SEPTEMBER 19, 2017
This short story appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 15, Revolution
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THIS WEEK Chelsea thinks she has colitis. Last week it was Lou Gehrig’s disease. She’s pre-med. She calls me every day from California to tell me her symptoms. She weeps about loose stools when her roommate is out of the room. Her roommate has a boyfriend, a bong, a Secret Service nickname. Nobody is kidnapping the roommate. Nobody is kidnapping Chelsea either, because she never leaves her room. Outside there are newspapers, cigar puns on the covers. Outside it’s 72 degrees, and there’s a World Bank protest at the campus center. There’s her father’s head sculpted in papier-mâché. Kids who will be lawyers in five years bang drums and kick a sack made of sand.
I pretend Huma is my daughter. If Huma had accompanied me to Africa last year, I wouldn’t be up until three in the morning looking up dengue virus in the Physicians’ Desk Reference. I wouldn’t have to interrupt a noon meeting to remind Chelsea to go to lab. She cannot miss her labs, even if she’s having diarrhea. There’s got to be a bathroom in the science building, I tell her. She tells me that’s not what the building is called. She hangs up on me, then calls me back a minute later to say she’s sorry.
Huma doesn’t use the bathroom. She comes to work fed, so I never see her snacking. The kitchen brings us snacks — clusters of grapes, low-cholesterol cheese on a round plate. Everything’s round in this house, or oval. I bake cookies for my staff. It started as a joke, but Walter says I’m a natural. He says I can stay on as his pastry chef after Bill’s term is over, which may be sooner than we think. I demur. I don’t want to make tartufo for the Gores.
Between meetings, phone calls, negotiations, I bake. I bake lemon squares. I bake brownies. I overnight them to Chelsea so she has a reason to go to her postal box. Sometimes I enclose a folded article about how college depression can be beaten. Experts recommend exploring the surrounding area, taking day hikes. I wire her money for hiking boots.
“Dad and I will go with you the next time we come out there.”
“The photographers will love that,” she says. “First Family heals in sequoias. Also, please stop sending baked goods. People with colitis shouldn’t eat too much sugar.”
“Give them to Megan,” I say.
“What to Megan?”
“The biscotti I sent yesterday.”
Chelsea starts crying.
“I think Megan gave us bed bugs. Her boyfriend has them.”
“You wanted a roommate.”
“I’m not good at making friends.”
“You get that from me. Do the bites itch?”
I ask Huma to look up exterminators in Palo Alto. She comes back with a list of seven, ranked. We decide to quarantine Megan’s boyfriend until the situation is resolved. I obtain his parents’ address and Huma drafts a thank you note on East Wing stationery. We ask firmly that no one from the family speak to the press about the vermin. If Chelsea had her own boyfriend, we would ask the same.
The exterminator finds mouse droppings, but no bugs. Chelsea decides she has leptospirosis. She checks herself into the campus health center for 36 hours. She spends the entire time, as far as I can tell, watching Buffy. It’s amazing anyone ever checks out.
Bill is keen to hike. He orders a book on Northern California’s secret trails. He still thinks there’s privacy on this earth for us, even now. He’s having Teddy Roosevelt fantasies, roping off national parks in his mind. He wants it to be just the three of us, with helicopters overhead.
“She’s a healthy young woman,” he says. “She should be enjoying herself.”
“Like other young women?”
“In her own way.”
“Huma doesn’t have fun,” I say.
“Huma grew up in Saudi Arabia,” he says. “She thinks leaving the house is fun.”
“It wasn’t like that for her. She went to British schools.”
“Another group of people who really know how to have a good time.”
Bill heads back into his wing, but he’s still on all the TVs in mine.
What was it like for Huma? I ask her. Then I listen. I offer her blondies. She takes one to be polite, leaves most of it on her White House embossed napkin.
“Chelsea doesn’t have the stomach for politics,” I say, “so she’s trying to be a doctor. But her stomach isn’t letting her do that either. It’s my fault.”
“Her stomach is not your fault. I can mail her some breathing CDs.”
“I don’t know if I believe in breathing.”
I believe in God. I believe in universal health care, in microcredit, in cunnilingus, and in dry cleaning. It doesn’t matter what a first lady believes. I’ll arrange a phone session for Chelsea with her father’s pastor. I’ll say she can talk to Huma. Huma lost her father and moved across the world. California isn’t the Middle East. I’ve been to the Middle East. I’ve been to India and Bangladesh, Singapore, Rhodesia. Not anywhere, nowhere in the world, is a woman as free as Chelsea Clinton.
“It’s Zimbabwe now, Mom,” she says. “It hasn’t been Rhodesia since 1980.” She’s taking a class on post-colonial history, another on post-feminist thought. All of her electives are posts. “But I like the idea of being free. I think I’m going to switch my major.”
“You’re going to major in television?”
“It’s actually fascinating. Look what’s happening to Dad.”
I look up. There he is, a poof of white over a rosacea face, like a founding father who got a haircut. A second later, there’s a passport photo of the girl with bangs, then the woman who snitched on her. I’m glad I have no friends. Post-feminism, there’s less of a need.
“And the doctor at the health center said I should get tested for celiac disease. They have to do the tests off campus. Do I have insurance?”
“Everyone should have insurance in this country.”
“Yes, agreed. But do I?”
“Of course you do. What is celiac disease?”
No more cookies, it turns out. No baklava when we’re greeted in Greece. No cornbread at Thanksgiving, no stuffing. She can still eat the turkey, the one that didn’t get pardoned. I’ve stopped watching the news. Walter is teaching me about rice flour, almond paste. We make many meringues now. I whip egg whites till they form soft peaks. Huma says they are delicious.