The few times Romaine came to play at our house, I grabbed her wrist and whisked her to my upstairs room the second she walked through the door. Otherwise, Mom would spend half the play date explaining all the antiques in our house: where she found them, how she acquired them, specific memories associated with each. The lamp she’d found at this little shop in an alley in London; she’d bought the perfume bottles from a collector in Paris; the porcelain cat had belonged to her mother back in Maryland. Her tangents and digressions accounted for a half-hour of our first play date, keeping us from playing with the antique dollhouse in my room.
Romaine’s parents had little furniture, few mementos, but they never spoke of what they had. For two years, I only heard a few mentions of their life in Montreal; Lynnie sometimes spoke French over the phone. Their house seemed empty at times, with scattered, sporadic belongings haunting a couple rooms. The dining room chairs had been left from Mrs. Nelson’s occupation of the house; the living room held only the purple loveseat and a couch rescued from a thrift store.
The first and only time we spoke of the belongings in her house was on a second-grade field trip to nearby Hyde Park. It had been a full-day field trip, Mrs. Morrison passing out sack lunches at picnic tables, while we fawned over the contents of the big house. Romaine and I liked Eleanor Roosevelt, hoping to find a book on her in the gift shop, but we became distracted.
We took a bus from the Hudson Day School to Hyde Park, Roosevelt Andrews, the tallest boy in our class, talking the whole way there. He was somehow related to the Roosevelts and spent the bus ride bragging about all the special family events he’d attended at the house. Romaine and I sat toward the back, Lizzy Fitch turning back to talk to us every few minutes; she was always talking. Roosevelt sat across from us, telling Timmy Mathews about the time when the very funny Aunt Anna had made a joke about the stables; it wasn’t really that funny.
When we got off the bus, Roosevelt ran to the visitor center, even when Mrs. Morrison was trying to get a head count. She yelled after him, but he was already talking animatedly with the tour guide; Mr. Andrews had managed to get the head of the estate as our tour guide and Roosevelt made sure we knew it.
Mrs. Morrison handed out our nametags with our name, the school phone number, and address, like dog collars. If we were “naughty,” said Mrs. Morrison. who had curly white hair and always wore shirtdresses, we would have to hold onto the rope that she had brought along, just in case; no one wanted to have to hold the rope. She scolded Roosevelt when we caught up with him, but he recounted the time Aunt Anna had burnt the Thanksgiving dinner in response.
Slowly, we made our way to the house, Roosevelt chatting with Mr. Pearson, the tour guide, the whole time. Mrs. Morrison counted our tiny little heads under her breath at the back of our second-grade clump; she had hopelessly attempted to arrange us in a single file line alphabetically, but it had digressed into a group blob within seconds. Mrs. Morrison liked order; we were chaos.
At the steps to the house, Mr. Pearson stopped, beginning to tell about Sarah Delano, but Roosevelt interrupted every few seconds to tell what he felt was a funny story about his great-great-grandmother: how one time she got a run in her tights right before dinner and insisted on changing them, how at first she was silly and didn’t like great-grandmother Eleanor; he went on and on. Mr. Pearson smiled tightly, his lips spread so wide we feared they might crack, at everything he said. We continued the tour, passing through the door, gazing up in awe of the ceiling, the big dining room, anything in sight. The boys pointed excitedly at the taxidermy, while Romaine crinkled her room and whispered something about animal cruelty.
In the dining room, while Mr. Pearson lectured on the drapes, Romaine stared at a stained-glass lamp in the corner.
“I have that lamp in my living room,” she whispered to me.
“What lamp?” I asked, taking my eyes off Mr. Pearson who was caressing the fabric.
Mrs. Morrison shot us a stern look, but Romaine didn’t see it.
“That one,” she said a little louder. She pointed to the corner.
Mr. Pearson looked up at the sound and her finger.
“What a great transition,” he exclaimed, hurrying toward the lamp. “Your peer has found one the most interesting pieces in the house here.”
He launched into another digression.
“Made in 1901, this lamp is one of only four handmade by a glassblower who catered to socially elite Americans at the turn of the century. He produced little work, leaving largely only these lamps—an exemplary piece of work made by a consummate craftsman.”
We didn’t understand any of the big words he used, but Romaine just stared. I wonder if she ever heard the “one of only four”.
“I have that,” she repeated several times.
Mr. Pearson directed his attention to her after the third time.
“I’m sure you have a one similar one. Your parents probably bought a smaller reproduction in the gift shop,” he condescended.
Romaine didn’t utter the phrase again. She was right, though; I’d seen it in the house on several occasions. But shortly after the field trip, it disappeared, replaced by a sturdier IKEA lamp.
Afterward, at lunchtime, Roosevelt came to sit at the picnic table where Romaine and I had established ourselves. I was eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, drinking my Juicy Juice when he sat down, still chatting about his family.
“And so Uncle Rob thought it would be nice if we came here for the day,” he was saying as Romaine took a bite of her apple, “and that’s the first time I saw the lamp. They’d had it in storage for a while; they didn’t want anyone to break it. Uh, Romaine you said you have one at your house?”
“Yes. We’ve had it my whole life.”
Roosevelt launched into another story—one that I chose not to listen to, instead rummaging through my sack lunch. Romaine listened patiently, bobbing her head every few sentences, laughing when he attempted to make jokes.
He followed us for the rest of the day—rest of the year, really. It wasn’t my company he sought; it was Romaine’s. She made the perfect friend: one who truly listened, was truly interested, wanted to reach out to every lonely girl (like me) or boy (like Roosevelt). She was his only friend.
In the gift shop, Roosevelt chatted with the cashier while Romaine and I searched for the lamp replicas Mr. Pearson had mentioned.
Mrs. Morrison yelled, calling a headcount, screaming that the bus was ready. The employees stared, some putting a finger to their lips. We scoured the place, refusing to return until we had found it, which we did, on a bookshelf, the size of only a paperback book.
“It’s too small,” Romaine said, cupping the shade with one hand.
She stood there, examining the glass quizzically until Mrs. Morrison personally came to fetch us.