When I was a girl I had a doll that was my size. She had a wardrobe that matched my own. When I wore the rabbit-fur muff and the rabbit-fur hat and went ice-skating, she’d wear them, too, and she’d sit beside my limousine driver, watching me. Sometimes I’d tell Michel that my doll had to sit on his lap, and while I skated in circles I’d wave to her, and Michel, thinking I was waving to him, would wave back. When it grew dark, I wouldn’t want to go home. I wouldn’t want to go back to my apartment where the heat was always on high and coming out of the vent, continually making the drapes in my room shudder. Michel would appear at the railing holding my doll, and he’d call for me, telling me that it was time to leave, that Central Park was not a place for a ten-year-old girl at night.
“Your NouNou is preparing your dinner,” he’d say.
“We want a pretzel,” I’d say, and so he’d promise my doll and me a pretzel hot from the vendor if I’d just leave the ice.
In the limousine I’d feed my doll some of the pretzel, forcing it into her slightly open mouth, the big grains of salt falling onto her muff, getting lost in all the whiteness, but she wouldn’t mind. She’d keep smiling as we drove along the streets, the lights from the signs above the store windows and the lights from the traffic lights the only things making her change, making her face take on the yellows, greens, and reds of the lights. Sometimes I’d try to smile just like she did. I wanted to learn how to continue smiling even though someone might be forcing something into my mouth that I didn’t like, or making me do something that I didn’t want to do.
My NouNou would come and try to tuck us in at night, but I didn’t want her. I wanted Michel. I’d sit on my bed with my arms crossed, trying to put my doll’s smile on my face, refusing to listen to NouNou tell me to lie back and get under the covers. My smile must have looked sad, though, because NouNou would say, “Don’t do that. Don’t cry. I’ll go get him.” Then NouNou would go down the hall, to Michel’s quarters, and bring him to me. Michel would smell like Scotch then, and his eyes would be red. He wouldn’t be wearing his black suit, but a flannel bathrobe over an undershirt, and his cheeks would be mottled and flushed, as if it were he who had been circling the ice out in the cold.
“Mademoiselle Rebecca, do not let the bedbugs bite,” he’d say to me, and then to my doll he’d say, “Mademoiselle Cinderella, sweet dreams.”
NouNou’s job was easy because I did not let her care for me. It was Michel I made blow on my cuts and build towers with my blocks and play charades, taking off his suit jacket and rolling up his cuffs so that he could tap his fingers against his inner arm, one or two or three at a time on the smooth skin, so different from the hairy top, letting me know how many syllables spelled out the answer.
I named her Cinderella because I liked the fairytale of how she changed from being poor to being rich. I liked believing that a person could become something else like that, so quickly. If I saw a homeless person on the street with a broken-down cardboard box for a bed, I would not let Michel walk by quickly, as he sometimes tried to do. Instead I’d dig my hand into his pockets, pulling out what I could. Sometimes it was just a half-eaten roll of Lifesavers, which he’d suck on after he’d had a drink at lunch, and I’d set the half roll on the uneven cardboard beside the homeless man. I liked to think that the next day if I walked by again the man would be gone, that like Cinderella I’d changed his fortune.
I learned about submarines because of my parents. They were away making a film about them. My father directed films, and my mother wrote the scripts or sometimes she just doctored them. Before I knew what that meant I’d asked her why the scripts were sick, and she’d thrown back her head and laughed, and I saw how perfectly white and straight her teeth were, and how perfect the roof of her mouth also was, like the ribs of the great whale skeleton in the museum Michel would sometimes take me to. My mother and father were often away on location, and for the longest time I thought on location was the name of a place, a part of the world I hadn’t seen yet, where all movies were made.
My father was small, much smaller than Michel, and bald. I wished that Michel were my father instead, because he was tall, and he always looked handsome in his black suit, with his black, thick hair. When he wore his chauffeur’s hat, he was even taller. Once my father woke me in the night and stood in my room. He wanted to say hello after returning from being on location, but he was too short to block the light coming from the bulb in the crystal fixture in the center of the ceiling, and I had to shield my eyes, to keep the bright light from hurting me.
My mother told me that submariners could not send telegrams to their loved ones above the waves, since the enemy might detect them. But the families, every ten days or so while a submarine was on patrol, could send telegrams to their sailors. The telegrams could not be longer than forty words. My mother said the families were instructed not to include upsetting news in these “familygrams,” as they were called. The familygrams were mostly about day-to-day things that happened at home that would make the sailors comforted that life still went on, the same as usual, on terra firma. Johnny doing well in school so far. All As. Trees turning colors here already. Have had the woodshed filled.
My mother also told me that because there were more sailors than sleeping bunks on board, the men took turns. There was no night or day in the depths, and so in a twenty-four-hour period three men in a row would share the same bunk. When it was a man’s turn to sleep he would wake the sailor in his bunk and make him get out, and then he would climb in after him. The mattress beneath the sailor was always warm from where the other sailor had been sleeping, and some said they even continued dreaming what the other sailor had been dreaming. When I got out of bed for school, I told Cinderella it was time to hot-bunk, and I put her to sleep on my mattress where I had slept. When I came home from school, I woke her and told her we’d received a familygram. I’d written the familygram in school instead of doing my math problems. I’d tried to think of everyday things to write that happened in my parents’ lives, but I didn’t know their lives. The only thing I knew how to write about was my own life. So the familygrams to my sailor self were written by myself as a girl. Went ice-skating again today. Michel bought us pretzels. A squirrel ate from my hand. Gave a homeless man three dollars. Went to the museum. Was scared in the dark looking at the Eskimos where behind the glass they stood on fake snow and their dogs pulled sleds with their lips peeled back and their shiny tongues hanging out and their teeth sharp. And because it was over forty words, I cut out the part about the Eskimos and just said, Went to the museum and was scared in the dark, which I was. I was afraid that somehow I’d be captured and held in the frozen scene behind the glass, too.
I also made Michel hot-bunk. He’d pretend to snore, and he wouldn’t get out of bed when it was my turn to sleep, and so I’d scream like a Klaxon in his ear, “Ah-OOG-ah!” and shake him, telling him that we’d reached crush depth and he’d better get up and bring us back to the surface or we’d die, flattened like a tin can. If he was really playing the part, he’d keep a straight face, and then I’d shake him again or pin his nose to stop his snoring, or I’d run and get a glass of water and throw it in his face, yelling, “We’re taking on water! Quick, fix the leak!” Sometimes, though, he’d start to laugh, and then I’d start to laugh, too, and sputtering, still pretending, I’d keep saying things like, “Reverse the engines! Seal the valves!” at the same time I was laughing.
A few times I came home from school and there was a familygram on my pillow beside Cinderella’s head. I knew it was Michel who wrote the familygrams because I recognized his loopy penmanship, but they claimed to be from someone’s parents. They said things like, Miss you so much. We are so proud of you. Can’t wait to see you when you come into port. I put the familygrams in a cigar box and then stowed the cigar box under my mattress, because I knew that on a real sub that’s where a sailor stored his possessions, in a compartment beneath his bunk.
One weekend afternoon I made Michel play submarine with me, and I made him hot-bunk first, while I stood at the pillar in my room peering into it like a periscope. “Enemy ships!” I yelled, and then I ran to Michel, tugging on his arm, screaming, “Ah-OOG-ah!” and that we had to “dive, dive!” I couldn’t wake him, though. His mouth hung open and he snored, and he kept it up until later, when NouNou came in and saw him sleeping soundly and told him that if he didn’t get out of my bed she’d call my parents on location and tell them that he’d finished a bottle of Scotch all by himself. Michel sat up and wiped his mouth, and as he headed out the door I stopped him.
“What were you dreaming?” I asked.
“It was a great dream, Rebecca. I dreamt that I was rich and I was back home in France, visiting my wife and my daughter. I had presents for them: a new car and beautiful clothes and a doll like yours for Nina,” he said, smiling.
I watched him go and then climbed into bed, feeling the warmth he’d left behind. I closed my eyes and tried to dream what he’d been dreaming, but I couldn’t. NouNou was loudly picking up the clothes I’d scattered about, groaning and holding her lower back when she had to bend for my rabbit muff.
“NouNou,” I said, startling her because she’d thought I was asleep. “Why doesn’t Michel bring his wife and Nina to live with us?”
I knew that sometimes NouNou and Michel would stay up late and share a bottle of wine and talk in French. They both came from France, from small towns by the sea. It was my parents’ idea to hire French people to be my nanny and my driver. They wanted me to learn French because everything they loved was French: the food, the wine, the art, the language itself. “If you do not know French,” my mother had told me, “we’d feel as if there were something we had not given you as you were growing up. Not teaching you French would be like not having you vaccinated for smallpox. There would always be the risk that you would suffer from it, be less healthy for it.”
“Then why do we live in New York and not Paris?” I’d asked, and my mother had said that in her line of business, and in my father’s line of business, the only choices were New York and Los Angeles. “And Los Angeles, ugh, we would never do that to you,” she’d said, and shuddered, her thin shoulders visibly shaking beneath her cashmere sweater. Los Angeles, she’d explained, was just a sea of stucco buildings barely visible through a heavy, yellow layer of smog and sickly looking palms infested with rats’ nests. “And the restaurants,” she’d said, “the restaurants are in strip malls!”
But I didn’t want to learn French. I never answered NouNou or Michel or listened to them if they talked to me in French, and so the only people they spoke French with were each other.
“He cannot go back,” NouNou said.
“Why not?” I asked.
NouNou sighed and sat on my bed beside me, putting her own hands inside my muff, but of course her hands did not fit all the way and her slim wrists stuck out, the knobby bones on the sides of them looking as big as her kneecaps. It was the first time I’d let her sit on my bed. It was the first time I’d let her tell me a story. Before she started I told her to wait, and to bring me my doll. I wanted Cinderella to hear the story, too. If there were something that later I didn’t remember, then there’d be the chance that Cinderella would remember it for me, and I had a feeling it would be a story that I wouldn’t want to forget.
It was la Saint-Sylvestre, New Year’s Eve in France. Displayed in the windows of all the baker’s shops were festive cakes called galettes des rois, or king cakes, made with puff pastry and filled with almond cream. Inside each cake was a trinket, the kind you might find dangling from a charm bracelet, and whoever received the slice containing the trinket was king for the day, and got to wear a paper crown. Families invited friends for dinner or made plans to go out. They ordered champagne by the caseload and mistletoe to string up in the doorways.
The rain in Biarritz had started early that morning, and the skies remained dark as the waves reared up high and threw themselves against the cliffs, covering the rocks in white foam that hardly had time to slide back into the sea before another wave came and beat the cliffs again.
Michel was not a chauffeur then. He was a clerk in a firm that made sure that agreements between businesses were fair. That afternoon a new client arrived in town. He’d been invited by the owner of the firm to celebrate Saint-Sylvestre, to drink champagne and eat foie gras and king cake in an expensive restaurant perched over the sea, with floor-to-ceiling windows that had to be washed every day so that the salt from the spray did not collect on the glass and cloud the view. Not long before dinner the owner of the firm called Michel to say that, unfortunately, he wouldn’t be able to make the date on time. On a winding road outside the town he’d driven over a smashed champagne bottle and his tire was now flat and had to be repaired and Michel had to meet the client instead.
Michel kissed his wife and his daughter, Nina, and said not to worry, that he would be back to have king cake with them and their guests and to kiss Nina under the mistletoe when the clock struck twelve. As he left he took his large, black umbrella, whose point was fitted with a metal ferrule that, when the rain was light and Michel walked with it like a cane, clacked loudly on the sidewalk.
After arriving at the restaurant Michel did not talk much, and neither did the client, because it was so hard to be heard over the crashing waves. In place of talking and shouting, they drank and nodded their heads in the direction of the champagne bottle whenever the waiter passed. They ordered king cake for dessert, and it was the client who discovered the trinket. The waiter brought him a paper crown, which the client, drunk by then, wore for the rest of the evening.
When the maître d’ approached to tell Michel of a phone call at the front desk, the maître d’ had to bend so close to Michel’s ear that Michel felt the man’s breath slightly lift the stray hairs by his temples. It was the owner again. He was still waiting for the tire to be repaired, and he instructed Michel to take the client to a lively bar in town that would commemorate the holiday with streamers and dance music and more champagne.
From the restaurant they walked to the bar, the rain lashing against the large umbrella that they shared, and which Michel had to hold almost sideways like a shield against an enemy assault.
As the hour neared midnight, Michel asked the client if he was tired and would like Michel to walk him to his hotel, but the client only repositioned his crown and called to the bartender, “More champagne for me, the king, and my loyal subject.” The client could barely stand, and Michel, almost as tipsy himself, discovered the bar spinning around him, and so when a fight broke out, and he did not know how, he and the client found themselves in the middle of it, where bottles shattered against people’s heads and women screamed and tripped in their heels. Knowing he should get the client to safety, and recalling how the umbrella had protected them from the furious rain, Michel, in his drunken state, thought that he could use it in the same way again. He sprang it open.
They were almost at the door when suddenly they were sent backward, as if the whole crowd were pushing on the ribs of the umbrella, trying to stuff them back inside. And just as Michel began to stumble, he felt himself supported, the crowd shifting and surging behind them, sending them forward once more but with unexpected speed. He tightened his grip on the handle, causing the canopy to collapse and shut. At that same moment, right in front of him, a man was bending over, struggling to stand. Michel watched the umbrella’s ferrule go clear through the man’s eye. He heard the man scream and saw him reach up with both hands. Michel let go, and the umbrella fell to the floor, along with the eye.
“You’ve blinded him!” the client said, turning to Michel, seeming so sober now that Michel was tempted to ask if he’d been pretending all this time.
The man continued to scream, his hands over his empty socket, his blood spurting through the spaces between his fingers, and the crowd, which only a moment before had been an inseparable mob, parted to make an aisle for his escape. Someone was holding the door open. Michel could feel the cool night air blowing in. He ran past the man, outside.
From the bar, people yelled. They yelled for the police. They yelled for a doctor. They yelled that the man had collapsed and might be dead. Michel ran home.
In a desk drawer in his office he found his passport and the extra cash he kept in case of emergency, held together with a rubber band. His car keys were in his coat pocket. His car was parked on the street out front. As he drove off, he turned and looked in the windows of his living room. His wife had left a table lamp on for him, and by its light he spied a string of mistletoe above the family photos along the mantel, suspended in the air.
That New Year’s Eve was the last time he saw his wife and Nina. He bought a plane ticket to New York. He took a room at the YMCA and counted his money. He would have to find a job soon, one that wouldn’t require work papers. One that paid in cash and preferably provided room and board. When he saw the ad in the paper for a French-speaking driver for a young girl in a good neighborhood, he called right away.
“He’s been separated from his family for more than a year?” I asked NouNou, and she nodded her head.
“He will probably never be able to go back to France without being arrested, and he knows this. If he tries even to call them or write them a letter, he could be found.”
“What if I write them and tell them to come here?”
“It would be complicated,” she said. “They would have to do it in secret, and besides, they don’t have the money for the trip.”
In order to make Michel feel better, I wrote him a familygram, as if I were his wife and Nina in France. I didn’t know much about France, so I borrowed a book from the school library. I wrote, Went to visit the Lascaux cave paintings. Saw the red cow, the Chinese horse, the black bull whose legs are crossed. Wish you were here with us. The garbage men are on strike, and with the rain the sewers overflowed and now the rats are living on the beach and coming out to sunbathe with the tourists. We are so proud of you. We miss you so much. And because my familygram was over forty words, I shortened it, taking out the part about the striking garbage men and the sunbathing rats, before sliding it under his door.
Later that night when he came to tuck us in, he told Cinderella and me to sleep well, and then he said, “Life on this submarine is sometimes difficult. Don’t you think?” I nodded. “But since we are living down here under the sea,” he continued, “all of us so close together every day with no one else to talk to but each other, we are close. We are like family. Maybe, in fact, we are closer than family, and that makes being a sailor all the more special.”
The next time my parents visited I stole from them. They went out to a dinner party, and I went into their room, finding money in the pockets of their suits and in one of my mother’s handbags that had a strap made of pearls. I came away with close to fifty dollars. When I had a thousand I would give it all to Michel. I would make him rich, and with the money he would send for his wife and Nina.
The following day, while my mother was swimming in our rooftop pool that was covered in glass, I opened her wallet that was made of leather so soft I at first thought it was brown velvet. Inside were a few hundred dollars, and I took almost all of it, leaving only a twenty-dollar bill and the change. In my father’s dress coat I discovered another hundred dollars. I was halfway there. I put the money under my mattress and wrote Michel another familygram, a short one. We can’t wait to see you soon when you come into port. We have been waiting so long for this day.
When my mother sat me down and asked if I knew anything about the missing money, I tried to put on my Cinderella smile. Then I shook my head. I shook my head to all of her questions, except one. “Was it NouNou?” she asked. If I’d shaken my head then, she would have asked if it was Michel, and what if she hadn’t believed me that it wasn’t? She would have sent him away. He would never have seen his wife and Nina again. “So it was NouNou?” she asked a second time, prodding me. I picked up my doll and put my finger against her lips so she wouldn’t tell.
“Don’t be afraid, darling,” my mother said. “You won’t get into trouble. Was it NouNou?”
I looked her in the eye and said, “I will never betray my fellow submariners, even if you torture me.”
“God, what an imagination. You’re going to grow up to be a screenwriter, aren’t you? Just like your mother,” she said.
“No!” I said. “Not just like you.” I would never leave my daughter so many months alone so that I could be on location. I would live with her the way submariners do, always within three hundred feet. We would talk every day and share every meal. I would shoot Tomahawk missiles at her enemies. I would climb into her bed and dream her dreams.
A week later I had a new NouNou. She was also French and I was also to call her NouNou, but because she was new I called her New NouNou. Michel said that the old NouNou had returned to her seaside town in France. “She is lucky and happy to be back with her family,” he said. “Do not worry about her.”
“She was a nub anyway,” I said. “An unuseful body aboard this boat.”
My parents were gone, too, already back on location. New NouNou tried to speak French with me, and again, just like with Michel and the old NouNou, I refused to listen.
Also like the old NouNou, New NouNou would stay up late with Michel to drink wine and talk about France. I had to take a French class at school, so I could understand some parts of their conversations, but they were small ones: oui and mon dieu at the most. I considered New NouNou to be a nub, as well; she served no purpose on board, and I did not ask her to hot-bunk with me and Cinderella, or to play with me at all.
There was no way to get money for Michel to see his family again while my parents were away, so I began to sell things from my mother’s closet to a girl at school named Lily. I sold her a ring of my mother’s with blue gems in it. My mother would never miss it. I’d never seen her wear it. The ring was big on Lily’s ring finger, and even on her forefinger, but she bought it anyway. She paid me ten dollars that she’d taken from her mother’s purse after I’d told her how easy it was to do. Later that day, though, the ring slipped off her finger on the playground when she took off her gloves before coming inside. It was lost. Maybe that was the best outcome, because I had worried that if Lily’s mother had seen the ring she might have asked where it had come from, and then she’d have called New NouNou and told her that I was stealing.
Michel drove me to the skating rink after school and again sat with Cinderella while I went in circles. It was a very cold day, and eventually I was the only person on the ice. I could see Michel blowing into his hands. On the ride home he started sneezing. Thinking back, I should never have let him wait for me in the cold that long, as that night he was too sick to tuck me in, and New NouNou had to bring him broth and aspirin.
I knocked on his door because I couldn’t sleep. “Permission to enter sick bay, Chief,” I said.
New NouNou had his shirt open and was rubbing menthol balm onto his chest, doing it slowly, in broad circles. New NouNou was blonde, and mostly she wore her hair up in a chignon, but this evening it was down and shining gold in the lamplight. Through watery, fevered eyes, Michel watched her, smiling.
“We might have to pull into port and get you to a doctor on shore,” I said.
“No, the corpsman is doing a wonderful job,” he said, meaning New NouNou.
“Ah, the corpsman, is that what I am?” she asked. “Is that good? Do I get extra rations? A longer shower?”
“You can have whatever you’d like,” Michel said.
“No, a corpsman doesn’t get special treatment,” I said, though I wasn’t sure.
“Rebecca, I cannot tuck you in tonight,” he said, “but I want you to go to bed right away. Tomorrow we will have an inspection. There might even be a fire we’ll have to put out.”
“Yes, Chief,” I said, and I went back to my room, where I stayed up, listening for New NouNou’s footsteps. When I finally did hear her, it was late. The clock by my bed said it was past two in the morning.
The next day New NouNou walked me to school so that Michel could rest. After she dropped me off, Lily asked if she was my mother.
“My mother? No!” I said.
“She’s beautiful. I wish she were my mother,” Lily said.
That afternoon, after school, Michel said he could not play inspections. New NouNou was in the kitchen making him soup, and she told him to stay in bed until it was ready. In fact, she’d told him to stay in bed all day, because now he had a cough. I told him to man-up, to pull his weight. We were a crew, a family, and we needed his help. He said I could manage without him.
I went to the bathroom and plugged the tub and turned on the water. Then I did the same for the sink. I stopped up the toilet with toilet paper and flushed it five times, until the water started pouring out of the bowl and onto the tile floor. Very quickly the whole room flooded. Water rushed under the bathroom door and swamped the hallway. I ran to Michel’s room, yelling, “Flooding in the reactor compartment! We’re taking on water at three hundred feet.” Behind the door I could hear Michel and New NouNou talking.
“She shouldn’t be bothering you now,” New NouNou said. “She needs to know when it is not time to play.”
“Not now, Rebecca,” Michel called weakly. “I need to rest. Tomorrow we’ll play.”
“That’s right,” New NouNou added. “Go do your homework.”
Not long afterward there was a loud knocking at the front door. New NouNou answered to find the superintendent of the building, who told her that water was cascading into the apartment below ours, shorting out the lights and setting sparks flying.
Michel was furious. He coughed and sputtered while he screamed at me. “New NouNou could lose her job,” he said. “Now go to your room and stay there.”
From under the mattress I pulled the money that I’d been saving for Michel, then I opened the window. Below me, the street was empty. I let the bills go. They sailed around as they fell to the sidewalk. There was no one to pick them up. I closed the window and wrote a familygram. Sorry. Can’t make it to your arrival in port. I called for New NouNou, and when she came I handed her the familygram and told her to give it to Michel.
While New NouNou was in Michel’s room, I put Cinderella in my bed. “You have to hot-bunk now,” I told her. I tugged on my coat and grabbed my ice skates. Michel would usually drive me to the skating rink, but it didn’t matter. I knew how to get there myself.
It was a Friday night, and the rink was crowded with teenagers who skated in large groups and pushed through the throngs. The music blaring from the speakers wasn’t music that played during the day. It was louder, and all the teenagers knew the words and sang along. They grabbed hands and did the whip, spinning out like the arms of a galaxy and sucking into their core whoever was in front of them. I was sucked in. I tried not to fall, but the teenagers were big. They wore their long coats open and their lapels spread out like ravens’ wings that might wrap around me. I tripped over a huge skate. A cold blade cut across my face. The blood poured out quickly, covering the ice, and then the blood went through the ice, staining it forever. Some girl shrieked, and I looked up at her. She covered her eyes with her mittened hands. The mittens were made of mohair, and at first I thought that maybe she was holding a soft, furry kitten up to her face.
In the hospital they wanted to know my name.
“Nina,” I said in a French accent. They wanted to know where my parents were. I said they were away at sea.
“Both of them deployed?” the nurse asked.
“But who’s taking care of you? Where’s your home?”
“Biarritz. It’s in France.”
The nurse was confused. “Honey,” she said. “We need to find out who’s responsible for you.”
“You can’t contact them below the sea. You’re not supposed to tell them anything upsetting, mon dieu. They just want news of everyday life. They want to know what the weather is. They want to hear how the leaves are changing. How the dog chased a rabbit and didn’t come back for hours, and when he did come back he had the rabbit in his mouth and mud in his fur. Things like that.”
The nurse brought in another woman. She gave me hot chocolate. She put her arm around me. She smelled of the outdoors. More distinctly, she smelled of cold air and pine, as if she had just cut down a Christmas tree, and the sap and the cold had clung to her. The woman said she was here to help me.
“But the doctor has already treated me,” I said.
“Let me be clearer,” she said. “I’m here to help you remember where you live. Who your parents are.”
“Though we are poor, we live in a house by the sea,” I said. “There’s a restaurant above the cliffs, and such high waves splash up against it that the windows have to be washed all the time to keep the salt from clouding the view. On New Year’s Eve we eat galette des rois. I always want the slice with the trinket. I always want to be king. My father is Michel C. One day he took out a man’s eye with an umbrella. It was not his fault, but still, it made him run from the police. My mother did not want to be without him, so she ran, too. My mother is beautiful. She is blonde, and she usually wears her hair in a chignon, but when she wears it down even the sunflowers bow over, their seeded centers nearly touching the grass because they recognize that she is more beautiful than they are. They joined the navy. No enemies can find them under the
sea. They take turns sharing the same bunk. When my father gets in after my mother, he feels the warmth of her body, and when he dreams, it’s a continuation of the same dream my mother was dreaming.”
The woman sighed, and when she did it was as if she released more of her smell into the air, as if the tree she’d cut down had now been dragged in through the door and was in the middle of the room with us.
“What will become of me?” I asked. “Will I have to sleep in the museum? Will you put me behind glass with the Eskimos?”
The woman, whose name was Dolores, laughed. “No. We’ll take care of you. You’ll stay with me for a couple of days until we can find your parents, or until they contact us. Would you like that?”
“It depends. Do you have a limousine?” I asked.
“Hah, no,” Dolores said.
“Good,” I said. “Do you have a penthouse?”
“No, a railroad flat.”
“I’d like to see it. I’d like to stay with you very much,” I said, thinking how Dolores’s apartment probably smelled like she did, and I tried to smile the way Cinderella would smile, but I could feel that I wasn’t doing it correctly. My lips were pressed too tightly together, and it must not have been a happy smile because when Dolores looked at me she put her hand under my chin and said, “It’s going to be OK.”
When we got to Dolores’s house I asked, “Do you have a pencil and paper? I’d like to write my parents a familygram.”
“Of course,” Dolores said.
Dear Mama and Papa. Went skating today. The trees are bare, but it was nice because it made the music they played sound even louder. Drank hot chocolate. Visited the museum. You would not believe it, but there is a girl Eskimo behind the glass who looks just like I do. The same hair. The same smile. Can’t wait to see you when you come into port. Then, because it was over forty words, I cut out the parts about the trees and the hot chocolate and everything else until it just said, There is a girl behind the glass.
After a few days Dolores said she had a surprise for me: we were flying to California. On the plane, water droplets became trapped between the double-pane windows, clouding the view of the land below.
“Does it make you nervous not to see what’s outside the window?” Dolores asked. I shook my head. I thought of sailors on submarines, of how long they’d go without seeing out any window at all.
Once on the ground, we went to the luggage carousel, and I saw my mother there. She was waving so quickly the gold chain bracelets on her wrist made a jingling sound.
“Guess who that is!” Dolores said, and she pushed me forward.
We said good-bye to Dolores, and then my mother put me in the back of a limousine. Cinderella was waiting, sitting on the seat.
“I got you a new Cinderella,” my mother said. “Isn’t she lovely? She’s just like the old one.”
Instead of a fur muff and a fur hat, this Cinderella wore a yellow jumper, and on her lap she held a beach ball of many bright colors. Her hands were the same size as mine.
My mother told me how happy she was to see me. “You’ll come live with us on location now,” she said.
I traced my finger along Cinderella’s lips, turning slightly upward with the path of her smile. Then I put my finger to my own lips, to make sure my smile was the same.
“Good, you’re happy, too,” my mother said, and she slid open the window between the driver and us. When the driver turned around, I saw that he was not Michel. In French, which made her voice sound higher, like she was a girl my age, my mother told the driver where to go.
We drove past tall palm trees, whose thin trunks swayed and bent over so sharply I thought they would break, or that their long leaves would brush the roof of the limousine, but they didn’t. We drove past the ocean, whose green waves rose up deeply curled, as if forming over an invisible enormous pipe. I thought of submarines beneath the sea, where everything was calm inside their steel frames and the sailors moved steadily onward even though the waves above them were roiling and smashing up against the shore.