1. HOME, SWEET HOME
It all started with a stupid sandwich. Chicken curry and spinach stuffed inside a homemade pita pocket. I found it in my backpack one Friday morning when I was getting ready for school. Neatly wrapped inside a neon-green plastic bag, one of those flimsy sacks used by the local Bangkok markets, along with a handwritten note, which tumbled out:
Remember to recycle!
“What’s this?” I stood in the doorway of my mother’s bedroom, dangling the suspect package in front of her face like it was radioactive plutonium.
“Your lunch. I made it last night.” Dressed in a colorful peasant skirt and ivory silk blouse, she grabbed her oversized shoulder bag and swooped by me, out of the room.
“What possessed you to do that?” I followed her into the kitchen.
“You don’t like chicken curry?” She was rummaging through a stack of magazines and guidebooks on the kitchen table. “By the way, have you seen my notebook? I know it must be here somewhere. . . .”
“No, I love chicken curry, Mom,” I said while handing her the book, which was lying on top of the fridge, right where she’d left it the night before. She was always misplacing things. “That’s not the point.”
“Well, the point is, Nica, you’re sixteen and you need to take better care of yourself. A bag of prawn crackers is not lunch. Not to mention you need some nutrition with kickboxing practice this afternoon.” My mother dropped the spiral notebook into her bag and then rushed out the front door of our large 1930s colonial Bangkok apartment with me close behind.
I would not let the conversation end. “Which I’ve had every Friday for like the last six months. All of a sudden you’re auditioning for Mother of the Year?” If I sounded a wee bit suspicious, it was with good reason. My mother never made lunch for me. Ever.
• • •
Let me rewind: I’m not saying that Lydia (aka my mom) had never once made my lunch since I was born. But she certainly had not since we’d moved overseas ten years ago. I’m not complaining or trying to be all Judge-Judyish about her less-than-stellar parenting skills. Honestly. I’m not even
suggesting that she was a bad mom or the least bit neglectful (though the word “maternal” doesn’t immediately pop to mind when describing her attributes). All I’m saying is that my mother was always preoccupied. Enthusiastically self-obsessed, with her own life and the fate of the world, for starters. Concern for my food intake and emotional well-being ranked way lower than, say, worrying about the vanishing polar bear population or where she could find a good Ashtanga yoga workshop.
• • •
Not quite buying Lydia’s newfound concern, I chased her down the stairs out to the busy street in Soi Tonson, determined to get to the bottom of things. If there was one thing I knew for sure in my young life, it was when my mom was trying to butter me up, getting ready to lower the boom about something or other I wasn’t going to like. And that day she was most definitely avoiding me big time.
“We’ll discuss it all later, honey. Hurry, or you’ll miss your bus.” She kissed me, pointing to the approaching bus, anxious to leave. She was going to check out the quaint Thonburi canals along the Chao Phraya River for an article she was writing for some travel magazine.
“The next one’s in eight minutes.” I stood there at the corner, not getting on, refusing to budge. Not till she came clean about what was really on her mind. “Tell me what’s going on. What’s the big secret?”
My mother knew she couldn’t dodge me any longer. She took a deep breath, sighed, and said, “Antarctica.”
“As in the continent at the South Pole? What about it?” World geography was most definitely something I was up on.
“They want me to go. National Geographic magazine. To do a cover story.”
“Mom, that’s awesome. When do we leave?”
I was all ready to find my passport and hop on the next plane south. Not that I didn’t love Bangkok. I did. It was insanely beautiful, with golden palaces and ancient Buddhist temples. It was also insanely crowded, with twelve million people, but incredibly welcoming, with the most delicious seafood I’d ever tasted. The weather was hot and humid and always felt like summer. Shopping heaven with everything from inexpensive clothing and jewelry markets to fancy bazaars. All in all, a fantastic and totally amazing 24/7 metropolis that never slept. But we’d already been in Thailand more than nine months. Our longest stretch ever, anywhere. It now was time for us to move on.
Traveling had always been my mother’s passion, bordering on mania. She was an ecotravel writer (her description, not mine)—a globe flitterer who loved immersing herself in far-flung, exotic locales for months at a time. Living among “the people” and not in fancy five-star hotels, soaking up their culture and respecting their way of life, hopefully without inflicting too much damage, while she wrote about
all the exciting adventures awaiting the daring tourist. As a result, we’d moved around the world as often as some people changed Facebook status. Nineteen times over the last ten years (with as many schools), from Zanzibar to Patagonia, with stops in Morocco, Kazakhstan, Tasmania, Botswana, India, and Thailand, among many others.
In fact, I’d lived on every continent except Antarctica. And now I’d be able to cross that off my list of things to do before I died. It was going to be epic.
I knew I was kind of a freak. Not a two-headed circus type or bearded-lady variety. But more like the “Really, you lived where? You did what?” type of freak, which I totally didn’t mind at all.
Believe it or not, I was happy. I loved seeing the world. Not having a permanent home or school seemed kind of liberating. Really. No emotional complications or bad breakups with boyfriends (not that I had ever really had a serious one yet). No big expectations or letdowns from friends. No realizing you were hanging with the wrong crew. And most important: no obligations. I would move on to the next place and dazzle the kids at my new school with my sparkling personality before life got messy and confusing.
My mother apparently had other ideas.
“You’re dumping me?” I felt sucker punched, like the wind had been knocked out of me. “You’re going to Antarctica alone? Without me?”
“Honey, they want me to live at McMurdo Station for nine months. There isn’t a school at the South Pole.”
“Who needs a classroom? You can homeschool me.” I admit I was grasping at straws. McMurdo Station, Antarctica, was the most remote outpost on earth, according to Lydia. A science station and research center, it had about one thousand residents in the summer but fewer than two hundred in the winter.
She hastened to add, “We’re talking months with no sunlight. Not to mention being confined indoors twenty-four/seven.” My mother had a point. Antarctica was hardly the place for a teenager who loved exploring new cities and cherished her independence.
And yet I wasn’t prepared to give in without at least putting up a fight.
“I’ll adapt,” I insisted brightly. “You know how great I am at fitting in to new places.”
“Yes, but you’re a teenager,” my mother was quick to remind me. “You should be hanging with kids your own age. Not holed up in some climate-controlled research station in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of overeducated scientists.”
“Sounds like a perfect learning opportunity. Think of how much I’ll get out of the experience,” I retorted brightly, desperately trying to put the best spin on my argument. “Besides, you always said I was precocious.”
“Believe me, I’d do anything to take you along,” my mother admitted.
“Then do it. Take me, Mom,” I pleaded, playing on her heartstrings, feeling her resolve weakening. “We’ll have so much fun together. We always do.”
“I know,” she replied with a remorseful sigh. “It’s just . . .”
“Just what?” I asked with trepidation.
Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for the biggest shock yet to come.
“Honey, it’s just not possible. Besides, I’ve been thinking . . . about your future and all.” Always a bad sign when my mother uttered those three words: “I’ve been thinking . . .”
“What about my future?” I held my breath, anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop. And boy, did it ever.
• • •
That is how I ended up jetting solo from Bangkok to Denver on a fifteen-hour red-eye flight less than two weeks later. My mom shipped me off to live with my dad in some Podunk hick town in southern Colorado.
For the next two years, until I graduate. (Please, just shoot me now.)
My free-spirited mother suddenly thought a traditional high school education with all the homespun trimmings in small-town America was the best thing for her worldly daughter. It made no sense to me. She had lived there with my father briefly after they got married nearly twenty years
ago. I thought she never had any intention of going back, since my dear old mom got the hell out of there with me when I was two and never looked back, though she never exactly explained why. After four years living with my mom’s parents outside Philadelphia we then moved overseas. And now she was shipping me off like some FedEx package—with overnight delivery guaranteed.
• • •
The night after she told me my life was about to change, we had a huge fight. The biggest fight we’d ever had.
“Why are you doing this? Can’t you see you’re ruining my life?” I’m usually not a drama queen, but desperate times called for desperate measures.
“Nica, it’ll be great. You’ll see. It’ll be exciting. Finally putting down roots.”
“I’m not a tree. I don’t need roots.”
“What about having good friends? And dating. Going to the mall. And to football games. And the senior prom. Not to mention more quality time with your dad. Believe me: You’ll thank me for this later.”
“I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.” My mother was really doing the hard sell, and I wasn’t buying. “Besides, if Barrington was so great, why did you leave with me the first chance you got?”
“Nica . . . you know why I left,” my mother argued back, suddenly looking away from me and avoiding all eye contact
as she pretended to be sifting through some mail. “Your dad and I divorced. He wanted to stay. And I had to get away from there . . . you know, to see the world.”
I could tell by Lydia’s uncomfortable reaction that the past was still a sensitive subject with her. Especially where my dad was concerned. She rarely brought it up on her own. And even then her memories were limited to stories about what I was like as a child and my penchant for doing weird things like peeling back wallpaper. (“When I asked the pediatrician if I should be concerned, she said it was because you were so curious and inquisitive.”)
“Anyway,” my mother continued, adeptly evading my question and turning the argument back on me, “didn’t you say you were tired of all this moving around? Living out of suitcases? You’ll have stability and consistency. You’ll finally have a permanent house and really feel like you belong.” Perhaps that’s what made Lydia such a good journalist. She was relentless in her pursuit of a story or an interview. Not to mention getting her way.
“You don’t have a clue who I am or where I belong.” Okay, neither did I, but I wasn’t ever going to admit that to her. So I stomped off to my room and slammed the door shut.
Yes, maybe I did complain a tiny bit sometimes to my mother that I was tired of changing schools and all this moving around. And maybe I had said once or twice that it
might be kind of nice to spend more time with my dad. But why did my mother decide this time to listen to me?
Well, the joke was on me.
Early the next morning I awoke to the sound of my mother arguing in a hushed tone with someone over the phone. This was unusual. Lydia rarely got angry. She prided herself on her easygoing nature—very little fazed her. So the fact that she was arguing with my father, of all people, made me more than a tiny bit curious. Though her bedroom door was closed, I could still overhear her side of the conversation, demanding to know “how safe” everything was in Barrington, Colorado, where my dad lived. Her sudden concern infuriated me. As if I were this little child who needed constant supervision. I felt the urge to barge in there and tell my mother off. Instead, I swallowed my anger and snuck back to bed, secretly praying that Mom would have a change of heart about sending me away.
• • •
Twelve days later my mother escorted me through the sleek, ultra-modern Suvarnabhumi Airport terminal. I wore my favorite peacock paisley flip-flops, vintage Levi’s jeans, and hot-pink camisole (courtesy of the Bangkok flea markets). My mom looked quasi-stylish in her jade Thai silk blouse and ivory linen slacks. I thought about all the amazing places we’d lived the last ten years and decided that sultry Thailand was probably my favorite. Not just because of the
yummy pad thai and massaman curry, the vibrant people, and the gorgeous white sand beaches, but because of its very Zen attitude about life—an enlightened attitude that I still lacked.
I mean, how could I ever meditate and look inward at myself for life’s answers and spiritual wisdom when I didn’t even know what most of the questions were?
“Nica?” My mother finally broke our awkward silence amid the din of arrival and departure announcements in five different languages. Her voice had a slight inflection, like she was posing a question: “Keep an open mind?”
“About boys?” I snapped back, quite pissed to see Niagara Falls suddenly threatening to gush from her normally lucid hazel eyes. No way. I was not about to have my dignified farewell dissolve into some hideously hormonal blubberfest to be witnessed by thousands of gawking travelers in the middle of the Bangkok airport.
Luckily, my snarkiness had the desired effect. Dialing back her tears and pangs of maternal guilt (as I knew she would), she shot me one of those classic Lydia looks of exasperation tweaked with wry amusement—head tilted slightly, the right corner of her mouth upturned just a bit.
“About life,” she replied with a smirk, indicating she understood this would be an emotion-free zone. Then, suddenly darkening, she looked me right in the eye and said, “And listen to your dad. No matter what.”
I promised. As if there were any mischief to be had in Barrington, Colorado.
Still, I’d never seen my mother look so serious—almost worried. I immediately brushed aside all thoughts that anything was off. I just assumed she didn’t want me to give my dad a hard time.
Yet there was something lingering in her eyes when we hugged.
I pulled back first. My mother almost didn’t let go. Fortunately, my plane was already boarding, so she had no choice but to release me. That was when she had handed me a bag loaded with food she purchased at the local market. I was so surprised that I actually forgot to thank her.
Mom’s parting words were “I’m going to miss you.” Mine were “Take care, Mom. Don’t forget to charge your phone.” She had an annoying habit of letting her battery die in the most inconvenient places (like the time we got lost in Mae Hong Son, accidentally crossed over the Thai border into Myanmar, and almost became captives of the Burmese army).
Mom grinned and promised to remember, then watched me stroll down the ramp to my plane, at which point I heard her burst into tears.
I didn’t look back.
• • •
My flight landed in Denver, Colorado at four forty-five p.m. Exactly on schedule. Weather in the Mile High City was
amazingly perfect for late October: midsixties, afternoon sunshine, a cloudless blue sky, shimmering office towers with the magnificent Rocky Mountains in the distance.
There were so many flights landing around the same time that day it took forever for my two beat-up suitcases to finally come tumbling down the chute onto the baggage-carousel. I scanned the baggage claim area for my father, but there was no sign of him anywhere. I figured that he probably didn’t want to park and was waiting outside for me in his car. However, when I rolled my two bags to the passenger pickup area, I didn’t see him either. I tried calling and texting him but kept getting his voice mail. I thought of all sorts of reasons why my father wasn’t there. Maybe he got stuck in traffic? Or maybe he was held up at the hospital with a patient? I wasn’t concerned. I was so used to traveling and navigating my way through strange airports that Denver was no big deal. After waiting almost an hour for my dad to show, I trotted over to the taxi stand and grabbed the first car I could.
The taxi ride from the airport to my father’s house in Barrington took nearly ninety minutes, during which my driver, Sami, a chatty guy in his twenties originally from Peru and now residing in Denver, regaled me with a whole history lesson about the all the towns in the foothills of the Rockies. Sami prided himself on knowing more about Colorado than any other taxi driver in Denver. He had
taken a slew of adult-education classes and was like Wikipedia come to life.
“Barrington was settled during the nineteenth century as a trading outpost along the infamous Santa Fe Trail. Back then Barrington had a reputation as a Wild West town complete with gunfights, Indian raids, and bloody battles during the Mexican-American War. Today it’s known for a low crime rate, excellent schools, steady property values.”
“Sounds thrilling.” Especially if you like quiet and boring. Which I definitely did not.
“The town also claims to be one of the safest in the state.” I detected an awkward hesitation in his voice—in the way he said it.
“What do you mean, ‘claims’? They’re not?”
“No. Sorry.” He fumbled around. “It’s just . . . my English. I get a little messed up with words sometimes.”
Still, Sami’s English sounded fine to me. After that he went radio silent. The rest of the ride he didn’t speak another word.
• • •
By the time the taxi arrived at 33 Whisper Glen Road (I didn’t hear any whispering, much less see a glen, whatever that is, but that’s suburbia for you) it was just after eight p.m. and dark. I was exhausted and ravenous (I’d long since eaten my mother’s bag of food somewhere over the Pacific Ocean) that I actually fantasized about devouring a rich,
creamy dish of panaeng goong over noodles followed by a huge bowl of Thai coconut ice cream with palm sugar. In my semidelirious, famished state I actually believed that my father would read my mind and have a big spread waiting for me when I walked in through the door. Surprise! That was the reason he didn’t come pick me up at the airport. Instead of doing rounds at the hospital, he was preparing a traditional Thai meal for me.
Sami took my two suitcases out of the trunk and walked them to the front door while I snapped several photos of the house (soon to be number twenty on the hit parade of places I’d lived) with my phone for the record. I thanked Sami, paid him, and waved as he drove off. Then I practically skipped up to that bright cherry-red front door and rang the bell, expecting an idyllic father-daughter reunion. I told you I was delirious. I hadn’t seen my dad since he’d visited Bangkok a few months earlier.
I hadn’t been back since I was two. I had never even been to this house, a cute three-story Victorian in a well-manicured neighborhood of similar homes. Well, at least not that I could remember. My father always preferred visiting me two or three times a year wherever I happened to be living at the moment. He thought it was easier on me and more fun. Made sense to me.
Those days were gone. Now I was standing right outside the house that would be my home for the next few years, at
least until I went off to college, and I felt like a complete stranger. Totally discombobulated. What a weird concept—my home. Doubly weird that I’d be sharing it with my dad, who—let’s face it—was basically my vacation buddy. Weirdest of all, though, was that Dad didn’t answer the door. No one did. I waited a minute, then rang the bell a second time.
Again, no answer.
I stood there staring at the house, assessing the situation. I realized there weren’t any lights on. Nor was there a car parked in the driveway. Dear old Dad was most definitely not at home. And he wasn’t answering his cell phone either. Now unless my father had been kidnapped or brutally murdered or suffered some equally heinous fate that left him incapacitated, it became crystal clear to me that he’d forgotten I was arriving. Some welcome.
Instead of getting all weepy-eyed and feeling sorry for myself or pissed off at being forgotten by my own father, I took matters into my own capable hands. I fished around in my oversized suitcase and pulled out my trusty Swiss Army knife, which was handier than a horny prom date. (You’d be amazed how often in my travels I’d found I needed scissors, or pliers or even a screwdriver.) Then I circled around the house to the backyard for some privacy away from any prying neighbors’ eyes.
Now, mind you, I wasn’t a professional burglar or anything, but a locked window never presented much of an
obstacle to me. Moving around a lot had made me extremely resourceful, especially since my mother had an annoying habit of losing her keys about every other week. Anyway, I wasn’t about to sit on the curb all night waiting for Dad to have a sudden epiphany and remember that his one and only child was arriving and return home. For all I knew, he was hanging with some girlfriend—not that he’d ever mentioned one, but how was I supposed to know what went on between weekly Skype calls and his semiannual visits?
I scanned the property and immediately found my point of entry—a first-floor bathroom window tucked away on the side of the house. After a quick look up and down the block to make sure no one could see me, I popped out the window screen (easy, really, with the aid of a nail file). Then I wedged my Swiss Army knife blade between the upper and lower portions of the double-hung window and tried to trip the inside lock. Not to brag or anything, but I was doing a good job of working the blade without breaking any glass or splitting the wood frame. Unfortunately, opening the lock was another matter entirely. It refused to cooperate. I couldn’t get it to budge even one millimeter, which was truly annoying. I’d never encountered this secure a latch on any window before.
Then I felt a hand grab my shoulder. I whipped around in full self-defense mode (courtesy of my Muay Thai kickboxing training), fists tightly clenched, knuckles ready, and
power punched my assailant in the arm. Imagine my complete and utter shock when I found myself standing face-to-face with my own father! All six foot two inches of him.
“God, Dad! Trying to get yourself killed?” I yelled, realizing I had actually punched him. My heart practically exploded out of my chest it was pumping so fast.
“No more than you’re trying to get yourself arrested,” he quipped back, rubbing his arm. “You got quite a right jab.” It was clear he was equally surprised to find me standing there. He quickly added, “By the way, what are you doing here?” He gave me an awkward hug. “Not that I’m not thrilled to see you.”
What was I doing there? The words hung in the air, as I thought about how I had just flown halfway around the world to move to stupid Barrington, Colorado, of all places. “Uh, last I heard, moving in with you, Dad.” I stared at him in disbelief and plenty annoyed. Clearly somebody had gotten some major wires crossed.
“Tomorrow, Nica. You were supposed to arrive tomorrow morning.” He scrolled through his BlackBerry, rechecking my flight information.
“My original flight got canceled, so they put me on the one arriving this afternoon. Mom said she called you. Didn’t she?” I brushed past him on my way back to the front door, hoping he wouldn’t see the hurt in my eyes. Even if my mom had forgotten to call (which was totally possible), my
dad could have shown a little more excitement at seeing his only daughter.
“Oh, she probably left a message on the home phone. I’ve been on call since last night.” Don’t think for a minute I believed that one. Mom had spaced, and Dad was now covering for her. Despite their divorce almost fourteen years ago, Dr. Marcus Ashley still defended his ex-wife every chance he got. In fact, I’ve never heard him utter even a mild criticism of my mother. Sometimes I suspected that he still (inexplicably) loved her. Perhaps that was why he never remarried. My father always claimed it was because of his demanding job. But I couldn’t help but wonder if he just used his job as an excuse. Another one of life’s elusive mysteries I won’t ever get.
My dad turned and followed me across the front lawn, obviously concerned. “Honey, I’m really sorry about the mix-up.” I could tell by the tone of his voice and the expression on his face he felt pretty awful about such a major screwup.
“That’s okay. It’s not your fault.” I’d already decided I was willing to give him a pass for the less than ecstatic greeting. I was never one to hold a grudge, at least not against my father. He always went out of his way to be Mr. Responsible (unlike my mother), and I was so hungry and tired that I didn’t have the energy to make him feel any guiltier than he already did.
“Well, glad to see you made it. Safe and sound.” My dad always used these quaint catchphrases when he was trying to act all parental with me. I think it was due to his ultratraditional upbringing in Youngstown, Ohio, with my grandparents, who were teachers at the state university (Grandma taught literature and Grandpa economics) and only bought American products. In any case, I so didn’t get why, much less understand what, my dad was trying to say. “It’s just a colloquialism,” my mom would respond when I complained. But to me it was like he was speaking Urdu or something.
I just looked at him and shrugged: “Yeah, I made it all right.” If life with Lydia had taught me anything, it was that I wouldn’t be too disappointed if I just relied on myself. I started to feel cold and asked if we could go inside.
My father took out his house keys, which dangled from this silly lanyard key ring I had given him for Father’s Day five years ago when I lived in Botswana. I had actually woven the braided rope out of red, green, and black leather strips I’d bought in a Gaborone flea market for about two dollars.
He stood at the doorstep, keys in hand, for what seemed like an eternity, deep in thought. I looked over at my dad, waiting for him to unlock the door. He glanced back at me, and I thought I detected a flash of anxiety in his expression, which was quickly covered over with a forced smile.
“C’mon, let’s go inside. Through the door,” he said as he unlocked the front door for me and grabbed my big suitcase.
I picked up the smaller suitcase and crossed the doorstep into my new abode.
• • •
Home sweet home it was most definitely not. I surveyed the marginal furnishings in the large living room—worn black-leather sofa, streaked glass coffee table, and a battered nineteen-inch television set that was most definitely older than me. The walls were white and bare, except for a lonely Escher poster titled Relativity; one of those freaky black-and-white mind benders where faceless people walked up and down a series of never-ending staircases. At the bottom was a quote: I walk around in mysteries. Imagine waking up to that every morning.
The dining room was even more pitiful. It only had a collapsible card table (the prefab faux wood type) and four folding chairs, probably courtesy of Staples or OfficeMax. I mean, I’d lived all around the world and moved so many times—from a stone house in northern Morocco to a vast sheep farm in Patagonia—but my mom hung up photos and a few personal knickknacks and always tried to make our temporary digs feel like home. My dad, on the other hand, had lived in his house for twelve years, and it still looked like he’d moved in only last week.
It was like a bachelor pad without any of the cool stuff. I knew he was a dedicated cardiologist, not to mention an extreme workaholic, but the decor was beyond tragic.
“You’ve certainly put your personal stamp on the place, Dad.”
“Yeah, I’ve been hearing motel minimalism is ripe for a comeback,” he said glibly, getting me to smile. No surprise where my sense of humor came from.
It was then I noticed that all the doors and windows, and I mean all of them, had a series of major locks on them exactly like the one on that bathroom window I’d tried to open. And not just the usual dead-bolt or window-latch variety. These were like super-duper industrial-strength megalocks. The kind I’d seen used in bank vaults and jewelry stores.
“With just the right accent of high security,” I muttered flippantly as I wondered exactly what valuables my father needed to protect. It certainly wasn’t the furniture.
“Would you like to see your room? It’s upstairs.” He was just about to take the first step when I interrupted the royal tour.
“Actually I’m dying to see the kitchen first. I’m starving.” I desperately needed to get some food in my empty stomach before facing what I imagined would undoubtedly be another sad white cell (aka my new bedroom).
Dad directed me to the airy, traditional kitchen that ran along the back of the house. It was a pleasant room with big windows and a set of French doors, which opened onto what looked like a brick patio with a built-in barbecue. I couldn’t imagine Dad throwing any parties out there, but maybe he
had a whole other secret life that I didn’t know about? That thought was wiped away once I opened the fridge and saw what was inside.
“Sorry, honey,” Dad said. “There’s not much food.”
“That’s an understatement.” The upper shelves held four eggs, a jar of mustard, two bottles of white wine, some Tupperware containers with unidentifiable food groups, plus a ziplock bag with the remnants of a half-decent-looking chopped salad.
The bottom shelves of the refrigerator were less appetizing, if that’s possible. They were crammed with all sorts of vials, IV fluids, and medicine bottles. It looked like a hospital infirmary or something.
“Thankfully, you’ve got plenty of penicillin, should I get a sudden attack of strep throat.” I shut the refrigerator door. “Can we order sushi? Do you have any decent sushi in this town? Or is it strictly burger country?”
“Actually, we’ve got everything. Even sushi.”
Relieved, I picked up the phone and was about to ask Dad for the number of the nearest Japanese restaurant when he added, somewhat hesitantly, “Unfortunately, everything closes at nine p.m.”
“Ha, ha. Nice try.” I shot my dad a dubious no-way-I’m-gonna-fall-for-that look, totally convinced he was playing one of his practical jokes on me. He was known to do that. And I always fell for them. Like the time he convinced me
that you could make popcorn without a microwave by just surrounding the bag with four simultaneously ringing cell phones. My dad assured me that cell-phone radiation could really pop those kernels. I even enlisted seven friends to help me prove it was true. I felt like such a moron when we all stood there for several minutes waiting for the kernels to pop, and nothing happened, except that my mother yelled at me to turn off the phones while she was trying to work. Anyway, I was now sixteen and not about to be so easily snowed. Except that one look at Dad’s face told me he wasn’t kidding.
“Nothing in this town is open past nine p.m.? How’s that possible? I mean, this is America. Land of perpetual consumption, twenty-four-hour supermarkets and fast-food joints giving you whatever you want whenever you want it. I know I’ve been away for a while, but something’s always open for business.” I couldn’t quite wrap my head around this concept.
Not in Barrington, apparently. “Barrington prides itself on being a sleepy, family community,” Dad curtly explained.
“Sleepy? More like comatose.”
“People like having a curfew, Nica. Makes everyone feel safe.” He nonchalantly slipped that in, almost as an afterthought. Talk about burying the headline.
“Curfew? This stupid town actually has a curfew? I mean, even Amish and Mormon communities allow teenagers out
until midnight.” I was horrified. “Is it a legally mandated thing?”
My dad tried to put a positive spin on this bombshell. “What Barrington lacks in nightlife it more than makes up for in livability. Great schools, low unemployment, and almost no crime.” He sounded like one of those lame marketing ads states use to drum up tourism. (“Virginia is for lovers!”) But my bullshit meter was bouncing off the charts. I wasn’t buying what he was trying to sell.
“House arrest will definitely keep criminals off the streets,” I said, “and everyone else for that matter.”
Dad laughed. I guess I was trying to make light of the depressing situation I found myself in, because I didn’t want him to feel bad. I didn’t know what else to do. The fact was, this wasn’t some boring little town I could drive through and forget the next day. I was stuck here. This was going to be my life—one with a tragically limited social existence and a way-too-early curfew. I mean I’d seen sleepy towns and all, but this, doors locked, all inside at nine p.m. was ridiculous. It wasn’t like Barrington was in the middle of a war zone or even had a gang problem. Even Sami the cabbie had said it was the safest town in Colorado.
“What do you do if someone has a heart attack at ten p.m.? Text your diagnosis?” I was unable to hide my irritation at this point. I think I also used the words “stupid” and “insane.”
Fortunately, my dad swatted away my comments; he always was way more even-keeled than my mother. “I’m allowed out if someone needs a doctor.”
“What a huge relief,” I said, not hiding my sarcasm. “Though what happens if, like, your car gets a flat or you can’t get home in time? Not that I’m planning that or anything.”
“I hope not. I’d hate to have to bail you out of jail your first week here,” Dad replied jokingly, but with a definite undercurrent of seriousness and caution. Then his expression darkened as he stared me right in the eye. “Just promise me you’ll respect the law. That you won’t do anything stupid.”
“Of course.” I nodded, taken aback by the harshness in his voice.
My father quickly steered the conversation back to the crisis at hand—my growling stomach. He apologized for being so woefully unprepared for my arrival and cheerfully said we’d have to “wing it.” He pulled out the bag of leftover chopped salad, which he said he’d prepared the night before, and he also took out a couple of frozen enchiladas to nuke them in the microwave. The next day, he said, he’d do major shopping. And then he handed me a pen and a pad and said I should just make a list and write everything I wanted on it.
“Sushi, most definitely,” I muttered, as I started to fill up the page.
• • •
After I devoured the enchiladas and salad, I felt ready. “Okay, let’s see my bedroom,” I said, heading up the stairs. Dad quickly got ahead.
As he led me through the upstairs hallway past his bedroom—which was pretty basic with a large bed, two nightstands, a chest of drawers, and a comfy reading chair—a sky-blue tiled bathroom, and a linen closet, he was trying to give me a pep talk.
“Honey, I know you never envisioned living in such a small town like this. But you’re here, and we might as well make the best of the situation. And the thing about Barrington is, as long as you abide by the rules, you’ll find it’s a great place to live.”
“I’m sure it is.” I tried to be upbeat, but that word “rules” sounded so rigid and constrained. It was such an alien concept for me. I had lived in many different communities and countries with lots of diverse people—from the Masai in Tanzania to the Mapuche in Chile—and never once had anyone ever said that word to me much less tried to limit my freedom.
Then Dad stood in front of the closed door to my room. “Here we are. It’s not much, but it’s all yours.” When he opened it, I saw a surprisingly cool and kind of perfect bedroom. In fact it was far and away the nicest room in the house. Painted a pretty shade of pale yellow, it had a large picture window with a built-in seat, which overlooked the
tree-lined neighborhood. The furnishings—a big bed with an upholstered brown suede headboard, plus a sleek white dresser and desk set—were funky and modern with a sixties retro vibe. On the dresser was a framed photograph of my dad and me trekking through northern Thailand back in February. We’d celebrated my sixteenth birthday in the provincial capital of Chiang Mai, riding elephants and getting soaked during the water-splashing festival of Songkran, honoring Buddha. It was one of the best times I’d ever spent with my dad.
“I really like the color.” Lame, I know. But that was the first thing I could think of to say at that moment.
“It’s called honeycomb,” he said with a bemused shrug. “I had no idea there were so many different shades of yellow.”
“Neither did I.” I looked at his face and saw that worried expression he got when he thought I really hated something. “It’s great, Dad. Thanks.”
My dad had obviously put a lot of care and thought into getting the room ready for me, and it showed. I wanted him to know I loved it. I kissed him on the cheek.
He smiled, visibly relieved. Finally, something his hard-to-please (okay, bratty) teen daughter approved of.
“Get some sleep, honey. You’ve got a big day ahead of you tomorrow.”
As if I could sleep. He shut the door as he exited the room. I sat on the bed and sighed. Despite not having to live
out of a suitcase anymore and my somewhat cool new bedroom, this was not going to be an easy adjustment for me.
• • •
Two hours later I was staring out the window, my mind racing, totally wired, despite having been up for more than thirty hours straight. My cell phone said it was 11:46 p.m. I had unpacked all my clothes plus laid out the few personal mementos I’d brought along, including a cheesy digital picture frame that flashed dozens of photos of my mother and me. All my beloved books and knickknacks were supposedly en route from Bangkok. I’d had them shipped last week in six boxes, and they were due to arrive (hopefully) within a few days. That was if they didn’t get lost or held up by the US Customs department, which undoubtedly would inspect them for drugs, illegal contraband, and terrorist connections, all in an effort to keep America safe. Funny, but in all the years I had lived abroad—and Mom and I had decamped in some pretty rugged and remote areas, including a Sivananda ashram in rural India—I had never once worried about not being safe. Now that I’d been back in the US for barely eight hours, safety seemed to be my father’s and this town’s priority. Their number one concern.
Sitting at the window seat (it was already becoming my favorite spot), I looked out at all the well-kept houses that lined Whisper Glen Road. Every one of them was dark, unlit. Completely and totally pitch-black. Weren’t there any
night owls in town besides me? Only the bluish glow of the ecofriendly streetlights gave any sense that people actually lived in the neighborhood.
It was really weird, but I suddenly felt this sadness, a vague yearning for what I used to have. I was homesick, which was a novel and somewhat strange feeling for me. I’d never gotten homesick before. Weirder still, I was now in my actual home and didn’t really have an old home to miss. I assumed what I was missing was a way of life, a carefree, footloose existence I led, as opposed to a particular place. I pulled out my cell phone and immediately started calling my mother, who was visiting an old boyfriend in Buenos Aires before making her way to Antarctica the following week. Halfway through punching in her number I realized there was no phone service. No dial tone. Absolutely nothing.
Great. Here was another wonderful selling point of life in Barrington—miserable, nonexistent cell-phone coverage. Frustrated, I tossed the useless phone over to the bed.
That’s when I saw a classic black Mustang GT cruise slowly down the street with its lights turned off. Quiet. Stealth. Like a Japanese ninja creeping along undetected. It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen another car, let alone another person, since my dad had caught me trying to break in more than three hours ago. And yet here was this rogue vehicle, flagrantly violating curfew and patrolling the streets on some kind of covert mission.
Who was this mystery driver? A rebel or kindred spirit, perhaps? Or maybe a burglar on the prowl for a big score. Whoever he or she was, I was dying to know. I squinted and pushed my face up the window, trying to get a good look at the driver of this admittedly killer car, but it was way too dark to see much more than a shadow in the front seat. The figure looked like a guy, but it was hard to be totally sure. I wondered if the driver even lived in Barrington, or was just some random person passing through, in which case I might never know his identity. The thought occurred to me that I should run down the stairs and out the front door to flag him down. I could beg him to drive me to the nearest curfew-free town and then pig out on junk food and do regular teenage things, like maybe go bowling or hang out at some mall. That was what kids did, right?
But as I fantasized about what to do, the car rounded the corner and then zoomed out of sight, disappearing like some kind of ghost or phantom in the night.