Better Than Blonde
It is always advisable to prepare oneself before entering the alternative universe of an Auntie visit. Sure, there are only three of them, but they can feel like a hockey team. Each Auntie had swooped in for individual reconnaissance visits over the past few weeks “Ven I just happened to, poof like magic, accidentally be finding myself in za neighbourhood of your lobby downstairs.” Apparently, Auntie Eva, who drank like a fish, had grilled Papa on his drinking, Auntie Radmila, who had never worked a day in her life, had grilled Papa on future job prospects, and Auntie Luba just wanted to know if we were all crazy happy.
The Aunties were fanatically devoted to Mama and me. Each of them, including Mama, came from a different Eastern European country. Somehow, and I was still hazy on the details, they all met in Budapest. Since Mama was only in her teens, the Aunties became her de facto guardians and protectors, until Mama married and Papa mistakenly thought he was taking over. By the time I was four, we all found our way to Canada. Within a couple of years, given Papa’s various, well, challenges, the Aunties became my de facto guardians.
And fabulously inappropriate ones at that.
Unlike Mama, who lived and died by my every report card, the Aunties displayed a commendable lack of interest in my school work. They just mainly wanted to know if I was having any fun yet. Until we moved here and I met the Blondes, things had been pretty grim on the fun front. The little I know about sex, I learned from the Aunties during our evenings of five-card stud while Mama was at night school or selling houses. My first taste of brandy, my first bra, and a barrage of glamour tips, like why it’s important to daub perfume on the backs of your knees, were all doled out between sips of sweet Turkish coffee.
The Aunties would kill for either Mama or me, which was usually comforting, except that I suspected that they were in there sizing up Papa for his coffin. I reached for the door.
Papa and Auntie Eva were already squared off on either side of our newly purchased glass coffee table. Auntie Eva was pulsing like a strobe light. On top of the table was a huge cardboard carton. Auntie Radmila and Auntie Luba were sipping from their demitasse cups, enjoying the show immensely, while Mama paced with the coffee carafe in her hand.
Everyone turned to me.
We fixed our positions and went into the automatic Auntie Greeting Formula. Carved in granite, this was a ritual of rituals that I got better at with each passing year.
“Sophia! Buboola, beautiful angel!” Auntie Eva unclenched her fists and threw out her arms. “Come give kisses!”
“Oooo, look, she is getting fat! It’s fantastic!” squealed Auntie Radmila.
“Da, da!” Auntie Luba clapped her hands. “Too, too beautiful!” I was smothered in a Luba hug. “I can’t be standing it.”
“Tanks be to God!” Auntie Eva ripped me from Auntie Luba. “It’s a totally difference since za child got her period! Miss Canada vould looks like a lizard beside our Sophia. Vat a change, I should drop dead if I’m lying!
I’d just seen them all three days ago at Auntie Luba’s.
Mama looked pathetically relieved for the distraction.
“Well, you’re all a sight for sore eyes too,” I said as soon as the kissing, cheek squeezing, and hugging were over.
Vigorous “pshawing” and hand waving.
“No, I mean it.”
Papa sat down and exhaled.
“Auntie Eva, is that a new hair colour?” She patted her champagne-coloured beehive. “It’s fabulous, makes you look ten years younger. Auntie Radmila, you should wear only that sparkly green colour, and, Auntie Luba, my God, you’re going to have to stop losing so much weight.” I raised my finger for Auntie emphasis. “Too thin is too thin.”
More “pshawing” mixed with nods of approval.
Not bad, if I do say so myself. They all sort of drank me in and beamed.
“So what’s in the box, guys?”
Everyone stood up again.
“Ve have brought you a little gifts, some very excellent true to za life books.” Auntie Eva glared at Papa. “Not just some fairy-airy poetry.”
“Eva, I will not have that smut in my house!” Papa glared back.
Smut? Smut had my instant attention. They brought me smut? Wait till I tell the Blondes.
“Is not smut!” bellowed Auntie Eva. “You are a smut for calling za kettle black.”
Well, we’d devolved into name-calling a little quicker than I had expected, although I could tell that Papa was still trying to decipher that last insult.
“Ziz books is about life! More life zan zat hair in za clouds poetry you make za poor child to reading.” She reached into the box and brandished a pocket book with raised gold lettering: The Flame and the Flower.
Whoa! What a cover! My head was buzzing. I was mesmerized by all that embossed gold. I could only see a few of the books as I glanced into the box, but oh, what titles! Office Love Affair, Call Her Savage, The Barbarian Lover, The Magnificent Courtesan, and those were just the books on the very top! I wanted to be loyal to Papa. It wasn’t a fair fight. Auntie Eva against anybody was immediately ten to one against the anybody. But I mean, A Flame Too Hot!
“I will not have her subjected to that trash! I want it out of the house.”
Now wait just a darned minute here.
Auntie Luba swayed over to Papa and stroked his arm. “Trash? Is not trash, Slavko, I’m telling you true.” She patted the box. “Zis is life, romance, love, hardship, and zen more love, and usually for sure maybe some kissing.”
“It’s trash fantasy. I can tell by the covers.”
Oh, come on, the covers were better than chocolate.
Papa was waving around one called Sweet Savage Love. It had a glossy white cover with raised, shiny, brilliant blue lettering. A half-naked man was about to devour a woman with really long curly hair. The room disappeared.
“Everyting za child needs to know about life iz in zis book.” Auntie Radmila snatched it from him and clutched it to her chest.
He was out of practice. It had been years after all. Papa had forgotten that he didn’t stand a chance.
“It is not life! Sweet Savage Love my foot! It’s a lousy, stinking romance novel. It never happens.” Papa snatched it back and tossed my book into my carton. “Magda.” He turned to Mama. “You would never read such useless filth, would you?”
Mama had been shockingly silent thus far, mainly because she couldn’t get a word in edgewise. “I—”
“She doesn’t have to read a romance fantasy, Slavko,” Auntie Eva pounced. “Her life is a romance fantasy!”
Papa braced himself for the shot.
Then, like magic, Auntie Eva changed tack. She turned on a dime and smiled at Papa. “Slavko, my Slavko.” I swear she was purring. “Vat is a romance novel but a beautiful voman is sweeping avay by a beautiful man. Zey are crazy in love togezer, ah?”
Well, that was Mama and Papa all right.
“Zen zer are many, many complications. People don’t approve,” she smiled. “Sound a little bit familiar, ah?”
She had him. On the one hand, Papa’s parents, who were minor aristocrat types in Poland, thought Mama was a peasant. On the other, the Aunties all had an instant hate on for Papa.
“Za beautiful young lovers get married anyvay and stay in love no matter vat stupid bad tings happen.” Auntie Eva raised an eyebrow. “Nobody can keep za young lovers apart and in za end, the prince finally comes home to his real estate qveen. Iz not life, Slavko? Magda does not have to be reading a romance novel. Magda’s life is a big fat romance novel. I am resting on my cases.” She sat back down and delicately patted her forehead with a lace hanky. No criminal lawyer could have delivered a more perfect or passionate summation.
Defeat was etched all over Papa’s face. “Well, I want them kept in your room. I don’t want to see those books anywhere else in our home.”
“Yes, Papa, of course.” I snatched the carton while the snatching was good and lugged it into my room, running my fingers over the lettering of Sweet Savage Love, just once, slowly, before returning to the living room.
When I got back, they were passing around kielbasa and pickled peppers and patting one another’s thighs. The rest of the evening went shockingly well, given the combustibility of the dinner guests. Auntie Eva told one of her better stories about being “on za stage in Budapest,” and Mama filled in everyone on the state of the Toronto real estate market. Papa was even cajoled and flattered into singing a couple of Polish folk songs. Auntie Eva was practically cooing at him, and she doesn’t usually coo without several brandies.
The Aunties had done it.
They would continue to be welcome in my father’s home. Oh, they still hated Papa, didn’t trust him, forgave him nothing, I knew that. Papa probably knew it too. But the door would be open to them.
I had a lot to learn.
But I was learning from the best.
Excerpted from Better Than Blonde by Teresa Toten. Copyright © 2007 by Teresa Toten. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Books. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.