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Authors: Claire Fontaine

Come Back

BOOK: Come Back
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Come Back

A Mother and Daughter’s Journey Through Hell and Back

Claire Fontaine
Mia Fontaine


For my mother


For my Morava sisters and for all lost children, of any age, who are trying to find their way home




It is its own religion, this love. Uncontainable, savage, and…


Chicago, early 1980s. I reached twenty utterly unprepared for life…


“What’s wrong with relaxing in my own home, Claire? There’s…


My days of suburban isolation were over. This time, her…


Paul, Mia, and I moved to Los Angeles when she…


“Test her for every possible drug you can test for.”


“Mia is a very troubled girl.”


I don’t know what about animal dissection inspires this teacher…


“I can’t believe she hasn’t called yet, she promised,” I…


“Our ‘A’ student was drug addicted…. Renee graduated from the…


Mia’s draped across me asleep on the flight to Vienna.


“I honestly don’t know how you could send your own…


“So, Mia, what is it about giving strange guys blowjobs…


Parents at the meeting encouraged us to join the Link,…


You’d think the president was coming to visit. The silence…


My seminar high just ended. The sense of shame and…


The seminar room’s easy to find. Waiting outside the doors…


She finally forgave me. And in such a wonderful letter.


I’m in the second day of Focus, the seminar following…


“We’re being raided.” It’s Glenn, early on a Friday morning.


It’s dead quiet in the van save a static-y country…


Cameron’s speech was prophetic. The new girls are already back…


“That’s the moment, Claire. She wouldn’t turn back even if…


As if dropping wasn’t bad enough, I’m waiting for results…


“When this is over you’re going to have a lot…


Good God, that voice. High, sharp, nasal, and LOUD.


“Mia, come on in, I’ll grab you in a second,…


Each step outdoors in the Luberon valley is redolent with…


I’ve pulled myself out of my funk. I still refuse…


Nick looks like a dimmed version of himself. He’s paler…


“You don’t think we should at least consider it?”


“You don’t know what it’s like. I haven’t seen Paul…


To be so completely immersed in a world of broken…


Cameron’s instinct was a good one. Mia’s finally becoming the…


This note falls from the pages of one of Mia’s…


“You know, I ran away once, too, before the war,”…


Mia finished her year at Santa Monica College with a…

part one

It is its own religion, this love. Uncontainable, savage, and without end, it is what I feel for my child.

She signs everything she gives me, “Your one and only daughter, Mia,” or, “Your One True Child, Mia.” Curled into my lap, she reads about the baby bird that fell from the nest and can’t find her mommy. Mia squishes into my chest, “I’m glad I came out of your egg, Mudder.”

From the moment I take her out into the world, we hear it, every day—
those eyes
! Mia has huge, pale eyes, with pale blue whites, framed by a mass of amber curls. But the brows leap out above them—they’re thick, wide, shiny dark swoops. Like the brows of ancient Persian women, painted in profile. “My God, where did she get those eyes—is she adopted?” “Are those brows real?” “She’s not yours, is she?” This we hear often; it frightens her. She has no idea we look nothing alike. She thinks we are identical.

My fear that the constant ogling will make her vain seems confirmed when I overhear her, at age four, at the bathroom mirror, murmuring, “Those fabayous eyes! She is so gordzuss.” I wince, moving to the door to have a little talk on the importance of inner beauty, then stop, still unseen by her. She’s referring to Betty Ann, the doll that was once mine, smiling down at her. She then scowls at the imaginary idiot who’d dare question their relationship, “Of course, she’s mine! Mine, all mine!”

I step back in silent mirth, happy that what she takes from those encounters is how much I love her. Before I had Mia, I had never loved deeply, nor felt deeply loved. I was unshared.


Mia is fifteen now, and she and I are in the clouds above Austria. The sun has not risen and she is spread across her seat and mine, asleep. I watch her sleep, as I have done nearly every night of her life. We are on our way
to eastern Europe. Not to see castles or rivers or onion-domed villas. Not to see long-lost family. Not even to see each other. I am leaving her there.

Mia will be locked up. She is broken now. Thin, pink scars beribbon her thighs and stomach, her ankles are bruised by a felon’s leg shackles, her wrists by handcuffs. She is medically malnourished and made up like a whore. Inside, she is dark and damaged and gone. I don’t know when I’ll see her again. I don’t know if I’ll ever see
again, my one true child. My desperate hope is that she can be repaired, even badly patched. Mostly, though, I simply hope they can keep her, that she does not escape, as she has done again and again and again and again. Each time to do worse things with worse people, criminals finally. The only thing left would be death, hers or someone else’s.

I look down at her, both of us just skin and bone and thin, little breaths. What’s left of me staring at what’s left of her.


January 30, six months ago to the day, I am absurdly happy. I’m adapting a book I love into a screenplay for an Oscar-winning producer; my husband, Paul (Mia’s stepfather), is my best friend, and tomorrow we’re putting in a bid to buy our first home. Most of all, I’m Mia’s mom. The wise, funny, sparkling Mia who still wants lullabies and butterfly kisses each night. My mother is flying in tomorrow to visit; Mia hasn’t seen her Bubbie in two years.

It’s a cold, gray day. Mia woke early with a sore throat and fever. I made her favorite soup before I left because I know I’ll be working past her bedtime tonight for the first time in her life. The story outline of the screenplay is due tomorrow.

The book I’m adapting is beautifully written but has no dramatic structure, no story to film. Creating one has been my task. It tells of a woman who has lost a child and found herself in another world, foreign and hostile.

Mia calls my office twice to tell me she loves me. There’s something in her voice, subtle. It’s not her usual, comfort-me sick voice. This voice is tender, as if I am the one in need of comfort. She calls again at nine in the evening to ask for a lullaby. I’ve sung them to her across the nation. Hushabye, my little darling and I’ll see you in the morning.

I have no idea.

I drive home after midnight, feeling such a sense of good fortune. I’m
pleased with what I’ve written, I’m buying a house tomorrow, I have the weekend free to spend with my family. The rain has cleaned LA’s dirty sky and the moon and stars are brilliant.

As I walk to my back door, I see that Mia’s bedroom window is open, the one by her bed. It’s freezing outside. I come in asking Paul about her. He’s still at his drafting table. He’s a graphic designer and has a deadline tomorrow, too.

“I checked her twenty minutes ago, she’s sound asleep.”

“With the window open?”

He looks up from his drawing, puzzled. “Of course not.”

We walk back to check on her, wondering if she opened it because of her fever. Her room is dark, ice cold, the curtains billow softly at the open window. Paul goes to shut the window as I go to her bed to check her forehead—but she’s not there.

“Paul, where’s Mia?”

Paul checks her bathroom.

“She’s not in here—”

We’re suddenly a tornado of fear and sound, hollering Mia! Mia! Mia!, slapping on lights, whipping through rooms and closets—ohmyGodohmyGod, she’s gone, someone’s taken her—someone’s kidnapped my daughter, my baby girl!

The laws of physics and biology change. Air thickens, has substance, like oil. Light is suddenly crystalline, astringent; my pupils screw down. Paul falters and sits on the bed like a dropped marionette. I run to call the police but nothing cooperates. Bowels and knees collapse, lungs shrink, lips move but my tongue is sand, useless. I can’t stand up or walk, but suddenly I can float.

From above I see this: a Polaroid by Hieronymus Bosch, a tableau with two figures agonized and contorted, reduced to an animal state.


We see it at the same time, on her desk. In her tiny writing. My call to the police will be different. No one has taken Mia. She has taken herself. I can’t breathe.

Dear Mommy and Paul,

Please read this with an open mind and don’t freak out or worry. I need to experience real life…People out there are more real, they’ll take
care of me. I’ll be okay, I have a Swiss army knife and mace…Please don’t feel guilty, I couldn’t have asked for better parents…

I’m not freaking out, I’m
. I am dancing with shock. I’m terrified. What
, what
?! This is madness, delusion, it’s the fever, she’s lost her mind! My precious child is alone on the streets with a Swiss army knife and no mind. Back off rapist with HIV, go away drifter with a blunt object, I have a retractable corkscrew and nail file!

I want to holler, pound, smash. I have sprung back to life, my synapses are on fire, my legs feel bionic, my lungs could amplify her name across Los Angeles. I want to fly over the city with infrared Mia-seeking vision.

The police officer in my kitchen stares at the letter, saying, “She doesn’t seem angry, she seems to love you very much.”

Of course she loves us, we’re great parents, she’s a great kid, why do you think we’re in such shock! I want to grab him and shake him, I’m already doing the math: Time = Distance! Every minute we stand here, she gets farther away!

He looks at her photo and we know what he’s thinking. Girl like that on the street. She is striking, exotic. She’s a target is what she is.

…I’m sick of life, everything seems so pointless…I’ve been pretty screwed up for a while, this will solve stuff.

“Solve what?” the officer asks.

We don’t know! She saw a therapist last year, struggled through some issues, but nothing that would even
at anything like this, nothing. She doesn’t do drugs, she doesn’t disobey us, she’s a good kid, a great student.

“Can you get some officers to help you look for her?” Paul asks softly.

Can you be less polite right now, Paul?

“Oh, she’s long out of Beverly Hills,” the officer says matter-of-factly.

I want to vomit.

He asks about her friends. They’re great kids, too, no drugs, good families. Wait. There’s one. Someone new.

Paul grabs the phone first, then hands it to me. He can’t bear to ask the father who answers. I can. I’d said all along. Go check your daughter’s bed, I tell him. Check for your weirdo witch girl. It’s
Mom, Mia
said. She found Talia unique; she felt badly for her because she had few friends at school.

When he returns his voice has shrunk. I can hear his wife crying.


By sunrise our friends start arriving. Favors are called in, a DA says use his name or the police won’t do anything, they don’t look for runaways, LA’s crawling with them. Paul throws together full-color missing posters. We argue about putting REWARD on them. Will it make people more alert, make someone call us? What if it gives someone the idea to kidnap her for the reward? The police won’t touch the question.

All the while, “This can’t be happening, this can’t be happening” is hammering inside my skull. I start calling every kid she knows, every parent.

Mia told her best friend Hilary and swore her to secrecy. But she didn’t tell her where she was going. Hilary’s a mess, inconsolable; she never thought Mia would actually do it. She’s furious at Talia. All her friends are. She didn’t fit in, with her, like, valley-speak and wicca crap; she corrupted Mia.

One of Mia’s classmates is lying, I can tell. I demand to speak to her mother. She calls back in five minutes with the first information I get, a name, some suggestions. I am so grateful. But I hope she beat it out of her.

I begin a succession of cagey phone conversations, maneuvering between threats and cajoling. I’ve never heard of most of these people. This one says call that one, that one says she may be here, another one says she may be there. Finally, someone says, someone said, they said, she said, something about Venice on Saturday. Maybe.

That’s tomorrow. She could be dead by tomorrow.


My friend Karin helps me dress, she practically shoves food in my mouth. It tastes like wood chips. She’s a writer as well. She reads through my work, puts it together for me. I can’t miss this meeting, can’t let the producer know anything, can’t lose this job. Because I know instinctively that whatever has happened to Mia is going to cost a lot of money to fix.

Forget the new house—call the broker.


I drive to the producer’s house in the hills overlooking this huge city where Mia is doing godknowswhat. Or being done to—no, no, stop thinking, just knock on the door.

I know this book so intimately, I can respond to questions with some intelligence, even in this wretched state. But my skin is twitching, I feel like packaged panic trying to sit still and say the right things, like, “The character’s awareness of the savagery beneath the surface,” and, “This society is a dead organism.” Instead of things like, “My child is missing, I’m terrified.”

“Claire, it’s very important the audience knows that she wanted to go.”

He actually says this. Of all the art my life could imitate, not this book. Just keep writing, make your head nod.

The sun breaks through and his hillside patio blazes with light-flickered leaves. We’ve covered everything, I’m dying to dash out of here. But he’s feeling relaxed, sociable. He says, “Let’s enjoy the sun before it goes away,” as he motions me to follow him to the patio. It’s something he knows I enjoy and I don’t want to do anything to make him suspect anything’s wrong.

“Sounds lovely,” I hear myself say as my body somehow locomotes itself outside. The sunlight sears my eyes, they’re so raw from tears and no sleep. He sinks back into his chaise, I sit bolt upright in mine. He closes his eyes, smiles a Buddha smile. And breathes.

He’s meditating.

After fifteen minutes, the time it takes to strangle a girl, to rape a girl, to push her into a dented blue van, he sighs and purrs:

“God, life is beautiful, Claire—isn’t it?”


I’ve driven home from Coldwater Canyon a thousand times, but I can’t find my way home. I’m crying and driving from one street to another like a drunken tourist. Nothing is familiar, someone switched worlds on me. The giant red circle I keep passing finally makes the trip from retina to brain and registers. The Zen Grill, we eat there all the time. I’ve been driving in the same one mile around my home for two hours.


My mother’s waiting for me when I get home. She knew immediately something was wrong when she saw our friend waiting for her at the airport instead of Paul. She’s a Holocaust survivor, she has a nose for disaster.

She hugs me but doesn’t say much. She’s in shock but she insists on
helping. She wants to help me look, this tired woman who has already suffered the unspeakable.

I take her with me to Hollywood Boulevard. Tonight, the neon, fog, and drizzle have draped this world in a pearlescent, dreamy light, like a fine tulle veil over a hard-favored bride. We cruise slowly, me looking left, her looking right, like johns looking for action through the buzz and glow. My God, all the kids. A city full of baby addicts and hookers. I had never noticed. I never had to.

We go into police stations with my posters and questions. Police here are buried in scum and vice and angry humanity. Ranting crazies in dreadlocks, pouting whores in leather bras and purple boas, seething pimps—I’ve never seen so many burgundy warm-up suits. I plead with the officers for their help. They look at me like I’m nuts, like take a look around, lady, do I look like I can help you?

Please, I insist, she’s not a street kid, she’s a good girl, something’s snapped, she’s a Hopkins Academy student. This last one raises brows. It is a conservative prep school, one whose girls do
end up on missing posters.

When I post them, my skin crawls. The looks on the faces of sleazy bastards when they see her picture. A mother could kill them with slender, manicured hands.

I have a gut feeling she’s not here. I race home to drop off my mother, then drive to Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. It’s an outdoor mall, blocks long, a favorite haunt of Mia and her friends. A subculture of street kids is always camped there around a fountain. Dirty, loud, addicted, faces full of steel rings, missing teeth. They’ve no money to buy food, but they buy hair dye, sporting cockscombs and plumages of every color. Some are smart, some drug-fried, some just “not regular” as we West Side moms say, we respectable families who cut this cobbled family a wide berth without interrupting our conversation, like stepping around dog shit. They’re just part of the urban landscape, as if the fountain spawned them, as if they’d swum upstream through the sewers and came spouting out while we slept. Now, I realize there are weeping mothers from here to the Atlantic.

BOOK: Come Back
6.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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