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I WAS STALLED in aisle 7 of our local supermarket, musing over the selection of potato chips and saying something like, “But really, don’t you think thirty-seven different types of chips is a ridiculous number to choose from? I mean, how did we end up living in a country that makes a big deal over everything being squeaky-clean and then at the same time makes you pay extra for chips called ‘dirty’?”
As usual, Mom hadn’t heard a word I’d said. Instead, she was standing in the middle of the aisle, smiling at nothing in particular and referring to her shopping list as if it were about to tell her something about her life that she didn’t already know. My sister, Deirdre, was hanging the top half of her body over the shopping cart, letting her long, luxurious chestnut-colored hair touch the unpaid-for produce. She couldn’t hear me even if she’d been so inclined; she was plugged into her iPod and humming along. If you happened to be passing by, you might have assumed that Deirdre was just some girl about to be sick into the cart, or you might have mistaken her humming for the kind of low moaning that is popular with television actors starring in telenovelas when they’ve just been fatally shot.
Deirdre has always been considered the great beauty in our family, so I made a point of keeping a certain distance from her. Someone might be forced to compare us, and I would only come up short. Literally. Deirdre is a full four inches taller than I am. Deirdre has always been the tall, beautiful one. I was … well, I was Phoebe. I’ve also avoided lingering too long over her physical features, like her delicate bone structure, her glittery green eyes, or the aforementioned full-bodied head of gorgeous, chestnut-colored hair. Compare and despair. It’s true that I’ve never tried that hard in the beauty department. What’s the point? That’s Deirdre’s territory. It was as if Deirdre had used up all the genetic coding in our family for beauty, and I got whatever was left over, the dregs. Everyone was always looking at her, admiring her, telling her how beautiful she looked, how perfect her outfit was, and asking where she got her shoes. From top to bottom she was Neptune’s “it” girl. I was the also-ran. It’s lucky I loved Deirdre as much as I did; otherwise I would have hated her guts.
It’s not that I’m bad looking. But my arms and legs have always been a bit too square, my hips are wide and I have a butt. I like my breasts. Once I got over the embarrassment of actually having breasts, I discovered that they gave me power over the boys at school when I wore a certain kind of top. My face is fine, but maybe it’s a bit too flat and round to be considered anything other than just cute. Personally, I think my brown eyes are a little too far apart and they don’t sparkle nearly as much as I would like, but I can see the world well enough with them, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. I dye my hair; I always have. It’s my signature thing, my way to keep from being overlooked or forgotten altogether. As my mother has always reminded us girls, “Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but for God’s sakes, give ’em something worth beholding.”
Mom poked Deirdre in the ribs and told her to stand up straight and take her earbuds out. Mom had an announcement to make. And then without any fanfare whatsoever, in the middle of aisle 7, she told us that our cousin Leonard would be coming to live with us.
“And soon,” she added. “I mean, this Saturday.”
“I didn’t know we had a cousin,” was the first thing out of my mouth.
Now normally, I don’t like to hang out near the frozen foods. You can freeze your legs off if you linger too long in shorts by the Tater Tots and TV dinners. But we were stuck. Mom had decided that this was the time and place to tell us exactly who Leonard Pelkey was and why he would soon be living under our roof. By the time she had finished, my teeth were chattering and my fingertips had gone numb.
Apparently, Leonard was the son of Janet Somebody from Phoenix who had been getting beaten up pretty regularly by her husband. Finally, she ran off with baby Leonard and tried to piece together a life. Years later, when Leonard was about eleven, Janet met my mother’s brother, Mike, in a bar. After noticing that he had a job, she started living with Mike in a low-rise apartment complex with a Spanish-inspired motif until she died of breast cancer the following year, which forced my uncle Mike to become Leonard’s legal guardian. But Mike wasn’t much of a father figure. He finally broke down, called my mother, and cried long distance. He admitted that he couldn’t handle the responsibility of raising a kid on his own. Mom asked him why this was the first she’d heard from him in two years. Uncle Mike explained that he had been traveling back and forth to Mexico and working on a scheme to raise some kind of cattle, which would later be sold for a ton of money. He wanted to know if Leonard could live with us—just until his cattle began to pay off.
After Mom finished telling us the story of Leonard, we made our way to the checkout, where Mrs. Toucci rang us up. Mrs. T took the opportunity to badger Mom; she wanted one of Mom’s prime Saturday-morning appointment slots because, she said, she was going to a wedding in Atlantic City. Mom stood firm and explained to Mrs. T that her beauty salon was not a fly-by-night joint, and her Saturday slots were sacrosanct.
“Oh,” Mrs. T. said, squinting through the tops of her bifocals. “What the hell’s sacro-sacked mean?”
“It means forgetaboutit,” Mom said as she handed over her credit card along with one of her signature smiles.
Deirdre and I stood on the sidelines, still reeling from the unexpected announcement. We tried to imagine what this unknown boy’s arrival would mean to us personally. I looked at Deirdre and mouthed the words, “No way am I giving up my room.” She mouthed back, “Don’t look at me.”
“Excuse me,” I said aloud, interrupting Mrs. T as she handed my mother back her credit card. Both women turned and stared at me. To tell you the truth, Mrs. T looked like she could’ve used some serious improvement. Her hair was the color of a paper bag and seemed as though someone had ironed it flat against her scalp. I briefly considered offering her my services, which was something I sometimes did for Mom’s customers when they were desperate enough to pay double to have someone come to their house and fix them up. But I decided I couldn’t be bothered. We had much more pressing issues to attend to in our own backyard.
“How old is the boy? This cousin of ours?” I asked.
“Thirteen. But he’s about to be fourteen.”
I was fifteen at the time and Deirdre was seventeen, so we didn’t have much use for a boy that age living under our roof. It wasn’t as if Deirdre and I would be able to pick and choose PBFs (Potential Boyfriends) from the gang of boys that our “cousin” dragged home from school with him. They’d all be way too young—and annoying.
“I have a very bad feeling about this Leonard situation,” I said.
“Phoebe, don’t start. I’m in no mood,” she said to me as she shoved her credit card back into her leatherette purse. “Grab those bags and put them in the cart. We have a lot to do.”
I knew what was going on. I knew what Mom was up to. She was doing that thing she does when she forces life to go on as usual. She doesn’t say anything, but her actions speak louder than words, and they all seem to be saying: This is it. This is the way it’s going to be from now on. Get used to it. And that’s how I knew we were going to be stuck with Leonard and there was nothing anyone could say or do from that moment forward to change the situation.
There are those moments in your life when you just know for sure that a major shift is happening right beneath your running shoes and you can feel that your world will never be the same again. That day I swear I felt as if the floor buckled and split and we were all suddenly standing at the edge of a giant abyss looking into God-knows-what. The weird thing is that on the surface everything seemed the same. It was just another Monday at the local supermarket; the PA system was pumping out a watered-down version of “Every Breath You Take,” shoppers were loading up supplies for the week, and Mrs. T was badgering Mom for an appointment. Same ol’, same ol’. But I wasn’t fooled. Not for a minute. And neither was Deirdre.
“Where’s he going to sleep?” Deirdre wanted to know once we were outside in the parking lot standing beside Mom’s globally warmed Honda.
Mom was packing the groceries into the trunk. I noticed that her eyebrows were arched very high and her lips had been drawn tightly together in a little O of No comment. She slammed the trunk shut with a mighty thunk.
“Look,” she said in the voice she only used with her customers who had complaints about the end result, “arrangements will be made.”
We lived in a two-story, three-bedroom, split-level house that was smack in the middle of nowhere along the Jersey shore. Ours was not a house where arrangements got made. We were more the type of family to whom things just happened. Fathers ran off. Parents got divorced. Grandmothers died. Cousins moved in. Everything from the future just seemed to tumble into the present and take us by surprise. There was never any planning involved, and certainly no arranging. It was true that appointments got made at my mother’s hair salon every day of the week (except Sundays and Mondays), and since the salon itself was attached to our house by a narrow breezeway, it was technically still a part of our home; but those appointments weren’t arranged; they were booked.
Arrangements? Who was she kidding?
Because we didn’t have a spare bedroom in our house and because both Deirdre and I had adamantly refused to give up our rooms to a total stranger, we were forced by my mother to spend the afternoon creating a suitable living space for Leonard down in the basement. We broke our backs clearing an area against one of the cinder-block walls and then stacking boxes five high to create a cozy cardboard corral just large enough to fit a twin bed, a small dresser, and a milk crate that was transformed into a bedside table. We found an old floor lamp down there, the kind that has several conical shades sticking out of it, and we hooked it up in case Leonard was the type of kid who read books. Mom bought a wastebasket with pictures of trains embossed into it. She placed the thing on the floor, stood back to appraise it, and then dismissed our objections by saying that we didn’t know bubkes about what a boy likes. Judging from the look of the wastebasket, she didn’t either, but we gave up arguing. To give the illusion of a doorway, we left an opening between two stacks of boxes; and then in a tragic attempt to provide the suggestion of privacy, Mom tacked up a piece of blue billowy fabric over the opening.
The fact that I ended up straining my back and having a bad attitude about our guest before he set foot on our property made no difference to my mother. When I complained about having to do all the heavy lifting, she said, “Well, having a boy around the house will change all that.” She turned her back on me and continued to tape up a few tattered Sierra Club posters that had been rolled up and lying around forever. This was another one of her brilliant ideas. She said the posters would be like windows that looked out onto vistas more breathtaking and awe-inspiring than anything Leonard would be likely to find in Neptune, New Jersey. Her choice of views included the wide-open wilderness of Yosemite National Park, the moon rising over Massanutten Mountain in Shenandoah National Park, and an uninviting stretch of Arctic tundra that looked a little too frozen to be anything other than deadly. I refused to be impressed by any of it, mostly because the whole arrangement was the most obvious desecration of the memory of my dead grandmother.
Allow me to explain.
After my nana Hertle died, no one knew what to do with her stuff. The furniture was too good to put out on the street but not fine or fancy enough to sell for a profit on eBay. Her clothes were exceptional only because they had belonged to her; her knickknacks, potholders, inspirational books, crocheted vests, tam-o’-shanters, collection of cocktail swizzle sticks, Ouija board, yoga mat, and electric juicer continued to sit there in her apartment gathering dust from one month to the next. My father still lived with us back then, and all the signs were that he was depressed. Who could blame him? His only mother had just died, and whenever someone (i.e., Mom) suggested that he drive over to Nana Hertle’s place and box up her belongings, he claimed that it was too much for him. His short-term solution was to go to work, come home, watch TV game shows, and pay the rent on Nana’s apartment.
But paying rent on a dead person’s apartment was, in my mother’s estimation, the same as throwing money out the window. So one day, without any warning, she drove over to Nana’s apartment, dragged all the furniture out onto the curb, priced everything, sold most of it, and what she couldn’t sell she boxed up and moved into our basement. The empty apartment was then sublet to a Polish couple with a newborn baby, and that was that.
I was only eleven when Nana died, so I wasn’t expected to figure out stuff like this; but then no one else in my family did anything about it either. As a result, the boxes just sat there, sagging, molding at the edges, and smelling slightly of mildew. I think Mom was proud of herself for finally putting those boxes to good use while at the same time solving the problem of where Leonard was going to sleep. She kept repeating over and over that Leonard was going to love it, really love it.
For the next few days Deirdre and I lived in a state of suspended disbelief. Everything went on as it always had, and we tried not to think about the fact that life as we had known it was about to end. No one mentioned that a stranger, a boy, an uninvited guest was about to take up residence in our home, and no one uttered his name. We just went about our business. Looking back on it now, however, I realize that even if we had been ready to receive the imagined Leonard Pelkey into our midst with open arms, we still wouldn’t have been prepared for the shock of that almost-fourteen-year-old boy who stood in our living room that first day.
Leonard was wearing capri pants (pink and lime-green plaid) and a too-small T-shirt, which exposed his midriff. He wore a pair of shoes that were more like sandals set atop a pair of two-inch wooden platforms. Both ears were pierced, though only one chip of pale blue glinted from his left lobe. He carried what looked like a flight attendant’s overnight flight bag from the 1960s: The strap was hitched over his shoulder, lady style.
“Ciao,” he said to me as he smiled and held out his hand.
I took hold of his delicate fingers and gave them a quick shake, while internally rolling my eyes. He was way too different. Don’t get me wrong. I like different. I am different. But when different goes too far, it stops being a statement and just becomes weird. I made up my mind right then and there that he and I would not be getting that close, and as a way of making my point, I turned on my heel and got out of there as fast as I could without knocking anything over.
From the dining room I could watch Leonard’s reflection in the large gilt mirror that hung over the sofa on the far wall. He didn’t see me, not at first; he was too busy entertaining my mother, telling her stories about his journey, talking about what he had eaten on the plane, who he’d spoken to, pulling out the contents of his flight bag and then explaining where he got everything, including the bag itself. I thought he’d never shut up.
“They gave me the bag on the plane because the air hostess said I was the most entertaining young person she’d met in a long while. It’s vintage. I told her if she was any nicer, I’d have to do my Julie Andrews impression for her. She was, like, Who’s Julie Andrews? I was, like, Are you kidding me?”
I was not in the least interested in what he was packing or what impressions he could pull off, but I was certainly intrigued by his appearance. He was like a visual code that was at once both a no-brainer to figure out and impossible to decipher. I mean, it wasn’t just the fact that he was obviously gay. Please, I’ve watched enough TV to not be shocked by swish behavior. But there was something about Leonard that seemed to invite ridicule. Like he was saying, Go on, I dare you, say something, mention the obvious. The incredible thing was that no one said a word. Not Deirdre. Not Mom. And since I was out of the room, not me.
Leonard had a narrow face with plain Midwestern features. His mouth was tiny and unremarkable except for the fact that it was always in motion. A few freckles dotted the bridge of his nose and looked like they had been painted on for a musical performance in which he was to play a hillbilly. If it hadn’t been for his eyes, two green pinpoints of flickering intensity, you might have missed him entirely. They were so bright, they made his whole head seem bright and biggish, sitting atop a narrow set of shoulders. His eyes were what held him in place, as if the sharpness of his gaze made him appear more visible to others, more present. The way those eyes could dart about the room and flit from surface to surface made it seem as though his life had depended upon his ability to take in every single detail, assess every stitch of your outfit, calculate the distance to each exit and the time it would take to get there. He did have the most adorable eyelashes I’d ever seen on a boy, long and silky and dark, but then he may have been wearing some product.
“I see you,” he said to my reflection in the mirror, which naturally made me crouch to the floor and then drag myself into the kitchen.
I had to warn my mother. I felt it was my duty to tell her that I had a very bad feeling, the same feeling I’d had a few years ago when Dad took up with Chrissie Bettinger, an event that of course led to my parents’ divorce and to the subsequent destruction of our entire family. Nana Hertle always tried to convince me that I possessed psychic abilities. I told her I didn’t believe in such things. But when I realized that I might have prevented my father from running off if only I had heeded my nagging premonitions, I began to wonder whether perhaps I did have a special power to foretell the future after all. If only I had said something at the time. So just to be on the safe side, after Leonard was settled into his makeshift basement bedroom and out of earshot, and Mom was back upstairs in the kitchen, I grabbed her arm and said, “Can’t you see it? He’s like a freak of nature. He’s from another planet. I mean, what’s he wearing on his feet?”
“Phoebe, let go of my arm,” she said, narrowing her eyes and putting on a very cool voice. “They’re a kind of sandal. I think they call them huaraches. And you don’t know. Maybe they’re popular with the boys where he comes from.”
“Where? On Mars?”
My mother said I was pure evil and she refused to listen to another word. To get me out of her sight, she instructed me to deliver a handful of fresh towels to Leonard.
He was lying on his new bed in his basement lair. The aforementioned huaraches were kicked off, and he was gazing up at the system of pipes and wires suspended from the rafters as though he were looking at a field of shimmering stars on a summer night.
“So cool. Right? I’m going to call it ‘my boxed set.’ Get it? Boxed. Set.”
“Yeah,” I said without the slightest inflection. “I get it.”
I felt I ought to explain to Leonard why “neato” was a word he needed to drop from his vocabulary. If he expected to make friends during his stay in Neptune, I told him, he couldn’t talk like that. He just stared at me like I had something stuck to my face.
Finally I said, “What?”
“Nothing. I was just wondering if you’ve considered a career in television news broadcasting. You have the ‘on-air’ face for it. Not exactly the hair, but definitely the face.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. He had puffed up his pathetic chest while making his brilliant diagnosis, as if to make himself appear larger or more important. But he had the puny rib cage of a kid who had survived early illness. If I had had the presence of mind, I would have responded right away by saying something brutally frank. I might have explained to him why I would never in a million years consider handing out bad news on a daily basis to an unsuspecting nation while wearing a cheerful face, a plunging neckline, and a dated hairstyle. It was a hideous idea. The fact that my hair color at the time was magenta and my left nostril was pierced with a garnet should have convinced anyone with eyesight and half a brain that I had plans, and those plans did not include an “on-air” face.
But Leonard had just arrived from Mars, so perhaps he didn’t understand the signals, customs, and facial expressions of the inhabitants of planet Earth. I decided to let it go. I opted instead to stomp up the stairs and in so doing express my impatience with the whole conversation. At the same time, I could get as far away from him as I could manage in a house so small and cramped. I slammed the door and retired to my room to read Madame Bovary. As Emma Bovary went careening around the streets of Rouen in the back of a closed carriage, making mad and passionate love to Monsieur Léon, I silently made a vow to myself never to speak to Leonard again, because as anyone could see, he was a loser.
Copyright © 2008 by James Lecesne