MY NAME IS Louisa Georgina, after my mother’s mother, Louise, and my father’s father, George. I will leave Nice on a train to Munich today to go and live with my father. He is German.
Popup said, “You are your father’s child. I love you. But you belong to him, and cruel as it might sound, you’re not mine.”
He presses and smooths my striped blue pajamas flat into the silver hardcover travel case my mother bought me when we went to the United States. Popup has big brown hands with even skin that slips over veins and bones like shiny fabric. His fingernails are flat with ridges in them and his cuticles are white except where they are yellow or black with paint and his eyes are milky and green and watery as he looks with startling seriousness into my eyes and nods nearly imperceptibly. Popup has a hooked nose, but not like mine. The hook in his nose starts at the top and arcs down so that it connects to his septum at ninety degrees. My hook is narrower and comes at the end of my nose, which is straight and connects to my septum at about one hundred and one degrees. But I am pretty. I have the disobedient curls of my mother, but hers were dark blonde and golden where the sun had bathed them, while mine are chocolate brown and only golden at the long parts where the roundness has reached into the sunlight.
Popup stands so his crisp white shirt obscures his rotund belly—the belly he told me to squeeze. Back in the summer, after a supper of fish and courgets, we picked over crumbs and morsels of cheese and my mother ate what was left of her salad and doubled her long slender body up into the chair as if she were keeping her feet up from a flood. The candlelight set her tanned skin aglow and reflected off of her in vaporous waves that warmed my hollow chest and dismissed anything unclear in my mind, and she smiled at me with a closed mouth that made the apples of her cheeks jump out. Popup encouraged me up into his lap with one of his big open hands, which he then slid over his belly. My mother closed her eyes and bounced her head along to the song, nodding in a girlish way that made Popup laugh and I rested my hand on his jiggling abdomen and he said, “Go ahead; squeeze it. It’s nice. It’s truffles and olive oil and French cheese and bread.” Now, though, Popup brushes the pockets of his khaki pants and jerks his head for me to follow him into the bathroom. I settle one of my bony butt cheeks on the edge of the bidet as he explains, “Your father is not married. He lives with his mother. They have a very nice house and he has a brother, who also lives in Munich. Your father’s name is Frederick and his mother’s name is Magdelene. Germans are not as kind or as interesting as the French, but I’m sure they will love you, and you will get to know them. I talked to him on the phone this morning and I will call him once you are on the train.”
Popup puts my red and white horse bristle toothbrush into a pink case and the baby lotion my mother still smoothed on my cheeks even though I am eleven. Not only do I not reply, I feel as though I couldn’t anyway. Popup looks around the bathroom with his hands on his waist and then stops his eyes on my face again. “Oh, did I mention he has children? Not your father, but his brother. You will have cousins there. Isn’t that good? They will be the ones to teach you the German language.” He looks so sad.
It is the first time I realize I will have to speak a new language. I go to the International School in Nice. I have an American passport, but I was born here. I speak French and English just like my mother, but she spoke German, too, though I only heard it when she pronounced the names of foods like Lebkuchen, and Käsespätzl at the international grocery store. It sounded so funny when she talked like that and I would ask her to say it again to be sure the sounds had come from her lips. And she would say it slowly “Leb-kuch-en. Käs-e-späz-l.” And then three times fast, “Lebkuchen, Lebkuchen, Lebkuchen. Käsespäzl, Käsespäzl, Käsespäzl.” Or some such variation to make me laugh. My mother was often silly. “It’s because she’s American,” Popup would say. She was completely different from my friends’ parents, but it seemed like everyone loved her. She had many men friends who came to sit with her, and Popup didn’t protest but I know he didn’t like it. He would just stay in and paint while she drank wine with them on the small veranda between the studio and the house, or coffee in the kitchen. She smelled like summer even when she was wrapped in a bulky wool sweater, but I could never get close enough to her.
“Why aren’t you talking to me, my darling?” Popup says.
“My heart feels like it will explode,” I say.
Popup leads me by the hand back to my bedroom and tucks the pink case into the silver case and closes the lid. Snap, snap. “Has your heart felt like this before, Louisa?”
My heart really feels like it is getting fuller with each beat and I believe it really will overfill and explode and I am panicking because I am trying to keep it from bursting open and the more I realize this is crazy the faster it races and my vision is now swimming in saltwater and I say, “No.”
“Well, it will, darling Louisa. This is only the beginning.”
Popup is wearing his old espadrilles. Every pair is navy blue and they all have paint on them and he always has two pairs in the house at a time—one pair, of course, newer than the other. I know when he’s wearing the old pair because the straw soles start to stink like rot. I usually would tell him to throw those old things away, but not now. I’m hoping that somehow he will let me stay, so I don’t provoke him even though he would know I was playing. I follow him into the kitchen where he slices four pieces of olive bread and spreads one with goat cheese and one with brie. He puts two apples and the two sandwiches into an old crinkly bread bag and then adds two chocolate bars. “You will change trains in Milan,” he says.
I sit at the long blonde wooden table in the kitchen like a little lady and rest my temple in the palm of my left hand as I watch his silhouette against the gloomy blueing sky. “I don’t want to go, Poppy,” I say. “This is stupid. I don’t know my father. You are my father. This is my home.”
Popup pulls a gilt-framed painting off the mantle of the tiny white stucco fireplace and disappears from the kitchen. It is the one of the beach that my mother painted. It’s small and captures the vastness and untrustworthiness of the sea under a cloudy gray sky. I love this painting. I pull its twin of the sheep that live in the hills beyond the beach from a small table by the entrance to the sunroom and rush after him into my bedroom where he is wrapping the painting in my pajama top. I look at him furiously and pull the pajama bottoms from the suitcase. “I want to stay here,” I say.
Popup is crying again. His eyes are tight and wrinkled shut and the tears are dropping into my suitcase and he starts shaking and he’s hunched over so I can’t see his belly but I know that the truffles and olive oil and the cheese and bread is shaking violently. He takes my pajama bottoms from me in one hand and the painting of the sheep in the other and he wraps the painting in the pajamas and tucks it along with the other one into my suitcase. Snap, snap. And he stands up and pulls the thing behind him, ducking backward slightly to keep the handle in his hand because he is so tall and the wheels hum and click across the terra cotta tiles in the hall and in the kitchen and he takes it out the sunroom door and I’m following, listening to the sound of the wheels on the gravel until they stop dead and Popup puts the key into the back of my mother’s Peugeot wagon and the bells start dinging the same way they did when she was alive.
My mother came to Nice because she said it was better than dying in Munich. She said it just like that. My father had broken her heart and she said she wanted to die. She said he didn’t care. “‘You don’t care,’ I said to him, and he said, ‘How can I care when I don’t even care about myself?’” She didn’t know at that point that it was the hormones of pregnancy that were making her so reactive. And the next day she woke up and packed a backpack with a few changes of clothes and went to the Hauptbahnhof and got a train to Nice. She’d been in Nice for two weeks when she found out she was pregnant with me. She said she wrote my dad a letter and sent it by post, which was very old fashioned. They both had email accounts by then. He responded with a handwritten letter that said he could not be a father and he wished her luck and a nice day. She never spoke to him again until she found out she had breast cancer. Stage four.
One day we were walking on the beach and the next day my mother was in the hospital. So Popup took me to see her and she said, “I talked to your father.” She bent two fingers forward from each hand to make quotation marks when she said “father.” And she smiled at me with all the love in the world and the wrinkles under her eyes and the paleness of her skin hovered over her face like a mask or make-up or something unreal. “If anything happens to me, God forbid,” she said, “you will get to live in Germany, darling.” She took my hand in her cool hand and pulled me closer to the bed.
“Don’t say that, Mom. You will get better.” I was strong and I didn’t cry. It was the second of December. “You will be home for Christmas, and besides, I don’t have a ‘father.’” I held up two fingers from each hand and bent them forward.
Popup loads the suitcase into the car and slams the back gate.
“Come on,” he says. His voice is deep and he tries his best smile on me so I will follow him back into the house to get my rucksack and the sandwiches and maybe we have time for a cup of tea before I go. The lavender is already starting to come up and it smells young and green and earthy and I look at the gravel and my heart explodes so loudly that all I know is a solid black ringing in my ears and all I see is the stones in the drive coming quickly toward me and they slam into my chin first and I feel the impact in the place where my skull meets my spine, but the pain doesn’t register.
POPUP SAYS I just got dizzy. “You just got dizzy, Louisa,” he says. He comes onto the train with me and helps me find my seat. He puts my suitcase in the overhead rack and folds my coat over on top of it and squares away my rucksack under the seat, and then holds out the bread bag with the food in it and I take it. My ears are still ringing a little, but I don’t feel like my head is my own, and my chin is sore and bruised. Popup pushes back the wild strands of his white hair though his fingers.
“Why can’t you at least come with me?”
“Because I have work to do. I asked your father to come down to get you but he said he thinks you are old enough now, and he’s not all wrong, really. You’re very much your own person and you will make this journey just fine, Louisa. And there will be an attendant in Milan who will help you from this train to the next.” He sits down in the seat next to me and the train shushes an inhalation of electrical life and the pleasant halo of LED flickers over the seat and he pulls his battered black alligator skin wallet from the back pocket of his trousers and cracks it open so I can see it is stuffed with green Euro bills. His breath still smells faintly of coffee. He takes out six blue twenty notes and holds them in a fan like a hand of cards so I can see each one, pushes them back together, folds them over, and puts them into the pocket of my fur-brown corduroys. Then he bends down and stretches out his arms so he can put a red fifty note into the pouch of my rucksack. “There,” he says. “A great deal more has been sent to your father for you. He doesn’t have much money of his own, you know.”
“No,” I say.
“No. How would I know how much money he has? I don’t even know how much money you have and I haven’t even met him. His name is Frederick.”
“Well, he will have money for you, Louisa. And I think his mother is somewhat well off. You will be taken care of.”
“When can I come back?”
“I think you should come in the summer, don’t you? Because we’ll need to go to the beach, right? We’ll work on that. But you will arrive in Munich tomorrow early in the morning and they will pick you up. The day after that is Easter, of course.”
“Of course, of course.” I cross my long legs like I’m thirty. “Does he have a job?”
“Does my ‘father’ have a job?”
“Yes of course, darling.”
“And what is his job, pray tell.”
Popup smiles impishly so his lips and his eyes shine like slick candy but he runs his hand from the top of my head down my back tenderly and I know this is painful for him, too. “He’s an actor,” he says.
“Brad Pitt, or what? With not much money. Great.”
“Your mother said he’s very handsome.”
“Well, look at me.” I wink. “He’s obviously where this sinister hook in my nose came from. Mommy had such a sweet nose.”
“It’s quite unique and beautiful, your nose, LG,” says Popup and his knees crack and pop as he stands.
“Don’t get off the train. Come with me, Poppy. Just to Milan.”
“I can’t.” He kisses the top of my head and then takes my face between his warm papery palms and kisses both cheeks and my forehead with his strong soft lips. “À bientôt,” he says quietly and pats the top of my folded hands and kisses me one more time on the hairline.
A deluge washes through my eyes. The train jostles. This must be shock. There are tiny armies going to battle but all I feel is the pings of their arrows bouncing off the inside of my fingers and toes, and I am shaking and I am a tight black ball inside of myself. When I find the courage to open my eyes, I spy a young man in an adjacent seat looking at me, expressionlessly. I vow to avoid the eyes of everyone as I button my black cardigan together and pull up each boot.
WHEN I WAS eight my mother decided she would take me to the United States. She invited Popup to go with us but she told me she knew he wouldn’t. She said she thought I should at least see the homeland and meet my family. I had met my grandmother and grandfather when I was two and again when I was six. They came to visit us in Nice and my grandmother smelled like perfume and cigarettes and my grandfather smelled like tomato juice and alcohol and they took us out to eat every night and bought me shoes and toys and when they left my mother went to bed for two days and Popup and I went to the beach with our colored pencils.
My mother and I flew into JFK, where it smelled like a dirty bus and gum and hot dogs and then we took the elevated train over the dingy neighborhoods to Brooklyn until it dove down into the ground. It was the first time in ten years she had been in the U.S. “Too long,” she said, though I’d heard her say more than once that she had no reason to go back. In Brooklyn we stayed a few days with her friends, Max and Stacy, who lived in a brownstone on Clinton Street and we walked to the promenade where we sat on the benches and ate bagels with cream cheese and watched the seagulls ride the wind with all of Manhattan behind them and the East River below. And we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and we went to the ballet and I didn’t want to stand up and leave the theater when it was finished because I was still astonished.
The next morning my mother woke me up with a song like always: ‘Here comes the Sun’ or ‘Isn’t She Lovely.’ I hated to be woken up no matter how it was done. We kissed Max and Stacy goodbye and took the subway to Penn Station and then an Amtrak train to Peekskill where my aunt lived in an old farmhouse with my two cousins and their stepfather. We were going to stay for a week but my mother and her sister got in a fight in the first hour when my cousin Jared held me down on the floor and pounded his fist into the center of my chest so hard I cried.
“She deserved it,” my aunt said. “She was bothering him.”
“She was bothering him? She’s eight—he’s ten. What is a ten year old doing that’s so important he can’t be bothered, Elena?”
“Relax? Relax? Fuck you and your punk-ass bullies,” said my mother. And she tucked me safely into her arm and we took a train back to Brooklyn that night, where she said people weren’t so “twisted.”
MY TRAIN IS whizzing past stone walls and cypress trees, palm trees, crumbling houses with old terra cotta roofs, young, green lavender fields and sometimes I get a glimpse of the sea beyond cliffs, but mostly just the headachy white-gray clouds that hang over the Med in the early spring. At San Remo we stop for a long time and my heavy eyes softly close and I can smell a woman’s perfume and I’m asleep, only for a minute, until the train shudders again and we’re moving and my heart is on fire and I’m dizzy again: spinning, spinning. I’m sitting. I’m gone.
I am looking into the face of a woman. Her eyes are blue and green and brown and her hair is as blonde as the beach on a foggy day. Her eyelashes are mottled with black.
She draws back and puts her hands between her knees. “You are in Milan.” She pronounces her words in a rhythm that is at once choppy and mellifluous, the way Dulcia our cleaning lady does, like my name will flip right over in her mouth—Italian. Out the window I see travelers filing away on the platform, out of view in the dark gray light. “Please come with me. On the next train you will have a sleeping car,” she says. “Isn’t that nice?” Her face works its way into a smile disjointedly like she’s done this today already, or maybe all day long. The scarf around her neck is red and blue and gold and she is tiny and skinny as she reaches up to pull down the silver suitcase and I watch her carefully rest it in the aisle. She bends down and slides my rucksack from under the seat and hands it to me. I don’t want to move. And then she puts her hand on my knee and I feel its warmth but I think she shouldn’t be so familiar with me. I make an effort to sit forward and I am following her through the car to the door that hisses open before she touches it. The evening air swims through my hair and is cool and the dim light makes me feel like I’m in a movie. We are the last to walk down the platform but I am watching people ahead of us walk down the ramp until they disappear into the bright light of the station. I’m curious about the shops in the station and what they have. Is the chocolate different? Is the pizza better? But the woman leads me along to the end of the platform and we don’t enter the main building. At a lit sign marked “23” we turn and head down another platform alongside a silver and red train with “DB” painted on every other car. My attendant stops to talk to a towering man in a black suit and a cap. I know this is German. He glances down at me, she shifts her feet and gives him my ticket. She laughs, he smiles and flattens his hand at the steps to the train.
COLD DRAFTS FROM the window chill my feet that are tucked up into the thin blanket and the train rattles and I feel the cars bending and winding and slowly climbing and descending. I put my face close to the glass and peer out the window where I barely make out steep declivities and snow that is glowing through the darkness. We are in the Alps. I doze until we are rushing straight and flat and a voice comes through the speakers with throaty gravel and snakey S sounds punctuated with hard T and B sounds. And now in English. We are almost to Munich. I watch the proper boxy white houses with new red roofs slip past, and the dim morning light shines gray behind the last flickering lamps along the tracks. We slow. We approach. I don’t know what will happen. Do I get off? Will someone get on? My heart is racing. We stop. The clothes I slept in feel sticky and I pull my hair into a ponytail but I have nothing to hold the untamed curls back. My heart is on fire and sinking. The train stops and breathes and all the lights come on. The other four cots in my compartment are empty. I pull my coat on and my rucksack over it and take my suitcase from under the seat. I’m too scared to cry and I understand that I must get off the train before it goes somewhere else so I slide back the compartment door and step into the queue to get out behind a large old man in a brown boiled wool sweater. He smells like sausage or ham. A woman who works on the train brushes past me in the narrow aisle between the compartments and the windows and disappears behind the heads and backpacks. When I get to the door I look out at the travelers who have disembarked into this very new day in a new place, and then at the steps and the gap and I hesitate, wondering how I will manage to get my suitcase down with me. I feel small. I feel the warmth of a hand on mine as the woman behind me takes the handle of my suitcase and smiles affirmatively. I let go and step down. The sole of my boot catches on the jagged metal of the last step and I pitch forward, the weight of my rucksack pushing me down until I catch myself with my hands but my knee augers into the cement and sears but I am conscious of my sore chin enough to keep it from hitting. A small group huddles around me gasping and chattering questions that I can’t understand. “Bist du in Ornung?” The woman behind me. A man in a train uniform. A man in a business suit. An old woman. Another man. I pick myself up, wet with a blaze of humiliation, and reach for my suitcase. “I’m okay, thank you,” I say. The woman hands it over and starts away down the platform as the congregation falls apart and drifts away into the crowd. My hands are raw and my burning knee shines red through a fresh rip in my brown corduroys, but the skin is not broken. I stand looking at my hands in the brightening morning light that filters through the skeletal dome of frosty glass high overhead when I notice that one person has not walked away and he stands there so tall, looking at me with the pinched face of concern. His eyes are kind, his hair is golden brown, and his nose is long and hooked at the end. We stare.
HE STEERS a silver Mercedes sedan out of a small parking lot at the Hauptbahnhof and turns down a busy street along a tram line. We are locked in a cement silence. He has already introduced himself and asked me about my trip in English. His hands are large and he maneuvers the wheel with deft care. My heart is filling, filling, filling and I’m scared it will explode again. The sun works brightly to diminish the morning shadows, and bounces off statuary and windows and metal tracks in the street as pedestrians wait for cars and trams to pass by so they can continue on to their jobs or their schools or wherever their right place in the world might be. We are driving away from the city center. We enter a highway. “This is the autobahn,” he says. He smiles at me sincerely, distantly. We fly.
We exit the highway down a ramp that leads into a neighborhood. I can’t read anything and the sun is making me sleepy. He pulls the car into a driveway and gets out to open the gate. I look at the hole in my pants and then out at the house. It is large and white and has a yard with green grass and a tree with tiny green buds on it and colorful eggs hanging from ribbons. He gets back in the car and pulls it in and stops in front of a garage that has carved beams with birds and trees and hearts.
“Okay,” he says. He looks at me and I try to smile but I don’t think it’s very convincing because he doesn’t smile back, but just looks at my eyes and my nose. He opens his door and starts to get out, so I do the same. He opens the trunk and picks up my suitcase, making it look so small and manageable. I take my rucksack and we walk on a stone path to the back door, and we enter into a long entry with a lot of light and a white tile floor. He slips off his big brown leather shoes next to a pair of felt clogs.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
“We take off our shoes here,” he says. He looks at my boots and I start to unzip them.
My heart is filling again. It will explode. Oh God. The black and white spots are crowding my vision.
He takes my hand and leads me to the door. His mother meets us with a smile that shows her small square teeth. She is tall. Her hair is short and strong and straight and gray. “Hallo Luisa,” she says. She opens her arms. My heart is exploding and I fall into her and she is holding me against her. She loosens her grip and I hold on and sob.
They are speaking German. And he picks me up, and I hold onto his broad shoulders. He smells like clean laundry and he takes me into a room with two beds and two bad paintings of cottages and mountains and deposits me on a bed and I turn to the wall and heave and gasp. He leaves and closes the door behind him. I am hurtling through space. I’ve never been so alone.
I spend the rest of the day watching TV and drinking broth. My father has gone to play golf and my grandmother cooks and does crossword puzzles.
IT IS EASTER. I know this because it is the day after I have arrived in Munich. The sun pours onto my bed and I put a pillow over my eyes until I know I will not go back to sleep.
Last Easter my best friend, Klara, went to church, but Mom and Popup and I went to the beach. My mom hid Easter eggs amongst the galets while Popup and I drew the sea. I found all but one egg, so Popup helped me but we got tired of looking and never found the last one. The three of us lay together on a thick wool blanket with me in the middle and when we got hungry we ate the eggs, the slimy whites turned pink or blue or green and the chalky yolks catching in my throat. My mother wore a soft white sweater and I wore my blue winter coat, and when we couldn’t stay any longer we trekked up the old stone steps along the cliffs and rested on the benches. There were three benches and we each got one and each of us lay on our back and we talked about the clouds. Finally my mother took out a piece of chalk and drew a hopscotch court on the sidewalk and she won every time, and Popup and I got very competitive and tried to win, but it didn’t change a thing.
I hear the door crack open. “Aufstehen,” my grandmother says kindly. She told me to call her Oma. My father is standing in the doorway with his head resting against the frame so he can see me from behind his mother. I close my eyes.
“Not yet,” I say.
“Your cousins will be here soon, Luisa,” my father says. “We will have breakfast together and I think there will be Easter eggs to find.”
I roll to the wall. My grandmother sits on my bed and I feel her hand rest gently on my head and I shiver as the smell of coffee floats in from the kitchen.
“We’ll let you rest a bit longer,” my father says, and my grandmother moves from the bed and they leave me.
“Coffee smells like heaven but tastes like hell,” I used to tell Popup.
I get up and unsnap my suitcase. I dig until I see pink, and I take the case to the bathroom, where I find my red and white toothbrush. I have to strain to remember going to bed last night. Oma helped me put on my pajamas and put me in bed and she said “Guten nacht,” and I don’t think I lay awake for one moment. My eyes are so puffy that everything is hazy. I turn on the water and am brushing when I realize I hear more voices than two. I turn off the water and stop to listen and then turn it back on again. I’m dreading this, even if it is Easter. I sneak back to my room and get myself dressed in a blue and white striped t-shirt dress and yellow tights. I sit on the edge of the bed, planning my debut. There is no way to do this. Someone knocks on the door and I put both hands to my face briefly, before getting up. I want to disappear. It’s a girl. I already know her name—it’s Isabel—I saw her picture in the TV room. She has shiny hair the color of pale rocks and smiles big and insincerely and one of her teeth is crooked in the front but she’s still pretty. She has blue eyes and wears dark blue jeans and a magenta colored short-sleeved shirt over a white long-sleeved shirt. She is tall and skinny. I smile. A little bit. And then go sit on the bed again. She comes into the room dragging her feet cautiously but swaying her hips slightly.
“I can speak English,” she says.
“That’s nice,” I say.
She holds out her hand and in it sits a gold foil wrapped rabbit with a bell on a red ribbon around its neck. I put it on the bed.
“My father is your father’s brother.”
“Is this your first time in Germany?”
“Do you like it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oma said it’s time to sit down to eat.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Don’t you want to meet my mother?”
Thank God she doesn’t believe me, though I really mean it. Isabel tilts her head and smiles again.
I reluctantly follow her into the kitchen where the sun pours through the very high skylights and into the clear glass cabinets so I can see every dish and cup as they stand in perfect order. Beyond the high counter is a long table set with a yellow cloth and china plates with gold edges and bowls of colored eggs. Oma is pulling a square loaf of bread from the oven and a woman is dolloping marmalade into a crystal bowl. Oma puts the bread on the top of the stove and says, “Good morning, Louisa!” And she gives me a sweet smile that lasts for a second and her dark blue eyes look watery like Popup’s, though not warm and sparkly, but leery.
“Happy Easter,” I say.
Isabel is twisting a long lank of hair and flicking it with her thumb as if she’s bored and is just waiting to have me back to herself.
“Happy Easter,” says the other woman. She puts down the jar of marmalade and looks me over, which I don’t understand. She has the same dutiful smile as Isabel. Her eyes are green and she has a pretty angular face framed by dark brown hair. “I’m Paulina.”
“Hello,” I say. My shyness batters me from the inside as I try not to appear coy.
Oma says something to Isabel in German, who takes my hand and pulls me to the door and I follow her into the entry and put on my boots because she is putting on her boots, and she waits for me before opening the back door to go out.
There is a picnic table in the sun but it is so cold that my breath is frozen white in the still air and goosebumps pop up on my exposed arms. My father is sitting with his brother, Wolfgang, and Isabel’s brother, Peter. Who else could they be? Isabel takes a bow to present me. My father looks at me deeply. His brother stands up and extends his hand. He has a rounder face than my father or their mother, but exactly the same hair as my father. His eyes are serious and he is dressed in nice trousers and a shiny blue button down shirt.
We all go inside, take off our shoes together, and move toward the dining table. I settle into a chair next to my father and look at a basket of buns. “Semmel,” says Isabel’s father to me. He holds out the basket and I take one with a spiral cut into the top. He takes one sprinkled with pumpkin seeds and passes the basket to his mother, who passes it to Paulina without taking one. Isabel is sitting on the other side of her mother, who is across from my father. I watch. My dad takes a long serrated knife in his hand and begins to cut horizontally against the top of the loaf of bread, which strikes me as strange and something you would never see in France. He lifts off the top and the loaf is filled with sliced ham that releases salt and fat into the chocolaty Easter air. With one tine of a large silver serving fork he lifts a piece of ham and lays it on my plate.
“Would you like more?” he says.
His lips are straight across but they bend into a smile when I say “Nein danke.”
“Luisa muss Deutsch lernen,” says Oma.
Everyone seems to chime in: “Ja,” “Ja,” “Ja.”
The conversation takes flight, leaving me to gaze into space.
With a clean tart knife, Paulina slices into a large chocolate cake decorated with jelly beans and places the perfect triangles onto the gold-rimmed china and passes them until everyone has one. Thin layers of yellow cake are separated with light chocolate icing and I think I can smell the butter. I slice a small piece away with my fork and put it in my mouth. It tastes like espresso. Hell. I look at my grandmother and smile as I listen helplessly to my father and his brother’s deep voices volley across the table. I swallow the cake. Isabel wiggles and nods her head as she savors the cake. With one touch of her mother’s hand on her knee she stops. My grandmother surveys my face with cool, stoic eyes. Popup told me they are too serious. She still doesn’t smile, so I smile more. Then I let the expression fall from my face completely, put my fork down, and excuse myself. I go into my room and find my colored pencils but before I can start drawing I take the paintings of the mountains and cottages down and put them in the corner behind the door so they face the wall. I find the paintings my mother made on the chair where Oma put them when she unpacked my pajamas and I hang them in place of the others and sit on the floor and lean against the bed. The paintings shine brightly in our new home and I open my sketch pad and begin to draw the beautiful Easter cake.
My father knocks and then comes into my room before I answer. “Your grandmother would like you to go to church,” he says.
“I don’t go to church.”
“Well, today you must go,” he says. “Mit your grandmother.”
“I don’t believe in God,” I say.
“You don’t have to believe in God.”
“Are you going?”
“Neither am I,” I say. I dismiss him completely and sketch an oval shaped ring for a jelly bean.
He stands and looks at me with a tilted head. He’s kind. He’s handsome.
“Not going,” I say, just so he knows it won’t happen.
He leaves and I lie on the bed on my back and I stare at the blank ceiling. My grandmother’s stone face burns in my mind. I hear Popup say, “Church is for people who are afraid they don’t believe.” I rub my sweaty bruised palms down my dress and I smile at myself. Ω
Elizabeth Lopeman has written for American Craft Magazine, FiberArts, Bitch, Eugene Magazine, Drain Magazine.com, and various other magazines and websites. Her piece on Islamic art in the House der Kunst appeared in the spring 2011 issue. She currently lives and travels in Europe..