Nadia tells Finn she thinks she will throw up. She can’t walk in the neighbourhood for even a short distance without worrying she’ll lose her way. The worst thing is she can’t even practice scales. How long can she last without playing flute, she asks Finn. She feels nervous and shaky but who wouldn’t after having a puck slammed into the back of your head.
Finn is glad Nadia called. Ever since he left home two years ago, Nadia acted like he’d deserted her. Dad had just walked out on Mom, who was a nervous woman at the best of times, so every time Mom freaked out, it was Nadia, her trusted middle child, she leaned on for support.
When Finn left, Nadia was in her last year of high school and only had to put up with Mom’s craziness for a year before she left for university. Then Mom and Dad got back together and wasn’t everyone giving thanks. Now that Dad was vice-president of manufacturing and posted to Paris, Nadia didn’t have to hear their mother’s complaints any more. In fact, Nadia almost never heard from their mother at all.
But here she is in an apartment in the city, and the doctors say she has to take a year off school. If she takes it easy she’ll be okay. What does take it easy mean she asks Finn. She is dizzy if she even lifts her head off the pillow. Nadia tells Finn that before the accident she used to think she was unhappy. How little she knew.
Finn tells Nadia it’s not safe for her to live alone. This only makes her angry. She’s not about to move in with him, is she. Besides, when the folks went to Paris they moved a lot of their furniture into the apartment she is renting. She doesn’t know what she would do with their furniture if she moved. She can sub-let or put the furniture in storage, Finn says. Dad can afford that. But they both know what Dad can afford and what he will pay for are two different things. Their father says Nadia is an adult. He insists she take care of things.
Finn tells her that their father doesn’t know how difficult her situation is.
“Your father is dating a girl not much older than you,” their mother had complained to Nadia after their father left and what was Nadia supposed to do with that information. Somehow she had to come up with the magic words that would make everything okay. She was usually pretty good at this. Which might be why Philippa was so bad at it.
Philippa never had to help anyone but herself. Finn was nineteen when their Dad split. But Nadia was sixteen and Phillippa only thirteen, and wasn’t there a world of difference between those three years because Nadia had been assigned all the heavy lifting. Later she told Finn that playing flute had been her one great comfort.
Finn was the one their father stayed in touch with. Occasionally he would take Finn to dinner. One night he told Finn that he didn’t have to wear fancy clothes but he was not prepared to take him dining in ripped jeans.
“I can have anyone I want, you know. I could be with a woman twenty years younger than me,” he bragged when they were at a café.
“So why are you telling me this?” Finn asked. They were having a drink, waiting for a table. A woman at the bar, who looked to be about Finn’s age and already smashed, turned to Finn’s father and giggled, “Are you that famous actor, whatsisname?”
“You’ve found me out,” Finn’s father said,“but don’t tell.” Then he flashed a smile. Finn was irate. His father had always been vain about looks, but this was too much. Here he was taking Finn to dinner and picking up a college girl?
But now his parents were back together. Couldn’t they act like parents for a change?
“Look, Nadia has concussion. It’s serious,” Finn tells his father. He had missed his one o’clock class so he could reach his father in Paris when he got home from work.
“She was already moody and unhappy. And now it’s worse. You have to send her money.”
“Now you’re telling me what I have to do?” his father replies. Finn asks him if he thinks his responsibility is over because Nadia is eighteen.
“How long is a piece of string?” his father says.
It’s infuriating. Finn doesn’t even know what that means. When their mother was separated and complaining, Nadia encouraged her to get a divorce. Is Dad holding that against her?
Finn is too disheartened to go to any afternoon classes and heads to Papi’s. It’s drizzling and the rain taps his face. Did his father mean the answer is random, with endless possibilities, like the length of a piece of string? He cuts across the wooded path where trees surround him and the air feels muggy, cave-thick, green. Then he’s back on the road again, rain coming hard, pummelling his body. Doesn’t his father realize Nadia is in danger. By the time he gets to Papi’s he’s soaked.
“Do your parents know what’s going on?” Papi asks, baffled. “How can they remain in Paris when Nadia is in so much pain?”
Papi is his father’s stepfather; he came on the scene when Finn’s father was a teenager. Papi loves being a grandfather but neither of Finn’s parents call him so he’s not up on things. Finn explains that his parents know Nadia can’t go to school, that she has headaches all the time.
“It’s not like your mother is working. She should come back and take care of her daughter.”
“Mom take care of anyone but Dad? Be reasonable.”
“The thing about your mother, she’s a nervous lady,” Papi tells Finn.
“Tell me about it,” Finn says. His mother cries all the time, even now that she and Finn’s father are back together. Finn has learned never to say anything his mother doesn’t want to hear.
The puck had slammed into the back of her head. Hell, she would never forget the shock of it, even with her helmet on, she tells Finn. He knows it was just a pick-up game with friends, no coach. Philippa was living with their parents in Paris but had come back to visit for a week and Nadia invited her to come to the game. Philippa loved hockey and rarely got to play; their father was always complaining she was too old for her tomboy ways.
Hockey wasn’t Nadia’s thing, but she liked playing when there were only girls on the ice. She was never afraid when she was skating. And then she went right down, that’s what she told Finn, and when she opened her eyes the girls were asking, Nadia, are you okay? But Philippa wasn’t asking. Where was Philippa?
Every time Finn thinks about what Nadia told him happened next, he feels incredibly sad. The team was going to a party, but Nadia, still dazed and lying on the ground, mumbled that she’d drive home. Her friend Kate said no, it wasn’t safe for her to drive and offered Nadia a lift.
She couldn’t leave her car at the rink, she explained.
Kate said, “Give me the keys, I’ll drive.”
It was hard for Nadia to think straight. Did that mean Kate would have to walk all the way back to the rink to get her own car?
Then Nadia saw Philippa and almost cried, she was so relieved. She asked Philippa to come home with her, she could barely stand, but Philippa said, “I promised I’d go to the party.” Philippa was only there because Nadia had persuaded the other girls to let her come. They didn’t know Philippa. They were kind to her because they didn’t want to let Nadia down. But Philippa didn’t mind letting Nadia down.
The day after the accident, Nadia felt like her head would explode. When Kate called, Nadia said she was going to drive herself to the hospital but Kate said no, she would drive her on her way to class and her mother would pick Nadia up. Kate’s mother came by an hour later, but Nadia was still waiting to be seen. When she returned late in the afternoon, Nadia was relieved to finally go home.
“How’d it go?” Kate’s mother asked. The doctor scanned her head, Nadia said. He told her that she shouldn’t play hockey, shouldn’t ride a bike, shouldn’t — Nadia wasn’t sure. The doctor gave Nadia extra-strength Tylenol, but Nadia had a splitting headache the whole time the doctor was talking; she forgot most of what he said.
Finn calls his mother and tells her that Nadia is taking so much Tylenol to stop the pain, she’s throwing up.
Her mother starts crying, asks what she’s supposed to do.
“Come home and take care of Nadia. That’s what she should do,” Papi says when Finn relays the conversation. But all Finn feels is guilt that he made his mother cry. He assured her he would talk to the doctor.
“Yes,” his mother said. “Tell her doctor she’s overmedicating.”
His mother was maddening.
The next week Finn has mid-term exams. He tries to get through to Nadia’s doctor but she doesn’t return his call and then he forgets to try again.
His mother emails that she is having a wonderful time in Paris. Often she spends afternoons at the Louvre. She feels she’s missed out most of her life by not having had the chance to come here sooner. You can’t call yourself cultured, she writes, until you’ve seen the actual Mona Lisa. She is surprised it is so small. Finn does not respond.
Finn’s father is getting paid well these days so his mother puts money in Finn’s account for Finn’s birthday. She knows he wants to take Capoeira classes. He has wanted to take classes for more than a year.
When he first saw a Capoeira demonstration, two guys twirled and kicked and squatted and struck out in an elaborate dance but their bodies never crashed into one another. One guy stood on his hands, then twirled around and landed on his feet. Finn thought, “I could never do that.”
After the demonstration, the instructor said anyone could learn these dance moves by building strength; strength was the secret of Capoeira.
But Nadia needs the money more that he does. Dad doesn’t want to support Nadia, and though he will give money to their mother, their mother won’t do anything Dad doesn’t want her to do. So Finn will have to give Nadia money. So much for Capoeira classes.
Papi asked Finn if he told his mother or father what Philippa did, after the accident. He knows Nadia didn’t tell. Finn can’t tell his mother either. She is pretty cold toward Philippa as it is. By the time Philippa came along, what little maternal feeling she had was used up. She wouldn’t believe Philippa could act so selfishly; that would imply she was a failure as a mother. Finn thinks his mother hoped Philippa would grow up on her own, with the help of Finn and Nadia. Dad would believe Philippa is selfish, of course, but Philippa is living with them, going to a lycée in Paris, and Dad would make life hell for her if he knew. What’s the point of telling them that Philippa left Nadia on the ice after she was injured and went to a party?
Nadia tells Finn she hates being in the apartment during the day. She gets a headache if she watches TV. It’s worse when she reads. When she walks to the park she gets dizzy. Besides, she’s nervous about walking too far because she has trouble finding her way back. Twice she’s gotten lost three blocks from her apartment. Everything around her seemed to swirl away. She says it’s hard to describe. She doesn’t talk about it with friends. She remembers when she used to babysit Philippa. Once Philippa broke mom’s favourite serving dish but Nadia didn’t tell. She tells Finn that she always thought she and Philippa would protect each other.
Papi picks up Nadia and Finn and takes them back to his place for brisket, sweet potatoes, strawberry rhubarb pie for dessert. Papi has always been the best cook in the family. Nadia says that lately food tastes funny, even the pie, but she eats it.
After dinner, Papi suggests they go to the lake. Finn drives. It is peaceful there, sitting in the car and looking out at the water, smooth as liquid glass. The sky turns pale pink — colored light spreads across the water and seeps inside it — the surface glazing with a rosy sheen. Nadia doesn’t like going out during the day, the sun makes her head ache. But dusk is fine. Papi tells her to take slow deep breaths. He says, “You’ll get through this, Nadia, my brilliant granddaughter.” That’s how Papi talks.
After Nadia goes upstairs to rest, Papi tells Finn that Nadia should move in with him.
“I’ll cook for her,” Papi says. “She’s not well enough to take care of herself.”
Finn explains that Nadia signed a lease and didn’t think she could sub-let the apartment.
“She can stay with me during the week, and go home on weekends, when her friends are around,” Papi says. “She shouldn’t be alone all day.”
Finn hopes Papi can convince his sister. Nadia has always been the helpful one in the family, the one who stood up for kids who were bullied or unpopular. Finn suggests Papi ask Nadia to live with him because he needs her help. That might persuade her.
She’s burdened as it is,” Papi says. “I don’t want her to feel she has to be responsible for me.”
When Nadia comes back to the room she says she hates how irritable she is these days. She never used to be so short-tempered. Just that morning someone got ahead of her on the grocery line and she lost it. She’d come for milk and cereal but picked up hamburger and bread so she wouldn’t have to shop for a while, and the most important item – dark chocolate. She hadn’t thought she was going to buy so much so hadn’t gotten a cart, but her head began to throb and her arms ached. Then an older lady walked in front of her as if she weren’t there. Nadia was shocked by how rude she was to the woman.
She tells them she tried listening to her favourite piece, Faure’s Pavanne; she has a recording for flute and piano, but even listening to that hurt her. How long can she keep living without music?
When Nadia was first learning flute, she’d practice all the time. She’d set the music stand in the living room, where it was sunny, and play for hours.
“Nadia,” Dad said once, exasperated, “a musical prodigy you’re not. If you have to practice scales, play in your room.”
Finn had watched Nadia leave the room humiliated, and didn’t say a word. The thing about their family, no one talked to one another. When Finn moved out, Nadia was cool to him, angry she had to deal with their mother on her own. Finn was hurt, but never brought this up with Nadia.
Now that Nadia was so badly injured, she was talking to Finn about things that mattered.
In Capoeira, dancers kick and lash out in an elaborate dance but bodies never collide. In his family maybe if someone lashes out, or at least speaks, sisters, brother, parents will stop colliding, emotionally, again and again.
Philippa is back in town to visit friends. Papi is making dinner for her and Nadia and Finn tonight but Nadia is reluctant to go. Will Philippa even say ‘I am sorry’ Nadia asks Finn? Is the family going to eat dinner together and pretend nothing has happened? As if a year of Nadia’s life isn’t worth a thing.
But when they are all together it is Papi who blurts out, “Philippa, is it true you left Nadia on the ice?” There is a tense silence and then Philippa says that she doesn’t drive, so what good could she have done? She says Nadia’s friend drove her, which is why she left.
Finn turns to Nadia. “Maybe Philippa didn’t know what happened to you, Nadia, maybe she wasn’t aware you had been really hurt.”
And then Nadia starts to cry. Finn just stares at her, not knowing what to say. Nadia never cries. Their mother is the only crier in the family and she cries enough for everyone. But Nadia can’t stop.
Finally Papi speaks, “Actually it was Philippa who shot the puck that whacked Nadia.”
Finn looks at Nadia. “Is that true?”
Apparently Nadia has told Papi more than she’s told him.
Nadia’s face is swollen from crying. She glances quickly at Philippa then focuses her gaze at the floor.
“I told you to stop drinking,” she says. “You thought I was just pulling the big-sister act. But you didn’t stay to see how I was.” Then she looks at Philippa again. “You never said you were sorry.”
Philippa just sits there, looking miserable.
Finn asks if Mom and Dad know. Nadia shakes his head. “Philippa has to live with them,” she mutters.
Papi says, “You are sorry, Philippa, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Phillippa says, her voice close to tears. She can’t seem to say more.
It’s too late to call their parents tonight. But tomorrow Finn will call and ask them again to put money in Nadia’s account.
“Philippa, you have to explain to Dad how serious Nadia’s condition is. It’s your turn to figure out how to help her,” Finn says.
“I will,” Philippa says, and this takes courage. Because dad is not the kindest guy, especially to Philippa.
Finn doesn’t know how persuasive Philippa will be with their dad but it’s a start. A family has to see the mess they’re in before they can clean it up.
He is determined to persuade Nadia to move in full time with Papi. Or at least to stay with Papi during the week and not tell Mom or Dad. She should take a taxi to Papi’s and a taxi when she returns to the apartment, if Papi can’t drive her. Papi’s eighty-two. He really shouldn’t be driving.
He is also going to tell their father he has to give Nadia money. Nadia is depressed. She can’t even play flute these days and this feels, to her, like a terrible punishment. But he won’t mention that because his dad would never understand. He’ll remind both his parents that kids jump off bridges when they’re depressed. That will get through to them. His parents aren’t heartless.
He’s thinking this when Nadia catches his eye as if she can read Finn’s mind. Thank you, she mouths.
And that’s a start too.
More than a start.
Carole Glasser Langille is the author of four books of poetry and two collections of short stories.