I came back from going to Switzerland with my father. I was eleven. It had been very exciting to fly from London to Geneva by myself. An air stewardess was assigned to watch over and deliver me to my father. I remember my luggage was lost, but that was a grown-up problem, not something I had to worry about. It was background music.
In the forefront was the big skyscraper rising up by itself on the side of the mountain. My father had been talking to me a lot about this place for a year or so, describing it with delight, how much fun he had there not skiing but ski-bobbing, some kind of skiing where you sat the whole time. He explained to me also with delight the term “après ski,” describing his time at the bar in the ski lodge as a real highlight of civilization and refinement. Now he was actually showing me the place. “Crans” it was called. Crans was the name of the village. Super Crans was the name of the skyscraper.
It was fancy the way my father liked things. I slept by myself in someone else’s apartment. My father slept in his own smaller apartment, the one he had just bought or was planning to buy.
In the evening we went downstairs to the fancy restaurant you had to dress up to go to and he introduced me to Helga. She had short blonde hair, blue eyes and a tanned face. The three of us had dinner together. My father ran his finger down Helga’s nose and said her nose was like a ski jump. I’d heard that line in a movie somewhere. It was strange to hear it coming out of my dad’s mouth, this secondhand line.
They were saying something about black people and Helga said to me, “You would never a black man, would you?” I said I would marry whoever I wanted and they laughed. My father sat at the head of the table, Helga on his righthand side. That meant that she was more important than I was.
My father took me to a fancy hairdresser in the village and asked the ladies there to give me a haircut. My mother never took me to places like this. My mother never left me in places like this and came back to pick me up. When my father came back the hairdresser ladies were brushing my hair into two high pony tails. Over the rubber bands that held the pony tails they clamped special bands of black velvet. They showed these to my father and he bought several sets for me to take back to boarding school. He also bought me a storybook with pictures in French about a doll and a small English/French dictionary.
Other things in the forefront during that visit are returning to Geneva and staying in Helga’s big fancy house. Her husband Freddie who also seems to be my father’s friend though not as much is there too. They are rich. Again, I stay in a room by myself. My father points out that when we are at the dining room table – a heavy table in a heavy formal room – that Helga can call the servant by pressing a button under the carpet with her foot.
Next to my plate is a small gift, wrapped. I ignore it, pretend I don’t see it. Nobody else mentions it so I don’t either until my father says something like, “Now, what is that I see by your plate?” So I open it. I don’t know what it is. My father likes it very much. It is made of red leather and has the American eagle stamped on it in gold. They explain that it is a cover for my passport. Helga smiles. The gift is from her.
When I come home with my father, when we are in the taxi together, driving from the London airport out to the house where I live with my mother and my two sisters – I live there when I am not in school and my dad lives there when he is not other places – I feel pretty confidant now I know how to be a grown-up. I talk to him, pretending I am a grown-up. I make him laugh and he talks back as if I were a grown-up too. It’s easy. I am surprised by how easy it is. Until I call him “Mickey.” That’s what Helga called him. I’ve never called my dad anything except Dad or Daddy. I have never called him a name and this feels very scary. Like now I am going to get into big trouble. My father doesn’t seem to notice thought. He keeps laughing and egging me on, but I quieten down. I didn’t like that feeling.
And then I go back to boarding school, the convent way out in the country. I’m in the middle of my third year here. I feel very at home here. I know this little world. My friends are the smartest, most dazzling girls in the class. We do wild things together – putting on plays, daring each other to run to the candy shop at the end of the mile-long driveway or climb up the forbidden tower in the dark. I don’t want to be friends with anyone else.
It’s my first morning back. I wake up in pain. My belly is hurting and it won’t stop. And then I see it, the blood in my underpants. Oh my god, all the pink pamphlets and giggly whispers were true. It’s happening to me. It hasn’t happened to any of my friends yet so I have to go to Jane Garber, another girl in our class, who has always seemed older than the rest of us. Jane gives me all the packages I need. She says she won’t tell anyone that I’ve started, but I know she will tell her best friend Sheila.
I don’t tell anyone, but two days later, as we are hiding amidst dustballs under beds, Madeleine hisses at me, “I have a bone to pick with you.” She looks mean. She says she knows I’ve started and that I am mean because I told Jane and Sheila I would move into a dorm with them. They asked me to and I don’t know how to get out of it. Madeleine says I’m mean because I’ll be leaving Ann behind. Ann is my official best friend. I never thought going to a dorm would make any difference to Ann. She sleeps across the aisle from me in a long row of curtained off cubicles. I’m not turning my back on Ann. I’m just moving when I don’t even want to. But Nicola sides with Madeleine and won’t speak to me. The days of playing Addams Family are over.