It seems to me now, as I look back, that my sister was never entirely tame. When we were children, Robin often disappeared for an hour, an afternoon, a day. Our mother, who was rarely home, didn’t notice, but I was bothered by these absences. I nursed a passion for regularity; I craved fixed mealtimes and weekday routines. Every Wednesday I went to the pizza parlor down the block from our apartment and, using the crinkled bills our mother left scattered on the counter, bought a pizza, carried it home in a white box loose-bottomed with grease, and waited. I only did this on Wednesdays. On Tuesdays my class had library time and on Thursdays we had art. I liked the library and art, but I loved knowing what was coming next. In my mind each day wore a color—purple for library, orange for pizza, a splatter of yellow for art—that stitched the week into a rainbow, into structure and sense. Even at that age I was a collector of patterns, a magpie in search of scraps.
Our mother, Marianne, was vexed by my expectations. If I asked her when she’d be home, she wouldn’t answer, finding the question unreasonable. She considered it a form of imprisonment to say where she was going or why, and as the young mother of two young children she’d already been imprisoned enough. At least that’s what I think now. At the time, I thought she resented us, and contrived one reason or another to be away from us as much as she could. Which may also have been true.
Marianne was beautiful. She had long shiny black hair that she wore loose or in a at ponytail tied at the base of her neck, and either way you could see her high pale forehead and dark brown eyes. Years later, at a museum in New York, I came across Giacometti’s tall, spindly bronze sculptures of women and burst into tears, because they reminded me so much of her: thin but not fragile, flesh hard as metal, unembraceable. She didn’t enjoy being touched, at least not by us. She came from a rigid Catholic family, the dual strands of Irish and French-Canadian tradition forcefully interwoven, and I suspect her father had laid a hand on her more than once when she was growing up. Her mother was equally severe.
When Marianne was fifteen she began fighting with them, protesting that her older brothers were given freedoms and futures denied to her. Her parents wanted her to get married as soon as possible; that was the extent of their hopes. Instead, she left their cramped apartment near the Farine Five Roses Flour sign and moved in with a friend whose parents were more permissive. She dropped out of school and got a job at a record store, where she charmed anyone who came in for a listen. She knew every band and every album. I’ll say this for Marianne, whatever her faults: she filled our home with music. She had a Magnavox turntable and a collection of albums she “borrowed” from the store, rotating the stock in her personal library, so we grew up listening to everything from Félix Leclerc to Mahler to the Rolling Stones.
It was at the record store that she met my father, Todd, who’d come to Montreal from Vermont; although the draft for the Vietnam War had ended two years earlier, he maintained conscientious objections to American warmongering. He was, according to Marianne, very handsome and not very smart. She had no pictures to show me, so I was left to conjure him based on her description: a curly-haired puppy of a boy, nineteen years old, who wore plaid shirts and a sheepskin jacket unbuttoned despite the cold. They spent most of their time together with his friends. She enjoyed this, the feeling of being apart from her own background, of breaking ties to the past without even having to leave town. When they discovered she was pregnant, Todd whooped with happiness, she told me, and I have no reason to doubt her; she never once lied to protect my feelings.
They didn’t marry, because marriage was a corrupt institution of the bourgeoisie, a fading remnant of the old order, and they put my mother’s last name, Brossard, on my birth certificate. Todd stayed in Montreal long enough to bestow upon me his American citizenship and a collection of rare coins he’d brought along from Vermont, thinking he could sell them to support us. They were worth less than he’d imagined and so, I gather, were we. One morning Marianne woke up to find him gone, leaving a garbled and poorly written note that she tore up in irritation and whose contents she could not, years later, remember.
I’ve never looked for my father. I like to think he has regrets, that sometimes he wakes at night believing someone has spoken to him, a voice he doesn’t know but nonetheless recognizes; that sometimes, when he sees a woman my age, he wonders if that’s what his daughter looks like, walks like. This is my right, to think about him as I please, since he’s never been around to contradict me.
After he left, we were alone together. Another girl of that era, adolescent and abandoned, might have turned to her family for help, but not Marianne. Finding herself a single mother only reaffirmed her break from her background, her stalwart refusal of their judgment and values. Her parents, Cathleen and Jean-Louis, didn’t even know she’d had a baby until they encountered her on Sherbrooke Street pushing me in a pram one Saturday afternoon. Marianne was wearing what she called, with the fond nostalgia she reserved for herself, “an outrageous costume”: something like a flapper dress, hung with beads that shook when she moved, and platform sandals, and a feather in her hair. She’d come to think of life as performance. Calmly, she kissed them each on both cheeks. Jean-Louis sputtered wordlessly; Cathleen burst into tears. Their reaction seemed to have as much to do with her appearance as with the baby.
Marianne lifted a corner of the blanket one of her friends had crocheted for me and explained that the father was an American, that they’d named me in memory of the summer days they’d spent in La Fontaine Park when she was pregnant, listening to the sounds of birds. So it could have been worse—I might have been a cardinal or a dove—but my name infuriated Marianne’s parents, as she must have known it would. The fact that in French it was the name of the Montreal football team only added to the offense.
Marianne didn’t care. “That’s her name,” she announced on the street, “whether you like it or not.”
This story was one of her favorites, and I used to beg her to tell it when she was putting me to sleep, knowing it made her tender, that she’d caress my cheek with a finger.
“Mais qu’est-ce ça veux dire, alouette?” cried her perplexed, angry father. “What kind of a name is Lark?”
To keep a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs, Marianne took a number of jobs: hairdresser, waitress, coat-check girl. She was good with people and did well with tips. She was less good at showing up on time, or at being told what to do. Sometimes, when she was between jobs, we ate at soup kitchens or the homes of friends. When things got dire she’d sell her costume jewelry at a stand in the flea market, taking the money to the nearest diner, where we’d devour grilled cheese sandwiches as she filled her purse with oyster crackers and jelly packets. But she was rarely without work for long; her charm always saw her through.
After Todd left, she talked herself into a job as a secretary at a bank downtown, and it was at this position that she met Bob John- son, of Fox Run, Minnesota, who became her husband and Robin’s father.
Bob was older than my mother—at thirty years old, he seemed ancient—and the opposite of Todd. A creature of habit, he ate a seven-minute egg and a slice of buttered toast with the crusts cut off for breakfast every day. I was fascinated by how the perfect rectangle of his bread disappeared neatly between his perfect rectangular teeth. He was quite handsome, with thick, wavy brown hair and high cheekbones that my mother claimed were traceable to his Dakota Sioux ancestry. Although it was 1979 when they met, he dressed like a movie idol from the fifties, in slim-cut pants and collared shirts with sleeves rolled up to his elbows.
After they married in a small ceremony at the Palais de Justice, we moved to a tidy, well-kept apartment in Rosemount. I ought to have been happy, because my mother had, inexplicably, chosen a man whose attraction to routine was even stronger than my own. Bob liked a roast on Sundays. He liked a single glass of whiskey while he watched the evening news. He liked to think he was rescuing us from a life of poverty. He liked gratitude.
But Bob did not like me. I think my very existence troubled him, since it reminded him that my mother had had a life, sexual and otherwise, before they met. He treated me with a tight-lipped polite- ness that was more uncomfortable than outright hatred would have been. I did my best not to upset him. I tiptoed around the house, I put away my toys, I dressed tidily and combed my hair; but I didn’t succeed in winning his love.
A child who knows she is disliked can acquire the skill of invisibility. I learned to spend as much time as I could at school, and I walked slowly there and back, making each block last as long as possible. On weekends I stole change from Bob’s jacket pockets, my one delinquency, to buy tickets at the movie theatre down the street from our apartment, always sneaking from one show to the next. Many of these were films for grown-ups, and I could barely follow their plotlines, but I responded in some intuitive fashion to their rhythms, helped along by the brightly flickering images, the swell and fade of the music. I sat cross-legged in my seat, mesmerized, and nobody—it was a different era then—asked what I was doing there alone. I came to prize my invisibility, and to grasp the freedom it offered. I watched couples kissing in the dark, mothers hushing their children, an elderly woman laying her head on her companion’s shoulder and falling asleep. There was more to watch than what was on the screen.
Marianne quit her job after Robin was born. Perhaps strangely, for a woman once so fixed on rebellion and independence, she didn’t seem to mind not working. She and Bob both doted on my sister, who was an easy baby, fat-legged and dimpled, a happy eater who snuggled against my mother’s chest and fell asleep without complaint. Marianne doted on Bob too, greeting him at the door each afternoon with a freshly made drink. I see now that she threw herself into the performance of domesticity with the same intensity she brought to every other role.
I don’t know how long she would’ve lasted in this one. It seems unlikely that she could have endured a whole life like that, or a whole marriage. But she didn’t have to try. She and Bob had been married for five years when he sat up in bed one night, white-faced, clutching his stomach. He’d apparently been suffering pain for months, but chalked it up to indigestion and stress. By the time it was diagnosed, the cancer had already spread to his lymph system, and he died two months later at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. He ordered Marianne not to bury him in Montreal. “I want to go home to my family,” he said, by which he meant Minnesota and his parents.
Marianne’s grief was as impenetrable to me as her marriage had been. She seemed more nervous than sad; she smoked constantly, and her hands shook. Most nights she fell asleep in an armchair in the living room, with the television on. Bob’s colleagues at the bank sent their wives over with casseroles, and they’d put the food on the kitchen counter and get drunk with Marianne, stumbling out the door hours later, trailing vapors of cigarettes and Baby Duck wine; but after a while, they stopped coming. Marianne had been told she could go back to work at the bank, but when she applied the manager said nothing was available. Perhaps you should be at home with the children, he suggested, and Marianne spat on his desk and walked away. At least that’s what she told me she did; even then I understood that her version of events was not always credible.
She found another job, at a company that imported digestive biscuits from the UK. Every week she came home with “mistakes”— boxes that had been dropped, crumbling the biscuits, or whose labels were crooked—which we ate for breakfast, lunch, and snack until the taste made me sick to my stomach. To this day I can’t eat a digestive biscuit. She hired babysitters to look after me and Robin during the workday, and increasingly left us by ourselves. While Bob was in the hospital, and Marianne often there with him, I’d grown accustomed to taking care of my sister. Giving up the movies and my long walks home from school, I fed her biscuits and milk and dressed her and played with her. I taught her to sing “Au Clair de la Lune” and to somersault across the couch cushions. I decided that she belonged to me.
Excerpted from Dual Citizens by Alix Ohlin. Copyright © 2019 by Alix Ohlin. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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