Excerpt of A Perfect Stranger by Roxana Robinson
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At Christmas, we went to my grandparents'.
My grandparents lived outside New York in a private park, a strange
nineteenth-century hybrid between a club and a housing development. The
Park was enclosed by a thick stone wall, and at the entrance was a pair
of stone gateposts, and a gatehouse. As we approached the gate, a man
appeared in the doorway of the gatehouse, sternly watching our car. Our
father, who knew the gatekeeper, would roll down his window and say
hello, or sometimes he would just smile and wave, cocking his hand
casually backward and forward. The gatekeeper would recognize my father
then and nod, dropping his chin slowly, deeply, in confirmation of an
unspoken agreement, and we would drive through the gates into the Park.
One year there was a gatekeeper who did not know my father. The new man
stepped out of the gatehouse as we approached and waved heavily at the
ground, motioning for us to stop. He was frowning in an official way.
"He's new," said my father, slowing down. "Never seen him before."
My mother laughed. "He probably won't let us in," she said.
My father pulled up to the gatehouse and rolled down his window. "We're
here to see my family, the Weldons," he said politely. "I'm Robert
Weldon." My father looked like his father: he had the same blue eyes,
the long straight nose, and the high domed forehead. The gatekeeper
glanced noncommittally at the car, and then he nodded. He was still
frowning, but now in a private, interior way that no longer seemed to
have anything to do with us. He gave us a slow wave through the gates,
then he went ponderously back into the little house.
The four of us children sat motionless in the back. After our mother
spoke we had fallen silent. Our faces had turned solemn, and we had
aligned our legs neatly on the seats. Our knees matched. Our docile
hands lay in our laps. We were alarmed.
We did not know why some cars might be turned away from the Park gates.
We had never seen it happen, but we knew that it must happen: Why else
would the gatekeeper appear, with his narrowed eyes and official frown?
We knew that our car did not look like our grandparents' car, nor any of
the other cars that slid easily in between the big stone gateposts
without even slowing up. Those cars were dark and sleek. They looked
fluid, liquid, full of curves, as though they had been shaped by speed,
though they always seemed to move slowly. Those cars were polished, the
chrome gleamed, the smooth swelling fenders shone, and the windows were
lucid and unsmudged. Those cars were driven sedately by men in flat
black hats and black jackets. It was the driver who nodded to the
gatekeeper. The passenger, who was in the back seat, never next to the
driver in the front, did not even look up as they drove through the
Our car, on the other hand, was a rackety wooden-sided station wagon,
angular, high-axled, flat-topped. The black roof was patched, and the
varnished wooden sides were dull and battered. Our car was driven by our
father, who did not wear a black jacket, and next to him in the front
seat was our mother. The two slippery brown back seats were chaotic with
suitcases, bags of presents, the four of us children, and our collie,
Huge. We felt as though we were another species when we arrived at this
gate, and it seemed entirely possible that we would be turned away. The
rules of entry and exclusion from the Park were mysterious to us; they
were part of the larger unknowable world which our parents moved through
but which we did not understand. It was like the struggle to learn a
language, listening hard for words and idioms and phrases, being
constantly mystified and uncomprehending, knowing that all around us, in
smooth and fluent use by the rest of the world, was a vast and intricate
system we could not yet grasp.
Excerpted from A Perfect Stranger by Roxana Robinson Copyright © 2005 by
Roxana Robinson. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division
of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may
be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the