Where She Wentby Kate Walbert
“Incisive, eerie, sensual, and threatening.”—The Village Voice
The linked stories in Kate Walbert’s debut collection Where She Went examine the very contemporary predicament of a family without geographic roots. The first half of the book chronicles the life of Marion Clark, a company wife who repeatedly packs/i>/i>
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“Incisive, eerie, sensual, and threatening.”—The Village Voice
The linked stories in Kate Walbert’s debut collection Where She Went examine the very contemporary predicament of a family without geographic roots. The first half of the book chronicles the life of Marion Clark, a company wife who repeatedly packs the household and accompanies her husband around the globe with a “melancholy view before her of what seemed like endless houses with endless garages and endless kitchen windows.” In the stories that follow, her adult daughter Rebecca continues the family legacy of wandering, traveling farther and farther afield, seeking to fulfill her mother’s thwarted aspirations. But Rebecca’s world is one viewed with a slightly off-kilter eye, one that invokes Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, Mohammed’s faithful followers at Topkapi Palace, as well as the landscapes of Italy and Jamaica, Istanbul, and Paris. This mother and daughter, each uniquely of her own generation, remain locked, firmly, in longing—Marion with little free will, and Rebecca with an excess of free spirit.
From a patchwork of communication that unfolds between Marion and Rebecca, Walbert creates a narrative that is both fractured and lyrical. Where She Went is an epic for out times—an odyssey that takes home on the road.
New York Times Book Review
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Read an Excerpt
Into the city of light she descends in darkness. Or this is how Rebecca hears it: I descend on the city of light in darkness. A gray storm-ridden sky, clouds bunched in fat grape colors, a strange mauve. The city of stone streaked with pigeon shit, ripped rock-and-roll posters. A poet's place.
Rebecca cannot see but imagines the inside of all the passing storefronts: cafes, restaurants, boutiques where, she has heard, they arrange the clothing by color.
Crowds on narrow sidewalks herd beneath umbrellas, everyone wearing smart raincoats. Parisians.
"Did you ask him?" she asks Tom. "Does he know where to go?"
"He knows," Tom says. He does not look at her. She turns away to the taxi window. Paris, she thinks. The name is enough. Round as a bun, the "P." Marie Antoinette. The South, something about cake. Tanks barreling through the Arc de Triomphe. Springtime. Poplar blooms. Or maybe, winter. She can't remember. She studied French once, with a teacher who wore red wool dresses and clunky shoes. Mademoiselle, they called her. The boys with CB radios, the girls in cheerleading uniforms: Mademoiselle, they said, blowing smoke rings. Merde, they said in the hallways. It's time for French.
"I'm hungry," Rebecca says out the window, though she hears Tom's light snoring. The taxi moves slowly over a bridge, and, in the instant before it bumps onto a narrow street, she glimpses a long gray river and silver church domes of unimaginable heights.
Theyhave come to this city from New York to create a baby. A baby in the city of light, Rebecca said. How can that not be possible? It is the right time, more or less. She has packed her thermometer. In the books, the woman registers the same temperature at ten o'clock every morning, except for one, when the mercury line rises point six degrees.
"Point six degrees," she told Tom, zipping up. "That's what we're looking for."
Tom wakes from his nap and stretches his arms, touching walls on both sides papered the color of weak tea. Water stains map the ceiling. The pillows smell of spiderwebs and sweet perfume. Rebecca opens the shutters, the glass doors of the window. Dust on her fingers, a tangerine glint to the rain. Orange light reflected in tiny tears; what had she heard? That insects fly through a downpour without getting wet. No insects here. No screens. Only flowerpots and wrought iron and five-story buildings painted the color of old teacups and women with black hair and the sound: a crowd far away, pushing at the seams of quiet. Someone nearby coughs. Spits. Rebecca leans farther out the window. "You can see the gate to the Place des Vosges," she says. She wears panties and a bra, her white skin mottled pink from cold, from rain. She sits back down on the corner of the tiny bed and puts on her stockings.
"Who told you about this place?" Tom says.
"I read it," Rebecca says. She checks her stockings for runs, spreads a leg over five fingers, hand webbed black. "They said it was in the heart of the romantic district. Look," she says. "Quack, quack."
They walk in the rain; there is nothing else to do. She would like to tell him certain things, what she has done or imagined she has done before this moment in her life, but every time she opens her mouth to start a conversation she feels tired. She had thought that to be in Paris with a husband meant to be bent, head to head, in discussion.
They wear long underwear, coats, and sweaters. Tom is unshaven: blond curly hair, face speckled with gray beard. She holds his hand. He holds an umbrella. She imagines them old; she imagines them closer to the end of their life. We are already old, she thinks.
They walk up the flat gray steps leading into the Bibliotheque Nationale, into the galleries. In a dark and crowded room, illuminated manuscripts. Boxed in plastic. Yellow as jellyfish. Glowing. Devils swoon on every page, sharp-eared men with pointy noses, tiny fingernails, hovering on the shoulders of gentle women; knights, whispering Latin curses. The colors, dyes pounded from berries and bark, bleed from other centuries' rainstorms, floods, natural disasters, Rebecca reads. People in raincoats push at her, stepping close to the plastic boxes, their collective breath hot, steamy. Everyone reads a brochure, or listens to tapes hung around their necks.
Outside, the rain has stopped. Clouds blow against the sun, people appearing like swimmers underwater, dappled, squinting, slow moving. Rebecca and Tom join the tide, pushing along the sidewalk, looking for a cafe that looks romantic. On the street, they talk of their baby, how their baby could not help but come in a city like this. What baby wouldn't want parents who roamed the world?
"Do you think they really choose?" Rebecca asks.
"What do you mean?" Tom says
"Babies. You've heard that before. I've told you that before. That there's some theory that the baby chooses its parents, decides who it wants to be born to, who it likes."
He looks at her. She shrugs. "It makes sense," she says.
"You would have chosen Marion?"
"Well, what did I know?" she says. "I wasn't even born."
A waitress leads them to a table in the back, near a group of four old men playing cards. A cane is propped against the wall, mustard yellow, fissures thin as hairs. "Look," Rebecca says, pointing at them. "It's like we're in a painting."
She orders goat cheese and arugula, a glass of red wine. Tom orders oysters. To get him in the mood, he says. They sit with their hands entwined; they have nothing to say.
"Oh dear," Rebecca says, turning her face away from him to look out the big glass windows. "The city of light's gone dark."
They came to Paris impromptu; this is how Rebecca would tell it. In truth, they came to find conversation, a way of being two together. Lately, Rebecca, taller than Marion, with thin, gray streaks in her hair, has begun to resemble her father, Robert. She feels distracted always, often alone. She would like to run through a rainstorm or hunt big game somewhere. Marion has been dead for months, her death quick and cruel, the cancer undetected, her organs gone spongy and blue. Rebecca often sees her: in doorways, crossing the street. She is like all the women whose lives have given out on them too suddenly.
So Rebecca has decided to live in the moment. No regrets, no sorrow. Only the next day and the next. This decision happened on a night when Tom pulled her down to the kilim that covers the wide plank floors of their apartment. Rebecca stood and walked to their bedroom closet, to the drawer where she kept her diaphragm, its hard plastic case the color of a prosthesis. Normally, she would have crouched down on the closet floor to insert it. But this time she carried it out to him, ceremoniously, after first finding a pair of scissors in the kitchen.
"Are you watching closely?" she said. "This is a moment."
"Are you sure?" Tom said.
"No, but why not?" she said, cutting the diaphragm in half. She held the two pieces as if debating whether they could be glued back together, then walked back into the kitchen to throw them in the trash. Tom wrapped his sweater around his waist and followed her.
"We should talk about this," he said.
She sat at the kitchen table.
"We should talk," he said again.
"We have," she said. "Anyway, there's no good time, really, is there? I mean, you either do it or you don't. And we know we don't want to don't, so we might as well do, right?"
"But are you sure?" he said.
"Look at this," Rebecca says, showing Tom the postcard of devils she had bought earlier in the Bibliotheque gift shop. "Marion would have loved this. I could have sent it with a note, Having a devilish good time. She'd think we were running nude in fountains or something."
Tom takes the postcard, pushing his eyeglasses down his nose to see clearly.
Rebecca thinks of Marion and Robert, traveling to New Zealand, returning to paste photographs in one of the albums they received each year for Christmas.
She finishes her wine. Behind her, the four men argue, their voices rising. They smell of wet wool and cigarettes, hours spent over yellowing cards.
"The picture reminded me of something, of some poem I remember reading in school. Blake, I'm sure."
"I thought he was the one with the chimney sweeps," Tom says.
She shrugs. "Anyway, I liked it. Marion would have thought it very cosmopolitan."
Rebecca picks at her wool pants. She is a little drunk, and suddenly the dusk seems to sweep her under a current of melancholy. She thinks of a line she once heard, attributed to van Gogh. What was it? Empty chairs--there are many of them, soon there will be more.
"Poor Marion," she says. "Poor baby."
That night, Tom lies on the bed, his feet hanging over the edge of the soft mattress, his arms stretched above his head, palms turned and flat against the wall. Rebecca walks across the tiny room in the dark, away from him, to the window. She can see across the street into another room where a woman lights candles on a table, bending over, holding a long tapered match. Red geraniums in clay pots, cobalt blue shutters. It is as if Rebecca looks into a shadow box: the kitchen leading into the living room leading into the dining room. The woman stands up straight, pausing as if to admire the look of the table with light; then she steps away and walks toward a door.
"Let's go," Rebecca says, turning back to Tom. Long thin legs are the most of him. And elbows. Neck. Large hands. He wears his sneakers. White athletic socks pulled high, almost to his hairy knees.
"Now? It's late," he says.
"The Parisians are just sitting down to dinner. All across the city, the Parisians are sitting down to dinner. Haven't you ever heard the expression 'When in Rome'? For Christ's sake."
She turns away from him, faces the window. The woman's shutters have been drawn closed, though there is still light sifting through them; she imagines the woman coming in from the kitchen now, with some sort of cognac. And pears. There would be ripe, yellow pears, sliced with pearly-handled silver. Heirlooms passed down in worn wooden chests, kept in comers covered in maroon velvet; everything draped with a soft worn fabric documenting a certain tenable history. The woman would bend close to the table as she set down the plate, wooden, that held the yellow pears, and the light might catch the sheen in her black hair, brushed hard every evening the way she had been taught by her mother, who learned from her mother. And so on.
There would also be cheese.
"I don't know. I want some cognac, or a plate of fruit and cheese. Wouldn't that be nice? To just, on a whim, go out close to midnight for a plate of fruit and cheese? For a cognac?"
Tom swings his long legs off the bed. "Sure," he says.
"What will we name it?" Rebecca asks Tom in the morning. They sit in a cafe across from Saint Sulpice, waiting for the church to open. Somewhere bells ring, and when the trucks go by, the pigeons that roost on the backs of the gargoyles erupt, their wings white and gray-speckled. Rebecca has read that a man who lives across the street grows tomatoes on his roof in the summertime and hands them out to tourists.
Tom looks up from the Herald Tribune, a mustache of milk foam
above his lip. "The baby?" he says.
"Of course," she says.
"I don't know," he says, looking back down. "That's bad luck."
"We haven't even, you know. I mean, it could take a year It could never happen at all."
He pretends to read. She knows better.
"Hello? Hello, monsieur. I'm talking to you."
"I don't like these games."
She feels rebuked, a child. She looks down at the black wool skirt she has put on. When they were in Istanbul last year, she wore the long skirts the books said were required, even though the German tourists went practically nude. Here, she feels dowdy, old, the Parisian women so composed. She wants to buy yards of fabric and sew curtains for every window of their apartment. Yards and yards of tulle, or stiff silk, brilliant yellows and blues. She sees herself sewing, bent over into the night; in the morning she would go to the Korean grocery and buy armloads of tulips.
"Mademoiselle?" Tom says.
She looks up. He has wiped his mouth; the beard he grows on vacations is stiff. A handsome man, she thinks. I have married a handsome man.
"How about Sophie?" he says.
"Sophie? I never would have thought of that."
He shrugs and looks back down at the paper. "I always liked that name," he says.
They enter Saint Sulpice with a few other tourists, a boy with long hair and a guitar case strapped to his back, two elderly women. This bronze meridian line, Tom reads to Rebecca, represents France's nineteenth-century passion for science.
She follows France's passion for science, walking behind Tom. At a certain aisle, he turns toward a rosette and she continues to the famous portrait of the Virgin and Child she has read about. The Child's face looks like an old man, as if he weren't born a baby but someone who had already lived a life, made up his mind; the Virgin's face looks like a baby's face.
In front of the portrait, long thin white candles burn in a bronze candelabra; what looks like a parking meter has been mounted in front of the candelabra. For three francs, the sign reads in English, anyone can buy another candle to light. The money will be sent to a missionary in Bhutan.
Rebecca counts out her coins and puts them into the meter; then she holds the long thin candle against one of the many flames.
"Poor Marion," she says. "Poor Sophie."
When Rebecca first met Tom, she lived in her studio apartment and he lived in California in a rented house with white stucco walls and a fireplace never used. When he came to New York, they would spend evenings sitting on the couch in her studio, looking out the window to the park across the street. There were trees there, and swingsets, and lights that made the shadows grow to other things. They would play the game she had suggested, a game of imagining their other lives--not past lives, but all the other lives they could have led. I learned this from my mother, she told him.
She could have lived in Florence with a man named Mohammed, or been in the movies with the owner of the place where she stayed in Jamaica. She could have met someone in Rajasthan and ridden elephants. Or lived on the island in Greece where the old widow ran her television on a car battery. Each morning, the widow cooked her an omelet of fresh eggs and goat cheese, browned at the edges. Rebecca would sit beneath grapevines looking out to the Aegean, at a wooden table carved with the initials of other visitors. There was a woman who had rented a room for many months, a woman she never saw, though once she had looked through the small window to see someone who sat at a desk, her back turned to the view. The old widow said this woman lived in England and had come there alone, though she had a photograph of a child she kept on her desk. Maybe the child died, Rebecca said to the widow.
Maybe she has run away, the widow said back.
Tom had listened and then said that he could have been a passenger on the train that crossed Canada, but that recently they disconnected the route.
Despite this, she fell in love with him, first falling in love with his name: Tom, a big "T" and little "o" and an "m." Sounded good in her mouth when she said it: I'll be dining with Tom this evening. Tom and I are going out. Tom thinks this. Tom Tom Tom Tom Tom. Mot, backward. Tom was in a difficult relationship. Tom had had a bad time of it.
People liked Tom. They liked his big hands and his little glasses and the way he would play the guitar at parties and the way he always sang a song he wrote at college. No one really understood the words, but they found it quaint.
When she traveled to California, to his town, they would wake up early and hike down to the dock where the boat owners came for eggs. They sat at picnic tables, and Tom would pull apart his soggy bread and throw it up for the seagulls to catch in their gray beaks. This, and a cigarette from time to time, a single bought from the drugstore they would share on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, the sound of the roller coaster behind them as constant as the surf.
But there had seemed a certain adventure in what they had then. In Paris, they both feel awkward, as if they are watched from every window, their actions exaggerated, their voices loud and shrill. They hadn't expected such cold; wool hats hide their faces as they walk, glove in glove, down the Champs-Elysees, aware of their numb feet and runny noses, aware of the bare trees.
At dinner, Tom orders champagne, more oysters. The restaurant is cavernous, dark, swelling with the voices of a hundred Frenchmen; some sort of argument seems to have erupted at every table. What is everyone saying? Rebecca asks. Something seems to be going on.
Wine, I think, Tom says. Wine and good food. He seems entirely pleased. He has put on a jacket and a pressed shirt, buttoning the cuffs. His beard looks planned, cultivated, not the result of days unattended. His glasses bright and clean. At times, she finds herself looking at him as if he is entirely unfamiliar to her, a blind date, or somebody's cousin she has agreed to meet.
"What are you thinking?" he says.
"Marion," she says. "I was thinking of how she always spoke of coming to Paris and now here we are." Rebecca looks around her; on the brick wall is a framed print she recognizes: still life with fruit. "I'm trying to imagine her in Paris, actually, and I can't get her kelly green coat out of my mind. I think she would have worn her kelly green coat, and some sort of smart hat, and I think she would have come to the city in better weather, and would have sat out in the cafes and watched the people and met some dashing Frenchman named Monsieur something, who wouldn't have minded her at all."
Tom gestures to the waitress for the check, signing his name in the air. Rebecca looks down at her wool pants.
"I think you're thinking of Audrey Hepburn in Gigi," he says. "Marion would have hated the food."
Rebecca does not look at Tom's face, now over her. She can feel him sometimes, his prickly cheek, chin. She tries to think of things other than babies, but they float out to her on clouds, cherubs pink as the angels in the illuminated manuscripts. She feels someone watching; she feels this already, a soul hovering, debating whether to come back into this world.
Beneath the window, she knows, the cobblestones shine wet. She might hear horse hooves, the quiet clopping of a teton on their way to the Place des Vosges. She imagines a carriage, a woman behind the shuttered carriage windows, her hand gloved in white velvet, her body swathed in fresh silk: a princess, a saint, a mother, a daughter, a goddess borne out of this place to another. There are babies there, and devils, too; they are all of them hovering, waiting to descend, waiting to be asked, waiting for their chance to be born.
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Meet the Author
Kate Walbert's fiction and articles have appeared in numerous publications, including the Paris Review, Doubletake, Fiction, the Antioch Review, Ms., and the New York Times. She currently lives in New York City and Connecticut, where she teaches writing at Yale University.
- New York, New York, and Stony Creek, Connecticut
- Place of Birth:
- New York, New York
- M.A. in English, New York University
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