“Dying Sea” by Frol Boundin
You are Invited!
to what: Barbecue
when: Next Friday night
where: The Wolmars’
why: to welcome Kristèle Remord,
Please R.S.V.P. s’il vous plaît
(Trees will be sprayed against moths)
The neighbors debated, then more or less made up their minds to attend. In 1984 it was fashionable to host a French exchange, even if you had no children of your own. The teenagers had undergone an orientation program together in Paris, and the barbecue would let them renew friendships and speak their native tongue; plus, it would get them acquainted with the local kids so that when it was the neighborhood’s turn to go abroad, they would all have plenty of interesting places to visit. So this barbecue would be a potentially important moment in the middle of a more than usually exciting summer, even if that moment did involve the unfortunate Wolmar family.
“We’re going to serve four kinds of meat,” bragged Emilie, the Wolmars’ thirteen-year-old daughter. She and her older sister and Kristèle, their exchange, were going door to door, enforcing RSVPs. “Hamburger, chicken, hot dogs, and buffalo.”
Buffalo had just been introduced to the local market; it was priced higher than beef or pork but sounded excitingly American, like something that Kristèle should try. None of the Wolmars had ever had it, either. Emilie wanted it. And Ingrid, the girls’ mother, had given her absentminded approval, though her oldest daughter had begged her to veto.
They served buffalo, Sandra imagined her schoolmates saying. Isn’t that just like the Weirdo Wolmars? She was against the party; she hadn’t even wanted an exchange student, but her parents insisted in hopes that an exchange would make Sandra more outgoing. Ingrid’s only regret was that there were no Norwegian teenagers available; it was all French this year.
“Er—should I bring anything?” asked their across-the-street neighbor, Mrs. Urlin, who was dazed by the sight of the three girls on her doorstep, all over-thin and in her opinion underdressed. The French one seemed to be wearing nothing but two blue rubber bands and was smoking, though she clearly wasn’t old enough. Someone ought to speak to Ingrid and Edmund Wolmar—but then, look how they let their own daughters run around, in homemade halter tops and ragged gym shorts, dirty-blond hair pulled back in untidy knots. Mrs. Urlin’s own exchange, Agnès, liked long skirts and fixed her hair in a chignon. She came from a nice part of Provence. She set the table every night after excursions to Indian pueblos and interesting ruins and holy places in the area.
“How about a pie?” Emilie asked, blissfully unaware of what was going through Mrs. Urlin’s mind. “And some beer?” She had a list of what the other neighbors had offered and what she would let them bring; potato salad was on its way, and corn on the cob, and wine coolers. “I’ve noticed you have a cherry tree in your yard.”
“But you can bring anything you want,” blurted Sandra. She was desperately trying to be polite. “Or don’t bring anything.”
Overwhelmed, Mrs. Urlin promised to make a pie. Through the little window in her door she watched the three skinny girls go down the sidewalk, Emilie bustling, Sandra red-faced and silent, Kristèle pulling out a new stumpy cigarette and making them wait while she lit it. When they were safely gone, she fetched Agnès from the guest room; they were going to watch Indians weaving blankets in Tesuque.
At the next house a molded Jell-O was offered and accepted, and Mrs. Guenon, who had no exchange this year, invited the girls in for a drink. Her house was refreshingly cool with the curtains drawn, and the walls were an expanse of white blankness—so restful compared to the ones at home, where Ingrid’s art projects barnacled every surface.
While Mrs. Guenon made a pitcher of lemonade, the girls pored over the family photographs on the piano and credenza. The Guenons—father, mother, and three grown-up daughters—were avid square dancers and were pictured in matching western gear, beaming over a rainbow of prize ribbons.
“I’ve always wanted to learn how to square dance,” Sandra said, before she realized how stupid this would sound. Kristèle flicked her eyes but leaned down to study the photo more carefully. It was a very American thing, this picture.
The other photos included several weddings, and in one of them the bride was beautiful. The girls realized with a thrill that it was Mrs. Guenon herself, radiant in the tulle of thirty years ago, with a long russet fall of hair, looking like one of the heroines in the romance novels Sandra sometimes read. She had aged well, too; in most of the later photographs she had longish gray hair and an attractive blouse that hid her upper-arm sag.
“So, Kristèle,” Mrs. Guenon’s voice came chattily from the hallway, “are you having a good time in New Mexico?”
As their hostess came in the girls fell away from the photos, except Kristèle, who continued to inspect one of the young Mr. and Mrs. Guenon lounging on a beach in their bathing suits.
“It is all right,” she said, and no one was certain whether she was being noncommittal about Mrs. Guenon’s question or thought “all right” was high praise. Sandra tried to remember whether it was the translation for comme ci, comme ça or assez bien or something else. Emilie took note of the way Mrs. Guenon had arranged four glasses and a pitcher on the little tray. Elegant.
“Have you been to Santa Fe yet?” asked Mrs. Guenon, and Sandra was ashamed. Though she’d turned sixteen last December, she was too shy to enroll in driver’s ed. She didn’t want anyone to make fun of the way she shifted gears or signaled too early.
“No.” Kristèle tugged at her lower band as if something were out of place.
“Our mom’s been busy,” Emilie explained, “working on her entry for the county fair. We went to the pool, though—Mrs. Schutt gave us some guest passes.”
The Wolmars didn’t have a regular membership; Edmund thought it too expensive and no one but Emilie would have used it anyway.
Kristèle said, “I like warm places. My family spends the summer in the south of France, where we have a house as well as in Paris.”
Emilie added, “Our dad’s dad lives in California.”
Kristèle said, “I once believed New Mexico was very close to California.”
Sandra drained her glass and announced they had to go.
Sandra knew the Wolmars would never be popular. She thought it was best to avoid doing things that would draw attention to this fact, such as throwing parties and taking in French teenagers. Emilie was just the opposite; she tried equally hard to invent their popularity. And, much to Sandra’s annoyance, Edmund and Ingrid had agreed with Emilie’s plan this time; but to Emilie’s reciprocal dismay, they requested an exchange of Sandra’s age.
“It was my idea,” Emilie said several times, until Edmund yelled at her to give them some god-bleeping peace. “Well,” she said then, “next year Sandra can go to France and I’ll get my own French person.” Though Emilie was afraid no other girl could be as wonderful as Kristèle.
Kristèle, daughter of a diplomat, lived in a big house near the Eiffel Tower and at sixteen had already worked as a runway model for two years. Her brown hair was short and spiky, and she made a distracting use of tube tops, wearing one in the traditional way and one around her hips as a miniskirt. She was even thinner than the two Wolmar girls, as if she subsisted on a diet of cigarettes and fruit, which was in fact the case.
Ingrid was offhand about Kristèle’s modeling. “It’s easy to get that kind of work in Europe,” she said. “I used to do it myself, in Norway.” She had once been tall and blonde but now seemed neither, her bones having settled into medium height and her hair faded to a light burlap in the dry climate, though she rarely went outdoors. Until this summer Emilie and Sandra hadn’t seen her worry much about what she wore; she spent most of her time in the pursuit of various arts and crafts, the results of which filled their home: macramé owls, cross-stitched landscapes, beaded lampshades. Around Kristèle, though, her accent got more noticeable, and she put earrings on during the day.
Edmund passed comment on the earrings one dinnertime—“I don’t like big jewelry”—and Ingrid removed them. Edmund was famous for his temper, which explained why the chemical company that employed all the neighborhood fathers had given him a lab to himself, where he worked in white-coated solitude. And why his family left his den alone.
That time at dinner, Kristèle removed her earrings, too, and afterward Sandra caught her father staring at the French girl. Sandra knew he couldn’t possibly have been aiming his remark at an outsider. He had a strict notion of the proprieties; when he wasn’t exploding in anger, he was working very hard to make a good impression.
“Well,” Edmund mumbled, “sometimes jewelry is pretty.” And then it was Ingrid’s turn to stare.
Kristèle was always making the Wolmars surprise themselves. She was sleeping in the den, the one room free of Ingrid’s artwork and thus fairly tidy. Edmund had vacuumed it himself and ornamented it with a single plastic relief map of New Mexico, which Kristèle put in the closet. She decorated the walls instead with photographs of herself on the beach with boys, in various stages of dress and undress. She taped them directly to the paneling, where they would leave a mark, but Edmund politely didn’t complain. When the girls took her to the pool with Mrs. Schutt’s passes, she asked if she needed to bring a bathing-suit top. The suit she did wear was cut so low on the bottom you could see the beginning of her divide, and the top was all but invisible. Both Emilie and Sandra were jealous, not least because they knew somebody with a bathing suit like that wouldn’t be their friend if she didn’t have to because of the whole exchange thing.
Also surprisingly, Kristèle grew intrigued by the idea of an American barbecue and wanted to know more about it. She had seen such a thing in an old movie of some sort, maybe a musical. Picking a tiny speck of thread from Ingrid’s tapestry frame one afternoon, she asked if any American boys would be there.
“Maybe,” said Ingrid, her head bent protectively over her work. “You girls will have to find them—I don’t have time now, with the fair coming up.”
Ingrid entered something in the county fair every year. Once it was Norwegian meat pies, which went rancid in the heat, another time some dahlias that she tried to claim were of a new dwarf species. Recently she had stuck to needlework and had been winning progressively more important ribbons; she felt that this might be her year to be named Needlework Grand Champion. She was preparing her masterwork now: a tapestry representing the fifty-two rulers of Denmark and Norway, arranged chronologically down to the present Olav V. She explained to Kristèle that Norway had once been under Danish colonial control. “But then you must know that.”
Kristèle shrugged. Her breasts began to emerge from her tube top, and she hitched it up as if she’d done so many times before. She mentioned that she had once met the king of Belgium or Sweden, one of those small countries. “He was on a mission to France,” she said. “My stepmother was sick so my father brought me to the party.” She had even shaken the king’s hand.
Ingrid concentrated on finishing off a difficult spot. She had never seen the king or queen of anything and was born in a town where she was the only girl without breasts, which explained why she got to model at the local dress shop and earned enough money to come to college in America and meet Edmund Wolmar, after which she grew plump. Now she knocked over a heap of yarn and old paint-by-number kits with her elbow but didn’t notice.
After watching awhile, Kristèle remarked that one of her parents’ housekeepers had saved her wages and opened a lingerie shop in the Marais, and then she wandered off to her room. Staring at the pictures of herself, she strapped on a pair of thick-soled sandals. The Wolmar girls did not have bicycles and it would be a long hot walk to the tiny shopping center, but she had to do something. Something without the Wolmars.
The town center was a collection of brown-painted buildings much like the ranch-style houses everyone lived in; the place had once been an Army station. Most of the stores were empty, with dirty floors and bits of tape stuck to the windows. Kristèle put her head into a weaving and yarn shop known as the Stitching Post, and then into the Hitching Post, which sold square dance costumes and other western-themed items. She fingered the stick-out tulle crinolines and priced some faux Hopi earrings. Then she headed up to the decrepit A&W Hamburger Pit, ordered a diet root beer, and sat down to wait for things to happen.
Kristèle didn’t know that American teenagers never go out in public alone. That was why she looked so great sitting there in her booth, with her tube tops and spiky hair and icy drink. She would plunge her straw all the way to the bottom of the cup, put her finger over the round little mouth, and lift the straw to her lips to release the suction and let the root beer shower down against her teeth, maybe her bosom. Straws were considered gauche in France. But Kristèle looked so delicious playing with her straw that every eye in the A&W was on her, and when Stella Bottle came in with her own French exchange, Thierry, Stella was proud to slide into the booth and act like she and Kristèle had been friends for years.
They ordered sodas and spoke French. When Stella was in fifth grade her family had gone to France for a year; they lived in Toulouse and so Stella spoke with a provincial accent, but she was quite understandable and Thierry and Kristèle let her join in their conversation. Thierry was a dark, wiry boy with glasses and decent teeth, and his family lived in the Quartier Latin. He was nobody Kristèle would have tried to know in France, but here he was at least practice. They talked about the heat and, cautiously, about what a backwater New Mexico was. No nightlife, no teen life. Stella agreed enthusiastically. As a result the three of them drove in Stella’s mother’s car up to the hot springs in the Jemez Mountains, where Stella and Thierry took their clothes off almost as casually as Kristèle and sat in the turgid waters, in the pine-scented air, smoking pot with a pair of middle-aged hippies and having the first really acceptable time of the exchange.
For dinner that night Sandra made a Norwegian-American dish invented by Ingrid (who was too busy with her kings to cook), meatballs with cream-of-mushroom-soup sauce. It was a meal that could wait indefinitely, but there comes a point: at nine o’clock the family started to eat, sans Kristèle.
Concern made Edmund grouchy. “She just took off?” he asked for the umpteenth time. He’d already made several inspections of his den, Kristèle’s room, looking for some kind of clue. The girl was his responsibility as long as she was here. But from what he could see, she hadn’t taken any extra clothes, and all her photographs were certainly there. Photographs he would have told his own daughters to take down, then punished for having made them in the first place; but he couldn’t do that to a guest. “And you didn’t notice?”
“We were stitching together,” Ingrid said. “Then she left.” Ingrid was not particularly worried about Kristèle—she was running low on her special thread, which could be bought only in Scandinavia, not at the coarse Stitching Post. She was saving even the thinnest inch-long ends now, just in case.
Edmund turned quickly to Emilie and Sandra lest Ingrid ask him for input about her project, something she did frequently and bafflingly. “Did she tell you girls where she was going? Sandra?”
Sandra picked at her food. “No.” She had made an extra effort with the cooking tonight. Somehow she thought Kristèle might be impressed.
Emilie, for her part, looked dreamy. She said she hadn’t seen Kristèle since the French girl had declined her offer of a walk around the neighborhood garage sales. Then she asked if, somewhere in all the piles and pigeonholes of Ingrid’s studio, there were a couple spare yards of elastic and maybe some rhinestones. She’d found a pair of scarlet satin pajama pants at a house a few blocks over and had big plans.
So Edmund subsided to his meatballs. There was a disturbing burn in his stomach, and on one level of his mind he wondered if there were something off with the food. On another level he rehearsed what he would say if he called the police. Kristèle was mature and spoke English well, so they might dismiss him outright. He did not want to have to phone around to the other host families. He did not want his wife to do that either. He would have to hide Kristèle’s photos of herself if the police were going to come over. He took a big helping of salad, refused dressing, and crunched manfully through it.
“Iceberg lettuce,” said Ingrid, looking at him with her faded eyes. “How American.”
When Kristèle did come in during dessert, the traces of a smile were still creasing her face, and she glowed with hot water and good health. Her voice was husky because she and Stella and Thierry had been singing along to the tape deck all the way home. None of the Wolmars recognized the smell of marijuana.
“I am starving,” she said, with an almost American inflection, and even Edmund was too taken aback to say anything. He got her a pudding cup.
For her part in the day’s adventure, Stella was grounded. Her punishment would take place retroactively, however, as her parents knew that to keep her at home would be to ground Thierry as well, which was something they could not do. He might not have known what he was getting into; he couldn’t have heard of the usual goings-on at the hot springs (though the Bottles didn’t believe their daughter would participate in nudity and drugs). Instead they ordered Stella to go to the Wolmars’ barbecue and to convince at least two of her friends to come along. Thierry, naturally, was already planning to attend. Kristèle had invited him personally.
Sandra got wind of Stella’s punishment—Stella made sure of that—and at last she grew excited. She knew Stella wouldn’t bring her most popular or attractive friends, and Thierry couldn’t possibly be interested in Stella herself, who had a spotty face hidden under Pan-Cake makeup and was tending to fat. What with Thierry being a stranger, she thought that she, Sandra, might have some chance with him. Hope springs eternal, Sandra quoted to herself, feeling dour and wise; but on the day of the barbecue she sneaked one of Kristèle’s mascaras anyway. She thought she might ask to borrow one or two tube tops but then lost courage at the last minute. Instead she wore a gathered skirt and halter that Ingrid had made during her mania for E-Z Sew projects. They were the only garments Sandra owned that were not made out of polyester, a fiber she had overheard Kristèle discussing on the phone with her stepmother: de trop, she had called it. Dégoutant. Ça pue.
Careful of her newly caked eyelashes, Sandra helped Emilie set up for the party. They lined up and charcoaled the grills, the one the Wolmars owned and the ones they’d borrowed; they dragged the heavy redwood picnic table to the center of the yellowish lawn; they unfolded borrowed card tables and chairs. The Wolmar girls had to do all this alone, as Kristèle observed from the hammock. Ingrid had gone out that afternoon to enter her fifty-two Norwegian rulers in the fair, and she hadn’t come back.
Sandra and Emilie didn’t know that Ingrid was so exhausted from her marathon of pressing, blocking, and framing tapestry the night before that, after registering her kings as competitors, she had sat down to rest and fallen asleep on the grass outside the high school gym that served as exhibit hall, sprawling with her skirt hiked up above her knees. There was no homeless problem in the area; the other fair contestants let Ingrid sleep. Sandra and Emilie wondered what was taking her so long, but they had too much to do to worry.
Swinging with one foot out of the hammock, Kristèle wondered which of her parents’ friends were at their beach houses now, and whether she’d rather be shopping in Nice or boating on the Baie des Anges. She had met an interesting man last year in Cannes; he had said she might make an actress one day. He had spoken of moving to America, to the West Coast. Maybe with her.
When they were first planning the barbecue, Ingrid promised to have the man from Tree Doctors come and spray the pinyons against tussock moths, which were rapacious this time of year. In her frenzy over the kings she had not done this, and as Sandra carried the first Tupperware of marinated chicken out to the picnic table she saw a brown-winged nimbus around the Wolmars’ biggest tree. She was struck by terror—what if the neighbors decided her family was to blame for the rash of disease in the local trees? She dropped the plate, grabbed her allowance money, and ran all the way to the little A&W shopping center, where she spent her last pennies on citronella torches. As she ran back she failed to notice her sweat was making the mascara flake off and pool around her eyes.
At home, Emilie was furious. There was so much to do, and where was her bitch of a sister? Emilie had to get into the new dress she’d slaved over and do her hair—really huge, with a blow-dryer and curling iron. So when Sandra came flying back with the torches, Emilie stalked off and didn’t even tell her she looked like a raccoon.
Please, God, Sandra prayed as she drove the torches into the ground, let Mom come home soon. People always arrived late to these things, but not usually the hostess. As she stirred the marinades, Sandra added, Let Dad be in a good mood. Let Thierry be cute but not too cute, and let him not have a girlfriend. She had recently reread a grocery sack full of library romance novels and knew all about misunderstood men meeting girls who didn’t recognize their own beauty.
At six o’clock exactly, Kristèle came trailing out of the house. She was wearing the tiniest tube tops and the biggest shoes ever. “Pue,” she said, waving her hand before her face, “what is that horrible smoke? Why have you lit candles when the sun is still in the sky?”
“They’re not candles,” Sandra said, smearing her own cheek with red sauce. “They’re torches. They kill bugs.”
Kristèle sat down and lit a cigarette. She had a pack tucked into her skirt, where it made Sandra think of some sort of surgically implanted device, like a Pacemaker. This seemed an excellent time to make friends at last, but Sandra couldn’t think of anything to say. She squirted lighter fluid on already hot coals and watched a pillar of flame whoosh to the sky. She looked at Kristèle for a reaction.
“Hein.” Kristèle shrugged. She was thinking of a movie she might star in, certainly without a pique-nique.
Sandra gathered her courage in her hands and asked, “Do your friends in France make barbecue? Does Thierry?”
But Kristèle was already gesturing at somebody inside. “Come out!” she called between cupped hands.
It was Edmund. In his work tie and slacks, he crossed the patio and hovered between the girls. “Let the coals burn down,” he advised, thinking men are supposed to know about barbecues. “Did you get any of those flavored briquets?”
“No.” Sandra stirred her marinades grimly. “That smell is insect repellent.”
“What smell?” he asked, and suddenly Sandra thought that she really liked her father very much. Though he could have had the trees sprayed.
The guests started to arrive then, bearing their bowls and plates of salad and vegetables and their bottles of wine, and Edmund stood at the back gate, welcoming them and making introductions. “Our foreign exchange, Kristèle Remord,” and gamely she dropped her cigarette into the gravel border to shake hands. One after another the neighbors came and gawked at her. Herb Bang asked for a smoke just so he could see her dig the pack, warm and crackly, off her hip. Edmund scowled at him—Edmund was having a hard time looking at Kristèle at all. But it was no use; those pictures from the den were burned on the insides of his eyelids, and they were all he could see.
“Does this mean Sandra will be going to France next year?” asked Ellen Riel, a divorcée thought to be a lesbian though she still called herself Mrs.
Kristèle gave one of her shrugs and said, “I don’t know.” Clearly it was not her concern. She looked around to the pinyon grove at the back of the yard, where the exchanges were gathering. A tall boy had a fancy camera and was taking pictures.
“Oh, Ellen,” the formerly beautiful Mrs. Guenon tried to smooth over the awkward moment, “don’t be so eager to get rid of any of the girls. Let’s keep them all here!”
Kristèle decided she was bored with greeting guests and abruptly headed off to the pinyon grove, where the exchanges were pretending they didn’t know they were too young to drink beer in America. They had their backs to the party, and so far only Sandra had noticed what they were doing, though she was too busy with the hot coals to worry properly. She saw that none of the other French girls dressed like Kristèle; most were in some version of American tops and bottoms, though they all found a way to make even jeans look exotic. Mrs. Urlin’s exchange looked chic in a dress. Sandra darted them all admiring glances, hoping there was some trick she might be able to pick up. She did not understand French well enough to know a little group was singing a song about a sooty-faced prostitute.
O, putain, putain, putain …
Sandra did understand, however, when she heard her mother’s voice saying, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” Ingrid had slipped into the crowd unobserved and was now entertaining guests with the French she had picked up when she was on a school trip to the great museums of Europe. A man had approached her in the Louvre. The French kids laughed, but Sandra wasn’t sure if it was at Ingrid’s story or at Ingrid herself. Sandra couldn’t really see through the smoke, but one-half of Ingrid’s face looked bright red, the other side ashy-pale, and dangly earrings had gotten tangled in her hair. She seemed unsteady on her feet and fell against a short young man whose mother, Sandra had just overheard, had once made love with Maurice Chevalier.
Emilie chose this moment to make her own grand entrance. She was dressed in a flowing red satin garment, with shoulder straps so short that the elastic top of the tube—dress—whatever it was—strained through her armpits. She had clearly copied the look from one of Kristèle’s high-fashion photos. On her own initiative she had also put on a huge, sparkling purple brooch that Sandra hoped Ingrid wouldn’t see, as Sandra had hidden it years ago to discourage her mother from wearing such things. As a final touch Emilie held a tray at her waist, artfully arranged with a ring of plastic glasses and a small pitcher of lemonade. No one noticed her, and after a moment she began to look uncertain. She had been so sure she’d be popular now.
Most people were staring at Ingrid, wondering how she got that awful sunburn. An exchange said something that Sandra couldn’t hear, and then Ingrid said, “Of course not! I was sixteen!” The French kids laughed again, and Sandra felt her own face flaming. She looked at her father to plead for action, but he had decided to plumb the rock garden’s cement pond with a trowel and carry his findings discreetly away.
Stella arrived with her parents, two school friends, and Thierry. Sandra made herself earnestly busy slapping burgers on the grills and watched the Bottles out of the corner of her eye. Thierry seemed handsome to her, but fortunately not all that handsome, and the fact that he was carrying the family’s offering of wine, along with a six-pack of root beer, made him look like an adult. Boldly she waved with her spatula, and Stella—under sentence to be nice to the Wolmar girls—led her little group over.
Sandra readied her smile. Stella’s two guests, Belén Anzaldua and Andrea Wear, were not intimidating; as predicted, Stella hadn’t wanted to invite anyone too exceptional, and Sandra felt a passable conversation was in her reach.
“Hi,” she said, trying to keep her smile from stretching too far across her face. “Beef, chicken, or buffalo?”
Stella, who understood perfectly well what Sandra meant, said, “Huh?”, and her two girlfriends giggled.
“Where did your sister get that dress?” Andrea asked, in a tone that could be either enthusiastic or derogatory.
“And that pin,” added Belén.
Thierry put the drinks down on the grass and rubbed his hands together and said helpfully, “In my country, the buffalo is called buffle. I found this word in a dictionary.”
“Buffle,” all the girls repeated, and Thierry smiled. His glasses were dirty, and Sandra got the impression that in France he might be considered a nerd. Her heart lifted.
“I have hot dogs, too,” Sandra said. The other American girls seemed to think this was hilarious. Thierry looked polite and said, “I would prefer buffle,” and Stella said possessively, “So would I,” before launching a long stream of French at him. Clearly even a French nerd was still French and belonged to the girl he lived with.
Andrea and Belén drifted away, to meet French boys of their own. Sandra dropped two buffalo burgers on the grill and remembered that when the girls used to play Barbies years ago, Stella had hogged the precious Ken dolls and the lamé evening gowns. Tonight, though, she was just in jeans and a T-shirt that showed the rolls of flesh around her stomach. Sandra was wearing cotton and remembered to thrust out her breasts. They were large for her age and she hoped they made her look like Marilyn Monroe.
“I,” said Kristèle’s voice, behind Sandra, “will have an American hamburger.” When Sandra and Thierry turned, they saw the Wolmars’ exchange sucking long on a cigarette; they could count Kristèle’s teeth through the skin of her cheeks. Sandra realized that, after all, the competition for Thierry’s attention would be fierce. She was sure Kristèle had already had her photo taken several times tonight.
While Sandra grilled their dinners, the other three discussed—in elaborate but obvious euphemisms—their afternoon at the hot springs. Sandra tried to act unshockable, though she was disappointed in Thierry for smoking, and with hippies. She made a vivacious show of asking other people, exchanges and Americans and adults, what they wanted to eat.
By now people were walking around with paper plates of salad and side dishes, plastic cups of wine and bottles of beer sloshing onto the grass. They were eager to eat and drink, dizzy with the fumes of the citronella torches. Their glances kept saying, Who would have thought the Wolmars would have thrown this party? As they all got drunker, Emilie—delighted at having thought to ask so many people to bring alcohol—switched the pitcher on her tray for a crystal cruet filled with wine. She had to keep going back to fill it up, but she was glad that people were actually calling her over to their sides.
“Where did you get that brooch?” Sandra heard Ingrid’s voice demanding, and Emilie’s voice raised in a howl. But by then they were just two voices in a crowd, and Sandra decided to ignore them.
The sun sank. The backyard was enveloped in a gray cloud, lit from within by fire. All the exchanges had cigarettes, and most of the adults, and Sandra was still cooking though she hadn’t had time to eat anything. She caught Thierry’s eye through the smoke and flipped a chicken breast so vigorously that it landed on the lawn, to be snatched up by a dog she didn’t recognize.
“Are those kids drinking soda?” Edmund asked his eldest, but he was soon too distracted to press the question.
Sandra had smothered Kristèle’s burger in barbecue sauce, as requested, and when the French girl ate it, the sauce dripped out on her stomach and skirt. Kristèle just laughed and wiped it up with a finger and sucked the finger clean. She did this again and again, while the neighborhood fathers and sons and mothers and daughters watched. Edmund finally brought her a paper towel, and she looked up into his eyes as she thanked him. Edmund turned as red as he usually did before he lost his temper, but Sandra was fairly sure that wasn’t the reason. She felt sick.
Walking by, Ingrid’s bosom flashed. Sandra noticed that she was now wearing the purple rhinestone brooch and was eating a hamburger, too, and drinking wine.
Kristèle smiled into all the men’s eyes and turned toward the pinyons.
The party’s taste began to switch to sweets. Sandra let the coals burn down as the meat-stained plates were thrown away and slabs of cake and pie and Jell-O started to circulate. Edmund went around with a black trash bag, collecting what he could find. Kristèle still had her plate and she touched his hand as she gave it to him. Looking away, Edmund shook his head over the dwarf dahlia beds where the other exchanges had deposited their leavings, and Sandra trembled inside.
But she was safe; there were still so many guests that Edmund would not begin to yell. Mrs. Riel, Mrs. Urlin, Mrs. Guenon, and Mrs. Bang stood by the dessert table, comparing notes on the fair—they were all judges in various categories. They were tipsy and perhaps talking too freely, and Ingrid plied them with more wine and beer. “Was anything really outstanding?” she asked again and again, but they always spoke of things that didn’t matter: an enormous butternut squash, a machine-made quilt, a finely woven basket.
“Local pine needles,” Mrs. Bang (Herb’s wife) said. She had noticed Ingrid asleep on the grounds. “Three different colors. You would not believe the work involved.”
“I once made a pine needle basket.” Ingrid hopped a little from leg to painful leg, then said boldly, “And I entered something this year, too…”
Out of earshot, Sandra doused the coals on the last grill. She was exhausted and felt prickly all over, but everyone was fed and surely the party would end soon. Thierry must be somewhere off in Kristèle’s magical wake. She wondered a little about what she should do next, now that there was no cooking to occupy her hands, but when she turned around she saw Thierry looking at her. Much to her surprise, he crossed the yard and offered her a piece of pie.
“It was a frozen crust,” he said, “but I think the cherries are fresh.”
Round-eyed, Sandra dug in. She noticed that her skirt had slipped a little way down her hips, so her belly button showed; she also noticed, for the first time, that her stomach was as flat as Kristèle’s and curved in more at the sides. She wondered if Thierry had seen, too.
But Thierry was looking at Kristèle herself, as she flirted with that tall French boy with the fancy camera. Kristèle posed for him, a model pose. As she ate the pie, Sandra felt a little jealous on Thierry’s behalf, because she liked him and wanted him to be happy; but at the same time she tried to figure out how to turn the situation to her advantage.
“You must like to cook,” she said, then cursed herself; this was surely one of those things men didn’t like to hear. “I mean, if you can tell the crust was frozen.”
“My parents are chefs,” he said, pushing his glasses up his nose and turning to smile unexpectedly at her. “They have a restaurant in the Quartier Latin.”
From French class, Sandra knew this was this was the most touristy part of Paris. She became too excited to speak. But Stella and her two friends, Belén and Andrea, came up then and spoke in her place.
“Mrs. Guenon is organizing a square dance.” Stella was looking at Thierry, but she addressed Sandra: “Do your parents have a boom box?”
No one could say how it happened, but when everything was set up Thierry paired off with Sandra. Along with three other young couples, all French, they made up a square. None of them knew how to dance this way. Mrs. Guenon called out directions and they all stumbled through, laughing hilariously. In another square, Stella had to dance with Belén. Kristèle had disappeared.
Sandra couldn’t remember ever feeling so happy. She saw that the bug torches had burned out, that Emilie’s scarlet dress had ripped in the back, and that Ingrid was sitting on the ground by the rock garden with her legs straight out in front of her and a look of devastation on her motleyed face, but for the moment none of that mattered. Thierry grabbed her hands and they promenaded.
“Grand right and left!” shouted Mrs. Guenon, and Ingrid saw her older daughter flash by. She was dancing with French people, which was what Ingrid and Edmund had wanted when they planned this summer.
Ingrid didn’t care now, though, because all that mattered was that her kings had failed to take a prize. When pressed, Mrs. Guenon had told her, gently, that the fair staff had found a small brown-edged hole and a crackled-flat insect body next to King Gorm, and so the piece had been unjudgeable. Ingrid could not say how this had happened. She only knew she wanted her husband and couldn’t find him.
A shadow stopped in front of the rock garden, watching the dancers, and tilted a bottle upward.
“When I was a girl,” Ingrid said to the shadow, “I dated many men who have now become famous. One of them is the conductor of the Royal Norwegian Symphony. Another owns the largest shopping center in Norway.” She paused, staring at a moth crawling up her leg, and added, “They pay huge taxes under the social-democracy system.”
The shadow looked down. It was Kristèle. She had gone inside to change into a fluffy orange tulle petticoat from the Stitching Post, which was why she wasn’t dancing yet. Seeing the moth on Ingrid, she bent down to kill it. This was, she thought, her own most generous gesture, though she did not think to put her cigarette down first.
It was burn on burn, and a blister rose immediately. Ingrid screamed in pain—lunged and caught Kristèle by the ankle. Kristèle stumbled, and she screamed too.
The dancers stopped dancing; Mrs. Guenon stopped calling. Everyone stared, and soon the music stopped also. On painfully burnt knees, Ingrid tried to pull Kristèle down. After years of dealing with other people’s tempers, she had had enough. She was at last a Viking herself, defending her terrain.
Kristèle struggled to stay upright on her chunky shoes, and her crinoline fluffed high around her. She did not appear to be wearing panties, or not large ones.
Sandra and Emilie came running. “What did you do?” Emilie demanded of Kristèle, and her red dress tore again as she threw her arms around Ingrid and called her Mommy. Sandra, meanwhile, pulled Ingrid’s hands off Kristèle, and the French girl stepped away, looking amused. Sandra said the few words of Norwegian she knew—Merry Christmas and Be quiet—trying to make Ingrid smile and hush. The other guests drew close; Sandra became afraid of what Edmund might do.
But Edmund held back. He tugged anxiously at his necktie. He had been on his innocent way to the bathroom, across from Kristèle’s den, at the moment she had been changing; and because she had left her door open, he’d seen more of her than an exchange-father should see of the young person in his care. In this moment he was sure Kristèle had seen him, too. He felt he knew why Ingrid was crying, why he should have kept the two of them apart tonight, and why he should ask one of the other host families to trade exchanges. Why probably no one would allow a young person to stay with the Wolmars again, why with this party they had failed once more… He looked for Kristèle, wondering if she had betrayed him on purpose.
Herb Bang was looking for her too.
Kristèle stood near Thierry in her western underwear, lighting yet another cigarette, shrugging. “I was helping,” she said to the group at large. “Those bugs ruin the clothes. Why can’t she be grateful?”
Moths! Suddenly everyone saw the beige swarm around the pine trees, saw his or her own party clothes being eaten. The Bangs and Mrs. Riel, the other neighbors, and the exchanges began swatting at their garments. They picked at bits of fuzz and stains.
Ingrid kept crying, heedless of anyone else. The blister on her leg filled with water even as Sandra and Emilie plied it with ice. “My kings!” she said. “Moths!”
Now, at last, Edmund took a step forward. The guests tensed. Kristèle smiled her superior smile.
But he just put his arms gently around his wife. “There, there,” he said awkwardly, patting the top of her head. “It’s all right. You always have next year.”
This was a strange moment for the neighborhood, which saw for once that the crazy, pathetic, impossible Wolmars were trying to love each other. The Weirdo Wolmars accepted their enemies—Kristèle and each other, everyone at the party, their own worst selves—and still they tried to extend peace and love.
In the face of that heroic endeavor, the neighbors’ hearts softened.
Mrs. Urlin stepped forward. “What a delightful party,” she said, and others hastened to agree.
Overwhelmed, the Wolmars broke apart and looked around. They dried their eyes. They tried again to be good hosts, to live up to this generosity; and again they failed.
But afterward, everyone agreed the neighborhood was much improved. Kristèle took her petticoat back to France and started a new fashion. And once in a while, one of the Bottles or Urlins or Guenons or Mrs. Riel would stop by while a Wolmar was out watering the yard under cover of darkness.
“What do you know,” the neighbor would say. “I made buffalo burgers myself the other night.” Or, “You really should get Sandra into square-dancing lessons; she has an aptitude.”
Nobody even mentioned Kristèle or the moths—except Thierry, who turned out to be (among many things) an insect enthusiast. He occasionally wrote Sandra letters about an interesting find. “But none so interesting as my time in your town,” he would conclude politely. “I hope to welcome you to my home soon.”