Dressed for her job at the college library, Annie steps from the shelter of her family’s white stucco house into gusting Santa Ana winds. Low sun casts shadows so long and deep a person could fall into them. She waits while Lenny, coming to use their pool, climbs out of his Beetle parked at curbside and walks self-consciously toward her. He isn’t wearing his usual baggy red swim trunks with the peace symbol on them, but instead jeans and a sweatshirt. His self-consciousness causes Annie to look across the road, at a windblown palm flexing like a giant archer’s bow, while she wonders what’s up with him.
“Hello, twerp,” she says, when he reaches her.
He nods in reply. After a glance with eyes bluer than hers, he looks away and gives his head a pony-like toss that fails to sweep back long hair, blonder than margarine, blowing on his cheeks. “Swimming,” he mumbles.
“Like I thought you were here to read the electric meter?” She hops into her father’s small Datsun pickup. “I’m in a hurry. Call you tonight.”
Lenny heads toward the gate in the wood fence that hides the pool. Watching him pick his barefoot way around pebbles reminds her of a chicken.
* * *
Three months later Annie is frying bacon for a sandwich. She can see the soles of her father’s feet sticking over the living room couch arm. He’s asleep with the TV on, Fred Mertz and Lucy Ricardo riding the Staten Island ferry. Her father is wearing only the jogging shorts he lives in around the house during summer. She walks over and looks down at him, considers poking his disproportionately large, flat navel to wake him.
Her toast pops up. She makes her sandwich and gets the pitcher of tea out of the refrigerator. A metal ice cube tray slips out of her hand, clattering when it hits the tile floor. Her father’s feet withdraw from sticking over the couch arm and settle on the carpet as he shifts from lying to sitting. Annie carries her BLT into the living room. “I hate to sound like Mom, but maybe you do need something to do with your summers.”
He moves his mouth, as though he woke with an unpleasant taste, and blinks a few times. Thirty-eight years old, the son of French Canadian parents, he has very round brown eyes that would make him a natural subject for a big-eyed waif painting. “I’d planned to translate one of the little mysteries I brought back from France,” he mumbles. “The publisher gave me the go-ahead.”
“So go ahead.”
“I just haven’t felt like doing much.”
He props bony elbows on bony knees, cradles his head between his hands. “How about you? What are you doing today?”
“What am I doing? Father-of-mine, I’m standing here in a skirt and blouse wolfing down a sandwich with one eye on the clock. What do you think I’m doing?”
“You have to go to work, huh?”
“I’ve been at work. I’m on my lunch break. You didn’t notice I was gone all morning?”
“I guess I thought you were in your room reading. Which car are you driving?”
“The Renault. You can put your bike in the pick-up, take it somewhere and ride till you drop. Hint: what you want is to go for a bike ride.”
Annie finishes her sandwich, uses the toilet and examines her plump figure in the bathroom mirror. Chubby dishwater blondes don’t have more fun, she thinks, combing hair cut like a boy’s before they all became hippies.
When she comes out, her father is still sitting with his elbows on his knees. She picks up her car keys. “Why weren’t you bored last summer when you didn’t work at Disneyland? What do other teachers do? I would think having a summer off.…”
He looks up and smiles weakly.
“Well, I have to run, Pop. I can’t be late if I ever want them to hire me full-time. At least go for a swim—just don’t hit your head on the pool wall and sink to the bottom without noticing.”
“I’ll make stroganoff for dinner?”
“Good. Cook—you like cooking. See you later.” Annie twirls out the door.
* * *
“The award-winning Atriums of Anaheim!” proclaims the brochure. “Completely Private Indoor-Outdoor Living!” The empty two-bedroom apartment into which Miriam follows her stepson and his friend Annie is railroad-car style, three glass-walled atriums separating four “living spaces.”
“Isn’t it wonderful?” Annie says.
At age fifty-nine, Miriam suspects nothing impresses her as much as it once might have.
Lenny wanders into the back bedroom. Miriam watches him through the glass walls and supposes he’s imagining furniture in place. He’s so intent. She remembers watching him at high-school water polo games as he waited for his turn to go into the pool. He always seemed to be concentrating so hard, afraid of not doing well when his chance came. As far as she could tell, he didn’t do that well.
Lenny wanders back into the living room. In the glass Miriam glimpses her own permed auburn hair and reasonable figure in a floral dress that reaches her calves. “Wouldn’t you kids rather live close to the college?”
Neither answers. They’ve put their names on the waiting list for a two-bedroom apartment. Since Lenny goes to Cal State instead of a private college away from home, he figures his father the lawyer, who throws money around as evidence of success, will pay the move-in fees and at least half the rent. Annie hopes to work full-time in the library and take as many classes as she can handle.
“Annie, are you sure you want to work so much while you’re in school, dear?” Miriam asks.
“If I don’t get out of that house, I’ll kill her.”
Miriam is about to object, but remembers her relationship with her own mother.
As she glances around the apartment, Miriam wonders if Annie has adequately considered how the place will feel if she wakes one morning and Lenny has a girl in his bedroom. In the six years Miriam has known Annie, Annie has barely changed outwardly. At thirteen she was chubby with a precocious bosom and an air of complacent pessimism. At nineteen she’s an inch or so taller, her bosom has ceased being problematic, and her air of complacent pessimism remains intact. But inwardly?
* * *
Lenny, on his way from the gym, stops by the acquisitions department at the college library.
“Have you noticed my father acting weird this summer?” Annie asks.
“He doesn’t want to do anything—just wallows around the house.”
“I’ve been using the college pool; I haven’t seen much of your father.”
“I believe,” Annie tells Lenny quietly, “my father is depressed because he thinks my mom’s in love with one of the doctors at the hospital.”
“Why would he think that?”
“I’ve wondered, the way she talks about her precious Dr. Bob all the time; maybe Pop doesn’t wonder, I don’t know. Maybe Mom’s finally ground him down to a spot on the carpet because he’s a mere schoolteacher. By the way, you look like a cat that fell in the toilet.”
“The toilet?” he says, laughing.
Strands of wet hair are plastered to his head and neck, large damp patches of his dick Nixon before Nixon dicks you T-shirt stuck to his skin. “I went to the gym. I was in the shower before I realized I forgot to bring a towel.”
“Go out in the sun and dry. I have a staff meeting in three minutes.”
“What are you doing tonight that you can’t go to the party?”
“Watching TV,” she says.
“You’d watch your life on TV instead of living it if I wasn’t around to get you out of the house.”
“You’d over dramatize yours if I wasn’t around to tell you how unimportant you are.”
He laughs and walks with her along the institutionally austere hall, her low-heeled blue shoes clicking, his white flip-flops flapping.
Alone in the elevator, Lenny thinks of what Annie said about her father and feels the kind of tremor in his guts that he felt worrying about Viet Nam before his birth date drew a safe lottery number.
* * *
Coming into the house from clothes shopping, Annie glimpses an empty pizza box on the living room floor and, by it, a corner of her opened senior yearbook sticking out from under the couch. Her father asked to see her yearbooks because he’s going to be yearbook advisor in fall at the school where he teaches.
She drops her Broadway shopping bag in the bedroom and steps out of her shoes. Munching an apple from the kitchen, she plops onto the living room couch and, with her hand that isn’t sticky from the apple, slides her opened yearbook from under the couch. She looks at the double-page spread of the water polo team, Lenny in his bathing cap and Speedos, his chest stuck out trying to look like a he-man. He’s taken up cigarette smoking and weight-lifting since high school—a sensible, healthy combination worthy of her mother, the cardiac nurse, who smokes while she rides her exercise bike.
Annie carries her apple through her parents’ bedroom and out the sliding door to the pool deck. Her father, his back to her, is in the pool clinging to the wall in the deep end, his arms folded over the lip, his exposed head and shoulders shaded by the fence. The filter’s noise lets her finish her apple unnoticed. He doesn’t move. She suspects he spends several hours a day like this, suspended in the water, immobile. She doesn’t like to see her father’s backside naked, even underwater, but has felt drawn to discreetly check on him lately. True, they’ve been having a heat wave—it’s been over ninety for two weeks—but what does he think about while he hangs in the water staring at the fence?
Sweating in the sun, she turns and goes inside.
Annie gets out of bed late the next morning and finds her father sitting on the couch in his recently acquired “Thinker” posture, elbow on knee, head on hand. His eyes are closed. She’s about to say, “Look alive, man,” when she realizes his cheeks are wet with tears.
She tells her mother about it in the evening, while her father is pedalling his ten-speed around the neighborhood in the cool of darkness.
“Mom, I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but I think it might help if you stopped running your mouth about how much you wish you were married to a rich doctor.”
“I’ve never said any such thing!”
Annie sees an ant crawling on the kitchen countertop and uses the side of her hand to block its path. “Not in so many words.”
“Not anyhow, anyway, damn it!” Her mother puts her fists on the hips that cause other women to call her a cute little redhead. “And I don’t. I love your father. I’ve never wished I was married to anyone else. Sometimes you really piss me off, Ann Michelle!”
“The camera only takes the picture it sees.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
The ant changes directions, and Annie moves her hand to block it again. “You should listen to yourself sometime.”
“You can be so full of shit, young lady! I don’t know where you get your ideas. Sure, I wish your father were more…”
“Ambitious.” Her mother turns her back and leans to open wider a window over the sink. “Your father is brilliant. He could have become anything he wanted. He never intended to teach high school all his life—he did it because you came along. If he’d gotten his Ph.D. like he wanted to, he could be a college professor. He still could become a college professor.”
“Not the man I see moping on the couch every time I pass through the living room.” Annie squashes the ant with her index finger and rinses her hand under the tap. “Pop likes teaching high school—you’re the one who’s bothered because he’s a teacher.”
“So what do you suggest we do about him, since you’re the self-appointed expert?”
“Maybe one of us should try telling him what you just told me—that you’ve never wished you were married to your precious Dr. Bob.”
“Your father knows it. I’ll tell him tonight if it’ll get you off my back.” Her mother leans against the sink counter and lights a cigarette. “Have you ever wondered whether he might be the one wishing he were married to someone else?—because I have. You never consider putting yourself in my shoes, do you?”
“Strange, I didn’t realize we were talking about you.”
“We never do. I’m busy around here trying to keep you from getting as big as a house and trying to keep your father from becoming a nut case, and no one ever considers how Mandy might feel. I’m a person too, you know.”
Her mother heads toward the master bedroom, and Annie hears the door slam.
* * *
Standing in the kitchen at Lenny’s house, up in the hills, Annie relates a new development between her parents, down in what she calls Wonder Bread Flats.
“I understand why my father wants to leave her. I’m leaving her as soon as the Atriums calls to say we have an apartment. If she thinks I’m sticking around for her to cry all over.…” Annie completes her thought with a scornful furrow of her brow as Miriam steps into the kitchen.
“That’s a nice outfit, dear.”
“I bought it for the library”—a tan skirt with a beige polka-dot blouse.
Annie is holding a tumbler full of ice cubes with Coke in the bottom. She sighs and leans against the counter. Lenny is leaning against the stove, facing her.
“We’re talking about what will happen next,” Annie says to Miriam.
Annie looks at Lenny. “You didn’t tell her?”
“I guess I didn’t get around to it,” he mumbles.
“You guess you didn’t get around to it? Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” Annie looks at him incredulously and turns to Miriam. “My father told my mother he’s leaving her. Not that bluntly, of course—you know what a gentle soul my father is.”
“Oh, Annie, I’m so sorry! I had no idea your parents were having such trouble. But maybe it’ll blow over—these things often do.”
“My mother suspects another woman—says she can smell her on him, figuratively not literally. I don’t think so. He just wants to get the hell away from her.” Annie rolls her eyes. “Twerp, why are you looking so freaked out? They’re my parents.”
Lenny shakes his head and glances at the floor. “It’s upsetting, that’s all.”
“Damn right—another evening of Mandy banging around the kitchen. She blames me because I said she should tell Pop that she doesn’t wish she were married to a rich doctor, and that started the conversation where he broke the news. Last night she accused me of knowing who the other woman is.
“Well, I better get home before she poisons his martini. I’ll keep you posted. Thanks for the Coke. Bye, Mrs. A.”
Lenny walks Annie to the door and out to her car, parked along the ridge road lined with eucalyptus trees. He watches her blink back tears.
“Annie, I bet Miriam’s right. Your folks will work things out.”
“You know how much I adore Mrs. A.,” Annie says quietly, “but your father is her fourth husband.”
* * *
In her bedroom Annie hears the doorbell and a moment later her mother’s voice, and then Lenny’s in the living room. She hasn’t spoken to him for thirteen days, since he told her he’s moving to Philadelphia. At first she thought he was just paranoid about the police, and it would pass. Two kids were busted during junior year of high school, and Lenny flushed his grass and didn’t smoke for a month, a superhuman accomplishment for him. Or, she thought, maybe he’d run someone down in his precious Beetle, left them in the street to die, and needed to flee California before he was caught. She saw a variation of this on TV.
But, no. Lenny has decided he wants to go to college in the East. Last fall he applied to transfer to Haverford, where his father went to school; for two weeks he couldn’t shut up about it, and after that said nothing till he got a letter in spring admitting him. He’d never really intended to go, not seriously, he said then. He had to wait until the last minute, until someone called from the Atriums and offered them an apartment, to change his mind.
She doesn’t want to talk to him, and she wouldn’t if her mother hadn’t told him to come by. He’s been phoning every day.
When her mother leaves them alone in the living room, Annie stands as far from him as she can.
In a T-shirt, shorts and bare feet, hands in his pockets, he looks so ashamed of himself. He’s been her best friend since seventh grade. He’s her only friend her age. She’s always favored the safe company of adults to the anarchy of other kids—including, now, the anarchy of Lenny.
Annie isn’t prepared when he starts crying. If he would hide his face in his hands, she might be able to take it. A toddler’s face, even a young boy’s, might be cute crying. Not the face of an almost grown man—he looks grotesque. Days ago she finished her own angry bawling and feels no urge to join his emotional upheaval. At a loss for what to do, she goes to him and puts her arms around him so she won’t have to look at him. She’s afraid her mother, behind the closed bedroom door, is listening. She pats his back, as though burping an infant, hoping to cut short his outburst.
“I’m so sorry,” he gasps, once he can talk. “I wouldn’t be going if I didn’t have to.”
She lets go and steps back. “Have to? Don’t you think that’s a bit dramatic even for you? If you’re running away from yourself, you’re going to find the same you in Philadelphia, you know.”
He snuffles and sighs.
“So you really didn’t hit someone with your Volkswagen?”
“I wish I could explain.”
“That makes two of us.”
“I’ll be home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s not like we’ll never see each other.”
“Sure. Hang by your thumbs and write if you get work.”
“I have to pack yet tonight; I’ve put it off because I dread it. I guess I should get back.”
She’s afraid he’s going to cry again. “Far be it from me to keep you.” She takes his arm and urges him toward the front door.
Stepping outside, he turns and opens his mouth, a habit familiar to her—he thinks with his mouth open. He can be so slow she has sometimes pictured letters from the alphabet floating out between his lips and forming words in the air.
Tonight she closes the door without waiting for the letters.
* * *
Her mother bamboozles her father into staying. A suicide threat, which Annie suspects even her mother is ashamed of, and tears, lots of tears, and finally nice—nice would occur to her mother last, and nice is something Mandy won’t be able to keep up.
Since the beginning of the school year her father has been in better spirits, distracted by teaching. Annie asks if he’s met with the yearbook staff yet—she’s interested, not terribly but mildly, having been on yearbook staff her junior and senior years.
“Yearbook?” He’s slicing a bell pepper and doesn’t look up.
“You’re their advisor?”
“No.” He shakes his head.
“You were going to be. You asked to see my yearbooks, remember?”
He drops chunks of bell pepper into the blender. “Oh, that. Yeah.” He starts the blender and shouts over its noise. “I’m making gazpacho.”
“Good, we’ll all have indigestion. So you’re not yearbook advisor?” She stares at him as he watches the blender, then rolls her eyes and gives up.
“Everyone’s assignments got changed,” he yells to her back, as she escapes the racket.
* * *
A letter comes from Lenny. She mentions it to her father, who says, “Just a minute,” and goes out the door from the kitchen to the garage. The next day her father asks what Lenny had to say in his letter and blushes.
She begins paying attention. Her father can usually mention Lenny without blushing, but if she catches him off guard by mentioning Lenny herself, he always blushes. Why? She notices something else: her father never asks about Lenny if her mother is in the room.
Annie is helping her mother clean up after dinner when, like a gong being struck, it hits her. March, when Lenny came to swim wearing jeans instead of his baggy swimsuit, he looked self-conscious because he was planning to swim au naturel with Pop. That’s what happened, when it started. Incredible. Yet her every instinct tells her it’s true.
Her mother opens the dishwasher and silently mouths part of a sentence to her. I don’t know how I could have ever thought.… Annie knows the completion of the sentence: that there was another woman. Her mother has said it a hundred times, maybe a thousand.
Pop was acting noticeably weird by June.
Annie, with her hand on the refrigerator door handle, tries to hide tears in her eyes. Through a blur, she sees her mother’s expression flash from cozy confidante to fright, a fright that could flash to anger and indignation in another instant. Her mother won’t tolerate any version of recent history except what she has decreed to be the truth.
“I got a letter from Lenny today, that’s all,” Annie lies.
She isn’t shocked about Lenny. He went through high school in the entourage of one or another dominant male, shifting alliances that looked to her like repressed romances on his side. She and Lenny had English together, and she could have sworn he was in love with Mr. Lane, who taught it.
Her mother puts an arm around her. “Oh, honey, I didn’t know you were still so upset about him leaving.”
“Just at the moment, somehow.”
“I’ve always suspected you had a crush on him, no matter what you said.”
Annie’s crushes are on guys she doesn’t know, not on the one she knows too well. “I’ll wash the baking dishes by hand later.”
“Don’t worry about them.”
On her way to her room, Annie pauses in the living room and watches her father, lying on the couch with a cookbook. How could he? Her question is literal: how could her father, the man she’s known all her life, be someone other than who she’s always thought he was? She searches her memory for a clue and finds none, unless the fact that a man likes to cook.…
Her father turns a page in his cookbook. “You liked the coq au vin I made tonight?”
“It’s food, isn’t it? When do I ever not like food?”
She pictures him old and lying in a casket. He’ll die someday, and I’ll go to his funeral and want so much to have him back. Mom’ll die, too. I’ll be stuck remembering the two of them living in this house without Mom ever knowing that despite all her faults—despite her insecurity, her need to be the center of attention, her moods, her bitchiness, her use of tears to quash anything she doesn’t want to hear, her relentless nagging until a person does whatever she wants because it’s either that or cut her up and run her down the garbage disposal—despite everything, the problem isn’t her.
Annie’s tears are for her father. He’s a high school teacher, around boys younger than Lenny all day long. At least Lenny is nineteen, of legal age. I’ll have to talk to Pop, she realizes. She couldn’t bear to see him make no change in his life and wind up a criminal. If it’s men he needs, he needs to find men and not settle for the boys at hand.
In her room she opens her psychology textbook and props herself up with pillows on her bed. Jack Lord’s voice resonates from the living room; her parents are watching Hawaii Five-0. Annie scoots to the foot of the bed, pulls her senior yearbook off the bottom shelf of a bookcase and opens it to the double-paged spread of the water polo team. When she told Lenny her father was moving out of the house, Lenny panicked as sure as if he had hit someone with his Volkswagen, she realizes. She stares at him in his bathing cap and Speedos with his chest stuck out.