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 gates.
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 publisher.
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