STEVE AMSTERDAM What the Family Needed

ISBN 13: 9780099565932

What the Family Needed

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9780099565932: What the Family Needed

“Okay, tell me which you want,” Alek asks his cousin at the outset of What the Family Needed. “To be able to fly or to be invisible?” And soon Giordana, a teenager suffering the bitter fallout of her parents’ divorce, finds that she can, at will, become as invisible as she feels. Later, Alek’s mother, newly adrift in the disturbing awareness that all is not well with her younger son, can suddenly swim with Olympic endurance. Steven Amsterdam’s incandescent novel follows the members of this gorgeously imagined extended family over three decades, as they each discover, at a moment of crisis, that they possess a supernatural power. But instead of crimes to fight and villains to vanquish, the family confronts inner demons, and their extraordinary abilities prove to be not so much magic weapons but expressions of their fears and longings as they struggle to come to terms with who they are and what fate deals them. As the years pass, their lives intersect and overlap in surprising and poignant ways, and the real magic is revealed to lie not in their superpowers but in the very human and miraculous ways they are able to accept, protect, and love one another.

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About the Author:

Steven Amsterdam is the author of Things We Didn’t See Coming, which was long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award and won the Age Book of the Year Award, among other honors. A native New Yorker and a nurse, he lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Giordana

I

At last, they were arriving in the land of normalcy: streetlamps,
parked cars, and hedges. And there was Alek, holding a full
glass of milk and spinning circles in the middle of a moonlit
lawn.

Giordana had to at least be thankful her mother wasn’t
checking them into a motel this time.

The blue hatchback swerved into the driveway, messing up
the gravel and ending Alek’s little dream. A pile of clothes and
books that had divided the backseat between Giordana and
her brother Ben finally fell across her lap.

She watched Alek run across the grass, up the front steps,
call inside, then race to the head of the driveway. Gleeful in
their headlights, he hopped up and down in a welcome dance,
miraculously never spilling the milk. He waved the glass over
his head, toasting their arrival.

Over the sound of her mother’s last-minute instructions
and her brother’s resolute humming to his headphones, Giordana
heard Alek call out, “Greetings, cousins!” He would make
this bearable. His Superman underpants stuck out from his
jeans. “They’re here!” he shouted at the house.

Giordana unpacked herself from the clothing and sheets
and kitchen crap that jammed the car to capacity, and climbed
out into the still, chirping, suburban air. When he was good
and ready, Ben got out too. They watched their mother paw
through the junk to see what she wanted to bring inside first.

Giordana collected the facts. One: Her parents had had
an argument. A shocker. Two: Once again, Dad was left in a
cramped apartment on a street with trucks rolling by in the
morning and rats creeping by at night. Three: The plan was that
the family, minus Dad, was going to camp out at Aunt Natalie’s
till it all went away. Right. Giordana stayed close to the car.

Aunt Natalie’s was the kind of house you would draw with
a crayon if you had just learned squares and triangles. It would
be home for the next week or two.

Ben was yawning as if nothing mattered. Since he’d turned
seventeen and started staying out all night, she knew that if
she didn’t watch him every minute he could walk off and start
living his life without them. A mere twenty months younger,
she wasn’t going to let herself be left behind. But anything was
possible. After all, a woman had written a note to her husband
and driven away with their kids. Tomorrow, Ben might decide
it was his turn to make a sudden exit. Their mother might decide
she didn’t want to be a mother anymore. Anyone could
leave anyone. Giordana couldn’t think about it.

Aunt Natalie and Uncle Peter finally came out to the front
step and beckoned them toward the front door.

Peter called, “You can unpack later. Come.”

Giordana gave Ben’s hair a tug to mobilize him. He said,
“Ow,” loudly enough to draw attention to her, but she didn’t
care because she was the one being mature, trying to get him
inside. Each of them was loaded up with a duffel bag and a
pillow and pushed toward the house.

The better memories of her father, which seemed to be taking
up space in exactly nobody’s mind but hers, would have to
be put on ice for a while. Going up and saying hello was what
the situation demanded. Giordana dragged Ben along.

Giordana’s mother had a successful double in life and it
was Aunt Natalie. She was even more serene tonight than ever,
as if she fed off her sister’s disasters. She was all mellowness,
wearing tan pants and an unwrinkled olive shirt, like she had
been at the piano practicing Bach when they drove up. Beside
her on the bench would have been chamomile tea in a flowered
cup. Always just so. Natalie stood on the threshold and spread
her arms wide for a hug.

“Oh Ruth,” she said, pulling the three of them into the hall.
“I am sorry. It’s rotten.”

“It is. It really is,” Giordana’s mother said, stroking her
children with pity that she mainly had for herself.

Uncle Peter provided the male version of the same warm
hug, patting everyone’s back once or twice. He said, “You know
you’re free to stay as long as you need, if not longer.”

For most of the three-hour runaway drive, Giordana had
begged her mother to turn back. Now, she was glad they were
all crushed together under the hallway light.

Alek squirmed in and asked his mother, “Can I take them
on the tour?”

Natalie shushed. “This is a difficult time. They don’t feel
like playing.”

Alek was still bouncing. “Why not? We’re all together.
That’s what’s important, right?”

“Please wait,” said Natalie, not loosening her hold on the
three of them. The embrace was a treatment and she hadn’t
finished applying it yet. Behind her, a corridor of framed family
photos held out the promise of stability and happy memories
in the future. Off in the front room, Giordana saw the
whole TV corner. Picture it: A family sitting around, watching
movies together. A quiet night with popcorn and no doors
slamming. See what the right father and a little money in the
bank could produce?

Uncle Peter said, “Your choices are the study next to the
boys’ room that has an old chaise longue, or there’s the big pullout
sofa downstairs. Who values privacy more than comfort?”

“Me,” said Ben, with firstborn authority. His decision was
ratified without debate. So Giordana would cuddle up with her
mother. To be expected.

Alek wrapped his fingers around his cousins’ wrists to pry
them away from the huddle. “Let me take you on the tour now!”

Ben told him, “We took the tour last time. Remember?”

“Then I’ll change it!”

“Sweetheart,” Natalie said.

Given the choice, Giordana would have preferred to stay
with her mother and hear how she would tell the story of leaving.
It would all be said differently if Giordana weren’t in the
room, though. How would Natalie and Peter react? Would her
mother see their pity? The responsible thing to do was to go
play with her cousins.

Giordana fluttered her hand at her face like it was a royal
fan and told Alek, “A tour would be divine!”

Alek focused on her. “Okay, tell me which you want: to be
able to fly or be invisible?”

“Is this part of the tour?”

“Which do you want? Whatever pops into your head fi rst.
Just say it.”

“Can I walk through things or do I have to slip in and out
of rooms when the door is open?”

Alek thought it over. “No. Okay, yes, you can go through
walls. But you can’t steal stuff, like from the bank.”

“That’s all right. I’ll restrain myself. Invisible.”

She gave Ben a glare to make him accompany them. Ben
bent his elbows up and waved his hands sarcastically at his
sides. “In that case, I’ll fl y.”

Alek was satisfied. “Good. Follow me.”

The tour led directly upstairs to the boys’ bedroom, no
surprise. Sasha was on the upper bunk, reading under a teal
blanket.

“Sasha’s going through a shy period,” Alek announced.

Sasha threw the covers back to shout, “Am not!” and went
back to his book.

Having the audience of real teenagers, it was easy for Alek
to ignore his older brother. In the middle of the room, Alek
stopped the tour to study Giordana’s face.

Giordana opened her mouth to ask why, but he silenced
her. “I’m pondering,” he said.

Inspiration came. From a dozen plastic animals and monsters
marching across a dresser, he retrieved a Godzilla and
put it in her hand. “Here.”

With that formality out of the way, he got down to the business
of pulling games off a shelf and spilling them onto the
carpet.

Giordana followed Ben’s gaze out the window to the street
below. A girl around Giordana’s age was biking in bored figure
eights in the middle of the intersection. No cars around, so
why not? At night here, a boy could spin on a front lawn and a
girl could bike in the street. This place was that safe.

The rug had a rain-forest design on it and Alek spread out
over the treetop-and-monkey part. The game boards were
aligned so that their corners touched in a triangle. Alek began
spouting made-up rules for a whole new game that no one
could follow.

“You’re going to get the pieces all mixed up,” Sasha said,
from a crack in his covers.

Alek said, “You’re not playing.”

If anyone was going to rein Alek in, it would have been
Giordana, but she was distracted by the sound of someone sliding
a window open across the street. It was that quiet too. People
liked the leafy streets for a reason, she was sure, but this
wasn’t her. This was not the summer she had planned. Until
she was back with her friends, she would be marked absent
from life.

School had ended three days ago. She had lined up a part-
time job scooping ice cream at Sprinkles four times a week.
The job was totally lame, but it came with free ice cream whenever
the manager was out. Furthermore, Thea’s parents had
left her alone for a week and their apartment was going to be a
base of operations for sleepovers where no one would sleep,
where the blender would be full of rum and fruit juice, and
where the mornings would be dominated by fashion extravaganzas,
exclusively sponsored by Thea’s mother. These things
were facts that no longer mattered. Because now, at the same
time that all of her friends were together, Giordana was standing
there in Alek and Sasha’s bedroom. Total weakness.

Invisibility would have been a relief. Not having to be seen
by anyone as she limped through a dull week or two of suburban
solitude. She could eavesdrop on her mother as she patched
things up with her father and hear what new short-term fixes
they were putting on their marriage. What was the bare minimum
her father would have to say this time? She knew most of
her parents’ secrets because their conversations usually happened
at top volume. But if she were out of sight, she could
listen to other people too. What did a regular girl say to a regular
boy?

As she was thinking about walking in a park and overhearing
some dreamy-dippy lovebirds cooing, Ben called her name.
He looked around the room—right at her, practically—then
stuck his head into the hallway and called out, “Giordana,
where the hell are you?” He looked back into the room, at Alek.
“Where’d she go?”

Alek glanced up, but then went right on jumping pieces
around the game boards. He didn’t see her either.

She looked down at her hand and saw nothing, only the
floor beneath her.

What Giordana didn’t say was, “I’m right here.”

Instead, in two backward steps, she withdrew from the
center of the room, staying quiet and close to the wall. There
was a creak or two, but nobody looked in her direction. Ben
called her name again. Hanging on the far wall, there was a
wooden boat with a triangle mirror in its sail. Giordana swiveled
to look at herself and saw only the wall behind her. Her
face flushed, but she couldn’t see it. She was gone.

From his bed, Sasha was watching the chaos Alek was
making with disapproval. Giordana waved her arm in front of
him. He didn’t see her either.

Ben shouted out into the hall, “Oh great, you drag me up
here and then leave me here with this nut.” When he didn’t get
a response, he kneeled down next to Alek, letting him know it
was the biggest favor in the world. “All right, kid, tell me how
we play this game of yours.”

Giordana took an alley cat step into the corner of the room,
between the bunk bed and the wall. She put the Godzilla model
down on the dresser. As she let go of it, it became visible. When
she picked it up again, it disappeared. She let it go and it appeared.

All right then.

Steering clear of Ben and Alek and all the game pieces,
Giordana left the bedroom. In the hallway, she padded softly
along the corners of the floorboards to keep them still. Wait: If
her feet were causing the creaks on the floor, then she must
have body mass. She stopped and tried pressing her forehead
against the wall. Her head didn’t proceed through it. A barrier.
Stuck in this deadlock with the plaster, she stared at the wallpaper.
Rosebushes and gardening tools, a sweet shorthand for a
happy household. The reds were like fire engines. Uncle Peter
probably dusted the walls twice a month. Giordana kept her
breathing steady, concentrating and pushing her head harder.
No matter how she focused, she couldn’t advance through. Her
father’s permanent sense of outrage surged inside, demanding
she go back and make Alek tell her exactly how to walk through
walls. If he gave you this goddamn ability, it had better work two
hundred percent. But this wasn’t a toaster you could throw at the
woman at customer service.

Besides, it wasn’t Alek’s trick. She had simply never tried
before. With some practice, she would figure it out.

Giordana went into the bathroom. There was enough light
coming in from the moon. In the mirror over the sink, she saw
the reflection of the shower curtain behind her. No Giordana.
Invisible. What if this was forever? Life as she knew it, ended.
She thought about her face, how her father had once told her
she smiled with her eyes and should try doing it more often.
She tried smiling consciously for the mirror. Her features, her
body came into view. Thank you, whoever you are, she thought.
As good as it would have been to disappear from surface life
for a while, permanent invisibility would have created logistical
problems. She imagined her own nothingness again and
watched herself dissolve in the mirror. This was incredibly excellent.

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