PROLOGUE – Munich, the Englisher Garten
We were half way through our mother-daughter European trek toward art, vistas, history, and romance, surviving the reversion to snarkiness which my Italian teacher Paola warned me against. Holding hands, Gelsey and I swung under the soft plumes of trees, down winding paths, the moon making every hill and dale, every warm voice an occasion for mystery. All past competition charmed to sleep, Fairy Queen and Fairy Princess fell in love with the first things they saw—long-eared cypress, deep bays of lakes. Our Bottom wore ass’s ears, soft and furred like shadowy copses. Our Titania slept only to awaken and desire him.
It seemed as if in this enchanted Midsummer Night’s Dream, I could ask Gelsey anything, and she would answer.
Our trip hadn’t started out like this at all.
First there was the taxi driver who insisted, “Saint Paul is like Rome, built on seven hills.” He meant Saint Paul, Minnesota, where we lived. Though I’d outlined our itinerary—Germany first, then Italy, he seemed to believe that we were heading straight to Rome. This omen of connection was too delicious to pass up. “How so? How is Saint Paul like Rome?” Beside me, Gelsey, my Meryl-Streep look-alike daughter whom people ogled at check-out counters, sat silent behind her sunglasses.
I didn’t know much about St. Paul since I’d spent only ten years there. But Saint Paul felt more like home than had Minneapolis, where I’d started and Gelsey was born, nineteen years ago. Still when I thought of seven St. Paul hills, only two came to mind: Winter Ramsey Hill, icy and treacherous sliding downtown from the University Club where F. Scott Fitzgerald had carved his name in the bar. And the round ecclesiastical civic domes of cathedral and state capitol gleaming at each other across the ditch of I-94.
“Revelations says the city of love will be built on seven hills.” The taxi driver swept a grand gesture toward the windshield. “These seven.”
I giggled—Saint Paul parochial run amok. “Rome has dibs on that!” I insisted. At this, Gelsey made googly eyes at me over the tops of her sunglasses. Her generation did not confess to taxi drivers. They left that to tabloids and gushy mothers.
The taxi driver grinned over the front seat. “If the Lord shows his face, it’ll be right here. I’ll bank on that.”
Gelsey leaned forward: “You know, we’re landing in Fuhrerland first!”
The driver eyed her in the rearview mirror. “Ah, so you have a date wid zee goose step?”
“We’re part German,” I explained, “but I’ve never been to Germany. Gelsey’s been there two times!” He wiggled his eyebrows at her in the rear-view mirror. She frowned. Nix to disclosure. Nein to bragging.
I attached my gaze firmly to green lawns and boulevard trees. So much was riding on this trip. During our trouble-free year when Gelsey was a freshman at Carleton College, she had become her own person. But I wasn’t ready to bow out, go gentle into the shadow side of motherhood. Before that, I had this trip with its twin goals. First, Gelsey would introduce me to Germany. With her help, I’d shuck the ethnic chip on my shoulder against Germany’s World War II decimation of the Jews. Maybe I could even learn to say a few silly things in German.
Next, I’d take her to my Italy. As we stood beside the virgins and madonnas, she with her golden beauty would link me to pasta-land as never before. A handsome Italian youth might even twirl her away. My Italian-American father had done exactly that with my shy, North Dakota mother. He’d proposed on the first date.
Packing squashed these fantasies. Gelsey tossed out my stuff and madly repacked her own. To compensate, we stuffed nearly everything into a monster bag of enormous girth. With my luck, she’d decide the trip was a penance and clam up even before we got off the plane, leaving me to cruise the Autobahn with no help from her.
When the taxi driver swung our monster bag over the curb, he touched his hat. “Give my best to his Holiness.”
We hadn’t planned to visit the Pope. But I didn’t tell him that. Gelsey would have had a fit.
Touched by the magic of the Englisher Garten, I nudged Gelsey as we strolled down the moonlit path. “So, Kiddy, what guy will step from behind the bushes and charm you tonight?”
“Not who you think.” She tossed her hair, spun-silver in the moonlight.
I heard a faint warning. “Go ahead, tell me. I won’t be shocked.”
“I already shocked you with Jemmy.” Jemmy, gay-guy friend from her high-school German trip. “And it’s not Jemmy. It’s Chris.” Chris, her dorm-mate from college. Her voice sped up eagerly. “Mom, I think about Chris night and day. I want to tell him everything.” She skipped in front of me, walking backwards. “Planning our talks”—she reached for my hand—“I feel creative and borderline lively.”
Soft moonlight gilded a little lake in the distance. “So what do you and Chris talk about?” I asked, curious and a bit shy at her intimacy with him.
She released my hand and twirled, her eyes shadowed. “You’ll never guess.” She was teasing me, flaunting her insider knowledge. Caution growled from the underbrush.
“Oh, come on. Give me a clue.”
“We discuss popping pimples. We replicate the rhythm section to Salt-n-Pepa’s Push It.” It was dark among the copse of trees. Push It? Push what?
The strength of her relationship with Chris amazed me. I hadn’t had such a nonromantic attachment to a man until after my divorce. When the rigid roles—girl/guy, husband/wife—parted, I’d begun to see men as something other than romantic partners. My gay-guy friends now numbered a half dozen. They were among the most generous people I knew.
Gelsey and Chris are part of a sea change, I told myself. She and Chris are also mere Babes in the Woods, whispering through a chink in a wall.
I touched her arm. “You know, I will love you whether you are lesbian, straight, or bi.”
Her profile turned aside. Something with claws lurked in the underbrush. “I know, Mom. We’ve discussed this before.” Skipping ahead, she turned the oblong disk of her face, “Chris’s orientation is central to who he is. It’s not open to question.”
“Oh, I’m not questioning it, Honey. You and Chris are true friends. I like him. He’s a very nice young man.” I cringed at the blandness of this.
Waiting for me, she said, “The truth is, I am close to Chris. I’m not lesbian, and I’m not ready to deal with straight men.”
I linked my arm through hers. “I’ve thought that too.” It was heady, moving along the same idea together, speaking almost as one.
She looked at me. “Chris is not a jealous person. If I share a house with him next year, I will never want for companionship.”
Watch it, I cautioned myself. Keep it simple. Don’t turn into a mother-manager like someone else we could name. “You know,” she said, “we swoon over the same straight guys.” She laughed and twirled to face me, her eyes deep in shadow. “They never guess what we say about them.”
At that moment, I held up my finger for silence. Whimpering came from somewhere close. “Help me,” called a thin, low voice.
“Who are you?” I answered, panting with fear. We stood in the moonlight, half-terrified, half-intent upon listening.
“I saw you before,” came the voice.
Gelsey looked at me, her eyes deep hollows. “The kid from Rothenburg?” she asked.
“Yes,” came the voice. The bushes started to bend and part, and there, almost crawling, emerged the kid in a trench coat. We’d also just seen him/her in the Munich Marienplatz, sitting with a garishly made-up woman.
“She was sticking her nails into me.” The kid’s blond hair was plastered onto its scalp, its cheeks rouged, and a cupid’s bow mouth painted below peaked eyebrows. “I ran away and got lost.”
“You’re in the big Englisher Garten.” Gelsey reached for the kid’s hand.
“How old are you?” I blurted. Gelsey put out a hand to stop me. At this, the kid broke away and ran back into the underbrush. Gelsey went in right after him, calling in a low voice, “I’m not going to report you. Maybe we can help you.”
I wasn’t so sure about that. All we could do was take the kid back to our room. I didn’t want to be stuck with a runaway. Especially in a foreign country.