In which Panacea meets her mom’s fiance, and a complication arises; a complication that prevents her from asking anyone what to do about it.
For the entire seventeen years that I had lived my life, it was
just me and my mom. My dad was just a guy in the old photos on the wall. A few
of him and mom on the beach when they were dating, one of their wedding, and
one more of him holding wrinkly, newborn me in the hospital. Then nothing.
I didn’t really feel anything when I asked about him and was
told that he died in a traffic accident the day I was born. Part of me wanted
to. Whenever people found out about it, they would say kind things to me and
tell me how hard it must be, and I would agree that it was, except that it
wasn’t. I never knew him. He was only my dad because I knew he was, and not
because we had a bond.
Mom never got over it though, not properly. It wasn’t until I
was ten years old that she started dating again, and until a year ago, she
never dated anyone for more than a month.
It would be a lie if I said that I wasn’t surprised or upset
when she told me she was engaged. I knew she had been dating someone for a
while, longer than anyone else she’s gone out with, but the news that she was
going to get married again was a shock.
Now it wouldn’t just be us.
Now there would be a man. Now I would have a new dad.
A dad who already had a child.
I didn’t know about it. Mom didn’t tell me until the last
moment, as we pulled into the parking lot of the fancy restaurant where we were
all supposed to meet.
“By the way, honey, John has a son. I’m sorry I forgot to
mention it, but I hope it will be alright. I’ve never met him, but if we’re all
about to be a family, this is the best time, isn’t it?”
I said, “Sure, mom.”
It was true, in a way. Better we all knew each other now, then
at the wedding, but the thought of another kid in the house. Another child to
take up the attention annoyed me. Mom had been mine alone for seventeen years,
I already was going to have to share her with John Arden, and now with his son
“Be polite, okay, honey?” she said as we rode the elevator. I
could tell she was nervous. Her hair was pulled over her ears, and she was
tapping a finger against the glass face of her watch.
She didn’t need to worry; I was always polite, always. Even when
I hated the people I was around, I was always polite.
When we reached the top floor, we exited the elevator and made
our way to the large glass doors that were the only wall between me and the
soon-to-be rest of my family.
She gave our names to the woman in the black and white suit
dress standing next to them, and we were told to follow her inside.
I felt like Alice from Alice in Wonderland, or maybe Lucy from
the Chronicles of Narnia.
We were on earth, the same earth that I walked on every day, and
yet it was as though the glass doors were a portal to another world.
Crystal, marble, gold. My face was reflected at me in the
thousands of tiny glass shards that hung suspended from the ceiling.
There were tables everywhere, covered in crisp white
tablecloths, and people sat around them, sipping wine as red as blood and
looking like mythical creatures in their beaded dresses, plumed hairpieces, and
tuxedoes that looked like the kind that models wore on the front of erotic book
We were led to a table near the back of the room, right next to
the giant windows that looked down over the town.
Two men were seated at the table, talking in soft voices. When
they saw us, they stood up, and one of them, the older of the two, made his way
over to us.
“Cheryl.” He kissed my mom on the cheek and they beamed at each
other. Then he shook my hand.
“You must be Panacea.”
“I am,” I affirmed.
“A solution for all problems,” he grinned. “What a wonderful
My mom slung her arm around my shoulder. “She likes to think of
problems without solutions, but she is the most precious thing in my life.”
I nodded my head, confirming that I was indeed.
“May I introduce my son?” John motioned to the younger man, who
walked in swift, long-legged strides to stand by his father’s side.
“This is Pisică.”
Pisică shook my mom’s hand first, and then mine, and when he
did, I found I couldn’t move. My heart thudded against my chest as though it
wanted to beat its way out, and the world tilted. His hand was warm.
“Hello,” he said. His eyes were the color of honey and his hair
was so light a brown that it was almost a blond-grey.
“Hello,” I whispered back.
He was beautiful.
“My goodness!” My mom laughed, and I could tell that she was
nearly as thrown off as I was.
“You’re a young man, Pisică! Here I was thinking I would be
stuck with TWO teenagers.”
John laughed good-naturedly. “He’s just twenty-two! Now, how
about we all have a seat, and we can get to know each other properly.”
Mom and John were seated opposite each other, with me
and Pisică the same. I kept my eyes firmly on the table so that I wouldn’t
have to look at him.
It’s only nerves. I told myself repeatedly. That’s all it
“Well, I can’t believe I haven’t met you until now, I feel so
terrible that I’ll be uprooting your life like this without first getting to
My mom’s voice was higher pitched than it was normally, another
sign that she was freaking out.
“I was in France.”
His voice was deep and smooth, but still with the youthful lilt
of boyhood. “I went for my friend’s wedding and decided to stay for a while.”
“Pis-ic.” My mom pronounced his name slowly. “What an unusual
and beautiful name. What does it mean?”
“Cat, I think. In Romanian apparently.”
“Did you hear that, Pana?” My mom nudged me in the ribs. Then
she turned back to the men and laughed. “Panacea here is a cat fanatic.”
One. I counted. Two, three.
We both looked up, our eyes met, and then I had to look away
John slapped his son on the shoulder in a friendly way. A little
hard, I thought, but then I could tell that he was nervous too.
“They’re all shy. Come on you two, you’ll be brother and sister
in three months, better learn to get along.”
“Why,” I began after a moment, then took a breath and lifted my
head. I focused my eyes on his shoulder instead of his face. He was wearing a
long, creamy brown jacket.
“Why were you named cat?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “I think cats are great though, so
I don’t mind.”
“Stop playing cool.” John whacked him again, then patted him
apologetically, and turned to me. “His name was Roland for the first three
weeks after he was born, and then he developed the habit of napping for up to
six hours a day. Olivia nicknamed him Pisică. And then it just stuck. If
there’s one thing I can tell you about him for sure, it’s that he’s one heck of
The awkward silence that followed was broken by a waitress,
whose name tag read Dalia. She asked us if we were ready to order, and we all
said no at the same time. Then John cleared his throat and asked if we could
have five more minutes to decide.
She said of course and then placed a bottle of Champaign and a
pitcher of water on the table and walked away.
“Well, we’d better order.” Mom laughed and patted her hair. Then
she picked up one of the menus.
“Goodness!” she exclaimed. “Everything looks so delicious, I
don’t know what to choose! I think this word here means ‘Steak’, but I’m not
sure. Oh dear, it’s all in French. Or is it Greek?”
“It’s French,” John confirmed, then turned to his son to say,
“You’re the France expert, what would you suggest?”
Pisică scoured the pages of his own menu.
“I don’t know,” he said at last. “Everything will taste good,
most likely, so even if you just make a blind choice, you shouldn’t be
“Oh, that’s an excellent idea!” my mom trilled. She covered her
eyes with one hand, then with the other let her finger land on one of the food
“B-Boil-abass -ay?” She squinted at it.
“Bouillabaisse,” Pisică corrected her. “It’s a good choice.”
She seemed pleased to have his approval. “Alright then,” she
“I’ll have Daube Provençale,” said John.
“What do you want, honey?” Mom asked me, smiling. She
was enjoying herself, and I knew I couldn’t spoil this lunch for her.
“The French Union soup and—” I frowned at the word. “I don’t
know how to pronounce it,” I admitted, feeling embarrassed.
“Can I see?” Pisică held out a hand, and it took me a few
seconds to realize it was for my menu. I gave it to him quickly, making sure
not to knock over the water.
“Which one?” he asked.
“Twenty-seven,” I said, and when he didn’t hear me, I repeated
“Fougasse.” He read it aloud, then cocked his head to the side
with a slightly bemused expression:
“We had the same idea,” he told me, handing the menu back.
“I can change it then,” I told the table cloth.
“There’s no reason why you can’t both have the same thing!” John
assured me. “You don’t have a problem with it, do you Pisică?”
Pisică shook his head.
“Then it’s settled!” John looked relieved and clapped his hands
together. “Now we just have to wait for the waitress. In the meantime, let’s
have something to drink. This is a momentous time in all of our lives, we
should toast to it.”
He popped open the champagne bottle and poured a bit into three
glasses. One for him, one for his son, and one for my mom.
I suddenly felt very separate from them. A kid at the adult’s
table, with water in my glass. It wasn’t like I had thought it would be at all.
There were three adults and one child, instead of two and two, and I didn’t
want to be the child. Not to all of them. And I told myself that this was just
because I felt alone in my position and ignored the real reason.
“Can I have some?” I asked.
Everyone blinked at me for a moment, then John looked at my mom
“Is she old enough?” he asked, sounding unsure.
“I’m seventeen.” I straightened my back and lifted my chin,
forcing myself to meet the eyes that were fixed on me.
“Oh, let her have a bit.” My mom smiled. “It wouldn’t be the
So I was given a small bit of champagne.
When Dalia came back, John gave her our orders, and she went
away promising us it wouldn’t take long, and I waited in silence while two of
the adults conversed in loud, cheerful voices. The third only put in the odd
comment, then stayed out of it, and I avoided any attempt he made to start a
conversation with me, politely as I could.
Generally, if I were waiting in a restaurant for the lunch that
had yet to arrive, I would be thinking of nothing but food. Now, however, I was
sick to my stomach.
I waited for the fluttering of my heart to fade. For the moment
when he would say something to me and I would feel nothing but sisterly
It will pass. I comforted myself. Give it some time. Eventually,
he’ll just be like my brother. I’m alright.
“Are you okay, honey?” My mom broke off her conversation to peer
at me with concerned eyes, and she brushed a hand over my shoulder. “Are you
feeling sick? You look pale.”
“It could be the view,” John offered helpfully, nodding at the
giant windows that made up the entirety of the wall.
“I pride myself on not being afraid of heights, but even I have
to admit that I get some serious vertigo when I look down.”
“I’m okay.” I did my best to smile. “I’m stressed. That’s all.”
“Why is that?” mom asked, and I felt a flash of hot annoyance.
Why did people always assume that whenever you said you had a problem, it was
about something different from before? Why did it never occur to them that some
difficulties didn’t just go away?
“Just school stuff,” I said, and took a sip of champagne. It
wasn’t a complete lie.
“What’s ‘school stuff’?” John asked, and I was tempted to say,
“Exactly what it sounds like,” but I didn’t. Instead, I said, “You know,
homework, teachers, the social ladder. That kind of thing. Or really just
school in general. It feels like a waste of time.”
“Oh, don’t think like that!” The conversation was momentarily
paused as our food was brought out and laid upon the table, and we all said
thank you to the two waitresses that did it.
“This looks amazing, thank you.” My mom smiled at them, and I
was struck suddenly by how in place she suddenly looked. At home, when her hair
was thrown up into a messy bun; when she was wearing sweatpants and a tee-shirt
and a knitted cardigan, she looked every inch the single mom struggling to keep
herself and her child off the streets.
Here, sitting at a white-clothed table, drinking champagne, with
her chocolate brown hair brushed smooth and straight; pearl earrings glittering
in her earlobes; an elegant green dress, and long, white, heeled boots, she
seemed so different.
Was this the life we would have now? Would this new side of my
mother be my mom?
“Back to the subject of school,” John said after we had all
picked up our forks or spoons and eaten a few bites. “Nobody hates school,
there are just some things in their life that make it hard to be enjoyed, like
a difficulty learning, or no friends, or bullying or the like.”
Why does it matter? I thought. All those things are a part
“I’m not being bullied.” My fingers snatched at a piece of bread
sitting in a basket in the middle of the table. I wouldn’t be eating it, but I
needed something to do with my hands. “I have my poor subjects and my good
subjects, and I have two friends.”
“Then, what is it that’s stressful?” John asked. “Tell me
I swallowed, feeling the familiar tightening feeling in my
throat I experienced when under pressure, and folded my hands tightly together
on my lap.
“I have social anxiety,” I said. “I find it hard to be around
large groups of people. And there are too many expectations and things that I
don’t know. When I’m in school, I feel like I’m being forced to face my future,
and I don’t know how. I feel like if I mess up in school, I’m messing up my
“That’s what teachers are for,” John told me importantly as if
he knew. “They’re there to guide and help you and make you feel safe.”
“Maybe.” I poured some water into my empty champagne glass and
drank it. “But mine don’t.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it.”
We all focused our attention on Pisică, who spoke for the first
time since the food had been brought out. He didn’t appear bothered by the
three pairs of eyes now fixed firmly on his person and spread his fingers out
on the white tablecloth.
“School isn’t as important as everyone makes you think it is.
Even some people who graduate with degrees in all areas still have a hard
John clapped a hand over his son’s mouth. “Pisică,” hissed
through his teeth. “You’re not helping.”
Pisică pried his father’s fingers away and continued, this time
looking directly at me. “What I meant to say was, success in life is down to
luck, at least sixty percent of the time. We live in a world now where usually,
even if you have a poor start, you can end up anywhere, as long as you take
advantage of the right opportunities.”
“Don’t listen to him,” John said firmly. “He doesn’t know what
he’s talking about.”
“Dad,” Pisică looked annoyed. “There are countless people out
there in the world who prove my point. People you follow on Instagram. You know
that Cardi B was a stri—”
“Yes, yes, alright, thank you, that’s enough.” John’s eyes
flitted to my mom quickly with an apologetic look.
“What I’m trying to say is,” he took a bite of his food and
wiped his fingers on the napkin that used to hold the cutlery, even though his
hands weren’t dirty.
He coughed and began again. “What I’m saying is that as a
privileged generation, we should take advantage of what so few of our ancestors
had in the past, and so few even have now. Education. The right and ability to
“Also,” he added quickly. “I don’t follow Cardi B on Instagram.
Or on any social media platform.”
He said this to his son, but his eyes were on my mother.
She looked amused and stole a bit of my bread.
“Well, I think you both make excellent points.” she smoothed
some butter over the crust and took a bite, winking at me when I glared at her.
“But perhaps we should turn this conversation in a different direction.”
“I agree.” John nodded. “There’s something far more important
that we all need to discuss.”
“Oh,” my mom giggled. “Now I’m curious.”
I was curious as well.
“I think it’s about time that we decided . . . ” he paused for
the dramatic effect, and I was disappointed to find that it worked. My blood
thrummed with anticipation that the situation should not have, in normal
situations, called for.
“—When you two are going to move in with us.”
“What?” I asked before I had the chance to think better of it,
and I turned to my mom for an explanation.
“Why do you seem so surprised, Pana?” she asked. “Isn’t it
normal for families to live together?”
“Yes.” I frowned. “It’s only that I didn’t suppose we’d all be
living together until after the wedding.”
“Why would we wait?” John asked, and I had to give him credit
for how excited he looked.
“I’ve been packing for a whole two weeks, haven’t you noticed?”
mom asked me.
“You’re always packing things up and moving them around,” I
shrugged. “Nothing seemed all that different to me.”
“Would the end of next week be too soon?” John asked.
“Everything’s ready for you.”
“I think that would be just fine,” mom smiled, but she looked
slightly worried, and directed her next question towards Pisică.
“But we haven’t consulted you in any of this. I want to hear what you have to say, honestly.
I won’t be offended.”
Pisică swirled the last of his champagne around in the bottom of
his glass, his fingers wrapped around the thin stem. They were nice fingers.
Long, white, and elegant.
“I’m fine with it,” he said, and if he was lying, I couldn’t
tell. “There’s an apartment a few blocks away from the house that I stay at
part-time, I split the rent with a friend. If I feel overrun with feminine
energy, I’ll just stay there for a few nights.”
I dropped my fork and had to dive under the table to retrieve
it. We would live together. Of course, we would. It was stupid of me for not
having realized it sooner.
It will be alright, I told myself again, when I was sitting
upright. Everything will sort itself out over time. There’s nothing wrong
“As long as you’re sure,” my mom said. “I know that it’s been a
while since you’ve had a woman in the house. I don’t want to make you feel like
I’m trying to push into your mother’s place.”
“Olivia–” Pisică said, and there was a note of disdain in his
voice, “–didn’t leave behind a space for anyone to push into if they wanted to.
She was never around long enough to make one.”
There was some awkwardness after he said this, but it seeped
away gradually, thanks to John, who seemed to have a million different things
to say about literally anything that was brought up. By the end of the meal,
everyone was smiling, at least a little. Mom and John were practically breaking
the world record for the largest set of matching grins.
He and Pisică accompanied us down to the parking lot, and there
it got awkward again when it was time to say goodbye.
Mom kissed John on the cheek, then pulled Pisică into a hug.
John hugged me, and then they both looked towards their children.
It started with one of us thinking we were going in for a
handshake, and the other thinking we were supposed to hug, then when we
realized what the other was thinking, we switched and it was the other way
around. Finally, it ended in a kind of one-armed embrace/head butt. My face was
aflame when I found myself pressed into his chest and pulled away as quickly as
I could without being obvious.
“We’ll see you next week!” John waved enthusiastically as we
drove away. Mom blew him a kiss out of the window.
“Well!” mom said, for the second time as we drove home. “I think
that went well. Do you think it went well? I think it went well.”
“As far as those types of meetings go,” I said, turning up the
radio. “I think it went alright.”
“What do you think of him?” Mom babbled.
“He’s gorgeous. He’s really gorgeous,” I answered absently,
trying to find a station that wasn’t playing country music.
“Isn’t he? That jawline; that nose; those lips; his green eyes.”
“Brown,” I corrected.
“They’re green,” she insisted.
I lifted my head and frowned at her. “Who are you talking
“John of course!” She narrowed her eyes at me. “Who were you
“John,” I assured her quickly. “And you’re right, now that I’m
thinking about it, I’m sure his eyes were green. Sorry. You know I never really
look at people in the face.”
She smiled and gazed at the sparkling ring on her left hand with
satisfaction. “I think we’ll all be extremely happy together.” She sighed
“I hope so.” I thought about it for a moment. “He has the looks,
he has the money, and he’s probably spent a lot of time around women who are
hotter than you. No offense, of course. So, I don’t see why there’s any reason
that he wouldn’t be marrying you for love.”
“Did you have any doubts?” She looked hurt.
“I always have doubts,” I said. “You know me.”
“I do that.” She pushed down on the breaks just in time to make
a red light.
“I have to say,” she added, drumming her hands along the
steering wheel, “I have to say that I had my own doubts when I heard he had a
son, but then, I have a daughter, and he accepted me with that, so it would be
unfair for me to make a problem out of it in his case. And besides,” the light
turned green, and we were off again.
“I think Pisică is a lovely young man. So mature, and handsome.
Won’t it be nice to have a brother Pana?”
“I guess so.”
That’s right. A brother.
I leaned my head against the cool glass of the car window and
tried to relax.
Once you get to know him better, he’ll just be annoying and loud
like other boys. This will pass, and all he’ll be is a brother.
The next week came around startlingly fast, time keeping up with
the ageless trend of speeding up when you want it to slow down, and slowing
down when you want it to speed up. Before I knew it, half my old life was in
storage, and the other half was packed in cardboard boxes and thrown into the
back of our car, and we were pulling into the driveway of
our new life.
John and Pisică were waiting for us, and I felt the unsettling
sensation of a colony of butterflies erupting in my stomach.
We didn’t bring a lot. The house was already furnished, but we
had the important stuff, like clothes, personal items, books, and photo albums.
John told Pisică to help me take my things to my room, and he did
so with no complaint. Four boxes out of the entirety were mine. He carried the
two big ones, and I carried the two small ones, while he led me inside.
The house was big. Not mansion big, but way bigger than ours had
been and respectably furnished. When I first stepped through the doorway, I
expected to be hit with wave after wave of masculinity but found to my relief
that everything from the leather couch, to the black, hardwood dining room
table, to the beige wallpaper, gave off a sense of neutrality.
Pisică led me up a flight of stairs, (carpeted) and down a
hallway until we stopped in front of a door, which he nudged open with his
“This is your room,” he told me. His tone gave little away of
what he thought of saying this, nearly as neutral as the house.
He was wearing a turmeric-colored V-neck sweater, and what
looked like a white Tee-shirt underneath.
I jerked my thoughts out of their current route and forced them
to scour the room instead. The wall was a kind of light grey. There was a closet,
a bed, a desk, and a window.
“The washroom is just down the hall,” he set down the boxes on
the desk. “What’s in those things?” he asked. “Bricks?”
“Close.” I set my own burden down on the bed and opened the ones
he’d carried. “Books.”
“Might have guessed.” He pulled one out, shoved it back in, then
asked, “Would you like help to unpack?”
“No thanks,” I answered firmly. “I can do it myself.”
He a bit confused with my reaction, but nodded and made his way
I worked on unpacking my stuff. The books I lined up neatly on
the windowsill; I took out my clothes and hung them up in the closet, spending
a moment feeling grateful that there were hangers already supplied, and then
set up my laptop, lamp, and mini speaker on the desk.
“So, this is home.” I put my hands on my hips and surveyed my
I wondered how long it would take for it to sink in.