The goldfinch, p.22
scarcely my idea of fun. Aloud, I said: “But I thought they had tigers and pirate boats and things like that.”
“Yeah, well. I guess.” She was reaching up for a glass on the shelf, exposing a quadrangle of blue-inked Chinese characters between her T-shirt and her low-slung jeans. “They tried to sell this whole family-friendly package a few years ago, but it didn’t wash.”
I MIGHT HAVE LIKED Xandra in other circumstances—which, I guess, is sort of like saying I might have liked the kid who beat me up if he hadn’t beat me up. She was my first inkling that women over forty—women maybe not all that great-looking to start with—could be sexy. Though she wasn’t pretty in the face (bullet eyes, blunt little nose, tiny teeth) still she was in shape, she worked out, and her arms and legs were so glossy and tan that they looked almost sprayed, as if she anointed herself with lots of creams and oils. Teetering in her high shoes, she walked fast, always tugging at her too-short skirt, a forward-leaning walk, weirdly alluring. On some level, I was repelled by her—by her stuttery voice, her thick, shiny lip gloss that came in a tube that said Lip Glass; by the multiple pierce holes in her ears and the gap in her front teeth that she liked to worry with her tongue—but there was something sultry and exciting and tough about her too: an animal strength, a purring, prowling quality when she was out of her heels and walking barefoot.
Vanilla Coke, vanilla Chapstick, vanilla diet drink, Stoli Vanilla. Off from work, she dressed like sort of a rapped-up tennis mom, short white skirts, lots of gold jewelry. Even her tennis shoes were new and spanking white. Sunbathing by the pool, she wore a white crocheted bikini; her back was wide but thin, lots of ribs, like a man without his shirt on. “Uh-oh, wardrobe malfunction,” she said when she sat up from the lounge chair without remembering to fasten her top, and I saw that her breasts were as tan as the rest of her.
She liked reality shows: Survivor, American Idol. She liked to shop at Intermix and Juicy Couture. She liked to call her friend Courtney and “vent,” and a lot of her venting, unfortunately, was on the subject of me. “Can you believe it?” I heard her saying on the telephone when my dad was out of the house one day. “I didn’t sign on for this. A kid? Hello?
“Yeah, it’s a pain in the ass, all right,” she continued, inhaling lazily on her Marlboro Light—pausing by the glass doors that led to the pool, staring down at her freshly painted, honeydew-green toenails. “No,” she said after a brief pause. “I don’t know how long for. I mean, what does he expect me to think? I’m not a freaking soccer mom.”
Her complaints seemed routine, not particularly heated or personal. Still it was hard to know just how to make her like me. Previously, I had operated on the assumption that mom-aged women loved it when you stood around and tried to talk to them but with Xandra I soon learned that it was better not to joke around or inquire too much about her day when she came home in a bad mood. Sometimes, when it was just the two of us, she switched the channel from ESPN and we sat eating fruit cocktail and watching movies on Lifetime peacefully enough. But when she was annoyed with me, she had a cold way of saying “Apparently” in answer to almost anything I said, making me feel stupid.
“Um, I can’t find the can opener.”
“There’s going to be a lunar eclipse tonight.”
“Look, sparks are coming out of the wall socket.”
Xandra worked nights. Usually she breezed off around three thirty in the afternoon, dressed in her curvy work uniform: black jacket, black pants made of some stretchy, tight-fitting material, with her blouse unbuttoned to her freckled breastbone. The nametag pinned to her blazer said XANDRA in big letters and underneath: Florida. In New York, when we’d been out at dinner that night, she’d told me that she was trying to break into real estate but what she really did, I soon learned, was manage a bar called “Nickels” in a casino on the Strip. Sometimes she came home with plastic platters of bar snacks wrapped in cellophane, things like meatballs and chicken teriyaki bites, which she and my dad carried in front of the television and ate with the sound off.
Living with them was like living with roommates I didn’t particularly get along with. When they were at home, I stayed in my room with the door shut. And when they were gone—which was most of the time—I prowled through the farther reaches of the house, trying to get used to its openness. Many of the rooms were bare of furniture, or almost bare, and the open space, the uncurtained brightness—all exposed carpet and parallel planes—made me feel slightly unmoored.
And yet it was a relief not to feel constantly exposed, or onstage, the way I had at the Barbours’. The sky was a rich, mindless, never-ending blue, like a promise of some ridiculous glory that wasn’t really there. No one cared that I never changed my clothes and wasn’t in therapy. I was free to goof off, lie in bed all morning, watch five Robert Mitchum movies in a row if I felt like it.
Dad and Xandra kept their bedroom door locked—which was too bad, as that was the room where Xandra kept her laptop, off-limits to me unless she was home and she brought it down for me to use in the living room. Poking around when they were out of the house, I found real estate leaflets, new wineglasses still in the box, a stack of old TV Guides, a cardboard box of beat-up trade paperbacks: Your Moon Signs, The South Beach Diet, Caro’s Book of Poker Tells, Lovers and Players by Jackie Collins.
The houses around us were empty—no neighbors. Five or six houses down, on the opposite side of the street, there was an old Pontiac parked out front. It belonged to a tired-looking woman with big boobs and ratty hair whom I sometimes saw standing barefoot out in front of her house in the late afternoon, clutching a pack of cigarettes and talking on her cell phone. I thought of her as “the Playa” as the first time I’d seen her, she’d been wearing a T-shirt that said DON’T HATE THE PLAYA, HATE THE GAME. Apart from her, the Playa, the only other living person I’d seen on our street was a big-bellied man in a black sports shirt way the hell down at the cul-de-sac, wheeling a garbage can out to the curb (although I could have told him: no garbage pickup on our street. When it was time to take the trash out, Xandra made me sneak out with the bag and throw it in the dumpster of the abandoned-under-construction house a few doors down). At night—apart from our house, and the Playa’s—complete darkness reigned on the street. It was all as isolated as a book we’d read in the third grade about pioneer children on the Nebraska prairie, except with no siblings or friendly farm animals or Ma and Pa.
The hardest thing, by far, was being stuck in the middle of nowhere—no movie theaters or libraries, not even a corner store. “Isn’t there a bus or something?” I asked Xandra one evening when she was in the kitchen unwrapping the night’s plastic tray of Atomic Wings and blue cheese dip.
“Bus?” said Xandra, licking a smear of barbecue sauce off her finger.
“Don’t you have public transportation out here?”
“What do people do?”
Xandra cocked her head to the side. “They drive?” she said, as if I was a retard who’d never heard of cars.
One thing: there was a pool. My first day I’d burned myself brick red within an hour and suffered a sleepless night on scratchy new sheets. After that, I only went out after the sun started going down. The twilights out there were florid and melodramatic, great sweeps of orange and crimson and Lawrence-in-the-desert vermilion, then night dropping dark and hard like a slammed door. Xandra’s dog Popper—who lived, for the most part, in a brown plastic igloo on the shady side of the fence—ran back and forth along the side of the pool yapping as I floated on my back, trying to pick out constellations I knew in the confusing white spatter of stars: Lyra, Cassiopeia the queen, whiplash Scorpius with the twin stings in his tail, all the friendly childhood patterns that had twinkled me to sleep from the glow-in-the-dark planetarium stars on my bedroom ceiling back in New York. Now, transfigured—cold and glorious l
MY SCHOOL STARTED THE second week of August. From a distance, the fenced complex of long, low, sand-colored buildings, connected by roofed walkways, made me think of a minimum security prison. But once I stepped through the doors, the brightly colored posters and the echoing hallway were like falling back into a familiar old dream of school: crowded stairwells, humming lights, biology classroom with an iguana in a piano-sized tank; locker-lined hallways that were familiar like a set from some much-watched television show—and though the resemblance to my old school was only superficial, on some strange wavelength it was also comforting and real.
The other section of Honors English was reading Great Expectations. Mine was reading Walden; and I hid myself in the coolness and silence of the book, a refuge from the sheet-metal glare of the desert. During the morning break (where we were rounded up and made to go outside, in a chain-fenced yard near the vending machines), I stood in the shadiest corner I could find with my mass-market paperback and, with a red pencil, went through and underlined a lot of particularly bracing sentences: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” “A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.” What would Thoreau have made of Las Vegas: its lights and rackets, its trash and daydreams, its projections and hollow façades?
At my school, the sense of transience was unsettling. There were a lot of army brats, a lot of foreigners—many of them the children of executives who had come to Las Vegas for big managerial and construction jobs. Some of them had lived in nine or ten different states in as many years, and many of them had lived abroad: in Sydney, Caracas, Beijing, Dubai, Taipei. There were also a good many shy, half-invisible boys and girls whose parents had fled rural hardship for jobs as hotel busboys and chambermaids. In this new ecosystem money, or even good looks, did not seem to determine popularity; what mattered most, as I came to realize, was who’d lived in Vegas the longest, which was why the knock-down Mexican beauties and itinerant construction heirs sat alone at lunch while the bland, middling children of local realtors and car dealers were the cheerleaders and class presidents, the unchallenged elite of the school.
The days were clear and beautiful; and, as September rolled around, the hateful glare gave way to a certain luminosity, a dusty, golden quality. Sometimes I ate lunch at the Spanish Table, to practice my Spanish; sometimes I ate lunch at the German Table even though I didn’t speak German because several of the German II kids—children of Deutsche Bank and Lufthansa executives—had grown up in New York. Of my classes, English was the only one I looked forward to, yet I was disturbed by how many of my classmates disliked Thoreau, railed against him even, as if he (who claimed never to have learned anything of value from an old person) was an enemy and not a friend. His scorn of commerce—invigorating to me—nettled a lot of the more vocal kids in Honors English. “Yeah, right,” shouted an obnoxious boy whose hair was gelled and combed stiff like a Dragon Ball Z character—“some kind of world it would be if everybody just dropped out and moped around in the woods—”
“Me, me, me,” whined a voice in the back.
“It’s antisocial,” a loudmouth girl interjected eagerly over the laughter that followed this—shifting in her seat, turning back to the teacher (a limp, long-boned woman named Mrs. Spear, who always wore brown sandals and earthtone colors, and looked as if she was suffering from major depression). “Thoreau is always just sitting around on his can telling us how good he has it—”
“—Because,” said the Dragon Ball Z boy—his voice rising gleefully, “if everybody dropped out, like he’s saying to do? What kind of community would we have, if it was just people like him? We wouldn’t have hospitals and stuff. We wouldn’t have roads.”
“Twat,” mumbled a welcome voice—just loud enough for everybody around to hear.
I turned to see who had said this: the burnout-looking boy across the aisle, slouched and drumming his desk with his fingers. When he saw me looking at him, he raised a surprisingly lively eyebrow, as if to say: can you believe these fucking idiots?
“Did someone have something to say back there?” said Mrs. Spear.
“Like Thoreau gave a toss about roads,” said the burnout boy. His accent took me by surprise: foreign, I couldn’t place it.
“Thoreau was the first environmentalist,” said Mrs. Spear.
“He was also the first vegetarian,” said a girl in back.
“Figures,” said someone else. “Mr. Crunchy-chewy.”
“You’re all totally missing my point,” the Dragon Ball Z boy said excitedly. “Somebody has to build roads and not just sit in the woods looking at ants and mosquitoes all day. It’s called civilization.”
My neighbor let out a sharp, contemptuous bark of a laugh. He was pale and thin, not very clean, with lank dark hair falling in his eyes and the unwholesome wanness of a runaway, callused hands and black-circled nails chewed to the nub—not like the shiny-haired, ski-tanned skate rats from my school on the Upper West Side, punks whose dads were CEOs and Park Avenue surgeons, but a kid who might conceivably be sitting on a sidewalk somewhere with a stray dog on a rope.
“Well, to address some of these questions? I’d like for everybody to turn back to page fifteen,” Mrs. Spear said. “Where Thoreau is talking about his experiment in living.”
“Experiment how?” said Dragon Ball Z. “Why is living in the woods like he does any different from a caveman?”
The dark-haired boy scowled and sank deeper in his seat. He reminded me of the homeless-looking kids who stood around passing cigarettes back and forth on St. Mark’s Place, comparing scars, begging for change—same torn-up clothes and scrawny white arms; same black leather bracelets tangled at the wrists. Their multi-layered complexity was a sign I couldn’t read, though the general import was clear enough: different tribe, forget about it, I’m way too cool for you, don’t even try to talk to me. Such was my mistaken first impression of the only friend I made when I was in Vegas, and—as it turned out—one of the great friends of my life.
His name was Boris. Somehow we found ourselves standing together in the crowd that was waiting for the bus after school that day.
“Hah. Harry Potter,” he said, as he looked me over.
“Fuck you,” I said listlessly. It was not the first time, in Vegas, I’d heard the Harry Potter comment. My New York clothes—khakis, white oxford shirts, the tortoiseshell glasses which I unfortunately needed to see—made me look like a freak at a school where most people dressed in tank tops and flip flops.
“Where’s your broomstick?”
“Left it at Hogwarts,” I said. “What about you? Where’s your board?”
“Eh?” he said, leaning in to me and cupping his hand behind his ear with an old-mannish, deaf-looking gesture. He was half a head taller than me; along with jungle boots and bizarre old fatigues with the knees busted out, he was wearing a ratted-up black T-shirt with a snowboarding logo, Never Summer in white gothic letters.
“Your shirt,” I said, with a curt nod. “Not much boarding in the desert.”
“Nyah,” said Boris, pushing the stringy dark hair out of his eyes. “I don’t know how to snowboard. I just hate the sun.”
We ended up together on the bus, in the seat closest to the door—clearly an unpopular place to sit, judging from the urgent way other kids muscled and pushed to the rear, but I hadn’t grown up riding a school bus and apparently neither had he, as he too seemed to think it only natural to fling himself down in the first empty seat up front. For a while we didn’t say much, but it was a long ride and eventually we got talking. It turned out that he lived in Canyon Shadows too—but farther out, the end that was getting reclaimed by the desert, where a lot of the houses weren’t finished and sand stood in the streets.
“How long have you been here?” I aske
“Dunno. Two months maybe?” Though he spoke English fluently enough, with a strong Australian accent, there was also a dark, slurry undercurrent of something else: a whiff of Count Dracula, or maybe it was KGB agent. “Where are you from?”
“New York,” I said—and was gratified at his silent double-take, his lowered eyebrows that said: very cool. “What about you?”
He pulled a face. “Well, let’s see,” he said, slumping back in his seat and counting off the countries on his fingers. “I’ve lived in Russia, Scotland which was maybe cool but I don’t remember it, Australia, Poland, New Zealand, Texas for two months, Alaska, New Guinea, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Ukraine—”
He shrugged. “Mostly Australia, Russia, and Ukraine, though. Those three places.”
“Do you speak Russian?”
He made a gesture that I took to mean more or less. “Ukrainian too, and Polish. Though I’ve forgotten a lot. The other day, I tried to remember what was the word for ‘dragonfly’ and couldn’t.”
He obliged, something spitty and guttural.
“What does that mean?”
He chortled. “It means ‘Fuck you up the ass.’ ”
“Yeah? In Russian?”
He laughed, exposing grayish and very un-American teeth. “Ukrainian.”
“I thought they spoke Russian in the Ukraine.”
“Well, yes. Depends what part of Ukraine. They’re not so different languages, the two. Well—” click of the tongue, eye roll—“not so very much. Numbers are different, days of the week, some vocabulary. My name is spelled different in Ukrainian but in North America it’s easier to use Russian spelling and be Boris, not B-o-r-y-s. In the West everybody knows Boris Yeltsin…” he ticked his head to one side—“Boris Becker—”
“Eh?” he said sharply, turning as if I’d insulted him.
“Bullwinkle? Boris and Natasha?”
“Oh, yes. Prince Boris! War and Peace. I’m named like him. Although the surname of Prince Boris is Drubetskóy, not what you said.”
“So what’s your first language? Ukrainian?”
He shrugged. “Polish maybe,” he said, falling back in his seat, slinging his dark hair to one side with a flip of his head. His eyes were hard and humorous, very black. “My mother was Polish, from Rzeszów near the Ukrainian border. Russian, Ukrainian—Ukraine as you know was satellite of USSR, so I speak both. Maybe not Russian quite so much—it’s best for swearing and cursing. With Slavic languages—Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, even Czech—if you know one, you sort of get drift in all. But for me, English is easiest now. Used to be the other way around.”
“What do you think about America?”
“Everyone always smiles so big! Well—most people. Maybe not so much you. I think it looks stupid.”
He was, like me, an only child. His father (born in Siberia, a Ukrainian national from Novoagansk) was in mining and exploration. “Big important job—he travels the world.” Boris’s mother—his father’s second wife—was dead.
“Mine too,” I said.
He shrugged. “She’s been dead for donkey’s years,” he said. “She was an alkie. She was drunk one night and she fell out a window and died.”
“Wow,” I said, a bit stunned by how lightly he’d tossed this off.
“Yah, it sucks,” he said carelessly, looking out the window.
“So what nationality are you?” I said, after a brief silence.
“Well, if your mother’s Polish, and your dad’s Ukrainian, and you were born in Australia, that would make you—”
“Indonesian,” he said, with a sinister smile. He had dark, devilish, very expressive eyebrows that moved around a lot when he spoke.
“Well, my passport says Ukraine. And I have part citizenship in Poland too. But Indonesia is the place I want to get back to,” said Boris, tossing the hair out of his eyes. “Well—PNG.”
“Papua, New Guinea. It’s my favorite place I’ve lived.”
“New Guinea? I thought they had headhunters.”
“Not any more. Or not so many. This bracelet is from there,” he said, pointing to one of the many black leather strands on his wrist. “My friend Bami made it for me. He was our cook.”
“What’s it like?”
“Not so bad,” he said, glancing at me sideways in his brooding, self-amused way. “I had a parrot. And a pet goose. And, was learning to surf. But then, six months ago, my dad hauled me with him to this shaddy town in Alaska. Seward Peninsula, just below Arctic Circle? And then, middle of May—we flew to Fairbanks on a prop plane, and then we came here.”
“Wow,” I said.
“Dead boring up there,” said Boris. “Heaps of dead fish, and bad Internet connection. I should have run away—I wish I had,” he said bitterly.
“And done what?”
“Stayed in New Guinea. Lived on the beach. Thank God anyway we weren’t there all winter. Few years ago, we were up north in Canada, in Alberta, this one-street town off the Pouce Coupe River? Dark the whole time, October to March, and fuck-all to do except read and listen to CBC radio. Had to drive fifty klicks to do our washing. Still—” he laughed—“loads better than Ukraine. Miami Beach, compared.”
“What does your dad do again?”
“Drink, mainly,” said Boris sourly.
“He should meet my dad, then.”
Again the sudden, explosive laugh—almost like he was spitting over you. “Yes. Brilliant. And whores?”
“Wouldn’t be surprised,” I said, after a small, startled pause. Though not too much my dad did shocked me, I had never quite envisioned him hanging out in the Live Girls and Gentlemen’s Club joints we sometimes passed on the highway.
The bus was emptying out; we were only a few streets from my house. “Hey, this is my stop up here,” I said.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on72 votes