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.




Ashamed of herself, Daisy walks along Church Street to her car. At the corner of Palmer, a group of young people crowds the sidewalk in front of the Border Cafe. Daisy is picking her way carefully, watching for uneven bricks and, poking up from them, the twisted roots of trees. In her unaccustomed pumps, overwhelmed by Henry's bombshell, by three Campari and sodas, by the fears of a future in which "dating" unfolds to reveal an infinite chain of Barry Sweikers, she is teetering. All she needs now is to break her writing wrist, her walking ankle. Or worse, a nose, a jaw to compromise even further the face she turns to meet the world. She thinks back once more to the pyramid of stress, in which divorce and empty nest lie right under the pinnacle of death. Not that Henry's actually said the D-word, but she's pretty sure it's hovering up there on the Ouija board that is her life.
A few kids are sitting on the curb. They're holding the beepers the restaurant issues in place of the more conventional reservation list. These vibrate to announce who's next in line for cheap chicken fajitas, burritos, enchiladas of a verde nature's never seen, and pitchers of beer. Daisy searches the pack for Sammy, to whom such a place would be a natural habitat. This is his favorite restaurant, he once admitted, he who has dined with his parents in France at tables displaying menus studded with a galaxy of Michelin stars. He who has had his teething gums rubbed with the finest vintages. "The mango margaritas are amazing!" he'd protested.
"You mean they don't demand your ID?" she had asked with the shock of one whose college drawer stashed the false licenses a roommate's boyfriend had financed his tuition by manufacturing. "You are only eighteen," she had exclaimed. And looking like twelve, she noted, her motherly eye transforming a bumpy, dull-razor-scraped cheek into the silken, Ivory-soaped complexion of the newborn.
And because she is scanning the crowd for Sammy, Daisy misses the stump of a chopped-off rotted elm. She catches her heel on it. She pitches forward. But before she falls, four hands grab her and set her upright like a toy soldier caught in the act of toppling. "Thank you so much," she says. "I feel so silly."
"Is dangerous. Trees all over Cambridge cut down from Dutch elm disease. Sticking up for people to trip on." One rescuer tisks.
"Is a tort waiting to happen," chirps the other one. "Should be law school moot court case."
"In Japan, we say nail that sticks up gets hammered down."
Daisy looks at them. They're two Asian men with black leather jackets and sleek slides of gleaming black hair parted on opposing sides. Daisy thinks of bookends, of mirror images. Alike but with a difference. One hesitates. Then studies her. "I know you," he says.
"You do?"
"Daisy Lewis!" he exclaims as if he has just confirmed the identity of an amnesiac.
"Host-family award," explains the other young man. "We were at the party." With the choreography of synchronized swimmers, they each unzip a jacket to reveal the same Hi, I'm . . . stickers that Daisy's dress still bears a remnant of. One reads Hiroshi Tanaka, the other Masamoto Teramoto. They both are printed Osaka, Japan, and Harvard Law School LL.M. Hiroshi Tanaka's eyes scrutinize her shoulder purse, then search her coat as if for contraband. "Where is it?" he asks.
"Where is what?"
"Your award. Testimonial with Harvard seal in fine presentation case?"
What does she say? That it's drowned in the Sea of Japan? Or, more likely, tossed into the Dumpster in back of the restaurant? One thing she's sure of, that Henry hasn't rushed back to claim it for his trophy cabinet. "My husband's got it," she says.
"And where is husband?" Masamoto Teramoto asks.
"Business," she says. An answer any Japanese would understand.
Which is a correct assumption, since they both nod understandingly. "Very nice. Your husband takes time from busy business to be host family."
"It is nice," Daisy agrees.
"Congratulations on such big honor," says Hiroshi Tanaka.
"Is honor for us to save award winner of best host family from falling in the street," adds Masamoto Teramoto. "To help someone who wins prize for helping foreigners."
"Who represents best values in America," says Hiroshi Tanaka.
"Who shows that Americans are not the selfish individuals the media portrays," says Masamoto Teramoto.
"Who gives big university like Harvard intimate scale," says Hiroshi Tanaka.
Daisy's head bobs from Hiroshi to Masamoto like a spectator at a tennis match. They go on one-upping each other in heaping such praise that Daisy quickly realizes that, as its object, she is pretty much irrelevant. The minute Hiroshi Tanaka stops to catch his breath, she interjects a thanks.
They both bow to her, their hair flapping over their brows like flags whipped forward by a sudden wind. Masamoto Teramoto points to the offending tree stump, which is sticking up with all the stubbornness of a court case in the making. Wreathed around it are empty beer cans and ripped containers that once held fast food. He nudges an empty Big Mac carton with an impeccably polished toe. He giggles, placing his hand in front of his mouth. "Americans may be good hosts," he adds, "but they have dirty streets."
"And dirty streets," adds Hiroshi Tanaka, "to use an American—native American—phrase, is happy hunting ground for disease." He strikes his brow in a gesture so exaggerated that Daisy wouldn't be surprised to see a cartoon lightbulb explode over his head. "I have idea. Come drink margarita with us."
"We love margaritas. Better than sake. Great American invention," Masamoto Teramoto puts in.
Daisy doesn't bother to explain that margaritas are Mexican. "I've had too much to drink already," she confides.
"We could go to Computer Cafe and play video games," suggests Hiroshi Tanaka.
She supposes she should be flattered. First Barry Sweiker, then this duet of students not much older than her son. Is her sudden singleness sticking up so much it needs to be hammered down? She shakes her head. Hiroshi Tanaka reaches for her hand. His arm grazes her breast. An accident? she wonders. Or a deliberate act that could be inviting a sexual harassment case? She remembers reading about the courtship rules for Antioch students. Do I have permission to touch your shoulder? a suitor was cautioned to ask. How she had laughed from her secure position outside the battlefield of sexual politics. Now the laugh's on her, catapulted into the war zone minus nineties social skills. With the kind of stereotyping the Harvard International Office would make rules against, she pictures Japanese men wooing hostesses in bars while at home their wives prepare their husbands' baths. Or these same Japanese husbands, fathers, sons, on sex tours to the flesh pots of Thailand and Indonesia. She bows her head. "Sayonara," Daisy says.
She makes her way to her car. Pizza cartons, diet Coke cans, Starbucks cups, advertising flyers litter the sidewalks. She's no doubt a contributor, she thinks, abandoning her award like the leftover wrapper of somebody's lunch.
When she reaches her car, she sees there are a few more messages pinned under the windshield wiper. What kind of worm, asks one in magenta Magic Marker, would usurp this parking place? Asshole, states another, scribbled in pencil on a receipt from Newbury Comics. God will get you for this, promises a third.
If she'd gone off with Barry Sweiker and been called a slut, would it be any worse? At least there'd be a man to appreciate a body in or out of its jeans, never mind that both man and body fall far from the ideal. Would she be called a cradle robber if she'd agreed to a video game with the Japanese Tweedledum and Tweedledee? In spite of cultural differences, she'd still be flanked by two men with good manners and high test scores. When Daisy looks at her car, she expects to see the tires slashed, a hieroglyph of key scratches across the metallic paint. But there is nothing. And when she gets inside, the car starts right up. Business as usual in Harvard Square, she hums. Then stops. Not quite. She thinks of Henry, of marriage, of these first forty-two years of the rest of her life. Has God already gotten her for this? she wonders. But then she's not sure that God can get you for simply taking His parking space.
To compensate for the drinks she's consumed, Daisy drives up Mass Ave ten miles under the speed limit. She grips the steering wheel in both hands at precisely ten and two. She looks in all directions. She turns on the radio. Somebody is interviewing a woman called Sunshine Hawk and her partner Sedona Eagle. They are Smudgers, spiritualists who drive bad vibrations from people's houses. For two hundred dollars an hour, they will burn sage to shoo away baneful influences from the home. "I honor all cultures. I honor all traditions," Sedona Eagle announces in a voice that clearly sounds as if it deserves to win a host-family award. She totes a whole crosscultural bag of tricks: High John the Conqueror incense, African beads, Indian bells, a tape of Japanese drummers. There are many ways, she says, to bring light to a benighted house.
When Daisy pulls up in front of her own house, she's surprised to see it looks the same. No peeling paint to signify a state of benightedness, no dark and gloomy aura to symbolize a baneful influence. Upstairs in his study, Henry's computers whir and hum, lights blink on and off, a screen-saving parade of happy faces and burbling fish float across their monitors in undisturbed rows. What hint would there ever be that the Devil's Dance or Maltese Amoeba were attacking Henry's files at the very instant these contented fish go swimming by?
Daisy raises her eyes to the roof of the house. Even with the streetlight on, it's hard to make out the one foot square of new wood on the fascia. Last year they'd had an infestation of squirrels in the walls. All day squirrels chased each other in the ceiling over her bed, behind the refrigerator, at the top of the living room's bay. Daisy could hear the scrape of their toes, dropped acorns rolling down the slope of an eave, the broom-like sweep of their tails. It had taken the wildlife control officer three weeks of setting traps, studying the nooks and crannies of their roof, following a trail of little nicks to find the hole—no larger than the bathtub drain—where they had squeezed through, nested in a pile of Sammy's baby clothes, and reared enough offspring to make a polygamist proud. "It's probably only temporary," the wildlife control officer had warned as he tarred and patched and hammered a solid-looking Band-Aid of new wood. "Once they get in, the darned critters nearly always find a way to get back."
Now Daisy fits her key into the lock with a not entirely sure hand. The door creaks open on its meant-to-be-oiled hinges. The house is unusually quiet. The grandfather clock on the landing ticks. The refrigerator grunts and groans, spitting ice cubes into its automatic ice cube tray. But no Billie Holiday sings out from the CD player. No sales pitches for Veg-O-Matics or cubic zirconias burst from the TV. Maybe at such a moment she'd welcome the dance of the squirrels overhead.
The house is black. Henry hasn't even left the hall light on for her. Perhaps it's the prospect of a divorce lawyer's billable hours that has Henry monitoring more than usual the expenditure of every kilowatt. At least he hasn't turned off the answering machine, whose red signal shines with a steady, unblinkable stare. A Post-it sticks to the phone. Jessica called, it reads. Have gone to bed in the guest room. In the a.m., we'll talk.
Daisy walks through the first floor, turning on all the lights. She even pulls the chain in the pantry, flicks the switch in the guest john under the stairs. She turns on the lamp made from shells her grandmother collected on the beaches of Florida the first and only time she left Nebraska. She presses the button on the desk lamp that angles out over the hump of torn leather and sprung springs that the family has colluded on designating Henry's chair. She sinks down into Henry's chair. It smells of him. The seat is scooped out to accommodate his bottom. There are dents in the back where his shoulders hit. She can trace the shape of fingers where he rests his hands. For twenty years she's been laminated onto Henry the way thin sheets of wood are glued together to make a butcher's block.
She looks at the Post-it: Have gone to bed in the guest room. She's been set adrift. No rudder. No anchor. But she hasn't panicked yet. She didn't go off with Barry Sweiker despite the enticements of his minibar. She's found her way home without maiming either herself or an innocent pedestrian. She gets up. She goes to the phone. It's after eleven, but she knows that even if Jessica's finished the Franklin brothers' update, there's still Nightline. Jessica's allegiance to Ted Koppel forms a constant in a whirl of more fleeting, less satisfactory relationships.
"Just checking up on you," Jessica says. In the background Daisy can hear the TV and the closer clink of ice cubes.
"More Campari?" she asks.
"Strictly Poland Spring," says Jessica. She takes a loud sip. Daisy pictures the cut-glass tumbler. She knows the heft of its expensive leaded weight. "Tedsie's talking to some Middle East sheik with the cutest headband. Trained at Harvard. They're discussing chemical warfare." She pauses. "So how are you?"
"Just dandy."
"Why am I not convinced?"
"Because you've known me practically from the womb."
"And held your hand through all the agonies and the ecstasies." She sighs. "And can see how, hating change, you have settled for less than you deserve. Dare I say that Henry's bombshell might be a change for the best?"
"No," Daisy nearly yells. She waits a beat. "Did you finish the Franklins?"
"I'll say. I'm not sure their booth will be quite so regular when this comes out." Jessica lowers her voice. "Honey, I hated to leave you. Was everything all right?"
"Just fine. We exchanged business cards."
"Your Star Market Advantage card? The one that gives you the discount on the fruit of the week?"
"Very funny. He invited me to his room. To check out the minibar. To watch a video."
"I suppose you have to start somewhere."
"This is not funny. This is very serious."
"Oh, Daisy, don't I know that. I, the queen of divorce."
Daisy feels herself begin to cry. She tests the waters with a few sniffles. She squeezes out a tentative tear, which turns into a flow. She remembers a cartoon in a book of New Yorker drawings. A woman lifts her knife to cut an onion. In the end she is sobbing up a storm.
Daisy sobs up a storm. "We were so happy in Harvard student housing. In that terrible apartment on the Somerville/Cambridge line."
"People are always happy in their first wretched apartments. The bigger and better the apartment, the greater the misery."
"That's a conclusion from a scientific study? An official Gallup Poll?"
"A private Jessica Sherman poll. People grow up. They grow apart. They get interested in other things."
"Like French! Like Mademoiselle from Armentières, parley voo? Like, like the Desmoiselles d'Avignon?"
"That's art history."
"I know that!" Daisy wipes her nose on her sleeve.
"Where's Henry? Or dare I ask?"
"The guest room."
Jessica chuckles.
Daisy manages half a smile. She looks across the hall through the arched doors to the living room, which is flamed with her profligate's light. On the mantel rests a photograph of Sammy in his high school graduation robes flanked by his beaming parents. Next to this is a color print of Daisy, Henry, and Sammy riding a Ferris wheel when Sammy was five. They are all grinning, though Daisy's grin, unlike theirs, was simply a mask for her fear. The way she feels now, Daisy could be back on that Ferris wheel. Her stomach plunges, her throat knots, her voice pitches higher, close to a scream. "What about Sammy?" she shouts. "A child of divorce. The product of a broken home."
"Not yet," Jessica assures. "And besides, he's not a child. Now he'll have something in common with every other young person he knows." She pauses. Her words become softer, kinder. "Sweetie, maybe it's time for you to get some sleep."
As if she could, Daisy thinks, when one of life's top ten bestseller lists of stress will keep her tossing and turning throughout the night. But she is tired, she has to admit.
"And just think," Jessica adds, "for once you'll have that stingy-sized rickety antique bed all to yourself!"
* * *
Daisy starts to turn off the lights, then stops. Why not leave them on? She no longer has to be subject to somebody else's input on how to lead her life. Especially when that life loses its component of jointly held domesticity. Besides, it's fall, the days are shorter, the sun is weak. She needs all the light she can get. In the papers you're exhorted to procure an hour of sun every day for vitamin D. In the stores they're selling light boxes; doctors prescribe sitting under them the way they prescribe a course of antibiotics or physical therapy. Daisy thinks about vitamin D. When Sammy was two he swallowed a whole box of candy-colored chewable vitamins. She'd spooned ipecac down his throat. Immediately he'd thrown up a rainbow-hued stream, a concoction so fascinating it had stopped his tears. The vitamins were shaped like letters of the alphabet. The D was the blue-green of a robin's egg. She'd written an irate letter to the manufacturer. Poison disguised as candy, she'd complained, a sugarcoated exterior, the equivalent of the polished apple given Snow White. The vitamins were taken off the market, "thanks to the vigilance of people like you," the president of the company had oozed his gratitude. And had sent along two cartons of adhesive tape.
Now the robin's-egg blue D forms in front of her eyes. Then she sees three other D's, all in black: darkness, depression, and divorce. If she can combat darkness by artificial means, how will she manage the depression that seems inextricably linked to divorce? She walks up the stairs, flicking on the ugly chandelier that the previous owners left, the two-bulbed sconce that illuminates where the landing twists. From the top step she looks down on a house ablaze.
Daisy tiptoes to the bathroom, trying to ignore the closed door at the end of the hall. What is wrong with this picture? she wonders when she reaches for her toothbrush. She peers closer around the washbasin and realizes that Henry's blue extra-soft Sensodyne is no longer leaning against her red extrafirm Oral-B. She pulls open the medicine cabinet. His half is empty. Only a tumbleweed of dental floss and some Mercurochrome stains mark shelves once stuffed with nose drops, aftershave, Tylenol PM, mouthwash, razor blades, mustache wax. Through the mirror she can see the hook on the door from which her bathrobe dangles in unaccustomed unaccompaniment. She is not surprised to find his shampoo and conditioner missing from the lineup along the bathtub ledge. In the few hours she has been with Jessica and warming up her social skills with Barry Sweiker, Henry Lewis has been systematically removing himself from the matrimonial house, the matrimonial bathroom, the matrimonial bed. She's amazed that someone whose slobbiness she's berated for twenty years has been so organized. Maybe it takes a lifetime stress event to whip you into shape. Or perhaps—this comes as a sudden flash from the battle-of-the-sexes front—he's been mapping this strategy for longer than she dares to contemplate.
Which is further evidenced by a bedroom closet empty of his clothes, a bureau top swept clean of his brushes, small change, ticket stubs.
Daisy plops into the exact center of the bed and spreads her arms and legs out to its edges like the man in the da Vinci drawing. Jessica is right about this bed, though for years she and Henry have been defensive about it. "It keeps us close," Henry used to say. "Great for bundling up on cold winter nights." That in hotels and motels they paid extra for king-sized oases was a sin they refused to confess, all the while delighting in pillows the size of logs and a blanket you could spread a whole extended family across. Theirs is an antique four-poster with a slightly smaller than standard mattress on wooden slats, a legacy from Henry's great-uncle, who died in it after ninety-five years of contented bachelorhood. The mattress she and Henry bought, testing out a warehouse full of double welting and hand-tied springs. Now, though, despite their informed consumerism, there's a ditch in it excavated by husband and wife derrieres in wedded juxtaposition night after night.
Floating over the bed is a canopy, an intricate pattern of white net strung by a group of women on an island off the Carolina coast. Imagine creating such a thing, the time it takes, the care. She assumes you start in a corner, proceeding in small increments—a piling on of tasks until the final result is achieved. Probably, like most things, it's hard at first, becoming easier as you move along. Daisy studies the canopy, trying to find a pattern of rougher knots, then more graceful ones to prove her hypothesis. But all she can see is a layer of dust, a huge gray pelt of it that she has never noticed before but which has been gathering ominously, atom by atom, over more than a thousand and one nights of Daisy and Henry's sleeping forms. She's never washed it, supposing—what?—that it was such an open weave, dirt would not settle but just drift away. How will she wash it? Wisk? Tide? Bold Plus new and improved? Woolite for all things delicate? It comforts her to think that in the morning, among more earth-shattering events, she'll have ordinary domestic tasks to face.
Daisy snuggles under her quilt. She waits for insomnia to strike. The half-empty closet is, after all, a symbol that her life is emptying. The absence of wing tips and Reeboks under the bed is an absence not to make the heart grow fonder but to make it race. She rolls over to Henry's side of the bed. On his pillow she smells the scent of his hair. Underneath her rises the scent of his flesh. Maybe—she looks at the canopy—her life won't be swept away but simply swept clean. She falls asleep. If not exactly the sleep of the just, the sleep of the self-justified.



Something jolts her awake. It's three-thirty in the morning. The windows are rectangles of pitch black slate. But there's a line of light shining from the hall through the bottom of the door. Then she remembers. She'd turned on every bulb to protest the guttering of her marriage, or maybe just the miserliness of a husband who switches off every switch marked On, who monitors the length of long-distance calls, who'll go two miles out of his way to save a twenty-cent toll. But what woke her up?
She hears it again. A half–wild animal, half–wild human retching sound from the direction of the bathroom. It echoes along the corridor emptied of Henry's stuff, which, she now realizes, muffled noise better than the insulation they'd had blown into the walls after the old asbestos filling was declared hazardous.


On Sale
Jan 1, 2001
Page Count
320 pages

Mameve Medwed

About the Author

Mameve Medwed is an American novelist. She is the author of Mail, Host Family, The End of an Error, How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life, and Of Men and Their Mothers. Born and raised in Bangor, Maine, Medwed received her B.A. with honors from Simmons College and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Learn more about this author