For those of you new to The Lettuce Novel, the first four chapters of To Mean Something to Someone will always remain available. Start here. If you want to learn more about The Lettuce Novel, please see the “About the Lettuce Novel” page.
Romaine was named for the lettuce. Her parents were vegans, but they didn’t like beans or rice or whatever else vegans are supposed to nourish themselves with, so they ate lettuce and named their first daughter in its honor.
We met in second grade when I bit her on the swing because she wouldn’t get off. In the principal’s office, Mr. Nickols sat us down on two roly chairs, our size one feet dangling a foot off the ground, and told us to “use our words” while he went out back to smoke a cigarette, since an elementary principal has a very stressful job.
In the hour he left us there, doing what else I’d rather not imagine, we missed reading, science, and became friends over games of hide-and-seek and I-Spy. We ruffled through the papers on his desk and opened his cabinets, spilling books with titles like Excuse Me, but Your Life Is Waiting. In retrospect, the man probably had the biggest self-help collection in the Hudson Valley, if not in all of New York State.
Mr. Nickols came back at one o’clock, carrying a large thermos of strongly aromatic coffee and a ring of keys. Surprised to find two second graders sitting on the floor of his office (we were sorting paper clips by size and color), he sent us back to class. With sagging shoulders and clasped hands, we trekked back; our teacher never asked where we had been for a full two hours or whether we had “worked it out,” as she was supervising an eight-year-old finger painting session without tablecloths or smocks.
That was autumn, the season I claimed as my own, since the leaves turned the color of my hair, and the crisp air allowed me to wear my favorite marshmallow jacket. Autumn was a clean slate; it meant new clothes, new trees, new supplies, a new school year. I loved the feel of autumn.
Romaine came to fear autumn for the reasons I loved it. She saw dying trees and a new school, not just a school year. Her itinerant family moved when the wind changed, from Vermont to Montreal to the Hudson Valley. She could even speak a little French, saying “way” instead of “yes”. The way she said Montreal made it sound like Europe. Her parents had decided to settle down, stay in one place, while Romaine’s sister started kindergarten and her younger brother went to nursery school.
So Romaine and I became friends because she was different, and I liked novelties.
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.
All good investigations start at the beginning.
Victorian-aged Mrs. Nelson, the previous owner of the house on Oak Street, had died in February at ninety-seven years of age. She had been a frequent customer of the antique shop for nineteen years, her house visible from back steps of the store, where I would watch her day after day. She’d often sit on the porch in a rocking chair I had not been nursed in, singing her sad ballads in her phlegmy, cracking voice. I could never figure out what they were about since I was only six, but I imagine they were tragic because sometimes Mrs. Nelson would stop in the middle of a word and lie back in the chair, consumed by grief, I assumed; I couldn’t see more than her figure’s outline from a block away.
Mrs. Nelson’s only daughter, who was also old and walked slowly, spent a week running her hands along the chipping white railing before tacking up a “For Sale” sign and leaving for the retirement home in Florida. The house needed a new coat of paint; what once might have been a becoming shade of pink was fading to an irregular coral, and the white railing, windowsills, and shutters were speckled with brown. The upstairs windows appeared opaque, and the copper knocker at the front door had turned the color of the Liberty Bell. There were no realtors, no open houses, just a sign listing a phone number with a West Florida area code.
The light green- and yellow-dotted leaves began to appear on the femured branches of the tree in the front yard, the gnarled roots causing bumps in the browning grass. For all those months, no one noticed the house—its unrequited flirtations with the morning joggers, the birds that avoided its perches, its forced loneliness. When summer came, the leaves on the tree wilted, the humidity weighing down the edges so they drooped melancholily. It was then that we left for Maryland, and it was then that the “For Sale” sign disappeared from the yard.
Mom and I flew back four days before school started. A tire swing flapped from the tree in Mrs. Nelson’s front yard, but I didn’t see anyone outside. The neighbors claimed that one day the sign was taken down, the carpenters sanded, repaired, and repainted, and the next week the tire swing had been hung. They had seen no moving truck. The family had only been seen on one occasion. I saw them that one time before school started.
They, Lynnie and Dave, came to the antique store August 29th , inquiring about furniture. Mom had shown them around, pointing out the best of the beds and chairs. They picked a sun-worn, purple-velveteen love seat. I was sitting behind the counter, drawing like I did every day, tiring of tree after flower after rays of sunlight; the flora began to look wilted.
“Is this your daughter?” Lynnie had asked my mother as she walked to the cash register.
“Yes, this is Emma. Are visiting town?” We lived in a town where everyone knew everyone and everyone’s cousins.
“No, we moved in last week. I’m Lynnie,” she held her hand out to my mother. “And this is Dave.”
Dave inclined his head.
“We have three children of our own,” Lynnie continued. She turned to me, her blue eyes kind, unwavering. “What grade will you be in next year?”
“Second,” I said, eyes widening. I kept my marker, then outlining a bunny rabbit, on the paper.
Mom’s eyes widened when she heard “three children.”
“That’s the same grade as our oldest daughter,” Lynnie replied, turning toward Dave, who gave a curt nod.
Mom punched the stubborn buttons on the cash register, and the receipt began to print loudly, like the sound of an ornery, old housecat. We had an old one, Terry, who’d died in February. I asked if he could be buried with Mrs. Nelson. Mom said she’d have to ask.
“Maybe we could schedule a playdate once school starts,” Mom added. “Would you like help moving this to your car?” She gestured to the love seat.
“No,” Dave replied. “We’ll carry it home. It’s only a block away.”
Mom blinked twice, her graying hair bouncing as she twitched her head to one side.
“Did you buy Mrs. Nelson’s house?” Mom asked.
“Yes, that’s the one,” Lynnie replied cheerfully. With that, she and Dave lifted their newly acquired furniture and carried it out the back door.
“How strange,” Mom murmured, as soon as they’d left.
“What’s strange, mommy?” I looked up from my drawing.
“They paid cash—eight hundred dollars in cash.”
I left mom gazing at her wealthy hand and ran out the backdoor. They were halfway to the house by then. There were three children in the front yard—the eldest had the youngest situated on her hip. Two girls and a little boy, who ran down the sidewalk in ragged, plain t-shirts and jeans, barefoot, and without an adult minding them.
The three danced into the house as their parents stumbled through the doorframe, kicking the wooden front door closed with a shrouded foot, the brass knocker tapping as the family disappeared within their coddling walls.
I stayed on the back step for a half hour, hoping they would reappear, all five of them, hoping they would sit on the tire swing and invite me to fly with them. But there was no sign of anyone, inside or outside, and sunset came, blue fading to pale orange as Mom called through the mesh screen to say it was closing time and we were heading home.
While Mom buckled me into her five-year-old Volvo in the back parking lot, I glanced behind my shoulder at the house; she told me to stop squirming. Clutching my 24-pack of crayons and my recent masterpieces, we pulled away. As we did, the lace curtains in Mrs. Nelson’s house parted, revealing a tiny face peeking out the window, maybe at me, maybe at something else. I will always wonder; I will never know.
The first day of school came and went I suppose, because I don’t remember much. Mrs. Morrison served as teacher for the seventeen second-graders at the private Hudson Day School, which I attended from kindergarten to twelfth grade. Mrs. Morrison had white hair, her face lined and somber. She smiled, but never seemed happy about it. Most days, she wore a denim dress, straining over what might have been a pregnant belly on a younger woman.
Every day since my first day of kindergarten, Mom and the Volvo had picked me up at precisely 2:35, when class ended. The older kids went home via the pick-up line, but Mom always parked and waited outside the door with the non-working moms, most of whom talked about their tennis matches at the Club or their shopping trips in the City.
On the first day of second grade though, a new woman waited outside the door, something the housewives had never confronted before. The woman had long, undyed blonde hair, wore paint-splattered overalls, and bounced a two-year-old on her hip. Most of the moms thought she was a new nanny. Nora Fitch and Hanna Roberts, unofficially the town gossips, eventually discovered she was a mother, causing raised eyebrows and sideways glances among the mothers waiting. To alleviate the misconception, they invited her to what they called “The Second-Grade Mother’s Group,” for which they served as Co-Presidents.
For the next five minutes, until the classroom door opened and the flushed little boys and girls spilled out, the women of the group introduced themselves, giving the impression they were kinder than they actually were.
When I exited the classroom the second day of school, I found my mother talking to Lynnie, her still-light-brown-but-graying, curly mop cut like a boy’s for practicality’s sake juxtaposed with Lynnie’s Pantene-worthy, hip-length mane. I had a dentist appointment that afternoon, so as soon as Mom saw me, she whisked me straight to the car. Lynnie only smiled in her jeans and tie-dye shirt as I took Mom’s hand and we walked away.
On the third day, I bit Romaine and we become inseparable. Mom stopped coming to pick me up by the end of the week since every time she did, I always wanted to go to Romaine’s house instead.
Lynnie picked us up, and we watched Boo waddle toward the house or we would hold his hands as we swung him in the air like half a circle of a jump rope. We licked our orange pop-pops and took turns pumping our legs on the tire swing. After we jumped off, we hurried to play dress up. I wore the faux-fur stole, Romaine wore the wedding veil, and Ara wore the pink feather boa. Dave took a break from his theorems to serve us tea, scrunching up his face and speaking in a British accent, making us laugh so hard that our faces turned red and our dress-up digressed from a tea party to a farce. He lifted us over his shoulder as we squealed and flailed our legs in mock fear. He was our enigma, morphing into whatever we asked him to be, at our service. He was an actor, a servant, a father; he played with us like nothing else existed.
Mom picked me up from the Victorian house at exactly 5:02 every evening, shortly after the shop closing time. I was never ready to leave when she arrived, since we hadn’t finished playing in the little house, reading a book, putting on a fashion show with the dress-up clothes, whatever it was that day, so she patiently waited in the living room on the sun-washed love seat she had sold. Lynnie kept her company, but what they talked about she never mentioned.
That may be the easiest place to begin.
I took the train from New York Friday night. With my father retired and happily settled in at home reading newspapers and puttering about the kitchen, I had no company on the forty-five minute ride into the Hudson Valley.
I had brought up the Enson-Mortons the week before while on the phone with Mom. I could imagine her smiling as she said “of course,” and launched into a long summary of my childhood, which largely omitted them. After ten minutes, I cut her off as she was beginning to recall my first day of preschool; my lunch break was over. A day later, I called back to let her know I would be visiting for the weekend.
With a carry-on sized suitcase, I boarded the 4:15 train home, still dressed in the black skirt and white blouse I wore as a uniform to work everyday. After forty-five minutes and only two chapters of The Great Gatsby later, I arrived at the train stop in our small town. Mom met me at the station in her three-year-old BMW, the ancient Volvo having been retired when I was twelve. Mom had ignored its failing health until it overheated on her way to an important auction in New York.
On the short drive home, she asked suspiciously how my week had gone. I countered with questions about the store. As we pulled into the driveway, my dad looked up, taking his eyes off the flowerbeds upon whom he lavished the attention normally reserved for me.
The three of us entered the house, Dad and I retiring to the parlor and Mom heading to the kitchen to fix drinks. The Edwardian lamps provided dim light and the open, burnt orange curtains exposed only dusk. Dad sat in has mahogany and purple-cushioned throne as I took my place on the red velvet couch. He asked about my job and I answered as ambiguously as I had when I was a teenager asked about my school day. It was always “fine” because if I said “bad” I would inevitably have to expound on why. Silence was easier, even when painful.
Mom hobbled into the room with a tray supporting three glasses: two alcoholic, one regular. She massaged her arthritic hip as she took her place next to me on the couch. She handed my father his sherry from her seat and grabbed the regular glass, placing it before me.
“You’re looking a little thinner,” she said, shaking her head at my knobby wrists. She placed cranberry juice in front me, “I thought you could use some vitamins.”
“If it’s not bitter, it’s all sugar, Mom.” She stirred her own drink, pretending not to hear. I would have appreciated something alcoholic, but she never offered me a drink at home. It reminded her that she and I were growing old.
“You’ll get some Vitamin C,” Mom replied, apparently oblivious to my last comment.
Mom took a long sip of her bourbon and I touched my lips to the cranberry juice; it was all sugar. I rolled my eyes.
As Mom prattled on about the importance of my health, I was reminded of an incident when I was eighteen, already an adult and treated like a tween. One night, my friend Megan had dropped by our house quickly before we took the train into the city for a jazz concert. For most of my adolescence, I lied when going to concerts, claiming that I slept over at Megan’s until she called one night and the whole ruse fell apart. By eighteen, our yelling matches had waned, thanks to her incremental yielding. That particular night, Mom was attempting to convince me to take a heavier jacket, then she wanted me to take a snack in case I didn’t like any of the fifty choices there, then she wanted to remind me of my self-defense and the number to call in case of emergencies: 911. It was a school-sponsored graduation trip. As I shut the door tightly behind us and began walking down the driveway, Megan turned to me, already anticipating the complaints that were sure to flood out of my mouth.
“It’s so sweet that your mom cares.”
Sweet or not, it was unsolicited.
“Are you kidding?” I replied. “It’s stifling.”
Stifling like the August heat we sought to escape each year, like a hand clasped over a moving mouth, like gasping for oxygen underwater. It took me years to equate stifling with love: a mother bird warming her eggs, a kangaroo in its mother’s pouch.
While I remembered, my parents spoke quietly. My glass of cranberry juice was empty.
“Honey, let me get you some more. Poor thing, you’ve been thirsty.” Mom slowly rose and returned to the kitchen. My protests went unanswered.
When she disappeared, Dad turned to me and whispered.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all these years of marriage, it’s that the wife is always right.”
“I’m sorry to tell you,” I countered, “but that’s not exactly a new concept, Dad.”
His joking smirk didn’t wane.
“Well, your mother’s always liked old things.”
I smiled slightly; retirement had taught Dad to take himself less seriously. Mom hurried back into the room.
“Anything exciting happening?” Mom asked, situating herself next to me on the couch again. She placed the cranberry juice in front of me.
“Just work,” I lied taking a sip as an excuse to keep from talking.
“Will you be staying all weekend?”
“I’m not sure.” That, at least, was the truth. I supposed I would stay, escape, until I was ready to go. I changed the subject. “How’s the store?”
“Oh well, it’s all right. Still plenty of people on day trips to keep me in business.”
“You know, I was thinking about it the other day. You do remember the Enson- Mortons, right?” I had to check, even if Mom had claimed to remember them last week; she sometimes said she remembered just so she wouldn’t disappoint me.
“Even I remember them,” Dad spoke up, “so you’d better bet your mother does.”
My mother shot him a look and composed herself, sinking more deeply into her chair as if it would convey nonchalance.
“Well, of course. You spent so much time with them, darling.”
She tapped her fingers on her glass.
“Have you ever heard anything about them?” I asked.
“Still nothing,” Mom replied, looking down. She didn’t want to upset me. “You know, Nora Fitch was telling us at bridge club a few weeks ago that she even checked to see if they still owned that house. They do.”
I took another sip of my cranberry juice. Mom’s bridge club was the ultimate source of gossip, especially since Nora Fitch had joined last year.
“But still no one knows what happened to them?”
“Nora has tried, and even she can’t find anything.” Mom was shaking her bourbon, listening to the tinkling of the ice cubes colliding.
They had simply disappeared, run away. Even the house was a false lead. For years, I’d believed that one day, they would come back and find me. The years marched on and I waited. But they weren’t coming.