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Host Family

Host Family

by Mameve Medwed


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Daisy and Henry Lewis have welcomed foreign exchange students studying at Harvard into their home for twenty years. Along with their beloved son Sammy, Daisy and Henry have always thought of themselves as a model American family unit. That is, until Henry leaves Daisy for a French exchange student. All is not lost, however, as Daisy finds romance with a Harvard parasitologist named Truman. Daisy's son and Truman's daughter become lovers, making the circle of love complete. But when another international student enters the scene, partners split apart and come together in all sorts of symbiotic combinations.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780446676618
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 01/01/2001
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.73(d)

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Chapter One



For the third time tonight, Daisy Lewis steers her car along Church Street. The crowd lined up for the Harvard Square Movie Theater snakes into her lane. A shredded-blue-jeaned couple stops in the middle of the street, gesturing wildly. They both sport ponytails. Silver hoops thread through at least three of their ears. Daisy sighs. It's so hard to tell anything these days, to sort people, sexes, even beliefs. She feels like plowing them down, this pair who are now hugging on the yellow line like some permanently inserted traffic cone. She honks her horn; they don't move. Pedestrians seem to be reproducing at the same rate as Mildred and Stanley, the guppies Sammy had when he was five. Taking over the Square like the infestation of lice that once ran rampant through the first grade. Her Square, she thinks. "My life," she says.

Daisy checks the doorway of the Unitarian church for witnesses. Nobody's there except a street person mounded under a pile of what must have once been quilts of many colors but have all aged into an indeterminate gray. Age and change, the two enemies she's sleeping with. And Henry, she adds, though lately there hasn't been a whole lot of that. She pulls into the spot marked for clergy only and tries to tamp down her guilt. Will God get her for taking the place of a man of the cloth? She is, after all, the half-Jewish daughter of a bacon-addicted mother and an atheist father whose last visit to a house of God was at his own christening in the one-room schoolhouse-cum-church in Benkelman, Nebraska. Besides, she believes in theseparation of Church and State. How can you have a parking space designated For Clergy Only and not for a forty-two-year-old North Cambridge ex-food bank organizer now community relations manager slash ombudsman for the Star Market chain?

She looks at her watch. What's more, no clergy would want her to be late for the awards ceremony. For the public acknowledgment of her good works. Sort of good works. She hurries toward Brattle Street, hobbled by the unaccustomed high heels and her new tapered skirt. These days, since she sometimes freelances from home and since her office next to the meat freezer requires her to dress less for success than to pad herself for warmth, she is not the fashion plate she might choose to be. She will, of course, be late. Henry is coming from French class, five minutes across the Yard, five minutes more to the Loeb. She hopes he's not wearing that ridiculous beret he affects on Extension School nights. But that's not her worry, she reminds herself. What Henry wears, says, or looks like does not reflect on her. She wishes she believed that.

She passes the Yin and Yang Restaurant and breathes in the smells of soy and sesame oil. As usual, the dining room, except for a clueless tourist, is empty. Twenty-five years ago, she had eaten chop suey in one of these tattered booths during freshman week. The next day she and her roommate had ended up in the infirmary. There, their fluids were replenished by Cokes laced with sugar to get out the bubbles, their underarms packed in ice to bring down the fevers of food poisoning.

By now, Henry will have started on the white wine and food-from-many-nations, each platter crested with a paper-flagged toothpick denoting country of origin. She pictures him talking up a sultry beauty in Kente cloth or a vision of health in dirndl and clogs. He will have already leapfrogged over the group of Japanese business students, a navy-suited mass of male solidarity. He will skirt the Latin American Kennedy students, men, older than the others, sent to Cambridge by their governments. She should have walked. "Why didn't you walk?" Henry would ask with a nod at her hips. "Beautiful night. We all can use the exercise."

Daisy pulls in her stomach. It's not that she's fat. But something happened when she turned forty. Along with the cake and champagne and silly hats and the subscription—from Henry, he thought it was funny—to Modern Maturity, she also found herself the recipient of pounds that frosted themselves onto her hips, her knees, unnipped her once nipped-in waist, cushioned her once chiseled chin. She'd always been pretty: Miss Latin Club in seventh grade, Miss Stonehouse Road Junior High first semester in eighth. She still was, in a forty-two-year-old way.

Daisy pats her hips, the mounds that haven't seemed to dislodge despite the five free aerobics classes she'd been enticed into from a flyer tucked under her windshield wiper. "I'm not sure this is for me," she told Heidi, whose purple spandex circled a thigh the width of Daisy's wrist. Heidi lowered her eyes to Daisy's problem area. "You'll live to regret this," she warned.

Now Daisy pushes open the heavy glass doors of the Loeb Theater and thinks that there are many things she has probably lived to regret: that she has only one child, that that child is now in a dormitory room sleeping on one of the three pairs of extra-long sheets that will probably never be washed and changed, let alone washed and changed by a mother's loving hands. She remembers her great-uncle Herbert, whose parents emigrated to Cambridge for the four years he was at Harvard and re-created in their rental an exact replica of Herbert's childhood room down to the green-shaded desk lamp and the doily snowflaked across the maple bureau top. She can identify. She pictures Sammy one mile away in Pennypacker Hall. They moved him in two weeks ago. Since then, they've heard very little. She's taken to hanging out in the Square—at the Coop where at some point he has to line up to buy four syllabi's worth of books, at the sandwich shops and pizza joints where she's run into scores of his old high school chums. "Oh, Mrs. Lewis," they'll say, "I've just bumped into Sammy at the Kiosk." Or, "Hi, Mrs. Lewis, Sammy was in front of me at the ATM a minute ago." And Daisy would wander to the bank or the magazine stand, where sightings of Elvis seemed more likely occurrences than sightings of her here-on-earth and geographically proximate son. He might as well be at Stanford, where he would have been if he'd gotten in. "So count Harvard as your safety," Henry had said.

"And be tainted as a legacy?" Sammy was indignant, vowing until the last moment to seek the egalitarianism of UMass. Daisy looks around her. The lobby of the Loeb is thronged with a United Nations worth of costumes and multicultural faces. There are saris from India and sweaters from Vogue, pleats from Talbots and plaids from the Highlands, ripped jeans from Camden Lock and pressed jeans from Place de la Concorde. Daisy lingers at the edge of the crowd, searching for Henry, but before she can find him, Elizabeth Malcolm, the head of the Harvard International Office, spots her and hurries over with the businesslike tat-a-tat of her sensible pumps. "Oh, Daisy," she says, shaking her hand with such energy that if Daisy had had rotator cuff problems she'd be scheduled for surgery. "I've been waiting for you. I thought we'd have the ceremony before everybody gets too tipsy hanging out at the bar."

Daisy looks toward the bar, where three young men in elbow-patched tweed and mufflers with stripes of three different universities she can't identify are talking quietly. What seems like a stingy supply of half-gallons of generic reds and whites lines a folding table covered by a paper cloth. Two trays carry plastic cups the size of shot glasses. Cocktail napkins with Veritases on them are shaped to form an H and a U. It would probably take a trayful of glasses even to begin to get tipsy, Daisy decides. She wonders if UMass with its lack of endowments might have a less Puritan, less miserly approach to celebration.

"Have you seen Henry?" Daisy asks Elizabeth, who is writing Daisy Lewis Host Family Honoree on a Hello, I'm . . . sticker.

"Over there." Elizabeth nods in the direction of another folding table laden with foil lasagna pans, each boasting, as she'd predicted, a flag signifying country of casserole. "He found the French contingent immediately. He's doing so well, has made such strides with the language"—she giggles—"that I couldn't resist putting Henri on his name tag." "I'm sure he's thrilled," Daisy says.

"Not that I'd really know," Elizabeth goes on, "even though I had three years at Winsor. My ear." She points to her lobe, on which is clipped a pearl the size of a ladybug. "Besides, in college, Spanish was considered more important for social work."

Daisy is about to ask whether heading up the office for international students at Harvard can be even loosely interpreted as social work, but thinks better of it. She notices a Chinese woman sitting in a corner looking both bewildered and sad. Elizabeth notices too. "Let me rescue Wang Ling, and then we'll get this show on the road."

Elizabeth puts her hand on the Chinese woman's shoulder and nods energetically. Daisy looks back over to Henry—or, rather, Henri. The French contingent must consist only of women, since the ring-a-rosy around Henry is entire female. She is relieved to see he is not wearing the beret, though she detects an inch of blue wool peeking out from his breast pocket. Even at this distance she recognizes the smug turn of his mouth and his index finger raised to its most pontifical. She waves in his direction, but Henry, so intent on conversation, doesn't notice her. She's sure he's speaking French from the way his lips are pursed in the exact position high school teachers instruct you to use when making the French u. He looks like he's sucking lemons. But though his face is vastly disapproving, his hands loop through the air as if he's spinning worlds of sugar plums in front of the uplifted faces of his adoring audience. A waterfall of charm, she's all too aware, which he can turn off and on like a garden hose.

Daisy is about to make her way toward him when Elizabeth Malcolm, one hand pulling the Chinese girl, grabs her elbow and leads her over to the microphone. "Will Henry Lewis come over here," she announces in a burst of static that accelerates into a high-pitched hum.

In seconds, Henry is at Daisy's side, smiling like an ad for Colgate. She smells something suspiciously like Old Spice, though she assumes that whatever it is comes in a bottle reading made in France and costs three times as much. "You're late," he whispers through the pearly whites.

"Parking," Daisy says.

"You should have walked." His hand, which he's placed at the small of her back, moves a little lower, where he does the pincer test for fat.

Up close she notices that his beret is arranged with the kind of care waiters use to fan a napkin across a serving plate on the tables of the fancier restaurants. "I should have done a lot of things," she hisses under her breath. In spite of the beret and the Henri name tag stuck to his lapel, it delights her to realize that his straight and healthy teeth are a blatant giveaway of made-in-America orthodontia, a comforting world of retainers and rubber bands, of tumblers of milk and bowls of vitamin-enriched cornflakes. Not a nation of muddy coffee, filthy Gauloises, red wine rubbed on the gums of infants in their bassinets.

"Students and their host families, may I have your attention, please?" announces Elizabeth Malcolm. She is enunciating carefully with pauses between words for those for whom English is not a second language but maybe a third or sixth. The room quiets down. All multinationed faces are raised toward Daisy and Henry Lewis, who stand shoulder to shoulder, their big American smiles a testament to their even larger, more bountiful, more all-encompassing big American hearts.

"Darling," Henry says.

"Honey," Daisy says.

Elizabeth Malcolm claps her hands. "We're here to honor Daisy and Henry Lewis, dedicated host family for twenty years." There is a round of polite applause. "Here, here," say the British guys over at the bar in the voices of bored MPs during those sessions of Parliament you sometimes see screened on C-SPAN.

Elizabeth Malcolm clears her throat. She pulls the microphone out of its socket. She's the spitting image of a talk-show host about to wander out into the audience. "Twenty years ago," she begins, "as students themselves, they hosted their first international student. And every year, another one. And now their son is a freshman at the college, almost the age of many of you here." Elizabeth stops, an ear cocked for a chorus of Wows! Though none are forthcoming, she is not at all deflated but proceeds with even more enthusiasm. "They are an exemplary family," she says. "A Harvard family," she emphasizes. "An American family." She holds the microphone aloft in a Statue-of-Liberty pause-for-a-moment-of-silence salute. "And in a world of shifting relationships," Elizabeth goes on, "alternative lifestyles, they are the rock of stability, the very model of a model family." She reaches behind her and whips forward a folder of padded crimson leatherette embossed with a Harvard seal, a replica of Daisy's and Henry's old diplomas, now tucked away in an attic cabinet. "So without further ado . . ."

Next to Daisy, Henry shifts, fidgets with his sleeve. To his credit, he looks as uncomfortable as Daisy feels. Or maybe it's just disappointment that he's not singled out as the model of a model French family. Though the award is for the two of them, joint property for joint hosts, Henry takes it. Daisy stretches up on tiptoes to read over Henry's shoulder:

To Daisy and Henry Lewis, Host Family
In Grateful Appreciation for
Many Years of Welcoming
Harvard University International Students
With Generous Hospitality and Caring Friendship

"A few words." Elizabeth twirls the microphone up to Henry's mouth with an Oprah-like sweep of her arm. "Thank you very much," says Henry. "Quite an honor." His head bobbles over clusters of countries lined up like contiguous states until it alights on France. "Merci bien," he adds with a slight Gallic-looking salute. "Merci trés bien."

"Daisy?" Elizabeth asks.

Daisy shakes her head.

Undaunted, Elizabeth slides the microphone under Henry's chin. "You two, tell us about your first host-family experience," she gushes.

Henry turns to Daisy. "Dear," he says in his most unctuous, for-the-public-tone, "ladies first."

"Pilombaya," Daisy says. And it comes to her without any thought. As if it's been poised all these years on the springboard of her tongue, waiting only for the gun to go off. "Pilombaya," she says again.

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