After the storm wiped Adventure from Kerem’s computer, I lived in a state of excited inaction, as though, like the Heathkit, I lacked instructions about what to do next. I avoided Kerem and didn’t go to town to look for his friends. It didn’t even occur to me to find Shelley again. I was consumed by the feeling that something was going to happen, something wonderful, but because I knew it was going to happen I wanted to put it off just a little longer.
“Aren’t you getting behind in your studies?” my grandmother asked.
“We’re taking a break,” I said.
“Oh, a break,” she repeated, as though this were even less plausible than my studies had been in the first place. “Well, a few days away from the Regenzeit boy won’t do you any harm.”
Then it turned out that I had waited too long, and the glorious something I’d been waiting for was no longer mine to enjoy. Mrs. Regenzeit telephoned my grandfather to inform him that Kerem had been arrested for smoking marijuana in the cemetery, that I might be involved too, because I’d been spending so much time with her son, and that she was peaced as hell. “All right,” my grandfather said stiffly, and hung up the phone while Mrs. Regenzeit was still talking. His dislike for the Regenzeits, his outrage at the implication that I could have been responsible for corrupting one of them, and his astonishment at Mrs. Regenzeit’s indelicacy in breaking a ten years’ silence just to tell him so, all together convinced my grandfather that the whole business was the fault of the perfidious Turks. He warned me about falling in with bad company, and told me how important it was to find out what people were really like before you put your trust in them. It was like choosing antiques, he said, some people looked good on the outside but when you opened them up you saw there was just nothing you could do, whereas other people, who didn’t look so good, could be fixed up, and would, with a little work, become solid, usable friends. He patted the arm of the chair on which he sat.
It gave a solid, usable thump. It was all I could do not to remind him that he hadn’t fixed the chair; it had come into the house via my grandmother’s sister, who had donated it because there wasn’t a decent place in the whole house to sit. He forbade me to see Kerem again and that was all.
My grandmother was less convinced of my innocence, and her reproaches were harder to endure. When I said something in her presence, even if it was the most innocent and matter-of-fact statement, for example, that I wasn’t going to the lake because the radio said it would rain, she seemed to break what I had said into its component parts to determine whether the statement was worthy of her trust. If the clouds overhead convinced her that I was justified in staying indoors, or if she happened to have heard the same weather report, she would nod hesitantly, as though she were taking a chance on me despite her better judgment. If, on the other hand, the weather looked fair from where she stood, my grandmother would only shrug, as though to say, who knows what you will do, you, who don’t tell us the truth?
I began to understand certain things my mothers had said about my grandmother. Sometimes, at the end of their frequent though brief conversations, Celeste would grind the telephone receiver back into its cradle and cry out, “That unforgiving so-and-so!” Then it would be Marie’s job to tease from her an account of what had gone wrong, an account that always began the same way, “This time she’s really lost her mind!” I used to think this was just Celeste being her angry self, but that summer I wondered what it would have been like to have my grandmother for a mother, to be the object, again and again of her shrug. It was no wonder my mothers ran away from Thebes, I realized, and in fact, my mothers’ hardness, their self-containedness, their unwillingness to give out information, especially with respect to Richard Ente, all made more sense to me now that I knew what doubt my grandmother was capable of. Her shrug explained my mothers, and it taught me everything I had left to learn about heredity. And heredity, naturally, made me think of Richard Ente. Was it possible that traces of him remained in the people—me—who he had left behind?
One day, when the forecast was fair, and I had no reason in the world not to go to the lake with my uncle, I turned to Charles and asked, “Why did my father run away from Thebes?”
Charles sighed as though he had been expecting the question for a long time. He rolled onto his stomach, baring the tattoo on his right shoulder, Je te frapperai sans colère. “I’ll tell you,” he said, “but you have to keep it to yourself. Promise?”
“Just between you and me, then, your father told me he was going to discover America.”
“America,” I repeated, amazed. We had studied the discovery of America in our history class the year before, and I knew that Christopher Columbus was an Italian, and that he had named the continent for another Italian, Amerigo Vespucci, which, I thought, meant that really it should be called Vespuccia. I said so in class and got laughed at, and afterward Ronald Kaplan taunted me, Ve-spooge-ia, the land of spooge, and I’d been embarrassed. Then something about Leif Eriksson and the Vikings who had perhaps discovered another part of it. My father didn’t fit into either of these stories, so I guessed that Charles meant some other kind of discovery, or maybe some other America, a continent with the same name as ours that nobody had discovered yet, which was a thrilling idea but not probable, given the size of continent and the advanced state of geographical knowledge.
“Did he discover it?” I asked.
“Maybe,” Charles said. “Maybe he did.”
My father had gone to discover America. It’s just the kind of thing an aging hippie might have said before hitting the road, circa 1970, but to me it had a different force: not that of truth, but that of myth. I stood up, brushed the sand from my legs, and dove into the lake, down as far as I could go, beneath the children whose legs hung down like dark branches from the silver overhead.
Charles’s secret was about to get me into a lot of trouble, but I didn’t know it and in fact I had other things on my mind. A few days after our trip to the lake, I went home to New York and found my mothers changed. Celeste wore a cardigan and pants, like an old man; she’d pulled her hair back into a bun, uncovering the whole of a face that looked more and more like my grandfather’s, big, waxy and serious. Marie, meanwhile, had permed her hair into loose curls, and, what I found even more shocking, wore dark-red lipstick that made her look like a film star from the 1940s.
“What happened to your lips?” I asked.
Marie was working for S now, as an assistant to the Quick Styles editor, and already something of the magazine’s glamour had been transferred to her, in the form of narrow black skirts that she bought from the designers at a discount, and little jars of beauty products which she got for free and arranged on the bathroom sink, where the potions of imaginary powers had once stood guard. In the medicine cabinet, there was a small, round beige plastic case, whose purpose I wouldn’t have been able to guess, except that next to it lay a tube of contraceptive jelly, crinkled at the bottom. A new kind of potion for a new kind of life. Celeste, meanwhile, had given up talking.
“Did you have a good summer?” I asked her, but it was Marie who answered, “Comme ci comme ça, you know? Up and down. Celeste hasn’t been working.” Celeste, not work? But she was always working. Something tremendous must have happened while I was away, a reversal of my mothers’ polarity, so that Marie was now leading the way, and Celeste trailed behind.
I was so puzzled by my mothers that it didn’t occur to me that my perspective on them might have changed also, and I was surprised when Marie asked me at dinner, “What happened to you?”
“To me?” I squeaked.
“It looks like you did a lot of growing up this summer.”
“Not really,” I mumbled. “I was just hanging around.” I was afraid the Celestes would mention the lies I’d told my grandparents, but they never did. Either they didn’t know about them, or they’d dismissed them as nonsense from my grandmother, the unforgiving so-and-so.
“Hanging around with a girl, I bet,” said Marie.
“No,” I lied, “just with Kerem.”
“The Regenzeit boy?” Celeste said. “Hm.”
“Anyway, you look older,” Marie said. “I like the way you’re doing your hair.” I’d experimented with gel, in imitation of Kerem.
“Thanks,” I said. “I like your hair, too.”
“Ha!” said Celeste.
Marie blushed and touched her curls. “The magazine did it for free.”
As soon as the meal was over I fled to my room and put on one of the cassettes I’d dubbed from Kerem. After a few minutes Celeste opened my door and stuck her head in.
“What’s that music?” she asked.
“Hm,” said Celeste, and closed my door again.
It was as though my mothers no longer had any idea what to do with me, as though they were a childless couple taking in an orphan, a child who belonged only to a mystery. I was a mystery, I had been kissed, my father had discovered America, and in this exalted state I began my seventh and final year at—or as I sometimes thought, in—Nederland.