Fiction · 04/06/2011

Childbride

When Magda was fourteen, she married her father. The ceremony was simple, packages of crepe paper and party favors tossed carelessly about the living room. She wore her sister’s white prom dress and her father wore a faded gray tuxedo from his college days. Her mother married them in a flowered sheet draped over her shoulders, plastic rosary beads dangling from her wrist. When she said, “You may kiss the bride,” Magda’s father dipped her backwards as if in mid-waltz and kissed her hard on both cheeks. Later over champagne, he brought up the honeymoon.

“Perhaps we can go to Barbados,” he said, “or maybe Tijuana, isn’t that where one takes child brides?” Her mother let out a loud guffaw, tipsy from the champagne. “I like the idea of Belize, she said, “traipsing the ruins and swimming with dolphins.”

The marriage was a class assignment: to help the students grasp the idea of marital friendships and all that “interpersonal nuance”, the teacher explained. When it came time to choose her husband, all the boys in the classroom had married others. Magda’s teacher threatened to flunk her if she didn’t find someone.

Her father was happy to oblige. “It could be educational — you’ll understand how morbid monogamy truly is and the competitive nature of it all.” Her father was a German literature professor at the local university; he was never one to take things lightly. “And this way, you’ll never marry at twenty like your mother and I did.”

Her parents did marry young. Her mother fled rural England in her late teens, meeting her father in a carpet showroom. When she was four, she remembered her mother cooking breakfast naked, setting down plates of kipper and tomatoey beans before her father, her breasts bouncing happily as she spooned fish onto the plate. It was the ‘70s; everyone was carefree and ecstatic much of the time. They drank at all hours, Joni Mitchell records littered the hallways and mysterious clouds of smoke filled the den and bedrooms. Her father took naps on the floor those days, stacks of German poetry books piled on his back, trying to teach her German, holding up flash cards with funny cartoons of fat men: “Dieser Mann ist dick, Dieser Mann ist dicker, Dieser Mann ist am dicksten.”

They’d bring her to artsy parties: Magda at five, drawing werewolves and vampires in the corner, poets and painters passed out near her feet. Drives to the outskirts of the city, her father standing in a field wearing corduroy bell-bottoms, brushing leaves off her mother’s back. Magda eating granola at her father’s feet as he recited passages from the Duino Elegies before throngs of women looking up from their seats. When she looked back at her early childhood, it was a just a blur of people — swarms of big hair and colorful fabrics crowding the corners and doorways. Now, the stereo played low, her father stopped smoking pot and sat in his study, textbooks propped open near his elbows. Her mother sat in the dark kitchen, reading medical reports and dressed modestly; wide cotton kaftans with sunflowers scattered across the front.

The first week of the marriage went fairly well. Magda helped her father cook Gumbo one night because it was the one dish her parents cooked together. But rather than cook, they bickered most of the time, nagging one another over ingredient choices and wrestling utensils from one another. Magda tried to replicate their actions, grabbing a spoon from her father’s grip or insisting that he put too much lemon in the sauce. But he simply stirred the sauce and looked off in to space, reciting conjunctions.

After dinner, they sat at the table and he directed all his usual conversations between him and his wife towards Magda. “This house is robbing me blind! Water bills up the wazoo, do you live in the shower?” or “Have we become Spartans now? One more meal with parsnips and potatoes and I’ll feel like I’m living in the Hinterland.”

And there were the other women. Chestnut haired beauties who swarmed around his office like locusts in a pale sky. When her parents came home from faculty parties, her mother always complained. “You stand in the corner all night gabbing with those girls, leaving me with some poor Classics fop.” Her father would roll his eyes. “It’s my only release,” he’d claim, “do you want to discuss Goethe’s prejudices and preconceptions of nature?”

But she was sure her mother knew better, once she even found a note in his coat, crumpled and blue, smelling of clove cigarettes, it read: I imagine our hours together. She hurled the note at Magda’s father in front of her. He winced a little, a slight hiccup of abashment, picked the note up and walked out. Magda didn’t hear him come home that evening but saw him the next morning at breakfast, he hid behind his paper and chewed his toast almost euphorically.

Her mother was sick of university life: the crippling stature, the elevated pedagogy, the hero-worshiping. She often said that of the two, she held the more sensible job, “I’m more in the thrall of life, the quakes of everyday,” she’d say. She was a vet who specialized in large dogs — wolfhounds and mastiffs — gigantic breeds that requires manhandling and large needles. Sometimes Magda thought of her father as a dog her mother must manhandle, pin down and reprimand.

When it was time for bed her father simply went to his room and Magda went to hers. “I’m sorry there’s no threshold to carry you over,” he said when she said goodnight. Her parents slept in separate bedrooms now; their rooms were like monkish retreats — sanctuaries of papers, pens, and books. Sometimes she felt they were all just roommates living under the same roof, a disparate bunch that happened to be related.

The following weeks they did things together her parents would normally do: they went to a play and discussed it afterwards, her father complaining of the jejune spectacle of it all and the absence of any pain throughout., “So many happy thoughts — happy, happy,” he complained, “whatever happened to anguish and turmoil?”

She pretended to disagree, complimenting the set’s playfulness “Just like your mother, an optimist — be wary of optimists, they ruin the future for us all,” he said. They went shopping together and he asked her advice about ties. “Do you think this one deflates me somehow, dictates my coloring?” Magda didn’t understand much of what he said or meant, she just nodded and said things like, “The other one is better,” and he’d sigh and nod and buy the one she suggested.

Two days before the assignment ended, he decided he’d take her to a faculty party. “You should go, you’ll see what sacrifices one must make for another person. “Show your face, show up for the duty of it all. Marriage is a float, really, all Styrofoam and garlands, rolling down the avenues for all to see.” He looked over at her mother and they both rolled their eyes and laughed uproariously but mostly Magda could see her mother was delighted she wouldn’t have to attend the party.

The party was at the Dean of the Physic’s Department’s house. There were complicated wooden structures on the bookshelves and windowsills; models encased in glass with lengthy labels below them stating conveyance and spatial theories. At first her father included her in many of his conversations; he argued passionately with a pretty behaviorist and gripped Magda’s shoulders as he flung harried words at the behaviorist’s face.

“Is this your daughter?” the professor asked. “No, it’s my wife.” he told the woman and she looked at both of them questionably, her face losing color. “Well,” he went on, “in theory only — a little class project,.” and he and the professor giggled and she raised her eyebrows and they discussed it passionately, faces practically touching and Magda wandered off, sat in the corner much of the time taking notes for her class. She lost track of time, started drinking a glass of wine someone had left on the table and when she looked up, her father wasn’t in the room. She wandered about the house, asking the other professors if they had seen him.

She stepped out in the backyard, slightly drunk and alone. It was the end of June and the semester was just about to end, everyone was in a crazy mood, there was a couples lying on the grass, drunk and drooling, one man ran around the kitchen, a crown of dandelions on his head, reciting Balzac. Magda wandered near an old doghouse, tripped on some stones and fell on the ground, the trees swaying before her like fingers wagging.

She saw her father near the lawn’s edge, leaning against an old oak, hovering before the behaviorist, her ample bottom brushing against the dense bark. His hand was resting on her knee, just below the short hemline of her skirt and his face was nestled in her neck. Magda walked over, she heard her father speaking German to the woman; low grainy sounds, hints of splintery letters, thin, low sounds passing between them. It was like he was lecturing her, the sounds bursting out in the night like low flying insects.

She stumbled toward them; her feet like large boulders, heavy and stiff. The wine swirled in her veins making her feel dizzy and light. She tripped on a ceramic dog bowl, landing at the feet of her father.

“Stay away from my husband,” she slurred, pointing up at the woman. “Stay away!”

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Shelagh Power-Chopra’s work appears or is forthcoming in BLIP, failbetter, Juked, Electric Lit’s Outlet, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Significant Objects Project, Used Furniture Review, Fwriction and elsewhere.