Dreams of Significant Girls
DAY ONE VIVIEN WAHL
Sometimes I think my parents sent me to Switzerland because they didn’t want me around. Things were going downhill for my father ever since we moved from Miami to New York City. My dad was kind of unusual for a Cuban exile. First, he was Jewish when most Cubans were Catholic, like my mother. Second, he was politically liberal—a registered Democrat, in fact—and believed that Cubans off
the island should talk to the Cubans on
the island. That made him Public Enemy Number One in Miami.
When the other Cuban exiles found out that Max Wahl had gone to Havana to hold secret meetings with El Líder, they called him a traitor, and worse. We got threatening phone calls in the middle of the night and we had to check for bombs under our car—a 1957 Cadillac, identical to our old car in Havana. Papi
learned how to shoot a gun, kept one in a holster under his jacket. He took me to shooting ranges behind my mother’s back. Kids at school shunned me, called me the Communist’s daughter. Nobody invited me to their birthday parties. Plus people boycotted my father’s three jewelry stores and he had to close down two of them in a year.
My mother begged my father to leave Miami, to start fresh in another city where no one would ostracize him for his political beliefs. So when I was twelve years old, we moved to New York City. Talk about shock. Talk about noise. Talk about rude. But it didn’t take me more than a month to get used to it, and to love it. Everyone was curious about me. They wanted to know why I spoke Spanish and whether I’d ever seen an alligator. When I told my classmates that I’d been to the Everglades and had gotten this close
to an alligator—showing them pictures to prove it—I was instantly popular.
Things didn’t go as well for my parents. Papi worked all the time. He traveled to Africa to buy diamonds for his new import business. We hardly ever saw him. This made my mother very lonely. Whenever I wanted to hang out with friends after school, she made me feel so guilty that half the time I didn’t go. Late at night, I’d hear my parents arguing. Mom cried and accused Dad of abandoning her. She suspected that he was having an affair. He countered that maybe he didn’t want to come home to a depressed wife every night. So off I went to “safe” Switzerland so they could sort things out.
I’d never been on a flight by myself before, much less one where you got to choose what you wanted to eat from a menu. I ordered everything that came with cream sauce
and a crème brûlée for dessert. Then I settled in to read my volume of J. D. Salinger stories. I brought ten books with me, all fiction. The Swiss camp promised that I’d be exceedingly busy: three hours of French classes in the morning, sports and activities in the afternoon (I chose horseback riding, water skiing, cooking, and ceramics), with nightly activities on top of that. I packed a flashlight in case my only time to read was under the bedcovers. In third grade, I got glasses from reading in the dark. Every time my mother looked at me with my thick tortoiseshell glasses, she’d sigh, as if I’d been permanently disfigured.
The plane flew only half the night but because of the time change, it was already morning when we arrived in Geneva. The Pierpont Boarding School for Girls had a booth set up in the airport to greet the students, who came from around the world. On the shuttle bus to campus, I talked to a girl from Turkey and another from Sweden and heard languages I couldn’t figure out at all. There was a sense of nervous excitement, as if we’d eaten too much chocolate. Almost everyone spoke a little English, and that quickly became the common language. There was a shy girl from Italy who couldn’t join the conversation, so I tried to translate as best I could.
We drove along the shores of Lake Geneva for a while before coming to the village of Rolle. The first thing I noticed were the number of pastry shops everywhere. They looked perfect, with éclairs and petit fours beckoning to me from the glistening windows. Let me just tell this straight: I have a serious sweet tooth. I believe every meal should start with dessert and work its way backward. Don’t even bother with appetizers. I was a pretty decent baker and made everything
from scratch: vanilla chip macadamia cookies, double fudge cake, you name it. I was desperate to go to cooking school but my parents told me it wasn’t a career fit for an educated girl.
When the bus turned into the majestic, oak-lined driveway of Pierpont, everyone stopped talking for a minute. It was a sunny day and the grounds were impeccable: rose gardens and elephant topiaries and arched trellises with purple bell-shaped flowers I’d never seen before. It was like entering paradise. During the year, Pierpont was one of the fanciest boarding schools in Europe. But in the summer, it opened its doors for a month and became a kind of luxury camp for kids who wanted, or who were forced by their parents, to study French.
I looked around and wondered if the other students thought it as beautiful as I did. Maybe they were so wealthy that nothing impressed them. I started thinking about my father and how he’d lost so much money in Miami and now had to go flying off to Africa to make a living; about our rambling apartment on West Sixty-fifth Street; about my mother shopping the sales at Lord & Taylor. We were still well off but probably nothing like the girls who came here.
By the time I got to my room, one of my roommates had already claimed the bed by the window. Her name was Ingrid and she was Canadian-German and alarmingly tall. I had to strain my neck to talk to her. She wore a gigantic mood ring on her left middle finger that was indicating extreme hostility. Frankly, the German part of her made me kind of nervous after all the World War II stories I’d heard from my dad. I calmed down by telling myself that this girl had nothing to do with what’d happened to Papi thirty years ago.
Ingrid was fifteen, a year older than me, but she seemed a lot older; not just because of her height but because of the way she carried herself, as if she knew about everything in advance. She had this enormous toolbox beside her bed but I was afraid to ask her what was in it. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would need a wrench in this place. The first thing Ingrid did was offer me a cigarette, even though the teachers had told us during orientation that smoking was forbidden except for the senior girls, who had their own smoking lounge.
I took one, trying to look like I knew what I was doing. She pulled out a gold lighter with the initials I. B.
and I held my cigarette to the flame.
“You might want to try putting the cigarette in your mouth,” Ingrid said with a smirk.
I shrugged then sucked on the end of that cigarette for all it was worth. My mouth and nose filled with hot smoke but it also felt like it was going behind my eyes, out my ears. At that rate, the fire department would be arriving any minute. Predictably, I had a coughing fit. Ingrid ignored this fact and pulled out some miniature bottles of liquor she’d saved from the airplane and offered to make us a welcome drink.
“Maybe later,” I croaked. I had the feeling she was trying to test me, to see how far I would go. She drank down the contents of a red labeled bottle of whiskey in one gulp.
“Have you ever worn a paper dress?” she asked flippantly.
“I highly recommend them. They save time undressing, if you know what I mean.”
Thankfully, the dinner bell broke up the awkwardness
and we headed down to the dining room. There were place cards at every table and we scrambled to find our seats. After interminable announcements in French, we got down to the business of eating. On a culinary basis alone, I knew I was going to like it at Pierpont. Never mind the steamed artichokes with garlic remoulade. Or the grilled pork chops with roasted potatoes. For dessert, there was a delicious apple tart topped with crème anglaise.
Between mouthfuls I chatted with a pint-size New Yorker named Hope, who informed me immediately that she lived on Park Avenue and Sixty-fifth. When I told her that I lived on Sixty-fifth Street too, but on the west side and
I went to public school, she sniffed and turned her attention to the neighbor on her left. To my right was a tentative Egyptian girl who spoke perfect, British-accented English. Jamila was tiny and fine boned, like a hummingbird. She couldn’t have weighed more than eighty pounds soaking wet. We found common ground in books. Jamila was a huge fan of E. M. Forster—a writer I’d heard of but hadn’t yet read—as well as Virginia Woolf. Definitely more advanced than me but we agreed to exchange books over the summer. I was relieved to have made a friend.
After dinner, we listened to the extracurricular instructors deliver presentations about their classes. The waterskiing coach went off on some long digression about Descartes. A Dutch girl who’d been there the year before explained that the coach was getting a doctorate in philosophy at the Sorbonne. The cooking teacher, Monsieur d’Aubigné, gave his spiel dressed in kitchen whites and a toque, slapping a wooden spoon in one hand. The most hilarious pitch came
from the water ballet instructor, Madame Delfin (that was her real name, I swear), who began demonstrating underwater breathing techniques right on the spot. When everyone laughed, she furiously gasped like a flounder.
Back in my room, our third and last roommate—cinnamon skinned with enormous brown eyes—was settling herself on the bed nearest the door. She didn’t look too happy about it. I introduced myself and tried to ask her a few neutral questions. She replied with minimal syllables, as if each word were painful to utter.
“So what’s your name?”
“Where are you from?”
“What do you like to do?”
Okay, so maybe this roommate thing wasn’t going to work out too well, after all.
Despite the inconveniences, I was willing to try to get along. My three older brothers had gone to boarding school in Switzerland and were established at good colleges, or in the military. (Bahman was studying chemistry at Oxford; Asad was finishing his engineering degree at Heidelberg; and Cyrus
had joined the Air Force and was flying fighter jets.). I was the youngest in my family by nine years. My parents claimed they’d been quite happy with three boys before I came along as a “surprise.” From day one, I was a fragile child and demanded a great deal of attention. Everything displeased me or made me cry. Only my maternal grandmother, whom everyone said I resembled, could entertain me with her fanciful tales. It was true that I was indulged, some might say spoiled, but who could blame me? This was how I was raised.
Where I come from, a daughter like me, a delicate daughter after three strong boys, was extravagantly cherished, perhaps more so because of my sensitivities. Of course, I was pretty enough, but I was also very smart, especially in math. From an early age, I could tell you the square root of high multiples in a matter of seconds. The numbers would appear to me as if spelled out in a clear blue sky. Teachers told my parents I had a gift. When I was in fifth grade, I began tutorials with a mathematics professor at the University of Tehran. I could be in college by now, had I insisted. But my mother worried that I would be socially stigmatized. This was considered a terrible blight for a girl in Iranian society. No matter how intelligent, no matter how ambitious, she is largely assessed by her ability to attract a good husband.
In short, my parents sent me to summer boarding school in Switzerland so that I could socialize with girls my age. Girls from good families,
my mother stressed. Girls with a future
. She thought it would be beneficial for me to share a room, make friends, get out from behind my books. She signed me up for tennis, sailing, archery, and advanced horseback riding.
Let me be perfectly clear: I had never before shared a room
with anyone. It came as an unpleasant shock. There was no nanny to unpack my trunks. No housemaid to run my bath and make certain the temperature was a welcoming degree of warm. There were supposed to be dances with a boys’ boarding school. Boys from good families,
Maman stressed. Boys with a future.
I did not have any particular interest in boys beyond my brothers. What could they possibly offer me?
My first day was inauspicious. My plane was delayed by six hours, the airline lost one of my bags (the one with my Theoretical Physics textbooks), and the scheduled limousine never bothered to show up (I had to take a taxi all the way to the Swiss boarding school). By the time I arrived, everyone was eating dinner and I hurried to find my seat at a back table, clearly the least desirable.
As I ate my way, leaf by leaf, to the artichoke’s soggy heart, I listened to the conversation around me. It was the same insecure litany of privileged progeny everywhere: what their fathers did for a living (bankers and industrialists, for the most part), the locations of their second and third homes (ski chalets in Gstaad; apartments in London; country homes in Provence), where they went to school (elite private institutions, naturally), and which cars they had been promised when they came of age (Porsches, BMWs, one Maserati). Honestly, I could not have been more bored.
For the first ten minutes, nobody bothered to ask me a single question. It was not until the second course arrived that people took notice.
“Do you eat pork?” a lumpy girl from Düsseldorf asked me.
Sometimes it was the only shred of pseudo-knowledge that Europeans exhibited about Muslims, or the Middle East.
I could have explained to her that my mother was of mixed heritage and my father a Muslim (and a prince, it so happened), that we celebrated both Christmas and Islamic holy days, that we served alcohol at home and at parties, and that yes, on occasion, we even ate pork. I could have told the girl from Düsseldorf all this, but the chances were it would not have changed her misinformed ideas.
“Yes,” I said simply, cutting off a piece of pork and putting it in my mouth.
Everyone at the table turned to stare at me as I chewed, swallowed, and cut off another piece. She speaks! She eats! What further wonders will this exotic creature exhibit for our entertainment?
This is what their facial expressions seemed to say. It was dully tiresome. As my father once chided me, I would have made a dreadful ambassador.
“She’s lying,” the Düsseldorf girl insisted. “She’s just doing it to show off.”
Nobody had ever questioned my integrity before, and certainly never over something as insignificant as a morsel of pork. Where I came from, my family’s word was law. To question us, to imply that we were lying, was to insult us deeply. And to insult us meant to court imprisonment, or worse. Trust me, if the German girl had known this, she would have kept her mouth shut.
Things did not improve when I went to my room. The two best beds were already taken, and my bed was wedged against the front wall, where every footstep and squeal in the hallway was audible to me. I did not know what to make of my roommates. There was a plump girl from New York whose parents were from Cuba. It was not until I spotted her shelf
crammed with books that I grew interested. The books, disappointingly, were novels. Frankly, I did not see the point of immersing oneself in fictitious worlds. It felt childish to me, like escaping into someone else’s fantasy. When I tried to tell the Cuban girl this, she grew argumentative.
“I’ve learned more from fiction, more about truth and love than I’ve ever learned from real life,” she said, waving around a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.
Then she offered me a hazelnut truffle from a box of chocolates she excavated from her suitcase. I took this as a conciliatory gesture and accepted the truffle.
Our other roommate did not reappear until later that night. She introduced herself as Ingrid Baum and she was tall enough to be a Lebanese cedar. She wore ripped jeans and combat boots and a psychedelic T-shirt imprinted with JIMI HENDRIX IS GOD
. When I inquired who Jimi Hendrix was, she looked at me as if I had put a multigenerational curse on her family.
“Where did you say you’re from?” Ingrid demanded.
“Don’t you get television over there?”
“Don’t you listen to music?”
“THEN HOW THE HELL CAN YOU ASK ME WHO JIMI HENDRIX IS, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE?!” She turned to Vivien, who was flipping through one of my quantum mechanics books. “Have YOU heard of Jimi Hendrix?”
“Sure. But I wouldn’t exactly say he’s God.”
“I can’t believe this!” Ingrid was beside herself and
stomped around the room in an unseemly manner. One could only imagine what this must have sounded like to the unfortunate girls in the room below us. “Okay, you two. Listen up.”
She turned on her tape deck as loud as it would go. The ear-splitting music filled the room—a fast, grinding guitar accompanied by a voice so low and growling that it was impossible to decipher the words. I immediately thought of my brother Cyrus, unstoppable in his fighter jet, streaking across the sky. Forget the couture party dresses. Forget my matchmaking society mother. Forget teaching math to fidgety schoolgirls (the only respectable path for a smart girl like me). I wanted desperately to fly alongside Cyrus, screaming across the empty blue skies.
We couldn’t wait to get out of Canada—away from our town, away from our smothering German mother, and, frankly, away from my
bad reputation. Our town was like a fish bowl. When you weren’t swimming around inside it, fins ablaze and blowing bubbles, you were on the outside looking in, watching everyone else and making snide remarks. So when my little sister, Kathe, and I finally got on the plane in Toronto, I whooped and hollered so loud, the stewardess came over and read me the riot act. I got lots of dirty looks from the other passengers too. Apparently, airplanes were a lot more like small towns than we knew.
The first thing I did after the plane hit top altitude was whip out my fake ID and order a double scotch. I looked a lot older than fifteen. When I was dressed up and wearing
makeup, grown men hit on me all the time. My sister was thirteen but looked about ten. She’d deny it, of course, but there was no way she could’ve ordered a double scotch and gotten away with it. So I poured some of mine into her Coke when nobody was looking and we both settled in to watch the movie—a crappy Hollywood flick dripping with sentimentality. When Americans weren’t shooting up the universe, they were crying their eyes out over some sappy sob story.
I was more into absurdity. One bizarre thing juxtaposed with another. Sometimes I put my visions to paper. This made my mother worry to no end. When my father got back from his endless drives around Canada’s ten provinces (he owned a factory that made portable fans and delivered them himself), Mutti would show him my latest sketches. Then I’d hear them whispering urgently behind their bedroom door. It was after my mother found a whole portfolio of my “disturbing” drawings that she and Vati decided to send me and my sister to Switzerland.
We’d never been away from home except for the time Mutti took us to visit her great-aunt Jutta deep in the Black Forest. Going there was like walking into a Grimm’s fairy tale. Seriously scary. Our father had vowed long ago never to set foot in Germany again, so he didn’t come with us. After World War II he got as far away as humanly possible from so-called civilization. That meant immigrating to Canada and finding the furthest semihabitable outpost in the northernmost reaches of Ontario province. We grew up in a massive log house that my father built with his own hands. It looked out over a pristine lake and was surrounded by an evergreen forest. Our closest neighbors were five miles away.
By the time we arrived in Geneva, I was fairly drunk. Luckily, Kathe was on the ball. She’d fallen asleep after that first spiked Coke, snoring loud enough for everyone in our immediate vicinity to complain. I had to shove her around until her head rested on my shoulder and the bulk of her snoring reverberated into my neck. That was my sister’s saving grace: passing out before she could do herself, or anyone else, much harm. It was like having a safety valve embedded in her brain that switched off at a certain level of danger. Given that she hung out with me, this was probably a good thing.
Kathe got us through arrivals and customs (those Swiss guards really combed through our stuff) and out to meet the bus. I was tired but not tired enough to miss the good-looking boys gathering at the booth opposite ours. According to our glossy Pierpont brochures, we were supposed to have two dances with our so-called brother school, Le Rosey, a couple of miles away. Well, here they were less than twenty feet away and I wasn’t about to squander the opportunity. I scanned the crowd and immediately settled on a tall, muscular boy with dirty blond hair and eyes as green as pond scum.
I went right up to him and asked him for a cigarette. He didn’t have any so I offered him an unfiltered one of mine. “I think it’s ridiculous to make up excuses to fraternize with members of the opposite sex, don’t you?” I lit my cigarette and pulled a piece of tobacco off my front tooth. Then I held out my free hand until he shook it. “My name’s Ingrid. I’m Canadian, of German descent, and bent on juvenile delinquency. And you?”
“Fyodor,” he said, rolling his chiseled shoulders. “English, no speak little.”
My best guess was that he was some kind of Russian wrestler son-of-a-diplomat kind of guy. I started feigning a few wrestling moves, the cigarette tight between my lips and swooning ash, which he found more perplexing than amusing. I was half hoping that Fyodor would be inspired to pin me down right there in the Geneva airport lounge when I heard a sharp voice calling my name.
“Mademoiselle Baum, come here this instant! We’re ready to depart!” The voice belonged to our trusty chaperone, Mademoiselle Pinot, a prune of a woman I suspected I’d have a few run-ins with before the summer was through.
Before I could get into a lusty headlock with my hunky, minimally verbal Russian, Mademoiselle Pinot whisked me off to the company of Pierpont’s other happy campers. Reluctantly I dragged my sister to the back of the shuttle bus, which I considered the best vantage point for checking out our fellow travelers. There were thirteen of us onboard, not including Mademoiselle Pinot and the twitchy driver with his patent-brimmed hat. I looked around and tried to guess who might become my friend that summer. It wasn’t promising. Everyone looked too neat, too well behaved, too boring.
Before I’d left Canada, my father told me that this trip to Europe might turn my life around, that I could become anyone I wanted to be. It’d certainly worked for him, but in the opposite direction. He’d left Europe after World War II and went from being a Nazi soldier to a wildly successful manufacturer of portable fans. So what was he expecting from me? That I’d undergo a metamorphosis from “adventurous artist” (their kindest description of me) to some French-speaking dilettante? Fat chance. Sometimes I felt forced to
go to extremes just to ensure some negotiating room. Okay, so you’re telling me I can’t go to art school in Toronto? Would you prefer I become a heroin addict instead?
The Swiss boarding school was super fancy. Chandeliers everywhere and a common room with leather sofas and backgammon boards inlaid with mother-of-pearl. I counted eight tennis courts, an Olympic-size swimming pool, and dedicated studios for everything from pottery to cooking. Apparently water ballet was mildly popular. I signed up just to see who the real idiots were on campus. I imagined going home and showing off my underwater pirouettes at the lake, Vaseline glistening on my teeth. Oh yeah, I’d be a huge hit.
In the dormitory, we were assigned our rooms. The younger girls, thirteen and under, were put on the first floor with resident counselors. Kathe really liked her roommates—a Ugandan girl whose father was a deposed foreign minister; and a flighty girl from Barcelona who had a suitcase filled with chewing gum. The fourteen-and fifteen-year-olds lived on the second floor, with a TV lounge to themselves. Sixteen-and seventeen-year-olds lived on the third floor with fancier accommodations—private rooms and baths, and daily maid service. And the few rooms on the fourth floor were strictly reserved for eighteen-and-ups. (Who the hell would be going to summer camp at eighteen? Beyond pathetic, if you ask me.)
I got to my room before anyone else, so I staked out the bed by the window. It would come in handy if I needed to sneak out at night to meet my Russian wrestler. Ha! The window overlooked too-perfect gardens and a big, burbling fountain featuring a trio of dopey-looking Greek goddesses
holding water jugs. If I’d had a BB gun, I would’ve aimed for their marble noses on the spot.
After dinner, I sneaked off campus for a couple of hours to check things out. Nobody missed me in the confusion of the first day. Actually, I was trying to figure out where the boys’ school was in relation to ours. Why the big separation? Just because we were old enough to get pregnant didn’t mean we should be kept apart from the XY chromosomes. Boys made up half the human race, so what was the big fucking deal? To act like they were kryptonite only made things worse. Everyone back home was sure that I’d had sex already. I hadn’t, but I was determined to that summer. In my experience, grownups always kept the best stuff for themselves.