By Kim Magowan
Ever since her parents split up, and her father moved into his own place, he tells Ellie bedtime stories: not ones from books, but stories about her. “This is between you and me,” her father says, though Ellie suspects he wants her to carry these tales back home, that the stories are spiked iron balls to catapult over her mother's fortress walls.
For instance, the one about her name. Ellie has always heard a particular narrative: she was named after the sensible sister in a novel by Jane Austen that her mother loves. But this, Mark Rosenblatt now maintains, is false.
“Your birth mother gave you the name Eleanor,” he says. “We both loved it. Nonetheless Pauline wanted to change it. It's like she didn't want you marked in any way by your birth mother. I insisted you keep it.”
Another night, he tells her why they needed to adopt. “Your mother had endometriosis. The thing to know about endometriosis, Ellie, is that it's painful, sure, but in no way does it compromise a woman's fertility. Pauline was not sterile, is my point. That is, until she decided she couldn't deal with the discomfort anymore and chose to get her uterus removed.”
From the way her father emphasizes the word chose, and the way he uses discomfort rather than pain, as if her mother had a headache or a rash, Ellie understands the point. When Ellie was little, her father used to ask after reading her a book, “So what's the meaning of this story?” Ellie chose her words carefully, knowing there was a right answer. The meaning of this particular story is clear: Ellie was adopted because her mother couldn't take the trouble to conceive her own child.
Hearing this makes Ellie feel sorry for her mother, whom she mostly hates these days. Ellie knows the way her father disregards pain.
His brief stint as the parent soccer coach, when Ellie was nine, was a disaster. He drove her teammates to tears with his demands that they stop being wimps, and worse. Ellie remembers the shuddery thrill of hearing an adult say “pussies.”
Even now, her father rolls his eyes when Ellie begs off their hike in Tilden Park because of cramps (her period started last year).
Ellie's mother is sweet about her cramps. She mixes lemonade with sparkling water, stirring in a spoonful of raspberry jam. Together they watch old movies in which the actresses have eyebrows that look drawn with Magic Marker. Her mother says, “Poor baby. I had the worst time with cramps.”
Ellie's best friend Laurel wants to sleep over when Ellie is staying at her father's. Laurel loves the crazy shit he says.
Laurel's parents split up a year before Ellie's. Ellie considers Laurel's family her practice divorce, the way she hears childless adults talk about their nieces, nephews, and dogs as “practice babies.” Laurel's mother is a combination of Ellie's parents: depressed and nutty like Ellie’s father, distracted like her mother. Laurel's father is simply gone, vanished into the turtle shell of his new life in Portland, Oregon, with his new wife and baby.
When Laurel sleeps over at Ellie's father's house, they have to share a twin bed with flannel sheets that are too hot. Plus his apartment smells. Not bad, exactly, but funny: like dim sum that's been left out.
Ellie's father doesn't hide things parents are supposed to hide. When the weed delivery person rings the doorbell to hand him his vacuum-sealed bags of pot, or gummy edibles, he opens the door right in front of Ellie and Laurel, who are eating Kung Pao chicken on the couch.
He tells them that pot is better for them than alcohol. No one has ever died from pot.
He tells them boys just want pussy. Laurel laughs in delight, but Ellie remembers her father the soccer coach, freaking out her teammates and enraging their parents.
He tells them that nothing is so dangerous in this world as love. “If there's one piece of advice I have for you girls,” he says, drawling as he does when stoned, “it's to avoid giving your heart to someone. Because believe me, they will crap all over it.”
That night, squished in Ellie's bed, Laurel keeps giggling over that image of a heart, pulpy and red, that someone has defecated upon. “Like a shit heart instead of a chocolate heart,” Laurel says.
They are stoned themselves. After Ellie's father went to sleep, they shared one of his edibles. A sugary square, it reminds Ellie of the pates de fruits her mother brings home in pale, rectangular boxes from her business trips to France.
“At least your dad talks to you,” says Laurel, who calls her father “emoji dad” because the typical response she gets to her emails is a smiley face, or a winking face.
Ellie listens to her father, but she does not disclose.
She doesn't tell him about her boyfriend Robbie, the mere fact of him, much less that last week she let Robbie take off her bra.
She doesn't tell him how her mother hums, dusting powdered sugar on Ellie's waffles.
She doesn't tell him that when her mother came out of the shower the other day, Ellie saw that she had waxed off most of her pubic hair. Now it is an arrowhead instead of a triangle.
Ellie doesn't tell him she sits on her mother's bed watching Pauline get ready for a date. Her mother asks, “Which pair, Kitten?” She holds up to her earlobes one chandelier earring, one pearl stud, and Ellie chooses.
Her father suggests that Ellie pick Eleanor of Aquitaine for her eighth grade biography project. “She's your namesake,” he says. When they are checking out books, he says, “Though who knows what your birth mother had in mind when she named you. I wish we'd met her. I would have asked. Maybe she was thinking about Eleanor Roosevelt? She was just a kid.”
He speaks loudly, even though they are in the library. Her father doesn't modulate his voice for venues. People hush him in movie theaters, when in the middle of a film he asks Ellie what she wants for dinner.
Normally Ellie would pretend not to hear him. But information about her birth mother is so novel that she says, “How old was she?”
“Your birth mother? Eighteen. We never met her, but she left a picture. Half Puerto Rican, half German. She had beautiful, long eyelashes. Like spider legs.”
“We have a picture of her?” Ellie's voice is a high squeak.
“Your mother does. See, this I will never understand, why Pauline didn't give it to you. Why she's so threatened by your birth mother. I pointed out she had amazing eyelashes, and you should have seen Pauline's face.”
What is the meaning of this story?
Later, working on her biography, Ellie wonders if her father had other reasons for suggesting Eleanor. The Duchess of Aquitaine, Eleanor became the Queen of France but was clever enough to stipulate that her property would stay hers. When she had her marriage annulled, she took Aquitaine with her. Weeks later she married Henry Plantagenet, who would become King Henry II of England. He was nine years younger.
“Shit, Eleanor of Aquitaine was a cougar!” says Laurel, delighted.
Then Ellie has to tell her the sad part: how after they had eight children, Henry fell in love with someone else, and after Eleanor helped their sons revolt against him, he locked her up. Eleanor was only released from prison when Henry died thirteen years later.
Usually Ellie watches old movies with her mother. Afterwards Pauline will marcelle Ellie's hair, or make it wave over one eye like Veronica Lake's. But because this biography was her father's idea, Ellie asks him to rent The Lion in Winter, about the fighting Plantagenets spending Christmas together.
After ten minutes her father goes to the kitchen and comes back, unwrapping one of his edibles. It's a light brown, sugary square, the kind that Ellie and Laurel once ate. “Want half?” he asks her.
It's hard to chew, with him watching her.
Once stoned, he enjoys the movie, slapping his knee when King Henry rushes through his castle courtyard and kicks aside a chicken. He acts like the movie is a comedy. But Ellie hates how the king and queen keep attacking each other through their sons. She hides behind her hair so her father won't see her face.
“What the fuck, Mark?”
Her mother's voice on the hall extension is so loud that Ellie hears her, even though Ellie is in her bedroom with the door closed. She stares at her closet floor, where her shoes line-up in color-coordinated rows. At her father's, they are in a heap. She is so tired she thinks she could sleep for days, in this room that smells like lavender sachets and fabric softener, not old take-out.
“What were you thinking, telling Ellie about that photo?”
Or better yet, as soon as her mother gets off the phone, she'll call Laurel. Ellie feels an urge to do something they haven't done in years: to play with Laurel's white Victorian dollhouse. Ellie is sick of being young Prince Henry or Richard the Lionheart, drafted by their angry mother into insurrections. She is sick of edibles, of studying her pubic hair in the mirror. She wants to arrange all the tiny plates and cutlery for dinner, to place the ceramic pot of stew on the tiny silver serving tray, and to sit the doll family in their chairs, napkins pleated in their laps, ready to eat.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches at Mills College. Her fiction has appeared in Arroyo Literary Review, Breakwater Review, Corium, Fiction Southeast, Gettysburg Review, Indiana Review, JMWW, Parcel, River City, Squalorly, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Word Riot. She is working on a novel and a story collection.