Everything weird started the day my dad brought home the yurt.
Anne McCullough, alias Mom, was peering through the windows of our back door, cup of coffee in hand, and frowning. Robert Schwartz, alias Dad, had taken the station wagon somewhere early that morning and was now puttering around in the yard. But since puttering was one of those activities Dad did to relax, like separating the recycling or buying dress shoes on eBay, I wasn’t exactly concerned.
Natalie McCullough-Schwartz, alias Nattie, alias me, was sitting at the kitchen table, chomping through a noontime bowl of granola. It was Saturday, after all, so I was entitled to loaf around for a bit, reading and eating cereal to the soundtrack of the college radio station that my parents had playing 24-7.
“Whuh?” I responded without looking up from my phone, where I was completing my normal Saturday-morning Pixstagram catch-up session.
“Where did your dad go this morning?”
“I dunno.” I shrugged. “Groceries or something? I was asleep.”
My mom was still frowning. She had her grayish auburn hair piled up on top of her head in a knot, which could have been either an intentional artistic look or just the result of not having brushed her hair yet. I was sporting a similar style, but for the latter reason.
“Sam? Did you see my husband go anywhere?”
Huang Xueyang, alias Sam Huang, was sitting at the desk in the kitchen, eating breakfast and probably checking his email from his family in China, and shook his head. Perhaps to assuage parental guilt over their blatant negligence of every school-related activity from signing permission slips on time to “not forgetting the date of the parent potluck for the third year in a row,” the McCullough-Schwartzes had been first to volunteer when the Owen Wister Preparatory Academy needed host families for foreign exchange students. So, since the beginning of the last school year, Sam Huang had been part of the clan. It was like suddenly having a fifteen-year-old brother, which I liked because it meant I always had someone to split a microwave lasagna with, my mom liked because it meant we were putting the spare bedroom to good use, and my dad liked because Sam played classical guitar and was “the son I never had,” which made Sam and me feel kind of equally uncomfortable.
My mom looked out the door again.
Even though it was October, we still had the screen door up, because procrastination is a McCullough-Schwartz family value. So my dad should have been able to hear her, but she wasn’t getting a response.
There was a definite tone now. Sam poured another bowl of Cocoa Puffs. I scrolled down my phone. At the top of my feed was an artsy shot of the Donut, the front-lawn sculpture at Owen Wister Preparatory Academy that was actually called something like Concentricity of Knowledge, a photo that was intriguing because one, it was a Saturday, so no one was at school and two, it was posted by user sebdel, alias Sebastian Delacroix, who had left Wister forever when he graduated. Or so I had thought.
“I think he’s . . . Is he unloading something from the car? Sam? Nattie?”
Sam smiled but shook his head. I wasn’t going to move, but Mom clearly wanted someone involved and I, as her flesh and blood, was beholden to her will.
“Nattie. Come here.”
Reluctantly, I tore myself away from creeping on Sebastian Delacroix’s Pixstagram feed and stood up. She took a pull from her coffee and narrowed her eyes, pointing out into the backyard.
Dad was definitely out there, wearing his weekend polar fleece and covering his balding head with one of his grimy bandannas. Next to him, on top of the maple leaves that no one had raked yet, was a stack of various pieces of wood, a beat-up red toolbox, and what seemed to be a heap of fabric.
“Looks like it,” I said.
“I can’t believe this,” Mom said. “And neither of you knew anything?”
She cast a hard look back at the room, where Sam Huang was now kind of cowering.
“Sam,” Mom said slowly and a little too nicely, “you know you can tell us anything. I mean, tell me. Especially about my husband’s whereabouts.”
“I . . .” Sam Huang darted a glance at the door. “I wasn’t supposed to say.”
Mom was not having it. “Come on, Sam. Where did he go?”
Sam Huang fidgeted again. “He said he was going to pick up something for the lawn. And that it was a surprise.”
“Aha.” Triumphant, and indignant, Mom swung open the screen door and started off across the yard. I unrolled my sleeves and followed, because it was chilly and I was curious. The ground was cold and a little mushy under my bare feet, but not cold enough to make me go back for shoes.
“Robert? What’s going on here?”
Mom marched right up to the edge of the little clearing Dad had made with his supplies in the corner of the yard, and folded her arms. Around us, the air was thick with mystery, and also fog. I tried to put it together: we already had a toolshed, and both Sam and I were way too old for a swing set. I had begged for a trampoline for my last birthday, but Mom insisted they were death traps, and she was probably right, given the way Dad tended to construct things. The McCullough-Schwartz basement was a graveyard of splintered IKEA dressers and oblong birdhouses no self-respecting blue jay would nest in.
“Oh, there you are!” Dad said, as if he’d completely missed her entreaties from the kitchen. He straightened up and mopped his face with the bandanna. He was beaming. “Looking good, isn’t it?”
My dad’s grin faltered just slightly.
“The yurt. Of course.”
“Nattie?” Sam Huang appeared, holding my phone, which I’d left on the kitchen table. “You have a message.”
I took my phone and unlocked it to discover not one message, but three.
From: Tess Kozlowski
where are you
“What’s a Jamba alert?” asked Sam Huang. “Is it an emergency?”
I considered. Last May, Tess had found herself mysteriously subscribed to text alerts about smoothie deals from Jamba Juice, which we both thought was hilarious, and so, naturally, ever since then, we have referred to every text message, whether smoothie-related or not, as a Jamba alert. I knew our role as a host family was to be ambassadors for the American people, or something, but this was a weirdness that went beyond national cultural differences and into the weirdness of my particular group of friends.
“No.” I locked my phone again. Tess was my best friend and the person I trusted most in the world, but she was also the most liberal person I knew, both in her politics and her definition of important. So I knew whatever her deal was could wait until after the yurt. Whatever that was.
“The what?” Mom was saying.
“Yurt,” Dad repeated, like this was a word people used every day. “The traditional dwelling of the nomadic peoples of the steppes of Central Asia. It’s a sanctuary.”
“Robert,” Mom said slowly. “We don’t dwell in the steppes of Central Asia. We dwell in the suburbs of eastern Pennsylvania.”
“Right, but that’s just the beauty of it. It’s like an escape, for the family, right here in our backyard.” Noticing me, he wiggled his eyebrows. “Whaddya think, Nattie Gann?”
Natty Gann was the name of a plucky Depression-era orphan from a 1980s Disney movie that no one except my dad seemed to remember. It was also his favorite, dadliest nickname for me.
“I thought you said you were going to build a hot tub one day,” I said.
Actually, the putative yurt was taking over the exact space where I’d envisioned having our spa. I’d always wanted to have a cool place to put my friends—Tess, Tall Zach, and Zach the Anarchist, alias the Acronymphomaniacs, which we called ourselves not because of any actual nymphomania, but because we were fond of abbreviations and also belonged to a club with an uncommonly unwieldy acronym. It had just sort of stuck.
“He said he’d think about it,” Mom corrected.
I thumbed my phone unlocked again.
From: Tess Kozlowski
nattieeeeee come hang out
“A yurt,” Dad said soberly, “is much better than a hot tub.”
This I took issue with. Because while I knew that, as a teenager teetering on the verge of adulthood and also the college process, I should have capital-G goals like “achieving purposefully,” “actionizing change,” and “not failing the math portion of the SATs,” my number one actual goal in life was just not to be weird. A hot tub was different, sure, but in a cool way. (Well, literally in a hot way, but the point stands.) A yurt, though, would just be a monument to strangeness and eccentricity—and for what? I couldn’t put it on a college application unless maybe I was applying to something like architectural school. And even then they’d probably flunk me for being too weird.
“Now, just a second, Robert,” Mom said. “We haven’t even discussed this.”
“Right, I know. But I was browsing the online yesterday night, and someone in the city was getting rid of this yurt kit for practically nothing because he had nowhere to put it, but I had to act fast or else he was just going to donate it to charity. I picked it up this morning.”
Dad looked proud, but Mom looked positively pained.
“What on earth are we going to do with a yurt?” she asked.
“What on earth would a charity do with a yurt?” I asked.
It took Dad a minute to come up with an answer. “Hang out,” he said. “Do some art projects. Or just get some nice peace and quiet, you know? The guy told me the yurt is intentionally built with a low ceiling and door, so you can’t get in without humbling yourself—”
“It’s built that way to keep the heat in,” I pointed out, vaguely recalling a social studies class.
Dad wasn’t listening. “We’ll get some cushions out here, a couple of candles, maybe a cast-iron stove to burn up some logs. . . .” He got a dreamy look in his eyes.
Mom looked like she’d rather burn the raw yurt materials than any logs. Even though she is, professionally, a creative person, Mom is not a big fan of Dad’s weekend projects. Maybe it’s because she gets to build frames for beautiful paintings all day and he’s cooped up in an office doing whatever it is executive directors of nonprofit voting-rights advocacy groups do all day, or maybe it’s because he’s left one half-dug koi pond too many in our front yard, but either way, the McCullough-Schwartzes do not have a good track record with home improvements.
“You can’t just start building a yurt in our backyard, Robert,” Mom said. “It looks . . . ugly.”
“Well, sure, it looks ugly now,” Dad said. “But soon it’ll be a circular canvas tent!”
This did not placate Mom. “What will the neighbors think?”
“It’s not for the neighbors,” Dad said. “It’s for us. Look, Sam Huang loves it.”
Sam Huang did not look like he wanted to get involved in an altercation between his host parents. I briefly wondered what would happen to him if they got divorced. Or to me, for that matter.
“We need to have a place to relax,” Dad said. “It’ll be good for us.”
Mom pursed her lips. “Does the place to relax have to be so . . . visible?”
In my pocket, my phone buzzed for the billionth time.
From: Tess Kozlowski
NATTIE JAMBA ALERT GET HERE OR ELSE WE
WILL ALL BE VERY SAD
:’( :’( :’(
I decided it was probably time to indulge Tess. And also get dressed, because it was twelve fifteen and I should probably do something more with my day than Pixstagram stalking. I was curious about the outcome of the whole yurt-stravaganza, but knowing my parents, the odds of a swift resolution were about as good as me applying to architectural school.
“I’m . . . gonna go see Tess,” I said, and backed away slowly.
“Great,” Mom said, in a tone of voice that was anything but great.
“Have fun!” Dad said brightly.
“Bye, Nattie,” said Sam Huang.
The screen door slapped behind me as I crossed the threshold back to the warmth of the kitchen and the bowl of mush that had once been my breakfast. When I stomped down the back stairs ten minutes later, Mom and Dad were at the counter, Dad gesticulating wildly and Mom laughing over a fresh cup of coffee, Sam Huang was set up at his computer watching guitar videos on YouTube, and beneath everything else, as always, the radio was softly playing an unfamiliar song.