The Diminishing Returns of a Prodigal Crush
"Swiss Summer" by Mark Chiusano, recommended by Electric Literature
Introduction by Alyssa Songsiridej
Teenage me definitely displayed the traits of the internet’s favorite problem personality, someone with “main character syndrome.” This was not because I thought highly of myself. (Full disclosure: I had to wear orthodontic headgear.) From my adolescent point of view, my most humiliating thoughts or terrors or wants were excruciatingly visible to other people. But the relief of growing up is not overcoming this sentiment, exactly, but discovering its universality: everyone experiences life from their point of view, complete with private dramas and thwarted agency, and each person—fictional or not—deserves to experience their own life from its center. The pain and confusion lie in failing to understand that other people are just as occupied as you are by their individual trajectories.
In Mark Chiusano’s “Swiss Summer,” Teresa is the point-of-view character, but she’s possibly not the main character—the person at the center of the action—and the story’s pleasurable friction comes from the way Chiusano plays with this distinction. Transplanted to a quaint Swiss hamlet as an American teenager, Teresa never fully acclimates to her new home or assimilates with her Swiss peers, and in her isolation, she becomes someone who “imagined things and lived on small moments, and could make a big deal about nothing, and cried over tiny coincidences . . . ”
The “small moments” that sustain her all concern Bill, the son of a family friend, who stays for several months with Teresa’s family the summer she is seventeen. She obsesses over him, specifically over their relationship (or lack of one), listing and describing all of their encounters in her diary and delivering nightly soliloquies to her captive younger sister, Casey. Nothing happens between them, but Chiusano uses this absence to show how little Teresa needs to make meaning, and how her fixation on these details distracts her from what is actually going on.
When, as an adult in Geneva, Teresa runs into Bill—still bounding, still carrying a ratty JanSport—her viewpoint is just as narrow as when she was an adolescent. She sees what she needs to see to make their ensuing sexual relationship the stuff of a romantic comedy, the fulfillment of her years-long fantasy, despite the fact that rangy Bill is not quite the right partner for a spreadsheet-obsessed accountant, and that what she wanted as a teenager is not actually a great fit for her life.
Teresa’s shortcomings, though, are definitely not Chiusano’s, and the cunning in “Swiss Summer” lies in his deft handling of Teresa’s limitations, her inability to comprehend the lives of her loved ones and to see what should have been clear. I could—and I want to!—say more about the story’s sharpness, its sly sophistication. But I won’t, because I want you to experience it for yourself. Enjoy the lush setting, the room of Teresa’s interiority, and Chiusano’s surprising, yet inevitable, revelations.
– Alyssa Songsiridej
Managing Editor, Recommended Reading
The Diminishing Returns of a Prodigal Crush
Swiss Summer by Mark Chiusano
Teresa saw him out of the corner of her eye first, her usual lunchtime walk off the Bahnhofstrasse bringing her past a glittering section of the lake. Just a touch of the lake every afternoon to get her through the day, accounting for a transnational consulting firm, updates from her stay-at-home sister about her niece whom she loved very much. Some afternoons she hardly even looked all the way at the view to drink it, that would have been too much sugar, but this time she was interrupted by what she’d seen out of the corner of her eye. Or who.
Bill, she asked? Then shouted. Bill!
He was lounging on the edge of the grass, t-shirt tied around his neck. A JanSport backpack beside him. Could it be—the same JanSport? All these years later? His blond hair was thinner now, his cheekbones still unnaturally high.
Bill, she repeated, coming closer, the native Swiss sitting on picnic benches between them looking up disapprovingly from smartphones and espressos, their white legs so much longer than hers and crossed in a sensation of effortless grace. She had spent essentially her whole life in Switzerland ever since her father moved the family there when she was little, his chemistry professorship beckoning, but still she felt off kilter.
The man turned away from the lake, his face smiling already. As if he’d known she’d come by, as if he’d been waiting for her, just a decade and a half later.
Hey now, he said. Teresa the Great!
He had been hardly a year older than her when he arrived, a teenager. This was the reason for all the tension, the commotion. Teresa’s mother was not sure at all that it was a good idea to accept a boarder, even if it was the son of Teresa’s father’s best friend from college. The old friends had lost physical touch but still wrote letters. Teresa’s younger, sly sister Casey was as excited as Teresa. We have two daughters, Teresa’s mother implored, then added: And I’ll be left to take care of him!
Back then, Teresa herself was dreamy and full of expectations, already feeling a little stuffy in Heninger, their adopted practically medieval town. She imagined things and lived on small moments, and could make a big deal about nothing, and cried over tiny coincidences: the barking of a ragged sheepdog, a tree falling across the wanderweg. She hadn’t had much else to occupy her, she was a little (she understood this now) strange or immature even at seventeen; some of her peers had started apprenticeships at the auto parts factory on the highway towards Geneva, but she was stuck in her domestic pace apart from her love of mathematics. And so Teresa’s mother had worried (rightly) about the insertion of a young man into the equation, chaos and claustrophobia, flushes and anger and swiftness and heat, even in their capacious farmhouse a short commute from the university and Zurich.
Teresa, Bill said by the lake. You look healthy and awesome.
He had rarely said much during that summer but she had always hung on whatever he did. There were not many young men who could have stood that feminine house and all the women in it, Teresa knew—her father was often in Zurich late fussing over his experiments, in his closed-door study working. He loved his family, her father did, but he was an absent presence. Thus Bill (no other way to put it) loomed large.
Bill, Teresa shouted. She was startled and flushed already. I didn’t know you were in Europe. I didn’t know you were here.
He stood up and nudged his shoes on—sockless, she noticed. I’m taking a little journey this summer, he said. Got some work lined up at a boarding school in Arizona in September, and nothing keeping me in the States until then.
Why didn’t you write? she asked. Why didn’t you call? Or let us know? We haven’t heard from you since . . . Mother’s Day I guess. Or was that last year?
Bill smiled. He had continued writing a formal Mother’s Day letter to Teresa’s mother for years after his months-long visit. Teresa knew that they had formed a nice bond, very sweet.
I wanted to leave something to chance, see where the winds would take me. If it was right that me and your family would meet, then we’d meet. Something like that.
The old fluttering romantic impulses in her bubbled.
I see, she said.
She had to go back to the office but would love to see him for dinner or a drink. Well how about that night? Yes that was workable. They met at a small pizzeria near the Altstadt, the old town, a place Bill insisted he’d been to that summer years ago, though Teresa knew for a fact it had been refinanced and renamed multiple times over (she had always had a head for numbers, figures, and dates). Yet she didn’t argue with him. He ordered a bottle of red wine he said was a good vintage, it was Italian, he’d actually worked six months for a natural wine vintner out in California. The wine went to her feet. He told her stories about Greyhound buses, forged Amtrak passes, a wild weekend boat from Miami to Cuba he’d been a chef on once. You have such an interesting life, Teresa said. She regretted it instantly, regretted the way it made her sound small and parochial, in fact she didn’t feel small and parochial, she was a very good accountant, she’d moved her way up in the office expeditiously, recently they’d sent her to a business conference in Dubai. The airport alone had been astonishing, she’d arrived during Ramadan, the way that you couldn’t eat food in public, what a thing. Bill’s eyes widened. I’ve always wanted to go to Dubai. Then he looked at her closely. You’ve changed, haven’t you? She was filled with memories of that summer, it was like they were back in it. Although that summer had ended without sexual incident. She didn’t ask what he meant. She screwed up her courage. She kissed the corner of his mouth.
It was what she thought, it was nothing like what she thought, she was flying and bemused (she was older now). She danced away from his arm which was deliciously pulling her back for more. See me tomorrow, she said. He did.
Every day for two weeks they met on her lunch break, near the lake. One time she found him shirtless and already ankle deep in the water, again it was in a grassy area that Swiss natives didn’t really swim from, they were too fastidious. Oh don’t, she said. Come on, he beckoned. She found herself changing. She dropped her work bag next to his carefully laid out clothes and kicked off her sensible sandals, hiked up her skirt, hopped in. It was deeper than she thought and she went almost to her knees, her skirt got wet, she laughed hysterically. Yes, he yelled, yes! He dove in (he was wearing only a tight pair of underpants, the small convexity of his belly) and swam out towards the center and while he yelled back at her to come join him she begged him to be careful about the boats which sometimes went by after four along this very route. It was thrilling. She didn’t tell her mother or her harried sister, but they were dating.
It was a summer romance, maybe that’s all it was, though to be clear Teresa hadn’t had enough of those of any season. It wasn’t her physicality or her nature—she had a very becoming small beauty spot in the center of her left cheek and the kind of dimples that curl up into a crouch, marking bemusement. She had always felt, however, that men were so snide about everything: the drinks they tried to ply her with, the heavy advances of their thick-knuckled hands. Picture her at a summer festival in Kanton Zurich, all the Swiss girls dressed in “traditional” clothing and the men in dumb lederhosen, they drank so much that they couldn’t articulate full sentences in any of their multiple languages or even count the right amount of change for a bratwurst, and she was one who was always able to be counting.
For example: that summer when Bill was staying with them. Indeed she was bursting with every chance encounter. She recorded them in an absolutely secret she-would-die-if-her-mother-found-it diary, forget about her younger sister Casey with whom she had only a few years before stopped sharing a room. The diary was a star map of her days. In the morning when she had already finished breakfast and was just coming back up the stairs to change into something flowy and gorgeous, she caught a glimpse of him trudging almost groaning to the bathroom, hand on his head, shuffling his feet. The cracked open door revealed a bag of empty HB beer cans. She asked if he was ok but he didn’t answer, slammed the door. “Hungover,” she wrote.
Some lines down, Encounter Ten (she started back at zero each week), her mother had asked her to set the table for them all out in the garden, use the nice plates because she had the sense that Bill was lonely that evening, it was after all his birthday. Teresa hadn’t known this and it stabbed at her, the fact that her mother knew something about Bill that she didn’t, but she leapt to the plate cabinet because she knew that Bill was outside at the very table she’d be setting. He was reading. She didn’t say anything as she went around carefully setting down the plates, heart hammering, absolutely hammering. The black hair on his arms, the rolled up sleeves. When she came to his place at the table she said “excuse me” and “happy birthday” almost at the same time, and she regretted for days that he seemed only to hear the “excuse me.”
Encounter Fifteen: she was working on a way to ask him to do something with her, anything really. Not a “date.” There was a town about a mile down the valley but up on the side of a hill that was surrounded by medieval walls and you could make the steep bike ride up there for, at the top, a café with Diet Coke and strudel. Perhaps Bill, as a more mature individual, would have coffee. This was as far as she could imagine about a “date” with him, she had rarely tried alcohol, her peers in their apprenticeships were always drinking and (she saw now) sexually experimenting down by the train station. That was a horrid, other world to her then, small-town nonsense. She would have been mortified. Just a nice walk after a bike ride, he might reach for her hand—her mind jumped.
What she did (and this was July) was knock on his door one morning. She had been ostensibly studying for summer exams and her father was at work and her sister was out and about in the neighborhood running around and her mother was in the kitchen speaking to her own mother soulfully back in America about how lonely she was here. Teresa rolled her eyes. Though she’d prepared she blanked when Bill answered the door, the shaggy mane of his hair, his crooked nose, the tank top he was wearing so that she could see (she shivered) the smooth curve his shoulders made into his thin neck. What’s up Ter, he said. And this is what she said: Is there anything you’d like to do today?
It worked because there was something.
I really want to go swimming, you know?
Oh so do I, Teresa lied. She hated swimming. The dirty chlorine stink, the shouting of children, the way that all the other teenagers left her alone at the village pool, wide and gleaming.
Let’s go to the pool, she said.
Right on, said Bill.
He never seemed to be busy that summer but he also didn’t seem bored. He was supposed to be on a quiet period before college. His family didn’t really have money, but Bill’s father called in the favor with Teresa’s, and (it was whispered one evening before Bill arrived) even contributed a little to the plane fare because Bill’s family was on hardish times (we must be generous with our friends, Teresa’s patient father counseled). Teresa’s mother said frankly she liked having it be a feminine house but her father laughed. He’s a hot-blooded kid. He’ll hardly be here.
He was though. He didn’t appear to take much interest in the other villages of their kanton, let alone Zurich or Geneva or Paris, France. They had assumed he would use their house as a base of operations, cheap flights and trains, Euro tour, but for those first weeks all he did was sit in their garden, read books of American science fiction, doodle in a notebook, do pushups and sit-ups, sweat gathering in an inverted triangle below his neck. In the evening when Teresa’s father was home he’d disappear in the summer dusk, wandering the wanderwegs, into the forest which Teresa had always been a little afraid of above their cozy farmhouse, as if he was trying to stay out of Teresa’s father’s hair. Let him go, Teresa’s father said if Bill skipped dinner: He’s adjusting. During the night he was often in his room, from which if you tiptoed past it slowly and quietly (as Teresa did) you could smell the musk of early manhood, doors and windows closed.
But he agreed to the pool that day for Encounter Sixteen, which began in earnest when they left the farmhouse and made tracks down the dusty road. Quite honestly it was the best encounter that summer, the most enjoyable, the longest in duration. Teresa chose her sundress endlessly. Ter you ready, Bill shouted from down below. Her mother stopped them at the door. Where are you two going, she said sharply. Swim, swim, swim, Teresa chanted. She knew she could be too childish sometimes.
When they arrived Bill visibly relaxed. The pool was almost empty, it was wide and shimmering. He placed his old JanSport down next to her. Do you mind if I do some laps, he said, even as she was about to suggest they sit and chat. She hadn’t known what they’d chat about, so she was relieved. She sat with her sundress on and applied and reapplied sunscreen and watched as his thin back crossed and crisscrossed the pool.
When he came back he was beaming. His small bathing suit might as well have been underwear. She felt faint. She offered him a towel. She patted the chair next to hers, but he perched on the edge of her own. He was inches from her knees.
That’s better, he said. He arched his shoulders and flexed his arms. I was getting kind of claustrophobic, you know? I really want to get out and see something.
She cocked her head.
Why don’t you, she asked. She saw now that she understood nothing about men.
He looked down and his voice was small and low.
I don’t have enough money, he said.
Money, she trilled. Money? Oh that’s so silly. We have money, Daddy has plenty of it. You know his experiments at the university led to a patent the year we came here and beyond his salary we’ve had that for years as well.
Bill looked at her, a coldness in his eyes.
I’ve heard, he said. My dad told me about that. We don’t really have much savings. I’ve got to go back and work in August, start saving up for school.
It occurred to her, like an arithmetic answer—My parents keep money at home. It’s for my sister and I to take from whenever we need. I can give you some of it.
He didn’t look at her.
She reached out, a finger on his knee, the only time she touched him that summer, the only time.
I’ll take it for you, she said. No one will know.
She did it the next morning, heart stammering, her mother in her bedroom working on sewing, her sister having slammed her own door, angry, in a funk. She opened the orange coffee tin from its place in the bottom cabinet of the kitchen, pulled out two hundred Swiss francs from the bottom. There were many, many more.
She knocked on Bill’s door (technically of course this was Encounter Seventeen) and looked both ways dramatically. Passed him the bills. The smell from his room of deodorant and body spray was almost overwhelming. He accepted it and grinned wildly at her and granted her her nickname. Teresa the Great! You really are!
Unfortunately the unforeseen consequence (on Teresa’s side) of the money was that Bill used half of it to buy a rail pass. Now he could ride second class anywhere in the country as far as he wanted, and he went to Zurich all the time, and Geneva, he went to Lake Como and slept on the public beach rather than making the long trip back (Teresa’s mother was very concerned), he edged up to Basel for its art festival and went to places Teresa herself had never been to: Weil, Lausanne, Lucerne, Montreux (Jazz, he reported back, amazing), St. Gallen, Zermatt, where he splurged for a bunk bed in a hostel and also stayed overnight. Teresa waited in vain, of course, to be asked to join.
Teresa the Great, he’d say as he left in the morning, tossing his JanSport backpack over a shoulder. She loved him. She watched his long elegant fingers clasp his day bag off one shoulder as he went down the road.
Reacquainting herself with Bill now, as an adult, these short weeks, Teresa noticed new things, and she might almost list them (she no longer did anything as silly as a diary). Number one: he had become a bit portly, or at least his shoulders were rounder and there was the dawn of a pot on his belly. Number two: the thinning hair, his old wavy blonde locks now swept in just such a way that you wouldn’t notice it unless the wind blew or you were staring all the time. Number three: he was not as interesting as he had once been. There was a strange emptiness at the heart of his stories. Was it that he was not changed by events? Perhaps. He was loose and ragged, always smiling wanly and shrugging, saying things like “c’est la vie.” But compared to the Swiss men she had dabbled with, who were either effete city workers or droll countryside men, like her sister Casey’s husband, there was a certain benefit to indecision. Bill seemed to drift.
It happened even in their evenings after consummation (Teresa had a habit of whispering, even in her head, the words “had sex”). He was casual with keeping a shirt on still, even in these later years, though it was hardly as attractive as it had been, the way his stomach puddled on her now, rather than being (what she’d always imagined) hard and taut. One night in her apartment (sensible modern furniture, a calculator on the dining room table) she was thrusting her way back into her nightgown when she made the same mistake she’d made all those years ago.
Is there anything you’d like to do, Bill? she asked. While you’re here? While you stay?
She had been trying to gauge a timeline, a conversation, what comes next. For them.
He looked around the room and her heart sank just slightly when the answer came. Perhaps because she had accounted for its heartache in her mental calculator already.
Boy, he said, I’d love to see the old farmhouse. The garden. That was my best summer, you know that right?
Even as she nodded she felt her ardor dampened. It wasn’t that she had fallen out with her family members, it was just that they led different lives. Not really her father, who she met sometimes for luncheons at white table-cloth restaurants in the business district, discussing mildly her spreadsheets, his experiments, which she alone of the family had the mathematical background to comprehend. She called home once a week on Sundays and cycled through the members, her mother briefly, updates on baking, her sister putting Teresa’s gurgling niece up to the phone, she would babysit twice a month usually in her own apartment in the city, and then thank god her father would get on the line, they’d trade news of the day, the coming canton elections, issues of immigration, and the refugee crisis. She would hang up and imagine her mother in her rocking chair just off the kitchen, listening, uncomprehending, already settling into that older age that would contain her until her end.
That house and the stagnancy of it these days depressed her, but the youthful impulse to make Bill happy returned. I don’t see why not, she said. I owe them a visit. You can meet my niece.
The whole train ride there Bill couldn’t get the idea out of his head, that Casey was a mother and Elle was a GRANDmother. It’s mind-blowing, he said. Y’know?
Not really, Teresa said. (She had enough of her younger sister making snide remarks about her advancing and countable years of fertility.)
Though perhaps if you considered it from the moment Bill had left that summer, it was more understandable. Casey was only two years younger than Teresa, but in those adolescent years, so far ahead. The two-year difference had meant that she learned Swiss German like a native, not a visitor, and that meant something in the end. She had been smaller and more wiry than Teresa, skin that didn’t sunburn as easily, always went down to the schoolyard and played soccer with the girls (and boys!) down there, though she was only, say, eleven. Village life agreed with her. Teresa had felt stymied all through childhood, lived for her silent tortured bedroom reveries and the times her father would take her to his office in Zurich to see the glass skyscrapers and they’d count the stories, one by one.
Casey’s husband Herman was solid and pleasant and owned the tractor that all the farmers around Heninger used to take their crops in twice a year; this meant little work but a lot of necessary business. Sometimes Switzerland could be small that way. The two of them rarely went into Zurich other than to have Teresa babysit. Herman spent his days fixing things around the old farmhouse, which Teresa’s father never had time for, and her mother was grateful.
They were all there as a welcome party at the train station, Teresa bristled at that, it felt so old-fashioned. Her father, on his head a bizarre workers’ cap he’d taken to wearing to “fit in,” her brother-in-law, her sister, working to contain a squirming Zadie, Teresa’s frantic mother looking pale and flustered. Her mother was under an umbrella just because of the sun, she and Teresa shared obnoxiously sunburn-ready skin. Teresa almost wondered if they were about to join hands and break out into song. The train shushed away to Baden, and Bill put his arms in the air like a victory celebration.
I’ve returned, he shouted.
Teresa noticed that her sister’s eyes lingered on her even as Bill was making the rounds. Her sister could be shrewd and a little evil. They had almost nothing in common during adulthood, but they understood every particle of each other’s being. The way, for example, that Casey’s feet were angled at that moment in a little T, almost ballet—this had been the way she positioned herself whenever she was in observational mode or concentrating, struggling to recite her times tables in kindergarten, which Teresa, of course, had never had an issue completing. Teresa considered her sister’s outfit. Loose sweatpants, a worn-to-softness plain green t-shirt that somehow suggested both I-don’t-care-about-my-appearance and also fell nicely on her becoming curves. It annoyed Teresa, who had dressed up a little for the occasion.
You two look good together, Casey whispered mildly, comprehending immediately, when Teresa got close.
Bill went one by one down the line, shaking Teresa’s father’s hand warmly (her father awkwardly pulled Bill in for a hug-grasp, he had never been particularly touchy-feely), another hug for Herman who had stuck out his hand at first (aw I’m almost family, said Bill, and they laughed), and a lone bony finger offered to Zadie, who gripped it with her whole fist. She’s wonderful, said Bill.
Teresa did her own hello hugs as Bill continued to her mother.
Hello Daddy, she said, I brought the croissants you like from the Bahnhofstrasse.
Wonderful, he said, just wonderful, echoing (unconsciously, she was sure) the effusiveness of Bill.
It was still morning, eleven AM almost exactly, the train had been a minute or two late coming out of Zurich, time that it would make up, Teresa knew, farther down the open line. A small calendar of sightseeing activities had been prepared for Bill, all the little local things he used to do (mostly, though she didn’t say this, in the period before she’d stolen him the Swiss francs and let him loose upon the country). First they walked all together to the swimming pool, which annoyed Teresa slightly as this had so clearly been her activity with Bill, or at least she had introduced him to it, but perhaps her family wasn’t fully aware. There were not really any sidewalks in Heninger so they all stuck in a pack on the left side of the street, and Teresa found herself next to Herman while her parents trailed behind quietly and Bill made Zadie laugh and coo up front with Casey.
He is a very nice man, yes? Herman asked. Sometimes Teresa tried to speak Swiss German with him out of politeness, make him feel at home, but this was no time for confused words.
Yes, Teresa said, it’s been fun reconnecting.
I understand this, said Herman. Casey has been very nervous all morning.
This surprised Teresa. She had never really talked with Casey about Bill that summer or in the years after, or rather she had simply monologued to her about her concerns, as was their way in those years. Casey would be out all day with the local boys and girls, but when she came home she became Teresa’s captive in Teresa’s bedroom, to hear all Teresa’s hopes, fears, and observations of the domestic day. Outside that room Casey would pretend to smirk about their evening discussions, which they called “the conversation,” but clearly Casey loved them because she kept coming back. She, sweaty and sun-kissed, lying on the floor looking up at Teresa, who sat very formally on the edge of the bed exhibiting the good posture she was always practicing. With Bill there, her calculations were all about when she and Bill would get married.
Teresa felt a jolt of embarrassment now. Young Teresa had been so over her skis, so flushed and silly, missing everything. She and Bill had never shared anything beyond the touch at the pool and, if this counted, the warm hug he gave her when he left, late that August at the international airport, their mother crying. But she was also embarrassed now because she had never considered her sister’s feelings about those Bill conversations. Their role had always been: Teresa talk, Casey listen.
She asked Herman an inane question about the distribution of barley in the too-green fields they were passing, and his sturdy attempt at an answer allowed her to simply observe her sister and Bill. There was a familiarity to their steps, the way he dipped a shoulder in her direction when he had to avoid an overhanging branch, the protective way he held out his arm when a car passed on the right. Most tellingly, Teresa saw that though Zadie was in the harness on Casey’s chest, neither of the adults were paying much attention to little Zadie at all.
They arrived at the pool which sadly was closed for the next hour for cleaning. They stood at the edge and Bill marveled at its sweep and blue. Man I loved this pool. It looks exactly the way I remembered it. The snack canteen, the high dive . . . he reached up at his shoulder as if for the phantom omnipresent JanSport.
Remember that first day I brought you over here? Teresa asked. You didn’t wait a moment, you just jumped right in.
Yeah, Bill said. Totally. And every other time I came I didn’t even have to flash the village badge to the concession lady, she knew me that well in the afternoons and she just waved me in.
Teresa didn’t remember coming to the pool with him much in subsequent afternoons.
But weren’t you always traveling that summer, she asked, a little too sharply.
Bill turned. Yeah, he said. I’d stop by right before I came back to your guys’ house. Cleanse the mind and body. It was like my daily ritual.
She hadn’t known this.
Casey pointed up at the hills above the pool. And that’s the path to the observatory tower we used to take, do you remember that?
Bill grinned. Do I ever. We must have done that hike what, one hundred times?
Really? Teresa asked. Again too sharply.
Casey cocked her head.
Yeah it was me and Bill’s dog-walking routine. Remember Lucky, Bill? She was a good dog . . .
It seemed to Teresa a too-convenient way to change the subject. Her mother however, took it up and started babbling about Lucky the German shepherd, some inconsequential fluff, she was always a little babbly, Teresa’s father chimed in that he’d bought Lucky for Teresa’s mother because she was sometimes lonely out here during the day, with him (he knew) consumed with his work and in his study, Teresa’s mother needed company, remember the way Lucky had . . .
On the walk back from the pool to her parents’ house, Teresa tried to remember what Casey’s reaction had been to her teenage monologues about Bill-romance. Could Casey herself have harbored similar feelings, and even acted upon them? The math came to Teresa quickly. If Bill had been just eighteen and Teresa seventeen, then Casey was fifteen. That would be disgusting on Bill’s part. But somehow she was madder at Casey.
Her father was beside her as they began the last incline to the family farmhouse. And what do you think about the monsoon in India? he asked. My colleagues in Geneva are putting together an aid package. I will send you the link, it’s one of the better causes and our money goes further this way as direct aid than through the Red Cross . . .
But Teresa wasn’t paying attention. They were making a stop at the soccer fields where apparently Bill had one time joined Casey and her friends and played goalie for them. Teresa also hadn’t remembered that.
Daddy, Teresa said. That summer. Was there . . . something between Casey and Bill?
Her father pulled back with a reserved smile. The field was parallel to the train tracks and Bill was running heavily across it, laughing, as if the air could make him youthful again.
Now, her father said, don’t be crass. No no, nothing like that. She was too young. You all loved Bill though, that was humorous to see. He was just like his father, bright and intoxicating.
But Teresa did not trust this assumption.
When they arrived at the house Bill gushed and let out a wooooey, in a way that dispiritingly seemed more earnest than even their intimate relations had been.
Look, the driveway here, and your living room’s just the same, do you still have that drawer with chocolate in it on the bottom right—of course you do, bonkers, I’m stoked.
He went from room to room.
They followed him like a welcome parade up the stairs where he found everything as it was. Teresa’s mother was usually a stickler for shoes off in the house but she said nothing. Teresa noticed that Casey had handed Zadie over to poor Herman, as if the baby was from a different timeline and abandoned now. Teresa went to coo over her niece but they were all still following the parade.
The sewing room, Bill exclaimed, I remember sitting in here when it was raining and looking out at the church there and the hills and having melancholy thoughts man, melancholy thoughts.
You weren’t so unhappy, Casey said, hands on her hips.
Bill grinned at her. No, that’s true.
Teresa’s eyes opened wide.
They went downstairs and Teresa felt the sensation she often felt when she came home, that nothing had changed here, it was stuck in mud rather than even amber, it all felt kitschy and youthful and reminded her of her most fluttery days, days she was embarrassed by, now that she was an independent woman and could put her dreams into reality, see example: modern Bill. Reality wasn’t the same as the dreams, it was a little flabbier and less clean, but it was something that she made happen, not something that happened to her, and the old weight of the wooden beams of the house pounded her down. When Herman offered to give Bill a ride in the tractor around some of the farm roads before dinner—absolutamente, Bill said, grasping Herman’s shoulder—Teresa retired to the garden out back, in need already of the fresh air.
It had always been a pleasant garden, and she couldn’t help but remember that summer sitting in one particular place next to a patch of basil and thyme her mother had planted. There was a wrought iron bench there with a view of the guest bedroom window, and Teresa could pretend to be reading or preparing for summer session assignments but really gazing up at the window whenever it was appropriate. One time (just once) she saw the bend of Bill’s bare hip before it was covered by a towel. Now the bench made her shudder and she was furious when her sister followed her outside, their mother as usual re-cleaning the kitchen inanely, their father retiring to his home office to answer emails from former students and research colleagues.
You didn’t say you were fucking, Casey said.
The little terror.
You’re crude, Teresa said, glancing for Zadie. But Zadie was picking up dirt and dropping it near a stand of sunflowers.
She’s heard worse, Casey said. Well, you always get what you want.
Indeed, Teresa said.
Casey lay down on the grass and kicked up her leg. Teresa was annoyed to see that she still looked skinny despite Zadie.
So how is he, Casey asked. I mean, really.
If you’re going to be mean I’ll go inside.
And help Mom re-clean something? Because you two get along so well.
Teresa paused. It was true, she had an easier way with their father, her mother for years had seemed distant and occupied with uninteresting things, though they had been very close, perhaps unnaturally close, when she was a girl and interested in dolls and papier mache and then later dresses and shampoos, close until perhaps even around the year that Bill arrived.
Bill’s return was bringing up the old bad things, which Teresa had perhaps anticipated, and why she hadn’t wanted really to come home.
Did you hook up with Bill that summer? she asked. Held her sister’s gaze bravely.
Casey looked at her. Wow, she said. Wow you’re really a psycho. The answer is no by the way, though obviously I could have. I was hooking up with Domino and Bill caught us once by the train station, you could tell he hadn’t thought of me that way before but then he suddenly did. But no, he’s not a creeper.
Teresa breathed again.
I’m sorry, she said. I don’t know what’s gotten over me. I’m liking him though, that’s all. I’m happy. Even though it’s not the same as back then. I dunno, maybe . . .
Casey smiled. Well look at you, she said. I’m glad to hear you’re thinking about someone, Ter. Sometimes I worry about you.
The idea that Casey worried about her sometimes was both heartwarming and surprising, and again it brought the old fluttery side back up within her, a side she had very well tamped down. Why had she run from this idyllic childhood place really, it wasn’t all that bad. The sun on the stones, the sounds of the sheep baaing in old man Hesse’s farm up the hill. She had slept through those sheep in her dreams until she was eighteen, when she left for university and Zurich. Now on the rare occasions when she stayed over at the farmhouse, Christmas or a snowstorm, they woke her at five am but it was pleasant, she could fall back to sleep.
Do you remember Bill’s last week here? Casey asked. She smiled and shook her head.
Of course, Teresa said.
It had been about that blue JanSport. Maybe even it was indeed the same one that she had seen him with at the lake in Zurich, worn out and weathered with years. He took it with him everywhere, it was almost what for years she had remembered him by other than that vision (briefly) of the bare hip. He had a pair of crappy plastic sunglasses he used to wear and his earnest smile and the way he would turn back at the door and wave, the JanSport slung off one shoulder. There never seemed to be much in it, she didn’t even know if he carried a book in there—he honestly wasn’t much of a reader. But the JanSport represented freedom, day-tripping, a water bottle and little sandwich or piece of fruit that Teresa’s mother had prepared for him, wrapped up in cheesecloth and set out on the table of a morning, all set to go.
Except during that last week he couldn’t find the backpack. Their house wasn’t all that big but from time to time things did disappear in it, it was that kind of place. Bill was frantic. It has the train pass in it, he hissed at Teresa as she followed him around one morning as usual. And—he said meaningfully and quietly, as her father flitted absentmindedly through the room—the rest of the cash you got for me.
She was sad but it became an event for her, and Casey got involved too. Look For Bill’s Bag. They marched around the house tossing cushions and blankets, as if it might have fallen through a slot. When haphazard didn’t work she suggested they try a systematic solution, and she drew up a grid of every room in the house and she and her sister and Bill split up the grids, walked across each one in two-foot columns, back and forth once you got to the end. Teresa’s logical mind had assumed this would turn it up since they really did go over everywhere, but—and this was a little disturbing to her—no luck.
Are you very sure you didn’t leave it on the train one day? Teresa asked.
He was disdainful. You sound like your mother, he said.
For days he was frantic and grouchy, he had had big plans for the last week, he was supposed to return to Geneva to visit a friend he’d made there (Teresa figured now, a girl), there was a street fair in Basel, he wanted to get everything out of Switzerland before his dull kitchen job started back in Northern California and then college, something he wasn’t particularly motivated to enjoy. He moped around the house and didn’t even seem to have a good afternoon at the pool when Teresa coaxed him to do that with her. He jumped in and swam two laps and then asked if they could go home. She’d been watching, and hadn’t even put on sunscreen.
When she tried to talk to her mother about the bag and Bill’s departure her mother was curt and sudden: Oh stop, she said. Maybe it was stolen you know, her mother said. The way money gets stolen sometimes. Teresa ran away guiltily. It didn’t seem like her mother would punish her.
He’s sad to leave, her father told her fondly and privately, when she came to say goodnight to him one evening in his office down at the other end of the house. In her father’s study it was quiet and peaceful, her father had made it so, so that he could wall himself off from events of domesticity, click through his newspapers of America and chemical compounds, let his mind roam. But he always did have time for Teresa.
It’s nice that he loves us actually, her father said. He’ll be back.
The morning before Bill’s departure the bag was waiting for him on the breakfast table when he stumbled down the stairs, his open door leaking the old musk of beer cans again, Teresa following after him (as usual, she waited). My bag, he shouted.
Teresa’s mother spoke with her back to him, over the sink.
I don’t know how it happened, it ended up with my night things, she said, hands full of suds. I must have swept it up with the laundry. She didn’t turn around.
I better go then, there’s still one more day, he said. And he grabbed the bag from the table and walked out the door, Teresa’s mother watching him. Teresa was crying, perhaps audibly.
Teresa don’t be silly, her mother said. Had said.
I remember, Casey said in the garden, the present, their current world. That it was a lot of moping around that summer. For you. Mom too.
Yes, Teresa admitted. I guess so. I’m sorry.
Come on, said Casey, reaching her hands up for Teresa to pull her from the grass. It was an intimate warm feeling when Casey bounced into her arms. They both giggled a little. Let’s get ready for dinner.
The garden felt full and cheerful with all seven of them, the sun going down over the hills, the sheep quiet and baaing, the citronella candles Teresa’s mother had laid out in concentric circles keeping the mosquitos at bay, the smell of that orangey rind and the hot pesto pasta she made mixing in a strange and intoxicating glare—she was, it must be said, a very good cook. Teresa’s father had brought up four bottles of wine that had been squirreled in his office. These are a good vintage, he said, the same year you were here Bill.
They laughed and reminisced and talked about that summer, the way everything seemed possible and impermanent then, how they were all under one roof, how Herman and Zadie were distant premonitions in the future (Herman chortled, Zadie dribbled) and summer really was the season for Switzerland, wasn’t it, Teresa’s father said with the zeal of the immigrant. I mean just look at this, he said, sweeping his hand toward the hills. At that moment the church bells rang, it was perhaps eight or nine, they’d had all the wine so who could say or want to. Yes, Bill said, it has always been a special place in my heart, one place from a lot I’ve been to. You know I’ve gotten around. But there’s a treasure here that I’ve never been able to forget.
He looked down at his plate.
It was what Teresa had been waiting all along to hear him say. She was, she knew, that treasure. Joy flooded through her. It allowed her to give credence to her wonderings about the possibility of continuing their romance when he left the country. She had, despite herself, been logging out costs and flight times. Her firm had an office in Los Angeles. Many of the upper-level management went back and forth. It would be an unconventional relationship, but in reality, she had always considered herself an unconventional sort.
I remember, Bill said after a period of quiet, this time of night was kind of mine in the house, if you don’t mind me being a little rude—he inclined his head towards Teresa’s father, who just looked puzzled. You were working in the office and sometimes fell asleep there, haha, the girls were in bed, and you could hear every creaking thing on the floorboards, I always thought you’d know if I . . . snuck down to the kitchen for a little bite out of the chocolate drawer, or went outside for a nighttime walk, but it never disturbed you so I got less afraid of going for the chocolate. But mostly I went up to that sewing room and watched TV on my laptop, with headphones. Me and Lucky were friends then, she never even barked if I moved around.
It was a strange remembrance, and Teresa felt that there were missing pieces to it. She had slept terribly that whole summer of course, dreams of Bill that she tried to clutch onto, even before sleep. She had always tried to listen for his footsteps, in case he was tiptoeing towards her room.
Well, said Bill, as if releasing them, it’s great to be back.
We should be getting back to the city, Teresa said. The last train.
Oh, her mother said, surprised and anxious: you’re not staying?
There was much laughing and side-talking and speaking louder and everyone saying what a good idea that would be, just like old times, a packed house—Bill can have the old guest room again, Casey said snidely—Teresa glared at her.
I have to go back, she said loudly. Unfortunately. I have a work call in the morning, and I didn’t bring my laptop or my headset with me.
Everyone turned to Bill.
I should go too, he said. I didn’t bring a change of clothes.
Teresa rose and began cleaning up and her father helped her. There were so many dishes to stack, so many to wash, for some reason they’d never gotten a dishwasher out here, washing was something her mother always did—it kept her busy. But there really was a stack. She started washing a few herself just to be nice. She imagined the train ride back with Bill. He would slip her into his arms. Herman had Zadie on his lap in the living room, humming some Swiss farm melody. Teresa’s father asked for their pardon just one moment, an email, an email. He went to his office. Casey was scrubbing the stove alongside Teresa.
Sorry, she said, grinning, about the guest room. Just a joke.
It’s fine, Teresa said. I’m ready to go home now, though.
She turned defiant: My real home. It feels claustrophobic here, Bill was right all those years ago. I’ll see if there’s anything else outside.
She wiped her hands on the dish cloth, left her sister working on the stove, walked through the maze of the farmhouse to the back and the garden door, pushed it open. The garden seemed empty. There on the edge next to the basil plants she saw her mother and Bill clutched together, embracing.