The following is from Joanne Serling's debut novel, Good Neighbors. Paige and Gene Edwards have recently returned home from Moscow with their adopted daughter, Winnie. While they're only too happy to share early parenting snafus, their neighbor Nicole begins to sense a thread of cruelty. Joanne Serling's fiction has appeared in New Ohio Review and North American Review.
A Foreign Place
Thank God we’d finished eating. Gooey boeuf Bourguignon, which was typical of Paige’s French cooking, served on good china with Baccarat stemware. It was our official Winnie dinner—a month since the Edwardses’ trip. All of us in the dining room waiting for coffee, the kids relegated to the basement. Winnie nowhere in sight, sent to bed after the quickest of greetings because 6:30 was the absolute latest she could stay up. “She has sleep issues,” Paige had explained, not elaborating.
Now Paige was telling the story of the trip itself, which I’d been dying to hear about, hoping they’d enjoyed it. Or at least gotten something meaningful out of it. But already I was cringing.
“Wait till you hear what happened in Gorky Park!” Paige was saying. Her face flushed with laughter and wine. Her silvery-white hair making her look queen-like at the head of her mahogany table. “On our way there, Winnie’s resting on Gene’s shoulder, and she suddenly starts shouting to this crowd of people in Russian, which we ignored, because, you know. . .”
“Because you don’t speak Russian,” I offered, embarrassed that Paige thought it was okay to make fun of her daughter’s distress, as if the fact that Winnie was speaking in Russian made it count less. Paige held her palms up in halfhearted agreement, then continued. “So anyway, Winnie’s yelling in Russian, which sounds like gibberish to us, but the crowd behind Gene is getting sort of loud and coming closer, and after a few minutes, people are tapping Gene on the shoulder and pulling at Winnie!”
Yazmin came through the swinging door to the dining room, clearing plates, head bowed, some of us greeting her, Paige ignoring her.
“So now we’re getting scared,” Paige continued. “And Gene and I are like, ‘Where is the adoption agency guide?’”
Everyone around the long dining room table nodded, eager, I knew, that Paige not get derailed by a complaint about the adoption agency guide.
“She’s nowhere,” Paige continued, answering her own question. “And the crowd is getting loud and unruly, so we start jogging. And the crowd starts jogging with us! And Winnie’s still screaming toward them in Russian! Finally, after five terrifying minutes, the adoption agency guide sees the crowd and tells them something that makes them stop following us. Then she tells us the deal. Get this: Winnie was telling them we gave away her brother!”
A brief, pregnant pause. Was there a brother?
“She doesn’t have a brother!” Paige said, shaking her head, giggling a little. “I think she was thinking of someone from the orphanage.”
“Jesus!” said Lorraine.
“Doesn’t the adoption agency explain anything to these kids?” Nela asked, her face dubious, her attitude of disdain lowering its mantle upon us, the white folk who didn’t understand hardship. I always wanted to bang something down on Nela’s sleek, seal-like head at these moments, she who had been poor but otherwise fortunate. She who had gone to Harvard on scholarship and had a mother and father who were sane and loved her.
“We were startled. We were amazed. Had Paige just invoked feces at her dining room table? Just compared her new daughter to an animal?”
“Well, and here’s another weird thing,” Paige said, ignoring Nela’s question as if it hadn’t been asked. “Winnie starts saying that she has to go to the bathroom, and we’ve just gotten to the park and there’s not a Western bathroom in sight. I have nowhere to take her! But the guide tells me, are you ready for this, to, ‘just put Winnie down and let her go to the bathroom like she’s used to going’!” We nodded. We waited for her to elaborate. I knew what the others didn’t. I’d traveled to Russia for a month in college as part of my foreign policy minor. I’d used the holes in the ground, shitting while squatting and wishing desperately for toilet paper. I imagined the scenario couldn’t be dissimilar to what Paige was hinting at, even though it was 20 years later. Even though they supposedly had capitalism now. “Holes?” I finally ventured.
“Cesspools, Nicole,” Paige said, turning toward me. “Shit-covered cesspools with little tread marks for your feet. And no walls between them! I set Winnie down and she does her business and starts to pull up her pants without wiping herself. Like an animal!”
We were startled. We were amazed. Had Paige just invoked feces at her dining room table? Just compared her new daughter to an animal? The men covered their eyes with their hands, rocked their heads back and forth in disbelief or possibly disgust while Lorraine laughed loudly. Nela merely raised her thick eyebrows in my direction, which I met, but only momentarily. I didn’t want to get drawn into Nela’s disapproval. I wanted to hear the rest of the story, to hear the parts that made Paige’s behavior laudable, or at least not embarrassing. At the head of the table, Paige looked flushed, happy, eager to be the teller of strange and funny tales, which were not, it seemed, about Winnie exactly but about the barbarism of the Russian people.
“It’s hard,” Paige said when the room had quieted down, her smile fading, causing her deep lines and wrinkles to come into sharper relief. “The things you don’t know.”
Some of us leaned forward in our chairs, curious to hear this bit of honesty. I was eager. I was hungry for it, certain it was possible for Paige to be sincere with us now that she’d been in a support group.
Paige took a breath. Then, as if steeling herself for something necessary but difficult, she said, “Winnie doesn’t really sleep. I mean, she needs to sleep, but she’s exhausted from all the stimulation of our lives.”
We nodded and waited for her to go on. This was the Paige I believed we all liked best. The honest Paige, the vulnerable and occasionally introspective Paige, right here, side by side with the Paige who told insensitive stories about people she deemed less civilized.
“Well,” Paige continued, taking note of all the eyes around the table on her, “in the middle of the night, Winnie wakes up screaming. Really screaming. I used to go to her to try to calm her down, but that just makes it worse.”
“It does,” Gene chimed in quickly, defending Paige against some unspoken accusation.
“We’ve had to make some hard choices,” Paige said, and we all nodded, all knew exactly what she meant. Lucas had slept on our floor for eight months during one particularly bad spell when he was six. Eight months with a blanket and a pillow and a red plastic mat! I’d hated him for it. But what could I do? I’d tried to lock him in his room once, holding the handle so he couldn’t get out, and the screams were still too horrible to fully conjure and admit to. Had I really been that mother? I had. Which meant I was in no position to judge Paige.
“We’ve installed baby gates in her room,” Paige was saying at the other end of her table. “We’re trying to help her learn boundaries. She needs to stay in her room. Not come to our bed.”
Everyone nodding as if the gates explained everything. I nodded, too, even though the gates merely raised more questions for me. Couldn’t Winnie climb over the gates? Of course she could climb over them. Which meant they were just a symbol, and Winnie could go to Paige and Gene for comfort when she needed them? Or maybe they weren’t gates as we thought of them? The story didn’t make sense, but then again, Paige’s stories seldom did. They often started in the middle and lacked cohesion and relevant facts.
Meanwhile, all around me, people were murmuring their support for Paige. Lorraine laughing, shaking the ice in her empty highball glass as she reminded us that her two-year-old, Jesse, had slept in a bouncy seat for the first four months of his life.
“Remember, you were outraged!” Lorraine said, laughing, turning to me.
“Not outraged,” I corrected, smiling at the memory of the incident. “I was just surprised. You said Jesse slept through the night after four months. You never mentioned the bouncy seat. Then I go into his nursery and the crib’s not even put together!”
Lorraine laughing, her mouth open, her perfectly square, white teeth making me wonder whether they were real. Everyone talking at once about their children’s strange sleep habits. Drew reminding Nela that they’d had to run the garbage disposal to get the twins to calm down. Lorraine admitting that she had hired a sleep consultant to teach Gabe how to transition to a “big boy” bed. Which was insane. What parent hired a sleep consultant? But I was glad, too. That I didn’t have to hear more about Winnie and what she did or didn’t get from Paige. Didn’t have to wonder about the strange gate situation. Certain that it was probably something I could live with. Winnie, too. Soon Winnie’s fears would die down and she wouldn’t need to scream in the night or try to leave her room. I believed in this. That things worked out. That the things you ignored couldn’t harm you.
And then, as if on cue, Winnie appeared at the arched entrance to the dining room in pink footie pajamas, a teddy bear at her chest. She looked nothing like the girl in the stroller, haggard and a little bit ugly. Nothing like the girl presented to us in the red-and-green plaid dress at the beginning of the evening, nervous and more than a little uncertain. Now she was playful. Charming. A little bit devilish. Her lazy eye covered by a lock of silky black hair that she twirled in front of her face. Her other hand waving at us.
Gene was smiling right back at her, waving wholeheartedly like he already adored her. Which was lovely and charming and made Gene so much better than just another preppy golfer from that club of theirs that didn’t admit Jews.
“Come,” Gene said, reaching his arms out toward Winnie as she skipped into the dining room and climbed into Gene’s lap, snuggling close but still peering out at us, smiling. She had, despite her Slavic features, a kind of American smile, confident and flirtatious.
Paige said, “Winnie’s a daddy’s girl, aren’t you, Winnie?”
Winnie said something unintelligible, which for some reason spurred a round of questions that had no doubt been bottled up all night. Did Winnie speak any words of English? How did Paige and Gene communicate with her, and what did she say back to them?
Gene started to speak, half answers about speech delays and vision tests. The preschool they planned to send her to for children with special needs. Gene leaning over slightly, his lap suddenly smaller, causing Winnie to uncurl herself and begin walking around the table, peering at people, saying, “Hi” in a strange, high-pitched voice, the effort apparent, as if she were pushing the word through a wind tunnel in her throat.
When she got to me, I placed my thick cloth napkin over my eyes and said, “Peekaboo.” Quickly. Before I lost her attention. Winnie laughed, motioned for me to do it again. Which I did. Five, then six times. The same laugh every time. And then she took the napkin and put it over her own head.
“Winifred Leigh Edwards, don’t put someone’s napkin on your hair!” Paige called down the long table. Her voice ugly and shrill.
“She doesn’t realize,” Paige continued in my direction, as if I was expecting something more of her new daughter. Clearly she was. Which was ludicrous but not unusual for Paige. She thought all the kids should conform to some idea of childhood behavior she’d gotten from a Christmas catalog. Smiling in their best finery. Daintily nibbling on canapés. I didn’t begrudge Paige her fantasy—it was why her house looked so good whenever she had us over—but I wasn’t going to spend my energy getting Winnie to conform to her dream. It was just too much trouble and not possible, anyway.
I waved Paige off with a smile and turned to Winnie, who had started to speak and was trying to tell me something. The consonants tumbling out on top of one another in a way that was familiar to me. It was the sound Lucas had made when he was learning to talk. He’d been delayed. His tongue not always cooperating.
But I’d always been able to understand him. I leaned in closer to Winnie, sorry I didn’t know her particular squeaks and rattles well enough to interpret for her.
“Hug?” I said instead, opening my arms wide to show her what I meant, hoping the offer would cover up the fact that I couldn’t help her. That she couldn’t make herself understood.
I expected a hesitation. A pause as she considered it. But Winnie flung herself toward me, forcing me to reach forward and clasp her tight lest she topple the both of us.
“She’ll hug anyone,” Paige called from the other end of the room. “It’s part of the orphanage thing.”
This seemed odd. And mean. Even if it was true. But then, hadn’t Paige told me that Winnie didn’t like to hug strangers? Out on that snowy walk? All of this quickly flitting through my mind as I felt Winnie’s warm arms clasped around my back. Who cared if she loved too much or too little or without forethought? She had that inimitable thing that couldn’t be taught and that everyone wanted. Charm. I hugged her back, a thick, syrupy feeling creeping up from my chest and into my throat. There it was. I loved her already.
From Good Neighbors. Used with permission of Twelve. Copyright © 2018 by Joanne Serling.