When Athena shows up on your doorstep it’s…disturbing. You’re not ready for her tirade about how your ancestor was her high priestess, and why the fuck are you working at that bank teller job? Don’t you know it’s a dead end and you were meant for higher things? What’s become of all her temples, anyway? They’re in awful disrepair if they haven’t disintegrated completely.
You stare at her for a moment before stuttering that you didn’t know temple upkeep and priestess-ing was supposed to be your job.
Athena says that now you do know, what are you going to do about it?
You invite her in for coffee so you can try to get your head around the situation.
The gods are real and they’re sick of being ignored. Most are doing the same thing as Athena right now, finding descendants of priests to chew them out and figure out who dropped the ball.
Athena says she’s going to launch a publicity campaign with you in charge. You try to remember something, anything, from the marketing class you took during your two-year stint in community college. You could make a few videos of the goddess, then put them online and hope they go viral. You could contact the media, demand interviews, and pray no one laughs at you. All of your ideas are terrifically lame, but Athena says not to worry, you’ll figure it out.
You wonder if Athena knows that, late at night you’ve been lying in bed and feeling guilty for not moving up in the bank hierarchy. You’ve told people the job is temporary, but you’re not sure what you want to be permanent. At family functions you explain to aunts and uncles and cousins that you plan on going back to school, but most of them don’t believe you any more. Marketing a goddess wasn’t one of the career options you’d considered, but it doesn’t seem worse than the job you have at present.
Flipping through the news channels, you realize the whole world is having a problem getting their heads around this one. Poseidon is on anti-whaling ships attacking whale-hunting vessels. Demeter is working with environmental activists on campaigns to stop pollution. Zeus is on all the nightly news shows trying to account for inclement weather–hurricanes and tornadoes and typhoons. He explains he was just trying to get everyone’s attention, but it didn’t work as well as he’d hoped.
“We realized a media campaign was the only way,” says Athena, speaking for herself and the rest of the gods. They just didn’t expect such a skeptical world, assumed everyone would believe what they saw on TV. A huge chunk of the population has become wary of everything, however, and is too jaded to believe this.
Some groups say the appearance of the gods is part of a right-wing conspiracy. Others says it’s a left-wing conspiracy. Various commentators with political agendas say it’s a sign of the second coming, while others repeat these “gods” are aliens. A few scientists postulate that in some parallel universes no one ever stopped believing in the gods, so your world is just falling in line with them.
But none of that matters right now because you need to launch a world tour and help Athena become computer literate. At least she’s a fast learner. She also likes fried chicken, french fries, fried shrimp, and fried pies. Happily she’s immortal and her cholesterol level doesn’t matter, because you need to order a lot of takeout–there’s no time for cooking.
Soon your living room is command central and her shrine. After word about the goddess gets out on Internet bulletin boards and blogs, crowds can’t be stopped. People come to your door with questions and buckets of fried chicken and biscuits to give her as an offering. Athena looks thoughtful while she eats and dispenses advice. Most of her supplicants seem to need career counseling, so she doles out aptitude tests along with job applications for her publicity campaign. You’re not a priestess, you’re a campaign manager. Same difference, Athena tells you. She’s running for credibility.
While most of her worshippers are very nice, you don’t appreciate her setting naysayers and other belligerent people on fire in your living room. It chars the carpet and leaves an awful black spot, but at least she looks embarrassed and buys you a nice throw rug to cover up the dark bits. You never liked your carpet much, so it’s an improvement.
In the evening you watch Zeus on TV apologizing for the awful nor’easter that just hit the coast. He doesn’t sweat in his suit and tie, just says if people stopped and listened to him he wouldn’t do things like that.
Athena rolls her eyes and mutters over her father’s tendency to act first and think later.
The next week she invites him to your place for beer, pizza, and cheesecake. He sits beside you on the couch and rests his hand on your knee. Athena lounges in an armchair and says her priestess is off limits.
Zeus takes his hand from your knee but gives you a wink. He’s cute and charismatic for an older guy. You’ve only admitted that about Richard Gere and Harrison Ford before, and they can’t shape-shift into cats. Zeus knows you like longhairs and becomes an orange tabby who winds around your legs when his daughter is out of the room. You reach down and scratch him between the ears. He purrs. You feel like this is the kind of cat you could keep forever, one that could sleep on your bed, one that could sleep in your bed…
The evening is interrupted by another news story that makes Zeus turn back into his human form and Athena race from the bathroom still zipping the fly on her jeans. Poseidon sent a sea monster to destroy a whaling ship, and there were human casualties. Now he’s having a press conference and is alternately defensive and apologetic, saying he warned them he’d do something drastic if they didn’t leave the whales alone.
“Shit,” comments Athena. “He can be such an ass.” But all the gods are surprised at the public reaction to their presence. They won obedience so easily before and sank ships all the time. Nobody demanded an explanation back then…
Athena wants to tackle the morning talk shows to gain new devotees, and she asks you to contact the Defense Department and set up a meeting so she can let them know what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong. When you balk she says she plans to use more tact than other members of her family.
“You win more flies with honey than vinegar,” she says with a wink. “It rarely helps to simply tell people how they screwed up, even if it’s mostly true.”
Athena doesn’t tell you how you screwed up, just how you could do things better. When you give her control of your small stock portfolio, she reinvests everything and it doubles in value in a week. You quit your job, which she says you should have done a long time ago, but you hadn’t used up all your sick leave before now.
When her brother Apollo comes over for fried chicken and ice cream sundaes, you develop a massive crush and barely eat anything at dinner because he keeps giving you flirty glances across the table. Your heart is a sweet melty ice cream puddle, but after he leaves, Athena pats your shoulder and says to save your affection for someone else. All the male gods are love ‘em and leave ‘em types, and you don’t have time for that kind of drama.
You launch her world tour with a band. It’s half rock concert and half political campaign, complete with loud music and flashing lights and speeches by prominent Hollywood supporters, then Athena’s own speech which runs a half-hour. She’s an excellent speaker, very funny and engaging and she tells great stories. She ends the evening by saying she’s accessible through e-mails, tweets, and burnt offerings, she especially likes chocolate fried pies and fried chicken, and she can bless your wedding or career or soldier wife before she goes off to war.
You run yourself ragged behind the scenes coordinating sound and lighting and the speakers, wrapped up in the frantic adrenalin rush of being a promoter. Even when you get the flu for a week and feel like shit, you don’t want to stop working. After Athena does something weird to your head that makes you less congested, you keep plugging ahead. You can’t stop moving, you’re part of something huge. Customer service at the bank was never like this.
To your surprise, the Defense Department takes your call seriously. At the end of the world tour, you jet off with Athena as her personal assistant and high priestess, keeper of the scheduling book and sacred briefcase. You’re becoming a little overzealous about telling supporters where you and Athena will head next, but you enjoy the adoring mob that follows you everywhere and how you can pretend you’re a rock star.
When a masked whacko shoots at you both as you’re standing on a sidewalk outside the Capitol Building, Athena rips off your blouse and performs emergency surgery on your chest to extract the bullet that lodged inches away from your heart. Her quick thinking yanks you from the moving sidewalk of the underworld back into reality. When your vital signs are stable and she’s staunched the flow of blood, she chases down the gunman and rips out his lungs. Literally. Then she calls the police. Ten minutes later, four guys with badges stand around gaping at the mangled gunman’s body and decide to call her act self-defense. They were pretty sure he had a gun aimed at Athena, or at least witnesses can be convinced to report that was the case.
You get home and find your on-again off-again boyfriend has left eight messages on your answering machine. He wants to be on-again, but you’re wise to that line. Things are going well for you, your career, and your stock portfolio. He broke it off six months ago to “see other people” and you haven’t heard much from him since, but your bed has become a lot more attractive now. You gleefully delete his whines. If he wants to bring you offerings of chocolate, maybe you’ll consider having dinner with him, but if you fall for anyone now it’ll be Apollo or Hermes who visits Athena’s shrine/your living room regularly. He has a motorcycle, which he says has more style than the old winged sandals.
You usually don’t go for men in black leather, but make an exception for Hermes. While Athena is out getting coffee with Aphrodite, Hermes swings by and asks if you want to go for pizza. You need a break from replying to the thousands of e-mails, so you say sure. He whisks you off on the back of his bike, which leads not only to pizza, but beer and jokes heavy with innuendo and sharing a pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream on your couch.
You’ve never believed in one-night stands, but that doesn’t stop you from waking up naked in bed with Hermes looking sheepish, and your goddess boss standing over you and tapping her foot on your bedroom floor. You cower back under the sheets and wonder if she’s going to smite you, but she’s more upset with Hermes.
“My priestess is off limits,” she says. “Can’t you control yourself for one night? We don’t need complications like this.”
You tell her it’s okay, you’re on the pill, but she says it doesn’t matter. Gods have very insistent sperm.
You swallow hard.
“You’ll be here every night and give her a foot massage,” Athena says to Hermes, “and of course there will be regular visits and child support payments after that.”
He nods. You feel lightheaded.
Your crash course in giving birth to a divine being lasts a month. All you want to eat is peanut butter on toast and mashed potatoes with a lot of butter. You get the worst headaches ever as your stomach inflates into a basketball. You cradle it in a sling for extra support. Hermes visits every day as promised to bring you ice cream, give you foot massages, and ask how you’re feeling. You know Athena would be royally pissed if he weren’t attentive. He kisses you on the cheek, not the lips, when he leaves. You resign yourself to the fact that this won’t be a forever romance.
During your month of pregnancy, you work at home on the computer and phone. Staying seated is a good idea since you’re a little spacey from whatever Athena did to take your headaches and horrible morning sickness away. You’re concerned because you’ve done research since you got pregnant, and read all the myths about mortals giving birth to immortals. Not all of them survive when the baby wants to come out. Athena grits her teeth and says you’ll be fine.
You lie on your bed screaming. The kid feels like she’s going to rip you in half.
Athena snaps her fingers and takes you out of your body. Floating above the bed, you wonder absently if you died. You give birth to a little girl who looks like a perfectly normal pink baby except for the wings on her heels. She’s already in your arms wrapped in a lavender blanket when Athena slides you back into your skin, though you still feel floaty.
Hermes comes over the next day with a plush octopus for his new daughter and flowers and chocolate for you. He smiles, waggles his fingers at the infant, and says he wants to take her to Olympus and show her off to the rest of the gods.
“Fuck no,” says Athena. “She’s staying with us.”
He grumbles but later brings the baby Pegasus toys and boxes and boxes of diapers. Your new daughter levitates while nursing, and she eats a lot. At least your hands are free so you can keep returning e-mails and phone calls, but a day later you fall into some weird form of postpartum depression. Hermes gives you fleeting kisses on the cheek when he arrives and when he leaves. You feel like you’ve become another myth, a footnote in a long list of nymphs and maidens he had kids with. Nothing special. How could you let yourself fall so easily to temptation, even cute temptation wearing black leather and riding a motorcycle? You’re a slut.
Athena rolls her eyes and says to quit moping and get over yourself. You’re not cheap or loose, you’re her campaign manager and high priestess and you still have duties to attend to.
“The kid can come on the road with us when she’s old enough,” says Athena. “Divine ones age at different rates so who knows how long that will be, but we have plenty to keep us busy until then.”
Athena grabs a bucket of fried chicken from her latest supplicant and hands you a drumstick. You eat as your floating baby nurses and your boss twirls a pen between her fingers, what she usually does during brainstorming sessions.
You soon discover that having a child with a god had deepened your involvement in the pantheon, since your daughter has a slew of immortal aunties and uncles who often drop by to visit. The first time Aphrodite comes over to babysit you’re rather taken aback, but Athena says not to worry, she’s great with kids and you need time to have dinner together and discuss her current campaign strategy. It’s only when you slide into her car that you realize you’re totally exhausted. You need to relax and have a drink.
The maternal separation anxiety is strange at first, but you relax a little after the hors d’oeuvres (since Athena said you had to order the fried ravioli). Your kid will have twenty divine aunties cooing over her at all times, so as long as Hermes remembers his manners and doesn’t bring over any nymph girlfriends, everything should be okay. Most working mothers don’t have it nearly this good.
Before your lasagna arrives, Athena gets down to business. She needs help with her Facebook account, and advice on managing a nasty line of tweets from some dickhead in Poughkeepsie. She’d like to smite him with fire, but knows that would be bad PR.
“What about turning him into a panda bear?” she says. “Everyone loves panda bears and they’re endangered, so that would add another one to the list.”
You nod slowly and, like a good campaign manager priestess, begin to consider how you might spin this one to the nightly news shows.
He went to the Virginia coast for relaxation, and found a hotel on the beach that was suitably deserted. He spent long days walking along the vacant shore, but was surprised on the second-to-the-last afternoon of his vacation to find a woman sitting on a rock near the water’s edge, sunning and…topless?
The young man walked closer to get a better look. He was stealthy and the surf was loud. She sang something light and almost familiar, a tune he’d heard when young, but he didn’t let himself be diverted. Once he saw her blue-green tail shimmering in the sun, he knew what he was after. The young man swiped the comb sitting on the rock beside her, a mother-of-pearl crescent with fine teeth.
The woman turned and gasped. He saw the flicker of fear and anger in her eyes. Her clawing arms demanded the comb’s return, but he evaded her fingernails.
“I’ll be a great husband,” he said, waving the stolen half-moon and slipping it into the pocket of his swim trunks. He ran back to the hotel, returning minutes later with an armload of wet bath towels. As the young man carried the tearing mermaid back to his room, swaddled like an infant, he cheerily explained how lonely he’d been.
“I’ve had no time for romance with work and all,” he said. “There’s a great hot tub in my suite. You’ll love it.”
He extended his vacation for three more days. The mermaid lived in the hot tub while the young man specially ordered a seventy-gallon tank, one large enough to hold a chair. He also ordered several designer blouses in a range of attractive pastel colors.
The young man had to take the front seat out of his car and jam it in the trunk, but the tank and its top-of-the-line filtration system fit nicely in that passenger space. The mermaid was mute all the way home as he explained his life’s work—well, really it was his grandfather’s life’s work—as the CEO of a paint and wallpaper company. He ran the operation efficiently enough, most people said he did as good a job as his father and grandfather had done, and nobody seemed to hate him much.
When they stopped for food, the mermaid quietly ordered a fish sandwich and onion rings. On the rest of the trip home she drew greasy patterns on the window with her finger.
The young man bought her a lovely white silk blouse and diamond necklace before their trip to the courthouse. Her tank was on a dolly festooned with white streamers. The bride was teary, but he still had her comb and she could only nod assent to the judge’s questions.
“Everything will work out great,” he said as he rolled her out the courthouse doors for a lobster dinner. His vacation had already been five days longer than expected so he had to go back to work the next day, but he left his new wife with a kiss, instructions on how to use the TV remote, and a pile of takeout menus so she could order whatever she wanted for lunch.
The young man showed off his new wife at work after she had a month to adjust and was no longer crying herself to sleep at night or kicking at him with her fin when he got into the jacuzzi with her. He’d bought a motorized platform with wheels for her tank so she could roll down the halls of his office building as he introduced her around. The mermaid demurely shook hands, lilting politely to all the employees who gaped at her pearl skin and seaweed brown hair.
He was happy. She was adjusting, and asked if she could go to work with him again. She spent the afternoon chatting with the administrative assistants. Over a dinner of shrimp scampi she said she might like to visit the office every day. She liked having company. He kissed her hard and said certainly.
She sat in the lobby with the administrative assistants, but the female salespeople were especially taken with her. During their lunch breaks, they showed her paint and wallpaper samples. Someone gave her a pen and paper, and she began sketching wallpaper designs. They were full of fluid lines, based on shells and waves and the curl of fish fins. After work he marveled at her artwork. It was clear she had an eye for shape and color.
When he puttered through the lobby on his way to this or that meeting, he saw his wife having low-voiced conversations with the lady sales reps who visited interior design stores. Soon those reps were breaking into new territory, selling the company’s products in larger shops, and drawing figures that made them the best salespeople in their respective regions.
His staff began to call him less frequently with questions. It only took a few days before he realized she’d become an underground consultant. They were going to her for suggestions on sales pitches, paint and wallpaper combo ideas, and how to introduce themselves and their products in new stores.
He wasn’t sure who suggested she sit in on meetings to help strategize. He was even less clear on how she took over minute by slow minute. The staff was mesmerized by her ideas, her voice soft and low like a sultry flute. He sat at the other end of the table and could barely make out what she was saying—something about breaking into markets in the northeast?–but it was most irritating when everyone else laughed at a joke he hadn’t heard.
Four days later he caught the flu and was delirious for a week. She was almost maternal, putting cool cloths on his forehead at night, and leaving Jell-O and tapioca pudding and ginger ale on his bedside table before she went to work. In his altered sweaty state he barely realized she was taking the bus from their house to company headquarters, using the wheelchair lift to get on and off, but when he returned to work he was no longer in charge.
He had the biggest office and she was still stationed in the lobby, but everyone listened to her. Two days later he made reservations for a candlelight dinner at a French restaurant. After the waiter brought their bouillabaisse, he tried to give her the comb back. She picked up her spoon, shook her head, and smiled.
A month later the company’s stock prices had soared to an all-time high. He took on the role as house husband and bought several seafood cookbooks. She liked having a hot dinner ready when she returned home from work, kissed his forehead and said, “You’re a real lifesaver.”
That was the story the girl heard from her sweet and repentant father.
Her mother had a different tale to tell. She was not a victim, but an explorer from the sea.
“I came willingly, comb and all,” she said. “When your father invited me to tour the company, I found I had a natural flair for interior design. He was overworked at the time and the business wasn’t doing well, so I offered to help in the office. I wanted to take some of that stress from his shoulders.”
Her mother didn’t say that she’d left the girl’s father with nothing to do but mope around the house, but that seemed to be the case. As far as she could tell her parents loved each other. They said so every morning, her mother’s hand gently caressing her father’s fingers.
“I love you, too,” her father said, kissing his wife gently on the lips then averting his gaze before she rolled out the door.
It was different than the “I love you” he said when the girl left for school and he gave her a hug and a forehead kiss. Then he looked her in the eye and smiled.
The curious thing about the girl’s body, or the most wonderful thing as her mother put it, was the size of her feet. They were twice as big as any other kid’s, and had webbing between the toes. When she was little the doctors suggested taming her toes and tying them back into neat little bundles, but her mother forbid surgery or any other kind of altercation. She knew the flippers would be a gift.
When she was young, four and five years old, the girl’s father had worried aloud over her as they ate dinner. What if other children made fun of her? What if they didn’t accept her at school? Anxiety made his voice soar into high registers. The girl didn’t understand his worries then, but now that she was twelve years old, she knew his anxious tone was that of someone who understood what it was like to be teased.
“Don’t worry,” her mother had said in her usual lilt. “She’ll fit in just fine. The other children won’t mind as soon as they get used to the differences.”
Her father frowned and grumbled and whispered to the girl before bed. “If any kids give you trouble on the playground, tell me and I’ll smack them from here until next week.”
He spoke the words gently but she could imagine the thrill of violence, her playmates bouncing across hard concrete blocks. A few times she was called fish girl and flipper-foot by mean first grade boys, but she wore big shoes, heavy shoes, and had good aim when she kicked. After doling out a few playground bruises nobody made fun of her, at least to her face.
“You’re sure the kids are being kind?” her father asked at dinner.
She nodded. Her mother smiled, but her father’s eyes narrowed to suspicious slits.
Her parents always had different stories, different ways of seeing how the world was and should be. For a while she wasn’t sure who was lying, but now she figured they were both telling a truth, two halves of a whole. She smoothed the tales together and found a version she believed.
Her father was wary of people in general. Her mother treated them as sociological study.
“You must learn to watch those around you,” she said. “It’s interesting what you can glean from how they behave.” It was the same voice her science teacher used when she talked about one-celled creatures they examined under microscopes. Her mother’s tone wasn’t condescending, just curious and detached. She took the bus to and from work because she loved chatting with people on the route.
Her mother was beautiful, with waves of brown hair the color of polished stone. She brushed it at night as they watched TV or as she explained the fascinating things that had happened at work, and how interior design itself was a fascinating subject.
“When people walk into a room with certain colors and decorations and ceiling heights, it makes them feel differently,” she said. “Isn’t that fascinating?”
She was not one of them, this race of humanity, and the girl wasn’t one of them either. She also wasn’t of her mother’s people, since none of them had legs. She was somewhere between, which her mother said was fine and her father’s gritted teeth said was worrisome. In hazy moments before sleep she wondered if her mother’s explorations would end someday and she’d return home, wherever that was. The girl was always too scared to ask.
Her father was the opposite of her mother, shadowy and hesitant as a new moon. He flashed a crescent smile when the girl showed him how she’d done well on a test, but never held those grins for long enough.
He didn’t leave home much, only to run to the bank or grocery store or do other errands. Sometimes when she came home from school he was cleaning vegetables at the kitchen sink, peering out the window like something was preventing him from going outside, an invisible sea monster swimming in the asphalt street. She didn’t know why her father was trapped, though his body was thin and pale, a man like a slice of mica. He went on cooking binges every week, making soups and sauces and meatballs though he froze a lot and rarely ate much.
Her father packed fantastic lunches for the girl—crab salad and tuna salad and ham and cheese wraps with spinach and provolone. When she got home from school there were cookies or brownies cooling on the counter. Her lunchtime friends wished their dads cooked as well as hers did. The girl wished her father looked happier, but when she asked him what was wrong he smiled his sad smile and said “Nothing,” which she knew meant “Everything.”
“All my recipes were my grandmother’s,” he told her as he rolled out pasta dough by hand. “I should have become a chef, not followed in my father’s footsteps.”
The comment made the girl look down at her feet, since her own footsteps were huge. She was a natural swimmer from the time she was six months old and paddling around in the bathtub, and joined the local swim team when she was five. Her mother sat poolside and watched practices whenever she didn’t have a meeting. Sometimes she skipped meetings to be at the pool instead.
“There are more important meetings and less important meetings,” she said. “Sometimes swim team is the more important meeting.”
At first the other kids stared at her mother’s tank, but her top half was so gorgeous, so mesmerizing, they eventually ignored her tail. Her father never came to the pool, but was standing in the kitchen when they got home and wanted to know how everything had gone.
Once a year they went to the Virginia shore. Her mother didn’t go in the water, and needed her father’s help to get to the beach. She rested in a mound of wet towels, staring at the waves with a slight smile. As the girl played in the water, kicking with her marvelously big feet, her father retreated to the hotel and took cooking classes. At dinner he told his wife and daughter about the new recipes and techniques he’d learned. It was the one time the girl thought her father was honestly happy.
Near the end of the girl’s sixth grade year, her mother packed a suitcase and announced she was taking a trip. She didn’t say where, just that she was going on business. She left on a Monday. The girl waited one week. Two weeks. Three weeks. Four. School let out for the summer and she got a job at the city pool as a lifeguard. Her father grilled outside every night, shrimp kabobs and fresh tuna and salmon with dill. He said his home could finally be his castle and he smiled more than usual, which the girl found pleasant and disturbing.
The day her mother returned, giving them a round of hugs and no explanation, she shut herself up in their bedroom. She stayed there for two days and said she was tired. The girl took her mother meals on a tray. She looked exhausted, but the girl figured her mother’s trip had been for more than business matters. Once she came out of hiding and resumed her work schedule, the girl’s father left. There was no note. He was gone along with a duffel bag. Her mother fretted over toast and coffee.
“He can’t do this to me,” she said, her voice cracking. “You two are my only family.”
“You were gone for a month,” said her daughter.
“I need him to be our backbone at home,” she said. “I need him to keep things orderly and clean.”
The girl nodded, but she knew keeping things orderly and clean could get boring even if you were good at it. Her father was gone for one week. Two weeks. Three weeks. Four. Her mother wore thicker makeup to cover the tired lines under her eyes, but it didn’t work well.
Her father returned in the middle of July, was in the kitchen when she got home from her lifeguard job, and asked if she wanted to go out for an Italian soda and an explanation. As they sipped their drinks he said what she’d always known—he was bored. He needed a shock. A challenge. A job.
“I’ve never been able to explore before now,” he said gleefully. “I went to New York and New Orleans and San Francisco and Seattle. I slept in the car and tried three new restaurants every day. I was so happy to be free of the damn company. It was handed to me and I couldn’t say no, but your mother has natural business ability when it comes to interior design.”
When her mother came home and saw a dinner of shrimp scampi and fresh basil-lemon foccacia, her face bloomed into a perplexed smile.
“I’m so happy you’re back,” she said, kissing her husband on the cheek when he bent down.
“Not for long,” the girl heard her father mutter, but her mother was already rolling down the hall to freshen up. Two days later he had a job as a line cook working the night shift in an upscale bar that was open late, feeding chefs who needed to eat at two a.m. He worked from nine at night until five in the morning, had breakfast with her and her mother, and went to sleep. When the girl returned home from lifeguarding at four in the afternoon, he was standing in the kitchen with a cup of coffee, still in his bathrobe.
He became a night-dweller and something of a werewolf, grew a short beard but there was also more hair on his arms and legs than she remembered. He drank two beers with dinner and laughed louder than before. His guffaws filled the room and made her mother fiddle nervously with the buttons on her blouse. She looked professional, like a news anchor on TV, while her father kicked back in a flannel shirt, finally at peace.
He started coming to the girl’s swim meets, but her parents sat apart. Her mother said it was because she was involved in rather intense negotiations and needed to duck out and take phone calls. A large New York company was trying to buy their modest firm, and her mother was fighting it every step of the way. She said they would merge over her dead body, and when she returned poolside after taking a call, she looked like she was indeed ready to kill someone. She gave the girl’s father mean glances across the bleachers where he sat with other cheerfully sloppy men who ogled her mother from a distance.
The only person no longer mesmerized by her mother was her father, who danced around the house saying, “The spell has been broken!”
“There never was any spell,” her mother said drily.
“You always made me feel inadequate, but no more,” her father sang.
Her mother protested this at first, but then she took to rolling her eyes and muttering that he was always trying to make her out as the villain.
“You don’t think I’m a villain, do you?” she asked her daughter with a half-joking, half-pleading smile.
“Of course not,” said the girl. She knew her parents told different stories.
“I’m going to buy the bar,” her father announced one night at dinner just after school had started back up. “The owner is retiring. It’s a fantastic opportunity.”
“You will do no such thing until company matters have settled,” said her mother. She hadn’t been able to fend off the people in New York and was taking long conference baths, speaking on the mobile phone while in the tub. The baths made her calmer, but the girl knew her mother didn’t need more stress.
The next day her father filed for divorce. He said he’d take his share of the assets and buy his bar if he damn well pleased. When the girl muttered this news to school friends, they were amazed. Why would anyone divorce someone as lovely as her mother? Kids with single dads asked when her mom would be dating again. She didn’t want to think about that.
At the bar her father developed a new seafood menu. She was his main taste-tester, because he knew she’d be honest. As she ate, he was honest about himself. Perhaps too honest.
“I was always jealous of you and your natural swimming ability,” he said. “I don’t have that kind of talent for business. We were doing well when I took control of the company, and I only moved things down from there.”
“The scallops are great,” she said.
“I know.” Her father beamed.
The girl started working at the bar after school, helping with food prep. Her father had moved in with one of the bachelor line cooks while he looked for a new place. She was still at her mother’s house, and her mother wasn’t happy about the work arrangement.
“No job,” she said. “You should focus on swimming.”
For the first time in her life, the girl defied her mother’s words. It felt like she was in a whirlpool, and she wanted a little control. Her parents claimed they still cared about each other, but they did not want to compromise. Her mother said her father was an idiot who was trying to find a fairy-tale and it’d never work. Her father said her mother was a control freak.
The girl wondered if her parents honestly loved each other, or were just repeating the lines out of morning habit. She knew her parents had changed. Her mother tightened her claw grip around her cell phone. Her father grew his hair out, pulled it back in a ponytail, and cut the sleeves off of Salvation Army T-shirts to use as his work uniform. He wore white aprons and often forgot to remove them when he went to the grocery.
She watched him become exuberant and changeable as the golden retriever that lived two doors down the street. He bounced around the kitchen one minute and growled the next because the fries weren’t brown enough or the lettuce was limp since someone had forgotten to crisp it up in cold water. His outbursts scared and delighted her. He was a different person, an animated person, a person who made dirty jokes with the line cooks. Like all pre-teens she understood more dirty jokes than she let on, but couldn’t reveal her knowledge with a giggle because then the jokes would stop.
Her mother peeked into the bar’s kitchen sometimes after work, her eyes wide with fright and hope. Her daughter knew she didn’t understand these changes, though she ate at the bar every other night.
“I want a truce,” she told her husband after convincing him to pause for a glass of white wine. “I want to go to marriage counseling.”
Her father wouldn’t hear of it. “I’m free,” he kept saying, like that was explanation enough for why he wouldn’t return to his previous life.
In court the girl discovered that love was not always patient and kind. People you loved, people who loved you, made you take sides. That was not easy.
At her mother’s house the girl flipped through photo albums of her time at the Virginia shore. She knew someday she’d return there alone and try to find family. The thought scared her a little—who knew what those relatives might have said to her mother. Perhaps they’d accept her, and perhaps not. All she could do was tell the story and show them the comb.
She shut the album and stretched her legs, ready to make dinner for herself and her mother. One of her father’s recipes learned from working in the kitchen. He was still feeding them both in small ways and her mother knew this, though she didn’t say anything about it. It was all about compromise, living in two worlds, but she was used to that.