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Our new place was about as different from our old home as anything can be. The house in Sirdaryo had been a six-bedroom, Soviet construction of the thirties. Mom said that, originally, several families had probably lived there. The windows were crap at insulating, so in the summer we were always hot. We hadn't stayed long enough to see what happened in winter. The house was so secluded that you couldn't walk to the next neighbor if you needed something, but, that wasn't really an issue since Ida and I didn't speak Uzbek or Russian, and very few people that far out in the province spoke English.

On the way up to the top floor, Chantal and Alex smiled these tight smiles at each other and at us in the mirrored elevator, so it was like all you could see for miles were these halfhearted smiles. They left us at the penthouse door. Alex actually came in to put the bags in the foyer, but Chantal waited just outside.

"I'll let you ladies get settled. If you need anything, you know who to call. Van," she said, turning toward me. "I'll send someone for you in the morning, about eight, all right?"

"Yeah, that's great, thank you," I told her.

When the door closed and we were alone again, Ida, Mom, and I fell into our normal domestic rhythm. We claimed our bedrooms. Mom's, of course, was the nicest, and Ida and I fought it out over the remaining two. The smaller rooms were equally lavish—we just liked to give each other a hard time.

The casino penthouse was much more well appointed than any place Mom or I had ever lived. The projects Mom worked on were almost always in progress, so we were lucky if our accommodations had indoor plumbing. It was thrilling to know there would always be enough towels.

Mom walked into my room and rubbed her hands across her face. "Is this okay, honey?" she asked.

"Very funny, Mom."

She smiled. "Yeah, well. Don't get too used to it. Who knows how this is going to go?"

I know, I wanted to say.

"I'm going to lie down, I think."

I didn't know how long she'd been up, but I hoped she would sleep through the night. It took a lot for Mom to look tired. Even on two nights without sleep she looked great. But that was because she was good-looking to begin with. Her skin was ridiculously perfect—no wrinkles, no pimples, just this golden honey color that looked its best in the sunshine. Even in the unflattering artificial light inside of the Silver Saddle, Mom glowed.

It didn't always bother me that Mom was so pretty. In fact, when I was younger, I loved having a pretty mom. People treated me differently, better, because of it. Everyone we met, clerks at the Federal Express, cab drivers, gas station attendants, and ticket agents, all of them were extra kind to me when I was with Mom. But it wasn't just her prettiness that did it. It was the money, too. The way Mom looked, you could tell she had money to spend. When the money started to come, she let it wash over her. As I got older, I watched people size her up. Their thoughts were painfully easy to read. They had no idea that Mom and I used to go through other people's garbage looking for shoes.

Mom got this smile every time someone underestimated her like that, thinking she was just an accessory for some anonymous old rich man. She told me once that when someone underestimated you, it was a gift. She told me it was like getting a head start in a race. People thought that Mom had always been rich, that she was born to it, and Mom let them think that. I have no idea who my dad was, but I was fairly sure I'd inherited what were mostly his looks—a sharp nose in an otherwise rounded face, medium brown hair, the same color as my eyebrows, medium brown eyes, and a thoroughly medium body. The only thing Mom ever told me about my dad was that he loved Van Morrison, and that's why she called me Van. In those moments when I thought about him, I imagined that he would be most impressed by how well I played guitar. Anyway, it's not like anything was wrong with me. I just wasn't like Mom. I wasn't like Mom in most ways, though.

I was generally grateful that the vortex of mysteries that worked inside of Mom hadn't yet appeared in me. But sometimes, I felt a stab of envy—what would it be like to be a genius, to be lifted away like that? Every day I wondered if that wildness was gathering strength inside of me.

I unpacked my bag and heard Ida shuffling around in the next room. I noticed Mom's door was cracked open, and I crept inside to check on her. I could tell she was in a deep sleep, which was good. She'd probably taken one of Ida's pills. Mom slept like a silent film actress, with her hair flowing all around her face and one hand up at her forehead. I closed the door with a little squeak and headed back to my room.

Ida called to me from her room in a whisper-shout. ...

This excerpt ends on page 18 of the hardcover edition.


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