If you want to know what kind of girl my daughter, Vera, was, there is a story her mother, Katya, tells over and over. I wasn’t there myself, but it is part of the family lore: little Vera, five years old, her dark hair in braids, attending another little girl’s birthday. It was an overly elaborate party for a five-year- old girl, with candied violets on the cake, a gazebo, tasteful jewel-toned paper streamers, crowns made of real flowers for each little girl to wear, and a chalkboard listing a schedule of party games in cursive script.
But it was a hot day. The children were beginning to melt. No one wanted to play the games, which seemed to be going on forever. Only the girl’s mother, wild-eyed and possessed by the fever of party orchestration, was enthused, and she led them through endless rounds of red rover, musical statues, even an egg-and-spoon race. By the time a game ominously titled “Doggy, Doggy, Where’s Your Bone?” was about to start, the birthday girl was crouched under a picnic table crying.
Vera, ever the ambassador, ventured under there to pow- wow. The girl was hot and hungry. She could tell the other children weren’t having fun. The party had been going on for three hours and cake and presents were not yet in sight. Why was her mother doing this? Couldn’t they at least do one of the fun party games, like the piñata? Wasn’t the birthday party supposed to be about her? But her mother didn’t even care that she was crying there under the table. Her mother was going to make everyone play “Doggy, Doggy, Where’s Your Bone?” no matter what.
Vera patted the girl’s skinny thigh. “Maybe your mom just doesn’t understand how you feel,” she said. And so Vera crawled out from under the picnic table, and went and found the girl’s mother, tugging at the woman’s dress as she was trying to explain the rules to the new game.
“Excuse me,” she said politely, “Samantha would like to open presents and eat cake now. She doesn’t want to play games anymore.”
“Well, right now we are playing games,” the girl’s mother said, leaning down to Vera’s eye level, her hands on her knees. “We have three more to go before it will be time for cake and presents.” She pointed at the chalkboard that listed the party activities.
“But maybe,” Vera insisted, “you could just skip some. Maybe you could skip to the piñata?”
“Samantha is welcome to join us if she decides she wants to be a big girl. Otherwise, she can stay under the table and cry.” Vera stared at the woman for a moment, and then said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “If you wanted a birthday party so badly, you should have thrown one for yourself.”
Vera was always just like that. Almost brutally clear-sighted. Even as a child, she saw through people. Saw the reasons they did things. Saw the machinery behind the façade.
As she became a teenager, her nose for hypocrisy became even keener and her thirst for justice more merciless. One of her high-school English teachers actually got teary-eyed during a parent-teacher conference out of worry that Vera didn’t like her. “I feel like she can tell that I’m not actually equipped to challenge her,” the poor woman said. “I mean, my degree isn’t even in English, it’s in education, and I feel like there is a real lack of depth to my analyses sometimes that Vera senses, and honestly, I don’t blame her.”
If adults were unable to keep from seeking Vera’s good opinion, her peers didn’t have a chance. They worshipped her in a way that made her disdainful. The fall she was sixteen, she went to the homecoming dance in fleece footie pajamas printed with tropical fish and convinced her boyfriend, Fang, to do the same. They looked like giant, weird, Floridian babies. She also coerced him into memorizing a choreographed break-dance routine with her. I worried the whole thing was deeply misguided, but the dance number was a hit. Everyone thought wearing footie pajamas to homecoming was hilarious and cool.
“You’re a trendsetter,” I said.
“Ugh,” she said. “Gross.”
Because she wasn’t a trendsetter. No one could hope to be like her. She was one of a kind and, because of this, very much alone. About whether she was pleased with this state of affairs or saddened, I was never entirely sure. Maybe she would have liked to belong. Maybe her cruelty to the girls who would have done anything to be her friends was preemptive because she feared they would never accept her as she was. And maybe that’s part of why she and Fang became the way they were.
But all of this is only speculation.
Copyright © 2017 by Rufi Thorpe. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.