“Mom, I need you to tell me what a word means.” Anastasia peered through the doorway into the studio, where her mother was working on some book illustrations.
Mrs. Krupnik looked up from the table where she’d been leaning over a large sheet of paper covered with an intricate pen-and-ink drawing. “What word?” she asked.
“Gwem,” Anastasia said.
“Gwem?” Katherine Krupnik put her pen down and stared at Anastasia. “Never heard of it. Is it English?”
Anastasia nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “But maybe the vowel is wrong. It could be gwim. Or gwam.”
“Guam is an island in the Pacific. Are you doing geography homework?”
Anastasia made a face. “No. Not Guam. I should have spelled it for you. It’s with a W. G-w-a-m. Or gwem, or gwim.”
Her mother shook her head. “Did you look in the dictionary?”
“It’s not there. But I know it’s a word because I read it in a magazine.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Krupnik, “they made a mistake. Or maybe it’s a misprint. There’s no such word as gwem. Or gwam. Or gwim.”
Anastasia frowned. “How about gwum? It could be gwum.”
Mrs. Krupnik grinned. “Aha!” she said. “Gwum. That one I know.”
“What does it mean?”
“Well, a person with a slight speech impediment? If that person is sad or depressed? He’s gwum. A wittle bit gwum and gwoomy.”
“Ha-ha,” Anastasia said sarcastically. “You’re no help.”
“Sorry,” her mother said. “Take a look at this, as long as you’re here, would you?” She turned the paper in front of her so that Anastasia could see it. “Do the proportions look right to you? It seems to me that the guy’s arms are a little too long.”
Anastasia walked over to the drawing table and peered at the sketch, a complicated one that showed a pudgy farmer leading a long line of cows through a meadow.
“No,” she said, after a moment. “His arms look just fine to me. I don’t know how you do it, Mom. I can’t draw anything, but you just whip off these fabulous pictures with no trouble at all.”
“What do you mean, ‘whip off’? I went to art school for four long years, Anastasia, learning how to do this. My parents spent thousands of dollars of tuition so that I could draw cows with silly grins. Look at this one, with the daffodil hanging out of her mouth—isn’t she cute?”
Her mother pointed to the cow, and Anastasia nodded.
“But I always have trouble drawing people,” her mother said with a sigh. “Darn it. All those years of life class—”
“I gotta go, Mom,” Anastasia said quickly. “I’m sorry I interrupted you. His arms are just fine, really.”
She fled, closing the door to the studio behind her.
Anastasia hated it when her mother mentioned life class. Life class was a terrible thing they did in art schools. It was a fake name: “life.” It made you think they would teach you something profound, something about the meaning of life. But they didn’t at all. It was really a class that taught you to draw people. Nude people. And let’s face it, Anastasia thought, nude was just another word for, ugh, naked.
What if nuns decided to go to art school, to learn to make nice religious drawings, of saints and stuff? And the nuns would go off happily to life class, for Pete’s sake, thinking they would learn about the meaning of life—a thing that nuns were certainly interested in—and they would go into that room very innocent and nun-like, and—whammo. Naked people standing around. Anastasia shuddered, just thinking of it. Probably art schools all over the country were filled with unconscious nuns being carted away on stretchers, their faces pale with shock.
“Gross,” Anastasia muttered, feeling sorry for nuns. She wandered back into her dad’s study and picked up the New York Review of Books.
It was a truly boring magazine, Anastasia thought, but it had a couple of interesting pages at the end of each issue. She turned to the page she’d been reading and looked at the word again. Gwem. Or gwam. Or gwim. She wondered why they hadn’t put in the vowel. It was very frustrating, not knowing what the word meant.
“Hi, sport. Are you turning literary all of a sudden? There’s a great article in there on the politics of Elizabethan poetry.” Anastasia’s father came into the study, set his briefcase on the couch, and reached for one of his pipes from the assortment that stood in a rack on his desk.
“Hi, Dad. Look at this, would you? Do you know what this word means?” Anastasia pointed to it. She read aloud: “‘Gwem, slender, thirty-five, loves sunsets, Schubert, Springsteen, and spaghetti.’”
“Gwem?” Her father peered over her shoulder with a puzzled look. “Oh. That’s not gwem, Dumbo. It’s an abbreviation, GWM. It means gay white male.”
“But what about this one, farther down?” Anastasia read some more: “‘Dijof, petite and pretty, forty-two, seeks soulmate who appreciates Woody Allen, wood stoves, and Wordsworth.’”
“Easy,” her father said, lighting his pipe. “DJF. Divorced Jewish female.”
“Oh! Then—let’s see—SBM wouldn’t be sabim! Stupid me, I thought it was sabim! It would be—”
“Single black male.”
“Oh, neat! It’s like a puzzle! Here’s a divorced white female—DWF—who’s looking for a dentist with a sense of humor—”
“Lotsa luck,” her father, who had recently had gum surgery, muttered.
“And here’s—hey, listen, Dad, this one sounds like you! MWM. That would be married white male, right? Just like you?”
“Right. What else does it say?”
“‘Married white male, forty-eight’—that’s just your age, Dad—‘Ivy League background, needs companion occasional New Yo...