The trip home was narrated to me by the host father via text messages sent at stopping points on a journey not unlike a death march. He is less tactful now, more openly irritated: She did not have a good day.
I feel guilty – I am the mother of the rude guest – but an increasing sense of relief as the plane’s scheduled landing time approaches. She is coming home; she got through it; she will be safe.
She is thrilled to see me at the baggage claim. She walks into the area with the host mother; the other two girls walk ahead and are being silly with each other. I exchange pleasantries with the host parents, and thank them, and everything feels like all’s well that ends well.
The Child and I head home, finally, in the car, and I ask her, What went wrong?
She says first, I really missed you.
I missed you too, I tell her, but you’ve been away from me before and you were okay.
She says again, it’s not how I thought it would be. It’s not what I expected.
I struggle to understand, she struggles to explain.
Finally she says: I kept thinking that the other guest girl wanted to be the host girl’s only friend.
If you thought that, I say, then you are right – she did.
And then, in the car, in the dark, it all tumbles out: How for two days in the lake, if she wanted to swim, the other two girls were suddenly tired of swimming, and when she came out of the lake and got dried off, suddenly they wanted to swim again. She got cold, but it was important that windows stay open. She wanted to go outside, but everyone else wanted to read.
It felt like it was on purpose, she says, uncertainly.
It was, I told her.
Then it comes out, furiously, angrily: Once I sneezed because of spices, and the other girl started sneezing really loud a minute later. She had a terrible sneezing problem with spices, all of a sudden. Another time, The Child tripped and stubbed a toe and had to hop around, and the other girl tripped five minutes later and wrenched her ankle agonizingly.
Did any adults notice any of this? I ask.
Of course they did. Everyone paid attention when she had an accident or something.
It wasn’t what I meant, but the answer was clear enough: They didn’t see The Child leave the hotel room, or anything that followed for 10 days.