There were nights my mother came home, and there were nights she did not.
On nights she came home we read about Word War II. Under the damask quilt in a blue and yellow room, she asked me, did I know how the Danish King Christian X responded to a long birthday letter from Hitler? Spreche meinen besten dank aus, Chr. Rex. Giving my best thanks, King Christian. Hitler felt it showed ingratitude, and since he had left the Danish government intact during his occupation, he thought there ought to be a certain amount of thankfulness coming his way. My mother read out loud from a book all about King Christian X, who rode through the crowd in Copenhagen unguarded, who removed a German flag from a hotel rooftop even after he was warned he would be shot in the process. And as she stared into a colored photo of the King riding his stallion and pointed out the horse’s baroque qualities (thick-bodied; chestnut with a roman nose) I looked at her own features and closed my eyes to see if I could re-create her broad flat forehead and jutted chin and everything in between. I would need something to work off when I was alone in the blue and yellow room, the blanket pulled up to my throat, devouring passage after passage of text on the great Danish King that held my mother’s attention so resolutely.
On nights she did not come home my father and I ate pasta in front of the television. We watched game shows and made up answers to questions that bewildered us. Which French chemist developed a fermenting agent for Heineken? Marie Curie. Which actress won a golden globe for Paul Newman’s directorial debut? Marie Curie. And even though we were happy spilling tomato sauce on the table and guessing which contestant had a bunk buzzer, we glanced at the phone during muted commercial breaks, dreading both the presence and absence of a ring. If she called to say she was leaving work soon, she was lying, and we would not see her until the morning. If the phone stayed silent, she had already gone to find out what the night could offer her elsewhere, and on an island of two hundred and twenty eight numbered streets plus Alphabet City, there was no shortage of elsewheres.
When we could stretch out dinner no longer, my father turned on the computer and played solitaire for hour after hour, his face unreadable and bizarrely washed azure with the screen’s glare. I crept into my bed, but did not sleep. I tried to read the book about the Danish King, who caused the Easter Crisis of 1920 in a rash and selfish decision to take more land from Germans than he was owed, who fell off his horse and became an invalid after World War II was over. Sometimes I closed my eyes to conjure my mother’s profile that I had worked so hard to memorize, and found I could name and describe the features perfectly but, through the tunnel of memory, they appeared distorted. Her slightly pursed mouth turned into a long-lipped snout, not unlike a bear’s, and her deep-set eyes became increasingly ursine as well. I couldn’t shake the image of my mother as a bear and in the sleep that eventually came I dreamt she was a great Grizzly, sometimes carrying me by the scruff of my neck to safety, other times pinning me to the ground in a rage. When I woke I lay flat against my sheets, trying to stay in the realm of the dream, knowing that if I padded over to the next room my father would still be clicking away at the cards that stacked and shuffled at random and he would invite me to play a game with him. But I never got up; I forced myself to turn on the light and read chapters full of Danish expressions and war terms I couldn’t understand.
Occasionally, struggling through the rough material, I turned factoids into quiz show questions. What did a young boy once say when asked why King Christian needed no armed protectors? That all of Denmark was his bodyguard. The exchange was apocryphal, but nonetheless a nice lens through which to look back on someone who had failed his people and then triumphed and then failed again. If my mother had been present she would have claimed King Christian wore a yellow star to support the Jews, but this story, too, was false. It was another legend born out of the King’s eventual absence, when the Danish people’s minds were free to create whatever image of him they thought he deserved, their collective memory skewered by sentimentality and an innate instinct to gloss over moments of doubt.
I fell asleep for the second time with the book on my chest and my father, seeing my lamp still glowing, entered my room and tried to arrange my body into a better position. But I rolled away from his touch every time, clutching the history book hard between my palms, knowing if my mother saw me in the morning without it she would be disappointed.
Emily Saso is currently an undergraduate at Binghamton University majoring in English, with a concentration in Creative Writing, and minoring in Cinema. Emily is originally from New York City, where she lives with her two mothers and her dog.