IT HAPPENED a long time ago. So long ago in fact that the details need to be hauled up from the deepest well of memory—one at a time. Who was older? Who was younger? Who led? Who followed? There were three of us in the pool. It was late and dark and there was no moon that night. We had scaled the fence between houses. We shed our clothes and slipped into the neighbor’s big round pool. Naked. Innocent. We didn’t think about our nakedness, our bodies. Our hands and legs became a tangle; an arm brushed against a breast, a foot found a buttock. We were free. The neighbor’s blue vinyl pool was our paradise, our octopus’s garden in the sea.
In those days, our house sat near the base of a long hill that ended at the place below ours. All the houses in the neighborhood looked the same. One-story boxes, ranch houses—although I never knew why it was called a ranch house since we didn’t live on a ranch. We didn’t even live on a farm. We lived in an old mill town. The town could boast many beautiful sights: white steeple churches, historic homes, and tidy rose gardens. The beautiful part of town stopped at the river, and beyond that it was all cheap housing.
Once we had lived in the beautiful part of town, on a hill overlooking a pond from which snapping turtles emerged to lay their nests in our backyard. I kept buckets of pollywogs in the basement. I spent my free time tramping through the woods. We moved to the new house shortly after my mother gave birth to twin girls. My older sister had taken one look at the place and informed me that it was a dump. “The wrong side of the tracks,” she said. I sort of understood what she meant. I saw that the houses were squat and unimpressive, and that no sooner did one yard end than another began. I didn’t mind any of that. We had come down from the mountaintop to the village below and I wanted to get to know the villagers.
One morning in July, under a scalding blue sky, I was out in the front yard picking dandelions when I saw the Baker’s pull into the driveway in front of their house. The Bakers were also new to the neighborhood. As far as I knew, they didn’t have children of their own, and I couldn’t understand why they wanted to live in a place with so many little kids hollering and running around, cutting across their property, like it was some community playground—not that anyone paid the Bakers much attention. This was back when Wilma and Betty sported halter dresses and the Jetsons rocketed about in slick pantsuits; Samantha Stevens had that cute, wiggly nose and the pony-tailed Jeanie wore puffy harem pants. Even my mother bleached her hair, showed her knees. But then my parents were a lot younger than the Bakers. They were standoffish and plain, except that Mr. Baker owned a convertible. He took the best care of that car, washing it every Saturday and polishing it like a jewel. I guess I had conventional ideas about things, and to my way of thinking a car like that was meant for a much younger person—someone all American looking, like Robert Redford. In fact, now that I think about it, the car and Redford’s eyes matched perfectly. Mr. and Mrs. Baker didn’t belong in a car like that.
Then one day, like the wings of an exotic bird, the rear doors of the car flew open, and out of the convertible stepped two girls—with honey-blond hair that fell to the waist and long skirts that swished about the ankles. They must have been sisters. The sight of them struck me as strange and marvelous, like how it must have been for the seafarer’s ages ago when they saw a mermaid, and promptly crashed their ships upon the rocks.
I was feeling pretty much broken up in those days. Julie, my best friend, never seemed to have time for me anymore. It wasn’t her fault. Her parents were getting a divorce. She spent the weekends visiting her father and his new girlfriend, Mimi, in Long Point. Back then, divorce was fast on its way to becoming an epidemic, and it seemed that no one’s family was immune. It just hit one day, out of the blue, and left behind nothing but debris and heartbreak. My Saturdays and Sundays stretched before me, with nothing to distinguish one from the other but the long humid nights.
The girls saw me staring. I waved.
The response was swift, ebullient. Within seconds, I was face to face with the sisters, the tallest of which introduced herself as Connie. “Oh, and this is my sister, Gail.” But that was as far as we got before Mrs. Baker came over and hustled Gail and Connie back to her house. I went back to the dandelions, setting off explosions of white fluff into the air. Mrs. Baker came out her front door and walked over to me.
“Violet Weinstein, is it?”
“Yes, it is,” I responded.
Mrs. Baker looked me up and down, and said, “My nieces wanted me to ask you over for ice cream.”
Mrs. Baker’s house smelled like Vick’s vapor rub. My house smelled very different—like rotting vegetables and the weird foodstuff my parents bought at the Coop. I was eager to get invited to anyone’s house in those days because my mother had ideas about what we should eat, and it didn’t include normal things like Oreos and hotdogs. She fed us tofu, which she claimed tasted exactly like cottage cheese. “Only better,” she said.
Connie and Gail were in the kitchen. The windows were wide open and I could hear the kids next door splashing in the pool. Mrs. Baker scooped out the ice cream into four bowls. She handed them to the girls to place round the table. Mr. Baker asked if I liked ice cream.
“Everyone likes ice cream,” I said.
“They sure do,” Connie said.
The Bakers bowed their heads in silence. Connie and Gail also bowed their heads. My head went down too. Our heads were bowed for the longest time. I watched the vanilla ice cream melt into the chocolate. It was nearly soup when the heads went up again, and I was looking into the eyes of Mr. Baker, who rubbed a hand across his flabby lips and got to work on his ice cream. Connie exchanged glances with Gail and then burst into laughter.
“What’s so funny?” asked Mr. Baker.
Connie pulled herself together. “You know, Uncle John.”
She smiled sweetly and turned to me. “My uncle didn’t think you would eat with us.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because he says you are a Hebrew,” Connie said.
“Like the hot dog,” Gail said, “And we eat those all the time.”
It sounded odd—wrong somehow—hearing Connie and Gail talk about Hebrews and eating hotdogs, and for a moment, I was at a loss for words, the same way I would have felt had if she had said I had blue eyes when my eyes were really green, or that I spoke French instead of English.
“But I’m not,” I said, managing to find my voice.
Mr. Baker put down his spoon. “Violet, you are just a child, but you are old enough to know that lying is just plain wrong.”
“I’m not lying.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, you most certainly are,” insisted Mrs. Baker.
Connie burst into laughter and Gail too.
“There is nothing funny here,” said Mr. Baker, his voice dropping like stone into the pool of mirth created by the girls’ guffaws.
“When I was a child and I lied, I was given a good beating for it, and I learned pretty quick to tell the truth, no matter what,” Mr. Baker said.
Connie and Gail fell silent. I got the feeling that Mr. Baker meant business. The hurtful words dug into me, and yet hadn’t my mother tried her best to prepare me for moments like this by denying any suggestion that our father was a Hebrew? “Your father,” she would say, “is a New Yorker.” And that was the end of that discussion, the idea of New York being sufficiently grand and sophisticated to silence further inquiry. As for the Bakers, my mother acted as if they’d never been born. I’m fairly sure the Bakers felt the same way about her too.
The subject never came up again. Connie often came over to get me. We spent a lot of her time on the back porch. We played a lot of Hang Man and 20 Questions. The Bakers kept a pretty tight leash on their nieces. They weren’t allowed to wander the neighborhood. They weren’t allowed to leave the property.
“I can’t wait to go home,” Connie said to me one day. “I miss my dog.”
It killed me to hear the longing in her voice. I didn’t want to go anywhere, especially home. We didn’t own a dog. The cat that lived in our garage didn’t count. I suspected that Connie was getting bored with me.
“You don’t like it here?”
“It’s okay. I just miss my dog.” She gathered up her long blond hair, coiling it in her hands, before letting it fall around her shoulders again.
“It must be really great to have a dog.”
“My dog is great.”
“What kind is it?”
“German Shepard.” She turned to me. “You want to sleep out in the backyard with me and Gail tonight?”
We swam in circles—the water dark and cold. It was luscious to skinny-dip, daring too. I couldn’t imagine anything better until from the Baker’s back porch the floodlights came on, vehemently bright, like a comet, or one of those flairs that explode off the sun. Before I knew what was happening, Mr. and Mrs. Baker, identical in terry-cloth robes of fire engine red, were screeching at us to get out of the pool.
It wasn’t that easy—getting out of the pool—because between us and our clothes, which we’d left in a heap alongside our sleeping bags, stood the Bakers. The thought of them watching me as I climbed naked over the neighbor’s fence made me frantic. I would have run home, with or without my clothes, but Connie grabbed my arm. “Don’t go!”
“All right then,” said Mr. Baker, taking charge of the situation in a grim voice. “Come on, get over here.”
Connie tightened her grip on my arm. I could see the trapped, wild look in her eyes; hear her begging me not to leave her alone. So over the chain-link fence I went, dropping into a crouch on the Baker’s lawn before making my way like some panicked chimpanzee—hunched over, hands dangling at my sides—across the lawn.
“Go ahead,” said Mr. Baker, as I loped past him, “go sit down.”
Sit down! But then I realized that sitting was better than standing, that I could cover my chest more or less, although as far as that was concerned, I really was flat as a board. Being skinny and several years younger, Gail didn’t have to worry too much either. She had very little to hide, but not Connie. She had a woman’s body—breasts of lavish proportions, spilling out all over the place, like two gorgeous, wayward melons. I don’t think Mr. Baker had gotten a view like that in his entire life because he looked like he wanted to eat her up.
Mrs. Baker just looked horrified. It was clear that she thought we’d done more than use the neighbor’s pool without permission.
“Sinful.” she said. And then she just went off. “He doesn’t want to see you naked like that. Did He want to see Eve naked? Did He want to see Eve’s private parts?” She held up a pair of underpants made of white cotton and decorated with little violets. “Are these yours? Are they? Are they!” she screamed at Connie.
I never felt so sorry for anyone in my entire life. Connie couldn’t stop from shaking, her pale, slim shoulders beating like frantic wings as she tried to hold herself together. She’s cold, I thought. She’s freezing cold.
“You could at least look at your aunt when she’s talking to you,” said Mr. Baker. He wasn’t nearly as furious as Mrs. Baker. His eyes weren’t rolling in his sockets, but fixed intently on Connie, like he’d come upon a frightened animal and didn’t want to scare it off. He turned his head slightly, and I felt his eyes run up and down my skin—crawling.
After that night, I never saw Connie or Gail again. The Bakers lectured us for a good hour, but finally gave me my clothes and sent me home. The next day, I told my parents what had happened. I figured that, if I didn’t, Mrs. Baker would tell them. It was best they heard about it from me.
“So you were skinny-dipping in the neighbor’s pool.” My father had that amused glean in his eye. Few things rattled him. My mother wasn’t happy about what I’d done, but really she couldn’t get herself too worked up.
“Just as long as she stays away from those people,” she said to my father, as if he was to blame for my transgressions.
Summer ended and school began before I told anyone else what went on that night. I had gone over to Julie’s house and we sitting under the Mulberry tree in her backyard. We liked to crush the shriveled berries and then paint our hands purple with them. As I told her what happened, it occurred to me that Mr. Baker was the first man who had seen me naked. The thought of it made me nauseous. I wished I had kept my mouth shut because immediately she told her brothers.
“Not the old guy!” cried Mickey when he heard.
Bob spit a wad of phlegm into the grass. “There’s something strange about those people.”
Mickey and Bob were kind of crazy, always up to no good, and I wasn’t surprised when they came up with a way to get back at the Bakers. Still, I got the feeling that there was something more than mischief in it for them; they were acting out of chivalry, a need to show the Bakers that they couldn’t treat their sister’s friend like that.
That Friday night we snuck out armed with cans of spray paint. Mr. Baker’s blue convertible was sitting in the driveway as usual. Mickey and Bob took one side of the car, Julie and I the other. The whole thing lasted five minutes, at most.
But morning told the whole story; in the exposing light of a crisp autumn day I could see from my picture window the extent of the damage: huge splotches of red paint on the hood, the doors made obscene by black and silver Swastikas, and the formerly pristine white leather interior utterly ruined. As I stood there in horror, looking at what I had done, Mr. Baker came out of his house. Seeing his precious baby, he stopped short and clutched at his hair, as stricken as if someone had died. Then he began to circle the car, round and round. Finally, he put his hands on the hood, motionless except for his head, which kept bobbing up and down.
Months passed before I realized that Mr. Baker wasn’t going to call the police. I’m not sure why. Weeks went by in which I fully expected the cops to show up on my doorstep. But they never did. One day, I came home from school to see a For Sale sign on the Bakers lawn, and shortly after a young couple with a baby bought the house and the Bakers were never heard from again.
I was relieved to see them go. Why Mr. Baker didn’t call the police, try to have me arrested, I’ll never know. All I know is I wish I’d never gotten into that pool—that all these many years I still can’t get undressed in front of a man without thinking of him.
Kathryn Kopple works in Spanish and English. She has published poetry, prose, and essays in journals in the United States and abroad. Her publications include: The Threepenny Review, The Bellevue Literary Review, and (most recently) The Shell Game, Writers Play with Borrowed Forms (ed. Kim Adrian, U of Nebraska Press). She lives and works in the Philadelphia area.