Romaine Enson-Morton lived in a Victorian on Oak Street that had previously been occupied by the Victorian-aged Mrs. Nelson. The house was an uneven, baby-toed pink with French-tip trim, a coquettish broad who considered herself an attractive thirty. With her grimy shutters and splintered windows, she was desperately in need of the facelift performed in the weeks between ownership. In the front yard rested a giant oak, its branches bending, the perfect support for a swing. Inside, the house boasted wooden floors, mismatched chairs, and an attic Lynnie Enson used as her studio. She was an artist with waist-length blonde hair and glaze permanently splattered on her work overalls. She was twenty-eight and looked twenty-one, with the poise of a dancer, the sensibility of an artist, and the iron will of a lawyer; she was a bundle of paradoxes.
My mother owned an antique shop on Main Street and nursed me in the hundred-year-old rocking chairs available there. Because of that, she said that that I was every child before and all the ones to come after. I was an only child, out of place with an old-fashioned mother and an investment banker father who adored from afar. We lived in a sufficiently old Georgian on a hill about half a mile from Main Street. Its brick façade provoked a shiver when we pulled into the circular driveway; it taunted, beckoned menacingly, like a maze from which one couldn’t escape. I preferred Victorian to Georgian architecture.
Since it was too far to walk home and tedious to spend all afternoon coloring at the antique shop, I walked the few blocks to Romaine’s house after school. Every day, Lynnie picked us up—sometimes barefoot, sometimes toting Romaine’s little brother, Butter, on her hip—and gave Romaine, her sister Arugula, and me big, white smiles I used to wish were my mother’s. Mom drank too much coffee.
We three little girls would hold hands as we skipped and jumped and zigzagged back to the house, sometimes stopping at the little store on Main Street for a popsicle. Butter couldn’t say “popsicle,” so he called it a “pop pop,” and eventually we called it a “pop pop” too.
Back at the house, we played school and house in the little cottage Dave Morton had built us out back. It had a kitchen and a living room and, best of all, four bunk beds where we napped when the weather was nice in springtime.
Romaine’s father worked at home. He was a mathematician who lectured at a few universities across the country, but mostly stayed home with us. He worked on theorems (though we didn’t quite know what that meant) a lot. Sometimes, when he was serving us tea, he’d have an idea and run to his office, and then we knew that teatime was over. Dave (he didn’t like it when I called him Mr. Morton) used to joke that Butter, who we called Boo, was going to grow up an artist because Lynnie (she wouldn’t let me call her Mrs. Morton because they weren’t technically married) always had him in the studio while she was working, watching while playing with the clay blocks she made him.
When we learned American history in school, we played Revolutionary War in the clearing by the woods that made up the backyard. Most of the time, Arugula—whose classmates called her Ara—played the British while Romaine and I switched off playing Paula Revere, but sometimes I was the British because I was the only one with red hair. Romaine inherited her father’s dark and curly hair, but Ara’s hair was straight and dirty blonde; she was the incomplete dominance, the middle ground, because Boo had a platinum blond bowl cut.
One weekend a month, my mom and dad usually stayed in the city because of a fancy party they had to attend. Those nights I spent at Romaine’s house. She and Ara shared a room with two twin beds on opposite sides. Dave and his prickly beard read us a story, his voice rising and falling at all the right parts, and kissed us lightly on the forehead.
In the mornings, we sat around the kitchen table with fruit and tea, and sometimes I wished we could have sausage, but most of the time I didn’t. Usually, I wished I could be part of Romaine’s family, because her father didn’t go away so often, and her mother never talked about old things. Lynnie spoke of art and books and cut her food precisely, eating with the delicacy of a woman keenly aware that she was being observed. They were young and beautiful and mysterious and wholly isolated. No one ever visited, hardly anyone ever called; they existed in an insular, outside world.
I haven’t seen Romaine Enson- Morton in fifteen years, not since I was nine and left for vacation in Maryland with my parents. I returned, and the house was shuttered, calls went unanswered, the doorbell wouldn’t ring. They disappeared without a word, leaving me in a world they had created, alone with a lap full of memories. Now, I have to find out what happened to Romaine Enson-Morton; I have to find out who she was, because her mother was a bundle of paradoxes, and there is some inherent truth in a paradox.