In the summer of 1954, when I was nine years old, my mother sent me to live with her cousin Zelda in Levittown, Long Island. I'd met Zelda once years earlier, retaining only a vague memory of spicy perfume, a cloud of blonde hair, my mother's wistful, "Such a long time." This wasn't unusual; people appeared and disappeared in our lives like characters in a Russian novel. Their impermanence seemed normal both then and for a long time after.
My mother cited her fear of polio, reflective of the whole country which teetered on a tightrope of concern, balancing normal life with hypercaution. New York was bombarded by images of children in iron lungs, on crutches, confined to bed; small areas of the city quarantined in an attempt to halt the spread of the disease. Terror came up off the sidewalk like the stultifying summer heat; it was especially frightening since neither cause nor cure was known. Although in the 1950's there were 40,000 victims of TB verses 3,000 from polio, it was the stuff of parental nightmares because children were its primary victims. Polio invaded the national consciousness as something bigger than itself, something more than a disease, something that crept up and shook your life apart no matter how cautious you were.
In our neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, every store we entered had a large March of Dimes card with slits for coins and a photo of children on crutches smiling bravely. My mother always contributed, glancing at my brother and me with tear-filled eyes, shaking her head in sorrow. Her insistence that I leave the city implied that the city itself was a contaminant, its littered gutters, shadowed corners, gritty buildings, all repositories of lethal germs. Her decision was bolstered by my recent nagging to swim at the nearby Metropolitan Swimming Pool. My body had begun to subtly change, a certain curve to my hips, tenderness where my breasts would soon develop, that left me reluctant to prance through fire hydrants in a swimsuit.
"You want to soak in water?" my mother said testily, inhaling on a cigarette. "Use the bathtub. One: the pool is filthy, two: you don't know how to swim, three: it's a mob scene and that's how you get polio, in mobs and in swimming pools. You're going to the country," repeating the myth that anywhere in Long Island was country.
I was reluctant to leave behind my family, the library, Saturdays in Central Park or the Museum of Natural History. I was uneasy around new people, a shy, solitary child who spent hours reading, watching ants on the city sidewalk, peering at flies, struck by their iridescence in the sun. I appealed to my stepfather, complaining that my brother remained at home.
"Your brother is three, he doesn't ask to go to the pool."
"I won't ask," I protested.
I suspected that the true reason for sending me away was the escalating conflict between my parents. My stepfather, a cab driver, worked nights and then played cards or followed the floating crap games before he came home. I'd often woken to my mother's fury after he'd again gambled away rent money, leaving her meager salary the primary source of income, while my stepfather's calmer voice tried to cajole her into "settling down." In the morning, she'd be at our kitchen table smoking, steaming cup of coffee and ashtray in front of her, dressed for work in tailored skirt and blouse, small gold hoops in her ears, black pumps shined. She'd developed dark circles beneath her eyes, a general air of weariness that implied loss and tragic secrets. Indeed, she refused to divulge the disease which took her mother's life when my mother was only twenty, wouldn't reveal the name of her alcoholic, absent father, hadn't spoken to her sister in years for undisclosed reasons, and never spoke of my biological father. Her decisions supporting secrecy left me little opportunity to consider any other way of approaching problems.
Those last few nights at home, my brother's soft breathing in the bed next to mine, I felt overcome by a bittersweet sadness, a premature melancholy specific to adults who idealized childhood. My vision of the world was shaped by books, tales of great, important events that shifted lives, my nostalgia inspired by imagining a seismic shift in our lives would occur during this summer away. I was too young to understand that major change is usually preceded by small, incremental decisions.
My stepfather drove to Levittown, while my brother slept and I read the first of numerous sci-fi books I'd packed in a shopping bag.
"You know," my mother said. "They have libraries in Long Island."
"Just in case I can't get there," I told her. She had agreed to replenish my stock of library books when she visited in exchange for my consent to leave. She felt that we had made equal concessions, though I'd lost the structure of my entire life while she'd gained one less child to worry about.
There was mostly silence between my parents, their truce one of not arguing rather than one of small talk. At one point my stepfather mused about Zelda marrying Seymour and my mother answered, "Better to be worshipped, no? He has money and gives her whatever she wants for the privilege of showing everyone that he, the mieskeit, the ugly boy, captured a beauty."
I looked up from my book sometime later at my stepfather's "Damn." He stopped the car to examine the address, stared out the window, then shook his head at the labyrinth of houses winding around us like a cocoon. I suspected his eyes, hidden behind sunglasses, were angry. The development was a serpentine grid you could circle endlessly. My vision of country was informed by books about farms; bucolic settings where cows chewed grass, children played with dogs, farmers fed chickens, pasture stretched for miles. Levittown was as crowded as the city, rendering invalid my mother's claim that she was sending me away to avoid crowds and enforcing my belief that she actually imagined the difficulties between her and my stepfather remained secret.
My stepfather cursed under his breath, irritably turned to my mother and said, "You really needed to make this decision about leaving her here." He finally turned into the driveway of a small two-story blue house. Despite my trepidation, I was excited by the plush lawns, trees that cast leaf-patterned shade, gardens and flowerpots vivid with color. The sky, free of piercing tenements, was an expanse of blue laced with puffy clouds.
As we got out of the car the front door was opened by a tall, bosomy blonde in red shorts, striped halter and strappy heels who exuded a careless glamour.
She smiled lazily, shouted, "Hey," and waved. Ashes tumbled to the ground from the cigarette in her hand. A jumble of gaudy plastic bracelets clacked gaily.
My mother, in floppy beige pants and crisp, white blouse waved back, then ran up the driveway to hug Zelda. A mere five feet, she was dwarfed by her cousin, who smiled over her head at me and my stepfather who carried my sleeping brother. My mother, who I'd always seen as tough and independent, seemed suddenly vulnerable, unexpectedly young and innocent in the loose folds of her clothing, her eager embrace signaling her loneliness and desire for a relationship without struggle or anger.
She stepped away, touched Zelda's cheek, and asked, "The girls?"
"Inside," Zelda answered.
My mother moved past her into the house while I, lugging my heavy shopping bag, followed my stepfather. My brother, Bruce, lifted his head from my stepfather's shoulder and looked around sleepily. When my stepfather reached the door, Zelda turned sideways and then stepped slightly forward as he passed her, so that her breast grazed his arm. He glanced at her, and I grew uneasy at something in his face I didn't recognize. He lowered his head and vanished into the house.
Zelda leaned down to kiss my cheek, the drift of perfume unexpectedly familiar, and whispered, "I'm glad you're here."
"Me too," I whispered, in a rapid reverse of feeling.
Zelda proved an easy person to live with, asking little, always generous, draping necklaces or scarves around my neck, offering her large showy earrings. Each morning, she set out corn flakes, bananas, milk and juice. She sat with us, smoking cigarettes, drinking black coffee, helping Jayne, then three, pour milk into her bowl. Anne, at four-and-a-half, exuberant about having a "big sister"—as Zelda referred to me—ignored her mother to ask me to slice her banana. Zelda winked, implying a conspiracy between us that thrilled me. I'd never encountered an adult before who assumed a certain maturity on my part.
Zelda appeared each morning in silky nightgowns with matching robes, gifts from her husband. Unlike many of the other neighborhood women, she preferred reading to shopping, a preference that made me feel close to her. Seymour, in direct contrast to Zelda's attractiveness, was a stocky, balding man, his pitted cheeks evidence of an adolescence riddled with the angst of acne. His shoulders and barrel chest belonged on a taller man, and although he was actually graceful, he appeared slightly off-balance. His heavy footsteps pounding down the steps each morning was her signal to pour his coffee, toast bread, scramble eggs. He'd watch her from the kitchen door, eyes tearful with love.
"Isn't my girl beautiful?" Seymour would ask, as he strode to the stove to hug her.
"Mommy's beautiful," Jayne agreed as her stepfather kissed the three of us on the head before sitting down.
"And what will my four girls do today?" he asked. His inclusion of me as one of his girls inspired warm affection, a realization of how genuinely nice he was.
Zelda's fond look at him seemed identical to the one she bestowed on us, and I wondered if she saw him too as a child to be lovingly humored.
The grand cinematic flow of this morning ritual enthralled me; my stepfather never referred to my mother as "his beautiful girl." The frequency of Seymour's rhetorical question to others, coupled with his arm around her shoulders, brought to mind my mother's interpretation of their relationship.
Seymour owned a restaurant, laboring long hours, and every night brought home a hefty roast, lamb chops, or roasted chicken. The refrigerator was crammed with cold cuts, cheese, pickles, iceberg lettuce, fruit, two types of mustard, which more than anything else impressed me as extravagant. I prepared sandwiches whenever I was hungry, drank juice, milk, or lemonade. Against one wall of the living room was a long table crowned with glasses, silver ice tongs and ice bucket, bottles of liquor. In our house, there was wine for Passover and my stepfather's occasional beer in summer. I repeated aloud the names on each as though meeting strangers—Johnny Walker, Jim Beam, Jack Daniels—stunned by how much existed beyond Manishevitz and Schlitz. Zelda made frequent use of all of these "friends," as she referred to them, pouring herself a glass of scotch sometime around lunch, topping it off throughout the day.
I enjoyed playing big sister to Jayne and Anne, both of whom napped for hours in the afternoon. They had toys, books, games, coloring books, drawing pads, paints, crayons. We played Old Maid for hours, a game I let one or the other win, helping Jayne who couldn't keep her cards hidden in her hand. Zelda was clearly grateful, admiring what we drew or colored, laughing at her daughters' excitement over winning. Her casual acceptance of me as responsible "big sister," inspired a certain new confidence. Here was a woman who was not my mother indicating that I was both competent and special.
Zelda napped in the afternoon when her daughters did. Often, before she lay down, she would brush my kinky hair and wind it tightly in thick rollers, then cover it all with a colorful scarf. After her nap she'd brush it out, put a bit of lipstick on my lips, and a few times, applied eye shadow, mascara, eye liner, carefully demonstrating how best to do it. I liked the feel of her hands in my hair, the gentle way she avoided tugging at my curls, and would glow as I admired this glamorous stranger in the mirror.
Zelda was sometimes unsteady on her feet, rueful about her clumsiness, heading to her bedroom after "setting" my hair. I assured her that I would read or explore outside. I rarely missed home and felt a little disloyal. The library, which Zelda signed me into, was a short distance away, guaranteeing a fresh supply of books. Despite the closeness of the houses, there were lawns, small back yards, and a nearby woodsy area. I'd never had the opportunity to wander alone through such a natural expanse and I felt a sense of freedom and excitement far different than what I experienced in the city. I watched butterflies like drifting petals light on milkweed, ants rushing through tiny volcano-like openings in the ground, was fascinated by the locomotion of earthworms I dug up. At night I caught slow-moving fireflies, put them in a jar, marveling at creatures that seemed science-fiction entities; illuminated insects. I later set them free, their escape into the night sky a meteor shower in the darkness.
It was never quiet at night, especially not on weekends, which saw a restless surge of socializing. Cliques of neighbors sat outside drinking, gossiping, laughing. Zelda and Seymour were good friends with three couples who came for dinner in the backyard each Saturday. Despite the regularity of these dinner parties, there seemed an air of expectation, a certain breathlessness when each couple appeared, kissed hello, immediately received a cocktail as though being given a ticket to some elite club. Years later, I realized that this was the milieu John Updike and Rick Moody described with heartbreaking accuracy, but as a nine-year-old refugee from a city tenement, it seemed nearly regal.
Before dinner, the women gathered in the kitchen to gossip, talk about children and husbands, while the men, outside at the picnic table, discussed work or sports. Later, everyone gathered around the table to eat. I'd never witnessed entertaining like this; my parents occasionally playing pinochle with an upstairs neighbor, or my mother having a cup of coffee or baking with a friend on Saturdays. There was, I soon realized, a predictable, scripted flow to their discussions, and I could often guess what each would say next. I usually went to my bedroom to read, eventually falling asleep to the hum of conversation outside. One evening, Zelda's voice, sharply deviating from its usual girlishness, announced, "If Sister Kenny was Father Kenny, the medical establishment would be worshiping at his feet; she's a genius. The establishment tries to discredit the great work she's done with polio victims because she's a woman. Sister Kenny had the audacity to accomplish something; no matter how well women do, they're never given the respect men get."
A flood of male protests followed, but the women's silence implied tacit agreement and perhaps even admiration for Zelda's bravery.
"You know I'm right," she said. I'd never heard such passion in her voice and it lent gravity to her declaration. "You men want it all," she said. "Everything, but you want your wife to take care of that everything for you."
This was greeted with laughter and a moment later Zelda joined in, her hearty laugh the loudest of all.
I suddenly realized that I hadn't seen a single sci-fi book written by a woman and I resolved to ask for one at the library.
Later that evening, I woke to use the bathroom, heard a low mutter of voices, peeked out the window and saw Seymour and Rosie, the small, thin woman who lived next door. The moon was especially bright and their shadows lengthened across the lawn. Crickets chirped merrily and a slow breeze ruffled the leaves of a tall poplar. I opened my bedroom door, then paused in confusion. Zelda and Rosie's husband Brian were kissing in the kitchen doorway. Zelda held a bottle of wine, and Brian had wineglasses in each hand. Only their lips touched, which lent their activity an air of something chaste and delicate. I began to back into the bedroom but Zelda heard me and turned to look. Brian stepped quickly away from her. They faced me, silhouetted against the pale moonlight streaming in behind them, their faces shadowed.
"Are you alright?" Zelda whispered.
"I wanted to use the bathroom," I whispered back.
"Go ahead," she said. "We're just getting more wine."
She gestured to go and I ran past them, a picture of Seymour's open, warm face flashing into my mind. When I left the bathroom, they were already outside. I looked through my window at Zelda's soft giggle. She sat curved into Seymour, his arm cradling her shoulder. The affectionate way she kissed him on the cheek, put her hand over his, left me doubting what I'd seen.
My mother called a couple of times a week, chatting with Zelda first to see if I'd been "good, helping with the children, cleaning up after myself."
"I don't think I'll let you take her back," Zelda said. "She's such good company." She winked at me as though it was us against my mother, leaving me both uncomfortable and delighted.
"You having fun?" my mother always asked when I got on the phone. "I know you're getting enough to eat with that restaurant of his."
"I'm having fun, Ma," I answered.
"Reading everything in sight probably," she said and I knew, a reader herself, she was proud of me.
She lowered her voice then as though she could be overheard, and asked, "Is she drinking a lot? She sounds a little slurry."
I didn't answer; if I told the truth, I'd betray Zelda, if I didn't, I'd betray my mother.
"Okay," she said after a minute's silence. "You don't have to say anything. I know the answer."
Although I would play hopscotch or jump rope with the neighborhood kids, I preferred exploring on my own. At the beginning of my third week, as I walked around the woods, a grasshopper flew into the air in front of me. Perhaps I'd seen flying grasshoppers, but they hadn't registered. There was something wondrous in the air-borne flight of this earthly creature. I quietly tracked it with my eyes, sprang forward, then caught it in clasped hands. As it struggled against my fingers, I felt a surge of triumph.
I raced into the house, careful not to squash my treasure, and slid it into a glass turned upside down. The grasshopper vainly struggled to regain its freedom, leaping against the sides of the narrow glass with surprisingly strong thuds. I studied it with growing excitement, certain that I'd discovered something new. Hands trembling with anticipation, I called Information, got the telephone number of the Museum of Natural History, called, and asked for the "Insect Department." There was a trace of amusement in the operator's voice as she said, "Certainly."
"Entomology," a woman's voice answered a moment later. "How may I help you?"
I blurted out my story, words tumbling over each other. The voice on the other end offered "Umm, interesting, I see."
When I finally wore down, exhausted by my excitement, the woman said, "Thank you. I'm grateful you called. However, someone else discovered the Dissosteira, this grasshopper you described. It's wonderful for us, though, to hear from a budding scientist. Please call us anytime."
I cried after I hung up, face hot with embarrassment, chiding myself for my stupidity.
Zelda's soft voice behind me said, "I don't know any other kids who would do what you did. Wait till you tell your mother, she'll be really proud of you."
But I didn't have a chance to talk about the grasshopper.
The next time my mother called, she cleared her throat again and again while we spoke, then finally said, "Lillian has polio." She began crying, great gasps of sorrow and fear.
Lillian; my only friend. After school we sat on her fire escape talking about school, boys, books. A thin, dark-haired girl, she and I walked to and from school and ate lunch together; a couple of outcasts who liked reading, we were equally shy, and did well in school.
A jolt of shame shot through me at how easily I'd stopped missing home and my best friend, and now she had polio.
"Will she be alright?" I sobbed.
"I don't know," my mother answered quietly.
Zelda fetched a glass of apple juice after I hung up, rubbing my shoulders until I stopped crying.
"Most people recover from polio," she said gently.
We sat in silence for a few moments as I finished my juice, then she said, "You told your mother you're having fun here."
"Lots of fun."
"You don't miss your mother too much."
"Not too much," I said.
She laughed and despite my sadness, I joined in, then impulsively added, "You're fun. I want to be like you when I'm grown-up."
She was startled and shook her head. "You don't want to be like me," she said. "You're so much smarter than I am. Look what happened with the grasshopper."
"It was stupid."
"It wasn't stupid. You decided to take a chance on something big; women aren't encouraged to do that. It's terrific and brave and it'll get you somewhere. I don't take chances because I'm afraid."
"Afraid? But you're a grown-up. What would you be afraid of?"
"Grown-up things," she said. "Let's hope you never have to be afraid of them."
"Just tell me one thing," I pressed her.
She shook her head, but finally said quietly, "Being stuck and too afraid to try and get unstuck. I decide to stick with what's easy." She stood and turned away, then whispered, "Not so easy, after all, just familiar."
That Saturday, my stepfather showed up with just my brother.
"Your mother's got a terrible cold and she doesn't want to give it to all of you," he said apologetically. "She's got laryngitis, but she'll call as soon as she gets her voice back."
I led him and my brother outside, accompanied by Jayne and Anne. Zelda stayed behind to make coffee. We wandered through the tiny woods, and I pointed out beetles, mushrooms, a tree I liked to climb and read in. When I stooped to dig up earthworms, however, my stepfather laughed and said he'd go back to the house and have some of that cake and coffee Zelda was putting out.
"Show your brother the country. But don't let him put any earthworms in his pocket to take home," he said.
I did indeed dig up earthworms, placing one upon each child's palm. They giggled at being tickled. I helped each of them climb to the lowest branch of the tree, then helped them down again. I caught a grasshopper and gave them all a turn holding it, cautioning them to be gentle
"Let's go back to the yard and play on the slide," Anne finally said.
While they took turns on the slide, I went into the house to get the pitcher of lemonade that was always in the refrigerator.
"I'm getting lemonade," I called as I threw open the front door. There was a flurry of activity from Zelda's bedroom. Through the partially opened door I saw my stepfather spring up from the bed and Zelda's startled eyes as she raised her hand to the open buttons of her blouse. My stepfather, face deeply flushed, came into the living room, closing the bedroom door behind him. I stared at the slash of lipstick across his mouth. He smiled uncertainly, but at the intensity of my gaze, moved his hand across his mouth and looked at the red stain. He shook his head, whispered, "Stupid idiot," and vanished into the bathroom.
Zelda, a moment later, came into the living room, cigarette in hand. Her eyes held a bored weariness that surprised me. They strayed to the closed bathroom door. I thought of how often women's eyes followed my stepfather, his dark good looks, thick black hair, lithe body.
My stomach churned, my face a deep hot red of anger. I thought of the kiss between her and Brian. How many men did she kiss anyway? Did Seymour know she was kissing men? But my stepfather! I turned without a word, holding back tears, and ran outside. The other three were involved in a screaming game of tag, Anne and Jayne allowing Bruce to catch them. I leaned against the house, my chest tight, battling a desire to throw up, thoughts twirling in fear and anger. I had no idea what to do. I couldn't tell my mother, yet it seemed impossible not to. My brother turned and, laughing excitedly, ran toward me followed by the other two. Grateful to be pulled away from my thoughts, I joined them.
In bed that night, I experienced an immense ambivalence. What Zelda had done was wrong. She'd betrayed my mother, yet I still loved her; she was kind, good natured, respectful of me. I'd never really pondered shades of gray before, viewing most things in absolutes, in the manner of nine-year-olds.
Over the next few days I wouldn't let Zelda do my hair, refused the earrings she offered, turned away when she suggested a trip to the library. When my mother called filled with joy that Lillian was recovering, I couldn't think of some way to tell her that I wanted to come home either, without giving her the real reason. For the first time, I understood her inability to speak about troubling things and her penchant for secrecy.
After my stepfather left that afternoon, a plea in his eyes as I avoided his hug, Zelda filled her glass, then she filled it again, continuing the ritual over the next few days, empty bottles piling up. By Wednesday even Seymour, always reticent about her drinking, asked with worried eyes, "What's going on? You should slow down, maybe." The warning look she shot at him, a vehement reminder of their unspoken agreement regarding her drinking, rendered him silent.
Wednesday, Zelda surprised me by declaring it time for a shopping trip. Anne and Jayne were excited, making a list of what they wanted to buy.
"And you," Zelda said turning to me. "Anything you want, any books, maybe some kind of science experiment."
"Nothing," I told her sullenly.
Her eyes filled with tears and she swallowed the last of her drink, swaying a little but still hurrying us into the car to go, calling over her shoulder, "We'll eat at Daddy's restaurant."
The two girls were excited, but my stomach turned somersaults. I had been able to avoid Seymour's eyes, but felt increasingly guilty about keeping a secret from this kind man, while wondering how he couldn't know.
We piled into the car, Jayne and Anne in back, me in the "seat of honor" beside her. I knew, as I looked at her sloppily applied lipstick, that it was a mistake for her to drive.
She pulled out of the driveway, chatting with the girls enthusiastically. I remained silent, frightened as the car swerved between lanes, other drivers honking as they moved out of her way. A determined hardness about her made it clear I couldn't insist we go home.
She entered the turning lane of the busy road, looked at me, said, "Think of something you want," then turned left into the path of another car whose brakes squealed in an effort to avoid the collision. It hit us hard on the passenger side, just missing my door, spinning us in the opposite direction. Jayne and Anne screamed behind me. I was shoved into the dashboard, then against the seat, then forward again. My head slammed hard, the world spun violently in a starry explosion, bile gathered in my mouth, then darkness.
I opened my eyes to Zelda and Seymour hovering over me and a blaze of bright lights that contributed to a paralyzing headache. I later learned that Zelda, other than bruises, had somehow even avoided a concussion. Jayne and Anne had fallen into an enormous pile of clothes meant for the cleaners, and had escaped injury. My side of the car had taken the worst of the impact, the other driver's skill preventing more serious consequences. There was a sharp astringent smell in the air and I turned on my side and vomited. Zelda, her face black and blue, was crying. Seymour, tight-lipped with anger, leaned over and gently wiped my face with a wet towel.
"You're okay," he said soothingly. "You have a concussion, a great big bump on your head, two black eyes, but nothing is broken, thank God. I called your parents and they're on their way."
I tried to nod, but the pain in my head was stunning. I felt with careful fingers a gigantic lump covering my forehead, closed my eyes, went to sleep. When I next woke my parents were there, faces floating, sounds echoing strangely. I felt an incredible need, at that moment, to apologize to my mother, certain the accident was my fault, that I hadn't been strong enough to confront Zelda, that I'd decided yet again to remain silent.
"Shaa, shaa," she said when I tried to speak. "They're going to keep you overnight to watch you, but tomorrow you're coming home." Her face was blotchy and swollen with tears, my stepfather's white and anguished.
"You try to protect your children," she said. "But danger is everywhere. You look at what's in front of your face but it's what you don't see that you have to look out for."
I met my stepfather's eyes and he smiled wanly and put his hand over mine. "Tomorrow we'll go home," he said. "Tonight we'll stay with Zelda and Seymour." He saw the look on my face and quickly said, "It'll be okay."
I said a quiet goodbye to everyone when they came to the hospital to see me off. Zelda hugged me tightly and I submitted, anxious to just go home. I returned Seymour's careful hug and kiss with a fierce warmth that made him laugh and say, "Careful. We'll see you soon." Jayne and Anne cried that I was leaving and I told them how much I would miss them.
The rest of the summer seemed to vanish. I rested, my mother sticking close to me, my stepfather arranging trips to Central Park, upstate New York, museums, lunches in Chinatown and Little Italy. Once school began, however, his shifts at work got longer, my brother staying with the woman who watched neighborhood children until I got him after school.
In late autumn, I brought my mother a permission slip allowing me to become a "polio pioneer," one of the children selected to test the Salk vaccine. She wept tears of relief, her worst fear laid to rest.
A few months later, I came home from school to find her and my stepfather arguing in the kitchen.
"How long?" she raged, hitting him on the arms, chest, while he stood, head lowered in shame. "When did you decide to sleep with Zelda, when?"
My head began to pound, my decision not to tell her about what I'd seen leaving me responsible for this greater crime; I too had become a keeper of secrets and that decision had led to disaster.
"How can I live with you?" she asked, exhausted by her fury. She dropped to a chair in the kitchen. He didn't answer her. "How can I stay with you?" she said and buried her face in her hands as if to hide it.
"You just can," he answered, but he couldn't look at her. "You can forgive me. I was crazy. It's over now."
"No, I never can again," she said, then sat silently in the chair, her face covered. I thought, as I stared at her, that she was thinking about her decision he'd argued against to send me away. It was a summer of secrecy, of wrong decisions; my stepfather's, my mother's, and, I supposed, mine. I had prematurely entered into this grown-up world of judgment calls that had dire consequences. I wanted to say something to my mother, something that could somehow make it all right, but the set of her shoulders made me stay silent. When she finally looked up at him, and then at me, I knew that everything had changed for each of us, and could never change back again.
Title graphic: "Firefly Stars" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2009.