Saturday, June 18, 2011
Mallorca – September 1974
"It's your father's job," was the only explanation Rebecca's mom offered through clenched teeth as she extracted cups, saucers and ashtrays from boxes in a different rented living room in a different town with a different school.
This time, they didn't move to Chandler or Pierrefonds or Schubenacadie. Dad announced he'd taken a job in Algeria.
Algeria? Wasn't that a place full of sand and Bedouins? "Where will we go to school?" Rebecca asked.
Mallorca. She'd never heard of it. Before she could consult the outdated Collier's Encyclopedia in the basement, Dad disappeared again, leaving Mom to scramble with yet another frenetic packing session.
Instead of sitting wedged between her sister and brother on the center hump in the back seat of their red 1970 Firebird, Rebecca watched the tops of clouds from an airplane window as they flew across the ocean to the Spanish island in the middle of the Mediterranean.
They'd hardly arrived at the apartment Dad had rented, and her parents were already arguing in the bedroom. Dad's low voice intersected Mom's shrill protests. Somewhere in the mix Rebecca heard, "New start," and "Time to think.”
"I sure hope the neighbors don't understand English," her sister Lori remarked with a smirk as she curled on the sofa with an airplane magazine.
Michael seemed oblivious to the tension as he rummaged through his father's suit pockets, probably looking for foreign coins to hoard.
Rebecca skirted the mound of suitcases in the living room, opened the balcony door and stepped into the heat. Flamenco music filtered from somewhere below, almost obliterated by the hiss of sand pulled to sea by the surf. The classical notes crept into her psyche with exotic sweetness, nothing like the raw guitar licks that blared from her sister's stereo back home.
She closed her eyes and concentrated on the sounds, if only to drown out her parents.
Dad finally came outside and leaned against the balcony railing. As usual, he hid his impatience behind a serene expression and a freshly lit cigarette.
Inside, the sound of colliding dishes punctuated Mom's side of the argument. She wore her emotions on the outside and dishwashing was always a clear indication of her mood. When she was in good spirits, she sang above the gentle clink of cutlery against crockery. When she was pissed off, plates crashed together like cymbals.
Dad squinted against the reflected sunlight and took a drag on his cigarette. He rubbed his chin with a knuckle and cocked his head at the door. "Don’t worry, she'll get used to this. She always does." He leaned an elbow on the railing and pointed south, over the expanse of Mediterranean. "Algeria is that way. See, it's not far. I'll be back for a visit before you know it."
"But we just got here." She tilted her chin, straining to see. But it was too far, beyond the horizon. "No schools there, huh?" she said, with a light tone she didn't feel.
He gathered her in the crook of his arm and drew her close. His shirt smelled of Old Spice and menthol tobacco. His deep voice rumbled against her cheek as he assured her, "It'll be good for you to have new experiences."
Behind her, Mom's strangled tirade escalated until she started to sound like Yosemite Sam. Rebecca flinched and swallowed hard. "I was just getting to know everyone in high school," she said with little enthusiasm. She wasn't, not really.
Dad backed away and gave her shoulder a perfunctory rub, as if it would erase all the animosity that had built up since he took this job. He motioned toward the deep blue Mediterranean with his cigarette. "Look at this place. A winter without snow for once – it'll be fantastic."
The glass door slid open again. Rebecca turned to see her mother standing in the doorway. Mom glared at Dad's shoulder blades, while he seemed engrossed in the curl of blue smoke that drifted from his Export A.
Mom rubbed her eyes and huffed in that way she always did when she'd lost an argument. "By the way, thanks for leaving me with a sink full of dirty dishes and no food in the fridge. I'm not surprised; you're a typical man, aren't you?"
When he didn't respond, she prodded, "Will you at least stay long enough to help me shop for dinner?" She folded her arms and frowned.
Dad stiffened and stubbed out his cigarette on the balcony railing.
He made as if to slide past Mom, but stopped to give her a brief peck on her pale cheek. "Sorry, Val – uh, Dear. You know my plane leaves in an hour. If you need any help getting around, I wrote Mrs.
Shepard's number beside the phone."
Mom's eyes flared. "And who is this Mrs. Shepard?"
Dad blinked and took a deep breath. "You probably don't remember." He waited, but Mom's flushed face and shifting glance indicated she didn't. "She's Alan's wife," he said gently, as if she needed everything spelled out for her. "She lives next door."
He turned to Rebecca, his expression softening. "Their kids will be going to your school. Maybe you could be friends."
Making friends wasn't as simple as being the same age and living in the same building. Rebecca lifted her hand in farewell but didn't say a word. She was afraid if she hugged him, she'd close her arms around him and refuse to let go.
After a series of urgent murmurs from the entranceway, the front door closed with a muffled slam. A moment later, Rebecca's little brother Michael came outside and stood on tiptoe to peek over the railing.
"Far out; a pool! I bet we could dive right off from here," he exclaimed, lifting one leg. He glanced at her with a wicked grin.
"Try it and you're dead, stupid," she replied. "We're three floors up."
"But that's the deep end."
"You could still hurt yourself. Don't even think about it." She rested her elbows on the railing and stared out to sea, imagining the North African coast with its whitewashed mosques and minarets and sand, and Bedouins with swirling robes. Dad was going to have the best time ever and she wished she could be with him.
She wondered if Bedouins still kidnapped Western girls and sold them into harems. It would be exciting to ride across the desert, live in tents and be rescued by some handsome guy with long hair like in Mom's romance novels.
Now those books were packed in a cardboard box in their basement along with winter clothes and knick-knacks they didn't want broken while Dad rented out the first house he and Mom had ever bought together. It seemed their lives revolved around boxes, even if the boxes went nowhere.
Bedouins were nomads, but they probably didn't have to leave so much behind.
When she wandered back into the apartment, her mother was stuffing peseta notes into her purse. "Well, we don’t eat until I go shopping." She checked for keys and headed to the door, muttering, "I hope to God this is enough money. How am I going to ask for anything?
I don't know Spanish. Your father knows Spanish. Jesus; I'm tired. I need a drink." She stood in the small entryway, hands on her hips and her purse swinging from her wrist. "Well, come on. Let's go."
Michael scrambled to accompany her, and Lori heaved herself out of the sofa. "Groovy," she muttered.
Rebecca pretended she didn't hear.
"Becky? Come on."
"I'm not a little kid, Mom. I can take care of myself."
Lori sat down again. "I'm the oldest. If anyone should stay home, it's me."
"Not today, you're not. I'll need your help carrying stuff. We're walking."
As her mother headed for the door, Lori asked, "Why can't we drive?
Aren't you going to call Mrs. Shepard? Maybe she knows where the closest store is."
Mom looked at the phone and shook her head. "Let's wing it." She would rather get lost in a foreign country than phone a person she didn't know.
"Speaking of winging it," Michael said undisguised glee, "Lori's not wearing a bra."
Mom's face blanched, then reddened. "What?"
"She's not wearing a bra." Michael cupped his hands under his chest and did a grotesque dance. "She looks like Linda Ronstadt."
Mom cuffed him on the back of his head. "Where do you get that stuff?" She turned to Lori and raised a hand as if to strike her, too.
Lori straightened and stared her mother down. The palpable silence between them made Rebecca want to clap her hands over her ears and run from the room.
Instead, she remarked coolly despite her racing heart, "I'll bet David Bowie wears a bra. He wears enough makeup."
Her mother swung her gaze toward Rebecca and lowered her hand. Her lip twitched. "What am I going to do with you kids?"
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