Rita Whitman had long ago reached the point of no return in her feelings about her younger siblings, resenting their noise and needs and clutter, unable to see them anymore as individual children. Despite this, her next-to-youngest brother Lenny began to seek out her attention. Lenny would come home from elementary school just before her best friend Nancy dropped her off from high school, and Rita had lately noticed that he stood at the living room picture window, waving and waiting for her to come inside. He also began to ask if he could sit beside her at the dinner table, scrunching close to her, wanting as much contact with her as was possible during the chaotic meal.
Occasionally, he would entreat her to read him a story at bedtime, just one. “Like you used to,” he would ask, meaning: before you hated us.
Most nights Rita said she had too much homework (a lie), but occasionally, she would follow Lenny to his bed with a sigh and read one book to him. He liked the older stories: Little Bear and Frog and Toad. They were Early Readers; he could easily have read them to himself, but he seemed to love hearing the simple sentences in his sister’s bored, sardonic voice. When she was finished, he would thump his head three times on his feather pillow, settling in for sleep, soothed by the harmless adventures of those sweet bears and grumpy amphibians.
Sometimes, when she was laying on her upper bunk bed in a typical after-school funk, there would be three soft knocks at her bedroom door and it would be him, still in his school clothes — belted dress pants with a collared T-shirt in bright green or yellow — bringing her a drawing from his school day — a dog or a cat or a house, his name always written carefully in purple crayon at one corner.
“Leave it there on Marty’s bed,” she would instruct him from the upper bunk. Marty slept below her and always made her bed. He would put the drawing there, but remind her with great seriousness that the drawing was not for Marty, but for her.
Lenny at seven had an unusually large round head which gave him an air of both gravitas and immaturity. He was long past his allotted year of babyhood, but was perceived by his older brothers as still a baby, whiney and strange and overly concerned with his appearance. He had begun recently to show an interest in Rita’s clothes — he liked to come into her room and examine her newest purchases, asking her where she had bought them and what they had cost. He always entered the room with an expression of wonder, as though for him, even with its clutter and dust and unmistakable female scents, this was the most interesting room in the house.
It began to dawn on Rita, through the haze of her many other distractions and problems, that Lenny was different — different from his brothers with their stupid board games and their endless hiding and seeking and their fighting over snacks, but also different from other seven-year-olds. Lenny seemed to need something from her and this confused her. What could she possibly give him?
Lenny paid attention to his clothes, as she did, wanting them to be clean and ironed. He refused to wear dull colors. From the age of four, he combed and styled his own white-blond hair, making a careful part on one side, using a wet comb to smooth his bangs. He polished his Stride-Rites without being asked. Once he started first grade, Rita began to notice on him the scent of their father’s aftershave — Old Spice, which he had apparently begun pilfering from the family medicine chest in the bathroom. When Leo Whitman realized that someone was using his Old Spice, he first confronted the older boys, although it should have been obvious to him that neither were the slightest bit interested in his aftershave. In fact, it was Jimmy who caught Lenny in the act of dabbing the cologne on his neck, standing on a stool at the bathroom mirror. Jimmy reported the crime to his father immediately to clear his own name.
“You may not use my aftershave, Lenny,” Leo scolded. “If I catch you using it again, you’ll be sorry!”
Lenny was used to being scolded by his father, but he broke down at this threat, holding his fists to his eyes at the thought of no more Old Spice. Watching from an adjacent room, Rita felt a wave of sympathy, perhaps because of her own constant need to smell differently than anyone or anything in her house. Thus, her recent addiction to Shalimar, a new and murky adult scent that made her feel like she might soon move to a palace in Bombay. It was expensive. Her last bottle had been a birthday gift from a boy she had dated briefly and then sidelined, a trick she had learned from Nancy.
She came up behind Lenny and said into his ear: “I’ll buy you some of your own and you can keep it in my room.”
This was entirely possible because Peterson’s Pharmacy had recently hired her to man the perfume and cosmetics counter after school — a dream job, despite low wages — and she was eligible for a 20% discount on all cosmetic purchases.
Lenny put his arms around her neck and pushed his face into one side of her padded bra, crunching it with his enormous head.
Afterwards, he reminded her several times a day. “Did you bring my Old Spice? Don’t forget the Old Spice! Remember! You promised! Where is my Old Spice?”
“Get off my back, Lenny,” Rita scolded. “I’m very busy! I’m trying to keep my grades up for college.”
She had already been accepted into Michigan State University, but she had an irrational fear that someone from Michigan State University would call the house any day now to tell her he had changed his mind about her. She spent the last few months of her senior year studying for tests and doing final projects, the first time in her life she had pushed herself in this way.
“When people go to college, where do they live?” Lenny asked.
“College is a long ways away,” Rita assured him. “Months. Don’t worry.”
“Okay. Don’t forget my Old Spice.”
Rita closed her eyes. “I said I would get it, didn’t I? God!”
He was silent, chastened. Then, he asked, “Could you tell me how many days it will be before you leave? I need the exact number.”
Rita used her employee discount for the first time the next Saturday, needing lipstick and shampoo, but also to fulfill her promise to Lenny. In the shaving aisle, she could not bring herself to buy Old Spice. It seemed to her the scent of failure. She bought something different for Lenny — a less spicy potion, something more clean-smelling and youthful — Aqua Velva. When she presented it, she said, “Smell it, Lenny. It’s so much better.”
He sniffed the bottle with his freckled nose and then closed his eyes. “It is.”
Rita put it on top of her dresser, beside her Shalimar and Marty’s Jean Nate. Later that afternoon Marty asked her what a bottle of Aqua Velva was doing in their bedroom.
“It’s Lenny’s,” Rita told her. “He wanted his very own cologne, can you stand it?”
“Wait… so you’re going to let him come in here any time he wants to put on Aqua Velva? That you bought, just for him?” She sighed. “Mom is right. You spoil him.”
“He’s not spoiled,” Rita disagreed. “How could anybody be spoiled in this family? We’re all deprived.”
“Mom says he’s starting to expect special treatment and you shouldn’t encourage him.”
“That is just not true,” Rita said. “Not true at all.” She was secretly pleased to have found yet another way of defying her mother — giving special treatment to Lenny.
“He worships you,” Marty said knowingly. She lifted a drawing from the foot of her bed and held it out to the side so that her sister could see it from the upper bunk — a portrait in poster paint of Rita, with a crown, a scepter, and a mermaid’s tail.
Lenny had nightmares. He would wake up in the bedroom he shared with his two older brothers in a state of terror, having narrowly escaped being squeezed to death by a gigantic hand. There was no way for Eva or Leo to accommodate a six-year-old with nightmares, not with the already strained parameters of their nights. They had their hands full with Michael — a two-year-old restless sleeper — and baby Marie who still slept in a crib at the foot of their bed. No one was allowed to enter their bedroom at night for anything but ear infections or stomach flu. It was only a matter of time before Lenny sought comfort in the big girls’ room.
“Ree-tee,” he called to her softly. “Can I come up there and sleep with you?”
Rita rolled to the side of the upper bunk, opened her eyes and looked down at her brother. His head was tipped up beseechingly, his forehead shiny with sweat, his Superman pajamas mussed. He was trembling.
“Climb in with Marty,” she suggested. Marty could sleep through anything.
“I need you.”
She groaned, and Lenny took this as a yes, climbing the ladder, quick as a monkey. He flopped onto the foot of her bed and wormed his way to her pillow, settling in on the wall side.
“I had the big hand dream,” he said. “It was chasing me and I couldn’t run.”
“Shut up,” Rita said. “No talking.”
He trembled in the bed beside her for a few moments, then let go with a sigh and drifted off to sleep. In the morning, when she got up for school at seven a.m., she left him in her bed so that her mother would see him there.
Eva Whitman immediately made a rule that this must never happen again. “He could fall out of your bed and break his neck.” But she said this with an air of hopelessness, knowing that her days of making rules for Rita were coming to an end. She added meaningfully, her face clenched. “You don’t know how easily terrible things happen. I don’t want Lenny sleeping in your bed, do you hear me, Rita?”
“I hear you,” Rita said. Ridiculous, as usual.
The painting Lenny brought to her room that afternoon was a watercolor — two red birds in a tree full of crows. There was no one in the room as he entered. Both girls were at the library: Marty to check out a stack of novels; Rita to help carry them home. Alone, Lenny sprayed his neck with Aqua Velva, climbed up to Rita’s bed, and put the painting on her pillow. This one was signed: to Ree Tee from Lenny.
From that day forward, Lenny slept in her bed whenever he had a nightmare, once or twice a week.
When Rita wasn’t working Saturdays at Peterson’s Pharmacy, Nancy would invite her to spend the entire day at her house and swim in her swimming pool. Rita never turned down an invitation to hang out at Nancy’s. Hers was a fantasy house — modern and spacious and clean, and Nancy was quite often alone in it. On the morning of one such invitation, Rita noticed that Lenny seemed especially anxious at the kitchen table; he was eating his morning Kix with great concentration, making sure that six balls of cereal were on his spoon before each bite, putting down the spoon and counting on his fingers as he chewed. Ten chews. Why is he always counting? Rita wondered.
Impulsively, she sat beside him, interrupted his calculations, and asked him if he wanted to come with her to Nancy’s house and swim in her pool.
His mouth fell open, revealing a yellow mash. “Me?” he asked. “None of the other kids, just me?”
“Just you. Nobody else is invited.”
He swallowed the mash and said urgently, “Ree-tee, my bathing suit is from last year and it’s too small.”
“Never mind,” she said. “No one will see it but me.”
“Your friend will see it.”
“Trust me. She won’t care.”
But Rita wasn’t sure if Nancy would care about her decision to bring Lenny along with her. She decided that she would insist that Nancy be nice to Lenny, the brother she suddenly cared about, the brother who kept his Aqua Velva in her room and sometimes slept with her, shivering against her in fear until he fell asleep.
Nancy was, in fact, shocked to see Rita approach her car with one of her siblings in tow. “Oh please,” she called from behind the wheel. “Don’t tell me your mom is making you babysit.”
“My own idea.” She guided Lenny into the back seat of Nancy’s Camaro. He was wearing an orange T-shirt over his bathing suit, which was definitely too small. He held his backpack on his lap, hiding it. “I brought my own towel,” he said.
“Lenny, this is my friend Nancy. She’s really, really nice. She doesn’t mind one bit if you swim in her big, fancy-ass pool.”
Nancy sighed. “Just don’t pee in it, okay?”
“I won’t,” Lenny said gravely. “I’m almost seven. And I won’t bother either one of you. I just want to swim.”
“But not in the deep end,” Rita reminded him. Unlike Nancy, she could not swim a stroke and did not enjoy being in water above her waist. What she liked were the lounging chairs, the umbrellas, the bright tiles, the manicured lawn, the trimmed cement walkway, the sun on the water. She also liked Nancy’s endless supply of soda and cookies, cheese balls and stolen wine coolers. She wished she could spend every day of the week at Nancy’s pool, sleeping beside its shimmering surface, waking up hot and tanned in private sunshine.
Always, she borrowed a suit. Nancy had dozens of unused bikinis, and bikinis were totally off-limits for the Whitman girls. Rita’s favorite bikini was fuchsia with golden rings — two at each hip and one between her breasts. It was too small for Nancy, who had gained weight from birth control pills, but it fit Rita perfectly. She couldn’t wait to put it on. “Just wait here,” she told her brother. “And don’t you dare go in the water.”
He scurried to the nearest chaise, where he kicked off his sandals and leaned back into the sun-warmed chair, covering his eyes from the brightness. “I must be dreaming,” he said.
She felt a tug of love for this odd brother. Why? she wondered. “Lenny, stay right there until I come back out, you hear me?”
In Nancy’s bedroom, she looked for the fuchsia suit, but couldn’t find it, and so settled instead for a green paisley bikini, very thin fabric, almost like underwear. When she returned to the pool, Nancy was sitting on the chair next to Lenny, talking to him. Beside her, on a wicker tray table, were an unopened box of cheese crackers, three bottles of coke and a plastic tray of chocolate chip cookies. Lenny saw Rita coming towards them and smiled ear to ear — such a rare sight — a smile of pure joy. He was stacking crackers into piles of five. He said, “You look beautiful, Ree-tee.”
Nancy said, “God, you are so thin. I hate you, Ree-tee.”
Rita asked, “Who wants to jump in and play in the shallow end with me?”
Lenny screeched with delight, left his crackers and ran to the pool ladder, revealing to the world his tiny, faded speedo.
An hour later, a boy from high school — Clyde Matthews — let himself into the private universe of the pool by reaching over the gate on the surrounding six foot fence and expertly unlatching the bolt. Rita was not happy to see him and pretended not to notice he had come in. She knew that he was there to see Nancy. He made his way over to the shallow end where Rita was playing with Lenny. “Hey, who’s the kid?”
“None of your business,” Rita replied coldly. She did not like Clyde Matthews, although she had dated him a few times before he became interested in Nancy. He was the rare boy who unsettled her. Today he was barefoot, wearing khaki shorts and a white T-shirt, a small fringed bag attached to his belt. Rita happened to know that the bag contained marijuana joints, something she had refused to try on her last date with him; he had mocked her for it.
Now, to her annoyance, Clyde sat down at the edge of the pool, took off his flip-flops and put his large, hairy feet into the water near where she was pulling Lenny around on a float board. Clyde began to kick up the water with his powerful legs, splashing her and splashing Lenny, who was suddenly frowning and spitting water.
“Get out of here, Clyde!” Rita cried. Lenny paddled to the ladder and scrambled out of the pool, as though the water were no longer safe. Rita called to him, “Don’t worry, Lenny, he’s not staying.”
Clyde stood up, unbothered. He looked over one shoulder to the back of the house. “Is Nancy inside?”
“Maybe she’ll be in a better mood than you.”
Rita watched as he let himself into the house through the kitchen slider. Suddenly, she heard a loud splash, whirled around and knew in an instant what Lenny had done. In the few moments that she had turned her attention from him, he had wandered over to the diving board on the other side of the pool, moved to the end of it, and jumped in. The dive had propelled him to the middle of the deep end. He came up from his dive struggling and gasping. “Ree-tee!” he gurgled. “Ree-tee!”
Rita cried out for Nancy, but even as she was calling her, she was moving to the side of the pool, clenching her teeth hard, gathering her strength for what was ahead. She lowered herself down the ladder at the deepest corner and saw that she needed to swim at least ten feet to get to her floundering brother.
“Nancy!” she screamed again, and then pushed herself hard off the side of the pool and began the long task of dog paddling her way to her brother. Once she reached him, a life and death struggle began.
For a long time, it seemed that they were not moving in the water at all; they were struggling in place and Rita was barely keeping the two of them afloat. The universe shrank — all she could hear was her breath and the pounding of fear in her head — all she could smell and taste was chlorine — all she could feel was Lenny’s viselike arms around her neck. She was swallowing water and unable to cry out — there was no time or energy to do anything but thrash. She fought and fought like a person in a dream, the sort of dream where one is unable to move away from something dangerous. A thought came into her head as she began to lose strength: we are drowning. The realization gave her a final burst of resolve and adrenalin, and she pushed through the water, with all her strength, somehow keeping Lenny’s head above the surface until, miracle of miracle, she felt warm cement under one outstretched hand. She had paddled and flailed and moved herself and her little brother to the pool’s edge — roughly six feet of travel in one terrifying minute.
They stayed at the edge of the pool for several moments, coughing and gasping, until Lenny sputtered, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
Rita hushed him. “I’m not mad. We’re fine. We’re both fine. Come on. Let’s get out.”
She pushed him out first, her hand on the threadbare seat of his bathing suit. Then, she managed to pull herself out beside him, flopping onto her back at the side of the pool.
“Do you want my towel?” Lenny asked. He ran back to his chair to get it, bringing it back, holding it out to her face as though it would revive her. She wiped her face and her hair with it — noting how dingy and worn it was — a typical Whitman towel, faded to a rag. This, along with what had just happened, brought her to tears.
Lenny had never seen Rita cry. “Do you want me to go away?” he asked. It was what his mother always wanted when she cried.
“No, stay here,” Rita sniffled.
“Nancy!” She shouted her name again, angry this time — what was she doing in the house with that creep Clyde Matthews while people were drowning in her swimming pool? She grabbed Lenny by the hand, unwilling to leave him alone again, and stormed into the house, tracking wet footprints, her own and her brother’s, through the spotless kitchen, the sunlit living room, to the wide staircase and up, to the second floor, where Jimmy Hendrix’s “Stone Free” was coming from the master bedroom along with the pungent smell of marijuana. The door was closed and perhaps locked; Rita didn’t try it. Her clothes were in Nancy’s room and that was all she wanted. She was so unbearably angry at her friend that if she had seen her, she would have called her terrible names for having anything to do with a boy as awful as Clyde Matthews.
Lenny was watching her, aware of her anger. “Don’t be mad,” he begged.
“I’m not mad at you,” Rita said. “I’m mad at Nancy.”
“Where did she go?” he asked. “Where is that big guy?
“Never mind,” she said. “Turn around while I change my clothes.”
He did, shivering in his own wet bathing suit, his teeth chattering audibly. She took off the wet bathing suit and deliberately left it soaking on Nancy’s unmade bed. Before she left the room, she noticed a flash of bright pink on Nancy’s closet floor. Her favorite bikini. This she shoved into her purse.
“Why are you putting Nancy’s bathing suit into — ”
“Shut up, Lenny. It’s a secret. This whole day is a secret, okay?”
He knew what she meant. “I won’t tell.”
But there was hell to pay anyway. Lenny knew better than to mention the near-drowning, or the stolen bikini, or the big boy who had briefly joined them before disappearing into Nancy’s house. All of these things could have gotten Rita in more trouble than she had ever been in before, but Lenny kept his silence. What he could not hide was his sunburn.
“He can’t even swim,” Eva said from between her teeth, patting Bactine onto Lenny’s bony shoulders while he flinched. “You left him alone, didn’t you?”
“She watched me every minute, Mama!” Lenny cried.
“Show your sister your back, Lenny.”
“It doesn’t hurt!”
But when Eva yanked him around, Rita saw that it was a significant sunburn, angry red in contrast to the white stripe of skin above his pajama bottoms. She closed her eyes against the awful sight of it. It was her fault, all her fault. It had been a mistake to take Lenny with her to Nancy’s, a mistake on many levels. It was dangerous to care about him, to see his uniqueness and his sorrows.
“You are grounded for two weeks, Rita!” Eva snarled, dabbing Lenny’s back with aloe, dabbing around his waistband, where the redness was raised slightly, beginning to blister. “Lenny, hold out your arms.”
Rita had turned to ice. “You can’t ground me anymore, Mom.”
“I said you are grounded!”
“I got accepted into a real college, remember? Pretty soon I won’t even be living here. You can’t ground me.” Her voice rose. “I hate it here. I hate everybody here. I can do what I want from now on!”
“Look what you did to him!” Eva screamed. “Get out of our sight, we can’t stand the sight of you!”
Between them, with his skinny arms held out at his sides and aloe serum on every inch of his chest and back, Lenny began to cry. “Stop fighting, you guys,” he said through his tears. “Please stop. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt. Please stop.”