When I was in sixth grade my best friend was a kid named Frank. We hung out at my house a lot more than his. One reason for this was that both my parents worked--Mom was a doctor and Dad was a scientist--and after school there would always be several hours at my house when no adults would be around. Frank, knowing his mother was watching the clock for his return, would dutifully call her up right away and tell her where he was, (without, of course, mentioning that my mother wasn't there). Then we could do what we wanted.
We stood on the back porch railing and peed out into the yard. We studied the color photographs in my mother's medical books. Some of the pictures, of hideous skin diseases for instance, were thrillingly gross, giving us weird pangs in our stomachs. Other pictures were fascinating for different reasons.
We played catch with eggs. There was a lot of tension to this game, because we were both lousy athletes, and we knew that it would not be long before an egg would smash on the floor or on the kitchen counter. Then we would scrape the egg into a big bowl and make fake vomit. We'd dump in oatmeal, brown sugar, vinegar, syrup, raspberry jam for bloodiness, and whatever else seemed disgustingly realistic. When we were satisfied with our artistry, we would splash the mixture onto the sidewalk in front of the house. Then, hiding on the front porch, we'd watch the reactions of passersby, praying that someone would step in it.
Even when Mom did come home, it was still fun at my house, because she was very relaxed, and did not fuss over her kids. She had her own things to do, and would leave us alone. Frank and I would go up to my room, which was a refinished attic--we lived in a big old house, and I had the whole top floor to myself--where we could read comics, and use bad language, and have private conversations about anything we wanted. Frank had a really cockeyed sense of humor, and an irresistible cynical side. He was always coming up with the most hysterical remarks about the teachers and the other kids at school. Our principal, Mrs. Crossette, made long announcements over the PA system every morning, filled with advice like, ``Always sit on your cushions,'' (her euphemism for buttocks), and ``Your principal is your pal.'' She also made everyone in the school recite ``The Westgate School Creed'' and ``The Westgate School Prayer.'' Frank invented many unprintable verses to these poems. We'd roar with laughter up in my room. And even if Mom heard us, she never asked what we'd been talking about.
Mom was unconventional in many ways. She let my sister and brothers and I read anything we wanted, and never asked much about our friends or where we were when we weren't at home. She never tried to make us finish our food at meals, which was why none of us ever had any eating problems. Though Mom was proud of her Jewish heritage--her mother and father were poor immigrants from the Warsaw ghetto--neither of our parents was religious. Though most kids we knew went to synagogue or Sunday school, we never attended any religious services--on Sunday mornings we had a large, leisurely breakfast, while Dad played chamber music on the phonograph.
Mom did not wear high heels or makeup, which was very unusual in those days. ``Why should you worry about what some stranger thinks about you?'' she would ask us. But she wasn't obnoxiously rigid about this. Vicky would beg her to please wear lipstick whenever she came to school, and Mom, amused, would oblige, not wanting to embarrass her.
Sometimes Frank and I did have to go over to his house, because his mother had this idea that it somehow wasn't fair for us to spend all our time at my house. We also didn't want her to get suspicious, and start wondering exactly why we so preferred my house to his. His mother would be waiting for us at the door of their ranch house--in a dress and stockings and high heels, her hair in a permanent, her face perfectly made-up--and she would always be holding a tray of donuts, or jelly rolls or cookies. We would have to sit with her at the kitchen table and force down the sugary pastries and drink glass after glass of milk, while she would question us in her ladylike way about what had happened at school.
She would also ask politely about my family--how my sister was doing, and my two little brothers. Frank was an only child, which might have accounted for his mother's relentless hovering. I suppose she was impressed that my father was a scientist at the university, but though she refrained from comment about my mother's profession, it was clear that she did not approve of a mother who worked. I did manage to imply, however, that Mom only worked part time, and of course was always there when I came home from school.
When the snack ordeal was over we could not escape up to Frank's room--that was out of bounds, because his mother couldn't keep an eye on us there. We would have to sit, squirming with boredom, in the formal, spotlessly clean living room. All the furniture was covered in transparent plastic, which was either slippery or sticky, depending on the weather, and always uncomfortable. Frank's mother bustled around vacuuming, polishing, dusting the plastic flowers, frequently peeking in to see what we were doing. Not that there was anything interesting we could do. I would never stay very long. My visits there were the price we had to pay for the freedom we enjoyed at my house.
Things continued in this way without mishap for most of sixth grade. Then, toward the end of the school year, I made a fatal blunder: I invited Frank to sleep over.
It was going to be a great night, a Saturday. Two of our other friends were coming; there was plenty of space in my large attic room for sleeping bags. Vicky would be sleeping at someone else's house, so she wouldn't be in our hair. I knew my parents would leave us alone--and they had said I could bring the TV up to the top floor; we could watch the kind of late movies they showed when kids were usually asleep. I had also just discovered two very lavishly illustrated new books in Mom's medical library, which I knew everyone would find deeply fascinating. And since the attic was pretty well soundproofed, we'd be able to stay up all night if we wanted.
Frank was torn. He desperately wanted to come. But it was a certainty that his mother would not allow him to spend the night without first checking all the details with my mother. So far, our mothers had never met, or even spoken on the phone, and we wanted to keep it that way.
``If I ask her, she'll call your mother up,'' Frank told me miserably after school on Friday. ``She'll ask her all sorts of questions, like if they're going to keep an eye on us, and make us go to bed early, and stuff like that. And what if she finds out your mother isn't there after school? I'll never be able to come over again.''
``Maybe I can get my mother to say they'll make us go to bed early. And maybe she just won't tell her how late she works,'' I said, not too sure about this. But it was worth a try. The party wouldn't be the same without Frank, and his crazy sense of humor. And he was my best friend. ``She wouldn't be lying, exactly. I'll ask her first, then call you.''
But as loose as Mom was, she had her limits. ``Poor Frank,'' she said. ``I agree, his mother sounds like a pill. I guess I can imply that you'll be supervised. But I can't lie to her about how late I work. She's his mother; she has a right to know the situation. Anyway, what would someone like that do if she found out I lied to her? I dread to think.''
``I'm not asking you to lie. Just don't tell her. And if she asks, be vague.''
I called Frank, and then we put our mothers on the phone. I listened nervously to our end of the conversation. ``I can assure you, the boys won't get into any mischief,'' Mom said, in her most businesslike voice. ``Billy's had friends over before; it's always been fine. And we'll certainly see to it that they don't stay up late--we'll want our sleep too.'' There was a pause. I held my breath, wondering what Frank's mother was asking now. ``Yes, there'll be plenty of healthy food for them to eat, I know what growing boys are like.'' Another pause. Mom rolled her eyes at me. ``I did study nutrition in medical school,'' she said, a slight edge to her voice. ``You know Billy's not underfed. And he hasn't missed a day of school all year.''
She hung up with an expression of disgust. ``That poor kid,'' she said again. ``But I think I convinced her. She's dropping him off at five thirty. A little early, but that's okay.''
I was excited and happy all day on Saturday, setting up my room, eager for the time to pass quickly. At four thirty the doorbell rang, I pulled open the front door--and my heart sank. Frank's mother had not just dropped him off. She was standing there beside him, dressed as though she were going to tea with the Queen, obviously expecting to be invited in. Frank did not look very happy.
``Hello, Billy,'' his mother said, with her tight, artificial smile--I wondered how she could smile even that much, with all the makeup she had on. ``I just wanted to come in for a minute and have a little chat with your Mom.''
``Uh, sure, come in,'' I said, wishing I had been warned about this, thinking fast, trying to avert disaster.
His mother's high heels clicked across the wooden floors--her house, of course, had wall-to-wall carpeting. I walked ahead of her, Frank trailed behind. I stopped in the living room and turned back. Frank's mother was looking around at the forest of houseplants, the old oriental rugs, the dragon-legged library table piled with magazines. ``Listen, why don't you just sit down in here,'' I said. ``And I'll go get my mother. She's, uh, busy in the kitchen.''
``Oh, let's not be formal about this,'' Frank's mother said, though she was the one who was all dressed up. ``And I don't want to interrupt her cleaning. Let's just go in the kitchen and I'll say hi.''
``But . . .'' I tried to protest.
``The kitchen must be this way,'' Frank's mother said, heading right for it. There was nothing I could do.
Mom was sitting at the kitchen table nursing Tycho, who was six months old. She wore an ancient faded housedress, open at the top, of course. She was barefoot, her legs unshaven.
``Mom, this is Frank's mother,'' I mumbled.
``Very nice to meet you,'' Frank's mother said, fixing her eyes just to the left of Mom, and trying not to react to the dirty dishes in the sink, and the piles of soil on the kitchen table from the plants Mom had been repotting. Mom was a good housekeeper, and we also had a cleaning woman during the week. But on Saturdays Mom relaxed.
``Oh, hello,'' Mom said, a little surprised, glancing at me, then at Frank's mother. She pushed her hair back with her free hand. ``Pull up a chair for her, Billy. Not too close, though, you know Tycho.''
I pulled out a chair as far away from Mom and Tycho as possible.
``Tycho?'' Frank's mother said, sitting down on the edge of the chair, as though protecting her dress from its surface.
``This one here,'' Mom said, looking fondly down at Tycho. She was, of course, not at all embarrassed about nursing in front of them, though Frank was blushing.
``Unusual name,'' Frank's mother said, looking around uncomfortably. ``Big old house you have. Must be very time consuming, keeping it . . .'' Then she stopped, not wanting to say the wrong thing.
``It works for us,'' Mom said. She lifted Tycho away from her, at arm's length, directing his face toward the center of the room, as she always did after feeding him. ``Paper towels, Billy,'' she said matter-of-factly, and in the next instant Tycho was ejecting the usual long stream of milky fluid all over the kitchen floor. I hurried to wipe it up, glad to have something to do with my hands.
Frank's mother made a little noise.
``It's no big deal, Tycho does this all the time,'' Mom explained.
Frank's mother found her voice. ``All . . . the time?'' she managed to say. ``But aren't you worried about him?''
``Babies always throw up,'' Mom said. ``He'll get over it. Want a little more, honey?'' And she began nursing him again.
Frank's mother was struggling desperately for something to say. ``So, uh, your husband is a scientist, I hear?''
``A physiologist. He does experiments on live human heart muscle,'' Mom told her.
``Live human heart muscle?'' Frank's mother said. ``But where does he get live--''
Vicky and Ann dashed into the kitchen, giggling. They had dyed their hair purple with grape juice, their teeth were colored red, white and blue, and their clothes were also smeared with paint. ``Are there any cookies left, Mom?'' Vicky demanded.
``No. Anyway, it's too close to supper to eat stuff like that. Have an apple if you're hungry.''
Finally, Mom was saying something vaguely normal. But when Vicky took the apple from the bowl on the counter it slipped out of her hand and rolled across the floor--which, due to potting soil and Tycho's stomach problem, was not what anyone would call clean. Vicky picked the apple up from the floor and immediately bit into it, and she and Ann raced out of the room.
``But she didn't wash it!'' Frank's mother could not keep herself from expostulating.
Mom shrugged. She was not pleased by Frank's mother's remark. ``It's good for them to eat food off the floor. Dirt builds up immunities. I never wash food, never sterilized a bottle in my life. And my kids are never sick.''
I couldn't really blame Mom. If she'd known Frank's mother was actually coming inside, she wouldn't have been nursing Tycho, she would have kept her out of the messy kitchen, she might have made an effort to fix up her appearance a little. But this woman had arrived early, invaded her house without warning, and pushed her way into the kitchen. It was too late now for Mom to put on a false front.
I already knew there was no hope of Frank spending the night, or ever eating over here again. His mother would certainly not want him to be exposed to any food that was not sterile. And it was clear that Mom was not paying any attention to what Vicky and Ann were doing, which meant she would also not be supervising us tonight. It was only a matter of time until Frank's mother dragged him home--and I was hoping it would be soon, before anything else happened.
A vain hope. Danny, who was two and a half, tottered into the kitchen, sucking his thumb.
Frank's mother, out of some deeply ingrained sense of propriety, was still trying to maintain a pleasant facade. She smiled at Danny, at the same time shrinking back from him a little. ``Aren't you adorable,'' she said. ``But you know, it's not good to suck your thumb, dear.''
Danny looked puzzled and slowly took his thumb out of his mouth.
Mom was really fed up. ``Danny,'' she said, ``put your thumb back in your mouth.
Danny comfortably obeyed.
At last Frank's mother had had enough. She stood up. ``Well, thank you for inviting us in,'' she said. ``Now it's time for us to go. It's been a very, uh, interesting visit.''
``Isn't Frank spending the night?'' Mom asked her, as though she didn't already know the answer. ``Oops!'' she added, as Tycho projectile vomited again.
``Not, uh, this time, I'm afraid,'' Frank's mother said. I could see the struggle she was having not to rush from the room. ``Good afternoon.''
I followed them to the door. ``'Bye, Frank,'' I said sadly.
He just looked at me. I didn't envy him. He was going to have a lot of questions to answer now.
The next year Frank was sent to a fancy private school, and I attended public junior high. It was only natural that we soon stopped seeing each other. It turned out, years later, that we both went to Harvard. But we did not renew our friendship. By then Frank had become a preppie, and was part of a super conformist clique--the kind of people I would have nothing to do with and who, of course, wouldn't be seen dead with someone like me.
But I sometimes wondered: would he have turned out differently if his mother had not come into the house that afternoon?