Perfidiaby Judith Rossner
Madeleine Stern wants more than anything to feel loved by her divorced mother, Anita, who lavishes attention on lovers and on Madeleine's half brother while alternately abusing and ignoring her daughter. Sexually voracious and dangerously self-absorbed, Anita Stern competes with the teenage Madeleine in everything - achievements, looks, even young men. Madeleine's… See more details below
Madeleine Stern wants more than anything to feel loved by her divorced mother, Anita, who lavishes attention on lovers and on Madeleine's half brother while alternately abusing and ignoring her daughter. Sexually voracious and dangerously self-absorbed, Anita Stern competes with the teenage Madeleine in everything - achievements, looks, even young men. Madeleine's planned departure for college as she continues her affair with the powerful Geraldo, combined with Anita's threatened loss of control over her Santa Fe gallery complex, turn their home into a battleground that explodes into violence - and death.
Anita Stern runs away from home when she's 16 and gives birth to her first child, out of wedlock, when she's 22. The ever- restless Anita manages to stay put for daughter Madeleine's first five years, but then the itch to wander takes hold of her again. She eventually settles in Santa Fe, moving in with a drug-dazed hippie who owns an old adobe house on Canyon Road. Demonstrating her practical brilliance, Anita soon turns the house into the road's largest art gallery; demonstrating her personal irresponsibility, she conceives a child with the hippie. But Anita loves babies. In fact, her adoration for baby Billy so completely eclipses her feelings for Madeleine that she often seems to forget that she even has a daughter. As Madeleine grows older, becoming ever more earnest and responsible in a futile effort to regain her mother's love, the hard-drinking Anita's neglect escalates to negligence (she stays out all night, or has sex in Madeleine's presence) and even physical abuse. Scarred by her mother's cruelty and by loneliness (her own first love affair ends badly), and longing for some sense of security, Madeleine finds herself locked in her adolescence into a love-hate struggle with her terrible motherlonging to return to the happiness of infancy, loathing her own "boring neediness," and counting the days until her escape to college. Unfortunately, the stresses in Anita's life come to a head before Madeleine can flee. In an alcoholic rage, she attacks her daughter with a broken tequila bottle, and in fighting back, Madeleine alters both their fates.
Relentless, suspenseful, and absolutely captivating. Rarely has a toxic mother-daughter love story been so expertly and convincingly evoked.
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.57(w) x 9.53(h) x 1.08(d)
Read an Excerpt
I was five in 1976, when my mother packed me and her other possessions into our station wagon, said goodbye to my father and drove me away from our home in the cool, lush little town of Hanover, New Hampshire. We rode around and across the country for months before we came to rest in Santa Fe, where we met Wilkie at the first restaurant we went to. She must have gotten pregnant with my brother about two hours later. I think she and Wilkie broke sexually early on, but they never stopped being involved, one way and another.
My father was--is, I imagine--a professor of American history at Dartmouth. A true academic. I was an excellent student. A model girl, when I was in school. My mother said later she'd thought I wouldn't know the difference if she took me away from my father, he cared so little about me. We don't always remember things the same way. Didn't always. In fact, she remembered things differently from one time to the next. Some of her stories had a sad version and a funny version, with such a difference between the two that you had no idea of what had actually happened.
She was raised on a farm west of Montreal, ran away from home when she was sixteen. In 1965. She packed her knapsack with some clothes and necessities, plus she stole her favorite two of her father's 78's that the two of them listened to together on the phonograph in the kitchen. "Perfidia" and "Remember." Her mother had no use for music and they'd never bought a more modern system. She stayed with the first man who gave her a hitch until she lied about her age and got a job as a waitress. She'd changed her name a few times, but I think that she'd settled on Anita by then. She alwaysinsisted that she wasn't pretty, though I thought she was beautiful, and she was terribly sexy, with a big bosom, great legs, and a lively, teasing manner with men. She had no trouble connecting with them in those days when even the middle class had begun to think that sex was free and easy. After a couple of years in Montreal, she hitched to Toronto, which she'd say she eventually left because it was too clean. She had stories about the café and restaurant owners she worked for and slept with. She called them Pierre One, Pierre Two and so on, though they mostly weren't French. (My given name was Madeleine. She claimed it was one of the few things my father ever insisted upon. She didn't like it because it was French.) When she told the umpteenth Pierre that she was leaving Toronto, and he said she had to stay until he found another waitress, she suggested he bring in the cow who was his wife, it wouldn't hurt for her to know what it was like to work for a living.
My mother told stories like that more readily than she told ones in which she did something nice. Nor did she ever make any effort to conceal her sexual adventures from me, though she was occasionally surprised or amused that I knew as much as I did.
After three years she hitched down to the States with a Dartmouth student, worked in a luncheonette in Hanover where, one day, she waited on my father. She asked him whether the snow was lightening up, said she didn't have snow tires on her car and she was afraid she wouldn't be able to get home. (She was boarding in a room in someone's house. She didn't have a car.) My father asked if perhaps she'd like to have dinner at his place. It was only a few blocks away and he'd made a good stew.
She said, "A man who can cook? I'll go anyplace with you."
Or so she said she said.
Rupert Stern was a thirty-seven-year-old bachelor who owned more books than she'd ever seen in one place, including her school's library. She liked the way they looked. She didn't care about the way he looked, one way or another. He was a little taller than she, a bit chubby. His brown hair had more kinks than she'd seen in the whole city of Montreal; she always said, Thank God I had inherited her hair. His study was the only room where he smoked his pipe, although there was no woman around telling him he couldn't do it elsewhere. He'd furnished the house on his own, mostly at auctions. There were a lot of old sepia photos on the walls, none of his family or anyone else he knew. For her birthday, he gave her a working Victrola and a carton of 78's that he'd found at an auction.
By May she was pregnant with me. He told her he knew a woman who'd had a very easy abortion by a doctor in town. She said she'd do anything he wanted her to, including leave town, but she couldn't take a human life. He went for it. He married her and she stayed with him, we stayed with him, until 1976, the five years I remember as the good ones in my life. I'm still not sure why it had to end. She said he didn't love me or anybody, but I don't think I could tell when I was little. For a long time I thought of him sweetly. By the time my mother and I settled in Santa Fe, his study was the only part of the house I remembered. Book-lined walls, huge desk with orderly stacks of paper, maroon-background Oriental rug. When she was busy, I would stay in there with him, drawing, looking at picture books, being read to, taking my nap. (I could read by the time I was four but I still wanted him to read to me.) Someone gave me a wooden puzzle map of the United States. Each state was one piece. I think my mother learned where the different states were from doing that puzzle with me. I don't know how much more she knew about any of them when she picked me up and left.
In the months that we were on the road, I would dream that I was in my father's study, but it was all right when I awakened because my mother was next to me in bed. Once we got to Santa Fe, my mother was in bed with Wilkie, and when I awakened, nobody was there.
* * *
My mother would have been twenty-seven, Wilkie about ten years older, this huge, soft-voiced teddy bear with wavy brown hair and bushy brows, his eyes set so deep under them that they looked trapped. He got by because he'd had an inheritance of maybe forty thousand dollars and, bumming around the West, he'd landed in Santa Fe several years before the real-estate boom. His then artist-girlfriend persuaded him to buy a crumbling adobe house on a large lot on Canyon Road. Outright. She left before long, but there were always other artists (artist mostly in quotes) ready to move in with him. The males and maybe some of the females paid rent. He had good offers for the whole piece of real estate but he turned them down. He couldn't imagine where he'd go afterward. Wilkie was one of the few people I've ever known who didn't need to do anything, even when he was sober. He could sit at home or in the coffee shop for hours without even looking at the newspaper, waiting for people to come by and talk. Or not talk. Just drink coffee at his regular table. Sober, my mother could do that for five or ten minutes. Even drunk, she didn't stay still for long. Anyway, I wasn't so much aware of the difference between drunk and sober, in those days. And she wasn't drunk so much of the time.
They struck up a conversation in the Pink Adobe, called by regulars the Pink. His girlfriend had just left. A couple of hours later, we moved into his room. No mystery about how my mother got pregnant; the marvel is that it didn't happen more often. She loved babies. She loved anything that didn't talk back.
She did not love Wilkie's two remaining woman-artist tenants. She kicked them out and persuaded Wilkie to get financing to develop the place into the Sky Galleries, later usually shortened to the Sky. She dealt not only with the bankers, but with the architects, contractors and tenants. All this while she was pregnant. My mother was too angry and restless to sit in a classroom and absorb information, but she built the Sky into a major tourist trap because Wilkie let her use her brain.
The new building was shaped like half a hexagon that went right to the outer edges of the property. In the center was a lovely courtyard with plants and flowers at the edges, benches in the middle. The stump of one huge tree they'd cut down had become a bench; part of its great trunk was now a table inside for the cash register. Some of the stores changed over the years but the art gallery was at the center and dominated. On its left, facing you as you entered the courtyard, was a store called Farolito, which carried pottery and a lot of Santa Fe souvenirs--chili-pepper key chains, Santa Fe T-shirts, postcards. My mother had a mug made up, sky blue with a big white cloud and Sky Gallery, in Santa Fe turquoise and fuchsia, printed on the cloud. They sold a fantastic number of those mugs over the years in both the gallery and Farolito. (At one point my mother had the mugs taken out of the gallery because she felt people who might have bought a painting were copping out and just buying the mug. Nothing much happened and after a few months, she brought the mugs back in.) Then there was a small jewelry store with a lot of good Navajo jewelry and other silver. To the right were Wilkie's Coffee Shop (my mother's idea, from his nickname; his given name was Philip Wilkerson) and the tiny place first occupied by Rahji Cohen, Photographer.
When the buzz about the Sky began, artists looking for a gallery started to come by. She was very pregnant, by this time, but she must have tuned in to the social possibilities of running a gallery in a town full of artists who wanted their work shown. She told Wilkie she was going to manage the gallery and set out to learn what she needed to know. It wasn't much, beyond the size and shape of the artists she liked. The gallery had plenty of space. It was about fifteen feet deep and more than forty feet wide, with the space interrupted only by a couple of windows in the front and an entrance to the storage room at one end of the back.
She'd hoped we could live in different parts of the building while it was being reconstructed and expanded, but at some early point in the renovation, she decided this wouldn't be minimally comfortable. I liked living there and I didn't want to move but my mother patiently explained to me, holding me on her lap, hugging and kissing me as we tooled around the mountains in Wilkie's jeep, that we needed more space so we could have real bedrooms again.
I didn't know the meaning of the word patient in those days. It was just the way my mother was with me all the time. She never got mad at me before my brother was born, though she yelled at other people once in a while.
* * *
Leaning hard on everyone, my mother had managed to save enough from Wilkie's mortgage money for him to buy the shack on Cerro Gordo. It was on a tiny piece of land and the adjacent plot's owner hadn't had enough money, after putting up his new house, to pay the high price the owner was asking. We moved there a week before she gave birth to my brother. Cerro Gordo went up a mountain, and they talked about the beautiful view, but as far as I was concerned, there were no beautiful views in Santa Fe. Everything was brown. No grass, just some weeds. Hardly any trees. Our "home" looked like a big version of some clubhouse nailed up by kids. One reasonable-sized room with rusty kitchen equipment in a corner; two cells the broker called bedrooms; a closet with a sink and a toilet. No heat or hot water, but it had electricity, unlike some of them. Later we had hot water, too. It had once been one of several shacks on Cerro Gordo, but by this time there were real homes, mostly down where the road was paved. There was a playground about halfway up, but I never went there; I was always more interested in what was happening at home. She put a couple of canvas butterfly chairs and some big pillows in the "living room," along with a table and three chairs. There was a real bed that barely fit into their bedroom, a cot and my old car bed, the kind they don't make anymore because they're not safe enough (now they just make a car seat you strap the poor baby into; it's sort of like an electric chair without wires). My mother said someday there'd be a baby in the car bed, but I wasn't terribly curious about it, although I did ask what "someday" meant. I knew I was to begin school someday in September, and that someday was taking forever.
In my mind, the teacher sometimes looked like Wilkie, other times more like my father.
* * *
She went into labor in the middle of the night and seems to have forgotten, or ceased instantly to care, that I existed, that I was six years old, and that I was asleep in the next room. I don't think they even checked to see if I was awake. Wilkie drove her to the hospital, left her there and headed back toward the house, probably stopping on the way to smoke some weed, have a couple of beers, take a long nap.
Maybe it was the noise of his car engine starting that had awakened me. I'd been dreaming that I missed the beginning of school. Awake, I thought maybe I really had. It was dark. I went to their bedroom, which was empty. Nobody was anywhere in this house I was just getting used to! I thought one of them must be outside. I called, but no one answered. I pushed open the door and went out. Nobody was there. She'd put a butterfly chair out there, too, on what would later be a terrace. It was just dirt, then, at the top of our little hill, with a few cacti and the usual scrubby chamisae. One of Wilkie's hilarious jokes was that other men's girlfriends fell off the roof once a month, but his was going to fall off a mountain. I'd taken it literally, and this was the first time I left the house without my mother. After some hesitation, I climbed into the chair. Once settled there, I realized I needed a blanket, and maybe some books to hold until it was light enough to see the pages. I craved both, but I didn't feel like struggling out of the chair. I wanted my mother to see what she'd done. How cold she'd let me be. I wanted her to be sorry.
It was utterly quiet, the birds hadn't even begun to sing. My breath still catches when I hear that silence. I think I only began to breathe normally when the first chirping began, just before the sky lightened, but I never fell asleep. I don't know what else I was thinking. I'm sure there was no baby on my mind. When we were traveling cross-country, if my mother cried out in her sleep in the middle of the night, it was always about a fire. Maybe this was about a fire. But then, why would she have left me here?
The sun was way up when I finally heard Wilkie's jeep on the mountain, then watched it pull onto our hill. It stopped. I didn't get out of the chair. I assumed my mother was with him and I needed her to know that I was angry with her for leaving me alone like that.
"Hey, Maddy," Wilkie said. "You have a brother."
I was confused. Not just because she wasn't there. A brother made it sound as though there would be another person.
Wilkie laughed. "You look like you been smoking what I been smoking."
I remained silent. I would have hated him if he weren't the only person in the world, just then.
He said, "Come on. Let's go in the house."
I tried to move, but my limbs had been asleep too long, and they had pins and needles, and I
Meet the Author
Judith Rossner's novels include Looking for Mr. Goodbar, August, Attachments, Emmeline (the basis of a new opera that received its world premiere in 1996), and Olivia. She lives in New York City.
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