This piece appears in the upcoming issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books Print Quarterly Journal: The Epistolary Issue, No. 21
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My aunt died recently — I had to go to Pittsburgh for the funeral, a big mess, mainly because of a sudden, debilitating wave of heat — imagine Hoopers of all shapes and sizes, melting on their feet. Not a convenient time to die — late summer in the Rust Belt. I don’t mean to be cavalier; I’m just trying for a little levity at the start of my tale (so maybe don’t begin with aunt death, you are probably thinking).
You didn’t know my aunt, of course. It’s not that I expect you to feel sad, and we weren’t close really, so it isn’t that either. But she didn’t just die of old age; she wasn’t old, for one — it was more complicated, and on the flight back to Paris there was a little goblin I couldn’t shake, the idea that I hadn’t treated her fairly, that there was some unfinished business there. And what better confessor than a pen pal who never responds? But ugh, all this preamble! What I really wanted to get down before bed was this:
The summer after fifth grade, I was nine years old and in love with my swimming teacher, Steve. The best-looking man I had ever seen, Steve lived with his mother in a cul-de-sac off my street, and taught swimming lessons out of his backyard.
I always like to know what people looked like, don’t you? Steve was tall (though it’s true that at the time many adults must have seemed that way) and lean. He had a short, tawny beard that stuck out from a simian face, and hair a shade darker. He drove a maroon pickup truck, and when I saw it, on my street, for example, when I walked with Mrs. Gaja to and from the park in our neighborhood, the sight filled me with intense anticipation (to this day, show me a man with a pickup truck and I will show you sex before anyone expects it).
The other thing happening that summer was that two days a week after ballet class I went home with Katie Robertson, a pretty girl with a high-pitched, wheedling voice, and stayed at her house until my mom could pick me up after work. We spent every one of these afternoons doing the only thing Katie ever wanted to do, which was watch Michael Jackson videos on the enormous screen in the Robertsons’ extremely dark and powerfully air-conditioned home theater. She did the moves along with him, grabbing her crotch with gusto as I watched uncomfortably from my large, black leather chair, shivering and eating candy served by Katie’s mom, who was a kind woman from the American South.
Sometimes, when I think about that summer, it seems like I spent the whole time sitting in that giant chair, the soles of my feet on the cool leather, Michael Jackson’s glowing eyes and eelish jaw floating like a hologram before me. But my heart was always, always (from a young age I have leaned toward preoccupation) in the swimming pool behind Steve’s house, which, despite Steve’s deep, dark, and permanent tan, was never sunny. All around it were tall trees that plunged it into gloom and darkness that had never felt the warming ray of the sun. Not only was the water ice cold, it was also filled with prickly balls that fell from the trees — brown and brittle in the summer, green and rock-hard in the spring.
And that was my whole universe: my house, Katie’s house, swim class, ballet. Weird to think about. That and the sheer endlessness of summer: June and then July, July and then August, an eternity stretching into forever, no end in sight. As for Mr. Robertson, I never saw him, not even a scrap of evidence that he existed. But between you and me, Caroline, and with all due respect for your situation, everyone knows that fathers are irrelevant.
My swim class was small, only five girls including me: two pale sisters, Eva and Siobhan, Priyanka in her baggy suit, myself, and my special enemy, Aya Ben-Ami, the only girl whose mother let her wear a two-piece bathing suit to swim class. In my memory, no one was particularly good or bad at swimming. It’s hard to say what was being taught, exactly. We spent a lot of time doing warm-ups, and stretching before getting in the pool — a lot of standing on the patio and windmilling our arms, while Steve counted slowly to 10.
But you probably have swimming lessons in England, too, or at least have seen them on television, so I won’t go any further down that road. I could spend more time on Aya, I guess; she was, I think, the daughter of Israeli immigrants. She still had her baby fat, but somehow made it look womanly, whorls of dark blond hair at her temples, a charm on a thin gold chain that dipped between her non-breasts. One of her front teeth had a very minor discoloration. Try as I might, I can’t remember her saying one thing of interest all summer.
What else can I say? Have I set the scene? There was a day when we saw Steve’s mom: we were standing on the patio, stretching our sides, or touching our toes, when there was a sudden scrabbling noise from the sliding door to the main house, and like one organism we all turned to watch a big, pale shape emerging — a large woman in a gray night gown holding a thermos in one hand. This was Steve’s mom, undoubtedly, though none of us had ever seen her before.
It was something of a shock, how haggard and unattractive she was, this person who had gestated Steve.
“Mom?” said Steve. “What are you doing?”
“Oh hello girls,” said Steve’s mom, pushing a lock of gray, greasy hair behind her ear, as if she were a perfectly normal hostess, greeting us for a party. “Are you enjoying yourselves?”
“Mom,” said Steve again, more sharply. “Let’s get back inside now.”
We watched, frozen, as he escorted her back into the shadowy room that lay beyond the screen door. Aya, I noticed with irritation, was barely paying attention, picking chunks of foam out of a moth-eaten part of her lime green pool noodle.
When Steve re-emerged, the look on his face was different in a way I could not quite put a name to. Angry? Tired? I couldn’t say. Whatever it was made my heart constrict but also grow; it made my limbs heavy and filled me with power.
“Power,” you say, “is probably not the word I would have used.” But you’re wrong. Power is exactly the word I mean.
Two summers before that one a small brown bird flew into the living room window and fell like a rock to the deck below. It spent the rest of its life (it died before morning) lying in a shoebox I’d lined with cotton balls, fear rising off it like steam.
I dreamed about that bird for three nights in a row when my aunt Dill first came to stay. Do you not think that at least somewhat remarkable?
Dill was my father’s youngest (that summer she was 32, I think) and only unmarried sister. She was having some kind of crisis — that was clear — what exactly I didn’t know, but there were things that would have clued anyone in — the way she came to us shiny-eyed at the airport, with her suitcases full of dirty clothes. I saw it in my mom’s face too, as she extracted grubby socks and underwear and put them in the washer.
The next morning my mother came into my room and sat beside me on the bed.
“We gave Mrs. Gaja the week off,” she said. “Dill is going to take care of you.”
“I know,” I yawned. “You already told me.”
“Well,” said my mom. She looked at me more closely. Sometimes it seemed possible she could see into my brain, into its secret corner, where I kept the tiny altar with the idol of Steve, and the doll shaped like Aya Ben-Ami stuck all over with pins.
“Are you going to be good?” she said, her eyes suddenly serious.
“Yes,” I said.
“Good,” she said. “Because Dill isn’t feeling well.”
“What do you mean she isn’t feeling well?” I asked. Dill always had an air of general disarray, but she had not looked sick, at least not to me.
“She’s…” said my mom, and then she shook her head and started again. “She got some not very good news.”
“What kind of not very good news?”
“It doesn’t matter. Just do what she says.”
“Okay,” I said, and she leaned forward to kiss the part in my hair. Then she got up, left the room, and went to work.
Some not very good news, I thought. It was beyond the parameters of my imagination what not very good news would be to someone like Dill, who was sort of an adult but somehow not really, so I was relieved to find her looking just as she always did that morning, sitting at the breakfast table, buttering a bagel and looking completely normal. She smiled at me and pointed with her knife at the puppet theater that had materialized on the living room floor overnight.
It turned out that Dill had another suitcase, filled with things for a puppet show, actually very beautiful puppets she had made herself out of lace and brocade, and buttons, a collapsible stage and a velvet curtain. I was an audience of one that day, to a puppet show staged by my aunt in my own living room. All the puppets’ voices were my aunt’s, and I could see the top of her head above the curtain on its wooden dowel.
But that was fine. Sit through a puppet show, if that was what Dill wanted, I could do. Because I was not going to be good. I had already made up my mind about how I could use her.
“What do you want to do now?” said Dill breathlessly. She was patting with a napkin at her forehead, which was shiny with sweat.
“Well,” I said.
“What about the Science Center?”
“Oh,” I said. “Um, well, actually, I have a swimming lesson.”
Dill looked up from where she had been disassembling the puppet theater.
“Really? No one said.”
“Yes,” I said. “See?” and pointed to the tote bag that was leaning against the wall, a rolled-up towel peeking out the top. I lifted up my T-shirt to show her the swimsuit I was wearing under my clothes.
“Oh,” said Dill. She looked uncertain. “Maybe I’ll call your mom.”
“Why?” I asked, surprised by my own boldness. We looked at each other, Dill and I.
“Just…” said Dill, and swept her eyes toward the telephone. First rule of child care (obviously no one told Dill): never explain.
“We’re late, actually,” I said. “We should probably go now.”
These words, once they had exited my mouth, sounded obviously false; I was sure I had gone too far, and that Dill would call my bluff. But sometimes life surprises you, and instead Dill said, “Okay, let me get my shoes.
And then I was walking down the sidewalk with my Aunt Dill, feeling the slick of my suit against my skin and marveling at myself. My plan. My capacity for deceit.
But a plan can be a tricky thing when you are nine years old — some parts you see clearly, others not. I could see ahead to put on my suit, to put the towel in the tote bag by the door, but not far enough to Steve’s garden gate, a gate which was always unlocked on the days of the actual swimming lessons, and so it never even occurred to me that it could lock. But I am getting ahead of myself. There is one more little thing I want to tell you before we’re at the gate, and that is that as my Aunt Dill and I walked down my street and turned left onto the cul-de-sac where at the end was Steve’s house, and there was a moment when something weird happened to the sky — it got brighter, somehow, and we were passing a yard full of star jasmine and for a second the whole world seemed magical and full of promise, and Dill, as if the words had leapt from her lips without her meaning them to, said, “Ooooooh, California. Everything smells so good here.”
I looked up, surprised, and saw my aunt’s small, weak, girlish face turned upward to the sky — she had stopped completely on the sidewalk, as if the sky was going to lean down and kiss her on the mouth, and I wondered again about Dill’s not-very-good news, but that was just a little flash of something I did not understand, and I decided to ignore it.
Then we were at Steve’s garden gate, and despite my intense desire for it to stay the same the “Oooooh, California” spell had broken, and my aunt was saying, “Hmmmm, is it usually locked?”
“No,” I said.
“Maybe we should try the front?”
“Okay,” I said, but when I saw Dill go back down the driveway, heading for the path that led to the front door of the main house I said, “Maybe we should just go.”
“Why?” she asked.
“I don’t feel well,” I said.
Dill gave me a long, surprisingly shrewd look.
“Is that true?” she asked.
And I guess what turned out to be true, Caroline, is that I could tell one kind of lie but not another (and as you know, I have been a dissembler from an early age), because the second she asked me I knew I could only answer “no.”
Here’s what’s true: sometimes adults love children because they are the mom or the dad, and I think, actually, for the most part, that’s pretty much it. Any other adult loves you, I mean really loves you, and it might be worthwhile to consider what is going on exactly. My Aunt Dill really loved me! But she loved me like a placeholder, because she did not yet have children of her own. And I loved her too, because at that age you give your love easily.
But I knew it had an expiration date, and that when Dill’s first child was born it would no longer be quite as relevant that I was her favorite niece. But now I bet you’re rolling your cornflower blue eyes — a child can’t know a thing like that. But I would argue that it can — not, maybe, in a way that I could have explained out loud, but in my bones, the same way I knew that if I crawled into her lap to cry, as I did later, she would like it. Though it’s only now that I am older and au pair to two impossibly good-looking French children, that I have known firsthand the pleasure of holding a small, warm, defenseless human being to your breast and brushing away tears from its hot cheeks.
But I’m getting ahead of myself — 10 years ahead!
We rang the doorbell. Dill did.
For a while there was no answer — if he were not at home, I prayed, then we could escape — I could hear the doorbell ring tinnily inside the house. Still there was a tiny unextinguished part of me that thought my plan could still work. Steve could still answer his door, understand in a second why I had come, and winkingly say yes, this is the day for swim class, you can pick her up in an hour.
No one likes to think about what a child thinks will happen in an hour alone with an adult man — but children are manifold creatures! Desire is desire, and at any age it prevails.
Just not that day — one look at the Steve who came to the door was enough to tell you that.
He looked a way I had never seen him look before, like he had pushed up through the earth of an early grave. Hair greasy, skin sallow, bags under his eyes. He was wearing huge, shapeless gray sweatpants and rubbing his face.
He said my name, and not in the way I had imagined him saying it, over and over again under the blankets of my bed.
“What are you doing here?”
I looked at him but couldn’t speak.
“She’s here for her swimming lesson,” said Dill. “Are you the teacher?”
“Yes,” said Steve slowly. “But there’s no class today.”
Both adults looked at me but I remained mute.
“What do you mean?” said Dill. “It’s cancelled?”
“No,” said Steve. “It just isn’t today. Swim class is Tuesday, Thursday.”
He looked at me, and in a teasing, but tired voice, and said, “You know that.”
Dill looked at me uncertainly. My dupe, she was still carrying the tote bag, and then I saw her through Steve’s eyes: a short, thick-necked woman with pasty, unshaven legs bare beneath her wrinkled sundress. I thought of her saying, “Ooooooh California!” when we walked by the star jasmine and the sky did its strange, shimmery move.
Steve and Dill looked at each other, then at me, then away, because it was obvious that I was about to cry. (And I did cry, a lot, later, on the sidewalk walking home, in front of the house, in the moss-colored armchair by my bed — I drenched Dill’s lap with tears, but that’s to be expected, and I know that you, having a reasonably intelligent head on your shoulders must have already moved on. As soon as you saw: swim coach, nine year old, swimming pool, you were thinking: molestation angle. And guess what? You were right.)
Because the next week, or maybe the week after, my mom came into my room with a funny look on her face, sat down on my bed, blew a weird little puff of air out from between her lips, and asked if Steve had ever touched me.
“Touched me?” I asked, thinking of his hand on my hip, his brown feet standing on the floor of the pool, a pale band of white flesh where the strap of sandals went.
“Inappropriately,” she said.
Inappropriately, I thought. My skin prickling all over.
“No,” I said. “Why?”
“A girl in your class,” my mom said, twisting one hand around the other.
“Who?” I asked, but I already knew.
How did you know? you might ask. What did you see?
But no no, Caroline, that’s not what I mean. I hadn’t seen a thing.
“I just got off the phone with her parents,” my mom said, and I didn’t hear what came after Caroline, because a strange thing happened: I started to cry.
I can see you through your window, Caroline, 314 kilometers away, shaking your golden head. “No,” you are saying, “that isn’t strange. A pedophile is always sad or scary, depending on how you look at it.”
To which I say, “Well Caroline, touché, then it’s obvious you haven’t been paying attention at all.”
Swim class was over forever, of course, and Steve went to jail. His mom moved away. A young couple bought their house and had a baby. My mom made me go to a psychologist named Margaret until everyone agreed that not much was happening there, except Margaret and I staring each other down over a battered set of Connect Four.
As for Aya Ben-Ami, that snake in a two-piece swimming suit. Who knows? It was far too many years than I would like to admit until I could think of her without the green-eyed monster rearing its ugly head.
But back to that summer: the upshot of Steve’s arrest was that I had to spend four afternoons a week at Katie Robertson’s house, instead of two. We had grown a little sick of each other, Katie and I, or perhaps had never really liked each other in the first place, and overnight I found I couldn’t stand to be in the home theater, not even for a second, could not stand Michael Jackson’s face grimacing at me in the dark. I played outside, alone, and by played I mean wandered aimlessly by myself through the Robertsons’ backyard, waiting for sixth grade to start.
One afternoon my wanderings took me to a corner of the yard that I had never been to before (though, I mean, it was not an especially big yard, so I’m not quite sure how that’s true) and saw a small wooden cross sticking up out of the ground, next to a big, sickly looking rhododendron. A weird and creepy thing, even if it was only for a cat.
A cat? You say — did I fail to mention? That even before this story begins Katie Robertson was famous at our ballet school for having accidentally stepped on her new kitten and killed it? It’s funny, I meant to put that at the beginning, but now I see that I didn’t, and that there was only some limping description of her voice, and allusion to her attractiveness and no specific details whatsoever. I guess I am not as good a pen pal as I thought. For the record, Katie’s hair was brown, her face sweet and dusted with freckles, her eyes blue and ringed with dark, thick lashes, but there was also a kind of essential whininess to her that somehow made it all less appealing.
But! I am letting it get away from me again! Because it’s not any of those things that I wanted to tell you. It was to the child in the backyard that I wanted to direct your attention — the child looking at the wooden cross in the yard by the big half-dead rhododendron. Now make this girl bigger by eight or 10 years, pack a black dress in her suitcase, make her an au pair, fly her across the Atlantic to Pittsburgh where her aunt will be buried. Make the cross bigger, too, make it stone, make it in a graveyard in a shitty part of town, with a view, across the river, of the casino. Scatter her relatives around the grave, make it a billion degrees, and there you have it: the thing that happens to a family when its youngest daughter dies at 42.
This is the point: my Aunt Dill never had children. All those things I said about placeholders, and just knowing; I’m not ashamed to admit it: I was wrong. Dill never had kids, and in fact it was not a question of love or opportunity, but of pathology. Of physiology. And that raises the question: how come no one told me? Which I asked my mother at the wake.
“I don’t know,” she said, her forehead furrowing: “I guess we thought you knew?”
You thought I knew? That Dill was missing a chromosome? That she “experienced non-working ovaries,” was sterile, that she had a single, horseshoe-shaped kidney on one side of her body? Those are not the kinds of things you can know about someone just by looking at them.
“But you knew she was sick, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” I said, absorbing sweat from my upper lip with a cocktail napkin. The wake was jam-packed, I guess she had a lot of friends, or the room was small. “But I thought she had diabetes.”
“Oh,” said my mom, taking a pack of Kleenex from her bag and passing me one. “Well, she did.”
So that was what that was like. I can only conclude that no one bothers to tell you anything of value when you’re a child, or even when you’re a newly minted adult. What is the age at which people begin to tell you things of consequence? How are you supposed to know, before it’s too late? And more importantly, how much should you rebuke yourself for self-absorption?
Well, Caroline, I think that’s all. The aunt died, I explained why (Turner syndrome is the official name of what she had), the pedophile was jailed, the controversial explanation of the child’s tears implied. I think I can go to bed.
It’s February in Paris. Even the tourists make less noise, and then, because there isn’t as much pressure to put on a show, the real Parisians can come out and do the boring things that grown-ups everywhere have to do. I have seen them, filling prescriptions, pumping gas, buying toilet paper, eating stale little cakes out of plastic bags. I have seen the most glamorous mother in the whole school buying non-fat yogurt at the budget supermarket — I kid you not.
Caroline, we are now only 200 miles from each other, 200 miles as the crow flies. Come and see me some time. May King Faisal’s ghost keep you safe.
Sara Davis lives in Palo Alto, California. Her novel, The Kindertotenlieder, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.