OLYMPIA LOUISE HELLINGER HAD always been the “Beautiful One” in her family. Among her sisters, she was also understood to be the Artistic One, the Flaky One, the Chronically Late One, the Mellow One, the Selfish One, and the Unambitious One. Whether reality reflected reputation was a matter of opinion. But at thirty-eight she was the events coordinator of a small museum of contemporary Austrian art, located on the Upper East Side. She was also a single mother. Little wonder that, as much as she loved spending time with her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Lola, she also longed for more hours to herself.
For years, Olympia had been painting watercolors of little girls and furry animals. This had been true even before she’d given birth to Lola—or brought home Clive, a borderline-obese New Zealand white rabbit with pink eyes, from a local pet store. In her spare time, Olympia also enjoyed shopping for clothes; listening to music; setting up other single friends on blind dates; perusing symptoms lists on WebMD and fearing that she’d contracted a fatal disease (and feeling, somehow, that she deserved it); and then, as a distraction from her worries, drinking too much and reading the mystery and espionage novels she’d loved since she was a child, beginning with Harriet the Spy.
A week before Christmas, however, a more serious form of sleuthing beckoned. Impatient to begin, Olympia started “bath time” fifteen minutes earlier than usual. “Story time” followed. For the sixth night in a row, Lola wanted Olympia to read her Madeline’s Rescue. Miss Clavel having turned off the light for the last time, Lola demanded that her mother “ask her a silly question.”
Olympia complied with this request as well. “Excuse me,” she began. “But there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. Can you explain to me why there’s a slice of pizza coming out of your elbow?”
“Ask me another silly question,” Lola replied with a giggle.
“I was also wondering why there’s a piece of celery sticking out of your ear?”
That was apparently an even funnier image to behold. Lola laughed so hard she burped.
“Also,” said Olympia, “could someone tell me why there’s a cheese sandwich attached to your behind?”
Now in stitches, Lola collapsed onto her mother’s lap, then the rug. Enchanted by the sound of her daughter’s laughter, Olympia momentarily forgot what a rush she was in, bent over Lola’s tiny body, and, in an attempt to prolong her hysterics, tickled her exposed tummy. (Lola’s beloved Disney Princess nightgown, a hot-pink firetrap given to her by her babysitter and featuring the entire royal assemblage clustered like newscasters on a billboard, had ridden up to her armpits.)
Shortly thereafter, Olympia’s internal clock resumed ticking. “And now it’s sleepy time for Sleeping Beauty,” she announced, lifting Lola into the air with her as she stood up.
“I’m Belle—not Sleeping Beauty,” declared Lola, her laughter abruptly ceasing.
“Well, Queen Mommy has decreed that all princesses must be asleep by eight thirty.”
“One more silly question.”
“No. You have school tomorrow.”
“It’s not real school. It’s daycare.”
Olympia released a heavy sigh of exasperation before attempting to regain the upper hand. “Okay, here’s my last silly question: can you please tell me why you’re not in bed already?”
“That’s not silly.”
“But you didn’t sing ‘Favorite Things’ or do ‘This Little Piggy’ yet!”
Olympia had a new tack. “If I do both things, do you promise to go to sleep?”
“Okay,” Lola agreed.
“But do you promise?”
And so Olympia assigned neighborhood destinations to all ten of Lola’s toes. Then she did her best Julie Andrews impression. Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes!, she sang in a high register, secretly impressed with her own vocal skills and, for a split second, wondering if she could have made it a career. Silver white winters that meld into spring, she went on. Or was it melt into spring? And did it matter? Finally, Olympia arrived at the last of the feel so bads. “Okay, that’s it. It’s eight thirty,” she said. It was actually eight twenty-seven; luckily, Lola hadn’t yet learned to tell time.
Olympia deposited Lola in her toddler bed, then switched off the butterfly lamp on her dresser. The room went dark but for the fluorescent glow of a night-light.
“Noooooo!” moaned Lola. “No sleep. Not tired.”
“Lola, you promised!!” said Olympia, her temperature rising.
“What are you scared of? I’m going to be in the next room.”
“I’m scared of the dark.”
“Don’t be silly. It’s not even that dark in here.”
“Is too,” said Lola, throwing her legs over the side of the bed as if preparing to stand up again…
Blood rushed to Olympia’s cheeks and forehead. “ENOUGH!” she cried. “YOU’RE DRIVING ME FUCKING INSANE!!” With that, she pushed her daughter back onto the mattress—harder than she’d meant to.
Lola burst into hysterical tears. Guilt and fear consumed Olympia. How soon before Children’s Services arrived? “I’m sorry I yelled at you,” she said, taking Lola back into her arms. “Mommy’s had a long day.” As Olympia held her close, she lamented the wet spot forming on her new blouse, but felt unable to justify altering the position of her daughter’s drooling mouth.
“You pushed me, too.” The child wept. “You’re a bad mommy!”
“All right, all right,” said Olympia, who, despite feeling bad, thought Lola was laying it on a little thick. “Sometimes grown-ups get mad just like kids get mad.”
“What does ‘fugging’ mean?”
“It means ‘very.’ But only grown-ups can use it.”
“Like, I’m fugging hungry?”
“Something like that,” said Olympia, cringing.
Lola’s bedroom was really just an alcove of her mother’s, separated by a curtain. “Will you lay on your bed until I’m asleep?” she asked.
Every night, Olympia told herself she wasn’t going to do so anymore. And every night she did. How could she say no now? “Okay, but only for two minutes,” she said.
Two minutes, of course, turned into twenty-five, during which time Lola issued a stream of unanswerable questions (“Why can’t people fly?” “Why does cheese smell?” “Why don’t cows and dogs wear underpants?”). Finally assured of her daughter’s slowed breathing and splayed limbs, Olympia tiptoed out of her bedroom and, half closing the door behind her, felt as if she’d just posted bail from a developing-world prison.
Her interests never strayed far from her captor, however. After downing the remainder of a half-filled glass of Côtes du Rhône, Olympia walked over to her black file cabinet—once a floor model; hence the dent—and pulled out a manila folder marked “Lola-Birth.” She opened the folder and removed several sheets of rumpled copy paper, the first page of which was headed “Anonymous Donor Profile #6103.” It had been several years since she’d looked at the printout. Earlier that evening, gazing in fascination at Lola’s hazel eyes, abundant freckles, and flaming red curls, Olympia—who had straight brown hair, light olive skin, and green eyes—had wondered if she’d missed some salient detail that the profile contained.
To both her relief and her disappointment, as she read through the document, she found nothing new in it:
Height: 6′ 1″
Weight: 185 lbs
Education: B.A., Ivy League college
Occupation: medical school student
Describes himself as: motivated, thoughtful
Athletic skills: rowing, lacrosse, and cross-country skiing
Education/occupation of father: businessman
Education/occupation of mother: homemaker
Favorite movies: Shawshank Redemption, Wedding Crashers
Favorite sports team: Boston Red Sox
Favorite author: Ralph Waldo Emerson
Chromosome analysis: normal male 46…
Clearly the hunky scion of a grand old WASP family, down on its luck, Olympia had thought at the time she’d purchased his genetic material—back when that assumption had been enough. Back then, she’d liked the idea of having a child with no identifiable paternity. Wounded by a tumultuous love affair with a married man that left her in doubt about the self-sufficiency on which she prided herself (and deeply ashamed as well), she’d seen the arrangement as refreshingly uncomplicated. Plus, the married man had had a vasectomy, so there had been no question of becoming pregnant by him.
It was only recently that Olympia had begun to question her decision to have a family on her own. Increasingly, she felt as if there was no one to share her daughter’s small but, to Olympia’s mind, miraculous milestones—from Lola’s first steps without holding on, to the first time she’d drawn a figure with arms and legs, to her sudden ability to write her own name in crooked caps. Olympia’s friends, even those who were parents, couldn’t be expected to care. Her own parents seemed distracted. And when Olympia tried to tell her older sister, Imperia (known as “Perri”), her sister invariably pointed out that her daughter, Sadie, had done whatever it was six months earlier than Lola had.
Olympia also dreaded the inevitable day when Lola would ask who her father was. What would Olympia say? He was a doctor who moved to remote Bangladesh to aid cholera victims?
Little wonder that she’d begun to fantasize about finding the man behind the number. On one level, she knew it was a terrible idea and that she was better off idealizing a set of disembodied statistics than going through the inevitable heartbreak of locating someone—if it was even possible—who didn’t want to be a father except maybe in the most abstract sense. According to his listed birth date, #6103 was nearly ten years younger than Olympia; in all likelihood, he’d donated for the beer money. But curiosity and longing had proven stronger than reason. And so Olympia had taken to picturing the three of them—herself, Lola, and Lola’s virile young father—engaged in wholesome outdoorsy activities of the kind she imagined he must like (e.g., rowing across an algae-infested lake in New Hampshire). Not that Olympia had ever enjoyed sports or the outdoors, but maybe she could learn to do so.
She’d also taken to imagining #6103, a reluctant father at first, being won over by Lola’s undeniable adorableness. These visions fixed in her head, Olympia had already started to make inquiries. She’d combed various message boards and donor registries—so far to no avail. But maybe there was another way…
Olympia woke the next morning to find that it was flurrying outside. Considering that she could locate only a single pink polka-dotted mitten, she bundled Lola up as best as she could—and instructed her to keep one hand in her pocket. (“Bad mommy,” Lola told her for the second time in twelve hours.) Then, just as she’d done countless times before, Olympia wheeled her daughter the six blocks necessary to reach the Happy Kids Daycare Center, where she turned her over to two sexpots from Brighton Beach who appeared to be barely out of high school; wore low-cut glittery tops and sweatpants with words like “Player” and “Foxy” spelled out in script across the ass; and seemed utterly indifferent to children. Then again, Happy Kids charged only ten bucks per hour, which made Olympia a Happy Grown-up.
After dropping off Lola, Olympia caught the 4 train to the Upper East Side. Exiting the 86th Street station, she walked east to the modern town house that contained the museum. The director and chief curator was Viveka Pichler, a barely thirty possible android with a Cleopatra haircut who wore four-inch-high gladiator sandals all seasons of the year. Viveka had never been seen eating anything except eel sushi. She was also legally blind, a point of fact that, for obvious reasons, she kept a secret. Rumor had it that the money for Kunsthaus New York had been provided by Viveka’s father, who’d made his fortune inventing a high-performance tire rubber for Formula One racing cars and other speed machines. Three years earlier, despite limited familiarity with the region and only rudimentary knowledge of the native language, Olympia had been delighted to accept a job at the museum. How bad could it be? she’d thought. Maybe she’d even score free airfare to Europe. And weren’t Gustav Klimt and his protégé, Egon Schiele, two of her favorite painters? What’s more, she’d left her previous position to spend time with Lola, then an infant. And her checking account had been hovering dangerously close to zero.
The museum’s curatorial offices were to the right of the galleries. Viveka worked in one of them. The other three employees—Olympia and Viveka’s assistants, two unsmiling twenty-something Austrians named Annmarie and Maximilian—worked in the other. The walls, chairs, desks, and computers were all white. For any measure of privacy, one had to leave the museum entirely or barricade oneself in the bathroom or supply closet, which, naturally, was filled with white paper clips and white pencils.
Later that morning, unable to forestall her curiosity until lunchtime, Olympia found herself crouched in the closet and calling the Cryobank of Park Avenue in search of Dawn Calico (now Cronin), her old high school classmate turned head nurse.
Four-plus years earlier, Olympia had been prostrate and in stirrups—and about to be inseminated—when she’d discovered the connection. “Wait, don’t tell me you’re the Pia Hellinger I used to know at Hastings High?!” Dawn had crowed excitedly from between Olympia’s legs.
Olympia had wanted to disappear under the examining table. How soon before her entire high school graduating class knew it had come to this? “That’s me,” she’d said in a tiny voice.
“So, if you don’t mind me asking,” Dawn had gone on as she parted Olympia’s thighs and inserted a catheter. “How does ‘Miss Most Likely to Become a French Movie Star’ end up in need of sperm?”
“I wasn’t ‘Most Likely to Become a French Movie Star,’ ” Olympia had protested meekly. “I was ‘Most Likely to Live in France.’ ” A founding member of the high school improv troupe, Dawn herself had been voted “Most Likely to Have Her Own TV Talk Show by Age Twenty-five.” Though, if Olympia had had any say in the matter, Dawn’s crowning superlative would have been “Most Annoying Person in All of Westchester County.”
“All I know is that Brad Gadzak was hot for you,” Dawn had continued. “And he was the hottest guy in high school.”
“Brad Gadzak. Wow. I haven’t thought about him in years. Do you know what happened to him?” asked Olympia, flinching on all fronts.
“Last I heard, he was an Outward Bound instructor in Alaska with a harem of Inuit supermodels. Anyway, that’s it!” She withdrew the catheter.
“Great!” Olympia had said, while fighting the urge to flee to the frozen north herself.
“Does Dawn still work here?” she now asked the receptionist, her back pressed to the supply closet door.
Within seconds, Dawn came on the line, and said, “Hello?”
“It’s Pia… Hellinger!” she said, trying to sound upbeat.
“Hey, Baby Mama,” said Dawn. “How the heck are you?”
“We’re all great. How are you and your brood?”
“Haven’t pulled an Andrea Yates yet.”
“Well, that’s good.” Olympia laughed lightly as she ran through the accumulated tabloid stories in her head and tried to recall to which one Andrea Yates owed her notoriety. Was she the woman who drove off a bridge with her kids? Or was that Susan Something? “So listen,” she began again in a faux-casual voice. “I’m sure you don’t remember this, but I used six-one-oh-three.”
“Ah, the ever-popular six-one-oh-three.” Dawn sighed, alarming Olympia. Exactly how many of his “motivated, thoughtful” progeny were toddling around Brownstone Brooklyn and the Upper West Side?
“Right, him,” said Olympia. “Anyway, this is kind of embarrassing, but I’ve sort of been obsessing about the guy. And I was wondering if there was anything you could tell me about him that isn’t on the profile, even if it’s just a first name.” She held her breath.
“Listen, sweets: nothing would make me happier than dishing dirt,” said Dawn. “But I can’t. Bank policy.”
“I totally understand,” said Olympia, already wishing she’d never asked.
Before she hung up, Dawn made Olympia promise to stop by “the bank” some time with Lola to say hello.
Olympia would rather have run naked through Times Square.
Exiting the supply room, she was further distressed to find Viveka standing there, hands on her nonexistent hips. Had she overheard Olympia’s conversation? “We promote the fine art of Austria here,” was all she said before stomping away in her gladiators.
“Too bad you can’t see it,” Olympia muttered to herself on her way back to her desk.
And then, two weeks later, the Inevitable Day arrived. It happened to be January 1. Olympia was getting herself and Lola ready for the Hellinger family’s annual New Year’s Day brunch. (Olympia looked forward to and dreaded the event in equal parts. She fitted Lola’s arms into her favorite pink polyester-velour jumper dress with the rubberized heart decal. Lola’s closet was filled with beautiful European fashions by Jacadi, Catimini, and Bon Nuit, most of them purchased secondhand on eBay. But the child’s most cherished dresses were from Target and the Disney store. Olympia was wearing skintight dark-wash cigarette jeans, a black wool turtleneck, gray suede booties, a short fake-fur jacket, and oversized square sunglasses. Which is to say that she still cared about keeping up appearances in front of her two sisters—namely, the appearance that she led such a busy and sophisticated existence that she lacked both the time and energy to care what they thought of her, even though, in truth, she obsessed about them constantly. “Mommy, who’s my daddy?” Lola asked.
“You don’t have a daddy, cookie,” Olympia replied in the most lighthearted voice she could summon.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Because not everyone has a mommy and a daddy. Some kids have just a mommy. A few have just a daddy… There, you’re all zipped!” How could she lie? If she made up someone, Olympia had decided, Lola would just ask to meet him. In preparation for this moment, Olympia had bought her daughter picture books about “modern families.” But the child seemed completely uninterested. Apart from Madeline, her favorite titles were Olivia and The Story of Babar, both of which featured mommies and daddies, all of the four-legged variety, but still.
“And a few kids just have gymnastics teachers,” Lola said.
Olympia had no clue what her daughter was talking about. But not wanting to disappoint any more of her expectations, she said, “That’s right. A few just have gymnastics teachers.” Then she lifted up Lola’s dress and yanked her bunching turtleneck down over her Tiana underpants. Tiana was Lola’s favorite Disney Princess, a fact that Olympia advertised widely, believing it reflected well on her own parenting since Tiana was the only African American in the stable.
Seemingly unfazed, Lola soon moved on to a new line of questioning: “Mommy, what day comes after Friday, again?”
But the earlier inquiry haunted Olympia the whole way from Brooklyn to Larchmont. That was where Olympia’s sister, Perri, almost forty, lived with her husband, Mike, forty-one, and their three naturally conceived children: Aiden, nine; Sadie, six; and Noah, just two.
To pass the time it took to get there, Olympia suggested that Lola try to count the number of people in their Metro-North car. “One… twoooo… threeeee,” the child began in a high-pitched cheep, standing up in her seat as she pointed at the various domes in her line of vision. “Foooour… fiiiive… six… seven… eight… nine… ten… eleven… twelve… thirteen… fifteen… sixteen.”
Olympia sighed and tutted with undisguised frustration. “After thirteen comes fourteen. Then fifteen.” How many times did she have to go over it? She knew you weren’t supposed to judge children at this age. And yet Lola’s inability to count to twenty had left Olympia secretly dubious about the child’s intelligence, and, by association, the mental faculties of #6103. What if he’d lied about his Ivy League degree and was actually a high school dropout who worked in a supermarket parking lot, corralling shopping carts? Or maybe he didn’t even have a job, not on account of the recession but because he’d never even tried to get one, preferring to spend his days on street corners making lewd remarks at passing women—when he wasn’t busy relieving himself at sperm banks. Or maybe it was all the infant formula that Olympia had fed Lola when she was a newborn. Olympia had managed to breastfeed for only four weeks, and even then she’d supplemented. No doubt that was ten points erased from Lola’s IQ right there. Olympia fretted, then scolded herself for obsessing.
Mount Vernon East was the next stop, followed by Pelham and New Rochelle. Finally, the train pulled into lily-white Larchmont. The doors slid open. Olympia grabbed Lola’s hand, and the two stepped down and out. BMW’s 5 Series ruled the station parking lot. Olympia flagged an idling taxi. Five minutes later, she and Lola were turning up North Chatsworth Avenue, past a fake stone well, into a woodsy development with big old homes. Perri and Mike’s circa-1930 “stockbroker Tudor,” as they were locally known, sat up high on a hillock. Pristine snow blanketed the sloping front lawn. A silver late-model Lexus SUV was parked at the end of a neatly shoveled, S-shaped driveway. Another well-defined path led to an oak front door with miniature yellow square windows and a giant brass knocker. “Here we are,” chimed Olympia in as enthusiastic a voice as she could muster.
“I want to ring the bell,” said Lola.
“Hold on,” said Olympia, lifting her into the air.
With difficulty, Lola pressed her tiny thumb into the opalescent button.
Moments later, Perri appeared in the doorway. “Well, look who’s shockingly on time!” she declared.
“Happy New Year to you, too,” said Olympia, leaning in to greet her big sister.
“Same to you, Anna Wintour,” said Perri, returning the air kiss.
“Try to be nice,” said Olympia, sighing as she lifted her sunglasses to the top of her head. Did her sister ever stop?
“It might kill me,” conceded Perri as she closed the door behind them.
“Try anyway,” said Olympia.
“And how’s my favorite niece?” asked Perri, squatting to embrace Lola. “You know, your aunt Perri has missed you.”
Lola dutifully clutched Perri around the knees before she announced, “I want apple juice.”
“Lola, say ‘please’ before you ask for something,” said Olympia.
“Please I want apple juice,” said Lola.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” said Perri, making a clown face. “We don’t keep juice in the house for kids.” She glanced up and over at Olympia. “You know, juice is terrible for their teeth.”
“She doesn’t drink very much of it,” said Olympia, irked again. “Besides, it’s mostly bourbon for this girl.” She patted Lola’s head.
“Excuse me!” said Perri, eyes bugging.
“That was a joke.”
“Oh. Funny!” Perri flashed an exaggeratedly bright smile as she stood up.
While Olympia removed her jacket, she glanced around her. To the left of the entrance, a silver-framed botanical print hung over a mahogany console topped with an alabaster lamp fitted with a silk shade. She thought of the many guided tours through the Great Homes of the Hudson Valley to which their mother had subjected them while they were growing up. The writing desk to the left is a Chippendale original, purchased by Josiah Archibald Stanhope III, Franklin Roosevelt’s great-uncle once removed, in 1761. Olympia still remembered getting chewed out by a guard for trying to swing on a velvet rope…
“Sorry,” said Perri, teeth gritted apologetically, “but would you guys mind taking off your shoes, too? We just got our rugs cleaned.”
“Not a problem,” said Olympia, unfazed as she bent down to unzip Lola’s boots. Her sister’s hang-up about dirt and germs had a long history. What’s more, Perri’s neurotic worldview wasn’t entirely alien to Olympia herself. The two shared a deep loathing of stray hairs, especially those found blanketing drains and curling around bars of soap. Unlike Olympia, however, Perri had found a way to monetize her madness: she was the cofounder and CEO of a home organization company called In the Closet. After starting out as an in-home consultation service, it had since expanded to encompass an online store, a magazine, a catalogue, a smart phone app, and numerous accessories lines. When the economy improved, Perri was hoping to take the company public.
“I appreciate it,” said Perri who, Olympia noticed upon closer viewing, was wearing an ivory silk blouse with a wedding present–sized bow, a long brown cardigan the color of dog doo, boot-legged camel-colored wool trousers with a crease down the front of each leg, and matching patent leather flats with hieroglyphic-like gold hardware on each toe.
Olympia had never understood where her sister got her fashion sense. Insofar as it made for a sharp contrast with what Olympia considered to be her own impeccable eye, it both alarmed and tickled her. “New pants?” she found herself asking.
Perri suddenly froze in place, her expression stricken. “What? You think they’re ugly?” she asked.
“I just asked if they were new!” cried Olympia, not entirely genuinely.
“I could tell what you were thinking.”
“You have ESP?”
“I’m not stupid. You think I look fat in them, too. Just admit it.”
“Ohmygod, can you please stop being so insecure about your appearance?” said Olympia, sighing and rolling her eyes again (and secretly enjoying herself).
“But you don’t like them,” said Perri.
“They’re a little—I don’t know—mustard for my taste,” said Olympia, wrinkling her nose. “To be honest, I think your whole look could use some updating. It’s kind of stuck in the nineties.” A thought struck her: Was she being a horrible bitch? Did Perri deserve it?
“Well, I’m sorry we can’t all be fashion plates!” cried Perri, neck elevated.
“Anyway.” Apparently done with the topic, Perri cleared her throat. Then she turned to Lola, and said, “You know, Sadie is very excited to play with you.”
“I want to see her. Where she is?” said Lola, who worshiped her not-quite-three-years-older cousin as if she were a small god. Olympia found the attachment both endearing and disturbing.
“I think she’s up in her room,” said Perri, raising her eyes to the stairs, over which dozens upon dozens of family photos in identical, pristine white wood frames blanketed the wall. “Oh, Saaaadiieee!” Perri called up to her. “Lola and Aunt Pia are here!”
“NO KIDS WHO AREN’T IN HOGWARTS SCHOOL OF WITCHCRAFT AND WIZARDRY ARE ALLOWED IN MY ROOM!” came the reply.
“Sadie, Lola has come all the way from Brooklyn to see you,” Perri barked with a noticeably tense jaw. “Please be nice.”
“I don’t feel like being nice,” Sadie called back.
Turning back to Olympia, Perri shook her head, and, her lids heavy over her eyes, sighed. “Apparently, this is what you get when you birth a frigging genius,” she said, making quote marks in the air. “You know, Sadie has an IQ of two-ten and is reading at a fourth-grade level already.”
“I didn’t know that,” said Olympia, flinching internally. “Cookie, why don’t we go say hi to Grandma instead.”
“But I want to see Sadie!” cried Lola.
At that very moment, Carol Hellinger, Perri and Olympia’s mother, appeared in the hallway. She was dressed in a purple cowl-neck sweater, a long peasant skirt made of kente cloth, and a clunky necklace that appeared to have been made of shark teeth and that sat nearly horizontally over her prodigious bosom. A navy blue bandana, tied like a kerchief, half obscured her silver-speckled pageboy. More or less the right age to have been a member of the original hippie movement, she’d somehow managed to absorb the style of the day without any of the tenets (i.e., free love, drug use). And she’d clung to the look long after her more freewheeling peers had moved on to sportswear. For the previous twenty-five years, Carol had been teaching social studies at the local high school, with a special focus on ancient Rome and Greece. At Smith College in the 1960s, she’d been a classics major—hence, the heroic and dynastic names of her three daughters, names to which they could never live up. (Olympia and Imperia’s younger sister was named Augusta.) Or, at least, Olympia felt as if she could never fulfill the dreams of world domination sacrificed by her mother after she got pregnant and failed to pursue graduate school—and put all her ambition into her kids.
“Pia!” declared Carol, arms outstretched as she walked toward her middle daughter.
“Hi, Mom,” said Olympia, bending down to kiss her mother, who, at five foot one, stood nearly eight inches shorter than her.
“Don’t you look like your glamorous self.”
“And how’s my Little Orphan Annie?” Carol turned to Lola. “Come say hi to your old grandma.”
“Mom, I really wish you wouldn’t call her an orphan,” said Olympia, annoyed already. “She does have a mother.”
“I was just alluding to the hair!”
“Grandma,” came a voice from inside Carol’s bosom. “Are you going to die soon?”
“Lola, shush,” said Olympia, irritation turning to embarrassment.
“I certainly hope not!” Carol said, laughing caustically as she released her granddaughter.
Lola turned to Olympia, her brow knit. “But you said people die when they get really old.”
“Grandma’s not that old,” Olympia said quickly. Then she turned back to her mother and said, “Sorry, she just learned about death.”
“It’s fine,” said Carol, smiling stiffly.
Lola disappeared up the stairs, yelling, “Saaaaddieeeeeeee!”
Then Olympia turned to Perri. “Is Gus here yet?” she asked.
“She’s on her way,” said Perri.
“Some kind of political rally,” said Carol with a flourish of her hand.
“On New Year’s Day?” said Olympia. “It’s a national holiday.”
“You know my daughter Augusta!” cried Carol. “Every day of the year is Cinco de Mayo.”
“Is Debbie coming too?” asked Olympia. A field organizer for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Debbie was Gus’s girlfriend of several years’ standing.
Carol shrugged and turned down her lower lip, “I assume so. Isn’t she always tagging along?”
“I wouldn’t mind having a rally with my bed right now.” Olympia yawned. In the presence of her immediate family, she often found herself suffering from some variant of narcolepsy.
“I hear you. I’ve had a completely crazed week,” said Perri, who could get competitive about who the busier, more exhausted, and more overworked sister was. Though, since Perri slept only four hours a night, woke at five twenty a.m. each morning to run on a treadmill, and breastfed all three of her children until they turned four, she always took first prize. The only check in Olympia’s column was the fact that she was a single mother. Which is possibly why Perri was always downplaying her husband’s contribution. “And of course Mike’s barely been here,” she added.
“Speaking of fathers, where’s Dad?” asked Olympia, keen again to change topics.
“In the living room, no doubt staring into space,” said Carol, pursing her lips and, in doing so, revealing deep striations in her philtrum, remnants of a long-ago love affair with Virginia Slims. “Between you and me, I wish he’d never retired. You know, he sits in his study all day long playing with Gus’s old Rubik’s Cube!”
“How do you know if you’re at school teaching?” asked Perri.
“Because I know,” Carol snapped back.
“I was actually the one who liked the Rubik’s Cube,” Olympia felt compelled to point out.
“Funny,” said Carol. “I don’t remember you being good at spatial things.”
“Thanks,” said Olympia.
“He’s not even riding his bike?” asked Perri, looking concerned. Every morning until just recently, Bob Hellinger, now seventy, had ridden his ten-speed along the old aqueduct to the historic Irvington estate on which Nevis Laboratories was housed. Despite being a particle physicist who studied motion, he’d somehow never managed to pass his driver’s test.
Carol shook her head and tsked. “He says he’s conserving angular momentum where L is the moment of inertia. Some kind of inside physics joke.”
“Funny, I’m sure—if you understand it,” said Olympia. “What about the banjo?”
“Not interested in playing.”
“And what’s the latest on the medical front?” asked Perri.
“What medical front?” said Carol, even though, the month before, her husband had experienced pain while urinating and received a borderline-high PSA score. All of which either did or didn’t indicate early-stage prostate cancer.
“I thought Dad was going in for a biopsy next week,” said Perri.
“Oh, that,” said Carol, looking away. “If you ask me, it’s all in his head.”
This time, Olympia’s and Perri’s eyes rolled in sync. Their mother’s refusal to engage with modern medicine was becoming more and more extreme. Not that she was any more interested in the homeopathic version than the Western variant. For a decade at least, the same peeling jar of ginkgo biloba supplements had been sitting unopened next to the herbal teas.
Mother and daughters proceeded to Perri’s huge kitchen. Judging from the smell, several frittatas were baking away in various corners of the room. During her recent kitchen renovation, Perri had had three separate convection ovens installed—in case she decided to become a professional pastry chef on the side? “Anyway, here are the bagels,” said Olympia, setting a large paper bag down on Perri’s cryptlike island.
“Oh, thanks,” said Perri, standing on tiptoe to reach an oversized Deruta majolica serving bowl in one of her double-height cabinets. “I have to say, that’s the one thing I miss about living in the city,” she declared upon her return to earth. “You just can’t get proper bagels out here.” For several years in her mid-to late twenties, while working as a junior analyst at McKinsey, Perri had lived with a roommate in a generic postwar high-rise on Broadway in the 80s.
“That’s the only thing you miss?” asked Olympia.
“Well, not the only thing,” said Perri, laughing lightly.
Olympia didn’t inquire further.
“Well, we have a wonderful new bagel shop on Main Street in Hastings,” said Carol, who seemed truly to believe that the suburbs were Bounty Incarnate.
“Meanwhile, did you hear about Cousin Stacy?” said Perri, bowl in hand as she made her way back to the island.
“What?” said Olympia.
“Apparently, Scott has moved out.” Stacy, a massage therapist, was the daughter of Bob’s troubled sister, Elaine. Scott was Stacy’s wine-distributor husband.
“According to who?” said Olympia, who, although she pretended otherwise, never tired of family gossip—so long as it wasn’t about herself.
“Gus, of course,” said Perri. (Gus had always been the family big mouth.)
“Well, I say, ‘Good riddance!’ ” declared Carol, a committed Hillary Democrat. “Wasn’t he a follower of that awful Rush Limbaugh?!”
“Where did you hear that?” snapped Perri, who was married to a man whom all the Hellingers suspected of being a Republican as well, though he’d never admitted as much. Even so, Mike Sims’s politics were a source of tension between Perri and her mother. (Perri herself insisted she was “apolitical.”)
“I thought you told me,” said Carol.
“I never told you anything like that,” Perri said quickly. “In any case, politics are the least of Scott’s problems.” She overturned the bagel bag into the bowl. Sesame and poppy seeds sprayed across the white marble countertop, whereupon Perri quickly secured a spray can of “stone revitalizer” and a roll of paper towels. “According to Gus, he’s an online poker addict, and he owes massive debts,” she continued as she cleaned.
“He’s a gambler?!” cried a now flabbergasted Carol, who was as uninterested in the amassing of money as she was in modern medicine. “Poor woman.”
“Gus said Stacy sounded okay when she talked to her. But Scott Jr. is apparently taking it really hard.” Perri turned pointedly to Olympia. Or was Olympia projecting? Maybe Perri was just glancing at the clock to see how soon the frittatas needed to come out of the ovens. But even if the eyeballing was unintentional, she might have skipped that line about how hard the split was on Scott Jr. Lola didn’t have a father at home, either. It wasn’t necessarily the end of the world. Her sister could be so insensitive, Olympia thought as she lifted the bagel bowl off the counter and walked out.
She found her own father seated open-legged on a microfiber sectional in Perri and Mike’s beam-ceilinged living room, diagonally across from a lackluster fire burning in a stone hearth. The flattened toes of his enormous brown suede Wallabies lent his feet a kangaroo-like appearance, while his silver beard bore a certain resemblance to Santa Claus’s. His body type, however, had more in common with Ichabod Crane’s. His long hands rested on opposing knees of threadbare brown corduroy pants. Beneath his not-quite-matching blazer he was wearing a paisley shirt with giant swirling patterns and a spread collar that looked as if it had been lifted from Led Zeppelin’s dressing room in the late 1960s. “Hello there, Daughter!” he said with a quick wave. Which either did or didn’t imply that he couldn’t remember which daughter she was.
“Hi, Dad,” said Olympia, kissing her father’s sunken cheek. “What’s happening?”
“Oh, nothing much. Just hurtling through space at sixty-seven thousand miles per hour!” he replied.
She’d heard that one before—several times. “Whatever you say, Pops,” she said.
Then she turned to greet Aiden, Perri and Mike’s blubbery elder son, who lay tummy down and elbows up on a geometric area rug, his butt crack visible over the waistband of his Spider-Man underpants. A pack of baseball cards spread out before him, he appeared to be in the process of composing a fantasy all-star team. He was also surreptitiously nibbling on a pack of Twizzlers that he’d hidden in the pocket of his gray hoodie. The only candy Perri allowed in the house were Yummy Earth Organic Vitamin C Pops. Also, the kids were required to brush their teeth immediately after eating one. “Aiden,” said Olympia, “what’s up?”
“Hey,” he mumbled back without looking up.
Finally, Olympia turned to Perri’s husband, Mike, who stood fifteen feet away through the archway to the dining room, thin-slicing a giant slab of smoked salmon with the crouched posture of the high school defensive tackle he once was. Now a salesman on the trading floor at Credit Suisse, where he sold stocks to pension funds and other institutions, he was wearing a pink button-down oxford and pressed jeans with a belt. “Mike,” she said—and found herself blinking into the glare, courtesy of a brilliant midwinter sun blasting through a newly installed picture window. (Perri was constantly “upgrading” their already flawless home.) “Happy two thousand whatever this is,” Olympia went on, her head aching. The pain may have had something to do with the mystery punch she’d helped herself to the night before at a loft party in Dumbo thrown by friends of friends. She hadn’t been all that keen on going—what if her friends didn’t show up and she didn’t know a soul there?—but the New Year’s invitations had been scarce this year, possibly owing to the fact that nearly all of her old friends were now married with small children and seemingly happy to “stay in.” This was partly thanks to Olympia, who, not long before, had successfully introduced the last two single people in her address book, figuring that, if she couldn’t manage to be happy in love, she might as well bring joy to others and live vicariously.
Not that Olympia lacked for male attention. In fact, just the previous night, a handsome young Web entrepreneur had approached her by the drinks table and asked her in an ironic way if she believed in astrology and, if so, would it bother her when she found out he was a Scorpio. But after two minutes of flirting, Olympia had shied away, claiming she needed to use the bathroom. She couldn’t precisely say why—the Web guy was charming in his way—but she’d been struck by a familiar sense that there was no point in pursuing things since she was sure to mess them up eventually. Or maybe it was that she was never quite interested enough; or didn’t feel she had the time for a relationship; or thought whoever it was would flee once he found out she was the mother of a young child; or felt uncomfortable bringing strange men back to her apartment, especially since Lola didn’t have her own bedroom. “Rough New Year’s Eve?” said Mike, who never seemed to miss a single expression on her face.
“Could have been rougher. What about yours?” said Olympia who, after ten-plus years, had grown almost but not quite fond of her brother-in-law’s frat boy banter. She’d also grown fond of trying to outdo him. He and Perri had hooked up her junior and his senior year at Wharton, where both had been in the undergraduate business program. Save for one nine-month breakup during which time Perri either had or hadn’t slept with someone else—Olympia had never gotten a definitive answer—they’d been together ever since. “Rumor has it that there was some serious brewski pounding in the ’burbs last night,” she went on in a dry tone.
“You could say that.” Mike smiled congenially before he went back to his salmon slicing.
Fifteen minutes later, the doorbell rang. “It must be Auggie,” said Carol, popping out of the kitchen, followed by Perri. Carol was the only one who still called Augusta by her childhood nickname, the rest of them having shifted to the high school–era moniker Gus.
“I’ll get it,” said Perri, practically elbowing their mother in the face as she made for the front door, spatula in hand.
There were footsteps, muffled voices, the gentle thud of a knapsack hitting the floor. “Where’s Debbie?” Olympia heard Carol ask her.
“She couldn’t make it.”
“She didn’t get arrested again, did she?”
“No, she didn’t get arrested again.”
“So, where is she?”
“Jesus. Can I have five minutes before being subjected to the Spanish Inquisition?!”
“I was just asking!”
“You’re always just asking…”
Carol and Gus bickered endlessly. Olympia, in turn, grew tired of listening to her mother complain during their own once- or twice-weekly phone calls about how mean Gus had been to her. (Suggestions that Carol mind her own business and, what’s more, that she and Gus didn’t have to talk on the phone every day fell on deaf ears.) Finally, Gus came into view—in jeans and a filthy oversized anorak with fake fur detailing. Her skunk-dyed pixie-cut hair was in dire need of a wash, or maybe just a brush. Olympia found her younger sister’s personal style to be nearly as baffling as her older one’s was. (Why look homeless if you weren’t?) That said, Olympia knew better than to tease her younger sister, whose ability to laugh at herself was basically nonexistent. “What’s up?” she said.
“Hey,” grumbled Gus. She took off her jacket and tossed it over the back of a leather club chair, revealing a completely shredded lining. But when she turned back to Olympia, an incandescent smile had overtaken her face. “We have a winner,” she announced.
“And it’s Aaron Krickstein!” The words seemed to come out of Olympia’s mouth of their own accord.
“Or is it Shlomo Glickstein?”
For Olympia, the exchange—an ancient greeting ritual whose origins lay in the 1980 U.S. Open, in Forest Hills—encapsulated everything that had once been conspiratorial, even magical, about her relationship with Gus. Seeking further connection, she reached out to embrace her. As was usual in recent years, however, her younger sister recoiled at the gesture. “Ow, you’re hurting me,” she said, slithering out of Olympia’s arms even before they’d made it around her squirrel-like back.
Excerpted from The Pretty One by Lucinda Rosenfeld Copyright © 2013 by Lucinda Rosenfeld. Excerpted by permission.
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