It’s Elsa’s mother’s birthday, and she’s been summoned to dinner at her parents’ house, but just being around her family puts Elsa’s stomach in knots. After a Salade Niçoise she couldn’t even choke down, her mother announces that Elsa’s father has bought her a swimming pool for her birthday; they’ll break ground within two weeks. Everyone else is excited. When Elsa doesn’t muster the same enthusiasm as the rest of the family, her father asks what her problem is.
“Dad, you know I can’t swim¾”
“No, you won’t swim,” he grouses. “There’s a difference.”
This is technically true. Elsa chooses not to submerge herself in vats of acid, too.
“I should’ve just thrown you into the water when you were little instead of listening to you whine.” He harrumphs, a gargoyle hunkering over his dinner. He and Elsa recall her traumatic first experience with a swimming pool in very different ways. “Faced with sink or swim, I’ll bet you’d have figured out a way to dog paddle.”
Elsa stares at her plate, pushes the food around on it. She nibbles a little at the bacon wrapping the shrimp and has eaten half her wheat roll, but nothing tastes good.
Her sister Joan is there with her husband Neil and their eight-month-old son, Stuart. The evening continues in its typical way: Joan and Neil and Stuart are the stars with their gaiety and antics; Elsa greatly vexes her mother (Why doesn’t she ever go out? Why doesn’t she ever bring friends over at the holidays? Is she ever going to get married?), which makes her father grumble, which makes Joan suggest Elsa do something different with her hair or her clothes or go out more or do something, which makes Neil pay more attention to Stuart, which makes Elsa’s mother say how much she loves grandchildren and would like to have more someday while glaring at her younger daughter.
“Sure, Mother, I’ll have some grandchildren for you. Right after I sprout two more legs and some wings and become a butterfly.”
Everyone becomes quiet then, the family’s frustrated dance around the subject of Elsa’s Plainness stuttering to a halt. Her mother looks wistful, as if she hopes such a transformation might one day come to pass and doesn’t understand why it hasn’t.
Elsa surveys them all: her parents, prominent figures in society, their stateliness exuding from every pore even in the privacy of their home; Neil with his raven coloring; Stuart, soft fuzzy hair on his velvet scalp, just like Joan had when she was young. And then Joan. Tall, graceful, even her freckles a lovely blanket over golden skin. Like her mother, a perfect giraffe.
“Elsa, I have the number of a doctor I want you to call,” her mother says. “One of my friends suggested him.”
“I’ve been to see doctors before,” Elsa reminds her. They examined every inch of her, inside and out, subjected her to the most embarrassing questions ever, but could find no evidence of her animal affinity.
The last doctor, a specialist, recommended shock therapy as a way to bring out Elsa’s true nature. “Your whole life will improve once we figure out what you’ve got hiding away inside of you,” he said, his small black eyes like beads in his ruddy face. “No one will question your intelligence or competence ever again.” He grinned at her with thin lips. “You might even find a boyfriend finally.” At Elsa’s surprised look, he shrugged. “Your dad told me you can’t even get a date. No worries, though. Once we figure out what you are, the whole world will see you in a more favorable light.” He cleared his throat and pinched his prescription pad, began scrawling notes. “I recommend eight to ten sessions¾”
“Absolutely not!” Elsa said, tugging the medical gown tighter around herself. She wouldn’t endure some medievally-inspired torture just so her parents could feel better about their unusual kid.
The doctor cast her an indignant look. “Has anything else worked yet? Without an evident affinity, you’re only half your self.”
Elsa leveled an angry look at him that was more fear than backbone. “I’m not interested in shock therapy, thanks.”
“Fine,” the doctor replied coolly. “Enjoy being a Plain One.” Then he left the exam room, closing the door behind him with a little more force than was strictly necessary. Elsa put her clothes back on and left as quickly as she could. Her parents were annoyed with her for that, too.
“He was one of the best, Elsa,” her father said. “I had to pull some strings to get you that appointment. He’s usually booked seven months in advance.”
Elsa still can’t decide whether she appreciates her father’s efforts, or if he simply wanted to reassure himself it wasn’t his fault she’s so deficient. Either way, she knows she isn’t going back.
Dinner ends with a hedonistic dessert to which Joan politely demurs. “Watching my figure,” she says, smiling. As if Joan has to worry about that¾she grazes all day and never puts on an ounce. Elsa takes a bite of the mousse cake and finds it delicious. Suddenly she’s hungry, but she hasn’t eaten three bites before Joan stops her. “Seriously? That’ll go straight to your hips.”
Later, when Elsa gathers her purse and keys to go home, she glances back at everyone chatting away and realizes no one is noticing her. The family room––a concoction of Stuart’s toys and Joan’s knitting bag and a book Neil brought over for her father to read––is filled with the presence of Joan’s family. Nothing of Elsa’s anywhere, except for the plain white envelope on the small table by the door. It contains a check, a small monthly supplement because Elsa’s income hasn’t kept pace with the rising cost of living, so that she can have an apartment of her own.
Nights like this, Elsa just knows her parents wish they’d stopped with the first child.