I usually have lunch with Linda and Marie, but Marika starts to joins us. She invites me to sleep over.
My mom drops me off at a rambling ranch house off Birchwood Lane. The car parked in Marika’s driveway is covered in bumper stickers for George McGovern and against the Viet Nam war.
Marika answers the back door and introduces me to her dark haired mother who utters a brief, “Hi,” while peeling potatoes at the sink.
As we sweep through the kitchen, I whisper, “You look nothing like your mom?”
Mrs. Novotny shouts through the doorway, “I look like her grandfather. He’s French Canadian.”
Marika rolls her eyes. “My dad is the blonde Czech.”
A tall man with bright blue eyes stops fiddling with a stereo in the living room and pumps my hand, “Welcome, to planet Novotny!”
Marika raises her eyebrows. “Daddy is an electrical engineer at the GE research lab.”
He tousles his daughter’s golden crown and goes back to his wires and speakers.
We turn left into a hallway. At the end of the corridor is a sunken family room.
“Wow!” I twirl taking in the collection of ebony masks that decorate the walls.
“My dad travels to South Africa for work.” Marika motions to a boy reading The Hobbit in a sleek, leather chair. “That’s my younger brother, Milo.”
He pushes shaggy bangs off his forehead. “I heard welcome to planet Novotny.” That implies we’re aliens. Marika is a prime example.”
“Thanks, Milo, for your insights.” Marika opens a sliding door. You can go back to Mirkwood now.”
We step into a backyard with no grass and not a single webbed lawn chair. Just a series of gardens surrounded by graveled pathways. We relax on a redwood bench beneath a clump of birch trees. I point to a fountain in the middle of a small pond loaded with overgrown gold fish. “That’s cool!”
“One of my mom’s projects. She thinks stuff up, and my father makes it happen.”
When it’s time for dinner, we eat in the kitchen. I’m seated opposite a young woman with red hair who stares at me. “Who are you?”
Marika’s eyes bug out. “Eleanor, this is Ann, my friend. Ann this is Eleanor, my diplomatic older sister who lives above the garage with a community of trolls.”
“Stop your nonsense, Marika.” Mrs. Novotny turns on a small TV on the counter and clicks the dial to Channel 6.
I whisper to Marika. “You always watch TV at dinner? I didn’t notice a television in the living room.”
Mrs. Novotny’s gaze remains on the screen. “Only the news. The rest is for The Flintstones.”
Mr. Novotny grins. “My wife is involved in local politics. She’s related to Ernie the anchor man.”
I swallow my mashed potatoes. “We live next door to Howard, the weather man.”
Milo reaches for his water glass. “How nice. You get first dibs on sunshine?”
Marika sighs. “Welcome to Planet Novotny.”
When it’s time for bed, I unpack my white satin pajamas with a Chinese neckline outlined in emerald cording.
“Wow, where did you get those?” Marika pulls on her flannel nightgown.
“My mom made them. They’re like a pair I saw in an old Katherine Hepburn movie. I drew a picture, we selected fabric, and she stitched them up.”
Marika flops on one of the twin beds in the room. “You’re really creative.”
“I don’t think so. My mom made them.”
“Yeah, but you designed them. Like Coco Chanel.”
“More like your mom and her goldfish.” I flop on the other bed and we laugh.
As the year progresses, I hang out with Marika more and more, Linda, Laura, and Marie less and less. At the dinner table I argue with my dad over Viet Nam. Together my mom and I create a Dr. Zhivago maxi coat complete with a fox fur hood and Chinese frog closures.
In the spring, I quit cheerleading by not trying out for next year’s squad. Miss Novak, the coach, calls me into her office. “You’re a bad example.”
“Au contraire.” I open the door and leave. My old friend Franny Jaeger makes varsity, and I’m happy for her.
In June, Miss Lavigne organizes a field trip to NYC to see Jacque Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. I carefully plan my outfit: a chartreuse poor boy sweater with a fuchsia box pleated skirt. I line my green eyes with a turquoise pencil, and tie my ponytail with a chartreuse ribbon. Marika and I sit next to each other at Les Oiseaux after the performance. I’m served my first Quiche Lorraine and French onion soup topped with a sliced baguette blistered with gruyère.
When school is out, I invite Marika on our family vacation at a cottage on Lake George. We swim to the float and dive under the dock. My dad sails the Dilly Dally into The Narrows, and we picnic on West Dollar Island. Marika and I jump off the cliffs facing Tongue Mountain, famous for rattle snakes, and swim back to shore. We paddle the canoe to the end of Huddle Bay and glide amidst lily pads where turtles sun themselves on half-submerged logs. At the mouth of the swamp, we flush a great blue heron into flight.
On our last day, my mom treats Marika and I to a matinee at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center where the New York City Ballet dances Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. Third row seats in the outdoor band shell, allow us to see every detail of the thirteen princesses brightly colored costumes and the thrilling choreography of the magic firebird that frees the princesses from the sorcerer’s enchanted glass palace—to live and love as they please.
Marika takes me on her family vacation to Raquette Lake. Mr. Novotny teaches me how to waterski and grills hamburgers while we play hangman with her brother on a shady porch full of daddy long-leggers.
When I solve Milo’s word, nihilist, he blinks. “I didn’t think you knew that word.”
“Why, dear prince of doom, because I’m too bourgeois?”
He smirks. “You’re starting to sound like Marika.”
At the time, perhaps I was. But when our vacations were over, I didn’t walk across the golf course anymore to Linda’s house. I didn’t call Marie. Laura graduated N.H.S. and was out of my world. Maybe it took an alien to show me my own planet. Maybe it took a Firebird to teach me to fly.