And so I find myself standing here, on the threshold of where I grew up, feeling utterly awkward. I knock, and a stranger opens the door. The first thing that comes to mind: what is she doing here? The second thing: she is young, much too young for him. The third: her hair. Red.
I try not to stare—but to my astonishment, this girl with the kittenish eyes seems to be my age, so much younger than I have previously expected. Her name is the one thing I know for sure: Anita. She moves fast, and with a slight sway of the hips, just like my mother, which makes me want to forget, for a moment, that she is not.
She lays a hand on my suitcase, and she drags the thing—as if it were a wounded hostage—into what used to be my room. I walk in behind her, captivated, at each step, by folds playing across her tight, short skirt.
“There,” says Anita.
And she kicks the thing to the corner of the room, shoving it along the way from side to side to make it fit, somehow, under the shelf, where some of my old childhood knickknacks are still on display.
And there, half hidden behind my old baseball mitt, is a flimsy metal frame with a dusty glass, under which is a picture I have nearly forgotten: a picture of my family from ages ago.
Here is me, a ten year old boy smiling timidly, with a metal brace shining across the front teeth. Here is dad, hugging me with his right hand, and mom, hugging me with her left. The ring on her finger happens to catch the light. Their cheeks nearly touch, because they were such a perfect fit—or so I thought.
Meanwhile, Anita turns on her heels to ask me, “You tired?”
“No,” I feel compelled to lie, because who is she to ask me anything.
“OK, fine,” she says, shrugging. “Want some warm milk or something, before bed?”
To which I say, “What, you think I’m a baby?”
With one swift step Anita is right here beside me, which takes me entirely by surprise. With no shame whatsoever, she looks me up and down and bursts out laughing, a deep, throaty kind of a laugh.
“You? A baby? Oh, no,” she says. “Definitely not that. What are you, twenty-five now?”
“Your father told me so much about you.”
“Really? He did?”
“I feel like I know you already,” she points playfully at the picture. “See there, how tight they used to hold you?”
I shrug, and she goes on, “I can almost hear them say, Don’t touch this, Ben. Don’t touch that. I can almost hear you, too, like, Don’t touch me here. Don’t touch me there. Just don’t. Don’t you dare.”
Ben in The White Piano
★ Love reading? Treat yourself to a family saga ★
The complete series:
Volume I & II, woven together: