When I was 11 I lived in England in a white house with a bumpy, stuccoey surface. The roof came up in two peaks, one on the left, one on the right with a flat piece in the middle that ate the tennis balls I smacked against the one windowless wall. You walked through a short black swinging metal gate with a latch, from the sidewalk, along a short straight concrete path to a black front door with a brass letter slot through which letters got pushed in the mornings.
It wasn’t our normal kind of house. It came with all its own furniture. Each bedroom -- and there were four -- had its own color of floor-to-ceiling drapes that opened and closed with a string and white chiffon curtains that were underneath, like a petticoat.
The floor-to-ceiling drapes with their pull-open strings were foreign, one of the things that no house of ours would ever have. Everything else was normal except the vanity table in my mother’s bedroom. It was glass-topped and kidney-shaped, but the most unfamily, unmother part was its pretty pink and white striped skirt.
My mother lived in the pink room, my father in the dark green, my two little sisters in the blue, and I in the red.
But my father wasn’t there much. He was a visitor on weekends, often away on business trips for two or three weeks at a time, returning with presents.
One time I was told I would be going to meet him. I was going to fly by myself, they told me, to Geneva, and he would pick me up.
My father was my favorite. He was the interesting person, the one who went away on trips, the one who was happiest, bursting into the house with a kind of cheer and good spirit that wasn’t present without him.
There was a stewardess on the plane with the duty of watching over me and handing me over upon arrival. I was not frightened.
There was some kind of adult fuss when I arrived because my suitcase was missing, but I didn’t attach any importance to a missing suitcase.
My father was there in suit, with swagger, and I knew I was in good hands, that he could take care of things like airports and hotels much better than my mother could. Things went wrong when I was with my mother. We missed turn-offs, got lost, and sometimes bashed up the car. But these things didn’t happen when I was with my father.
We went to a hotel. This was the kind of thing you did with my dad. He liked things like that. His restaurants were fancy, my mother’s were not.
My father showed me my room, his room, and the bathroom that connected them. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing at a bathroom fixture I’d never seen before.
“It’s for ladies to wash their wee-wee,” my father said with some kind of smile, some kind of upbeat that I could not echo. I looked away, looking for the next stone to step onto, away from the strange object in the bathroom.
He took me out of the city to a skyscraper of apartments, a skyscraper out of place amongst snow and mountain slopes.
He liked this place. He had been talking about it back in England, telling me with some kind of deliciousness about “après-ski.” He liked to tell me his things. He took me on walks, away from mother and sisters, and told me the good things in his life
We sat at dinner in the glittery restaurant on the ground floor of the skyscraper, and a blonde woman was with us. My father said I should call her Aunt Helga. She was pretty, old like my father, her hair pale blonde and cut short. Her eyes were blue and she wore make-up and jewelry and high heels and pretty clothes. She wore the clothes my mother never wore and laughed a lot with my father.
My father ran his index finger down her nose and teased her for having a nose like a ski jump. She asked me if I would ever marry a black man. “I’ll marry anyone I want to,” I said, and they laughed.
My father took me to a French bookstore and chose some books for me to take back to school, picture books with French words and a tiny dictionary with a soft plastic cover that I could hold in the palm of my hand.
And he took me to a hairdresser where the ladies cut my hair and put it in two pony tails, covering the rubber bands with black velvet bands. My father came to get me, talked French with the ladies, made much of their work, and pressed upon me that I must not lose those black velvet bands.
We went to Aunt Helga’s house in Geneva for dinner, a fancy dining room where I sat up straight. “Look,” said my father, so at ease and at home here, “she can press a button under the table with her foot so Maria knows to bring the soup.”
There was a small wrapped gift to the left of my fork. I pretended not to notice. It seemed like the polite thing to do, not to assume anything was for me.
Towards the end of the meal my father suggests I open it. Inside, from Aunt Helga, is a red leather cover with the word “Passport” stamped in gold. I say thank you. My father expresses admiration for the beautiful cover. It is a grown-up present, not something I can play with.
And then I am in the taxi coming back from the airport. My father is in the spacious back seat of the cab with me. We are playing and goofing around in a way we have never done before. I am pretending to be a grown-up lady, like Helga. I am making jokes and my father is laughing at my grown-up jokes.
And then I go one step further. I call him Mickie. That’s what Helga had called him. And with that word I pull back. I stop this game. It doesn’t feel good anymore. It scares me.