From STEAL THE NORTH by Heather Brittain Bergstrom. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Heather Brittain Bergstrom, 2014.
STEAL THE NORTH
Heather Brittain Bergstrom
Chapter One: Emmy
Until the summer I was sixteen and my mom sent me away, I lived with her in a Sacramento apartment located above a shop that sold seaweed powders, mood mists, Buddha statues, even menstruation journals. According to Mom, the women who frequented the shop were either rich and bored or neurotic. I loved everything about the shop, from the chanting monk music to the smell of sandalwood, and I regularly spent my allowance on tarot cards, amulets, and wishing pots. Mom taught English at three different junior colleges, and because her hours were sporadic and the colleges far apart, I was often alone, though never overnight. We had no family in the Sacramento Valley, or anywhere in California. Our only relatives in the whole world, supposedly, were a few distant cousins up north in Washington, and Mom had left them in the dust when she boarded a southbound bus with me, a baby on her hip. Los Angeles was her original destination, but I kept throwing up, and Mom liked the sycamore trees that shaded the city streets in Sacramento.
As for my dad, I was told he died the day I was born.
Mom didn’t mean he literally died. I learned this the hard way after a fellow second grader teased that he too would’ve keeled over at the sight of my ugly face pushing out of my mom’s vagina. “I meant the most important part of your dad died the day you were born and he didn’t claim you,” Mom explained. “And you have a beautiful face.”
“So, he’s still alive?” I almost levitated.
She hesitated before replying, which was rare. “No, Emmy.” She said my dad, raised on a wheat farm in eastern Washington, was killed in a tractor accident. He’d always been reckless. “I’m sorry,
“Did you love him?”
“Too much.” I didn’t understand then how you can love someone too much. Now I recognize it’s the only way I know how to love.
After I finished crying, she made me swear I’d never again have a sad thought for that man. But it was my dad, I soon realized, she thought about when we drove mostly in somber silence around the rice fields north of Sacramento. It cheered Mom to drive east on weekends, through quaint foothill towns or even high into the Sierras, which seemed to me as a little girl the loneliest place, haunted by starving Donner Party ghosts. If Mom were to fall apart, I had no one, so I pretended to forget about my dad. Mom had left her past at the California border and never glanced back. I often consulted my tarot decks about her mysterious past and my future. Not even my favorite pack, Healing with the Fairies, warned me about the phone call that came near the end of my junior year.
Actually my life had already been changing behind my mom’s back with a boy named Connor, which was why I was late getting home from school the day she got the phone call. I attended a private “artsy-smartsy” school, which Mom mocked, even though she chose it. The high cost of my tuition despite my almost full-ride scholarship—in addition to Mom’s own student loan payments, kept us stuck in the same small apartment we’d always rented. Not that she or I really minded. Mom preferred living in “midtown” among community theaters, ethnic restaurants, and used bookstores. She said it was far better than renting a larger apartment in a gated complex across from a shopping mall. It was Tuesday, and Mom usually taught class until eight. Three days a week I waited in my school library until five for Mom to pick me up, or at least I was supposed to. The other two days, like today, I was supposed to take public transit home. Connor had dropped me off at the corner.
“The service club held an emergency meeting after school,” I lied. “About the end-of-the-year food drive.” I was on the academic decathlon team and vice president of three clubs on campus. In order to retain my scholarship at Valley Art Academy—the largest secular private high school in northern California, outside the Bay Area—I had to stay involved, and Mom wanted no blanks on my college applications. Connor had written me a list of excuses to use if I ever got busted. At the top, he’d written, “Busy fucking my beautiful boyfriend.”
“Sit down,” she said. “We need to talk.”
“I took the later bus with Harpreet.” Another lie. Connor said to keep it simple, but I lacked confidence. “We stopped—” She waved her hand. I was going to say that we’d stopped for samosas at Harpreet’s parents’ restaurant. I wished. Harpreet had a large family and wasn’t really allowed to hang out with anyone except her cousins. Still, she was the closest thing I had to a friend. We both loved Leonardo DiCaprio (she for Titanic, which she saw at the theater three times over Christmas break, I for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Romeo & Juliet). We ate lunch together every day at school.
Mom seemed distracted and had yet to make eye contact with me.
“What is it, Mom?” I asked, taking off my heavy backpack and leaning my art portfolio against the wall. I sat down obediently on the couch. She continued to stand. I no longer felt worried about getting busted. Something else was wrong. Something bigger. Nonetheless, if Mom had any idea about Connor, especially what he’d just had me do in his bedroom, she would be dumbfounded and probably repulsed. She thought I was still a virgin and encouraged me to remain so until college. I needed to clean myself in the bathroom.
“Fuck,” Mom said, and began to pace. She didn’t often cuss. “Fuck.”
“Did something happen to Spencer?” My heart pounded. He and Mom had been dating since I was twelve. I adored him. She tried to act as if she didn’t.
“Spencer?” She almost looked at me, and I wished she would. “This has nothing to do with him.”
I knew Mom loved Spencer, but sometimes it seemed she didn’t want him to be part of anything. She’d had other, far-shorter-term boyfriends in the past, but those men she’d kept completely out of my life as if afraid she’d psychologically scar me. When I was younger, I used to occasionally hear her on the phone late at night with men. Once I found a guy’s sock in her room. She insisted the cat must’ve dragged it in. What cat?
“Sorry,” I said now about Spencer. Jeez.
She waved her hand again, then sat down in the European-looking chair we’d bought years ago at a flea market. It had crushed velvet cushions, but one of its legs was too short. She seemed to forget this and jumped when the chair tilted. “Shit chair.” She stood back up.
“But so much character,” I reminded her, which was why we wouldn’t let Spencer fix it. Mom called the chair Isabel, after her favorite Henry James character. Beautiful but flawed.
“You’re going to hate me, Emmy.” Finally she looked straight at me but remained standing. “I mean really hate me before tonight is over with.”
“That’s stupid.” We both had a flair for the dramatic, as Spencer once made the mistake of pointing out to Mom. “I could never hate you.” Though I already did sometimes, or almost, and not just for big things like making me switch schools (in her endless pursuit of the best one to get me into U.C. Berkeley). Lately she could just be sitting across the table and I would hate her, just for a second, but it scared me. I’d have to go into my bedroom and light a detoxification candle or make an origami peace crane. Plenty of kids at school despised their parents, or pretended to. I didn’t want to despise my mom. She was smart, funny, and hardworking. And yes, she was controlling, as Connor always said. But again, she was all I had.
Mom sat down in the wicker chair over which a paisley throw hid the out-of- style southwestern design. She took a deep breath, paused, and said, “I have a sister—in Washington.”
“No, you don’t,” I protested. She was an only child, like me. Right around the age I quit playing with dolls, I begged her to have another baby. I wanted a relative. What if she were to die? Did she want me all alone on the earth?
“My little sister found me.”
“Found?” That made no sense. “You’ve been hiding from her?” I figured Mom’s childhood hadn’t been easy or she would’ve talked to me more about it, but to have never told me she had a sister and I had an aunt, that was mental.
Not necessarily hiding.” She crossed her legs, then uncrossed them. Men stared at her legs. Spencer rubbed them when they sat close on the couch. “It’s more like I’ve been keeping some distance between me and the place she is a part of.”
“What?” I was even more confused. And keeping “some distance”? She meant a chasm. The walls of our apartment started to close in on me for the first time. “Why would you do that, Mom?” I demanded.
“Hold on. It gets worse.” She took another deep breath. “Your aunt isn’t the only person I’ve kept secret from you.” She asked me if I was ready for the bomb. “Your dad, Emmy—he isn’t dead.”
It was all too much. I went to bed for three days, sick like an Austen or a Brontë character who’d foolishly wandered the moors in a storm, with a strong will but weak ankles. Only the moors were my mom’s past, and I couldn’t find my way. No man on a steed came to rescue me. Connor didn’t even call to inquire why I wasn’t at school. No doctor, fetched at a great price, came to bleed me, and I was too chicken to cut myself like some girls at school did. Certainly no faithful sister wept at my bedside. As for my “grief-stricken” mom, I didn’t want her near me. Whenever she came into my room to bring me food or to plead with me to please get up, I’d hide under the covers. Either she felt terribly guilty for all her monstrous lies or my willfulness shocked and disorientated her because she’d retreat without pulling rank. I spent hours going over everything she’d told me, all the way up to why her sister had called, which was most frightening of all. If I thought of Mom’s past like a novel, it was easier.