he’d tasted something sour. “Not tonight, with dad.” Finn got up and grabbed randomly at a bottle on the liquor cart and poured what was left into his glass. Before he screwed the cap on, he offered the empty bottle to me. Confused, I shook my head. I noticed his hand shook as he set the bottle on the table and finished his drink in a swallow. “I got loaded and told dad I wasn’t going to be his witness anymore. That he could fuck anyone he wanted but I wasn’t going to sit there and watch him.”
George had been wrong. Finn wasn’t a total coward, although apparently he needed alcohol to work as a truth serum. “What did dad say?”
“He asked me to come outside with him and talk it out like a man.” Finn looked into his empty glass, seemed to consider refilling it, and then set it down on the table. “So I did.”
“Was the girlfriend there?”
“We were waiting for her to join us.” Finn said. “Unfortunately she arrived just as I knocked dad to the ground. Even though I was trying to help him up, she came over and took his arm and told me if I didn’t leave immediately, she was going to call the police.”
I exhaled as the enormity of what Finn said washed over me. “You hit dad? Finn? Really?”
He sunk back down into his chair at the table and cradled his head with his hands. “I didn’t mean to; I sort of pushed him. He was trying to tell me that he needed to take this chance at love – some shit like that – that he didn’t want to lose me, to lose any of us.” Finn’s face was contorted with anguish. “As if I didn’t fucking know that dad fell in love constantly,” he laughed and looked at me for confirmation. “I mean, aren’t I right? He’s always fucking someone. Why was this time so different?”
I tried to put that information aside. “Did you say that to him?”
By his shrug I guessed that he hadn’t shown that much courage. “He wanted me to come back and tell all of you how happy he was. He was using me! It was fucking selfish lying bullshit, Amy; I just wanted him to shut the fuck up. So I pushed him back a little,” he demonstrated with his hands palms out “I thought it was a little, I don’t know. He stumbled and Ana Sophia came running over and …and the next thing you knew I was fucked.”
Physically Finn and Dad were probably evenly matched. What must it have felt like? The thought of it made me dizzy, I could see it – Finn pushing him down, the panic when he’d realized what he’d done. “Dad didn’t stand up for you? Didn’t he tell her she had it all wrong?”
Finn squeezed his eyes shut tight and then opened them blinking several times before he answered, “No.” Whatever he had remembered just then he wasn’t going to share. After a long pause where I pondered the fact that my father lacked the capacity to be a parent let alone a decent human being, Finn said, “I’m going to stay here for a while with George gone soon…” He trailed off.
I considered Finn in this new role of provider and protector and it was hard to imagine – then again people changed. “What will you do?” I asked.
“Hopefully something different.”
Finn’s answer surprised me. I didn’t know whether he meant different from my father or different from what he was doing in Boston. In the end I decided that it didn’t really matter which question he answered.
I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath until George walked back in the room and tossed a baguette like a football at Finn. It bounced off his shoulder and fell to the floor. They were miscreants masquerading as humans. Finn picked it up and threw it back at George who caught it with one hand. Behind George, Miriam twisted her body shielding a platter of steaks and a bowl of salad.
The savages managed to break the tension and we sat down and ate the dinner. It seemed like the simplest solution. After all, there was nothing else to do, was there? While I pushed the food around my plate, I remembered how Miriam studied our family pictures when she first got here. I thought it was envy on her part but now I imagined it was something else.
I should have stopped drinking when I’d sobered the first time around. Instead, along with the berries in amaretto over the cake, I indulged in some kaluha while the others had cognac. By then, we were so drunk and it was so hot in the house we’d moved to the backyard. I reclined in a lawn chair while I watched Miriam, George, and Finn attempt to play soccer.
I tried closing my eyes but everything spun around so much I was forced to open them. When I did, Finn towered over me swaying from side to side. “Don’t drink anymore,” he said, spittle caught in the corners of his mouth. His eyes were so bloodshot they looked like they were bleeding. “I’m serious, don’t drink,” he repeated.
I moaned and shielded my eyes from his constant swaying. I didn’t know what was worse – eyes closed or open. “Go away,” I said and tried to shoo Finn back to the game. Because I suddenly seemed incapable of stringing together a sentence, all I could think was: Pot. Kettle. Black.
Miriam had her skirt tied up between her legs as she ran down the yard with the ball. She kicked and missed and fell on her face laughing. Her skirt had come undone from its knot and billowed out around her like an opened parachute. When Finn saw this he ran to her and helped her up. I watched them for signs of something else but I didn’t trust my instincts. I had been wrong about so much.
“I’m hot,” George announced as he dropped his tuxedo jacket on the ground by my feet. “We need water.”
“Swimming!” Miriam sighed as if Jesus had suggested it.
Down at the water everyone seemed to strip without thought – at least down to his or her underpants. However my sense of modesty in front of my brothers made me keep on my bra. I knew it was different for Miriam, it always would be. Yet tonight she surprised me by keeping my mother’s scarf tied around her chest and for once I wished she’d taken it all off.
The water seemed to sober me just enough to know how drunk I really was, but it didn’t have that effect on the others. I floated on my back with my eyes closed but it still made me dizzy. When I opened them I saw that Miriam had followed Finn and George to the highest ledge. George dove first. Finn and Miriam stood side-by-side giggling like new friends on the playground. When George popped up I swam over to him. “Can she do that?”
“Now or never,” he answered.
“What does that mean?”
George looked up at the sky like he was exasperated by my questions. “It’ll be fine, Amy, really.”
I stared at George as he taunted Miriam with chicken calls. Finn belted out, “Come fly with me, come fly, come fly away,” in a halfway decent Sinatra imitation.
All at once I knew I was going to be sick. I coughed and bile shot up into my mouth. I spit it out into the water and swam to the bank. When I got out, I grabbed my dress and jammed it back over my head and down my hips without doing up the zipper. The fabric clung to my wet skin like tissue paper but I would be damned if I was going to be naked and puking. I broke out in a sweat and barely made it to the bushes before I threw up everything I’d eaten that evening and then some. It was only when I was done coughing and my stomach stopped cramping up that I turned around just in time to see Miriam follow Finn into the water. The tails of the scarf fluttered in the breeze like a fragile pair of wings.
Her execution of the dive sucked but she came up sputtering and triumphant. My legs trembled and I sunk down onto the ground and put my head between my knees. I smelled awful, my mouth tasted like pond scum, and there was spittle on the front of my dress, but at least my stomach was settling down. My eyes and nose ran from vomiting and I wiped at my face with the back of my hand drawing away a long thin line of mucus.
When I was able, I got up and walked back down to where my brothers and Miriam were playing in the water. There were multiple rounds of high fives and then Miriam noticed me first standing there watching them. She seemed skittish as she avoided looking me in the eye by tucking her chin down and studying the water.
I took the path to the diving spot. As I passed the lower ledge and kept climbing George and Finn called out to me but I squared my shoulders back in an attempt at some sort of dignity and refused to acknowledge them. My entire body felt like the morning after when it was still the night before and that was never a good thing. When I stepped out onto the ledge, I had no idea what I was doing and so I kept my eyes focused on the trees and the light from the moon. I had a sudden overwhelming urge to see my mother. It was an odd sensation. I couldn’t remember the last time I had purposely sought her out. I was so accustomed to turning to George when I was in need. Now here I was drunk, but not drunk enough that I didn’t realize I was about to do something incredibly stupid and I wanted my mommy. My legs trembled again and I took a deep breath and planted my feet further apart in a power stance while I contracted my muscles. I bent over at the waist and stretched my spine, the metal tines of the zipper scraped against by skin but I wasn’t about to take the dress off.
A bat flew out of the trees close to my face and I flinched and pressed back as flat as I could against the shale wall as another and then another and another followed. When they were gone, I gradually inched closer to the edge and felt with my toes until a rock I dislodged went skittering over the side. George and Finn were still yelling something at me but my heart was thudding so loudly in my ears I couldn’t hear them if I wanted to. I did notice that Miriam was now treading water with her head tilted back as she too stared up at me.
I curled my toes around the edge, squeezed my eyes shut so tight I saw sparks, put my arms above my head and jumped. The wind rushed under my dress and forced it up around my waist when I hit the water. Down I went passing through water that was alternately warm, cold and then warm again until my toes touched spongy muck. I pushed off from the bottom at the same time reed like slime twined around my legs. I panicked and groped wildly, spastically at the water as if I could move it out of my way. When my fingers closed around something soft and smooth I opened my eyes and brought my hand up in front of my face. The water was murky from my frantic churning but there was no mistaking the pattern on my mother’s scarf. My eyes stung and I ached to take a breath as pinpricks of electric shocks rippled through my lungs and filled my chest. I waited until I couldn’t take the pain for a second longer and then I kicked as hard as I could and swam towards the surface.