You and Me

Fiction by Seth Gleckman

Sutton, New Jersey isn’t like other small towns. Sure, it has the cobblestone streets and the redbrick houses and the century-old mom and pop stores. It has the gray stone church whose single spire reaches higher into the sky than any other building in the county. And it even has the little schoolhouse that looks like a barn—gambrel roof and all. On the surface, Sutton’s a nostalgia-chaser’s paradise. Within its tiny borders, it has everything you need to forget what decade you’re in.

But if you hike through the forest and make it to the edge of a high enough cliff, you can see the gray silhouette of the crowded Manhattan skyline in the distance, the dozens of metal towers like roasting sticks poking at marshmallow clouds.

Sutton’s a small town, but one with a view of the real world. That world with traffic and department stores and busy, long-striding scowlers who don’t stop to ask how your mother’s doing whenever they bump into you on the street.

Back before I remember, I used to live in the real world. My mom and her sister, my aunt Rita, moved us to Sutton from Queens after they both got divorced from men they hated. One of those men was my father and the other was my cousin Ricky’s. Ricky and I were the same age and neither of us had any memory of those hated men, except that my dad was tall and smelled like sweat and Ricky’s was short and smelled like dirt. At least, that was what we thought we remembered. Neither my mother nor my aunt ever mentioned them.

Sutton may not have much going on—the only movie theatre closes at seven and the owner of the sole arcade can’t afford to keep the place open any month other than July—but growing up in the same house as my cousin was a good time. Our backyard led right into the forest and we spent many of our spring and summer afternoons running through the woods, pretending that the sticks in our hands were shotguns and the frightened chipmunks and deer ferocious monsters. In the winter, Ricky and I used to stand barefoot in the snow and see who could last the longest. We’d look each other in the eyes, searching for signs of weakness, our jaws rattling and our toes aching with cold. Usually, there was no winner. My mom would come outside in her bathrobe and yell about how we’d have to have our feet cut off if we kept at it. Neither of us ever believed that, until we saw the old one-armed man who worked at the local grocery store. I remember thinking how silly it was that he played the game that way.

Ricky died last week from a heroin overdose. He was seventeen. At his funeral, I told the story about the bare feet and the snow and the warnings from my mom. It got a few laughs and a few sniffles, but everyone else had better stories, ones that made people take out their handkerchiefs and bury their faces in their partners’ shoulders. This pissed me off. I knew him better than they did. Some of the speechmakers hadn’t spoken to him in years, having heard more about him from town gossip than from his own mouth. It made sense that their speeches were so good, though. When you’re faking it, you need to prepare something good. There were other things I could have said that day. About the time we stole the road sign from West Main Street, and then felt so guilty that we snuck back out and put it back. Or about how we had planned on getting married to sisters so we could hang out together for the rest of our lives. But the people at the funeral didn’t need to know any of that. They were there by obligation. Which was fine. That’s the way those things go. Funerals, weddings, birthdays. There are only a few people in the world we care about. The rest are obligations. And, judging by the way she acted at the funeral—snacking on pretzels she brought from home and looking stoic-faced and bored during every anecdote, even mine—it was clear that my mom had christened her nephew a member of that latter category. But at least Ricky had good company; I’d already been her obligation for a long time.

* * *

The night after the funeral, my mom and I sat on either end of the couch and watched gameshows in the living room that had been repainted a dozen times in the last five years. For now, the walls were beige and lined with cheap prints of abstract art my mom had found at garage sales. It was a Thursday in early January and the windows were clouded with ice. An artificial log burned in the fireplace. It had been a while since we had had a fire going, because my Aunt Rita loved to keep the house cold. But she was spending the night with her friend in Queens, so, for the first time in months, my mom and I were together in the house alone.

“C, Carson City,” said my mother, dismissively waving her hand at the television as the contestant, a middle-aged man from Minneapolis, struggled to pick out the capital of Nevada from a list of four options.

My mom was wearing her sunflower-print bathrobe and her matching sunflower slippers, which she had propped up on an ottoman too far onto her side for my feet to reach.

“But this schmuck’s gonna choose Vegas,” she continued. “Folks always think it’s Vegas.” She shook her head. “I’m telling you, the mayor should call me up and make me some kind of spokeswoman for that place. I gotta be the only person in the world outside of Carson City that knows a thing about Carson City.” She looked over at me, smiling without showing her teeth, which was the look she gave me when she was about to tell me something I didn’t know. “They’ve got a mammoth skeleton there. And a railroad museum. Helluva lot more substance than Vegas. That shithole’s just Atlantic City for hookers.”

“There are hookers in Atlantic City.”

She rolled her eyes. “In Jersey, we look down on them. In Vegas, they get billboards.”

This was all coming from a woman who had never been west of the Mississippi. The contestant chose C, and my mom said nothing. It was no fun for her when she didn’t know more than they did. That was probably why she had stopped asking me about school once I had started taking chemistry and pre-calculus. She knew she couldn’t correct me on how many valence electrons iron had or teach me how to solve a polynomial.

When we were little kids, Ricky used to call her “Aunt Einstein,” because she always seemed to know the answer to everything. Dinosaurs? Knew them all. Foreign countries? Her specialty. Music? Name an era and she’d list more bands than you could write down. But as Ricky and I got older, we realized she had been wrong about a lot of things. The dinosaur names, ones like the Hobokenasaurus and the Newark raptor, were made up. The countries weren’t where she thought they were—sometimes not even in the same hemisphere. Half of the bands she listed were just bits of movie titles. It became clear to us that the biggest advantage to being old was not being smarter; it was being trusted.

The next question asked what baby spiders were called.

“Spiderlings,” I said, before the options even appeared on the screen.

“I thought you had a test tomorrow,” said my mother, muting the television.

“I’ll take it Monday,” I said, too caught off guard to lie. I did have a test tomorrow. Psychology. But it had just been her lucky guess. She couldn’t name a single teacher I’d had since fifth grade, let alone memorize my testing calendar.

“Why?” she asked, raising her eyebrows as if she were concerned. “You schedule your own tests these days? When I was in school, we had teachers.”

“I’m taking the day off.”

“You’re not skipping school,” she said, sounding almost like a real parent.

“I’m not skipping. It’s a sick day.”

“Sick? You don’t look sick. Acne’s no sickness, Ty. Even if I can’t see your chin anymore.”

“Jesus.”

“I don’t feel like dealing with their calls,” she said, unmuting the television. “That woman in the office has such a horrible voice. I don’t know if it’s an accent or a disability, but it’s obnoxious.” Spiderling was revealed as the correct answer. “That wasn’t a word when I was a kid. You know they add a thousand words to the dictionary every year?”

“Some of us need a little time,” I said.

“Time still goes by at school.”

“You wouldn’t take the day off after Aunt Rita’s funeral?” It was a trick question because my mom, a failed interior designer, was almost always between jobs.

“What?” my mom said, as she ran her hand through her frizzy brown hair and exhaled deeply. “Your aunt’s a vegan or gluten free, or whatever. She’ll outlive us all.”

Aunt Rita was neither of those things; she was just lactose intolerant. But that was irrelevant. I hadn’t been this mad at my mom in a long time. Usually, it was apathy. But it was times like these when I had a feeling my dad and I would have gotten along.

“I didn’t see you cry today,” I said.

“Would that have made you happy?” she asked, with a calmness that made me want to run out the door and never come back.

I considered what I could say that would make her the angriest, but nothing I said ever fazed her. I looked up at the ceiling and wondered if there was a way to graduate a year early and leave by summer. My mom turned up the volume for the fifty-thousand-dollar question, which asked for the scientific name for “elbow.”

“Sciency word for pig is sus,” she said. “S, U, S. You learn that in school?”

I said nothing.

“Every med school dropout can tell you about elbows,” she continued. “But one of these days I wanna see these network hacks ask a real stumper. Anyway, it’s B.” Then she changed the channel to the nightly news before the answer was revealed. “Tell your teacher about sus. Get some extra credit on your test.”

A smiling old bald man said a storm was coming tomorrow, which made me wince, because my mom always overreacted to the prospect of bad weather. That might have been why she knew so much about Nevada. Maybe she was looking at retiring out west, where the blizzards couldn’t reach. I’d help her pack.

“You need to go to the store and pick up some things,” she said.

“Now?”

“It closes soon,” she said, looking down at her watch. “Unless you wanna starve when the storm hits. You aren’t old enough to remember the one that knocked out our power, but it happens.”

“I was thirteen.”

“Then you have no excuse for your attitude,” she said. “Get some ground turkey.”

“That’s it?”

“It’s a storm, not a banquet.”

“Okay,” I said, standing up. I waited a moment, just to confirm that she wasn’t going to give me any money, and then headed toward my room to grab my jacket and gloves. In another dimension, a version of me with spiky hair and bulging biceps was yelling at her that I wasn’t going to the damn store. I wished him luck and hoped that one day I’d have the guts to do the same.

In the hall was an octagonal display—one of my mom’s brilliant designs—of framed pictures of Ricky, my aunt, my mother, and me, with a disproportionate number featuring the first two. Ricky always told me how much he couldn’t stand his mom, but I think he was just trying to make me feel better. He knew I was jealous. His mom wasn’t like mine. She, a real estate agent who was never out of work, drove Ricky crazy with her overprotective antics, like giving him a ten o’clock curfew and saying he wasn’t allowed to get a driver’s license until he was eighteen. She knew the first and last names of all his teachers and used to call them up every month to monitor his progress. Unlike my mom, Aunt Rita didn’t have a problem admitting when she didn’t know something, and so, once she sensed something was off about her son, she used to talk to me in private, whispering about how concerned she was and hoping I’d fill in the blanks.

“He’s always tired,” she had said to me once, when she had me cornered in the kitchen. She has bright green eyes that seem to get even brighter when she’s upset. And at that moment, in the sunny spotlight that shined through the window, her eyes looked like they were glowing, primed to shoot laser beams at me if I didn’t say the right thing.

“Might be anemia,” I had suggested, remembering what I had learned in biology the previous semester.

I wished I could’ve been left to wonder, just like my aunt, if maybe he was just an insomniac or stressed or trying out some weird diet. But Ricky and I told each other everything.

In the videos they show us at school, when someone starts using drugs like heroin, they transform. They start dressing like goth hobos, stealing money from their parents and searching for food in trash cans. Maybe there’s a glimmer of themselves left, a tear that rolls down their face when they’re interviewed about their friends or a sad smile that forms when they’re reminded of the admired big sibling they once were, but the drug takes over their lives, turning them into malnourished, hopeless zombies. Ricky wasn’t like that. And that’s why I didn’t think it was that serious.

His grades were still good, even if they were B’s instead of A’s. He still played video games with me after school, even if he wasn’t as quick with the trigger as he used to be. And we still had late night conversations about prospective prom dates, as if things like that still meant as much to him as they always had. Even so, I said he should quit. Once, when I heard him throwing up in the bathroom, I banged on the door and threatened to tell his mom. What I’d tell her I had no idea. I hadn’t really thought it through, because the truth was there was no way I’d betray my best friend, my brother, like that. That’s what I thought it’d be—betrayal.

Ricky came storming out of the bathroom, his face covered in vomit and spit, and told me I better not say anything. He said he was trying to stop, but that you had to take those things slowly. Some people die from quitting all at once, you know. And then he said that if I told his mom, he’d have no reason to quit at all. That she said things she shouldn’t say, to people who had no business hearing them. That, if I told her, all the grocery store clerks and waiters and postal workers and garbagemen in town would hear he was going to rehab, and, from then on, they’d all pay special attention to everything about him. They’d crane their necks looking for track marks and make mental notes of whether he was wearing long or short sleeves, of whether his eyes looked clear or red or glazed over, of whether he scratched at his arm or his chest or his stomach for a second too long. He said it would be the most humiliating thing in the world. More humiliating than dying in a bathroom. I’m not joking. And then he turned away to throw up some more.

I’ll never forget the look his mom gave me after I said it might be anemia. Disappointed. Defeated. Hopeless. It was as if, in that moment, as she stepped out of the light, the threatening glow of her laser beam green eyes diminished to an exasperated dullness, that she understood I was never going to be of any help to her. That no truth would ever come out of my mouth, no matter how dire the situation became. Back then—my cousin’s angry, desperate plea echoing in my head—I called my noncompliance loyalty.

“Right,” she said, before giving me a pat on the back and walking away. And that was that last time she ever brought his tiredness up to me.

I’m not sure if Aunt Rita ever asked Ricky outright if he was using. But I doubt she did. I guess, in that way, she and I were a lot alike. I don’t know if she called it loyalty, or if it was something even deeper than that, something only a parent can understand, but, in the end, despite her calls to his teachers and early curfews and irrational driving restrictions—despite all the overbearingness about anything other than matters of life or death—I think both of us were more afraid of betraying him than we were of anything else.

* * *

My heavy jacket was on the floor beside my bed, along with a pile of other clothes that might have been clean or might have been dirty. I always had to do a smell test on my outfit every morning to make sure that all the ingredients were safe for the outside world. I saw Ricky’s old basketball shorts peeking out from the heap of sweatshirts and jeans and faded sports tees. He had given them to me a couple weeks back, saying there were too big on him, even though, for as long as I could remember, we had worn the same size.

On the wall was a giant poster for a heavy metal band called Absolute Chaos, a name which appeared to be the inspiration behind the level of upkeep I afforded my room. My psychology notes, bulleted phrases scaffolded by doodles of Knicks and Mets logos, were laid out across my desk. In class we were learning about memory.

At my school, psychology was the class everyone wanted to take because it was an easy A. Most of it consisted of learning boring terms and definitions, but memory was something I found particularly interesting. There’s a lot to it—why we remember some things forever and forget others within a few minutes. Our brains usually do a pretty good job of deciding what’s important. We forget phone numbers we only dial once, the addresses of old friends we no longer visit. But then there are the things we remember for a long time. Our first kiss, first heartbreak, first time away from home. Powerful emotion is what helps our brains decide what to remember and what to forget. Once something becomes routine it stops stimulating our emotions in the same way and becomes unmemorable.

For most of our pre-teenage years, Ricky and I had the same routine. Every day after school, we’d plop down on the living room couch to laugh at cartoons and play board games and eat Aunt Rita’s peanut butter sandwiches, while my mom, usually fresh off a disappointing job interview, watched afternoon television judges in her bedroom. I only remember certain moments from those years; my brain didn’t know I’d need those memories later. Moments like when the power went out and Ricky and I played tag outside with flashlights. Or when we sat in our fort made of my mom’s velvet pillows and my aunt’s Mets blankets, and Ricky, his cheeks flushed and his eyes darting nervously from side to side, told me about his first crush, a girl in his third-grade class named Abby. Gross, I had said, sticking my tongue out at him. Promise you won’t tell anyone, Ricky had responded, his cheeks reddening even more. I promised and then I told him I had a crush on a girl named Jenny. I didn’t really. Jenny was mean and weird and ate ketchup straight out of the bottle at lunch time. But I had needed to come up with someone, not because I was anywhere close to being interested in girls at the time, but because I didn’t want Ricky to grow up without me.

I opened the top drawer of my dresser and dug around for my warmest pair of gloves. Stupidly, when it took me an extra second to find them, I wondered if maybe my mom had moved things around. A few months back, after a senior football player at our school got sent to rehab because his mom had found his pills, Ricky had said the drawer’s always the first place they look. He’d said it with a smirk, like an old vet talking about a rookie mistake.

But even now, only days after my mother had watched her hysterical sister rip the needle from her nephew’s limp arm, the inside of my drawer looked exactly as it always had—clump of mismatched hole-filled socks on the left, colorful stack of unfolded underwear on the right— messy and chaotic and untouched by anyone but me.

* * *

I had the heat blaring as I drove down Main Street in my mom’s old Volvo, passing the movie theatre with the old-fashioned, yellow-lightbulb-framed marquee, the dry cleaner’s, the post office, and all the restaurants that had probably been in those same spots for a hundred years.

Sutton’s the kind of place where what you decide to eat for dinner depends on which owner you feel like visiting. Sometimes it’s Oscar from Mona Lisa’s, the place with peeling red wallpaper and giant paintings of Venice and Rome. On a slow night, Oscar, who’s in his eighties, sits at your table and shows you smudged wallet photographs of his grandkids, insisting that, despite your greasy fingers, you pass the pictures around the whole table. Other nights you’re in the mood for Tanya, the charismatic, chain-smoking owner of Bluesville, a hole in the wall barbeque joint decorated with black and white pictures of Sammy Davis Jr. and the Temptations and Marvin Gaye, pictures which Tanya signed herself and adorned with five-thousand-dollar price tags that she attached to their cheap bronze frames. If you look like you’re having a rough day, Tanya gives you a free side of slaw and tells you the ever-changing story about her date with Smokey Robinson. Some nights, she says they parked at a drive-in movie theatre and made love under the stars. But on other nights she calls him the biggest prude she’s ever met. And damn cheap too.

And then there’s Lonna from Chris’s Creamery—the most popular first date spot for Sutton high schoolers. If a couple has their first date at Chris’s and ends up getting married, Lonna, continuing her father’s tradition, names a flavor after them. When Ricky and I used to talk about marrying sisters, we’d skip ahead to imagining possible flavor names. The one Ricky was most proud of was hot fudge Monday. When I asked him what that’d have to do with his wife and him, he said that first of all it was because she would be hot like hot fudge, and second of all—he took a moment to think about this one—it was because they’d have fun every day, even on Mondays.

As I stopped at one of the town’s six traffic lights, a family-run arts and crafts store to my right and a liquor store to my left—even the liquor store was quaint with its cottage-esque exterior—I wondered if Sutton would ever change. That’s how time works other places. The years pass and kids grow up and restaurants change ownership and movie theatres get new marquees. But I had a feeling Sutton would always be the same. That even in a thousand years, when the rest of the world had flying cars and robot spouses and computers for brains, Oscar and Tanya and Lonna would still be serving up pizza and pulled pork and banana splits, seeing the same folks on the same nights, laughing at the same jokes, telling the same stories, and acting like everything was how it had always been.

* * *

With a package of ground turkey in my hand, I headed toward the register. Only one was open and it was stationed by the old one-armed man. He was a nice enough guy, but usually I did what I could to avoid him, even if that meant choosing a longer line. When I was little, that was because his missing arm creeped me out. But that wasn’t the reason anymore; he could have no arms for all I cared. Now, it was because of his affinity for conversation. He had seen my family in the store for years, which, I guess, gave him the impression that he knew us, always asking how we were doing in a manner that I’ll admit was genuine. This genuineness only made it even worse though because that meant that, to avoid seeming like a jerk, I had to do my best to match his sincerity. I looked down at my feet as I placed my things on the conveyor belt. As if he needed eye contact as a cue.

“Store brand turkey’s a dollar off this week,” he said, with a big smile. “And it’s organic. Which means it ain’t pumped up with more roids than the Yankees.”

I looked up and nodded. It had been a while since I had seen him last—my aunt did most of the grocery shopping—and he looked even older than I remembered. A few white hairs hung on for dear life on the back of his head, and his shaking hand was covered with liver spots and dark, blue varicose veins. The empty left sleeve of his button-down shirt hung motionless beside him. His name was Charles and his badge said he had worked at the store for twenty-two years. Rumor had it that he’d done prison time and that was why he could never find another job. The small dollar bill tattoo on his neck only gave credence to that theory.

“I’ll wait for you,” he said, still smiling.

I realized he was telling me I should to go back and pick out the cheaper turkey. I wanted to tell him it was okay. That a dollar didn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things. Even though I was as unsure about that grand scheme as I’d ever been.

“Thanks,” I said, grabbing my overpriced turkey and heading back to the meat section. I decided that today would be the day I’d start saving up for something. I’d figure out what that something was later. But, after this terrific deal, I’d be one dollar closer.

When I returned with the new meat, Charles winked and gave me a thumbs up.

“Now you can start savin up for a car.” He squinted up at the ceiling. “Got my first car back in ‘57, when driving was a skill. Nowadays these spaceships—I call them spaceships— damn near drive themselves. And there’s so many straps and buckles and all that nonsense.” He closed his eyes as if picturing the vehicle. “It was a Nash Cosmopolitan. Bet you’ve never seen one of those. Ask your mom about it. She’d remember em. Now, don’t get me wrong. I loved that Cosmo, but my dream car was a Chevy Bel Air.” He scanned the meat. “Do boys still have dream cars?”

“Some do,” I said.

I didn’t have a dream car, but Ricky’s was a Ferrari. For three straight birthdays my mom got him a toy Ferrari, same size and everything, just different colors. And, no matter what else he got, it was always his favorite present.

“That’s good,” said the old man. “I’ve hardly met a soul that’s ever actually gotten their dream car. But it’s more about the dream than the car. Gives you something to work for.”

He grabbed a plastic bag, opening it by separating the top with his thumb and index finger and then sticking his hand in to spread it out.

I handed him a five and took the bag. “You can keep the change.”

“You learn that from your cousin?” asked Charles, as he placed the five in the register. “He was a real good kid. Made more off his change than I did my paycheck.”

Something about the way he said it was more real than anything the others had told me at the funeral. Maybe because I knew it wasn’t just something he’d heard.

Charles smiled and handed me my receipt. “Have a jolly night. And remember to ask your mom about the Cosmopolitan.”

“Thanks again,” I said, with a wave, finally finding it easy to match his sincerity.

On the drive back up Main Street, as I passed all those aged, low-rise buildings, I thought about the real world. About the traffic and the department stores and those long-striders who were always in a rush. They must never have time to slow down and share a laugh with the old man who bags their groceries. And he must see too many people a day to remember any of them anyway.

* * *

When I got home the fire was out and my mom was no longer on the couch. I put the turkey in the refrigerator and looked out the frosted sliding glass door at the backyard, the ground white with snow. My mom was sitting out there in her rocking chair. On any other night I would’ve gone to my room. I wouldn’t have even said good night. But, as much as she drove me crazy—as much as I was sure she had no idea what I was feeling, ever, but especially now—I couldn’t think of anything worse than being alone. Even being yelled at sounded more appealing. My mom once told me the best way to stop thinking about my stomachache was to stub my toe. And that’s what I said to myself as I stepped outside, into the freezing cold, and closed the door behind me.

“What’re the symptoms of schizophrenia?” she asked, without looking up at me.

The dim porch light above illuminated a vortex of snow and dust and tiny gnats, along with sparkling specks of ice that rested in her hair. She was still in nothing but her sunflower bathrobe and slippers.

“Freezing yourself to death,” I said, clutching my arms around my sides.

“I’m helping you study,” she said. “Isn’t that the kinda stuff you learn in there? About all the different types of crazy?”

I was confused about how she knew that the test was for psychology. “Sometimes.”

“I’m sure there’s a chapter about your father,” she said, pausing to let out a deep breath that rose toward the dark sky in a white vapor thick like cigarette smoke.

I stood there in silence for a minute, waiting to see if she’d say anything else about him, as I watched the gnats zip around the light like stubborn snow refusing to fall.

“He wanted to put you up for adoption,” she said. Then, for a few seconds, she was quiet as she rocked in the old wooden chair that creaked with age with every forward motion. “Truth is, I tried the pawn shop. But the offer was terrible. You wouldn’t stop crying. Lowered the value.” She looked down at her left hand. “Made more off my wedding ring. Which is shocking given how damn cheap I know it must’ve been.”

I wasn’t sure if she was telling the truth about my father wanting to get rid of me, or if it was even supposed to be truth. But whatever it was, I decided to trust her. It wasn’t like he was around to tell his side of the story.

“Anyway, you’re better off,” she continued. “Adoptive parents are like dog-sitters.” She nodded in approval of her own analogy. “They’ll feed the dog, pet the dog, buy it a couple chew toys to keep it busy. Maybe they’ll even hug and kiss the dog once in a while. But in the end, everyone’s happier, the dog-sitters, the dog, especially the dog, when the real owner shows up to take him back home.”

I could have argued. I could’ve said that no one shows up to take adopted kids “back home.” That their new home is their real home. But I knew she wouldn’t listen to any of that.

“We could go for another appraisal,” I said. The snowfall grew heavier and I opened the sliding glass door, ready to step into the warmth. “After my acne clears up.”

“I’m glad that doesn’t bother you,” she said, reaching her hand out in front of her, palm up, as if trying to catch the tiny snowflakes that floated through the air.

“What? Being pawned?”

“Your acne.”

“It does bother me.” I’d bought a half dozen creams to get rid of it.

She stopped rocking. “I’ve never heard you say that.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

“Well, I thought it did.” She resumed her rocking, at a quicker pace than before. I could tell she was looking for something else to say. “Rita’s staying in Queens, you know.”

“How long?”

She shrugged. “I told her time still goes by in Sutton.”

“I’m not sure it does.”

She touched her hand to her cheek and shivered. “It’s gonna be a cold winter.”

“Always is,” I said, as I watched the wind shake the leafless tree branches.

“Not always.” She shook her head and looked up at me with her close-lipped smile. “One January we went swimming in the neighbors’ pool. You must’ve been two or three. Couple that lived there were nice people. I don’t know if you’d remember them. Lenny and Maxine. Both were colorblind and they had this god-awful yellow paint on all the walls. Oh, and the carpet was this ridiculous green that looked like turf. That house made me nauseous. But they always let us use the pool.”

“Was that Aunt Rita’s idea?” I asked. For her, a dip in a pool in January was probably like sitting in a hot tub.

“No,” said my mother, as she kicked off her sunflower slippers. “It was just you and me.”

And then she dug her bare feet into the snow.